* Monday 27th July, 2020
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has undertaken to rid the Colombo city of slums and shanties by implementing housing projects for the low-income groups. We have heard this promise before. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa was the first to pledge to do so. He, in fact, made a serious effort to help the urban poor, but more than one half of the people in Colombo are said to be living in slums and shanties. Successive governments have adopted densification by way of a solution, built some multi-storey apartment complexes and moved some of the poor there, ignoring the fact that slum and shanty dwellers come in ceaseless waves.
Some governments have, in their wisdom, resettled sections of the urban poor in suburbs to develop shanty areas in Colombo, and these new settlements have become hotbeds of violence and drugs. The Badowita and Werahera wattes serve as examples.
The most effective way to solve the problem of slums and shanties is to reduce urban poverty while new housing projects are implemented for the poor and the factors that cause the migration of the rural poor to peri-urban areas and/or cities eliminated. A multi-pronged strategy is called for. Otherwise, efforts to prevent the expansion of the poor quarters of the city and tackle the problems associated with the urban sprawl are bound to fail.
Meanwhile, the problem of slums and shanties in urban and semi-urban areas will take a turn for the worse if plans currently under to pave the way for the acquisition of land by multinational corporations reach fruition. When neo-colonial forces cause dispossession among rural communities in the developing world in the name of economic development on various pretexts to further their geo-strategic goals, the rural poor, especially farmers, who lose their lands and livelihoods are left with no alternative but to migrate to cities. This kind of unplanned urbanisation gives rise to the proliferation of slums and shanties. This is why moves being made to privatise the state-owned land and facilitate the sale of rural land to western multinational corporations through various compacts have to be defeated.
The SLPP, which is seeking a popular mandate to retain state power and amend the Constitution ought to reveal its position on the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. Its leaders are blowing hot and cold on it.
The US-based Oakland Institute has, in its recent report titled, Driving Dispossession: The Global Push to ‘unlock the Economic Potential of Land’, warned that MCC could potentially shift millions of hectares of land into private control. It has pointed out that the US is ‘a key player in an unfettered offensive to privatise land around the world via US blockchain corporation, government agencies and the World Bank’.
In Sri Lanka, the MCC, a US government entity, is targeting state land—it intends to map and record up to 67 percent of the country to “promote land transactions that could stimulate investment and increase its use as an economic asset,” says the Oakland Institute, which has conducted case studies in Sri Lanka, Brazil, Ukraine, Zambia, Papua New Guinea and Myanmar.
It is against this backdrop that the on-going project to digitise land records, in this country, should be viewed. The agriculture sector has been neglected, and farmers find it difficult to recover even production costs. When the project aimed at the commodification of land reaches completion, these cultivators in dire financial straits can be enticed into selling their lands for a song so that multinational corporations can acquire them through their fronts. There is the danger of such dispossessed people becoming destitute and migrating to urban centres for want of a better alternative.
Let the political leaders who promise deliverance to the urban poor be urged to desist from being party to the ongoing efforts to dispossess the rural people in the name of ‘unlocking the economic potential of land’.
Swordsmen to do cops’ work?
Tuesday 4th August, 2020
The Attorney General’s Department has caused quite a stir; it says it can seek the assistance of the armed forces to execute arrest warrants in case the police fail to do so. Deputy Solicitor General Dileepa Peiris made a statement to that effect, at a media briefing, on Friday, as we reported yesterday. The consternation of the state prosecutor and his staff is understandable. The police, more often than not, run around like headless chickens when arrest warrants are issued while suspects are absconding. But they promptly arrest ordinary people who happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Tainted Negombo Prison Superintendent Anuruddha Sampayo, whose arrest the Negombo Magistrate’s Court ordered was at large for several days before surrendering to the police. If the CID cannot arrest an ordinary suspect like a prison officer until he surrenders, how can we expect it to deal with terrorists? No wonder Zahran and his fellow terrorists prepared and executed their plans with ease.
The military has already been tasked with performing police duties. The traffic police have manifestly failed to bring order out of chaos on roads. What they practise is traffic control and not traffic management, and they believe in the imposition of fines on errant motorists rather than making timely interventions to prevent transgressions that cause accidents. Their incompetence and the attendant mayhem prompted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to order that the Military Police be deployed to help the police make roads less chaotic. Now, there is the presence of both traffic police and military police on roads, but congestion is far from over.
There may be situations where the police need the assistance of the armed forces to make arrests, given the power of the netherworld of crime and narcotics. The police had their work cut out in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, last year, and the security forces moved in to raid terrorist hideouts and neutralise threats effectively. But it defies understanding why the military should be deployed when the police fail to carry out their duties and functions under normal circumstances. The CID should be ashamed of its failure to trace the absconding prison officer.
