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Editorial

Legislative jilmaat and ‘smuggling tunnels’

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Tuesday 29th June, 2021

The Executive President’s unbridled powers have drawn public attention once again owing to the ongoing protests against presidential pardons for convicted criminals. There has been a sustained campaign against the executive presidency, which its opponents blame for all ills of the country. But this powerful institution has become a fact of life. All those who secured it by pledging to abolish it have reneged on that promise. Some half-hearted attempts were made to curtail the powers vested therein, but the 20th Amendment has made it extremely powerful again. Since the introduction of the executive presidency, a rapist, a large number of terrorists, drug dealers and murderers have received presidential pardons. So, there is a pressing need to put the presidency in a constitutional straitjacket, as we argued in a previous comment.

Protests against questionable executive actions, however, should not distract the public from the dangers that the ‘smuggling tunnels’, as it were, in the Constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act pose to democracy in general and the people’s franchise in particular. It has now been revealed that the laws pertaining to the National List (NL) appointments were tampered with after being ratified by Parliament under the J. R. Jayewardene government. Before the then Speaker E. L. Senanayake signed the Bills concerned into law, unauthorised provisions were inserted into them, enabling political parties and independent groups to abuse the NL to appoint virtually any party member to Parliament. It is believed that the JRJ government smuggled those sections into the Bills with the knowledge of Speaker Senanayake. The main news item in yesterday’s issue of this newspaper shed more light on this legislative jilmaat.

Decades have elapsed since the aforesaid unauthorised alteration of laws took place, but no remedial measures have been adopted. Political parties have chosen to ignore these ‘smuggling tunnels’, which allow misfits to be brought into Parliament in violation of people’s franchise, and are therefore beneficial to political leaders, who can appoint their favourites or themselves as MPs.

Almost all governments have abused the NL mechanism. The yahapalana administration had in its Cabinet several political rejects brought to Parliament through ‘smuggling tunnels’. Now, a defeated candidate who entered Parliament as a National List MP is reportedly eyeing the post of the Opposition Leader!

The real danger of the flawed laws related to the NL is that someone who has not faced a general election or has been rejected by the people at parliamentary polls can enter Parliament via the NL and get appointed as the Prime Minister. He or she would also be able to become the President in case of the elected President ceasing to hold office prematurely. This may be considered a highly improbable scenario, but the fact remains that the bad laws containing unauthorised sections provide for it.

Meanwhile, there is nothing inherently wrong with the NL mechanism. What needs to be done is to amend laws to make it mandatory that only the persons whom political parties and independent groups officially present to the public as their NL nominees prior to parliamentary polls be appointed NL MPs. The NL should be strictly reserved for prominent persons who are desirous of serving the public as MPs and Ministers but dislike active politics and the hustings. We have had some illustrious men and women as NL MPs. If new laws are made urgently to prevent the abuse of the NL, it will be possible to stop political dregs being smuggled into Parliament while the door is kept open for the deserving persons.

We suggest that a special Parliamentary Select Committee be appointed to look into the unauthorised amendments effected to vital laws related to people’s franchise, years ago. There are several senior political leaders who are au fait with the legislative jilmaat in question, and can educate the current Parliament on what really happened during the JRJ government. The constitutional ‘smuggling tunnels’ which help undesirables enter Parliament must be closed once and for all.



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Editorial

Friends of the virus

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Tuesday, 3rd August, 2021

Coronavirus is an elusive enemy, and it is a mistake to declare victory prematurely in a country’s war against it. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Arden performed the hongi, a few weeks ago, presumably in a bid to show the world that their countries were safe. But, today, the virus is troubling Australia, again. Brisbane and Gold Coast have been locked down, and the army is patrolling Sydney to ensure that travel restrictions are fully enforced. The US also made the mistake of lowering its guard after a successful vaccination campaign. It now has a resurgence of coronavirus to contend with; the daily infection rate is expected to reach 300,000 soon. The Delta variant has also caused China’s Covid-19 defences to collapse with a surge in infections even in cities declared coronavirus-free. Japan has extended the state of emergency to more areas. This is what the Delta variant is capable of.

It is against this backdrop that the Sri Lankan government’s decision to make all state employees report for work with effect from yesterday should be viewed. When all public sector employees start going to work, buses and trains will be chock-a-block, and the transmission of coronavirus will receive a turbo boost.

True, the country cannot afford to remain closed indefinitely, and it has to be reopened to revive its ailing economy. But caution should be exercised when restrictions are removed. It would have been prudent for the government to stagger the reopening of public institutions. The state sector, which is terribly overstaffed, may be able to maintain its performance at a reasonable level with about one half of its workforce. Some processes in the public sector can be streamlined technologically to make them less labour intensive.

