by Rajan Philips
After months of Covid-quiet, the coronavirus has hit the country hard. Sri Lanka’s 33rd Covid-cluster could not have erupted in Minuwangoda any more suddenly and in larger numbers. It caught the government literally holding its constitutional pants to the neglect of everything else. After stagnating for months at 3,200+ cases, the Sri Lankan Covid-19 total rose by more than a third in a matter of three days. Since its discovery last Sunday, the 33rd cluster accounted for 1,053 cases by Wednesday. 729 cases were reported on a single day, a record. The total number of infections in the country has since passed 4,500.
The case count is still miniscule compared to the large South Asian countries, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The recovery rate is exceptionally high, and the death rate is exceptionally low. What should be concerning, however, is whether Sri Lanka has strengthened its infrastructure and capacity to anticipate and handle future cluster eruptions. Or, has the government been resting on its old Covid laurels and wasting time and effort on an unnecessary constitutional makeover?
Worldwide, all the highly infected countries are bracing for the so called second wave, with new daily infections higher than what they were in March-April triggering the first spate of lockdowns. People are more aware of the virus now than they were during the first wave, but they are not behaving as responsibly, especially in social situations in the West. Irresponsibly infected by the virus, the American President Donald Trump, who soaks on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” has turned the White House into a “Blight House”, as the New York Daily News called it. No one wants to go there even if they cannot avoid it.
Governments are reluctant to enforce another lockdown for fear of driving businesses out of business and their employees out of livelihood. On Wednesday, the World Bank predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic will force 150 million people into extreme poverty globally, and South Asia will bear the biggest share between 49 and 57 million of them. Proportionately, based on these projections, Sri Lanka would likely have about 500,000 people driven to extreme poverty by the pandemic. The Bank makes it clear that the new poor will be in the urban, and not rural, sector, mostly comprised of people “engaged in informal services, construction, and manufacturing.” Globally, the public health crisis is expected to last at least two more years, even after a vaccine; and economic recovery could take a decade. The picture cannot be grimmer.
The public health picture in Sri Lanka has not been so grim, and the general feeling has been that the island country has somehow dodged the Covid-bullet. The worry, at least among the more informed citizens and commentators, is about the economy. For the majority of the people, however, the economic hardships are not something abstract, but have become their living misery. The government lost its head after the initial Covid containment success, and became bullish about a quick (V-shaped, no less) economic recovery despite all the evidence that a rapid and substantial economic recovery is virtually impossible in the middle of a global slowdown. After the August election and two-thirds majority, the government has needlessly got itself embroiled in a constitutional makeover, exposing in the process both political naivete and technical incompetence. It is now banking on a favourable outcome from the Supreme Court, and later even a referendum. The outbreak in Minuawngoda changes the whole picture and all the preceding calculations. Will the government change appropriately, as well? That is the question.
Covid response and hot spots
Whether or not the government will change course, it has already changed the response structure to Covid-19 that it created during the early months of the outbreak. The response structure that was in place earlier is no longer there. There were two faces to the original structure: its health face was Dr. Anil Jasinghe; and its logistics face was Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva. Dr. Jasinghe is no longer in the Health Ministry. He was administratively shuffled up as Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment soon after the election. The shuffling was apparently a part of what President Rajapaksa hailed as the new “methodical procedure to appoint Heads of Government Institutions.” After Dr. Jasinghe was dispatched, the expectation in professional circles was that Dr. Amal Harsha De Silva, would be promoted to succeed Dr. Jasinghe. There were skeptics, however, who seemed to know the games that are played in these matters despite presidential assertions to the contrary.
The skeptics were correct, it turns out. Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva did not get the promotion. In fact, no one seems to have been promoted. Dr. S. Sridharan would appear to be functioning as Acting Director General of Health Services. One of the Deputy Directors, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, who is also the Chief Epidemiologist, has been assigned to fill the other role of Dr. Jasinghe in the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO). It is Dr. Sudath Samaraweera who is the new Health counterpart to Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva’s military arm. There is no questioning the competence of Dr. Samaraweera, but there is a question to the government – why move medical professionals in and out of a pandemic task force while keeping the military men as immovable fixtures? Are such moves well advised, for professional morale and dedication, in the middle of a very serious public health crisis? Should Doctors be fighting the coronavirus while looking over their shoulders for political strikes?
Medical professionals are also speaking out in the wake of the 33rd cluster eruption. Opinions differ on the extent of ‘community spread’ and the exclusion of primary care physicians from the Covid-19 response system. The risks involved in speaking out have been illustrated by the removal of Dr Jayaruwan Bandara, as Director of the Medical Research Institute. His replacement Dr. Prabhath Amarasinghe, was Dr. Bandara’s Deputy Director, according to reports. Government Ministers have muddied the matter by stating in parliament that Dr. Amerasinghe is merely returning to his accredited position as Director after being out of the country for research studies. So, has Dr. Bandara been only an Acting Director all along? It is not my purpose to labour on staffing minutiae, but only to look at how President Rajapaksa’s new “methodical” appointment approach is being applied to senior medical professionals in the middle of a global pandemic.
The bigger problem after the 33rd cluster is the potential for rampant spread of the virus among the 50,000 garment factory workers employed by nearly 85 companies in the Gampaha District. From what is being reported, garment factory owners and the army and public health officials are co-ordinating the response efforts for contact tracing and quarantining quite responsibly. It turns out that in addition to the direct factory workers, there others providing ancillary services in factories through separate contractors. The problem of tracing the ancillary contract workers would seem to be more difficult than dealing with direct factory workers. The key question to the government and the Covid-response Operation Centre, is why no attention was given to potential hot spots during all the months when the virus was keeping things quiet.
Garment factory workers are an internal migrant population. Perhaps characteristic of the inelastic village and kinship ties and obligations in South Asian societies including Sri Lanka, factory workers are not atomized to permanently relocate from their natal villages to the places of factory work. The upshot is crowded living around the factories in permanently temporary arrangements. Village housing schemes undertaken by governments may not have spotted this contradiction, let alone address it. There are other social issues involving uprooted personal relationships, alcoholism, gambling, and indebtedness. Nonetheless, people would have muddled through lives, as they have been, but for the unexpected arrival of a new virus. Overnight, sources of livelihood are turned into hot spots of infection. This is not anybody’s fault, and there are no readymade solutions. Only thing that can reasonably be said to the government is that Covid-19 has made the government’s work cut out. There is no room for playing constitutional games in this situation.
Infections involving garment factory workers drive home the two prongs of the Covid assault and the responses to it, involving public health and the economy. Not only healthy working conditions, but also living conditions must be provided for garment workers to remain healthy and to continue working. The government cannot sustain the economy and the society if the garment factory workers are not working. The same premise can be extended to other sectors with due adjustments. The point is that the economic approach that is needed is to ensure basic survival through this crisis. And not the approach that is hitched to any vistas of prosperity or splendour. The only vistas staring Sri Lanka in the face now are vistas of debts, with massive repayments. The 33rd Covid cluster is a wake up call to the government. How will it respond?
Port City Bill Requires Referendum
by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC
The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.
Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.
The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.
The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.
The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).
Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).
Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.
Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.
In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.
The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.
Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.
The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.
Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.
The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.
The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.
I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.
We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?
At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!
We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?
We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.
I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?
In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.
Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.
Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.
Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.
All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!
The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants
Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.
It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.
On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.
My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.
Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!
Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.
And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.
I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.
There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.
But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.
When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.
Come on, they are no babes!
On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.
It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.
Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.
The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.
The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.
I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.
Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!
Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!
Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.
The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.
They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.
Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.
My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.
For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.
In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’
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