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War at close quarters– oh, how unlovely !

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by ECB Wijeyesinghe

When I was a schoolboy of eight at St. Benedict’s College, Colombo, I was made to stand on a platform and recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” With great gusto I rendered the passage, “Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them, Cannon behind them volleyed and thundered,” with fingers pointing to the appropriate points in the compass. I thought war was grand, especially when the audience began to cheer like mad.

Many years later when I with three others, stood on a hill barely 1,800 yards from the Japanese positions on the Arakan Front and watched the real stuff – the Allied guns and dive-bombers blasting the enemy strongholds all round us – our blood nearly froze in our veins.

As I told you last Sunday there were four of us: A.C. Stewart, Editor of “The Times of Ceylon,” G.J. Padmanabha, Deputy Editor of the “Ceylon Daily News,” K.V.S. Vas, Editor of “The Virakesari,” and myself representing “The Ceylon Observer.” Stewart was the most affluent of the Four Musketeers invited by Lord Mountbatten to see the last stages of World War II in Burma.

His flask of brandy, like the bottomless well at Puttur, never ran dry. So we huddled close to him, especially one cold night at a God-forsaken place called Comilla, on our way from Calcutta to Chittagong. It was not the low temperature alone that made us shiver. The Japanese were flying too close to us for our comfort, and the spotless white banian and cloth of Vas, the Brahmin, made us a sort of sitting target for the enemy snipers, who were all over the place.

Regarding that assignment it was not the rigours of the actual battle-front that have stuck in my mind so much as the amusing interludes at Chandpur, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and Maungdaw and finally the adventures in the streets of Calcutta.

PICTURESQUE

If ever you travel from Calcutta to Chittagong I would advise you not to do the whole trip by train. Do part of it along the placid waters of the River Meghna, one of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The Chittagong-bound train from Calcutta leaves the city just before dawn and as one moves eastward the glory of the sunrise seen from the train, can only be compared to the view one gets on a clear day from Adam’s Peak.

After about six hours the train reaches a little station called Goulanda. It is on the banks of the Meghna and anchored by the side of a floating book-office is a steamer, flat-bottomed and paddle-wheeled. Probably the show-boats on the Mississippi, made famous in Negro song and history, were bigger models of these picturesque craft.

Padmanabha, who appeared to be in the mood for a little chanson about the black man’s burden, could not obey that impulse, owing to the noise made by a gang of labourers who were bearing their burdens accompanied by a chant resembling, the Volga boatman’s song. Some men were loading mysterious parcels probably with lethal potentialities, while others were engaged in the more mundane task of shovelling the silt with spades and pick-axes from the river’s edge.

LUNCH

We embarked on the boat just about noon, after an eight-hour train journey. In the little dining room red-turbaned waiters were busy laying the table. The smell of cooked food assailed the nostrils sharpening the appetites already made keen by swigs off Stewart’s flask of brandy. As the boat’s whistle went off, the romantic little craft was released from her moorings and somebody said it was time for lunch.

Not more that 20 people could sit at one and the same time, but that was quite enough, as there were not more than 20 on the upper deck, though there were many more in other parts of the boat. The soup tasted good. The fish, caught in the very waters in which were chugging along, was better. The next item was Irish stew, and Stewart, the Scotsman attacked it with fierce intensity.

To the three men from Ceylon, it was however the rice and curry that appealed most. Over little mounds of snow-white, thin, long-grained Delhi rice large chunks of chicken, curried in Indian fashion, were placed. There was dhal in abundance and papadams, which greatly pleased our Brahmin companion.

Next to me sat a strapping big Borah contractor from Dacca. He went through every course with a zeal worthy of a better cause. When it came to the curry he thought he should say a few words. “This is done in our Bengal style,” he said, smacking his lips after consuming two platefuls of rice. He helped himself to two more pieces of chicken and asked me whether I liked it, but there was no more to be had.

My Borah neighbour, in a loud voice then called for the pudding. One could close one’s eyes and say that he liked that, too. He did not care for the coffee. The cups were too small for his taste.

MOSQUITOES

The siesta in the two-berth cabin was disturbed by the call for tea. As we emerged on deck again, we were told we were passing the birth-place of C.R. Das, the great Indian nationalist. So through the silence of the waters, broken only by the cacophonous calls of kites and sea-gulls, we reached Chandpur the last port of call on the road to Chittagong.

