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Midweek Review

Vignettes of the Open-Air Theatre

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by Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa

 

It is indisputably The Open-Air Theatre – the first of its kind in the country and the most well-known. There indeed are some other similar constructions, like the one at Vihara Maha Devi Park, Colombo. But when theatre lovers talk of ‘the Open-Air Theatre’, the reference is unmistakably to the Open-Air Theatre in the ‘University Park’, Peradeniya. Incidentally, the appellation ‘University Park’ was a creation of Sir Ivor Jennings, the Founder Vice Chancellor of the University. The area where the university buildings were located was known by this name. Sir Ivor was so enamoured of the site that he called it ‘one of the most beautiful environments in the world” (his autobiography The Road to Peradeniya,198). His Annual Reports usually had a sub-section titled ‘University Park’; he reported on the building programme and the landscaping, etc. Coming back to the Open-Air Theatre, which was constructed three years after he left in January 1955, undoubtedly adds to the beauty of the whole landscape – a good example of how a tastefully constructed structure which blends with the surroundings can enhance the natural beauty of a place.

 

The conception

The Open-Air Theatre was ceremonially declared open in early 1958. The first drama staged there was Sarchchandra’s epoch making Maname. As all theatre lovers know, the initial staging of Maname was on Nov. 3, 1956 at the Lionel Wendt Theatre in Colombo and nearly 100 performances would have taken place during the 15 or so months before it was staged at the newly constructed Open-Air Theatre in Peradeniya. Prof. Sarachchandra in his Memoirs, Pin Ethi Sarasavi Waramak Denne, (published in 1985) gives a detailed account of the founding of the Open-Air Theatre, which aptly bears his name today.

Maname had already been staged and the first accolade had come from an unusual quarter. Regi Siriwardene, a highly respected critic and journalist attached to the Lake House Group of Newspapers called it “the finest thing I have seen on the Sinhalese stage” (Ceylon Daily News, Nov. 5) Many shows followed in Colombo, Kandy and other cities and several other writers to the English newspapers showered praise on this remarkable achievement as exemplifying what the national theatrical form could be. But the Sinhalese newspapers remained silent for quite some time and Sarachchandra kept wondering why it was so. “Was it due to the habitual antipathy towards the University by most of the journalists or was it because they failed to understand what Maname signified?” But the breakthrough came eventually. Sri Chandraratne Manavasinghe, the highly respected writer and journalist attached to the editorial staff of the daily Lankadeepa, wrote a highly complimentary review of the play in his daily column Waga –Tuga and called it an Abhiranga (super-drama).

Sarachchandra with his vast experience in Oriental and Occidental theatre traditions, believed that “a super-performance of Maname could be done, not on a proscenium stage which was meant for staging naturalistic plays, but on a circular stage, (ranga madala)”. And he was on the lookout for such a place … amidst the hilly terrain of Peradeniya. He adds:

“Those days I was residing in one of the three bungalows on Sanghamitta Hill. While descending the hill and walking towards the Arts Block, I noticed a piece of land concave in shape, like a part of a broken clay pot. This was a terraced paddy field which had been abandoned and was overgrown with weeds. At the bottom of the land was a flat space. Although I had been passing that place daily it was only after I started thinking of an open-air theatre that it struck me as a suitable location for what is known as an Amphitheatre – an auditorium with a stage. The space at the bottom could be used as a stage and the audience could sit in the terraces” (p. 209)

 

Acoustics

Sarachchandra was not prepared to rush into conclusions. Although the land appeared suitable in appearance, there was a crucial consideration when it came to an open-air theatre. “It was essential,” he adds. “To find out what the acoustics of this place was like for theatre performance. One evening I went there with a group of students. I think Gunasena Galappaththi was one of them. I placed several of them in various places in the pit and made them talk and sing. Then I realized that it was a place with natural amplification of sound. The Epidorus Amphitheatre in Greece came to my mind. If you stand anywhere and strike a match you will be able to hear it. (p.210).

