by Ashley de Vos
Reconciliation is a strange word with multiple meanings when applied in different situations and understandings, but mostly gravitating towards a willingness, a compromise to get together again. As such, it is a process that cannot be forced; it will always and should be a natural process. Four hundred years of colonialism introduced a need to move vertically and not on a horizontal plane only to satisfy false definitions of democracy, based on the divide-and-rule policy of the coloniser.
“Prior to colonialism, the Jathi-varna system in India had little, if anything, to do with race, ethnicity, or genetics. It is better understood as a set of distinctions based on traditional or inherited social status derived from work roles. Jathi is a highly localised and intricately organised social structure. One of the important aspects of Jathi, which was conspicuously overlooked by western Indologists, is its dynamic nature – allowing social mobility as well as occupational diversification” (Malhotra & Neelakandan, 2011, Schwab, 1984). Sri Lanka would have shared a similar vision.
This draconian political need based on ex-colonial recommendations to follow the African, the South African model as a methodology for reconciliation in Sri Lanka, is strange, as in the case of South Africa, reconciliation is between two distinctly different people. The Afrikaners who are predominantly White and of Dutch extraction, have been totally racist in their approach to living in South Africa. They saw the Black African as an inferior being to be used as a slave and treated them as such. The Dutch have a long history of slavery throughout their colonial occupation. Hence the Africans for decades were treated as the lowest of the low, and were beginning to believe what was been instigated. That was to be their lot.
Today, the traditional African tribes, living in South Africa, are forced to sacrifice their human dignity, to dress in colourful beads and dance semi-nude before the camera, for the titillated gratification of some frustrated foreign tourist. This is also a form of cultural slavery that has its roots in the very concept of Cultural Tourism promoted by the Bretton Wood twins, as a new economic break through theory, believed and unfortunately adopted copycat as a way forward, by “Experts” in many countries, including in Sri Lanka.
The Indian community in South Africa, arrogant and believing in their false superiority over the Africans, even though they themselves may have been taken across during the colonial occupation of the African lands, some even as slaves to work the sugar cane fields and as labour in the construction of infrastructure, looked down on the Africans as belonging to the lowest of the untouchable classes. An applied ruling based on a derogative concept judged firstly by the skin colour of the Africans. These Indians aided and abetted the British and white Afrikaner against the Black Africans.
Depicting Indians as “infinitely superior” to black Africans and using the racist pejorative “kaffirs” to describe them, is common throughout Gandhi’s early writings. He routinely expressed “disdain for Africans,” Gandhi described black Africans as “savage,” “raw” and living a life of “indolence and nakedness,” and he campaigned relentlessly to prove to the British rulers that the Indian community in South Africa was “superior” to native black Africans. This is spelt out clearly in “The South African Gandhi: Stretcher- Bearer of Empire” by S. Anand.
In an open letter to the Natal Parliament, in 1893, Gandhi wrote: “I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”(Gandhi – S. Anand). Over time some of Ghandi’s views may have changed, but he remained caste conscious to the end.
Offended and very rightly so, the students at the University of Ghana, Accra, actioned the removal of the Gandhi statue, installed on the campus by the government of India. Law student Nana Adoma Asare Adei told the BBC: “Having Gandhi’s statue means that we stand for everything he stands for and if he stands for these things (his alleged racism), I don’t think we should have his statue on campus.”
Can there ever be reconciliation? Whatever anyone says, we personally don’t think it ever possible. The final black uprising is looming on the horizon; it will arrive within a decade, nay earlier. This will see all white South Africans wiped out. Whether it constitutes a step back is for the Africans to decide. The Indian community will suffer the same fate. The South African experiment with reconciliation is not something that should be copied by anyone, it cannot last. It is but a short-term kite in the sky. It will fly only as long as the wind remains favourable and white, so to speak.
Many White South Africans have realised that the writing is on the wall and are migrating to create a new life for themselves in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK and even to Georgia in the previous Soviet Union. However, the open invitation from New Zealand, Australia and the UK seems to be running into problems, due to the migrant’s dissimilar and non-adoptable behavioural patterns, inconvenience to integrate and the willing creation of close knit ghetto communities built around their inter dependency. It will not be easy for the Afrikaner in any of the new countries as they will miss the African slave to help in whatever they hope to do. As for the experiment in Georgia, it is hoped that it would be successful.
The American exercise of integration, based on reconciliation, even after two centuries has still not worked, as there is no truth or sincerity in the process. They had a President who claimed to be black in colour. So what? That has not improved the general level of the African American people compared to the rest. A few have benefitted while being the routinely discriminated against, poverty stricken; the black community, driven into ghettos, still waits. It is a very long wait for the Martin Luther King’s dream, immobile, a stillbirth; will it ever come to fruition? Chris Hedges in his recent book, “America, The final tour”, referred to “the country being of a mindset that stems from a violent disposition, a war mentality based on promoting a brand of unsustainable ultra-consumerism”. Will the poor continue to be exploited and remain poor? Of course, they certainly will, and according to the grand (sic) scheme they have to.
