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Editorial

Reopening: Need for heightened alert

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Friday 24th September, 2021

There has been a significant decrease in the daily Covid-19 cases and death toll, and therefore chances are the government will not extend the current lockdown further. The country cannot be kept closed indefinitely, anyway. Health experts are of the view that it is advisable to stagger the reopening of the country. This is a very sensible suggestion that the government ought to heed. The current wave of infections could have been prevented if the powers that be had listened to expert advice in April, and imposed travel restrictions.

Sri Lankans are known for running around purposelessly, especially when they are not supposed to do so, and infections are bound to rise after the country is reopened, and what has been gained from the costly lockdown will be lost within a few weeks unless stringent measures are adopted to ensure that they follow the health regulations. If the police lack the courage to arrest government politicians who flout the law brazenly, they must at least severely deal with the violators of quarantine laws for the sake of the public.

As coronavirus throws up new challenges in the form of more transmissible variants that defy vaccine barriers, efforts being made to contain it must be redoubled. Why double-masking and the two-metre rule have not been made mandatory here is the question. The quarantine laws need to be amended to introduce stricter measures to tackle the runaway virus, which is likely to make a comeback sooner than expected, necessitating another lockdown in a few months.

When workplaces reopen, most people will travel in buses and trains, and it is practically impossible to prevent these vehicles from being overcrowded. When enough buses and trains are not available, commuters are left with no alternative but to shoehorn themselves into every conceivable space in overcrowded vehicles lest they should be stranded. So, the private bus operators, the SLTB and the railway authorities will mind the health guidelines for a few days after the reopening of the country; everybody will take them for granted thereafter until the death toll from the pandemic rises again. This, we have seen before, and it is sure to happen again, defeating the ongoing pandemic control efforts.

When the lockdown is lifted, more people will travel to work in their own vehicles for want of a better alternative, and the country’s fuel consumption will increase significantly. Is the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) ready to meet an increase in the demand for fuel? Before the country was closed, it had petroleum stocks sufficient for only a few weeks, and the lockdown must have come as a blessing for the CPC, but the problem remains.

Most of the companies that promote remote work have sent out memos asking their employees to be present in their offices in case of power cuts. Their fear of power outages is not unfounded because we have experienced them umpteen times during the past few decades. A large number of people are working from home, at present, and if they have to travel to their workplaces again, they will run the risk of contracting Covid-19, and buses and trains will be more crowded. It is beneficial to the national economy to promote remote work, which helps reduce fuel consumption and congestion. One only hopes the government will take steps to ensure that power cuts will not be imposed. Ideally, back-up power options such as domestic solar power systems and small, fuel-efficient generators should be made available at affordable prices to those engaged in remote work.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka ought to learn from other countries such as Singapore how to ease lockdowns and keep the case fatality rates low. They have opted for cautious reopening with phased periods of heightened alert to avoid unpleasant surprises which coronavirus is notorious for offering.



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Editorial

New laws alone won’t do

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Tuesday 7th December, 2021

The government is keen to amend the election laws to provide for restrictions on campaign expenditure, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has given the Legal Draftsman necessary instructions in this regard, Media Minister Dallas Alahapperuma has reportedly said. It is hoped that the new laws to be made will also make it mandatory for candidates and political parties to disclose sources of their campaign finance, and the amounts of funds they receive by way of donations.

Laws to regulate campaign finance are long overdue, and the government initiative is therefore welcome. However, one should not be so naïve as to expect all problems related to campaign expenditure, etc., to disappear with the introduction of a few more laws. It is one thing to make laws; it is another to enforce them properly. We already have enough and more laws to prevent election malpractices, but the problem is that they are not applied correctly and fairly.

Politicians are adept at circumnavigating laws and compassing their political ends. When the 19th Amendment was introduced, it was widely expected to enable key state institutions to emerge independent and strong. But the Constitutional Council tasked with depoliticising those outfits became a mere rubber stamp for the Prime Minister, who manipulated it to further the interests of his government. This is the fate that befalls all laws in this country.

The problem with the election laws is not that they lack teeth; instead, it is that the authorities concerned lack the courage to enforce them strictly. The results of several elections, and the 1982 referendum should have been cancelled, given widespread rigging and violence that marred them. What was witnessed before and during the presidential and parliamentary elections in the late 1980s was the very antithesis of democracy; polling agents were chased away and ballot boxes stuffed openly while the police looked on. The North-Western provincial council polls (1999) were also affected by large-scale violence and rigging, but the results were not declared null and void.

