Saturday 13th February, 2021
What has befallen the precious assets of this country, under successive governments, reminds us of Nanda Malini’s beautiful song, ‘Ratakarawanta nam masuran ethiwa kete’ (which roughly put into English means ‘if the country is to be run with enough funds in the coffers’). It is replete with heavy sarcasm and biting satire. Urging the rulers to sell all national assets and treasures to raise funds needed for governing the country, it says, among other things, Sigiriya can be quarried and Sinharaja rainforest felled to obtain timber regardless of public protests. One may have thought a few decades ago, when this song was first sung, that the lyricist, Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, had employed hyperbole to infuse it with dramatic effect to deliver its powerful message, but, today, one is convinced otherwise.
Sinharaja is already facing rape. Land grabbers are encroaching on it with impunity. Environmental groups and the media have exposed this racket, but the racketeers always have the last laugh. As if the damage the world heritage site has suffered at the hands of politically-backed encroachers were not enough, the government has, in its wisdom, permitted the construction of a road through some parts of it. Worse, some ruling party politicians have sought to vilify the protesting environmentalists as a nuisance and impediment to development! They have thus sent the wrong message to their henchmen, who are now grabbing sections of the Sigiriya sanctuary. This forest is home to a wide range of flora and fauna including elephants. The racketeers’ modus operandi has been to grow food crops inside the sanctuary before fencing off the areas they have encroached on. This, they have been doing unopposed during the last several weeks. The media has published pictures of their illegal operations, but no one in authority has taken any action against the destruction of the sanctuary; officials are reportedly passing the buck.
The Sigiriya land grab has aggravated the human-elephant conflict. With their natural habitat shrinking, wild elephants invade villages frequently, posing a danger to humans and running the risk of being shot dead or killed by hakkapatas (improvised explosive devices hidden in fruits or covered with sticky rice). Unless the racketeers are stopped and brought to justice urgently, they will be emboldened to begin quarrying the Lion Rock before long!
Environmentalists complain of a move to have a road built, dividing the Knuckles Mountain Range, according to a report we publish today. A proposal to this effect is to be presented to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak event in the near future, we are told.
What is happening around Sigiriya has vindicated the environmentalists who predicted that racketeers in the guise of cultivators would capture forest lands. According to media reports, there is a tug-of-war between the Forest Department and the Divisional Secretariat concerned over the land grab. Nobody seems to be responsible for protecting the sanctuary. This sorry state of affairs has come about due to a controversial gazette which removed the so-called residual forests from the purview of the Forest Department and placed them under the Divisional and District Secretariats, which lack expertise and the will to protect forests. Ordinary administrators are scared of overweening, corrupt politicians responsible for destroying forests. One should not be so naïve as to think the Forest Department is perfect. But the protection of forests requires specialised, dedicated personnel like professional foresters.
The government sought to justify the issuance of the aforesaid gazette by claiming that it would benefit the landless farmers who were unable to dull the pangs of hunger, but the environmentalists and the media pointed out that it would help racketeers rape forests. What they feared is now happening. The situation is sure to take a turn for the worse with more and more politicians and their backers moving in to grab forest lands.
One can only hope that the other places mentioned in Nanda Malini’s song—Sri Dalada Maligawa, Sri Mahabodhi, Sri Pada, etc.,—will be safe from the pseudo-patriots in positions of power.
The parliamentary president
Rajan Philips who brightens this page with his incisive and perceptive commentary has today called President Ranil Wickremesinghe a “parliamentary president.” RW, particularly during the ongoing budget debate, has indeed demonstrated this description to be most appropriate. He is a frequent presence in the parliamentary chamber, more so than any of his predecessors. As far as the budget debate goes, the fact that he wears the finance minister’s hat as did two other presidents, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, makes his presence in the House at this time most welcome. Who else but the finance minister should be present in the House during the budget debate? Basil Rajapaksa’s short tenure at the Treasury set a rank bad example in this regard.
Wickremesinghe, of course, like his uncle JR Jayewardene who created the executive presidency and was the first to wear the twin hats of head of government and head of state, is very much a parliamentary animal. Having had a long innings at the legislature including multiple terms as prime minister since 1977 until his ignominious exit from parliament in August 2020, he welcomes the hurly burly of its chamber without standing aloof in his presidential ivory tower. But JRJ as president or any other was never as frequently present in the parliament chamber as nephew Ranil. JRJ didn’t have to, having never presented a budget during his presidency.