Now the problem was that of the logistics. At this time (1956-7) Sarachchandra was only a lecturer. He had no ‘clout’ to order officials in the administration. Of course, his fame and prestige were growing rapidly and by 1960 a special Chair of Sinhala was created for him, which was the first such occasion in the history of the University. But that is anticipating events. We resume the story of the construction of the OAT as narrated by Sarachchandra himself. Sarachchandra says:

“I had no power to give orders to the Works Department or to the Administrative Section. That could be done only by the Vice Chancellor or the Registrar. The expenses involved in constructing even an amphitheatre at the site I mentioned would be minimal. What had to be done was cutting and removing the weeds on the terraces, constructing in cement a circular stage at the bottom and putting up a cadjan shed behind it.” (pp. 210-11)

Now, the dilemma Sarachchandra was faced with was whether or not the Vice Chancellor would accept his proposal to construct an open-air theatre. Sarachchandra’s estimation of the Vice Chancellor Sir Nicholas Attygalle was not at all complimentary. “Like most people of the English-speaking upper class,” says Sarachchandra,

“He was completely devoid of any taste for the arts (kalaa vihiina). Although he was a Professor in the Faculty of Medicine before becoming Vice Chancellor, his range of knowledge was small (alpasruta). He did not have even a modicum of interest on theatre, literature, music, etc. I do not know whether he had read any other book outside the field of medicine.” (p.211).

For the present-day reader, I have to give an explanation. Without digressing too far it needs be noted that during the Attygalle phase of the University administration, there was a sharp division in the academic staff as pro-Attydalle and anti-Attygalle, and that was due largely to the dictatorial administrative style of the Vice Chancellor. It is clear where Sarachchandra stood in this division. In any case Prof. Attygalle had not displayed any interest in the arts. And the problem then was how to get the approval of a man like that for the construction of an open-air theatre. Then the miracle happened once again.

The Vice Chancellor came to know about Maname under fortuitous if not trivial circumstances. Continues Sarachchandra, “He came to know for the first time that a play named Maname had been created by a person named Sarachchandra, who was on his staff and that it was winning accolades in the country, from a group of lecturers who used to sit before his table daily, rumour-mongering and engaging in empty prattle. It was difficult for Mr. Attygalle, who had never seen a play, to understand what Maname was. He did not want to understand either. But because of the persuasions, he summoned me and asked me what this wondrous thing I had done was about which he had heard so much.” (p.211)

Sarachchandra now had to be humble. “I told him it was not a big miracle, but the production of a play. ‘Then why are they praising it so much’ he asked ‘and telling me I should see it somehow?” Next came the crucial question “Can it be shown in the University?” This created the opening Sarachchandra was looking for.

“I told him that there is no suitable theatre in the University where it could be shown. ‘But would it be possible,’ Then I asked, ‘whether such and such a place could be prepared for the purpose?’ He summoned the officers immediately and ordered them to construct without delay an open-air theatre on the site I had mentioned.” (p.211)

Sarachchandra then describes in humorous Sinhala how the officials set about their job and finished it in no time:

“The officers bent themselves double and treble, ran there, cut down the bush, pounded the ground, got a pretty circular stage made in cement, got a cadjan shed put up and created an amphitheatre in two or three days.” (p.211)

Sarachchandra’s narration about the opening of the Open-Air Theatre is quite informative, albeit with a touch of humour:

“On that day was presented the first ‘performance on orders’ (agnapita rangaya) of Maname before an audience which consisted of the Vice Chancellor, some members of the staff, Mr. Kilpatrick of the Rockefeller Foundation, the students and village folk coming from the neighbourhood. That was the day the Open-Air Theatre in Peradeniya was born. Maname came into being on 3rd November, 1956. It was performed in an ideal atmosphere, without damaging the traditional Nadagam style, at the Open-Air Theatre on a night of either February or March 1958 ((p. 212).

Mr. Kilpatrick referred to here is the Rockefeller Foundation representative who, after reading Sarachchandra’s well researched The Sinhalese Folk Play (1952) had granted him a travelling scholarship some years ago, to study theatre in any country he wished, which eventually enabled him to see the Japanese Kabuki giving him the clue to bring a traditional folk theatre on modern stage. Let us get back again to our discussion about the Peradeniya Open Air Theatre.

