Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale is an independent health supply chain management specialist with wide international experience. Writing is his passion.

Sri Lanka: Formula for Lasting Peace and Prosperity

85 views
5 mins read

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – Albert Einstein

The momentum for resolving the ethnic issue that has bedevilled the country since independence has taken a fresh urgency with the President calling on all parties to convene to discuss the issue and resolve it before the 75th year of independence in 2023.

Underpinning such a resolution will be the imperative of sharing power and in this context, an end to the dominant Sinhala Buddhist polity perspective that has stood in the way of a resolution. In attempting to find a resolution, one hopes that all political parties of all persuasions call a halt to which came first, the chicken or the egg simile when it comes to the ethnic issue. Rather than a debate on who came first and who lived where, a solution based on contemporary realities would be more beneficial for the current and future generations.

If political parties accept equality of all citizens irrespective of their numerical strengths and/or the length of their history and ancestry, all closely knit in the political mess that has been created, and that diversity within such equality is what is unique, and also importantly, move away from ancient geographical boundaries that have been used to create divisions rather than unify people, a resolution will be possible.

Sinhala culture, Tamil culture, Muslim culture have been fashioned over many hundreds if not thousands of years, not just within Sri Lanka but outside it, especially when it comes to Tamil and Muslim cultures. However, the founders of the major religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam may frown and express their disappointment over the way ritualistic cultural practices have deviated their current followers from their original teachings, overshadowing the fundamentals of their teachings with such cultural practices.

Unfortunately, politicians, and many contemporary religious leaders, especially within the Sinhala Buddhist community, have institutionalized religion using ritualistic cultural practices that have no place in what Buddha taught.

In terms of political governance though, the reality is that a fundamental requisite for resolution of the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka is the recognition of cultural diversity and everything associated with that diversity and a mechanism for each group to be able to make decisions through a process of discussion, debate, compromise with other groups. In such a model, a group with a numerical majority cannot be more equal than others as it is against the very principle of recognizing equality within cultural diversity.

The challenge before politicians is whether they are willing to accept this premise, as without an acceptance, and then acting on a mechanism to operationalize such an acceptance, the ethnic issue will continue to be used by all shades of political opinion for their own political ends as they have been doing since independence.

Having said this, even if the premise is accepted, it will not be easy to operationalize it due to various politically important forces preventing the premise being implemented. Despite 74 years of prevarication, political battles, even a war, Sri Lanka has not been able to resolve the ethnic issue and it continues to be an issue that divides the country. It will not be overcome during a few meetings of the political parties represented in Parliament today. Mutual suspicion harboured by different ethnic groups will not disappear overnight after a bon homie in Parliament.

The entire governance system and the caliber of politicians who enter Parliament has to change if a lasting solution to the ethnic issue is to be reached. While the power of interest groups cannot be removed all together from the political arena, their influence can be reduced by strong legislation. These are long-term, time-consuming activities and possible only through progressive steps.

An interim political solution

In the interim, a solution has to be found which will assist in moving the political pendulum in the right direction. The suggestion to introduce a second chamber with powers to veto and/or amend bills presented in Parliament that impinge on the equal rights of ethnic groups has been made as an interim measure until a more progressive new Constitution is introduced to reflect the equality of all belonging to different races and religions, and a degree of self-determination within a unitary, sovereign country.

It is suggested that the second chamber consists of 100 members, with political parties represented in Parliament nominating, by consensus, an equal number of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and one person as the chairperson of the second chamber. None of the nominees should be members of the Parliament, and they should be persons of eminence and proven capabilities, especially in the arena of human rights and social policy development and implementation. In a sense such a body would act like a political watchdog over any basic human rights indiscretions that may be attempted by any government.

While a second chamber of this nature could bring all communities together via their political representatives as far as facilitation of legislation that do not impinge on equal rights of all races and religions, the political system and structures need to change if the people of the country are to be better served by those who the public chooses as their representatives.

A revamped Local government to be bedrock of a new constitution

In this regard, readers are referred to an article written by this columnist under the heading “An opportunity for a reformist Constitution to take Sri Lanka forward

The main thrust of that article was that local government should form the bedrock of a governance structure and that provincial councils should only be forums for local government members in each province to meet annually or biannually to discuss, debate and agree on the governance trajectory in each province. The task of a national Parliament comprising of 150 members elected by the people was proposed only to be engaged in policy development.

This to be done in discussion with local government members in each province, and of course the general public, business organisations, academics, unions, female organisations and civil society organisations.

National Planning & Monitoring Council (NPMC) mechanism and Regional Planning & Monitoring Councils (RPMC)

Finally, in respect of a political system change, this columnist also wrote an article titled “Contours for a new constitution with a difference, for the future, not the past http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2021/09/contours-for-anew-constitution-with.html) where three key features underpinning the suggested contour proposal was presented

The first one being a much-needed stakeholder participation outside of party politics through a National Planning & Monitoring Council (NPMC) mechanism and Regional Planning & Monitoring Councils (RPMC) responsible for developing a high level 10-year (minimum) National Governance Plan. The NPMC and RPMC mechanism and its influence were considered as a means of drawing more and more people from the private sector, universities, and other special interest groups into economic activity, and lessen the involvement of any government entity in activities they should not be engaged in and not competent to do anyway. It was proposed that the private sector should lead and be the engine of economic growth in the country if the future is to be different to the failures of the past.

