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Editorial

When thieves punish their victims

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Monday 17th October, 2022

Thieves live in fear of punishment in other countries, but here it is the victims of theft who have to face punitive action. Having stolen huge amounts of public wealth and bankrupted the country, the perpetrators of economic crimes, in positions of power, are now all out to recover losses at the expense of the people, who have had to pay for others’ sins by way of massive increases in tariffs and taxes. The proposed tax increases, if implemented, will drive many people to suicide.

Taxes must be paid, but they must be reasonable. The ill-conceived tax increases that have incensed the public beyond measure make one wonder what would happen if the leaders of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government were to run a dairy farm. They would slaughter all cows instead of milking them! In handling vital affairs of the state such as taxation, they have followed a zigzag course like drunkards over the decades; they have meddled with taxation and politicised it in such a way that state revenue has dropped drastically and the current administration has chosen to squeeze the taxpayers dry. The government seems to consider it an offence for one to keep one’s nose to the grindstone and increase one’s income. Adding insult to injury, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has reportedly said anyone who earns more than Rs. 100,000 a month is not innocent! He has apparently neglected his mental health.

The heartless tax hikes will affect everyone except politicians who are above the taxman and do not have to declare their assets. Many medium and small-scale businesses are bound to go belly up if the proposed tax increases are implemented. Entrepreneurs and workers are up in arms, but the government does not care. Among those who will suffer a crippling blow at the hands of the taxman are exporters and the IT industry, which has the potential to be one of the mainstays of the economy, if given state assistance.

Many Sri Lankan youth are teleworking for overseas companies without leaving the country; they help bring in considerable amounts of much-needed foreign exchange. Their monthly earnings may seem high, but their real income has not increased as such if the inflation rate is factored in. Inflation has surged to more than 70%, and food prices have soared by over 84.6%, compared to a year ago, according to media reports based on official data.

The government is exploiting the public while doing nothing to curtail waste and corruption. It continues to spend huge amounts of public funds to maintain an unproductive public sector, which is inefficient, corrupt and overstaffed; there are as many as 1.5 million state workers although the country can manage with about one third of them. Besides, people have to maintain as many as 8,680 elected representatives — 225 MPs, 455 Provincial Councillors, and 8,000 local government members. The Provincial Councils do not serve any purpose, and the question is why the countries that pressure Sri Lanka to retain them are not asked to bear the cost of running these institutions. The number of MPs can be slashed, and the country does not need more than 30% of the local government members. The members of Parliament, which controls public finance, neglect their legislative duties and functions; they have the audacity to claim that they had not been aware that the country was bankrupt until an official announcement was made to that effect!

The Opposition’s bark is worse than its bite where its reaction to the draconian tax laws is concerned. Unless the government is prevented from exploiting the public in this manner, it will be emboldened to jack up taxes further; at this rate, people might have ‘breast tax’, ‘dog tax’, etc., to contend with. While making grand preparations to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of ‘Independence’, next year, the government is trying to take the country back to the colonial era with its exploitative tax policies.

It is hoped that the Opposition and trade unions will go flat out to force the government to reconsider the proposed tax increases and reveal how it proposes to curtail waste, eliminate corruption and, above all, recover the stolen public funds. Let the government be warned that it is testing people’s patience and creating conditions for the next wave of popular uprisings, which will make the previous ones look like mere ripples in a puddle.



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Editorial

Mr. President abort this racket!

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Monday 28th November, 2022

Some racketeers are making the most of Sri Lanka’s foreign currency crunch to put through various crooked deals on the pretext of promoting foreign investment and rake in billions of dollars at the expense of hapless Sri Lankans struggling to keep the wolf from the door. They are eyeing the country’s mineral resources among other things.

In June 2022, we exposed a sinister move by a foreign company and its local agents to carry out an ilmenite racket at Aruwakkalu, Puttalam, and the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promptly intervened to stop it, but six months on, the racketeers have made a comeback. They are so influential that they have gained access to President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself, who, we believe, is not au fait with the project. We hasten to add that the President is not involved in this racket; he may be driven by a genuine desire to bring in much-needed foreign investment to straighten up the economy, but some of his advisors seem to have misled him. That may be the reason why he summoned the newly-appointed Cement Corporation Chairman Jagath Dharmapriya on Friday (25) and instructed the latter to ensure that the project at issue was implemented forthwith. Sadly, the legal principle, Audi alteram partem (‘listen to the other side’), often goes unheeded!

Let the President be informed that about one and a half years ago, Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd., and Sri Lanka Cement Corporation planned to embark on a joint venture to extract ilmenite found in overburden red soil removed for limestone quarrying on a 5,352-acre state land at Aruwakkalu. The project was expected to yield a great deal of foreign exchange for the country, but the aforesaid foreign firm, backed by a bunch of corrupt government politicians and officials, derailed it in a bid to secure the contract for ilmenite extraction; the country will get nothing from this firm other than royalty paid to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, which is a den of thieves. The rogue company claims that it will invest a considerable amount of forex in the project, but it will bring in only machinery, which will be of no use to anyone in the end. Does the government want to swap ilmenite worth billions of dollars for a heap of scrap iron? The initial investment could be recovered in a few months, according to the project documents The Island has seen. No wonder some state officials and politicians are all out to have the contract awarded to the foreign firm!

