Tuesday 15th March, 2022
Matilda may have told dreadful lies that made ‘one gasp and stretch one’s eyes’, but her lies, or what has been said of them, to be exact, pale into childish prattle in comparison to what Sri Lankan politicians tell the public, especially when they seek votes and face trouble after being ensconced in power.
It is only natural that Sri Lankans tend to believe the very obverse of what ruling party politicians and their propaganda lackeys tell them. The President’s Media Division announced, the other day, that power cuts would be over after a few days; people did not buy into its claim, and stocked up on candles! The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) went ahead with load shedding, and the hapless public continues to be troubled by power cuts. Several moons ago, Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena vowed to make rice freely available at affordable prices, but rice prices have since gone through the roof.
All shortages that plague the country boil down to one thing—lack of dollars. If the government could find enough dollars to pay for essential imports, nothing would be in short supply, and queues at fuel stations, gas sales points, etc., would be over. The dollar crisis has become the elephant in the room where government politicians are concerned because the Finance Ministry, which is responsible for the current economic mess, is under Basil Rajapaksa, who is the power behind the throne. Ministers have chosen to bark up the wrong tree, and tell lies with a short lifespan lest they should incur the wrath of the powers that be and lose their portfolios.
Minister of Power Pavithra Wanniarachchi would have us believe that the existing power crisis has come about because the CEB’s generation capacity is low. Nothing could be further from the truth. Former Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka has recently told Parliament that the CEB could generate 4,887MW of electricity a day while the daily demand for power does not exceed 2,700MW and, therefore, the CEB’s generation capacity has nothing to do with the current power crisis. He insists that the power crisis is due to lack of foreign exchange to pay for fuel imports to feed the thermal power plants. Ranawaka, an electrical engineer, has thus put his finger on the actual reason for the power crisis. Energy Minister Gamini Lokuge is also wary of telling the public the truth. His predecessor, Udaya Gammanpila, revealed the truth and got under the skins of the SLPP leaders in the process. He did not know what hit him; he lost his ministerial portfolio.
Minister Lokuge has declared that the fuel crisis will be over soon. Last week, he said the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) would not increase fuel prices. The following day, the Lanka IOC jacked up prices; two days later the CPC matched the LIOC prices! When he was the Power Minister, Lokuge said there would be no power cuts!
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has claimed that there is no fuel shortage. If so, tens of thousands of people must be waiting in long queues near filling stations for the fun of it! Chief Government Whip and Highway Minister Johnston Fernando has gone a step further; he says some sinister elements are conspiring against the government and spreading false rumours of a fuel shortage! The less said about him, the better; he is troubled by bats in his belfry if his behaviour in Parliament is any indication.
The discerning public is aware of the real causes of the present crises, which could have been averted. If the government had refrained from effecting huge tax cuts for the benefit of big businesses, mostly its cronies, and cared to rationalise pandemic-related expenditure instead of throwing money around, the rupee crisis would not have arisen. The situation further deteriorated following the unveiling of a massive relief package, which has benefited mostly state employees; the ill-conceived relief measures cost the state coffers as much as Rs. 229 billion! The government could have used these funds to cushion the fuel price hike shocks by reducing taxes on diesel, petrol and kerosene. The government has not cracked down on the foreign currency black market, which has been thriving at the expense of the banking system, depriving the state coffers of much-needed dollars. It also got its priorities mixed up and chose to spend colossal amounts of funds on development projects whose expenditure has a sizeable foreign exchange component. Road development is a case in point. If nonessential imports had been restricted when the first signs of the forex crisis were felt, the outflow of dollars could have been curtailed greatly.
Matilda’s story has a tragic end. Our skilled liars are going places, having lied their way into office, but at the rate public anger is welling up, their fate is very likely to be far worse than death—nothing could be more dreadful and hurtful to politicians than to be relegated to the political dustbin.
A question of legitimacy
Monday 5th June, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking at the National Law Conference, in Nuwara Eliya, on Saturday, urged the political parties represented in Parliament to join forces and help rebuild the economy. One cannot but agree that all political parties are duty bound to sink their differences and unite, for the sake of the country, to put the economy back on an even keel, for all of them have contributed to the process of ruining it albeit to varying degrees. The President also said that political parties should do so instead of calling for elections. There’s the rub! Does this mean that elections will not be held until the economy is turned around? How long will the government take to accomplish that task? What guarantee is there that it will succeed in doing so? What if it fails to straighten up the economy in the foreseeable future? Will the country be without elections indefinitely in such an eventuality? Efforts to revive the economy, we believe, must not be at the expense of the people’s franchise.