The second, a devolved political administration via Regional Councils, that provides greater inclusiveness and participatory governance, by the people, for the people. The pivotal role of local government entities within each regional council was stressed as an important prerequisite. The central government’s role was noted as one of coordinating the implementation of the National Governance Plan developed by the NPMC and the RPMCs, once it was approved by the National Parliament.

Thirdly, the coordination of implementation to be led by a 10 to15 member central cabinet of ministers drawn from outside Parliament and appointed by the President, who will work with the relevant ministers in Regional Councils and with the local government entities for effective implementation of the National Governance Plan. This, along with the role to be played by the NPMC and the RPMCs were proposed as a means of bringing in the talent that is there in the country to move the country forward economically, socially and environmentally, more effectively and efficiently, for the benefit of future generations.

The need to change the political system is fundamental to ushering in a new Sri Lanka. It will be insanity if this is not done and if the same system and the same or similar people, some just simply Chameleons changing their political colours from time to time, are given the task of building a new Sri Lanka.

The second chamber that has been proposed as an interim measure could well be a permanent feature in a new reformist constitution, and its representatives selected by Regional Councils rather than the national parliament. Such a chamber would add to the fundamental requisite of power devolution that essentially has to be the foundation of a new Sri Lanka

Food security during economic insecurity and instability

/
444 views
7 mins read

Food Security means that all people always have physical & economic access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate foods, which are produced in an environmentally sustainable and socially just manner, and that people are able to make informed decisions about their food choices. The FAO defines the four pillars of food security as availability, access, utilisation, and stability of food.

Whether it is from a Sri Lankan context, or more generally from a global context, ensuring food security is a complex subject that has no easy answers if all aspects of it are to be considered. Broadly, food security is the availability of food and the ability of all people irrespective of ethnicity, religious beliefs, economic class, gender, which part of the country they live in etc, to physically and economically access food. The target is therefore for an entire population of the country to have easy access to adequate quantities of basic, safe, preferred food items, at affordable prices. This is a foundation for building a nation of healthy people and preventing hunger, malnutrition, and starvation.

In Sri Lanka, the economic debacle faced by the country has already had an impact on the people with 9.6 million people reportedly in poverty according to a study by Peradeniya University and malnutrition rose sharply alongside. Clearly, indisputable food insecurity signs are there and are clearly visible. However, what is also visible is the general apathy and indifference shown to the debacle of food insecurity.

As with many activities, ensuring food security involves a chain of activities and the involvement and input from many players. A key feature of a supply chain is the importance of realizing the underlying principle of a supply chain that “the strength of a chain lies in its weakest link.” If ensuring food security is considered from the prism of a chain of activities, then, the above principle defines the success or failure of the system whenever one section of the chain fails to deliver resulting in food insecurity. Very fundamentally, food insecurity arises when there is a failure on the part of the producer to produce quality food, the failure of the intermediate systems like the wholesale buyers of the products who fail to provide a decent price to producers, an inefficient transportation system that fails to get the food to retailers and consumers in a timely manner in good condition, inability to source from overseas the essential basic foods that are not domestically available in adequate quantities, and the inability of all or some of the population to access the food based on economic grounds.

The complexity of this supply chain deepens when factors such as environmental sustainability, cultural appropriateness, and nutritional values are factored in. Food security is a supply/demand phenomenon where the demand for nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate food needs to be supplied in the right quantity, right quality, the right price, and right place in an environmentally sustainable manner. The inherent complexity of the supply chain makes it difficult and even impractical and probably inadvisable for assigning the management of all aspects of food security to a single entity. It is perhaps addressed best by market forces, but where the responsibility for some policy settings may be assigned to the State.

A key requisite for achieving food security and often not given the attention it deserves is theability of the people who produce and supply such footwear a decent, living wage, growing, catching, producing, and where appropriate, processing, the food produced.

The intervention of middlemen between producers of food, and the transporters, wholesalers, and eventually retailers has been and still is a major challenge to food security in Sri Lanka. Ensuring food security is therefore not a simple phenomenon of just growing food without considering all the above aspects.

Food safety plays an integral part in food utilisation. How food is metabolised by consumers, storage issues such as the length of storage and method of storage, and preparation for consumption (cleaning, level of heat treatment provided in cooking, not mixing ready-to-eat food with raw items etc) contribute to food safety at the household level. Providing simple information to the public on how to maintain food safety at home will help. Levels of sanitation at home and availability of good, affordable health care will also help.  

Food security is also threatened by natural disasters, climate change, non-availability of sufficient water, pests / agricultural diseases, wasting food, and politics/poor governance. Some of these factors are avoidable if mitigation plans are made in advance.

Sustainable Food Systems

A healthy, sustainable food system is one that focuses on Environmental Health, Economic Vitality including marketability, and Human Health & Social Equity.

  • Environmental Health – ensures that food production and procurement do not compromise the land, air, or water now or for future generations.
  • Economic Vitality & Marketability– ensures that the people who are producing the food are able to earn a decent living income wage doing so. This ensures that producers can continue to produce our food, and what is produced can be marketed. Often, sudden, or seasonal rise in prices, especially of fruits and vegetables, leads to large-scale cultivation of such items which results in overproduction and consequent drop in prices for such items. This results in producers having to even sell for prices much less than their cost of production
  • Human Health & Social Equity – ensures that particular importance is placed on community development and the health of the community, making sure that healthy foods are available economically and physically to the community and that people are able to access these foods in a dignified manner. Promotion of the health (and unhealthy) aspects of food is a major task that could and should be undertaken by the media and organisations specialised in such activities including the State and private sector healthcare institutions.

