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.
Stats, confusion and contradictions
Thursday 28th September, 2023
Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera is reported to have said at a conference held by the Finance Ministry, on Tuesday (26), that there are more than 4,000 vacancies in the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). According to media reports quoting him, the vacancies at the CEB and the CPC number 1,192 and 3,000, respectively. He is said to have added, in the same breath, that both institutions can manage with the current workforce; his statement must have struck a responsive chord with the public, who must not be made to pay through the nose to maintain overstaffed, inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Minister Wijesekera has left us puzzled, though. In August 2022, he tweeted that there were basically eight reasons for losses incurred by the CPC, and one of them was that it was overstaffed and inefficient, and its workers were overpaid. He reportedly said in a separate tweet that 500 workers could manage the work done by 4,200 workers at the CPC and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd. (CPSTL), and the CEB did not need more than 50% of the workers currently on its payroll to function efficiently. In April 2023, the media, quoting from an Auditor General’s report, said the CPC and the CPSTL had 4,200 workers whereas the need was for only 500.
How could an institution which is overstaffed have vacancies? Is it that the CEB and the CPC/CPSTL have recruited workers haphazardly for political reasons instead of hiring personnel for the posts that fell vacant? An explanation is called for.
Minister Wijesekera said at the aforesaid conference that he could take advantage of the situation and employ about one thousand people from his home district, Matara, in the CPC/CPSTL and the CEB, but he would not do so. Let him be told that the public is not so naïve as to buy into his claim; he and other government politicians, especially the members of the Rajapaksa family, would have provided employment to their henchmen in the debt-ridden institutions but for the IMF strictures, and the fear that such action would stand in the way the restructuring of the SOEs. Even the worst critics of the IMF must be happy that it has put the government in a straitjacket of sorts.
Surplus staffing in the public sector is a drain on the state coffers, as is obvious. The COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) has recently revealed that the Health Ministry has more than twice the number of doctors required for administrative work while many hospitals are experiencing a shortage of doctors. It is hoped that the government will have the cadre requirements of all state institutions properly assessed and take action to sort out the issue of overstaffing.
A request to Susil
Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has said early childhood education will be made compulsory for all children above the age of four. This, we believe, is a welcome move. According to UNESCO, early childhood education ‘provides learning and educational activities with a holistic approach to support children’s early cognitive, physical, social and emotional development and introduce young children to organised instruction outside the family to develop some of the skills needed for academic readiness and to prepare them for entry into primary education’.
The adverse impact of the neglect of early childhood education on Sri Lankan society is reflected in the behaviour of some adults, especially those in key positions, the deplorable conduct of the Members of Parliament being a case in point. If the behaviour of most MPs during the past few months is any indication, something has gone wrong with their cognitive, social and emotional development. Otherwise, they would have behaved well at least during the country’s worst economic crisis, which they themselves have contributed to, albeit to varying degrees. They cannot even have a decent debate on a national tragedy such as the Easter Sunday terror strikes, which claimed more than 270 lives and left over 500 people injured. They have turned parliamentary debates into slanging matches and punch-ups. There are some decent politicians, but sadly they are the exception that proves the rule.
Thus, we request Education Minister Premajayantha to take steps to ensure that our elected representatives, save a few, are provided with early childhood education, which they have missed. Better late than never. That may be considered what is known as ‘second chance education’ for them.
Wednesday 27th September, 2023
It is heartening that justice has finally caught up with a retired top cop, albeit after a lapse of more than eight years. The Ratnapura High Court, on Monday, sentenced former Senior DIG Lalith Jayasinghe to a five-year jail term for having ordered the OIC of the Kahawatte police station not to arrest the then UPFA MP Premalal Jayasekera alias Choka Malli over a shooting incident in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election. The victim of gun violence succumbed to his injuries. He was an Opposition activist.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government attempted a cover-up, and the prevention of Choka Malli’s arrest was part of it. But its plan went awry due to the regime change that followed soon afterwards.
The Yahapalana government ensured that Jayasekera was arrested and prosecuted. He was sentenced to death by the Ratnapura High Court, but he successfully appealed against his sentence after being elected to Parliament as a member of the ruling SLPP, in 2020. In this country, the acquittals of politicians in power come as no surprise!
Today, Choka Malli is a free man, but the SDIG who prevented his arrest in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 killing has been sentenced to jail!
It is hoped that Ex-SDIG Jayasinghe’s predicament will serve as a lesson for all police personnel who enter into Faustian bargains with crafty politicians, and abuse their positions to please their political masters. This unholy alliance is one of the reasons why public trust in the police has eroded severely and the rule of law is crippled.
Several former senior cops have had to pay for their past sins. In 2010, ex-SSP Nihal Karunaratne was sentenced to a five-year jail term by the Kandy High Court for having issued death threats to the OIC of the Hanguranketha police station, in the run-up to the 2001 general election; he was the Director of President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s security division at the time. The following year, the Colombo High Court sentenced Karunaratne to two years RI suspended for 10 years and fined him Rs. 25,000 for having obstructed a police officer, in 2000, when a police team entered the house of notorious criminal called Beddegana Sanjeewa to arrest some underworld figures hiding there. (Having been appointed a Reserve Sub Inspector of Police, Sanjeewa served in Kumaratunga’s security division until he was killed by an ‘unidentified gunman’.)
