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Opinion

Only Committees  and Commissions, NO RESULTS

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During the Yahapalanya Government, Sri Lanka suffered multiple scandals involving both the public and private sectors with colourful individuals playing their roles to perfection in the political theatre of the absurd. As we know, the former President and Prime Minister were famous for their love of committees and commissions to investigate allegations of corruption or mismanagement of funds. Sometimes this is done with the best of intentions, yet it is regretful that the majority of the reports of these committees and commissions do not show any meaningful results. After much time and public resources spent, the reports simply wither away with the public none the wiser and without the country benefiting.

A Dereliction of Duty

The Easter attacks left hundreds dead, many more injured, and the economy devastated with the crucial tourism industry halted, due to the complete negligence of officials at every level in the national security apparatus. All this was in the immediate lead up to the Easter Bombings. However if we look back further, we will observe even more startling revelations.

An arrest warrant against the main perpetrator was issued as far back as 2018 but never followed through. Indian intelligence services had provided atleast three warnings, including one on the eve of the attack with specific information regarding the sites predicted for an attack.

As far back as 2016, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka filed police complaints, alleging that the “National Thaweed Jamat” (NTJ) was preaching violence and extremism. These complaints were not followed up adequately. In January 2019, 100 kilograms of explosives and 100 detonators were found near the Wilpattu National Park. The police even stated that they belonged to an Islamist group. The detonation of explosives in a motorbike during a lightning storm, also in the East of the country, should have provided further clues that something was brewing in the East. Yet there was no prior warning, the public was never made aware of the danger posed. The level of gross negligence in these matters is astonishing, and surely there should be manslaughter charges brought against officials that failed our country.

The writing was very much on the wall leading up to the Easter Sunday attacks. Successive officials representing the Central Government in the Eastern province had been virtually asleep at the wheel while a dangerous and extremist ideology was being spread. The NTJ held meetings and prayer services, attacked and threatened citizens and rival mosques and moderate muslim leaders. Foreign money from dubious sources flowed into the provincial coffers in the form of charity and grants. The Justice Minister at the time stated that foreign forces were trying to infiltrate and radicalize muslim citizens in Sri Lanka, particularly in the east. Information regarding foreign elements connected to the Islamic State (ISIS) was available to the security apparatus. Still – authorities that should have acted promptly were in a deep slumber – astounding!

During the Parliamentary Select Committee proceedings, a witness produced several Islamic textbooks and Islamic teaching materials published by the Department of Educational Publications stating that the Islamic punishment for apostasy (renouncing religion) was death. The material in these books was being taught even to children in Grade 9 and these books were first published in 1982 and republished in 1984 and 2017! It beggars belief that no one had seen this coming.

The Prime Minister had the gall to state that he was not being invited to security briefings, that he was willfully kept out of the loop and did not take any responsibility. Surely the PM should have taken this up immediately. The fact he did not shows a complete lack of interest in national security affairs and thus we can start to imagine how such a catastrophe was allowed to occur.

Sri Lankans watched on, bewildered at the lack of foresight and action from officials at every level of the government and the security and intelligence apparatus. Since the attack, we have witnessed a myriad of theories and accusations levelled at any and all members of the previous regime as well as the current regime. Senior MPs and politicians stated that they had not received the intelligence memos. Police officials and intelligence officers stated that the recommendations of their investigations were not followed through. What did the government do next? You can probably guess. Numerous investigations through Committees! Including a Presidential Commission of Inquiry and a Parliamentary Select Committee. A convenient and often used tool to brush serious lapses aside.

A Family Bond at the Central Bank

Imagine basing an entire presidential campaign on the promise of eliminating corruption and bringing legal action against thieving government officials. Then being embroiled in a classic case of insider trading within two months of winning said campaign. The Yahapalanaya Government had a sense of irony if little else. In what has to be considered the most poorly planned and executed case of insider trading, between family members no less, the UNP-SLFP government of 2015 was over before it had begun.

As a banker I am well aware of the many restrictions in place to prevent insider trading and other forms of fraud at financial institutions. The fact that, as the regulator, the CBSL is directly responsible for compliance and yet found itself caught up in such flagrant and criminal behavior is scarcely believable and totally unacceptable.

If you are going to engage in criminal activity you may want to at least seek to cover your tracks and make it a little challenging for the authorities to investigate. Alas, using the then CBSL Governor’s son-in-law’s company to carry out the transaction was not the work of a criminal mastermind. During the recent General Election, the former Prime Minister claimed that there was no material loss to the country despite the protests of many experts and in spite of the 2016 Report from the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). Of course, the former PM is famous for forming numerous committees and commissions to buy time and sweep issues under the proverbial carpet. The CBSL bond scam was the start of a long list of commissions and committees, assembled at a high cost to the tax payer, and with no results to speak of.