Food security strategies

It is politically convenient but shortsighted to take the stand that assuring food security is merely growing more food. Opening large swathes of unutilised and or underutilised land for cultivating more food without considering the numerous aspects associated with food security mentioned above does not assure real food security. In fact, more environmental damage which in turn exacerbates food insecurity can be caused unless intelligent planning accompanies food security strategies.

Of course, more food has to be grown if the country is short of food. But the important consideration is which food is to be grown and where, and whether such food provides the nutrition(protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins/ minerals)that human beings require.

Food security also tends to be viewed only from the prism of what can be grown, meaning, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Meat and fish are rich sources of proteins and other vital nutrients for human beings, but they also contain unhealthy aspects as well, as do some non-meat or non-fish food items. This is where health professionals come in to provide relevant information on health and unhealthy aspects of food items. The meat industry in particular has religious imperatives and these need to be factored in when discussing food security.

The following three key proposals are presented for consideration by readers and advocates of a food security policy and program for the country.

  1. A national committee consisting of agriculture and dietary experts drawn from the academia and professional bodies to develop a national food security strategy. Such a strategy should identify most appropriate geographic crop cultivation opportunities based on soil conditions, water availability, rainfall patterns etc. Guaranteed prices could be fixed for growers of commodities determined by this committee.
  2. A public/private sector partnership to manage the procurement and transportation of commodities from the growers to retail markets. Such a partnership could include rail transportation, lorry transportation and retail outlets such as supermarkets and cooperative establishments. This entity could establish buying prices from growers and recommended retail prices based on demand/supply considerations.
  3. An entity to provide information (online, print and TV) to growers and consumers on (a) growth strategies and plans as determined by the national committee of agriculture & dietary experts, (b) procurement prices for produce and recommended retail prices and (c) dietary and food health information.

The above three committees could co-opt provincial and/or district-level institutions and entities to promote and support the national food security strategy. It is strongly suggested that considering the critical importance of food security to all people of Sri Lanka, the national strategy formulation and the national planning, execution and monitoring process be a task assigned to the President.

Amongst key strategies that may be considered are

  1. The promotion and support for the domestic agriculture sector to improve and increase the output. Farmers, large and small, should be provided easy access to knowledge in the appropriate use of fertiliser, use of different methods of irrigation/watering (drip irrigation, sprinkler systems, fertigation etc.), use of modern equipment, crop diversification, managing issues relating to pests, weeds etc. Such information may be made specific to the different areas in the country.
  2. Exploration of the cultivation of strains/varieties that provide higher yields using less land. Seeds of such varieties could be made available to farmers.
  3. Ensuring that the farmers get a fair deal for their effort. That is, make sure that it is economically viable for the farmers.
  4. Developing methods to make water available to farmers, specially those working in arid areas.
  5. Encouraging households to grow some fruits and vegetables at home. Promotion of cultivating in pots and used fertilizer. flour bags should be promoted and encouraged.
  6. Discouraging food waste at all levels.
  7. Examining and improving where necessary, the storage facilities, transport facilities, at the various stages from farm to retail and the packaging used, in the pursuit of minimising food waste as well as maintaining food quality/food safety.

Ensuring food security and all aspects of food security as discussed here for all people of the country cannot be assured by politicians who are divided on every national issue that matters to the people. They have demonstrated their love for themselves ahead of the people of the country when the economic edifice of the country has cracked and fallen apart around them. Judging by the failure of Opposition politicians to support national effort to address the economic debacle of the country, it is certain that a national effort to ensure food security will not be a priority for the Opposition politicians, who will only look for political opportunism to further their political ambitions. Hopefully, promotional efforts to ensure food security will be provided by civil society institutions, religious bodies, academic & professional institutions, health institutions, women’s organisations, and importantly, media institutions.

Acknowledgement – The technical advice, information and support provided by Food technologist Mr. Sanath Nanayakkara, a graduate of the University of Colombo and holder of a master’s degree in business administration from Macquarie University, Sydney, and who has worked extensively in technical and managerial roles in the food industry for 48 years both in Sri Lanka and Australia is gratefully acknowledged.

Sri Lanka: Consequences of Conscious Ignorance and Genealogical Absurdity

/
542 views
6 mins read

Another global recession is imminent. The US, UK, EU are all expected to have lower growth rates and China’s growth has slowed down. India stands alone. There has been no discussion about its possible effect on Sri Lanka and what mitigating steps should be taken to cushion its ill effects on a country that is already bankrupt. Some 9.6 million people are reportedly in poverty according to a study by Peradeniya University. Its malnutrition levels have increased sharply. Public hospitals still have drug shortages. Inflation has risen very steeply with the highest increase seen with food items. Foreign exchange reserves are still precarious and there is yet, no agreed way forward economically and politically with opposition parties harping on elections without offering any alternatives to proposals put forward by the President. For many ordinary people, the absence of queues for petrol and gas appears to be the mirage that is hiding the quicksand below the surface.

