Woke up on Thursday morning to the crackling sound of the house phone. It was my friend, good-for-nothing ‘Arthika’ Perera on the line. Arthika Perera talks nonsense all the time and his economic jibber-jabber doesn’t make any sense at all. But often, he’s a good distraction from a daily, no-surprise routine as he discusses anything [...]

Business Times

Just another day in paradise


Woke up on Thursday morning to the crackling sound of the house phone. It was my friend, good-for-nothing ‘Arthika’ Perera on the line. Arthika Perera talks nonsense all the time and his economic jibber-jabber doesn’t make any sense at all. But often, he’s a good distraction from a daily, no-surprise routine as he discusses anything and everything under the sun, even on rainy days!

“Machan, many things happening,” he said, eagerly. Intrigued and warming towards a good gossip on nonsensical issues, I asked: “Morning .., what’s cooking?”
“Plenty. The Central Bank Governor says they are getting strict with errant finance companies to protect depositors; the Bond Commission ‘vade dunna’ and Maithri seems to have regained some of the magic he displayed just before being elected.”

“Never a dull moment in Paradise,” I laughed in response and asked, “But how has Maithri regained some lost popularity?” “Why, everyone is talking about the Bond Commission report,” he said … trailing off when I responded, “Yes, yes … but a new survey by the Business Times says that while people are happy with the outcome, they are not sure whether the culprits will be given any severe punishment given that the 3-year-old Government has been weak in reining-in the white collar rogues of the former regime”.

At that moment, our conversation is abruptly disturbed by shouts of “allaganna, allaganna (catch, catch)” from our road outside. Cutting off with a “I’ll talk to you later”, I run outside to find Kussi Amma Sera, with the morning paper which she was reading in hand, her friend-in-need Serapina and other neighbours chasing after a cow.

Several minutes later, a huffing-and-puffing Kussi Amma Sera returns with a long story about how the cow had broken away from its handlers’ shed and they all joined the chase, saying “what are neighbours there for if you can’t help”. Continuing, she says: “Mahattayo, dan balanna … harak saha pol gas me davas wala hari vatinawa. Lankawey – issara kaley mewa pita ratin genawe naha.”

She was alluding to the fact that coconut production is in crisis today owing to a combination of factors including the prevalent coconut mite disease, a severe drought and a demand rising from the processed, added-value-for-exports industry. Sri Lanka’s coconut production thus is insufficient to meet both domestic demand (Sri Lankans love a good, creamy curry with loads of coconut milk) and also to feed export industries.

Dairy production is also slowing down for many reasons as an interesting article (on Page 6 of the Business Times) by a renowned agronomist reveals. Dr. C.S. Weeraratne raises many questions on the Government’s persistent announcements on the need to export more and not depend on foreign remittances of our Sri Lankan domestic workers slaving in overseas households to keep the local economy chugging along. “Export yes, but what?” Dr. Weeraratne asks in a well-researched article.

He ventures on to raise many pertinent questions on plans, productivity, previously failed agriculture production programmes and the need to come up with a doable game-plan on taking the country forward if it’s to reap the benefits of its rich natural resources and other space to make agriculture a winning vocation.

The Bond Commission report and the persistent “export or perish” call from the current authorities (didn’t we hear this before in the 1980s when Lalith Athulathmudali was Trade Minister and Sri Lanka had just woken up from a period of deep slumber: 1970-1977, see Kussi Amma Sera column, June 11, 2017) have a connection. Most people don’t expect any serious action or outcome based on the recommendations of the Bond Commission given the Government’s inability to rein-in corrupt politicians and businessmen including scandalous pump-and-dump trades in the Colombo stock market from the past, despite a lot of rhetoric. Similarly, the calls for more exports or diversifying exports which are a repeated line from the Central Bank Governor’s New Year Road Map over the past few years, will make no headway unless there is a proper, doable plan. Promises on paper don’t work and until they do, it is back to Sri Lanka’s dependence on migrant workers to keep foreign exchange coffers alive and healthy. Apart from this sector, it’s only tea that brings in ‘clean’ foreign exchange and helps in balancing the trade deficit. By this I mean other sizable foreign exchange earners like garments or tourism (rising in stature owing to large arrival numbers) have a hidden component; foreign exchange spent on the cost of inputs.

