National List MP and State Minister Seetha Arambepola placed her finger right on the spot when she remarked in Parliament last week that “this is why people hate MPs.” She said so in the context of a bit of a shindig in the chamber about an official claim that a meal which cost three thousand rupees of public funds was served to parliamentarian at just two hundred rupees. The figures eventually turned out to be wide off the mark. The actual cost of a fish meal was Rs. 950 and a vegetarian meal, Rs. 629. Even these figures, no doubt, involves a substantial subsidy though not as abominable as originally made out.
As Ms. Arembapola admitted (or tacitly accepted) the public have long resented perks heaped on their elected representatives at taxpayer expense. The media has over the years taken delight (one might even say fiendish delight) in entertaining their readers/viewers with details of what our MPs are fed on in the parliament restaurant and what it costs each of them. Ordinary people relish that kind of information – soup and a fish or chicken course followed by dessert, or rice and curry (with fish or chicken), also with a soup to start with and a dessert to follow, cost the MP only such and such are stories long published with glee. This naturally enrages ordinary people who have to make do with rice, parippu and maybe a sambol, and even that at an often unaffordable cost.
Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s Colombo District MP S.M. Marikkar set the cat among the pigeons by raising, as a point or order, newspaper reports that MPs were eating a three thousand rupee meal for two hundred. The ensuing discussion revealed that 2,000 people on ordinary days and 3,000 during the budget eat in parliament. These include not only the 225 MPs but also parliament staff, policemen, CEB personnel and sundry others on duty there. MPs believe that the astronomical price tag has been calculated by dividing the total catering charge accruing to the parliament budget by 225. If that is so , it is obviously wrong and MPs are being undeservedly tarred. That seems very much the case. Marikkar piquantly said that the voters were asking whether they were eating gold. Added to that, the fish served that day was not fresh, he complained. The three thousand rupee figure had made Dr. Arambepola wonder whether a buffet was being served (as in the luxury hotels that charge around that) and she had found that such was not the case.
It is very likely that everybody, and not only MPs, lunching (and dining in parliament when sittings stretch out into night and late evening as is often the case during the budget debate) are eating subsidized meals. They probably pay a ‘below cost’ charge and benefit from the subsidy. This most likely was an evolving process in the wake of the necessity for a large operation to cater to the creature needs of parliamentarians; and the numbers benefiting would have increased over time. Given that the infrastructure was provided, courtesy the taxpayer, and a lot of food was being cooked, the numbers partaking of the subsidized grub (including the press, we admit) would have multiplied. This what happens in many areas like the government hospitals feeding a large number of patients. Attendants and sundry others also benefit. In fact, at a time the authorities were trying to do away with rice meals for patients, protests arose more from attendants etc. rather than the sick.
Time was, admittedly decades ago, when evening tea at the restaurant in the old parliament by the sea cost just a rupee. The repast included cake, patties, sandwiches and what have you in addition to, of course, the tea. A delectable beli juice from the Marketing Department, was also on offer. We remember an amiable MP of that era, the late Mr. Neale de Alwis of the LSSP, entertaining a constituent to tea and telling him that however much he ate, the host had to pay only a fixed price. “Ithin sahodaraya, hondata bada pirenna kanna” (So comrade eat your fill).
Those were more spacious days, and the parliament restaurant included a bar. Perhaps that helped some brilliant speeches to be made and a mellow convivial atmosphere to prevail; thank goodness no drunkenness then that we remember. That was discontinued later although senators enjoyed the bar facility at their restaurant in the Upper House for many years after the Lower House lost that privilege. However that be, it must be said that the MPs (“I speak for all 225 of us”, Marikkar said), were righteously indignant about the figures bruited. But the fact remains that there is deep public resentment about what our lawmakers, as Sir John Kotelawela once pithily said, are serving themselves while the ladle is in their hands. It sounded better in the original Sinhalese: “handa athey thiyanakang, bedaganilla.”
Quite apart from subsidized (sumptuous) meals, our elected representatives get a pension after just five years parliamentary service. That was later extended to their surviving spouses although that scheme was non-contributory, unlike the Widows and Orphans Pension Scheme of the public service. Last but not least, we must say that it is the duty free car permits lavished on MPs are what infuriates the general public most. One MP has earned brownie points for himself saying he will not take it. We think that Messrs. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya did not take them in the last Parliament and all honour to them. What the people want is not individual ‘sacrifices.’ They want the whole sorry business scrapped once and for all. In President Gotabaya Rajapaksa we have a leader who can do it. We hope he would.
It’s sovereignty, stupid!
Monday 19th April, 2021
Sri Lanka’s sovereignty has taken centre stage thanks to the Colombo Port City Economic Commission (CPCEC) Bill. The Opposition and its allies are all out to scuttle it, claiming that it will severely undermine the country’s sovereignty, which the government vows to protect at any cost. The UNP has joined others in challenging the Bill in the Supreme Court. This, it has done while seeking to justify its decision to appoint its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to Parliament via the National List; he unsuccessfully contested the last general election from the Colombo District.
