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Squaring the circle



Tuesday 11th August, 2020

The Cabinet of the newly elected SLPP government is scheduled to be appointed tomorrow. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa must be having a hard time, selecting their ministers. There are many aspirants to the Cabinet although most of them do not measure up. Various factors come into play in the selection process, which is sure to leave many ambitious elements disappointed. With the President and the PM trying to square the circle, one need not be surprised if the swearing-in of the Cabinet happens to be postponed.

Time was when governments could appoint any number of ministers, and we had jumbo Cabinets as a result. Mahinda Rajapaksa was very generous with ministerial appointments when he was the President. He made even Mervyn Silva a minister! Thankfully, the appointment of jumbo Cabinets is no longer possible owing to the 19th Amendment.

We believe that even a 30-member Cabinet is too big for a small country like Sri Lanka. Ideally, the number of Cabinet ministers should be limited to 15 with an equal number of deputies. The Provincial Councils have 45 ministers. There are so many ministers maintained with public funds, but the President, who is without a single ministerial portfolio, has to meet people and solve their problems! In the run-up to the recently concluded general election, the President had to intervene to have even school playgrounds and roads rehabilitated.

The fact that the proportional representation system has given rise to political alliances consisting of numerous parties which demand ministerial posts is no excuse for burdening the public with large Cabinets. Most parties that secure ministerial posts by contesting as constituents of coalitions cannot win a single seat each, if they go it alone at elections.

The architects of the 19th Amendment betrayed their partiality to the yahapalana government when they introduced a constitutional provision for expanding the Cabinet in case of the formation of a national government. In so doing, they facilitated the coming together of the UNP and the UPFA. A national government is not possible under the present circumstances; the SLPP and the SJB will never opt for cohabitation, but speculation is rife in political circles that the government may seek to remove constitutional hurdles in its path by scrapping the 19th Amendment. This is a worrisome proposition.

The 19 Amendment has some flaws, which need to be rectified. The Constitutional Council became an appendage of the yahapalana government. It needs to be rendered independent. The President should be able to hold the Defence portfolio so that the country can effectively face threats to its national security. No one is better suited for the post than the head of state elected directly by the people. However, the 19th Amendment must not be deep-sixed.

Meanwhile, the political parties that have secured National List (NL) slots, save the SLPP, are in a dilemma. Unsuccessful candidates are trying to enter Parliament via the NL so much so that the gazetting of the NL MPs has been delayed. The SLPP acted wisely by making the NL appointments while the process of counting preferential votes was still underway. That way it prevented unsuccessful candidates from asking for NL seats. The credit for this clever move should go to SLPP strategist Basil Rajapaksa, who finalised all NL appointments immediately after the allocation of seats by the Election Commission. Other parties should have done likewise.

The practice of appointing defeated candidates to Parliament through the NL runs counter to democracy and, therefore, must be brought to an end. If unsuccessful candidates are allowed to enter Parliament, students who fail the GCE A/L should not be denied university admission. Under the yahapalana government, so many defeated candidates were appointed NL MPs that failures became the pillars of the legislature. A constitutional amendment is called for to prevent defeated candidates from securing NL seats.


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A bouquet for LRH surgeons



Thursday 1st Octoberr, 2020

Respected surgeon Prof. A. H. Sheriffdeen, recently took up with the President of the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka a complaint against the Lady Ridgeway Hospital (LRH) about an alleged delay in performing an operation on a child with a ruptured appendix. He faulted a paediatric surgeon. Now, he has found that there was no lapse on the part of the surgeon concerned and admitted that he fired from the hip. (Please, see his letter published on the opposite page, today.) Inquiries we made with the help of some independent medical experts, upon receiving Prof. Sheriffdeen’s response, also confirmed that the LRH surgeon had performed his duty diligently; the child received timely surgical care, made an uneventful recovery and left hospital five days later. All’s well that ends well.

We hate to train our editorial guns on the state-run hospitals, but the alleged delay and the respected guru’s complaint brought us to have the good paediatric surgeon in our cross hairs. Thankfully, we fired only a warning shot as it were; no names were named. The special mention we made of the good work of the LRH and its doctors, especially the Little Hearts Project, which is the jewel in the LRH’s crown, was intended to prevent damage being caused to the reputation of the premier institution. We are sorry that our news item and the editorial comment have caused pain of mind to the good surgeon, who has also come under attack by the social media piranhas known for their feeding frenzy.

