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The new normal after six weeks



While the relaxing, not lifting, of the quarantine curfew which ran for an extended period of six weeks was compelled by socio-economic rather than preventive imperatives, it is obvious that the country cannot let down its guard. Cognizance of this reality by the decision makers is demonstrated by the fact that the “lockdown,” as it was commonly called, has not been totally lifted. The night curfew continues to be in force from 10 pm to 4 am and inter-provincial travel is still not possible. Health guidelines widely disseminated include restrictions on eateries, restaurants, salons and various other social gatherings including weddings, funerals and parties. The whole country without exception will hope that we are gradually returning to normal and the gains of the past two months will not be frittered away as was the case with the disastrous New Year relaxation.

Those of us who left our homes during the weeks of the lockdown, for valid reasons or otherwise, are well aware that the now relaxed restrictions were not tightly enforced. Police did not stop vehicles on the roads and question occupants on where they were headed, except on very few occasions. While the pre-pandemic traffic gridlocks were not in evidence, there nevertheless were a large number of vehicles moving particularly on city streets. While many businesses were closed, several remained open. People must obviously eat and procure their essential supplies so that a total lockdown was neither practical nor possible. Certainly public transport, meaning buses and trains, were not running but it was possible for those not fortunate enough to own a vehicle, be it a car or a motorbike, to find without much difficulty a three-wheeler to get to wherever they needed to go. Most people did not go to work and that accounted for much of the reduced traffic and movement on the roads. But this is now going to change to probably somewhat less than the bad old days. We must wait and see what the availability of public transport will be under this new order and also how employers, whether private or government, will minimize work attendance or insist on workplace presence.

The latest published numbers do reveal a significant decrease in infections and fatalities. But all of us must be fully aware of how quickly this can change as it has both in this country and elsewhere. It is human nature to place the best construction on impending events and there will be the temptation to return at least to near normal. This is most likely to happen for selfish reasons regardless of both personal risk and that to the wider community. Clear breaches of social distancing rules were visible, for example, when liquor shops were permitted to open during the tail end of the so-called lock down; and even physical brawls were seen outside the ubiquitous wine stores. There is no escaping the fact that the cash-strapped government, battling sharp revenue downturns, needed the excise revenues that are a major contributor to state coffers. The decision to reopen liquor shops would have, we believe, been taken totally mindful of the dangers in order to achieve a fine balance. The fact that they were not closed again even in the context of what happened when they were reopened clearly tells its own story.

Of course restrictions, or the lack of them, have their own imperatives. All of us are only too well aware of the sorry state of public transport in this country even in the best of times. Buses and trains are badly congested particularly during peak hours and it will be a job and a half, to use a common colloquialism, to prevent overcrowding and enforce social distancing in them during the new normal effective from dawn on Friday. Although there have been assurances by private bus operators to observe health protocols, accompanied by demands for fare increases on grounds of being compelled to run half-empty buses, how long, if at all, will that last? Like almost all businesses and most ordinary people, bus owners too are feeling the pandemic crunch. So will the police go all out to strictly enforce the rules? Probably not, and if they do, will the bus owners react by withdrawing services? All these are matters that still remain to be seen.

A vitally necessary effort has been made and continues to get the tourism industry restarted to whatever extent present conditions permit. Perhaps this industry, along with self-employed daily paid workers eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, has suffered the most from the pandemic and its economic consequences. There are signs that tourists, particularly from the west, are keen on dodging the forthcoming winter and are tempted to take holidays in warmer climes. They are further enticed by attractive packages on offer. We need not belabor the fact that hundreds of thousands in this country, directly and indirectly, are dependent on tourism for their living. The economic cost to the country as a whole from the drying out of that vital source of foreign exchange is also huge. But how successful these efforts will be even in the context of travel restrictions being relaxed at home and abroad remains to be seen in the weeks ahead. The relaxation of the rules last Sinhala and Tamil New Year was, no doubt, at least partly influenced by the need to give the hotel industry at least the benefits of selling rooms to domestic tourists. But that boomeranged.

What is now necessary is the need for all of us to exercise commonsense in the new normal that dawned last week. We must all continue to wear our masks outside our homes, despite some discomfort, frequently wash our hands, refrain from unnecessary travel, observe social distancing and continue to take necessary precautions under current conditions. Remember at all times that you can be an asymptomatic covid carrier and behave accordingly.

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Vroom dream!



