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?
The brainless and brain drain
Friday 29th September, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government continues to be at loggerheads with irate professionals, who are demanding solutions to their problems. Many of them have already left the country never to return thanks to the government’s callous disregard for their grievances.
University teachers staged a protest in Colombo the other day in a bid to jolt the government into addressing the various issues that affect the education sector, but it is doubtful whether they succeeded in their endeavour. Instead of heeding the voice of the educated Sri Lankans on the warpath, the government has chosen to unleash its propaganda hounds on them.
One of the main issues that drive resentful professionals to street protests is the unbearable personal taxes. They have made it abundantly clear that they are not refusing to pay taxes; they are only demanding some relief, given the unexpected circumstances that have left them struggling to make ends meet. They are also demanding that the country’s tax revenue be properly utilised.
The government does not care to curtail the waste of state resources, as can be seen from the sheer number of politicians and officials junketing overseas at the expense of the public. Why should millions of dollars be spent on their pleasure trips which are made out to be official visits? The Health Ministry has become a metaphor for corruption, but the government continues to defend the Health Minister and corrupt officials. The same goes for all other ministries.
The government is sure to use the IMF’s recent statement that Sri Lanka’s tax revenue is very low to justify its refusal to grant any relief to the protesting professionals. But if it streamlines tax collection, it may be able to increase its tax revenue without squeezing the fixed-income earners dry.
Parliament has reportedly decided to take up the multi-faceted problem of brain drain for debate––at last. The fact that it has not already had an extensive discussion on brain drain, much less striven to find a solution thereto, is proof of the appallingly low priority it has assigned to this vital issue, which will have a bearing on the country’s future.
Regrettably, some government members do not seem to have realised the gravity of brain drain. If their unintelligent utterances in Parliament are anything to go by, they are labouring under the misconception that the exodus of Sri Lankan professionals is not something bad; they have said it will help boost the country’s inward remittances! They have mistakenly equated the mass emigration of the country’s best brains for good with the migration of unskilled workers. Figuring out the gravity of a problem is half the battle in finding a solution.
The worst that can happen to a country is for its educated youth to think they have no future at home, for their disillusionment manifests itself in brain drain, reduced innovation and socio-political unrest. True, brain drain is a global phenomenon that affects all countries to varying degrees, but it becomes a crisis when it assumes exodus proportions, as has been Sri Lanka’s experience. The ever-increasing human capital flight, which has adversely impacted all sectors here, is bound to make the task of resolving the country’s economic crisis even more uphill.
The task of having a comprehensive debate on so complex an issue as brain drain, with emphasis on its causes, consequences and a potential solution, requires brains.
What the so-called people’s representatives on both sides of the House, maintained with public funds, ought to do is to have a decent debate on the issue, confess collectively to having ruined the economy, show some remorse for their wrongful actions and dereliction of duty, resolve to avoid their past mistakes and make a concerted effort to sort out the economy.
If they are going to play the blame game once again, resort to slanging matches replete with invectives and raw filth, and drag one another’s names through the mud, as they often do, they might as well forget about the debate they are scheduled to have on brain drain.
Stats, confusion and contradictions
Thursday 28th September, 2023
Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera is reported to have said at a conference held by the Finance Ministry, on Tuesday (26), that there are more than 4,000 vacancies in the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). According to media reports quoting him, the vacancies at the CEB and the CPC number 1,192 and 3,000, respectively. He is said to have added, in the same breath, that both institutions can manage with the current workforce; his statement must have struck a responsive chord with the public, who must not be made to pay through the nose to maintain overstaffed, inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Minister Wijesekera has left us puzzled, though. In August 2022, he tweeted that there were basically eight reasons for losses incurred by the CPC, and one of them was that it was overstaffed and inefficient, and its workers were overpaid. He reportedly said in a separate tweet that 500 workers could manage the work done by 4,200 workers at the CPC and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd. (CPSTL), and the CEB did not need more than 50% of the workers currently on its payroll to function efficiently. In April 2023, the media, quoting from an Auditor General’s report, said the CPC and the CPSTL had 4,200 workers whereas the need was for only 500.
How could an institution which is overstaffed have vacancies? Is it that the CEB and the CPC/CPSTL have recruited workers haphazardly for political reasons instead of hiring personnel for the posts that fell vacant? An explanation is called for.
Minister Wijesekera said at the aforesaid conference that he could take advantage of the situation and employ about one thousand people from his home district, Matara, in the CPC/CPSTL and the CEB, but he would not do so. Let him be told that the public is not so naïve as to buy into his claim; he and other government politicians, especially the members of the Rajapaksa family, would have provided employment to their henchmen in the debt-ridden institutions but for the IMF strictures, and the fear that such action would stand in the way the restructuring of the SOEs. Even the worst critics of the IMF must be happy that it has put the government in a straitjacket of sorts.
