Executive Summary (of a World Bank report)
Informal employment remains a salient and persistent feature of the Sri Lanka labor market, with around 70 percent of the work force informally employed. There are generally three reasons to be concerned about high informality: poverty, productivity and public finance.
This report focuses on the poverty and vulnerability aspect of informal employment, by showing that informal jobs are more precarious in nature than formal jobs and are associated with inferior working conditions and lower earnings. The following three key messages emerge from the analysis.
The quality of informal jobs is much lower than that of formal jobs. Informal workers have more precarious employment arrangements and inferior working conditions. Their low earnings levels elevate the risk of poverty.
The Sri Lanka labor force is segmented into three strands: (a) formal public sector workers who enjoy high remuneration, shorter work hours, many holidays, paid leave as well as other benefits, and overall job security; (b) formal private sector workers who make up a middle group, with access to social security and some paid leave but longer work hours and an earnings distribution that is closer to that of informal workers; and (c) informal workers, a group that includes informal employees as well as informal self-employed workers, most of whom are in precarious employment arrangements.
Few informal workers have a permanent contract or access to benefits, and they tend to work excessively long hours. There exists a persistent earnings gap between formal and informal workers, even when comparing workers of similar characteristics. Moreover, the risk of extremely low pay and thus poverty is significantly higher for informal workers. However, it should be noted that the overall earnings distribution of formal private sector workers is much more similar to that of informal workers than that of public sector workers.
Stringent labor laws, along with the high cost of compliance and complexity of labor regulations, have encouraged informality. But formalization does not necessarily ease other constraints such as access to credit, reducing the incentive to formalize.
The Termination of Employment of Workmen Act (TEWA), which regulates dismissal conditions and compensation, has been long criticized for making it difficult and expensive to dismiss employees. In fact, Sri Lanka has the second-highest redundancy cost in the world. Gratuity payments, contributions to the Employees’ Provident Fund, Sri Lanka’s social security scheme, and the Employees’ Trust Fund, and generous paid leave and holidays add to the labor cost borne by the employer.
Multiple and overlapping types of coverage for workers owing to different regulations create a complex operating environment for firms, making compliance costly. As a result, compliance tends to be incomplete, even for larger firms. Enforcement is generally weak due to manpower shortages in enforcing agencies, and the many lines of enforcement render the existing institutions inefficient and ineffective, while the labor dispute settlement system can lead to lengthy and costly processes. Moreover, there appear to be few benefits to formalization. The prevalence of the informal sector can be explained by a trade-off between firms’ costs for labor and capital: that is, informal firms have higher capital costs and lower labor productivity but can avoid certain labor costs associated with mandated taxes and benefits. But evidence suggests that while being informal likely precludes firms’ access to formal credit institutions, formalization itself does not guarantee easier access because of high collateral requirements and other bureaucratic procedures. This means that streamlining the business registration process alone will not suffice to decrease informality.
Rather than reducing informality itself, the focus of reforms should be on increasing productivity and jobs growth. Regulatory reforms that aim to reduce the cost and increase the benefits of formality would further encourage the creation of formal jobs.
The following reform components are suggested in line with recommendations from around the world:
= Invest in human capital to promote productivity gains and reduce the wage gap.
= Increase flexibility in labor markets and quality of jobs by reducing labor taxes and streamlining regulations, which would support job creation more broadly.
= Build an adequate and effective social protection system.
A well-conceived formalization strategy would aim at increasing the benefits and reducing the cost of formalization through a policy mix that tackles the interrelated causes and consequences of informality together, ultimately leading to the creation of more and better jobs. This is based on evidence from other countries that found that formalization efforts focusing on easing entry regulations yielded limited success.