Aside from the obvious financial implications, this blatant act of corruption, which the COPE report suggests had been carrying on for some time before the Yahapalanaya Government, had dire effects for the country’s image. Successive governments have tried every which way possible to attract FDI to our country. Considering the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interest in Sri Lanka, attracting FDI should not be so difficult. Numerous tax holidays, promises of ‘one-stop shops’, easing restrictions on foreign ownership of land and even relaxing the rules on foreign exchange brought in to Sri Lanka has not had a significant impact on the levels of FDI.

Perhaps a simple process of getting our house in order might help more than convoluted tax structures. A foreign investor that pays any attention at all, would be shocked to hear that the Governor of the Central Bank was being put under investigation. Further still, the fact that this official was a close friend of the sitting PM, was handpicked by him and is now hiding in Singapore, would send any potential investor running for the hills.

The economic minds in the current cabinet and hopefully beyond must surely realize that financial governance and rule of law are two absolutely non-negotiable pre-requisites for any investment decision.

The Citizenry holds its collective breath….

The aforementioned commissions and committees spend large sums of money and meander through its processes and procedures. All the while, Sri Lankan citizens, who must collectively carry the burden of the financial damage, await real progress and appropriate punishments for those found guilty and the implementation of suitable laws to prevent recurrence.

The recent explosion at the port of Beirut in Lebanon shows what can happen when the state machinery fails in its basic duties. We cannot afford to have state officials exist in a state of hibernation while the wheels are left to turn. The previous administration made a mockery of its own ‘Yahapalanaya’ manifesto, simply kicking the can down the road and hoping that no one notices. Certainly, the Sri Lankan electorate did notice, judging by the complete decimation of the UNP at the 2020 polls.

The People deserve better than this. The current President and Prime Minister have received a clear mandate, they are considered to be people of action, of providing results. I implore them to take the above matters to heart and seriously consider how we approach the next phase of our country’s development. When the state makes miscalculations of such magnitude, when there is a lack of due diligence in decision making, when there are no consequences faced for inaction, the country and its people become the ultimate losers.

Even as recently as this past week, we saw the PCoI on the Easter Sunday attacks once again ask the former President Maithripala Sirisena to visit its offices to provide yet more testimony. On the 17th of August the entire country was plunged into darkness due an issue at the power station and what was the response of the newly appointed Minister of Power? He has appointed a ‘special committee’ to look into the matter.

I urge the print media to periodically devote a special page or even a separate supplement to show the progress of the investigations of the various committees and commissions. In these pages, the mainstream media must make a list of all the commissions currently active as well as those that have completed their investigations. The reports submitted should be regularly summarized in print so that the public can stay informed. The media and the public must maintain pressure throughout so that we do not simply move from one controversy to another. Why should the proceedings of these committees be held in private, why can they not be televised so that the tax payer can hear the testimonies and study the evidence for themselves? The media must ensure that it does its duty as part of this democracy.

Rienzie Wijetilleke & Kusum Wijetilleke

Colombo 7

 

 



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Opinion

Transformation of agro-food system:

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A culture-based local solution for Sri Lanka

BY Prof Nimal Gunatilleke

The Thirty-seventh Session of the UN-FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) is being held as a high-level Ministerial in-person event in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 19 – 22 February 2024. This was preceded by the Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) held virtually from 31 January to 2 February 2024.

This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

This regionally significant meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is being held in Colombo at a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to keep its head above water in the post-COVID era knocked down for the second time in quick succession by her economic crisis.

A government report and data from the health ministry quoted by Reuters indicates that the people in Sri Lanka are currently burdened with soaring prices, including food, largely caused by its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948.

According to the Central Bank Report ‘rising malnutrition among children has become a forefront policy concern in Sri Lanka amidst heightened food insecurity of households caused by the host of economic and social issues that exacerbated during the economic crisis in 2022’.

The following human health statistics extracted almost verbatim from the Reuters report on Jan 18, 2023, are equally disturbing, to say the least.

The number of children grappling with various forms of undernutrition in Sri Lanka has increased for the first time in at least six years in 2022.

More than 43.4% of the country’s children under 5 years of age are suffering from nutrition problems, according to the report released in October, with 42.9% suffering from some form of undernutrition.

Data available on the website of the health ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicate that the percentage of children under five who are underweight, stunted (low height for age), or wasting (low-height for age) increased in 2022 after dropping steadily since at least 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients, or impaired nutrient utilis ation.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC REGIONAL OVERVIEW OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION STATISTICS AND TRENDS

According to the World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranked the second worst affected country in the South Asian region in terms of wasting among children under five years. Further, underweight among the same group of children remained around 20.0 percent since 2000, while no significant advancement was reported in terms of children with stunted growth.

Meanwhile, the persistent disparities in malnutrition prevalence across regions and economic sectors in the country suggest that nutrition anomalies remain unresolved for a prolonged period. Across residential sectors, the estate sector has become the most vulnerable sector with the highest prevalence of stunting and underweight children under five years. According to the DHS-2016, around 31.7 percent of children in the estate sector are stunted, compared to 14.7 percent in urban areas and 17.0 percent in the rural sector. Particularly child malnutrition represents a deep concern that carries a generational burden.

UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.1

A yet another alarming set of nutrition statistics has been published in the Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, in December 2023 in addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY.