 

Improvements

During the early days the ‘seating’ terraces were levelled earth with trimmed grass. As the location, an abandoned paddy field with a running stream in the vicinity was damp the whole year round, it was a good breeding ground for leeches. During the days when plays were being performed, the leeches had a gala time. I myself remember my first experience of watching a play there, back in my first year 1959, Dayanada Gunawardena’s Parassa. There was a blood patch on my trousers and it was no easy task stopping the blood flow because it is said leeches inject their saliva, which prevents blood-clotting! Eventually, however, the terraces came to be constructed in granite and the leach population dwindled although one finds a stray leech climbing up one’s legs if one were to stand on the grass. Another casualty of the granite and cement intrusion was the lushly grown Tabubia Rosea tree which used to spread a carpet of light pink flowers on the terraces during the blooming season. Most probably its roots were suffocated by the cement construction.

The original Green Room, which was a cadjan shed as described by Sarachchandra, later came to be a Takaran shed with walls and roof made of galvanized sheets. It was painted in Green! Anyway, in the 1990s when I was the Chairman of the Arts Council, we managed to get a permanent Green Room constructed during the period 1991-92. I gratefully acknowledge the support we got from the Vice Chancellors Prof. Lakshman Jayatilaka and Prof. J. M. Gunadasa for these improvements. It was on March 24, 1993 that we named the theatre as Sarachchandra Elimahan Ranga Pitaya in honour of the man who had done so much for the Sri Lankan drama. I remember him attending the naming ceremony (again with a performance of Maname) and rising from his seat in the front row, facing the audience acknowledging the cheering of the massive crowd with hands clasped in Namaskara. He left us three years later on 16 August 1996.

An event highly significant in the annals of Sinhala theatre is the first staging of Sinhabahu on 31 August, 1961 at the Open-Air Theatre. There was a slight drizzle at the start of the performance which stopped after some time. I remember sitting on the damp grass watching the play on that memorable night. Fifty years later, on 28 November 2011, we were able to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of this play at the same venue, although we badly missed our beloved Guru. Special mention should be made of the patronage we received from the Vice Chancellor, Prof. S.B. Abeykoon, who made arrangements to show the play free of charge. Incidentally, he hails from Uda Peradeniya and has told us how as a child he had watched shows at the OAT seated on his father’s lap!

 

Drama Festivals

The most important annual event in the Open-Air Theatre was the Annual Drama Festival. In the good old days before the university calendar got disrupted, the Drama Festival was held in mid or the last week of January. This was the beginning of the third Term which consisted of 10 weeks of teaching and the examinations were scheduled for the last two weeks of March. January was selected because it was normally a dry period with no rains to disrupt the shows.

here would be a slight drizzle as the festival begins. Normally, the festival lasts seven or eight days and two invariable items would be Maname and later, Sinhabahu. when that university ‘term system’ got severely disrupted, the drama festivals came to be held in different periods, even during rainy seasons. One of the indelible memories I have of the OAT is of a show in the 1990s, when the packed audience sat there with rapt attention in the pouring rain.

When the festival is on, there is a festive atmosphere in the area. When the evening falls, people start gathering and various itinerant traders come, vendors of gram, peanuts, sara vita and even balloon vendors because sometimes parents come there with their children. I forgot to mention that this is not a mere university drama festival but a drama festival for the whole vicinity. People from Uda Peradeniya, Hidagala as well as other adjoining villages throng to the Open-Air Theatre during the festival.

 

Acid Test

There is a belief among theatre lovers in Sri Lanka that if a play could be staged at the Open-Air Theatre and come off unscathed that would be the best touchstone for ascertaining its success. It is difficult to explain the origins of this belief. With my experience from 1959 onwards, I can say that in those early days there was no unsuccessful play as such. It could be that all the plays staged there were good plays, carefully selected by the Arts Council, which managed the Annual Drama Festival. But in the 1970s, there were three unfortunate incidents, all of them involving plays by leading dramatists in the country, where the jeering by the crowd became unmanageable and the performances had to be abandoned. The first instance, if my memory is correct, was the play Sarana Siyot Se Putuni Hamba Yana by Henry Jayasena. The second, I think was Bak Maha Akunu by Dayananda Gunawardena. And the third was Cherry Watta by Somalatha Subasinghe. If my memory is correct, the failure of the first and the last mentioned, Sarana Siyot Se…and Cherry Watta were due to their lack of dramatic concentration and long spells of dialogue which tired the audience. In the case of Bak MahaAkunu what provoked the jeering was the over enthusiasm of the actor who played the role of the servant Jason. He got carried away in his diatribe against his master, the Mudalituma, who was making advances to his beloved Pabulina . He came on stage with sarong half tucked up, and uttered something that just fell short of a four-letter word and the audience protested immediately. The furore was uncontrollable and the show had to be abandoned. Possibly, these early experiences led to the belief that a show at the OAT is an acid test for the success for a play. At the same time, it needs be added that the two “failed” plays, Sarana Siyot Se and Cherry Watta were plays not quite suitable for an open-air theatre. But this leads to a theoretical problem which needs be addressed separately. The three incidents mentioned were sad occasions as all three dramatists involved were people dedicated to their vocation. Furthermore, Dayananda and Somalatha were respected alumni of the Peradeniya University.

