Visiting Indian foreign secretary meets President for extensive talks, but statements released by two sides point to gulf between New Delhi and Colombo over power devolution Govt. tries to distance itself from Pandora Paper revelations; braces for public criticism over inability to provide essential items at affordable prices What was supposed to be a meeting [...]


India and Lanka differ on full implementation of 13A


  • Visiting Indian foreign secretary meets President for extensive talks, but statements released by two sides point to gulf between New Delhi and Colombo over power devolution
  • Govt. tries to distance itself from Pandora Paper revelations; braces for public criticism over inability to provide essential items at affordable prices

President Rajapaksa holding talks with India's Foreign Secretary Shringla on Tuesday

What was supposed to be a meeting scheduled for an hour stretched for 90 minutes, as visiting Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday.  A visiting Foreign Secretary is not usually granted a meeting with a Head of State, but given the importance of bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka, all protocol was set aside for a meeting fixed when the President had hardly the time to unpack his bags from a visit to the United Nations and an extended visit to the United States of America.

The discussion, which occurred on the final day of Shringla’s own whirlwind three-day official visit to the island, would have lasted even longer had the President not had to chair the meeting of the National Security Council scheduled for that afternoon. Still, the meeting between India’s topmost diplomat and the President saw them cover a wide range of issues.

“The President was very gracious and generous with his time,” Shringla told the Sunday Times just before he headed back to New Delhi, adding that they discussed the entire range of the relationship between the two countries during the meeting. He was complimentary, too, saying the Sri Lankan President has “great vision and great plans” to take the relationship between the two countries forward. “It’s very reassuring to know that it involves forward momentum in many areas that are there and at the same time, I think the two sides are closely engaged in ensuring that we reach the conclusions we want to reach for the mutual benefit for the people of both our countries,” he added.

That was diplomacy oozing out of the Delhi University’s St. Stephen’s College graduate. He set the stage for his visit by telling this newspaper in an exclusive interview prior to his visit that “We have full confidence in the depth of our mutually beneficial millennia-old multifaceted relations with Sri Lanka, and also in the wisdom of Sri Lanka and its people to take decisions in the best interest of our shared ethos and values”.

The position on 13th Amendment

The media statement issued by the Indian High Commission at the conclusion of the visit buttressed the Foreign Secretary’s position stating that during his meeting with the President, the Foreign Secretary “underscored the importance India attaches to expeditiously taking forward mutually beneficial projects, including proposals to enhance air and sea connectivity between India and Sri Lanka.” It added that Shringla thanked the President for his guidance and close cooperation in the defence and security sphere. “Further, he reiterated India’s position on complete implementation of the provisions under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, including devolution of powers and the holding of Provincial Council elections at the earliest”.

The statement issued by the President’s Media Division (PMD), however, had a different take of the meeting. It did not contradict the Indian version of the talks, but it gave the Sri Lankan version, which the Indian release missed out. Taken side by side, it pointed to a considerable gulf between New Delhi and Colombo regarding the “complete implementation” of the 13th Amendment. It noted that the President “pointed out the urgent need to understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the 13th Amendment and act accordingly”. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led Government has always been steadfast in its insistence that ‘complete implementation’ of the 13th Amendment (13A), especially with regard to devolving land and police powers to the Provincial Councils (PCs), is not something it is prepared to do. Indeed, some hardline sections within the SLPP coalition would rather abolish the PCs altogether, echoing the sentiments of a mass majority of the country that believe the PC system serves neither man nor beast and is a ‘white elephant’ as an administrative tool.

Tamil political parties had pressed for India to prevail on the Government to hold the PC elections and commit itself to the ‘complete implementation’ of 13A.  Shringla held separate meetings with delegations of the northern-based Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by the veteran MP for Trincomalee, R. Sampanthan and the more Colombo-based Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by Mano Ganesan.

On Sunday, Shringla headed to Jaffna as part of his scheduled visit to four districts across the country. The other districts included Trincomalee, Galle and Kandy.

In Jaffna, he inspected the Indian Cultural Centre, constructed adjacent to Jaffna Public Library under a generous Indian grant of Rs 1.2 billion. The state-of-the-art multi-complex consists of an auditorium, a cultural museum and a learning centre.

After his brief inspection tour, Secretary Shringla told the local media that the cultural centre would be declared open soon and the Indian Government will bear the cost of the maintenance for five years. The announcement came after concerns were raised in certain quarters as to who is going to maintain it since the Jaffna Municipal Council lacked the resources and cadre force.

