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Open letter to Basil Rajapaksa:Some ideas for a course correction

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Dear Sir,

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unfortunately at the early stages of the pandemic, we stigmatised our victims and had a forced cremation policy, since rescinded, but further measures to win public support and cooperation, such as the international practice of home quarantine for Covid patients, not requiring hospital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.

 

Non-organic fertiliser

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,

Harim Peiris



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Opinion

When Susanthika did Lanka proud

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As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.

The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.

Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.

As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.

That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.

As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.

Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.

So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.

Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.

LALITH FERNANDO

Panadura

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Opinion

Give teachers and principals their due

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Why didn’t the Education Minister and the Secretary pay due attention to the fair voices of the most vulnerable and largest service sector of this country, at the initial stage, making the alliance of teacher-principal trade unions proceed to street protests, which started in the absence of any positive gesture from the Ministry of Education? That is how the present state of chaos originated.

The prolonged online teaching strike has kept the younger generation of all school-going children in darkness, and their right to learn has been deprived of. Blaming the teachers is not the solution. What is required is the right solution at the time of need. The unions are demanding the implementation of the Subodhini Committee report, plus the Cabinet subcommittee proposals, in a gazette notification. It is more sensible for the government to respond to this final flexible stance of the unions, rather than prolonging the issue with temporary solutions.

The strikers of the teacher-principal unions are not ready to give in to the temporary sugar candy sachet which is a pretty ridiculous joke, a consolation allowance to dodge the crux of the problem. Plastering or patching up the situation by offering an allowance of Rs. 5000 for three months is a shame to the teacher community. Such an allowance should be allocated for COVID-19 affected people of low-income or refugees in flood-affected regions.

What could have been broken with the nail was allowed to grow to the extent that it couldn’t be crushed even with an axe. Successive governments disregarded the demands of teachers and principals, treating them as nonentities; although the ungrateful present-day politicians rose to their present high positions because their bright lives were designed, brain powers sharpened and heads enlightened by teachers.

Although all teachers are not saints, the majority of our teachers are worthy of veneration. They are the architects of nation-building. They must have sufficient pay for a decent living, commensurate with the commitments and their toil. With an ungratified mentality, they may be unenthusiastic to discharge duties. Under such circumstances, the process of nation-building will collapse. So far, they have been doing yeoman’s service but they can’t continue to do so amidst the rising cost of living and unfavourable living conditions. When the salaries of all other employee categories have been brought to a satisfactory level, why does the government not heed to their demand?

In response to the mounting pressure from the teacher-principal trade union strike, the government appointed a cabinet subcommittee to produce another report to solve the problem; but it turned out to be a futile attempt, akin to changing the pillow as a treatment to the headache, wasting the valuable time of both parties. Such a committee should comprise experts from the education field, not from the lobby with the loquacious MPs who are in the habit of suspending and postponing everything until the next budget. On the other hand, what is the need for piling up further committee reports, when there is already a much-quoted and assumed fairly balanced Subodhini Committee report, which has been formulated by a panel of members comprising a former minister, four additional secretaries, and the accountant of the Ministry of Education.

True that the government is in dire straits with financial difficulties, but that is not a sound reason to postpone this issue. If so, why should the government introduce new megaprojects, such as 200 city beautification programmes, import of luxury vehicles for MPs and walking tracks, which are not critical requirements. The problem of teacher salary anomalies could be solved by holding such long term, not so urgent schemes.

The proposed four-phased payment of the salary increments is a nice way of circumventing serious demands of trade unions and yet another fairy tale. It is a way of escaping the main responsibility.

To illustrate this point, let us take the case of the state employees who retired between January 2016 and December 2020. All government employees including judges, ministry secretaries, directors, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces personnel, and mind you, a former director-general of the Pensions Department, was entitled to a revised salary increment system in five stages starting in 2016, and final amalgamation of all increments, due to be paid with effect from January 2020. The salary increment rates are clearly stated in the pension award letter issued by the Director-General of the Department of Pensions, which is a legal document to confirm the claim.

The present government unreasonably cancelled the (2016-2019) pensioners amalgamated salary increment of five stages, by the circular 35/2019(1) dated 20.01.2020 following a cabinet decision. More than 100,000 pensioners have been victimised and deprived of their fundamental right of the salary and sad to say, nearly 1819 pensioners have already died without getting their increments. But the government so adamantly refused to pay up and adopted a slippery policy with various cock and bull stories.

The basis for the development of a country is the education system, spearheaded by the formidable workforce of teachers hailing from Aristotle and Disapamok. All of the so-called thriving politicians; garrulous speakers who look down upon teacher communities; professionals, academics, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, inventors, artists, all of these are the intellectual outputs of the dedicated energies of humble teachers who never gave priority to building highrise palaces for their self-indulgence and luxurious lives. Not to let it happen again and again, they deserve to be freed from this muddle of salary anomalies at this critical moment.

Finally, a word about the mediation of the Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, who are urging the alliance of the teacher-principal trade unions to give the strike up , and restart online teaching. May I appeal to the venerable prelates to be fair to all. Could you, in your respected designations, kindly convey the same message to the government, asking why it is not taking an initiative to resolve this burning issue, by issuing a circular or gazette notification, without postponing it off further, for the sake of the innocent school children?

M.B. NAVARATHNE

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Opinion

Ivermectin for COVID-19 management

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Prof Saroj Jayasinghe’s candid view, published in The Island of September 17, 2021, on Ivermectin use, both in treatment and prevention of COVID-19, has been based on scientific analysis of multiple meta-analyses on the subject. Therefore, his educated opinion must be viewed with great positivity.

Quite correctly, a doctor has to make decisions in good faith in an emergency situation, where any delay in the commencement of treatment could be disastrous. In a life-threatening condition, the treating doctor has no time to wait and waste until the evidence is available scientifically. Instead, the doctor has to make a decision using his clinical acumen and experience in order to save the life of the patient under his or her care.

Another example is: In an instance where an unconscious patient is brought to the accident and emergency department with life-threatening bleeding after an accident, the treating surgeon has no time to obtain the patient’s informed consent (usually a requirement before any surgical procedure), but to attend to (perform surgery on) the patient in all-good faith, in order to save the life. It may require even the amputation of a leg or hand.

Hence, treating a critically ill patient with Ivermectin is more than justified, particularly in the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 as a public health emergency. Further, under this context, the usage of Ivermectin in the prevention of COVID-19 is quite justified. Since no antiviral drug is available hitherto, its usage is further warranted.

As mentioned, Ivermectin is a time-tested and safe drug with no known serious side effects. The call for its usage in the management of and prevention of COVID-19 is time appropriate.

A veterinary surgeon, Prof Asoka Dangolle of the University of Peradeniya, has also expressed his opinion based on his experience with Ivermectin in mammals. In the current context, the world’s attitude is much in favour of the ‘One Health’ concept.

Therefore, in a helpless situation or pandemic of this nature, the consideration of the use of Ivermectin in all good faith is justifiable.

Prof ANANDA JAYASINGHE

Professor in Community Medicine

University of Peradeniya.

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