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Editorial

Roaring millers and whining lions

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Friday 19th March, 2021

The government is struggling to rein in the runaway prices of essential commodities, especially rice. It may be compelled to consider importing rice, according to Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardena. About 100,000 MT of rice will have to be imported if push comes to shove, he has said. Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara has said the government is left with no alternative but to import rice. Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage tells us the government is planning to maintain a buffer stock of paddy weighing at least 300,000 MT. He is being overoptimistic. Some unscrupulous millers have already hoarded enough paddy and are in a position to manipulate the rice market.

Head of the Presidential Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication, Basil Rajapaksa, has said at a recent meeting chaired by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, at Temple Trees, the country has enough stocks of paddy. A stickler for statistics, he has got it right. Therefore, why should the government toy with the idea of importing rice? The problem boils down to hoarding, and the government ought to grasp the nettle instead of running around like a headless chicken. The solution is to conduct raids on the warehouses where paddy is hoarded. Rice imports will not help solve the problem. Such action will only enable some politicians and state officials, who must be salivating at the prospect of importing rice, to line their pockets.

No government has been able to tame the millers’ Mafia by importing rice, as we have argued in a previous comment. Sri Lankans prefer locally produced rice varieties, which suit their palates, to imported ones. If the government imports rice, the millers will release some of their stocks of rice to the market, causing the imported rice to remain unsold in the Sathosa warehouses and eventually disposed of as animal feed at extremely low prices. This, we have witnessed all these years.

The millers’ Mafia has been able to exploit both the consumer and the producer alike because governments lack the courage to take it on, with might and main. The SLPP grandees take pride in having liberated the country from the clutches of terrorists, but there are some areas where the writ of the state still does not run; they are the sprawling warehouse complexes belonging to powerful rice millers. Nobody dares enter these facilities as their owners have links to the government.

The government claims that it has appointed former military officers to key positions in the public service to straighten up some vital state institutions to serve the interests of the ordinary people. But in most cases, these ex-military officers are as helpless as their civilian counterparts. In May 2020, the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) visited several warehouses belonging to some big-time rice millers in Polonnaruwa. The team that took part in the inspection tour was led by CAA Chairman Major General (retd.) Shantha Dissanayake himself. But the officials ran into a brick wall when former President Maithripala Sirisena’s brother, Dudley, who is one of the millers accused of hoarding paddy, told them in no uncertain terms that he would not sell rice at the prices stipulated by the government. Subsequently, the millers had a meeting with the government, which agreed to an upward revision of the maximum retail prices of rice! The millers had the last laugh, and they always do. Thus, not even former battle-hardened military officers are equal to the task of taming the millers’ Mafia.

The incumbent government is not short of roaring lions within its ranks, but they have their tails between their legs when confronted by the powerful rice millers, who generously bankroll election campaigns of influential politicians.

Dudley Sirisena and State Minister Siripala Gamlath are among the millers who control the rice market. Getting the duo to release some of their paddy stocks will be half the battle in overcoming the artificial shortage of rice. If the government can pluck up the courage to do so, instead of barking up the wrong tree, it will be able to bring down the rice prices immediately, and prevent foreign exchange being spent on rice imports.



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Editorial

The holy and the unholy

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Monday 5th December, 2022

The holier-than-thou frontbenchers of both sides of Parliament have been displaying their knowledge of Buddhism, of late, by quoting extensively from the Sutta Pitaka, the way drunkards use lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination. A discussion on Dhamma in Parliament is like a conference on animal rights at an abattoir, or a talk on chastity in a bordello. Our honourable representatives who are overflowing with religiosity, and moralising, ought to heed some home truths three prominent Buddhist monks have, over the weekend, told about the sorry state of affairs in the country and the politicians responsible for it.

Ven. Kumbalgamuwe Saranapala Thera of the Mutiyangane Raja Maha Viharaya, Badulla, has treated a group of dissident SLPP MPs to a brief lecture on the country’s predicament and what the people think of politicians. There have been media reports that many poor schoolchildren who skip meals faint at school assemblies. The government has sought to downplay the gravity of the situation and, true to form, torn into the media and international organisations for ‘blowing the issue out of proportion’. Saranapala Thera has highlighted the increase in malnutrition among children, and revealed that about 60 students of his temple’s Sunday Dhamma School faint every week due to hunger. He has told the SLPP dissidents that the people are fed up with politicians.

