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Editorial

Watchdogs and poodles

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Saturday 29th August, 2020

The government and the Opposition have locked horns over the appointment of chairpersons to the parliamentary finance committees, especially the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said the appointment of their heads should be left entirely to their members. On the face of it, this may look a very democratic way of sorting out the issue. But what the PM has left unsaid is that the government will be able to control all these committees if their members are allowed to decide on their heads because the SLPP representatives therein outnumber their Opposition counterparts.

Some government members have argued that, in the past, Opposition MPs were not appointed as chairpersons of the parliamentary watchdog committees. True, some governments chose to control them, but there have been some instances where Opposition MPs became their heads. This government came to power promising a break with the past, and therefore, it should not hesitate to let Opposition MPs head the finance committees if it is serious about practising good governance.

The first bond scam came to light because the special COPE on the questionable bond auctions was headed by an Opposition MP—D. E. W. Gunasekera. However, the appointment of Opposition MPs alone does not guarantee the independence of the parliamentary financial committees. The UNP has been given the credit for DEW’s appointment to that post, but the fact remains that it had Parliament dissolved so that the COPE report could not be taken up for debate. President Maithripala Sirisena did not appoint DEW a National List MP of the UPFA, following the 2015 general election, obviously under pressure from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was defending Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran involved in the bond rackets. Had the Gunasekera committee report been made public, the people would have realised the severity of the financial crimes and, perhaps the outcome of the 2015 general election would have been different, and the second bond scam could have been prevented.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government also allowed the appointment of an Opposition MP—Sunil Handunnetti (JVP)—as the COPE Chairman after the 2015 general election. The report issued by the COPE under his chairmanship on the bond scams, however, left out Wickremesinghe’s name. Handunnetti could have presented the Gunasekera committee report to Parliament together with his; he did not do so because the JVP was honeymooning with the UNP.

The JVP was only pretending to be as keen as mustard to help nab the bond racketeers; it was, as cynics say, floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly where the UNP was concerned. Both the JVP and the UNP have paid the price for their political living together. Handunnetti and Wickremesinghe were defeated at the first general election they faced after the bond scams. The UNP MPs who used their positions as COPE members to defend the perpetrators of the biggest ever financial crime in the country have also lost their seats. Among them are Ajith P. Perera and Sujeewa Senasinghe. Ravi Karunanayake, too, has failed to retain his seat. Defeat is a fate worse than death for politicians craving power. Those who are currently in power had better bear in mind that the same fate is sure to befall them if they indulge in corruption at the expense of the public.

Politicians feel the need to protect public assets and fight corruption only when they are in the Opposition while their ruling party counterparts are on the lookout for the slightest opportunity to help themselves to state resources. Poodles do not make watchdogs, which must at least bark. This is why we believe that the COPE, etc., should be headed by Opposition MPs for want of a better alternative. However, these chairpersons have to have clean records. (We may be able to find a few of them.)



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Editorial

Happy New Year!

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Tuesday 13th April, 2021

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is the time when ordinary people have their fill of merrymaking, and traders and pawnbrokers laugh all the way to the bank. The much-talked-about need to preserve traditions associated with the national festival for posterity is only an excuse for the annual splurge.

What is being celebrated is essentially a harvest festival. In days of yore, people toiled away for months and produced a surplus, part of which was set aside for the New Year festivities. They did not have to worry about the rest of the year as they had enough food stocks. Today, there is no such surplus production, and most people spend borrowed money on New Year celebrations only to regret later when the festive hangover gives way to sobering reality.

Today, harvesting makes only moneylenders and the middleman happy. The farming community is caught in a debt trap. Loan sharks prey on them with impunity. Harvesting is followed by debt-servicing, and farmers either cannot pay back their loans or are left with little or nothing after debt repayment; they have to borrow more for consumption and cultivation purposes, and never will they be able to break this vicious circle unless the state makes a meaningful intervention. Avurudu provides them with some respite from suffering. The same is true of most other people as well.

The koha is said to be conspicuous by its absence, this year. Is it fed up with looking for trees to perch on, given the rate at which the country is being denuded? Its cry which is considered the herald of the traditional new year is, in fact, a desperate mating call. One wonders whether its cry is not heard these days because it has opted for remaining silent by way of family planning, as it were, on account of serious habitat problems.

Health experts have been trying to knock some sense into the public, but in vain. People have thrown caution to the wind, and are behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. They seem to consider Avurudu to be something worth dying for. Shops are chock-a-block, and nobody cares two hoots about the physical distancing rule. People jostle inside clothing stores as if they had never worn clothes before. They also strip bare the racks of grocery stores as if they had never seen food, all these years. Adult males religiously flock around liquor outlets as though their very survival were dependent on the bottle that cheers.

