Wednesday 13th January, 2021
Environmentalists and religious dignitaries including Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, are cranking up pressure on the government to abandon a mega project to be implemented at the expense of a section of the Muthurajawela wetland. The incumbent dispensation apparently has a ravenous appetite for ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands, forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. A state minister tried to clear a mangrove forest in Negombo to build a playground. He would have succeeded in his endeavour but for an intrepid female Forest Officer, named Devani Jayathilake, who stood up to him. In a bid to scoff at her concern for air quality in the area, he demanded to know whether oxygen could be ‘eaten’—oxygen kannada? This seems to be the government motto where the environment is concerned. Another state minister took on a group of Wildlife officers who courageously frustrated his attempt to turn a wildlife sanctuary into a pastureland in Polonnaruwa. Now, some government worthies and their cronies are trying to gang-rape the precious wetland, nay ecological treasure trove, north of Colombo.
Coronavirus reduces blood oxygen level in critically ill patients and makes them gasp for breath. Deforestation also could have a similar effect on humans. Frantic efforts are being made to curb the spread of COVID-19, but precious little is done to prevent the deterioration of air quality due to the destruction of forests.
More than 82,000 acres of forest have been cleared for development projects, in this country, during the last decade, according to a recent news item in this newspaper. Development always entails an environmental cost, but everything possible must be done to mitigate its adverse effects and make it sustainable. The country’s forest cover has receded to an alarming 17% due to development projects, agriculture and timber rackets, and the need for urgent action to increase it cannot be overemphasised. But we have seen only half-hearted forest conservation or reforestation efforts during the last several decades.
The current administration has, in its wisdom, removed ‘peripheral forests’ or other state forests from the purview of the Forest Department and brought them under the Divisional and District Secretariats. This will invariably lead to encroachment and the destruction of the remaining trees in those areas, which should be left untouched for forests to recover.
The country’s forest cover suffered an irreparable damage at the hands of the British colonialists, who cleared virgin forests for coffee and tea plantations. But there were some colonial officers who really felt the need for forest conservation, unlike the so-called sons of the soil wielding power and wrapping themselves in the flag, today. One of them was Sir Joseph Hooker, as Dr. S. A. Meegama points out in his well-researched book, Guns, Taverns and Tea Shops: The Making of Modern Ceylon. Hooker intervened to prevent the British from clearing forests above five thousand feet. He, in fact, saved the forests around Sri Pada and the headwaters of the major rivers. It looks as if the present-day ‘patriotic’ leaders were making a determined effort to do what the British colonialists stopped short of doing. Environmentalists are protesting against a project to build another road to Horton Plains, which must ideally be out of bounds to all humans.
Meanwhile, Executive Director of Lawyers for Human Rights and Development Kalyananda Tiranagama has, in his article on this page today, taken exception to a government move to amend the Antiquities Ordinance. The government seeks to enable Magistrates to grant bail to offenders charged under this Ordinance, citing prison congestion, etc., as the reason. Tiranagama’s arguments against the proposed amendment are cogent. There are other ways to improve the conditions in prisons and prevent the police from abusing the existing laws to arrest offenders and have them remanded.
On examining the aforesaid gazette notification anent the ‘peripheral’ forests and the proposed amendment to the Antiquities Ordinance, one wonders whether there is a sinister plan to facilitate the plunder of forest resources and archeological treasures.
The galloping stock market
The Colombo stock market has been galloping like nobody’s business these past several days with little or no rational explanation of why this is so in the context of a pandemic-hit business downturn. Among the reasons that have been proffered by brokers and analysts for this surge in confidence of market players, and they have increased substantially in recent months according to the CSE, is that interest rates are plunging. Investors who could earn as much as 12 or 13 percent or more on fixed deposits not so long ago, have to be now satisfied with marginal returns way below the prevailing rates of inflation. They are thus attracted to a stock market which is now performing better than most others in the region.
But the surge on the Colombo market is not supported by foreign or institutional buying which knowledgeable people say is necessary to sustain the current momentum. In fact there has been a steady outflow of foreign funds from Colombo in recent months and there has been no stemming of this flow. Although various authorities have more than hinted that institutions like the Employees Provident Fund and the Insurance Corporation will be back in the market in the short term, this does not appear to have come to pass.
Little wonder. There have been a plethora of allegations about pump and dump and market manipulation that institutional fund managers will be reluctant to open themselves to fresh accusations. This would mean a safe ‘do nothing’ philosophy unless they are ordered to enter the market. We do not know whether there is political or any other directions on what state-controlled entities should do with regard to stock market investment today. But we do know that this has happened in the past. It has been rightly urged that the EPF is only the guardian of the private sector retirement fund it manages, and not its owner. The fund belongs to its members who, together with their employers, make monthly contributions to it as a retirement saving. It must therefore refrain from speculative investments like stock trading is the conservative viewpoint.
