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Editorial

Reopening schools

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Saturday 21st November, 2020

Schools are scheduled to reopen for Grade Six to Grade 13, next Monday. Opinion may be divided on this move as COVID-19 is spreading fast, but schools cannot remain closed indefinitely. There are no signs of the virus going away anytime soon, and the World Health Organisation has said humans will have to learn to live with coronavirus for want of a better alternative. In fact, living with the virus is less dangerous than crossing Sri Lankan roads, where about eight lives are snuffed out daily. (In 2019, as many as 2,829 people were killed in 2,641 accidents.)

Parents and teachers will have their work cut out to ensure that carefree schoolchildren adhere to the health guidelines that have been given legal effect to prevent the transmission of coronavirus. Children are known for throwing caution to the wind and trying to do exactly the opposite of what they are instructed to do. There is hardly anything they do not share, and physical distancing is something they loath when it comes to their friends.

On the other hand, schools are overflowing with students. Most of them have about 50 students each crammed into classrooms, and it is well-nigh impossible to observe the physical distancing rule in such an environment. Many schools are without proper sanitary facilities, and this may also lead to the transmission of COVID-19 among students.

It is not only at school that students are exposed to infections; they may get infected while travelling to and from school. Private transport is a luxury most of them cannot afford; they are dependent on trains, buses and school vans. Lucky are the ones who can travel in private vehicles or use Shanks’s pony or cycle to school.

School vehicles sans proper ventilation are chock-a-block with students, as is public knowledge. Not even cattle are allowed to be transported in this manner, but nobody has taken up the plight of students travelling in overcrowded vans.

Students are left with no alternative but to travel in school vans suffering in silence and exposing themselves to infections. These vehicles travel in circuitous routes, and most students have to board them at dawn and spend hours in them before reaching school. They suffer again after school. The government says it will take action to have the school van operators adhere to the health guidelines, but it is highly unlikely that they will do so; they are bent on squeezing as many children into their vehicles and, thereby, maximize profit.

Only some half-hearted attempts have been made to ensure the roadworthiness of school vehicles, whose operators have become a law unto themselves. They hold parents to ransom, and exact fees even during school vacations.

Successive governments have set for themselves ambitious goals as regards education. We have heard many a Finance Minister wax eloquent about what they call their contribution towards the development of the education sector, and promise to develop the school system further. That all of them have failed is evident from the state of the government schools, most of which lack even basic facilities.

It is high time the government made a meaningful intervention to solve students’ transport problem and took steps to launch a countrywide programme to provide all schools with facilities to ensure the safety of students.

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Editorial

A crying shame!

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Thursday 26th November 2020

Male MPs, wearing as they did their hearts on their sleeves, yesterday, wept buckets for hapless women who suffered harassment and violence at the hands of savages who call themselves ‘men’. They made themselves out to be knights errant in shining armour on a mission to help those in trouble, especially damsels in distress. They did so when Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa brought to the notice of the House an incident where a female worker had been assaulted by one of her male counterparts, in a government office, in Gampaha. All of them condemned the incident, with one voice, and stressed the need for safeguarding the rights of women, and rightly so. But is their concern for women genuine? This is the question one must have asked oneself on seeing them shed copious tears for the female assault victim. If they really do, why has none of them called for an end to the shameful practice of governments imposing taxes on women’s hygiene products?

Rohini Kaviratne, one of the few female members of the current Parliament, has taken up the issue of heavy taxes on sanitary towels, according to a news item we published yesterday. She deserves praise, but, sadly, she has not received any support from her male counterparts who pretend to be sisters under the skin.

The despicable sanitary towel tax has been there for years despite protests. Are Sri Lankan governments so broke as to augment their revenue with taxes on this essential sanitary product?

Women account for more than one half of the Sri Lankan population although they have not realised their power, which can make or break governments. Besides, the Sri Lanka economy is dependent on women who are slaving away on estates, in garment factories and in West Asia. They deserve a much better deal.