The racketeers are so influential that they even had the then Cement Corporation Chairman Gamini Ekanayake, who together with some courageous state officials vehemently opposed the corrupt deal, removed from his post. But his successor Dharmapriya has proved to be equally intrepid; he too has chosen to protect the interests of the country by opposing the shady deal on the drawing board. He deserves praise. The country needs such upright officials.

Geologists inform us that what has surfaced with top soil at Aruwakkalu is only a fraction of a huge ilmenite deposit lying underneath. Sri Lanka will gain tremendously if it can export ilmenite as a value-added product. At present, a metric ton of ilmenite without value addition fetches about USD 300 in the international market, but its price will increase to about USD 2,200 if it is exported after being processed. What prevents value addition, which consists of several phases, and is very expensive, is that not enough ilmenite is excavated in the country at present to attract a foreign investor. Experts are of the view that the shortfall could easily be met with ilmenite found at Aruwakkalu for an investor to be invited in a transparent manner. The racketeers are striving to obtain ilmenite for a song with the help of corrupt politicians and officials here and make huge profits at the expense of the country.

The racket is being carried out at the behest of an ‘educated’ politician, who pontificates ad nauseam about the virtues of good governance and pretends to be a paragon of virtue. We will name him in this column when our legal team permits us to do so. We have no civil word to say about State Minister of Primary Industries Chamara Sampath Dissanayake but, credit where it is due, he has refused to help the racketeers. Thus, it should be clear that education alone does not make a good minister.

President Wickremesinghe may not be popular but he is widely considered an intelligent leader, and one can only hope that he will ensure that the country—and not a bunch of crooked individuals including some government politicians—will gain from the exploitation of ilmenite at Aruwakkalu. We wish to draw his attention to the historic Supreme Court judgment (2000) in Bulankulama and Others v. Secretary, Ministry of Industrial Development and Others—or the Eppawala case as it is better known; it specifies how to manage the country’s mineral resources for the benefit of the present-day Sri Lankans and generations to come.

We suggest that an expert committee be appointed to study the issue at hand. It should comprise officials from the Treasury and relevant ministries, the Land Commissioner, independent experts in the fields of geology, mining and economics, environmentalists, and representatives of the Attorney General’s Department.

President Wickremesinghe had better tread cautiously on this crucial issue lest he should have his reputation sullied again. The Treasury bond scams will pale into insignificance in comparison to the mega ilmenite racket to be carried out. The UNP does not want to be worsted ignominiously at future elections as well, does it?

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Editorial

Post-budget state of play

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The second reading of the Budget 2023 was comfortably passed last week with President Ranil Wickremesinghe strongly affirming that he will not permit another aragalaya and will not hesitate to use armed services muscle and, if needed, a State of Emergency to prevent it. Not surprisingly, it was thrown at his face that he would today not be President, and in that capacity, Head of State and Head of Government, but for the aragalaya. This is a fact of life that he cannot, and did not attempt to refute. But he did say that he did not ask for the job which, we are certain, is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It was undoubtedly thrust upon him and he, unlike Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, did not first drop the catch and thereafter conditionally agree to accept the position of prime minister after Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced out of office. He accepted it presumably unconditionally.

Premadasa laid down the condition that a time frame for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to relinquish office must be laid if he were to agree to be prime minister. And that too after Wickremesinghe, whose UNP was decimated to zero elected seats with him losing his own seat at the UNPs Colombo Central fortress. Nobody can quibble that RW holds an unconstitutional office. He was properly and constitutionally elected president by a comfortable majority to serve GR’s balance term after the former president fled the country and tendered his resignation from Singapore while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was acting as president. RW was elected president by the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), a section of which party backed Dullas Alahapperuma as the common – barring the NPP/JVP – opposition candidate. Wickremesinghe was the Rajapaksa nominee for president earning for himself the sneering sobriquet of Ranil Rajapaksa. Thus he appears for all purposes the captive president of the SLPP.

As we have said before in this space, he will remain dependent on the pohottuwa until he is constitutionally enabled to dissolve parliament after February next year. But he formally went on record last week declaring that he will not dissolve parliament until the economy is stabilized. When that will happen is to all intents and purposes is anybody’s guess. Wickremesinghe, who our popular columnist Rajan Philips who returns to this page after a short absence today says was probably the first finance minister after Ronnie de Mel to write his own budget speech, did not even hint when the IMF bail out can be expected. Various straws are being floated in the wind but the earliest possible date seems to be March next year. Although the cost of living has hit unbearable heights with a sizable proportion of the population being compelled to forego one daily meal, the budget offered no tangible respite beyond repetition of long-held promises of social security cushions to the most vulnerable.

