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Editorial

Virus in hellholes

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Friday 27th November 2020

Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, who was taken into custody a few weeks ago, has been released on bail. His counsel, asking for bail, brought to the notice of the court that COVID-19 was spreading fast in prisons. Prisoners are a high-risk group. Life is precious, and nobody must be exposed to COVID-19. Bathiudeen’s safety should be ensured. But what about the other suspects, numbering thousands, held in overcrowded remand prisons, and convicts serving sentences?

Prisoners have held protests, claiming that their lives are in danger due to the spread of the pandemic. Their rights must also be respected. Will the suspects currently languishing in remand prisons also be released on bail to save them from the virus? Or, is it that all prisoners and remandees are equal, but politicians amongst them are ‘more equal’?

Bathiudeen was arrested and remanded for violating the Presidential Elections Act, but if the allegation against him—misusing public funds to transport voters in state-owned buses during a presidential election—is anything to go by, then he should be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act, as well. It is a non-bailable offence to violate this particular Act, which the yahapalana government used to have some of its political rivals remanded. Bathiudeen has not yet been prosecuted for destroying forests although the Court of Appeal has recently determined that he cleared a section of the Kallaru forest reserve illegally and ordered him to bear the cost of reforesting the area. He is lucky that the present-day leaders who helped him launch his political career and gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted are wary of pressing for his prosecution over the destruction of forest land. They apparently do not want to open up a can of worms. The rape of the Wilpattu forest began during a previous Rajapaksa government, which benefited from Bathiudeen’s block vote until late 2014, when he decamped and threw in his lot with the common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena.

Bathiudeen evaded arrest, following Attorney General’s order that he be taken into custody and produced in court; he apparently hoped that he would be able to get away like the bond racketeers who went into hiding and obtained an interim injunction staying their arrest warrants. The CID was obviously under pressure not to arrest those elements with political connections, but it became too embarrassing for Bathiudeen’s mentors in the present regime to go all out to prevent his arrest owing to tremendous media pressure.

COVID-19 is spreading in the Sri Lankan prisons as it is not easy to contain the highly contagious coronavirus in overcrowded environments. Precautions should therefore have been taken to prevent its spread. The first wave of COVID-19 ripped through the US prisons, which are much more spacious and have better facilities than the Sri Lankan jails, and left hundreds of inmates dead. Prisoners and their family members staged protests in some parts of the US.

Sri Lanka did not learn from others’ experience; only a committee was appointed some moons ago to find ways and means of easing prison congestion. The Attorney General himself has evinced a keen interest in ensuring the safety of prison inmates. But the situation has taken a turn for the worse, and how the government is planning to make prisons safe is not clear.

Prison overcrowding, however, is not a problem endemic to the developing world. It has come to plague even the developed countries, which have been compelled to experiment with technological solutions. Years ago, some nations including the UK adopted the electronic tagging system, which allows non-violent prisoners to be tagged, released and monitored. Opinion may be divided on this method, but it seems to have worked where it is employed and is worth a shot.

Whatever the methods the government is planning to adopt to make prisons safe, it has to act fast. The clock is ticking.



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Editorial

National List: convenient for political parties, gravy for those appointed

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Business tycoon Dhammika Perera’s swearing last week as a National List MP of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) evoked a great deal of interest for a number of self-evident reasons. Among these was that fact that he has publicly claimed to be the country’s biggest taxpayer. This has been seen on youtube by hundreds of thousands of viewers. Whether Perera claimed this in his personal capacity or whether it included the companies he controls – and there are a great many of them both listed and unlisted – has not been clarified. Apart from that claim, it is very well known that he is a major shareholder in a clutch of listed companies including the Hayleys conglomerate, the thriving ceramics sector (Royal Ceramics, Lanka Tiles, Lanka Walltiles etc), his own Vallibel Group together with LB Finance, one of the country’s biggest finance companies. He also owns significant stakes in the banking sector. On top of that are his interests in the gambling industry in which the foundation of his fortune lies.

The SLPP’s decision to nominate Perera to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of ruling clan sibling, Basil Rajapaksa, was challenged in the Supreme Court by the Center for Policy Alternatives and some other petitioners. They included a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Chandra Jayaratne, who has post-retirement been a vigorous public interest activist. As many as five fundamental rights actions challenging Perera’s appointment were filed after his appointment was gazetted by the Elections Commission. Last Monday he undertook before a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court that he would not take his oaths as a Member of Parliament until the court had reached a determination on the actions before it. The court ruled in Perera’s favour by a divided decision. He is now an MP and likely to take a cabinet seat in a new Ministry of Technology and Investment Promotion created for him. Many subjects, previously covered by the President, have been assigned to this ministry.

