If the public were to run away with the thought that nothing has really changed since January 9 last year given the grand celebrations to mark the nearly new Government’s first anniversary; they could perhaps be excused. The tamasha was subdued and less in intensity to the grandeur and extravagance of the past aimed at puffing [...]


Stomach more sensitive than the head


If the public were to run away with the thought that nothing has really changed since January 9 last year given the grand celebrations to mark the nearly new Government’s first anniversary; they could perhaps be excused. The tamasha was subdued and less in intensity to the grandeur and extravagance of the past aimed at puffing up the image of ‘il Presidente’, but our politicians still seem to love grandstanding – at public expense.

These celebrations are being held to hail the victory of what the Government’s proponents call a victory of good over evil by a ‘Rainbow coalition’, but what detractors, however, call a ‘kanda haliya’ (mixed bowl of herbal soup). It comes in the backdrop of a gloomy economic picture neatly covered by a cloth pledging to make Sri Lanka the next economic hub between Dubai and Singapore.

With Harvard economists, Nobel laureates and self-made billionaires at a Government-sponsored Economic Forum in Colombo – and next month, the start of the US Partnership Dialogue in Washington DC there is hope, of a ‘take-off’ of the economy; but the price of vegetables has shot up in the meantime and with it, the price of a humble packet of rice.

At a macro level, the country is in dire straits. According to revised figures by the Department of Census and Statistics and the Central Bank, supported by the IMF’s Fourth Post-Programmee Monitoring (PPM), Sri Lanka’s economy did not grow by more than 7 points in 2013 and 2014, as once claimed, but by 3.5 and 4.5 respectively. The low growth rate meant household consumption which is about 70% of GDP got squeezed. This economic factor has gone largely unnoticed in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe victory of last year.

Further IMF facilities will have measures that will result in part contraction of the economy in the initial years leading to hard times ahead. Sri Lanka has to find US dollars six billion (Rs. 858 trillion) to bridge the foreign financing gap (loans taken etc.,) for 2015 alone. That is why the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank are running around the world seeking still more commercial loans and ‘swap facilities’ from Saudi Arabia and other countries. Last year, Sri Lanka engaged the Central Bank of India on a ‘swap facility’. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka cannot print US dollars like it does rupees.

These loans and ‘swap facilities’ which is where a Central Bank swaps its currency for US dollars in times of huge stress, are not sustainable means – they only postpone problems by a year. That is what the Central Bank has been doing over the years and debts keep mounting higher and higher. Going to Saudi Arabia just shows that try as we must to bolster foreign investment, the local economy remains founded on the remittances of our toiling workers in the desert sands of West Asia – now the hot spot of turmoil and instability.

So, it was not mere ‘good governance’ issues that brought down the Rajapaksa regime, but the economic squeezing of the ‘middle class’. When they are hit in the stomach, cannot pay their bills, or pay their children’s tuition fees, and make ends meet – and then, have to see the vulgarity with which the ruling elite is riding on the gravy train and having a carnival – that’s when the tide changes. As the ticker tape comes down from the weekend’s celebrations, and the Government has to pay its own bills, old loans (USD six billion is half the earnings from all exports), despite all the rhetoric and promises to make Sri Lanka ‘the Smart Nation of South Asia’, elections are alas, still won and lost, on the price of a packet of rice.

Road accidents: Act speedily
The head of UNICEF a long, long, time ago famously said that children die every day due to famines, malnourishment and disease all over the world and yet, get little public attention. Should they be put into an aircraft and it plunges into a mountain, it is then that the world takes notice.

He was making the point that when things happen regularly, every day, every hour, it passes as just another statistic. So too is the case with road accidents in Sri Lanka. Last week, this newspaper published the startling figures. A record number of deaths happen on the country’s roads – more than 2,700 or over seven a day. Broken down still further – one every three hours or so; of which 777 were of persons just standing on the road (pedestrians) and 486 were passengers in vehicles.

CTB and private buses now engaged in a ‘war on the highways’ were involved in 300 fatal accidents apart from hitting stationary objects along the road. The majority of the offenders were private buses. One of the reasons attributed to this is the fact that several of these private buses are owned by senior policemen (or their wives), and the three-wheelers by lower rankers from ill-gotten graft. That is why the drivers of these vehicles feel they can get away with murder on the highway.

Why did the boast of new carpeted road networks have to correspond with such high casualty figures which multiply when considering those who were left grievously injured. Action is needed — to halt this terrible trend — at a very high Inter-Ministerial level. That has to be one of the key priorities this year.

New AG: NO political appointee, please
The Attorney General has retired and the Government has to appoint a new head as the State’s Chief Legal Adviser and Prosecutor in the coming week.

The outgoing AG has surely had his fill especially in the first year of the Yahapalanaya Government, in fact, from even the day before it was set up when he advised the former President to yield rather than dig his heels in to the will of the people following the January 8 election that paved the way for this Government. Subsequently, he was accused by the politicians of the new Government of being a puppet of the former regime. Such is the price one pays for independence in high public office.

Moves are afoot to bring in an ‘outsider’ to fill the vacancy as the new Government gets impatient with the lack of movement in prosecutions of past misdeeds. These delays cannot entirely be laid at the door of the AG’s Department, over-worked and under-paid as they are. Most of the delays are at the investigations stage i.e. at the Police. To make such a move as to make a political appointment however, could compromise the stature of a Department in the eyes of the public, which like the Superior Courts must be independent, fearless and above petty politics. ‘Monkeying’ with the AG’s Department as with the judiciary, which was the case in the recent past, will bring this Government to the same disrepute its predecessor suffered.

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