Nero fiddles while Rome burns

Tuesday, 6 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Friday Forum earnestly draws the immediate and undivided focus of the public, the Government and Members of Parliament, to five matters that require urgent and immediate attention. 

This is vital in the interests of sections of our society who have been victims of serious disasters, both natural and man-made, in the interest of maintaining reasonably stable prices, because they adversely affect the welfare of people, in the interest of good governance, in the interest of Government and corporations in Sri Lanka who will borrow in international capital markets and in the interests of the long term survival of this state as a political entity, unitary and sovereign. We deal with each of them separately.

Recurrent drought and floods

Recurrent drought in the Eastern, North Central, North Western and Uva Provinces and parts of the Southern Province during the last three years has severely affected agriculture and the livelihoods, income and well-being of millions of people. Heavy rain and consequent floods in lowlands and landslides in highlands have destroyed lives, dwellings, livelihoods, belongings and crops. 

Government, in many instances promptly provided succour. However the failure of the 2017-18 Maha crop and the prolonged drought affecting coconut plantations have brought untold suffering to the farming population and to consumers, especially those in lower income groups, who have to pay very high prices for staples, including rice and coconuts. 

Crops in irrigated and rain fed areas have been denied fertiliser in time, which in turn reduced harvests and incomes.  It is imperative that these lost incomes be replaced immediately together with working capital to undertake production in Yala 2018. The supply of fertiliser of the right mixture and in time must be programmed with due care and the water supply must be both timely and adequate to enable plants to absorb the fertiliser and deliver good harvests.

The payment of lost incomes as transfer payments to those affected will require funds in a situation of acute shortage of fiscal resources. These transfers must be made without printing money. Some items of Government current expenditure must be cut back to divert money to defray these costs and others must be postponed for better days.

Temporary suspension of subsidies on food served to Members of Parliament within its premises should yield substantial savings. Ceasing to pay monthly Rs. 100,000 to each Member of Parliament for ‘electoral work’ will yield a sum of Rs. 270 million a year. Purchase by Government of all cars for the official or personal use of Members of Parliament can be postponed until after the election of a new parliament. (The purchase of two Mercedes Benz S 600 cars for the use of the President was beyond reason, in the circumstances.)

These actions will demonstrate to the public the commitment of politicians to the public good.   If savings from current expenditure do not suffice, a surcharge of 2.5% on income taxes paid by high income receivers may have to come into effect.

Stability in prices

Stability in prices is needed both on grounds of a fair distribution of income and to avoid the sharp devaluation of the rupee if we are not to avoid a drop in exports. Maintaining stable prices is not easy because the price level in this country is determined by the prices of its imports, as any examination of the two sets of figures will easily show. However, Government must, by fiscal discipline, cut down its contribution to inflationary pressure, in which it has indulged in, during the last three years. 

Extravagant expenditure on ceremonies and foreign travel can be reduced without endangering efficiency in Government and the well-being of the population. There is little need for being airborne for frivolous purposes at cost to the public. The public themselves need to avoid displaying extravagant wealth in a culture where simplicity (alpeccha) is held in high regard.

The Auditor General recently revealed to the public the parlous state of book keeping in government and stated that he was not in a position to state with confidence the total debt of Government. Whether this state of affairs is due to incompetence or deceit is yet to be discovered but rumours abound of foul play. 

The unreliability of Government statistics so revealed will create further problems in raising loans in world financial centres, when Government, during 2018, 2019 and 2020, needs to refinance large amounts of maturing foreign debt. In November 2017, the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force classified Sri Lanka among high risk countries, and the country now runs the risk of further downgrading unless accounting and management of financial institutions are improved substantially. 

Good governance 

Good governance was the broadest and sturdiest plank in the platform on which the current President and the ruling coalition parties were elected to office in 2015.  A major part of that undertaking was that crimes committed by members of the previous Government would be investigated and those found culpable be brought before courts of justice and those found guilty punished. These alleged crimes ranged from murder, massive scale bribery and corruption, abuse of public property and illegal financial gains by those in power at cost to the public. The whole latter area was thrown into sharp relief by government bond scams early in the life of the new Government. It is commendable that these recent scams have been inquired into and that suspected criminals are now before courts of law. 

The public has expressed its disgust at the failure of Government to bring to book those suspected of graver and nastier crimes committed in earlier periods. There are seemingly purposeful delays and failure to act in the presence of prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. The cumbersome and costly legal procedures are often presented as excuses for these lapses. However, the expedition and care for detail that that machinery exhibited in respect of the ‘bond scam’ is a standing negation of that charge.

Friday Forum urges most strongly that government give utmost priority to fulfil the solemn promise it made to the public in January and August 2015 to commit to trial all those suspected of crime, for courts to deal with them according to law. Delay in these matters would be to betray the trust that people have in the capacity of democratic governments to deal with crimes committed by people in high office. 

War crimes

A distinct and separate part of this failure of Government has to deal with crimes alleged to have been committed during the recent civil war. Friday Forum expressed, in a recent public statement on ‘Establishing the Office of Missing Persons: Delays, Dilution and Deal-making’, its concern with the fate of allegedly missing persons.

The resolution concerning Sri Lanka adopted at the last review by the UN Council for Human Rights in Geneva is scheduled to come up for review at the March meeting of UNCHR. Government will be under pressure for an acceptable account of their progress in the implementation of Resolution A/HRC/34/L.1.

In addressing all the issues that Friday Forum has raised, there is little doubt that there have been real and grave difficulties before Government. They have been aggravated by lack of cohesion among constituent parties to the coalition. Each party has sought advantages to itself at much cost to the other. For the nation and individuals to prosper, it is essential that there is able leadership working in democratic ways. 

Lack of communication 

One important feature of democratic governance is that Government continually communicates with the public on the problems that it faces implementing the mandates that it received from the public. There has been a woeful lack of communication between Government and the governed during the last three years causing misunderstandings between the two parties to Government. That conversation must start again if government by discussion is to resume.  

This society, its state, its Government and its people are held hostage to solutions of these multifarious problems that beset it. Competent and wise leadership helped by the international community, most of all its near neighbours, bonded into friendship over many centuries and whose futures are inextricably woven together, can surely release it from this bondage. Friday Forum eagerly looks forward to such leadership and enlightened international cooperation.

Dr. Geedreck Usvatte-aratchi and Chandra Jayaratne

For and on behalf of:

Dr. A.C. Visvalingam, Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda, Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Prof. Camena Guneratne, Priyantha Gamage, Faiz-Ur. Rahman, S.C.C. Elankovan, Dhammapala Wijeyanandana, Prof. Ranjini Obeyesekere, Manouri Muttetuwegama, Danesh Casie Chetty and Pulasthi Hewamanna.

(The Friday Forum is an informal group of concerned citizens pledged to uphold norms of democracy, good governance, rule of law, human rights, media freedom and tolerance in our pluralist society.)