This is being written before the budget was presented on Friday due to technical demands of printing the Sunday Island on Friday night. Hence our commentary on a subject not focusing on the latest breaking news, but yet on a no less important subject. That is on the very-much-in-the-offing New Fortress Energy (NFE) deal with a US company where it is planned to sell-off a 40 per cent slice of state-owned West Coast Power Ltd., the owners of the 310 MW Yugadanavi Power Plant at Kerawalapitiya. Much has been said and written on the matter strongly opposed by a battery of experts and a formidable group of minority constituents of the ruling Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP)-led government. The CEB trade unions and other important state sector unions too have expressed their displeasure and a national blackout threatened. Nevertheless, the government seems intent on going ahead with the transaction now under challenge in the Supreme Court with the case due to be taken up within the next few days.
What is particularly unhappy about the whole business is that there is a great deal of suspicion that the deal is being pursued not in the national interest but for reasons that can only be called venal. The enthusiasm to finalize it is widely believed to be less than altruistic, with fat kickbacks that have sadly become a fact of life in our country today, being a strong driving force. The mere fact that such deals have been widely alleged, though not definitively proved, to have been corrupt is a sad commentary on the country’s political and bureaucratic establishments that have lost the people’s trust for good reasons. Succeeding governments have set bloodhounds against their predecessors and we have all been treated not to promised criminal convictions – only a dismal four to six percent of cases in our courts lead to such conviction – but to the sight of the supposedly independent Attorney General withdrawing indictments filed by his own department against VIPs following changes of government. Far too many crooks have got off the hook under the guise of political victimization.
We now have a promise that all documents and agreements on the NFE deal, allegedly signed in the dead of night behind the backs of the cabinet and parliament, will be presented to the legislature. The CEB chairman is on record saying that there are non-disclosure clauses in the agreement, a business practice that is not unknown. Whether these too will be made public remains to be seen. Most of us, with good reason, are highly suspicious of such arrangements. Non-disclosure obviously means that somebody wants some details of an agreement kept under wraps for reasons of their own. This is totally unacceptable in arrangements between a sovereign and a commercial entity as commitments between the state and any other party must necessarily be in the public domain. Transparency requires that and total transparency is essential in deals such as this. Let us hope that we will have that.
The debate on the budget for 2022 that Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, presented to parliament on Friday, will necessarily bring matters of governance and the activities of all ministries, departments and agencies of the government under the national spotlight. Given its importance, the NFE deal will (or should) be thoroughly dissected. It is accepted fact that contemporary budget debates are nowhere near the caliber of those of the past where the ability of lawmakers sitting in the legislature was vastly different from what we have today. However that be, there is a great deal of published material for MPs to use in pending discussions and this, hopefully, will happen. They say, not without justification, that under democratic parliamentary rule the opposition can have its say but governments will have their way. Rightly or wrongly this has often happened in our country and the NFE transaction will be no different unless the Supreme Court holds otherwise.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went on record a few days ago asking the very pertinent question that if the people kicked out a government, as happened in 2015, why did they re-elect the same bunch as in 2019/2020? Regular columnist Rajan Philips has in this page trenchantly analyzed this conundrum, reaching conclusions that will not be palatable to the ruling cabal and certainly not to the political class in general, elected, defeated and re-elected in the course of our contemporary political history. Although the voter has regularly said “a plague on both your houses,” he/she has as regularly re-elected their occupants to the great cost of the nation. Why was that? Because there was no credible alternative. Originally it was the UNP versus the rest. If the rest were able to subordinate their ideological differences, the first post-Independence government might not have been UNP. But that is now all water under the bridge.
Thereafter, following the defeat of what some thought was an invincible UNP by an SLFP-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna in 1956, we have had various permutations and combinations of political parties, many of them communal rather than national, contending under the green and blue umbrellas. The reds, unthinkably, were wiped out in 1977. Unfortunately, the people did not get what was good for them. Maybe that’s what they deserved. The cynical viewpoint at this moment of time is that is all they are going to get in the foreseeable future.