Officials attached to the South Block of India’s Ministry of External Affairs where separate desks are maintained for South Asian matters is working towards facilitating the visit of Indian Premier Narendra Modi for the opening ceremony of the complex. The groundwork for this development is already underway with TNA Leader R. Sampanthan recently extending an invitation to the Indian Premier to visit the North. One wonders if that is the usual protocol because an invitation to a foreign Head of Government, one might think, ought to go from his counterpart.

Thereafter, the visiting Secretary attended a dinner organised at Thinnai Hotel with a select group of twelve individuals. They included the outgoing Northern lady Governor P.S.M. Charles, senior administrative officers, political leaders and academics. The list of attendees was prepared by the office of the Consulate General of India in Jaffna.

Among them was also Ahila Ilankai Thamil Congress (AITC) leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam who was critical of the 13th Amendment and India’s role during the final phases of the war. Mr Ponnambalam, however, stressed that “we will not give any space that would jeopardise the national security of India”. This assurance came in the wake of the increasing presence of China in the North and East with road development works and other infrastructure development activities in recent times.

As other political leaders went on with the usual rhetoric of pressuring the Government for the full implementation of the 13A, going beyond i.e. 13+ to reach a lasting solution to the ‘ethnic conflict’ and the pending Provincial Council elections, Ponnambalam refrained from raising any issues related to 13A but highlighted another political development.

In the past, the AITC repeatedly maintained that it could not consider 13A as a solution to the ethnic conflict and had even rejected it outright. The party also refused to contest PC elections.

He said the current Government which came to power on a nationalist platform is not interested in building an inclusive, multicultural society but it is becoming more exclusively focused on one particular community while drawing examples of India’s experience of accommodating minority communities in its state governance.

However, in Colombo, the Tamil parties were in for a rude shock when Foreign Secretary Shringla all but told them to take their arguments to the Government of Sri Lanka. He stopped short of telling them not to keep complaining to India, in what political analysts have noted was a rather lukewarm approach by New Delhi to arguing the TNA’s or even the TPA’s case for PCs leaving the issue to be worked out by Colombo without so much as India’s pressure. Delhi has found itself in a difficulty in devolving powers to the periphery, especially in the state of Kashmir where it revoked Article 370 of its own Constitution stripping the local politicians of the state autonomy. To promote devolution elsewhere while cramping it at home was to be accused of duplicity.

As Shringla was meeting the President, Public Services, Provincial Councils & Local Government Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon was telling Parliament that he did not personally believe that the prevailing environment was conducive towards holding PC elections. He said this in answer to a question raised by Samagi Jana Balawageya’s (SJB) Anuradhapura District parliamentarian Rohana Bandara.

Mr Bandara told the Minister that while the Government was claiming on the one hand that it lacked funds, it was also calling for proposals from people’s representatives regarding large scale development projects to be undertaken in their respective areas. He asked whether this meant that the Government was intending to hold either PC or Local Government elections next year. The Opposition MP asked the minister to clarify which poll would come first and under which electoral system. While saying he did not believe the current environment was conducive for PC elections, the minister said all parties should get together to decide on when the polls (whichever one) would be held, and under which system.

The Sunday Times reported late last month that MPs presiding over District Development Committees and their deputies, former provincial council members and sitting local council members were to be allocated funds for development projects in their respective electorates. The funds would be allocated for projects which could be completed within a year. This gave an indication that the Government was preparing for a PC or local council election.

While the Provincial Councils Minister may say the environment was not conducive for PC elections, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa told the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Election Law Reforms on Friday that the polls would be held under the proportional representation (PR) system in the first quarter of 2022. This corroborates the decision to distribute a decentralised budget mainly to ruling party members to prepare for an election come early 2022.

TPA Leader Mano Ganesan tweeted that the Minister had agreed to this at the PSC meeting that afternoon. Both, Basil Rajapaksa and Ganesan are members of the PSC. Whether the Finance Minister’s comments to the PSC are a direct result of the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit is unknown, but given that India has been at least for the record pushing for the conduct of PC polls at the earliest opportunity, there can be no doubt that the Government choir was singing in different tunes.

While the Finance Minister has now seemingly given a commitment to a parliamentary committee on behalf of the Government to hold PC elections next year, there are still some issues to be addressed. For starters, Parliament will have to amend the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act, No.17 of 2017. This is because Parliament rejected the report of the Delimitation Committee for the delimitation of electorates in Provincial Councils in 2018. In the division that was taken, no votes were cast in favour while 139 votes were against it. The report was required to be approved by a majority of two-thirds voting in its favour.

Given this situation, legal opinion is clear. The polls cannot be held unless the relevant sections of the Act are amended to allow PC elections to be held either under a new system or the old system at least as an interim measure. Election Commission Chairman Nimal G. Punchihewa says the Attorney General’s Department is also of the view that Parliament will need to amend the Act to remove legal obstacles that stand in the way of holding the polls. “The EC stands ready to hold the polls, provided that the legislature acts to remove the legal obstacles,” says he.