The impending global recession is expected to hit the economies of all major powers to varying degrees, except India. As stated in the article ”The global recession and its impact on India”, a slowdown in the US economy was bad news for India during the last recession because Indian companies have major outsourcing deals from the US clients. India’s exports to the US have been developed over the years, but they  successfully weathered the great financial crisis of September 2008”

The article examines why India suffered so little during the previous global recession that impacted some of the biggest economies of the West, quoting, ”There are many factors that saved the Indian economy from the bad consequences of the global recession. India is a nation whose market is majorly dependent on agriculture; hence it supported India from getting laid off like other affected countries. In those times Indian banks and financial institutions had almost entirely avoided buying mortgage-backed securities and credit which turned out to be toxic and felled western financial institutions. While India’s merchandise exports were hit by the recession, service exports did not fall as IT and BPO exports held up good. Foreign direct investment went high despite the global financial crisis. Financiers reversed flows into India, but long-term investors in plants and factories kept moving on their ongoing projects”, unquote.

In the context of an impending global recession, the Sri Lankan government should begin discussions with India about what mitigating measures could be taken to prevent the current bad situation from getting worse. In all likelihood, it is not the IMF, but India which would be in a better position to assist Sri Lanka. However, in doing a bilateral deal, India too would lay down some conditions, both economic and political, and it is best to begin discussions and negotiations now rather than when the country has reached the next precipice.

Need for contingency planning

The ADB forecasts Sri Lanka’s GDP to be around 2.3% in 2023. This forecast however was prior to assessing the impact of the impending global recession on Sri Lanka. While economists will argue and predict varying degrees of impact, it is best to identify the worst-case scenario and undertake contingency planning to address such a scenario.

A study has revealed that 9.6 million (or 42% of the population) people of Sri Lanka are currently suffering from poverty. This is no doubt a direct result of the economic catastrophe faced by Sri Lanka now.

Prof. Wasantha Athukorala of the Department of Economics and Statistics at the University of Peradeniya said this in an article. What could possibly be worse than this situation? And could it be allowed to get worse?

What are the likely effects of a global recession on countries like Sri Lanka?

It could impact foreign direct investments. What is meagre today could get worse.  Sri Lanka’s exports, its lifeblood, could get affected due to lower demand. Whatever plans the BOI has and the Port City commission could be adversely affected.

Some countries that employ migrant workers, may reduce such employment opportunities if they are forced to scale back on their projects as a consequence of a global recession, and this will impact remittances from overseas migrants working in developed countries. Sri Lanka has experienced this with the COVID pandemic, and the slow rise of remittances is bound to decline, strangling and suffocating the country  

Tourism, a critical input to the economy which has just begun to show marginal increases will decline to cause much hardship to the industry and those directly and indirectly employed it, in addition to the impact on the country’s coffers.

If the country’s life-blood trifecta of exports, tourism and remittances are affected any further, it is difficult to imagine how the country would survive. 

Unemployment will rise and so will social unrest as a consequence. The country will not have enough funds to support the most affected as government revenue will not be there to provide such assistance. The depreciation of the rupee has already caused much misery to the people and a further depreciation which might be inevitable is bound to aggravate social unrest.

It is in this context that a politically consensual approach to the nature and extent of contingency planning, mitigation measures and broad strategic planning of the future direction of the economy becomes imperative. If not for today’s generation, but at least for the future generation. Such a task could have been achieved by the National Governance Council if only the country’s interest was placed above the personal interests of politicians.

Contrary to the belief that Ostriches bury their heads in the sand to save themselves from predators, which in fact is a myth, the BBC science focus explains why Ostriches engage in this practice, quote “As flightless birds, ostriches are unable to build nests in trees, so they lay their eggs in holes dug in the ground. To make sure that the eggs are evenly heated, they occasionally stick their heads into the nest to rotate the eggs, which makes it look like they’re trying to hide – hence the myth. An ostrich trying to hide from predators in this way wouldn’t last for long, and it wouldn’t be able to breathe, either!” end quote.

In referring to the situation in Sri Lanka where many people seem outwardly oblivious to the clear and present danger to the country and its people like Ostriches purportedly bury their heads in the sand, it is an insult to an Ostrich who is in fact sticking their heads into the sand for a purpose, as that is where their nests are and for the sake of their yet to be born chicks. One wishes human behaviour was more like that of Ostriches!

Collectively, the attitude of many people and the politicians who represent them, and even many religious leaders and civil society leaders, appear to live the myth surrounding Ostriches rather than the truth.

The attitudes displayed in the wake of current and potential hardships and disruptions, even greater poverty levels and malnutrition do not give an indication that the safety and well-being of future generations are being considered a priority.

While the President has proposed several governance initiatives including the national governance council, grama sevaka level people’s committees, changes to electoral laws, and many Parliamentary oversight committees as checks and balance mechanisms, no Opposition politician has presented an alternative governance model. The President’s proposals are matters for discussion and debate and improvement if they are regarded as inadequate, but the irresponsible Opposition has not done this.

It is no wonder that the current Parliamentary system and those in it are a ridiculed lot. It is no wonder that a genuine Aragalaya began with very ordinary people’s participation to discuss and debate the future, as the past and the present have been failures. The concept of the original Aragalaya is no doubt in the hearts and minds of many and it should not surprise anyone if the movement resumes and becomes active in all parts of the country.

In this context, it is well worth it for readers to watch and listen to a broadcast made by Venerable Galkande Dhammananda of the WalpolaRahula Trust on the birth of the Aragalaya before political vultures descended on it to feed on its message and regurgitate a politically motivated, violent message simply to change the deck chairs of a sinking Sri Lanka. Venerable Dhammananda’s broadcast should be watched by those whose hearts ache for Sri Lanka, and for the future generations of the country whose lives will be adversely affected if the political status quo continues.

