The Covid-19 situation has dealt Sri Lanka and all its people a deadly blow on their collective solar plexus. But none of us can place our hands on our chest and swear “not guilty” to the charge of not doing everything we should have in the situation we were placed in. For the past several weeks we have been warned by those who know best that we have been allowing our guard to slip. It has been repeated almost ad nauseam that far too many of us have been acting as though things had normalized; and this was absolutely dangerous. Many people sign off their emails with a ‘stay safe’ exhortation. But how many of them practice what they preach? Human nature is such that the easy way is what the vast majority chooses, however tight the circumstances. Now the deadly virus has caught the feared second wind and the country is faced with many hard options.
The safest thing to do would be to lock down, the way we did or was forced to do, the first time round. But at what cost? Tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of our people are daily wage earners eking out what is barely sufficient for the day. While a lock down can slow, though not entirely arrest, a community spread, it is not an ironclad guarantee that everything would be tickety boo very quickly. In the meantime an economy that is already in very bad shape sinks deeper in the mire. Added to that is the human misery that it heaps on the poorest of the poor. There was a pre-election handout (if we may call it that) of Rs. 5,000 per needy family. A second similar installment was promised but many people complained that they didn’t get it. A third installment was also supposed to be on the way but that did not materialize.
How badly the Samurdhi poor relief scheme is targeted is common knowledge; large numbers in dire distress do not get it while many of those not qualifying do. There was a newspaper report in the early days of the scheme that an MPs parents were Samurdhi recipients. We do not know whether the son did not look after his elderly parents or whether he facilitated the Samurdhi benefit paid to them. However that be, there is no escaping the reality that even a basic poor relief scheme has been massively politicized in this country of ours. There were reports that the lock down relief granted, with an election down the road, was seized by politicians to gather votes for themselves. It was alleged that application forms for the assistance were sometimes distributed in the homes of Pradeshiya Sabha members. The intervention of the Elections Commission was demanded. Nobody would have been surprised at what happened; the cause for surprise would have been if it did not happen!
President Gotabaya Rajapksa is on public record saying he gets thousands of text messages urging him to bring back Lankans working overseas. Doing that in an unregulated manner will be asking for trouble and the president, with the best will in the world, cannot do that. While all of us can well understand the anguish of our countrymen, who have long supported national coffers with their remittances, stranded in sometimes high risk places undergoing great hardship, there is little that can be done to help them at present. There have been some repatriation flights but not nearly enough. There was talk of reopening the Katunayake International Airport, even in a limited manner, when the Brandix cluster hit us. Obviously tourism on which this country is greatly dependent cannot regain a semblance of normality with Katunayake closed. Even if it was open, given the global reach of the pandemic, there would have been few takers for holidays in this “land like no other.”
Claims and counterclaims are flying around aplenty. Organizations like the GMOA that strongly supported the election of the incumbents say that we had not even utilized the existing 3,000 tests per day capability and were doing only a thousand when the latest blow struck. Then 5,000 tests a day was claimed and the obvious question arises of how it is possible to exceed available testing capacity. Dr. Anil Jasinghe, who held the position of Director General of Health Services when the Covid blow struck, and was one of the most visible front line fighters of the pandemic, was moved out of that job and made Secretary to the Ministry of Environment. It was cynically asked whether this doctor, who held high WHO office in his previous avatar, was expected to fight Covid in the environment. Jasinghe was replaced by a Major General of the Sri Lanka Army Medical Corps.
Now we are told of some strange shenanigans at the Medical Research Institute (MRI) whose acting director has been made deputy director and the deputy director made director, whether acting or not we don’t know. What we do know is that the long-established MRI built by a philanthropist to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, has for over a century been engaged in doing highly reputed research work in fields like virology, bacteriology, parasitology and much more. It would obviously a fortress for the army of front liners battling the pandemic. A bhikku who was one of the strongest supporters of the ruling SLPP made some scathing remarks about the changing of the guard at the MRI a couple of days back. Health Minister Pavitra Wanniarachchi offered an explanation of sorts in parliament the other day but it is yet unclear whether she has satisfied Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda whose temple at Narahenpita was a virtual headquarters of the SLPP not so long ago.