Yesterday, India reported 168,912 COVID-19 infections overnight and overtook Brazil as the second-worst hit country in the world. Unless precautions are taken during the current festive season, Sri Lanka may find itself in the same predicament as its big neighbour.

Politics has apparently taken precedence over the COVID-19 protocol although the health authorities fear that a surge of infections is on the horizon. The government seems reluctant to have the health regulations strictly enforced lest such action should not find favour with the public, who had to be immured in their homes during the festive season, last year. The Provincial Council elections are also expected before the year end. Hence the distribution of cash handouts by the government, which is playing Santa months ahead of Christmas.

The national economy and productivity will take another severe beating due to holidays. Workplaces will remain closed until early next week. It takes, at least, one whole week to reboot the country after the New Year celebrations. Economists should figure out how much the country loses owing to numerous holidays.

Perhaps, it was only last year that Sri Lankans celebrated Avurudu meaningfully. They confined themselves to their homes due to strictly enforced lockdowns, which may have caused numerous difficulties, financial or otherwise, but members of most families huddled together as never before; this is what Avurudu is all about.

We wish our readers a very happy New Year!

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Editorial

Bridging vaccine divide

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Monday 12th April, 2021

Rich nations make a show of their commitment to defending human rights in the world. They harangue their developing counterparts, at every turn, about the need to protect human rights, and even threaten to meet non-compliance with punitive actions such as sanctions. They, however, do not seem keen to promote and protect humans’ right to vaccination vis-a-vis the prevailing global health emergency. The only way to safeguard this right is to ensure an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed utter dismay at what it calls a ‘shocking imbalance’ in the distribution of vaccines between the rich and the poor.

This kind of vaccine inequality could be attributed to what WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has rightly called a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. The COVAX initiative, which alone can ensure a well-coordinated global fight against the virus, has suffered a serious setback, with the high-income countries reportedly holding as many as 4.6 billion doses of vaccines, and the low-middle income nations only 670 million. One in four people have been inoculated in the high-income countries as opposed to one in more than 500 in the low-income countries, according to the WHO.

Unless the COVAX scheme, the most efficacious antidote to what has come to be dubbed ‘vaccine nationalism’, which has put the poorer countries at a distinct disadvantage, goes ahead as planned, a vast majority of the global population, in the developing countries, will be badly hit, and in the long-term, the world’s fight against the virus will be in jeopardy because the pandemic is no respecter of geographical boundaries; no country, however rich and powerful, will be safe in today’s interconnected world dependent on international trade and travel.

‘Vaccine nationalism’ may give the rich nations a sense of security in the short-term, but it will be counterproductive in the long-term, for no vaccine is believed to be able to ensure life-time immunity against COVID-19. The pandemic continues to throw up new challenges. Even if the rich nations achieve their vaccination goals while their poor counterparts are lagging far behind, they will be at the risk of being affected by new variants, against which, the currently available jabs might not be effective. This is why Dr. Ghebreyesus has said no country will be safe until every country is safe.

Some Asian nations are struggling to beat the virus despite some initial success in their battle against the pandemic, according to an Asia News Network article we publish today. The report informs us that India, which is grappling with its second wave of infections, has seen record increases of new cases, with more than 100,000 daily being reported on, at least, five days, last week. This being the predicament of a vaccine-producing nation, with a reasonably efficient vaccination rollout, the vulnerability of other countries is not difficult to guess. Similar unfortunate situations have been reported from other parts of the world as well. The US, which is among the nations with impressively high COVID-19 vaccination rates, is also troubled by a sudden increase in the number of pandemic-related deaths.

If the vaccine rollouts fail to reach a successful conclusion the world over fast, it may not be possible to achieve global herd immunity through vaccination, and the chances of beating the virus may be slim due to its mutations, experts warn. COVAX is scheduled to supply as many as two billion doses of vaccines to 190 countries within one year with 92 poorer nations gaining access to vaccines at the same time as their wealthier counterparts. This is a highly ambitious target, which, however, must be achieved if the world is to get on top of the pandemic. But help from the rich nations is not forthcoming, and it is only natural that the WHO is disappointed.

The WHO is hopeful that it may be possible to change the composition of the existing vaccines to deal with the mutations of the virus, but it is still trying to figure out what kind of impact new variants may have on the effectiveness of vaccines. Reuters reported yesterday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa had been found to be able to break through Pfizer/BitoNtech’s vaccine to a considerable extent. Some Indian epidemiologists interviewed by BBC yesterday said they feared that the emerging variants might even be able to escape the human immune system!