It needs mention that that not all dramatists were prepared to take these judgments of the OAT audience lying down. I remember two incidents, both in the 1980s when the dramatists came on stage and challenged the jeering audience. One instance was when Namel Weeramuni, who was giving a performance of his Nettukkari, where he himself was playing a leading role. Incidentally, he himself is an alumnus of Peradeniya of the period when the OAT was constructed and he would have been thoroughly annoyed at this behaviour of the campus denizens of a later period. He came on stage in his costume and addressed the audience telling them that it was with great difficulty that anybody produces a drama and it should not be treated with such disrespect. Whoever did not like the play, could leave the audience allowing those who wished to stay back, watch the play. The shouting died down after some time and the play was resumed. The other incident involved Solomon Fonseka, who had won accolades all round for his star performance in Dayananda Gumawardena’s Nari Bena, some years back. Since then he had studied the art of theatre in a European university and obtained a Doctorate. This time he had produced his own play and was staging it in the OAT. For some reason which I forget, the audience became restive and started hooting. Solomon stopped the show, sent the other actors to the Green Room and addressed the audience in a defiant tone: “You fellows (umbala) call yourself educated. But what kind of education do you have if you are not civilized enough to behave yourself in a theatre? If someone does not like a play he can walk out and allow those who want to watch it, do so.” That worked. And the audience became quiet allowing the show to continue.

PS The reader would have noticed that I have refrained from using the trivial term “wala” which has come into much use in referring to this theatre. That is because it demeans the stature of this special theatre in our country.

 

 



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Midweek Review

Economic meltdown

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S.R. Attygalle (extreme left) before COPFon June 08,2022. Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Dr.PBJ and Prof. W.D. Lakshman look on

House watchdog committees ascertain culpability of FM, Monetary Board

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Committee on Public Finance (COPF), inquiring into financial meltdown recently, called several former and serving officials to ascertain their culpability as well as that of the institutions they served for the developing crisis.

Among them were former Governors of the Central Bank Prof. W.D. Lakshman (Dec 2019- Sept 2021), and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (Sept 2021-March 2022), Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera (Nov 2019-Dec 2021) and Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle (Nov 2019-April 2022), Sanjeeva Jayawardena P.C. (received appointment as a member of the Monetary Board in Feb 2020) and Dr. Ranee Jayamaha (the retired CB Deputy Governor received appointment to the Monetary Board in June 2020). It would be pertinent to mention that Attygalle earlier served a short stint as the Treasury Secretary (Ministry of Finance) between Oct. 31, 2018 and Dec. 18, 2018 during the constitutional coup staged by ex-President Maithripala Sirisena.

The term of office of an appointed member of the Monetary Board is six years and in the event of vacation of office by the appointed member, another person shall be appointed in his or her place to hold the office during the unexpired part of the term of office.

The COPF meeting took place on June 08. Dissident SLPP lawmaker Anura Priyadarshana Yapa chaired the meeting. CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, were present.

Attygalle didn’t mince his words when he squarely blamed the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also served as the Finance Minister (Nov 2019 to July 2021) for the controversial fiscal policy that had ruined the country. Attygalle declared that the government implemented the first Cabinet paper, dated Dec 04, 2019 presented by Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The former Treasury Secretary, who also served in the Monetary Board till April this year, challenged the widely held view that abolition of a range of taxes, in line with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fiscal policies, triggered the crisis. Attygalle asserted that the import restrictions, especially the ban on the importation of vehicles imposed at the onset of the Covid-19 eruption, and the economic contraction, resulted in the meltdown.