The imperative for Sri Lanka to implement these reforms is driven, among others, by the rapid aging of the labor force. The employment protection legislation that imposes a prohibitively high cost on the employer for dismissals of employees with long tenure encourages high turnover and early exit from the labor market. The regulatory and incentive scheme needs to be restructured to encourage more working-age individuals to join and remain in the labor market productively. This would help meet the labor demands in a country that still needs to grow significantly but is undergoing rapid aging.
It’s time for the Geneva Circus replete with molehills and mountains
by Malinda Seneviratne
Circus Pacifica, Apollo Circus and of course the amazing Chinese Circus — readers of an earlier generation will no doubt remember these. The Apollo Circus however planted itself on Pedris Park for quite awhile, but the others were rare.
Perhaps the antics of politicians, political parties, activists of various persuasions and of course the NGO rat pack compensated. They have entertained us even as they went about their charades, clowning, sleight of hand, somersaults and such, prompting quite a few oohs and aahs from an audience that wasn’t exactly applauding in unison.
We could never look forward to the real circuses. We didn’t have to anticipate with bated breath the political circus. However, there’s one which comes around every year around February. The Geneva Circus.
There are essentially two scripts: one to be used when a US-friendly or rather servile-to-the-USA government is in power and the other when the regime is not willing to play ball with eyes closed. In the first case, we get co-sponsored anti Sri Lanka resolutions, soft deadlines, much forgiving and forgetting. The run-up to the UNHRC sessions are not marked by Washington-led media outfits badmouthing Sri Lanka. The separatist groups abroad are in ‘go-easy’ mode. Human rights outfits barely murmur ‘concerns.’ Their local counterparts go into hibernation and the slumber is so deep that they don’t have the eyes to see any wrongdoing.
Well, we are not in that situation right now. It’s ‘the other guys’ in power and perforce it’s the second script that’s being played. This is how it goes.
It begins with the collection/construction of evidence. There are claims that strangely (and by now predictably) are filed without substantiation. Non-movement on agreements that are no longer valid will be noted. There will be a lot of striving and straining to enumerate ‘minority grievances,’ and to this end, the local lackeys in political and NGO circles will do their bit. Statements will be issued by the representatives of nations that have clout in Geneva (the U.S. ‘Cesspool of bias’ description notwithstanding). All ‘concerns’ raised will be duly documented. Human rights outfits, international and local, silent for months, will suddenly find voice.
‘Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021.’
That’s Human Rights Watch. Absolutely predictable. It comes with ‘evidence.’
HRW claims that security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists.’ If activists and claimants of past abuses, political operatives who conveniently wear the lawyer or journalist hat are upset about outcome preferences that haven’t materialized feel some anxiety and want to call it ‘intimidation’ or ‘surveillance’ that’s their right. A state cannot be faulted to be cautious, especially given a 30-year war against terrorism and a jihadist movement that unleashed terror on civilian targets that matched the worst of the LTTE. We don’t even know if there was intimidation or surveillance. We do know that ‘intimidation’ is frequently fabricated, posted on dubious websites and photo-shopped into newspaper cuttings. We know that such ‘evidence’ is sent to the right addresses where the relevant householders lap it all up gleefully.
HRW is upset about Sri Lanka withdrawing from the resolutions co-sponsored by a more than mischievous minister on behalf of a government operating absolutely against popular will on the relevant issues. However, when the wording is regurgitated, it does sound ominous. It’s as though Sri Lanka has decided that truth-seeking, accountability and reconciliation are irrelevant. That’s hardly the case. Well, not ‘Reconciliation = Eelamist Agenda’ certainly, but those who preferred THAT version were booted out by the voter. HRW has missed the incontrovertible truth that even those who pushed that version, did an about turn, pledging in two major elections to uphold the unitary character of the state. As for the devolution element of reconciliation, not even its most ardent advocates seem interested in provincial councils.
So it’s natural that the HRW feels a reversal in ‘gains of the previous government.’ HRW feels that minorities are ‘more insecure, victims of past abuses fearful, and critics wary of speaking out.’ That’s what Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the outfit says. It’s cut-and-paste stuff, nothing more.
