At the outset, may I rather belatedly congratulate you on your assumption of high ministerial office as the new Minister of Finance of Sri Lanka.
Skimming through the rather lengthy gazette notification of the duties and functions, assigned to you, I find that you are tasked with a very wide ambit of duties, and responsibilities, impacting the present and future well being of our nation and her people.
As you take over the Finance portfolio and many of the duties previously entrusted to the Prime Minister, there is a widespread public expectation that this change will result in a mid-term course correction by the government. I venture to highlight and flag a few such issues for your kind consideration, in the interest of the public.
Fighting the Pandemic
As public health is always a crucial factor in the economy and the Covid-19 pandemic dominates the public life of the citizenry, the management of the same is vital for both economic activity and societal well-being.
Accordingly, you may want to consider giving a slightly greater weightage to the medical professionals in the anti-pandemic effort, with the military playing a more supporting role, rather than vice versa. One and a half years into the pandemic, we are no longer in an initial emergency phase but facing a long-term public health issue, best handled by public health professionals.
They require reliable data and depoliticised management. The periodic protests by doctors, nurses and PHIs, regarding the pandemic management, are concerning. Their advice should be heeded and the course corrected.
Rather unfortunately at the early stages of the pandemic, we stigmatised our victims and had a forced cremation policy, since rescinded, but further measures to win public support and cooperation, such as the international practice of home quarantine for Covid patients, not requiring hospital care, and allowing the private healthcare sector to be involved in administering vaccines, may be further desirable changes to the current practices.
The slate of resignations in protest by medical professionals of the National Medicinal Regulatory Authority (NMRA), should not be repeated. Heed their professional views. It increases public confidence, in the overall management of the pandemic.
Fiscal policy, the national debt and foreign reserves
‘Voodoo economics’ is a term first used, about 40 years ago in American presidential politics to describe the economic policies and supply side theories of then US President Ronald Reagan, whose economic policies of deep tax cuts for large corporations, and the very wealthy, resulted in a ballooning national debt.
While the US with a fiercely and institutionally independent central bank can manage such a situation, not least because the US dollar is the reserve currency of the world, we can less afford to go the same route.
So, some kind of course correction in this regard maybe appropriate.
An obvious course of action would be to go for an IMF budgetary support facility. While its size may be small, compared to our need, the investor confidence, such an agreement provides, would not only facilitate foreign direct investment (FDI), but also once again make the global capital markets accessible to us, allowing us to roll over our maturing debt, even as we wisely seek to avoid increasing the same. In hindsight, turning down a near half a billion-dollar grant, not a loan, from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and an equal sized equity investment by India’s Adani Group into the Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal (ECT) are unwise missed opportunities.
We could very much have used a billion dollars of non-debt foreign exchange inflows into our economy at this time. Plus developed our port (ECT) and road network (MCC) rather than just the very expensive reclaimed land of the Port City. Policy consistency would be very advisable.
Foreign policy and investments
You may also want to examine our ease of doing business criteria for local, not just foreign investors. As you woo foreign investors, into the largely autonomous Port City Zone, do consider local entrepreneurs, who are finding, among other things, the import ban on intermediate and capital goods, to be a significant drag on their operations.
The closed economy did not work from 1970 to ’77 and resulted in the SLFP, being banished to the opposition for 17 years. I am sure you wish to avoid a similar fate.
A sound foreign policy is a must for an island nation’s economy, such as ours, so acting as if we live in a unipolar world, with China as the world’s sole superpower, has been an unwise approach.
Sri Lanka has been well served in the past by our non-aligned foreign policy and robust relations with India. Also remember that the West is the largest market for our exports, the EU, the US and the UK leading the way and that the Muslim majority Middle East, the host nations for our expatriate workers, whose remittances make up the bulk of our net foreign exchange earnings. So, a rebalancing of our foreign policy is very much needed.
Sri Lanka is at its core still very much an agricultural society and the sudden shock therapy of banning all non-organic fertiliser may end up being more shock than therapy.
