Monday 28th June, 2021
These are really bad times for health ministers across the globe. They receive more brickbats than bouquets. Some of them have even lost their jobs. New Zealand Health Minister David Clark had to resign, last year, having breached lockdown rules to take his family to the beach. Jordon’s Health Minister Nathir Obeidat had to step down owing to an oxygen shortage that killed six patients at a Covid-19 treatment centre, about three moons ago. In Brazil, three health ministers have so far lost their jobs for their country’s failure to contain the pandemic. Sri Lankan Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi got into hot water by ingesting a shaman’s herbal concoction touted as a cure for Covid-19, and dropping clay pots into rivers by way of a ritual to ward off coronavirus. She contracted Covid-19 and came back from death’s door. British Health Minister Matt Hancock, too, has had to resign. But he has stepped down not over his failure to fight the virus but over a kiss, which amounted to a breach of heath regulations. According to The Sun newspaper, he was caught on a security camera throwing caution to the wind and smooching with his mistress in his office in violation of Covid-19 protocol.
Across the pond, former US President Bill Clinton, who turned the Oval Office into a gymnasium of a different sort, but escaped even after committing perjury, must be guffawing, muttering to himself, “Poor Matt!” Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has gone scot-free despite having caused tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians including half a million children to be killed in an illegal war, must also be feeling sorry for Matt, who has lost his job due to a kissing footage as it were.
Some of the Brits, scandalised by the kissing episode, pressed for Hancock’s resignation on the grounds that he had violated health regulations. Others were out for his scalp on moral grounds. They insist, according to media reports, that Hancock should have resigned or been sacked even if the smooch had not been in violation of the health regulations because his conduct was morally reprehensible; it is doubtful whether many of them have any moral right to condemn Hancock. In 2018, the wire services reported, quoting The Sun, the findings of an interesting study, which revealed that ninety percent of Brits surveyed had confessed to having had sex in their offices. Among the places where they got steamy were boardrooms, kitchens, stairs and even stationery cupboards! The Sun quoted a psychologist as having called the office a hotbed of hormones. A pollster who conducted the research told the media that a common theme was that people enjoyed the thrill of having sex while they were meant to be working. Is this why some people are having lockdown blues and averse to work from home; they must be missing office cupboards, etc. (Irate Sri Lankans who have to kick their heels at public institutions, where officials do everything except their work, may wonder whether the aforesaid British pollster’s observation applies to this country as well.)
It is often asked why the British politicians are not well-disposed towards their Sri Lankan counterparts. We think the Brits are jealous of the latter. Our guys seem to have all the luck; besides living in clover at the expense of the taxpaying public, they are free to do virtually anything; never do their concupiscence and sexual misconduct land them in trouble. A number of British MPs were named and shamed for making some questionable expenses claims, which were exposed in 2009. (Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin finds herself up the creek, having used public funds for her family’s breakfast at her official residence; she has pledged to pay back the money! Here, in this land like no other, not only politicians but also their families and cronies indulge in feasts for which taxpayers meekly pick up the tab.)
One may recall that a rotund Sri Lankan Health Minister once got caught in flagrante delicto, in his ministry office itself. His wife burst in on him and his female secretary. The minister had not only egg but also a slipper (belonging to his infuriated significant other) on his face. He did not lose his job, though. He is going great guns. Another randy minister did a Tarzan to avoid security cameras on an upper floor of a foreign hotel in a bid to get into an adjoining room, unnoticed, to spend the night there only to have a nasty fall from the balcony of his suite in the process. He was treated at the expense of the Sri Lankan taxpayers! He, too, is doing well in politics. One of the pre-election promises of the yahapalana government (2015-19) was to bring to justice a Pradeshiya Sabha head, who had allegedly raped hundreds of women and even celebrated those crimes, under the previous regime, but he joined the yahapalana camp and got away.
Hancock must be thinking that he became the Health Minister in the wrong country. Ordinary Sri Lankans, troubled by various deprivations, must be hoping for British citizenship, but the pleasure-seeking British politicians must be wishing they lived in this country.
Leave animals alone!
Monday 18th October, 2021
A move to set up a zoo on a 72-acre land (in Piliyandala), which has been allocated for the construction of a veterinary hospital, and a factory to manufacture food for zoo animals, has incensed the Dehiwala zoological gardens workers. The protesters have blamed Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge for the controversial zoo project, and warned of trade union action if he is allowed to have his way. They are reported to have made representations to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in this regard. Lokuge’s response to the zoo workers’ protests was not known at the time of writing.
Minister Lokuge is one of the senior politicians who have, to borrow a one-liner from Bob Hope, reached ages when candles cost them more than their birthday cakes. It is high time they concentrated on meritorious deeds more than anything else, and showed some compassion towards dumb animals whose rights must be safeguarded. Lokuge and other government worthies ought to heed what Arahat Mahinda told King Devanampiyatissa: “King, you are only a custodian of this land held in trust. Not only human beings but also wild animals and birds have the right to move freely in this land.”
