Wednesday 1st December, 2021
An oft-heard complaint is that Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa is more absent than present in Parliament during the ongoing debate on Budget 2022. This, however, is not the first time Opposition MPs have complained of the absence of ministers in the House during important debates. The ordinary MPs are no better. The Speaker, more often than not, has a hard time, trying to have quorate sittings.
A budget debate without the presence of the Finance Minister in the House is like Sinhabahu without the Lion’s son, so to speak. Yesterday, only Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando was present in the front row of the government side when the House took up the issue of gas explosions reported during the last few days. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena asked Minister Fernando to ensure that the front-row members of the government were present, especially when the issues of national importance were discussed. One can only hope that the SLPP seniors and their counterparts in the Opposition will heed the Speaker’s concerns, and care to attend Parliament regularly.
Finance Minister Rajapaksa experienced some difficulties in reading out the Budget, last month. If the reading of the Budget is so difficult, how hard its implementation will be is not difficult to imagine. However, what really matters is not the Finance Minister’s speech as such but how the government proposes to implement its budget proposals and bridge the huge deficit. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa was so averse to long-winded budget speeches, maybe because he had an axe to grind with the then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, that he famously said that even a taxi driver could present the national budget! Ironically, today, the economic downturn has been so bad during the past couple of years that even some educated private sector executives work as cabbies at night to augment their declining income; these ‘taxi drivers’ are knowledgeable enough to handle public finance or even present the country’s budget.
Finance Ministers are masters of subterfuge. They say so little in so many words, make ambiguous statements and, most of all, have got obfuscation down to a fine art. Therefore, after their lengthy budget speeches, there arise many questions that need to be answered. So, the Finance Ministers have to be present in the House during budget debates to field questions from the Opposition MPs, and elucidate budget proposals, government policies, etc. The same goes for other ministers, whose presence is required in Parliament when questions are raised about institutions under their purview, and vital issues concerning their subjects are debated. Yesterday, all the ministers should have been in Parliament, where the issue of gas explosions was taken up. Is it that the SLPP frontbenchers do not consider kitchen explosions serious enough to warrant their attention? Let them be warned that it will be a big mistake for them to ignore the so-called kitchen vote, which can make or break governments.
When the senior members of political parties themselves skip parliamentary sessions, how can they expect their juniors to carry out their legislative duties and functions properly? They are like the proverbial crab which, while moving sideways, urges its offspring to walk straight.
Colossal amounts of money are spent on parliamentary sittings which serve little purpose when ministers and MPs do not attend them. Public funds must not be sent down the gurgler in this manner while many people are struggling to dull the pangs of hunger. If Parliament can have a budget debate without most of its members present, the question is why the public should continue to pay through the nose to maintain as many as 225 MPs.
Down the pallang
Sri Lanka is now in the grip of what is probably the worst economic crisis it has known in its post-Independence history. Inflation is at a historic high. The rupee is at a historic low. People are queuing for cooking gas and milk food. The cost of living has gone through the roof and opposition politicians are talking about the price of a single carrot or bean pod. What the ill-thought, almost overnight ban on the import of chemical fertilizers has done to the rural farming community, that massively supported the election of the present regime, is visible in protests countrywide. The government paid off a dollar bond of USD 500 million last week as promised. While there has been no debt default up to now, with Sri Lanka retaining its impeccable repayment record, the bonds were settled in the teeth of opposition by several reputed economists. They urged that it is better to fund vital imports, desperately needed by ordinary people here, than foreign bond holders. Governor Cabraal took another view.
The story goes on. Intermittent power shedding in various parts of the country is a daily occurrence. This has been forced on the CEB by its lack of dollars to pay the CPC to which it is indebted to the tune of billions, to supply its needs. Our only oil refinery at Sapugaskanda is closed as there are no dollars to pay for crude oil to sustain it. The ministers of power and energy, holding two different portfolios when commonsense dictates that the subjects go together, are at each other’s throats. Minister Gammanpila’s argument that it is better to suffer sporadic power cuts rather than face a total blackout down the road is not without merit. He has also to balance the needs of both the transport and power sectors in doling out the little stocks he controls. Judging by his recent statements, he seems to believe that transport deserves priority.
Where do we go from here? Down the pallang, most people fear. It is true that the country has proved resilient facing daunting challenges in the past. Today there are gas queues and milk powder queues highlighted in the evening television news bulletins most days. Older readers would remember many more queues under the dispensation of the Sirima Bandaranaike-led United Front government of which both the LSSP and the Communist Party were constituents. Then there were bread queues, flour queues, sugar queues, rice barriers (best known as haal pollas) and what have you. The 1978 (not 1977 as commonly mis-stated) economic liberalization put an end to the scarcities the people had long suffered. But at a price. A heavy price, some would add.
