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.
When villains guffaw and heroes whine
Wednesday 23rd June, 2021
A sardonic witticism attributed to Einstein describes insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How successive Sri Lankan governments have sought to solve the problem of periodic rice shortages created by a group of powerful millers is a textbook example of insanity in the Einsteinian sense. Their modus operandi has been to import rice. Theoretically, this method should work, but it has failed to be a remedy due to market manipulation by the unscrupulous millers, as we have argued in previous comments.
A cartel of millers was making huge profits at the expense of the public to the tune of Rs. 20 a kilo of rice, Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage told Parliament yesterday, claiming that the government was left with no alternative but to import 100,000 MT of rice immediately to bring down prices. He said the government’s paddy stocks had run out.
Aluthgamage, however, made no revelation. That some powerful millers exploit both the farmer and the consumer with impunity is public knowledge.
When the shipments of rice arrive, the big-time millers release some of their stocks, causing prices to fall before the next harvest period. Imported rice does not suit the local consumer’s palate and, therefore, most of it remains unsold in warehouses. Thereafter, the millers’ cartel buys paddy from farmers at extremely low prices, and hoards it causing prices to rise, again. Thus, they get the best of both worlds. The imported rice rotting away in government warehouses goes for a song as animal feed in the end, and those responsible for rice imports laugh all the way to the bank.
The previous government is alleged to have caused a loss of about Rs. 10 billion to the state coffers due to rice imports. Farmers’ associations have accused some key public officials of colluding with the millers’ mafia. How much the state coffers will lose due to rice imports under the present dispensation remains to be seen.
The government must take action to prevent the hoarding of rice and have the hoarded rice released to the market forthwith. Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardena has gone on record as saying that in dealing with hoarders, the government cannot act like a thug. Curiously, some of the present-day leaders are believed to have a history of having television stations, newspaper printing presses, etc., burnt down and their rivals including journalists killed. How come they act with restraint in handling the rice Mafia? Anyway, if the existing laws lack teeth and do not provide for tough action needed to prevent hoarding, let new ones be made fast to tame the exploitative millers. After all, the government keeps bragging about its two-thirds majority in Parliament, and, therefore, legislating for the people’s interests to be safeguarded should be child’s play for it. The Opposition will have to support such a move or incur much public opprobrium.
The task of taming the millers’ cartel requires urgent action to develop the Paddy Marketing Board, as a national priority, rid it of bribery and corruption, and ensure that small-time millers receive loans to purchase paddy without undue delays. They complain that banks, at the behest of some wealthy millers, delay their loans, and by the time funds are made available, there is hardly any paddy for them to buy.
What makes governments baulk at adopting stern action to tame the rice Mafia is that influential politicians benefit from the largesse of the wealthy millers, who have huge slush funds.
Two of the big-time millers who stand accused of manipulating the prices of rice through hoarding, etc., are closely connected with the present dispensation. They are Dudley Sirisena, younger brother of SLPP MP and former President Maithripala Sirisena, and State Minister Siripala Gamlath, who is related to the Sirisena family. This may explain why the heroes in the current government are all hat and no cattle or ‘float like bees and sting like butterflies’ when they ‘take on’ the rice Mafia.
Tuesday 22nd June, 2021
Old habits are said to die hard. Some SLPP leaders have reverted to their old ways even before the government has completed one year in office. They do not seem to learn from their past blunders that cost them dear politically; they are busy settling personal scores with one another, the way they did towards the latter part of the previous Rajapaksa government, whose leaders committed political hara-kiri by trifling with some UPFA seniors and even trying to smoke them out.
SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam is openly clashing with some Cabinet ministers. He has audaciously demanded Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila’s resignation over the fuel price increases. Minister of Industries Wimal Weerawansa’s wings are being clipped, to all intents and purposes; his ministry has been stripped of Lanka Phosphate Ltd. (LPL). The government has sought to justify its action by claiming that the institutions involved in fertiliser production should be under the Agriculture Ministry.
Now that LPL has been placed under the Agriculture Ministry, one can only hope that it will not face the same fate as the so-called peripheral forests, whose management the government craftily removed from the purview of the Forest Department and placed under the District and Divisional Secretaries, on the pretext of helping the people engaged in traditional agriculture. This move enabled the SLPP henchmen to encroach on forests, pretending to be farmers.
The Auditor General and others on a mission to protect vital state assets should keep a watchful eye on LPL, which is said to be making profits at present; Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage must be held accountable if LPL backslides. It is no secret that various racketeers have been eyeing this state-owned venture for a long time; there are some government cronies among them. They must be licking their chops. The sky is the limit for these elements, as evident from the manner in which the government reduced import duty on sugar to help one of its financiers make a killing at the expense of the state coffers, which suffered colossal losses amounting to billions of rupees, as a result. MONLAR (Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform), which is at the forefront of protecting farmers’ rights, has warned of a sinister move to divest LPL in the long run. This warning should be taken seriously.