What is crystal clear is that the country is confronted with a frightening challenge while its leaders are obsessed with enacting a 20th Amendment to our periodical-like constitution that was not part of the promised “Vistas of Splendor and Prosperity.”
The finger on the spot
A television interviewer last week asked Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda what is to be done when a robber enters your home? Is he not to be chased off? The program in which the minister appeared was dealing with the long festering problem of a South Indian fisheries fleet brazenly crossing the International Maritime Boundary (IBM) and entering Sri Lanka waters. These illegal fishermen are not just poaching in our waters. They engage in bottom trawling, using large vessels with powerful engines, destroying the marine environment and seriously eroding the replenishment capacity of this country’s fish stock, a process affecting the livelihood of our fishermen in the short, medium and long term.
The minister responded with a question of his own. What do you do when the robber is armed?, he countered. Devananda put his finger on the spot; perhaps not literally in that the Indian fishing fleet routinely crossing the IBM is not armed to its teeth though its quite probable that there are a gun or two in individual trawlers or boats. What he was in effect saying is that the poachers are backed by the might of India and there is very little that we can do about it. What the minister said evoked painful memories of Operation Vadamarachchi of May and June 1987 when the Sri Lankan forces were on the verge of defeating the Tamil Tigers waging war on the Lankan state.
What did India do? Alleging that the people living in the war-wracked area were starving, several Hercules transport planes escorted by Mirage jet fighters intruded into this country’s sovereign airspace for a claimed “humanitarian operation” – the infamous parippu drop as we came to know it. The signal was unmistakably clear. Either halt the military operation or face the consequences. That would be an Indian invasion of this country. Then President J.R. Jayewardene, fighting an insurrection in the South and a civil war in the North was in a tight bind from which there was no escape. The rest is history. The Indo – Lanka Agreement between Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India was signed and the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. But there was no disarming of the LTTE as promised. Thanks to what India did then, the civil war raged till 2009 when the Tigers were eventually defeated.
This country’s predicament over the rape of our marine resources, grievously affecting the livelihoods of our fishermen eking out a precarious livelihood, and also endangering the very existence of the fisheries industry in the North of this country, is very similar to the parippu drop of not so long ago.
During the decades of the war, the imperatives of fighting the separatist-terrorists required long periods where our fishermen were banned from venturing out to deep sea. They were confined to a coastal fishery and this left expanses of our territorial waters wide open to Indian fishermen to exploit. Those years and what happened then deeply ingrained in the Indians the conviction that they could fish as they like, wherever they would, regardless of the International Maritime Boundary and the Law of the Sea. There were rich picking to be had and the opportunity was seized.
After the war ended and normalcy – or at least some semblance of it – was restored, there was no keeping the Indian fishermen, often manning trawlers owned by Tamil Nadu politicians and their patrons, to their side of the IBM. For several long years efforts at resolving this problem have been made. There have been some placatory noises from the Indians but little attempt, leave alone a serious effort, to tackle this issue. Contacts have been made at the highest levels of government and all they have produced are platitudes about adopting a “humanitarian approach” to the problem. The humanitarianism is all about allowing Indian fishermen to enhance their livelihood, never mind the super profits made by capitalist politically-backed trawler-owners hiring those fishermen to crew their vessels. Nary a word about our own fishermen, long left to fend for themselves as best as they can while the Indians rob what is rightfully theirs.
