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Editorial

Squeezing hapless public dry

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Wednesday 16th February, 2022

It may be wrong to say the incumbent government is the embodiment of inefficiency, for it does certain things very efficiently, increasing taxes and fuel prices being one of them. It also sought to impose a huge surcharge tax on the employees’ superannuation fund, and would have succeeded in its endeavour but for stiff resistance put up by trade unions, the media and the Opposition. Another fuel price hike is said to be in the pipeline.

At the rate fuel prices are being jacked up, the country is likely to revert to the bullock-cart era sooner than thought. It looks as if the process of retrogression had already begun; a lot of people have already made the switch from cooking gas to firewood, and most farmers have returned to subsistence agriculture, to all intents and purposes, for want of fertiliser to produce a surplus. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and the politicians in charge of it are ably facilitating the country’s return to the bottle-lamp days. Another round of official power cuts was scheduled to commence yesterday.

The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) would have the public believe that its losses are solely due to the sale of its products to the public below cost. But the fact remains that it is in the red mostly because the CEB, SriLankan Airlines and other state institutions have not paid back their debt. There are also huge government taxes on fuel, and if they are reduced, the prices of diesel, petrol and kerosene could be brought down considerably. True, the state is dependent on its tax revenue to fund social welfare, development, etc., but it is wrong for the political appointees at the CPC and the ruling party politicians to pretend that the CPC is incurring losses owing to subsidies.

Fuel has never been reasonably priced in this country during the past several decades. State revenue drops and the environment suffers when governments slash fuel prices for political reasons thereby causing the overconsumption of oil. When fuel is overpriced, the economy and the public suffer due to increases in the costs of essential goods and services. Hence the need for a pricing mechanism to determine fuel prices realistically, and action to maintain buffer stocks of oil to stabilise prices. The late Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera introduced a fuel pricing formula, which however was flawed. The present government is also trying to introduce such a mechanism, and it is hoped that no tricks will be played on consumers.

The CPC should be able to absorb short-term fuel price increases in world market without passing them on to consumers. It does not let the benefits of sharp drops in oil prices in the international market accrue to consumers, does it? It has to increase its storage capacity on a priority basis. In April 2020, world petroleum prices turned negative, for the first time in history, meaning the oil producers paid buyers to remove their products. Had our patriotic leaders, who have ruled this country since Independence, cared to develop at least a section of the Trincomalee oil tank farm, the CPC would have been able to take advantage of such situations, and turn itself around without burdening the public with unconscionable price hikes in times of hardship.

The government may be able to reduce taxes on fuel as well as other commodities, and services considerably if it cares to curtail its wasteful expenditure, which is one of the main reasons for tax increases. It should get its development priorities right, and put on hold some mega infrastructure projects, rationalise welfare expenditure, and cancel expensive ceremonies. The Independence Day celebrations must have cost the hapless taxpayer an arm and a leg. The SLPP’s recent rally in Anuradhapura was also a burden on the public in that they had to bear various hidden costs. Government leaders did not pay for their security, transport, etc., from their personal funds; they can help the country save millions of rupees a day by simply curtailing their travel.

Let the CPC panjandrums who are calling for a substantial fuel price hike be urged to give a breakdown of government taxes on their products. Immediately after capturing power, the government introduced massive tax cuts, which benefited its cronies. Now, it is trying to increase its revenue at the expense of the ordinary public, who will bear the brunt of fuel price increases.



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Editorial

Running, hunting and flying trapeze

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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.

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Editorial

Govt. playing with fire

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on

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.

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Editorial

Failures as pillars

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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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