Pandora Papers

Meanwhile, the Government was struck by a bolt from the blues when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) broke a world exclusive, exposing offshore financial dealing of host of politicians, past and present, and businessmen from around the world. It might not have bothered if it had not linked the powerful Rajapaksa clan now in high office to these secret bank accounts abroad.

The investigation is based on a leak of confidential records of 14 offshore service providers that give professional services to wealthy individuals and corporations seeking to incorporate shell companies, trusts, foundations and other entities in low- or no-tax jurisdictions. The entities enable owners to conceal their identities from the public and sometimes from regulators. Often, the providers help them open bank accounts in countries with light financial regulation.

The Government is strenuously distancing itself from the explosive revelations dubbed the ‘Pandora Papers’, a trove of leaked documents that led to a wide-ranging investigation by the ICIJ spread over several months of systematic investigations into some 11 million documents. The ICIJ investigation found that Sri Lankan businessman Thirukumar Nadesan and his wife, former Deputy Minister Nirupama Rajapaksa, held millions of dollars in offshore trusts and shell companies. More details regarding the revelations appear elsewhere in this newspaper. Speaking in Parliament, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa demanded an independent investigation over the revelations. Mr. Nadesan too called for an independent investigation to clear his and his wife’s names by writing to President Rajapaksa proclaiming his innocence.

Only a few years back, Nadesan was indicted over the purchase of a property in the Biyagama area. The house on that property was claimed to have been built on behalf of the Finance Minister. The Minister then said he knew nothing of this and the matter remains pending in court. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has gone on record not long ago openly claiming that Nadesan has been the front man for the Finance Minister. President Rajapaksa moved swiftly to douse the political missiles coming in the direction of the Government and the accusations of the Nadesan-Basil Rajapaksa link by calling upon the Bribery and Corruption Commission to conduct an immediate investigation into the contents of the ‘Pandora Papers’. On Friday, the Commission recorded a three hour statement from Nadesan.

Protesters return

This was not the only worry for the Government. With the lifting of the quarantine curfew and relaxing of restrictions following the month-long lockdown to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Government is again facing the prospect of street protests in several major sectors over issues that continue to be unresolved. Teachers and principals’ unions were among the first to resume their street protests demanding the resolution of their salary anomaly issue that has been pending for 24 years. Announcements by Government leaders that these demands will be attended to in the forthcoming budget seem to have no impact on these unions. They want to ‘strike’ when the iron is hot. As the Government is moving ahead with plans to open selected schools with student population of less than 200 students on October 21, followed by all schools in November, the pending salary anomaly issue is going to be a major stumbling block.

These unions held country-wide protests on Wednesday to coincide with ‘World Teachers’ Day’. This year’s World Teachers’ Day theme was “Teachers at the Heart of Education Recovery.” It is meant to recognise the tireless efforts of teachers during the challenging time posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teacher and principals’ unions claim they held some 300 protests on the day around the country to demand an immediate solution to their salary anomaly issue. The protests took place despite large public gatherings still being banned under quarantine regulations. While many protests were conducted without obstruction, the unions say they faced “intimidation” in some areas. In some places, police had taken out court orders banning protests while at Dehiaththakandiya, there was a face-off between protesting teachers and health officials led by the area Medical Officer of Health (MoH), who demanded that the protesters disperse or face legal action.

The Government claims such street protests contributed to the deadly third wave of COVID-19 that swept through the country in August and September. Many health sector unions, while supporting the teachers’ struggle, have also urged them to avoid street protests, stating such large gatherings could help lead to the further spread of the virus.

Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin defended the actions of protesting teachers and principals on the grounds that the right to protest and peaceful assembly was enshrined in the Constitution. “We are protesting while adhering to COVID health guidelines so there shouldn’t be an issue of us helping to spread COVID-19,” he insisted.

Many teachers have stayed away from conducting online classes for three months now as part of trade union action over the issue. As the online strike dragged on and views were expressed that street protests were contributing to the spread of the pandemic, there has been some pushback by sections of the public against the teachers. This was in evidence on Wednesday where protesters were hackled by passersby in some areas.

Stalin acknowledged several such incidents had occurred but said such hacklers were “misinformed” and likely urged on by Government propaganda. “Some had shouted that teachers were staying home and collecting their salaries after shutting down schools, but it was not us but the Government that shut schools due to the pandemic”. But the criticism was not just that the teachers were not attending classes but even boycotting the online lessons for the students trapped between the Government and the unions and the intransigence on both sides.  Nevertheless, Stalin said they were yet to take a decision on whether teachers would go back to work once some schools reopened on October 21.

