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Killings that go unnoticed



Saturday 1st August, 2020

Everyone is concerned about the loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as the Ceylon Electricity Board, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and SriLankan Airlines. International lending institutions and economists, both local and foreign, never miss an opportunity to recommend restructuring or divestiture as the panacea. However, none of these economic whiz kids ever express any concern about the colossal losses the economy suffers due to Sri Lankans’ tobacco addiction.

Executive Director of the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) Pubudu Sumanasekera has pointed out that last year the state raked in Rs. 92.9 billion by way of taxes on tobacco while tobacco addiction cost the health sector as much as Rs. 214 billion. Never mind the health and social cost of the tobacco menace, even the staggering losses the economy suffers due to tobacco addiction have escaped the attention of economists. Curiously, these losses never get highlighted in budget speeches.

We are not short of smooth-tongued politicians who wax eloquent in Parliament and outside on the need to curtail SOE losses that are weighing down the economy, but never do they address the issue of tobacco addiction and its ill-effects.

Raids conducted by the police, the Excise Department and the Navy, during the past few weeks, have yielded huge consignments of narcotics including party drugs that are widely abused in nightclubs. These ‘designer drugs’ are colourless, odourless and tasteless and can be mixed with drinks. The police have also taken into custody a hawk-eagle, believed to have been used by a notorious drug czar to deliver narcotics. Public awareness of the dangers of narcotics is relatively high thanks to extensive media coverage that drug busting ops receive, and campaigns carried out by anti-narcotic outfits. But the people, especially parents who want the country rid of narcotics to ensure the safety of their children, are apparently not aware that tobacco products act as gateway drugs.

As we have discussed in a previous comment, smoking accompanies illicit drug use, and medical experts have linked nicotine to cravings for stimulants and opiates. A study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US, has proved that tobacco products act as gateway drugs and open the door to the use of illicit drugs. Nicotine, the NIH researchers say, makes the brain more susceptible to cocaine addiction. The NIH findings suggest that lowering smoking rates in young people might help reduce cocaine abuse. (The NIH is a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services and America’s medical research agency, making important discoveries that improve health and save lives.)

The ADIC Executive Director has revealed that more than 35,000 deaths that occur in this country annually are due to tobacco and alcohol. COVID-19, which has carried off only 11 persons so far, has been declared a national health emergency—and rightly so. The highly contagious coronavirus has to be battled with might and main. The health regulations in place must be followed and we must not lower our guard under any circumstances. Some politicians and civil society activists have even called for another polls postponement in view of the detection of some new infection clusters although the health authorities insist that the situation is under control. But nobody seems so concerned about the twin killers—tobacco and alcohol—that snuff out so many lives annually!

The ADIC has urged the candidates in the current election fray to address the issue of tobacco and alcohol addiction and the attendant problems, but none of them seem to have heeded its request. Instead of focusing on national issues, they are busy slinging mud at one another and holding political dog and pony shows. The question is whether any of these characters deserves to be elected.



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Thugs and porters



Saturday 18th May, 2024

Lessons that the 2022 mass uprising provided have gone unlearnt if the ruling party politicians’ unruly behaviour is anything to go by. Those who went into hiding fearing aggressive mobs that pursued them have crawled out of the woodwork; they are exuding hubris and flexing their muscles, again. Old habits are said to die hard.

State Minister Prasanna Ranaweera (SLPP) has incurred much public opprobrium for slapping a baggage handler at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). He is seen in a video, which is doing the rounds on social media, roughing up the worker in full view of others.

He has sought to justify his violence by claiming that he accompanied his wife to the BIA, and the porter concerned refused to accept Rs. 700 for carrying her bags and demanded Rs. 1,000 instead. He has said he lost his temper but did not do anything other than giving the baggage handler a piece of his mind. However, the video clip belies his claim.