It may be recalled that Minister Lokuge made a song and dance when the Kesbewa public health officials imposed travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area, which had become a Covid-19 hotspot, a few moons ago. He had their decision reversed immediately and the area reopened because he did not want his supporters’ movements restricted in his electorate. But he wants hundreds of animals held in a prison for life in the same electorate.
A zoo is an animal prison, which should have no place in the civilised world. Animals must be allowed to live in their natural habitats free from human interference. Human interventions are permissible only when they are aimed at saving animals in danger. Many species are endangered because humans destroy their habitats such as forests depriving them of food and water. This is the main reason for the human-elephant conflict in this country. When the affected wild animals invade human settlements in search of food and water they are killed. The incumbent government seems to have a problem with animal habitats, especially forests. We have recently reported, quoting a senior environmentalist, that the government has decided to hand over 6% of the land in the Anuradhapura District to a private company for cultivating Aloe Vera. This deal is bound to worsen the human-elephant conflict in the area.
There are other reasons for wild animal invasions, we pointed out in a previous comment, quoting Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya of the University of Kelaniya, who has said that the prolonged neglect of forest tanks or kuluwew built for special purposes such as storing rainwater, enriching groundwater level, providing water for wild animals, maintaining the food chain, etc., has caused the problem of wild elephants, monkeys, porcupines, giant squirrels and wild boar invading village ecosystems and threatening the settlers in an unprecedented manner. Insects, rats and snakes also enter residential and farming areas as a result, he has said, concluding that if the kuluwew are renovated systematically and forest ecosystems restored, the wild animal threat can be reduced by about 80 percent. Instead of doing so, the government is alienating forest land for plantations and encouraging its henchmen to encroach on animal habitats.
When a human is wrongfully detained, there erupt protests, and rightly so; fundamental rights petitions are filed, and street demonstrations held to pressure the state to release the victim. But the rights of animals are taken for granted; thousands of them are held in ‘prions’ in this country, but no action is taken against the perpetrators.
The practice of animals being used as exhibits must be discontinued. They are not there to be kept in cages or in ‘open prisons’ for people to have the pleasure of viewing. They must be able to live freely in forests and other such habitats where they belong.
As for the Piliyandala land, where Lokuge reportedly wants animals imprisoned, we have a suggestion; an open-air prison should be set up there for the politicians who abuse their power to commit various crimes, steal public assets, and have become a threat to society.
Will exposés become fish wrappers?
Journalists the world over are familiar with an expression worn thin over decades and more: ‘yesterday’s news is only fit to wrap the fish in!’ That’s exactly what’s happened to the Pandora Papers that made big news a few days ago in this country and many others globally who’s leaders/citizen had been fingered. A week later, with three weeks yet to go for the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption to respond to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s one month’s deadline for a report, the whole business is nearly forgotten. Hardly a bleat is heard. Readers would remember that the Panama Papers where a massive data base of some 11.5 million files from Mossac Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm made global waves; and a number of Lankans and companies incorporated here were named. But this is now less than a dim memory. That was over five years ago and, as far as we know nothing much has happened since, anywhere, about that exposé, also by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Will that material, and this, eventually become fish wrappers?
However that be, there are many matter that arise that deserve attention not only from governments but also from the wider public. All of us are aware of the numbered bank accounts that have made Swiss banks both rich and famous. Such accounts, with multi-digit numbers known only to the client and selected bankers, add another layer to banking secrecy. But they are not completely anonymous. That’s because the name of the client is still recorded by the bank and is subject to what’s called “limited warranted disclosure.” Such hiding holes are widely sought by the wealthy to stash away both legitimate and ill-gotten wealth from the prying eyes of governments, law enforcement agencies, taxpeople and sometimes even spouses. Lesser known is the fact that such facilities are no longer the exclusive preserve of the Swiss. They are now available in over a dozen countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Apart from numbered bank accounts, there are many tax havens in several parts of the world widely used for both money laundering and tax avoidance. They are useful not only to those anxious to exploit their possibilities but also to the service-providing countries to enrich national coffers.
Since the Pandora Papers hit the headlines, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has made several noteworthy speeches into the expose` which linked hundreds of Pakistanis, including members of his cabinet to wealth secretly moved through offshore companies. Khan has promised action if wrongdoing is established just as much as our own president has done. Ownership of offshore holding companies is not illegal in most countries including, we believe, Sri Lanka. But they are frequently used to avoid tax liability or to maintain secrecy about large and shady financial transactions. Even before the smelly stuff hit the fan with the publication of the Pandora Papers, Khan addressing the UN International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity Panel called upon countries he termed tax havens to “adopt decisive actions” and return wealth looted from developing countries. Saying that the figures were staggering, he estimated that perhaps a trillion dollars were siphoned off in this manner and much of that were bribes received by corrupt white collar criminals. Demanding that the bleeding of poor and developing countries must stop, he urged that stolen assets of developing countries including proceeds of corruption, bribery and other crimes must be returned immediately.
