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Editorial

Muck, bucks and impunity – II

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Wednesday 30th December, 2020

Importers who find themselves on the wrong side of the law have to face legal action. Most of them have to pay heavy fines. But, strangely, those who imported hazardous foreign waste have gone scot free to all intents and purposes. Only 21 out of 263 shipping containers of British garbage including hospital waste, brought here in 2018 and 2019 have been shipped back to the UK.

Legal action has not yet been taken against the importers of British waste, according to a news item in yesterday’s edition of this newspaper, quoting Director of the Sri Lanka Customs Sunil Jayaratne. He has claimed that COVID-19 has delayed the investigation, and the police will be called in to assist the Customs in conducting the probe.

The Customs, no doubt, deserve praise for refusing to release the containers of foreign rubbish. But, why they have not taken legal action against the errant importers of rubbish is the question. The pandemic cannot be blamed for the delay in the investigation into the foreign waste imports. The law becomes a sparrow when offenders happen to be Opposition politicians or activists; it is a snail when the transgressors happen to be moneybags with links to the powers that be. The signs are that the waste importers are trying to derail the probe.

The police have earned notoriety for being a pliable tool in the hands of the politicians in power. They conduct most investigations at a politically determined pace and invariably baulk at taking action against those shielded by the ruling party. Thus, it is doubtful whether they will act independently and help institute legal action against the importers of foreign waste.

The Central Environmental Authority (CEA), too, has also not taken action against the company that imported British waste. Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, contacted by this newspaper for comment, has trotted out some lame excuses and promised action. He has evinced a keen interest in protecting the environment and cannot be held responsible for the waste imports under the previous government, but has to ensure that the CEA carries out its duties and functions properly.

The failure on the part of the Customs and the CEA to take action against the importers of British garbage may have emboldened others to import agricultural waste from Ukraine. At this rate, there will be no end to waste imports.

Issues crop up at such a pace in this country that neither the public nor the media can keep track of them properly. New issues eclipse old ones, which cease to interest anyone with the passage of time. It looks as if the consignment of hazardous foreign waste is being kept at the Colombo Port until the issue fades into oblivion so that it can be taken out and disposed of. Or, perhaps, the waste may disappear with empty containers sitting in the port premises. Anything is possible in this country. Time was when a prominent politician was accused of having swallowed a ship whole under the JRJ government. Lamborghinis that used to roar down the city streets disappeared into thin air following the 2015 regime change. The yahapalana government even carried out excavations in some parts of the country in search of those expensive cars, but in vain. So, the possibility of the British and Ukrainian waste disappearing in a similar manner cannot be ruled out.

Environmentalists and the media should take up the foreign waste issue again and flog it hard to crank up pressure on the Customs and the CEA to take legal action against the culprits expeditiously.

The incumbent government bellows its one-country-one-law slogan to the point of queasiness, but the importers of hazardous waste remain above the law for all practical purposes.



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Editorial

When Americans bear gifts

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Ambassador Mahinda Samarasinghe has had an audience with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office itself. They are reported to have discussed matters of bilateral interest, and the US has pledged to help Sri Lanka. No sooner had the duo met than a high-level delegation representing the US Department of State and the US Department of Treasury flew to Colombo. The members of the delegation include Robert Kaproth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Asia, and Ambassador Kelly Keiderling, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, according to the US Embassy in Colombo. Why is this flurry of diplomatic activity?

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis cannot be the sole reason why President Biden granted an audience to Ambassador Samarasinghe. The US government says its officials will ‘explore the most effective ways for the US to support Sri Lankans in need, Sri Lankans working to resolve the current economic crisis, and Sri Lankans planning for a sustainable and inclusive economy for the future’. They may do so, but it cannot be altruism that has made them fly all the way here. What’s up Uncle Sam’s sleeve?

Speculation is rife in diplomatic circles that Washington has resumed efforts to get Colombo to sign SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). About two years ago, the US decided to terminate an offer of USD 480 million as development assistance under the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCCC) when Sri Lanka turned it down on the recommendations of a special committee President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed to look into it. Prof. Lalithsiri Gunaruwan, who headed the four-member committee, told this newspaper in December 2020 that the MCCC, if signed, would undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The committee report said that although the US compact was categorised as a development programme, if coupled with ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) and SOFA, it could pose a threat to Sri Lanka. It is against this backdrop that Washington’s renewed interest in supporting Sri Lanka at this juncture should be viewed.