Minister Alahapperuma has said the laws to be made will help usher in a new political culture. One should not be faulted for being sceptical about the possibility of such a radical change happening in Sri Lankan politics simply because of a few more additions to the country’s huge body of laws. If the government is genuinely desirous of changing the existing, rotten political culture, it ought to follow Alahapperuma’s example anent electioneering.

The media has been watching Minister Alahapperuma’s election campaigns with interest over the years. He has had the courage to spurn the conventional campaign methods; he does not use posters, banners, bunting, etc. When he chose to swim against the tide and take the high road, not many expected him to succeed in dirty Sri Lankan politics, but he has received a very positive response from the electorate. He has thus been able to keep the cost of electioneering very low. If he can conduct decent polls campaigns under the existing election laws, and get elected, why can’t others? There are several other politicians who also conduct clean election campaigns, and the onus is on the public to appreciate their courage to be different and reward them with votes. Sending the right men and women to Parliament is half the battle in draining the swamp.

It is heartening that the government has realised the need to regulate campaign finance at last and reportedly taken steps to introduce new laws for that purpose. If the SLPP had cared to set an example to others by keeping its campaign expenditure low, it would not have had to go out of its way to scrap duty on sugar imports in a questionable manner, some moons ago, to please one of its main financiers, thereby causing a huge loss to the State coffers. This scam has damaged its image irreparably.

Now that the government has evinced a keen interest in regulating campaign finance, will the ruling SLPP disclose, suo motu, the amounts of funds it received for the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls, the sources thereof and actual expenditure.

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Editorial

House where law is silent

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Monday 6th December, 2021

Time was when fish markets were synonymous with brawls replete with raw filth liberally exchanged by warring parties. But today they have apparently taken second place to Parliament where donnybrooks are concerned. When fishmongers trade blows, the police can intervene to maintain the peace, and bundle them into paddy wagons. But when the honourable members of Parliament clash, the police are helpless; they just look on. There are times when even the police personnel attached to Parliament suffer blows at the hands of unruly MPs, but cannot do anything other than grin and bear it.

On Saturday, the SJB MPs staged a walkout, claiming that one of them had been assaulted by a government MP. They urged the Speaker to ensure their safety. A probe has reportedly got underway into the alleged incident, and we are not in a position to check the veracity of the claim at issue. Such acts of rowdyism, however, are not uncommon in Parliament.

Parliamentary sittings have been disrupted while the national budget is being debated. So much for our lawmakers’ concern for their legislative duties. The Opposition has picked many a hole in Budget 2022. Amidst an unprecedented economic crisis, the public must have expected Parliament to debate the budget thoroughly and suggest sensible amendments thereto during the committee-stage debate. But the government and the Opposition lock horns over other issues at the drop of a hat.

The government seems to be adopting diversionary tactics to prevent the flaws in its budget being highlighted. The Opposition also goes out of its way to kick up a shindy every now and then, playing into the hands of the government in the process.

The situation has become so bad that not even the Speaker is safe in Parliament because the culprits responsible for violent incidents go scot-free. During the short-lived Sirisena-Rajapaksa government in 2018, the Opposition MPs representing the Joint Opposition (JO), unleashed hell in Parliament, threatening as they did Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who had to be removed to safety. The rowdies in the garb of MPs toppled the Speaker’s chair, damaged his microphones and assaulted their rivals. Some of them were seen hurling projectiles and even chairs at the police personnel escorting the Speaker. They also threw chilli powder at their opponents, and brought shame and disgrace on Parliament. It was widely thought that the culprits would be brought to justice. We pointed out, in this space, that the MPs who had damaged Parliament property could be arrested, and remanded without bail under the Offences against Public Property Act, but the so-called lawmakers remain above the law.

If the JO MPs who went on the rampage in 2018 had been prosecuted, the unfortunate incidents we have since witnessed could have been prevented. A committee was appointed to look into the incidents in question, but the culprits got away. What became of the complaints the UNF MPs lodged with the police against their JO counterparts is anybody’s guess.

The party leaders are meeting today to discuss Friday’s incident, we are told. It is hoped that they will be able to figure out what actually happened and take urgent action to ensure the smooth functioning of Parliament and prevent their members from bringing it into disrepute.

There has been a severe erosion of public faith in the national legislature owing to the deplorable behaviour of its members. The blame for this sorry state of affairs must be apportioned to the party leaders as well; if they had nominated only decent men and women to contest the last general election, Parliament would have been free from trouble. The problem of indiscipline in Parliament is best blocked at source.

