Saturday 2nd January, 2021
The present Parliament is not without cultured, intelligent members who fight for the rights of the public. SJB National List MP Imtiaz Bakir Marker has recently told the media that the Sri Lankan youth have been denied a fair deal anent political representation. He has called for increasing the number of young representatives in political institutions. One could not agree with him more. There is no gainsaying that the youth who account for nearly one fourth of the country’s population deserve a better deal.
The electoral system should be changed to have many more young members in political institutions, but that alone will not help solve the issues affecting the youth. We have had a considerable number of young MPs all these years, but how many of them have taken up the cudgels for the rights of the youth? Most leaders of the political parties currently represented in Parliament entered politics while they were still young, but have done little for the country’s youth; they have only looked after their offspring and relatives. Therefore, besides increasing the representation of the youth at all three tiers of government—Parliament, the provincial councils and the local government institutions—governments ought to work hard to develop this country so that opportunities will be available for the youth to achieve their goals.
Most youth are reluctant to live in this country, which they will leave, at the first opportunity. This is the sad truth successive governments have chosen to ignore. All these decades, other countries have benefited from Sri Lanka’s free education system in that the best brains produced here have served them. We have been feeding the proverbial cow, which other nations have been milking. Many Sri Lankan professionals sent overseas for further education or training have neither returned nor paid for violating their agreements with the state.
The youth are politically conscious and active albeit on a different plane, which is basically digital. If one studies popular social media posts, one will realise how creative the youth are in expressing their frustration. Iconoclasm is associated with the rebellious youth, who are known for calling anyone on the carpet at the drop of a hat, but these posts are indicative of a deep-seated antipathy towards politicians and political institutions. The vast majority of young social media activists are cynics. Their cynicism is symptomatic of their disenchantment with the system and fraught with the danger of finding expression in popular uprisings like the Arab Spring, which turned out to be a winter of despair for the countries where it was staged. Pent-up anger of the youth gives a turbo boost to the sinister outfits with extra-parliamentary agendas. This may explain why the JVP succeeded in making the youth take up arms, plunge the country into a bloodbath and perish in two abortive insurrections.
One may recall that the wall art spree that followed the 2019 regime change; thousands of young artists turned the country into an art gallery. They acted on their own and received public assistance; it was a form of catharsis. But they lost interest in their artistic endeavour after a few weeks probably because the new government failed to live up to their expectations, and the promised new beginning became yet another false dawn.
The yahapalana government apparently thought the youth lived on data. Hence its offer of free Wi-Fi in public places. The present dispensation seems to think ball games will keep the youth happy. It is not only the old birds that cannot be caught with chaff; the young birds are also wise in this country and cannot be easily fooled. They need opportunities to pursue education and secure employment. The majority of students who qualify for university admission are left out as the universities lack facilities and resources to accommodate them. Only the progeny of the rich could afford private education. The local job market is almost saturated, and most of the educated youth are either unemployed or underemployed.
The present-day leaders had better secure copies of the report of the Presidential Commission on Youth (1990) and read and understand its findings and recommendations. (Imtiaz has referred to this valuable document, which he must have read as a young MP at the time.) Only a few of the commission recommendations have been implemented.
The Youth Commission was appointed following the brutal suppression of the second JVP insurrection (1987-89). Three decades have elapsed since the publication of its report, and the incumbent government should give serious thought to appointing a new youth commission to ascertain the views of the youth on the various issues they are faced with and how they think they can be tackled. The frustration of their wishes has made the youth resentful and their consternation is palpable. This, we reckon, is a sombre presage of trouble.
ECT, Port City and Potemkin village
Wednesday 20th January, 2021
The East Container Terminal (ECT) dispute remains unresolved. Protesting port workers have rejected a government condition for negotiations as a Hobson’s choice; they have said the government has offered to discuss the issue, provided they agree to consider the proposed joint venture between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and India’s Adani Group as non-negotiable. Having further talks on the government’s terms will be tantamount to an endorsement of the ECT deal, the protesters have said.
The warring port workers are likely to harden their position further and even flex their trade union muscles. This is something the country cannot afford at this juncture, but the government has sought to play a game of chicken. The economy cannot take any more shocks, and a port strike will send it into a tailspin.
