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OUR FINANCIAL MESS

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by Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

We are constantly reminded of the sorry state of our Economy. This is simply to say that we are broke. We are also told that the accepted criteria, requiring some sophisticated computations are necessary to really understand the position. One trouble is that the figures from two or more such sources, often do differ substantially (for example the Central Bank and the Census and Statistics Department are often at variance). No amount of massaging can convert bad data into good conclusions. As the saying goes, figures cannot lie, but liars can certainly figure. What the ordinary citizen feels is that things cost so much more than they did within one’s memory.

My family teases me by saying that I am talking “Wolseley prices (1959)”, (A payment of Rs 9,000/= at Faleel’s in Kandy, secures a brand new Wolseley ‘1500’ collected in Harpenden, UK). They aver that salaries are much higher now than they were then! Probably so, for example our gardener is paid for a single day, about one quarter of the monthly salary I drew as Director of the CRI! My family are not impressed. It is doubtful that the 9,000 /= that yielded a full Wolseley then would buy them a set of tyres for it now! I hold that there are many things that I can quote (with an admittedly impaired memory) where unit prices have increased several hundredfold and some a thousand times, far outstripping concurrent income increases!.

There is also no national mention about one of the most immediate reasons – unbridled growth of population, exceeding expectations and leakages of Government assets (e.g Central Bank, EPF and NSB). And while we are about it, what happened to that currency deal of some 20 million (in currency notes) that changed hands in the Car Park of the Taj Hotel as the first tranche of a 50 million deal? Taken together this is a toxic mix. During World War II, one directive given by wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, was to ensure that nothing (good or bad) should be hidden from public knowledge. In addition to the legendary reputation for British honesty, there was also the readiness of the people to suffer deprivation and hardship, in the solid faith that everybody was suffering equally.

Money takes meaning when it rewards genuine improvement, in productivity of materials or service. Here outlay is justified by output. The worst cases are bribery, corruption, smuggling, narcotics and similar acts of criminality and cheating, where cost comprehensively outstrips return. For example, MP’ voted themselves, a payment of Rs. 200,000/= per month purportedly “for electoral work,” while at the same time, denying estate labour their request for a daily wage of Rs.1,000/=. This is a quaint way of Division of Labour – one earning foreign exchange through hard sweat and toil, while the other is spending it equally strenuously in the “flesh pots” in various cities in different parts of the World. What could be fairer?

The twin processes that Government could take are obviously to:

(i) ensure that unnecessary expenditure is curtailed and

(ii) seek new means of raising revenue.

Managerial skill is to try, as far as possible to balance these two goals. The easy solution is to increase duty imposed on imports. This leads to price escalation. Populist measures have then to selectively grant subsidies or doles to keep the low income groups happy, thus leading to sizable increases in welfare costs. This is dangerous and further widens the gap between State income and expenditure. The Welfare State, it has been stated, can be the immediate prelude to the Farewell state!

In considering the local predicament, the need is for steps designed to alleviate immediate needs of our people. External issues concerning international trade, State debts, balance of payments and other high level verbiage, is beyond the ken of non-specialists and is sensed by the majority only when scarcities and price increases begin to bite.

Consequently, the Government has to seek new sources of income. I see at least six major opportunities:-

(i) Re-examine the VAT imposition to ensure that all collections are correctly reported and settled. This is hardly possible in a country where only some 200,000 income tax files exist, which relate to annual incomes (and Tax Returns), but many are still in severe default. Can such an inefficient system cope with monitoring of perhaps many million transactions per day? This has to be reformed to ensure that all VAT collections are properly managed. This is very unlikely. It is possible that VAT serves only to fleece the public and to aid fraudsters. I seized an opportunity to express this to a Deputy Minister of Finance at that time. He did not visibly shrug, but nothing has probably happened!

(ii) e did not shrug bat All Duty Free vehicles of MP’s which were hawked, should be recovered. Real Estate here and abroad, should be tracked. Like the Ownerless “Malwana Mansion” and probably many more. Where the public is able to track evidence of inexplicable wealth, there should be a method for rewarding them appropriately. (Customs detection from attempted smugglers could serve as an example). Constant mention is made about mega frauds, most leading to some political bigwig, the obvious remedy is to call for periodic declaration of assets by MP’s, if not annually, at least upon entering and exiting the “hallowed” Parliament. Why not? Does the “Cahoot Theory” apply and explain?. It is compulsory for Public Servants to declare their assets annually. Goose, Gander and Sauce! Nomination of candidates is an appropriate point at which to make such declaration mandatory. We understand that a very small number have made declarations, which are safely stacked away we are told, in somebody’s safe, away from public scrutiny. What is the point?

