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Editorial

Waltzing with virus

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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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Editorial

A fake fracas

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Thursday 20th January, 2022

Pickpockets and Sri Lankan politicians have many things in common, besides being nimble-fingered. Their modi operandi are similar in most respects. They steal from the people in such a way that the latter do not realise their losses until it is too late. Pickpockets have their accomplices kick up fake shindies in public, and prey on curious onlookers who jostle and shove to get a better view of such incidents. Those who watch such pulse-racing ‘brawls’ return home minus their wallets. This is apparently what the incumbent government is doing to the public.

Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge and Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila have engaged in a war of words over fuel supplies to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and their verbal battles that television stations liberally beam into many a parlour almost daily have assumed the form of public entertainment.

Lokuge has been blaming the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for the fuel shortage the CEB’s thermal power plants are experiencing, and Gammanpila has been maintaining that the CPC cannot issue any more fuel unless the CEB settles its outstanding bills and makes dollars available. Perhaps, it is for the first time the CPC has asked the CEB to make payments in dollars! Thankfully, the CPC has supplied a stock of fuel to the CEB, but power cuts continue.

Lokuge and Gammanpila could have sorted out their differences at Cabinet meetings, or in private. Both the CPC and the CEB are state-owned entities dependent on the Treasury for funds. It is up to the Treasury to make funds available for these two institutions in times of crisis, and the responsibility for this lies with the person who controls the public purse—Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Lokuge and Gammanpila seem to have volunteered to be whipping boys for Finance Minister Rajapaksa, whom nobody is criticising for the power crisis. Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Althugamage is taking all the whipping for the sake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the government’s botched organic fertiliser experiment. It is his effigies that irate farmers are burning although the organic fertiliser drive is the President’s brainchild. If Aluthgamage thinks he will be rewarded for doing so, he is mistaken. He will be used and discarded like karapincha (curry leaves).

Having witnessed the fate that befell Susil Premjayantha, who ruffled the feathers of the members of the ruling family, and lost his ministerial portfolio, other ministers seem to be trying to humour their bosses lest they should also be stripped of their positions. Minister Wimal Weerawansa is also defending the government as never before! No minister wants to lose his or her Cabinet post; it is a fate worse than death for any politician thirsting for power.

Time was when power and energy sectors were kept together under one ministry, and their bifurcation has been welcomed by experts, but the ongoing fake clashes between the two ministers in charge of them would not have been possible if they had remained merged. What would be the situation if the power and energy sectors were brought under either Lokuge or Gammanpila, or any other minister? There would be no ministerial ‘clashes’ over them for public consumption.

The current squabble between Lokuge and Gammanpila has effectively distracted public attention away from the real causes of the crises in the power and energy sectors—the government’s poor economic management, the crippling foreign currency crisis that has resulted mainly from the investment of huge amounts of borrowed dollars in useless mega projects, and widespread corruption that drives foreign investors away.

The government has succeeded in defraying criticism thanks to the verbal clashes between Lokuge and Gammanpila. If they become too embarrassing for it to defend, it will reshuffle the Cabinet, and give them some other portfolios; the problems in the power and energy sectors will remain, but the public will be so confused as to decide whom to direct their anger at. One wonders whether the government is setting the stage for another round of fuel price hikes or an increase in electricity tariff by having problems in the power and energy sectors highlighted.

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Editorial

Prez has spoken

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Wednesday 19th January, 2022

Protests were expected at the inauguration of the current session of Parliament yesterday, but the Opposition behaved; it only boycotted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tea party. The President also struck a conciliatory note in his speech, calling for everyone’s support.

President Rajapaksa never misses an opportunity to make a public display of his long suit—protecting national security. He declared that the key issue facing the people when he became President in 2019 had been threats to national security. People had no fear of terrorism today, he said. Valid as his claim may be, the fact remains that threats to national security posed by the National Thowheed Jamaath, which carried out the Easter Sunday carnage, had been effectively neutralised by Nov. 2019, when the last presidential election was held. It is too early to assess the government’s performance as regards ensuring national security.

Interestingly, the President waxed eloquent on the virtues of the rule of law and transparency, and the need to strengthen democracy. He made specific mention of the steps taken to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is apparently giving in to pressure from the western bloc, which has called for the abolition of the PTA, protecting human rights and strengthening democracy.

The President took pride in having set up about 100 new police stations. The country, no doubt, needs more police stations, but the establishment of new police stations and courthouses alone will not help strengthen the rule of law; a prerequisite for accomplishing this difficult task is to abolish the existing culture of impunity and political interference.

Curiously, the section devoted to the government’s foreign policy, in yesterday’s presidential address, was unusually brief. One can only hope that the brevity of this section does not reflect the level of importance the government attaches to the country’s foreign relations!

The President said he would submit the recommendations of the Expert Committee he had appointed to help draft a new Constitution. It is hoped that the government will tread cautiously. Going by the widespread chaos its fertiliser policy has plunged the country into, how bad the situation will be if an attempt is made to force a new Constitution on the people is not difficult to imagine. Perhaps, if the 20th Amendment is abolished and the 19th Amendment reintroduced with some changes, we may be able to make do with the existing Constitution.