The LRH is turning 125, and Dr. B. J. C. Perera, a well-known consultant paediatrician and teacher, pays a glowing tribute to it, in an article published in this newspaper, today. We join him in offering a bouquet to the LRH staff, especially the surgeon, whose feelings we have hurt, and his colleagues, who have rightly circled the wagons.


Govt.’s concern about environment


The government has cancelled the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, which the yahapalana government was planning to implement with Japanese funds. Among the five reasons the Cabinet has given for its decision to scrap the project is its concern for the environment!

The Cabinet has also said that according to the original plan, light rail vehicles were to operate alongside the existing conventional rail tracks. Such systems are in operation in other countries, but here an LRT system is needed to cater to the conurbations of Colombo, which are not linked to the city by railway. A separate project is needed to develop the existing tracks so that trains can travel faster.

Interestingly, the Cabinet says that if a light rail track is to be built on concrete pillars, as proposed by the previous administration, the project will cause severe environmental damage. We are baffled. When the Southern Expressway was built, some members of the then Rajapaksa government said it should have been constructed on pillars. One of them was Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who is a member of the present Cabinet as well.

Is the government really concerned about what it calls the adverse environmental impact of the aborted LRT project? We have our doubts, for the current rulers have allowed a road to be built through some parts of the Sinharaja rainforest. Environmentalists are protesting against an alleged move to build another road to Horton Plains, which is already under threat owing to a large number of vehicles entering it via two roads. A government politician’s brother recently destroyed a mangrove forest in Puttalam to build a prawn farm. Having absconded, he got bail after surrendering to courts. The police are dragging their feet on an investigation into the destruction of a part of a forest on a state land in Aruwakkalu. The culprits are at large because they have political connections. A backhoe used for clearing the forest was driven away while the police were present at the scene. This machine can be easily traced and the land-grabbers arrested. But no action has been taken. So much for the government’s concern for the environment!

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20A: Govt.’s Catch-22



Wednesday 30th September, 2020

The government may not have anticipated so much of resistance to its 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution, much less seen serious flaws therein. Otherwise, it would not have jumped in with both feet. Perhaps, the mammoth mandate it received at the last general election may have blinded it to reality, and its euphoria may have lulled it into thinking that its opponents were too weak to put up a fight.

Someone should have cautioned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In his inaugural address to the nation, in Anuradhapura, on 18 Nov. 2019, the President said he was the Defence Minister although according to the 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution, only the MPs can hold ministerial posts. It took some time for the President to come to terms with that fact.

The government is impervious to rational argument. Some constitutional experts have pointed out serious flaws in 20A, and their arguments are tenable. Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama is of the view that the government is in a dilemma over its attempt to get rid of the Constitutional Council (CC). He says that Section 41 of 20A seeks to amend Article 154R (in Chapter XVIIA of the Constitution), which provides for a Finance Commission (FC). The FC recommends the allocation of funds from the annual budget for the provinces and consists of five members including three appointed by the President on the recommendations of the CC; 20A seeks to delete the reference to the CC in Article 154R. Article 154G of the Constitution states that no Bill for the amendment or the repeal of any provision in Chapter XVIIA [or the Ninth Schedule] shall become law unless the President refers it to every Provincial Council for its views thereon before it is placed on the Order Paper of Parliament. The Provincial Councils have not been elected, and Dr. Jayawickrama contends that the government has violated the constitutionally stipulated procedure by placing 20A on the Order Paper. The government can withdraw the 20A Bill and place it on the Order Paper anew after deleting Section 41, but it will not be able to scrap the CC as long as Article 154R remains, Dr. Jayawickrama maintains. Thus, the government finds itself in a Catch-22 situation.