Here then is another source of income for our beleaguered State.

(iii) During the LTTE conflict, Mr. K.Pathmanathan (KP) was portrayed as the main Fund Manager of the vast wealth amassed by the LTTE. This was said to include a fleet of some seventeen ships, many Petrol Pumps, much Real Estate and every conceivable type of investment. This was how the LTTE ran its affairs professionally and effectively. Thus, when “KP” was captured in Malaysia and brought back to Sri Lanka, our entire nation was jubilant. By his (KP’s) own disclosures, when he faced Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defense Secretary at the time, he fully expected to be eliminated. To his surprise, GR was very cordial and friendly – even offering a handshake and an inquiry about his health. After this, the public lost interest. After a while he “materialized” and is supposedly engaged in some “social work” in the Vanni.

If the Government recoups the virtual Gold Mine that he (KP) managed and was reputed to have been in charge, the Government will possibly be able to meet a substantial part of its deficit.

Whatever happened to this money if KP was captured along with this loot?

(v) A massive collection of Official vehicles was left to decay in a site just next to “Mumtaz Mahal” which was at one time, the official residence of the Speaker. They were mostly of luxury models and lay covered with creeper weeds. I learned that these awaited dumping in the sea – despite the existence of a “Marine Pollution Protection Agency”! Only the grave-yards for vehicles in the Arabian Desert which is part of Iraq, presented a similar sight, where oil-rich Kuwaitis abandoned their posh vehicles (eg Mercedes, Volvos etc), because it was more costly to junk them in Kuwait itself. It is probable that the Kollupitiya junk yard, said to be one of three around Colombo alone, once belonged to the Presidential fleet (Said to have been over 200). No one has been held accountable for this criminal waste.

(vi) As an index of our moral decay, when some 70 odd MP’s were found to have sold their vehicles or duty free permits, not only was nothing done, but someone had the brazen cheek to say that this was permissible because MP’s had to recover election costs! This great tolerance apparently did not apply where a poor woman who supposedly stole a few milk powder packets to feed her hungry children, one also recalls that a young child was persecuted for “stealing” a few coconuts! It was cynically claimed that those who framed laws were entitled to break them! Evidently, these little baskets (Printer’s Devil) think that we are all “Buth Kana Harak” – rice eating cattle!

So, as an interim measure, get all of the blokes who profited from this caper to pay back the ill-gotten profits they earned. There was also a display of documents in the social media, relating to two permits one of which was issued to one “Sirisena” who identified himself as “the MP for Polonnaruwa” and with a Polonnaruwa address!. On the very same day, it was alleged a “Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP for Kurunegala” also had his “Land Cruiser”!. This was legitimate if the letters of the rule are sufficiently elastic. The duty waivers for these two vehicles was some 38 Million (?). If these revelations are not true, there should have been an official denial and perhaps even legal procedures instituted against the publishers of these malicious fabrications. There is no evidence of any such action. While at it, the fate of some 38 top flight “Jaguars” imported by the State, should be made known. Some very damaging and ugly rumours are afloat and should be countered. There is also the matter of a large number of vehicles held up at the Hambantota Port and released by a Ministerial fiat, which caused a heavy loss of some r a billions to the exchequer. As a general rule, rather than attempting to strangle the “social media” would it not be better for official denials of the sometimes outrageous allegations be met with convincing details from official records? Let us face it – the word MP is synonymous with corruption. This is grossly unfair by the several who are not crooked. But they should pluck up enough courage to challenge the crooks, and so take themselves out of the “Guilty Register” Among those who have succeeded at the recent polls are those who have emitted more than a mere stink of criminal misdemeanours. This does not promise well for the future.

Dear Mr President, you are reputed to be a strict disciplinarian. Retore our faith that you will cause action on this critical matter. Do not betray the trust reposed in you. Letus “Wait and see”.

 


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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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