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Editorial

It’s public health, stupid!

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Tuesday 6th April, 2021

Director General (DG) of the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI), Dr. Siddika Senaratne, is being raked over the coals for saying, in an interview with Hiru TV, that the toxic coconut oil racket should not have been made public, and refusing to name the contaminated food items in the market lest the companies concerned should be hurt. She has said these businesses might even collapse if named. Should the public be kept in the dark about the contaminated food they consume so that the interests of unscrupulous businesses can be safeguarded?

What was reported of the SLSI DG’s interview reminds us of a witty cartoon carried in a foreign publication some years ago; a precocious little boy approaches his father, and boldly declares his intention to pursue a career in crime, of all things. The old man, as cool as a cucumber, asks, without taking his eyes off the newspaper he is reading, “Government or the private sector?” Many a true word is said to be spoken in jest. Those who are responsible for the crime of making Sri Lankans swallow toxins in contaminated food items are found in both the government and the private sector!

Private traders can import contaminated food freely because most state officials collude with them and turn a blind eye to their rackets for obvious reasons. (There have been instances where heroin sent to the Government Analyst’s Department for testing was turned into kurakkan flour!) That said, it needs to be added that the Health Ministry officials deserve praise for having recently detected extremely high levels of aflatoxin in imported coconut oil and informing the public of their finding.

The errant companies whose products have been found to be contaminated or substandard must not be protected. We suggest that action be taken to make it mandatory for the SLSI and other such state outfits to inform the public of the products they test, the final results and the names of businesses concerned.

The Customs also refrain from naming racketeers they fine for smuggling. If these elements are named, the public will know them for what they really are. Why can’t the Customs name names if they are not benefiting from the largess of big-time racketeers who happen to get caught?

Meanwhile, the public has to concentrate on the big picture—the issue of toxins in food items besides coconut oil. Aflatoxin contamination is not limited to imported coconut oil, as a senior scientist points out in his article on this page today. He comprehensively dealt with the subject of food contamination in a previous column as well. The government ought to take his views on board.

Due to lax laws and lack of proper implementation thereof, this country is awash with harmful food additives that sell fast owing to their organoleptic properties; the fact that most of them are injurious to health, and some of them even carcinogenic is widely known, but the health authorities do precious little to protect the public.

Aflatoxin is not the only cause of edible oil contamination. Cooking oil must not be reused, as is public knowledge. But it is sold to restaurants after being used at big hotels, and thereafter it finds itself into wayside eateries, where it is liberally added to food, especially kottu roti and what passes for fried rice. This racket has gone uninvestigated.

Food get contaminated with toxins in numerous ways in this country. Hardly anything has been done to prevent the haphazard use of agrochemicals. A few years ago, it was revealed that textile dyes were substituted for food colouring in some food outlets in the city. Fizzy drinks contain high levels of sugar and harmful food colouring agents which are known to ruin kidneys. They must, in fact, be kept out of the reach of children. But neither the public nor the state institutions tasked with ensuring food safety seem to care.

Sri Lankans have earned notoriety for their soda-bottle reaction, as it were. When something bad crops up, they get agitated, let out howls of protest and even take to the streets, asking for action. But the issue fizzles out with the passage of time and the protesters shift their focus to something else.

One can only hope that the ongoing campaign to have an effective mechanism put in place to ensure overall food safety will not peter out, and the government will be kept under pressure to take action to prevent racketeers from making a killing at the expense of the public.



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Editorial

Warning shot from Darley Road

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Thursday 6th May, 2021

The SLFP, which fears that legal action will be taken against its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena, over the Easter Sunday carnage, has fired a shot across the SLPP’s bow, in the form of a veiled threat to go it alone at future elections. Its trepidation is understandable. Former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando have already been indicted for murder, etc., in the Colombo High Court as they failed to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite several prescient warnings.

Pressure is mounting on the government to refrain from shielding Sirisena and ensure that he is also prosecuted. The SLFP seems to fear that the government may throw its leader to the wolves when push comes to shove. There is no love lost between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas; they are only a bunch of strange bedfellows.

A split in the SLPP coalition is the last thing the government wants at this juncture; the SLFP has 14 MPs elected on the SLPP ticket. An SLFP pullout will not bring down the government, but the SLPP will be hard put to muster a two-thirds majority in the House in such an eventuality.

What are the issues that the SLFP is likely to use against the government in case of a split? One could guess the answer to this question from what Senior Vice President of the SLFP Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa told the media in Kandy the other day.

