Thursday 21st October, 2021
The ongoing tug of war between protesting teachers and the government has been at the expense of the hapless student, whose neck has got caught in the rope they are pulling on madly. What we are witnessing seems to be a different version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The government is determined to reopen schools today although the teachers’ trade unions have refused to report for work until next Monday. It says there is a plan to ensure that schools will function properly today and tomorrow even if the protesting teachers do not turn up. One only hopes that the lowest of the low in politics will not try to run schools.
Now that teachers have agreed to report for work on 25 Oct., instead of today, the question is why the government could not postpone the reopening of schools by four days.
It is unfortunate that the success of any state sector trade union struggle is measured in terms of suffering it causes to the public. We often have the health sector trade union bosses bragging that their strikes are successful because they have crippled hospitals, or in other words, they take pride in hurting the sick who are too poor to afford treatment at private hospitals. The ongoing teachers’ trade union action has also had a devastating impact on children’s education. Teachers claim they introduced the online education programme of their own volition as they felt for their students, and they deserve praise for that, but sadly they discontinued it as part of their trade union struggle.
The government has claimed that some Opposition parties are behind the teacher-principal trade union action. No labour dispute is devoid of politics in this country. The SLPP leaders also have a history of instigating strikes for political reasons, and leaving the strikers in the lurch as they did in 1980, when the J. R. Jayewardene government sacked thousands of strikers. About one hundred thousand workers lost their jobs, and some of them even committed suicide. The SLFP did precious little to ameliorate the suffering of the victims even after capturing state power. Besides, all political parties have trade union wings and use workers as a cat’s paw to pull political chestnuts out of the fire. This is the name of the game in dirty Sri Lankan politics.
Labour disputes are like wounds, which should be treated immediately. If they are neglected, they become breeding grounds for political bacteria, as it were. Hence the need for governments to take prompt action to address the causes of strikes and find solutions through discussions. The current dispensation should not have let the grass grow under its feet. True, the salary anomaly issue that drove teachers to strike is more than two decades old, and it defies comprehension why the strikers took to the streets demanding a swift remedy. But the fact remains that the government could have handled it better and should have appreciated the initiative teachers took to conduct online classes for children and defrayed the expenses they incurred on data, equipment, etc.
When current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was the Labour Minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, he famously said there were no winners in industrial actions, for both parties to a labour dispute suffered losses. As for the ongoing teacher-principal trade union action, too, there will be only losers.
The pandemic has caused unprecedented interruptions to education the world over, and its impact is felt in the developing world more than anywhere else. Hence the need for the strikers and the government to get themselves around the table and thrash out a compromise formula for the sake of students.
Meanwhile, let the government be warned that the ongoing farmers’ protests, too, are fraught with the danger of spilling over into the streets. Irate cultivators, who have suffered unbearable crop losses due to the current fertiliser shortage are threatening to march on Colombo. Unless the government makes a serious effort to solve their problems, we may witness, here, a situation similar to the farmers’ protests in India.
Opposition and Sudden Savant syndrome
Thursday 2nd December, 2021
Why is it that only the Opposition politicians have brainwaves? Exceptional abilities are said to emerge in some ordinary people after brain injury or disease. We reported a few years ago that an American youth who dropped out of college as he was extremely weak in mathematics had become a brilliant mathematician all of a sudden after being hit in the head by a flying bottle in a pub. (Commenting on the incident, we warned the Sri Lankan youth that suffering head injuries in pub brawls was not the way to improve their mathematical skills!) Numerous such incidents have been reported from several parts of the world. This phenomenon has come to be called the Sudden Savant Syndrome. Where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned, epiphany-like moments occur in them only after traumatic electoral shocks. This is why some politicians act sensibly and come out with brilliant ideas when they are in the Opposition. Sri Lankans therefore say, “Mole thiyanakota bale ne bale thiyanakota mole ne, or when politicians have brains, they have no power, and vice versa.”
Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament yesterday that the MPs should be allowed to pursue legal or higher studies, given their legislative experience. This is a sensible idea. In the 1970s, there was such a scheme; the MPs could enter the Law College, as Kiriella has pointed out, and some of the present-day political leaders including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa benefited from it. Why it was scrapped is the question. It should be reintroduced for the benefit of the lawmakers.
A person who gains experience as a member of Parliament should be able to gain university or Law College admission, the Chief Opposition Whip said. However, not all MPs could be considered qualified, for many of them do not use the time allocated for them in Parliament productively; some MPs do not make any contribution to parliamentary debates. They only bellow rhetoric and insult others when they are given opportunities to speak. The MPs who make an effort to improve their performance and knowledge should be allowed to pursue legal or higher education while others who exchange blows and trade raw filth in the House should be denied nominations to contest future elections.