So, a thundering slap across his face was what the BIA worker got for demanding Rs. 300 more! This incident reminds us of the 1980 general strike, which a collective of trade unions launched, demanding that state workers be paid Rs. 300 more each per mensem. The then UNP government sacked tens of thousands of strikers, and issued a dire warning that the ‘elephant’ (meaning the UNP) had only swung its trunk.

The workers who lost their jobs demanded justice, which was never served. Similarly, the BIA worker who asked for Rs. 300 more and became a victim of a member of the SLPP-UNP government has been denied justice. He has not been able to have the police act against State Minister Ranaweera, according to media reports. Maybe the police are scared of confronting Ranaweera for fear of being assaulted or coming under a chilli powder attack.

A few weeks ago, the police swung into action, after watching a social media video where a fast food vendor is seen scolding a foreigner in Colombo, and arrested the culprit in double quick time. They did not wait for a complaint to be made. But that kind of high-octane performance was sadly lacking on the part of the police over Tuesday’s incident. Will they explain why they did not arrest Ranaweera?

That said, it needs to be added that the BIA porters, save a few, are a law unto themselves. They fleece passengers with impunity. They have the audacity to demand payment in foreign currency. Passengers have no one to turn to and therefore suffer in silence.

The BIA will have to be given a radical shake-up if Sri Lanka is to improve its image and promote tourism. However, nobody should be allowed to go about slapping and kicking baggage handlers. What is needed is disciplinary and/or legal action against them.

State Minister Ranaweera must be made to face the full force of the law for assaulting the BIA worker. He has a violent disposition as evident from his involvement in fisticuffs in Parliament, especially during the 52-day government in 2018. He was one of the pro-Rajapaksa MPs who wreaked havoc on the House, and even threatened Speaker Karu Jayasuriya with bodily harm, and attacked the police inside the chamber.

Similarly, action should be taken against the porters who are a nuisance to passengers at the BIA and disgrace to the entire country.

The ruling party politicians seem to think they are out of danger and can do as they please. But let them be warned that public resentment is welling up, and they might have to head for the hills again unless they learn from the 2022 political upheavals and mend their ways.

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Multiple whammies for democracy



Friday 17th May, 2024

A government move to set up ad hoc community level advisory committees to handle election-oriented development work, etc., has run into stiff resistance. Its plan to appoint former SLPP and UNP local councillors to the outfits to be established has gone awry due to a legal snag.

There is hardly anything that a sinking regime does not do to retain its hold on power and avoid disastrous electoral defeats. The incumbent SLPP-UNP dispensation may have thought that it had been able to safeguard its interests by postponing the Local Government (LG) polls, which it did not want to face for fear of suffering a crippling electoral setback, but now it now finds itself in a bind.

Political parties are dependent on their local councillors to mobilise grassroots support for them. Most LG members elected in 2018 were from the SLPP and the UNP, and they cannot take part in election campaigns at present as they are still candidates although the LG polls have been put off. This is not a situation the government bargained for.

Hence its efforts to cancel the nominations for the LG polls in limbo and clear the way for the participation of their former local councillors in political work and their appointment to the so-called advisory committees in the works. Its trial balloon in the form of a ministerial statement that it is contemplating the cancellation of the LG nominations has provoked a howl of protests and given rise to a legal issue.

Nominations for an election cannot be cancelled simply at the stroke of a pen although the government seems convinced otherwise. President Ranil Wickremesinghe cut the Gordian knot when it became legally difficult for the government to postpone the LG polls; the government claimed that it could not allocate funds for an election at the height of an economic crisis because it had to prioritise the task of making essential goods and services available to the public over everything else. The SLPP and the UNP seem to think they can surmount the legal hurdle pertaining to the LG polls nominations in a similar manner.

Former Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya has recently told the media that the LG nominations at issue can be cancelled only by Parliament, and a bill seeking their cancellation can be challenged before the Supreme Court. The government can muster a parliamentary majority for such a bill, but that will be politically counterproductive. The Opposition has pointed out that one billion rupees spent on the nomination process will go down the gurgler in such an eventuality. Thus, it will not be a walk in the park for the government to cancel the LG nominations.