Opposition and Sudden Savant syndrome
Thursday 2nd December, 2021
Why is it that only the Opposition politicians have brainwaves? Exceptional abilities are said to emerge in some ordinary people after brain injury or disease. We reported a few years ago that an American youth who dropped out of college as he was extremely weak in mathematics had become a brilliant mathematician all of a sudden after being hit in the head by a flying bottle in a pub. (Commenting on the incident, we warned the Sri Lankan youth that suffering head injuries in pub brawls was not the way to improve their mathematical skills!) Numerous such incidents have been reported from several parts of the world. This phenomenon has come to be called the Sudden Savant Syndrome. Where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned, epiphany-like moments occur in them only after traumatic electoral shocks. This is why some politicians act sensibly and come out with brilliant ideas when they are in the Opposition. Sri Lankans therefore say, “Mole thiyanakota bale ne bale thiyanakota mole ne, or when politicians have brains, they have no power, and vice versa.”
Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament yesterday that the MPs should be allowed to pursue legal or higher studies, given their legislative experience. This is a sensible idea. In the 1970s, there was such a scheme; the MPs could enter the Law College, as Kiriella has pointed out, and some of the present-day political leaders including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa benefited from it. Why it was scrapped is the question. It should be reintroduced for the benefit of the lawmakers.
A person who gains experience as a member of Parliament should be able to gain university or Law College admission, the Chief Opposition Whip said. However, not all MPs could be considered qualified, for many of them do not use the time allocated for them in Parliament productively; some MPs do not make any contribution to parliamentary debates. They only bellow rhetoric and insult others when they are given opportunities to speak. The MPs who make an effort to improve their performance and knowledge should be allowed to pursue legal or higher education while others who exchange blows and trade raw filth in the House should be denied nominations to contest future elections.
Educational opportunities should be made available to everyone, and courses of study designed for this purpose as in other countries. Those who miss opportunities to achieve their educational goals for various reasons when they are young should be able to realise their dreams later in life if they so desire. Education is a right, and must be treated as such.
In 2019, the then MP Ranjan Ramanayake sat the GCE O/L examination at the age of 56 as he wanted to obtain a better grade for the English language. We praised him editorially for his keenness to study, and urged other MPs to emulate him because this is the right attitude that everyone must adopt. Ramanayake said he wanted to study law, but unfortunately, he is now languishing behind bars because he, in his wisdom, caused an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. He should have studied law earlier.
People should be encouraged not to let their age, chronological or biological, stand in the way of their education. Varatha Shanmuganathan, 87, who migrated to Canada from Sri Lanka, and earned a master’s degree, last month, has shown the way. If a grandma can do so, why can’t others?
Meanwhile, education alone does not make a good lawmaker. Basically, people’s representatives must be intelligent men and women of integrity with a passion for public service. Kiriella has said the MPs are intelligent because they accomplish the extremely difficult task of getting elected. Yes, there are some intelligent lawmakers, but others are blessed with cunning, which should not be confused with intelligence. Most politicians have achieved success through unscrupulous means, and it is doubtful whether they will mend their ways even if they receive postgraduate degrees. What power politics reflect in this country is the law of the jungle, and political dregs with the wherewithal and right connections go places at the expense of educated, intelligent, decent men and women. The emergence of dynastic politics has worsened the situation. Political leaders and their children have all the luck, and others have to settle for crumbs from their tables.
However, it should be stressed that the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition should give serious thought to devising a scheme to help not only the MPs but also all other elected representatives desirous of receiving a decent education achieve their dream.
The Crab House
Wednesday 1st December, 2021
An oft-heard complaint is that Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa is more absent than present in Parliament during the ongoing debate on Budget 2022. This, however, is not the first time Opposition MPs have complained of the absence of ministers in the House during important debates. The ordinary MPs are no better. The Speaker, more often than not, has a hard time, trying to have quorate sittings.
A budget debate without the presence of the Finance Minister in the House is like Sinhabahu without the Lion’s son, so to speak. Yesterday, only Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando was present in the front row of the government side when the House took up the issue of gas explosions reported during the last few days. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena asked Minister Fernando to ensure that the front-row members of the government were present, especially when the issues of national importance were discussed. One can only hope that the SLPP seniors and their counterparts in the Opposition will heed the Speaker’s concerns, and care to attend Parliament regularly.
Finance Minister Rajapaksa experienced some difficulties in reading out the Budget, last month. If the reading of the Budget is so difficult, how hard its implementation will be is not difficult to imagine. However, what really matters is not the Finance Minister’s speech as such but how the government proposes to implement its budget proposals and bridge the huge deficit. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa was so averse to long-winded budget speeches, maybe because he had an axe to grind with the then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, that he famously said that even a taxi driver could present the national budget! Ironically, today, the economic downturn has been so bad during the past couple of years that even some educated private sector executives work as cabbies at night to augment their declining income; these ‘taxi drivers’ are knowledgeable enough to handle public finance or even present the country’s budget.
