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Editorial

Monsters and Masters

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Monday 20th September, 2021

No sooner had Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando (SLFP) been arrested yesterday for trespassing on a land in Bambalapitiya recently and assaulting two security personnel guarding the property than he was given police bail. It looks as if the police had been eagerly waiting for his arrival to grant him bail! He is sure to come out with a tall tale in bid to justify his unlawful action. This is not the first time he has allegedly committed trespass. In November 2020, a video circulated on social media showed him and his men engaged in a brawl with some persons over a land dispute in Nugegoda. He sought to justify his action, and received kid glove treatment from the police.

The Rajapaksas have created quite a few monsters, who enjoy unbridled freedom to violate the law of the land. During the previous Rajapaksa government, Fernando, as the Mayor of Hambantota, tried to harm a group of UNP MPs, who visited the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport. He was shown on television, carrying a small firearm and chasing the MPs, who luckily managed to escape. He got away with his crime; his political masters claimed he had been brandishing a toy pistol! After President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, he switched his allegiance to the yahapalana government, and joined the SLFP. Thanks to an SLPP-SLFP deal, he is back in power and going berserk with impunity.

One should not lose sight of the big picture—the issue of land grabbing. Nobody’s property is safe. Organised gangs with links to powerful politicians prepare forged deeds for bare lands or unoccupied houses. The victims are helpless. Mervyn of Kelaniya was able to grab or destroy properties at will by virtue of being a member of the previous Rajapaksa government. He, too, turned his back on his political masters, nay insulted them after the latter’s fall in 2015. His criminal actions and illegally acquired assets have not been investigated although his erstwhile masters are back in power. Maybe they do not want to open a can of worms by probing his crimes. If the yahapalana government had cared to investigate him, it would have been able to uncover the crimes he had committed at the behest of his masters, but the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration did not go to that extent for obvious reasons. Former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are benefiting from the quid pro quo; the incumbent Rajapaksa government is looking after their interests as well as those of their supporters. Fernando’s release on police bail is a case in point.

Nawala Nihal, known as the God Father of Sri Lanka’s underworld, grabbed lands in Colombo, and many people had to pay him protection money. He operated freely under several governments obviously due to his political connections. Landowners in Colombo must have heaved a sigh of relief when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 2006, never to be sighted ever again. But the problem is far from over.

Land grabbing goes on in different parts of the country, and many victims are wary of having recourse to the law for fear of reprisal. Sri Lanka’s laws notoriously favour land grabbers and other such lawbreakers. Land cases drag on for decades and are prohibitively expensive. On 17 August, 2010, the then Justice Minister Athauda Seneviratne revealed in Parliament that it took as long 40 years for some land cases to be concluded!

Land racketeers also have the blessings of corrupt police officers, pettifoggers, and some venal Land Registry officials, and therefore, the victims are helpless. Greedy politicians and their thugs take advantage of this situation. There has to be a special police unit to probe complaints of land grabs expeditiously and action must be taken to have such cases heard speedily for the benefit of the hapless victims.

As for the likes of Fernando, the onus is on the current leaders to clean up the mess they themselves have created. When Mayors enjoy unbridled freedom to trespass, storm vaccination centres and obstruct health officials (in Moratuwa), destroy historical monuments (in Kurungeala), it is only natural that ministers think they should be able to commit far more serious offences with impunity such as barging into prisons and trying to execute inmates.



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Editorial

Govt. backtracks on chemical fertilizer ban

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The President and his government has swallowed some nasty stuff of their own making and finally backpedaled on what was proclaimed as an ironclad ban on the import of inorganic fertilizer. The prohibition was announced on April 26 and rescinded seven months later on Nov. 24 this year; but not without tremendous pressure by the scientific/expert lobby and widespread farmer protests. The scientists were given a platform mainly by the print media and they argued their case cogently unlike those who backed the ban. The farmer protests were both angry and near desperate and had extensive television coverage, certainly from one television station. There was no doubt that scientists and people who knew what they were talking about presented a castiron case. Some agriculture bureaucrats quit their jobs in disgust. An agriculture professor from Peradeniya, who held office in various expert committees in the agriculture ministry was sacked, or that was how his removal was described. This academic who was part of the President Gotabaya-led delegation to the recent Glasgow Climate Change COP 26 summit – after his sacking perhaps because he was already in the UK at the time of the announcement – insisted he was not an employee of the agriculture ministry to be sacked from any of its agencies.

