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The funny side of the fuel price hike



The post-announcement drama that followed the fuel price increase announcement would have been funny but for its ripple effect on the poor and not-so-poor. The rich and the well-to-do are one cup of tea; and the rest of the population another. The three-wheeler operator, whether he hires his own vehicle or that belonging to a mudalali, can and will increase his rate, but at the price of the number of hires he gets per day. A bus fare increase must follow, although how high that would be has not yet been worked out or announced. The haulage cost of essentials must rise and this will have a pervasive effect across the gamut of goods and services; and they will all come home to roost on the consumer. No wonder then that what many economists call a long delayed but essential measure has kicked up as much dust as it has and the government is already bleeding.

That’s one side of the coin. The other was the stunning statement of SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, harshly condemning the price increase and demanding the resignation of Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila. Journalists cutting their teeth in the trade (they prefer it to be called a profession) are taught that in writing a news story, unlike in sex, the climax comes first. Kariyawasam’s statement was near enough to Gammanpila’s announcement for the script to conform to the pyramidal structure of a news story. There the least important or interesting material or information comes at the tail with the juicy stuff at the top. That makes it easier for the sub-editor to trim the ‘copy’ to fit into the available space; or for that matter for the reader not to wade through a long article. Kariyawasam, who is often presented in the media as an attorney-at-law, cannot be so naive as to believe that Gammanpila announced his own decision a few days ago. Obviously something this important has to have the concurrence of the president, prime minister and the hierarchy of the government. In this instance it was approved by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Cost of Living, headed by the president and including the prime minister.

But Kariyawasam ignored all that and demanded Gammanpila’s resignation. The latter who seized the opportunity to earn himself some brownie points said he volunteered to be the bearer of the bad news to spare the president and prime minister of the resulting flak. He also had the temerity to ask “Who is Sagara Kariyawasam?” JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, gave him the answer. “He is the person who signed your nomination papers,” he replied. All that apart, Kariyawasam like Gammanpila, would not have fired the missile (or missive), ironically bearing the PM’s photograph on the letterhead, on his own volition. He was obviously instructed to do what he did by somebody powerful – very powerful. It has been widely suggested that this was dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa now sojourning in the USA, his first (or second?) home. He’s been away now for several weeks and no date of return has yet been mentioned although as head of a very powerful Task Force, his presence in the country is important.

There have been some feeble responses to this allegation. One of these was the assertion that if Basil, a powerful member of the Royal Family, wished to make his point, he could easily have spoken to either of his brothers, the president or the prime minister or even nephew, Namal. Instead why did he choose Kariyawasam to fire off a controversial statement if he indeed did so? The latter, of course, has a National List seat in Parliament together with a lifetime pension (for himself and his widow), courtesy of the taxpayer. For this he has to thank a powerful patron. This, some have it, is Basil Rajapaksa. But that, of course, remains an unproven and probably never to be proven allegation. It was Basil after all, who created the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), aka Pohottuwa, which leads the ruling coalition. Thus, apart from his position as an immediate family member of the leaders of the ‘Double Paksa’ government, as our regular columnist, Kumar David, delights in calling the ruling Establishment, he is much more. He created the party that won the last election and is its National Organizer. His influence then on cabinet making and National List choices would have been pervasive.

It is also pertinent to ask why the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) chose to bring a vote of no confidence against Gammanpila rather than against the government. The Sajith Premadasa party, obviously knows as well as everyone else that the fuel price increase was a government decision rather than one unilaterally made by the energy minister. Why then is it training its guns at the loquacious Gammanpila rather than the government itself? We are told that it’s all a matter of strategy debated in the inner councils of the major opposition party. The thinking is that if a no confidence motion was moved against the government, all its components will unitedly fight it. But if it is aimed at Gammanpila, there will be those deeply embarrassed about the price increases and its effect on their constituents who may be tempted to break ranks. Sagara Kariyawasam, for instance, will find it difficult to express confidence in Gammanpila. But he has an easy way out. He can be absent at voting time like so many have done before. Hopefully, Ranil Wickremesinghe would have taken his National List seat before the forthcoming debate. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

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Oxygen support



Wednesday 28th July, 2021

Those who do not believe in miracles will be hard put to explain why Sri Lanka is still behind India and Indonesia anent the pandemic death toll, given the extremely irresponsible behaviour of its people and rulers. Delta is deadlier and more transmissible than all other coronavirus variants and spreading fast here. But there are street protests, where nobody cares about the Covid-19 protocol.

Hospitals are struggling to cope with the increasing number of Covid-19 patients, most of whom are said to need oxygen support. This is certainly bad news which all those who have lowered their guard should take cognizance of.