The mass migration out of the disgusting slums in the eastern cities in the US around 1870s prompted and encouraged the new American migrants to go west to today’s mid-west and further to California. In the process, they decimated the first nation tribes and robbed them of their lands with the help of treaties that were not worth the paper they were written on. These tribes were eventually forced into enclosures called reservations and to ominous drunkenness. The “change-the-(native)Indian- and-save-the-man” policy has robbed them of not only their rich culture based on a deep respect for nature but also their traditional lands, their burial grounds and their rightful place in history. Today, they have been relegated to a subordinate tier in the American society lower than that of the African American.
Unfortunately, the African American who is of greater use to American society will continue to be used with a carrot of false promises dangling in front? While the globalisation experiment referred to by Henry Kissinger, “globalisation is the Americanisation of the world” will continue to spiral. This mass global consumerisation is being further encouraged by the corporate banks with their issue of credit cards, luring those unfamiliar with handling bank credit into a spiral of debt. These innocents carry on merrily paying the minimum, often forgetting that there is a heavy penalty accumulation taking place.
This spiralling debt will eventually engulf the poor in the world, leading to their suffocation and death and an eventual crippling of the traditional banking system. In the past decade, instead of making savings, big business greedily allocated all profits earned, amongst themselves and their shareholders, or in the purchasing of new projects, with little concern for a rainy day. The rainy day has arrived. This will eventually lead to their self-destruction, even begging their governments to prop them up.
The countries whose economies depend on the continuous development of endlessly superior and more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction, will continue to do so. Driven by an insatiabile hunger, a prerequisite would be to frighten the more peaceful countries on the looming of an eminent imaginary enemy or to promote and generate a tyranny, all to ferment and create markets for this merchandise. Even if it entails the starting of wars in specially selected oil rich or strategically located parts of the world, usually far from their own, destroying all normalcy, on a false concept of democracy.
The Western hegemony has a different definition for democracy. A definition that is blinkered on what they as countries do, but at the drop of a hat would be willing to point their fingers in a predetermined direction. Always finding fault with and bullying the smaller more vulnerable and weaker nations, in the process promoting their own idealistic belief of a totally insincere concept, of what democracy is.
After the forced disruption, once they install their puppets and move in, the motive is to install their contractors, to gain free access to exploiting valuable resources that rightfully belong to the people and the nation in the countries under siege, and not to the leadership in these countries.
They will even encourage the leadership to partake in this robbery. This will be the biggest war that will eventually be deposited on the doorstep of the manufacturers of these weapons. A trajectory works in mysterious ways; it has a homing instinct and eventually returns.
While we cannot accept the South African or the US model, both favourites of the Internationally funded NGO community, which sit at the base of the table eagerly waiting for the scraps that may fall their way. Both foreign-based models will surely not work for Sri Lanka. In both examples, one side with presumed superiority is vehemently disinterested in compromise, especially, in their despised disinterest in the other. They expect the other side to accept all their demands and meet requirements.
The world encompassing predominant media hype on the corona virus has thrown a blanket over the more serious issues. The ex-colonial British, especially as they still live in an illusionary superiority even after the loss of empire and believe they are still a lead colonial in charge, will go a step further. They will use promises and rhetoric as a tool to trap a disoriented and obligated refugee society to vote for them at the next elections. They are playing a dangerous short-term game in displaying an acute desperation, in choosing whom to support, when and where.
Singapore is also facing a fraying or the downside effects of the original experiment into secular living. Will it lead to success or to the destruction of the original vision, is to be seen. Canada instead of protecting and supporting the preservation of the first nations in their own countries, spend time in an inferiority based, superior pontificating in the affairs of other nations, in an attempt to entice those living in cultural ghettoes in Canada to win votes in their own district elections.
Considering the above, is there a Sri Lankan model? Yes! There is, but the success in implementation of such a model is hampered by a myriad of self-centred individuals who call themselves, “politicians”, who aspire to use the people they allegedly represent and are expected to serve, for their personal ends. Many see the neo-colonial use of this human asset and its virtue as a lucrative building block for their own survival in this quagmire of sick politics. These politicians need to keep a constant flow of rhetoric, for without the statements they make and the tension they create they will have no role to play to sustain their ego. Without this rhetoric, the ‘generous’ funding by International NGO’s will also come to an end.
