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Editorial

To close or not to close?

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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.



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Editorial

Riprap and riff-raff

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Saturday 25th September, 2021

Sri Lankans, troubled by lockdown blues and thirsting for entertainment, must be thrilled to watch, on television, some government politicians, engaged in turf wars, wash dirty linen—loads and loads of it—in public. An SLPP politician from Polonnaruwa has got down and dirty with his bete noire from the same district.

State Minister Roshan Ranasinghe has accused SLPP MP and former President Maithripala Sirisena of trying to sabotage a government plan to build a walking path on the riprap or ralapanawa of the Parakrama Samudraya, Polonnaruwa. An ardent supporter of the project, he has gone ballistic on several occasions during the past few days, and torn into Sirisena and his family. The latest allegation he has levelled against the Sirisenas is that they have encroached on the outermost boundary or the thavulla of the Parakrama Samudraya although the former President is now campaigning against the walking track project on the grounds that it will affect the antiquities in the area.

Even those who may not see eye to eye with State Minister Ranasinghe on the walking track project will agree that something must be done about the many illegal constructions in the Parakrama Samudraya reservation; they include a hotel owned by Sirisena’s younger brother, Dudley. No action has been taken against the wealthy and politically influential encroachers all these years. If only Ranasinghe had taken up this issue before falling out with the Sirisena family.

Ranasinghe is hitting the Sirisenas where it hurts most; one may say, with apologies to the Bard, hell hath no fury like a politician whose interests are threatened. He is on a campaign against the rice millers who are hoarding paddy, manipulating the market and making huge profits at the expense of farmers and consumers. The Sirisena family and its relatives own most of the large-scale rice mills in the country. But Ranasinghe is likely to abandon his campaign against illegal constructions on the tank reservation and the Millers’ Mafia if the former President extends his support for the jogging track, or the government leaders intervene to reconcile the warring parties. There’s the rub.

The thavulla of the Parakarama Samudraya must be resurveyed urgently and all unauthorised buildings thereon pulled down immediately without compensation. The Sirisenas who claim to be so concerned about the tanks in Polonnaruwa and antiquities in the area will not be in a position to protest. After all, this is exactly what the Rajapaksas were planning to do after Sirisena’s defection from their government, in late 2014, to run for President. The then Opposition claimed that the Rajapaksas had the Parakarama Samudraya filled to its full capacity, and part of Sirisenas’ hotel on its thavulla inundated. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 presidential race saved the day for the Sirisenas! Otherwise, the Millers’ Mafia would have been crushed and the hotel demolished. Now the Rajapaksas and the Sirisenas have closed ranks for expediency, and Ranasinghe is fighting a losing battle.

The need for protecting the Parakrama Samudraya against encroachments has been felt for a long time, but successive governments have ignored it for political reasons. (Sri Lankan politicians will not hesitate even to sell the tanks built by kings to a foreign company if the right prices are offered.) Those who are genuinely concerned about the safety of the Parakrama Samudraya, which is part of the country’s heritage, must campaign hard for preventing its bund from being damaged and having its thavulla fully restored.

Buddhist monks may be divided on the walking path project, but there is no reason why they cannot unite to have the Parakrama Samudraya thavulla saved if they really love the country and its heritage. It is hoped that they will act independently to ensure the safety of the tank’s thavulla and riprap without siding with the political riff-raff at war.

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Editorial

Reopening: Need for heightened alert

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Friday 24th September, 2021

There has been a significant decrease in the daily Covid-19 cases and death toll, and therefore chances are the government will not extend the current lockdown further. The country cannot be kept closed indefinitely, anyway. Health experts are of the view that it is advisable to stagger the reopening of the country. This is a very sensible suggestion that the government ought to heed. The current wave of infections could have been prevented if the powers that be had listened to expert advice in April, and imposed travel restrictions.

Sri Lankans are known for running around purposelessly, especially when they are not supposed to do so, and infections are bound to rise after the country is reopened, and what has been gained from the costly lockdown will be lost within a few weeks unless stringent measures are adopted to ensure that they follow the health regulations. If the police lack the courage to arrest government politicians who flout the law brazenly, they must at least severely deal with the violators of quarantine laws for the sake of the public.

As coronavirus throws up new challenges in the form of more transmissible variants that defy vaccine barriers, efforts being made to contain it must be redoubled. Why double-masking and the two-metre rule have not been made mandatory here is the question. The quarantine laws need to be amended to introduce stricter measures to tackle the runaway virus, which is likely to make a comeback sooner than expected, necessitating another lockdown in a few months.