Be that as it may, most Lankans will wonder why the president stood tenaciously by the ban, reportedly recommended by Viyathmaga and Eliya, which worked hard for his election when the anger it provoked and the dangers it posed were plainly visible. Given the massive support the Rajapaksa ticket commanded in the rural hinterland, demonstrated most recently at the presidential election of November 2019 and the parliamentary election that followed, why the president did not relent sooner than later is inexplicable. Although that has now happened after months of agitation, it was predictably done in a manner to save what face was possible. No doubt Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who had to eventually announce the policy reversal, took most of the flak. This though it is common knowledge that it was the president who was pushing the policy and the minister was no more than a loyal acolyte. But it has been remarked upon that demonstrators far preferred to burn effigies of Aluthgamage, who was the easier target, rather than those of the president and the prime minister although that too happened. Was there an element of funk to take on the bigger fish, at least as far as the president was concerned?

Most proponents of re-looking at the blanket prohibition were not opposed to a ‘green’ policy. Rather, they favored going slow on implementation, urging a step-by-step approach over a period of time. This after careful consideration of all factors involved rather than gut reaction. They stressed the blunder of attempting almost overnight imposition. Prime Minister Modi in India took longer than us to back out of his farm laws despite massive resistance. Here as well as there, there was no doubt about a presence of more than an element of political backing for and orchestration of the protests. But the responsible authorities, instead of clinging to an ironclad approach, should have paid due consideration to at least the physical evidence of the effects of blanket bans on both inorganic fertilizer and weedicides and pesticides. There’s no denying that the latter, apart from bad weather, played a part in the fall of vegetable production and consequent sky high prices. The government did itself no credit by attributing motives to opponents of the chemical fertilizer ban. It was alleged that one of them represented interests of fertilizer importers by sitting on the board of an importing company. True, but with the permission of the University employing him. It was also widely hinted that others were in the pay of such companies.

There is also the matter of the widely prevalent trust deficit between the people and the political establishment governing them. Sad but true, most people do not trust politicians regarding them to be corrupt, self-serving and taking decisions in their own personal and political interests disregarding vital national imperatives. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, most recently by the president himself, that the voters as we have often seen, re-elect those they have outright rejected. Then again the question of subsidies arise. The president is on firm record saying that the import of chemical fertilizer will be a private sector monopoly. The government has washed its hands of the business. But he has not explained how privately imported fertilizer is permissible on environmental considerations if government imports are not. He has also made clear there will be no subsidies for chemical fertilizers. The prices of these have hit record highs in the third quarter of 2021 and continued rising in November reaching levels unseen since the global financial crisis.

Our farmers have long enjoyed fertilizer subsidies and would clearly be unable to afford unsubsidized chemical fertilizers. Mr. Sajith Premadasa has made this point already after the government announcement on the import ban being lifted punching in the fact that the present rulers promised not subsidized but free fertilizer pre-election! Apart from the tilt towards organic fertilizers, government will not be able to afford many subsidies in the context of the present economic/forex picture. So there will be no return to square one. Regular columnist Rajan Philips has on this page said that the beginning of the end of the regime has begun but no there does not seem to be a new beginning for the country even if there is a change of government after elections. That seems to be a reasonable conclusion in the current context.

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Editorial

Stench of rotten fish

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Saturday 27th November, 2021

Members of Parliament consider themselves a special class, and jealously guard their privileges. Living off the public, they want first dibs on everything. But most of them do not even care to behave properly inside Parliament, much less debate matters of national importance or carry out other legislative duties and functions in a civilised manner; their conduct is so appalling that teachers are wary of taking schoolchildren to the parliament gallery when the House is in session. In what could be considered the latest incident that has brought the national legislature into disrepute, an SLPP MP—Tissa Kuttiarachchi— has insulted women including SJB MP Rohini Wijeratne, in a recent speech in Parliament. The Opposition has been calling for action against him. He however is not the only one who has affronted women in this shameful manner; there are many others of his ilk.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, former President Maithripala Sirisena, and other leaders of the ruling SLPP must be ashamed of accommodating a bunch of misogynists in their coalition government. Similarly, let the holier-than-thou male MPs of the Opposition be reminded of something MP Rohini Wijeratne told this newspaper in response to a query we made, a few months ago, about the verbal sexual harassment of female lawmakers; she said some sickos in the garb of MPs on both sides of the House insulted women. So, if the male Opposition MPs think they can dupe the public into believing they are true sisters under the skin by wearing ‘orange armbands’ and shouting slogans in support of women, in the House, they are mistaken.

It is not only in Parliament that female representatives undergo sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. We have pointed out, several times, quoting female members of local government institutions that their male counterparts do not allow them to speak during council sessions; jeers, catcalls and even sexist remarks greet them whenever they stand up to speak, they complain. The Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus (WPC) should have taken up cudgels for the rights of women in Provincial Councils and local government institutions as well.

