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Editorial

Puttalam land grab: Dig deep

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Thursday 24th September, 2020

An attempt is apparently being made to sweep the issue of land encroachment and forest clearing at Aruwakkalu under the rug. Encroachers cleared a vast extent of land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation, in Aruwakkalu, Puttalam, in a bid to sell it, early this month. The area affected by encroachment is a part of land encompassing about 4,500 acres leased by the state. The original lessee was Thawakkal and the second one Holcim. The responsibility for ensuring the safety of state property under threat lies with Siam City Cement (Lanka) Ltd. (SCCL), the current lessee.

On Tuesday, SCCL published a newspaper advertisement, claiming that at an ‘emergency meeting,’ presided over by Forest Conservation Minister C. B. Rathnayake, an ‘urgent course of action’ had been agreed upon by ‘all stakeholders’ to address an incident of encroachment and forest clearing in a long-term leased land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation’. Were the environmental groups, that exposed the incident, present at that meeting? They are also stakeholders, aren’t they? The SCCL also listed some measures it had undertaken to adopt to prevent the encroachment of the state property. It has only made a virtue of necessity. Will it explain why it did not care to take such action earlier?

The Minister under whose purview the Cement Corporation land at issue comes is Wimal Weerawansa, who holds the Industries portfolio. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa goes all the way from Colombo to Deniyaya to inquire into complaints of threats to the Sinharaja rainforest, which is under Rathnayake’s ministry, and Rathnayake goes all the way from Colombo to Puttalam to inspect the Cement Corporation land, which is under Weerawansa’s ministry!

The Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation cannot chair a meeting to discuss a vital issue concerning a Cement Corporation property simply because there is a dry zone forest on it. No sooner had the incident of encroachment and forest clearing in Aruwakkalu been reported than Minister Weerawansa rushed a team of Cement Corporation officials there; they conducted an investigation and took up the issue with the police, the Divisional Secretary and the SCCL. In fact, the presence of any politician was not required there, at all, and the matter should have been left entirely to the senior officials representing the lessor (the Cement Corporation).

Grama Niladaris (GNs) are required to submit reports to Divisional Secretaries, every two weeks, and mention therein the instances of encroachment of state land, etc., if any. Land grabbing and forest clearing have gone on, for years, at Aruwakkalu, and why haven’t the GNs concerned reported such illegal activities to the District Secretaries or the police? GNs spring into action only when ordinary people happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Villagers are hauled up before courts for felling jak trees on their own properties, without permits, but organised racketeers are free to grab state lands, which they clear and sell with impunity.

Those who grabbed part of the Cement Corporation land at Aruwakkalu, cut down trees and set them on fire, have gone scot-free to all intents and purposes. They would not have been able to do so without help from the ruling party politicians in the area. The government must have them arrested and prosecuted under the Offences against Public Property Act without further delay. That is the only way it can prove that its politicians had no hand in the land racket. The police must be made to explain why they have failed to arrest the culprits.

Legal action must also be taken against the serious lapses on the part of the lessee, for they led to the encroachment of state land and forest clearing. The SCCL has said, in its advertisement, that on some previous occasions it had brought the issue of encroachment of the Cement Corporation land to the notice of ‘relevant authorities’, which it has not named. Can it prove that it reported land encroachment to the police or the Cement Corporation?

The lease agreement at issue has no termination clause, we are told. Such agreements are money-spinners for venal politicians and bureaucrats responsible for signing them. The Thawakkal deal was struck under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in the 1990s. (Most of the self-righteous SLPP heavyweights were powerful ministers in that administration.)



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Editorial

All bark and no bite

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Wednesday 6th July, 2022

Parliament was thrown into turmoil once again yesterday, when a group of Opposition MPs staged a boisterous protest against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presence in the House. They shouted themselves hoarse, asking the President to step down. The whole country has been asking the President to go home, but he carries on regardless. Politicians who savour power never give it up of their own volition; they are like limpets. So, no amount of shouting will help the SJB, the other Opposition parties in Parliament, and the public see the back of the President, as it stands. It looks as if the Opposition had to change its strategy.

The government still has a working majority in Parliament; it therefore has the edge in shouting matches in the House and can secure the passage of bad laws. Yesterday, there were dozens of government MPs shouting in support of the President. The Opposition has its work cut out as regards its plan to topple the government by mustering enough numbers in Parliament, and this may be the reason why it has taken its battle to the streets. A similar situation arose towards the latter stages of the yahapalana government. The UNP-led UNF retained an absolute majority in the House with the help of the JVP and the TNA although it was losing popular support rapidly. The SLPP intensified its campaign outside Parliament and turned the tables on the yahapalana regime; it won the presidential and parliamentary polls with huge majorities. But this time around, there is neither an election in sight nor a guarantee that the next government to be elected would be a stable one, and the present crisis would go away even if Parliament resolved to dissolve itself and a snap general election was held anytime soon. There’s the rub. The SJB, other anti-government forces, and the country will stand to gain only if all parties get together to break the back of the crisis before the next general election.

