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Editorial

Looming spectre of rice shortage

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Friday 7th January, 2022

Has the country become rudderless? This is the question one asks oneself when one sees widespread chaos. The political authority does not take responsibility for virtually anything and baulks at taking decisive action. The cooking gas shortage, which has lasted for weeks, is not likely to be over anytime soon. People have been calling upon the government to make an intervention to sort out the problem, but to no avail.

Perhaps, at this rate, it may not be necessary for the government to have the cooking gas supply restored at all. People may not have any need for gas soon, for they will be left without anything to cook at home. Essential commodities are in short supply, and their prices are so high that most people cannot afford them. Only alcohol and cigarettes are freely available, and perhaps liquor outlets are the only places where one does not see long lines of consumers. The government has gone out of its way to ensure the availability of these two commodities as if people’s lives were dependent on them.

Paddy farmers have been up in arms, unable to save their cultivations as they are without fertiliser. So are vegetable growers. Anything that is hurried runs the risk of being buried. The government’ organic farming drive is a case in point; it should have been carried out over a considerable period of time with the participation of all stakeholders. Instead, it was rushed, and we are where we are today—facing the prospect of a food crisis. Agricultural experts predict a drastic drop in the paddy production during the current cultivation season. Farmers are shown on television complaining of an unusual delay in their rice plants reaching the heading stage owing to lack of fertiliser. This presages trouble.

The government has offered to increase the guaranteed price of paddy from Rs. 50 to Rs. 75 as part of its recently unveiled relief package. But this will bring no relief to farmers in that private traders are already paying as much as Rs. 95 per kilo of paddy, and, on the other hand, there will be no paddy to be purchased soon. This was confirmed by President of the United Rice Producers’ Association (URPA) Mudith Perera, yesterday, at a media briefing. Warning that the country would face a severe rice shortage from the end of next month, he urged the government to assess the yield losses due to the fertiliser crisis urgently and take precautions to avert the anticipated rice shortage. His prognosis is disconcerting; yield losses will invariably necessitate rice imports. (However, before importing rice, the government ought to inspect the silos of big-time rice millers to check if paddy has been hoarded.)

The government will have to import 800,000 to 1,000,000 MT of rice to meet the shortfall in the domestic supply, at a cost of USD 450 million, according to the URPA chief. This is a huge amount of forex the country could hardly afford at this juncture. There are several external loan instalments to be paid this year, and the government desperately needs dollars.

URPA President Perera has warned that the purchasing price of paddy is likely to go up to Rs. 125 soon owing to yield losses. If what is feared comes to pass, rice consumption will be a luxury only the super-rich could afford.

Curiously, the government has not sat up and taken notice of the situation. Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena is apparently living in a world of his own. He visits Pettah wholesalers’ warehouses, from time to time, and declares that there are enough stocks of rice. His cavalier attitude must be one of the reasons why the irate public have begun hooting at government leaders. The Agriculture Minister is also at sea. He is impervious to reason, and bellows rhetoric. He seems to think that his job is to antagonise farmers.

Long queues are seen in most parts of the country with people waiting to buy cooking gas, kerosene, milk powder, etc. Unless the government cares to start shoring up stocks of rice urgently, there will be queues for rice as well sooner than expected. This is something it should not take lightly for its own sake; rice shortages have led to regime changes in this country.



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Editorial

Cake, icing and power cuts

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Wednesday 26th January, 2022

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have directed Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge to ensure an uninterrupted power supply. The government would have us believe that enough fuel is provided to the CEB, and there will be no power cuts. Curiously, the CEB has announced a power-cut schedule! President of the CEB Engineers’ Union (CEBEU) Samuya Kumarawadu has said power cuts will be inevitable even if fuel is made available because the hydro power generation is expected to drop drastically. These contradictory statements have left the public confused.

Some of the policies of the incumbent dispensation have failed to work because they are not tempered with pragmatism. The government’s green agriculture programme serves as an example. The President’s renewable energy project also seems to have gone the same way; CEB engineers are stressing the need to step up thermal power generation to prevent blackouts. We quoted CEBEU Secretary Dhammika Wimalaratne yesterday as having said that the proposed fourth unit of the Norochcholai coal-fired power plant, if constructed, would provide a vital cushion with an additional 300MW, and what Sri Lanka needed was ‘an LNG-coal cake with solar and wind icing’.