Surplus staffing in the public sector is a drain on the state coffers, as is obvious. The COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) has recently revealed that the Health Ministry has more than twice the number of doctors required for administrative work while many hospitals are experiencing a shortage of doctors. It is hoped that the government will have the cadre requirements of all state institutions properly assessed and take action to sort out the issue of overstaffing.
A request to Susil
Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has said early childhood education will be made compulsory for all children above the age of four. This, we believe, is a welcome move. According to UNESCO, early childhood education ‘provides learning and educational activities with a holistic approach to support children’s early cognitive, physical, social and emotional development and introduce young children to organised instruction outside the family to develop some of the skills needed for academic readiness and to prepare them for entry into primary education’.
The adverse impact of the neglect of early childhood education on Sri Lankan society is reflected in the behaviour of some adults, especially those in key positions, the deplorable conduct of the Members of Parliament being a case in point. If the behaviour of most MPs during the past few months is any indication, something has gone wrong with their cognitive, social and emotional development. Otherwise, they would have behaved well at least during the country’s worst economic crisis, which they themselves have contributed to, albeit to varying degrees. They cannot even have a decent debate on a national tragedy such as the Easter Sunday terror strikes, which claimed more than 270 lives and left over 500 people injured. They have turned parliamentary debates into slanging matches and punch-ups. There are some decent politicians, but sadly they are the exception that proves the rule.
Thus, we request Education Minister Premajayantha to take steps to ensure that our elected representatives, save a few, are provided with early childhood education, which they have missed. Better late than never. That may be considered what is known as ‘second chance education’ for them.
Wednesday 27th September, 2023
It is heartening that justice has finally caught up with a retired top cop, albeit after a lapse of more than eight years. The Ratnapura High Court, on Monday, sentenced former Senior DIG Lalith Jayasinghe to a five-year jail term for having ordered the OIC of the Kahawatte police station not to arrest the then UPFA MP Premalal Jayasekera alias Choka Malli over a shooting incident in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election. The victim of gun violence succumbed to his injuries. He was an Opposition activist.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government attempted a cover-up, and the prevention of Choka Malli’s arrest was part of it. But its plan went awry due to the regime change that followed soon afterwards.
The Yahapalana government ensured that Jayasekera was arrested and prosecuted. He was sentenced to death by the Ratnapura High Court, but he successfully appealed against his sentence after being elected to Parliament as a member of the ruling SLPP, in 2020. In this country, the acquittals of politicians in power come as no surprise!
Today, Choka Malli is a free man, but the SDIG who prevented his arrest in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 killing has been sentenced to jail!
It is hoped that Ex-SDIG Jayasinghe’s predicament will serve as a lesson for all police personnel who enter into Faustian bargains with crafty politicians, and abuse their positions to please their political masters. This unholy alliance is one of the reasons why public trust in the police has eroded severely and the rule of law is crippled.
Several former senior cops have had to pay for their past sins. In 2010, ex-SSP Nihal Karunaratne was sentenced to a five-year jail term by the Kandy High Court for having issued death threats to the OIC of the Hanguranketha police station, in the run-up to the 2001 general election; he was the Director of President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s security division at the time. The following year, the Colombo High Court sentenced Karunaratne to two years RI suspended for 10 years and fined him Rs. 25,000 for having obstructed a police officer, in 2000, when a police team entered the house of notorious criminal called Beddegana Sanjeewa to arrest some underworld figures hiding there. (Having been appointed a Reserve Sub Inspector of Police, Sanjeewa served in Kumaratunga’s security division until he was killed by an ‘unidentified gunman’.)
In 2016, the then IGP Pujith Jayasundera was caught on camera, at a public meeting, answering a telephone call from someone, whom he reverentially called ‘sir’ and assuring that a certain person would not be arrested. A fish is said to rot from the head down, and this may explain why the Police Department is full of stooges. Jayasundera’s obsequiousness, however, did not prevent the politicians he served very faithfully from throwing him to the wolves after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019.
The person who died at the hands of the goons of the Rajapaksa regime, in Kahawatte, ahead of the 2015 presidential election, was one of the UNP supporters who, at the behest of their party leadership, stuck their necks out to enable Maithripala Sirisena to secure the presidency. Three years later, Sirisena sought to dislodge the UNP-led Yahapalana government. He thereafter closed ranks with the Rajapaksas, whom he had blamed for election violence in 2015, among other things, and threatened to throw behind bars; he had no qualms about being in the same parliamentary group as Choka Malli after the 2020 general election. Worse, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe joined forces with the Rajapaksas, who were accused of unleashing their goons on UNP activists, and realised his presidential dream. He stands accused of protecting the interests of the Rajapaksas. In a turn of events replete with irony, Jayasekera was sworn in as a state minister before President Wickremesinghe, last year!
One can only hope that the public will realise that nothing is stupider than to risk life and limb for the sake of politicians or political parties. Unfortunately, many lessons go unlearnt in this country.
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