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Editorial

When double standards reek of tobacco

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Tuesday 8th June, 2021

The government has had to give public health priority over everything else and extend the current countrywide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It could have saved many more lives than those lost in the Easter Sunday carnage if it had cared to heed doctors’ warnings and imposed travel restrictions in April. Had it allowed the public health professionals to decide what should be done to prevent the transmission of the runaway virus, it would have been able close the proverbial stable door in time without having to run madly behind the horse fleeing in a furious gallop. However, better late than never. Drastic pandemic control measures entail huge economic costs, as is public knowledge, but are necessary to bring the health emergency under control and save lives.

The government would have us believe that it is very concerned about public health, and that is why it is determined to go ahead with lockdowns until the virus relents. The economy is screaming, and so are the people troubled by the pangs of hunger. The government has also imposed a ban on chemical fertilisers on the grounds that they are harmful to public health and the environment. It has done so despite warnings in some quarters that its action could lead to a huge decrease in the national agricultural output and a food scarcity. It insists that the country’s sudden switchover to organic fertilisers will benefit the public and the economy in the long run. But the question is why it does not go by the same logic anent other harmful substances that ruin public health and cost the state coffer much more than the tax revenue they help generate. Tobacco is a case in point.

A UNDP publication, Investment Case for Tobacco Control in Sri Lanka—the case for scaling up WHO FCTC implementation, informs us that tobacco use costs Sri Lanka about 1.6% of its GDP, or around Rs. 214 billion a year, according to 2016 statistics. The tobacco-related health expenditure alone totals Rs. 15.3 billion, and the indirect productivity costs the economy has to bear due to tobacco-attributable premature mortality, disability and workplace smoking, amounts to a whopping Rs. 199 billion, the publication says.

Agrochemicals are harmful but not without benefits, if used in the prescribed manner, as the opponents of the ban thereon argue. However, by no stretch of the imagination could cigarettes, etc., be considered products with any benefits; they only benefit the tobacco industry, which thrives on the suffering of its customers. Cigarette is the only product that kills one out of two consumers, according the Health Ministry’s Profile on Tobacco Control in Sri Lanka. Tobacco-related illnesses kill more people daily than Covid-19 does; they cause about 57 deaths per day in this country, according to the Health Ministry statistics. The number of lives lost in road accidents averages eight, and the errant drivers responsible for them face legal action, but those who amass wealth at the expense of as many as 57 lives a day do so with impunity! Global statistics are even more chilling; tobacco kills more than eight million people around the world annually, according the WHO.

So, if the government’s much-publicised claim that it acted out of its concern for public health in banning chemical fertiliser is true, then why does it baulk at adopting the same modus operandi in dealing with the tobacco menace, especially cigarettes? One of the world’s foremost medical research centres—the National Institutes of Health, one of the agencies of the US Department of Health and Human Services—informs us that cigarettes could act as a gateway drug; they could open the door to the use of illicit drugs. One may recall that some of the present-day leaders have a history of securing financial assistance from the tobacco industry to develop schools and police stations; this, they have done although schoolchildren targeted by the tobacco industry, and the police tasked with enforcing the anti-tobacco laws, must not be made to feel that they are beneficiaries of the largesse of the tobacco industry.

 

 



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Editorial

Heed their voice

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Friday 27th January, 2023

A group of Central Bank (CB) employees, on Wednesday, joined other professionals in protesting against the recently-introduced steep tax hikes. As part of the ongoing Black Protest Week campaign conducted by a collective of professional associations, those workers put up black flags and stood up to the police, who tried to disrupt their demonstration. Some police officers tend to go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with their political masters, and run the risk of being hauled up before court for fundamental rights violations. Some CB workers were seen protesting in Colombo yesterday as well.

The irony of the CB workers’ protests may not have been lost on political observers. The CB is spearheading the government’s efforts to secure a bailout package from the IMF, which has prescribed the huge tax increases at issue. But the CB employees themselves are opposed to that measure, and with reason! How could the government expect other workers to accept its tax policy?

