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The Right Way to do the Eastern Container Project

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by Kumar David

The fracas about the Eastern Container Terminal is mostly if not entirely political; concerns re finance, technology and traffic, in so far as the spat in the public domain is concerned, are not of substance. The scuffle is twofold – domestic nationalist ideology and Lanka’s positioning in geopolitics. In the domestic arena it is all about Indian participation, and the principal protagonist is Sinhala Nationalism. There is subliminal ideological aversion in the Sinhala nationalist mind to things Indian. This is not the place to explore why; whether Raja Raja Cholan, domestic antagonisms, or Tamil Nadu’s 60 million, lie at the root of the antipathy is a topic for another day. My only assertion today is that there is a gut distaste of India in the nationalist psyche. The point is that a pathological driver in the ECT standoff is Indian involvement irrespective of its suitability or otherwise. It lubricates the spleen of monk and laity alike and affects decrees of policy bosses.

The other input which I take as given, is that there is strategic tension in this region between China on one side and the Quad (India-US-Japan-Australia) on the other. Foreign Minister Colambage as reported on the front page of the Island of 28 Jan, when asked whether US, India, Japan and Australia would take a common stand against Sri Lanka on accountability, dismissed the possibility. “Sri Lanka is important to them” he said, while describing them favourably as four pillars of a Quadrangular security alliance. Hmm how will Beijing look at this jelly-fishy flopping? Exploring the good and bad of Chinese Belt & Road billions, versus capitalist liberal-democracy, will take me to far afield today.

There are four options on the table, everything else is simply variation on one of these themes.

 

Option 1:

Implementing the project as a consortium arrangement where Japan and India are the key players. Perhaps Japan will invest/loan $500 million, perhaps the Adani Group (India’s country’s largest port developer and operator) will manage operations, and perhaps an agency of the government of Sri Lanka will take a stake. I will mention variants anon.

 

Option 2:

China takes the leadership role in the project, most likely within the umbrella of the Belt & Road programme. Many variations are possible – Hambantota or Norochcholi style where China finances and builds and Lanka operates and repays debt, or in addition to this operates the project for an agreed number of years, or a third variant is where China lends capital and it is up Lanka to construct, operate, make a profit and repay.

 

Option 3:

This is what hard nationalist have wet dreams about; raise every kopek in the domestic market, have a love fest with the trade unions, borrow within this framework. Essentially, a Lankan conceived, financed, constructed and operated eastern harbour terminal.

 

Option 4:

Do bugger-all; forget about ECT; live without it; which may be where Lanka will end up given the pluripotent cock-up that is now unfolding on all sides.

These options have been discussed ad nauseam in press and TV and readers I think are fed up with saturation coverage. So I will go directly to what should be done. a) The China option – Option 2 should be discarded. I am not anti-China, not but we are already hugely indebted to China and debt repayment schedules to the PRC are hefty (about $2 billion a year for the next four years). We should put no more eggs in that basket. b) Lanka must play the non-alignment game to full advantage; pan-whoring is the way to go. How well Nehru, Nkrumah, Sukarno and SWRD-Mrs B played that game. Beggars must choose wisely and position their begging bowls judiciously. The ECT is the point to switch our tender maidenly virtues to course correction away from Chinese totalitarians to rapacious raiders from the capitalist powers. The forces behind Option 3 are powerful; unions, monks and nationalists who can bring GR, MR and SLPP to their knees. In any case it’s appropriate that domestic funds, whether from entities such as the EPF, the Lankan capitalist class or trade unions take a stake, Why not? And it this may set a model for financing development in a future where we are less broke. c) Option 4 is out of the question unless Lanka is to crawl into a cave.

Hence my position is that the way forward is to blend of Options 1 and 4. Let me go a little further on this road and explore a feasible project model. The site (contingent land and sea) will remain state property. A Project Company will be established by the principal Japanese and Indian partners for the purposes of: raising capital – maybe $700 million, building the terminal facilities, operating the harbour, developing contacts with international shipping lines, generating a profit, servicing debts incurred in project construction and in say 30 years transferring ownership to a government entity at a price discounted at an agreed annual rate (say 2% to 3%). This is quite similar to the BOT (Build, Operate and Transfer) concept that has been very successfully used with power projects all over the world. There will have to be some differences; for example a local partner is desirable because unlike a power project a harbour interacts with thousands of workers every day. Even better would be if the offer made by the trade unions to provide part finance is taken up. Either would need local partners who can raise say $100 million (Rs 20 billion) as co-investment. An additional take on making ownership part domestic would be to list 10% to 20% as shares on the local stock-exchange.