The COPF should seek an explanation from Attygalle, himself a former top Central Banker, having last served there as Deputy Governor, regarding the failure on the part of the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board to review the decision to abolish taxes soon after the Covid-19 eruption. The Finance Ministry banned vehicle imports in March 2020 as part of the overall measures to manage the weak foreign currency reserves. Therefore, the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board cannot absolve themselves of the blame for failing to take remedial measures.

 The COPF specifically asked whether the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board officials sought to advise the political leadership of the ground realities against taking such decisions. It emerged that they did nothing. The COPF proceedings revealed that in spite of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation, the Finance Ministry and Monetary Board mandarins failed to take remedial measures. The SLPP members in the COPF, too, should not forget that the change of tax policies had been in line with their 2019 presidential election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.

A disastrous manifesto

The SLPP made the following proposals:

a- Income tax on productive enterprises will be reduced from 28 to 18 percent.

b- The Economic Service Charge (ESC) and Withholding Tax (WHT) will be scrapped;

c- A simple value added tax of eight percent will be introduced, replacing both the current VAT of 15 percent and the Nation Building Tax (NBT) of two percent;

d- PAYE tax will be scrapped and personal income tax will be subject to a ceiling of 15 percent;

e- A five-year moratorium will be granted on taxes payable by agriculturists and small and medium enterprises;

f- Various taxes that contribute to the inefficiency, irregularities, corruption and lack of transparency of the tax system will be abandoned. Instead a special tax will be introduced for different categories of goods and services;

g- Import tariff on goods competing with domestically produced substitutes will be raised;

h- A simple taxation system will be introduced to cover annual vehicle registrations and charges for relevant annual services, replacing the cumbersome systems that prevail now;

i- Various taxes imposed on religious institutions will be scrapped;

j- A zero VAT scheme will be adopted in the case of businesses providing services to Tourist hotels and tourists, if they purchase over 60% of the food, raw materials, cloths and other consumer items locally;

k- Service charges levied on telephones and Internet will be reduced by 50%;

l- Special promotional schemes will be implemented to encourage foreign investments;

m- A tax-free package will be introduced to promote investment in identified subject areas;

n- A clear and uncomplicated system of taxing will be in place with the use of internet facilities, special software and other technological services;

O- Information Technology (IT) services will be totally free from taxes (Zero Tax), considering said industry as a major force in the national manufacturing process;

p- All the Sri Lankans and Foreigners, who bring Foreign exchange to Sri Lanka through consultancy services, are exempt from income tax.”

Dr. Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon, Soosaiappu Neavis Morais and Dr. Mahim Mendis in a FR petition filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution listed the above-mentioned points, in that order, as one of the primary reasons for the current crisis. Among the respondents are Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Dr. P.B. Jaysundera and S.R. Atygalle.

All of them earlier appeared before the COPF where the incumbent Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe emphasized that officials should never engage in politics and should recognize the difference between them and politicians. Dr. Weerasinghe asserted that officials were duty bound to inform politicians if the decisions taken by the latter were wrong. The outspoken CBSL Chief declared that politicians alone shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of such wrong decisions. What Dr. Weerasinghe obviously meant was those who served in key positions at that time, too, were responsible for the current crisis. Dr. Weerasinghe, who had been asked to succeed Ajith Nivard Cabraal, in March, after the former suddenly announced his retirement, told the COPF, the officials’ claim that they had been unaware of the economy was on a wrong path for two years leading to the meltdown was not acceptable. Dr. Weerasinghe also strongly questioned the claim that economic policies had been implemented only on decisions taken by the political leadership.

Lawmakers present participating in the proceedings declared that the political leadership and the officials ignored their concerns as regards the economy raised at different occasions.

Culprits identified

CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe before COPE on May 25, 2022. Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana is on Dr. Weerasinghe’s right.

The COPF proceedings should be studied along with revelations made by Dr. Weerasinghe before the COPF and the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) on May 24 and May 25, respectively as well as lawmaker Ali Sabry’s shocking declaration on May 02 as regards the origins of the crisis. President’s Counsel Sabry discussed the issue in his capacity as the Finance Minister after having led the government delegation for talks with the IMF.

Appearing before the COPF, Dr. Weerasinghe disclosed that those who had been responsible for preparing budget estimates over the years deliberately deceived even the Parliament by providing unrealistic and inaccurate revenue estimates. The CB Governor explained how such practices further weakened the economy as decisions and allocations were made on the basis of fraudulent estimates.