It is being argued in some quarters that the perpetuation of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is advantageous to the western bloc bent on taming China, which has Sri Lankan leaders on a string, and that may be the reason why Colombo is not receiving any more financial assistance for fuel imports. The fuel crisis is making Sri Lanka’s economy scream and people riot. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was expecting an extension of the Indian credit line for fuel imports, but its hopes have been dashed; it is now willing to do anything for a few million dollars.

Any port in a storm, as they say, and given its sheer desperation for dollars, Sri Lanka may choose to sign any agreement if there is forex in it. It is a case of Hobson’s choice for Colombo thanks to the Rajapaksas, who ruined the economy. The western bloc accused the Chinese of having made Sri Lanka cough up a port by goading it into a debt trap. The country is now apparently in an aid trap, and at this rate it may be left with no alternative but to sign SOFA. One may recall that Ambassador Samarasinghe, who was seen at the White House, the other day, was the Minister of Ports when the Hambantota harbour lease agreement, which was favourable to China, was inked!

The unfolding events lend credence to the Opposition’s claim that the Rajapaksa government systematically ruined the economy and created conditions for the country to become increasingly dependent on the rivals of China, especially the QUAD members, and do their bidding. The opponents of this argument will have a hard time explaining why Basil Rajapaksa, as the Finance Minister, did not care to manage the country’s foreign currency reserves and seek IMF assistance. He even skipped parliamentary sessions after presenting Budget 2022, and did not meet the Central Bank bigwigs for months, according to media reports. He just looked on while the economy was getting into a tailspin, and today a fire sale of Sri Lanka’s strategic assets is on. Maybe he considers his missions accomplished, as his political rivals say.

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Editorial

National List: convenient for political parties, gravy for those appointed

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Business tycoon Dhammika Perera’s swearing last week as a National List MP of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) evoked a great deal of interest for a number of self-evident reasons. Among these was that fact that he has publicly claimed to be the country’s biggest taxpayer. This has been seen on youtube by hundreds of thousands of viewers. Whether Perera claimed this in his personal capacity or whether it included the companies he controls – and there are a great many of them both listed and unlisted – has not been clarified. Apart from that claim, it is very well known that he is a major shareholder in a clutch of listed companies including the Hayleys conglomerate, the thriving ceramics sector (Royal Ceramics, Lanka Tiles, Lanka Walltiles etc), his own Vallibel Group together with LB Finance, one of the country’s biggest finance companies. He also owns significant stakes in the banking sector. On top of that are his interests in the gambling industry in which the foundation of his fortune lies.

The SLPP’s decision to nominate Perera to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of ruling clan sibling, Basil Rajapaksa, was challenged in the Supreme Court by the Center for Policy Alternatives and some other petitioners. They included a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Chandra Jayaratne, who has post-retirement been a vigorous public interest activist. As many as five fundamental rights actions challenging Perera’s appointment were filed after his appointment was gazetted by the Elections Commission. Last Monday he undertook before a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court that he would not take his oaths as a Member of Parliament until the court had reached a determination on the actions before it. The court ruled in Perera’s favour by a divided decision. He is now an MP and likely to take a cabinet seat in a new Ministry of Technology and Investment Promotion created for him. Many subjects, previously covered by the President, have been assigned to this ministry.

Perera has not been sworn a minister at the time this commentary is being written. He has been quoted in the media saying that he expects a “suitable ministry” saying that he headed by Board of Investment during civil war – he was also Secretary Transport under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency – and that he was confident of providing solutions during the current crisis as well. The NewsWire website quoted him saying “at a time when people are losing jobs, I have entered Parliament to create job opportunities.” Whether an appeal is possible against the determination of the Supreme Court, generally considered as final, is still an open question. It has been speculated whether the petitioners will seek a hearing by a fuller bench in the light of their success in convincing one of three judges may be pursued. For this to be possible, the order made in Perera’s favour must be studied. The word on Friday was that this had not yet been done and requires further examination once the court order, dictated on the bench, is available.

However that be, questions now arise on the value of the 30 MPs appointed to Parliament on the National Lists of the various parties running for election. During the early post-Independence years, then Ceylon had six Appointed MPs to represent “unrepresented interests” in the 101-Member Legislature. Under this arrangement, MPs were appointed from communities like the so-called ‘estate Tamils’ disenfranchised by the first Parliament, Burghers, Malays and even British interests of that time. Older readers may remember that Mrs. Bandaranaike appointed the well known paediatrician, Dr. L.O. Abeyratne to Parliament to represent the country’s children. Previously, Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike appointed Mr. Asoka Karunaratne on a caste basis. All that, of course, is now water under the bridge. Today we have as many as 30 National List MPs and it would be difficult, with the exception of Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, to find anybody who had adorned parliamentary benches in a National List capacity. The existence of these positions have almost exclusively served narrow interests of political parties and their leaders.