Why professionals are so incensed as to take to the streets against tax increases is understandable. They are not refusing to pay taxes. Everybody agrees that taxes must be paid, for the state needs money to meet its expenditure, but they must be reasonable, and taxpayers need an assurance that their money will not end up in the pockets of politicians or will be used to support the high life of the rulers and their cronies, in some other way. Soaring inflation has taken its toll on their earnings, and needless to say, tax increases have aggravated their financial woes as never before. They have to look after their families and repay loans. What infuriates them more than anything else is perhaps the fact that politicians live in the lap of luxury at their expense and waste colossal amounts of public money, the allocation of more than Rs. 200 million for the Independence Day celebrations to be held early next month being a case in point.

Worse, all executive level employees in this country have had to contend with multiple taxation. Their salaries are taxed; they are affected by the taxes imposed on the Employees’ Provident Fund. When they retire, their terminal benefits are taxed. They have to pay taxes on their interest income as well. Thus, they live to pay taxes, and politicians are living off them.

Another factor that has exasperated professionals is the cavalier attitude of some government politicians who seem to think those who draw higher salaries deserve to be exploited. A Cabinet minister has drawn heavy flak from trade unions for saying something to the effect that anyone who earns Rs. 100,000 or more is ‘not innocent’. Is it that one loses one’s innocence when one begins to earn more than Rs 100,000 after studying hard, acquiring academic and professional qualifications and gaining experience? It is only natural that workers become resentful when they see semi-literate politicians living like Citizen Kane while they and their family members are suffering.

It will be a huge mistake for the government to ignore the voice of the professionals on the warpath and resort to coercion in a bid to neutralise their protests. They are different from the Aragalaya activists, who were dependent mostly on their numerical strength to win their demands.

The Aragalaya protest movement disintegrated owing to crackdowns, and the government has since embarked on a witch-hunt against its leaders. Notorious drug kingpin, Kanjipani Imran, secured bail and fled the country, but student leader Wasantha Mudalige, who was involved in Aragalaya, has been arrested and remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act! The government will not be able to deal with the protesting professionals in a similar manner, for they possess trade union power, which they will not hesitate to use if push comes to shove.

It behoves the government to stop playing with fire and get the representatives of the warring professionals around the table without provoking them further. The sooner, the better!

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Editorial

Doublespeak and reverse speech

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Thursday 26th January, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is in overdrive to delay the local government (LG) elections while pretending that it is ready to face them. Experience is said to be the best teacher, and the public, having been taken for many a ride, tends to believe the obverse of what the ruling party politicians say. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has asked the UNP, which he leads, to get ready for the LG polls, and the UNP has given a lot of publicity to his directive, the subliminal message being that the government is intent on holding the mini polls, but those who have some acquaintance with reverse speech will argue that the SLPP-UNP combine is trying to mask its intent to postpone the polls.

Not all members of the government are adept at subterfuge and doublespeak unlike their leaders; most of them are blunt about their efforts to make a case for postponing elections. State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya is prominent among them. Whenever he meets the press, he sounds like a broken record; he talks nineteen to the dozen about revenue shortfalls as if to have the public believe that the only way to overcome them is to postpone the LG polls and save the funds to be spent thereon! His latest claim is that during the current month there will be a shortfall of Rs. 10 billion in revenue from the Customs and the Excise Department. This particular figure is of interest; it is exactly the amount of money the LG elections are expected to cost! It is a pity that Secretary to the Finance Ministry, Mahinda Siriwardena, who was once widely considered an upright public official, has also blotted his copybook badly by becoming a ventriloquist’s dummy; when he speaks, one hears the voice of the Minister of Finance. One need not be surprised even if the government stoops so low as to create a fuel shortage and give the people a choice between petroleum imports and elections.

Meanwhile, the SLPP has reportedly launched its LG polls campaign from the precincts of Sri Dalada Maligawa, Kandy, where some of its leaders paid homage to the sacred tooth relic, the other day. That event could be considered an affront to the holy shrine, for the SLPP has become a metaphor for corruption and caused untold suffering to the public; its actions are antithetical to the teachings of the Buddha. Asked by a group of hectoring journalists to comment on the allegation that the government is trying to postpone the mini polls, SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa refused to be drawn in on the issue, claiming that he was not in the government. Paradoxically, his claim is true and false at the same time. It is true because he is not even a government MP. It is false because one does not have to be in a government to control it. That Basil is an eminence grise is public knowledge.

