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Waltzing with virus



Friday 15th October, 2021

There was a mixed reaction to the demarcation by the government of an area adjacent to the Presidential Secretariat for public protests, in 2020. Some people welcomed it, claiming that it would help keep protesters off the busy city roads, but others suspected an ulterior motive; they said the government was planning to ban public demonstrations outside the designated area. Whether the government was contemplating such a move is anybody’s guess, but today the so-called ‘Agitation Site’ allocated for protests is perhaps the only place where there are no demonstrations. Hardly a day passes without mass protests being reported from different parts of the country. These agitations could not have come at a worse time.

Thousands of farmers took to the streets yesterday in Minneriya, calling upon the government to make fertiliser available freely. The protesters obviously ran the risk of contracting Covid-19. Burning Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage in effigy, they bitterly complained that they had suffered crop failures due to a fertiliser shortage. The government looks unconcerned about farmers’ woes, and its propagandists are all out to brand the protesters as a bunch of hirelings of the Opposition and agrochemical companies. But so many farmers would not have protested in all parts of the country so aggressively without any genuine grievances although their demonstrations cannot be considered devoid of politics. In a country where not even places of worship are above partisan politics, it is not fair to expect farmers and their associations to be apolitical.

What really matters is not farmers’ political affiliations but the causes of their resentment and why the government has chosen to ignore the grievances of the farming community.

The government ought to meet farmers’ representatives without further delay, look into their grievances and do everything possible to solve their problems. Measures such as unleashing the ruling party propaganda hounds on protesters, and bellowing rhetoric will not do. It is also plain political suicide for the government to antagonise the farmers, who can make or break governments. Most of the protesting farmers of Minneriya must be the supporters of the present dispensation; the people of Polonnaruwa have voted overwhelmingly for the SLPP at the last two elections.

The fertiliser issue is a very complex one, which has to be tackled separately with the participation of all stakeholders; it cannot be solved overnight. But the government has to do something urgently to prevent mass protests which can worsen the national health emergency. What the country has gained with the help of an expensive, 41-day lockdown will be lost in a few days if super-spreader events such as protests continue at the current rate. Fear is being expressed in health circles that Covid-19 fatalities are likely to soar come December owing to the irresponsible behaviour of the public and the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards pandemic control; it seems to have pinned all its hopes on its vaccination drive, which cannot be considered the proverbial silver bullet.

Where is the Minister of Agriculture? We see only his effigies these days. He said no rice would be imported because there were enough rice stocks in the country; he embarked on a quixotic mission to tame the rice millers only to return bruised and much the worse for wear. Rice is now being imported, and someone will laugh all the way to the bank. The Agriculture Minister also insists there are enough stocks of fertiliser in the country. If so, are the farmers who are protesting against a fertiliser shortage out of their senses? He had better talk to the irate farmers and sort out their problems without provoking them further.

It behoves the government to direct the Agriculture Minister and his officials to meet the representatives of farmers’ organisations and make a serious effort to bring the situation under control. If he is not equal to the task, then either the Prime Minister or the President ought to intervene to solve the farmers’ problems that are driving thousands of people to stage street protests like the one we witnessed yesterday in Minneriya.

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The plantation daily wage



Despite the trumpeting from the housetops, no doubt with a weather eye on the plantation bloc vote, most estate workers are still not getting the Rs. 1,700 daily wage imposed on the plantation industry by government fiat. The Planters Association (PA) is adamant that the wage increase will drive the industry bankrupt. A number of plantation companies led by Agrapatana Plantations Ltd., both listed and unlisted, have obtained an interim injunction from a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court challenging the legality of the wage hike that has been gazetted. Minister Jeevan Thondaman, a direct descendant of Ceylon Workers Congress leader, the late S. Thondaman, the plantation union thalaivar has said the injunction was issued due to a “minor legal error.”

However that be, the tantalizing question in the air is whether this matter can be satisfactorily resolved before the presidential election slated for later this year. It was obviously no accident that President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced the wage hike from the CWC’s May Day platform in Kotagala. The plantation unions have long commanded a bloc vote on the estates which he hopes the two Thondamans now serving his government – Estate Infrastructure and Water Supply Minister Jeevan Thondaman and his cousin, Eastern Province Governor Senthil Thondman – will deliver to his ticket. The case is next due to be heard at the end of August and hearings will continue until its conclusion. Whether this would be before or after the presidential election we do not know.

