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Revival of Export Development Council – a far-reaching stride for the acceleration of Sri Lankan exports

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by J. A. A. S. Ranasisnghe

Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant

It is heartening to note that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has re-galvanized the Export Development Council (EDC) of the Export Development Board (EDB), consisting of nine ministries, after a lapse of 28 years, on the initiative of the Minister in charge Bandula Gunawardana with a view to formulating and implementing national export development policies and programmes. Assuming that the duration of Parliament life is five years, it could be safely assumed that the successive six governments have pathetically failed to promote and develop the Sri Lankans exports as per the mandate given to them in terms of the EDB Act No 40 of 1979 in a competitive global trade environment. The revival of the EDC is a formidable far-reaching intervention by the present government, as the need of the hour is to generate foreign exchange by exporting Sri Lankan commodities. No doubt that His Excellency’s inaugurate address would have sent a chilling impetus on the members of the EDC and other stakeholders, as there had been no forceful policy and administrative interventions from the head of the country for almost three decades.

 

The role of the EDB

The EDB is a brainchild of the late Lalith Athulathmudali who foresaw the necessity of a national policy-making body, at the highest level of governance, to facilitate the development of export oriented economy with the advent of the free-market economy in 1976 and it was possible for his to bring an legislative enactment No 40 of 1979 giving birth to the EDB. By virtue of the provisions of the Act, the President of the country is the chairman of the EDC ably assisted by the Ministers in charge of Trade, Shipping, Industries, Agriculture, Plantation Industries, Textile Industries, Fisheries, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Planning and Rural Industries. In its formative years, the EDB played a catalytic role in promoting exports and the award of the annual presidential awards have had an appreciable impact on the export-oriented institutions. It is a moot point why this vital institution (EDC) was forced to a backseat over the last 28 years and the Ministers in charge of Trade should be totally held responsible for their lackadaisical attitude for not invigorating this vital mechanism. Of the Ministers in charge of Trade, Minister Rishard Badudeen had steered the Ministry of Trade for a considerable period, out of the 28 years, but he appeared to have lacked the foresight to set in motion the EDC and as a result the country lost a cohesive and coordinated approach in generating millions of foreign exchange to the national coffers. With the abandonment of the annual presidential award scheme, the exporters have lost enthusiasm and drive and it would be more correct to say that the EDB has been a rudderless ship drifting without a captiain over the last 28 years.

 

Quality Standards for Imported

raw materials

It would be pertinent to revisit some of the critical issues touched upon by the President at the first meeting of the EDC last Wednesday. The President has emphasised that the import of raw materials required for value added products should meet the highest quality standards under strict supervision. It is quite true that a substantial quantity raw material imported to the country annually do not meet the required quality standard. Take for instance the low quality of pepper imported during the yahapalanaya regime under the guise of re-export after value additions, when the country is saddled with a glut situation of pepper and lack of remunerative prices for pepper cultivators.

 

Pepper Industry

With the surge of world production of pepper since 2017, inevitably there has been a deleterious impact on Sri Lankan pepper and the resultant scenario was that pepper prices in Sri Lanka crashed to $ 2,800 from $ 3,800 per tonne. Right from the second half of 2016, pepper prices have seen a falling trend. It was worse in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In this context, what was the rationale to import low quality of pepper from Vietnam and dump them in the local market thus depriving the local pepper farmers. Had there been an EDC in operation, this high-handed scenario would have never taken place. It is quite clear that the non-existence of EDC had given unbridled powers to the Minister in charge to manipulate the pepper market at the cost o

f the interest to the country and the local pepper growers.

It is well known that the demand for local pepper plummeted drastically when the market was flooded with inferior imported pepper and the pepper growers insisted grievance to discontinue the imports of pepper did not fell in deaf ears of the minister! Alas, In the year 2018 alone, 3,519,083 Kg had been imported to Sri Lanka from Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil etc. One could just imagine the pathetic situation faced by the local pepper industry in this vicious cycle in the absence of a national body, such as the EDC.

 

Rubber Industry

Not only the quality but also the quantity of raw materials matters. It is alleged that rubber latex is imported to Sri Lanka by leading rubber manufacturing companies in excess of her actual requirement as there is a shortage of rubber latex in the country for value addition purposes and export. The statistical information book released by the Ministry of Plantation 2017 says that Sri Lanka imported quantity of RSS sheet rubber 43,727 Mt to overcome the scarcity of natural rubber to meet demand of rubber product manufacturers. Compared to RDD export of 2,940 Mt, the import quantity is much greater Thus, in 2017 total import of NR was 61,801 Mt with the corresponding CIF value of Rs. 15.888 million.