It is women’s tears and sweat that fuel the national economy. Women slave away on estates, in garment factories and in West Asia to earn dollars for the country, but they are not even properly represented in Parliament or other political institutions although they account for more than one half of the country’s population. There must be at least 113 female MPs in the current Parliament, but sadly there are only 12 women in the House.

If the male MPs really feel for the Sri Lankan women, they must stop stealing and wasting public funds and make adequate budgetary allocations for women’s welfare, and bring in tough laws to safeguard the rights of female citizens who face harassment almost everywhere, especially at workplaces and in trains and buses. There has been an increase in incidents of domestic violence against women and girls during recent years. If women are not free from harassment in Parliament, how helpless they are elsewhere goes without saying. A fish, as we keep saying in this space, rots from the head down.

Leading the women’s right campaign from the front in Parliament is former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has recently lashed out at the government MPs who insult their female counterparts, and demanded that State Minister Dr. Sudharshani Fernandopulle, who chairs the WPC, be vested with powers to deal with woman-haters who make a nuisance of themselves in the House. One could not agree with him more on this score, but will he explain why he once had as his trusted lieutenant a convicted rapist—Gonawala Sunil—who was given a presidential pardon by the late President J. R. Jayewardene and made a Justice of the Peace? President Mahinda Rajapaksa pardoned a female murder convict serving the death sentence for killing a woman in the most barbaric manner. President Maithripala Sirisena gave a presidential pardon to a man sentenced to death for killing a girl in 2005. The TNA politicians had no qualms about supporting Prabhakaran and recognising him as the sole representative of the Tamils while he was abducting girls in the North and the East and turning them into cannon fodder and human bombs. Some of these politicians commemorate the dead LTTE leaders. So, the question is how wise it is to expect present-day male politicians to help protect the rights of women and girls.

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Editorial

Zahran’s cousins?

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Friday 26th November, 2021

One may wonder whether those who run gas companies are the cousins of Zahran, the savage, who organised the Easter Sunday explosions if what has been reported of their products is anything to go by. Zahran and his fellow terrorists blasted three churches and three hotels, killing more than 270 others, in 2019. His fat-cat cousins in the gas business, as it were, are certainly not terrorists on a suicidal mission, but they are likely to cause an explosion in every house and every hotel, where their products are used, we are told. Several explosions caused by cooking gas have been reported from different parts of the country during the past few weeks. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse unless remedial action is taken urgently, former Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Thushan Gunawardena has warned.

Gunawardena, a whistle-blower in distress, has gone on record as saying that the butane-propane ratio in the gas sold here has been arbitrarily changed, and the current mix is not suitable for a tropical climate. It has been reported that he consulted international specialists in the field and wrote a letter, based on their advice, to Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena, a few moons ago, calling for action, but in vain.

Litro Gas Lanka Ltd., has rejected Gunawardena’s allegation, claiming that there has been no change in the butane-propane ratio in the gas it sells. Its production process conforms to internationally accepted standards, it has said.

The public must be really confused. The former CAA Executive Director tells them domestic gas cylinders are potential bombs, and the gas company officials insist that there is no such danger. Will Litro reveal the percentages of butane and propane in its cylinders at present, and what they were a few years ago?

Zahran and his fellow terrorists were able to carry out the Easter Sunday bomb attacks because the then government did not heed the warnings of impending explosions. A foreign intelligence outfit provided all necessary information about Zahran and even his targets in advance, but nobody gave a tinker’s cuss about it. A warning has been given that there is the danger of more gas cylinder explosions, and it too has gone unheeded.

Going by Gunawardena’s letter to the Trade Minister, perhaps Prabhakaran and Zahran would not have taken the trouble of training their suicide cadres and planning bomb attacks on civilian targets if they had been aware that the butane-propane ratio in cooking gas would be changed; they would have left the task of blasting civilian targets to gas companies.

The present-day leaders never miss an opportunity to glory in having ended the country’s war on terror, during which the parents of a family did not travel together lest their children should be orphaned in case of a bomb blast killing both of them. But, today, mothers must be scared of stepping into their kitchens because of the gas cylinders.

Seeking the views of gas company officials about the safety of their products is like asking for the help of a female clairvoyant to catch a thief who happens to be her own son, as a local saying goes. Let the government be urged to order a thorough probe into former CAA Executive Director Gunawardena’s dire warning and take immediate action to ensure the safety of gas consumers if the gas companies have effected any changes to the composition of cooking gas.

It will be a mistake for the government to have the whistle-blower harassed again instead of acting on his warning. We are not short of independent, civic-minded experts, and it is hoped that they will care to analyze the cooking gas available here and tell the public whether it is safe.

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