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Editorial

What next?

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Given the raging Covid-19 pandemic threatening the entire country at present, Sri Lanka needs the current teachers protests ignoring all preventive protocols like a shot in the head. But there is no sign whatever, as this is being written, of any kind of truce between the teacher and the government. The rulers gave into pressure over the Kotelawela Defence University Bill last week by deferring its scheduled presentation to the legislature sine die. But there has been no backtracking on the teachers’ demands or the ban on the import of chemical fertilizers also attracting loud and crowded protests, Covid notwithstanding. The teachers are on record saying they will not back down. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of pupils in government schools, already hurt by the pandemic restrictions, are not even getting the few distance learning opportunities the teachers say they were providing at their own expense.

Fortunately the government has abandoned its previous heavy-handed approach against teachers and other protesters that saw some teachers’ union leaders roughly arrested and hauled before the courts. They were bailed by the courts but not able to go home as the cops bundled them off to distant quarantine centers where delayed testing found them Covid negative. They were released just before the legal challenge they mounted over this issue was taken up by the courts, obviously because the government feared an adverse determination. The protests continue unabated, perhaps gathering fresh momentum with no signs whatever of any via media being achieved. The previous rough stuff telecast countrywide, perhaps somewhat helped the teachers as there is no formidable display of public anger over their Covid-endangering protests.

Our stablemate, The Island, last week carried a most thought provoking article by a senior retired public official, Mr. K.L.L. Wijeratne, branding the teachers’ pay hike demand “An Unjust Call.” He is eminently qualified to offer an opinion on the subject having long served the Salaries and Cadres Commission, both as Secretary (2006 to 2009) and Chairman from 2016 to 2019. All of us well know that teaching has been a poorly paid profession, perhaps the worst paid, for as long as anyone can remember. During the current wave of protest, teachers’ unions as well as their political backers have been loudly proclaiming that they are paid as little as between Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 1,500 a day. It wasn’t long ago that plantation workers were granted a thousand rupee daily wage in the teeth of protests by their employers that the industry just could not bear it and will surely be crushed.

We are also familiar with the fact that teachers, unlike most other employees, enjoy the school vacations thrice a year. They also had weekends off at a time the rest of the workforce had only half a day off on Saturdays. Mr. Wijeratne has given the cold, hard facts in his article saying that teachers work 180 five-hour days a year (around 900 hours) whereas other public servants work 240 eight-hour days (around 1,900 hours) a year. You don’t have to be a cynic to believe that the vast number of employees in our bloated public service, teachers or otherwise, put in far fewer hours into their workdays than they are supposed to. It is no doubt unfair to tar the entire public service with the same brush. But conceding that there are many exceptions, the rule is broadly true. We do not know whether there are any figures – though they must be available somewhere – on the gender balance between men and women in the teaching profession. But there is no doubt that a very large number of women have opted for teaching despite the poor compensation as it enables them to better balance their working and family lives.

Mr. Wijeratne has also given a telling example of how politicians, in this case President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the UNP’s late Srima Dissanayake, who was plunged into a presidential election following the tragic assassination of her husband, Gamini Dissanayake, during a presidential election campaign, drop more than a spot of dung into the pot of milk for political advantage. Here he quotes chapter and verse about CBK’s wise and proper approach to the teachers salary issue which has been simmering for the previous several decades. As finance minister, President Kumaratunga had in 1995 offered what the writer calls “well considered observations” on this subject. This was when she had in 1994 obtained cabinet approval for amending an earlier decision to establish a Sri Lanka Teachers’ Service with effect from October 1994 and implement the salary scaled proposed for that service from Jan. 1995. The amendment she proposed and was accepted required reference of the proposed salary scales to the Salaries and Cadres Committee “for a comprehensive examination and report before implementing the proposals.”

But voila what happened? Ms. Srima Dissanayake published a full page newspaper notice in October 1994 promising to implement the proposed salary scale for teachers and restructure the Principals’ Service, Teacher Education Service and Education Administrative Service. CBK gazetted the proposed salary scales the day her rival’s notice appeared, and as Wijeratne says, created the only instance “where salaries were gazetted before establishing a service!” This then was how the game was played and has continued to be played. The tottering economy cannot bear the weight of the demand which will trigger a myriad of similar demands from elsewhere. But seeing how others have won their demands, the teachers will not let go of the opportunity they have seized Covid or no Covid.



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Editorial

‘Manike mage hithe’; Amaradeva amathakado?

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Thursday 23rd September, 2021

The unprecedented success of two young Sri Lankan artistes, Yohani and Satheeshan, following the release of their song, Manike mage hithe, which has become a viral trend on social media, has led to Sri Lankan politicians to jump on the bandwagon. SJB MP Nalin Bandara has proposed that Parliament honour the singing duo. The best way the national legislature could honour the young artistes is to serve the interests of the Sri Lankan youth, thousands of whom are waiting to migrate at the earliest opportunity owing to the mess the country has got into over the decades under successive governments.