As in the case of pepper, the prices of rubber in major rubber growing countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and India have hit low bottom prices due to lack of remunerative prices in the world market and this has compelled our local manufacturers to import rubber latex from countries rather than buying rubber from the rubber smallholders. It is alleged that a well-planned ruse is in operation to release part of the NR consignment to the local market through the backdoor, depriving the livelihood income of the small holders of the country. Hence, it is utmost duty of the EDC to take an urgent decision not to give a blanket approval for the import of natural rubber, thus killing the local rubber industry. If at all, the import of natural rubber is required, it has to be vetted by an expert committee representing the Ministry, EDB, Customs, Ceylon Rubber Traders Association, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Ministry of Industries. In deciding the quantum of natural rubber to be imported, a mechanism to be designed not to exceed the quantity surpassing the industrial rubber produced and exported. This is the only way to nip this racket in the bud. The members to be appointed to the committee should be above suspicion similar to that of Caesar’s wife, as the unscrupulous players resorted to this high-handed racket are capable of influencing any untrustworthy member of this committee. Trust this proposal will receive the urgent attention of the EDC at the next monthly meeting.

 

Rubber Industry is in the verge

of extinction

The foreign exchange generated by the traditional three crops, namely tea, rubber and coconut used to play a dominant role in the Sri Lankan economy but the dominance of the rubber sector witnessed an alarming trend during the last 25 years as evidenced below.

It would be crystal clear from Table 1 that the annual rubber production has been on a decline for the last eight years and this downward trend is 10% per annum. (Insiders say that the annual production given in the year 2017 is cockeyed, given the unprecedented downfall in the production over the years and the Director General at the time of retirement, prior to taking up a foreign assignment camouflaged the of figures to his advantage). It would thus be seen that the local rubber industry is in the verge of extinction at the present adverse trend of 10% and it will completely routed out from the Sri Lankan soil by the year 2026, if drastic action is not taken to extricate the industry from the bottomless precipice.

The rubber sector is characterized by a series of professional maladies by low productivity, low profitability and low efficiency of operations, alienation of the smallholders from the cultivation due to lack of remunerative prices, dearth of tappers, non-supply of agricultural inputs on time, non-releasing of subsidy payment for new planting and replanting on time, gradual demise of the farmer societies and Group Processing centers, and the high priority being given to subsidy aspects over extension facilities, appointment of non-agriculturist to manage the institution ( Rubber Development Department) for the last 25 years with the amalgamation of the Advisory Services Department of the Rubber Research Board with the Rubber Control Department.

This deterioration trend of the collapse of the rubber industry commenced almost 25 years ago with the termination of the extension services to the rubber smallholders. The absorption of the services of the extension officers hitherto functioned under the Rubber Research Board to a newly created Rubber Development Department was the bane of the downfall. The shortsighted government bureaucrats and the Treasury conveniently were of the view that the rubber smallholders could be easily motivated by way of subsidy payments at the cost of extension services backed by research. The end result which we witness today is the result what we witness in Table 1.

 

New Institutional Arrangement

It will be well-nigh impossible to save the rubber industry unless a radical institutional shake up is made with priority being given to research and extension. It is my considered opinion that the EDC chaired by His Excellency would take a policy decision to create a new institution for the rubber sector.



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Suppressing the struggle: Education and the Discourse of Class

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A file photo of the military presence at Galle Face during Aragalaya

By Anushka Kahandagamage

Protesters defeated the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime, making the Rajapaksas resign from their positions, premiership and presidency, of the government. After the collapse of the dynasty, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Rajapaksa puppet, came to power with the support of a distorted majority in Parliament. Having got himself appointed as President, without a people’s mandate, Wickremesinghe began to suppress the struggle—the very struggle that led to his ascendency. Hours after Wickremesinghe took oath as President, at midnight, when the protesters were preparing to disband the major GotaGoGama (GGG) protest site, the military stormed in, violently assaulting some protesters, including women and people with disabilities. The military attacked media reporters, including BBC journalists, and destroyed the structures built on the location, prompting many to go to the GGG site in support of the protesters. A witch hunt would soon unfold, and, today, just weeks after Wickremesinghe came to power, arbitrary arrests are commonplace in Lanka, most recent and prominent, that of the trade union activist Joseph Stalin.

