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Light-Rail derailed by Executive disorder

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by Rajan Philips

LRT project to be inaugurated today

(Daily News, Wednesday, July 3, 2019)

The picture and the caption above are from the Daily News dated July 3, 2019, announcing the commencement of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project “construction work under the patronage of (then) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe,” with (then) Urban and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka calling the LRT project “a measure to ease the traffic congestion in and around Colombo city.” Four months later on October 11, 2019, Daily News again reported that the LRT project “will be ready for commissioning by end of 2024 and for commercial operation by early 2025.” Not anymore. It is kaput now.

The LRT project, Champika Ranawaka’s preferred modal showcase for the Western Megapolis has been stopped in its tracks. Worse, it has been derailed and ordered to be junked. The order emanated from the fount of all power in Sri Lanka, the executive presidency. It was transmitted down by the Secretary to the President to the Secretary of the Ministry of Transport. The source of the order and its mode of communication are quite the illustration of the model of government that has arrived in Sri Lanka. The Minister of Transport, whoever she or he is of the 225 nobodies, is nowhere near the tracks. There is no mention anywhere of any of this being discussed in cabinet, a decision being made, and the Minister of Transport taking over to instruct his Secretary and staff. And inform as well that other missing entity, not so much the parliament which has its name but no use, as the general public, in whose name all power is purportedly exercised. This is how things were – when there was only a PM and who was merely primus inter pares. For translation, ask Wigneswaran, the expert on old languages, dead and alive.

And all this under the 19A Constitution, which apparently precludes the President from being a Minister of any subject (especially Defence), let alone ordering the Secretary of a Ministry while bypassing the subject Minister altogether. Even in the army, does the Commander in Chief give direct orders to privates? One would have thought that the civilian President was powerless under 19A to do any of this. Hence the ‘fierce urgency’ for 20A. So, we were told. Oops, I am sorry, I am veering too far off. Let me get back on track.

Secretary Jayasundara’s letter (dated September 21) to the Transport Secretary became public, courtesy of a scoop by BBC journalist Saroj Pathirana, who went on social media two days later to share it with others. Economynext picked it up the same day (September 23) and ran a good story, and here I am with half a bushel grist for my Sunday mill. In two paragraphs containing three stiff sentences, it is observed from one Secretary to another that “Light Railway Track System is very costly and not the appropriate cost effective transport solution for the Urban Colombo transportation infrastructure.” Ergo, the directive to “terminate this project and close the project office with immediate effect.” Then shines the light for the future: “A suitable transport solution could be worked out in consultation with the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing and the Department of National Planning with the Ministry of Finance.” Just like that! Easier done than said!!

 

Cancel politics

The secretarial termination of the LRT project is part of what is turning out to be ‘cancel politics’ in Sri Lanka. Not quite like ‘cancel culture’ (the social media practice of naming and shaming public figures and private companies, and ‘cancelling’ or boycotting them if they do or say anything objectionable or ‘incorrect’); but adaptable for our purposes in Sri Lanka. It is ‘cancel politics’ from taxation to constitution to environment to projects – cancelling everything that was started or half-started under the last government. It would be all right if cancellation leads to something better or positive, but that has hardly been the case so far. Tax cancellation immediately created half a billion hole in government revenue. Environmental cancellations are now regular news. The much bandied 20th Amendment has taken constitutional cancellation to new lows of mediocrity. It is perhaps the first authorless bill to be presented in any parliament. And now we have light rail derailed.

I am not sure if any of the current decision makers bothered to review the work that went into the LRT project that they have now taciturnly cancelled. The cancelled project was identified through the Western Region Megapolis Transport Master Plan (TMP) exercise that was completed in November 2016. With 2035 as the planning horizon, the TMP focused on four areas – Public Transport, Road Infrastructure, Transport Demand Management, and Environmental Sustainability, for project identification in seven corridors.

Radiating north to south from Colombo, the seven corridors extend towards Negombo, Kandy, Kaduwela, Malabe, Kottawa, Piliyandara, and Moratuwa. The cancelled project is one of the seven LRT lines identified TMP, and is for the Colombo-Malabe corridor. The planning exercise was conducted by a Core Team of six and a broader study team of 36 – Sri Lankan (and also Sinhalese) professionals and a few academics. What they laboured and produced certainly deserve a whole lot more than a summary cancellation in three technically meaningless bureaucratic sentences.

The Colombo (Fort) – Malabe line, extending over 16 km and including 16 stations, was selected as the first LRT project for implementation based on technical grounds such as giving relief to existing vehicular traffic congestion in the Colombo-Malabe corridor, and convenient right-of-way availability. A soft loan arrangement to cover 80% of the project cost (USD 1.8 billion out of USD 2.2 billion) was arranged with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). In March 2020, after the November Presidential election the (Rajapaksa) government signed a 30 billion yen concessionary loan with Japan. Then in June, out of nowhere, the government halted the project, giving high costs and low returns as reasons.

More grievous than technical illiteracy is the economic thinking, rather the lack of it, that is behind the cancellation. The argument of high costs and low returns does not hold water, given the plethora of coastal and highway construction projects that have been undertaken at exorbitant and even uncontrolled costs. As for returns, any public transit project, such as the cancelled LRT project, will be beneficial to large numbers of ordinary Sri Lankans unlike any of the port, port city and highway projects undertaken over the last decade. Leaving aside conventional costs and returns, what is inexplicable is the government’s blindness to the economic stimulus potential of this project in the current and dire Covid-economic situation. Especially given the facility of concessionary loans that Japan is willing to give. And Japan is not even a Christian country with Tamil or Muslim populations, to provoke civilizational diehards.

Curiously, while rushing to cancel the LRT project supported by Japan, the government has gone quiet on the controversial MCC grant offer from the US. Is it because the US has Sri Lankan dual citizens, and Japan doesn’t? Or is it because the LRT project is too much of a Champika Ranawaka project that should be removed root and branch to politically starve the former Minister out of any future presidential reckoning? Either way, they are not technically defensible or economically sound reasons for project cancellation. The non-decision over MCC is depriving the Colombo City of good grant money to address traffic congestion at nearly 130 of the City’s junctions. On the other hand, the politically vindictive decision to cancel the Japanese LRT project is depriving the Colombo region of a much needed and readily available economic stimulus to tide over the current Covid-economic and low employment situation. In addition, the cancel decision will also deprive the people in the Colombo-Malabe corridor of the benefits of the LRT project – avoiding the congested roadways, and travelling faster and safer.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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