Yohani and Satheeshan have not only had Bollywood megastars like Big B hop on to the trend but also entered the 12-billion-dollar global streaming market, and therefore deserve national recognition and unstinted state assistance to venture farther afield. Yohani has been invited to hold two concerts in India. She and Satheeshan have demonstrated to the Sri Lankan youth that they could conquer the world without leaving the country of their birth. They have also shown how to tap the enormous potential of the World Wide Web through creativity and perseverance, and awakened popular interest in creative economy.

It is not only in the field of music that young Sri Lankans can excel. In this technologically-driven world, opportunities abound in many spheres across geographical boundaries. Many young Sri Lankans are already working for internationally reputed tech companies from here. Much more needs to be done.

Innovation is the way forward for any nation. The need to introduce radical changes to the existing education system here to prepare the young Sri Lankans to compete and grab opportunities in a highly competitive global environment cannot be overemphasised. One may recall that during a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak meeting in a far-flung area, when a female student requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to provide her school with a new computer as the old one had conked out, the latter, while undertaking to grant her request, asked whether the students had dismantled the faulty machine to see what had gone wrong. The answer was in the negative. The significance of the President’s question unfortunately was lost on education policymakers, and the media. Children must be trained to disassemble and reassemble basic machines––of course, under the supervision of teachers et al––as in other countries, besides being encouraged to identify the problems in their immediate environment and propose technological solutions thereto wherever possible.

Young, talented artistes, we repeat, should be honoured and assisted in pushing the envelope of their chosen fields, but the maestros who have made their achievements possible by preserving the Sri Lankan identity therein, must not be forgotten. There are many senior artistes struggling to keep the wolf from the door; the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated their woes. They must also be looked after. Many are the young artistes who are in penury today because there are no musical shows owing to lockdowns, etc. They, too, need assistance from the state as well as the public.

Sadly, nobody has taken up for discussion in Parliament the fate that has befallen the Amaradeva Asapuva project, which was launched with great fanfare some years ago, at Battaramulla. The place, named after the late Pundit W. D. Amaradeva, who made this country proud, and was in a league of his own, is now overgrown with weeds, according to media reports. Ironically, it is just a stone’s throw from Parliament, where a call has been made for honouring Yohani and Satheeshan for Manike mage hithe. Has Amaradeva been forgotten––Amaradeva amathakado?

Amaradeva loved young artistes and promoted them as he knew they were the future of Sri Lankan music and needed encouragement. He even duetted with them. What a fabulous blend of voices we have in Hanthane Sihine, which the maestro sings with brilliant, young vocalist, Umariya. A newspaper report says the urn containing the great man’s ashes is still waiting to be deposited at the Asapuva to be built. Will Parliament take up this issue and have the memorial project expedited before basking in the reflected glory of young artistes?

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Editorial

Of that den of thieves

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Wednesday 22nd September, 2021

A CCTV footage of a sarong-clad shoplifter removing a bundle of electrical cables from a shelf, concealing it in his crotch area and walking away calmly was telecast yesterday. There are many other thieves like him, and shopkeepers are having a hard time trying to ward them off. They have got stealing goods in this manner down to a fine art, but their skills pale into insignificance in comparison to what our politicians are capable of. If a damning statement made by a high-ranking public official on the latest scandal at Sathosa is any indication, then politicians and their henchmen are capable of carrying 40-foot containers, hidden in their crotch areas, and delivering them to private traders. Another minister has adopted the same method to deliver a power plant to a US company! Nothing is too big for the kapati-suit fraternity—not even container terminals with huge gantry cranes thereon. This may be why Sri Lanka calls itself the Wonder of Asia.

Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Executive Director Thushan Gunawardena has announced his resignation, citing as reasons threats to his life for blocking some questionable deals. He has also mentioned the Sathosa garlic scam. We learn that a consignment of 56,000 kilos of garlic in two freight containers was purchased by Sathosa at less than Rs. 110 a kilo from the Colombo port and sold to a private supplier at Rs. 135 a kilo. The racketeers were planning to repurchase the stock of garlic at Rs. 445 a kilo and sell it to consumers at Rs. 550 a kilo! Thankfully, a CAA raid put paid to their sinister move.

Gunawardena has said Sathosa has been taking goods from the Colombo port, selling them to private suppliers and repurchasing them at higher prices, at the expense of the state coffers and consumers, for a long time. He says he believes that no public official can carry out mega rackets without political backing. One cannot but agree with him.

Gunawardena has alleged that two ministers are out for his scalp because he has refused to be party to some questionable transactions, and is therefore considered an obstacle. We are not in a position to verify his claim, but it is a very serious charge that must not go uninvestigated.