Prof. Piyadasa did not mince his words when he said that the biggest scam in recent times—the sugar tax fraud—had happened under the current government. Mentioning the VAT fraud and the bond scams under previous regimes, he emphasised that the sugar tax fraud was the biggest of them all. The SLFP had come forward to address corruption and irregularities under the present dispensation as it did not want the corrupt UNP to make political capital out of them, he added. Claiming that the SLFP was under pressure from its ranks and file to contest future elections alone, he said his party’s goal was to form an SLFP government.

So, the SLFP’s battle plan is now clear. If the SLPP tries to throw Sirisena overboard, the SLFP will not only pull out of the ruling coalition but also launch an all-out political campaign against it. It has already identified the key issues to be flogged, and prominent among them is the mega sugar tax fraud.

Having made use of the bond scams issue to destroy the UNP, which failed to win a single seat at the last general election, Sirisena is apparently planning to mete out the same treatment to the Rajapaksa government; he will use the fraudulent reduction of duty on sugar, among other things, for that purpose, in case the SLPP does not protect his interests. Sirisena may be having some more cards up his sleeve. He may not have used some of the damning information he had ascertained on the present-day rulers, while he was the President, because he did not want to burn bridges; he later joined forces with them. But he may not hesitate to use such information, if any, against them in case of being jettisoned.

Prof. Piyadasa has also told the media that other SLPP constituents are also disgruntled and having meetings to discuss their grievances. One may recall that they met at the SLFP headquarters a few weeks ago. The leaders of some SLPP constituents have likened the situation in the government to what the late Felix Dias Bandaranaike created in the United Front administration (1970-77); he was accused of driving the leftists away, and debilitating the SLFP-led coalition. The SLPP dissenters have stopped short of naming the grandee who, they say, is doing a Felix in the government, but their patience is obviously wearing thin. Perhaps, the SLFP is toying with the idea of forging an alliance with these SLPP constituents one day. This may be a tall order; the SLFP runs the risk of losing some of its MPs to the SLPP if it chooses to vote with its feet. But the government will be weakened both politically and electorally in the event of a split.

There seems to be no end to the problems Sirisena causes to the Rajapaksas, and vice versa!

 

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Editorial

Of April explosions and warnings

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Wednesday 5th May, 2021

April is apparently the cruellest month in this country, as we said in a previous comment, with apologies to T. S. Eliot. In April 1971, the country was plunged into a bloodbath. The Easter Sunday carnage happened in April 2019. The current national health crisis took a turn for the worse in April 2021; the pandemic now snuffs out more lives than it did during its first and second waves. It is also during April that the highest number of lives lost in road accidents is reported year every year.

The Attorney General (AG) has indicted former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando for murder, etc., in the Colombo High Court over their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite having received repeated warnings of possible terror strikes. The matter is best left to the learned judges, but it needs to be added that Jayasundera and Fernando were not alone in failing to prevent the carnage; there were many others, and legal action must be instituted against them as well if justice is seen to be done.

The government must not baulk at allowing legal action to be taken against former President Maithripala Sirisena, named by the Easter Sunday Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) as a person who should take responsibility for negligence and serious security lapses that led to the terror attacks at issue. The PCoI final report specifically says, in its recommendations (p 471), “The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister is accountable for the tragedy.” So, all those who were responsible for national security during the yahapalana government and failed to prevent the Easter tragedy must be prosecuted.

The incumbent government is in a spot as regards Sirisena, who is the leader of the SLFP, a major constituent of the ruling SLPP coalition. The SLFP, which has 14 members in the government parliamentary group, has issued a veiled threat that it will break ranks with the SLPP in case of legal action being taken against Sirisena. The SLPP finds itself in a Catch-22 situation, but it must not let its political problems stand in the way of justice, which the families of the Easter Sunday bombing victims, the Catholic Church, and, in short, all right-thinking Sri Lankans are demanding.

When one looks carefully at the Easter Sunday carnage, which destroyed about 270 lives, and the onset of the current wave of the pandemic, which is killing people at the rate of about 10 a day, one sees that both of them were due to failure on the part of those in authority to heed prescient warnings. Now that legal action has been taken against Jayasundera and Fernando for their failure to act on warnings of the Easter Sunday terror, all those who did not heed repeated warnings of an explosive spread of Covid-19 during the National New Year and thereby caused people to die must also be brought to justice. The Covid-19 morbidity and mortality rates have increased drastically of late because the government higher-ups, the health authorities and others tasked with controlling the pandemic chose to ignore independent health experts’ warnings that there would be an upsurge of infections unless travel restrictions were imposed during the festive season.