The government has met the representatives of protesting teachers’ unions, at last. Their talks have ended inconclusively, but the government agrees in principle that teachers’ demand for better pay is justifiable. There is no gainsaying that the government teachers deserve a better deal, and nobody will object to a pay hike for them although there are many shirkers among them. But the question is whether this is the right time for salary increases in the public sector. The economy is also on oxygen support. True, the blame for this situation should be apportioned to all those who have been in power for the past several decades, but one has to come to terms with the ground reality.

Pay hikes for public servants mean tax increases and the aggravation of the woes of the public struggling to keep the wolf from the door. Indirect taxes (paid by all people) account for about 85 percent of the state tax revenue. This, however, does not mean those who deserve pay hikes should be denied them indefinitely. On the other hand, the government blundered by ordering duty-free luxury vehicles for the MPs and thereby making the public wonder whether its claim of being cash-strapped was true. Sanity prevailed, and the controversial vehicle order was suspended owing to protests. It also made a huge mistake by increasing doctors’ allowances and undertaking to grant the nurses’ demand for a pay hike; this ill-advised action prompted other state employees to resort to trade union action to win similar demands.

Meanwhile, it is heartening that the government has paid off a one-billion-dollar bond debt a couple of days before the deadline. State Minister of Money and Capital Market and State Enterprises Reforms, Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s announcement yesterday that the country had honoured its debt obligation may have disappointed those who expected their prediction of a sovereign default to come true. Some investors believed in that prognosis, panicked and suffered staggering losses. Minister Cabraal rubbed salt into the wound; he tweeted, “The bond investors who panicked due to rating actions and analyst reports and sold off at huge discounts must be regretting’. The situation, however, is far from rosy; there are more debts to be serviced and more forex is needed for that purpose; it is not feasible for the government to go on dipping into its foreign exchange reserves, which will have to be shored up urgently. But the aforesaid payment will help boost investor confidence and avert further credit rating downgrades. A prerequisite for tackling the debt crisis is to overcome the national health crisis and reopen the country fully as soon as possible so that the forex inflow will improve with expected increases in exports and tourist arrivals.

If the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, and the economy collapses, those who are demanding pay hikes and protesting to win that demand, will not get even their salaries; everyone will have to starve. This is what those who are facilitating the transmission of Covid-19 by staging street protests ought to bear in mind. Their processions will make it well-nigh impossible for the country to be reopened fully any time soon. What moral right will the protesting teachers who blatantly violate the quarantine laws and are seen trying to pull down gates have to tell their pupils to behave and follow the health guidelines when schools reopen?

The government must also act responsibly without provoking trade unions. It should have invited the warring unions for talks much earlier instead of having their leaders rounded up and packed off to faraway quarantine centres, and postponed the presentation of the Kotelawala Defence University Bill, which cannot be considered a national priority by any stretch of the imagination.

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Woes of Greens and Blues



Tuesday 27th July, 2021


The whilom yahapalana leaders are in the news again. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has gone on record as saying he will reveal, on 06 September, when the 75th Anniversary of his party falls, how the UNP is going to form a government. He is obviously trying to boost the sagging morale of his supporters with such rhetoric. His erstwhile yahapalana chum, former President Maithripala Sirisena, met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa together with an SLFP delegation for a discussion to iron out difference between the SLFP and the SLPP.

What does the future hold for the UNP and the SLFP?

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are now ordinary MPs, having squandered a political windfall. They have to stomach indignities at the hands of the breakaway groups. This is the price they have had to pay for their national government experiment which ended in disaster. Sirisena’s performance, however, has been somewhat better than Wickremesinghe’s—the SLFP has 14 MPs (in the SLPP parliamentary group) as opposed to the UNP’s one. Sirisena is lucky that he joined forces with the SLPP at the right time. The UNP made the mistake of overestimating its strength and pitting itself against the SJB.

The SLPP and the SJB have done well electorally mainly because of their leaders. The UNP and the SLFP have survived in spite of their leaders, and therefore may be able to better their performance in case of changes being effected at the helm. They cannot be written off simply because of their poor electoral performance, which is due to their leaders’ blunders. Wickremesinghe has rightly pointed out that the UNP bounced back despite being reduced to eight seats in 1956. So did the SLFP after its crushing defeat in 1977. But the fact remains that they made comebacks under new leaders!

The SLFP and the UNP may be able to regain their strength because they are two mass-based parties albeit currently in crisis. Their foundations are stable. The SLPP and the SJB are overdependent on their leaders. This can be considered a weakness. The former owes its meteoric rise in national politics to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. It was Sajith Premadasa’s popularity that enabled the SJB to obtain 54 seats in Parliament.

We saw something similar following the UNP’s crisis in 1992 owing to an abortive bid to impeach President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The Democratic United National Front (DUNF), formed by a breakaway UNP group, also derived its strength from the popularity of its leaders, especially Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. It did extremely well initially, but began to crumble after the assassination of Athulathmudali (followed by that of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was responsible for the UNP’s split). Dissanayake returned to the UNP’s fold, and the DUNF lost its popularity and withered away. This is what happens to political parties overdependent on their leaders.