It has been reported that the Opposition is planning to launch a continuous protest soon to pressure the President to resign. The President is not likely to step down due to protests, but if he happens to find himself in a situation where he is left with no alternative but to sacrifice Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoint a new government with someone else as the PM, to save his skin, he will not scruple to do so. After all, he had his own brother, Mahinda, step down as the PM, didn’t he? In fact, he offered the premiership to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa before appointing Wickremesinghe PM. Anything is possible in politics.

The Opposition may have thought yesterday’s protest against the President would go down well with the irate public, languishing in queues and skipping meals, but such gimmicks will not help solve their problems. People are so indignant that they may love to see the President and other government grandees being ridiculed, but that does not serve their purpose. The interests of the public will be served only if all political parties, which are responsible for the mess the country has got into over the years, albeit to varying degrees, speak with one voice and act unitedly to resolve the crisis.

President Rajapaksa may have sought to prove MP Wimal Weerawansa wrong by attending Parliament yesterday. The latter said on Monday that the President was nowhere to be seen, the implication being that he was in hiding. But the President’s presence only led to a serious disruption to parliamentary proceedings in a time when the national legislature should remain maniacally focused on how to contain the crisis. The IMF and foreign governments have told Sri Lanka with one voice that it has to get its act together to qualify for financial assistance, but its political leaders are jousting for supremacy instead of sinking their differences and working out a common agenda to save the economy.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe threw down a challenge to JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who claims to be able to revive the economy in six months. He said he would resign, allowing Dissanayake to take over as the PM if the latter could present to Parliament a workable plan to resolve the crisis so fast. Will Dissanayake take up the challenge or continue to protest? The SJB also can reveal to the House how it intends to sort out the economy, and thereafter ask for the reins of government to implement its economic recovery programme. Such a course of action will be much more effective, and beneficial to the country than shouting.

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Editorial

A dangerous trend

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Tuesday 5th July, 2022

Fossil fuel is highly inflammable and has to be handled with care, as is known to everyone. Shortages thereof could also be so, in a manner of speaking, as evident from how tempers flare in fuel queues, igniting violence. There have been countless untoward incidents at filling stations, some of which even had to be closed temporarily as a result. The situation has recently taken a turn for the worse. Now, protesters are clashing with the police and security forces personnel directly. An armed soldier was stabbed at a fuel station in Embilipitiya, the other day, and an army officer was seen kicking a protester elsewhere. This is an extremely dangerous trend. When the armed forces are deployed to control angry crowds, violent encounters are to be expected.

In May, the country witnessed a spate of violence in the aftermath of the SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters. Organised gangs wearing full-face helmets carried out arson attacks in a very systematic manner as if they had rehearsed for those destructive acts. Luckily, they failed to sustain the wave of violence, but they may be able to compass their anarchical ends if clashes between the people and the armed forces erupt.

The best way to defuse widespread tensions is to make fuel freely available, but given the prevailing forex crunch and the attendant shortages of essential imports, the government must at least make a serious effort to ration fuel to be imported and bring profiteers to justice. Cynics say Sri Lanka has become an oil rich country of sorts although pumps at its filling stations have run dry. This situation has come about thanks to hoarders who are making a killing while the ordinary people have been left without any fuel. At this rate, the government might not be able to solve the fuel shortage even if a dozen ships carrying oil were to arrive in quick succession. Raids continue to yield huge amounts of hoarded diesel and petrol, but we believe that the police are only scratching the surface of the problem. If handsome rewards are offered for information that leads to the seizure of hoarded fuel, and raids are stepped up with more decoys being deployed, the police will be able to seize at least a shipload of fuel from hoarders.

What characterises the petroleum sector is utter chaos with racketeers having a field day. Most vehicles, especially trishaws, do not leave queues even after being refuelled; they keep returning and obtaining diesel and petrol continuously at the expense of others, who are left without any fuel as a result. Most trishaws are not available for hire these days, for it is much more lucrative to wait in queues, obtain fuel and sell it on the black market, where a litre of petrol or diesel fetches as much as Rs. 2,000. The success of any strategy to dispense fuel equitably will hinge on the government’s ability to hold unscrupulous elements at bay until fuel supplies are restored to the pre-crisis level. The recently-introduced token system has manifestly failed, and it is only natural that the government has dissociated itself from this harebrained scheme.