The contra-argument has also been adduced. The EPF has long been a captive lender to the government. Government borrowing would naturally ease as the economy grows and there was official thinking within the Central Bank that it made sense to invest in private sector growth areas through the stock market as a long-term strategy. This was done to some degree that was admittedly small. Those who read the annual reports of listed companies, and even their quarterly financial reports listing their top twenty shareholders, will know that that the EPF has substantial stakes in many blue chip companies. There must be a lot of unrealized capital gains in the EPF portfolio where the pluses will outweigh the minuses although the fund cannot always back winners. If its members get an annual dividend ahead of inflation on their individual holdings in the fund, nobody can reasonably complain.
The benchmark All Share Price Index of the CSE has already topped its all time high and the upward momentum continued as this is being written on Friday. Where it will end, nobody can say. It is certainly a good thing for the country that many small investors are entering the stock market which is now retail driven. A completely new class of investors have today entered a field which not so long ago was the exclusive preserve of the rich. Massive turnovers in the billions are being recorded on the CSE every day and stockbrokers who had a lean time as the Easter bomb and the pandemic hit forcing market closure for a long period, would now be laughing all the way to the bank. While the market and its players can bask in the current sunshine, it is very necessary to attract foreign investors back to the CSE. This will undoubtedly be a formidable tasks but a bull run such as that which ongoing can be a factor that can prove persuasive.
The Chairman of the Elections Commission went on public record that Ranjan Ramanayake, the actor politician, who has now begun serving his term of four years rigorous imprisonment will not lose his parliamentary seat for six months. But the attorney general has said otherwise and the elections boss has subsequently stated that what he had expressed is a personal opinion. However that be, the Ramanayake issue remains very much alive in parliament where his Samagi Jana Balavegaya colleague, Harin Fernando sported a black shawl last week and said he will continue to wear it until Ranjan returns. Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, who defended Ramanayake in the Supreme Court also spoke up for the actor saying he was privileged to appear in court “for a clean, honest politician and I’m proud of that.”
The Speaker is yet to rule whether the convicted MP is entitled to attend parliament and promised to announce his decision in three weeks. Readers know that other prisoner-parliamentarians have previously attended sessions, but what will happen in this instance remains an open question in the short term. While most people believe that there is no appeal from a Supreme Court determination and a presidential pardon is the only way out, a contrary view relative to this matter has also been expressed in the context of the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Sri Lanka is a signatory.
In parliament last week Sumanthiran drew attention to the fact that Sri Lanka has failed to enact legislation for contempt of court although some work in that regard had been done. Expressing the view that the term imposed on Ramanayake was unprecedented and exceptionally severe, he drew attention to a serious lacuna in the law which has resulted “in an unprecedented injustice to an honest Member of Parliament.” Ramanayake has consistently refused to apologize for the offence over which he was charged; his parliamentary colleague, Lakshman Kiriella, also last week referred to the conduct of two former chief justices, although under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Such reference had obvious implications in the context of what Ramanayake said.
When sugar tastes bitter
Saturday 23rd January, 2021
Many a yahapalana politician made a spectacle of himself, in the last Parliament, by trying to defend the indefensible after the lid had been blown off the Treasury bond scams. The UNP MPs argued, until they were blue in the face, that there had been no wrongdoing, and the bond scams were a total fabrication. However, the truth like oil came to the surface, and the defenders of the bond scammers are now in the political wilderness. Some SLPP politicians are doing likewise in the current Parliament; they are making a futile bid to counter various allegations against the government, the latest being that it slashed import duty on sugar to help a crony make huge profits.
The Opposition has claimed that the sugar importer involved in the racket is one of the SLPP financers; he sponsored Viyathmaga events among other things, we are told. The government has not denied this claim, and one can, therefore, conclude that the person who is said to have benefited from the duty reduction on sugar is a financial backer of the SLPP.
Hardly anything comes free in this money-driven world, especially in the lucrative business of politics. Moneybags do not part with their dosh for nothing. Funding political parties is an investment for them, and they expect returns thereon. It is now payback time for those who bankrolled the SLPP’s election campaigns, etc., and their interests always take precedence over those of the ordinary electors.
Financial backers of ruling politicians have all the luck across the globe. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trusted lieutenant, Gautam Adani, is so powerful that he can have the Indian government make Sri Lanka cough up even a port terminal! Barack Obama, who during his first election campaign, pledged to end cronyism, also stood accused of favouring his cronies; he made quite a stir by appointing one of his financial backers, Louise Susman, who had little experience of foreign affairs, as the US ambassador to the UK. Quid pro quo is the name of the game in politics.
