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.
Reopening: Need for heightened alert
Friday 24th September, 2021
There has been a significant decrease in the daily Covid-19 cases and death toll, and therefore chances are the government will not extend the current lockdown further. The country cannot be kept closed indefinitely, anyway. Health experts are of the view that it is advisable to stagger the reopening of the country. This is a very sensible suggestion that the government ought to heed. The current wave of infections could have been prevented if the powers that be had listened to expert advice in April, and imposed travel restrictions.
Sri Lankans are known for running around purposelessly, especially when they are not supposed to do so, and infections are bound to rise after the country is reopened, and what has been gained from the costly lockdown will be lost within a few weeks unless stringent measures are adopted to ensure that they follow the health regulations. If the police lack the courage to arrest government politicians who flout the law brazenly, they must at least severely deal with the violators of quarantine laws for the sake of the public.
As coronavirus throws up new challenges in the form of more transmissible variants that defy vaccine barriers, efforts being made to contain it must be redoubled. Why double-masking and the two-metre rule have not been made mandatory here is the question. The quarantine laws need to be amended to introduce stricter measures to tackle the runaway virus, which is likely to make a comeback sooner than expected, necessitating another lockdown in a few months.
When workplaces reopen, most people will travel in buses and trains, and it is practically impossible to prevent these vehicles from being overcrowded. When enough buses and trains are not available, commuters are left with no alternative but to shoehorn themselves into every conceivable space in overcrowded vehicles lest they should be stranded. So, the private bus operators, the SLTB and the railway authorities will mind the health guidelines for a few days after the reopening of the country; everybody will take them for granted thereafter until the death toll from the pandemic rises again. This, we have seen before, and it is sure to happen again, defeating the ongoing pandemic control efforts.
When the lockdown is lifted, more people will travel to work in their own vehicles for want of a better alternative, and the country’s fuel consumption will increase significantly. Is the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) ready to meet an increase in the demand for fuel? Before the country was closed, it had petroleum stocks sufficient for only a few weeks, and the lockdown must have come as a blessing for the CPC, but the problem remains.
Most of the companies that promote remote work have sent out memos asking their employees to be present in their offices in case of power cuts. Their fear of power outages is not unfounded because we have experienced them umpteen times during the past few decades. A large number of people are working from home, at present, and if they have to travel to their workplaces again, they will run the risk of contracting Covid-19, and buses and trains will be more crowded. It is beneficial to the national economy to promote remote work, which helps reduce fuel consumption and congestion. One only hopes the government will take steps to ensure that power cuts will not be imposed. Ideally, back-up power options such as domestic solar power systems and small, fuel-efficient generators should be made available at affordable prices to those engaged in remote work.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka ought to learn from other countries such as Singapore how to ease lockdowns and keep the case fatality rates low. They have opted for cautious reopening with phased periods of heightened alert to avoid unpleasant surprises which coronavirus is notorious for offering.
‘Manike mage hithe’; Amaradeva amathakado?
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?
Of that den of thieves
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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