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The axe falls



The signs have been ominous for the past several weeks and finally the axe has fallen. Plagued by both mismanagement and bad governance by the ruling Rajapaksas, aggravated by an ineffective opposition, the bad news is now very much here and the people have to face the harsh reality. Last week’s sharp devaluation of the rupee against the dollar, long resisted by the Central Bank and its Governor, has been forced upon the Sri Lanka economy and a population that moved from gas queues to milk powder queues and then to long lines to refuel their vehicles interspersed by blackouts and power outages countrywide will, hopefully, be spared such torment in the near term. But at a price and a very heavy price at that, that most people would not be able to afford. But for how long? We can only hope that a benevolent deity will smile down on this tormented land.

The economic indicators are grim. The foreign exchange liabilities of the Central Bank exceeded its reserve assets by Rs. 662 billion (USD 3.29 bn.) in January this year, up from Rs. 386 billion (USD 1.9 bn.) a month earlier. The situation today must necessarily be worse with the country struggling to repay debt and being compelled to utilize reserves to pay for vital imports. We have been printing money as though there is no tomorrow and this has been going on for a long time. Cash savings of people have been wiped out in value terms in a country that had long been advocating savings as a means of strengthening the economy. Those who held what funds they had in fixed income instruments like fixed deposits have taken a heavy blow while those who invested in real assets like land and property or even a vehicle have been relatively unscathed. However, it is still too early to say whether capital appreciation of real estate in the current scenario will continue as in the past.

Government leaders have been urging patience on a population that is running out of that, or more correctly, already run out of it. No less than the president assured that the power problem will be over by March 5. But that was not to be. Ministers Lokuge and Gammanpila kept making contradictory statement with the ground situation proving Gammanpila right. The Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC), the Indian player in Sri Lanka’s oil import and distribution market, raised prices four times since Dec. 21 last year. The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) which controls the larger market share did not follow suit though both players have been stridently claiming that they are selling below procurement cost. The obvious result of LIOC fuel, both petrol and diesel, being much more expensive than CPC’s, consumers tanked-up at CPC filling stations unless they were forced to do otherwise. The net result is that already high CPC losses swelled further.

The grim reality is that CPC must raise its prices sooner than later. The government, obviously, is all too aware of the ramifications of a fuel price increase which is all encompassing. Public transport fares must go up; so also the price of produce that must be moved to markets. The implications are far and wide but the evil day will soon be with us. The CPC, initially, would hike prices to be on par with LIOC, and thereafter both companies needing to match their sale prices with the cost of procuring supplies will demand further price increases. These no doubt will be granted. There is a Tamil proverb that the man who is already wet does not feel the rain. People hit with price rises for all essentials, leave apart the few luxuries that makes life tolerant, may (hopefully from the rulers’ viewpoint) like the man who got wet in the rain not feel the effect of this one too badly. We need not labour the fact that the impact of the devaluation will be all pervading.

There have been indication that the hard line resistance towards going to the IMF for assistance is weakening. A structural adjustment facility (SAF) from the Fund in 1978 greatly assisted President J.R. Jayewardene’s big bold stroke of freeing the economy shackled for decades by state controls. There were conditions for that including a sharp depreciation of the rupee from then prevailing exchange rates. Older readers may remember that the National Savings Bank (NSB) at that time paid as much as 22% for one-year fixed deposits. There was a surge in imports and demand pent-up over several years was satisfied. So much so that Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, then minister of trade and shipping, once declared that people may tolerate high prices up to a point, but never again scarcities. Fifty years later they have been forced to tolerate both.

The IMF has warned that the Central Bank may lose control of money and the economy could implode unless money printing was stopped. There are signs that this advice is now being taken, although late. It said in a statement that Sri Lanka’s public debt, including Central Bank liabilities, has risen to 119 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The bank is yet carrying debts to the tune of USD 1.2 billion to the IMF from previous currency crises. The president will chair an All Party Conference, something it was hitherto reluctant to do, within the next few days. As SJB front-liner Harsha de Silva, a knowledgeable economist recently said, “We’re all in this together.” Now is not the time for the cheap politics that has long plagued this country. The right thing must be done. But do we have the leaders to do it? That is the question.

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Failures as pillars



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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Government boost for GotaGoHome – Phase II



Tuesday 24th May, 2022

The first phase of the campaign for ousting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is over. It has only caused the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the appointment of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as his successor. The President continues to hold office. All the problems that drove the public to stage street protests remain unsolved; in fact, they have worsened, but there has been a let-up in the protest campaign. One sees only unorganised, sporadic protests in some parts of the country.

The Galle Face protest, which started off as an apolitical struggle to dislodge the government and engineer a systemic change, has lost steam, but the forces that propelled it remain active. It was obvious from the very beginning that the core of the Galle Face aragalaya was political, and the fact that the JVP, and the Frontline Socialist Party have been behind the protest is now public knowledge. If ex-UNP MP Prof. Ashu Marasinghe’s admission, in a brief interview with this newspaper, that he had been involved in the Galle Face protest from the beginning is anything to go by, then the UNP, too, has had a hand in it. Does this explain why those who went all out to see the back of PM Rajapaksa float like bees and sting like butterflies, as it were, when they take on PM Wickremesinghe, who has been the main beneficiary of the aragalaya?