Perera has not been sworn a minister at the time this commentary is being written. He has been quoted in the media saying that he expects a “suitable ministry” saying that he headed by Board of Investment during civil war – he was also Secretary Transport under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency – and that he was confident of providing solutions during the current crisis as well. The NewsWire website quoted him saying “at a time when people are losing jobs, I have entered Parliament to create job opportunities.” Whether an appeal is possible against the determination of the Supreme Court, generally considered as final, is still an open question. It has been speculated whether the petitioners will seek a hearing by a fuller bench in the light of their success in convincing one of three judges may be pursued. For this to be possible, the order made in Perera’s favour must be studied. The word on Friday was that this had not yet been done and requires further examination once the court order, dictated on the bench, is available.

However that be, questions now arise on the value of the 30 MPs appointed to Parliament on the National Lists of the various parties running for election. During the early post-Independence years, then Ceylon had six Appointed MPs to represent “unrepresented interests” in the 101-Member Legislature. Under this arrangement, MPs were appointed from communities like the so-called ‘estate Tamils’ disenfranchised by the first Parliament, Burghers, Malays and even British interests of that time. Older readers may remember that Mrs. Bandaranaike appointed the well known paediatrician, Dr. L.O. Abeyratne to Parliament to represent the country’s children. Previously, Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike appointed Mr. Asoka Karunaratne on a caste basis. All that, of course, is now water under the bridge. Today we have as many as 30 National List MPs and it would be difficult, with the exception of Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, to find anybody who had adorned parliamentary benches in a National List capacity. The existence of these positions have almost exclusively served narrow interests of political parties and their leaders.

The primary ground of the challenge on Dhammika Perera’ s appointment lies in article 99A of the Constitution. This says that the Commissioner of Elections shall by notice requite the secretary of a recognized political party or an independent group that secures National List places at a general election to nominate persons to be appointed (being persons whose names are included in the list submitted to the Commissioner of Elections under this Article or any other nomination paper submitted in respect of any electoral district by such party or group at that election) to fill such seats and shall declare elected as Members of Parliament the persons so nominated. (Emphasis added). Dhammika Perera does not belong to either such category. The Island editorially commented last Thursday (June 23) that there is a serious discrepancy between a section of the Parliamentary Election Act No. 1 of 1981 and some provisions of the Constitution governing National List appointments. These have been permitted to long continue.

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka entered Parliament on the UNP National List having run for election under the banner of another party. Mr. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who subsequently served as prime minister, entered Parliament on a UPFA National List slot without his name being on that party’s National or any other nomination paper, filling a vacancy created by a resignation. This was challenged (also by the CPA) but not taken up by the Sarath Silva Supreme Court for three years and was eventually withdrawn. There is no escaping the conclusion that the National List serves as an instrument of convenience for political parties and a source of gravy for those appointed under it. Should it continue?

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Editorial

Failure feeds fuel crisis

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Saturday 25th June, 2022

People continue to drop dead in fuel queues, which are getting longer by the day. The number of hours people spend in long lines to obtain fuel averages 48, we are told, and there have been reports of people spending four to five days at a stretch near some filling stations.

The only thing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera are apparently capable of doing efficiently is jacking up fuel prices besides issuing grim warnings. A ship carrying petrol was to reach Colombo on Thursday but its arrival was delayed until Friday. If what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said in Parliament, the other day, is any indication, then another massive fuel price hike is in the pipeline. So, it is only natural that people think the delivery of the petrol shipment was delayed purposely until the next price increase so that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation could make a killing while people are dying in fuel queues.

Minister Wijesekera is all at sea with the management of the two vital sectors under his purview. He does not seem to be doing anything at all to manage the power and fuel crises. He only issues twitter messages, and says so little in so many words. The prevailing foreign currency crunch is the root cause of the fuel crisis. But no serious attempt has been made to manage the available fuel stocks. There’s the rub. Untold hardships people are facing could be mitigated to a considerable extent if fuel is properly rationed, and racketeers are kept at bay.

The odd-even rationing method is adopted in other parts of the world during fuel crises; it enables everyone to obtain a fixed amount of fuel every other day without languishing in endless queues. A rationing system must be simple and efficient for it to be effective and acceptable to the public.

Perhaps, there is more oil in cans and barrels than in fuel tanks of vehicles in this country. Most people stock up on diesel and petrol for personal use. Racketeers are hoarding fuel and selling it on the black market. They wait in queues, obtain fuel, empty it into cans, and then line up again near the same filling stations or elsewhere. The police are making a half-hearted attempt to nab fuel hoarders, and some of their raids have yielded barrels of fuel hidden in houses and business places. Raids must be stepped up. If attractive rewards are offered, people will readily provide information about the racketeers who sell fuel illegally at exorbitant prices.