The primary ground of the challenge on Dhammika Perera’ s appointment lies in article 99A of the Constitution. This says that the Commissioner of Elections shall by notice requite the secretary of a recognized political party or an independent group that secures National List places at a general election to nominate persons to be appointed (being persons whose names are included in the list submitted to the Commissioner of Elections under this Article or any other nomination paper submitted in respect of any electoral district by such party or group at that election) to fill such seats and shall declare elected as Members of Parliament the persons so nominated. (Emphasis added). Dhammika Perera does not belong to either such category. The Island editorially commented last Thursday (June 23) that there is a serious discrepancy between a section of the Parliamentary Election Act No. 1 of 1981 and some provisions of the Constitution governing National List appointments. These have been permitted to long continue.

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka entered Parliament on the UNP National List having run for election under the banner of another party. Mr. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who subsequently served as prime minister, entered Parliament on a UPFA National List slot without his name being on that party’s National or any other nomination paper, filling a vacancy created by a resignation. This was challenged (also by the CPA) but not taken up by the Sarath Silva Supreme Court for three years and was eventually withdrawn. There is no escaping the conclusion that the National List serves as an instrument of convenience for political parties and a source of gravy for those appointed under it. Should it continue?

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Editorial

Failure feeds fuel crisis

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Saturday 25th June, 2022

People continue to drop dead in fuel queues, which are getting longer by the day. The number of hours people spend in long lines to obtain fuel averages 48, we are told, and there have been reports of people spending four to five days at a stretch near some filling stations.

The only thing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera are apparently capable of doing efficiently is jacking up fuel prices besides issuing grim warnings. A ship carrying petrol was to reach Colombo on Thursday but its arrival was delayed until Friday. If what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said in Parliament, the other day, is any indication, then another massive fuel price hike is in the pipeline. So, it is only natural that people think the delivery of the petrol shipment was delayed purposely until the next price increase so that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation could make a killing while people are dying in fuel queues.

Minister Wijesekera is all at sea with the management of the two vital sectors under his purview. He does not seem to be doing anything at all to manage the power and fuel crises. He only issues twitter messages, and says so little in so many words. The prevailing foreign currency crunch is the root cause of the fuel crisis. But no serious attempt has been made to manage the available fuel stocks. There’s the rub. Untold hardships people are facing could be mitigated to a considerable extent if fuel is properly rationed, and racketeers are kept at bay.

The odd-even rationing method is adopted in other parts of the world during fuel crises; it enables everyone to obtain a fixed amount of fuel every other day without languishing in endless queues. A rationing system must be simple and efficient for it to be effective and acceptable to the public.

Perhaps, there is more oil in cans and barrels than in fuel tanks of vehicles in this country. Most people stock up on diesel and petrol for personal use. Racketeers are hoarding fuel and selling it on the black market. They wait in queues, obtain fuel, empty it into cans, and then line up again near the same filling stations or elsewhere. The police are making a half-hearted attempt to nab fuel hoarders, and some of their raids have yielded barrels of fuel hidden in houses and business places. Raids must be stepped up. If attractive rewards are offered, people will readily provide information about the racketeers who sell fuel illegally at exorbitant prices.

The fuel crisis has had a crippling impact on all vital sectors. Hospitals, schools, and all other institutions, both public and private, are facing the threat of closure, but the government is trying band-aid solutions.

Thankfully, there have been no major incidents of violence for the past few weeks, but an eerie atmosphere has descended on the country, and it is like the calm before the storm. Last month’s spate of violence could be considered the first wave of a tsunami of public anger; we can see the signs of a second wave forming. There has been a let-up of sorts in protests recently and the government leaders seem to have been lulled into a false sense of security, as a result. Basil Rajapaksa is said to be trying to reorganise the SLPP. Other members of the Rajapaksa family have also crawled out of the woodwork; Namal was seen at a recent press briefing given by Minister Wijesekera, whom the Rajapaksa family has on a string. The government worthies who have incurred the wrath of the public never learn from their blunders. Let them be warned that the occurrence of the second tsunami wave of public indignation is only a matter of time, and its landfall will be far more devastating than the cumulative impact of previous social and political upheavals that shook the country.It is high time someone capable of strategic thinking was appointed the Minister of Power and Energy to defuse tension and prevent the country from being plunged into chaos.

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