As an alternative, we should be looking at a Sri Lankan model that keeps out false prophets and gives people the freedom to interact across the board and learn to live together again. As categorically stated by Dr Abdul Kalm, an eminent past President of India, “A nation is greater than its politics “. In Sri Lanka misplaced arrogance blocks a clear vision.
All who have been displaced due to forced ethnic cleansing should be returned to their original homes; this should not be limited to one group only. The Sinhalese and Muslims displaced in the north should be resettled in their original environments. As in the past, we still hope to see Matara Bakers in the forefront of breadmaking in the North. Those displaced in other parts of the island should also be encouraged to return. Those who have gone abroad will never return, as they and their families now enjoy the economic benefits of their new life. However, they will be routinely enticed to continue to fund and drum beat in their chosen foreign lands, to maintain their status, and to keep the original investment that never produced the promised and envisaged dividend, continuously afloat.
The work of Prof. Kamani Thennakoon, University of Colombo is significant. Her DNA studies, “Comparing both the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils, show no large genetic difference, suggesting that both populations have a common ancestry native to the island”. These data have led the team to conclude that contemporary Sri Lankans share very close maternal ancestors.
Race is usually seen as biological, referring to the physical characteristics of a person, while ethnicity is viewed as a social science construct that describes a person’s cultural identity. Ethnicity is created by linguistic, religious and cultural differences rather than by genetic differences. The study indicates no genetic difference between the Sinhala and Tamil speaking community living on this island.
However, there is a difference in the DNA of South India. Even the Tamil spoken in Tamil Nadu is different, it has evolved over time. The Tamil presently spoken in Jaffna has remained static and has its roots in an early form that stems from the 7th – 9th Century. Does this have another interpretation? A well-known scholar’s original thesis, may hold a clue.
In Sri Lanka, the DNA studies show that, we are all one people divided by two languages, forcibly kept apart by location and ego-seeking neo-colonial politicians. A recent statement by Daya Gamage showed that 58% of Tamil speaking people drawn from the north and east are living amongst the Sinhala speaking community in the rest of the island, amongst a very tolerant community. A narrow fragmented false domestic wall, that divided a single people like the bifurcation of Germany after World War ll has been created, nurtured and kept alive by the egotistical neo-colonial politician.
The new condescension of the Islamic population has a short memory; it is a recent foreign influenced input that has blinkered thought. They have forgotten that it was a benevolent Sinhala king that in the 16th C, who invited the Moors to live amongst the Sinhala in the hill country to save them from the persecution by the Portuguese, and even permitted them to marry Sinhala women, giving them access to a broader understanding of a cultural matrix, when they partook in the temple rituals and even offered dana to the Sangha. Robert Knox, during his exile in the Sinhala village, spent his time and earned an income from crocheting skull caps for sale to the Islamic population living in the vicinity of his village. (To be concluded)
How bankruptcy paves way for exploitation of Sri Lanka
Mismanagement of cash cow SLPA, where still it’s carry on as usual
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The United States is keen to further enhance and consolidate its role in Sri Lanka. The current turmoil that has been caused by waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement of the economy over the years as well as a spate of ill-advised decisions taken by the incumbent administration would facilitate the US strategy here. The global fuel and food crises caused by Russia rushing into a quagmire in Ukraine, essentially tailor made by the West, as happened to its predecessor the Soviet Union in Afghanistan earlier, has further debilitated the Sri Lankan and many other economies.
The failure on the part of the ruling SLPP and the Opposition to reach a consensus regarding a common action plan to face the daunting economic challenges, has assisted the U.S. and common ‘Quad’ approach towards Sri Lanka. The organization consists of the U.S. Japan, Australia and India, the last now more or less a reluctant bride.
The U.S. wants to strengthen Sri Lanka’s accounting and auditing sectors as part of its overall measures to improve the public sector here. Other ‘Quad’ members are pursuing combined as well as individual strategies pertaining to Sri Lanka. India is now in a position to dominate Sri Lanka in every aspect. The push to expand network of Lanka IOC service station is a case in point.
Speculation is rife of New Delhi seeking to further enhance its share of the oil market here in a situation of utter economic turmoil caused by unprecedented shortages.
The recent announcement that the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) would partner the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (CA Sri Lanka) and the Association of Public Finance Accountants of Sri Lanka (APFASL) to toughen Sri Lanka’s accounting and auditing sectors was amidst the worst ever economic turmoil. The US project, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, is meant to train approximately 600 public sector accountants and audit professionals and 1,200 officers on IT applications and other platforms that support strategic decision-making.
U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung declared at the launch of the project the partnership with CA Sri Lanka and APFASL would contribute towards greater accountability in the public sector. The Embassy, in a statement issued on June 15, 2022, quoted Chung as having said that as one of Sri Lanka’s longstanding development partners, the U.S vision was to help the country to emerge from crises stronger than before.