President Wickremesinghe argued that none of the parties with parliamentary representation enjoyed the support of 50% of voters. Opinion may be divided on whether his claim holds true for all political parties; those who endorse or challenge this argument will do so without empirical evidence. The best way its validity can be tested is for the government to hold the much-delayed local council elections, which will not lead to a change of government but enable the people to exercise their franchise, express their will, and, more importantly, help defuse the build-up of anger in the polity.
The SLPP has lost popular support though it polled more than 50% of the total number of valid votes at the presidential election in 2019 and the parliamentary polls in 2020; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit and Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down as the Prime Minister due to public protests. They would not have done so if they had been confident that the people who had voted for them overwhelmingly were still with them. The UNP polled only about 2% of the votes countrywide at the 2020 general election and has only one MP. Thus, the SLPP-UNP administration lacks legitimacy to govern the country, and that is why an early general election has to be held so that the people can elect a new parliament; ideally, it ought to stop manipulating numbers in the current Parliament to retain its hold on power and seek a fresh mandate from the people by holding a snap general election, or at least face local government/Provincial Council elections without further delay.
Public resentment is palpable, and the government has become dependent on the police and the military for its survival, and keeps postponing elections. Political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, will be at risk as long as the people remain resentful of a failed government, which clings on to power in spite of having bankrupted the country. What the current regime is doing is tantamount to a rapist retaining the custody of his victim! It is only natural that the people have lost faith in the government.
President Wickremesinghe also said at Saturday’s National Law Conference that the majority of people had lost faith in elections, and politics, and whether it was the parliament, the judiciary, the media, trade unions or professionals, the people lacked trust in the entire system. There is a general consensus on this assertion.
The abuse of the National List (NL) mechanism by political parties to bring in defeated candidates and persons of their choice as appointed MPs is one of the main causes of the erosion of public faith in elections. The NL is a constitutional wormhole, as it were, which has to be sealed. Thankfully, all is not lost if relatively high voter turnouts at elections are any indication. Anti-politics, which means people’s hostility towards established political systems, parties, institutions or practices, is manifestly on the rise, and this situation is attributable, among other things, to the presence of many undesirable persons among politicians and people’s representatives, rampant corruption, the abuse of power and public funds, and the prevailing culture of impunity.
Most of the factors that gave rise to last year’s socio-political upheavals are still there; they have the potential to trigger another popular uprising of tsunamic proportions. Hence the need for the government to mend its ways and tread cautiously without suppressing democracy and provoking the public.
The publication of Merril. J. Fernando’s autobiography last month is a useful peg to hang a discussion on the Ceylon tea industry – we advisedly call it Ceylon tea rather than Sri Lanka tea – as the former is the name by which this unique product is known globally. Merril Fernando, of course, needs no introduction. He is very well known in this country as the creator of the Dilmah brand he coined from the names of his two sons, Dilhan and Malik, which he took to the world outside making it the best known nationally owned tea brand in Sri Lanka. As we said in a review of the book last Sunday, MJF is not the country’s biggest tea exporter but his is the best known nationally-owned brand of Ceylon tea in the tea drinking world.
During the British colonial years and the early post-Independence period, tea was our major export and foreign exchange earner. But decades ago garments overtook tea and also, remittances from blue collar workers striking out overseas to support their families back home became a reckonable factor in the country’s foreign exchange budget. Net earnings from tea, obviously, was far higher than what garments, that had by far become the country’s largest manufacturing industry fairly quickly, brought in. That was because the imported input into tea was a fraction of what the clothing factories had to import to manufacture their product. This included not only fabrics but much more. The labour was the major value adding factor in the domestic garment industry.
The major imported input into the tea industry is fertilizer. Like garments, tea growing too is a labour intensive industry. Onetime Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel who presented 10 national budget for the J.R. Jayewardene regime from 1977 to 1988 once famously said that Sri Lanka’s economy sits on a tripod of women workers – those slaving on the tea fields, working in the garment factories and venturing out as domestic servants largely to the Middle East. Never were truer words spoken. The British brought in indentured Tamil labour from India to work on their tea estates under harsh conditions because the upcountry peasantry was reluctant for various reasons to work on the plantations. These were created at tremendous environmental cost on land sold for a pittance under the infamous Waste Lands Ordinance of 1840.