If ‘security’ is about a separatist agenda moving in the ‘right direction,’ sure, that’s not happening. ‘Victims of past abuses,’ she says — well, such as? Critics? Does she mean those who were unofficial adjuncts of the political camp that lost? They are wary, are they? ‘Wary’ is certainly a politically more useful descriptive than, say, ‘devastated by political defeats.’
There is certainly a more military presence in government. Systemic flaw and woeful incompetence by officials haven’t really helped the President get things done, especially in a pandemic context. It’s no secret that it is the security forces and the State Intelligence Service that have sacrificed the most, working tirelessly around the clock, to support the efforts of the medical teams fighting Covid-19. The retired officers (they are civilians now, let us not forget) haven’t done worse than those they replaced as heads of certain key institutions. In fact, in certain cases, they’ve managed to streamline operations, cut costs and get things done.
HRW says ‘they were, like the President, implicated in war crimes.’ Here we go again! Accusation treated as established fact in a political project which is not described as such, naturally. HRW makes much of the USA announcing that General Shavendra Silva was ineligible to enter that country. Oh dear! The USA passes judgment and that’s the last word? This is the point where the clowns do their turn. Loud applause and much laughter follow!
HRW talks of a ‘false accusation on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus.’ Lots happen on social media. Some take it seriously, some don’t. HRW seems to have done some surveillance and cherry-picked. Good for HRW.
HRW does better on the issue of burials/cremation. The Government has not sanctioned burial. Yet. The issue has been politicized by multiple parties, Muslim politicians included. Maybe HRW is not interested in delving into the details and the complexities, but the Government could (still) act in ways that alleviate the apprehensions of the Muslim community.
The High Commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet has also made the expected noises, flagging ‘freedom of expression’ issues related to what she calls ‘criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 situation.’ This is not the time to be mischievous and some certainly were, and that, Bachelet and HRW will not agree, can have serious impact on the entire population. The nice thing about it is that neither HRW nor UNHRC has to do the cleaning up when the smelly stuff hits the fan.
Ganguly ends with some poetry. Nice. ‘Concerned governments should do all they can to prevent Sri Lanka from returning to the ‘bad old days’ of rampant human rights violations. Governments need to speak out against abuses and press for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that addresses accountability and the collection and preservation of evidence.’
Concerned governments, she says. Does she mean the USA, UK and those in the EU? Laugh, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what you do when the circus comes to town!
Yes, the EU too. The EU has, as expected when the Geneva Circus is around the corner, ‘raised concerns’ on human rights. The wording is identical, almost: inclusiveness, reconciliation and fair treatment of minorities.’ The EU office has also tweeted that it is ‘saddened by the destruction of the monument at the Jaffna University.’
What’s the story there? Students cannot put up structures at will on state property. If the monument was sanctioned, the person who gave permission was the first culprit. However, having allowed it or turned a blind eye to it (as the case may be), it is wrong to arbitrarily raze it to the ground. The Vice Chancellor opined that it was an obstacle to reconciliation. The students’ response (‘we tell the “Sinhala Government” that we don’t want to fight a war, we just want to honor our dead’) seems to justify his position, but that’s a different matter.
If students want to celebrate brutes, that says a lot about the students. However, if it’s about remembering kith and kin, that’s another matter altogether. If that’s the case, though, why make a political fuss about it? Why turn it into a circus?
The VC has since done a U-Turn and even laid the foundation for a replacement monument. The government missed a trick here. It could have engaged the students. It could have discussed the possibility of a monument before which anyone could grieve, especially the near and dear for the temperature of their tears are the same and truer than those shed by the politically motivated. Could have, should have, still can do. Never too late.