The statement also quoted Sanjaya Bandara, President of CA Sri Lanka, as having said that “Strong public financial management is very critical for Sri Lanka to achieve its long-term goals. President of APFASL V. Kanagasabapathy profusely thanked the USAID for the recognition of its efforts. The U.S. Embassy quoted Kanagasabapathy as having said that APFASL’ vision was to lead the public financial management to excellence while helping the sector to continue to play a pioneering role in Sri Lanka.
The countrywide U.S. project, according to the statement, is meant to provide a framework for the preparation and presentation of financial statements in compliance with international best practices for quality financial accounting and reporting. Having published the US statement, the writer asked the Embassy whether it would be possible to know the total cost and duration of the project and who would receive the funding?
The Island received the following response: “This initiative is a series of trainings supported by the United States. The training will be attended by public sector accountants and audit professionals to strengthen oversight and accountability capacity in Sri Lanka.”
The Island again asked the U.S. Embassy whether it would be possible to know the total cost of the project. We received the following second response: “This initiative includes 24 training programmes over the course of two years. Training programmes will take place in all 9 Sri Lankan provinces.”
After having thanked the U.S. Embassy, The Island once again repeated the question how much the project would cost the US? The Embassy didn’t respond to that query. That was nearly two weeks ago.
Question mark over 2016 US project
The latest project can be examined taking into consideration the high profile USAID funded three-year project launched in late Nov. 2016. Budgeted at USD 13,000 mn (Rs 1.92 bn), the project launch that took place in Parliament under the auspices of the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and USAID Mission Director Andrew Sisson, the gathering was told the Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) would improve strategic planning and communication within government and Parliament, enhance public outreach, develop more effective policy reform and implementation processes, and increase political participation of women and underrepresented groups in Parliament and at local levels.
Had that project achieved stated goals, Sri Lanka wouldn’t be in the current predicament. It would be pertinent to mention that the U.S. finalized the project over eight months after the then Central Bank Governor Singaporean national Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated the second far bigger Treasury bond scam. So were all those American efforts nothing more than a smokescreen for other agendas?
The CBSL perpetrated the first scam in February 2015, just few weeks after the US-backed campaign installed Maithripala Sirisena as the President, which they shamelessly crowed about publicly with none other than then Secretary of State John Kerry announcing it to the world. Mahendran carried out the second bond scam in late March 2016, half a year after the UNP won the general election.
The release of the unedited video footage of the examination of public enterprises undertaken by the parliamentary watchdog, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) under the leadership of Prof. Charitha Herath MP has exposed unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement of state enterprises. Unfortunately, the media and the civil society hadn’t taken advantage of the availability of such video footage released by the Parliament to educate the public. The press releases issued by the Parliament on proceedings at the COPE, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee of Public Finance) quite clearly helped the media, but video footage provided much clearer picture of the developments taking place.
The video footage of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) top management appearing before the COPE on June 22, 2022 is a case in point. The proceedings revealed not only a pathetic state in public sector finance but the failure on the part of the executive, legislature and the judiciary to address these issues at hand. Prof. Charitha Herath flanked by Auditor General W.P.C. Wickramaratne and Secretary to the COPE Nishanthi Wickramasinghe examined the top SLPA management. Ports and Shipping Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra, flanked by Chairman, SLPA Dr. Prasantha Jayamanna, Director J.R.U. de Silva and Chief Financial Officer, Ports and Shipping Ministry Sandhya Pushparani. They were on the first row. Isuru Balpatabendi, Director sat in between Chairman, Jaya Container Terminal Attorney-at-Law Lakmal Ratnayake, and its Managing Director Upul Jayatissa. Director General Customs Maj. Gen. (ret.) G.V. Ravipriya also sat on the second row as a Director of the cash cow.
The COPE didn’t raise any queries from Isuru Balpatabendi nor did he offer any explanations. Balapatabendi’s presence among the eight-member Board of Directors should be examined taking into consideration of him being the Secretary of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). Having offered solutions to overcome the current political, economic and social crisis, the BASL cannot turn a blind eye to continuing waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement in the public sector. The SLPA can be a case study for the BASL.
The bottom line is that Sri Lanka is currently in such a desperate situation the US may find the environment conducive for a fresh attempt to force SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) on Sri Lanka. The US succeeded in securing Sri Lanka’s consent for ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in Aug 2017. Interestingly both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena who approved ACSA that gave US military access to Sri Lanka are now with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government.
Importance of internal audit
At the onset of the COPE proceedings, Prof. Herath sought an explanation as regards the status of the internal audit. Obviously, Chief Internal Auditor, SLPA, Gayani Liyanage responses as well as that of the SLPA Chairman to specific questions didn’t appease Prof. Herath, who asserted that poor internal audit could be one of the reasons for the current issues. Prof. Herath asked the SLPA Chairman not to assign tasks to the 53-strong internal audit unit outside their legitimate duties.