The percentage of people unable to afford a healthy diet in Sri Lanka was 54% in 2020 and the figure has been increasing ever since.

Prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka is 5.3% (cf. India 16.6%)

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity during the period 2020–2022 in Sri Lanka has been 10.9% (cf. Bangladesh 31.1%)

Undernourishment is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, and healthy life. The indicator is reported as a prevalence and is denominated as “prevalence of undernourishment”, which is an estimate of the percentage of individuals in the total population who are in a condition of undernourishment.

People affected by moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have been forced to reduce, at times during the year, the quality and/or quantity of food they consume due to a lack of money or other resources.

MALNUTRITION: SUSTAINABLE

DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.2:

This section reports on four global nutrition indicators: stunting , wasting in children under 5 years of age, and anaemia in women aged 15 to 49 years.

The prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka in 2022 has been 15.9% (cf. India 31.7%).

The Prevalence of wasting among children under 5 years of age from 2015 to 2022 in Sri Lanka has been 15.1% (cf. India 18.7%)

The Prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka is 1.3% in 2022 (cf. 2.8% in India).

ANAEMIA AMONG WOMEN AGED 15 TO

49 YEARS

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years in Sri Lanka in 2019 has been 34.6 % (cf. India 53%).

HEALTHY DIET AT NATIONAL SCALE

In this regard, notable transformations in the country’s food system are essential to deliver a healthy diet for people at an affordable price. These include improving productivity in the agriculture sector along with more innovations and research and development, reducing post-harvest losses, more value addition in the agriculture sector, reducing import dependency on food systems, introducing climate-resilient food crops, promoting a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, particularly through the popularising integrated farming, rebalancing agriculture sector subsidies, and tax policies and improving agronomic practices as well as maintaining adequate food buffers to face food emergencies.

Among the solutions provided at the national level include the provisioning of school meals, provisioning of food/cash allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, the Thriposha program, school water sanitation, and hygiene programs, and the salt iodization programme, among others. Reflecting the impact of these efforts and commitments spanning over several decades, malnutrition among children declined remarkably during the period from 1975 to 1995, with stunting among children below five years of age almost halved to 26.1 percent in 1995, compared to 49.9 percent in 1975, while the underweight child population declined to 29.3 percent in 1995 from 57.3 percent in 1975. However, these trends have reversed since the double whammy started in 2021 with COVID-19.

In addition, some of the small-scale community-level initiatives established under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture such as Hela Bojun Hal (Native Food Courts) are gaining popularity in several provinces in Sri Lanka. These food courts serve a variety of nutrient-rich native food preparations using rice flour, finger millet, local vegetables (leafy porridge), and many other sweetmeats prepared by local womenfolk and sold at an affordable price. Also, there are many beverages and local fruit drinks that are equally popular among the customers.

These food courts providing healthy and nutritious meals are making steady inroads into the food and beverage trade among the health-conscious public from all walks of life including schoolchildren, university students, and blue- and white-collar workers, alike which is indeed an encouraging trend.

If these types of Hela Bojun food courts could be promoted in rural as well as urban schools with the participation of the parents of the schoolchildren under the direction of the school administration and local health and agricultural authorities, it may help to address some of the issues under discussion at the on-going UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference such as undernourishment, food insecurity, and malnutrition. At the same time, it may give a shot in the arm for promoting nutritious food production while ensuring food security befitting the theme of this year’s UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference, which is “Transformation of the Agro-Food System”.

Sri Lanka as the host country’s special ministerial event for this conference has put forward her theme as ‘Agro-tourism in Asia and Pacific – accelerating rural development and enhancing livelihoods’ showcasing agrotourism most likely in the world-renown Kandyan Spice/Home Gardens and as a spin-off of this, the local food courts utilizing these home garden produce too, can be highlighted at the same time.

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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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Opinion

Pledges to abolish executive presidency

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With the presidential elections around the corner, the abolition of the executive presidency has come up for discussion once again.

This time around, the proposal for abolishing the executive presidency has come from former President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga. She pledged to scrap it first when she ran for Presidency in 1994. But she did not fulfil her promise.

Former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are also now for scrapping the executive presidency.

Almost all the former Presidents came to power promising to scrap it but once in power they swept it under the carpet.

The Opposition parties claim they are for the abolition, but after the next presidential election. which, they say, they are confident of winning.

Mahinda has recently said it is preferable to abolish the executive presidency because he has already held it twice. However, he seems to have forgotten that he was greedy for power and he failed in his third attempt. For him and most other past Presidents, executive presidency is sour grapes.

They are now trying to have the executive presidency abolished in the hope that they will be able secure the premiership.

Ironically, Anura K Dissanayake, NPP leader and presidential candidate is against the abolition of the executive presidency as he is confident of winning the next presidential election.

So, all of them are in the same boat and one thing is clear; whoever becomes President will never have it abolished.

The campaign for scrapping the executive presidency will go in circles, forever.

Dr. P.A. Samaraweera 

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