There are circuses and circuses. Some International, some local. We had the US Ambassador finding her voice after a long silence to express dismay over the assault on the Capitol Building in Washington DC. ‘We will continue to try to be more perfect,’ she pledged. So, the USA and everything in that country including racism, police brutality and a foreign policy that’s only about securing markets, plundering resources and bombing countries to the middle ages if that’s what pursuing strategic interests entails, is ‘perfect.’ That’s the claim. Laugh ladies and gentlemen!
This week also saw an incarceration drama. Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to a four year prison term for contempt of court. Naturally, the opposition cried ‘foul.’ Ranjan’s ethics are obviously of the kind that makes ‘foul’ a weak descriptive. He did rant and rave in ways that others did not. He did insult the judiciary. He demanded an independent judiciary but was caught on tape (his own) promising to intercede on behalf of a judge, taking her case to the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (yes, under whose watch HRW and the UNHRC says ‘there was progress’!).
Was there political motivation at work in the court decision? We don’t know. We can speculate though. Speculation on this count was fueled by the acquittal of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan allies Pilleyan, former Chief Minister, Eastern Provincial Council and leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).
Ranjan in, Pilleyan out! How horrendous! That’s the line the Opposition took.
Well, Pilleyan belonged to a terrorist organization. That’s bad. He was accused of murder. That’s not good. However, on that particular charge, his innocence has to be presumed until and unless proven guilty. He was held for five years without trial. Five years! That’s when the government which HRW and Bachelet believes ‘made some progress.’ Those making a song and dance about Ranjan’s sentence and about ‘the lawyer’ Hejaaz Hizbullah being held without trial over suspected involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks, weren’t upset over Pilleyan’s incarceration.
Five years was long enough to find the evidence, but apparently the Attorney General couldn’t make a case. That, or he bowed to political pressure. The former indicates that his predecessor was playing politics with justice. The latter, if that’s the case, doesn’t cover the current Attorney General in glory. However, all this is speculation. We really don’t know.
Maybe investigations regarding Hizbullah are incomplete. He’s been under custody for many months. Not yet ‘years.’ Years, however, is the time-slice in the case of LTTE cadres currently in detention. Neither the previous regime nor this has moved to bring matters to a close. It would be a horrible travesty of justice if they are finally released ‘due to lack of evidence’ or an unwillingness to continue with the prosecution (either of which could be the case with respect to Pilleyan). Not a laughing matter, ladies and gentlemen .
We had the President slipping in Ampara over the last weekend. To be fair by him, the President has been badgered endlessly by Harin Fernando from day one. The President responded in jest, but what he said was not really funny. He alluded to Prabhakaran and how that terrorist’s life ended. Unnecessary. Unbecoming. Harin is, relatively, small fry and his political track record is so sketchy that responding to him constitutes a salute, an undeserved one.
Harin claimed he knew about the Easter Sunday attack AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT! Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during the election campaign, conducted himself well. He didn’t utter one word about his fellow candidates. He focused on his program. He slipped. That’s no laughing matter either, even though people are making a mountain out of a molehill here.
There was noise over the East Terminal of the Colombo Port. The unions and several political parties objected. They met with the President. The talks were disappointing, they said. The President said it will not be sold. He said it’s a joint venture with a minority control for the Indian port development company. He didn’t say that the same company is building a competitor-port in Kerala. Obviously there’s ‘understanding’ that’s not been put into words and made public.
Obviously the (virtual) sale of the Hambantota Port by the previous regime has constrained the President vis-a-vis Indian ‘concerns’. The President has gone on record to say that India’s national security concerns will not be compromised by Sri Lanka. There’s a cheque being cashed by India but we don’t know what we got in return. The vaccine? That’s a laugh — in any case 99.5% of the infected recover, the vaccine is still an unknown quantity and there are alternatives out there in the vaccine market. A (nominal) buffer in Geneva? Possible but again, we do not know. Such things are not said. Arms are not twisted in public.
A government besieged (as this one is) has few options. Geneva is a circus but not one where the Sri Lankan delegation will get to laugh. The Government has one trump. Not Donald. The people.