If the government, the Opposition and their supporters are so concerned about the country’s sovereignty, they must respect the franchise of the people in whom sovereignty resides. Sovereignty and franchise are inseparable. How could the aforesaid politicians reconcile their much-advertised campaign for protecting sovereignty with their endorsement of the practice of appointing as National List MPs unsuccessful candidates and others of their choice in violation of people’s franchise.
The situation took a turn for the worse, under the yahapalana government, which not only appointed a bunch of defeated candidates to Parliament as National List MPs but also made some of them Cabinet ministers! Almost all political parties with parliamentary representation have undermined people’s franchise in this manner. Even the JVP, which never misses an opportunity to take the moral high ground, failed to be different. The lame excuse that political leaders trot out for this blatant violation of franchise is that the law provides for such appointments. If this despicable practice is to be considered acceptable simply because certain bad laws can be interpreted to justify it, then the Executive President should not be faulted for exercising all dictatorial powers the Constitution has vested in him.
Moreover, it has now been revealed that the J. R. Jayewardene government smuggled some sections into the election law to enable the appointment of outsiders to Parliament as National List MPs. The Provincial Council Elections Act was amended in a similar manner in 2017 to postpone the PC polls indefinitely. Questionable practices and actions based on such rotten laws cannot be considered legitimate by any stretch of the imagination.
The National List mechanism, which was devised purportedly to bring in eminent persons as MPs, has in effect empowered political party leaders to violate the people’s franchise with impunity. Therefore, the legal provisions that allow defeated candidates and outsiders to enter Parliament via the National List must be abolished; they are antithetical to democracy and have a corrosive effect on people’s franchise and sovereignty. Strangely, not even those who undertook to usher in good governance, in 2015, cared to get rid of these bad laws.
It is being argued in some quarters that when the seats of appointed MPs fall vacant, only the National List nominees or those whose names appear on district nomination lists should be appointed to Parliament in keeping with Articles 99 and 101 of the Constitution. But we believe that only the National List nominees whose names are made public before parliamentary elections must be brought in as appointed MPs; the appointment of unsuccessful candidates as MPs is an assault on democracy.
Technically, people who vote for a particular political party/independent group also endorse its National List nominees, who arguably attract votes. In 2015, the JVP had, as one of its National List nominees, former Auditor General Sarath Mayadunne. A lot of people must have voted for the JVP to have him in Parliament to fight against corruption effectively. But no sooner had he been sworn in than he resigned, paving the way for the appointment of a defeated JVP candidate. What the JVP did was tantamount to taking the voting public for a ride. Other political parties, too, have done likewise unashamedly.
At present, the National List can be abused to appoint any party member to Parliament, and anyone can obtain the membership of a political party by paying as little as Rs. 10. One may argue that all it takes to render people’s franchise irrelevant is Rs. 10! What moral right do the politicians who unflinchingly make use of bad laws to defy the will of the people have to fight for democracy, sovereignty and franchise?
The finger on the spot
A television interviewer last week asked Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda what is to be done when a robber enters your home? Is he not to be chased off? The program in which the minister appeared was dealing with the long festering problem of a South Indian fisheries fleet brazenly crossing the International Maritime Boundary (IBM) and entering Sri Lanka waters. These illegal fishermen are not just poaching in our waters. They engage in bottom trawling, using large vessels with powerful engines, destroying the marine environment and seriously eroding the replenishment capacity of this country’s fish stock, a process affecting the livelihood of our fishermen in the short, medium and long term.
The minister responded with a question of his own. What do you do when the robber is armed?, he countered. Devananda put his finger on the spot; perhaps not literally in that the Indian fishing fleet routinely crossing the IBM is not armed to its teeth though its quite probable that there are a gun or two in individual trawlers or boats. What he was in effect saying is that the poachers are backed by the might of India and there is very little that we can do about it. What the minister said evoked painful memories of Operation Vadamarachchi of May and June 1987 when the Sri Lankan forces were on the verge of defeating the Tamil Tigers waging war on the Lankan state.
What did India do? Alleging that the people living in the war-wracked area were starving, several Hercules transport planes escorted by Mirage jet fighters intruded into this country’s sovereign airspace for a claimed “humanitarian operation” – the infamous parippu drop as we came to know it. The signal was unmistakably clear. Either halt the military operation or face the consequences. That would be an Indian invasion of this country. Then President J.R. Jayewardene, fighting an insurrection in the South and a civil war in the North was in a tight bind from which there was no escape. The rest is history. The Indo – Lanka Agreement between Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India was signed and the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. But there was no disarming of the LTTE as promised. Thanks to what India did then, the civil war raged till 2009 when the Tigers were eventually defeated.
This country’s predicament over the rape of our marine resources, grievously affecting the livelihoods of our fishermen eking out a precarious livelihood, and also endangering the very existence of the fisheries industry in the North of this country, is very similar to the parippu drop of not so long ago.