A national economic summit

The Opposition political parties and those splinter groups withing the ruling party, should demonstrate their concern for the country, not by calling for elections at this juncture, but by joining together with the President and the governing party to agree on a broad program to address immediate and impending economic disasters. Such a program could be developed at a National Economic Summit with the participation of the business community, union leaders, academics, professional organisations, women’s organisations and other key participants, to develop a bi partisan economic plan for the next 10 years that includes a fiscal and monetary policy, an export development plan, a tourism plan, foreign direct investment plan, a plan for local revenue raising including taxation reform,and in addition, very importantly, a plan for food security.

If politicians do not change and take the lead to do this, and make a concerted, genuine effort to reverse the current economic catastrophe and undertake contingency planning to avoid even a worse debacle, people should exercise their right to change not just the politicians but the system that produces them.

Sri Lanka: Aragalaya has a message — Don’t shoot the messengers

/
488 views
6 mins read

During a meeting in Anuradhapura recently, President Wickremasinghe, deliberately, or inadvertently and/or innocently touched on a core issue that is at the heart of the dissatisfaction people have with the political system and what it has produced over the years. He mentioned that the original spring (or ulpotha) that gave rise to subsequent political parties, (authors remark, Sinhala Buddhist oriented parties) was the United National Party (UNP). He mentioned late SWRD Bandaranaike who was in the UNP, and who subsequently formed the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP), a section of which has since evolved into the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party (SLPP) under the leadership of the Rajapaksa brothers, Chamal, Mahinda, Basil, and Gotabaya, and whose father late D A Rajapaksa had broken away from the UNP along with SWRD Bandaranaike to form the SLFP, and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), a breakaway from the UNP, had their origins in the UNP.  In making these observations, President Wickremasinghe extolled all these parties to come together now in the country’s hour of need as they all had a common source of origin.

While all political parties must come together at this hour of need to forge a future together from the ashes of the economic debacle that the country is in, President Wickremasinghe must realise that such a coming together cannot be and must not be for a return to the status quo and to perpetuate the system that has existed since independence, as it is this system that has brought about the economic bankruptcy of the country.

The system that political leaders and political parties established and managed since independence had some successes, but many failures. The weaknesses outweighed the strengths.  In hindsight, the country can see this and should learn lessons from past mistakes. The bankruptcy of the country in economic terms is a result of the system and those who the system produced and who then managed it. Policy flip flops, absence of strategic thinking and action, huge debt based investments without assessing costs and benefits and return on investments, systemic corruption at all levels of the society, absence of a  coherent and consistent foreign policy, have all been inherent features of the political system that has failed the country. The reluctance and/or inability of political parties to get together to develop a governance policy for the next 12-18 months when the country is at the bottom of the pit is an indication of the dynamics of the political system. The next election and who acquires power is more important for the constituents of the system, than the interests of the country. This is the reality.

In this context, whatever other motives Aragalaya or some within it may have had and still have, the fundamental premise is the need to change the political system. And why? Simply, because it failed the country.

The spring or ulpotha that the UNP was, and all the rivers and rivulets that flowed from it no doubt would have had good intentions overall, but the stark fact is that they all failed. The present and coming generations do not see any light at the end of the tunnel. All they see is the system that failed them, making all possible attempts to resurrect itself.

Rather than arresting, detaining, and charging some who were associated with the Aragalaya, it would have been far more strategic and politically more prudent to have begun a discussion with the Aragalaya and encourage it to have discussions with the broader public rather than attempting to silence its voice. In saying this, there is not even a hint made that any violent action should be condoned and tolerated. However, some would view the use of the PTA, detention, and court action against protestors as nonphysical violence against them if one were to consider these means as part of the status quo, system-wise.

The following excerpt from the Daily Mirror is quoted to support the contention that the system had failed. Quote “the list of creditors in the $81 billion economy ranges from Western sovereign bondholders, who together account for the largest $14 billion slice of debt, to bilateral players such as China, Japan, and India. Then there are the multilateral lenders — the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. The country’s outstanding foreign debt is a staggering $51 billion, with some independent economists estimating that China’s lending to Sri Lanka from 2001 to 2021 amounted to nearly $9.95 billion. Sri Lanka had a foreign debt bill of $6.9 billion that it had to service in 2022 but defaulted in April after it ran out of foreign reserves, a first in the South Asian nation’s history.

The country of 22 million currently has $300 million worth of usable foreign reserves, not enough to ensure a steady flow of food, fuel and pharmaceutical imports. The latest figures from the Department of Census and Statistics show that food inflation in July soared to 82.5% on the year “unquote.

The country’s economic bankruptcy cannot be clearer than this. It is a country surviving on debt, and with almost no assets in the form of foreign exchange reserves to buy its essentials.

When mentioning systems, it is not only the political system that is the subject of the discussion. Many parts of the administrative system, the judicial system, the law enforcement system, the prison system judging by shocking and disgusting revelations made by a recently released high-profile prisoner, are also in a state of dysfunction, with bribery and corruption permeating to these as they have to the political system.

Sinhala Buddhist hegemony has become even more evident and a stronger influence in the outcome of elections leading to who governs and who does not. There is increasing evidence of Muslim extremism from a Sri Lanka perspective, with more fundamentalist Wahabism taking hold in in the country and amongst Muslims. Christian church groups outside of the more traditional Catholic, Anglican and Methodist groups have spread and have become stronger. One needs to question whether strengthening of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony has been a consequence of other religious denominations veering more towards orthodoxy and fundamentalism or whether it has been the other way about. There is confusion as to where the Egg is and where the Chicken is.

