There is great and coruscating anger that bubbles to the fore as covid-afflicted Sri Lankans die in (uncounted) numbers while ruling party politicians fixate on the exact parliamentary majority on which it won the Port City Economic Commission Bill vote in Parliament this week. Why this palpably indecent hurry? Who cares whether the Bill was [...]


Dancing to the tune of the Port City fiddler while the nation burns


There is great and coruscating anger that bubbles to the fore as covid-afflicted Sri Lankans die in (uncounted) numbers while ruling party politicians fixate on the exact parliamentary majority on which it won the Port City Economic Commission Bill vote in Parliament this week.

Why this palpably indecent hurry?

Who cares whether the Bill was passed by a two thirds majority or a simple majority in the House at a time when the nation is burning? Is this a simple stroking of the monstrous ego of the Rajapaksa regime? Or does the Government’s curious if not frenetic obsession on this point, exemplified by palpitating if not perspiring Ministers insisting that the votes were counted incorrectly, originate from another source of concern?  Several amendments were proposed by the Supreme Court as imperative, in the absence of which, the Bill could only be passed by the special (two thirds) majority required by Article 84(2) of the Constitution, while others were stipulated as needing a referendum.

Were these amendments, as judicially framed, actually reflected in the Bill passed by the House on Thursday? Who will indeed know in the shambles that passes for parliamentary law making these days? A detailed study is warranted once the law is publicly available. One excellent question by the nationalist monk Elle Gunawansa Thero during the joint press conference held with the Roman Catholic Church’s Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was precisely this. ‘Who can check what amendments will go in this Bill if passed in such haste?’ he questioned. That request was, of course, summarily disregarded. That the Government cares tuppence for monks in whose temples the Rajapaksas once plotted their return following the 2015 defeat is no secret.

Indeed, these monks are now openly scoffed at by governing politicians who once worshipped at their feet. Some would snigger that this is well deserved. Regardless, the unseemly dance by the Government to the tune of the Port City fiddler is on the rationale that this will bring Chinese caviar (if there ever was such a thing) and champagne for a people who cannot even sustain themselves on dhal and rice. A few days ago, a wretched farmer in the rice bowl of the North Central Province, left without an alternative for chemical fertilizer which was abruptly banned, shrieked pointing to his wasted fields, ‘so we will all get food by this Port City? This Government which came to power on the votes of farmers now talks only of the Port City. We will stop farming.  Let all of us starve and die.’

A grotesque twisting of a good venture

It is not the intention in this column space to analyse the Court’s Determination on the Bill but suffice to remark that the judicial interventions thereon were a nod to the barest fig leaf covering our national nudity. That it had to be left to the apex Court to declare that the reclaimed territory of the Port City was state owned (how could it ever be not?), to extend the authority of regulatory authorities to the proposed Commission and strike down the more pervasive discriminatory clauses that sought to treat Sri Lankans as second-class citizens is profoundly shocking of and by itself.

Indeed, the ignoble spectacle of the Prime Minister resplendent with kurakkan shawl promising on the floor of the House that the Chairman of the proposed Commission and the majority of its members will be Sri Lankans as if this is some grand magnanimous gesture, is pitiful. To be clear, the issue is not in the idea of the Port City itself. Rather, it is the grotesque manner in which the Bill has been twisted to create an entity which, despite the Court’s input, will be a law unto itself, creating a layer of the uber privileged, super rich with their accompanying political parasites to the exclusion of all others. To what depths have the dignity of the nation fallen in obsequious worship of the yuan?

This is manifested in countless other ways as well. Official notifications apparently routinely replace the Tamil language with Chinese. This included, quite scandalously, a plaque in a new electronic library launched with Chinese funding at the Department of the Attorney General a few days ago. Should not the state law office (at least) have taken greater care to avoid such manifest violations of the law and the Constitution in the first place?An assurance that the plaque would be replaced by one which reflects all three languages is an afterthought surely. Where is the Government policy on all of this?

Repeated errors of judgment on covid prevention

Meanwhile, the covid-afflicted die in their homes, others survive in isolated communities without assistance while the seemingly fortunate wait in miserable queues to obtain vaccination for insulation (or so they pray) against the covid plague. Repeated errors of judgment by the political leadership, the Ministry of Health and its associated mouthpieces including the Director General of Health and his deputies along with the good but sadly incoherent gentlemen of the Epidemiology Unit continue unchecked. What will happen if primary health services including Base Hospitals situated throughout  the nation making up the spine of Sri Lanka’s long established public health system, break down completely?

This is being reported even now in some instances while politicians parade the installation of new beds which are useless in the absence of sufficient skilled staff, equipment and infrastructure. Senior medical professionals have united in a pressing demand for more stringent measures in dealing with a relentless third wave. But this is much like the playing a violin to deaf elephants as the pithy Sinhala saying puts it with economic consequences being advanced as the counter argument. Even so, the objection that daily wage earners would not be able to work if a short and drastic lockdown is imposed is simply without merit.

For that finite period, which will act as a circuit breaker to the covid wildfire that is now raging, that segment of the population can surely be compensated by moneys out of the President’s Itukama Fund or perchance,  huge sums apparently spent on luxury cars for the public sector in the midst of this crisis. In sum, four gigantic flaws have characterized our pandemic response. First, a colossal arrogance which never acknowledges that mistakes have been made, including the ridiculous insistence that there is no community spread despite Sri Lanka’s map being painted red with covid reaching every nook and cranny.

Cries of the dead ring in our ears

Second, allowing the military to lead what should essentially have been a competent public health sector response supported at logistical levels by the military. Thirdly, the unconscionable use of the covid emergency to fatten their purses by political and corporate favourites. Fourthly, restraining freedoms of expression and information regarding the gravity of what confronts us. The military Secretary of the Health Ministry’s recent prohibition on health sector personnel speaking to media without prior permission has been defied by the Public Health Inspectors Union and the Association of Lab Technicians.

And in directing state officials to speak to him rather than to the media which, he says, will instill fear in the public, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has perpetuated this fundamental error. The President must apprise himself that informing the people about dangers facing the nation does not result in fear. Instead, it leads to heightened awareness and support for necessary emergency measures. Thus, if health authorities had placed restrictions on inter-provincial travel without permitting the people to throw caution to the winds during the traditional New Year (Avurudu), we would not have had this present agony.

Who will answer for the avoidable deaths of Sri Lankans that ring like a grisly chant in our ears each passing day, drowning out congratulatory applause that wafts across the seas from Beijing for having passed Colombo’s Port City Economic Commission Bill?

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