No end to this situation is in sight. There are occasional reports of poachers and their vessels taken to custody by the Sri Lanka Navy. More often than not, after a little fuss, bother and diplomatic niceties, the fishermen and (emphasis ours) their craft are returned so that they can poach another day. Earlier this year there was was an incident when an Indian fishing vessel poaching in Lankan waters reacted aggressively to a naval craft attempting to arrest it. This resulted in the sinking of the trawler and the death of one of its crewmen. Predictably there was a blaze of publicity and protest in the Tamil Nadu press about the Sri Lanka Navy killing Indian fishermen. Such incidents are clear indications of the sensitivity of the problem at hand. We have to live with the reality that we cannot wield the big stick to protect what is ours. But the government is under pressure from fishermen North and South to do something about it. Devananda has talked about issuing passes for a limited number of Indian fishing vessels, excluding big trawlers, to enter our waters.
But as one northern politician said in a television program, 500 will come if 50 passes are issued. Indian fishery interests are saying “why exclude the trawlers?” In any case do we have the capacity (or the political will) to effectively police our waters, protect the interests of our fishermen and the sustainability of our marine resources against a monster predator from across the Palk Strait? D we always have to bow down to Big Brother?
SL in vortex of despair
Saturday 17th April, 2021
The Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill has run into stiff resistance. The proposed law, which has even led to dissension within the ranks of the SLPP, is fraught with the danger of Sri Lanka being left with no control over the Colombo Port City, legal experts warn, insisting that the Bill has to be approved by the people at a referendum in addition to being passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament to become law.
The Opposition has got something to hold onto. Besides political parties, several key organisations including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have come forward to move the Supreme Court against the controversial Bill. This is a worrisome proposition for the government, which has many other problems to contend with.
External pressure is also mounting on the government over the Chinese project. The US has already said the Colombo Port City may end up being a money-laundering haven. The US, India and other enemies of China are shedding copious tears for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, which, they say, China is subjugating to its economic and geo-strategic interests. But is China alone in doing so? India has been furthering its interests at the expense of Sri Lanka; it has even had the latter’s Constitution forcibly amended and Provincial Councils set up. Sri Lanka cannot even protect its territorial waters against rapacious Indian poachers; under pressure from New Delhi, it has to release the culprits taken into custody.
It is only natural that India and the US have not taken kindly to the mega Chinese ventures in Sri Lanka. But if they and/or the other partners of the strategic alliance they represent had cared to help this country instead of bullying it, China would not have been able to consolidate its position here.
The US and India stand accused of having had a hand in the 2015 regime change in this country. In fact, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly stated India’s spy agency, RAW, was instrumental in ousting him as the President in 2015. India and the US may have expected the yahapalana government to get tough with China and scrap the Port City project. They were disappointed when that administration, having initially suspended the project, allowed the Chinese to build their artificial island bigger, on a 99-year lease, and, worse, leased the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years. The yahapalana regime received no financial assistance from its foreign well-wishers and, out of sheer desperation, banked on Chinese support like its predecessor.
The Bill at issue, if enacted, would turn the Port City into part of China’s territory in all but name, according to legal experts. Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, PC, critically examines the Bill, in his column published on this page today. SLPP MP and former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said what the proposed law seeks to achieve will be worse than the Hambantota Port deal. There arguments are compelling. It, however, needs to be added that if Sri Lanka had given in to US pressure and signed the MCC compact complete with SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), etc., in return for USD 450 million from Washington, it would have faced a far worse situation.
The hostility of the US and its allies has driven Sri Lanka into the arms of their mutual enemy, China. If the US and India had helped Sri Lanka rebuild its post-war economy and desisted from their human rights witch-hunt in Geneva, they would not have created conditions for Beijing to endear itself to Colombo in this manner.
If the US, etc., want to counter what they call Chinese expansionism, they have to win over the nations that are dependent on China for funds and protection. They must stop harassing these countries.
The enemies of China have warned Sri Lanka that it will become a Chinese colony, and they, too, would have to take part of the blame for such a fate ever befalling this country.
Free-market and socialism
Friday 16th April, 2021
Former Finance Minister and newsmaker, Ronnie de Mel, has attracted media attention, again, at the age of 96. He is reported to have said, during a recent conversation with Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, that the Sri Lankan economy should be repositioned with a tilt towards socialism. He has also stressed the need for equitable growth, and other such pro-poor measures in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism.
