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OUR FINANCIAL MESS

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by Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

We are constantly reminded of the sorry state of our Economy. This is simply to say that we are broke. We are also told that the accepted criteria, requiring some sophisticated computations are necessary to really understand the position. One trouble is that the figures from two or more such sources, often do differ substantially (for example the Central Bank and the Census and Statistics Department are often at variance). No amount of massaging can convert bad data into good conclusions. As the saying goes, figures cannot lie, but liars can certainly figure. What the ordinary citizen feels is that things cost so much more than they did within one’s memory.

My family teases me by saying that I am talking “Wolseley prices (1959)”, (A payment of Rs 9,000/= at Faleel’s in Kandy, secures a brand new Wolseley ‘1500’ collected in Harpenden, UK). They aver that salaries are much higher now than they were then! Probably so, for example our gardener is paid for a single day, about one quarter of the monthly salary I drew as Director of the CRI! My family are not impressed. It is doubtful that the 9,000 /= that yielded a full Wolseley then would buy them a set of tyres for it now! I hold that there are many things that I can quote (with an admittedly impaired memory) where unit prices have increased several hundredfold and some a thousand times, far outstripping concurrent income increases!.

There is also no national mention about one of the most immediate reasons – unbridled growth of population, exceeding expectations and leakages of Government assets (e.g Central Bank, EPF and NSB). And while we are about it, what happened to that currency deal of some 20 million (in currency notes) that changed hands in the Car Park of the Taj Hotel as the first tranche of a 50 million deal? Taken together this is a toxic mix. During World War II, one directive given by wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, was to ensure that nothing (good or bad) should be hidden from public knowledge. In addition to the legendary reputation for British honesty, there was also the readiness of the people to suffer deprivation and hardship, in the solid faith that everybody was suffering equally.

Money takes meaning when it rewards genuine improvement, in productivity of materials or service. Here outlay is justified by output. The worst cases are bribery, corruption, smuggling, narcotics and similar acts of criminality and cheating, where cost comprehensively outstrips return. For example, MP’ voted themselves, a payment of Rs. 200,000/= per month purportedly “for electoral work,” while at the same time, denying estate labour their request for a daily wage of Rs.1,000/=. This is a quaint way of Division of Labour – one earning foreign exchange through hard sweat and toil, while the other is spending it equally strenuously in the “flesh pots” in various cities in different parts of the World. What could be fairer?

The twin processes that Government could take are obviously to:

(i) ensure that unnecessary expenditure is curtailed and

(ii) seek new means of raising revenue.

Managerial skill is to try, as far as possible to balance these two goals. The easy solution is to increase duty imposed on imports. This leads to price escalation. Populist measures have then to selectively grant subsidies or doles to keep the low income groups happy, thus leading to sizable increases in welfare costs. This is dangerous and further widens the gap between State income and expenditure. The Welfare State, it has been stated, can be the immediate prelude to the Farewell state!

In considering the local predicament, the need is for steps designed to alleviate immediate needs of our people. External issues concerning international trade, State debts, balance of payments and other high level verbiage, is beyond the ken of non-specialists and is sensed by the majority only when scarcities and price increases begin to bite.

Consequently, the Government has to seek new sources of income. I see at least six major opportunities:-

(i) Re-examine the VAT imposition to ensure that all collections are correctly reported and settled. This is hardly possible in a country where only some 200,000 income tax files exist, which relate to annual incomes (and Tax Returns), but many are still in severe default. Can such an inefficient system cope with monitoring of perhaps many million transactions per day? This has to be reformed to ensure that all VAT collections are properly managed. This is very unlikely. It is possible that VAT serves only to fleece the public and to aid fraudsters. I seized an opportunity to express this to a Deputy Minister of Finance at that time. He did not visibly shrug, but nothing has probably happened!

(ii) e did not shrug bat All Duty Free vehicles of MP’s which were hawked, should be recovered. Real Estate here and abroad, should be tracked. Like the Ownerless “Malwana Mansion” and probably many more. Where the public is able to track evidence of inexplicable wealth, there should be a method for rewarding them appropriately. (Customs detection from attempted smugglers could serve as an example). Constant mention is made about mega frauds, most leading to some political bigwig, the obvious remedy is to call for periodic declaration of assets by MP’s, if not annually, at least upon entering and exiting the “hallowed” Parliament. Why not? Does the “Cahoot Theory” apply and explain?. It is compulsory for Public Servants to declare their assets annually. Goose, Gander and Sauce! Nomination of candidates is an appropriate point at which to make such declaration mandatory. We understand that a very small number have made declarations, which are safely stacked away we are told, in somebody’s safe, away from public scrutiny. What is the point?