In the early 1920s, cynics used to say the Soviet Union did as the Communist Party said; the Communist Party did as its Central Committee said, and the party Central Committee did as Lenin said. Likewise, the incumbent government of Sri Lanka does as President Wickremesinghe says; Wickremesinghe does as the SLPP parliamentary group says, and the SLPP MPs do as Basil says.

In 1994, the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said the entire Northern Province would be handed over to Prabhakaran for ten years without elections if he eschewed violence. Prabhakaran rejected the offer out of hand. About three decades on, those who boast of having defeated Prabhakaran are apparently trying to rule the entire country at least for ten years without elections on the pretext that electoral contests are far too expensive to be held due to the economic meltdown, which they themselves have caused. If they succeed in having their own way, they will perpetuate the economic crisis so that they and their kith and kin could stay in power without elections indefinitely and continue to live the high life while the people are suffering; in other words, instead of being punished for their economic crimes including that of bankrupting the country, they will be rewarded! It is like a rapist being given the custody of his victims so that he can continue to abuse them! Nowhere else in the world is such a thing possible! One can understand why this unfortunate country has come to be dubbed ‘a land like no other’.

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Editorial

Election phobia

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Wednesday 25th January, 2023

The SLPP and the UNP are trying every trick in the book to postpone the local government (LG) elections for fear of losing them. Their leaders are ready to do everything in their power to derail the mini polls scheduled to be held on 09 March. It is against this backdrop that their alleged attempt to have the Election Commission (EC) reconstituted should be viewed. They are all out to get rid of the EC members, who have refused to pull political chestnuts out of the fire for them.

The SLPP-UNP administration has mastered the art of causing divisions among the members of independent institutions to advance its political agenda. It has already made the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka succumb to political pressure by making some of its members turn against its Chairman. Having tried to divide the EC without success, it is apparently trying to replace the current commissioners with some pliable characters who will do its bidding.

During the Yahapalana government, the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had the Constitutional Council (CC) under his thumb. The less said about the Parliamentary Council that the Rajapaksas set up after abolishing the CC, the better. The CC became a rubber stamp for the UNP. Now that Wickremesinghe has become the President, it is feared that the same fate will befall the CC. One can only hope that the distinguished citizens who have been appointed to the CC will not sully their reputations by becoming putty in the hands of a bunch of failed politicians who are determined to cling on to power like limpets.

A government that fears elections is a danger to democracy, and all those who collaborate with it to delay the LG polls, deny the people an opportunity to vent their anger in a democratic manner and drive them to take to the streets will be held to account one day.

All those who cherish democracy must circle the wagons to frustrate the government’s sinister efforts to delay the LG elections on some pretext or another.

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Sirisena’s plea

Politicians in this country seem to think that they and their family members have a divine right to live off the public. Former President Maithripala Sirisena has said he does not have money to pay Rs. 100 million as compensation to the Easter Sunday terror victims as per a recent Supreme Court order, and unless he receives public help to raise funds, he will have to go to jail.

It is difficult to believe that a politician who has spent billions of rupees on election campaigns over the past several decades and enriched his kith and kin, known for their opulent and sybaritic lifestyles, cannot raise Rs. 100 million. But if Sirisena was telling the truth, then the right-thinking people would not give him a single red cent so that they could have the pleasure of seeing a former President doing time in a state pen!

Basil Rajapaksa got it right when he said, at a media briefing, a few moons ago, that the blame for what President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP government had done should be apportioned to the people who voted for them. It is from those who voted for him at the 2015 presidential election and caused national security to be neglected that Sirisena should seek assistance to raise Rs. 100 million. Arguably, those who enabled him to achieve his presidential dream are responsible for his lapses. The UNP, the JVP, the TNA, the SLMC, etc., threw their weight behind Sirisena in the presidential race, and they are therefore duty bound to ensure that Sirisena pays compensation to the Easter Sunday tragedy victims by helping him raise the necessary funds. The same goes for the political leaders who campaigned hard to make Sirisena the President and benefited from his elevation to the highest position in the country. They include President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Sajith Permadasa, Sarath Fonseka, TNA leader R. Sampanthan, and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Besides, countless civil society activists backed Sirisena’s presidential bid, and they, too, ought to help him pay compensation to the victims of the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings.

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