Monday 25th October, 2021
Farmers’ protests against the prevailing fertiliser shortage are gathering momentum, but Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage insists that there are enough stocks of fertiliser in the country. He says the protests are politically motivated. It is doubtful whether anyone will buy into his claim. There would have been no such protests if fertiliser had been freely available. The possibility of agrochemical companies having a hand in protests cannot be ruled out, but what actually fuels the street demonstrations is the anger of farmers who have suffered crop losses due to the fertiliser shortage.
The incumbent administration implements its policies exactly the way the country’s war on terror had been fought prior to 2006; governments launched much-publicised offensives against the LTTE only to call them off owing to heavy losses the military suffered. The SLPP government has launched several blitzkriegs, as it were, to achieve some policy objectives, during the past several months, but without much success or, in some cases, with disastrous consequences.
The overuse of agrochemicals has been a ‘grave’ problem. What is given free of charge is often overused or wasted, and the previous Rajapaksa administration’s wisdom of giving a fertiliser subsidy stands questioned. Most farmers used to apply agrochemicals liberally even to loosen soil before harvesting manioc. The practice of spraying insecticides on vegetables ready to be harvested has been prevalent among most cultivators. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has rightly pointed out that water in streams and wells adjacent to paddy fields cannot be used for drinking due to agrochemical runoff or leaching. The unregulated use of agrochemicals has also led to ecological disasters; it has killed insects and birds that prey on pests such as rats, and mosquito larvae. The owl and the dragonfly are among the worst affected species, according to environmentalists. Soil cannot recover due to the repeated application of overdoses of weedicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. These issues must be tackled, but systematically. It was a mistake for the government to ban all agrochemicals overnight. It should have taken steps to reduce the use of agrochemicals while introducing organic fertilisers and educating the farming community on the advantages of the proposed changeover. That way, it could have won over farmers because they want to keep production costs low and lead a healthy life. The fertiliser blitz, as it were, has backfired with farmers taking to the streets, and wily politicians cashing in on their frustration to gain political mileage.
Traders at the Manning market are complaining of a decrease in vegetable supplies, and they blame it on the agrochemical ban. If this claim is true, then it can be argued that the market situation presages serious problems for both the public and the government. Shortfalls in supplies will send vegetable prices through the roof, making it even more difficult for the people to make ends meet.
The country is in this mess because the government, in its wisdom, telescoped its organic fertiliser programme, which should have been phased over a couple of years. Even some Agriculture Ministry higher-ups have admitted that the sudden fertiliser ban was based on wrong advice, according to newspaper reports. Former President Maithripala Sirisena has gone on record as saying that he and the SLFP urged the powers that be to tread cautiously instead of banning agrochemicals overnight. Their advice went unheeded, he has claimed. Their SLPP counterparts are raking them over the coals for having said so. Sirisena and his party may be flayed for many things, but they have got it right on this score, and the government worthies had better stop bashing the SLFP and make a course correction.
One cannot but appreciate President Rajapaksa’s initiative to promote organic agriculture like his renewable energy programme. But it should be carried out gradually in a sustainable manner. If only the President and his advisors heeded the oxymoronic adage, festina lente— ‘make haste slowly’.
Sports, science, and sense
Tuesday 18th January, 2022
Tennis star Novak Djokovic is in a league of his own with his fans spread across the globe. He has all what any sportsperson could dream of—talent, fame and wealth. But he seems to lack one thing—common sense. He found himself up the creek without a paddle in Australia, and faced deportation because he did not play the game there, so to speak. He failed to realise that he was taking a huge risk when he travelled to Australia to take part in the Australian Open because he was unvaccinated. He should have known that he would receive the same treatment as any other unvaccinated foreigner in Australia, and his ranking as World No. 1 would not be factored in where vaccine mandates were concerned in that country. The blame for this unfortunate situation should be apportioned to the organisers of the Australian Open as well.
Anyone who seeks to enter Australia or any other country, for that matter, has to comply with laws, rules and regulations there or be prepared for deportation. The Australian government has been fighting quite a battle to save lives and keep the economy ticking vis-a-a-vis the pandemic; there have also been protests against lockdowns, etc. It has had to keep anti-vaxxers at bay, and this task is perhaps even more difficult than controlling the runaway virus.
There was no way Australia could give Djokovic special treatment while its own citizens were facing severe anti-pandemic restrictions. It has drawn heavy criticism for its action. Its visa approval process has even been described as ‘convoluted and shambolic’ in some quarters, and some critics claim that the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa will be a blow to the Australian Open.
