Reports of restriction on imports as the economy takes a severe beating, rupee value continues to plunge Polls Chief sends two letters to Presidential Secretariat raising doubts about polls; constitutional crisis looms over when new parliament could meet; President urged to seek SC ruling Perhaps never before has the well-known Sinhala adage – a near [...]


Govt. battles Covid-19 pandemic and two other major crises


  • Reports of restriction on imports as the economy takes a severe beating, rupee value continues to plunge
  • Polls Chief sends two letters to Presidential Secretariat raising doubts about polls; constitutional crisis looms over when new parliament could meet; President urged to seek SC ruling


Perhaps never before has the well-known Sinhala adage – a near fatal fall from a tree and being gored badly by a bull – been more appropriate in Sri Lanka than today. That aptly describes the dilemma of a near five-month old government.

Battling a growing Covid-19 pandemic, successfully so far notwithstanding many difficulties, the government is confronted with two equally worrying issues, both of pandemic proportions. One is the worsening economic crisis which would have a crippling if not devastating impact on Sri Lankans of all walks of life. The other is a looming constitutional crisis where issues have arisen over the conduct of parliamentary elections, an essential pre-requisite in a democracy.

In the United States, which has become now the epicentre of the pandemic, figures of those affected are rapidly increasing. The death toll is rising. In Spain, the number of deaths has surpassed the 10,000 mark whilst in Italy it is near 14,000. In Britain, the death toll is rising with over 3,000 deaths. In neighbouring India, where a 21-day lockdown is in force, 71 deaths have been reported so far with the rise in the number of confirmed cases. One of the causes for the spread of Covid-19 in New Delhi has been a gathering of around 9,000 members of the Thabligh Jamaath , a Muslim missionary movement.

Indian news media widely reported on Friday that extremist Muslim groups from Sri Lanka have infiltrated the movement and were linked together with locals to engage in terrorist activity. Intelligence to this effect, the reports claimed, had been passed down to the Indian government by Sri Lanka and New Delhi is to ban the movement, these reports added.

Measures adopted by the Sri Lankan government have kept the figures of those affected by the Covid-19 so far at three digits, with the death toll standing at five so far. However, they are like to rise in the coming days. Health Services Director General Dr Anil Jasinghe told a meeting of political party representatives on Thursday, “We have made plans to treat 2,000 patients. According to our projection the figure could reach 137 cases by Saturday (yesterday). We will have 167 cases by April 7 if there is a five per cent leak (meaning an increase due to unforeseen factors). By April 14 we could have 340 cases. Thereafter, if the measures are relaxed, we could have about 1,400 cases. We cannot predict how much it will peak to and when it will peak.”

Dr Jasinghe’s remarks clearly underscore the need to continue the government’s “social distancing” rule even during the national New Year season. Adjunct to that move is a decision by the government to extend visas for foreigners by a month. Such visas were earlier extended until April 12 and now till May 12.  By end of March there were 13,000 tourists remaining in Sri Lanka. This is to prevent an increase of infected cases. The United States and Britain have also placed a deadline of April 30 for the ongoing lockdown. Spain has placed an indefinite total lockdown after Italy, whilst France has ordered closure of all non-essential public buildings. Reports warn of an increase in the number of cases in Japan.

After the second death, that of Abdul Jaleel of Negombo, a businessman, there was a controversy among Muslims. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem was one of those who raised issue at the party leaders meeting on Thursday. Contending that there should have been a burial, he said that rules of the WHO allowed it. He argued that a Gazette notification which specified cremation had later been amended to accommodate burials. In this particular case, the authorities had expressed fears that a burial would lead to the possibility of the infection spreading to the water table. The exigent position has been endorsed by a smaller section of Muslims on the grounds that this was an exceptional situation. The mood at the political party representatives meeting was not to take a decision. An official, privy to the talks, revealed that “the present practice will continue.”

This is notwithstanding a request by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) to Dr Anil Jasinghe to have a “team of experts in all relevant areas such as Public Health, Virology, Judicial Medicine, Legal and Soil analysis to decide on a course of action.” Pointing out that the Quarantine Act allows the option of both cremation and burial as methods of disposal,” the GMOA said that the World Health Organisation (WHO) allows both methods.” The largest body that represents the state sector doctors acknowledged that Dr Jasinghe is “the final authority regarding this issue.”

Social-distancing was followed to the letter at the Temple Trees all-party meeting where the government’s measures to overcome the Covid-19 crisis were discussed.

