Major reforms in education are next on the agenda with the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce organising a conference of all stakeholders in early May with the aim of making the education system more geared towards meeting modern needs.
Students, parents, school principals and university lecturers will take part in the conference which is part of a wide-ranging government and private sector effort to de-regulate and liberalise the economy.
The conference is being supported by international lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund which has for long been pressing for reforms in education, along with the de-regulation of other sectors such as finance, energy, plantations and air and sea transportation.
"The aim is to get people to speak up on what is wrong with the present education system and what needs to be done to make it geared to meet the needs of the 21st century," an official involved with the conference said.
"The stakeholders are expected to come up with an agenda for reform in education."
The government last week signed a new agreement with the Asian Development Bank under which it has to slash the budget deficit, raise economic growth, and pursue reforms in key sectors of the economy to qualify for soft loans from the lending agency.
The Poverty Reduction Partnership Agreement "sets specific, time-bound targets and includes detailed mechanisms to monitor progress and also represents the ADB's long-term commitment to Sri Lanka's future economic development," visiting ADB president Tadao Chino said.
Under the deal the government is committed to reducing the incidence of extreme poverty to 20 percent by 2015, cut the budget deficit to five percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2005, raise annual real GDP growth to 6-7 percent, and contain public debt. Chino said peace and reforms will accelerate economic growth.
The economic growth target under the poverty reduction agreement was "achievable" because Sri Lanka managed to achieve five percent annual economic growth on average during the 1990s while fighting a very expensive war, he said.
The ADB has approved $200 million worth of loans for mainly road and power projects this year which would "depend upon reforms in these areas," Chino told a news conference.
ADB Country Director John Cooney said the poverty reduction agreement would "support broad-based, pro-poor growth." A quarter of the population is below the official poverty line, he said.
"The ADB's lending strategy revolves around economic reforms in key sectors such as finance, power and transport," he said.
By Naomi Gunasekara
The government is planning to introduce environmental standards on all vehicle imports to Sri Lanka from January 2003 under regulations made by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Dr. D. M. S. Batagoda, the ministry's Economic and Global Affairs Director told the Sunday Times Business.
He said the government is working on a programme to redress air pollution by banning certain imported vehicles like two-stroke, three-wheelers while imposing standards on other imported vehicles, regulations that would impact on the three-wheel industry.
Under this programme, the ministry has also proposed laws to ban all imports of two-stroke engine three-wheelers to Sri Lanka from July this year. "We will start with two-stroke three-wheelers and move on to introducing standards to other imports. We cannot ban two-stroke motor bikes because they are used by the poor man," said Dr. Batagoda when asked if the ban would be extended to other two-stroke engine vehicles.
The reason behind the ban of these three-wheelers is that they emit un-burnt fuel considered to be one of the major contributory factors for increased air pollution and related health problems. "The two-stroke three-wheelers not only cause environmental and health problems. They are uneconomical too. One litre of petrol used by a two-stroke three-wheeler leaves about 20% fuel un-burnt," Dr. Batagoda said.
The ban has been recommended by the Ministry of Transport which carried out research through the Air Resource Management Centre. It suggests the use of four-stroke engine three-wheelers instead of two-stroke engine three-wheelers or the conversion of two-stroke engine three-wheelers to gas or battery to overcome problems related to air pollution.
The move has drawn criticism from the David Pieris Motor Company (DPMC), sole agent for Bajaj three-wheelers in Sri Lanka, which plans to take "necessary action" if the government imposes a ban only on the importation of two-stroke engine three-wheelers. "We tried to meet the minister and discuss the ban but couldn't do so yet," said Jagath Kulatunga, DPMC's Marketing Director.
Bajaj three-wheelers have been the most successful self-employment project in Sri Lanka for the past 20 years and more than one million people are dependant on this industry.
Asked if the ban will be imposed on the three-wheelers that are already in operation in Sri Lanka, Dr. Batagoda said; "No. We will only impose the ban on importing them from June. Those that are already in the market will have to be converted to gas or battery," he said.
Kulatunga told the Sunday Times Business that its diesel engines that emit a magnitude of toxic. "They should ban the import of second-hand diesel vehicles first and not the two-stroke three-wheeler that gives the government over 6 million rupees annually in terms of taxes."
DPMC sells over 15,000 three-wheelers annually out of which the majority of trishaws fall in to the two-stroke engine category and Kulatunga feels it is discriminatory to impose a sudden ban on vehicle imports. "There are no environmental standards in Sri Lanka. If the ministry introduces certain standards and asks us to keep to these standards we will definitely do so. But if this is done it has to be a uniform process where the regulations will cover all forms of imported vehicles."
According to Dr. Batagoda, the World Bank-led Global Environmental Facility gives grants to developing countries to convert vehicles that emit harmful gasses to mitigate pollution. "We are thinking of getting money from them and encouraging the local converters by giving them a grant. We have a problem in finding a local person to assemble or convert the trishaws that are already in the market because it's costly. We are also looking at options like cutting down our carbon consumption and selling saved carbon to developing countries under the Kyoto Convention." The ministry is also planning to ban the sale of lead-contained petrol from July.