Meanwhile, some government politicians have questioned the eligibility of Mujibur Rahman, who handed in his nomination for Colombo mayoral candidate, to be a member of Parliament. He resigned from Parliament to run for Colombo Mayor and submitted his nomination, but the LG polls were postponed. Government politicians are of the view that there is no legal provision for the resignation of candidates after the submission of nominations, and therefore Rahman’s appointment to Parliament via the National List can be challenged legally. It will be interesting to see whether this argument is valid.

Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented situation, which is the antithesis of democracy. An unelected President is controlling all three tiers of government—something that even elected Presidents failed to do. President Wickremesinghe has Parliament under his thumb; the Provincial Councils and the Local Government authorities stand dissolved and are therefore under the Governors appointed by the President.

It is against this backdrop that the government’s efforts to establish a parallel local administration in the form of community level advisory committees should be viewed. If the government succeeds in its endeavour with its former local councillors serving in the outfits to be set up to compass its ends, democracy will suffer another whammy.

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Vroom mania



Thursday 16th May, 2024

The Parliament of Sri Lanka can hardly have a sitting without its members resorting to slanging matches and even coming to blows. They seldom see eye to eye on anything of national importance. But they readily sink their differences and work as one to further their own interests and safeguard their privileges. The government has reportedly decided to grant the MPs duty-free vehicle permits (DFVPs) while the people are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Never do the self-righteous MPs miss an opportunity to harangue public officials on the need to manage state funds frugally in view of the current economic crisis. A few weeks ago, they tore into the Central Bank employees over a triennial pay hike, which, they said, was unconscionably high. Their rhetoric and diatribe may have resonated with the irate public. Speaking in Parliament the other day, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in no uncertain terms that the public sector workers must not expect pay increases this year as the government was without sufficient funds. The Local Government elections have been postponed on the grounds that funds cannot be allocated for them. Curiously, never do such pecuniary woes of the government stand in the way of the MPs enhancing their perks and leading the high life.

The MPs consider themselves ‘more equal’ than others and therefore they are likely to find ways and means of circumventing the rules and regulations that prevent the import of vehicles for private use. The superrich are known to have deep pockets when it comes to brand-new super luxury vehicles, which they cannot import at present. They will pay many times the market prices of such vehicles, and the MPs will be able to make a killing if they are allowed to import duty-free vehicles.

A group of civil society activists held a protest opposite the Presidential Secretariat, yesterday, against the government’s decision to issue DFVPs to the MPs. The police disrupted their agitation, and they had to go whence they had come after handing over a petition to a presidential aide. Their voice, we believe, is representative of all Sri Lankans who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Most people cannot even afford bus fares, which have been jacked up, but the MPs are given DFVPs and other perks.

A camel, in one of Aesop’s fables, empties its bowels while walking in a stream, and seeing its dung racing past it, it wonders how come what should be behind it is going ahead of it. Sri Lankans must be thinking likewise when they see the politicians they elect zing past them in luxury vehicles.

Sri Lanka, which has resorted to a debt default, must stop pampering the MPs who are leading whiskey lifestyles on the country’s toddy income. Their perks, which cost the taxpayer an arm and a leg, will make their counterparts in the developed world green with envy. The members of the present parliament cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for the current economic crisis, which did not come about overnight; the signs of it had been felt for a long time, and Parliament should have used its powers to ensure that remedial measures were adopted. So, its members are without any moral right to receive DFVPs.

The law that provides for the sale of DFVPs immediately after their issuance must be abolished; previously, it was illegal to transfer DFVPs before five years from the dates of their issuance. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government legalised that unlawful practice. The status quo ante must be restored.

Politicians had better stop testing the people’s patience, which is wearing thin.

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