I appreciate that the challenge is more complicated than a BOT power-project where the most complex tasks arise during project construction, thereafter dispatching electricity to the grid under the control and supervision of a centralised network operator are familiar in electricity supply systems. Making a port project operationally successful and profitable will be far more complex and require commercial and pricing ability, good international networking and management of labour. Handing the whole project over to a Japanese-Indian consortium for an annual rental of such and such an amount is straightforward. The developers will raise funds, service debt, operate the facilities and pay easy-picking rental to the state, but the fever of Sinhala nationalism and trade union restlessness make this difficult. I concede that dim witted military types who are in charge of everything under Gotabaya will find that approach comfortable; just sit on an armchair and function as rent collectors. However the lay of the current political landscape may make this lazy approach infeasible. I think the government will have to get off its indolent backside and work out a project plan that includes some complexity since to let the project die is objectionable waste of economic opportunity.

I do not propose to discuss the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry handed over last week, except to the extent that it may influence the Eastern Container project. A expose can be found in Colombo Telegraph at: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/full-text-of-the-leaked-report-war-criminals-murderers-and-fraudsters-exonerated-by-nandasenas-political-victimisation-commission/ The CT story alleges that the report is an attempt to “exonerate, white-wash and acquit without charge perpetrators of the most heinous crimes committed in Sri Lanka in the recent past and in many cases reward murderers, abductors, and money launderers with compensation by the state”. The report unanimously recommends that “indictments against every accused in emblematic cases highlighted by the UN be dismissed, indictments in currently active trials be quashed; that high military officers, sergeants and sailors charged with rape, kidnapping, extortion rackets, abduction and assaulted be acquitted and released”.

This commission from hell was chaired by disgraced retired Supreme Court Judge Upali Abeyratne and included retired Court of Appeal Judge Chandrasiri Jayathilake and former IGP Chandra Fernando. It was a Gota regime whitewash squad reflecting regime thoughts and desires. The release of this stinking report at this moment, the eve of the Geneva UNHRC meeting where a devastating attack on the Lankan Government by the UN High Commissioner pointing to escalation of punitive measures is feared, has detonated a bomb under the regime’s backside. The recommendations are music to the ears of Gota’s military junta and it is impossible for the regime to condemn the report as this would enrage chauvinists and monk-mobs. On the other hand the MR loyal political side is acutely embarrassed. In order to minimise a skewering at Geneva and reprisals from the West will the government assuage Western anger by handing over the Eastern Terminal project to the Japan-India consortium? I expect to see heightened tension in the government between the military (GR) and the political (MR) wings of state power in the coming months.



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Playing politics with science!

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It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

 

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

If you thought it was only our politicians who played politics with science, you thought wrong. Admittedly, ours are pretty bad as evident from the Dhammika peniya episode. We had our Health Minister freely advertising the concoction by ingesting it in her office and wasting the valuable time of academics by instructing them to test it for efficacy. Getting a pretty bad attack of Covid-19 demonstrated the idiocy of her action but she continues unashamedly to be our Minister of Health!

A Professor of Pharmacology turned politician did likewise. Forgetting what he taught his students, he supported the untested therapies, the explanation given by one of his colleagues being that he behaved as a politician, not a scientist! By implication, even scientists can forget science when they become politicians! Funnily, he was rewarded by being appointed the Acting Minister of Health the day the Health Minister was discharged from hospital, which was rather bizarre considering that during the Minister’s prolonged period of hospital-stay there was no acting appointment! Perhaps, fearing that he might take the bread out of her mouth, the Minister returned to office within a few days of discharge.

Although the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic was very effectively controlled, the loss of efficiency as regards the second wave was due no doubt to allowing non-scientific ideas to creep in. The refusal of permission for the burial of Covid-19 victims in spite of a group of top scientists recommending it, made us look foolish and turned international opinion against the country.

The clamour for vaccination is a welcome sign, more so because the UK is continually producing evidence for the extreme efficacy of vaccination.

The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccination and has already vaccinated more than 21 million of its 66 million population. It started with the Pfizer vaccine, closely followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. EU, which was a late starter, was critical of the Oxford AZ vaccine. The French President Emmanuel Macron is obviously guilty of playing politics with science as he was one of the vaccine’s most vociferous critics, calling it “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. As a result of political comments of this nature, more than half of EU countries limited the Oxford AZ vaccine to those under 65 years, in spite of the European Medicines Agency approving it for all age groups.