Recent views at a consumer seminar on consumer rights seem to have got the attention of the government. The inability of the public to express its views on the draft Consumer Protection Authority Bill - a problem like any other bill before it goes to parliament - was raised and now the Commerce Ministry is offering the public a chance to see the draft before it is goes to parliament. 'We would have preferred a White Paper on all public-related issues. Yet this is a step in the right direction,' said a consumer rights lawyer.
Consumer chickens out
It was a classic chicken and egg situation. The poultry industry met to suggest strategies to improve consumer confidence in chicken meat and eggs. Newspapers, it was told, were running scarce stories about chickens injected with hormones and eggs that were bad for cholesterol, all of which were absolute nonsense, experts and biochemists said. But there was a major flaw - the organizers did not think it fit to invite a consumer group to make a presentation. It was like playing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark!
It was a case of breaking nuts and neither coming out the winner. Ravi K says import coconuts to bring down prices while Lucky K says no way - imports will bring in pests that would attack local plantations. Ravi K retorts why not when Dubai and Singapore have imported nuts successfully and not had a problem. The problem is that these countries don't have local plantations and (even if they do) their quarantine facilities must be far superior to ours! While the battle goes on - the consumer continues to face the brunt of high prices and conflicting solutions.
Cricket heroes Sanath Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralitharan grin in a newspaper advertisement urging people to conserve power. The conservation promotion also echoes across the corridors of the Ministry of Power and Energy and the debt-ridden Ceylon Electricity Board.
But are the preachers practicing what they preach? Are energy promoters like Jayasuriya and Muralitharan conserving energy in their homes and getting their families and friends to do so? How about Power Minister Karu Jayasuriya and even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe? Are they switching off unnecessary lights in their homes?
Or do they have generators, inverters, solar power or whatever to serve their needs during power cuts? This is the tragedy of Sri Lanka. When it comes to conservation or consumption, it is usually the public - and mostly the poor at that - who is supposed to heed the call of the politicians.
Examples should be set at the top. If sacrifices are to be made, they should start at the top. Don't expect ordinary folks to conserve power if the politicians and celebrities don't lead by example.
The power crisis raises the issue of governance and accountability. Power cuts have increased to five hours and extended to the daytime. Our story on the previous page speaks of how small industry - the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy - has been affected by the daytime power cuts. Who pays for this state of affairs? Production costs go up and jobs are lost. No one cares. No heads roll.
It's easy to speak when in opposition - criticize, compare and so on. But governing is a different ball game altogether and promises while in opposition are hard to keep when in power, as the present regime has suddenly realized.
While in opposition, the new regime promised that "we would end the power crisis when in power". What's happening now? The power cuts are being increased and excuses given. Consumers are not bothered about the failures of the previous regime - that's why it got kicked out. People want results and an end to their suffering.
In a crisis it is the business community that gripes and moans. But it is also the business community - at least some sections - that benefits. Take the 1996-97 power crisis. Hundreds of generators were imported by companies who made a killing, so much so that rumours were later afloat that some influential politicians may have precipitated the crisis to promote generators and make money on commissions!
Now it is the turn of the importers of inverters, energy-saving lamps and solar power units to make money - all for a good cause. Of course, these are far beyond the reach of the average consumer, the poor, and most students. They have to depend on candles to light up their homes.
The consumers - that would include the business community too - have many questions to ask but the answers are not convincing at all. Like the government's promise not to increase power cuts but now saying it was "forced to do so". What went wrong? What's the CEB chairman doing? Shouldn't he quit on grounds of responsibility?
The government's power committee chaired by Finance Secretary Charitha Ratwatte and including Industrial Development Secretary Ranjit Fernando and BOI chairman Arjuna Mahendran, was given the run-around by CEB experts. The committee had pointed out some flaws in the forward planning mechanism but was assured by the CEB that there was no need to call for tenders for 200 mw of power.
Instead - going by the advice of CEB experts - advertisements were placed for only 100 mw of power. There's a huge problem over that with a furious Prime Minister demanding explanations. That's not enough. Sack the errant officials. Let them pay dearly for failing to provide a vital service to the public.
With all this planning, committees and a National Energy Council in place, why can't the government issue a proper schedule to the public on when the power cuts would end? We keep hearing officials say that if the rains don't come in April we would be doomed. That's not good enough.
With the emergency power hopefully coming on stream shortly, a schedule should be issued listing the day/week when power cuts would be reduced and when it would finally end, and even showing that power cuts would increase if there is no rain.
The people have a right to know. Minister Jayasuriya's promise of quitting in June is nice and shows a sense of responsibility but that's not going to solve the problem.
The government needs to buckle down and get on top of this crisis. Otherwise it would have failed in its duty to the people.