Where Sri Lanka is concerned, the liberalization of the economy in 1978, not 1977 as commonly stated, resulted not only in devaluation of the currency and the stupendous increase in the money supply, but also the commencing of massive and expensive infrastructure and other development projects of which the Accelerated Mahaweli Development was perhaps the largest. This resulted in the award of gigantic contracts on a scale previously not known in this country. Such contracts also meant commissions, and what these were and who collected them was largely unknown. Since then we have had many other very large projects. While the country knows what the taxpayer paid for these as revealed in the figures presented to parliament and budgeted for, what kind of commissions were paid and to whom, is information largely outside the public domain. While decision-making politicians and perhaps bureaucrats are widely suspected to have been beneficiaries of such loot, companies, some well known and others less so, have been identified as agents of various contractors. Whether such funds were duly accounted for and the taxes thereon paid remains unknown.
Whistles have been blown here but we have unfortunately not been able to obtain the cooperation, for example of the Government of the United Arab Emirates about loot allegedly stashed in Dubai. Nobody can expect companies providing haven to ill-gotten gains to cooperate with bloodhounds on their trail. Imran Khan’s appeal to tax haven providers can only fall on deaf years as has happened before and will continue to happen in the future. Third world countries claiming to pursue criminals who had bled their economies will only do so if the quarry belongs to an opposing camp. Governments will only chase opponents and when they change, investigations already undertaken, not without influence of ruling powers, will be abandoned as we have too often seen. As the late Sunil Perera of the Gypsies so memorably sang, Lankawa ehema thamai, I don’t know why!
Another sucker punch
Saturday 16th October, 2021
Hardly a day passes without huge increases in commodity prices being reported. Prices are rising so rapidly without any discernible increase in economic activity that one wonders whether the country is being tipped into stagflation. The government is behaving like an inebriated lifeguard who watches a drowning man flailing, instead of throwing a lifeline. Powerful businesses are having a field day, jacking up as they do prices according to their whims and fancies. Businessmen determine the prices of their products and services, and announce them at press conferences, making one wonder whether there are any consumer protection laws in this country. There is no one the hapless consumer can turn to. What is this world coming to when a government looks on while the people are being fleeced so savagely?
Consumers have been suffering heavy blows, one after another, during the past so many weeks, and the latest one has come from the local dairy product manufacturers including a state-owned company; they have jacked up the prices of the locally produced milk powder by Rs. 225 and Rs. 200 a kilo. The new prices are Rs. 1,170 and Rs. 1,165 a kilo, according to media reports. These price hikes have left one puzzled.
Three main reasons the milk powder importers have given for increasing the prices of their products are the increases in milk food prices in the international market, the depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar, and the escalation of freight rates. True, there have been some cost increases, but the question is whether they are so high as to warrant such massive increases in the prices of imported milk powder here. The milk powder importers obviously emulated the rice millers who have become a law unto themselves; they, too, created a scarcity and won their demand for unprecedented price hikes. Now, imported milk powder sells at Rs. 1,195 a kilo. People expected the local dairy companies, which heavily market their ‘Sri Lankan-ness’, to act reasonably, only to be disappointed.
How come the prices of locally produced milk powder have risen so sharply? The domestic milk powder manufacturers have claimed their costs have also gone up. Their argument is not convincing. The onus is on the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) to reveal to the public whether the increases in the prices of local milk powder are actually due to increases in production costs, or whether the domestic dairy product manufactures have sought to make the most of the situation; consumers feel that they are being exploited. An explanation is called for.
The general consensus is that the CAA has become so politicised and impotent that it only provides a rubber stamp for unscrupulous big businesses with political connections. Will it try to prove its critics wrong by taking up the cudgels for the public?
Is there a government? This is the question one asks oneself on seeing how helpless the public has become vis-à-vis powerful businesses who exploit them with impunity.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday bombings (2019), in its report, says one of the reasons for the serious security lapses which led to the carnage was that the then government was dysfunctional. True, the yahapalana government became a metaphor for dysfunctionality and ineptitude. The present dispensation, whose leaders promised a strong government to protect the interests of the public, does not look any different in spite of having a two-thirds majority in Parliament; confusion is reigning at the upper echelons of government. Ministers are running around like headless chickens, and the public is at the mercy of profiteers who enjoy unbridled freedom to do as they please.
Let the ruling politicians be told that they are digging their own political grave.
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