Herath raised several contentious issues with COPE members Patali Champika Ranawaka (PCR), Madura Vithanage, Jagath Pushpakumara, D.V. Chanaka, Eran Wickramaratne and Premanath C. Dolawatta making valuable contributions. PCR was particularly spot on. The former JHU heavyweight dealt firmly and expertly with contentious issues while Vithanage targeted the Finance.
The following are the main points of contention:
(1) The loan obtained from China to build Hambantota port has been removed from all government financial statements. As at Dec 31, 2021, Sri Lanka owed China Rs 165.4 bn (USD 1.89 bn). USD 1.2 bn received from China for 99-year lease of the strategic port hadn’t been utilized to settle the loan. Instead, the USD 1.2 bn had been spent though the COPE was not told of the allocation of USD 1.2 bn. The Treasury now services the loan. Prof. Herath requested Ports and Shipping Ministry Secretary Ruwanchandra to submit a comprehensive report on this matter.
(2) The COPE sought an explanation from the SLPA why the state enterprise failed to market the Hambantota port the way the Chinese did after the finalization of the USD 1.2 bn agreement on the 99-year-lease on the commercially strategic port.
(3) Massive losses suffered as a result of procurement of a stock of oil at a cost of USD 24.3 mn (Rs 8,000 mn) that had to be sold for USD 3.5. COPE questioned Niroshan Siriwardena, Managing Director, Magampura port over the circumstances the outfit unwisely utilized the loan obtained from a bank on the advice of a consultant. COPE recommended the SLPA and the Secretary Ports and Shipping Ministry to take legal measures against the consultant. Proceedings revealed Magampura port operation is nothing but an absolute waste of public funds. The failure on the part of those responsible to take tangible action in this regard stressed.
(4) The inordinate and continuing delay in equipping the ECT (East Container Terminal) thereby giving advantage to the China owned CICT (Colombo International Container Terminal) and SAGT (South Asia Gateway Terminal). The SLPA owned 15 percent each of both CICT and SAGT. The negligence and the failures on the part of those responsible for transformation of the ECT seemed, in a way, deliberate. The parliamentary watchdog questioned the possibility of some interested party purposely undermining the operation. The fault seemed to be at the level of Cabinet of Ministers as well as successive SLPA administrations. The issue of taking delivery of gantry cranes before constructing specific positions they were to be installed shocking and disappointing. The COPE took notice of the fact that such equipment took one and half years to be built after an order was placed. It transpired that the cost of the civil works component was USD 198 mn (65% local currency) and equipment installation cost USD 282 mn. However, the installation has been delayed due to the failure on the part of the SLPA’s state bank to provide the required financing. The shocking revelation that the ECT hadn’t been expanded for five years after the completion of the 400 m stretch is evidence that successive governments failed public expectations. Lawmaker PCR emphasized the pivotal importance of revisiting the ECT project as the ground situation has changed. The MP reminded the SLPA and the COPE of the government’s admission of bankruptcy.
(5) Dispute over the SLPA’s stated profits. The SLPA challenged the Auditor General’s estimate that the state enterprise earned Rs 45 bn in 2021. The SLPA placed annual profits at Rs 62 bn. The COPE also made reference to the SAGT returning to the SLPA in 2019 and the government’s responsibility in that regard.
(6) The loss of revenue as well as foreign shippers’ faith in the SLPA as a result of the strike launched on June 10, 2020.
(7) Construction of Adani Group-led CWIT (Colombo West International Terminal). Comparison of the CICT and the SAGT workforce with that of the SLPA and the sharp difference in the number of the private sector workers and the SLPA. The SLPA seemed a law unto itself with the disclosure that the highly profitable venture operated to a certain extent outside the purview of the Management Services Department though the total number of employees remained well under the stipulated figure 9,900. The COPE stressed the need to ensure that the SLPA under any circumstances didn’t go beyond the stipulated number of workers. The current work force comprised 9,300.
(8) Rohitha Abeygunawardena who served as the Ports and Shipping Minister of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa till April 2020 raised the contentious issue of recruitment beyond the approved cadre. The lawmaker stressed the need to compare the private sector operations and that of the SLPA. The COPE was told that though the total approved cadre hadn’t been exceeded, recruitment has been carried out in an irregular and extremely shoddy manner.
(9) Big question mark over the transfer of just Rs. 600 mn out of 69,686 mn profits (2016-2021) period and the pathetic failure on the part of the Finance Ministry to address the issue.
(10) Absence of a cohesive and efficient system to charge CICT and SAGT for certain services rendered by the SLPA.