The Island, our stablemate, in a thought provoking article titled “THE DOLLAR CRISIS: What aggravated it,” provides some pertinent answers to what many consider the root of our problems today. The engineer-writer reminds us that the Gal Oya Scheme, the biggest post-Independence development project undertaken by the government of then Ceylon, was funded by our own resources. Then in the 1950s, this country (still Ceylon) undertook the major Colombo Harbour Development Scheme. Engineer D. Godage, the writer of the article under reference, says that made the Port of Colombo one of most modern (probably regional) ports of the time. The late Mr. Tissa Chandrasoma, a reputed civil servant of the day who headed the Port Commission and held several other port related jobs , says there were plans to develop Trincomalee port too at the time. Given the strategic location of what remains one of the world’s finest natural harbours, and the proximate British built tank farm providing massive storage capacity, forging ahead with such a project may have propelled Sri Lanka to where Singapore presently is as the regional shipping hub.
We were fortunate that the global scene as it was in the seventies enabled the 1977 government of President J.R. Jayewardene to compress the massive Mahaweli Development irrigation and hydro-electricity project from the planned 30 years to about six years. This was possible due to the then availability of concessional international credit and grant assistance. The resultant benefits are well known. And they did not lead us to the debt crisis, or debt trap as some would have it, of today. The borrowing sprees that followed to fund what have been described as mere vanity projects to satisfy the egos of elected political leaders, are a different kettle of fish. Several of these are named after the then president and are located in his home turf of Hambantota.
While it is true that the major highways paid for with borrowed funds and built at massive cost has improved connectivity in this island of ours, whether they are earning their keep and paying their way is an open question. So also the Norochcholai coal power plant with a record of frequent breakdowns and environmental cost. There is no question that with the rising demand for power of more recent years have been met thanks to Norochcholai. According to a 2016 report of the External Resources Department cited by the author of the ‘dollar crisis’ article, 28 projects costing approx. USD 7.8 billion were funded by China’s Exim Bank at interest rates speculated to be around six percent. All these are “said to have been” initiated by unsolicited tender, he says. He also quotes a newspaper headline, “Normal tender procedures are not possible for mega projects: PBJ.” The then Treasury Secretary and later Secretary to the President has now left office.
China will be gifting us with a million tons of rice in March to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Rubber-Rice Pact, the newspapers blared last week. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is a threadbare, albeit proven, cliché. Or is there a free lunch somewhere out there?
Youth, tooting and hooting
Saturday 22nd January, 2022
President Gotabaya did not say anything new in his policy statement presented to Parliament on Tuesday (18), much less spell out how his government was planning to hoist the country from the current economic mire. The parliamentary debate thereon did not leave us any the wiser, for the Opposition did not offer any alternatives to the government’s policies.
What President Rajapaksa has said of the youth in his address to Parliament, however, is of interest: “I especially hope that the patriotic youth who painted wall art and cultivated barren paddy fields in the recent past will also support this.” But mere exhortations will not help rally the youth around the government, which has driven them away. The SLPP leadership ought to make a serious effort to figure out what led to the alienation of the youth. That will be half the battle in winning them back.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP got it right when he told Parliament, on Thursday, that we were witnessing the end of politics. He did not care to define that concept, maybe because a large number of books have been written thereon, or he thought it would be an exercise in futility, given the calibre of most of the House members. What is termed anti-politics, defined as ‘reaction against or rejection of the practices or attitudes associated with traditional politics’ has become the order of the day, at least where the youth are concerned, and this is the political reality that all politicians should come to terms with, as Wickremesinghe has said.
The present-day youth are not dyed-in-the-wool ideologists. They are receptive to new ideas and not blindly faithful to political parties. They are conscious of their rights, and without political allegiances as such, and therefore the number of floating voters has grown considerably in the Sri Lankan polity, making it well-nigh impossible for political parties to garner enough votes to win elections with the help of their traditional vote banks alone. They have to woo the youth. Gotabaya’s appeal to the youth stood the SLPP in good stead at the 2019 presidential election.
The SLPP was lucky that the yahapalana government, which the youth backed in 2015 as they were fed up with the previous Rajapaksa regime, dug its own political grave, and the Easter Sunday terror attacks brought the country under a pall of uncertainty, making the people look for a leader capable of bringing order out of chaos. The youth pinned their hopes on Gotabaya, expecting a radical departure from the rotten political culture under his stewardship. They saw Gotabaya as a technology-savvy, efficient, no-nonsense technocrat capable of draining the swamp that is Sri Lankan politics, straightening up the economy, protecting national security and ushering in a new era. Their wall-painting spree was an expression of their hope of a new beginning. During the first months of his term, President Rajapaksa lived up to the high expectations of the youth and endeared himself even to some of his critics. He was able to do so because he had free rein to govern the county as there was no SLPP parliamentary group. Most of those who had ruined the Mahinda Rajapaksa government were still out of power.
