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Editorial

Minister in china shop, and big ego trips

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Friday 7th May, 2021

Most government politicians are in the news, always for the wrong reasons. Minister Gamini Lokuge has not only endangered the lives of people but also caused what remains of the government’ popularity to plummet further by having Covid-19 travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area arbitrarily lifted recently. We thought the 20th Amendment to the Constitution would restore the dictatorial powers of only the Executive President, but it looks as if it had led to the emergence of dictators at the provincial level as well. These self-important politicians who countermand vital decisions of health professionals tasked with controlling the pandemic must be kept on a tight leash.

Close on the heels of Minister Lokuge’s high-handed action came a government announcement that the Cabinet had approved a proposal for setting up a large number of gyms countrywide. One wonders whether the ruling politicians have taken leave of their senses.

There is no gainsaying that physical fitness goes a long way towards warding off diseases and battling them. Not everyone can afford modern gym facilities and coaching, and the public will gain tremendously if they could be made available free or charge. Public walking tracks and recreational parks built under the previous Rajapaksa administration have stood the ordinary people in good stead. But the government must get its expenditure priorities right at this hour of crisis.

There is a pressing need to rationalise state expenditure on account of the current national health crisis; projects that can wait must be put on hold immediately. The country must remain maniacally focused on beating the runaway virus, which has brought even the developed world to its knees.

The government has sought to justify its irrational spending by claiming that it has allocated enough funds for the fight against Covid-19, but the truth is otherwise. The country is without enough PCR machines to detect infections, and genome sequencing equipment to identify new variants of the virus. The number of PCR tests conducted daily remains woefully low.

Aggressive testing is a prerequisite for curbing the spread of the pandemic. The state hospital network is under severe strain, and all pandemic treatment centres are bursting at the seams. The procurement of vaccines has become a problem. The poor are crying out for relief. This situation has come about mostly due to lack of funds.

Ideally, the country should go into another round of lockdowns if the rapid tranmission of the virus is to be halted and the number of infections brought down to a manageable level, as public health experts argue. But the government is wary of adopting this method, given the heavy socio-economic costs it entails; if the country is to remain open safely, there are some essential facilities that must be provided to the public.

The public transport sector should be given priority. The Covid-19 health regulations require the number of passengers in buses and trains to be drastically reduced so that physical distancing could be maintained. But there are not enough buses and trains, and the available ones are overcrowded. Private buses cannot be expected to run at a loss, and, in fact, it is not fair to force them do so. The government has to step in to solve this problem, but the fleet of state-owned bus service alone cannot cater to the demand. Everybody realises the value of the Sri Lanka Transport Board during crisis situations, but nobody cares to do anything to develop it. Thus, instead of procuring new aircraft and fitness equipment, the government ought to purchase buses to enable workers to commute safely so that the economy will not contract further.

There has emerged a pressing need for more ambulances for Suwaseriya, which has proved to be a huge success. Sri Lankans must be grateful to India, which made this service a reality, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP, who fought quite a battle to set it up, under the previous government, amidst unfair criticism from those who are currently in power. The procurement of more ambulances to transport the sick ought to take precedence over that of fitness centres and choppers.

The government keeps faulting the public for lack of co-operation to beat the virus. True, people have to follow the Covid-19 protocol without leaving the task of battling the pandemic entirely to the health authorities. The government must also act responsibly; it must get its expenditure priorities right instead of embarking on ego-boosting projects, and rein in its unruly politicians who have become a nuisance to the public as well as health professionals.



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Editorial

Of that mystery boat

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Tuesday 15th June, 2021

Time was when Sri Lanka remained on high alert to prevent the movement of armed groups from Tamil Nadu, a haven for terrorists who brought boatloads of arms and ammunition here. It has now been reported that Tamil Nadu is worrying about such a security threat from this side of the Palk Strait; its police and the Indian Central intelligence agencies have reportedly been placed on the highest alert level following a warning that some armed persons from Sri Lanka are trying to enter India via the sea. Search operations are being conducted in several cities in Tamil Nadu and road blocks have been set up, we are told. Kerala is also reported to have adopted similar measures in view of the threat. However, the identities of the suspected infiltrators are not known, and they had not been intercepted or sighted at the time of going to press.

It is not clear from what has been reported of the security threat at issue whether the armed persons are from a terror group, or any other criminal outfit. Gunrunning and drug smuggling between India and Sri Lanka have been going on despite attempts by the two countries to stop them, but what has prompted Tamil Nadu to go on red alert cannot be a boat carrying weapons or drugs with some armed smugglers aboard; it is believed to be a boatload of armed persons presumably intent on carrying out an attack on Indian soil. This is a very serious situation that warrants a high-level probe here as well.