(11) Growing overtime Bill with 2021 recording a staggering Rs 5.8 bn in extra payments. Scandalous disclosure some workers earned overtime for 400 hours and unskilled work assistants numbering 1,500 continued to be a heavy burden.
(12) Controversy over so-called collective agreement that ensured salary increase every three years. The COPE stressed the need to have guidelines formulated by the Management Services Department to prevent exploitation of collective agreements as the process threatened financial stability.
The SLPA, in spite of being a profit making state enterprise, remains in an utterly chaotic situation. The SLPA hasn’t been a burden on the taxpayer though the national carrier SriLankan, the CEB and the CPC bled the country dry. But casual examination indicates regardless of the financial status a section of public servants continued to enjoy perks and privileges while the entire country suffered as a result of local and some external factors beyond Sri Lanka’s control.
The Bonhomie of the Ages
By Lynn Ockersz
Ignoring aching hearts and limbs,
And unmindful of days passing,
The men slumped in their Tuk-Tuks,
Continue their lonesome vigil,
In queues snaking into the distance,
For those never-coming cans of fuel,
Promised by smooth-talking Sires,
That could help fetch a few more coppers,
And delay the onset of starvation,
But thanks to the age-old wisdom,
Handed to them by their humble elders,
The only inheritors of the pristine Dhamma,
The men are not bereft of compassion,
So much so, they share the frugal meals,
The Sweat of their Brows has yielded.
House watchdog committees ascertain culpability of FM, Monetary Board
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Committee on Public Finance (COPF), inquiring into financial meltdown recently, called several former and serving officials to ascertain their culpability as well as that of the institutions they served for the developing crisis.
Among them were former Governors of the Central Bank Prof. W.D. Lakshman (Dec 2019- Sept 2021), and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (Sept 2021-March 2022), Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera (Nov 2019-Dec 2021) and Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle (Nov 2019-April 2022), Sanjeeva Jayawardena P.C. (received appointment as a member of the Monetary Board in Feb 2020) and Dr. Ranee Jayamaha (the retired CB Deputy Governor received appointment to the Monetary Board in June 2020). It would be pertinent to mention that Attygalle earlier served a short stint as the Treasury Secretary (Ministry of Finance) between Oct. 31, 2018 and Dec. 18, 2018 during the constitutional coup staged by ex-President Maithripala Sirisena.
The term of office of an appointed member of the Monetary Board is six years and in the event of vacation of office by the appointed member, another person shall be appointed in his or her place to hold the office during the unexpired part of the term of office.
The COPF meeting took place on June 08. Dissident SLPP lawmaker Anura Priyadarshana Yapa chaired the meeting. CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, were present.
Attygalle didn’t mince his words when he squarely blamed the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also served as the Finance Minister (Nov 2019 to July 2021) for the controversial fiscal policy that had ruined the country. Attygalle declared that the government implemented the first Cabinet paper, dated Dec 04, 2019 presented by Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The former Treasury Secretary, who also served in the Monetary Board till April this year, challenged the widely held view that abolition of a range of taxes, in line with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fiscal policies, triggered the crisis. Attygalle asserted that the import restrictions, especially the ban on the importation of vehicles imposed at the onset of the Covid-19 eruption, and the economic contraction, resulted in the meltdown.
The COPF should seek an explanation from Attygalle, himself a former top Central Banker, having last served there as Deputy Governor, regarding the failure on the part of the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board to review the decision to abolish taxes soon after the Covid-19 eruption. The Finance Ministry banned vehicle imports in March 2020 as part of the overall measures to manage the weak foreign currency reserves. Therefore, the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board cannot absolve themselves of the blame for failing to take remedial measures.
The COPF specifically asked whether the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board officials sought to advise the political leadership of the ground realities against taking such decisions. It emerged that they did nothing. The COPF proceedings revealed that in spite of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation, the Finance Ministry and Monetary Board mandarins failed to take remedial measures. The SLPP members in the COPF, too, should not forget that the change of tax policies had been in line with their 2019 presidential election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.
A disastrous manifesto
The SLPP made the following proposals:
a- Income tax on productive enterprises will be reduced from 28 to 18 percent.