The Classed nature of the Discourse:

The Double Standard

National as well as international activists, academics, journalists, students, condemned the arbitrary violent attack on the GGG site. Social media was swamped with video footage of the attack, and posts, condemning the government’s moves. Many social media posts pointed fingers at the military, which was to be expected. But a notable and recurring theme was the link made between the military’s behaviour and its low education level – “Eighth grade passed Army”. Meanwhile, politicians from the ruling party (and others) publicly condemned the protesters’ actions, even calling them drug addicts (kuddo). The social media discourse targeting the military (low education) and the protesters (drug addicts), although coming from very different places, was steeped in a classed and classist language, and reduced their actions—whether of the protesters’ or of those suppressing the protest —to their level of education or social class.

Yet, there were surprisingly few discussions regarding the education level of the President, who commanded the attack on the protesters. There is no doubt that Wickremesinghe, whose past is linked with horrendous acts of violence, commanded the military to attack GGG. He is also behind the arbitrary arrests of protesters, the very people who placed him in power. While people are aware of Wickremesinghe’s violent tendencies, these inclinations are not discussed in relation to his education level. During the protest, when his house was set on fire, along with his personal library, many condemned the burning of the library, emphasizing the importance of ‘reading’ and ‘knowledge’. Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as an ‘educated’ politician, well-read and knowledgeable about foreign policy and politics. A double standard manifests itself where the violent acts of the military (by no means am I trying to glorify the military) are criticized on the grounds of their ‘low’ education level, while the violence of Wickremesinghe garners little comment.

Violence and Education

There is no essential link between violence and education, rather capitalist structures have conditioned us to associate violence with under privileged groups and lower levels of education. Formal educational structures sustain hierarchies, power and, in our context, neo-liberal market economies. Education socialises the individual in such a way s/he/they come to embody dominant society’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. Educational institutions are particularly efficient in legitimising the current social order since they play a role not only in training workers in the strict sense of providing them with skills to be productive but also in the naturalization of social relations of production. Education thus entrenches the status quo, and, in that sense, is not an innocent space, rather a space where inequality and hierarchies are sustained and reproduced.

We associate ‘low’ educational levels, and underprivilege, with violence, as we are trained to do so by the political-economic structures which glorify the ‘learned’ and ‘wealthy’. While the military should not be glorified, under any circumstances, it should be understood that the soldiers, who attacked the protesters, on the ground, represent the disadvantaged classes, carrying out their ‘duty’ as commanded by a supposedly ‘educated’ President. It is an irony that society sees people who are directly involved in violence as the generators of violence, rather than the decision-makers who perpetrate violence.

Formal educational institutions, driven by capitalist values, serve to produce, reproduce and sustain such hegemonic narratives. Indeed, there is a link between our pathological social condition and our education system. While our mostly market driven education is trapped in narratives of employability, efficiency or productivity—needed to understand a phenomenon beyond what is given—human values and critical thinking remain neglected on the back burner. Under these circumstances, there is a great need for alternative education forms.

Counter narratives and alternative

forms of Education

Education has been crucial to the struggle to depose the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime. In this context, I am referring to the ‘education’ initiatives that have been a key element of the Aragalaya: education on democracy, the constitution, history of struggles, economy and so on. In the GGG site, groups connected to the protest as well as other initiatives organized debates and discussions to raise awareness about economic, political and social issues, to learn about how to utter the correct slogans and how to steer the struggle in the ‘right’ path. In doing so, hundreds of webinars were organized, numerous articles and posts written and videos uploaded. In the GGG main protest site, a library, university, college, and an IT centre were established to support ‘educating’ the people.

‘Education’ was a thread that wove the struggle together. There were (and are) different debates on education at various levels of the struggle where alternative forms of education were discussed, challenging hierarchy and institutionalized education. The protest has opened up a space for people to pursue alternative educational structures and build counter narratives. Unfortunately, most of these efforts ultimately fall, directly or indirectly, in to hegemonic educational structures, where hierarchy and Sinhala Buddhist hegemony are sustained in different forms. Similarly, the activists and academics, among the protesters, who tried to introduce alternative education forms and counter narratives often fell into capitalist hierarchical structures. The majority of the webinars and awareness raising forums were top-down in nature and were held in one language, discriminating against other language groups.

Furthermore, these forums were frequently clogged with ‘experts’ or the kind of academics who preach their opinions to the ‘uneducated.’

In conclusion, existing capitalist educational frameworks train one to discriminate, based on class and educational levels, normalizing certain ways of life and being. For example, it’s fascinating to see how Wickremesinghe was removed from the violence and education discourse while the military was at the centre of it. Alternative forms of education are needed to question and challenge these hierarchies.

(The author is a Doctoral Candidate in School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prioritising protection of Government over the people

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by Jehan Perera

According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind was a state of war in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all.”  Therefore, it was necessary for them to come to an agreement. The philosopher John Locke called this the social contract. Social contract arguments are that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. Constitutions set out the rules by which societies are governed.