The government should introduce fuel rationing urgently. Perhaps, it should seriously consider adopting the odd-even rationing and having fuel stations stamp a mini calendar on the reverse of the revenue licence of every vehicle so that dates on which fuel is issued can be cancelled, at the pump, preferably by the police. This scheme, we believe, may help halve the number of vehicles waiting in fuel queues, infuse the public with confidence and thereby thwart speculation, which results in hoarding.

Meanwhile, when diesel is issued, priority has to be given to vehicles engaged in public transport and tourism, trucks transporting essentials, fishing craft, etc. This does not happen at present; even the owners of super luxury SUVs that do not do more than four to five kilometres to a litre of petrol or diesel have unlimited access to fuel. Many such gas guzzlers have been sighted at the CPC’s Kolonnawa storage terminal, where fuel is said to be issued to the so-called VVIPs, while the majority of private buses cannot operate for want of diesel.

The root cause of the fuel crisis is the shortage of forex, but the government’s cavalier attitude and inability to introduce a proper rationing system have aggravated it and are likely to plunge the country into anarchy with people clashing with the police and the armed forces, much to the glee of the so-called Helmet Brigade waiting in the wings for another opportunity.

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Editorial

Lessons from Libya

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Angry protesters have set the Libyan Parliament building on fire. They have been calling for elections. Continuing power cuts, soaring prices, months of political deadlock, etc., have driven the Libyans to extreme action although their demands have been endorsed by the interim Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has also agreed in principle to the need to overhaul all state institutions. Libya is in chaos today with rival parties vying for power and killing one another because of the western-backed regime change in 2011.

Muammar Gaddafi was an eccentric dictator, who had to be made to uphold democracy, but the West had other plans and destabilised Libya by supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces that included Jihadist fighters. Until the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya had boasted not only political stability but also excellent living standards, which were the highest in Africa and easily compared with those in the developed countries; it had one of the best social welfare schemes in the world. The Arab Spring has turned out to be a winter of despair for Libyans.

Prevailing economic, social and political conditions in Sri Lanka are similar to those in Libya at present in some respects, and have the potential to plunge the country into lawlessness just like the north African nation in depths of anarchy. This is something both the government and the Opposition should take cognisance of.

The government is groping in the dark. The Opposition parties are pulling in different directions, demanding that they be allowed to govern the country. They have said they will join forces to hold a continuous protest in Colombo, seeking the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The removal of the President may be the most effective way of extricating the country from the tentacles of the Rajapaksa family, which is aggravating the crisis by leveraging Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dependence on Basil Rajapaksa’s SLPP. Now, some Basil loyalists such as SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, are crawling out of the woodwork. But the ground reality is that President Rajapaksa cannot be ousted so easily. Unless he resigns, he has to be impeached. The process of impeaching the President is a tedious one, and the Opposition is without sufficient numbers in Parliament for that purpose. A sustained protest campaign backed by a general strike may be considered an option, but such a course of action will be tantamount to collective suicide in that political upheavals will destroy the economy and deprive the country of the much-needed foreign assistance. The way out, in our book, is to crank up pressure on President Rajapaksa to appoint a truly national government so that all political parties will have to stop protesting and make a contribution towards crisis management.

Sri Lankans are a credulous lot. They swallowed Dhammika peniya (syrup), which was touted as a cure for Covid-19. Gotabaya offered a political peniya, (read the Vistas of Prosperity) claiming that it was the cure for all ills of Sri Lanka, and the people fell hook, line, and sinker for it only to be disappointed. Now, they are being offered the Sajith peniya and the Anura Kumara peniya. The SJB consists of a bunch of politicians who were in the yahapalana government, which failed. The country is paying the price for having elected, as its President, a person without any experience in statecraft. The JVP, which could not run even a local government institution properly, is now demanding the reins of government. Its ideology is an anachronism in the modern world, and its utopian dream may be marketable but is not attainable.

The Opposition parties must be prevented from using the present crisis to hoodwink the public, capture power, and thereafter go on asking for time to find a solution while blaming their predecessors. No single party is equal to the task of helping straighten up the economy under its own steam, and there will have to be a concerted effort. That is why all political parties must be made to form a unity government and carry out their promises collectively pending a general election. They have to make necessary laws and policies to enable the technocrats of the Finance Ministry, the Central Bank, etc., to resuscitate the economy. Nobody will be safe if the country slides into anarchy with the irate public marching on Parliament.

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