Finance Ministers are masters of subterfuge. They say so little in so many words, make ambiguous statements and, most of all, have got obfuscation down to a fine art. Therefore, after their lengthy budget speeches, there arise many questions that need to be answered. So, the Finance Ministers have to be present in the House during budget debates to field questions from the Opposition MPs, and elucidate budget proposals, government policies, etc. The same goes for other ministers, whose presence is required in Parliament when questions are raised about institutions under their purview, and vital issues concerning their subjects are debated. Yesterday, all the ministers should have been in Parliament, where the issue of gas explosions was taken up. Is it that the SLPP frontbenchers do not consider kitchen explosions serious enough to warrant their attention? Let them be warned that it will be a big mistake for them to ignore the so-called kitchen vote, which can make or break governments.
When the senior members of political parties themselves skip parliamentary sessions, how can they expect their juniors to carry out their legislative duties and functions properly? They are like the proverbial crab which, while moving sideways, urges its offspring to walk straight.
Colossal amounts of money are spent on parliamentary sittings which serve little purpose when ministers and MPs do not attend them. Public funds must not be sent down the gurgler in this manner while many people are struggling to dull the pangs of hunger. If Parliament can have a budget debate without most of its members present, the question is why the public should continue to pay through the nose to maintain as many as 225 MPs.
Gas bombs and Occam’s razor
Tuesday 30th November, 2021
Sri Lankans have a remarkable ability to forget. That may be the reason why Prabhakaran failed to achieve his goal despite all his bomb blasts on civilian targets. Zahran, in his wisdom, emulated Prabhakaran, carried out bomb attacks, but got nowhere near his goal posthumously. The local gas companies have gone a step further; they charge for causing explosions that kill people and destroy property!
It is in fear and trepidation that every Sri Lankan woman steps into her kitchen to cook up a storm as the danger of a firestorm lurks there thanks to the gas companies run by Zahran’s fat-cat cousins who have turned gas cylinders into bombs. Unlike Prabhakaran and Zahran, the gas mudalalis have benefited from Sri Lankans’ collective memory lapse. The brouhaha over gas explosions seems to have fizzled out.
The government has taken steps to have a few gas cylinders tested to find out why they cause explosions, and reports thereon have been referred to a national university. The matter has ended there to all intents and purposes. People are being urged to apply soapy water to the valves of gas cylinders they purchase to see if there are leaks. The onus has thus been shifted to the consumer! In other words, in case of a gas explosion, the consumer concerned will be blamed for not checking the valve of his or her gas cylinder properly—caveat emptor!
Hitler, wherever he may be, would feel ashamed if he knew the Sri Lankan gas company honchos have found a much easier way to snuff out lives than his huge gas chambers. The process of destroying lives here is very simple. A person walks, half-asleep, into his or her kitchen in the morning, and switches on a light … a big bang, and he or she is gone!
There has been a debate on the causes of gas explosions. Scientists have adduced several reasons. It is believed that the gas composition has been changed arbitrarily and the valves of gas cylinders, regulators, etc., cannot take the pressure of the new mix, and therefore they develop leaks, endangering the lives of the people. But, we, as laymen, prefer to adopt the philosophical rule—Occam’s razor, or the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the best one—in dealing with the ‘gas bomb’ issue.
The real problem, in our book, is the leaky valves of gas cylinders. No gas cylinder with a defective valve or any other defect must be allowed to leave the factory, but many of them have entered the market. Obviously, there has been a very serious lapse on the part of those responsible for testing cylinders; they and their superiors must be held accountable for allowing safety standards to be compromised, and endangering the lives of consumers. What has really caused the gas cylinder valves to develop defects is a matter that should be dealt with separately.
What needs to be done urgently is to suspend the sale of gas and interdict all those in key positions of the state-owned gas company for their collective failure to ensure the safety of the gas cylinders they sell. Otherwise, they will cover their tracks, and it will be well-nigh impossible to figure out how the unsafe gas cylinders entered the market. The culprits must be prosecuted for criminal negligence or wilfully changing the butane-propane ratio, exposing the public to danger, as claimed by some experts.
The precedent created by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday blasts should be adopted in apportioning the blame for the kitchen gas bombs, as it were. The PCoI says, in its report, the entire yahapalana government including the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the blasts in 2019. Similarly, the incumbent government, which came to power promising to prevent blasts and save lives, the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the gas bombs that turn kitchens into infernos.
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