The President flaunted the recently unveiled 229-billion-rupee relief package as a progressive step to alleviate people’s economic woes. But the general public will not benefit from relief granted only to public officials, pensioners and Samurdhi beneficiaries. The government has not revealed how funds will be raised for the relief package, and therefore one tends to think that more money will be printed, and inflation will rise further, affecting everyone. The government’s wisdom of offering a 25-rupee increase in the guaranteed price for paddy to raise it to Rs. 75 per kilo by way of relief to protesting farmers stands questioned because private millers are already paying as much as Rs. 95 per kilo of paddy!

The President very modestly made mention of his government’s successful vaccination drive, which he could justifiably be proud of. But the government would have been able to control the pandemic better and mitigate its economic fallout more effectively if it had taken timely action public health experts called for. The protracted lockdown in the latter part of 2021, which made the economy scream as never before, could have been averted if the government had taken under advisement health professionals’ call for travel restrictions in April in view of the traditional New Year, and acted accordingly.

The President has said he is determined to go ahead with his green agriculture programme. He, however, should not be in a hurry; he should cross the river feeling the stones if he is to avoid further trouble. It was a colossal mistake for the government to impose a blanket ban on agrochemicals overnight. It should have taken steps to reduce the use of chemical fertilisers, etc., over a period of time, with the participation of all stakeholders, and then assessed the situation before moving on to the next phase of the project. Unfortunately, it chose to act like a bull in an agrochemical shop.

It was widely thought that given the manner in which the government had bungled on many fronts and been left with egg on its face, the President would be left without anything to say in Parliament yesterday. But he managed to say something sensible in his policy statement, and it in itself could be considered an achievement!

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Editorial

Sports, science, and sense

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Tuesday 18th January, 2022

Tennis star Novak Djokovic is in a league of his own with his fans spread across the globe. He has all what any sportsperson could dream of—talent, fame and wealth. But he seems to lack one thing—common sense. He found himself up the creek without a paddle in Australia, and faced deportation because he did not play the game there, so to speak. He failed to realise that he was taking a huge risk when he travelled to Australia to take part in the Australian Open because he was unvaccinated. He should have known that he would receive the same treatment as any other unvaccinated foreigner in Australia, and his ranking as World No. 1 would not be factored in where vaccine mandates were concerned in that country. The blame for this unfortunate situation should be apportioned to the organisers of the Australian Open as well.

Anyone who seeks to enter Australia or any other country, for that matter, has to comply with laws, rules and regulations there or be prepared for deportation. The Australian government has been fighting quite a battle to save lives and keep the economy ticking vis-a-a-vis the pandemic; there have also been protests against lockdowns, etc. It has had to keep anti-vaxxers at bay, and this task is perhaps even more difficult than controlling the runaway virus.

There was no way Australia could give Djokovic special treatment while its own citizens were facing severe anti-pandemic restrictions. It has drawn heavy criticism for its action. Its visa approval process has even been described as ‘convoluted and shambolic’ in some quarters, and some critics claim that the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa will be a blow to the Australian Open.

Some Australian officials dragged some issues unnecessary into the controversy; they claimed that if Djokovic was allowed entry, it would be considered a victory for anti-vaxxers, who are all out to undermine the ongoing jab drive. They had a point in that Djokovic is said to have been vocal in his opposition to vaccine mandates. But they should have simply said no unvaccinated person would be allowed to enter Australia and everybody was equal before the law. The Victorian state government has made it abundantly clear that all players, staff and fans attending the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted. Djokovic and his lawyers failed to prove that there was genuine reason for him to refuse to be vaccinated.

Not that one loves Djokovic less, but one loves the pandemic-hit humans more. It is science, and not sports, that can save the world from the pandemic. Even those who have recovered from Covid-19 have to be vaccinated, according to medical experts. Had the Australian government chosen to bend the rules and let Djokovic in, simply because he has recovered from Covid-19, it would have set a very bad precedent at a time when vaccine hesitancy has stood in the way of the global fight against Covid-19.

Imagine what would have happened if an unvaccinated star like Djokovic had arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport and been denied entry? One of our jobless government grandees would have tucked up his sarong and made a beeline for the BIA, given the legend a bear hug and taken selfies with him or her before escorting him or her out. (Our is a land where even convicted rapists, murderers, drug dealers and other such anti-social elements serving sentences have been given presidential pardons!) It is believed that the spread of Covid-19 got out of control here in 2020 because scores of workers were allowed to be brought in from a neighbouring country without being tested for Covid-19, and that led to the formation of the Minuwangoda garment factory cluster.

Australia has done what is good for its people in spite of international pressure and thereby shown the way where pandemic control is concerned. It is hoped that other countries will not hesitate to adopt such tough measures in fighting the virus. One feels sorry for Djokovic, whose career has suffered a heavy blow, at what is described as his most successful Grand Slam tournament, but the fact remains that nobody, however famous or powerful he or she may be, should be allowed to trifle with vaccine mandates.

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