The political system, and in a general sense, the politicians it has produced, one inextricably linked to the other, and the unquestioning attitude of voters, their expectation of maximum governmental interference in economic affairs of individuals and society, the opposite of a laissez-faire system, has contributed to short term politics and who gets their vote in return for small handouts. The political literacy of the public, in a general sense, has been questionable as they have been averse to considering and accepting a middle ground economic model.

In this climate, and context, unless the politicians of today take the lead to metamorphose themselves and the system, and learn lessons from the likes of the Aragalaya, the system could well be replaced by something else which everyone may come to regret later. Persecuting people associated with the Aragalaya is not the answer. Listening to their message, and the message of many who are very likely a silent majority, is the answer.

In effect, the current political system distances people from governance, and pays only lip service to the adage that democracy is about electing governments for the people by the people. No doubt there are no perfect democracies, and some might agree with the Churchillian adage that democracy is the least bad system of governance.

The purpose of mentioning these dysfunctional state of affairs is to pose the question where Sri Lanka is with human rights, moral and ethical conduct in all aspects of governance despite its 74 year post independence history, and the much publicized Sinhala Buddhist majority heritage.

If one takes the view that the political system is at the pinnacle of all systems considering its role in political governance, it would not be out of place here to conclude that the root of the cancer has been and still is the political system. Unfortunately, this cancer appears to have spread to all other parts of overall governance, and it is questionable whether it is possible to excise the cancer from the primary source of the eventual spread, the political system. Even if it were possible, leaving such a task in the hands of politicians themselves would be stupid and a guaranteed failure.

A new Aragalaya, comprising of as many non-partisan political bodies and personnel functioning as opinion facilitators amongst the public, should lead the task of exploring a new political system for the country. While some are calling for elections, it will not address the critical need to change the governance system that has brought the country to where it is now. Without a change to the system, it will continue to produce the kind of politicians who have governed the country so far and brought it to where it is today. The political literacy of the public too needs advancement, and this should be led and facilitated by a new breed of politicians as well as by religious and society leaders. The same machine will produce identical sausages. The machine must be changed to produce different sausages. A crude analogy, but a logical one.

A new system that focuses on long-term planning carried out by experts in economic, agricultural, energy, health, education and social areas, which provides equal rights to everyone, including women, which recognizes the ethnic and religious diversity of the country without any one segment of the society labeled as more equal than others, which ensures all citizens are equal before the law and which ensures that adherence with the law of the land entertains no compromise, which has strong punitive measures against bribery and corruption, and which provides for a political governance council drawn from all levels of the society and which devolves administrative governance to peripheral levels, are some features that a future governance model could consider.

One does not need to be an Einstein to say that it would be foolish to expect different results if one continues to do the same thing.

Sri Lanka: All talk and no action

/
923 views
6 mins read

Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results – Albert Einstein

“Where are the protestors, the system has drowned them. Where is the system, it is where it has always been. Where are the people? they’re all back in the hole they have always been” – paraphrasing the lines taken from the traditional Cossack folk song “Koloda-Duda”, by Pete Seeger for his famous song “Where have all the flowers gone”.

Pete Seeger was a legend in his own time. As the New York Times notes, this musician, songwriter and song collector-historian “helped spur the politically tinged folk music revival of the ’50s and ’60s. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and has remained an activist, notably on environmental issues.”
No one condones violence, and unruly, undignified behaviour. The original Aragalaya movement was the opposite of all this. It was a breath of fresh air, and for once, an embryonic discourse began about changing the system of governance. Unfortunately, it was hijacked by political opportunists who sensed there was a wave they could ride. They rode that wave and marched and occupied the President’s house, the Prime Minister’s house, the Prime Minister’s office and burnt the acting Prime Minister’s (now the President) private residence. A President and a Prime Minister were forced to resign. Some ministers resigned. Many who could not and still do not differentiate the original Aragalaya from the subsequent one, and many disgruntled members of the public cheered. They thought it was the dawn of a new era.
Systems are hard to change, and the hijackers action has managed to restore the status quo, and the breath of fresh air has turned stale. Self-serving politics is back. Deck chairs may have changed, but the farce lives on.

Rightly, questions are being asked whether the Aragalaya was akin to a Soda bottle, and whether the system has subsumed the fizz. Opposition parties led by the SJB are trying to cross every “T” and dot every “I” and there is no agreement in sight as to the kind of interim governance model they would support. The JVP has decided to oppose any kind of all party governance system. Plenty of talk, but no action on the all-party governance front.

Since Ranil Wickremasinghe, Sri Lanka’s accidental President ascended the chair, political parties have been brawling and struggling like schoolboys, each group trying to outdo others. All eying the next election, whenever that is to be held, rather than being empathetic to the plight of the ordinary people of the country and the dire economic situation in the country. Motherhood statements clog the media and airways, and yet no party is yet to come up with some specific immediate, medium, and long-term strategies to overcome the dire situation in the country.

Availability of fuel, even on a rationed basis, and cooking gas, has sent the country to a state of complacency, not realizing that this situation can only last if there is foreign exchange to purchase fuel and gas. No political party has stated how they would find that vital influx of foreign exchange to the coffers. No political party has come up with specific proposals as to how Sri Lanka could make the situation last even if some foreign exchange is found in the immediate term.