CEBEU President Kumarawadu has told the media that if the Sampur coal-fired power plant had been built, an additional 500MW of electricity could have been added to the national grid, and there would have been no power crisis. Former President Maithripala Sirisena is often heard grumbling about power outages and blaming the CEB, but it is he who scrapped the Sampur project in 2015 without offering any viable alternative when he was the President. He obviously did not have the big picture in mind, and gave it the big I am for political reasons.

Coal combustion is a dirty process, as is public knowledge. Environmentalists are right in demanding that the country be weaned off coal and other fossil fuels used for power generation, but if the use of coal is to be discontinued without hurting the economy and causing hardships to the public, ways and means of meeting the resultant shortfall in the national power supply must be found.

Making agriculture and power generation eco-friendly is not only an uphill task but also a political high-wire act; balance is of the essence, and haste has to be avoided. As agrochemicals are to agriculture, so is coal to power generation. Everybody loves food free of harmful chemicals, but nobody is willing to contend with food shortages due to bans on agrochemicals! Similarly, nobody likes coal combustion, which pollutes the environment, but everybody wants an uninterrupted power supply! Successive governments have not adopted a pragmatic approach to solving these two problems; they have only resorted to vapid sloganeering and other such populist measures coupled with ad hoc measures without grasping the nettle.

Meanwhile, there is a pressing need for a proper assessment of the country’s power needs. Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), Janaka Ratnayake, has recently revealed that the CEB made 16 requests for emergency power purchases between 2016 and 2020, claiming that there was no other way to avert power cuts; 15 of those requests were turned down, but there were no power cuts, the PUCSL chief has said. If so, why on earth did the CEB seek to buy power? Did those who made those requests try to mislead the PUCSL and make the CEB purchase power unnecessarily so that they could line their pockets? Surprisingly, there has been no inquiry to find out why the CEB did so.

We are not short of experts of integrity who are willing to help the country sort out burning issues, and the need to seek their views when vital policies are formulated cannot be overemphasised. Short-term remedies such as making fuel available for the CEB’s thermal power plants are no doubt necessary to prevent blackouts, but the only way to avert a crippling power crisis is to augment the CEB’s generation capacity systematically. This is the challenge before the present government, which ought to bear in mind that pragmatism is the key.

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Editorial

Defeat bid to sandbag whistleblowers

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Tuesday 25th January, 2022

The government would have the public believe it is keen to ensure that there will be one law for everyone, but one wonders whether there is any law in this country at present, for the ruling party politicians, their cronies and bureaucratic lackeys are enjoying unbridled freedom to do as they please. They are now on a witch-hunt against a whistleblower.

Former Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority Thushan Gunawardena, who exposed the Sathosa garlic racket, and won accolades from the public and got under the skin of many a crook in the process, has been prevented from going overseas. He went to the BIA, the other day, to leave for Dubai only to be turned back by the Immigration and Emigration officials, who curtly told him that he could not proceed, and they were doing their job. He was left with no alternative but to return home. There is no court order preventing him from leaving the country, and he has never been involved in any criminal activity. But someone does not want him to leave the country. There is a prima facie case of fundamental rights violation, and Gunawardena must invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court against those who prevented him from leaving the country.

Racketeers are going places thanks to their links to the government while hostile action is being taken against an intrepid whistleblower. Civic-conscious officials like Gunawardena deserve national recognition; the government should have given him a reward. Instead, a witch-hunt has got underway against him.

Why racketeers are harassing Gunawardena is not difficult to see; they want to discourage whistleblowing. They will be in serious trouble if other public officials emulate Gunawardena and pluck up courage to expose corruption.

Thankfully, Gunawardena is made of sterner stuff and has chosen to take the bull by the horns. It is incumbent upon everyone who abhors corruption to come forward to protect the whistleblower in the crosshairs of fraudsters including politicians, who are using various methods to sandbag upright public officials into pandering to their whims and fancies.