KKS Perera’s Under the Lovi Tree
Thirteen short stories of varied ‘plots’ comprise this slim book, author-published by KKS Perera in December 2020. Introducing the contents, KKS says the book “… include snippets of the writer’s own personal experiences from the tender age of six – fondly put together and offered to those who might enjoy the experience.” Most of them feature pets: dogs and cats, and one emotionally touching story is specifically about the happenings in the Perera household with regard to moving from injections to sterilizing surgery for Lanney, their pet dog.
Subjects and plots
The subjects of the stories are varied from a family occurrence to walking down memory lanes; to a child’s joy of possessing a torch bulb; to the chatter at a wedding reception; and workers’ lives. Mystery and mayhem are included. Mail Train and a Murder brings in even a Madam and her girls, who Perusivalam Velu Sinnatambi, the railway worker, mistakes in his innocence as Madame Carmen’s daughters and then that she runs a boarding. The man is invited to dinner with Carmen which results in his serving several years in prison for murder. He returns to his old haunts in the up-country railway station with familiar trains chugging or rattling past and learns the truth. One night’s Cell-ter is also situated in a prison cell – no murder but a death.
I particularly enjoyed Ten at Table 10 which is not really a story but the narration of an incident; yes, guests and their mannerisms, mostly quirks, as they await the arrival of the bride who is late. KKS subtly comments on and laughs at societal norms of today vis-à-vis social weddings – so much spent on hair styles; furnishings in the hall and wedding planners. Here the innocence, albeit perceptiveness of the child crying out the ‘king has no clothes’ is juxtaposed against the idiosyncrasies of the adults.
KKS changes his oeuvre, the genre of plot in his last short story Petrified in Affection and Love. It took me time to get into the story and longer to appreciate it. But it is not a light, fluffy flight of imagination. It is a literary achievement to make the imagination live and seem real. KKS has the Isurumuniya Lovers and the Horsemen and his horse friezed on the rock above the pool, come to life. The descriptions here are poetic – the flowers, pond, moonlight; the sensuality competently conveyed. Ends thus: “There was nothing left for Suni but the memories as their limbs slid across each other in that restless sensuous tussle as she sat petrified under the roof of the Isurumuniya, with that secret smile hanging on her lips, awaiting the passage of another century for the next Water Festival.” KKS gives the characters and thus the so-familiar statues a jolting switch. Suni is Prince Harideva’s wife but seated on the thigh of warrior Weeranatha, her lover, approved of by her husband. The prince is seated relaxed with his horse – Pavani – on the rock face. A helpful historical note as Epilogue is at the end of the story, where KKS quotes a Brahmi script of donation of the temple. He says the lovers are believed to be King Kuvera Vaisrawana and his queen Kuni as in the Ramayana. Long accepted by me was that the stunning statue depicts Prince Saliya and the Chandala, Asokamala, for whom he gave up the kingdom his father King Dutugemunu had consolidated. Another belief, adds KKS, is that God Shiva and Goddess Parvathi are depicted here.
The author, in his introduction, notes that he “has observed the habits of living beings, … exposed their disturbing habits and displayed uncommon commonsense, humour and wit.” He adds “he has no intention to enrich the reader either materially or spiritually.” OK. But his stories do give food for thought and many indirectly expose universal truths of humans, and canines too. Most of them have to be read with reason and intellect alert as subtle significances are woven into them. They are not to be read rapidly just to get the story line; better with critical faculties alert.
The cover of the book is arresting with his granddaughter’s doodles. Their depiction of a dog and flowers is delightful. The book is well got up. One bit of confusion to me was the use of italics, often for reported speech and in other places too, irregularly. Editing should have been tighter.
