A radio in the neighbourhood was blaring the music of Sunil and the Gypsies and in this instance it was the popular ‘Piti Kotapan None’. Ironically, in another home nearby, the unmistakable sounds of spices being pounded in a ‘wangediya’ in the kitchen could be heard. It was at this point that Kussi Amma Sera [...]

Business Times

Finding a spokesperson


A radio in the neighbourhood was blaring the music of Sunil and the Gypsies and in this instance it was the popular ‘Piti Kotapan None’. Ironically, in another home nearby, the unmistakable sounds of spices being pounded in a ‘wangediya’ in the kitchen could be heard.

It was at this point that Kussi Amma Sera paused for a moment under the margosa tree, to ask Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu; “Eh Sunilge sinduwa neda (That’s Sunil’s song?).”

“Ow, eka lassana sinduwak. Harima dukai me wage gaayakayek saha rate prashna gana kelin kathaa karapu kenek nethi wuna eka gena. Eya nethi nisa den apita saha ratata loku paaduwak (Yes, it’s a lovely song. It’s sad that we lost this great musician and entertainer. Life will never be the same without him and it is such a blow not only to the country but to all of us too),” said an emotional Mabel Rasthiyadu, wiping away tears as she listened intently to the song.

“Onema, partiyaka api Sunilge sindu ahuwa. Baila netum thibbe ne, Gypsies sindu nethuwa (At any party, Sunil’s songs could be heard. There was no baila dance without a Gypsies’ song),” noted Serapina.

Sunil Perera, who passed away last Monday, was a larger-than-life entertainer and his songs brought life not only to millions but also to this column. Many were the times, when the trio would hum a ‘Sunil’ tune, the latest being ‘Sarame’, a collaboration with musicians Annesley Malawana, Desmond de Silva and Rajiv Sebastian.

As I pondered wistfully on Sunil’s exploits in the field of music, entertainment and comedy, the phone rang. It was Ruwanputha, the young economist, on the line. The last time I spoke to him was about a recent webinar featuring eminent economist Dr. W.A. Wijewardena on the country’s foreign exchange crisis.

“Hello, how are you?” I asked. “Fine…….fine. I am intrigued by the news that former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal is to return as the Central Bank Governor,” he said.

“If that is the case, this would be his third term and probably set a record for the number of terms by a Governor,” I said.

Reports that Mr. Cabraal is to replace current Governor Prof. W. Lakshman have dominated media headlines this week. The former Governor, currently the State Minister of Finance, has responded with: “I cannot deny or confirm (the reports).”

According to sources close to the incumbent Governor, there has been no intimation from the government that he was being replaced though there are reports that the government has been unhappy over the management of monetary policy during the pandemic. According to the Monetary Law Act, the Governor cannot be removed/replaced unless he vacates (resigns) from the post on his own volition or is removed due to committing fraud or due to ill health.

Mr. Cabraal was appointed on 1st July 2006 and resigned on 9th January 2015, midway in his second term when Maithripala Sirisena was elected President.

Some reports indicate that the former Governor is seeking the position with the addition of Cabinet status (just like Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in India Milinda Moragoda). What it means is unclear at the moment and whether this is permissible under current laws, requires some clarity. For example according to the Monetary Law Act, the Governor cannot be a Member of Parliament or a local authority and also cannot hold any public office. It remains to be seen whether being appointed with Cabinet ranking constitutes ‘public office’.

Anyway, by the time this column reaches you, dear reader, Mr. Cabraal may have received the appointment. However, a bigger issue as far as we are concerned is the lack of a Central Bank spokesperson for the media particularly at a time when the country is facing its worst-ever crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the country’s economy like a thunderbolt and trying to find out how the Central Bank is dealing with its monetary policy direction is often like finding a needle in a haystack. No Central Bank senior official is accessible on record to the media – and by extension to the public – for clarification or comment on matters of extreme importance.

It is as if the media, as the public watchdog, has no right to information at the Central Bank. The only time the media has access to officials is at the monthly media conference where the Governor and his senior officials give a briefing on the monetary policy for the month – after a meeting of the Monetary Board. Until this monthly briefing, no officials – the Governor will on-and-off comment on matters – are available to the media on a regular basis.

Despite these constraints, smart and well-established journalists have developed contacts at the banking regulator (Central Bank), but here too, such sources cannot be quoted, unless approved by the Governor. “Central Bank officials were unavailable for comment,” is the common line seen in the media when writing stories pertaining to bank policy and direction.

Retired Central Bank officials recall that during the tenure of A.S. Jayawardene as Governor, a high ranking official was assigned the task of being the spokesperson and he was available at all times to the media. In fact, most central banks in the world have a spokesperson whom the media has access to.

The only other access to hitherto, unreleased Central Bank information, is through the Right to Information Act (RTI) under which the bank has provided information (it has to unless such information infringes on national security) to the media and also the public. However, in terms of good governance and accountability, it is imperative that the Central Bank, even at this stage, appoints a senior and high-ranking official as its spokesperson for the media – at a time, as stated earlier, when the country is facing its worst-ever crisis exacerbated by a serious shortage of foreign currency.

In the meantime, this week there was a major crisis in the foreign exchange markets when Governor Prof. Lakshman issued a directive to commercial banks that the regulator has noticed excessive speculative behaviour amongst certain market participants bringing in more pressure on the value of the currency, adding that it is seriously inimical to the interests of the people of this country and its long-term sustainable development.

“It is…….vitally necessary that all of us work in collaboration in the greater national interest, thus continuing our recent efforts to maintain the rupee exchange rate within the already agreed range,” the letter said. The bank normally controls supply and demand in the foreign exchange market by either pumping dollars in (to reduce demand) or pumping out dollars (when demand falls) and thereby controls the rate.

Since the bank’s forex coffers are bare, this is a rare occasion where it has put pressure on the market to trade at its recommended rate of Rs. 202-203 per dollar, which led to chaos as exporters complained over the sudden plunge of the dollar and as a result there wasn’t enough dollars to service import bills.

I wound up my column, watching Kussi Amma Sera place my second mug of tea on the table, saying: “Sir, apey Sunil Aiya giya neda (Sir, our Sunil aiya is no more).” I nodded in agreement, reflecting on how Sunil’s songs have on-and-off enriched this column to make a complex economic discussion, readable and understandable to even Citizen Perera!

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