As conditions in the country rapidly descend into mayhem with very little prospect of short term resolution, external developments such as what’s going on in Ukraine add to the gloom. Although we are notorious for our short memories, readers may remember (or deserve to be reminded) of the eerie similarity of the situation during our civil war period when India, out of compulsions similar to those of Russia today, brazenly interfered in the domestic affairs of our country. As a result, we were placed in a predicament similar to that which confront the people of Ukraine today. That country, of course, was once a part of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) that is today no more. We, or the whole of this island, was never in our history a part of a greater India although when Britain ruled both India and then Ceylon as Crown Colonies, London did look at us as part of the bigger Indian picture.
To return to today, most of us are being hit by power cuts that we till not very long ago were assured will not be our lot in the short term. The Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka has eaten words confidently delivered very recently and now talks as though such assurances were never proffered. There are queues of vehicles outside filling stations although we are still being assured by Energy Minister Gammanpila that though the situation is tight, we’re not yet down the pallang. It must be said to his credit that he has been much more transparent about what’s going on than some of his other cabinet colleagues. But we can’t escape the reality that many of us add to the present situation by succumbing to our regular habit of rushing to filling stations to fill up at the first hint of a possible shortage. This means wasting what fuel we have staying in line with engines (and sometimes air-conditioners) running, topping-up long before necessary and thereby aggravated a near-critical supply situation.
Likewise, most of us don’t try to save electricity when the supply is on and continue normal consumption patterns keeping unnecessary lights on, opening and closing fridge doors when that raises temperatures inside the refrigerators, boiling water for innumerable cups of tea when hot water can be easily stored in a thermos flask and used when required plus much more. All this despite the fact that electricity is expensive and we must pay for what we use. The grumbles are mighty during the blackouts but there is very little civic sense prevailing about economizing on consumption. Despite various government circulars, we doubt if government departments and agencies will cut down on the use of air-conditioners etc. not only for reasons of personal comfort but also because newer buildings often do not provide for natural ventilation. An unexpected consequence of the power cut reported last week were elephant attacks on cultivations when electrified fences erected for crop protection become impotent. Hopefully some solution for this problem will be found in a manner similar to keeping essential services like hospitals supplied.
Despite the best efforts of both the government and the Central Bank, the dollar crisis is far from resolved. The black market is booming as it must given the current desperate situation. While the Central Bank is grimly holding on to an artificial dollar-rupee rate of just over Rs. 200, anybody with exchange can easily get close to Rs. 250 per dollar for whatever they hold. While the country is panting for the dollars once earned and remitted by our expatriate workers, trying to sugar the rate just for them by adding on ten rupees to the dollar for exchange through the banking system, has had little effect. Who will not take a better rate that is easily possible? Threats of fire and brimstone for ‘informal’ transactions have had little, if any, effect. The grey or kerb market has been very well entrenched over a long period of time and will not disappear. In a different day and age, it used to be said that we lived from “ship to mouth.” It is much more so today and applies not only to our staple food but also for many other essentials including fuel.
It is quite obvious that a critical situation is fast approaching and all efforts at finding palliatives are likely to be only temporary. Parliamentary theatrics such as those indulged in by the opposition SJB MPs last week by bringing flashlights into the chamber is laughable. So also Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardene’s angry comeback about “dangerous substances” endangering all Members being brought into the House. He, presumably, is talking about chemical components of batteries. Nobody will believe that the legislature is not equipped with stand-by generators and MP Harin Fernando will not be able to find his way to the men’s room minus the torch he stupidly waved in the chamber on Thursday. Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, one of the more civilized members of the political firmament, past and present, said a mouthful at Moneragala the other day when he declared the need to forget politics and save the country at this critical moment. The government continues to be ambivalent about going to the IMF. Minister Gammanpila is on record saying over half the cabinet favours going to the IMF at this juncture. But nothing tangible has been forthcoming from the ruling family with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was due in New Delhi for the second time in two months looking for more badly needed credit but this trip has now been postponed. Whatever assistance is proffered, whether by India, China or any other, we must live with the reality that there will be no free lunch.
Running, hunting and flying trapeze
Friday 27th May, 2022
What was widely expected of the SLPP and the Opposition, by way of their contribution to resolving the current economic crisis, was the formation of a national unity government. Religious dignitaries and civil organisations campaigned hard to bring the warring parties together, and political leaders had the public believe that they were making a serious effort to form a multi-party Cabinet, but the mountain that laboured has brought forth a mouse—a deformed one at that.