Urban spaces which used to be eyesores have been yuppified, and infrastructural development is discernible in various parts of the country. These gentrification and development projects may go on, but we must not lose sight of the seamy side of ‘the paradise’.

Most schools are without proper sanitation facilities. Research findings have revealed that many girls stay at home during their periods as they lack access to toilets in their schools, as we have mentioned in a number of previous comments. One may recall that more than one half of adolescent Sri Lankan girls, surveyed by UNICEF and the government of Sri Lanka in 2015, revealed that they did not attend school during their periods.

The education sector is now in the hands of two eminent scholars—Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, a legal brain, and Secretary to the Education Ministry, Prof. Kapila Perera, an engineering brain. Both are former Vice Chancellors who have interacted with students sufficiently and are au fait with their problems. It is hoped that the brainy duo will, together with the government leaders, ensure that every seat of learning will have proper sanitary facilities, and menstruation will not prevent any girl from attending school.

Mangala Samaraweera, credit where credit is due, was considerate enough to reduce taxes on sanitary towels when he was the Finance Minister in the yahapalana government. He went on record saying that access to affordable female hygiene products was expected to have an important positive impact on girls’ school attendance and educational outcomes. He was spot on.

We have a female health minister, but she does not seem concerned about issues women are faced with. Let Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi be urged to stop engaging in exercises in absurdity such as dropping pots into rivers in a bid to banish coronavirus, and prevail on the government to make female hygiene products tax free.

It defies comprehension why female hygiene products cannot be made tax free, in a country, where widespread waste is the norm, and tax exemptions are given to politicians. The government must abolish taxes on such essential products; it may recoup any losses resulting therefrom by increasing taxes on firewater and coffin nails aka cigarettes.

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Editorial

Failed messiahs

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Wednesday 25th November 2020

The UNP has not yet been able to appoint its National List MP. There are many contenders for the post, but the UNP old guard wants party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed; he, however, seems to be in two minds.

Former Minister Arjuna Ranatunga has said the country will gain if Wickremesinghe enters Parliament via the National List because the latter will be able to help the government save the economy. The immediate task before Wickremesinghe is to save the party and not anything else. Charity, they say, begins at home. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Wickremesinghe is an experienced politician, and, therefore, better qualified than anyone else to represent the UNP in Parliament.

Even if Ranil were to be brought back to Parliament as the Opposition Leader, he would not be able to influence the government’s economic policy. The current regime, intoxicated with power, is obdurate and impervious to reason; and not even Sakra will be able to knock any sense into its grandees who are full of themselves.

The Opposition, however, may benefit if Ranil returns to Parliament, for it is short of good debaters to take on the government. The Opposition is apparently all at sea; it could have scored heavily in the ongoing parliamentary debate on Budget 2021, which has some gaping holes, which need to be highlighted. Most of its MPs have been barking up the wrong tree; it is doubtful whether they have even read and understood the budget properly. They, save one or two, confine their remarks to generalities instead of addressing specifics, and the vital aspects of the budget have, therefore, gone unaddressed. What really matters in parliamentary debates is not the numerical strength of a party, but the quality of arguments its members put forth. How legends like Sarath Muttetuwegama held out against the mighty JRJ government, which had a five-sixths majority in Parliament, comes to mind.

Is Ranil capable of helping the government save the economy, as Ranatunga has claimed? If so, why couldn’t he straighten up the economy when he was the Prime Minister and de facto head of state? If he had developed the economy in keeping with his pre-2015 promises, the UNP would not have been in the current predicament. The blame for the failure of the yahapalana government cannot be laid entirely at the feet of former President Maithripala Sirisena.

True, Sirisena, as the President, sought to settle political scores with the UNP and threw a monkey wrench in the works towards the latter part of the yahapalana government, but the UNP had time from January 2015 to mid-2018, to develop the economy. Instead of doing so, it got embroiled in various frauds such as the Treasury bond scams, which led to its undoing.