The government now says a new Constitution will be introduced in six months. We bet our bottom dollar that this pledge will not be fulfilled. As for this undertaking, the biggest hurdle in the path of the SLPP leaders will be the devolution of power. The government is under pressure from the forces that made its victory possible, at the presidential and parliamentary elections, to abolish the 13 Amendment, and, at the same time, India is bringing pressure to bear on it to retain the provincial council system. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India’s position at a recent virtual meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

One may recall that President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s draft Constitution had to be abandoned, in 2000, mainly due to the controversial devolution model it proposed—the Regional Councils. The yahapalana leaders also tried their hands at writing a new Constitution, but did not proceed beyond the preliminary stages thereof owing to issues concerning the unitary status of the country and the devolution of power.

The government has also said it is ready to go for a referendum. Its position is apparently premised on the assumption that since it polled more than 50% of the valid votes at the presidential and general elections, it will be able to have 20A approved by the people at a referendum. This will be a huge gamble for the government.

The results of a general/presidential election cannot be extrapolated to a referendum. On the other hand, the government cannot rest assured that all those who voted for it at the last two elections will endorse 20A at a referendum. Many of them are apparently disillusioned thanks to the government’s preoccupation with 20A, which contains draconian provisions, and its failure to honour its key promises. The Opposition will have nothing to lose at a referendum, but the government will have its political future at stake.

What the government should have done was to change 19A to enable the President to hold the defence portfolio, and then set about tackling the burning problems the people are faced with; it would have been able to enlist the backing of the SJB for that task. But it, in its wisdom, chose to bite off more than it could chew.

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Why tax cops to boost political egos?



Tuesday 29th September, 2020

It is only right that most of the MPs do not deserve police protection. The police are overstretched with 38,000 of its 84,000 personnel providing security to VIPs, according to Minister of Irrigation and State Minister of Interior Security Chamal Rajapaksa. There are no security threats to most politicians, who consider themselves VIPs, and police protection only helps boost their egos. There are others such as judges who need special security. High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya was gunned down by an underworld gang, in 2004.

Time was when MPs became targets of terrorist outfits such as the LTTE and the JVP. Both these threats were effectively neutralised. The National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) did not target politicians, and the government is confident that it will not be able to raise its head again. Only the underworld can be considered a threat. But most politicians have not taken on the netherworld of drugs and crime and, therefore, they do not need protection against organised criminal gangs. Some of them allegedly have underworld connections.

It may not be too cynical a view that most of the so-called political VIPs will never be targeted by those who want to destabilise this country, for with them as our representatives we need no enemies. A prerequisite for eliminating crime syndicates is to sever their links with politicians.

It is being argued in some quarters that the deployment of so many police personnel for VIP security is the reason why the crime rate remains high. This is only partly true. Lack of manpower is no doubt a problem for the police, but it is only one of the several reasons why they have failed to combat crime efficiently. Criminals have emerged strong because they are in league with some police officers such as the corrupt ones who have brought the Police Narcotic Bureau into disrepute. If police stations are without enough man power to deal with criminal gangs, they can always ask for help from the Police Headquarters or pass information about criminals on to the special units that specialise in crime-busting ops. Police also steer clear of criminals due to political pressure. It has been revealed before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating the Easter Sunday carnage that political pressure prevented the police from taking on the NTJ while it was preparing for terror strikes.

Police stations, however, need more personnel to perform regular tasks such as patrolling the streets, responding to emergencies and conducting investigations. Policemen are generally overworked due to a chronic shortage of man power; they must not be taxed. Therefore, most of the police personnel assigned to protect MPs and other politicians should be relieved of those duties and sent back to their stations forthwith.

Military intelligence has regained its vitality under the current dispensation. It should be able to ascertain information about organised gangs with ease. Its efficiency has become evident from the Covid-19 contact tracing operations. The police have also pulled up their socks under pressure from the Defence Ministry and are carrying out anti-underworld operations much more efficiently than in the past. What the MPs of both sides of the House should do is to call for an all-out war on the underworld to make the country safe for everyone. This is no easy task, but that must be accomplished.

Politicians should be stripped of security and made to feel as vulnerable as the ordinary people who elect and maintain them if they are to realise the need to ensure public safety.

Let the MPs who insist that they need enhanced security, be urged to heed what an intrepid Delhi High Court judge told the Indian politicians, in 2007; he asked the latter not to visit crowded places if they felt threatened. In this country, it is the people who have to be protected against politicians like the SLPP MP, who has been sentenced to death for killing an Opposition activist.

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