The WHO guidelines make provision for a burial besides cremation. It says, “Burial is the preferred method of body disposal in emergency situations unless there are cultural and religious observations that prohibit it. The location of graveyards should be agreed with the community and attention should be given to ground conditions, proximity to ground water drinking sources (which should be at least 50 metres) and to the nearest habitat (500 metres). An area of at least 1500m per 10,000 population is required. The burial side can be divided to accommodate different religious groups if necessary. Burial depth should be at least 1.5 metres above the groundwater table, with at least one metre covering of soil. Burial in individual graves is preferred and can be dug manually. If coffins are not available, corpses should be wrapped in plastic sheeting to keep the remains separate from the soil. Burial procedures should be consistent with the usual practices of the community concerned.”

Commenting on cremation, the WHO guideline notes, “There are no health advantages from of cremation over burial, but some communities may prefer it for religious or cultural reasons. Factors against it are the amount of fuel required by a single cremation (approximately 300 kg of wood) and the smoke pollution caused. For this reason, cremation sites should be located at least 500 metres downwind of dwellings. The resultant ashes should be disposed of according to the cultural and religious practice of the community.”

Besides the religious aspect, a point made by former minister Hakeem is noteworthy. He argued that there could be a tendency by Muslims affected by Covid-19 not to report their cases. This is in the belief that their bodies would be cremated if they were to die.

The government’s battle at present is to keep the numbers affected by the virus to the minimum through preventive measures. Towards that, steps have been taken to ensure that the countrywide curfew continues for a longer period, possibly towards the end of this month though some minor relaxations are possible. The idea is to ensure crowds do not mix since that has been the main reason for the spread of the virus. The identification of a positive case is not the only issue for them. Interrogation of such a victim, obtaining the areas where he or she has moved around becomes vital.

Defence Secretary retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne told a television talk show this week that the State Intelligence Service was playing a commendable role in identifying the movement of the Covid-19 victims. Their mobile phone records are obtained. Through that, he said, all their movements – where they travelled or whom they met – are obtained. This is how persons identified are rounded up and sent to quarantine centres. In one instance, the detection of a positive case in Maradana led to over 300 men, women and children being transported in buses for quarantine at Punani in the Batticaloa district. Another worry for authorities is the asymptomatic (of a condition or a person) producing or showing no symptoms until they are eventually identified as infected. Social distancing, doctors say, further buttresses their assertion as the only answer to such a phenomenon.

The dilemma in this disturbing scenario is how to balance the corona virus from spreading and meeting the food requirements of the people during the curfew. It is known that there remain shortcomings in the food distribution system, a gigantic task with Sri Lankans remaining indoors. Basil Rajapaksa, who heads the 40-member Presidential Task Force, has developed a distribution mechanism through the Grama Sevaka in each area. They have been authorised to recommend to the Police that passes be issued to grocery and food outlets to sell items directly to households. Most are doing so using their telephones to take orders.

However, this is leaving out lower middle-class income earners and poorer sections.  Added to that is the inability of leading supermarket chains, particularly in the Colombo district, to cope with the thousands of orders they receive. An internet platform run by one of them crashed daily with overload of orders. They had the capacity to accept a thousand customers, but the demand has gone beyond double. Some of the items that appear to be in short supply are dhall, rice, canned fish and spices like chillie powder.

The Task Force’s first meeting was held at Temple Trees last Monday. Basil Rajapaksa explained the objectives of the Task Force.  Among the issues that came up for discussion and decisions made were the appointment of a committee to ensure the distribution of essential food items and medicines. It was decided to ensure they are sold at controlled prices.

It was also decided to ensure that the day-to-day requirements of the public are provided with the coordination of different state agencies. This is besides giving families affected by poverty a free relief package. A committee has been appointed to ensure that essential services like the provision of electricity, water, fuel, gas and transport are continued without interruption. A committee was appointed to look into the needs of the rural economy including agriculture, fisheries and self-employed. A fourth committee has been tasked to formulate ways and means of strengthening the rural economy.

The Cabinet of Ministers who took stock of the prevailing situation, at their meeting on Thursday, took a historic decision – to ban or restrict the import of all goods other than fuel and medicine. Whilst measures are being evolved to restrict outflow of foreign exchange, the comments by Cabinet spokesperson Minister Ramesh Pathirana have generated a controversy. It is being denied by his co-spokesperson and Minister Bandula Gunawardena who has said no such decision was made. Nevertheless, the curtailing of imports has been a priority subject for the government in the past weeks.

The decision, if true, makes clear that the foreign reserves are more depleted, and the government wants to reverse the position. It comes at a time when the Sri Lankan rupee equivalent to the dollar has depreciated to Rs 193.75 with fears that it would drop further.