All politicians look capable when they are in the Opposition. They tell governments what to do and how to do it, but when given mandates to govern the country, they fail miserably. The leaders of the current dispensation, during their Opposition days, ridiculed the yahapalana government for its failure to tackle the country’s burning problems, which are legion, and undertook to magic them away immediately after capturing power. People gave them three huge mandates at the local government, presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. They are now ensconced in power, living high on the hog, but the country’s problems are far from over. They cannot even ensure that the gazettes they put out at a rate are implemented. It looks as if we had another NATO (No-Action-Talk-Only) government.

Governance in this country has been a process of self-proclaimed messiahs becoming failures and vice versa. Regrettably, people have had to replace one set of failed messiahs with another, hoping for deliverance. Madness has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

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Editorial

Govt. gazettes and Jothi’s cassettes

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Tuesday 24th November, 2020

The present government has so far published more gazettes than the total number of cassettes released by H. R. Jothipala (Jothi) during his lifetime, as someone has rightly said, but most of them have not had the desired impact, at all. The recent one stipulating maximum retail prices (MRPs) for some varieties of rice is a case in point. Trade Minister Baundula Gunawardena has recently told the media, in Dambulla, that the consumer should exercise patience and wait until the commencement of the next harvesting season to reap the full benefits of the gazette at issue. Been there, done that, Citizen Perera may say, gnashing his teeth. Many harvesting seasons and gazettes announcing MRPs have come and gone, but he has never had rice at the prices determined by governments. He knows he is in for a big disappointment once again. The reason? The government is too impotent to enforce the MRPs, and the powerful rice millers who control the rice market always have the last laugh.

Minister Gunawardena has said the present administration, unlike its predecessors, does not intend to import rice and distribute it at lower prices as it feels for the paddy farmer. The government must not import rice at this juncture. If it does, it will play straight into the hands of unscrupulous rice millers who want it to do just that. The present shortfall in the supply of rice is due to market manipulations and nothing else. The Millers’ Mafia, creates a shortage of rice and drives governments to import rice ahead of harvesting seasons, thereby causing prices to drop, so that they can buy paddy at lower prices. After collecting paddy for cheap and storing it in their silos, they release some of their old stocks to the market, making the public stop consuming imported rice, which does not suit their palates. Thereafter, they jack up prices slowly, and the imported rice remains in government warehouses to be sold as animal feed in the end. This is the name of the game, and we have written extensively about the strategy adopted by the Millers’ Mafia, but the powers that be do not care to do anything about it because the wealthy millers have political connections and are known to bankroll election campaigns.

The government would have us believe that it refrains from importing rice because it wants to protect the interests of the local farming community. It has also stopped turmeric imports for the same reason, we are told. If so, will it explain why it slashed the import levy on big onions, recently, bringing down their prices while onions were being harvested here? Local onion cultivators are in tears as their produce fetches low prices, as a result. Was the government move aimed at helping its cronies engaged in onion imports?

If Minister Gunawardena or any other government grandee, bellowing pro-people rhetoric, is desirous of making rice available at reasonable prices, he ought to take steps to stop the big-time millers from hoarding paddy and manipulating the market; the Consumer Affairs Authority must be given clear orders and a free hand to conduct raids to prevent hoarding. Paddy farmers find themselves in a debt trap, as we argued in a previous comment, citing research findings. They have to sell their produce at very low prices to the millers who give them loans for cultivation purposes. They are also exploited by other loan sharks such as micro finance companies. The state banks must take the lead in liberating these hapless cultivators from the clutches of usurers. Many small rice mills have gone belly up, unable to compete with the stony-hearted buccaneers in the garb of rich millers. They should be given a financial leg-up urgently, and the Paddy Marketing Board developed as a national priority.

The government, which is not short of politicians who wrap themselves in the flag, ought to listen to all stakeholders, especially those fighting for the rights of the farming community, and work out a strategy to protect the interests of consumers and farmers.

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