Thursday 19th August, 2021
The government finds itself in a dilemma. To close or not to close is the question that troubles it. The pandemic is raging with infections and the death toll rising steadily; public health experts are calling for a lockdown to halt the runaway transmission of the virus, ease strain on the hospital network, which is already faced with a capacity crunch, and isolate the infected while vaccination is ramped up. A lockdown is the most effective way of curbing the spread of the pandemic, albeit temporarily, provided the public fully co-operates with the health authorities unlike on the previous occasions.
A collective of trade unions has called upon the government to close the country immediately. It has said it will organise an unofficial lockdown if the government tries to keep the country open against health experts’ advice. Some traders’ associations have closed their business places voluntarily in view of the pandemic. This is a welcome move.
The government’s concerns need to be appreciated. The economy cannot take any more shocks, and lockdowns entail huge socio-economic costs such as job losses, pay cuts, massive drops in national production and the foreign exchange inflow, etc. These issues are fraught with the danger of giving rise to social upheavals. The task of controlling the pandemic requires funds.
At the rate the pandemic is ripping through the country, if lockdowns are not imposed urgently, workplaces will remain open, but there will be no workers left, and if the country is locked down, workers will be safe, but there will be no workplaces. Many businesses have already gone bankrupt, and thousands of people who led comfortable lives previously are struggling to make ends meet. Daily-wage earners are the worst hit. There is a limit to printing money to grant relief to the public. Factories have to be kept open for foreign exchange to be earned. Debts have to be serviced and commodities imported.
Lockdowns are sure to cause a further drop in government revenue, which is already low, and if this happens, the public sector pay cuts may be inevitable. This situation has already come about in some other countries. How do the state sector trade unions calling for lockdowns propose to solve this problem? Are they willing to get their members to make sacrifices? They have to make their position clear.
The Opposition, which is demanding lockdowns, had no qualms about supporting mass protests during the past few weeks. There were many marches, where the health regulations were blatantly flouted, and they must have led to the formation of many Covid-19 clusters in the areas where the protesters came from. When the government tried to stop the protests by using quarantine laws, the Opposition complained that people’s right to protest was being suppressed. A court also issued an order, preventing the police from using quarantine laws to prevent protests. True, the government was trying to use the health regulations to protect its interests, but the Opposition, which claims to be concerned about the people’s health, should have acted responsibly.
The unofficial lockdown the Opposition is organising looks a hartal. JVP trade union leaders have said they will close the country unless the government does so. They are quite capable of such action. They are the ones who introduced the ‘chit’ system, with which they had shops closed at will in the late 1980s. This time around, their modus operandi will be different because they have taken to democratic politics and are conducting themselves better than other politicians.
Let both the government and the Opposition be urged to refrain from politicising pandemic control measures. They should stop fighting, get together and discuss what should be done to save lives, how to overcome practical difficulties in the pandemic control process, and the sacrifices that will have to be made by everyone in case of the country being locked down again. They must stop lurching towards a showdown at this hour of crisis if they have any concern for the hapless public.
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.
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.
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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