An analysis of this government decision, as is clear, is a virtual import ban which necessitates a deeper study by economic analysts. Suffice to say that there will be a zero income to the government through import duties. This is whilst fuel and medical requirements will be at a higher price due to the continuing depreciation of the rupee to the dollar. They come at a time when the export sector’s backbones like tea and the apparel industry have collapsed. The US, as pointed out earlier, has been the biggest market for apparel but fresh orders will not come due to the growing Covid-19 pandemic there. The result has been a retrenchment of the work force causing mass unemployment.

Hours after Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, the Central Bank Governor Prof. W.D. Lakshman and Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, (ex officio member of the Monetary Board of Sri Lanka) made a joint appeal to Sri Lankans living abroad. The Cabinet had earlier given approval for the urgent appeal which was circulated through Sri Lanka diplomatic missions overseas. It said, “The Central Bank of Sri Lanka invites all Sri Lankans and well-wishers living in Sri Lanka and abroad to consider depositing their savings and other funds in foreign currency with the Sri Lankan banking system — Licensed Commercial Banks and Specialised financial institutions – as a gesture of goodwill and assistance to Sri Lanka and its people during the three-month period commencing April 2, 2020 in support of the wide ranging national effort to safeguard the people from coronavirus, to bring its spread under control and to provide healthcare and social security to the people.”

The Central Bank’s move sought to even draw black money hidden by Sri Lankans in foreign banks. The appeal to “Sri Lankan expatriates and those living in Sri Lanka with foreign currency holdings,” pledges “We guarantee that your foreign currency deposits into the Sri Lankan banking system will be accepted without any hindrance from the Government, the Central Bank or any other Government authority. We also guarantee the future convertibility of these deposits into foreign currency whatever, whenever you desire to do so. All your forex remittances will be exempted from exchange control regulations and taxes and protected under banking secrecy provisions.”

This is not the first time a concerted move is being made to draw funds from abroad. During the previous yahapalana government, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake declared that any foreign national who remitted US$ 300,000 or more would get a temporary resident visa in Sri Lanka. That move drew a sharp retort then from his then ministerial colleague, Wijayadasa Rajapakshe, who declared publicly that “only beggars would come with that amount.” Of course, Karunanayake’s aim was to get foreigners though he did talk to some Sri Lankans who held money abroad. However, that did not turn out to be successful.

The formal announcement of a ban on all imports except fuel and medicine was indeed intelligence to the trade sector. Like hoarding dhal and canned fish after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announcement of a price reduction, other goods are likely to go underground. However, the government seems to have had little choice. Imported goods like vehicles, refrigerators,television sets and the like will go up in price. The appeal to Sri Lankans had to be made.

Former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera accused the government of using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to ban imports other than fuel and medicines. He told the Sunday Times, “The economy was in dire straits even before the pandemic. After coming to power, they announced huge tax cuts without taking into consideration the impact on tax collection. Revenue has thus come down by Rs 500 million to Rs 600 million. Many investors sensed what was coming as demonstrated by the heavy outflow of capital in March. At the time we handed over the government, we had foreign reserves of US$ 7.5 billion. It would be interesting to know how much is left now.”

The economy inherited under his tenure, Samaraweera said, could be compared to a patient in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). “Through our economic policies and fiscal management, we were able to get the patient to walk from the ICU to a recovery ward. We passed a Vote on Account that will last only until April 30. If Parliament is not re-summoned, we will face an economic lock down,” he added.

One of the state-run enterprises which is operating at a colossal loss, with funds being periodically pumped by the Treasury – SriLankan Airlines – has announced that it will “temporarily suspend operations from April 8 (Wednesday) till April 21.” A statement said it is “willing to operate special flights to repatriate Sri Lankans” and for cargo services.

Hard on the heels of a meeting of political party representatives on March 13, came another last Thursday. Chairs were placed at a distance for each participant from the other. The Temple Trees event chaired by Premier Rajapaksa turned out to be stormy at times.

The first segment saw a discussion on the current countrywide curfew and the food distribution. This was after Dr Anil Jasinghe, who is spearheading the government’s fight against Covid-19, gave a briefing. Basil Rajapaksa, now Special Envoy of the President gave a briefing on food distribution and the measures the government would adopt to meet the needs of the people. He noted that the people’s medical requirements have been met with pharmacies being kept open. People could produce prescriptions to the Police instead of a curfew pass.

M.A. Sumanthiran, a key player in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem raised issues related to the upcoming parliamentary elections. As they began the discussion, United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe pointed out that it was not the proper forum to discuss those subjects. He said there would have to be a separate meeting. However, that did not deter the duo from making a pitch.