Having long served as finance minister under the old Westminster order, Jayewardene saw no need to cling on to that portfolio, being content to hold the defence ministry, probably a necessity, and a few others largely for convenience. While we do not advocate presidents doubling as finance ministers, we do freely agree that it may be or is a necessity this time round given the unprecedented economic catastrophe the Rajapaksas have plunged our country into. RW, after all, wrote and presented this budget and who better than he to pilot it through the House? Thus his willingness to intervene in the debate is a welcome tradition although whether it will continue in the future remains to be seen.
His recent appearances in the legislature clearly demonstrates his enjoyment of being in the thick of things. Parliamentary watchers would not have missed his entry into the chamber to respond instantly to something he heard being said when he was in his office in the parliament building while the House was in session. We suspect he listens to the budget debate in situ as it were. So much to the good. Of course, as mentioned by our columnist Rajan Philips, it would have been appropriate if he had been more forthcoming in areas on which the people are thirsting for information. These include when the IMF bailout can be expected. There has been speculation that the earliest will be March next year though it had been optimistically forecast earlier that it might be by end December.
Wide open questions on the possibility of debt restructuring also remain. Are electricity consumers, both domestic and industrial, due for a double whammy with a further tariff increase in the short term? Although the petrol and gas queues are gone, there are eerie reports that timely coal procurement for the Norochcholai power plant is not assured. And there is scant comfort about the availability of dollars to keep the filling stations pumping even in the short and medium term. There are also compelling questions on how corruption is being dealt with. Given the surrounding context, the president has made a rank bad nomination to the Constitutional Council whether by choice or compulsion we do not know. Questions abound on whether this is the result of the president being a captive of his pohottuwa constituency. Nobody can be happy about that. RW may well feel that these are questions that can be dealt with by the concerned ministers at the ongoing committee stage of the budget debate. But given that he’s both the president and the finance minister, the people would have expected the big man himself to shed more light on these burning questions.
Sadly the news broke only on Friday that former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had spent hundreds of millions of tax rupees maintaining staggering numbers of personal staff. The information, previously withheld by the presidential secretariat, was made public thanks to an order of the Right to Information Commission. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) had asked the questions and appealed the non-disclosure. The Daily Mirror reported on Friday that the two former presidents had together guzzled Rs. 1.48 billion on this account – Sirisena beating his predecessor with an expenditure of Rs. 850 million on his staff against MR’s Rs. 630 million. Whether these two former presidents will explain themselves either on the budget debate platform or elsewhere remains to be seen. We are sorry that this news did not break in time for the discussions on the president’s vote in the House. That would have been an opportunity for a searching probe and perhaps responses from those named and shamed.
James Carville, a strategist in President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent George H. W. Bush coined the catchphrase “It’s the economy, stupid” which resounded through Clinton’s successful campaign. Here in Sri Lanka right now what matters most is the economy and not enough focus on that has been seen thus far in the budget debate. Hopefully there will be a course correction in the remaining days.
A double whammy
Saturday 3rd December, 2022
The current economic crisis has eclipsed many other serious issues the country is beset with, and among them is the drug menace. President of the Government Medical Officers’ Forum Dr. Rukshan Bellana has made a revelation, which is sure to send a chill down everyone’s spine; drug addiction is on the rise among hospital workers, he has told the media. The majority of these drug addicts are members of the minor staff, and they are involved in drug peddling as well, he has said. There seems to be no shortage of narcotics at government hospitals, where medicinal drugs are in short supply!
An oft-heard complaint in health circles is that minor staff members in the state-run hospitals have become a law unto themselves because they are recruited on the basis of their political connections. Gone are the days when every worker in the state sector was recruited on merit and properly trained, and made to face disciplinary action in case of transgressions. There have been instances where hospital workers even threatened and roughed up their superiors, and politicians intervened to protect the culprits. It is only natural that they use and sell narcotics in hospitals with impunity. The need for these elements to be severely dealt with cannot be overstated.
It is hoped that the Health Ministry will get cracking on ridding the hospital system of narcotics instead of taking action against Dr. Bellana for having exposed drug addiction among health workers. When a doctor released the findings of a survey on malnutrition among children, a few months ago, the health panjandrums took disciplinary action against him!
The narcotic trade seems to have thrived during the past several years. About 80 percent of private bus drivers in Colombo and its suburbs were addicted to drugs, State Minister Dilum Amunugama said, last year. President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association Gemunu Wijeratne has gone on record as saying that about 50% private bus drivers are addicted to drugs, countrywide, and most of them have graduated from cannabis to ICE (crystal methamphetamine). No wonder they drive like bats out of hell! Drug addiction must be equally high among other heavy vehicle drivers as well. Last year, about 2,490 lives were lost in road accidents, which numbered 2,325, and left 5,263 seriously injured.