The need for all nations, which are currently at cross purposes as regards the global battle against the virus, to support and be guided by COVAX, which alone can make them work in unison to beat the virus, cannot be overemphasised.

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Editorial

Give And Take

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Sri Lanka heads into the Sinhala and Tamil New Year at a time of difficulty and hardship unprecedented in our contemporary history. Covid 19 has cost us much, as it has cost nearly all countries in the planet. There have been claims that the worst is over and we continue to hope that this is correct. But that is not something that can be said with certainty. However a semblance of normalcy has returned although sections of the community, such as those dependent on tourism, continue to suffer hardship. Nobody can claim that the economy is in good shape with the rupee plunging to a historic low of Rs. 200 to the U.S. dollar. This must reflect both on the import bill and on external debt servicing and repayment. But tea prices remain good and the weather has been fair. While we can take comfort that we have not yet defaulted on our massive debt servicing and repayment obligations, the situation is far from rosy with our ability to raise new loans at interest rates that are not exorbitant declining by the day.

Although the ever-rising cost of living continues to impose hardship on both the poor and the middle class, this has been something that has been always with us for a very long time. Although incomes have grown, prices have grown much faster and we know too well that the value of money is now a fraction of what it was. This has particularly hurt savings and the prevailing low interest rates have dealt a kidney punch to large numbers of retired people dependent on interest income for their livelihood. While grumbling continues, people have learned to cope as best as they can. Despite all the negatives, the rulers continue to project a bold front. But there is no escaping the reality that the government has rapidly lost popularity since the last elections, both presidential and parliamentary.

No ban on New Year travel has been imposed although there are inherent risks, in the covid context, of large numbers of people going home to their villages from crowded urban centers they work in. This has been a long-held tradition and it would be a brave government that would interfere however much prudence dictates otherwise. While most people wear masks while moving around in public places, enforcing social distancing in crowded public transport will be next to impossible. Thus the powers that be have resorted to the easier way of leaving the choice to the good sense of the people rather than enforcing strict rules controlling movement. Although other countries have seen spikes of infection by being lenient on holiday travel, Sri Lanka will hopefully have better luck post avuruddhu.

We run on this page today a contribution from the Pathfinder Foundation of Mr. Milinda Moragoda, our High Commissioner-designate to New Delhi cautioning the government against taking too strong a stance on import substitution – a direction in which it is clearly moving. Given Moragoda’s political orientation, Pathfinder may be seen to be sticking its neck out by advocating a hemin hemin policy. Nobody would reasonably object to government imposing certain import bans to encourage local production as in the recent case of turmeric. There is no debate that we must grow crops that we can rather than import them. But governments must always strike the right balance between the interests of producers and consumers. When Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake pushed a massive food production drive during his 1965-70 government, he used to say at public meetings in agricultural areas that enormous foreign exchange expenditure was being incurred for the import of potatoes that some foreign experts had once-upon-a-time said cannot be economically grown here.

But Welimada farmers disproved them. Thereafter potatoes have been successfully grown even in Jaffna although we have not achieved self-sufficiency. “Why should we pay farmers in potato growing countries for their produce when we can pay that money to our own farmers?,” the prime minister used to ask. “But when we enforce a policy to ensure that our cultivators got the money flowing abroad, our opponents accuse the government of kicking the poor man’s ala hodda.” This was also true of chillies and onions where import substitution policies worked to benefit local farmers although at a cost to consumers. Jaffna farmers garlanding one-time Agriculture Minister Hector Kobbekaduwa with onions and chillies when he ran for president against J.R. Jayewardene was testimony to this policy. But it has not worked as successfully as it might have where local sugar production was concerned. Despite this country being endowed by conditions enabling sugar cane growing, we are nowhere near self-sufficiency although different governments have used tariff barriers to ensure better prices to domestic cane growers. Unfortunately we have a local sugar industry which makes more money out of its potable alcohol byproduct than from its sugar.

We have to be always conscious of the trade balance and cannot forget that Europe and the USA are the biggest markets for our garment industry. The ongoing restrictions on motor vehicle imports has no doubt saved us much foreign exchange but we cannot butter our bread on both sides by adopting one sided trade policies. That there must be give and take is a fact of life and it would be useful for the concerned authorities to take note of the Pathfinder perception that “openness to trade improves the tgrowth, employment and income trajectories of economies.”

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