The last several days has seen the return to the country of former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa back from the U.S. whose citizenship he’s clinging on to unlike brother Gotabaya who gave it up to run for president. Basil was not long ago prevented, at the height of the aragalaya, from leaving the country but returned last week to a well publicized welcome at the VVIP lounge of the Bandaranaike International Airport. It has been widely perceived that BR pulls the strings that manipulate the SLPP. That view was enhanced by those who crowded the lounge to sycophantically receive him. They included the controversial presence of the chairman and a member of the National Police Commission (NPC). Former IGP Chandra Fernando who heads the NPC ineffectively pleaded his impartiality following the exposure of his airport presence with Basil’s cheer squad. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene said a new NPC was being shortly appointed, implying that the rotten eggs in the existing body were soon being replaced.

With the Rajapaksas are returning to the national picture, the state-controlled Daily News on Friday front paged a photo of President Wickremesinghe with Mahinda and Shiranthi Rajapaksa at a DA Rajapaksa commemorative event in Colombo. There was a public celebration of MR’s 77th birthday both at the Abhayarama temple in Narahenpita, once the SLPP political headquarters, and at Tangalle where a jayapiritha reportedly attended by 1,000 monks had been organized. One uncontradicted report which we cannot confirm said that hefty contributions running from Rs. 50,000 to 100,000 each was collected from ministers, state ministers and corporation heads to fund this event. In a budget speech MR admitted making mistakes but did not specify what they were. Questions on whether these include the chemical fertilizer and pesticide bans, vanity projects bearing his name as well as Colombo’s Lotus Tower massively displaying the pohottuwa’s election symbol remain hanging in the air.

Perhaps President Wickremesinghe awaited the conclusion of the 2023 budget to expand his cabinet. There have been reports that he’s under pressure to do so and some observers have read ministerial ambitions among those who supported the budget. The voting figures clearly indicate the presence of Rajapaksa political muscle but whether this will presage, for instance, the return of Namal Rajapaksa to the cabinet only time will tell. The president’s focus would and obviously must be more on economic than political issues. While the critical situation that prevailed earlier this year with miles long petrol and gas queues are no longer present, the cost of living remains skyhigh. The budget offered no hope that this would change. Whether the ‘no dissolution before economic stability is restored’ declaration applies to any election whatever remains to be seen. That question will be answered by whether or not local authority elections will be held as scheduled by March 2023. That various machinations are afoot to delay these polls is very well known.

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Editorial

A question of legitimacy

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Saturday 26th November, 2022

Dissident SLPP MP and former Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana has said something noteworthy during the ongoing budget debate. He has argued that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, does not have a popular mandate to govern the country and therefore should not make crucial policy decisions on national security, etc. He has offered to present a private member’s motion to enable the President to hold a snap presidential election and seek a mandate from the people.

The government stands accused of trying every trick in the book to postpone the local government polls, and never will it take a bigger electoral gamble. But the argument that the current administration lacks legitimacy holds water in that it is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP undertook to do in its election manifestos presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls.

The people voted the UNP out of power in 2020 because they did not approve of the way it handled national security and the economy, and elected the SLPP to make a difference. They handed over the reins of government to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa as they desired a clean break with the previous government.

Former President/Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, taking part in the budget debate, on Wednesday (24), said: “When we took over in 2019 the Yahapalana government had drawn huge loans. We have done all we can to help the country. We had to face the Easter Sunday attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are still trying to overcome their adverse impacts.”

Now, the uphill tasks of managing the economy and protecting national security have been entrusted to the UNP, which worsened the country’s debt crisis, according to Mahinda, and was rejected by the public twice. The country has undergone a reversion to the Yahapalana rule in all but name without public approval. The SLPP leaders have not only betrayed public trust but also made a mockery of the will of the people.

Moreover, one of the key pledges that enabled the SLPP to obtain a popular mandate to govern the country was that it would never privatise state assets. President Wickremesinghe admitted in Parliament, the other day, that former Prime Minister Rajapaksa was opposed to the divestiture of state ventures. The current administration has reneged on this pledge against the wishes of not only the people who voted for the SLPP but also the leader of that party himself!

As for national security, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks, held the entire Yahapalana government accountable. The final report of the PCoI says, “The government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy” (p. 471). National security is now under the purview of Wickremesinghe!

What has led to sea changes in the current administration’s policies was a wave of public protests, which came to be known as Aragalaya. The manner in which the President and the Prime Minister were ousted was far from constitutional. Even incumbent President Wickremesinghe, who benefited from Aragalaya, has refused to accept it as something legitimate. Hence his recent vow in Parliament to prevent a recurrence of Aragalaya and even deploy the military and declare a state of Emergency to abort it. He would not have threatened to do so if he had not been convinced that Aragalaya lacked legitimacy. Thus, a radical departure from the SLPP’s policies endorsed by the people in a constitutionally-prescribed manner at two elections in 2019 and 2020 requires approval by the public either at a general/presidential election or a referendum. Why the Opposition has baulked at flogging this issue is the question.

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