Another political appointee, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, had a public spat with AstraZeneca over gaining more of its vaccine doses and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; she was forced to reverse her decision, quickly. She then suggested the UK had compromised on “safety and efficacy” by approving the jab so early, despite the EMA reaching the same conclusions as the UK’s internationally-respected MHRA, which approved the Oxford AZ vaccine for all ages. Millions of doses of Oxford AZ vaccine, which they obtained in spite of criticism, remain unused in France and Germany. Why did they not have the generosity to give these to struggling countries like Sri Lanka?

Data released by Public Health England (PHE) shows that both the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective in reducing COVID-19 infections among those 70 years and over. Since January, protection against symptomatic Covid-19, four weeks after the first dose, ranged between 57 and 61% for Pfizer and between 60 and 73% for the Oxford AZ vaccine.

In the over 80s, data suggest that a single dose of either vaccine is more than 80% effective in preventing hospitalisation, around 3 to 4 weeks after the jab. There is also evidence for 83% reduction in deaths from Covid-19 with the Pfizer vaccine and data for Oxford AZ vaccine is awaited.

European aversion to Oxford AZ vaccine is, no doubt, due to Brexit than to science. Very soon, all EU countries would be forced by science to allow all age groups to have the Oxford AZ vaccine which, by the way, is the cheapest vaccine that is easier to transport and store. Politicians who criticised Oxford AZ vaccine have had to eat humble pie but they will no doubt come out with some claim to justify their idiocy!

A Belgian minister, Budget State Secretary Eva De Bleeker, has angered vaccine manufacturers by revealing sensitive and confidential commercial information – the price that the EU has agreed to pay for the leading Covid-19 vaccines. Though her twitter message was deleted quickly, screenshots taken show that the EU agreed prices for the three vaccines used at present are as follows: Oxford/AstraZeneca: €$ 1.78, Pfizer/BioNTech : €$ 12 and Moderna: $18.

Moderna, a Bio-tech company, which has not been profitable so-far, is heading for wind-fall profits and the drug-giant Pfizer will get richer. No one seems to have followed the noble gesture of AstraZeneca, which agreed with the Oxford group to provide the vaccine on no-profit basis.

It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

As Dolly Parton sang with a rewrite of her famous song ‘Jolene’ whilst having her jab:

“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”

 

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Who wants to live forever?

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The haunting lyrics of The Queen song and the almost plaintive tone in Freddie Mercury’s oh so unique voice, when he sang this song (particularly in his live performance at Wembley), echo through my mind these days. There are two main reasons why longevity is foremost these days.

The first, of course, being the pandemic that is among us. It may be the first time that the civilian population of the entire world is facing the possibility of sudden death, not from incoming fire or even suicide bombers but from an insidious, unseen, minute germ!

The second reason why the length of our lives and prolonging it for as long as we possibly can have been entering my thoughts, is when I see the scramble to get the anti-virus vaccine that I observe in the Pearl. Now, most of us are Buddhists and somewhere in those teachings is a belief that we come into this world with a certain amount of AYUSHA or length of life, and that when that is over the end happens and there is no choice. At least, that is the basic interpretation of undoubtedly very complex teaching.

If that is the case, why this scramble for the vaccine? Why are we using privileged positions (connections to rulers and politicians), connections to doctors, and even the Mayors of certain cities to short-circuit the waiting lists? Older people are complaining that they are being denied the vaccine, why? Those people have probably achieved all their objectives in life, completed successful lives, seen grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, why do they want to deny some young man or woman starting out on life with all those milestones to reach, the vaccine, particularly if they are devoted to the teachings of the Buddha.

Is it selfishness, greed, and avarice, things we should avoid according to these self-same teachings, or is it simply one-up-man-ship and the need to be able to boast that they got the vaccine when the “ordinary” man is still standing in queues and probably infecting each other due to the total chaos and non-observance of Covid protocols in these places of administering the vaccine? Think about it dear readers, especially those of you who have completed productive and useful lives, brought up “successful” children, and as is the way in our society provided them with houses, lands, dowries, and other ways of sustenance. Do we really need to join this scramble for the vaccine? Or, use our position of privilege to probably deny some younger person, with a life to live, the chance of getting it. Is it even our ego (something else we should control and make less significant in our lives and decisions) that allows us to justify our long existence in this world? They need my superior intellect, does this world and this society, therefore I must live as long as possible! Or, is it simply the basic animal instinct to live as long as possible, something that we as humans with our superior brains should be able to think around?