Saranapala Thera has struck a responsive chord with the public suffering in silence. There is a resurgence of anti-politics, which has been defined as the rejection of practices and attitudes associated with traditional politics; it causes public disengagement from mainstream politics. When this happens, people tend to resort to extra-parliamentary methods to articulate their grievances and bring about political changes. The Galle Face protest movement could be considered a manifestation of anti-politics, which is jet fuel for anarchic protests. It is only wishful thinking that the government will be able to quell a wave of protests fuelled by anti-politics with the help of the police and the military!

Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera has said, over the weekend, that all adult Sri Lankans should tender an apology to the youth and children for having bankrupted the country and ruined the latter’s future. One cannot but agree with him on this score. The blame for what has befallen the country should be apportioned to the elected as well as the electors including Buddhist monks, most of whom are supporters of various political parties responsible for abuse of power, attacks on democracy, bribery, corruption and the theft of public funds. A mere apology to young Sri Lankans will not do. It is incumbent upon the irresponsible adults to clean up the mess they have created. They must sink their political differences and unite to make a concerted effort to get rid of the failed leaders clinging on to power like limpets. That will be half the battle in straightening up the economy and ensuring a better future for the youth and children.

Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thera, who represents an association that fights for schoolteachers’ rights, has torn into the government for trying to divest profit-making state-owned enterprises such as Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance. How does the government propose to meet the revenue shortfall the proposed divestiture of such cash cows will bring about? Will it jack up taxes and tariffs further? Sumangala Thera has rightly likened the government to a drug addict, who is desperate for money and therefore sells anything that he can lay his hands on.

This is an apt description of the cash-strapped regime, which is bent on selling state assets to overcome its current pecuniary woes while its leaders are enjoying high life. Drug addicts do not spare even their own parents. The day may not be far off when we can liken the government to a drug dealer; it is planning to take to drug dealing in all but name. Budget 2023 has proposed the appointment of a committee to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis, of all things, to earn forex.The country will benefit tremendously if the failed political leaders stop sermonising and listen to what religious leaders preach and mend their ways.

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Editorial

The parliamentary president

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Rajan Philips who brightens this page with his incisive and perceptive commentary has today called President Ranil Wickremesinghe a “parliamentary president.” RW, particularly during the ongoing budget debate, has indeed demonstrated this description to be most appropriate. He is a frequent presence in the parliamentary chamber, more so than any of his predecessors. As far as the budget debate goes, the fact that he wears the finance minister’s hat as did two other presidents, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, makes his presence in the House at this time most welcome. Who else but the finance minister should be present in the House during the budget debate? Basil Rajapaksa’s short tenure at the Treasury set a rank bad example in this regard.

Wickremesinghe, of course, like his uncle JR Jayewardene who created the executive presidency and was the first to wear the twin hats of head of government and head of state, is very much a parliamentary animal. Having had a long innings at the legislature including multiple terms as prime minister since 1977 until his ignominious exit from parliament in August 2020, he welcomes the hurly burly of its chamber without standing aloof in his presidential ivory tower. But JRJ as president or any other was never as frequently present in the parliament chamber as nephew Ranil. JRJ didn’t have to, having never presented a budget during his presidency.

Having long served as finance minister under the old Westminster order, Jayewardene saw no need to cling on to that portfolio, being content to hold the defence ministry, probably a necessity, and a few others largely for convenience. While we do not advocate presidents doubling as finance ministers, we do freely agree that it may be or is a necessity this time round given the unprecedented economic catastrophe the Rajapaksas have plunged our country into. RW, after all, wrote and presented this budget and who better than he to pilot it through the House? Thus his willingness to intervene in the debate is a welcome tradition although whether it will continue in the future remains to be seen.

His recent appearances in the legislature clearly demonstrates his enjoyment of being in the thick of things. Parliamentary watchers would not have missed his entry into the chamber to respond instantly to something he heard being said when he was in his office in the parliament building while the House was in session. We suspect he listens to the budget debate in situ as it were. So much to the good. Of course, as mentioned by our columnist Rajan Philips, it would have been appropriate if he had been more forthcoming in areas on which the people are thirsting for information. These include when the IMF bailout can be expected. There has been speculation that the earliest will be March next year though it had been optimistically forecast earlier that it might be by end December.

