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Editorial

The 20th Amendment

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There has been no credible explanation of why the government has remained as coy, as it remains to be to this day, about the authorship of the 20th Amendment. When first asked about it, Prof. GL Pieris, Chairman of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and cabinet minister fended the question saying there were many contributors. He then attempted to close the matter saying the cabinet took “full responsibility” for it. We do not need a law professor and former vice-chancellor widely acclaimed as a legal pundit to say that. If the cabinet had passed it, and it had done so before Pieris spoke, it is quite obvious that the cabinet must accept responsibility and the matter needs no further elaboration. Now Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, the cabinet spokesman, has said (at last week’s cabinet news briefing) that the president had authorized it. Even a school kid studying basic civics knows that ever since the JRJ Constitution was enacted in 1978, the president is both Head of State and Head of Government and he presides over cabinet meetings. Thus he is part of the collective cabinet responsibility. Are we to understand from the latest contribution to the question that although Justice Minister Ali Sabry presented the draft amendment to cabinet, it was the president who gave it to him and presumably asked him to present it?

These maters, no doubt, will be canvassed in parliament when the already gazetted amendment is presented to it. Given the dust this matter has already raised, with criticism coming not only from the opposition but also from sections of the government and those who helped it to come to power, the country has been told that there will be some changes to the draft presented. What these are has not yet been clearly spelled out. They will presumably be introduced at the committee stage of proceedings in parliament. This is a practice that those who are now in power roundly condemned when used by their predecessors. We have heard a lot about various provisions being “smuggled in” during the committee stage discussion of bills before parliament denying those who may choose to mount challenges on the legality of legislation in the pipeline the opportunity of doing so. There can also be no proper study of what is being done if any government resorts to such questionable practices. The Constitution, after all, is the basic law of the land and it is incumbent on those governing the country to have the widest possible discussion on any proposed changes. Committee stage amendments just will not do.

All governments, even those with the necessary two thirds majority to make changes in laws at variance with the constitution, have refrained from making any law that would require a referendum. That is something that has been avoided like the plague. Certainly a referendum is something that costs the taxpayer much more than an arm and a leg and must not be lightly resorted to for reason of expense alone. But this is not why governments of all hues have done their damnedest to avoid them. Politicians in office do not wish to go before the people at any cost unless they are compelled to. We have only known one referendum, that of December 1982 when the J.R. Jayewardene government that had in 1977 won a massive mandate with a five sixths majority, wanted the people’s acquiescence to extend the tenure of then then parliament by six more years. We thus had the infamous lamp and pot game, widely condemned as rigged, that permitted Jayewardene who had a few weeks earlier won a presidential election to duck a parliamentary election. It is commonly accepted that his UNP would have been returned if he did go to to the polls, but not with its 1977 majority, especially with the proportional representation system of elections then in place.

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa wished to change the constitutional barrier placing a two term limit on the presidency in order to seek a third term in 2015, the supreme court did not hold that this required a referendum, in terms of the constitutional provision that matters affecting the franchise of the people must obtain the people’s consent at a referendum. Then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake held that abolition of the term limit was an “enhancement” of the franchise rather than a diminishing. It may be argued that enhancing or diminishing would either way be a matter affecting the franchise. But that was not how the court, headed by a judge subsequently impeached by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, saw it. The fact that Rajapaksa lost the 2015 election where he sought the third term, having abbreviated his previous term, is now all water under the bridge.

Government assurances that pluses like the Right to Information law enshrined in the 19th Amendment, which even the ranks of Tuscany must admit had many imperfections, have been widely welcomed. There is no doubt that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government chose to include provisions like dual citizens not being eligible to run for public office clearly targeting the Rajapaksas was venal in intent. Coming from the UNP who anointed several persons who had opted for foreign citizenship as ambassadors to represent this country was rich, to say the least. There is no doubt that there are many flaws in the 20th Amendment that Mr. Sajith Premadasa has promised to scuttle having (together with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe) scuttled the UNP. We are glad that eminent persons such as Prof. Savitri Goonesekera, in a contribution she had made to our newspaper today, has focused on some of the weakness in the draft 20A. Hopefully the government will accept democratic dissent in the right spirit rather that taking the easier route of having its way after allowing the opposition to have its say.

 



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Editorial

Happy New Year!

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Tuesday 13th April, 2021

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is the time when ordinary people have their fill of merrymaking, and traders and pawnbrokers laugh all the way to the bank. The much-talked-about need to preserve traditions associated with the national festival for posterity is only an excuse for the annual splurge.

What is being celebrated is essentially a harvest festival. In days of yore, people toiled away for months and produced a surplus, part of which was set aside for the New Year festivities. They did not have to worry about the rest of the year as they had enough food stocks. Today, there is no such surplus production, and most people spend borrowed money on New Year celebrations only to regret later when the festive hangover gives way to sobering reality.