As we are all aware, decades of agricultural policies have led farmers to switch over to higher yielding varieties of crops, dependent on chemical fertiliser and a sudden halt to the same can have drastic consequences for yields and total national agricultural output, including for our tea production.
Accordingly, you may want to revisit this policy and at least consider a phased process, of using both organic and non-organic fertiliser.
The subsidy to switch over to organic fertiliser is a good start, and therefore continue with such incentives, rather than sudden and unexpected policy changes, that reverse almost four decades of agricultural practices.
Democracy, human rights and reconciliation
Sri Lanka’s human rights and broader governance practices, has come under increasing global scrutiny. Denying reality or being pugnaciously aggressive does not make friends nor influence people in international relations.
A serious rethink of the current practices of expanding the use of the PTA, cracking down on trade unions, peaceful protests and social media users, as well as other human rights issues that threaten our GSP+ trade status with the EU, should be reconsidered. Good politics is good for the economy and vice versa.
As you are aware, in the recent past, during your time in the US, the President invited the TNA for talks and then abruptly cancelled the same, reportedly until you returned.
For over a decade now, since the end of the war, neither the causes of the conflict nor the effects of the same, have been adequately addressed.
So, you may want to commence a process of dialogue with the TNA and the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Prime Minister, during his time as President, maybe a good starting point. The LLRCs excellent key recommendations are all regrettably ignored and largely implemented in the breech.
You have a lot on your plate now as the Finance Minister and a key leader in the government.
For all our sakes, I wish you every success, to make the course corrections and bring about the prosperity and peace, that our nation so desperately needs and our people so deeply desire.
With best wishes,
Talangama Wetlands in danger due to highway sanctioned by CEA
I read with great interest the following articles published in the Sunday Island and Daily Island, “Proposed elevated highway across wetlands provokes uproar” by Randima Attygala and “De-gazetting and Re-gazetting Gazettes” by Jomo Uduman. Then I came across another article in the Sunday Island, “Some politicians, businessmen don’t understand value of wetlands -Amaraweera “. The Minister of Environment said this while addressing the media on World Wetlands Day and also stated, “The government had taken legal action against those who destroyed wetlands. Anyone who destroys wetlands will be brought to justice,” Minister Amaraweera also stressed that it was the responsibility of everyone to protect the wetlands.
The Talangama Wetlands is a gazetted EPA as per 1487/10 of 2007 where permitted uses are only fishing, bird watching and paddy cultivation. Shockingly, this very same Minister of Environment has on 15th July 2021 signed an amendment to this gazette to also permit a four lane elevated highway to be built over these wetlands! This has been done while there are three Writ Applications pending in the Appeal Court pleading for the preservation of these wetlands as per this gazette. Is this possible? Can he and the CEA be in contempt of court? Why are they not considering the practical alternate route proposed by Prof Sarath Kotagoda? Are we seeing mega skulduggery in action here?
We also hear that a Chinese Company will build this elevated highway over a period of four years. The eating habits of many people in China are driving endangered animals there to extinction. Their favourites include monitor lizards, snakes, owls, eagles, exotic plants and small mammals all of which are trapped, killed, skinned and eaten. According to the National Wetland Directory of Sri Lanka, 41 plant species, 90 bird species (13 are migrants), 12 species of reptiles, 10 species of mammals and 15 freshwater fish species have been recorded from the Talangama tank and its environs. How can we ensure that all of these fauna and flora will be preserved and not consumed during the four years of construction and the 15 years of operations thereafter? Will there be any left thereafter?Ministers and other public officials never answer queries from lesser mortals like yours truly. So I do hope Mr. Editor that your newspaper will ask the Minister of Environment how and why he signed such a damning amendment to gazette 1487/10 of 2007. Both gazettes are attached for your reference.
As the appointed custodian of the country’s environment, particularly the Environmental Protection Areas (EPAs) the Minister is accountable not only to the present generations of the country, but also, to the unborn future generations, including the living animal and plant species who are without a voice, concerning the protection and preservation of their habitat and environment.
Denver David Hokandara
Disguises of belief and disbelief!