The focus was on two letters which Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshaporiya has written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. On March 31, 2020, Dehsapriya wrote to Dr P B Jayasundara, Secretary to the President, informing him of the difficulty in conducting the election due to Covid-19 outbreak in the country. The letter titled, “Date of Parliamentary Election and the date of new Parliament is meeting”. The polls chief said that as per the constitution, the new Parliament must meet before three months after the dissolution.” Therefore, Parliament must convene by at least June 1. For Parliament to meet on that day the election needs to be held either on May 27 or 28.”  Deshapriya said as things stand now it was difficult to expect Covid 19 situation would ease to negligible levels for officials to prepare for election work and politicians to start their campaigns by April 20 at least. Therefore, he asked Dr Jayasundara to apprise the President on the situation and consult the Attorney General over the constitutional issues looming.

On the following day, the polls chief sent another letter marked “urgent” to Dr Jayasundara and it referred to their previous letter. It noted the escalation of the Covid-19 crisis during the past 24 hours. The letter said, “The Election Commission that met today, April 1 has observed that the election cannot be conducted in the last week of May for the Parliament to meet before the lapse of three months from the dissolution from March 2.” Therefore, he said that the Election Commission is of the view that the President should seek a determination from the Supreme Court to resolve the issues and request Dr Jayasundara to bring the matter to President’s attention without any delay.

Article 70 (5) of the Constitution states: “A Proclamation dissolving Parliament shall fix a date or dates for the election of Members of Parliament and shall summon the new Parliament to meet on a date not later than three months after the date of first proclamation.”

Sumanthiran opined that there were only two ways in which this imbroglio over the constitution could be resolved. One was to declare a State of Emergency. That would require the summoning of Parliament within ten days so that the proclamation from the President on the emergency is debated and approved by Parliament. He argued that the current countrywide curfew was illegal since there was no state of emergency and no legal provision which empowered the government to declare it.

Hence, he noted that the government had to call it a “Police curfew.” The next option, Sumanthiran said, was for the President to issue a proclamation withdrawing the one he issued earlier dissolving Parliament and calling for elections. Backing the claims of his colleague in the opposition, Sumanthiran said, “we could have prevented the coronavirus from spreading if timely action was taken in late February or in early March. In the anxiety to hold elections early for political advantage the health of the nation was ignored.” Hakeem argued that one cannot go against the constitution in the conduct of elections.

An angry Premier Rajapaksa retorted “Ehanang kiyanna api paalaney karanney kohomada” or then tell us how we are going to govern. There were also references to utilising the Contingencies Fund with claims that such use was also illegal. Minister Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila countered the arguments put forth by Sumanthiran and Hakeem. Weerawansa said, the duo was attempting to re-convene Parliament for a no faith vote on the government. Added Gammanpila, “they are trying to disrupt national unity for selfish reasons.” A noteworthy feature of the meeting was the presence of Wijayadasa Rajapakshe, who does not hold any office in a political party. His inclusion, a source said, was to counter any thorny legal arguments over the constitution. An irate backer of Samagi Jana Balawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa declared, “He (Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe) also advised on the removal of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and foist Mahinda Rajapaksa in October 2018. The Supreme Court had to rule that act was unconstitutional.”

The meeting of party representatives came in for criticism from Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. “It is good that they are consulting other parties. Yet, they do not have a proper programme except to make a show for the media. They are wasting time, theirs and ours. That is of no use at a time of crisis like this.”

Just a day before the meeting of political party representatives, a United National Party (UNP) delegation from the met President Rajapaksa, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and President’s Special Envoy Basil Rajapaksa. It is noteworthy he chose to meet a UNP team and did not take part in two successive meetings of political party representatives in the country.

At the meeting the UNP extended its fullest support to the government’s fight against Covid-19. There were shades of what the late President J.R. Jayewardene did in 1971. When Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was fighting the JVP insurgency, Jayewardene extended his party’s unwavering support to her. Members of the Premadasa faction charged that the UNP was making a bid to join the government. It drew a strong statement from the UNP which said that talk was being spread by bankrupt politicians.

Significant enough, although three of the top frontliners in the government – the President, the Prime Minister and the Special Envoy – took part in talks with the UNP delegation, party leader Wickremesinghe did not take part. However, it was he who authorised the delegation to meet government leaders to express strong support.

Cloaked in a countrywide curfew, the fight against Covid-19 notwithstanding, political activity is continuing unabated. The government appears to have three different fronts to face — prevent the virus from spreading, shoring up a severely battered economy and avoid a constitutional crisis. They do not seem to be very easy tasks.


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