The air is fresh, as I step outside to absorb the silence. Except for the rustling of the leaves, the Margosa tree is silent — in the absence of the usual, under-the-tree conversation of Kussi Amma Sera, Serpina and Mabel Rasthiyadu. The trio has returned to the village for their annual vacation. Except for the [...]

Business Times

Avurudu blues


The air is fresh, as I step outside to absorb the silence. Except for the rustling of the leaves, the Margosa tree is silent — in the absence of the usual, under-the-tree conversation of Kussi Amma Sera, Serpina and Mabel Rasthiyadu.

The trio has returned to the village for their annual vacation.

Except for the sounds of the Koha or cuckoo bird that pierces the air and makes a welcome entry at this time of the year, there is absolute silence in the neighourhood.

The popular ‘Avilla…..….avilla, Sinhala Avurudda avilla (the Sinhala New Year has arrived)’ song blares from a radio in a neighbour’s home, heralding the joyous festival celebrated by Buddhists and Hindus across the country.

The ‘Aluth Avurudda (New Year) – April 13/14th – is a Sri Lankan holiday that marks the traditional New Year. It is much looked forward to by many communities in the country. Why?

n    Because the roads are quieter during this period.

n    Schools are closed.

n    The streets are bare.

n    A sizable segment of Colombo’s population goes to their hometown outside the city to celebrate the occasion.

n    Some travel to Nuwara Eliya to escape the heat of the capital.

n    Most shops close during this 2-day holiday.

n    Factories close sometimes for a week, which makes the villages and towns where they are located calm and tranquil.

This year, there were other developments and a cause for celebration: The national budget (unusually in March than the normal November) was presented and ended before the advent of the New Year while crippling power cuts ended on Thursday, sending waves of relief among the people.

As I reflected on the silence of the neighbourhood with the absence of Kussi Amma Sera and her friends and only the call of the Koha breaking it on and off, the phone rings. It is my friend, Kalabala Silva, the often-agitated academic, on the line.

“Hello…….hello,” he said. “Yes, hi, Kalabala, what’s happening,” I respond in a glad-that-you-called tone, adding: “It’s very quiet here.”

“I say……..there was a lot of media hype that the budget would be defeated by the opposition but nothing of that sort happened,” he said.

“Well that’s because sections of the Government that support the President preferred to abstain from the vote in a tactical move,” I said.

“However, even if they voted, I don’t think the budget would have been defeated,” he said, a view which I was inclined to agree with.

The conversation continued to discuss the country’s political crisis, the latest controversy over a proposed oil refinery plant at Hambantota, the extension of the southern railway, plans to ask the Supreme Court for a ruling on whether the President’s term of office ends this year or in mid-2020, among other matters.

Among the worst-of-the-worst scenarios in the first four months of the year have been the crippling power cuts which have badly hurt small and medium scale businesses. They didn’t have enough financial resources, unlike the big business houses, to rent or purchase generators to keep their businesses going.

This situation could have easily been avoided if the authorities had approved several small power plants, solar power installations and other renewable energy options. Governing and opposition politicians have criticised a ‘power mafia’ within the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) which has been allegedly blocking all these plans.

Last week’s story in the Business Times by an inventor who said his efforts to reach out to authorities with a sustainable solution through sea-wave energy has drawn a response from Power and Energy Minister Ravi Karunanayake who has promised to help the inventor and his wave energy formula.

“I say, if Ravi says they have drawn up plans for short term, medium term and long term to ensure an uninterrupted supply of energy without power cuts in the future, why wasn’t this done before? Everyone knows that there are fewer showers during this time of the year to run hydro power plants,” asked Kalabala Silva.

“This a common issue with most Governments. They act only when there is a crisis and when their vote base is threatened,” I said.

The power shortage is just one of the problems that the Government is grappling with. Lagging economic growth, high interest rates – particularly for struggling small and medium-scale businesses – a slowdown in consumer confidence which is seeing less buying of consumer durables this holiday season (despite the generous offers through credit cards, etc) and a rising cost of living are hurting the economy.

On Wednesday, the Government announced a reduction of 2 per cent on interest rates for SMEs which have been struggling to stay afloat. Many political analysts believe this is also a step towards minimising any negative sentiment towards the Government with elections due in the coming months.

Another ‘goodie’ news is that the Government has agreed to increase the national minimum wage in the private sector to Rs. 12,500 from May 1, from a current Rs. 10,000 per month. Thus, private sector workers will be entitled to a minimum Rs. 16,000 (inclusive of a Rs. 3,500 budgetary relief allowance).

On the political front, a three-way contest to show their strength is underway in the form of political rallies on May Day (May 1). Both the SLFP and the breakaway SLPP are having separate rallies and meetings while the UNP is also flexing its muscles to try and outdo its opponents.

As I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, the place is tidy and clean – Kussi Amma Sera’s work just before going back to the village for the holidays. The garden has also been swept clean and is quiet, except for the sounds of the Koha and ‘Choon paan’ mobile bakery man, going down the road.

After the New Year season? Prepare for a long period of politicking and bitter, verbal duels among political parties in preparation for elections this year.

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