Wednesday 27th October, 2021

The government is behaving as if it had no problems to contend with. It is now talking about a proposal for the construction of a Formula One racing track, of all things, in Hambantota, of all places, while the country is struggling to replenish its oil supplies.

What has been proposed is a purpose-built circuit, according to media reports. The Cabinet will take up the proposed Formula One project for discussion soon, we are told. Don’t our ministerial worthies have any other important matters to concentrate on? The fertiliser crisis is far from resolved. Farmers are staging street protests and threatening to march on Colombo. Experts are warning of a drastic drop in the national agricultural output. Essential commodities are in short supply, and their prices have gone into the stratosphere. Public health experts have warned of another explosive spread of the pandemic in December and the possibility of another lockdown. The economy is in bad shape. But government politicians are living in cloud cuckoo land, dreaming of racing tracks!

The government should not be in a hurry to discuss the proposed F1 track, for there may not be any need for it. Unless funds are raised for oil imports urgently, or the petroleum prices are jacked up again, ordinary people will not be able to drive or ride, and the existing roads will be so deserted that it may be possible to hold car races on them.

It is said that the proposed F1 track will be a private sector project, which will bring in the much-needed forex, but we will have to wait for future Pandora Paper leaks to see who is really behind those who are said to be willing to invest in the racing track. There is the possibility of a fraction of the funds stolen from Sri Lankans returning to the country as investment. Private sector investors cannot be so naive as to invest in an F1 track in this country. They cannot be unaware how difficult it will be to have races held here, given the difficulties experienced by countries like Singapore, India, etc., with F1 tracks.

If the proposed F1 track is built by any chance, Hambantota will set a world record as the town boasting the highest number of white elephants. It already has an inland port with only a few ships. Hardly any summit has been held at the Hambantota International Conference Hall for years. The Sooriyawewa International Cricket Stadium is deserted, and its only attraction is said to be the bushmeat served in eateries in the neighbouring township. Then there is the Mattala International Airport, where deafening roars are heard more from wild jumbos roaming the area than from jumbo jet engines. Add an F1 track, and we will have a port without ships, an airport without planes and a racing track without cars! (Hambantota has an excellent road network which is almost deserted. Perhaps, the government may be able to use it as an F1 road/street circuit.)

Car racing is one of the main reasons for the collapse of the previous Rajapaksa government, which closed busy roads in Colombo and Kandy for races, and turned a blind eye to late-night drag races, which became a real nuisance to the residents of Colombo. The organisers of the racing events even disregarded protests by the Maha Nayake Theras. The rathagaaya (local slang for excessive desire for driving or racing) of the young members of the ruling family made that administration extremely unpopular.

Let the government be urged to concentrate on pandemic control to prevent lockdowns, take steps to eliminate corruption and make the country attractive as an investment destination by improving its ease-of-doing-business ranking. If the government leaders get their act together, foreign direct investment will flow in. This is what countries like Singapore have done to achieve progress. An F1 circuit has never helped develop a poor country.

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Of that ‘hug in the ring’



Tuesday 26th October, 2021

There is an uneasy truce between the government and the warring teacher-principal trade unions. What looks like a hug in the ring, however, is deceptive; the two parties to the current dispute are actually in a clinch, which they are likely to break from to resume throwing killer hooks at each other, given half a chance.

The government started reopening schools last Thursday, as previously announced, but most of the protesting teachers and principals did not report for work on that day. Instead, they resumed work yesterday. They obviously sought to teach the government a lesson by keeping school attendance extremely low on Thursday and Friday. Whether their action had any impact on the government is doubtful, but students lost two more days of schooling, as a result. Both sides to the conflict would have the public believe that they are trying to safeguard the interests of students, but they are obviously driven by self-interest.

One only hopes that schools will remain open, and the protesting trade unions and the government politicians, most of whom should be sent back to school, will work out a compromise formula. Losses that students and the country have already suffered due to prolonged school closures caused by the pandemic are unprecedented, inestimable, and irrecoverable, and, therefore everything possible must be done to ensure that schools will not be closed owing to a teachers’ strike.

Teachers and principals have warned that they will intensify their trade union action unless their demands are granted. The government has undertaken to solve their salary issues through Budget 2022, to be presented to Parliament next month. The rectification of teachers’ and principals’ salary anomalies is likely to make other categories of state employees resentful. The public sector salary structures are very complex; they are in fact a minefield. A decision is said to have been taken to make teaching a closed service, as a way out, but it is too early to say whether the proposed solution will be acceptable to others.