The whole process had been nothing but a farce. Lawmaker Sabry on May 02 in a live interview with Swarnawahini, and Dr. Weerasinghe on May 25, named those responsible for the current crisis that has ruined the economy with unemployment at an unprecedented high. Sabry alleged that the Secretary to the Treasury, Governor of the Central Bank, and senior economic advisors to the President, misled the Cabinet as regards the economic situation. The National List member revealed how they repeatedly assured that the situation was well under control, in spite of difficulties while expressing confidence that issues could be successfully dealt with.

By the time the Central Bank floated the rupee in March this year even without bothering to inform the Cabinet-of-Ministers of its decision, irreparable damage had already been caused, Sabry said.

The COPF and COPE proceedings and MP Sabry’s interview in which he questioned the role of the Finance Minister have revealed the pathetic situation as regards public finance.

The MP has alleged that those who managed the national economy had prevented the country seeking IMF’s intervention well over a year back. Had President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Cabinet-of-Ministers received proper advice, Sri Lanka would not have been in the current predicament, Minister Sabry said.

Dr. Weerasinghe named those who refused to heed IMF warnings when he appeared before COPE on May 25. The role played by Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and the Cabinet-of-Ministers were discussed during the proceedings with Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, helping to ascertain the environment in which the SLPP leadership operated.

Dr. Weerasinghe went to the extent of naming Dr. PBJ as the one who prevented the government seeking IMF’s intervention.

The Customs, Inland Revenue and the Excise Department responsible for revenue collection are run in a shoddy manner. In spite of the watchdog committees exposing glaring omissions and commissions by them that had caused revenue losses in billions of Rupees over the years, the political leadership hasn’t taken remedial measures. Committee reports paint an extremely bleak picture.

But what could be the most unforgivable sin is then Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa joking about having himself used the illegal Havala/Undiyal system that completely shut down  several billion dollars that should have legitimately come to Sri Lanka as in past years as remittances from our migratory workers, especially serving in West Asia. Even at the height of the COVID pandemic the country received about six to seven billion dollars from mainly those unappreciated poor Lankan workers slaving in those countries as mainly labourers and housemaids. Such money may not be enough to pay back the country’s USD 50 billion foreign debt. That money, however, would have ensured that the country had the few million dollars to clear a shipment of gas or other necessities, instead of having to beg all over the world.

Unfortunately, the Parliament seems incapable of taking corrective measures. The Parliament should explore the possibility of appointing, a smaller team, comprising members of COPE, COPF and the COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) to recommend remedial measures, including possible criminal prosecution of dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa for his many omissions and commissions, but especially for not applying the full weight of the law against those running the underground money transfer system, that has even robbed the education of our children.

 Keeping the currency steady is the wish of any Finance Minister as otherwise in a country like Sri Lanka dependent on imports for many of its essentials, like milk food, wheat, etc., it would result in basics skyrocketing in price as experienced now and as former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel also learnt it the hard way after allowing the rupee to devalue almost overnight by over 40 percent in the aftermath of opening up the economy to market forces after the victory of the UNP in 1977 with a staggering 4/5th majority in Parliament. It led to government workers staging a general strike demanding a Rs 10 wage increase, but was ruthlessly crushed by that regime.

A corrupt ministry

The Parliament needs to take tangible measures to restore public faith in the system. The Finance Ministry should be overhauled. Perhaps, the IMF, currently engaged in negotiations with the government, should look into the current system in place. The government can formulate an action plan on the basis of findings and recommendations made by the parliamentary watchdog committees. Perusal of proceedings of these committees reveals that the government hadn’t acted on their findings. The inordinate delay in taking action regarding the mysterious decision to reduce the duty on a kilo of white sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents on Oct 13, 2020 without passing on its benefit to the people is a case in point as pointed out by the COPF Chairman Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, MP. It, however, cost the cash starved Treasury dearly in billions in lost revenue.

Mahinda Rajapaksa served as the Finance Minister at the time of the issuance of the relevant gazette notification. S.R. Attygalle had been the Finance Secretary. It would be pertinent to ask both MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and Attygalle who recommended the duty reduction.

Actually, the COPF should ask Attygalle to explain the circumstances leading to the issuance of that controversial gazette. As Dr. Weerasinghe pointed out recently the officials cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the highly questionable decisions taken by politicians.