b- The Economic Service Charge (ESC) and Withholding Tax (WHT) will be scrapped;
c- A simple value added tax of eight percent will be introduced, replacing both the current VAT of 15 percent and the Nation Building Tax (NBT) of two percent;
d- PAYE tax will be scrapped and personal income tax will be subject to a ceiling of 15 percent;
e- A five-year moratorium will be granted on taxes payable by agriculturists and small and medium enterprises;
f- Various taxes that contribute to the inefficiency, irregularities, corruption and lack of transparency of the tax system will be abandoned. Instead a special tax will be introduced for different categories of goods and services;
g- Import tariff on goods competing with domestically produced substitutes will be raised;
h- A simple taxation system will be introduced to cover annual vehicle registrations and charges for relevant annual services, replacing the cumbersome systems that prevail now;
i- Various taxes imposed on religious institutions will be scrapped;
j- A zero VAT scheme will be adopted in the case of businesses providing services to Tourist hotels and tourists, if they purchase over 60% of the food, raw materials, cloths and other consumer items locally;
k- Service charges levied on telephones and Internet will be reduced by 50%;
l- Special promotional schemes will be implemented to encourage foreign investments;
m- A tax-free package will be introduced to promote investment in identified subject areas;
n- A clear and uncomplicated system of taxing will be in place with the use of internet facilities, special software and other technological services;
O- Information Technology (IT) services will be totally free from taxes (Zero Tax), considering said industry as a major force in the national manufacturing process;
p- All the Sri Lankans and Foreigners, who bring Foreign exchange to Sri Lanka through consultancy services, are exempt from income tax.”
Dr. Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon, Soosaiappu Neavis Morais and Dr. Mahim Mendis in a FR petition filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution listed the above-mentioned points, in that order, as one of the primary reasons for the current crisis. Among the respondents are Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Dr. P.B. Jaysundera and S.R. Atygalle.
All of them earlier appeared before the COPF where the incumbent Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe emphasized that officials should never engage in politics and should recognize the difference between them and politicians. Dr. Weerasinghe asserted that officials were duty bound to inform politicians if the decisions taken by the latter were wrong. The outspoken CBSL Chief declared that politicians alone shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of such wrong decisions. What Dr. Weerasinghe obviously meant was those who served in key positions at that time, too, were responsible for the current crisis. Dr. Weerasinghe, who had been asked to succeed Ajith Nivard Cabraal, in March, after the former suddenly announced his retirement, told the COPF, the officials’ claim that they had been unaware of the economy was on a wrong path for two years leading to the meltdown was not acceptable. Dr. Weerasinghe also strongly questioned the claim that economic policies had been implemented only on decisions taken by the political leadership.
Lawmakers present participating in the proceedings declared that the political leadership and the officials ignored their concerns as regards the economy raised at different occasions.
CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe before COPE on May 25, 2022. Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana is on Dr. Weerasinghe’s right.
The COPF proceedings should be studied along with revelations made by Dr. Weerasinghe before the COPF and the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) on May 24 and May 25, respectively as well as lawmaker Ali Sabry’s shocking declaration on May 02 as regards the origins of the crisis. President’s Counsel Sabry discussed the issue in his capacity as the Finance Minister after having led the government delegation for talks with the IMF.
Appearing before the COPF, Dr. Weerasinghe disclosed that those who had been responsible for preparing budget estimates over the years deliberately deceived even the Parliament by providing unrealistic and inaccurate revenue estimates. The CB Governor explained how such practices further weakened the economy as decisions and allocations were made on the basis of fraudulent estimates.
The whole process had been nothing but a farce. Lawmaker Sabry on May 02 in a live interview with Swarnawahini, and Dr. Weerasinghe on May 25, named those responsible for the current crisis that has ruined the economy with unemployment at an unprecedented high. Sabry alleged that the Secretary to the Treasury, Governor of the Central Bank, and senior economic advisors to the President, misled the Cabinet as regards the economic situation. The National List member revealed how they repeatedly assured that the situation was well under control, in spite of difficulties while expressing confidence that issues could be successfully dealt with.
By the time the Central Bank floated the rupee in March this year even without bothering to inform the Cabinet-of-Ministers of its decision, irreparable damage had already been caused, Sabry said.
The COPF and COPE proceedings and MP Sabry’s interview in which he questioned the role of the Finance Minister have revealed the pathetic situation as regards public finance.
The MP has alleged that those who managed the national economy had prevented the country seeking IMF’s intervention well over a year back. Had President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Cabinet-of-Ministers received proper advice, Sri Lanka would not have been in the current predicament, Minister Sabry said.
Dr. Weerasinghe named those who refused to heed IMF warnings when he appeared before COPE on May 25. The role played by Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and the Cabinet-of-Ministers were discussed during the proceedings with Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, helping to ascertain the environment in which the SLPP leadership operated.
Dr. Weerasinghe went to the extent of naming Dr. PBJ as the one who prevented the government seeking IMF’s intervention.
The Customs, Inland Revenue and the Excise Department responsible for revenue collection are run in a shoddy manner. In spite of the watchdog committees exposing glaring omissions and commissions by them that had caused revenue losses in billions of Rupees over the years, the political leadership hasn’t taken remedial measures. Committee reports paint an extremely bleak picture.