On 09 May, an SLPP goon attack on a group of anti-government protesters triggered an explosive release of the pressure build-up in the polity. The spate of violence that ensued ran its course, leaving little pressure for the anti-government forces to tap. The protest campaign against the President is now without much political traction, as a result; it needs a turbo boost, which will come only from another massive pressure build-up, for its Phase II to get underway. Pressure of such a magnitude could result from power cuts, the scarcity of essentials, etc.

All essential commodities are in short supply, but their shortage is not as severe as that of fossil fuels. Rains have lessened the country’s dependence on thermal power generation, albeit temporarily, and power outages are not as bad as they used to be. Cooking gas is also being made available, and it will lower the demand for kerosene. The food shortage is still not so severe as to trigger mass protests.

Pressure needed for the launch of the GotaGoHome protest – Phase II will result from the non-availability of diesel and petrol. The number of vehicles waiting in queues for petrol and diesel is increasing although the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, and Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera insist that there are enough fuel stocks. Filling stations remain closed, most of the time, and not even the ones required to function round the clock are open at night, and, therefore, motorists and motorcyclists have to wait in queues overnight, undergoing tremendous suffering. People struggling to obtain fuel are so resentful that their tempers flare at the drop of a hat and fights break out frequently. The government has, in its wisdom, chosen to close the petrol stations where incidents of violence occur. Thus, it further aggravates the fuel problem and makes the people even more incensed. Public anger can be tapped to fuel the Phase II of the protest campaign against the President. The day may not be far off when people take to the streets in their millions, calling for the resignation of the President, again.

Strangely, no one in the government seems to care to sort out the fuel problem although enough diesel and petrol stocks are said to be available. Hoarding is not the only reason for this situation. Hoarders are having a field day because the fuel distribution network is extremely inefficient. If all filling stations are made to remain open round the clock, at least for a few days, with their supplies being replenished regularly, there will be no need for the people to wait for long hours. If man power is a problem, the Civil Defence Force personnel could be deployed to help dispense fuel.

If the people can be convinced that there is a system in place, and they do not have to spend sleepless nights in their vehicles to obtain fuel, they will not riot, and there will be no panic buying. Is it that a section of the government is advancing a hidden agenda by aggravating the fuel problem?

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Fuelling flame of public anger



Monday 23rd May, 2022

Long lines of vehicles are still seen near filling stations in all parts of the country although the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) insists that there is no fuel scarcity. Most people have to wait for long hours to obtain petrol worth about Rs. 6,000 each. They are left with hardly any time for work. Government politicians and state officials keep giving assurances, but the people do not seem to take them seriously.Fuel rationing has not yielded the desired result due to hoarding, which intensifies the supply chain stress. Hoarders must be severely dealt with; mere warnings will not do. The government should seek public assistance to nab hoarders, and those who provide information that leads to arrests should be rewarded.Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera, addressing the media, on Saturday, revealed something that must have sent a chill down the spine of every law-abiding Sri Lankan. He said he had been reliably informed of two recent incidents, where the JVP and the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) interfered with the fuel distribution in the Gampaha and Matara districts, respectively. He said a JVP politician, leading a mob, had stopped the unloading of diesel at a filling station in Weligama, ordering that no diesel be sold unless petrol was available. The students’ outfit had asked a filling station at Kiribathgoda to issue fuel only to the persons it named, the Minister said.

Minister Wijesekera’s claim makes one wonder whether an organised group is all out to disrupt fuel distribution in a bid to stoke public anger to advance a sinister agenda. Let the police and intelligence services be urged to sit up and take notice. The JVP and the IUSF owe an explanation.Minister Wijesekera has warned that the filling stations where workers are roughed up will stop issuing fuel forthwith. There have been many violent incidents where angry customers set upon filling station workers, and action must be taken to prevent violence, and ensure the safety of workers.

Similarly, Minister Wijesekera has to take action against the gas stations where fuel is not dispensed efficiently. Most of them have only one pump attendant each to cater to hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles. They have no sense of urgency, and seem to derive some perverse pleasure from the suffering of the people waiting in long queues. They must be ordered to minimise delays without provoking the public.

Stale toddy in new pot

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not seem keen to steer the country out of the current crisis. Most of the newly-appointed ministers are square pegs in round holes with very serious allegations against them. You cannot win steeplechases with donkeys, can you?

When Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, it was thought that the President was serious about making a course correction. But he has not been able to extricate himself from the clutches of his family, which continues to promote its interests at the expense of the country. He is at the mercy of the SLPP, which is controlled by his sibling, Basil.The government has succeeded in dividing the SJB and the SLPP dissident group by making some of their members accept Cabinet positions. But wheeling and dealing, and crossovers cannot make a blundering government stable, much less help hoist the country out of the current economic mire. What is needed is a truly multi-party government, and certainly not another SLPP administration with some greedy defectors from the Opposition, in its Cabinet. Unless the President cares to heed public opinion, and put together a team capable of infusing the people with some hope and ameliorating their woes by reviving the economy, he will have to brace himself for the landfall of the second wave of the tsunami of public anger, which will be far more destructive than the first one, which led to the ouster of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaska.

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