At least now, let the party leaders refrain from fielding political dregs at elections.

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Editorial

Gas explosions

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During the worst days this country faced in its contemporary history, now dimming in memory, of LTTE and JVP terror, people waited with trepidation for news of the number of deaths on any given day in the evening television news bulletins. The wheel has now turned a full circle and many people, during the last few days waited for word on how many gas explosions had occurred that day. Last week, Consumer Affairs Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna admitted in Parliament that an average of 10 explosions were being reported daily. He admitted the fact that 40 percent of over five million households in the country were living in fear, wondering (like in the terror days, we might add) when another explosion would hit.

 

After much waffling and obfuscation by the gas suppliers – one state-owned and the other private – the responsible political authority has taken responsibility saying “We’re on the side of the consumer.” It could not have been otherwise, although such was not the case in the ill-thought chemical fertilizer ban where both the producer and consumer were hit. The president appointed a committee of inquiry, after 14 explosions and fires in a single day, setting a two-week deadline for a report. A cross-party parliamentary investigation at which gas supply company representatives were present happened later in the week. The expertise of the Moratuwa University and the laboratory of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has been mobilized. But their was no clear word as this is being written of how and why the country has been landed in this mess.

 

Litro Gas, a subsidiary of the state-owned insurance corporation, said soon after the fireworks started that gas explosions have been occurring for a number of years though not a frequently or as close to each other as in recent days. The gas supplier has taken out full page advertisements in the print media suggesting that technical faults in regulators, gas cookers etc. and negligence in kitchens may be partly attributable to what is happening.  But there is no escaping the reality that the problem intensified after the propane-butane composition of the gas pumped into cylinders have changed. There is scant comfort to be taken from the statement that there is no set criterion about these matters laid down by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution. But there is no credible explanation of why this is so and why the problem was allowed to exist for years without necessary regulatory action. Welcome news on Thursday was that the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka was taking on the job. Better late than never.

 

But the inescapable reality is that changes in the composition followed increases in global gas prices with local price controls not adjusted accordingly. Laugfs was authorized to raise their prices while Litro, as an obvious concession to seething consumer anger of the dizzy rise in prices of everyday essentials retained previous price levels. Obviously the taxpayer will have to pick up the tab for the political establishment choosing not to be more unpopular. This was rather like something that happened in the petrol/diesel sector where LIOC raised prices while CPC maintained existing price levels. Obviously most motorists preferred to tank up at CPC while its competitor was happy to sell less because every liter sold at less than than the procurement cost eroded the bottom line. People chose the more expensive alternative only when there were shortages and they had brave long queues at filling stations. So also with gas when Laugfs cost more than Litro. But unlike petrol/diesel you had to have the right cylinder, be it blue or yellow, to get a refill from either supplier.

 

There have been a number of explosions since a gas cylinder exploded at an upmarket restaurant in Colombo on November 20 gutting the premises. Since then there have been dozens of explosions and fires countrywide, all of them grabbing headlines. For the past several weeks there have been cooking gas shortages inducing people to try to snap-up the few kerosene cookers available in the market or return to firewood cooking difficult in urban neighborhoods. “No gas” signs were freely visible everywhere and we’re told that some ships carrying supplies are due in the very short term. But in the context of the squeeze on the country’s foreign exchange reserves and the fear of fuel shortages thereby triggered, consumers fear continuing availability of supplies.

A Colombo datelined photograph of a man having his breakfast seated on a gas cylinder at a wayside restaurant was widely published globally illustrating a report of “mystery” gas explosions here. People have also not forgotten that it was not long ago that the then Chairman/CEO of Litro Gas refused to reveal his monthly emoluments, believed to exceed a million rupees. He told an inquiring reporter that this was a matter for the shareholders of the company and not the press. Since then his successor, presumably drawing similar emoluments,  chose to allege a gas supply Mafia. This drew a strong protest and a demand for an inquiry from the predecessor. There has been no word on whether there was such an inquiry and if so what has been determined. True, monthly pay cheques running into millions in today’s depreciated currency are not uncommon in the private sector today. But that is not yet true of the public sector although many a political bigwig costs the taxpayer that much and more if all their perks are quantified. But if Litro was/is spending millions on its top honcho, the public could rightfully expect a safe gas cylinder and stability of supply. But people today have to pour soapy water on gas regulators to see whether it bubbles and store their cylinders outdoors for fear of fire and explosions.

 

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