Everybody knew the country was sitting on a ticking viral time bomb, as it were, and the government politicians and the health authorities should have taken precautions before and during the New Year to prevent an explosive transmission of the pandemic. Instead, people were allowed to do as they pleased to all intents and purposes. There were avurudu shopping sprees. Huge crowds gathered in Kataragama and Nuwara-Eliya. New Year festivals were also permitted. Those mass gatherings were a recipe for disaster. The government obviously did not want to curtail the freedom of the public during the festive season for political reasons, for travel restrictions and lockdowns are hugely unpopular. Those in authority who did not act on dire warnings from independent experts and triggered the so-called avurudu wave of the pandemic must be severely dealt with.

Criminal negligence, in all its manifestations, must not be allowed to go unpunished.

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Editorial

Pandemic and political virus

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Tuesday 4th May, 2021

The worst that could happen to any country, burdened with a bunch of irresponsible politicians thirsting for power, is having to go to the polls during a pandemic. Sri Lanka had to do so last year, and the result was a disastrous surge of Covid-19 infections a few weeks later. That situation came about owing to massive election rallies and other such events where health regulations were blatantly flouted by politicians and their supporters alike.

India has also had elections recently in some states, where political parties, their leaders and supporters did not behave responsibly. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral gamble has not paid off. Instead of scaling down his election campaigns on account of the ever-deepening national health crisis and setting an example to others, he chose to make the BJP juggernaut go full throttle in a bid to score an impressive win. He must be really disappointed.

All eyes were on the West Bengal Assembly polls, where PM Modi’s party got trounced by his worst critic, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Modi must be finding it difficult to stomach defeat, given the colossal amounts of funds, time and energy that went into the BJP election campaign there. Interestingly, although her party, Trinamool Congress, won comfortably, Mamata has lost her seat. Political analysts say she could continue to be the Chief Minister, but will have to face a by-election in six months. However, the fact remains that she has sent the BJP and her bete noire reeling.

Now that the polls are over, the sobering reality must be dawning on PM Modi and his government. Daily cases of Covid-19 have topped 300,000 for 10 straight days or so, in India, with thousands of people dying, daily, many without proper medical care and oxygen. Modi came to power promising the Indians the moon, but his government is now all at sea, unable to help the people the way it should. Whoever would have thought India would be dependent on foreign assistance to overcome a health crisis, on PM Modi’s watch? There are heart-rending appeals from Indians on social media. Some of them are even calling for Modi’s resignation. The BJP government’s efforts to have such posts blocked have come a cropper. The Indian Supreme Court has defended the hapless citizens’ freedom of expression; it declared, on Friday, that no state should clamp down on information if citizens communicated their Covid-related grievances on social media, and promised tough action against those who violated that right. Blessed is a country that has such intrepid judges capable of standing up to powerful rulers and ensuring that people’s rights are respected.

There is no way the BJP and PM Modi can absolve themselves of the blame for the worsening pandemic situation in India. The same goes for their rivals including the Congress and its leaders. They jostled for power, throwing caution to the wind, while people were gasping for oxygen and firewood stocks running out due to an unprecedented number of cremations.

On 27 April, the Madras High Court lashed out at the Election Commission of India (ECI) for the latter’s failure to ensure that the Covid-19 protocol was maintained during election campaigns, and went on to state that the ECI ‘should be put on murder charges for being the most irresponsible institution.’ This harsh remark came close on the heels of the Calcutta High Court lambasting the ECI for not doing enough to make political parties adhere to the Covid-19 protocol. This kind of judicial reaction seems to reflect the public mood. The ECI has moved the Supreme Court against the Madras HC’s remark, which, however, has struck a responsive chord with not only the Indians in agony but also their counterparts elsewhere, especially in this country, where politicians’ irresponsible conduct has endangered the lives of people. The Election Commission of Sri Lanka, in spite of its rhetoric, failed to make the political parties fall in line in the run-up to last year’s general election.

How electioneering boosted the spread of the pandemic may have gone unnoticed in this country probably because not enough random PCR tests were conducted to gauge the social transmission of Covid-19, but the correlation between irresponsible electioneering and the transmission of the virus has become clear in India; it was also seen in the US during the last presidential election.

What really facilitates the spread of the pandemic in any country is its rulers’ callous disregard for public health concerns as well as the sheer stupidity of its citizenry.

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