The government says that most of the state employees have been vaccinated against Covid-19, and are therefore safe, but the fact remains that breakthrough infections are on the rise, and the vaccinated people could also transmit the virus, albeit at a lower rate.

Chances are that the ongoing protests by teachers will not be over anytime soon. Infections could fan out through protesting teachers, most of whom are said to be fully vaccinated. When teachers return home after taking part in protests, they may infect their families and friends. It took only a single infected cook to land a whole village in the soup, the other day, in the Kalutara district. Nearly 90 persons contracted Covid-19 thanks to him, according to media reports.

The government deserves praise for its hitherto successful vaccination programme, but unfortunately it is driving trade unions to launch street protests and thereby boost the transmission of the Delta variant. It has got its priorities all mixed up. What possessed it to present the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) bill amidst an unprecedented national health emergency, and provoke other stakeholders into taking to the streets?

The focus of the government and the Opposition should be on beating the virus and reviving the economy. Even the existing national universities lack resources and are struggling to maintain standards. They remain closed due to the pandemic. It defies comprehension why on earth the government is in a mighty hurry to upgrade the defence university at this juncture.

The government should seriously consider putting the KNDU bill on hold, and the protesting teachers ought to stop street demonstrations and opt for talks with the government to have their salary issues sorted out. Unless the spread of the Delta variant is stopped forthwith, the country will have to be closed again. The economy, which is already on oxygen support, will not survive another round of lockdowns; the government will be left without any funds for any university, and the protesting teachers will not receive even their salaries. All workers including those in the private sector and their families will have to starve in such an eventuality. This is the danger that the government and the protesters are exposing the country to. They are the friends of the virus.

 

 

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Editorial

Of that monkey motion

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Monday 2nd August, 2021

A government MP has submitted a private member’s motion seeking parliamentary approval for capturing and sterilising monkeys. He wants these animals relocated to vegetated islands in reservoirs, etc., thereafter. Monkeys cause considerable crop damage, and farmers are desperate to hold them at bay. Various methods have been employed over the years to prevent troops of monkeys from invading villages, and even terrorising people, especially women and children. So, the government MP concerned may have been prompted to come up with the aforesaid plan to solve the problem in response to requests from his constituents, but he does not seem to have obtained expert opinion on the issue.

How to catch so many monkeys has not been specified in the motion, the full text of which we published on Saturday, and it will be an intractable problem unless the government assigns the task to the idling local government members, who are too numerous to be counted.

The motion at issue reminds us of a proposal made by a deputy minister in the yahapalana government. He wanted an open season declared on wild pigs and monkeys, and some of the wild elephants shipped to other countries as gifts. He said the populations of some wild animals had increased exponentially, causing problems to humans, and culling was the solution. The wild boar could be killed and sold for meat, he maintained. His proposal struck a responsive chord with some of the people troubled by wild animals, but drew a lot of criticism from others, especially animal rights activists. He chose to ignore the root cause of the problem—the huge increase in the human population, which has led to the opening up of the natural habitats of animals for cultivation and development purposes. It is not only humans who need lebensraum, or the territory needed for their natural development; animals also do. When space, food and water become scarce, animals invade villages.

The main reason for the human-elephant conflict is that many villages and farmlands have sprung up, unplanned, in the middle of animal territories, causing the depletion of forest cover, and in some cases, even blocking elephant corridors. The methods being used at present to tackle the conflict are outdated, and remedial action proposed by experts such as Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando has gone unheeded. Successive governments have been only throwing money at the problem, as we reported on 22 July.

There are other reasons for wild animal invasions. Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya of the University of Kelaniya has, in a research paper presented at an international conference in 2019, pointed out that the prolonged neglect of forest tanks or kuluwew built for special purposes such as storing rainwater, enriching groundwater level, providing water for wild animals, maintaining the food chain, etc., has caused the problem of wild elephants, monkeys, porcupines, giant squirrels and wild boar invading village ecosystems and threatening the settlers in an unprecedented manner. Insects, rats and snakes also enter residential and farming areas as a result, he has said, concluding that if the kuluwew are renovated systematically and forest ecosystems restored, the wild animal threat can be reduced by about 80 percent. This is something President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has evinced a keen interest in rural development, should give serious thought to.

Meanwhile, it may not be too cynical a view that perhaps the SLPP politicians will not have to run around sterilising monkeys unless their supporters who are encroaching on forest lands apace are reined in; at the rate forest clearance is being carried out, the day may not be far off when we are left with no trees and no wild animals.