It is generally accepted that while Ceylon Tea continues to hold the reputation it earned during the colonial era for being the world’s finest, it is less well known that the productivity levels of our plantation workers is perhaps the world’s lowest and wages, not counting the most recent increase which has not yet been widely implemented, are among the highest. The cost of production of our competitors are substantially lower than ours. Employers freely concede that the wage hike is well intentioned, but argues that it threatens to cripple the tea industry. They urge a productivity based pay system as a more viable alternative and seeks what Mr. Roshan Rajadurai, the Managing Director of two Regional Plantation companies under the Hayleys group, called “balancing fair compensation for workers with economic realities of the industry.” This, he says will safeguard worker welfare and the industry’s future.

There has been considerable fist waving in the face of employers on the part of the government, including the threat of canceling the leases under which the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) are currently managing state-owned estates, unless the mandated wage increase is granted. This is being strongly resisted by the employers. The 1972 land reforms placing a 50-acre limit on land holding followed the JVP insurrection the previous year which was perceived as partly due to land hunger. However there was no effort to alienate plantation land coming into the hands of the state to the landless peasantry. These were largely vested in the already existing State Plantations Corporation (SPC) and the newly created Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB). Some coconut estates belonging to local owners went into the hands of existing state ventures like the National Livestock Development Board and the Coconut Cultivation Board.

Both the JEDB and the SPC mounted enormous losses running into billions of rupees which eventually landed on the laps of the taxpayer. The RPCs were created by President Premadasa to lease mainly JEDB and SPC estates for private sector management to counter the impact of their losses on the state exchequer. Premadasa’s ‘people-ization’ policies, as he imaginatively called the scheme, resulted in 20 percent free employee shares most of which were subsequently sold in the Colombo stock market giving some windfall profits to workers in such undertakings. The government has now announced the appointment of a committee of officials to go into the books of individual RPCs to determine which of them can afford to bear the mandated daily wage and which of them cannot.

The majority of the RPCs are quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Their share prices are not deeply depressed nor did they plunge when the wage increase was announced. Some of them have been paying reasonable dividends to shareholders. Whether the RPCs will agree to the mandated daily wage in the event their ongoing court action fails remains an open question. If the threatened cancellation of leases is implemented, whether new players can be found to run the estates will also be problematic. Also, it will hurt ongoing efforts to attract foreign investment and may affect the IMF program. Forcing a very large wage increase down the throats of the RPCs as well as smallholders who today produce 70 percent of the country’s tea is likely to have wide-ranging repercussions. While very small holdings may be operated with family labour, workers are hired in 50-acre proprietary estates and smaller properties.

As it is, most plantations are short of labour. Many members of estate worker families have migrated for work outside. While the line room kind of accommodation on estates remain, there has been forward movement for the better in recent years with workers getting cottage-type housing. Some estates have experimented with revenue sharing models which the PA claims has enabled workers to earn more than the mandated daily wage. With elections approaching, the question now is whether the government will be willing to take a hemin hemin (slowly, slowly) approach or will it want to deliver before polling day?

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Problem of being POTUS Biden



Saturday 13th July, 2024

US President Joe Biden is in the news for all the wrong reasons, ranging from his backing for Israel, which is wreaking havoc on Gaza, and his unconditional support for Ukraine, which is ruining itself by fighting a proxy war against Russia at the behest of NATO. Pressure is now mounting on him to leave the presidential race owing to a string of gaffes and other signs of memory lapses, the latest being his slip-up during a presser, where he spoke to reporters about continued NATO support for Ukraine; he referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as President Putin much to the astonishment of all those present. Biden promptly corrected himself, saying jokingly that he was so focused on beating Putin that he had erred, but the press and the US public were far from amused. His accidental falls, which are many, confused state of mind, gaffes, etc., have prompted the Americans to ask if he is mentally and physically fit enough to serve another term. Even the Democrats have expressed serious doubts about his eligibility to recontest.

Chances are that the Democrats will find it extremely difficult to allow Biden to run for President again, and they may even be compelled to opt for some other candidate, given his appalling performance in a recent debate with his arch rival, Donald Trump. Paradoxical as it may sound, Biden has become an invaluable political asset to Trump; his signs of failing mental and physical health have distracted public attention from Trump’s deficiencies and wrongs, which are legion. If Trump had faced a Democrat of the calibre of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama in the debate, his fate in the presidential race would have been sealed then and there.

Biden is determined to contest, but he is coming under increasing pressure to undergo detailed cognitive and neurological testing. He has the same determination as Sri Lankan politicians to cling on to power. Obviously, his kitchen Cabinet does not want him to call it quits.