Some Australian officials dragged some issues unnecessary into the controversy; they claimed that if Djokovic was allowed entry, it would be considered a victory for anti-vaxxers, who are all out to undermine the ongoing jab drive. They had a point in that Djokovic is said to have been vocal in his opposition to vaccine mandates. But they should have simply said no unvaccinated person would be allowed to enter Australia and everybody was equal before the law. The Victorian state government has made it abundantly clear that all players, staff and fans attending the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted. Djokovic and his lawyers failed to prove that there was genuine reason for him to refuse to be vaccinated.
Not that one loves Djokovic less, but one loves the pandemic-hit humans more. It is science, and not sports, that can save the world from the pandemic. Even those who have recovered from Covid-19 have to be vaccinated, according to medical experts. Had the Australian government chosen to bend the rules and let Djokovic in, simply because he has recovered from Covid-19, it would have set a very bad precedent at a time when vaccine hesitancy has stood in the way of the global fight against Covid-19.
Imagine what would have happened if an unvaccinated star like Djokovic had arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport and been denied entry? One of our jobless government grandees would have tucked up his sarong and made a beeline for the BIA, given the legend a bear hug and taken selfies with him or her before escorting him or her out. (Our is a land where even convicted rapists, murderers, drug dealers and other such anti-social elements serving sentences have been given presidential pardons!) It is believed that the spread of Covid-19 got out of control here in 2020 because scores of workers were allowed to be brought in from a neighbouring country without being tested for Covid-19, and that led to the formation of the Minuwangoda garment factory cluster.
Australia has done what is good for its people in spite of international pressure and thereby shown the way where pandemic control is concerned. It is hoped that other countries will not hesitate to adopt such tough measures in fighting the virus. One feels sorry for Djokovic, whose career has suffered a heavy blow, at what is described as his most successful Grand Slam tournament, but the fact remains that nobody, however famous or powerful he or she may be, should be allowed to trifle with vaccine mandates.
Another ‘loincloth remedy’
Monday 17th January, 2022
Now, anyone could import rice, paying as little as 25 cents a kilo as duty. Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardena has said the government decision is aimed at preventing a rice shortage and bringing rice prices down. But the question is whether enough foreign exchange is available for rice imports. Minster Gunawardena himself has admitted that there are already 500 freight containers of rice at the Colombo Port pending clearance. The power and energy sectors are in a mega crisis as the country is without enough dollars to pay for fuel imports. Most industries dependent on imported raw materials are struggling to stay afloat; some of them have already gone belly up. Will the Trade Minister or any other SLPP grandee claiming to be well versed in the dismal science explain how forex will be found for rice imports?
The rice shortage and attendant price increases have come about for two reasons. One is the fertiliser shortage, which has resulted in a sharp drop in the Maha yield, and the other is hoarding by big-time millers and wholesalers. The government is not willing to change its fertiliser policy, which has run into stiff resistance from resentful farmers, and it is too impotent to take on the Millers’ Mafia, which has become a law unto itself as politicians benefit from its largesse during elections.
Rice imports are only a band-aid remedy. True, any essential commodity has to be imported in case of a severe shortfall in the domestic supply thereof, but such measures must necessarily be short-term; the government does not seem to know when it will be able to stop rice imports. Unless the fertiliser crisis is resolved urgently, rice imports will go on until the end of time, and several other agricultural products, too, will have to be imported. The country’s food security will be pie in the sky in such an eventuality.
SLPP MP and former President Maithripala Sirisena has, in an interview with Siyatha TV, said he wonders whether there is a move to discourage farmers from engaging in agriculture and drive them to sell their lands to private companies. Multinational corporations have already acquired large extents of land for commercial agriculture here; prominent among them is an international banana producer, which got a foothold here during the previous Rajapaksa government. The present-day leaders seem relentless in their efforts to turn this country into a banana republic.
Meanwhile, let Sirisena be told that his family is also responsible for farmers’ woes; his brother, Dudley, is one of the millers who make unconscionable profits by exploiting both the farmer and the consumer alike; and his relative, State Minister Siripala Gamlath, is also a miller thriving at the expense of the poor paddy farmers and hapless consumers. Shouldn’t he put his own house in order instead of shedding copious tears for farmers and consumers?