It is not seldom that politicians shield offenders, preventing the police from arresting them. In March, the Colombo Fort Chief Magistrate issued warrants for the arrest of 10 suspects wanted in connection with the Treasury bond scams. The police arrested only one of them and others went into hiding. It was obvious that the CID did not want to go the whole hog to trace the rest due to political pressure. Subsequently, the suspects surrendered to court. Not even an entire army division would have been able to arrest the suspects with political connections.
The Colombo Municipal Council is full of shirkers paid with public funds. They do not clean drains or maintain public spaces. The military is deployed to do their work while they are paid for doing nothing. Municipal workers are responsible for keeping cities and towns clean, but workers have to be hired to remove election posters, cutouts, etc., and the public has to foot the bill.
The keenness of the AG’s Department to have arrest warrants executed expeditiously is to be appreciated, but the solution to the problem of dereliction of duty on the part of the police is not to deploy the military to do constabulary duties. What are the police there for if their work is to be outsourced? The solution, we believe, is to take punitive action against the police officers who fail to carry out court orders. The AG’s Department can report such errant officers to the National Police Commission, or courts themselves can take action against them. It is unfair to keep flogging the willing horse––the security forces.
Lawbreakers, masses and asses
Monday 3rd August, 2020
The run-up to the forthcoming general election has been without major incidents. One can only hope that the situation will not change within the next two days and in the post-election period. Good news came from Ratnapura, on Friday, while election fever was running high.
Former Power and Energy Deputy Minister and SLPP candidate in the current parliamentary election fray, Premalal Jayasekera, and two of his lieutenants were sentenced to death by the Ratnapura High Court (HC) for killing a UNP supporter and injuring two others in the lead-up to the 2015 presidential election. The other convicts are former Sabaragamua Provincial Council member N. Jayakody and former Kahawatte Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman V. Darshana.
The Ratnapura HC judgment could not have come at a better time. It is sure to have a deterrent effect on the ruling party politicians, their goons and others of their ilk in the Opposition.
The SJB has asked the Election Commission to declare Jayasekera’s candidacy invalid due to his conviction. But legal experts argue that Jayasekera can appeal against the judgement, and it will be interesting to see how many votes he will poll, on Wednesday, while in prison. Many people vote blindly without giving two hoots about even the criminal records of the candidates of their choice. This has helped numerous lawbreakers such as murderers, rapists, fraudsters and robbers get elected as people’s representatives.
Jayasekara polled the highest number of preferential votes (about 155,000), in the Ratnapura District, at the 2015 general election held a few months after the aforesaid murder. He was in remand prison at that time and came to Parliament in prison vehicles thereafter. If the rule of law had prevailed, many others would have found themselves in the exalted company of Jayasekera and his partners in crime.
Political leaders draw a lot of flak for nominating anti-social elements to contest elections. They must not field such characters, but the fact remains that people vote for lawbreakers unflinchingly. One may recall that a drug baron, known as Kudu Lal, was once elected to the Colombo Municipal Council. Everybody knew he was a drug dealer responsible for destroying young lives, but he polled enough votes to be returned. Thankfully, he had to flee the country while the STF was closing in on him. A minister in the Rajapaksa government escorted him all the way to the BIA to ensure the latter’s safety; the former minister who shielded the criminal is contesting the upcoming election on the UNP ticket! Kudu Lal was not nominated by any political party. He contested from an independent group, and therefore it is the people who should take the blame for his election.
One may also recall that in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, the yahapalana politicians and the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera called for legal action against a Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman (UPFA) who boasted of having raped hundreds of women, in the South. After the election, the rapist sided with President Maithripala Sirisena and was appointed one of the organisers of the SLFP May Day rally (2016) in Galle. So much for criminals and self-righteous politicians!
It is a pity that some people have not realised that neither politicians nor political parties are worth dying for. The man who suffered a violent death at the hands of Jayasekera and others, in Kahawatte, was campaigning for the Opposition common presidential candidate Sirisena at the time of his tragic end. Many others risked their lives to ensure Sirisena’s election. They must be really disappointed that Sirisena is now with the Rajapaksas and contesting the upcoming election, on the SLPP ticket, from Polonnaruwa. Worse, in October 2018, he sided with the Rajapaksas, whom he had vowed to throw behind bars, and made an abortive bid to dislodge the UNP-led government. People must not be so stupid as to harm others or be harmed for the sake of politicians, especially turncoats.