KKS was a corporate executive for four decades. After retirement he took to journalism and is a freelancer. He says in his introduction that his English literature teacher of St John’s College, Ursula P Wijesuriya, encouraged him to write “little contrivances called fiction at the age of 13-years though my lethargy kept me from doing so for almost 60 years.” The teacher mentioned has written the preface to the book while Capt Elmo Jayawardena, long standing admirer of KKS’s writing, has written about the author.
All in all a good leisure time read. Priced at Rs 450/= and distributed by Sarasavi, it is out on sale in Colombo bookshops.
Nanda P Wanasundera
The Quad halved, then drawn and quartered
by Malinda Seneviratne
This column focuses on local politics. As opposed to global affairs. However, ‘local-global’ is, as sociologists would point out, a false dichotomy. What happens or rather can happen here is by and large determined by overarching global political and economic structures. Local affairs don’t always shape global processes unless the particular ‘local’ enjoys privileged position in the overall structure, but they can inform the manner in which particular countries or country-collectives engage.
Let’s start with a few examples.
The previous government was the darling of Western powers. The leaders believed that the West would help. Then came Brexit. The leaders got the jitters. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suddenly opened his eyes and saw ‘The East’. This, after seniors in that administration, before and after the January 2015 election had made many disparaging comments about China, as one would expect for their view of the world was largely a matter of echoing the voice of Washington.
So, in essence, Britain sneezed and these ladies and gentlemen caught a cold.
That’s one side of the coin. The USA-led section of the ‘international community’ spared no pains to rubbish the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. It is no secret that Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign was actively backed by the USA. The language of engagement with ‘Sri Lanka’ changed. The US mission in Colombo, hell-bent on hauling Sri Lanka over the coals with respect to largely inflated horror stories about the war, suddenly wanted the local Tamil allies to go easy on human rights. Come 2019 November the tone changed. Now this is not strange. One does not deal with known friends in the same way that one engages with perceived enemies.
This week, the global touch was inescapable for different but not unrelated reasons. A US story and an Indian story dominated political headlines, the former on account of the assault on Capitol Hill, Washington by supporters of Donald Trump and the latter having to do with the visit by the Indian Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar. The former is distant but makes for interesting comment considering Washington’s use and abuse of democracy. Sorry, the term ‘democracy.’ So let’s start right there.
On Wednesday supporters of Donald Trump, convinced that their champion had been robbed, gathered outside the Capitol building. They forced entry into the chamber of the House of Representatives wanting Congress to discard the results of the November 3 election. Four died, one from gunshot injuries. Dozens were arrested. Congress prevailed and Trump, in a predictably roundabout way, grudgingly announced he would leave office.
Democracy is the word here. An election was held. Sorry, a selection, for that’s essentially the political process which produces presidents in that country. Some claimed that there was jugglery. Some went to court. Court dismissed these petitions. Now, in the name of democracy, a bunch of irate Trump supporters (a minuscule minority of the voting population) decided that Congress should submit to their will. Trump, remember, lost the popular vote by a massive margin.
The entire carnival showed up the farce that is US politics. First, the vast majority of these ‘rebels’ were white. The way that the authorities responded was in stark contrast to the way that the police reacted to peaceful protests against white police brutality and racism over the past seven months. Racism is what colors the ‘fabric’ and racism tore that cloth a long time ago or rather, racism ensured that the threads would never make a textile worth talking about.
Secondly, we have to measure this against the standard US narrative on democracy and democratization outside its shores. No country has prostituted these terms the way Washington has. The US has invaded countries, mis-described rag-tag agitators as ‘pro-democracy masses’ who were then funded and armed, orchestrated military coups, supported the butchering of pro-democracy protesters who had been duly called ‘insurgents’ and dropped bombs. All in the name of democracy.
As a wit put it, ‘due to travel restrictions, Americans had to invade their own country this year.’ Here’s another that’s making the rounds on social media: ‘The US has invaded the US to spread democracy.’ And here’s the plum atop the pudding: ‘The US is honestly just a comedy show to the rest of the world right now.’
