by Jehan Perera
The crisis in the country was evident in the long lines of vehicles parked outside gasoline stations awaiting the next consignment of diesel. They were to be found all over the country and at all times of the day and night. The hours lost and the inconvenience would have infuriated each and every driver of those vehicles, and their families and dependents for whom diesel means income, whether to transport goods, passengers or tourists and to harvest their fields. They would have cursed those responsible and occasionally, when lines were broken, cursed each other. Now again, there is no cooking fuel, but that is confined to the home and so the anger is less visible.
The political crisis within the government, that has made its appearance, comes in the context of the economic crisis primarily, but also in the face of the mounting pressure that is coming from the international human rights community. The strictures passed on the government have been severe indeed. If the government thought that its efforts to reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act would suffice, this has proven to be far off the mark. The critical observations of the UN Human Rights Commissioner have gone far beyond the scope of the PTA to include the lack of independence of key institutions that act as a check and balance in a functioning democracy, militarisation and ethnic majoritarianism in governance and continuing threats to civil society.
All of these will all be difficult to resolve so long as political and personal agendas prevail over the opinions of other legitimate sections of the national polity and the national interest. When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected with a large majority those who voted for him expected a government under his leadership that would give priority to the national interest and to persons of merit to be appointed to positions of authority, rather than friends and relations and political cronies and past comrades in arms from the military. They expected the country’s sovereignty to be protected instead of being sold or leased at unconscionably low rates to foreign interests that had compromised the national interest by getting the country to invest in assets that have no commercial yield.
The political crisis that has manifested itself in sacking of two top government ministers is due these national problems being used to promote personal agendas. The two minister, in question, have pointed out the reality of corruption and the promotion of foreign agendas, but they have been selective in their targeting. It is not only the president’s brother, the finance minister, who is to blame for the crisis that the country is. It is not only one minister who is accused of corruption, the fingers point at many others, too, in fact at almost everyone who is in the present government and in the past government, too. It is a well known saying that when we point our finger at another, three fingers point back at us.
Among those who voted for the government there is general sympathy for the ministers who have been sacked. They were the foremost campaigners for the present government, right from the time they were unexpectedly bundled out of power when they called for early elections in 2015. Their campaign was effective in destroying the credibility of the former government that was trying to win the support of the international human rights community by dealing with the human rights violations of the past. They never gave that government time to settle down and consolidate power by undermining them as traitors to the country.
The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the strictures contained therein have now come back with a vengeance to bite the present government. The government’s efforts to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and to revive the dormant reconciliation mechanisms that the former government devised have been deemed to be insufficient. While these changes have been positive, they need to go beyond the ministers of foreign affairs and justice, and envelop the entirety of government to be credible. Instead, the impunity with which criminals were pardoned and critics of the government have been incarcerated, even if relatively few in number, have sent a warning that massive impunity can come. Ironically, the departure of the duo who created the most havoc against the attempts to deal with the past from a transitional justice perspective, that combined elements of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reforms, may now be more viable.
The way out of the multiple crises that afflict Sri Lanka is for the government to first seek to win the hearts and minds of all of its own people by doing what is in their interests, rather than give priority to personal agendas, or those of foreign companies or governments. This is what those who voted for him with a large majority expected of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government. Instead of which, there are land grabs taking place in the North and East of the country, which are given an ethnic complexion, as those are areas predominantly inhabited by the ethnic and religious minorities. But land grabs are also taking place in the south of the country, where impoverished sections of the ethnic majority live, such as Moneragala where 65,000 acres of land have been grabbed for multinational companies to grow sugar from people who farmed those lands as small holders.
There are two key priorities from the people’s point of view. The first would be to solve the economic problem that has led to shortages of everything, ranging from cooking gas to diesel and to fertilisers. Instead of prioritising the repayment of loans to foreign governments and bondholders, the government needs to prioritise its scarce dollars to import essential commodities that will keep the local economy viable. It needs to go to the lender of last resort, the International Monetary Fund, and accept the conditions of transparency that members of the government vested with economic power do not want so that they may pursue their personal agendas. We need to solve our internal problems and be sincere about it if we really want the best for the country.
The second would be to restore the provincial council system that enables the ethnic and religious minorities, but who are regional majorities, to govern themselves and feel that they have an equal stake to governance in the country. In order to achieve these two tasks, and have the people behind them, the government needs to organize an all-party conference that includes the main ethnic and religious minority parties, and also representatives of the business community and civil society. The next two years could be devoted to restoring the relationships within the country in all dimensions, political, ethnic and religious, and with the international human rights community. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa still has an opportunity to restore the faith that people had in him as a leader without a personal agenda who would bring the rule of law and merit to the fore and treat all people, and all ethnic and religious communities, equally so that the diaspora will work with the government rather than against it.
Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing
We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.
The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.
As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?
Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.
If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.
When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.
The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.
Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine
In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.
If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?
These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.
The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.
While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.
Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?
However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.
The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.
Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.
On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.
However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.
To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.
However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.
That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.
Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.
At 80, now serving humanity
Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.
Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.
No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!
At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.
Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.
“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “
And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.
It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.
“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”
Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.
“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day
“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”
“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.
“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.
“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.
“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.
“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.
“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”
Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.
However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.
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