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Recovering from Sri Lanka’s present crisis: Challenges and possibilities

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Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa delivering his budget speech

By Chandra Amerasekare

The recently introduced Budget for 2022 shows some of the reasons why Sri Lanka fell into the present crisis. The pandemic affected the entire world, but its impact was worse in Sri Lanka as the present government failed to take the right decisions, at the right time, to manage it. Thus Covid-19 contributed to the present situation as the Government closed the barn after the horse escaped. It was pure mismanagement of governance that pushed the country into this mess. This government failed to implement appropriate policies to stabilise the economy and upgrade the standard of living of the masses. On the contrary, by following contradictory and ill-advised policies that defeated the very goals the government was aiming to achieve, and failing to listen to the woes of the people, it made the situation worse for the people and led the country towards bankruptcy, besides selling valuable resources to foreigners. As a result, the entire nation is now on a survival mode: political parties looking for ways to survive and come back to power and the general public struggling to survive in a situation of exploding cost of living and increasing police brutality.

Even in 2015, the country handed over to the Yahapalana government, by the previous Rajapaksa regime was falling apart due to mismanagement of fiscal and monetary policies, from 2005 to 2015, which destabilised the financial system and emptied the Treasury, limiting the incoming government’s ability to run the country. Ill-conceived policies and vanity infrastructure projects created a huge debt burden. By borrowing expensive Chinese loans, with short pay back periods, to construct large projects with no return on investment, like the Hambanthota port and the, airport etc., the Rajapaksa government caused annual debt servicing obligations to escalate sharply, making it impossible for the incoming Yahapalana administration to meet debt repayment obligations from the resources available at the time. The government was forced to go for early elections, hoping for a stable majority in Parliament.

Sri Lankans expected the new Yahapalana regime to bring the culprits, who plundered the country, before the law, but the Yahapalana government failed to do that. Did the lack of co-operation between the two partners of the Yahapalana government lead to this failure? The public continues to blame the UNP for allowing the Rajapaksas, and their supporters, to evade the law, and other political leaders are trying to exploit this to win votes by discrediting the UNP and accusing its leader of deals with the Rajapaksas. The report of the Commission on the April terrorist attack shows how some public servants performed their duties to the detriment of the country and this report might be a guide to understand why the Yahapalana regime failed to bring offenders before the law.

The current Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, concerned with staying in power, has not changed direction after regaining power in Nov 2019 and continues to tread the same path as before taking the country towards bankruptcy, and the people to despair, spending time in queues to obtain the daily essential at unbearable prices.

People waited for the 2022 budget hoping for some relief. Sadly, this Budget has not given any relief to the people. It contains policy conflicts, shortsighted decisions, weak fiscal measures, statements to camouflage the truth and no substantial proposals to change the direction of the economy, to set it on a growth path, or address the critical issues holding back progress. The budgetary allocations among the Ministries show lack of far sight and concern for the people. The Budget does not say how it will bridge the gap between government expenditure and income in 2022.

During the Budget speech, the Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, stated that the public service is a burden to the country, implying it is costly and bloated. Then in the same breath, a policy extending the retirement age for public servants up to 65 years and promising employment to all graduates next year was unveiled; is an example of blatant policy contradiction. Government has not learnt from its policy mistakes during the past two years. The number of gazettes issued and later withdrawn by this government is proof of this government’s shortsightedness, ineptness and inefficiency. Contradictory and foolish policies, such as import ban, including the ban on chemical fertiliser, price controls and then completely abandoning price controls of essential food items thereby creating blackmarkets, fiscal measures, like tax reductions, which reduced government income, while helping the politicians and government supporters to make money at the cost of consumers, are glaring policy mistakes proving this government’s inefficiency. The government is trying to survive by printing money, leaning more and more on China, selling valuable land to foreigners. All this make Sri Lanka’s future extremely bleak.