If only we could laugh! It’s no laughing matter to the victims of systemic brutality and racism in the USA. It’s no laughing matter to the recipients of ‘Democracy — US style.’
The Biden administration will no doubt say ‘that’s all Trump stuff’ and maintain the Washington Doctrine on International Affairs. Washington is quiet now. That ‘little affair’ has been sorted out. Democracy, they’ll say, has won the day. It will be business as usual. The US will resume lecturing the world about democracy, peace, human rights, co-existence and reconciliation. Representatives of the nations targeted will have to swallow down the giggles, IF they do see the hypocrisy that is — let’s not bet on that!
India. That’s the other big story. In your face and all. But first a preamble. India is part of the Quad, i.e. the shorthand for the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes the USA, Japan and Australia. The purpose is to contain China’s rise, the ‘Asian NATO’ as some call it, never mind that the USA is not part of Asia. The big Sri Lankan story for the USA in recent times was the MCC Compact. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government didn’t play ball. The US Embassy in a statement informed one and all that the deal was off. Chagrin was written all over it. The local ‘friends’ warned of serious repercussions. The UNHRC sessions are just weeks away. And we have Jaishankar visiting Sri Lanka.
Jaishankar, a retired diplomat and former Foreign Secretary, is well-known for working out ‘friendship’ with the USA and is mentioned for his role in the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. Just the other day, he signed on behalf of India, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA. The two countries are the more vocal of the four that make ‘The Quad.’ India, moreover, has expressed concerns about the so-called Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka, never mind the bloodstained Indian footprint courtesy the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The IPKF left, but the footprint remained. Jaishankar even mentioned it.
Sure, he spoke of the sweetener in all the deals he made or wanted to make with Sri Lanka in the pursuit of the eminently defensible ‘India First’ foreign policy of his government. He spoke of the Covid-19 vaccine. It is, as yet, untested. It is not expensive. India will give some vaccines FoC and some on a concessionary loan, most likely. Vaccine or not, only 0.5% of the infected will succumb to the virus. What’s the price Sri Lanka has to pay, though? Why, the 13th Amendment or more!
Jaishankar, addressing the media, used Eelam-speak. ‘A united Sri Lanka’ he said. Now ‘unity’ cannot be legislated. A federal arrangement does not necessarily mean unity and neither does a unitary system. Jaishankar doesn’t know, hasn’t been told or knows and ignores the fact that the two main candidates at the last presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa both pledged to uphold the unitary status of the country. Almost 95% of the country’s voting population voted for these two candidates.
Jaishakar doesn’t care. He has a script. He reads from it.
‘Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is long standing,as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony. It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled.that applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.’
That’s a lecture. He or rather India wants Sri Lanka to inhabit his/India’s version of Sri Lanka’s reality. What’s the reality? The 13th is a white elephant. Romesh De Silva, who heads the experts’ committee tasked to draft a new constitution said as much about ten years ago. We have not had Provincial Council elections in years. No one has complained. Things could be better but no will argue that things are worse on account of PCs remaining dissolved.
The Indian foreign minister met with the President, Prime Minister and his Sri Lankan counterpart. It might appear that his powwows with the leaders of Tamil parties and the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa were cursory affairs but one hesitates in concluding thus. After all, the proposals to the constitution-drafting committee submitted by both the Tamil National Alliance and the Thamizh Makkal Tesiya Kootani both want the unitary character of the state undone. ‘Unity’ is the word both these entities use. Just like Jaishankar.
India or rather Delhi has a political issue to resolve in Tamil Nadu. There’s opposition to Delhi’s drive to make Hindi a national language in that state. Tamil Nadu is ok with ‘One India’ but not a ‘One India where Tamil could get diluted vis-a-vis Hindi.’ Appeasing Tamils in Sri Lanka, perhaps Delhi believes, might help sort out the political problem in the southern part of the country. ‘Help’ is the key word. It won’t be enough, but it’s not a stone that they would want to leave unturned.