Educational opportunities should be made available to everyone, and courses of study designed for this purpose as in other countries. Those who miss opportunities to achieve their educational goals for various reasons when they are young should be able to realise their dreams later in life if they so desire. Education is a right, and must be treated as such.
In 2019, the then MP Ranjan Ramanayake sat the GCE O/L examination at the age of 56 as he wanted to obtain a better grade for the English language. We praised him editorially for his keenness to study, and urged other MPs to emulate him because this is the right attitude that everyone must adopt. Ramanayake said he wanted to study law, but unfortunately, he is now languishing behind bars because he, in his wisdom, caused an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. He should have studied law earlier.
People should be encouraged not to let their age, chronological or biological, stand in the way of their education. Varatha Shanmuganathan, 87, who migrated to Canada from Sri Lanka, and earned a master’s degree, last month, has shown the way. If a grandma can do so, why can’t others?
Meanwhile, education alone does not make a good lawmaker. Basically, people’s representatives must be intelligent men and women of integrity with a passion for public service. Kiriella has said the MPs are intelligent because they accomplish the extremely difficult task of getting elected. Yes, there are some intelligent lawmakers, but others are blessed with cunning, which should not be confused with intelligence. Most politicians have achieved success through unscrupulous means, and it is doubtful whether they will mend their ways even if they receive postgraduate degrees. What power politics reflect in this country is the law of the jungle, and political dregs with the wherewithal and right connections go places at the expense of educated, intelligent, decent men and women. The emergence of dynastic politics has worsened the situation. Political leaders and their children have all the luck, and others have to settle for crumbs from their tables.
However, it should be stressed that the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition should give serious thought to devising a scheme to help not only the MPs but also all other elected representatives desirous of receiving a decent education achieve their dream.
The Crab House
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.
Gas bombs and Occam’s razor
Tuesday 30th November, 2021
Sri Lankans have a remarkable ability to forget. That may be the reason why Prabhakaran failed to achieve his goal despite all his bomb blasts on civilian targets. Zahran, in his wisdom, emulated Prabhakaran, carried out bomb attacks, but got nowhere near his goal posthumously. The local gas companies have gone a step further; they charge for causing explosions that kill people and destroy property!
It is in fear and trepidation that every Sri Lankan woman steps into her kitchen to cook up a storm as the danger of a firestorm lurks there thanks to the gas companies run by Zahran’s fat-cat cousins who have turned gas cylinders into bombs. Unlike Prabhakaran and Zahran, the gas mudalalis have benefited from Sri Lankans’ collective memory lapse. The brouhaha over gas explosions seems to have fizzled out.
The government has taken steps to have a few gas cylinders tested to find out why they cause explosions, and reports thereon have been referred to a national university. The matter has ended there to all intents and purposes. People are being urged to apply soapy water to the valves of gas cylinders they purchase to see if there are leaks. The onus has thus been shifted to the consumer! In other words, in case of a gas explosion, the consumer concerned will be blamed for not checking the valve of his or her gas cylinder properly—caveat emptor!
Hitler, wherever he may be, would feel ashamed if he knew the Sri Lankan gas company honchos have found a much easier way to snuff out lives than his huge gas chambers. The process of destroying lives here is very simple. A person walks, half-asleep, into his or her kitchen in the morning, and switches on a light … a big bang, and he or she is gone!
There has been a debate on the causes of gas explosions. Scientists have adduced several reasons. It is believed that the gas composition has been changed arbitrarily and the valves of gas cylinders, regulators, etc., cannot take the pressure of the new mix, and therefore they develop leaks, endangering the lives of the people. But, we, as laymen, prefer to adopt the philosophical rule—Occam’s razor, or the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the best one—in dealing with the ‘gas bomb’ issue.
The real problem, in our book, is the leaky valves of gas cylinders. No gas cylinder with a defective valve or any other defect must be allowed to leave the factory, but many of them have entered the market. Obviously, there has been a very serious lapse on the part of those responsible for testing cylinders; they and their superiors must be held accountable for allowing safety standards to be compromised, and endangering the lives of consumers. What has really caused the gas cylinder valves to develop defects is a matter that should be dealt with separately.
What needs to be done urgently is to suspend the sale of gas and interdict all those in key positions of the state-owned gas company for their collective failure to ensure the safety of the gas cylinders they sell. Otherwise, they will cover their tracks, and it will be well-nigh impossible to figure out how the unsafe gas cylinders entered the market. The culprits must be prosecuted for criminal negligence or wilfully changing the butane-propane ratio, exposing the public to danger, as claimed by some experts.
The precedent created by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday blasts should be adopted in apportioning the blame for the kitchen gas bombs, as it were. The PCoI says, in its report, the entire yahapalana government including the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the blasts in 2019. Similarly, the incumbent government, which came to power promising to prevent blasts and save lives, the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the gas bombs that turn kitchens into infernos.
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