Praise for the government has come from an unexpected quarter. Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera, one of the bitterest critics of the government, has commended it for having struck the ETC deal with India; in the former’s eyes the latter can never do anything right, but both of them are on the same wavelength where the questionable joint venture is concerned! Bashing the government is the raison d’etre of most NGOs, which are all out to have pariah status conferred on the present-day leaders for the country’s successful war on terror, but curiously they too have showered praise on the government for the proposed ECT joint venture with Adani Group as a partner!
Interestingly, the forces that propelled the SLPP to power are now berating the government for the ECT deal, which, they say, is detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests. Those who did their darnedest to have the SLPP defeated at the last two elections and are hell bent on demonising its leaders as enemies of democracy are supporting it on the ECT agreement. Thus, the government is receiving praise from its enemies and brickbats from its allies! What has caused this strange realignment of forces?
Adani Group, which is the Modi government’s most favoured company, has come under heavy criticism for the rapaciousness of its business practices both at home and abroad. Protesting Indian farmers have blamed it for their woes, and in Australia it stands accused of employing environmentally destructive methods in mining. In India, the Central Bureau of Investigation has booked the Adani Enterprises Ltd, which is considered the flagship company of Adani Group, for securing a government contract for supplying imported coal in an allegedly fraudulent manner. Sri Lankan politicians love to do business with such companies!
One of the main election pledges of the SLPP was to form a ‘patriotic government and undo what the yahapalana administration had done. But it has chosen to jettison its patriotism and follow the yahapalana policy on state assets, as evident from its decision to partner with a foreign company to operate the ECT, which the Sri Lanka Ports Authority is capable of managing on its own as a profitable venture. As for the ECT, the incumbent government has done exactly what the yahapalana regime did anent the Chinese Port City. The previous administration vowed to scrap the Chinese project, condemning it as an environmental disaster, but approved it in the end.
The government has said it will attract foreign investment without either selling or leasing the ECT; this is only an impressive façade that hides an unpleasant situation, or Potemkin village as political scientists call it.
If the SLPP leaders ignore the fate that awaits those who strike deals with companies notorious for questionable business practices, they will do so at their own peril. They ought to learn from the predicament of the UNP leaders who had dealings with Perpetual Treasuries, which carried out the Treasury bond scams.
Tuesday 19th January, 2021
Some female local government members have come together to form a front against discrimination and harassment they face in their councils. They have called upon all female representatives throughout the country to sink their political differences and join forces to safeguard their rights, according to a news item we published yesterday. This initiative deserves encouragement and assistance from everyone.
It is heartening that female councillors have decided to go public with their grievances instead of suffering in silence. Such action is bound to have a deterrent effect on the shameless councillors who apparently make themselves feel important at the expense of their female counterparts. These elements, we believe, need the assistance of men in white coats.
A member of the female councillors’ collective against discrimination and harassment has told the media that not even their freedom of expression is respected at council meetings, which are dominated by overbearing, ill-tempered men who turn aggressive and abusive at the drop of a hat. Whenever women took the floor, they were greeted by catcalls and boos from men in kapati suit, she complained. This sorry state of affairs has curiously gone unnoticed by the political party leaders, who are full of praise for women when they make public speeches. All political parties have women’s wings and their manifestos contain pledges to safeguard women’s rights, but female local council members continue to suffer. Perhaps, this should not surprise anyone, given the sheer number of political dregs in the garb of people’s representatives; they are no respecters of fellow humans, much less women. It is doubtful whether they respect even their own mothers and sisters.
Women account for more than one half of Sri Lanka’s population, but sadly this is not reflected in the number of elected representatives. Politics remains a male-dominated field, and this may explain why it is rotten to the core and stinks. Perhaps, it is only in the Maharagama UC that women have received their due share of representation; out of its 47 members 24 are women, as our news item said, quoting a female councillor, who alleged that even in that institution, women’s rights were suppressed. Gender-based discrimination is a punishable offence, and it is puzzling how the misogynistic elements among the local government members have gone scot-free.
Parliament legislated for increasing female representation in local government institutions and introduced a new electoral system. It was no doubt a very progressive step. But what is the use of increasing the number of female councillors if their rights are not safeguarded or they cannot even have themselves heard at council meetings?