No political party has come up with specific proposals as to how the country would find rupees to foot the salary bills of public sector and private sector workers and for health, education, and other essential services

No political party has come up with proposals as to how numerous commercial sectors like the construction sector and the tourist sector, major contributors to the national economy could be revived.
The list of things not done is endless. Yet, there is much talk.

The president’s call for an all-party government, which all parties seemed to agree with in the past, has turned into many diversions. Some are supporting the concept, but are not willing to join one. Some are on the fence and wondering what their future political fortunes would be, should they join such a government.

The ordinary folk of the country are very likely sick and tired of this farce. They are concerned about their children’s schooling which has been disrupted for more than 2 years due to the Covid pandemic and the economic catastrophe. They are concerned about their jobs and how they will make ends meet if they lose their jobs. Those without jobs are struggling to find jobs as there are no jobs they can apply for. They are concerned about the high cost of living and spiraling prices of essentials, including medicines. To add to their frustration and sense of despondency, they are fearing what their next electricity and water bill would be considering the steep hikes in rates announced recently.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel for most such ordinary people of the country, while politicians argue about matters that affect them and their political future. They could have at least agreed on a common plan of action for the next 12 months, with some specific courses of action as to how foreign exchange is to be found for import of essentials, on measures as to how the country’s rupee income could be increased, and how the most affected citizens of the country could be compensated to relieve them at least of some pressure on their living expenses.

They could have agreed on some strategies to ensure how school children could continue their education in their schools. Transportation is a major issue for them as well as for those who use public transport for work or business as there are less buses on the roads and they are crowded to the brim as a result. It is no wonder the covid spread has increased. Without making this a political issue, political parties could have agreed to provide more fuel for buses and reduce the minimum quantum of fuel for motor cars, and increase diesel imports and reduce petrol imports, as most buses run on diesel.

Train services too could be increased combining bus services to and from rail stations so that more people could make use of train services. A similar arrangement could have been done for distribution of goods using train and a lorry service. Food distribution would have benefited greatly if such an arrangement was in place. There are many measures that could be taken to bring relief to the hardest-hit segment of the population and to revive the economy for the benefit of all. Under normal circumstances, if there was no crisis, one would have expected the incumbent government to take such necessary measures. However, the situation is not normal, and the incumbent government is an accidental, interim one. This is where governance must be a shared responsibility as an interim measure until the time is right to hold elections and test the will of the people. The time is still not right for that to happen.
It would benefit the country and its ordinary citizens if all political parties could agree on a few fundamental courses of action and take partisan, self-serving politics out of some crucial areas of governance. Some possible strategies are noted below.

  1. Agree that a general election will be held say in 12-18 months
  2. Agree to form a governance council with the leader of each party being a member of such a council
  3. The governance council should agree on a governance plan for 12-18 months and the President and a cabinet of ministers, with a maximum of 15 ministers tasked to implement the plan and report to the governance council.
  4. Collectively agree to vacate a total of 5 national list parliamentary positions to allow the President to nominate 5 technocrats with a proven record in economics, finance, education, commerce and agriculture as national list MPs and thereafter as cabinet ministers.
  5. Agree to combine foreign policy with international trade policy and appoint one cabinet minister for the combined portfolio. Investment promotion, the BOI, the Port City Commission, and the Export Development Board, among other relevant entities should be within this portfolio. It is strongly suggested that overseas consular activity should be outsourced to suitable private agencies and many of the overseas consular missions closed. Foreign Affairs should be about foreign policy, and Sri Lankan diplomatic missions should be located only in countries where the country could effectively project and promote a non-aligned foreign policy. High Commissioners and Ambassadors appointed should be persons who can promote such a policy and who can promote investments in Sri Lanka.
  6. Agree to have a Constitutional Council comprising of representatives from all political parties in and outside Parliament, representatives from the business sector, the academia, unions, women organisations, etc to seek views from the public, conduct discussions and present a blueprint for a new constitution.
  7. Agree on a blueprint for the economic revival of the country and measures to attract, and conserve foreign exchange, and measures to increase rupee revenue.
  8. Agree on a donor consortium and a meeting of members of such a consortium to extend long-term funding and/or credit facilities for essential imports such as petroleum, gas, medicines, food,
  9. Agree on a restructuring plan for entities like Sri Lankan Airlines, Petroleum Corporation. A Public/Private partnership model, complete privatization should be considered.
  10. Agree on appointing a nonpolitical expert committee to study and submit a plan of action to transform Sri Lanka into an export-oriented, import substitution industrial economy, with self-sufficiency in food to ensure food security.
    Politicians may not know it, and they may not wish to know it, but they must know that public confidence in them is at the bottom of the barrel like the economy of the country. They have an opportunity to take some concrete action now to restore even a modicum of confidence. If they do not do this, and the country’s situation gets worse, as many are predicting, the next Aragalaya will result in total anarchy. International vultures will descend on the country then and its sovereign status will become a just memory of the past.

Sri Lanka: Lest we forget, not Gota, but the political system failed the country

523 views
5 mins read

Gotabaya Rajapaksa made mistakes as the President of the country, and grave ones at that too. Some of his decisions were ill timed and ill informed. Some decisions he should have taken, were not taken. The country is witnessing the aftermath of these decisions and non-decisions.