Who benefited from the reduction of duty imposed on sugar? In fact, the parliamentary watchdog committees should undertake a comprehensive study. Perhaps, the Finance Ministry role in the Yugadanavi deal can be investigated. Sri Lanka finalized the Yugadanavi transaction with US based New Fortress Energy at midnight on Sept 17, 2021 against the backdrop of Basil Rajapaksa receiving the finance portfolio. The government also brought in retired controversial figure M.M.C. Ferdinando from Australia to assume the leadership at the CEB before making the final move. S.R. Attygalle played a critical role as the Secretary to the Finance Ministry. The SLPP had no qualms in going ahead with the agreement in spite of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila challenging the transfer of 40 percent shares of the power station held by the Treasury among other concessions not fully revealed to the public.

The President’s Media Division (PMD) defended the agreement with the US energy firm. On the invitation of the then Presidential Spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake, M.M.C. Ferdinando briefed the media of the usefulness of the US investment. It would be pertinent to mention that Ferdinando, who fled the country in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena’s triumph in 2015 returned from Australia after the change of government in Nov 2019. Ferdinando’s 2015, move should be examined against the backdrop of corruption accusations directed at him by civil society activists Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon and Attorney-at-Law Namal Rajapaksa. The lawyer lodged a complaint with the then anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat. There had also been a case in the Fort Magistrate Court regarding the import of coal for Lakvijaya coal-fired power plants at Norochcholai.

In spite of initial public interest, such major cases are often not pursued properly even by those initiating them possibly with ulterior motives. When The Island inquired, lawyer Namal Rajapaksa acknowledged not being aware of the developments of his own case. At the time of the Norochcholai project, Ferdinando had served as the Secretary to the Power Ministry. The unholy alliance between the Finance Ministry and monstrous institutions, such as the CEB, should be investigated and mechanism put in place to protect the public interest.

The controversy over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s alleged intervention on behalf of India’s Adani Group at PM Narendra Modi’s persistent request led to Ferdinando’s resignation recently. The disclosure made by Ferdinando at the COPE, his subsequent denial and a letter dated Nov 25, 2021 Ferdinando wrote to the then Treasury Secretary Attygalle exposing the horrific way business of the State is being conducted. Accountability and transparency seem to be the last thing in the minds of political leaders here.

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Midweek Review

Group formation and culture of Galle Face protesters

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File photo of Gota-go Gama protest site.

by Sena Thoradeniya

Galle Face Protesters (GFP) have brought the relationship between youth, politics and culture to the focus of cultural critics. Nobody has ventured into study this phenomenon in detail in the uprisings of 1971, 1988-89 and Eelam war, although fragmentary references were made into JVP’s post-1971 ‘Vimukthi Gee’ (of Nandana Marasinghe fame, assassinated by JVP/DJV; a stern warning for those upper class elements who pamper the GFP coining some adorable names such as ‘Aragalists’ and ‘Gotagamians’!) , Nanda Malini’s ‘Pawana’ and ‘Sathyaye Geethaya’ during JVP’s second insurrection and LTTE’s ‘Pongu Thamil Eluchchivila’ celebrations.

In this two-part article, we first discuss about formal and informal groups and characteristics of informal groups. In the second part we intend to discuss the culture of Galle Face Protesters arising as a blend of individual level variables of group members and group level variables.

Since saving space is more important, we, in this short piece, do not intend to define what is meant by youth, politics and especially culture. It is also not necessary to discuss the “political demands” of the GFP or what they understand by politics and how they interpret the current political situation, some are well known, some are in vague and undefined and others uncertain and concealed. The main focus of this article is on “Galle Face Culture”, which we do not believe that it will be sustained, developed or become a permanent feature in the cultural landscape of Sri Lanka, although we do not deny that some aspects of it can penetrate into the wider society. Some other arguments against this may arise, questioning our premise whether it is scientific to examine a culture among some loosely knitted individuals, not inhabiting a particular locality permanently. But some sort of a culture is discernible among groups of train travellers, parents who chaperon their children to school, students sitting next to each other in a classroom, devotees of Bacchus who habitually go to the same barroom, people living in one lane or adjoining apartments or different floors, etc. With the advent of Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms another method of group formation receives our attention. Newspaper reports are in abundance of Facebook parties organised by people who have not met each other physically or engaged in face-to-face communication. It is common knowledge that the GF protest had originated with the work of some WhatsApp groups.