Here in Aotearoa, we have re-entered a level 3 lockdown in our most heavily populated city and a level 2 lockdown for the rest of our country. This has been due to certain non-observance of Covid protocols by people of a clearly identified community, living in a certain part of the city of sails, as Auckland is also known. This is the second time that the community, living in that part of the city has brought about an escalation of the pandemic and stricter lockdowns. It has brought more economic misery and spelled the end of the road to more businesses and enterprises. Now, in the Pearl, we may have resorted to attacking those communities and even rioting. All that seems to have happened here are of course the usual vitriolic racist attacks on the internet and a government decision to vaccinate those areas of the city first, in an attempt to control the pandemic. Wow! in the pearl either all these people would have been rounded up and locked up in a camp in the Vanni or locked down under strict curfew with the threat of being shot if violated. The jury with regard to if the Pearl alternative or the Aotearoa alternative of these should have been used is still out …

Maybe some readers are interested in the outcome of the threat that is looming over us from the upcoming United Nations action in Geneva? I have been trying to get some feedback from “intellectuals” currently living in the Pearl, but they seem distracted, and a feeling of helplessness seems to prevail. The incumbent Foreign Minister seems to think that a humble Indian Ocean Island with what strictly speaking, can be considered a failed or at least failing economy, can dictate terms to the UN, behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Maybe our “new best friend” China, probably aided and abetted by Russia has lent strength to his arm.

Even a “victory’ for Lanka at the UNHCR to this resolution should not be cheered too vociferously, as the countries ranged against us will have long term plans. Every step of this government will be monitored closely. The loss of our garment exporting privileges to the first world could result along with other economic sanctions that would make the cost of living in the Pearl even higher.

One rather interesting possibility seems to be travel bans on certain individuals and freezing of their assets held abroad. Now that could be stimulating, especially if the numbers involved are made public! However, if that was the case, I believe the attempt to rectify the situation would have been given to a more competent person than “the bull in the china shop”!

I cannot resist putting this out dear readers and I apologise profusely in advance. What if someone like Ranil W, was in charge of foreign affairs? Do you think we would have had a more professional approach and had a better chance in dealing with the complicated nuances of handling UN diplomacy, in the long term? At least we may have not insulted and possibly humiliated the visiting PM of one of our allies, Imran Khan of Pakistan! On the other hand, Mr. Khan, you may rest assured that even if you had addressed our parliament, no member would have understood anything you said or even been able to decipher your immaculate Oxbridge accent. It is only those of us who have shut ourselves out mentally from the shenanigans or gone into voluntary exile who watch with dismay, who would have savoured your words and briefly wondered …what if … ?

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Thanks for quick vaccination; harmful dabblers in the occult should be severely dealt with

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There has been much in the daily press on vaccination against Covid-19 in this fair isle of ours, or rather in Colombo and its suburbs

Let’s put aside complaints and say praise be!

Most of what was media-written was on the ensuing chaos of not knowing where to go for the jab; how to get a token; which age group will be given it (apart of course from VIPs and politicians who were close behind frontline health workers). Mercifully, the authorities righted the initial wrong of deciding on prioritizing the 30-65 age group and neglecting the over 65s, who were placed second in the priority list in more enlightened countries following WHO strictures. And so lots have got the jab and we anticipate a drastic drop in infection and Covid death rates. Cass contributed her fair share of criticism in this column but not stridently nor unreasonably. She had not seen the privileged list that passed off as Municipal workers on Tuesday 24 February at the Public Library, Colombo 7, arriving in Mercedes Benzes and SUVs. If she had, her ire would have emerged in pure vitriol! One friend said she enquired from several sophisticates in the queue how they got there, but received mumbled replies. So, a Rose by any other name, even Do-Gooder, smells as bad when it goes unjust! Things got much better and the service worked smoothly once the MOHs came into their own.

What Cass notes in summarizing the issue today is thanks and gratitude to the government and the Health Services particularly, for vaccinating so very many so quickly. People who wrote about this issue, Cass included, were all praise for the actual data takers and vaccine givers. In certain centres, the old and disabled were queued in a different line and vaccinated within an hour.

The gratitude Cass renders is because only part of the total amount of vaccine was gifted by India and the WHO. Our government booked early and paid for the rest, and of the Oxford kind. This vaccine is admittedly relatively cheaper, but it had to be paid for, which cost the government bore. We have to appreciate the massive organization entailed and excuse inevitable hiccups. This fact struck Cass as a feeling of much needed security and elimination of fear was felt, and all for free. Also when a friend in Melbourne wrote they were as yet awaiting vaccination.