Sri Lankan underworld figures flee to India when the police close in on them here. Some of them have been arrested in India. Drug dealer and contract killer, Maddumage Lasantha Chandana Perera, alias Angoda Lokka, who fled Sri Lanka, fearing his capture, is believed to have died while hiding in India, last year. But such characters usually do not carry weapons while fleeing in boats; they travel disguised as fishers, and make good their escape in most cases. They have links to their counterparts in India, where they have protection, and therefore do not take the trouble of moving their weapons in boats and run the risk of being captured. Some attempts by the LTTE rump to smuggle explosive devices to this country have been foiled in South India since the end of the Vanni war, but there have been no reports of former Tigers trying to infiltrate India. Drug smugglers also do not carry weapons when they cross the Palk Strait; their operations are far more sophisticated.

So, who are the armed persons trying to reach India by boat? Are they members of a foreign terror group using Sri Lanka as a transit point? Some years ago, the Indian intelligence warned of the possibility of such terrorist operations. But what could such a foreign terror outfit achieve by sending a single boatload of armed cadres to India unless its goal is to carry out a one-off attack like the Easter Sunday carnage? Such a mission involves extremely high risks because it requires the movement of terrorists through Sri Lanka, where intelligence outfits have been on high alert since the Easter Sunday attacks, and the Sri Lankan Navy has also gone into overdrive to prevent illegal immigrants from India in view of the pandemic. It is doubtful whether any organised terror group will take unnecessary risks particularly at this juncture.

Sri Lanka’s reaction to the infiltration threat in question was not immediately known. Maybe, an investigation has already got underway here, and information thereof has not been disclosed. Everything possible must be done to get to the bottom of it. One hopes that both India and Sri Lanka will go flat out to catch the armed group, if any, trace the source of threat and do everything in their power to neutralise it forthwith.

The reported security threat to India ought to make the Sri Lankan authorities redouble their counterterror efforts without leaving anything to chance. There could be more to it than meets the eye. The previous government chose to ignore a warning in 2019, and the price the country paid for that blunder was huge.

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Editorial

Govt. vs Govt.

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Monday 14th June, 2021

It never rains but it pours. There is no end in sight to the various shocks the public frequently receives from the government. The Covid-19 pandemic is ripping through the country, destroying scores of lives daily. The inoculation programme is moving at a tardy pace as there is no steady supply of vaccines. Travel restrictions are causing hardships to the public and hurting the economy badly but have not yielded the desired results. The poor are asking for food and farmers fertiliser. Atop all these have come fuel price increases, which are bound to send the cost of living into the stratosphere.

Bakery owners have already decided to increase the prices of certain products. Private bus owners, cab operators and the trishaw fraternity will follow suit, and life will become even more unbearable to most people.

The fuel price hikes have made the ruling SLPP coalition look like MV X-Press Pearl, which had a nitric acid leak on board and was burnt out. A caustic remark made by SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has triggered an explosion aboard the ship of government, as it were. No sooner had Minster of Energy Udaya Gammanpila announced the fuel price increases, claiming that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) was incurring heavy losses due to the world market oil price increases than Kariyawasam fired from the hip; he issued a stinging media statement flaying Gammanpila, and demanding to know whether the price hikes were aimed at bringing the government leaders into disrepute; he even asked Gammanpila to resign.

Kariyawasam sought to have the public believe that Gammanpila had done something high-handed. But we reported a few days ago that the government was planning fuel price increases. However, if one goes by the SLPP General Secretary’s statement, then one may wonder if Gammanpila is so powerful in the government as to revise fuel prices himself? But the truth is otherwise. The Energy Minister alone cannot jack up fuel prices or bring them down without the consent of the President and the Prime Minister. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Cost of Living also has a say in such matters.

Gammanpila struck back yesterday; he insisted that he had only announced a government decision, and the uncomplimentary remarks Kariyawasam had made in the aforesaid statement applied to both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa! Several ministers have also sought to justify the oil price increases. Curiouser and curiouser! Is it that they are also party to Gammanpila’s ‘conspiracy’ to make the government leaders unpopular?

If the SLPP really thinks Minister Gammanpila alone is responsible for the fuel price hikes, then there is a simple remedy. The government can swiftly undo what he has done. If it thinks it can get away with the price hikes at issue by laying the blame for it at Gammanpila’s door, it is mistaken.

The SLPP General Secretary’s statement flaying Gammanpila is proof of the ruling coalition’s internal problems. The SLPP is apparently doing to its coalition partners what the SLFP, in its wisdom, did to its United Front allies in mid-1970s. Some SLPP leaders are apparently trying to settle political scores with Gammanpila, who is critical of them. A few moons ago, Kariyawasam took on Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who has antagonised some SLPP grandees.