Away with price control

These were not the only headaches for the Government. Attempts to strong-arm importers and big-name traders through a state of emergency failed to prevent shortages of essential items, and the Government’s weakness in the face of business was exposed.  That was not a good thing for any Government. First, it caved into the so-called ‘rice mafia’ by reversing the Gazette notification setting out a maximum retail price for rice. This week, President Rajapaksa had to chair a special Cabinet meeting on Thursday to decide whether to allow price increases in domestic gas, milk powder, wheat flour and cement, all of which have been in short supply.

In the end, the Cabinet decided to remove price controls imposed on the items, essentially acknowledging that the price controls mechanisms actually contributed to shortages of consumer items. State Minister of Co-operative Services, Marketing Development and Consumer Protection Lasantha Alagiyawanna told the media that the President had instructed the authorities to ensure that prices of these items were not raised to unjustifiable amounts, whatever that was meant to mean. With the state food cooperative Sathosa reeking in corruption, what was meant to be the safety net for the poor consumer has been taken away as the CID conducts investigations into a whistleblowers allegation that rackets run into the billions.

One item that has been sorely lacking for weeks now is milk powder. Container-loads of milk powder had remained stuck at the Colombo Port awaiting clearance for want of foreign currency to issue to importers to pay foreign banks and settle their Letters of Credit. Importers had also refrained from ordering fresh stocks without a substantial price increase on the grounds that they could not sustain the losses that arose from selling milk powder at current prices owing to the sharp depreciation of the rupee. Nightly television news has carried daily segments of people queuing up for hours outside the few milk powder distribution centres where limited stocks are available. Things have even got ugly at times, with fights breaking out among those jostling to buy milk powder. Many who are forced to endure such hardships have been scathing in their criticism of the Government over the shortages.

These segments would no doubt have been seen by the highest authorities of the land and probably stung them into taking Thursday’s decision to remove price controls.

During discussions held with Minister Alagiyawanna on Friday, milk powder importers proposed an increase of a 1 kilogram packet of imported milk powder to Rs 1300 and increase the price of a 400 gram packet to Rs 520. The maximum retail price of a 1kg milk powder packet under the price controls that were done away with was Rs 945. The maximum retail price of a 400g milk powder packet stood at Rs 380.

After discussions with the State Minister, the Milk Powder Importers’ Association last morning said it had agreed to raise prices by less than the ones they had originally proposed. Accordingly, the price of a 1kg packet of milk powder will go up by Rs 250 while a 400g packet will increase by Rs 100. Accordingly, the new price of a 1 kg packet of milk powder will be Rs 1195 while a 400g packet will be sold at Rs 480.

Cement suppliers who met the Minister on Friday proposed to increase the price of a 50 kg bag cement by Rs 200 to Rs 1205. Wheat flour producers proposed a price increase of Rs 20 for 1kg of wheat flour, increasing the price to Rs 107. Gas suppliers also met the Minister and a price increase for domestic LPG cylinders is also currently under discussion.

While the final price increases are yet to be announced, prices of these items are set to go up by next week. Trade Minister Badula Gunawardena told the Sunday Times last week that price increases were on the cards and the cost of living shooting up was inevitable. How the Government is going to brace itself to the whiplash reaction by the public is to be seen. Whilst they may end the artificial shortages that currently prevail, it will also heap more misery on the public. The top-down effect of such increases means that even the price of a plain cuppa tea will increase along with that of many other items of ‘the common man’.

SJB v. Diana Gamage

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) had its own storm in a tea cup. This week it expelled its National List MP Diana Gamage, who crossed over to the Government during the vote on the 20th Amendment. Gamage is the Secretary of the ‘Ape Jathika Peramuna’ which was the registered political party that was reconstituted as the Samagi Jana Balawegaya to enable it to contest the 2020 parliamentary election. SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara announced to the media on Thursday that Gamage, whom some critics call ‘Lady Ga-Ga’ had been expelled from the party following an inquiry by a Disciplinary Committee. On Friday, Gamage hit back in Parliament, saying she had not been informed of the disciplinary proceedings against her and likening her expulsion to someone who had allowed a group to shelter in her house due to rain, only to find the same people changing the locks whilst she was out and proclaiming the house to be theirs.

“They asked me to come for disciplinary proceedings during the weekend and I wrote back asking them to allow me to come during week days as it was more convenient. They then asked me to come during the height of the pandemic and I refused. I was subsequently informed that they would take a decision regarding my position, but I am yet to officially receive a communication about my so-called expulsion,” she told the Sunday Times.

Ms Gamage, who insisted the SJB cannot remove her by such an inquiry, said she would explore legal action if the party moved to expel her.

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