Almost 80 percent of the budgetary allocations are for Ministries under the Rajapaksas,including highways, and other departments with a lot of construction projects. The allocation for the military has been increased while the allocation for the Ministry of Health has been reduced in a situation where there is no war, but the pandemic is predicted to continue and become worse in 2022! Already the fourth wave of Covid has been noticed in China, Germany, Sweden, etc. In the US, an increase has been identified. Sweden is going for a country-wide lock down.

Education, too, is not sufficiently provided for, compared to the present need to improve online access to education for all children. Sri Lankan children have missed school for two years, and the majority of them have no access to online education as they are without internet facilities, phones, tabs or even the TV. Does the government realise that children are the future of the country and disruption to education for two years has enormous effects on this generation’s future and mental health? This Budget will not be able to make any difference in the country next year.

To bridge the gap between expenditure and revenue in the Budget, the government will probably resort to selling more and more valuable land, and other assets, to foreigners in the guise of bringing foreign investment. They might opt for more Chinese loans as other donors and multinational agencies are unlikely to support wrong policies that do not benefit the people and unproductive projects which only serve to boost the ego and fill the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Can Sri Lanka recover from this crisis situation?

As things are, it will take at least two years to turn around the economy by any government provided the next variation of Covid does not devastate the country and the world. The scientific community seem to believe that the new Omicron variant, now spreading, might be even more contagious. They also doubt the efficacy of the current Covid vaccines against new variants of the virus. It is difficult to expect a visible change for the better for the next two years if the Covid situation in the world does not improve. However, things could turn around for the better if people follow the instructions of the Health Ministry, and government acts sensibly. The chances of recovering from the current crisis depend on whether Sri Lankan voters succeed in bringing a leader into power who has the capability, experience and the overall knowledge required to manage the economy to get the maximum benefits from global trade and international aid programmes to stabilise the financial system while replenishing the reserves and finding affordable capital to finance development projects.

The challenges to economic recovery

1. The biggest challenge to recovery is the lack of dollars to do international transactions, be it private or governmental, and lack of capital to invest in projects to increase production. It is important to understand that Sri Lanka is an import- dependent country. There is no sector in the economy that can function without an imported input. Imported raw materials and machinery are needed for industries, agriculture, transport, construction and even banking. Dollars are required to import food and oil. The country depends largely on foreign employment, tourism, plantation and garment exports for its foreign exchange earnings. What are the prospects of an increase in income from these sources?

2. Impractical monetary policies that keep the rupee exchange rate artificially low for “show” are driving foreign exchange earners to use unofficial traders/brokers such as the Hawala system; thereby bypassing official channels and reducing the influx of badly needed foreign exchange into Sri Lanka. It is time to incentivise foreign exchange earners to transfer funds into the country through official means, and enact pragmatic monetary policies that balance all of the issues that are affected by exchange rates.

3. With disruptions to the global supply chains and low expectations of global economic recovery after the pandemic that stretched for two years, it is unlikely that global tourism will come back to the normal level, even in a year, since the fourth wave of Covid is already spreading in some countries. Local tourist hotels, except a few, need a substantial injection of capital to resume functioning smoothly. There is no capital available to revive this sector at the moment. Remittances from foreign employment in the Middle East, may not increase for another year or so because of the fears of another wave of Covid and the economies of these countries also have suffered due to global trends. Production in the tea plantations has already gone down due to the fertiliser policy.

4. Everybody knows what is happening in the garment sector. The threat of losing GSP + means losing the market for the garment sector and the industry will collapse. The market for apparels is in the west as most Asian countries and Latin American countries are garment exporters. The Middle East countries prefer branded western products and their traditional dresses. Hence the prospects of an increase in the dollar earnings from the present sources mentioned above are rather gloomy.

5. Attracting foreign investments is one way of overcoming the dollar crunch and lack of capital needed to finance projects that generate employment and exports. Investor confidence in the government of the country where their money is going to be invested is a precondition to attract investors. Enabling a policy environment which allows security for the investors’ profits, ease of doing business and political and economic stability in a country where there is good governance are the important considerations for investors to invest money in a country. This is the very thing that Sri Lanka lacks at present. Only an honest leader who commands the respect of the international community and has the ability to understand future trends in the global economy can succeed in creating such an environment to attract productive foreign investments (not casinos) to Sri Lanka.