The youth thought there would be a complete reset after the 2019 presidential election, and Gotabaya, being the toughie that he was thought to be, would have complete freedom and, above all, a tabula rasa to work from. But the corrupt in the SLPP started crawling out of the woodwork, after the last general election, and the new President put the family before the country much to the disappointment of young Sri Lankans.
The youth who longed for a meritocracy came to be burdened with a kleptocracy. The yahapalana administration committed the Treasury bond scams within the first few weeks of its formation in 2015, and a mega sugar tax racket besmeared the SLPP government’s reputation irreparably.
The youth are now convinced that their interests do not figure in the government’s scheme of things, and what they are witnessing is a replay of the latter stages of the second Mahinda Rajapaksa regime (2010-2015), which became synonymous with corruption, criminal waste of public funds, cronyism, impunity and abuse of power. They know where the government and the country are heading with one family having all the luck. Hence their disillusionment, and it is not surprising that they are queuing up at foreign embassies to obtain visas.
The youth are intelligent enough to know that it is at the country’s expense that politicians and their progeny without any legitimate sources of income are living high on the hog. They are therefore resentful and give vent to their pent-up anger via social media. At this rate, the day may not be far off when they graduate from hate posts to other forms of protest, the way the people did from tooting at night to hooting during the daytime.
If the government is serious about winning the youth back, it will have to make an immediate course correction, and its leaders will have to put the country before the family.
‘Casting pearls before MPs’
Friday 21st January, 2022
One of Sri Lanka’s most underutilised assets is the parliamentary library, which is considered a treasure trove. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has gone on record as saying that only 330 books were borrowed by MPs in 2021, and of them 122 were novels. Urging the MPs to make the best use of the library, he told the House on Wednesday that reading would help improve the quality of parliamentary debates, and the MPs’ conduct. He recalled how hard he had worked to prepare himself for his first speech in Parliament; he had burnt midnight oil for weeks, he said. The MPs who do so today can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The Speaker deserves praise for trying to knock some sense into the legislators, but it is doubtful whether he will succeed in his endeavour. He should be paid a special allowance for maintaining his sanity in an insane world where horizontally gifted and intellectually challenged elements rule the roost.
Many are those who pursue higher education, obtain postgraduate qualifications and then enter politics, where they unflinchingly choose to demean themselves by touching their forelock before semi-literate political dregs who hold ministerial positions, or by kowtowing to ‘clown’ princes. We have some highly educated MPs and deputy ministers unashamedly bowing and scraping to former chain snatchers and cattle rustlers in the garb of ministers and thereby sending the wrong message to the country’s children, who, on seeing the educated grovel before political nitwits, may wonder why on earth they should pursue education when they can drop out of school, take to politics and go places with learned people brown-nosing them.
On listening to the Speaker’s exhortation to the MPs, one may have remembered former MP Ranjan Ramanayake. He may lack control over his restless tongue, which landed him in jail for affronting the judiciary, and caused him to lose his parliamentary seat, but he certainly has some plus points, which should be appreciated, his thirst for education being one of them. In this country, where learned people become politicians and devalue education, politicians who value education are rare; Ranjan is one of them. In fact, Ranjan has placed a higher value on education than on politics. He set an example by sitting the GCE O/L examination a few years ago to obtain a higher grade for English so that he could sit the Law College entrance examination. Then he sat the GCE A/L successfully.
If the level of people’s education increased, it would be difficult for politicians to dupe them, Ranjan told the media on his way to the GCE A/L examination in 2019. One may not totally agree with him on this score because politicians are capable of taking even the educated for a ride to achieve their political goals. How the present-day rulers used associations like Viyathmaga to further their interests is a case in point. But the people must be armed with knowledge for them to be empowered, and one’s age should not be allowed to stand in the way of one’s education.
Ranjan recently sought permission to read for an external degree while serving his prison term, and thankfully the judiciary and the prison authorities granted his request. Ours is a country where convicted rapists, terrorists and other murderers, drug dealers, and a person who committed contempt of court have been given presidential pardons, and it defies comprehension why Ranjan should be kept behind bars any longer.
Meanwhile, if the MPs are not using the parliamentary library, the Speaker should seriously consider taking steps to open it to the members of the public, especially researchers. After all, the place is maintained with public funds and must not remain underutilised.
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