Some of the newly-appointed ministers are at daggers drawn. They have turned hostile towards even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara continue to inveigh against the President. Fernando has, at a recent media briefing, repeated some of the allegations he levelled against the President and other members of the Rajapaksa family while he was in the Opposition. He and Nanayakkara are obviously trying to remain in the good books of the irate public by criticising the President and the SLPP while being members of the Rajapaksa government. But the problem with running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is that there comes a time when the person doing so does not know whether he/she is running or hunting.
It is hoped that the ongoing uneasy political cohabitation between the SLPP and a section of the Opposition does not exemplify a local saying about connubiality –– ‘even the shadow of a doomed marriage is crooked’. There should be a healthy relationship between the President and the Cabinet if the government is to be prevented from becoming a two-headed donkey that tries to pull in two different directions simultaneously. A toxic relationship between the President and the Cabinet or some members thereof takes its toll on the performance of a government, as has been our experience. We have witnessed such scenarios twice during the past two decades, or so.
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the UNF ministers including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe fought bitterly from 2001 to 2004. President Kumaratunga had to stomach many indignities at the hands of the UNF ministers. Their enmity stood the LTTE in good stead. President Kumaratunga finally sacked the UNF administration. There was a similar situation from 2015 to 2019; President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNF Cabinet including PM Wickremesinghe hardly did anything other than fighting so much so that the former sought to dislodge the UNP-led government and hold a general election only to be left with egg on his face courtesy of a landmark Supreme Court ruling against his rash executive action. Their clashes rendered the yahapalana government dysfunctional and led to national security being severely compromised; a group of terrorists struck with ease on 21 April 2019, destroying more than 270 lives in churches and hotels, as a result.
Meanwhile, Ministers and high-ranking state officials must not be at loggerheads. The need for a healthy relationship between the Cabinet and the bureaucracy for the country to face challenges, overcome crises and achieve progress cannot be overemphasised. When Basil Rajapaksa was the Finance Minister, it was reported that the then Central Bank (CB) Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal had not been able to meet him for months to discuss vital issues concerning the economy.
The Finance Minister and the CB Governor are like two aerialists who perform flying trapeze; they must have absolute faith in each other, and be adept at synchronised movements if disaster is to be averted. In the case of Sri Lanka’s economic circus, there is no safety net. A government must not expect the CB Governor to perform monetary pole dancing. One may recall that a CB chief who chose to display his skills on the pole in a bid to entertain his political masters, during the yahapalana government, had to flee the country, in the buff, as it were.
CB officials have recently revealed before the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) that they warned of an economic meltdown about two years ago, but their efforts to convince the government of the need to take urgent action to straighten up the economy were in vain. One could only hope that a similar situation will not happen again, and the political authority will listen to expert advice and do what needs to be done urgently to save the economy, and grant relief to the public calling out for help.
Govt. playing with fire
Thursday 26th May, 2022
The government seems determined to perpetuate people’s suffering. It claims that adequate fuel stocks are available in the country, but pumps at most filling stations have run dry, and long lines of vehicles are seen everywhere. When the fuel supply was restricted, recently, despite the unloading of two or three oil shipments in quick succession, it became obvious that the government was planning to jack up petroleum prices. What was feared came to pass; oil prices increased. But the fuel shortage remains.
What prevents the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation from maintaining an uninterrupted fuel supply if it has enough stocks? Is it starving the market again with a view to effecting another price hike? The only thing it does promptly is to close the filling stations where clashes occur; this measure only aggravates the suffering of the peaceful people. Why can’t the police prevent such incidents at petrol stations, where they have a significant presence?
More than 40 filling stations have been closed countrywide, owing to clashes, according to media reports. It is only natural that tempers flare when people languishing in queues for long hours have to return home without fuel. Most people spend more than 12 hours in queues to obtain petrol and diesel. How would Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera, who has filling stations closed at the drop of a hat, feel if he happened to queue up for fuel and return empty-handed after hours of waiting?
Minister Wijesekera talks nineteen to the dozen in an accusing tone that suggests that he thinks the people have bankrupted the country and got their comeuppance. Let him be reminded that he is part of a failed government, whose leaders have ruined the country by mismanaging its economy and helping themselves to public funds; he is also responsible for the current mess. He should be considerate towards the people, and take action to ensure that fuel is distributed efficiently, instead of lecturing to them. He and his bosses ought to realise that they are playing with fire. They know what it is like when public anger spills over on to the streets, don’t they?