When workplaces reopen, most people will travel in buses and trains, and it is practically impossible to prevent these vehicles from being overcrowded. When enough buses and trains are not available, commuters are left with no alternative but to shoehorn themselves into every conceivable space in overcrowded vehicles lest they should be stranded. So, the private bus operators, the SLTB and the railway authorities will mind the health guidelines for a few days after the reopening of the country; everybody will take them for granted thereafter until the death toll from the pandemic rises again. This, we have seen before, and it is sure to happen again, defeating the ongoing pandemic control efforts.

When the lockdown is lifted, more people will travel to work in their own vehicles for want of a better alternative, and the country’s fuel consumption will increase significantly. Is the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) ready to meet an increase in the demand for fuel? Before the country was closed, it had petroleum stocks sufficient for only a few weeks, and the lockdown must have come as a blessing for the CPC, but the problem remains.

Most of the companies that promote remote work have sent out memos asking their employees to be present in their offices in case of power cuts. Their fear of power outages is not unfounded because we have experienced them umpteen times during the past few decades. A large number of people are working from home, at present, and if they have to travel to their workplaces again, they will run the risk of contracting Covid-19, and buses and trains will be more crowded. It is beneficial to the national economy to promote remote work, which helps reduce fuel consumption and congestion. One only hopes the government will take steps to ensure that power cuts will not be imposed. Ideally, back-up power options such as domestic solar power systems and small, fuel-efficient generators should be made available at affordable prices to those engaged in remote work.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka ought to learn from other countries such as Singapore how to ease lockdowns and keep the case fatality rates low. They have opted for cautious reopening with phased periods of heightened alert to avoid unpleasant surprises which coronavirus is notorious for offering.

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Editorial

‘Manike mage hithe’; Amaradeva amathakado?

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Thursday 23rd September, 2021

The unprecedented success of two young Sri Lankan artistes, Yohani and Satheeshan, following the release of their song, Manike mage hithe, which has become a viral trend on social media, has led to Sri Lankan politicians to jump on the bandwagon. SJB MP Nalin Bandara has proposed that Parliament honour the singing duo. The best way the national legislature could honour the young artistes is to serve the interests of the Sri Lankan youth, thousands of whom are waiting to migrate at the earliest opportunity owing to the mess the country has got into over the decades under successive governments.

Yohani and Satheeshan have not only had Bollywood megastars like Big B hop on to the trend but also entered the 12-billion-dollar global streaming market, and therefore deserve national recognition and unstinted state assistance to venture farther afield. Yohani has been invited to hold two concerts in India. She and Satheeshan have demonstrated to the Sri Lankan youth that they could conquer the world without leaving the country of their birth. They have also shown how to tap the enormous potential of the World Wide Web through creativity and perseverance, and awakened popular interest in creative economy.

It is not only in the field of music that young Sri Lankans can excel. In this technologically-driven world, opportunities abound in many spheres across geographical boundaries. Many young Sri Lankans are already working for internationally reputed tech companies from here. Much more needs to be done.

Innovation is the way forward for any nation. The need to introduce radical changes to the existing education system here to prepare the young Sri Lankans to compete and grab opportunities in a highly competitive global environment cannot be overemphasised. One may recall that during a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak meeting in a far-flung area, when a female student requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to provide her school with a new computer as the old one had conked out, the latter, while undertaking to grant her request, asked whether the students had dismantled the faulty machine to see what had gone wrong. The answer was in the negative. The significance of the President’s question unfortunately was lost on education policymakers, and the media. Children must be trained to disassemble and reassemble basic machines––of course, under the supervision of teachers et al––as in other countries, besides being encouraged to identify the problems in their immediate environment and propose technological solutions thereto wherever possible.

Young, talented artistes, we repeat, should be honoured and assisted in pushing the envelope of their chosen fields, but the maestros who have made their achievements possible by preserving the Sri Lankan identity therein, must not be forgotten. There are many senior artistes struggling to keep the wolf from the door; the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated their woes. They must also be looked after. Many are the young artistes who are in penury today because there are no musical shows owing to lockdowns, etc. They, too, need assistance from the state as well as the public.

Sadly, nobody has taken up for discussion in Parliament the fate that has befallen the Amaradeva Asapuva project, which was launched with great fanfare some years ago, at Battaramulla. The place, named after the late Pundit W. D. Amaradeva, who made this country proud, and was in a league of his own, is now overgrown with weeds, according to media reports. Ironically, it is just a stone’s throw from Parliament, where a call has been made for honouring Yohani and Satheeshan for Manike mage hithe. Has Amaradeva been forgotten––Amaradeva amathakado?

Amaradeva loved young artistes and promoted them as he knew they were the future of Sri Lankan music and needed encouragement. He even duetted with them. What a fabulous blend of voices we have in Hanthane Sihine, which the maestro sings with brilliant, young vocalist, Umariya. A newspaper report says the urn containing the great man’s ashes is still waiting to be deposited at the Asapuva to be built. Will Parliament take up this issue and have the memorial project expedited before basking in the reflected glory of young artistes?

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