 The evolution of constitutional thinking  since the 17th century that Hobbes and Locke lived in has been to find ways to regulate the powers of the rulers and protect the people from the rulers. Those who have power need to have checks placed on them. They need to be held accountable. If those who are rulers are not checked or held accountable, they invariably abuse their powers. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely has been a truism. Over the past 74 years we have seen that the rulers have used their power indiscriminately some more than others. PTA is an example of a law which was instituted to deal with the Tamil separatist insurgency over 40 years ago, but it still remains-to protect power of the rulers. In the past three years when the rulers of Sri Lanka held virtually absolute power by virtue of the 20th Amendment to the constitution, the situation in the country deteriorated. The country became bankrupt for the first time ever.

 The current debate over the 22nd Amendment is to ensure and enlarge the role of civil society to mitigate the powers of the politicians who are rulers. A key question now is with regard to the three civil society representatives who will be in the Constitutional Council. The present formulation of the amendment is that the civil society representatives will have to be acceptable to the majority in parliament (thereby giving the government final say). Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s experience with constitutional reform has been  in the direction of further strengthening of the powers of the rulers against the people. The so-called reforms have invariably strengthened the hands of the rulers against the people and justified that it is being done for the sake of the people.

 ERODING CONTROLS

 The 1972 Constitution replaced the constitution that the country had inherited from the British colonial rulers. It ensured the independence of the judiciary and of the civil service and also had special protections for human rights and non-discrimination between ethnic communities. However, these protections were removed from the 1972 constitution that sought to empower the ruling politicians on the justification that they embodied the will of the sovereign people. It was argued that the elected politicians were closer to the people than unelected judges and civil servants. But being away from the people makes them non partisan, a value less understood. Judges were sacked when the new constitution came into operation and treated shamefully. The 1978 constitution repeated the activities of the 1972 constitutions. Judges were once again sacked and treated shamefully. At a later point they were even stoned.

 It is these cultures we developed that have led to the present crisis of lack of values beyond the economy itself and formed the base for Aragalaya. The 1978 constitution took the centralisation of power in the 1972 constitution even further and centralized it in the  office of one person, the executive president. He could now be even above the law, like the kings of old before parliaments that represented the people came into being. The first executive president of Sri Lanka, J R Jayewardene, said that the only power he did not possess was the power to turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man. It is not surprising that with this power going into  the hands of the elected rulers, that the abuse  of power and corruption should grow without  limit. From being  a country  near the top of Asia at the time of independence, Sri Lanka  is today nearer the bottom. The life savings of its people have been halved in half a year and not a single politician has faced a legal accountability process.

 The 22nd Amendment belongs to the family of constitutional amendments  that began with the 17th Amendment of 2001. This  amendment was  agreed to by the then president due to the weakening of the government at that time. The  JVP  then,  as now, the party of the disadvantaged in society, gave the lead. The amendment resulted in the reduction of the power of the president and sharing those powers with parliament, state institutions and with civil society. The idea behind the 17th Amendment was to strengthen the system of checks and balances and thereby promote good governance in the national interest. The 19th Amendment that resembles it was the work of a coalition of parties that had opposed the abuse of power of the rulers they had just deposed through an electoral mandate.

 HIGH CORRUPTION

 However, the limitation on the powers of the rulers has never been acquiesced by those who would be rulers or belong to their party. The 17th Amendment was overturned in 2010 by the 18th Amendment that gave back to the presidency the powers it had lost plus some more. When this led to an increase in the abuse of powers by the rulers, the  successor government brought in the 19th amendment to once again reduce the powers of the presidency. This was in pursuance of the mandate sought at the presidential election of 2015. But once again in 2019, those who formed the next government overruled the 19th Amendment and with the 20th Amendment and gave back to the presidency its lost powers plus some more.

 It is under the 20th Amendment which is about to be repealed that the corruption and abuse of power in the country reached its zenith and plunged the people into unprecedented economic hardship and poverty. It is these hardships that gave rise to the Aragalaya, or protest movement, that culminated with the physical storming of government buildings and the forced resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers. The shrinking of the middle class who have toiled a lifetime are now falling between the cracks and joining the poor and vulnerable created by the government in less than three years. Yet highlighting the priorities of the rulers, no  one of the seem to be thinking of compensating those who have lost their savings, only of compensation of what happened to a few of the rulers and their henchmen during the 2015-2019 period  or the Aragalaya period in which the houses of the rulers, much beyond their known sources of wealth and income were burned down.