During the decades of the war, the imperatives of fighting the separatist-terrorists required long periods where our fishermen were banned from venturing out to deep sea. They were confined to a coastal fishery and this left expanses of our territorial waters wide open to Indian fishermen to exploit. Those years and what happened then deeply ingrained in the Indians the conviction that they could fish as they like, wherever they would, regardless of the International Maritime Boundary and the Law of the Sea. There were rich picking to be had and the opportunity was seized.
After the war ended and normalcy – or at least some semblance of it – was restored, there was no keeping the Indian fishermen, often manning trawlers owned by Tamil Nadu politicians and their patrons, to their side of the IBM. For several long years efforts at resolving this problem have been made. There have been some placatory noises from the Indians but little attempt, leave alone a serious effort, to tackle this issue. Contacts have been made at the highest levels of government and all they have produced are platitudes about adopting a “humanitarian approach” to the problem. The humanitarianism is all about allowing Indian fishermen to enhance their livelihood, never mind the super profits made by capitalist politically-backed trawler-owners hiring those fishermen to crew their vessels. Nary a word about our own fishermen, long left to fend for themselves as best as they can while the Indians rob what is rightfully theirs.
No end to this situation is in sight. There are occasional reports of poachers and their vessels taken to custody by the Sri Lanka Navy. More often than not, after a little fuss, bother and diplomatic niceties, the fishermen and (emphasis ours) their craft are returned so that they can poach another day. Earlier this year there was was an incident when an Indian fishing vessel poaching in Lankan waters reacted aggressively to a naval craft attempting to arrest it. This resulted in the sinking of the trawler and the death of one of its crewmen. Predictably there was a blaze of publicity and protest in the Tamil Nadu press about the Sri Lanka Navy killing Indian fishermen. Such incidents are clear indications of the sensitivity of the problem at hand. We have to live with the reality that we cannot wield the big stick to protect what is ours. But the government is under pressure from fishermen North and South to do something about it. Devananda has talked about issuing passes for a limited number of Indian fishing vessels, excluding big trawlers, to enter our waters.
But as one northern politician said in a television program, 500 will come if 50 passes are issued. Indian fishery interests are saying “why exclude the trawlers?” In any case do we have the capacity (or the political will) to effectively police our waters, protect the interests of our fishermen and the sustainability of our marine resources against a monster predator from across the Palk Strait? D we always have to bow down to Big Brother?
SL in vortex of despair
Saturday 17th April, 2021
The Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill has run into stiff resistance. The proposed law, which has even led to dissension within the ranks of the SLPP, is fraught with the danger of Sri Lanka being left with no control over the Colombo Port City, legal experts warn, insisting that the Bill has to be approved by the people at a referendum in addition to being passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament to become law.
The Opposition has got something to hold onto. Besides political parties, several key organisations including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have come forward to move the Supreme Court against the controversial Bill. This is a worrisome proposition for the government, which has many other problems to contend with.
External pressure is also mounting on the government over the Chinese project. The US has already said the Colombo Port City may end up being a money-laundering haven. The US, India and other enemies of China are shedding copious tears for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, which, they say, China is subjugating to its economic and geo-strategic interests. But is China alone in doing so? India has been furthering its interests at the expense of Sri Lanka; it has even had the latter’s Constitution forcibly amended and Provincial Councils set up. Sri Lanka cannot even protect its territorial waters against rapacious Indian poachers; under pressure from New Delhi, it has to release the culprits taken into custody.
It is only natural that India and the US have not taken kindly to the mega Chinese ventures in Sri Lanka. But if they and/or the other partners of the strategic alliance they represent had cared to help this country instead of bullying it, China would not have been able to consolidate its position here.
The US and India stand accused of having had a hand in the 2015 regime change in this country. In fact, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly stated India’s spy agency, RAW, was instrumental in ousting him as the President in 2015. India and the US may have expected the yahapalana government to get tough with China and scrap the Port City project. They were disappointed when that administration, having initially suspended the project, allowed the Chinese to build their artificial island bigger, on a 99-year lease, and, worse, leased the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years. The yahapalana regime received no financial assistance from its foreign well-wishers and, out of sheer desperation, banked on Chinese support like its predecessor.
The Bill at issue, if enacted, would turn the Port City into part of China’s territory in all but name, according to legal experts. Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, PC, critically examines the Bill, in his column published on this page today. SLPP MP and former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said what the proposed law seeks to achieve will be worse than the Hambantota Port deal. There arguments are compelling. It, however, needs to be added that if Sri Lanka had given in to US pressure and signed the MCC compact complete with SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), etc., in return for USD 450 million from Washington, it would have faced a far worse situation.
The hostility of the US and its allies has driven Sri Lanka into the arms of their mutual enemy, China. If the US and India had helped Sri Lanka rebuild its post-war economy and desisted from their human rights witch-hunt in Geneva, they would not have created conditions for Beijing to endear itself to Colombo in this manner.
If the US, etc., want to counter what they call Chinese expansionism, they have to win over the nations that are dependent on China for funds and protection. They must stop harassing these countries.
The enemies of China have warned Sri Lanka that it will become a Chinese colony, and they, too, would have to take part of the blame for such a fate ever befalling this country.
GL: Colombo Port City Bill received AG’s sanction
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