6. Foreign aid in the form of loans with payback periods of 25 to 50 years at interest rates less than 2% and outright grants is the best way out for a country, like Sri Lanka, now burdened with external debt and lack of capital. China or Russia does not provide such loans. Only the West, international agencies and Japan provide such assistance. But a lack of good governance; a goal-oriented long-term development plan that does not contradict the donor criteria for giving aid; and a leader who is acceptable to the international community as reliable and experienced who honours international agreements; is preventing Sri Lanka from receiving such aid. Some politicians and opinion-makers, in Sri Lanka, who advocate rejection of help from “‘Imperialist West’ and the IMF and insist that Sri Lanka should depend on local resources, probably have no idea that even Russia and China have depended on foreign aid from the West to develop. US government and Japan still give aid to China considered as their potential geopolitical rival, to promote democratic values, such as free choice through Chinese voluntary organisations. China uses the aid at regional levels to overcome local opposition to some projects and for the technical knowhow that comes with the aid (Dr. Philippa Brant, Research Associate of Lowey Institute titled ‘Why does China still receive foreign aid’ and paper by Issac Stone Fish, both published in ForeignPolicy.com in 2013.)

7. The 20th amendment to the constitution created the possibility for a President to become a despot. The independence of the Commissions responsible for; a) conducting free and fair elections, b) disciplinary control, transfers and promotions of judges, c) transfers, disciplinary control and promotions in the public service, has been virtually revoked by the President by appointing his nominees to these Commissions. This amendment has given the power to militarize the administration. These Military men are in a position to override the decisions of civil administrators. These developments flowing from the 20th Amendment are not acceptable to donors or the UN as good governance is an important criterion for giving aid and democracies in the free world stand for human rights and rule of law.

8. Political culture in Sri Lanka is the last but not the least stumbling block to recovery. The voters responsible for making and breaking governments hardly consider policies or past performance of parties when they decide who should get their vote. They hardly think of the interest of the future generations. Their priority is to get an immediate benefit for the family. Sometimes they have a select memory that enables them to forget grave offences of some politicians while remembering the minor failures of other politicians. So, they keep electing the wrong people to parliament and rejecting better representatives. As a result, lawbreakers, sex offenders, thieves, drug dealers and even murderers go to parliament and its doors are closed to honest and educated people. Voters’ ability to take an enlightened decision is further stunted by the way politicians mislead them by lying and the way some electronic media houses playing the role of kingmakers, present their programs in a manner to mislead the viewers. Politicians know that most voters can be swayed by emotion at the last moment and they resort to using religion and race to sway the voters in their favor. Under normal conditions voter’s priority is to get immediate relief and the majority of them tend to vote for the candidate who promises employment for a family member or a free gift.

On the other hand, there is no visible alternative to this government at the moment. The main opposition has not presented a long-term plan to address the problem other than making promises. The JVP is acceptable to those who consider bringing the culprits who robbed the country’s wealth is the primary objective of changing the government. But JVP also has not talked of the ways to handle the ailing economy. On the other hand, they do not have even a limited experience in governance and economic development or dealing with the international community. Mere book knowledge of economics and organizational ability will not be sufficient to help the country at this juncture. This was proved by the mistakes of the current regime advised by Viyath Maga. The UNP has presented a skeletal plan and the leader is experienced and well received by donor countries and the international financial institutes. But the UNP has been rejected by the electorate at the last election. A coalition between the UNP, SJB and the JVP might be the last slim hope for the country.

(The writer is  retired CAS officer, who has served the country for over three decades working in the Finance Ministry and as a representative of Sri Lanka in the UN in New York (1991 to 94 )



Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

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Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

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ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

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HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

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