As for the aforesaid private member’s motion, a wag says he does not think the translocation of monkeys to islands in reservoirs or rivers will be a solution, if experience is anything to go by; the aggressive anthropoids we send to an ait in a lake near the Colombo city every five years or so do not cease to be a nuisance. They, in fact, become a bigger problem after being sent there, and destroy forests, etc. These troublesome creatures in kapati suit are far more invasive and destructive than the brachiating primates that only seek to satisfy their needs and not unlimited wants. If the main remedy that the monkey motion proposes—sterilisation—had been adopted in dealing with the anthropoids that people sent to the lake isle close to Colombo years ago, the country would have been free from trouble currently being caused by their descendants.

One only hopes the motion in question will prompt the government to ponder the problems that wild animals cause to humans, and vice versa, and enlist the support of experts to solve them, without further delay.

 

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Editorial

1990 – Suwa Seriya’s success story

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That perhaps is the country’s best known telephone number. Punch those four digits on any telephone and an ambulance will be at your door in less than 15 minutes, the average time of response. This is what the Suwa Seriya Ambulance Service, launched against a myriad of obstacles five years ago, has given the sick and injured free, gratis and for nothing rushing nearly a million people for hospital care since its innauguration. For many of them, this has been a life saver thanks to something a country, long used to doing otherwise, got right. It was not all plain sailing though. There was very strong opposition to the project, funded by India on a grant basis. The powerful Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) opposed it. So did several other influential parties and groups fearing job losses for locals, misplaced nationalism and other reasons now proved wrong. At the initial stages, even parking the ambulances in government hospitals was not permitted. But it has all ended well and today it is acknowledged to be one of the finest public services available to Sri Lankans.

Last week, Suwa Seriya which means “a journey to health/wellness” celebrated its fifth anniversary. The project was launched at the initiative of Dr. Harsha de Silva, then a non-cabinet minister of the Yahapalana government and now an Opposition MP. He suffered a traumatic experience on a trip to the Eastern Province with a group of family and friends when one of their vehicles suffered an accident and a member of the party was seriously hurt. Getting an ambulance to rush the injured to hospital proved problematic. It was then that the germ of the project that has given this country so much during the last five years came to be. De Silva says in an article we publish in this issue of our newspaper that on July 28, 2026, what was called the 1990 Suwa Seriya Project was launched in the Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces with 88 ambulances purchased from India with a grant of USD 7.6 million. Following the success of that pilot project, India granted a further USD 15.2 million to cover the whole island with the service.

Today as many as 297 ambulances are operated countrywide and they are a common sight even in remote areas. The service is managed entirely at the expense of the Government of Sri Lanka through the Suwa Seriya Foundation set up by an Act of Parliament. It is run by an eminent group working in an honorary capacity. There is no gainsaying the founder’s claim that the “last five years have been a period of healing for the country.” People who have benefited from the service and their near and dear are all too aware of its value as also a wider segment of the population who have seen and heard of the good that it has done and continues to do. All of us Lankans must be truly grateful to India for gifting us this invaluable service, her second biggest donation to an immediate neighbour. In value terms, it is only behind the ongoing 60,000 houses grant costing nearly USD 400 million. There was one condition attached to the gift – that after the initial phase, the Government of Sri Lanka must take over the service and run it. “We readily agreed,” de Silva says.

Making an outright grant to purchase the ambulances was not all that India did to get the service started and keep it running. Since the project was setup, New Delhi and Colombo organized training for Lankan ambulancemen and technicians to hone their skills at a specialized institution in Hyderabad. The well known newspaper, The Hindu, in a recent report marking the fifth anniversary of the ambulance service reported that so far, all 709 technicians working round the clock for Suwa Seriya have been trained in India. The report quoted Sohan de Silva, Suwa Seriya’s CEO, saying that this hands-on training has greatly helped our emergency technicians who also undergo refresher programmes periodically. The not-for-profit Foundation which runs the service has a staff of 1,400 and is a semi-government institution including medical technicians and drivers. It is under the purview of the Ministry of Health with State Minister Sudharshini Fernandopulle, a qualified doctor, in charge. While each ambulance carry a sticker saying it is a gift from the people of India to the people of Sri Lanka acknowledging the Indian connection, as Harsha de Silva told The Hindu, the service is Sri Lanka’s and run entirely by Sri Lankans.”

It is a matter of satisfaction that despite the political orientation of those who initially opposed the project, the new government is wholeheartedly supporting what its predecessor began. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently went of record saying that the ambulance fleet will be augmented with 112 new vehicles. The situation caused by the current explosion of the Covid pandemic has demonstrated anew the value of this service which has over the past few months redoubled its efforts attending not only to medical and accident related emergencies but also in helping the transfer of Covid-infected patients to hospitals. The country certainly owes a debt of gratitude to India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a personal interest in the project when Dr. Harsha de Silva first made the request to him while he was here on an official visit some years ago. Equally so to de Silva for all the hard work he has put in to make the project the success it is. Thanks are also due to all those others, who in an honorary capacity, helped move it along and continues to help manage it.

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