A programme to conduct roadside drug testing is to be launched in January, we are told. This is a long-felt need and will help reduce the number of fatal accidents significantly. At present, there is no way drug addicts behind the wheel could be detected although most bus and truck drivers are addicted to narcotics. The police can nab only drunk drivers. State Minister of Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna has said about 5,000 drug screening devices have been distributed among the police. This is a worthwhile investment.
Worryingly, the drug Mafia has succeeded in spreading its tentacles to schools as well. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has revealed in Parliament recently that in the current year more than 81 schoolchildren have been sent for drug rehabilitation. The number of students addicted to drugs could be higher, as President of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Priyantha Fernando has said. The drug menace has not spared even rural schools, according to him. It is against this backdrop that the government’s budget proposal to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis for export should be viewed.
Who guards the guards? A survey conducted by the police headquarters has revealed that about 37 police personnel are addicted to drugs in the Western Province. The police are expected to conduct similar surveys in other provinces. Needless to say, addicts in uniform are a danger to society and have to be weeded out.
The government has many problems to wrestle with, but it must redouble its efforts to crush the drug Mafia, which is taking advantage of the current political situation, where the police are apparently doing full-time political work, to expand its operations.
Rapists at large
Friday 2nd December, 2022
A diplomat attached to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Muscat has been arrested upon his arrival at the BIA and remanded for his alleged involvement in a human trafficking racket, where women smuggled out of this country were forced into prostitution in Oman. According to some media reports, they were auctioned like slaves and raped. But those who have gang-raped the Sri Lankan economy for years can move through the BIA freely.
Basil Rajapaksa, who is one of the politicians responsible for the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy, returned to the country recently through the VIP section of the BIA. Worse, National Police Commission Chief Chandra Fernando himself was among those present there to welcome him; Fernando was seen touching his forelock before Basil! What’s the world coming to when the heads of the so-called Independent Commissions, which have been established to depoliticise public institutions, behave like fawning sycophants before disgraced politicians?
Anyone who commits sex crimes have to be severely dealt with according to the law, and the diplomat from hell who has allegedly collaborated with human traffickers and even sexually abused some of the victims must be made to face the full force of the law. But the question is why no action has been taken against those who rape the economy and inflict so much suffering on the public.
The perpetrators of economic crimes against the nation are back in action, and some of them, who went into hiding during anti-government protests a few moons ago, are now on the offensive; they have started carrying out attacks on their political rivals. They unleashed violence at Hanguranketha on Sunday. Old habits are said to die hard.
The unfortunate Sri Lankan women who were auctioned as sex slaves in Oman can at least hope to have their day in court here, thanks to an effective media campaign against the human traffickers and their accomplices in the Foreign Service, but the victims of the rape of the economy have to suffer in silence. The government has chosen to gag them, and threatened to unleash the military on them in case they take to the streets to voice their grievances.
Basil could not leave for the US in the aftermath of the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July, due to protests against him at the BIA; he had to return. But he left the country via the BIA, with his head held high, following the election by the SLPP of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President, in Parliament. Today, he is given VIP treatment and police escort. This seems to be the only change the current SLPP-UNP administration has brought about!
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe symbiosis reminds us of the sea anemone and the hermit crab. The Rajapaksas’ lot and that of their cronies and the UNP grandees have manifestly improved while the people are undergoing untold hardships. People are in for another shock; electricity tariffs are to be jacked up again next year. Corruption is rampant, and public funds continue to be plundered. The health sector trade unions have blown the lid off a racket involving oxygen concentrators!
There has been a let-up of sorts in public protests, and this seems to have lulled the government politicians into a false sense of security, and emboldened them to make up for lost time, but let them be warned that they are courting danger. What they are experiencing is like the eerie calm and drawback that precede the landfall of a killer tsunami. They are behaving like those who, blinded by greed, and oblivious to danger, tried to grab newly-exposed land when the sea rolled back minutes before the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and perished.
Given the massive build-up of public anger in the polity, the protests that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will look mere ripples in a puddle in comparison to the next popular uprising, which is bound to happen sooner than expected. There is absolutely no defence against a real People Power revolution. Tinpot Hitlers are not equal to the task of stopping it; even the mighty Chinese Communist Party is struggling to contain a wave of public protests.
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