Wide open questions on the possibility of debt restructuring also remain. Are electricity consumers, both domestic and industrial, due for a double whammy with a further tariff increase in the short term? Although the petrol and gas queues are gone, there are eerie reports that timely coal procurement for the Norochcholai power plant is not assured. And there is scant comfort about the availability of dollars to keep the filling stations pumping even in the short and medium term. There are also compelling questions on how corruption is being dealt with. Given the surrounding context, the president has made a rank bad nomination to the Constitutional Council whether by choice or compulsion we do not know. Questions abound on whether this is the result of the president being a captive of his pohottuwa constituency. Nobody can be happy about that. RW may well feel that these are questions that can be dealt with by the concerned ministers at the ongoing committee stage of the budget debate. But given that he’s both the president and the finance minister, the people would have expected the big man himself to shed more light on these burning questions.

Sadly the news broke only on Friday that former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had spent hundreds of millions of tax rupees maintaining staggering numbers of personal staff. The information, previously withheld by the presidential secretariat, was made public thanks to an order of the Right to Information Commission. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) had asked the questions and appealed the non-disclosure. The Daily Mirror reported on Friday that the two former presidents had together guzzled Rs. 1.48 billion on this account – Sirisena beating his predecessor with an expenditure of Rs. 850 million on his staff against MR’s Rs. 630 million. Whether these two former presidents will explain themselves either on the budget debate platform or elsewhere remains to be seen. We are sorry that this news did not break in time for the discussions on the president’s vote in the House. That would have been an opportunity for a searching probe and perhaps responses from those named and shamed.

James Carville, a strategist in President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent George H. W. Bush coined the catchphrase “It’s the economy, stupid” which resounded through Clinton’s successful campaign. Here in Sri Lanka right now what matters most is the economy and not enough focus on that has been seen thus far in the budget debate. Hopefully there will be a course correction in the remaining days.

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Editorial

A double whammy

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Saturday 3rd December, 2022

The current economic crisis has eclipsed many other serious issues the country is beset with, and among them is the drug menace. President of the Government Medical Officers’ Forum Dr. Rukshan Bellana has made a revelation, which is sure to send a chill down everyone’s spine; drug addiction is on the rise among hospital workers, he has told the media. The majority of these drug addicts are members of the minor staff, and they are involved in drug peddling as well, he has said. There seems to be no shortage of narcotics at government hospitals, where medicinal drugs are in short supply!

An oft-heard complaint in health circles is that minor staff members in the state-run hospitals have become a law unto themselves because they are recruited on the basis of their political connections. Gone are the days when every worker in the state sector was recruited on merit and properly trained, and made to face disciplinary action in case of transgressions. There have been instances where hospital workers even threatened and roughed up their superiors, and politicians intervened to protect the culprits. It is only natural that they use and sell narcotics in hospitals with impunity. The need for these elements to be severely dealt with cannot be overstated.

It is hoped that the Health Ministry will get cracking on ridding the hospital system of narcotics instead of taking action against Dr. Bellana for having exposed drug addiction among health workers. When a doctor released the findings of a survey on malnutrition among children, a few months ago, the health panjandrums took disciplinary action against him!

The narcotic trade seems to have thrived during the past several years. About 80 percent of private bus drivers in Colombo and its suburbs were addicted to drugs, State Minister Dilum Amunugama said, last year. President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association Gemunu Wijeratne has gone on record as saying that about 50% private bus drivers are addicted to drugs, countrywide, and most of them have graduated from cannabis to ICE (crystal methamphetamine). No wonder they drive like bats out of hell! Drug addiction must be equally high among other heavy vehicle drivers as well. Last year, about 2,490 lives were lost in road accidents, which numbered 2,325, and left 5,263 seriously injured.

A programme to conduct roadside drug testing is to be launched in January, we are told. This is a long-felt need and will help reduce the number of fatal accidents significantly. At present, there is no way drug addicts behind the wheel could be detected although most bus and truck drivers are addicted to narcotics. The police can nab only drunk drivers. State Minister of Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna has said about 5,000 drug screening devices have been distributed among the police. This is a worthwhile investment.

Worryingly, the drug Mafia has succeeded in spreading its tentacles to schools as well. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has revealed in Parliament recently that in the current year more than 81 schoolchildren have been sent for drug rehabilitation. The number of students addicted to drugs could be higher, as President of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Priyantha Fernando has said. The drug menace has not spared even rural schools, according to him. It is against this backdrop that the government’s budget proposal to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis for export should be viewed.

Who guards the guards? A survey conducted by the police headquarters has revealed that about 37 police personnel are addicted to drugs in the Western Province. The police are expected to conduct similar surveys in other provinces. Needless to say, addicts in uniform are a danger to society and have to be weeded out.

The government has many problems to wrestle with, but it must redouble its efforts to crush the drug Mafia, which is taking advantage of the current political situation, where the police are apparently doing full-time political work, to expand its operations.

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