It was only the other day that the government MPs gloated over the SJB’s internal problems and tried to embarrass the Opposition, in Parliament. They expect UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as a National List MP to create a division in the SJB. But the fact remains that the SLPP, which is magnifying others’ problems, is far from united; and a scenario similar to what we witnessed towards the latter stages of the previous Rajapaksa government in 2014 seems to be playing out.

The SLPP seems to think the masses are asses. Otherwise, it will not try to dupe the public into believing that the government had no hand in the fuel price hikes, and Gammanpila arbitrarily effected them unbeknownst to his bosses. Now that it has come to light that the decision to jack up fuel prices was taken by the Cabinet, the entire government must resign in keeping with the SLPP General Secretary’s argument that anyone responsible for placing another economic burden on the pandemic-hit people has to go.

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Editorial

Aftermath of X-Press Pearl

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The recovery of the voyage data recorder (VDR) of the dangerous cargo laden container ship, X-Press Pearl, the burning and subsequent sinking of which caused this country an unprecedented and unimaginable environmental disaster may help ongoing investigations to establish where culpability for alleged negligence or irresponsibility lie. The VDR is the equivalent on a ship of the ‘black box’ voice and data recorder in the cockpit of an aircraft vital for investigation of a plane crash. Fortunately, merchant shipping authorities, assisted by the navy, were able to recover this instrument, from the bridge of the now submerged vessel. It is now available for analysis and a court order has already been made to begin this process.

But there have been reports that because there had been little, if any, navigation on the bridge since the ship’s crew was evacuated from the vessel on May 25, the VDR may not have recorded substantial new information about recent events on board. Nevertheless it provides an added resource for investigation of the disaster.

The matter that is most in contention at the time this is being in written is whether ship’s local agent had deleted email communications between the vessel and himself as has been alleged. The fact that there was a leak in a container of nitric acid on board the ship has been known several days before the vessel anchored in Colombo’s outer harbor. The vessel had in fact attempted to off load the leaking container at two other ports, one in the Middle East and the other in India. Hamad in Qatar said it did not accept transshipment containers while Hazira in India had pleaded lack of facilities.

If the port authorities here knew of the problem well in advance, it would most likely have permitted priority berthing to deal with the emergency. The Chinese-run CICT (China International Container Terminals) controlled by China Merchant Port Holdings, one of the world’s largest port operators, with state-of-the-art equipment, would well have been able to handle the task. This is what the head of the Ceylon Association of Steamer Agents said in a recent television interview.

But from the narrative now in the public domain, it appears that the port authorities here had not been informed of the problem when the ship entered anchorage on the night of May 19 although the local agent had the information. How true or not that is remains to be established. If emails have been deleted as alleged, it will be possible to retrieve them through the ship’s server and this has been ordered.

Events had subsequently unfolded rapidly. First a fire on hold number two was reported but Colombo was told that the fire fighting capability on board had dealt with it. Thereafter the fire reignited and winds blowing at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour fanned the flames. The massive effort mobilizing all available resources, including air support and fire fighting tugboats, to bring the blaze under control failed dismally.

According to international safety requirements, no dangerous cargo can be stored below deck and the nitric acid containers could not have been in the hold where the first fire was reported. Whether the leaking acid triggered the fire below remains an open question.

On top of all else, it is feared that we at risk of a massive oil spill as we stagger under the Covid pandemic Whether that will come to pass has not been made clear as this comment is being written. But we have to be prepared for the worst even with the limited resources we command. International assistance that will always be available to combat a catastrophe as big as this has already been mobilized. An Indian ship equipped for such emergencies is on standby at the scene.

The stricken vessel is reported to have been carrying about 350 tonnes of fuel on board when she arrived at the Colombo anchorage. The optimistic assessment, not yet confirmed, is that much of this would have been burnt in the massive fire that raged aboard before the ship began to sink. But pictures of what appeared to be an oil slick were beamed by at least one local television station that sent a crew to cover the sinking ship. Hopefully much of the fuel oil, if not all of it, has been destroyed in the fire.

The X-press Pearl was carrying among other cargo a large volume of plastic pellets, raw material for the plastic industry, some of which was consigned to Colombo, among other cargo like chemicals and cosmetics. Billions of these pellets have been washed ashore on our beaches and many more would yet be in the sea. Beach clearing operations have begun but how effective they would be even in the short and medium term is yet to be seen.

Dead sea creatures including turtles are being washed ashore and marine environmentalists predict vast damage that can extend to a hundred years. Fishermen fear for their livelihood. What would polluted beaches do to out tourist industry? It is unlikely that even if we are compensated in billions by insurers, as is being freely claimed, that this country can never again be what it was before the disaster. There is no escaping the reality that a long tough haul lies ahead.

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