It is being argued in some quarters that de Mel, who presented 11 budgets consecutively under the better-dead-than-red J. R. Jayewardene government, has faced about, but going by what he is heard saying in a video clip of the aforesaid conversation, which is accessible on the Internet, one can see that he only opines how capitalism can emerge stronger and remain relevant, especially in this country. Speaking boastfully about the epochal economic change the country underwent in 1977, he says there is a pressing need for another such momentous event for the Sri Lankan economy to come out of the doldrums.
Ironically, there was no love lost between de Mel and the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, while they were in the JRJ government as the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister respectively, but the former is now of the view that the latter’s son, Sajith, is the only hope for the country!
We had two epoch-defining elections as regards the national economy. In 1970, the SLFP-led United Front (UF) government, which secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament, adopted a statist approach to economic management and threw in its lot with the socialist bloc in a bipolar world. It took things to an extreme in experimenting with its autochthonous politico-economic model. The state’s vise-like grip on the economy retarded the growth of the private sector much to the resentment of the capitalist bloc. Many arguments have been put forth in defence of this kind of state control over the economy, stringent regulations, etc., under that regime; they are not without merit, but the UF government became hugely unpopular, as a result. In 1977, the UNP, made a stunning comeback and formed a government with a five-sixths majority in the House with de Mel as the Finance Minister and upended the UF’s economy policies, triggering an open-market tsunami as it were; that revolutionary change led to the evisceration of many vital state institutions. Both regimes failed to maintain a balance, and their economic reforms, therefore, did not yield the desired benefits for the country. If only they had heeded the classical, oxymoronic adage, festina lente (‘make haste slowly’).
Those who expected capitalism to flourish following the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) only cherished a delusion. Capitalism has been in crisis; this situation is mostly due to the fact that the capitalist state has to carry out two mutually contradictory functions—accumulation and legitimisation. The process of legitimisation basically requires maintaining social harmony, which cannot be achieved unless the ill-effects of the unbridled capital accumulation are mitigated for the benefit of the ordinary people. Hence attempts by the capitalist state to give its policies a socialist flavour with social welfare and pro-poor schemes. (The JRJ government went so far as to call this country a ‘Democratic Socialist Republic’, in the Constitution it introduced. (Emphasis added.) It is against this backdrop that former Finance Minister de Mel’s aforesaid advice to the Opposition leader should be viewed.
Besides, critics of capitalism inform us that the current free-market model has led to a triple crisis for capitalism—financial instability, lack of environmental sustainability and political unpopularity. “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative,” H. G. Wells has said. This aphorism applies to economic models as well. Even the US has had to make dramatic course corrections over the decades. Some of these measures run counter to its unsolicited advice to the rest of the world; Washington opted for a massive bailout package to save the American banks, etc., during the 2008 financial meltdown, which marked a turning point in capitalism and modern economic theories. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which emerged in 2011, was another manifestation of the crisis of the capitalist state; the protesters who took to the streets were young Americans enraged by intolerable economic inequalities.
President Donald Trump had no qualms about openly practising protectionism to boost the US industries at the expense of other nations, especially China, through controversial tariff hikes. His successor, Joe Biden continues with, more or less, the same policy. All US Presidents have been closet protectionists.
Biden has recently got a 1.9-trillion-dollar stimulus package approved by the Congress to jump-start the economy, facilitate the ongoing Covid-19 vaccination drive, and grant relief to the pandemic-hit Americans. These measures are part of the legitimisation process aimed at bringing about social harmony.
One can only hope that the present-day political leaders and economic policymakers will take note of the fact that one of the main architects of the Sri Lankan version of market economy has owned that things are far from copacetic for capitalism in its present form; the key takeaway for the incumbent government from de Mel’s advice to Sajith, in our book, is the need to ensure equitable growth, which, however, is not attainable through occasional cash handouts and politically-motivated poverty alleviation projects.
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