A tainted Central Bank Governor left the country via the BIA even after being exposed for his involvement in the Treasury bond scams. Arjuna Mahendran was his name. (He is said to be living in Singapore under some other name.) Those who helped Mahendran make good his escape are often heard pontificating on accountability, the rule of law, etc., in Parliament. Mervyn of Kelaniya helped a drug kingpin, known as Kudu Lal, flee the country through the BIA during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government while the STF was closing in on the criminal who had been supplying hell dust to the entire Colombo District for years. LTTE leaders were allowed to travel via the BIA sans any security checks in the early noughties with public officials, the police and some military officers dancing attendance on them. They brought in huge bags full of undeclared goods, which were airlifted to the LTTE-controlled areas, without any checks. They were given VIP treatment a few months after a devastating LTTE attack on the BIA in 2001. The then Airport manager treated the senior Tigers to barbecues in the name of peacemaking! Politicians who have stolen colossal amounts of public funds and have bankrupted the country are also free to travel through the BIA. But a public official who dared blow the whistle on a mega racket for the sake of the public, and lost his job as a result, is now prevented from going through the same airport without rhyme or reason!

Let Gunawardena and other whistleblowers be urged not to lose heart. They can rest assured that all Sri Lankans who abhor corruption are solidly behind him. One can only hope that professional associations such as the Bar Association of Sri Lanka will stand by courageous Sri Lankans like Gunawardena and help defeat sinister attempts being made in some quarters to intimidate them.

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Editorial

Of that trial balloon

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Monday 24th January, 2022

What was feared seems to be playing out. MP Diana Gamage, who crossed over to the government from the SJB, has urged Parliament to extend President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term by two years because she thinks he has lost two years owing to the pandemic. Gamage’s call has come close on the heels of President Rajapaksa’s statement that a youth recently asked him why a referendum could not be conducted to ask the people whether his term should be extended by two years on account of the pandemic. Curiously, the President does not seem to have heard what young men and women say about his government via social media!

Former President Maithripala Sirisena, asked by reporters to comment on MP Gamage’s proposal, the other day, said that before commenting thereon, one had to know what President Rajapaksa had to say about it. His answer was evasive, but he was not without a point. The fact however remains that Gamage would not have dared say anything of that nature without the blessings of the government leaders although the SLPP has said she made that call unbeknownst to the President.

MP Gamage is thought to be trying to ingratiate herself with the powers further, but there seems to be more to her call than meets the eye. Those who have introduced the 18th and 20th Amendments are not likely to scruple to do anything that helps tighten their grip on power.

When power goes to their heads, politicians take leave of their senses. But there is always a method in their madness. The government has already done something similar, in principle, to MP Gamage’s proposal at issue, where the Local Government institutions are concerned. Elections to them have been put off, and one of the reasons given for the arbitrary extension of their terms by one year is that they could not function properly for about two years under the yahapalana government.

We have already witnessed the disastrous consequences of the arbitrary extensions of parliamentary terms. In 1975, the SLFP-led United Front (UF) government extended the life of Parliament by two years; the UNP swept the 1977 parliamentary polls and obtained a five-sixths majority, which it abused to weaken democracy. That UNP regime became synonymous with the suppression of democratic dissent, abuse of power, corruption and the sale of state assets among other things. That was the price people had to pay for giving the UF a two-thirds majority in 1970, and the UNP a five-sixths majority seven years later.

The postponement of the general election scheduled for 1982 with the help of a heavily-rigged referendum created conditions for the second JVP uprising and the resultant bloodbath. The Jayewardene government proscribed the JVP in a bid to scuttle the latter’s campaign against the outcome of the referendum. Those who do not learn from history are said to be condemned to repeat it.

Politicians curry favour with their bosses by pandering to the latter’s whims and fancies. After the defeat of the LTTE, sycophants misled the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa into believing that he could become the President for life, and he introduced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to achieve that end. In 2015, he sought a third term and had a grand pratfall, instead. The rest is history. Had he made use of the rare opportunity that presented itself after the end of the war to rebuild the economy, revive democracy, restore the rule of law, fight bribery and corruption and usher in development, perhaps, the people themselves would have asked him to serve another presidential term.

Only two years of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term have elapsed, and three more years are left for him to improve his government’s performance. The task is daunting but not impossible. Most members of the current government were out of power for five years without any accretions to their wealth, but they have already made up for lost time, if their vulgar display of opulence is any indication. The question is why they cannot act so tenaciously to help the President carry out his pledges, and win over the public so that they will not have to fear elections.

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