The SLPP politicians are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public as regards the import duty controversy. They claim that some importers had bought huge stocks of sugar, especially from India, which gave concessions to its exporters, by the time the import duty was reduced here, and refused to sell sugar at the new price determined by the government. Cooperative Services, Marketing Development and Consumer Services State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna told the House, the other day, that those sugar importers had resorted to market manipulation and frustrated the government’s effort to bring down the sugar price. He claimed that a private company had taken advantage of the duty reduction to import sugar at a lower cost while other importers were left with huge stocks of sugar in their warehouses, which were packed to the rafters. There had been no racket whatsoever, the State Minister claimed. Market watchers are convinced otherwise, though. Their position is that the duty reduction was timed in such a way that it benefited the SLPP’s crony. Their argument that the government purposely waited until the warehouses of other sugar importers were full to slash the import duty on sugar so that its backer would stand to gain, holds water.
The problem with the Opposition is that it generally does not raise pointed questions in Parliament. Its members make a lot of noise but little sense during the question time in the House, and regrettably this allows the ministers to obfuscate vital issues. Only the JVP poses some sensible questions.
The government may beat the weak Opposition in parliamentary debates and wriggle out of difficult situations by muddying the water, but it cannot hoodwink the public. As for the political health of any government what really matters is public opinion. The sugar import controversy has left a bad (or sour) taste in many a mouth.
Of those walls
Friday 22nd January, 2021
Walls are meant to ensure safety. Most houses in this country have boundary walls that are as tall as those around prisons, for there are more criminals at large than behind bars, and the law-abiding people fear for their safety. But walls can also be a source of danger if they are jerrybuilt or happen to sit in the wrong places like the one along a section of the perimeter of the Ratmalana Airport near the Galle road. A veteran Sri Lankan pilot, who writes to this newspaper under a pseudonym, has been striving for the last 10 years or so to have this wall pulled down because he believes it poses a danger to aircraft. He has written many articles putting forth solid arguments for the demolition of the wall, but in vain; the last one appeared yesterday. One may argue that the airport wall has caused no accidents so far and, therefore, one should not worry, but anything that is a potential danger to aircraft should not be permitted in or around airports.
Walls could cause trouble on the political front as well. Donald Trump was left with egg on his face when he, as the US President, tried to have a wall built along the US-Mexico border. That wall never came up, and Trump has had to leave the White House. Walls that political leaders allow to be built around them could also be problematic.
Many of those who campaigned really hard to bring the incumbent Sri Lankan government to power are now climbing the walls. Their frustration knows no bounds. They think a favoured few have built a wall around President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and are misleading him. This is what, some prominent Buddhist monks who led the SLPP’s election campaigns from the front say, has happened.
Several senior Buddhist monks flayed the government at a religious function held on Wednesday to invoke blessings on Ven. Omare Kassapa Thera on his birthday, at Abayaramaya, Colombo. Ven. Murutettuwe Ananda, Ven. Medagama Abhayatissa and Ven. Elle Gunawansa Theras, in their speeches decried the way the government was mismanaging state assets which it had undertaken to protect. They said their voice had gone unheeded as some persons had built a wall around the President. Medagama Abhayatissa Thera recalled how a group of Buddhist monks had protested when Hambantota Port was leased to the Chinese; he said the Maha Sangha would go all out to save the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port.
One may recall that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister of the yahapalana government, derisively called Abayaramaya ‘Mahindaramaya’ because it was there that ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa successfully rallied forces to make a comeback following his defeat in the 2015 presidential race. Today, staunch SLPP supporters are raking the government over the coals at the very temple, which served as the cradle of their anti-yahapalana campaign.
Gotabaya, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development, once demonstrated a deep antipathy towards walls. He had some of them pulled down in the Colombo city as part of his urban yuppification programme. But he is now under fire from government supporters for having allowed a wall to be built around him.
The wall of mistrust that has come up between the SLPP and its supporters, who show signs of utter disillusionment and frustration, presages trouble for the government, which has earned notoriety for signaling left and turning right, so to speak. The questionable ECT deal which has irked the forces that propelled it to power could be its undoing.
Defensive walls could fail to be effective in politics as in football, where skilled players know how to curve the ball past them into the goal. What Maithripala Sirisena did to his boss, Mahinda, in the 2015 presidential contest, is a case in point. It was a real kicker for the latter.
Most political leaders tend to forget, after being ensconced in power, that walls around them are no match for the power of people’s voice. They ought to remember that all it took to bring down the Wall of Jericho was a great shout people raised in unison.
There’s nothing prescribed as Parliament has failed to enact legislation for contempt of court — Sumanthiran
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