The Opposition is not playing its cards well where the government’s political woes are concerned. The SJB leaders do not seem to have read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which says, among other things, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” They seem to be convinced otherwise; they have resorted to offensive action while their political enemies are clashing, and in so doing, they have only prompted the SLPP dissenters to make common cause. They have undertaken to move a no-faith motion against Minister Gammanpila, and unwittingly provided the government with a fresh rallying point. Now, even the SLPP MPs who are desirous of seeing the back of Gammanpila will have to support him when the motion of no confidence against him is put to the vote in Parliament. In 2018, the Joint Opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa made a similar mistake by trying to oust the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had become extremely unpopular among the UNF MPs. Their betise turned out to be a lifeline for the crumbling yahapalana government; even the bitterest critics of Wickremesinghe in the UNP circled the wagons, and he emerged stronger.
The government is in the same predicament as a person afflicted with an autoimmune disease; it has turned against itself. It is harming itself in such a way that the Opposition does not have to do anything. So, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa can relax, or devote his time and energy to devising a way to ward off threats former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is expected to pose to the SJB after entering Parliament as a National List MP.
Monday 21st June, 2021
Sri Lanka police, more often than not, draw heavy flak from the public as well as human rights activists for inaction. Complaints abound that they cite their involvement with pandemic control as the reason for their failure to carry out their regular duties and functions properly. But they have proved their critics wrong––for once. On Friday, ink was barely dry on a complaint against a person when they swooped on him and bundled him into a paddy wagon. What was the offence he had allegedly committed? He had asked Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando, over the phone, “Dan sepada?” (This is a rhetorical question Sri Lankans ask someone who, they think, has got his comeuppance.) The suspect has been described as one of Fernando’s many critics.
Mayor Fernando recently got his just deserts after kicking up a stink at a vaccination centre in Moratuwa, where he turned aggressive and tried to impose his will on a group of health workers, who refused to give first dibs on the jab to those who carried ‘chits’ issued by him. Exasperated and piqued, he barked at the health officials obstructing as he did their work. It became too embarrassing for his political masters to shield him, and he was arrested when he surrendered to the police. He was remanded and bailed out. A person who obstructed a group of Public Health Officers engaged in pandemic control, at Atalugama, last year, was sentenced to jail. Whether Mayor Fernando will face the full force of the law similarly remains to be seen.
The police just looked on while Fernando was ranting and raving, and obstructing the state officials engaged in administrating the life-saving vaccine. Thereafter, they patiently waited until he came to the police station of his own volition. But they arrested in double-quick time, the person who called him!
What is the law under which the aforementioned caller has been arrested? This is something the Bar Association of Sri Lanka should take up with the police, whom it has rightly urged not to abuse the law to suppress the people’s democratic rights.
If it is an offence that warrants arrest to ask ‘dan sepada?’ from someone over the phone or otherwise, then the question is why no action has been taken against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who kept on asking the people the same question, in public, from 2015 to 2019, while they were suffering under the yahapalana government, which blundered on every front. In fact, it is he who popularised this rhetorical question, which became the main campaign slogan of the SLPP to all intents and purposes. The boot is now on the other foot, and the current Opposition is asking it from the people, who are facing numerous hardships, having voted the SLPP into office.
Interestingly, the person who asked the public, ‘Dan sepada?’ went on to become the Prime Minister, and the elector who asked the same question from a local government politician has got arrested!
It is evident from the arrest in question that the police can act stunningly fast if they choose to do so. If only there had been the same high-octane performance, which smacks of selective efficiency, on their part when they received warnings of the impending Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, or at least when they launched a probe after the tragedy. If they had arrested Zahran, the leader of the National Thowheed Jamaath, when they were informed that he would lead a group of terrorists on a suicidal mission to attack churches, etc., the tragedy could have been prevented. The mastermind of the carnage is believed to be at large, and the police are groping in the dark, and making false claims.
People had very high hopes when they elected the present government, whose leaders promised them the moon. But today they cannot even ask their beloved representatives a question over the phone without getting arrested. The aforementioned poor elector from Moratuwa is lucky that the person he telephoned is only a glorified local government politician. Had he asked that question from someone in the top echelons of government, perhaps fighter jets would have been scrambled. So much for the people’s ability to exercise their democratic rights including the freedom of expression under the current regime, which has got stuck in the same rut as the yahapalana dispensation and lost direction.
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