 

Black Magic and witchcraft in Sri Lanka

If you thought as Cass did that we would never ever resemble a dark Congo tribe resorting to occult cures or a re-enactment of shades of supernatural superstitious beliefs in witchcraft as in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, in 1692 (where some young girls caught prancing naked cooked up lies about good women in the village being witches), you and Cass were both mistaken. We’ve had these in different styles right here in supposedly majority Buddhist Free Sri Lanka with other religions holding people together, in the 21st century with some of our own doing brilliantly well in advanced scientific disciplines all over the developed world. Cass, as you now know, was born and bred in the hills of Kandy with its most sacred Dalada Maligawa and picturesquely situated quaint temples in peaceful green valleys with the sound of evening pooja bells, joined by Kovil tinkles and Sunday sonorous Church gantara and the cry of the Muzeen. We never had a bali or thovil ceremony. If an inauspicious time descended on the village or a household, it was pirith chanted by Bhikkhus. So to Cass what has been happening very recently is even stranger than to those who have village cousins who dabble in mantra and kodivina with kattadiyas in action.

I refer here to the stupidly preposterous belief in Dhammika’s peniya as both a prophylactic and cure for pernicious Covid-19. Where is that charlatan veda – oops sorry- Kaliamma devala kapurala now? Safe with his ill-gotten gains, we suppose.

The latest voodoo story, but with such a tragic ending, is that of the 9-year-old Delgoda girl who suffered an emotional (rather than mental) aberration and was subject to exorcism by caning her mercilessly. The exorcist could not be a woman; she must certainly be a sadistic aberration herself. Can you believe that she applied oil on the girl and used the cane on her till the kid went unconscious? Was the cane an ordinary one? At first I could not believe the story read in the papers – how cane a person to death, but it was a child receiving the torture and who knows what sort of ‘weapon’ was used. The mother definitely must be punished more severely. Maternal love, even in the animal kingdom, will never allow harming an offspring, so how on earth did the mother watch all that caning. One shot would have torn Cass to the defence of her child, or for that matter any child, with talons extended and blood now not turned to milk as the Sinhala saying goes, but to vitriolic fury. The woman exorcist with supernatural powers and the mother are in police custody. Why doesn’t she do a Houdini and astound handsome Police high-up Ajit Rohana?

People claiming superhuman clairvoyance and divine power crop up everywhere. Cass accompanied a friend to consult a girl in the suburbs of Kandy to find out where her hub had ‘donated’ a fairly large sum of money. This girl had given clear directions to find a lost Persian cat to a third friend; hence the visit. She was a pretty, soft girl of around 18. Once Cass and the other entered the room, the girl changed, was in a near trance and speaking in an entirely different voice, pronounced the reason for seeking her help and said “Look for a man always dressed in long sleeves and thinning hair parted in the middle.” The friend was baffled and defeated by this long shot, but finally she met a man of this description – the father of a girl in her husband’s office. She did not ask for the money!

Such ‘powers’ are temporary; maybe like poltergeist manifestations in a teenager’s home. But going for cures to them is unthinkable. Buddhist bhikkhus and maybe bhikkhuunis, so also certain Christian priests (the bulk of lecherous Father Mathew intrudes here) do have powers of exorcism. A medical doctor is the best bet, in any case, including even mental upsets.

 

Short Takes

Imran Khan’s all too brief visit was a successful veni, vidi, vici in spite of being snubbed ungraciously over the address to Parliamentarians (what a weak, threadbare excuse was offered – C-19 precaution!) and missing out two of our cricket greats: Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon from the list of cricket folk to say Hi to the great Cricketer at lunch at Shangri La. What was the success apart from charming everyone and showing off what a Statesman can look like and carry himself off? Why – the Muslims of Sri Lanka conquered. Burial was theirs or so it seemed. But hold it, is it gazetted or is this ‘yes’ like the Prime Minister’s definite ‘can bury’ pronounced in Parliament and then brushed aside and explained by the Gaman as “he was merely expressing his thoughts.”

Main headline in The Island of Wednesday 3 March:” PCol report on Easter Sunday carnage: AG won’t be given ‘sensitive’ volumes.” Why on earth? Is it X-rated and the AG underage?

Picture on page I of same issue of Dr Rajitha Senaratne arriving at the Colombo High Court to appear in a case involving two persons who accused then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of various crimes. We have long forgotten even a single word of what they said. They will not get off free is Cass’ bet unlike Aluthgamage, who emerged very recently from a court house free as a bird, accused of corruption, Cass recalls.

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