The other side of the story is usually a journalist’s way of saying that there are always two sides to an event and one must not come to any conclusion by listening to one side only. Report both sides is what budding journalists are taught in journalism school and let the reader decide which side [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Other side of the story


The other side of the story is usually a journalist’s way of saying that there are always two sides to an event and one must not come to any conclusion by listening to one side only. Report both sides is what budding journalists are taught in journalism school and let the reader decide which side is right (or wrong). In law it is called ‘Audi Ulteram Partem (Hear both sides)’.

In politics too, there are two sides to the story and that brings us to today’s hullabaloo from the kitchen with all the kussi ammas preparing the season’s delicacies of Christmas cake and Breudher amidst the resumption of the controversial records-seeking Christmas tree at Galle Face. Initially kicking off a storm and outrage over extravagant spending – whether it is funded privately (may be even slush funds or black money, a lot of it being around) it does not matter now, the tree is back on track because it is private and not public funds that are being wasted, so the authorities say.

But financial extravagance during this season is not in keeping with the spirit of Christmas; that’s the other side of the story.

Onto a good deed this week: Altair, the property developer constructing an iconic residential tower adjoining the Nawaloka Hospital in Slave Island, acceded to a request from Ven. Galboda Gnanissara Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Gangaramaya Temple, to build a Hindu shrine at the Slave Island junction to create a unique feature – a single location where there is a Buddhist temple, a church, a mosque and now a kovil. The shrine, enhancing the symbol of inter-religious amity, was opened this week

Now for the serious part of today’s ‘other side of the story’ discussion.   January 2016 opened with a grand Sri Lankan Economic Summit said to have been funded by billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundation. He exuded confidence and promised investment. If Soros decides to invest, that means millions of dollars should come into the country. He was joined by Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, an award-winner economist, among other high-level participants who said they were impressed by the changes in the country after the new Maithripala-Ranil government was installed.

Soon after the hoo-ha over the event a team of ministers and officials proceeded to the US on a Harvard study tour as a precursor to a 3-year plan being put together by a team of foreign and local experts driven by Harvard University academics led by Prof. Ricardo Hausmann. The plan was to be funded by the Open Society Foundation. That was the positive story in January/February 2016.

What’s the other side of the story? Nothing has happened since those ‘huge expectations’ and ‘grand speeches’ of shiploads of investments coming in. As far as the public is concerned, not a drop of investment from Soros’ deep pockets.

In fact, the foreign investment story is rather grim. While the government has offered many incentives to attract investors, investment has slowed down considerably with a shortage of dollars, forcing the Central Bank recently to plough in nearly $3 billion dollars into the money markets to stabilise the Sri Lanka rupee. Despite these efforts the rupee hit a record 150 rupees per dollar in November/December, up from 130 rupees in December 2014 during the Rajapaksa years.

According to official data (and helped by glaring policy inconsistencies which have  made investors nervous), foreign investment was just at US$336 million in  January-August 2016, down by 37.1 per cent from $534 million in the same period last year which incidentally was also election time. FDI (foreign direct investment) in 2016 could be around or below the 2015 figure of $681 million, minuscule when compared to similar, emerging and former-war ravaged economies like Vietnam ($15 billion in 2015) and Myanmar ($9.4 billion in fiscal 2015/16).

Exports have not done well either with earnings during the first eight months of 2016 down by 4.1 per cent to $6,865 million from the same period in 2015. This is the other side of Sri Lanka’s economic story which government pundits proclaim to be doing well, in fact very well.

Then at a session of Parliament last week, the House adopts a ‘Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament’ which deals with the role and duties of MPs, rules of conduct, behaviour, procedure for inquiry, sanctions, etc among others.

That’s one story; the other side is that on the same day there were bitter arguments in the legislature by rival MPs accusing each other of corruption (during the Rajapaksa years) and now (the bond scandal). The Deputy Speaker in the chair just couldn’t control proceedings despite his repeated plea for ‘order’. The decorum of the House was salvaged to some extent when TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran spoke in a non-confrontational tone and pleaded for all parties to support the Constitution-amending process! How a Code of Conduct can be implemented in this kind of environment is another story.

Hard to believe that MPs will learn from anyone or for that matter learn at all. But they could take a cue from some bright news last week when newspapers highlighted the example of 73-year-old N. H.S. Kalyani, a retired CWE employee from Matara, who was sitting the ICT subject at the GCE O/L examination. “At this age I do not expect any job, but I just study in order to improve my knowledge,” she told reporters. Now there’s a lesson for our MPs who are ranting in the House, which doesn’t serve anyone except their own egos.

Sri Lankans are cynical about politicians and wary when they decide to mend their ways. So when the Code of Conduct was announced, this is what one newspaper reader had to say: “Just a media stunt and newspaper headline-grabbing exercise to fool the people.”

Parliament approved a 100,000-rupee bonanza per month for MPs for their hard work in meeting constituents and attending their events. That’s the government side of the story. The other side of the story is that in the absence of proper accounting to ensure the money is spent for the stated purpose, it is anybody’s guess on how this money would be spent.

Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan would say ‘Oh the times-are-a-changing’. Not in Sri Lanka anyway. As Sumanthiran said in Parliament, nothing has changed for whichever party in power, there will always be allegations and counter-allegations of corruption. Thus amidst the state prophecy of a great year, a life-changing year for all Sri Lankans, the ‘other side of the story’ is that nothing will change in 2017.

 P.S. The Prime Minister, earlier this year, said that the Hambantota Port would be handed over to the Chinese so that the money from the lease could be used to retire debt from the (Chinese) loan taken to build the port. However on Thursday, the Finance Minister said there is no such thing and gives the ‘other side (or version) of this story’: That the money will go into a central pool of resources to pay off all loans taken!

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