In the real sense of the word, foreign exchange earnings’ contribution from garments and tourism should be calculated based on the net return (after adjusting costs).

However, the contribution to the economy in terms of jobs to locals and the trickle-down-effect to village communities is also an important and a positive parameter in both garments and tourism.

To digress a bit on the long-awaited report of the Treasury Bond Commission, newspapers and websites were also discussing the “who-did-it-first” with politicians and their creed joining the bandwagon. This is after the Prime Minister in a “thank-you” note to the Bond probe commissioners said that he had forwarded the report of the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises on the Bond issue in October 2016 to the Attorney General (AG) for action and one year later the President sends the Bond Commission report to the AG with a similar request. So the AG has sat on the PM’s request for one whole year without action?

No wonder the people (in the BT poll) are convinced the Bond Commission report might end nowhere or be shoved into the cupboard of forgotten or to-be-taken-up-later events. However, there is a marked difference between the COPE report and the Bond Commission report. The proceedings of the latter were open to the public (unlike COPE) and the daily, either juicy or often-shocking events connected to disputed Bond auction and trades became a much-looked-forward-to public trial. It forced the resignation of former Finance and Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake whose out-of-the-blues ‘admission’ that Arjun Aloysius, at the heart of the Bond scam, looked after the lease rental of a penthouse apartment, provided ideal fodder for the opposition and the media. The daily diet of Bond Commission news on how Aloysius’s Perpetual Treasuries Ltd (PTL) – main suspect in the disputed bond trades, bribed traders, which saw profits soar from a few millions to billions of rupees, reined-in the culprits even before a conviction.

The report, made public by the President on Wednesday night, revealed that PTL made an undue profit of Rs. 11,145 million in the secondary market while the Employees’ Provident Fund and other government institutions lost more than Rs. 8,524 million or Rs. 8.5 billion owing to PTL’s influence.

A confidential report by the Central Bank’s Supervision of Non-Bank Financial Institution Department, extracts of which were reported in the Business Times, November 26, 2017, revealed that PTL’s capital base rose to Rs. 11.07 billion as at 31-05-2016 from Rs. 1.84 billion at 30-09-2015 and Rs. 1 billion as at 31-10-2014, a growth of 990 per cent over a 19-month period!

In early November 2017, the Supreme Court rejected a fundamental rights plea by PTL challenging the Monetary Board’s suspension of its primary dealer licence and the blocking of its accounts. This meant PTL’s two bank accounts amounting to Rs. 10.5 billion (mainly profits from the questionable Bond transactions) remain frozen till January 2018, according to the Supreme Court verdict that week. These accounts had earlier been frozen by the Central Bank and these are the monies that can be utilised as per the statement by the President: “I would like to specifically state here that I would not hesitate to take steps to recover the loss of Rs. 11,145 million and take legal action against the offenders and punish them.”

Onto other news, Kussi Amma Sera, back in the garden but still panting after a merry-go-round with a cow, refers to a Lankadeepa news report about the SriLankan Airlines Board of Directors resigning, adding some spice with a “meka onna menna wenawalu (happening soon, happening soon)”.

But wait, wasn’t Kabir (Minister in charge of public enterprises including the national carrier) informed of the resignations? Nothing new, he has stated in the past too that he has not been informed of developments involving the directors who prefer to deal directly with the PM rather than the Minister in charge. Nothing new, nothing unexpected.

Such are the ways of paradise. Never a dull moment. Like the firecrackers on New Year’s Eve that zoomed into the air, burst out in wonderful colours and shades and fell harmlessly into the sea, all these reports will end with a harmless sequel. I am not saying it, the people are. Thursday was just another day in paradise and a reminder of the Phil Collins’ hit song ‘It’s just another day for you and me in paradise’.

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