A young father is bathing at the not so deep garden-well with his two kids and the bucket suddenly slips into the well. The little girls look distressed. Their dad thinks that it’s a good opportunity to have some fun at their expense. He pretends to be reflective for a few seconds and tells them that they had better let the bucket be in the well so that the fish could bathe with it! The kids seem scandalized and look at each other and at the father disbelievingly. The father enjoys his joke immensely- for a few seconds, though.
The elder kid picks up the bar of soap ingenuously and drops it into the well telling him “The fish need soap too, don’t they?” Now, it was the poor father’s turn to look dismayed- he had been too slow to have divined what she was up to. That’s hardly the climax, anyway. Down goes the towel next and the younger kid says, “Oh, don’t they need a towel too?” A visibly upset father whose sense of humour is no match for that of his progeny knows not where to put himself. True, the two scamps had looked confused at the beginning – but only for a moment. Next they pretended to believe that the fish actually needed soap and a towel, so that they could afford to have the last laugh by turning the tables on their father.
The episode narrated by a much wiser father to a sniggering audience of officemates the next day might provide comic relief to a layperson’s idle thoughts about belief and disbelief. Did the father succeed in wheedling the girls at least momentarily to visualize a weird shoal of fish bathing with a bucket? How did they, after recovering from the fleeting confusion, build on a blatant falsity to give it a preposterously logical end? Is there a neat fact/belief and fiction/disbelief pairing? Do we use trust and doubt at our own convenience to play the life’s game? Let the experts seek definitive answers. The rest of us may speculate.
Both belief and disbelief accompany us to the grave. They are not averse to sleeping in the same bed, and life is sure to be worrisome if you choose to hold on to one to the total exclusion of the other. And, each of them comes in handy every now and then. It seems as though scarcely anybody could live a normal life without judiciously shifting between these two states of mind- belief and disbelief, or, as some may call them – the twin gears for “cruising in life.” Perhaps, a person newly diagnosed with a terminal illness may find himself amidst the strongest currents of belief and disbelief; the others would navigate between the two consciously as well as unconsciously to the end.
Take children for example. They are natural skeptics and believers at once. Many parents find themselves out of their depth when their children start asking endless “why” questions about anything and everything they see, starting from things like the moon, fire, cow, puppy, shadow, wind, rain, sky or stars and moving towards “metaphysical” questions about birth, ageing, time and death. Even well-informed parents get stumped when they are called upon to explain why the moon and stars wouldn’t fall, why mommy and daddy too have to die one day or why dead people wouldn’t talk, much less wake up. Often the “explanations” need to be fashioned to suit their level of comprehension- so the parents think. The kids continue to believe in them with waning conviction as months and years roll by and sagaciously drop them in favour of more acceptable pieces for the jigsaw of their expanding “universe.”
Some kids “suspend disbelief” long before they hear of Coleridge. As children become smarter or “prematurely mature”- as some hardnosed adults may choose to describe them, they become more and more skeptical about their parents’ obviously guarded explanations on “delicate topics.” They discreetly “suspend disbelief” to avoid embarrassing their parents. Very few of them who may perhaps happen to google Coleridge later would remember that the latter’s counsel to his readers was a trick they had warily used as children to make their parents enjoy their own unimpressive “stories.” Thus, it is hardly likely that they would ever recall using the selfsame trick to optimize their harvest of goose bumps on their arms as they sat cuddled up on the lap of their grannies to listen to the adventures of the brave podi gamarala.
Feigning belief is not the exclusive preserve of children, although the two brats in the above anecdote made use of it to outsmart their father who subsequently became famous among his colleagues for his unlucky ingenuity. Clever grandparents play the same game when they readily believe that their grandchild, who suddenly gets a tummy ache on a Monday morning, is too sick to attend school. When the kid “recovers” too soon and asks for a piece of chocolate to go with the breakfast, she realizes that grandma’s credulity has a sting in the tail. The old lady wouldn’t hear of letting sick children eat sweets- she needs plenty of convincing that chocolates wouldn’t make a stomachache far worse!