The real question however is not whether Biden is mentally and physically fit enough to seek re-election; instead, it is whether the US would have done differently on his watch if he had been free from the mental issues he is allegedly grappling with. Whenever one watches, on television, the ongoing carnage of Palestinians in relentless Israeli attacks, one wonders whether all those who support the Gaza invasion are of sound mind, much less of good moral character which they claim to possess. Would any other US President have stepped in to stop the massacre of civilians including children, in Gaza? Biden’s predecessors were no different. Bloody military coups and wars that the US has engineered to further its geo-strategic and economic interests at the expense of tens of thousands of lives in other countries make one wonder whether the American Presidents who presided over them were of sound mind. Even Clinton and Obama, who was given the Nobel Peace Prize even before he was ensconced in office, unflinchingly backed the destruction of life and property on the pretext of protecting democracy and combating terrorism.

Most of all, if Biden is not mentally fit enough to seek re-election, as many Americans including Democrats are said to believe, the question is whether it is advisable to allow him to continue to serve as the President of the most powerful nation on earth until November 2024. There are situations where Biden confuses wars. He has recently referred to the Ukraine war as the Iraq war. A wag asks what would happen if he ever mistook the nuclear button, which is said to be on his desk, for some other switch?

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Forgotten flaws in laws



Friday 12th July, 2024

The government is going hell for leather to resolve some constitutional ambiguities as regards the length of the presidential term, etc. Now that the Supreme Court has determined that the duration of the President’s tenure is five years, the matter could be considered closed.

The government is apparently trying to use the constitutional amendment on the anvil to bolster its claim that it had nothing to do with the abortive fundamental rights petition that sought to delay the next presidential election on the basis of a non-existent constitutional issue. However, there is a pressing need to rectify some real flaws in the Constitution and make new laws to safeguard democracy. The Parliamentary Elections Act should also be amended to prevent it being used to circumvent a vital constitutional provision pertaining to the people’s franchise.

A chronic flaw in the Constitution allows political party leaders and their cronies to undermine the people’s franchise. It enabled Ranil Wickremesinghe, who lost his seat in the 2020 general election, to enter Parliament via the National List (NL) and become the President. Even a person who has never contested a parliamentary election can enter Parliament by having an NL vacancy created; worse, it is possible for him or her to become the President in a situation like the one we experienced in 2022. Hence the need for a constitutional amendment to prevent the misuse of the NL mechanism.

A questionable change effected to the parliamentary election laws about 36 years ago has had a corrosive effect on the Constitution, especially the people’s franchise, which is a fundamental component of representative democracy. That abominable provision has enabled the political parties to bypass the Constitution and appoint individuals of their choice to Parliament as NL members.

As we have pointed out in a previous editorial comment, Article 99A of the Constitution allows only the persons whose names are included in the lists submitted to the Commissioner of Elections or in any nomination paper submitted in respect of any electoral district by political parties or independent groups at elections to be appointed to Parliament via the NL. In 1988, the then UNP government introduced Section 64 (5) of the Parliament Election Act, inter alia, as an urgent Bill, eroding the essence of the constitutional provisions pertaining to the NL and the people’s sovereignty.

The Parliament Election Act of No 1 of 1981, as amended in 1988, allows ‘any member’ of a political party to be appointed to fill an NL vacancy. After parliamentary elections, political parties appoint their NL members as prescribed by the Constitution, and thereafter engineer NL vacancies to bring in persons of their choice as MPs. Attempts to have this highly undemocratic practice terminated by judicial means have been in vain. This ‘smuggling tunnel’ must be closed once and for all.

Worse, it has now been revealed that the words, ‘any member’, were smuggled into the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act after its ratification by Parliament! Strangely, there has been no sustained campaign for the abolition of this legal provision, which allows virtually anyone to enter Parliament without contesting a general election or being nominated as an NL candidate, and even become the Prime Minister, who takes over as the Acting President in case of the popularly elected President’s death, removal or resignation.

The aforesaid legal provision has become a fait accompli because the Constitution does not provide for the post-enactment judicial review of legislation. In a country like Sri Lanka, the need for the judiciary to be empowered to review laws after their ratification cannot be overstressed, given the devious methods that governments employ to subjugate even the Constitution to their political interests. It may be recalled that the UNP-led Yahapalana government stuffed the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill with questionable sections at the committee stage before rushing it through Parliament, in 2017, to postpone the Provincial Council polls indefinitely.

The vociferous members of both sides of the House, given to talking hind legs off a donkey, have not cared to take up the aforesaid issues which undermine the integrity of the Constitution and the electoral process. No wonder public confidence in Parliament is at a low ebb; anti-politics is on the rise, and protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks.

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