This stipulated that “all forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated land was to be presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary is proved.” This resulted in the denuding of the country’s mountain slopes clothed with montane rain forests providing the sponge-like catchments for the rivers flowing through the valleys. The price paid was irreparable ecological damage to first plant coffee and then tea. The upcountry peasantry lost their common grazing land and much more to this despoliation that brought fame and fortune to British plantation owning companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Ceylon tea soon earned the reputation of being the world’s best and Merril. J. Fernando in his memorable over six decade long journey through the industry retains at age 92 a passion for the product that was the foundation of his success.
Apart from very readable accounts of his upbringing and early years covered in the book, Fernando has dwelt on the exploitation of Ceylon tea by the British whose chief focus was the bottom line. He writes that during the period of his training as a tea-taster in the UK he was greatly distressed “by the ruthless exploitation of our tea industry and its workers that took place in London.” He had developed a great respect for the British as a result of his friendship with many Brits resident her e as well as his employers who controlled much of the tea export trade. But all that was shaken when he realized what was being done in London to Ceylon tea by the British who dominated the global tea trade in Mincing Lane, “the world’s undisputed tea center controlling and manipulating the distribution and marketing of tea from grower countries.” He says that resulted in producers, especially those in Ceylon, being held to ransom adding that we were then more vulnerable to market manipulation than any other grower as about 90% of national production was being exported, a large proportion going to the UK.
A major service rendered to Ceylon tea by Merril Fernando was his resistance to efforts to make Sri Lanka a so-called ‘tea hub’ by importing cheap teas and blending them with Ceylon tea. This would have been a profitable business but at the cost of both the unique character and reputation of Ceylon tea. In the middle seventies, as result of the JVPs 1971 adventure attributed by the then rulers to land hunger, the land reform laws compelled the sale 150,000 acres of British-owned sterling estates at a price of Rs. 1,125 an acre (pounds 42 and 50 pence). It was agreed that the compensation would be “prompt, effective (meaning may be remitted) and adequate.” Payment was concluded over four years. Rather than alleviate land hunger, the plantations were vested in two monolithic state corporation, the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation and the Janatha Estates Development Board.
Despite the presence of 23 Regional Plantation Companies managing state-owned plantations leased to them in 14 regions, 70% of Sri Lanka’s tea is produced by nearly half a million smallholders mostly in the low country. Today the industry is hard-pressed for labour with the tea workers lot way below minimum norms. But the industry remains a vital segment of the Sri Lankan economy.
Fish or cut bait!
Saturday 3rd June, 2023
Long lines of vehicles were seen near filling stations yesterday as well, and it may be a couple of days before the situation is brought under control. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera has threatened tough action against the fuel stations that did not maintain adequate stocks due to speculation about fuel price reductions. But the government’s bark is worse than its bite.
Worryingly, the country is experiencing a crippling fuel shortage while the GCE O/L examination is on. About 472,500 candidates are sitting it at 3,568 centres. More than 35,000 persons, mostly teachers, are reportedly on examination duty. The government apparently has no concern for these students.
Ruling party politicians bellow rhetoric, but fuel station owners always have the last laugh, for most of them have political connections. They do not place orders for fuel if they get wind of possible downward price revisions in a bid to avoid losses but make a killing when fuel prices are increased. Thus, they have the best of both worlds at the expense of their customers, who have to grin and bear it.
The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd., would continue fuel distribution over the weekend as well, Minister Wijesekera said on Friday. The need for such measures would not have arisen if the government had acted wisely. An increase in the petroleum sector overtime bill will cost the state coffers dear, and its losses will be passed on to the public.
The government should have known better than to increase the fuel quota on the eve of price revisions, without taking steps to ensure that fuel would be freely available for a steep increase in the demand to be met. It couldn’t have been unaware that the easing of fuel rationing, and price reductions would lead to a huge increase in the demand for petrol and diesel and there would be a shortage thereof unless action was taken to meet the shortfall in the fuel supply. One can only hope that it will learn from its mistakes in dealing with the filling station owners, who are manically focussed on furthering their interests and maximising profits with no heed for the public or the economy.
It is a mistake for the government to effect fuel price revisions on a specific day every month since it cannot ensure that all filling stations maintain adequate stocks in case of price reductions. At present, fuel station owners do not have supplies replenished for days on end if they fear price decreases, and there is no one to regulate them. They are apparently guided by Rafferty’s rules or no rules at all. The cantankerous government politicians should be asked to exercise control over their restless tongues, and refrain from announcing fuel price reduction in advance.
The government ought to do everything in its power to ensure that all filling stations maintain sufficient stocks regularly, price revisions or no price revisions. It has to get tough with those who fail to do so and muster the courage to revoke their licences. It should fish or cut bait.
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