Whether the government is working according to a secret plan to make farmers fed up with agriculture, one may not know, but its wrong agricultural policies are fraught with the danger of discouraging the farming community. When farmers suffer massive yield losses, and cannot recover production costs, much less redeem their valuables pawned to raise funds for cultivation purposes, they will be left with no alternative but to vote with their feet. Some of them have already done so, and unless this trend is arrested urgently, the country’s economic crisis will worsen with more dollars having to be spent on food imports. Besides, rural poverty will increase exponentially, and the farmers reduced to penury are likely to migrate to urban centres looking for jobs that are not there. The country may run out of dollars at this rate, and therefore the people will have to starve if imports are promoted as government policy at the expense of the local production of main food items. (We might achieve self-sufficiency only in turmeric!)
The government’s decision to promote imports as a solution to the rice shortage instead of addressing the root causes of the problem is like using a loincloth to control diarrhoea, as a local saying goes.
The galloping stock market
The booming Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) last week, after a two-year Covid-impelled silence, hosted its first news conference to share with the media what its chairman, Mr. Dumith Fernando, called a “fantastic story.” He was not exaggerating even slightly. The CSE’s performance last year was more that extraordinary by any standard with several historical highs established in all the indicators that matter. These included the heights reached by both the broader All Share Price Index (ASPI) and S&P 20 measuring the performance of the more liquid and better rated stock. There was also the daily average turnover, which even in highly depreciated rupee terms, that not long ago was computed in the millions is now running into billions. On top of that, there was the equity capital raising initiatives of companies seeking new listings on the trading boards of the exchange. Once upon a time, the CSE laboured might and main to persuade companies to list. But now, companies are jostling in the queue to obtain a quotation and these, without exception, have been several times over-subscribed on the opening day itself. Such successes mean millions, if not billions, of rupees of zero cost capital for newly listed companies.
The story goes on. There are those whispering or derisively labeling the current surge in the stock market as looking very much like something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not – a “phantom market,” as the CSE boss put it, that is not supported by fundamentals. Such suspicion is inevitable in the context of a rapidly declining economy but with a paradoxically booming stock market running alongside. Fernando easily demolished that contention. There are many reasons, he said, for what the exchange calls the “quantum leap” in the market last year. Not the least among them is the plummeting deposit interest rates now down to single digits. People who once squirreled away their savings in banks or much higher interest paying but riskier finance company fixed deposits, have now found that the CSE has opened possibilities of much better returns in a scenario of plunging interest rates. No wonder then that a new class of investors, far removed from the business savvy high net worth persons who traditionally invested in what they judged as ‘good’ company shares, have become active in the stock market. The old guard looked for a steady dividend stream and capital appreciation in the longer term. Some of them did trade their shares making tidy, if not super, profits. But a large number held their stock over the longer term. The new investors are a different kettle of fish. They are looking for quick, often instant, trading profits, seldom investing in the longer term.
Today there are droves of what the market calls ‘retailers,’ – relatively small investors with little capital to play with, attracted to the CSE like moths to light. They see many possibilities to earn themselves some good money in the stock market and a record number of new investors, most of them 40-years or younger, have opened trading accounts. Today market players don’t have to visit share-broker offices and wrestle with all kinds of paper work to become active traders. They can do it all from their homes or offices armed with no more than one of those ubiquitous smart phones that many own today. Both brokers and the CSE itself are digtized and offer a modern trading platform nearly on par with what is available in more advanced markets.
Records established by the CSE last year includes the number of new listings up on the trading boards. Dumith Fernando said at the news briefing that last year, mainly in the latter part of 2021, there were as many as 13 initial public offerings. All of them attracted stunning investor interest being oversubscribed, sometimes several times over, on the opening day itself. Analysts confirm that many of these shares gained from their issue prices when trading commenced days later though there was at least one exception. But the general picture was instant profit for many small investors whose trading strategy is to take profit and invest funds realized in selling shares in new shares where they believe further profit is possible. They grumble about inadequate allocations due to the high demand for the shares on offer. But issuers generally tend to be fair to small investors.
Brokers say that the same share is often bought and sold, by a single punter, who will do multiple transactions in the course of a single trading day. Like betting on horses, gambling on a stock exchange is not without risk. But the fact that new players keep entering the market by the day suggests that the risk is much less than at the races and one player’s success attract many new players into the market. Where retailers are concerned, the herd instinct is very much in evidence with interest in a single counter drawing hordes of players into it, rightly or wrongly. The CSE website is full of notifications of the attention of listed companies being drawn into unusual trading activity in their shares. The inevitable response is that the company is unaware of any undisclosed price sensitive information that may have attracted unusual investor interest. Brokers say that low-priced shares may attract interest in a market where an upward trajectory as seen here was all too evident in recent weeks.
How long the carnival will last is anybody’s guess. But there are many putting their money where their gut instincts tell them that there’s more to be made.
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