In dealing with politicians, the public had better follow the physical distancing rule which has been introduced to prevent the spread of Covid-19. They must keep politicians at arm’s length if they are to avoid regrets and, thereby, prove that the masses are no asses.
The upcoming election
This is the last issue of our newspaper before the country goes to the polls on Aug. 5 to elect the 13th Parliament since 1947. Talk of ‘floating’ votes notwithstanding, most people have by now decided how they are going to vote or if they are going to vote at all. If various pre-poll analyses are correct, the out-turn at this election is likely to be lower than usual. Voter turnout at elections in this country is relatively high, much more so than even in most developed countries. As many as 83.72 percent of the electorate voted at last November’s presidential election, higher than the 77.66% at the preceding parliamentary election. But many observers expect that there will be much fewer people voting this time round, partly because of ongoing health issues and the lowkey campaigning it compelled. Also, given the presidential election result, some would regard the conclusion as foregone and not bother to vote.
We can all be thankful that violence this time round has been less than previously in recent years. That, unfortunately, is not due to fewer thugs and undesirables running for election or more efficient law enforcement. The ban, or rather the tighter controls, on the display of election propaganda material served the salutary purpose of both sparing the environment and eliminating the ‘war’ between rival poster-pasters as has been common at previous elections. Different figures have been published of how much the contenders have spent on their campaigns. However accurate or not they may be, there is no doubt that big bucks have been splurged as always. But our law as it stands does not require campaign contributions or identities of donors to be disclosed. This is a lacuna that needs addressing urgently. Many large contributors, inevitably big businessmen, regard contributions to political coffers as investments and expect a payback. Some of them also back both sides for insurance, but the public are not privy to who they are and how much they put into different war chests.
Undoubtedly most electors are not happy about the quality of the vast majority of those they send to parliament. But they have no option but to choose a political party or independent group as the case may be, and then cast three preference votes for individual candidates whose names are on the ballot paper. Despite widely prevalent public opinion, political parties have done precious little or nothing to run slates that include people of good repute and integrity and give the voter the opportunity of sending better MPs to parliament. The fact that the vast majority of members of the last parliament are seeking re-election, under the different party banners, speaks for itself. Only a handful of them have performed well and deserve re-election from whichever party they are running from. There are well known rogues and undesirables among the candidates although they might have not been convicted in any court of law. Party leaders cannot cling to the belief that all persons are deemed innocent until they are proved guilty and anoint rank bad people on their lists. Some of those running this time, in the glare of live television coverage, displayed rowdy behaviour in the parliament chamber itself not so long ago.
Successive elections in the recent past have become more and more expensive to the taxpayer who must pay the cost. He might rightly wonder about the cost-benefit ratio of such expenditure with presidential elections following local elections and parliamentary elections, with provincial council elections on the way. Special arrangements that Covid 90 has compelled would add billions to the final tab. But whether all this is going to be worth it is an open question. This election was twice postponed due to the health emergency confronting not only this country but also the whole world. It is well known that the incumbent government was anxious to have the election done and dusted while the UNP would have liked a further delay. This was in the hope that the two factions of the party would then have more space to overcome their differences and present a united front against the SLPP. But that was not to be. The Elections Commission declared that it would abide by the health guidelines laid by the competent authorities. These have been flagrantly violated by most of the contestants who paid only lip service to rules. Not even feeble enforcement efforts were attempted by the police who have long shown a marked reluctance to tangle with political VIPs.
Older readers will have nostalgic memories of the past when parliamentary elections saw high caliber people, many from the old left parties, elected to the legislature. Names that come to mind include N.M. Perera, Colvin. R. de Silva, Pieter Keuneman, S.A. Wickremasinghe and more recently Sarath Muttetuwegama. The right wing sent giants like D.S. Senanayake and his son, Dudley, SWRD Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene and many more to parliament. There were no pensions and tax free car permits then. The allowances paid were modest at best even in those pre-inflation days. But the frontbenches on both sides of the old House of Representatives included greats who provided debates of a quality that would have been a pride of any legislature anywhere in the world. The rewards of sitting in parliament then were modest if at all and we did not have the professional politicians of today who have amassed crooked fortunes and got off Scott free.
Criticism abounds on the executive presidential system of J.R. Jayewardene that continues despite the promises of most of his successors who pledged to abolish it. They welshed on that one with one even doing away with the two-term limit via a constitutional amendment enabled by a two thirds majority granted not by the electors but by defectors. Hopefully the voters will do what is best for themselves and our country despite the limited choices come August 5. We will then, as the saying goes, get the government we deserve. That is a price of the democracy that we have long cherished.
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