Today, harvesting makes only moneylenders and the middleman happy. The farming community is caught in a debt trap. Loan sharks prey on them with impunity. Harvesting is followed by debt-servicing, and farmers either cannot pay back their loans or are left with little or nothing after debt repayment; they have to borrow more for consumption and cultivation purposes, and never will they be able to break this vicious circle unless the state makes a meaningful intervention. Avurudu provides them with some respite from suffering. The same is true of most other people as well.

The koha is said to be conspicuous by its absence, this year. Is it fed up with looking for trees to perch on, given the rate at which the country is being denuded? Its cry which is considered the herald of the traditional new year is, in fact, a desperate mating call. One wonders whether its cry is not heard these days because it has opted for remaining silent by way of family planning, as it were, on account of serious habitat problems.

Health experts have been trying to knock some sense into the public, but in vain. People have thrown caution to the wind, and are behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. They seem to consider Avurudu to be something worth dying for. Shops are chock-a-block, and nobody cares two hoots about the physical distancing rule. People jostle inside clothing stores as if they had never worn clothes before. They also strip bare the racks of grocery stores as if they had never seen food, all these years. Adult males religiously flock around liquor outlets as though their very survival were dependent on the bottle that cheers.

Yesterday, India reported 168,912 COVID-19 infections overnight and overtook Brazil as the second-worst hit country in the world. Unless precautions are taken during the current festive season, Sri Lanka may find itself in the same predicament as its big neighbour.

Politics has apparently taken precedence over the COVID-19 protocol although the health authorities fear that a surge of infections is on the horizon. The government seems reluctant to have the health regulations strictly enforced lest such action should not find favour with the public, who had to be immured in their homes during the festive season, last year. The Provincial Council elections are also expected before the year end. Hence the distribution of cash handouts by the government, which is playing Santa months ahead of Christmas.

The national economy and productivity will take another severe beating due to holidays. Workplaces will remain closed until early next week. It takes, at least, one whole week to reboot the country after the New Year celebrations. Economists should figure out how much the country loses owing to numerous holidays.

Perhaps, it was only last year that Sri Lankans celebrated Avurudu meaningfully. They confined themselves to their homes due to strictly enforced lockdowns, which may have caused numerous difficulties, financial or otherwise, but members of most families huddled together as never before; this is what Avurudu is all about.

We wish our readers a very happy New Year!

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Editorial

Bridging vaccine divide

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Monday 12th April, 2021

Rich nations make a show of their commitment to defending human rights in the world. They harangue their developing counterparts, at every turn, about the need to protect human rights, and even threaten to meet non-compliance with punitive actions such as sanctions. They, however, do not seem keen to promote and protect humans’ right to vaccination vis-a-vis the prevailing global health emergency. The only way to safeguard this right is to ensure an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed utter dismay at what it calls a ‘shocking imbalance’ in the distribution of vaccines between the rich and the poor.

This kind of vaccine inequality could be attributed to what WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has rightly called a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. The COVAX initiative, which alone can ensure a well-coordinated global fight against the virus, has suffered a serious setback, with the high-income countries reportedly holding as many as 4.6 billion doses of vaccines, and the low-middle income nations only 670 million. One in four people have been inoculated in the high-income countries as opposed to one in more than 500 in the low-income countries, according to the WHO.

Unless the COVAX scheme, the most efficacious antidote to what has come to be dubbed ‘vaccine nationalism’, which has put the poorer countries at a distinct disadvantage, goes ahead as planned, a vast majority of the global population, in the developing countries, will be badly hit, and in the long-term, the world’s fight against the virus will be in jeopardy because the pandemic is no respecter of geographical boundaries; no country, however rich and powerful, will be safe in today’s interconnected world dependent on international trade and travel.

‘Vaccine nationalism’ may give the rich nations a sense of security in the short-term, but it will be counterproductive in the long-term, for no vaccine is believed to be able to ensure life-time immunity against COVID-19. The pandemic continues to throw up new challenges. Even if the rich nations achieve their vaccination goals while their poor counterparts are lagging far behind, they will be at the risk of being affected by new variants, against which, the currently available jabs might not be effective. This is why Dr. Ghebreyesus has said no country will be safe until every country is safe.

Some Asian nations are struggling to beat the virus despite some initial success in their battle against the pandemic, according to an Asia News Network article we publish today. The report informs us that India, which is grappling with its second wave of infections, has seen record increases of new cases, with more than 100,000 daily being reported on, at least, five days, last week. This being the predicament of a vaccine-producing nation, with a reasonably efficient vaccination rollout, the vulnerability of other countries is not difficult to guess. Similar unfortunate situations have been reported from other parts of the world as well. The US, which is among the nations with impressively high COVID-19 vaccination rates, is also troubled by a sudden increase in the number of pandemic-related deaths.

If the vaccine rollouts fail to reach a successful conclusion the world over fast, it may not be possible to achieve global herd immunity through vaccination, and the chances of beating the virus may be slim due to its mutations, experts warn. COVAX is scheduled to supply as many as two billion doses of vaccines to 190 countries within one year with 92 poorer nations gaining access to vaccines at the same time as their wealthier counterparts. This is a highly ambitious target, which, however, must be achieved if the world is to get on top of the pandemic. But help from the rich nations is not forthcoming, and it is only natural that the WHO is disappointed.