Any devolution that grants control of parts of the country to Tamil political formations, they might believe, would compromise the integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The US could obtain by way of price an MCC Compact without an MCC Compact, so to speak. We don’t know if Jaishankar murmured ‘Geneva’ in his discussion with the president, prime minister and the foreign minister, but certain things can be said in silence.
There would have been talk of the contentious Eastern Terminal. India’s port development operations in the Andaman Islands is not a secret. Compromise the Colombo Port and Delhi is in easy sea-street.
There’s more local play to this story. Sajith Premadasa appointed Dayan Jayatilleke as his advisor on international affairs. Dayan’s genuflection before India is legendary. Not surprisingly, in an article published immediately after his appointment, Dayan responded to an announcement by the Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong, who said, ‘China will promote the alignment of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” manifesto to promote economic and social engagement between the two countries.
Now, there are two ways to interpret this statement. One is to believe that whatever part of the BRI that’s promoted will be framed by what’s pledged in Rajapaksa’s election manifesto. Nothing wrong with that. Dayan worries that it’s the other way about. He asks the legitimate question: ‘If President GR’s Sri Lanka has joined hands with China to respond to challenging international and regional situations according to a consensus between the two leaders, how will it take a nonaligned, equidistant or balanced stand with regard to US-China internationally and India-China regionally?’
He is the international affairs guru of the Opposition Leader and therefore the ball is in the court of Dinesh Gunawardena. He has to respond to this question.
Dayan, in the same article (‘The Xi factor, Delhi’s deterrence, and the Pakistan model’ in the Daily FT), berates the government for postponing the PC elections. He worries about what the new constitution would and would not do, never mind that we are yet to see a draft and never mind that obtaining the two-thirds parliamentary majority to get it passed will not be easy.
‘The new Constitution will kill the 13th Amendment and the semi-autonomous PC system, de-linking the Sri Lankan state from the Indo-Lanka Accord, removing not only a counterweight to de facto military rule over the island but also a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’
All this, yes, all of it, is almost like a speech written in Delhi. Consider this part: ‘a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’ That’s the Indo-Lanka Accord. The annexures do talk of foreign presence but entities OTHER THAN INDIA! For Dayan, India is not ‘foreign’. Her footprint is alright. Is India part of Sri Lanka? Would Jaishankar respond to this question, ‘Yes, most certainly!’? Of course not. The implication is that Sri Lanka is part of India or rather India’s plaything. Pawn. There’s Indian hegemony written all over Dayan’s and therefore Sajith Premadasa’s and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s position on these matters.
And Jaishankar, kindly, invites Sajith Premadasa to visit Delhi. Maybe he will also facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the likes of M.A. Sumanthiran and C.V. Wigneswaran, a meeting that such politicians must have requested repeatedly from Indian diplomats in Colombo who they meet with frequently.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe although in desperately depleted circumstances has chipped in with a request of his own. Yes, Jaishankar covered all the bases, even those that have become politically redundant. Wickremesinghe requested Jaishankar ‘to expedite the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine to Sri Lanka.’ Yes, that’s the sweetener.
What’s the price and who pays it? No one will ask Wickremesinghe. The likes of Premadasa need not answer. The likes of Dayan Jayatilleke are not required to answer and anyway, as has been the practice of this colorful commentator, he will use one convoluted argument after another, replete with selective examples from history and convenient quotes from theoretical texts to conclude ‘it’s worth the price!’.
The Government on the other hand, cannot beat around the bush. What’s the price you want us to pay for India’s ‘amazing’ vaccine, Mister President? What was agreed on our behalf and why?
Well, folks, that’s it for this week. A week where the local was more-than-usually overshadowed by ‘the international’ and where one half of ‘The Quad’ dominated. We’ve drawn and quartered, but just in an analytical sense. We would not be presumptuous to claim anything more!
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