Often there is little difference between feigning belief and believing- in the former you deceive the other; in the latter you deceive yourself, although you won’t often be aware of it. Take any instance where you are accustomed to taking something as a fact because you have believed in it for ages. For example, you believe that the two people whom you have called “parents” all your life are your biological parents – of course, no reason to verify unless something serious happens to make the identification necessary. So is the case with your siblings. It’s the unrivalled example of an intimate term of family relationships gradually acquiring the nuances of an established biological fact.
However, if you were to ask your “parents” to prove their parenthood, you would be considered weird or, worse still, insane. Such a doubt would surely be made to seem irrelevant and redundant by convention. However, in rare situations requiring scientific validation, such “irreverent” identification would be perfectly in order. As such, under ordinary conditions, our habitual belief as regards family relationships amounts to more or less culturally-sanctioned and convenient self-deceit. Here, what should be highlighted is that a perpetuated belief can often pass for fact leaving you to be ignorant of it all your life. Of course, many would hasten to point out that such ignorance is harmless, sure enough.
Generally, we are hardwired to believe. We believe what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Life would be practically impossible if we refuse to believe what our five senses communicate to us. For example, you suddenly spot a snake on your path but choose not to believe what your eyes report to you; you will immediately pay the price. In fact we have been relying so much on our physical perceptions that we hardly factor in “belief” in the transmission process. In other words, the vital role of “belief” in our sensory perceptions is taken for granted. Don’t we unconsciously provide proof of this when we say, “I could hardly believe my eyes.” As such, disbelief, with regard to physical living, is often the exception.
Faith in sensory perceptions is rarely challenged. When we look at the tree out there we ‘know’ that it is there and the question of “belief” scarcely arises. Yet, let’s take another example. Just as the tree in the garden, we “know” that there are stars in the sky, but we are told that perhaps some of them may not be there now, which immediately makes it clear to us that what we thought we knew was possibly an illusion. Only a scientific explanation of the phenomenon helps us to see our mistake.
So, we naturally take what we perceive through our senses to be a fact, and asking for proof is deemed redundant if not hilarious. However, we don’t necessarily have the same sense of complacency when it comes to responding to an explanation. For example, although we don’t ask for reasons to believe that stars are there, we ask for reasons if we were to believe astronomers when they claim that some of the stars visible now may have died out centuries ago. Thus, taking belief with a pinch of disbelief may perhaps make matters in life a little more wondrous and above all serendipitous.
Bernard Shaw is perhaps a bit too disparaging of belief when he says: “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
A tribute to Panadura hospital vaccination staff
After many days of hesitations, reluctantly I joined the long queue of people to get the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccination for Covid-19 on Tuesday around 11.15 AM at the Panadura base hospital. It was not a very long queue comparatively as I had seen the queues on previous days.
The queue was along the pavement beside the parapet wall of the hospital. There was one security guard manning the queue. As we entered the hospital premises all were requested to fill a form each and those were collected and taken to another place by a staff member. Then we were asked to sit on the beds (no chairs) that were arranged inside a nicely built makeshift enclosure with a roof to protect all from the sun.
There a pleasant male staff member (may be a doctor) neatly clad in the official attire, briefed us about the process, the vaccine, it’s after-effects if any and other related facts. Although pressed for time, he addressed all aspects that we should know. It was truly informative and a pleasure to hear.
Within a few minutes, people in batches were asked to proceed to a close by building. While we were standing near the building a nurse brought cards which were filled by the hospital office staff accordingly with the data provided by us. Then we were asked to go inside the building where the vaccinations were given. I did not feel anything although the vaccine was given to me in a matter of a few seconds. I came out of the hospital around 12.20 pm.
The date of the next dose is also mentioned in the card given to me.
The entire hospital premises were very clean and the well-maintained garden was full of flowering trees.
On behalf of all I wish to thank the Medical Superintendent and the doctors of the planning department for a job well done giving enough convenience to the general public. Also. to all staff members that we came across as they added luster, honour, stature and dignity to their respective professions when treating all of us.
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