General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union Joseph Stalin has said teachers will confine themselves to teaching, and will not take part in school cleaning campaigns and other such activities. Teachers and principals carry out various tasks besides teaching for the benefit of their students without expecting or receiving anything in return, and their voluntary work should be appreciated. But, sadly, teaching is exactly what a considerable number of teachers do not do properly. Complaints abound that many teachers and principals neglect their duties; almost all students are dependent on supplementary education to prepare themselves for competitive examinations. The proliferation of private tuition centres throughout the country is an indictment of government teachers. This is something the teachers’ unions which are all out to win their demands ought to take cognisance of. They should ensure that each member of theirs earns his or her keep without being a burden on the taxpaying public.

Meanwhile, the government is sure to print more money to meet the protesting teachers’ and principals’ demands, causing inflation to rise further. An increase in the public sector salary bill, or other state expenses, generally leads to tax hikes. This will be a double whammy for the general public already struggling to make ends meet. But the government will have to fulfil its pledge to teachers if schools are not to be closed again.

No reasonable person will grudge teachers—or any other category of workers, for that matter—better pay, but the latter will have to work harder and help straighten up the education sector which is in decline. The least that the protesting trade unions can do is to make teachers carry out their duties and functions properly to obviate their students’ dependence on shadow education to pass competitive examinations.

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When haste leads to trouble



Monday 25th October, 2021

Farmers’ protests against the prevailing fertiliser shortage are gathering momentum, but Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage insists that there are enough stocks of fertiliser in the country. He says the protests are politically motivated. It is doubtful whether anyone will buy into his claim. There would have been no such protests if fertiliser had been freely available. The possibility of agrochemical companies having a hand in protests cannot be ruled out, but what actually fuels the street demonstrations is the anger of farmers who have suffered crop losses due to the fertiliser shortage.

The incumbent administration implements its policies exactly the way the country’s war on terror had been fought prior to 2006; governments launched much-publicised offensives against the LTTE only to call them off owing to heavy losses the military suffered. The SLPP government has launched several blitzkriegs, as it were, to achieve some policy objectives, during the past several months, but without much success or, in some cases, with disastrous consequences.

The overuse of agrochemicals has been a ‘grave’ problem. What is given free of charge is often overused or wasted, and the previous Rajapaksa administration’s wisdom of giving a fertiliser subsidy stands questioned. Most farmers used to apply agrochemicals liberally even to loosen soil before harvesting manioc. The practice of spraying insecticides on vegetables ready to be harvested has been prevalent among most cultivators. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has rightly pointed out that water in streams and wells adjacent to paddy fields cannot be used for drinking due to agrochemical runoff or leaching. The unregulated use of agrochemicals has also led to ecological disasters; it has killed insects and birds that prey on pests such as rats, and mosquito larvae. The owl and the dragonfly are among the worst affected species, according to environmentalists. Soil cannot recover due to the repeated application of overdoses of weedicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. These issues must be tackled, but systematically. It was a mistake for the government to ban all agrochemicals overnight. It should have taken steps to reduce the use of agrochemicals while introducing organic fertilisers and educating the farming community on the advantages of the proposed changeover. That way, it could have won over farmers because they want to keep production costs low and lead a healthy life. The fertiliser blitz, as it were, has backfired with farmers taking to the streets, and wily politicians cashing in on their frustration to gain political mileage.

Traders at the Manning market are complaining of a decrease in vegetable supplies, and they blame it on the agrochemical ban. If this claim is true, then it can be argued that the market situation presages serious problems for both the public and the government. Shortfalls in supplies will send vegetable prices through the roof, making it even more difficult for the people to make ends meet.

The country is in this mess because the government, in its wisdom, telescoped its organic fertiliser programme, which should have been phased over a couple of years. Even some Agriculture Ministry higher-ups have admitted that the sudden fertiliser ban was based on wrong advice, according to newspaper reports. Former President Maithripala Sirisena has gone on record as saying that he and the SLFP urged the powers that be to tread cautiously instead of banning agrochemicals overnight. Their advice went unheeded, he has claimed. Their SLPP counterparts are raking them over the coals for having said so. Sirisena and his party may be flayed for many things, but they have got it right on this score, and the government worthies had better stop bashing the SLFP and make a course correction.

One cannot but appreciate President Rajapaksa’s initiative to promote organic agriculture like his renewable energy programme. But it should be carried out gradually in a sustainable manner. If only the President and his advisors heeded the oxymoronic adage, festina lente— ‘make haste slowly’.

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