The incumbent government has within its ranks most of the rogues whose corrupt deals and abuse of power led to the collapse of the previous Rajapaksa administration, but the people voted for the SLPP in spite of them because they reposed trust in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who, they thought, would make a difference. The President has to live up to people’s expectations and restore public confidence in his government. As for the Sathosa garlic scam, no less a person than the outgoing CAA Executive Director is a witness, and, therefore, it will not be difficult to bring the culprits to justice.

State Minister of Co-operative Services, Marketing Development and Consumer Protection Lasantha Alagiyawanna has sought to deny Gunawardena’s claim, and challenged the latter to a public debate. His side of the story should be heard, but a debate is not the way to set about it. The issue is far too serious to be sorted out in that manner.

A thorough probe is called for into the garlic racket and the ongoing attempts to find a scapegoat. Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardena must also be made to explain why the consignment of garlic was allowed to be sold to a private company. Sathosa has become a den of thieves, who far outnumber the rats in its warehouses. Corrupt deals are the main reason why this vital state institution, which can be utilised to make effective market interventions to tame traders’ Mafia that exploits the public, is incurring huge losses.

Let President Rajapaksa be urged to order a special probe into the garlic racket urgently and have the culprits prosecuted. All suspects in the garb of officials must be interdicted, and the two ministers concerned asked to step down so that an independent investigation could be conducted. One only hopes the garlic racket will not go the same way as the sugar tax scam, which also caused huge losses to the state coffers.

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Editorial

Govt. as drunk as a skunk?

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Tuesday 21st September, 2021

Drinking is one of the many things Sri Lankans do not know how to do properly. They do not drink tea with sugar; instead, they drink sugar with tea, as it were, and religiously keep their blood sugar levels extremely high much to the benefit of Big Pharma. They are supposed to drink a lot of clean water daily, but they take in only a little of it, and ask for kidney problems. They prefer sugary drinks saturated with kidney-busting dyes and high levels of sugar to healthy, tasty thambili or kurumba.

Sri Lankan males are the worst; they chugalug firewater as if they had a death wish, and most of them do so at the expense of their families. ‘Moderation’ is certainly not in their vocabulary. A person cannot be denied his right to drink himself to death, but something needs to be done when drunkards become a threat to others’ health by spreading deadly diseases.

When the government, in its wisdom, allowed liquor outlets to reopen, ‘Alpha males’ amongst us thronged around them, without giving a tinker’s cuss about the highly contagious Delta variant of coronavirus. Having jostled and shoved madly, they must have returned home, taking with them not only alcohol but also the deadly coronavirus, which is looking for lives to snuff out; they have endangered the lives of their family members. Thus, in a single day, the country must have lost most of what it had gained through the past few weeks with the help of an expensive lockdown. The cumulative impact of the ‘bar clusters’ in the making on the country’s pandemic control efforts will be seen in a few weeks. Infections are sure to increase by leaps and bounds. Are the government leaders so drunk as to make such stupid decisions? They blundered in April by refusing to close the country during the traditional New Year period, thereby facilitating the formation of a massive cluster of infections and the subsequent emergence of the Delta variant. Five months on, they have given a turbo boost to the pandemic again by reopening liquor stores haphazardly. The elusive virus must be fist-pumping with glee.

The country is technically closed, but practically open. There is a lockdown, and at the same time there is no lockdown, paradoxical as it may sound. However, thankfully, the infection rate and the death toll have been decreasing significantly during the past several days. The government, out of sheer desperation for money, may have thought it would be able to rake in billions of rupees by way of taxes if the liquor outlets were allowed to reopen. But it should at least have ordered the police to keep a watchful eye on the desperate males gathering near liquor stores and ensure that they followed the Covid-19 protocol. The police were conspicuous by their absence. Were they also bending their elbows? (A picture of a traffic cop carrying a carton with VSOA—Very Special Old Arrack—written thereon is doing the rounds on social media!)

Several essential commodities are in short supply. There are complaints of shortages of milk powder and cooking gas. The government, which has chosen to ignore them, is keen to ensure an uninterrupted supply of alcohol! It is too shy to admit that it is desperate to collect taxes at the expense of people’s health; it claims that the demand for illicit brews is on the increase because the authorised liquor outlets have remained closed. If a rise in moonshine sales is the problem, the government must order the police to raid the illicit breweries, including those belonging to its supporters who manufacture a toxic brew euphemistically called ‘artificial toddy’.

Liquor stores will have to be reopened like other businesses, but that must not be done on a priority basis even before the pandemic situation is brought under control. Precautions must be taken to prevent overcrowding when they reopen after the lockdown is officially lifted. Let the buyers of liquor be made to queue up like other consumers who patiently wait for their turns near places such as the Sathosa outlets.

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