Meanwhile, in January 2016, some female MPs revealed to the media, on condition of anonymity, that they underwent sexual harassment in Parliament. They accused some randy male counterparts who were old enough to be their fathers of making advances and cracking dirty jokes at their expense. They stopped short of naming names, though. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised a probe and requested the victims to make formal complaints. But nobody came forward for fear of either reprisal or stigma, or both.
The alliance being forged against gender-based discrimination should be expanded to include female MPs as well if it is to evolve as a formidable force. Then only will its voice be heard in Parliament.
All those who abhor harassment and discrimination that female representatives suffer, in political institutions, at the hands of the spineless creatures who call themselves men must stand up and be counted. These misogynists must be named and shamed before being hauled up before courts. Let their victims be urged to make official complaints of instances of assault on human dignity and reveal the names of culprits to the media. Female electors must stop voting for these politicians by way of punishment.
Shame on the self-righteous political leaders who have given misogynists within the ranks of their parties quite a long leash! It is high time these macho Neanderthals were reined in.
Make killers pay
Monday 18th January, 2021
Health authorities in some parts of the pandemic-hit US are in a dilemma over the prioritisation of risk groups for vaccination. The New Jersey government is reported to have decided to vaccinate smokers on priority basis as they run a higher risk of having Covid-19 complications than others. It has drawn heavy criticism for its decision, which will result in smokers getting the jab before teachers and public transport workers, we are told.
Covid-19 vaccine saves lives, especially those of people afflicted with chronic non-communicable diseases. The opinion of the New Jersey officials is that smokers should be given the jab as early as possible if their lives are to be saved. But others are convinced otherwise; they ask whether smokers who are fully aware of the health risks they expose themselves to when they puff away at ‘coffin nails’ should get the first dibs on the vaccine. This has led to an ethical dilemma of sorts.
The critics of the New Jersey government decision insist that if smokers are a vulnerable group, they must be asked to remain indoors instead of being inoculated before others who actually deserve priority, given the essential services they render to society during the pandemic, risking their lives. Some people argue that smokers should not be discriminated against in saving lives as their right to life must also be respected. There is yet another school of thought, which opines that only those with respiratory diseases, etc., among smokers should be given priority in the vaccination programme just like those with the same health issues. But the problem is that all smokers are at a higher risk than nonsmokers where the pandemic is concerned.
A false claim is being propagated in some quarters—perhaps at the behest of the powerful tobacco industry—that smokers are underrepresented among the Covid-19 patients needing hospitalisation, and, therefore, smoking, which is associated with morbidity and mortality in many diseases, is protective against the pandemic!
Thankfully, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration have given the lie to this claim. The WHO has confirmed that available evidence suggests that smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalised Covid-19 patients. New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has told the media, ‘Smoking puts you at a significant risk for and adverse results from Covid-19.” It has thus been established that smoking is a danger, especially during the pandemic, and the question is why no action has been taken against the tobacco industry, which is making huge profits at the expense of public health, the world over.
The WHO has revealed that tobacco kills more than 8 million people a year in the world; more than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed that cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths per year in the US. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths a day, the CDC has said. Covid-19 has killed about two million people globally including about 390,000 Americans during the last 13 months or so. Isn’t the tobacco Mafia more dangerous than coronavirus, and what action has the world taken against it?
Sri Lanka will face the same problem as New Jersey sooner or later when the national vaccination drive gets underway, and risk groups have to be identified. If the current health crisis takes a turn for the worse with the death toll increasing exponentially—absit omen—the high-risk groups including smokers will have to be inoculated before others. The state will have to pay for most of the vaccine doses. It will be a huge financial burden on the cash-strapped government, which will invariably increase its revenue by jacking up indirect taxes. Thus, everyone will have to pay for the vaccine although it is said to be free. It may not be possible to vaccinate everyone, given the huge cost of the vaccine, logistical issues and the sheer number of people to be inoculated although Sri Lanka boasts an efficient healthcare system. How fair will it be to allow smokers to get the shots first at the expense of other citizens while the tobacco industry is earning massive profits without giving anything back for the benefit of its loyal customers?
Let it be suggested that the cost of vaccinating the people who are suffering from smoking-related diseases that predispose them to Covid-19 complications be recovered from the tobacco industry by way of a new tax. Statistics about the number of smokers, etc., are readily available and it is not difficult to determine the cost of vaccinating them. Killers must be made to pay.
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