 An Indian political analyst Dr Maya John, has written, “Although the Aragalaya targeted not only individual politicians like the Rajapaksas but also the wider ambit of corrupt political forces – as evident in the parallel slogans of “GotaGoHome” and “225GoHome” – the bulk of people’s energy was overtly focused on dislodging certain individuals from political power; indicating the tendency for the ruling establishment to still hold sway with the ouster of particular politicians. As the well-known Sinhalese proverb goes: inguru deela miris gaththa wage (exchanging ginger for chilli), we have simply got rid of something bad and got something worse in return. So, the Rajapksas have been replaced but the same ruling clique and political system remain intact; in fact, in a more offensive reincarnation.”

UNEQUAL TREATMENT

 The protest movement was a reaction to the social  tolerance limits, economic hardships, shortages, queues and steep price rises that in effect halved the general income of the people, with some suffering more than others. But the crackdown on them by the rulers has been both subtle and harsh in the present period. Those who gave it leadership are being picked off one by one, put into jail or being put on bail so that they dare not protest again. The unequal and discriminatory treatment of the protest movement is given the veneer of law which the government would he hoping would get it through the monitoring of the UN Human Rights Council next month and preserve the economic rewards of the EU’s GSP Plus, which is given to country’s that are making a genuine effort to improve the lot of their people, poor people not only the rich.

 In 2018, parliamentarians who attempted to stage a constitutional coup (which failed because the judiciary stood firm) sat on the chair of the Speaker of parliament whom they had forcibly chased off. They flung chairs and wrenched microphones out of their sockets. But none of them were punished even when the coup failed. However, those who joined the protest movement and sat in the chair of the president are being houndeds one by one and arrested. A protester who took the beer mug of the deposed president has been arrested. But ministers who are accused of corruption, accused reportedly even by diplomats accredited to the country, and ministers who have been convicted by the courts, sit on, in government. Such unequal and discriminatory treatment is likely to cause the sense of grievance to grow especially when the people are faced with price rises and shortages. They form the basis  to cause another Aragalaya.

 The current version of the 22nd Amendment which gives the rulers the power to pick the civil society members who will be in the constitutional council is not a sign that the government will heed the voice of the people. In this reluctance to be held accountable and to use power in a just manner, is a recipe for confrontation between the rulers and people in the future in which repression will be the response of the rulers who disregard the people. It may explain  why the military budget continues to take first place despite the economic collapse. Unless the people’s voices are represented truly in the parliament and the political processes, which can only come through a fresh set of elections, it is difficult to expect accountability in the system which is a formula for disaster sooner or later.

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Doing it…dad’s way

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Yes, of course, the older folks would all remember Edward Joseph; the young ones may find the name unfamiliar as Edward now lives in Germany and does his thing in that part of the world.

Better known as Eddy, he was with the leader of the group Steelers and they were big in the local showbiz scene…many, many years ago.

While Eddy is now busy, operating as a singer/guitarist/songwriter, in Germany, his daughter, Samantha, has decided to follow in her dad’s footsteps…as a singer/guitarist.

According to Eddy, Samantha decided to get actively involved, this year, and started performing with him, at various gigs,

A few weeks ago, she had the opportunity to perform with dad, to a huge crowd, on big stage, and after her impressive performance, she was asked to come for a casting by the State Jazz band of Frankfurt, whose conductor was in the audience.

She was also discovered by another promoter of a big TV Channel, in Germany, called RTL.

Says Eddy: “So, hopefully, things will work out for her. I never pushed her to do music because I know how hard and competitive, and dangerous, the industry has become.”

The proud dad went on to say that he only gave her the tools of advice, and tips, in singing and playing instruments.

“From that point, onwards, it was all her effort,” he added.

Samantha, originally, was keen to become a Music Teacher, says Eddy, rather than a performer, but now she is gradually getting the taste of the crowds.

“I am grooming her and supporting her in every way I can and hope that she will get better opportunities, in this business, than I had.”

Eddy says that if he was born and bred, in Germany, he, probably, would have come a long way, by now.

“But I am very happy with my life, the way it is.

“I still have my loving mom and dad, a fantastic daughter, a caring partner, my friends and family, and God, on my side, and I am now totally at peace with myself.

“I can proudly say that God has given me the path to be one of the most booked musicians, in my region.”

Most musicians, over there (born and bred in that region), according to Eddy, do find the going pretty tough, where work is concerned, due to the pandemic, and the Ukraine-Russia war, resulting in a food and fuel crisis.

Hopefully, if the scene brightens up, we may see father and daughter, in action, here!

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