In Organisation Behaviour (OB), groups are defined as consisting of people who interact frequently over a period of time and who share similar interests, attitudes and see themselves as a group. Although a universal definition of groups does not exist, students who read this article are requested to refer how sociologists and management and OB theorists had defined groups, group formation and characteristics of groups as it is outside our scope.

There are two types of groups: formal and informal groups. Although the Galle Face protest has passed more than 60 days to this day and some occupy the Galle Face Green turning it into a “village”, according to Group Dynamics (area of study that is concerned with the interactions and forces between group members in a social situation), we still define it as an informal group. This informal group was spontaneously composed of likeminded people, as a result of interactions through social media platforms, attractions and a common need: chasing out GR. There is no dispute that the protesters have come from different economic, social and cultural backgrounds, making it a heterogenous mix of individuals. One of the many attributes of group formation is propinquity or spatial or geographical proximity of individual who join groups. We argue now with the advent of social media platforms, proximity described by earlier theorists has taken a new dimension; technological proximity had taken precedence and had become more active, effective and faster than physical proximity. Friendship has outweighed economic, political or cultural needs and other issues of group formation.

Theoretically speaking, age, gender, marital status, personality characteristics, values, attitudes, emotions, perceptions, ability levels and learning, motivation are the individual level variables they have brought into this informal group. They had to adjust themselves to group level variables such as group behaviour, group standards, communication patterns, leadership styles, power and politics and also conflicts, all integral components of a group. Their culture is determined by the interplay of these two types of variables.

It also can be defined as an open group having free entry as well as free exit which allows more diverse individuals to shape standards, attitudes, values and behaviours of the rest. People are attracted to informal groups for satisfaction of their needs (in this situation their needs are numerous: personal needs such as gaining recognition, status and pride,) and to share a common goal, “GotaGoHome”, basically an emotional response of anger. Individuals who experience this emotion seek others who have the same emotion. That is one reason for Galle Face Protesters for not being able to produce their own political leaders. In the initial stages, we observed that this group inclined to become structured, establishing their external networks, norms or rules of conduct. Emergence of informal leaders and spokespersons which were numerous was a part of this structure. This structure, also can be described as a part of group development through mutual acceptance and open communication; some members volunteering to undertake certain roles and assigning of roles to others by informal leaders, showing some sort of a division of labour.

As the Galle Face group is a large informal group, a “mixed clique” in management jargon, we tend to observe the emergence of sub-groups and contending forces with some intriguing names, each calmouring for leadership arousing internal conflicts; goals becoming inconsistent and unachievable. Theoretically, the emergence of leaders who are acceptable to all and maintaining cohesiveness in a large informal group like Galle Face Green is unattainable and all leaders who emerge in an informal group are informal leaders, who are not formally recognised by all. Imbalances have already occurred. Some self-appointed leaders were chased out attaching the ignominious label “Left”. This leadership crisis was the reason behind it becoming an easy prey for organised political parties.

With the ascendance of Ranil Wickremesinghe, it lost its steam, compelling many to decamp. At present the so-called “village” has turned into an urban ghetto, which shapes its culture now; vagabonds occupy some tents and the communal kitchen has become a “dana shalawa” to many who search for food. Only future will tell us who were the real architects of the Galle Face protest, who benefited from it and who were taken for a ride!

(The writer in his long career had taught Management, Organisation Behaviour and Research Methodology to undergraduates, Senior Managers and Senior Officers of the Tri Forces, although his interests are different.)

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Midweek Review

Eyeball-to-Eyeball Decider

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By Lynn Ockersz

For the itchy master class,

Presiding over the imperiled isle,

Now running out of excuses,

The stony-faced armed men,

In khaki and camouflage,

Guarding its glittery high-rises,

Offer some sort of comfort,

That hanging-in there in power,

Until the crisis blows over,

Is the best of their options,

But out in the restive streets,

Frenzied anger is boiling over,

And the countdown seems on,

For the mounting face-off,

Between harried men and women,

Crying shrilly for Bread and fuel,

And spectral figures sporting Ak-47s,

To erupt in a bloody convulsion,

That could render the fabled Pearl,

A no-go zone of self- destruction.

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