However, he cannot be held solely responsible for the disastrous economic situation in the country. He did inherit a nation in debt and low GDP growth. His predecessors too are at fault for the economic policies they followed. One of them has now become a pontificator of good governance although he did not even offer an apology to the country and to the families of hundreds who died a preventable death, let alone taking responsibility for a major security lapse that he, as President and Defense minister, should have taken responsibility for. That President, along with the current President who was then the Prime Minister, presided over a decline in economic growth from around 7% to 2.7% during their tenure, and a rise in foreign debt from 70% of GDP, which itself was a very high figure, to 96% of GDP at the end of their tenure.

Many in Sri Lanka have now become experts in politics, economics, budget management, and you name it, virtually everything and anything. Mostly with the benefit of hindsight. Some of these expert voices were not heard when the country progressively hurtled down the path of unsustainable debt. There was no sign of an Aragalaya then, although the issues that were brought to the forefront by the various shades of Aragalaya, were there then, as they are there now.

Not many questioned the unaffordable availability of luxury consumables, all imported with borrowed money. Not many complained about the avalanche of vehicles imports. Not many seemed to mind the loss-making State enterprises like Sri Lankan Airlines and the Petroleum Corporation, as long as the planes flew, and subsidized fuel was provided in abundance. There weren’t many who voiced concern about the huge amounts spent to provide subsidized inorganic fertilizer. All these were funded with debt, foreign and local.

It is not one leader, whether in politics or business or academia, or in civic society, who failed the country. It was a collective failing on the part of many. It is the political system, the governance system, and the leaders it produced that failed the country.

In this context, it is unworthy of Sri Lanka to label Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the sole villain who allowed the country to fall into the abyss it has fallen. While other contributors roam free, some, somewhat disgraced, others have risen as saviors.

In this context, it is a sad reflection on the part of Sri Lankans in particular the media, to provide headline grabbing news items portraying the former President as having nowhere to go. Gotabaya Rajapaksa must come back to Sri Lanka and be afforded the security and facilities that an ex-President of the country is entitled to. If as alleged, he has committed other misdemeanors, whoever who is accusing him of such misdemeanors should take legal action and Gotabaya Rajapaksa should face the court decisions. However, he is innocent until he is proven guilty, and it is an insult to Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans if he cannot return to the country and be protected as a former President.

He should be afforded the opportunity to provide his own defense against accusations of misuse of power, mismanagement, and any other misdemeanors.

Many seem to have short memories. They have forgotten that the country is free of terrorism and a separatist war thanks to the contribution made by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to end terrorism and war. His task was a Military one, which he achieved. Others had the task of introducing peace and reconciliation, and they were not able to achieve that lasting peace amongst the communities.

There is no question that family politics and all the negatives that come with power drunkenness reached its zenith with the Rajapaksa political family. The people and the system allowed this to happen. It is time that all Sri Lankans questioned the political system that has prevailed since independence, and perhaps find answers to some questions and find the way forward.

  1. Have the constitutions that the country has had so far, including the current one with its amendments, been beneficial to the country and its progress, economically and socially.
  2. Economically, the country is nearly bankrupt with debt levels suffocating it, with income streams severely impacted due to COVID. Do the readers think this situation is only account of COVID? If not what else?
  3. Socially, minority issues, especially aspirational issues, equality and equity, women’s rights, language issues, accountability issues, corruption, unethical conduct, etc., etc., still beset the country. Is it the constitution that is at fault or the politicians which the constitution produces?
  4. In reality, while one can boast that people, through their representatives, decide on policies that successive governments have introduced, is this so or is it a fallacy? Except at the time of casting their votes, at what point till the next election do people participate in policy determination? Even during elections, do people really discuss, debate, and decide on policies contained in manifesto’s or are they purely looking for some immediate benefit from one side or another?
  5. Do people have a choice in who is standing for elections from a political party?
  6. Are political parties democratic and is there a people-oriented process to elect their leaders?
  7. Does the system in place facilitate the effective participation of experts in economics, business, agriculture, health, education, fisheries, and other key areas of the economy in policy formulation, or is this process limited to a few “yes” men and women who say what politicians wish to hear?
  8. The cost of conducting elections is very high, with the last Presidential Election costing around Rs. 5 billion and the General Election around Rs. 10 billion. To this cost one has to add what candidates and their supporters spend on elections. The issue is not necessarily the overall cost, but whether there has been a justifiable return to the country on the investment made because of the elections, and whether the return has been more for the candidates and their sponsors.
  9. Buddhism, as defined more and more by the Buddhist institution from cultural practices rather than by the doctrinal practices introduced by Buddha, has been given pride pf place in the constitutions while other religions have been more or less “accommodated” in them. One should ask whether societal values, ethical behaviour on the part of the people as well as the elected leaders, and indeed on the part of some members of the Buddhist institution have progressed to towards the Buddha’s doctrinal teachings. The question to be asked is whether the State should be secular, and all religions treated equally, and their role limited essentially for spiritual practices as per their respective religions.
  10. Finally, while there would be many more questions that are bound to posted, challenges to what has been stated here, the objective behind posing these questions is for one to contemplate whether, despite whatever achievements of the past, the coming generations will be served well in years to come with a constitution more or less in the same vein and only cosmetically changed, or whether it is time to think outside the box as it were, and consider a constitution that will produce better outcomes rather than what 70 years of independence has delivered to Sri Lankans, then and now.

The author posed these questions in an article titled “Contours for a new constitution with a difference, for the future, not the past”