In 2016, the then IGP Pujith Jayasundera was caught on camera, at a public meeting, answering a telephone call from someone, whom he reverentially called ‘sir’ and assuring that a certain person would not be arrested. A fish is said to rot from the head down, and this may explain why the Police Department is full of stooges. Jayasundera’s obsequiousness, however, did not prevent the politicians he served very faithfully from throwing him to the wolves after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019.
The person who died at the hands of the goons of the Rajapaksa regime, in Kahawatte, ahead of the 2015 presidential election, was one of the UNP supporters who, at the behest of their party leadership, stuck their necks out to enable Maithripala Sirisena to secure the presidency. Three years later, Sirisena sought to dislodge the UNP-led Yahapalana government. He thereafter closed ranks with the Rajapaksas, whom he had blamed for election violence in 2015, among other things, and threatened to throw behind bars; he had no qualms about being in the same parliamentary group as Choka Malli after the 2020 general election. Worse, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe joined forces with the Rajapaksas, who were accused of unleashing their goons on UNP activists, and realised his presidential dream. He stands accused of protecting the interests of the Rajapaksas. In a turn of events replete with irony, Jayasekera was sworn in as a state minister before President Wickremesinghe, last year!
One can only hope that the public will realise that nothing is stupider than to risk life and limb for the sake of politicians or political parties. Unfortunately, many lessons go unlearnt in this country.
Foretaste of lawlessness?
Tuesday 26th September, 2023
It was reported yesterday that gun violence had snuffed out about 50 lives in Sri Lanka so far this year. A cold shiver runs down one’s spine when one reads local crime stories or watches television news bulletins that dish out graphic details about violent crimes. One fears whether at this rate Colombo and some other urban centres will soon be bracketed with Tijuana (in Mexico), which has come to be dubbed the ‘murder capital’ of the world, the main cause of death there being gang violence among dangerous drug cartels.
Commandant of the Special Task Force DIG Waruna Jayasundara has said in a recent television discussion that there are about 17 criminal gangs operating in the Western and Southern Provinces and their leaders are operating from overseas. Many hired guns are ready to carry out contract killings for about Rs. 100,000 each, according to him.
Criminals and reckless drivers destroy more lives daily than the Eelam war and the Covid-19 pandemic did, in this country. The police do not seem equal to the task of protecting the public against these killers. Hardly a day passes without shooting incidents and killer accidents being reported from various parts of the country. The police swing into action only after lives are lost instead of trying to prevent road accidents, which claim about eight lives a day, and organised crimes.
As for violent crimes, the situation has become so bad that a close relative of a prominent ruling party politician was gunned down, in Galle, on Saturday. The police attributed his killing to an ongoing gang war in the Southern Province. The next few weeks will see an increase in tit-for-tat killings in the South with rival gangs going all out to settle scores. It is being argued in some quarters that Saturday’s incident can be considered irrefutable proof of the nexus between persons with political connections and the netherworld of crime. When powerful politicians and their kith and kin become the targets of underworld killers, it goes without saying how vulnerable the ordinary people are.
The country may be free from organised terrorist outfits, but the rise of the underworld could pose a serious threat to national security in that the powerful crime syndicates are willing to do anything for anyone, for the right price, regardless of the consequences of their actions. These criminal outfits are equipped with sophisticated weapons and explosive devices and have well-trained military deserters in their pay, as evident from the arrest of several ex-armed forces personnel over contract killings during the past several months. One can only hope that the defence authorities will take cognisance of these aspects of the problem.
Drug cartels, which are responsible for most crimes, especially murders, have infiltrated even the CID. A notorious drug dealer known as ‘Harakkata’ almost succeeded in escaping from the well-guarded CID headquarters with inside help recently. He had his handcuffs unfastened on the sly, and tried to grab a firearm from a policeman. Luckily, he failed in his endeavour. However, a constable who is suspected to have collaborated with the drug dealer made good his escape, and is still at large. He cannot be the only dirty cop in league with the underworld. The infiltration of the law enforcement agencies will make the country’s fight against crime even more uphill.
The government is in overdrive to crush protests, claiming that it has to maintain political stability to enable economic recovery. It deploys thousands of heavily-armed police and military personnel for that purpose. But despite its braggadocio, it has pathetically failed to contain the scourge of crime. Being labelled a high-crime destination is what Sri Lanka needs like a hole in the head while trying its best to boost its foreign currency reserves by increasing tourist arrivals.
The need for a countrywide crackdown on the underworld to arrest the country’s rapid descent into lawlessness cannot be overstated. The government had better shift its focus from suppressing peaceful protests to fighting violent crimes. Rhetoric and excuses will not do.
Renew firearm license for 2024 before 31st December 2023 – Ministry of Defence
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