Fathers of crisis
Parliament is not without some good men and women who take their legislative duties and functions seriously and do their utmost to safeguard the interests of the hapless public. The Chairman and some members of the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) are among them. They have exposed various rackets in the public sector and censured errant state officials. They deserve public plaudits.
COPE Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath has called for a PSC (Parliamentary Select Committee) to find out who is responsible for ruining the economy and bankrupting the country. There is no need for an investigation to identify those who have reduced the country to penury.
The present economic crisis is not of recent origin, but it is the current regime that worsened it. The blame for the current mess should be apportioned to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the finance portfolio, and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. They did not heed expert advice, and ran the country like a petti kade in Medamulana. It has now been revealed that the Central Bank economists warned of an economic crisis well in advance, and called for action to avert it, but the government chose to ignore their warning.
A PSC probe, if conducted impartially, will help officially establish who is responsible for the economic meltdown. It must also be found out how US dollars disappeared from the country so fast, and whether there is any truth in the allegation that large amounts of foreign currency were smuggled out systematically during the past two years or so.
People have no faith in PSC probes thanks to the one into the Treasury bond scams, under the yahapalana government. The ruling party members of the PSC that investigated the bond racket behaved like a bunch of ruffians, insulting and intimidating the Central Bank (CB) officials, who testified against the then CB Governor Arjuna Mahendran. They stooped so low as to spoil the final COPE report with a slew of footnotes, and the Central Bank officials were prevented from countering their flawed arguments.
If a PSC is to be set up to investigate the economic crisis, the right persons will have to be appointed as its members, the majority of whom should come from the Opposition, if it is not to end up being another Treasury bond probe committee.
Failures as pillars
Wednesday 25th May, 2022
Failures are the pillars of the incumbent government. Most of the newly-reappointed ministers have earned notoriety for incompetence and dishonesty. With them as Cabinet members, does the country need any enemies? The resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was expected to pave the way for the formation of a multi-party, interim government. But nothing of the sort has happened, and failed politicians are going places, again. Worse, the most important Cabinet post remains vacant; the Finance Minister has not yet been appointed although the economy is in a tailspin—so much for the government’s sense of priority and urgency! The Cabinet is like a third-rate ‘mega’ soap opera that drags on without the title character.
When one says the members of the new Cabinet are incompetent, one does not mean that there are other MPs—in the government or the Opposition—who are equal to the task of steering the country out of the present crisis under their own steam. The holier-than-thou members on both sides of the aisle have failed, albeit to varying degrees, and contributed to the current mess. The less said about the government MPs, the better, and the only thing the Opposition worthies are adept at is backseat driving; they claim to know the way, but cannot drive when they are provided with an opportunity. If so, why are these politicians being urged to sink their differences and form a national unity government?
The best contribution the members of Parliament could make to crisis management is to behave. That way they could help restore political and social order, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery. As long as they are at one another’s jugular, political stability will elude this country, making it impossible to put the economy back on an even keel. The International Monetary Fund, upon which the country is dependent for a bailout package, has expressed serious concern about socio-political upheavals here.
If the political parties co-operate in Parliament for the sake of the people, who are undergoing immense suffering, there will be political stability in the country at large. On 09 May, and the following day, we saw what they were really capable of. Supporters of both the government and the Opposition were involved in the spate of violence that rocked the country. Hence the need for their leaders to cooperate in Parliament, without fanning flames of violence. It is imperative that the government refrain from engineering crossovers from the Opposition, and make a serious effort to secure the support of its political opponents.
It’s fuel pricing formula, stupid!
The present-day rulers used to rake Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera over the coals whenever fuel prices were increased under the yahapalana government. The then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa even cycled to Parliament when petrol and diesel prices slightly increased. Today, fuel prices have gone into the stratosphere.
The SLPP grandees who made a song and dance about Mangala’s fuel pricing formula tell us that they have adopted the same method to determine fuel prices. They should apologise to Mangala posthumously.
The government says the public will gain from the fuel pricing formula in case of the appreciation of the rupee. It is going to be a long wait!
The Cabinet will revise fuel prices on a monthly basis, according to media reports. One shudders to think what will happen in case of monthly price revisions. Fuel prices will continue to soar, and driving/riding might be a luxury only the super rich can enjoy. The ‘babies’ of the ruling family might be able to turn Colombo into an F1 street circuit without any resistance from the public.
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