But what could be the most unforgivable sin is then Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa joking about having himself used the illegal Havala/Undiyal system that completely shut down several billion dollars that should have legitimately come to Sri Lanka as in past years as remittances from our migratory workers, especially serving in West Asia. Even at the height of the COVID pandemic the country received about six to seven billion dollars from mainly those unappreciated poor Lankan workers slaving in those countries as mainly labourers and housemaids. Such money may not be enough to pay back the country’s USD 50 billion foreign debt. That money, however, would have ensured that the country had the few million dollars to clear a shipment of gas or other necessities, instead of having to beg all over the world.
Unfortunately, the Parliament seems incapable of taking corrective measures. The Parliament should explore the possibility of appointing, a smaller team, comprising members of COPE, COPF and the COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) to recommend remedial measures, including possible criminal prosecution of dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa for his many omissions and commissions, but especially for not applying the full weight of the law against those running the underground money transfer system, that has even robbed the education of our children.
Keeping the currency steady is the wish of any Finance Minister as otherwise in a country like Sri Lanka dependent on imports for many of its essentials, like milk food, wheat, etc., it would result in basics skyrocketing in price as experienced now and as former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel also learnt it the hard way after allowing the rupee to devalue almost overnight by over 40 percent in the aftermath of opening up the economy to market forces after the victory of the UNP in 1977 with a staggering 4/5th majority in Parliament. It led to government workers staging a general strike demanding a Rs 10 wage increase, but was ruthlessly crushed by that regime.
A corrupt ministry
The Parliament needs to take tangible measures to restore public faith in the system. The Finance Ministry should be overhauled. Perhaps, the IMF, currently engaged in negotiations with the government, should look into the current system in place. The government can formulate an action plan on the basis of findings and recommendations made by the parliamentary watchdog committees. Perusal of proceedings of these committees reveals that the government hadn’t acted on their findings. The inordinate delay in taking action regarding the mysterious decision to reduce the duty on a kilo of white sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents on Oct 13, 2020 without passing on its benefit to the people is a case in point as pointed out by the COPF Chairman Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, MP. It, however, cost the cash starved Treasury dearly in billions in lost revenue.
Mahinda Rajapaksa served as the Finance Minister at the time of the issuance of the relevant gazette notification. S.R. Attygalle had been the Finance Secretary. It would be pertinent to ask both MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and Attygalle who recommended the duty reduction.
Actually, the COPF should ask Attygalle to explain the circumstances leading to the issuance of that controversial gazette. As Dr. Weerasinghe pointed out recently the officials cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the highly questionable decisions taken by politicians.
Who benefited from the reduction of duty imposed on sugar? In fact, the parliamentary watchdog committees should undertake a comprehensive study. Perhaps, the Finance Ministry role in the Yugadanavi deal can be investigated. Sri Lanka finalized the Yugadanavi transaction with US based New Fortress Energy at midnight on Sept 17, 2021 against the backdrop of Basil Rajapaksa receiving the finance portfolio. The government also brought in retired controversial figure M.M.C. Ferdinando from Australia to assume the leadership at the CEB before making the final move. S.R. Attygalle played a critical role as the Secretary to the Finance Ministry. The SLPP had no qualms in going ahead with the agreement in spite of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila challenging the transfer of 40 percent shares of the power station held by the Treasury among other concessions not fully revealed to the public.
The President’s Media Division (PMD) defended the agreement with the US energy firm. On the invitation of the then Presidential Spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake, M.M.C. Ferdinando briefed the media of the usefulness of the US investment. It would be pertinent to mention that Ferdinando, who fled the country in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena’s triumph in 2015 returned from Australia after the change of government in Nov 2019. Ferdinando’s 2015, move should be examined against the backdrop of corruption accusations directed at him by civil society activists Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon and Attorney-at-Law Namal Rajapaksa. The lawyer lodged a complaint with the then anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat. There had also been a case in the Fort Magistrate Court regarding the import of coal for Lakvijaya coal-fired power plants at Norochcholai.
In spite of initial public interest, such major cases are often not pursued properly even by those initiating them possibly with ulterior motives. When The Island inquired, lawyer Namal Rajapaksa acknowledged not being aware of the developments of his own case. At the time of the Norochcholai project, Ferdinando had served as the Secretary to the Power Ministry. The unholy alliance between the Finance Ministry and monstrous institutions, such as the CEB, should be investigated and mechanism put in place to protect the public interest.
The controversy over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s alleged intervention on behalf of India’s Adani Group at PM Narendra Modi’s persistent request led to Ferdinando’s resignation recently. The disclosure made by Ferdinando at the COPE, his subsequent denial and a letter dated Nov 25, 2021 Ferdinando wrote to the then Treasury Secretary Attygalle exposing the horrific way business of the State is being conducted. Accountability and transparency seem to be the last thing in the minds of political leaders here.
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