The WHO is hopeful that it may be possible to change the composition of the existing vaccines to deal with the mutations of the virus, but it is still trying to figure out what kind of impact new variants may have on the effectiveness of vaccines. Reuters reported yesterday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa had been found to be able to break through Pfizer/BitoNtech’s vaccine to a considerable extent. Some Indian epidemiologists interviewed by BBC yesterday said they feared that the emerging variants might even be able to escape the human immune system!

The need for all nations, which are currently at cross purposes as regards the global battle against the virus, to support and be guided by COVAX, which alone can make them work in unison to beat the virus, cannot be overemphasised.

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Editorial

Give And Take

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Sri Lanka heads into the Sinhala and Tamil New Year at a time of difficulty and hardship unprecedented in our contemporary history. Covid 19 has cost us much, as it has cost nearly all countries in the planet. There have been claims that the worst is over and we continue to hope that this is correct. But that is not something that can be said with certainty. However a semblance of normalcy has returned although sections of the community, such as those dependent on tourism, continue to suffer hardship. Nobody can claim that the economy is in good shape with the rupee plunging to a historic low of Rs. 200 to the U.S. dollar. This must reflect both on the import bill and on external debt servicing and repayment. But tea prices remain good and the weather has been fair. While we can take comfort that we have not yet defaulted on our massive debt servicing and repayment obligations, the situation is far from rosy with our ability to raise new loans at interest rates that are not exorbitant declining by the day.

Although the ever-rising cost of living continues to impose hardship on both the poor and the middle class, this has been something that has been always with us for a very long time. Although incomes have grown, prices have grown much faster and we know too well that the value of money is now a fraction of what it was. This has particularly hurt savings and the prevailing low interest rates have dealt a kidney punch to large numbers of retired people dependent on interest income for their livelihood. While grumbling continues, people have learned to cope as best as they can. Despite all the negatives, the rulers continue to project a bold front. But there is no escaping the reality that the government has rapidly lost popularity since the last elections, both presidential and parliamentary.

No ban on New Year travel has been imposed although there are inherent risks, in the covid context, of large numbers of people going home to their villages from crowded urban centers they work in. This has been a long-held tradition and it would be a brave government that would interfere however much prudence dictates otherwise. While most people wear masks while moving around in public places, enforcing social distancing in crowded public transport will be next to impossible. Thus the powers that be have resorted to the easier way of leaving the choice to the good sense of the people rather than enforcing strict rules controlling movement. Although other countries have seen spikes of infection by being lenient on holiday travel, Sri Lanka will hopefully have better luck post avuruddhu.

We run on this page today a contribution from the Pathfinder Foundation of Mr. Milinda Moragoda, our High Commissioner-designate to New Delhi cautioning the government against taking too strong a stance on import substitution – a direction in which it is clearly moving. Given Moragoda’s political orientation, Pathfinder may be seen to be sticking its neck out by advocating a hemin hemin policy. Nobody would reasonably object to government imposing certain import bans to encourage local production as in the recent case of turmeric. There is no debate that we must grow crops that we can rather than import them. But governments must always strike the right balance between the interests of producers and consumers. When Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake pushed a massive food production drive during his 1965-70 government, he used to say at public meetings in agricultural areas that enormous foreign exchange expenditure was being incurred for the import of potatoes that some foreign experts had once-upon-a-time said cannot be economically grown here.

But Welimada farmers disproved them. Thereafter potatoes have been successfully grown even in Jaffna although we have not achieved self-sufficiency. “Why should we pay farmers in potato growing countries for their produce when we can pay that money to our own farmers?,” the prime minister used to ask. “But when we enforce a policy to ensure that our cultivators got the money flowing abroad, our opponents accuse the government of kicking the poor man’s ala hodda.” This was also true of chillies and onions where import substitution policies worked to benefit local farmers although at a cost to consumers. Jaffna farmers garlanding one-time Agriculture Minister Hector Kobbekaduwa with onions and chillies when he ran for president against J.R. Jayewardene was testimony to this policy. But it has not worked as successfully as it might have where local sugar production was concerned. Despite this country being endowed by conditions enabling sugar cane growing, we are nowhere near self-sufficiency although different governments have used tariff barriers to ensure better prices to domestic cane growers. Unfortunately we have a local sugar industry which makes more money out of its potable alcohol byproduct than from its sugar.

We have to be always conscious of the trade balance and cannot forget that Europe and the USA are the biggest markets for our garment industry. The ongoing restrictions on motor vehicle imports has no doubt saved us much foreign exchange but we cannot butter our bread on both sides by adopting one sided trade policies. That there must be give and take is a fact of life and it would be useful for the concerned authorities to take note of the Pathfinder perception that “openness to trade improves the tgrowth, employment and income trajectories of economies.”

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