Here then is another source of income for our beleaguered State.

(iii) During the LTTE conflict, Mr. K.Pathmanathan (KP) was portrayed as the main Fund Manager of the vast wealth amassed by the LTTE. This was said to include a fleet of some seventeen ships, many Petrol Pumps, much Real Estate and every conceivable type of investment. This was how the LTTE ran its affairs professionally and effectively. Thus, when “KP” was captured in Malaysia and brought back to Sri Lanka, our entire nation was jubilant. By his (KP’s) own disclosures, when he faced Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defense Secretary at the time, he fully expected to be eliminated. To his surprise, GR was very cordial and friendly – even offering a handshake and an inquiry about his health. After this, the public lost interest. After a while he “materialized” and is supposedly engaged in some “social work” in the Vanni.

If the Government recoups the virtual Gold Mine that he (KP) managed and was reputed to have been in charge, the Government will possibly be able to meet a substantial part of its deficit.

Whatever happened to this money if KP was captured along with this loot?

(v) A massive collection of Official vehicles was left to decay in a site just next to “Mumtaz Mahal” which was at one time, the official residence of the Speaker. They were mostly of luxury models and lay covered with creeper weeds. I learned that these awaited dumping in the sea – despite the existence of a “Marine Pollution Protection Agency”! Only the grave-yards for vehicles in the Arabian Desert which is part of Iraq, presented a similar sight, where oil-rich Kuwaitis abandoned their posh vehicles (eg Mercedes, Volvos etc), because it was more costly to junk them in Kuwait itself. It is probable that the Kollupitiya junk yard, said to be one of three around Colombo alone, once belonged to the Presidential fleet (Said to have been over 200). No one has been held accountable for this criminal waste.

(vi) As an index of our moral decay, when some 70 odd MP’s were found to have sold their vehicles or duty free permits, not only was nothing done, but someone had the brazen cheek to say that this was permissible because MP’s had to recover election costs! This great tolerance apparently did not apply where a poor woman who supposedly stole a few milk powder packets to feed her hungry children, one also recalls that a young child was persecuted for “stealing” a few coconuts! It was cynically claimed that those who framed laws were entitled to break them! Evidently, these little baskets (Printer’s Devil) think that we are all “Buth Kana Harak” – rice eating cattle!

So, as an interim measure, get all of the blokes who profited from this caper to pay back the ill-gotten profits they earned. There was also a display of documents in the social media, relating to two permits one of which was issued to one “Sirisena” who identified himself as “the MP for Polonnaruwa” and with a Polonnaruwa address!. On the very same day, it was alleged a “Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP for Kurunegala” also had his “Land Cruiser”!. This was legitimate if the letters of the rule are sufficiently elastic. The duty waivers for these two vehicles was some 38 Million (?). If these revelations are not true, there should have been an official denial and perhaps even legal procedures instituted against the publishers of these malicious fabrications. There is no evidence of any such action. While at it, the fate of some 38 top flight “Jaguars” imported by the State, should be made known. Some very damaging and ugly rumours are afloat and should be countered. There is also the matter of a large number of vehicles held up at the Hambantota Port and released by a Ministerial fiat, which caused a heavy loss of some r a billions to the exchequer. As a general rule, rather than attempting to strangle the “social media” would it not be better for official denials of the sometimes outrageous allegations be met with convincing details from official records? Let us face it – the word MP is synonymous with corruption. This is grossly unfair by the several who are not crooked. But they should pluck up enough courage to challenge the crooks, and so take themselves out of the “Guilty Register” Among those who have succeeded at the recent polls are those who have emitted more than a mere stink of criminal misdemeanours. This does not promise well for the future.

Dear Mr President, you are reputed to be a strict disciplinarian. Retore our faith that you will cause action on this critical matter. Do not betray the trust reposed in you. Letus “Wait and see”.

 



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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