I was glad in one way that the Japanese had bombed Chittagong. The very look of the place at that time created a violent prejudice. Going through the main street was like going through Reclamation Road and coming out at Sea Street. It was dusty, dirty and unhealthy. I slept there under a mosquito net. In the morning, when I rose I thought I had disturbed a hive of bees.

There they were, thousands of big fat mosquitoes trying to force, like big fat rugger forwards, an entrance through the narrow apertures of the curtain. Had the net not covered me while I slept, I am afraid I would not have been alive to tell this tale.

It is almost impossible to compress within the narrow compass of this column, what happened during the two or three weeks on a battle-port. Or, to describe the things we saw or the people we met. For example, the quaint sight of attractive Burmese women carrying small children, but smoking big black cheroots, the vast plains near Cox’s bazaar over-run by snipe and teal, the transit military camps where one had to walk about one hundred yards from the dormitory to the latrines – which incidentally had no doors – the bully beef diet, the marvellous physiques of the Indian soldiers nourished on chappatis and a little ghee and the spirit of camaraderie of all the Allied military personnel.

But I must get back to Calcutta and tell you an interesting story about a foreigner who made a strange request. We were in the Grand Hotel and after breakfast, while the others were spending their last few pice in the Hogg market where you can buy anything you can think of, I was ruminating awhile, watching the passing pageant on the pavement.

The hotel is situated in Chowringhee. the main street of Calcutta, which every school boy knows is about five times the size of Colombo. I was in deep thought when I was suddenly accosted by a man dressed in grey flannels and a white shirt. His eyes were red, his feet were unsteady and every time he exhaled the air was filled with the aroma of some potent liquor.

As he looked up at me I noticed that something was worrying him. Discontent was written on his face. He grabbed me by the shoulder. My heart went out to him. Here was a man, I thought, a Stranger in a strange land, needing help. Obviously he believed I was an Indian and I asked him what I could do for him. “Do ?” he growled and spat out. I was about to leave him and allow him to enjoy the headache he had acquired at that early hour — it was about eight-thirty — when he spoke again.

“Do you know I come from Ceylon?” he blurted out in a thick Scottish brogue. Until then I knew he was a European but could not identify his nationality. Of course, the going was bound to be good after that. The magic word Ceylon made me prick up my ears. While he clung to my shoulders I clutched at his elbow. It must have been a moving sight.

Smartly dressed Anglo-Indian girls on their way to work giggled as they passed by. A British officer who seemed to sum up the situation at a glance gave a sympathetic wink and walked on. The usual crowd was beginning to collect. I suggested moving up. He assented. We stopped at a popular joint called Firpo’s and then he poured forth his soul.

He was a seaman. He had been to many lands and visited strange countries. Forty years he had spent on the ocean wave. Born and bred among the distilleries in the Highlands, he had acquired a penchant for the strong brew that comes from Scotland. But his heart was in Ceylon. He told me how beautiful it was. He spoke of Colombo with a gulp in his throat and of the little hotel in Chatham Street, named after a famous Admiral, where he used to stay. I was silent. He went on talking. Time was marching on. I could have listened to him till dusk. Finally as he bade me good-bye he said: “You must visit Ceylon some day.”

“I suppose I must,” I murmured, and passed on.

BENGALI

There was one disappointment on this otherwise most instructive and entertaining trip. I wonder whether you remember reading about the Black Hole of Calcutta. It happened about 220 years ago when a fellow called Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the Nawab of Bengal, suddenly lost his temper and attacked the British East India Co.

The Nawab collared 146 Empire builders, all Englishmen of course, and in order to test certain theories he had about space, he shoved them into a dungeon less than 20 feet square. Naturally, there was not enough air to go round and 123 British bodies were discovered the following morning. The other 23, who were half dead managed to tell their tale of woe to Lord Clive, who naturally took a serious view of the Nawab’s cruel joke.

Three thousand British troops were summoned and English history books tell us that they made mince-meat of the Nawab’s force of 50,000. Clive’s men were probably armed with guns while the Nawab’s men must have had lovely swords and axes. Anyhow, this was one little hole in Calcutta that I wished to see but our guide pretended not to have heard of it. He was a Bengali.

(From The Best Among ????)



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Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing

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By Usvatte-aratchi

We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.

The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.

As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?

Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.

If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.

When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.

The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.

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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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