The fuel crisis has had a crippling impact on all vital sectors. Hospitals, schools, and all other institutions, both public and private, are facing the threat of closure, but the government is trying band-aid solutions.

Thankfully, there have been no major incidents of violence for the past few weeks, but an eerie atmosphere has descended on the country, and it is like the calm before the storm. Last month’s spate of violence could be considered the first wave of a tsunami of public anger; we can see the signs of a second wave forming. There has been a let-up of sorts in protests recently and the government leaders seem to have been lulled into a false sense of security, as a result. Basil Rajapaksa is said to be trying to reorganise the SLPP. Other members of the Rajapaksa family have also crawled out of the woodwork; Namal was seen at a recent press briefing given by Minister Wijesekera, whom the Rajapaksa family has on a string. The government worthies who have incurred the wrath of the public never learn from their blunders. Let them be warned that the occurrence of the second tsunami wave of public indignation is only a matter of time, and its landfall will be far more devastating than the cumulative impact of previous social and political upheavals that shook the country.It is high time someone capable of strategic thinking was appointed the Minister of Power and Energy to defuse tension and prevent the country from being plunged into chaos.

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Editorial

Dudley’s Drama

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Friday 24th June, 2022

The incumbent government has become a metaphor for failure, and earned notoriety for its callous disregard for the woes of people. It does not care to safeguard the interests of consumers, who are being fleeced by producers and traders alike. Some help for the hapless public has come from an unexpected quarter—a member of the Rice Mafia; the proprietor of the Araliya Rice Mills, Dudley Sirisena, who is one of the millers blamed for market manipulations and the exploitation of farmers and consumers, has embarked on a crusade to protect the public against exploitative practices of big-time rice millers and traders! Whoever would have thought such a thing would ever be possible?

Dudley has publicly undertaken to sell rice at the maximum retail price (MRP) and ensure that other millers do likewise. He seems to be serious about carrying out his pledge. How come a member of the Rice Mafia, of all people, has become so considerate as to take up the cudgels for the sake of poor consumers? This is the question one must have asked oneself on seeing the Araliya Rice boss clashing with a fellow miller at a media briefing, on Wednesday. He walked out in a huff, when another miller requested the government to introduce a ‘reasonable’ MRP; he demanded that rice be made available at affordable prices. He told other millers that all of them had amassed enough wealth by selling rice, and the time had come for them to help the public.

One may have thought that the transmogrification of people from misers to givers was possible only in fiction as in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Dickensian novella, A Christmas Carol, or the title character of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Both Scrooge, the penny-pinching business owner, and Marner, the miserly weaver, overcome greed and become caring and generous, in the end. But we can now see such a character in the flesh—Dudley, the miller!

People can, and do change—for different reasons. What has caused Dudley’s welcome transformation? He would have us believe that he is driven by pure altruism to give something back to the rice consumers who have made his wealth accumulation possible. It may be that he is following the dictates of conscience, at last. There are other possibilities, though. People are at the end of their tether. They are in the depths of despair, unable to buy essentials and dull the pangs of hunger due to the chronic scarcity of goods, and soaring prices. Their anger is manifestly welling up, and food protests could lead to food riots sooner than expected, and nobody will be safe in such an eventuality; the wealthy millers will have people raiding their warehouses. Last month’s spate of violence, which left scores of houses belonging to government politicians gutted may be considered a foretaste of what is to come unless the current crisis is brought under control and some relief granted to the public urgently. Dudley, the miller, knows how people react to rice shortages and steep increases in rice prices; he may be aware of the fate that befell Dudley, the PM, in 1953, when an increase in the price of a measure of rice, inter alia, triggered a hartal. So, the Araliya Rice boss may have sought to win over the public by undertaking to sell rice at the prices stipulated by the Consumer Affairs Authority. It is also possible that as a younger brother of former President Maithripala Sirisena, who is still aiming high, Dudley is trying to rally public support by reducing the prices of rice in a bid to take to active politics and/or shore up the crumbling image of the Sirisenas.

Whatever his motive, Dudley has put the government to shame. He has come forward to tame the Rice Mafia, of which he himself is a member. This is something the present-day leaders have failed to do all these years. They should hang their heads in shame for being so impotent despite their braggadocio.

We have had no civil word to say about the Rice Mafia, especially Dudley, but his offer to adhere to the MRP of rice as well as his exhortation to other millers to follow suit is to be appreciated. We can only hope that Dudley is genuinely desirous of granting the unfortunate public some relief, and will not try to pull the wool over their eyes and remind us of some evil characters such as the shapeshifters in Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Saki’s Gabriel-Ernest.

Now that Dudley has talked the talk, he has to walk the walk. Other millers, too, had better be considerate towards the public in these difficult times. People are waiting for rice at affordable prices. Hungry masses are angry, and nobody will be safe if their anger spills over onto the streets.

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