The UNP is in the current predicament owing to its leadership struggle that went unresolved. If Sajith had succeeded in securing the UNP leadership, he would not have broken away to form the SJB, and the UNP would have been strong today. The same is true of the SLFP. If Mahinda had been allowed to lead the SLFP after the 2015 regime change, the SLFP would have been the ruling party today. Those in the SLFP and the UNP must be looking forward to a day without their present leaders, but the SLPP and the SJB cannot think of a day without theirs. It is too early to guess what future holds for these parties.

Meanwhile, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who was part of the SLFP delegation that met President Rajapaksa told the media yesterday that their talks had been successful. There is no reason to doubt his claim. The President and Sirisena are friends; talks between them are always cordial. But it is not the President who has control over the SLPP. The SLFP should have had talks with SLPP National Organiser and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who runs the SLPP. It is the Basil loyalists who have turned hostile towards the SLFP and are even daring the latter to leave the government.

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Concentrate on big picture



Monday 26th July, 2021

The tragic death of Ishalini, 16, who was slaving away at a politician’s house, and the resultant public outrage have galvanised the government, a section of the Opposition, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the police, etc. The NCPA has reportedly undertaken a mission to search for the poor children employed as domestic workers and take action against their employers. Sadly, a hapless child had to die a painful death for these institutions to swing into action.

It may not be difficult to find underage domestic workers if the public fully cooperates with the NCPA and the police, and the assistance of the Grama Niladaris is enlisted for the task. But tracing these children alone is not the solution to the vexed problem of child labour.

Who will ensure that the children to be saved are fed, clothed and educated? Most of the existing children’s homes are not run properly, and there are various allegations against them including child abuse. The media has reported numerous such instances. These institutions must be developed, managed properly and monitored regularly. There is bound to arise a need for many more such institutions to accommodate former child workers to be placed into protective custody. There is no way the children saved from semi-slavery can be reunited with their parents who are too poor to look after them. One only hopes this aspect of the problem has been taken into consideration by the authorities tasked with protecting children.

Most child workers are from the plantation community, and this is an indictment of the estate sector political parties and trade unions. The politicians representing the plantation workers are conducting protests and calling for action against those responsible for Ishalini’s death. But the problem of plantation children being taken to other parts of the country as domestic workers is as old as the hills. The protesting politicians should be asked what they have done all these years to obviate the factors that have brought about this unfortunate situation. The root-cause of child labour is abject poverty, especially in the plantation sector, and it has gone unaddressed all these years. Have the politicians who go places thanks to the poor plantation workers’ votes ever taken up the issue of child labour, in Parliament or elsewhere? They seem to have refrained from improving the plantation community’s lot lest they should lose a block vote. One’s gorge rises when these politicians pretend to be the saviours of the plantation workers and their children, and stage protests. They must be ashamed of themselves.

The same goes for other political parties and their leaders who are beating their chests in public. A prominent local government member of the ruling SLPP is among those who raped an underage girl recently. The present-day leaders also have a history of shielding rapists and other such anti-social elements. One of the first few things the UNP did after its mammoth electoral victory, in 1977, was to grant a presidential pardon to a convicted rapist serving a jail term for harming a teenage girl. The JVP, which is demanding stern action against those who employ children as domestic workers, had no qualms about using children in its abortive uprising in the late 1980s. Children were made to deliver ‘chits’ with which the JVP had shops closed, and many of them perished at the hands of those who unleashed state terror. Some TNA politicians have also demanded justice for Ishalini, but they unflinchingly supported the LTTE, which forcibly recruited children, who ended up serving as cannon fodder.

Besides the underage domestic workers, there are tens of thousands of forgotten children suffering in silence. They have dropped out of school due to poverty and are helping their parents eke out a living. These children, too, must be traced and looked after.

A country study conducted by UNICEF on the out-of-school children (OOSC) in Sri Lanka has revealed that the lower-secondary-school-age children at risk of dropping out are more likely to be boys than girls. Involvement in child labour, the UNICEF report says, puts children at risk of dropping out; however, by this age, many working children have already become OOSC. “There are more overage boys than girls in lower secondary school and repetition rates are higher for boys than for girls. Current dropout rates for lower-secondary-school-age children climb from 1.0 percent for 10-year-olds to 5.1 percent for 13-year-olds.”

Thus, it may be seen that the efforts currently being made to tackle the problem of child labour amount to only scratching the surface of the problem, and they are also likely to be abandoned when another mega issue crops up, eclipsing that of Ishalini’s tragic end. What is urgently needed is to prepare a national strategy to remove the scourge of child slavery. This is what Parliament should be doing at present. Instead, it is expending its time and energy on other matters such as the recent no-faith motion and a bill to be taken up soon to promote private university education.

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