For a Government that acted at the speed of greased lightning, and with a heavy hand (pun intended) by the Navy to rescue two foreign ships held hostage by striking workers at the Hambantota Port, its weak-kneed approach to the striking private bus operators and to buckle under their pressure stands in sharp contrast. As [...]


Road tragedies: Govt. must act decisively


For a Government that acted at the speed of greased lightning, and with a heavy hand (pun intended) by the Navy to rescue two foreign ships held hostage by striking workers at the Hambantota Port, its weak-kneed approach to the striking private bus operators and to buckle under their pressure stands in sharp contrast.

As irony has it, the Government moved in swiftly in the Hambantota harbour matter with the public not so much with the port workers demands and the questionable exercise of their trade union rights. Yet, they were concerned about the Agreement signed with a Chinese company. On the other hand, the Government seemed to apply the brakes on the private bus operators demanding a halt to the imposition of higher fines for traffic misdemeanours even though in this case, the public seemed overwhelmingly on the Government’s side.

Nobody still knows for sure what the Government’s ultimate decision is on the traffic fines. The fines themselves seemed somewhat unrealistic and hastily introduced. Once, the Supreme Court had to knock down speeding fines because there were no markings to indicate speed limits. The markings are there now, but out-of-date with better road surfaces meant to reduce travel journeys.

There is a vicious circle, however, that needs to be broken – the nexus between the Police and the errant bus driver is a public secret, and a shame on the Police. Something still has to be done to curb reckless driving. There is a fine for drunken-driving, but no mechanism to detect intoxication by other means, like soft drugs and even chewing betel. Still, the Government, especially the President, is unable to fix this problem having put the heavy fines issue on hold when the public is clamouring for action and understandably so – with a shocking eight (8) deaths on the highways every day in 2015 and 2016, leave alone serious injuries. It just shows a lack of ability to take decisive action.

Decisive action is what the Government requires — if it can ask the Navy to show its colours on World Human Rights Day to boot. The Commander led from the front — manhandling a journalist performing his professional duties under the Constitution. That the UN Torture Committee had just passed strictures on Sri Lanka was lost on him.

This also distracts from the issue of the PPP (Public-Private Partnership) that the Government has entered into for the Hambantota port – the Sri Lanka Public has 20 per cent and the Chinese Private has 80 percent of the PPP. This is a partnership where the private Chinese company is the virtual precedent-partner. The 15,000 acres in and around the area given to the Chinese have raised the ‘sell out’ cry. The Government is mostly to blame for not convincing the country of the merits, if any, of the Agreement.

On the other hand, secrecy maybe what is called for if the US$ 1.4 billion selling price cannot be justified and is just a mess of pottage for a chunk of Sri Lanka’s limited real estate, as detractors seem to think it is.

The migrant workers and the economy
If the Government is bending backwards to facilitate a piece of Sri Lanka’s real estate to a Chinese company – for 99 years at a price tag of US$ 1.4 billion, one can only imagine what it must do to Sri Lanka’s own migrant workers who keep sending as much as US$ 7 billion each year to the country as remittances making the Chinese ‘sale’ seem a pittance in comparison.
In return, next to nothing is done for their benefit. MPs import duty free cars with that hard earned money and sell it overnight making a ‘killing’, the country imports its oil and food with that money, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just does not bother to send more women officers to Sri Lanka missions in West Asia and the Gulf region where thousands of women work so they can provide them some assistance and comfort when in distress. These migrant workers do not even have a vote, and Governments are probably reluctant to give them the franchise fearing it might boomerang on them for not doing enough.
Today marks International Day of the Migrant Worker and it is closely associated not just with the workers toiling overseas, but refugees from conflict zones around the world; those from poverty stricken nations; and those just fleeing their country because their political leaders have given them no hope for a bright future despite all the rhetoric and the hollow promises and platitudes from public platforms.
Only a fortnight ago, the Australian Head of Border Protection Operations told the Sunday Times he was at a loss to understand why Sri Lankans were still trying to enter his country illegally. He was obviously being too diplomatic. The answer is just too obvious. Despite all the ‘Pampoori” of the politicians from all sides, a local idiom that means ‘idle boasts’, the people have lost confidence in all of these politicians leading them to the Promised Land. The ‘Gateway of South Asia’ that is talked about seems to be the ‘Get Away’ instead. That has to be a sobering thought to the powers that be.
Sri Lanka faces danger even in this export industry of the migrant worker. The lack of skilled and semi-skilled workers now opting to drive tuk-tuks and make a quick buck at home instead, with more restrictions on women workers going abroad for work, and the slump in world oil prices having a direct bearing on West Asian and Gulf economies, Sri Lanka’s reliance on easy foreign exchange from our migrant workers is limited.
It is with this hard earned foreign remittances of our migrant workers that the country is kept afloat, not by so-called foreign investors, aid and loans either by the Chinese or the IMF, nor by PPPs. In return, the 2017 budget has allocated a beggarly sum of less than 0.1 per cent of the budget for their welfare and well-being. That is the gratitude successive Governments have paid to these men and women sweating it out in inhospitable environments.
On this Global Migrant Labour Day, spare a thought for those Sri Lankans who are keeping this country’s economy afloat.


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