Does Sri Lanka have a Government? 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Governments must make decisions with data and strong analysis 

 


The Presidential Elections in November 2019 gave many of us a sign of fresh air given that we had a Leader who had proved his mettle by ending the three decades of war. Let us not forget that victory was against the most ruthless terror organisation globally that had invented the concept of the ‘human suicide attacks’ which is ample testimony on the strong decision-making power that Sri Lanka was greeting.

Yahapalana was corrupt 

Let’s face reality. Though the ‘Yahapalana’ manifesto was good governance, the entity failed miserably starting from the famous bond scam and then moving same ethos across other ministries and finally the Easter attacks debacle that took Sri Lanka to the wire. 

In this backdrop when a proven disciplinarian was appointed as the new president with a two-thirds majority, the private sector was elated. I was personally thrilled given that I have been serving successive governments in different capacities since 2004.

 

Two-thirds majority 

Thereafter when the announcement came in that the Parliament had a two-thirds majority, I knew that Sri Lanka had got the break to be the “powerhouse” in South Asia, the logic being that what Sri Lanka required “radical policy reforms” given that most of the operating principles that currently are being followed are archaic in nature. This mandate will help amend the administrative procedures that were much required.

 

Report card – no Government?

We are now in May 2021, one-and-a-half years since the new administration took office. What we see unfortunately is a very poor report card. This is nothing to do with our expectations but more to do with poor decision-making. Many of us are baffled at the week after week drama hitting the news media and to be honest, we feel defeated. Sometimes many of us wonder if there is a Government in power.

Let me take a few cases in point to demonstrate why the current perception is, “Do we have a Government?”

 

1) Muslim bodies cremated 

The cremation of bodies is forbidden in Islam. When the COVID-19 issue arose, a decision was taken to cremate in Sri Lanka. The Government was in the view that burials could contaminate ground water. But political, religious and community leaders had repeatedly questioned this decision, pointing to the fact that more than 190 countries are allowing burials to which the World Health Organization had approved same.

The Sri Lankan opinion leaders even took its fight to the Supreme Court, but the cases were dismissed without any explanation. However, public debate intensified when a 20-day-old Muslim baby was forcibly cremated. The country came under intense criticism from rights groups, including the UNHRC, over the cremation order. Finally, after the visit by Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan, the order was reversed. 

Media reported that Sri Lanka has sought Pakistan’s support at a UNHRC session and in turn this was raised where Government was checkmated. But the damage was done – UNHCR called on Sri Lanka to hold an inquiry on the human rights abusers to account and to deliver justice to victims of the civil war, whilst certain quarters was also putting pressure on a new resolution responding to mounting rights concerns in Sri Lanka, including over the treatment of Muslims. 

The Government could have addressed this issue before it was taken up on world stage of the UN but sadly the Government failed to listen. Speculation was that the Minister for Justice had even threatened to resign on the ‘burial rights issue’ but the Government stuck to the original decision rather than looking at facts and data and taking a decision.

 

2) SL transit hub for Indians

COVID-19 has not only ravaged the world once but it keeps coming back is what the experience curve is telling us. The Sri Lankan Government must be commended for managing the first wave but then due to the ‘Brandix Pokura’ Sri Lanka went reeling to the wire and the Government came under serious flak for poor policy making that infected almost 90,000 people and the country lost over 500 lives. There was a criminal investigation that followed but it has fallen through the cracks.

Given this debacle in India where almost 4,000 succumb to COVID on a daily basis, many were monitoring the developments in India with the viral strand. In this backdrop, Sri Lanka started a new business where the country is used as transit hub for Indians visiting other destinations like West Asia or Singapore for instance and as a safe haven for rich Indians.

All medical experts were criticising the strategy that included blatantly advertising at global stage, but the cry fell on deaf ears until Sri Lanka started spiralling on the numbers with daily reported deaths hitting 19 and the virus infection engulfing almost 2,000 people daily.

The Government finally decided to close the bolt on India but sadly the deadly virus has been discovered in an Indian in the quarantine centre in Dehiwala. Let’s see if the leakage has happen as if it has then the numbers will spiral like what we see in India. Once again the Government exposing poor decision-making. The good news is that ramping up bed capacity has finally started.

3) Kesbewa debacle

Last Sunday we saw how 52 Grama Sevaka divisions in Peliyagoda were declared as isolated area based on the decision of the Kesbewa MOH Dr. Samantha Wijesundera. As per the law the MOH Officer has the mandate to take such decision as the COVID patients crossed 147 on a daily basis. However this decision was short-lived as the Minister of Transport who hails from Kesbewa overruled the decision and the markets were once again buzzing in Peliyagoda where almost 23 people were reported to have died from COVID in the last couple of days. 

The Director General of the Ministry of Health at a public programme mentioned that he was not consulted on this decision which is the state of affairs when South Asia is seeing the worst wave from the crisis from COVID. Sad, but the decision-making Sri Lanka saw during the period 2007-2009 during the final phase of war has not been repeated. I guess it’s a good case study that a university must do in future to reason why the disconnect.

The PHI Union reported yesterday that the actual COVID-19 status in the county is not reflected with the cases reported at present as there is a considerable delay in getting PCR results from laboratories. They go on to state that the cases being reported at present are of the PCR results released three to four days ago. 

“If we are to get an idea of the country’s situation in terms of COVID-19, it is vital to set up a mechanism, which enables the quick release of PCR results from laboratories,” PHI Union President Upul Rohana said. He went on to state: “The present pandemic situation in the country is more dreadful than what is being shown through PCR results from laboratories.” He said the PHIs are not invited to key meetings and their warnings fall on deaf ears. Once again we see the Government at sea. 

 

4) Palm oil fiasco

Moving to another burning issue, post the revelation of the harmful substance and the decision to ban palm oil by the Government, within just two days the Government had to step back, with the Prime Minister announcing the lifting of the restriction on certain refined palm oil based products within 24 hours of the President’s prohibition order.

Apparently the story goes that the Controller General of Department of Imports and Exports Control was advised by the Presidential Secretariat on 5 April to issue the relevant gazette notification banning palm oil imports totally with immediate effect. Further, the Director-General of Customs was informed of this decision and directed to desist from clearing imported palm oil containers at the Colombo Port.

After the ban was announced, leading local importers, cooking oil producers, bakery owners and confectionery manufacturers exerted pressure on the Government to reverse its decision as palm oil was required for their production. Finally the Prime Minister in his capacity as the Finance Minister issued a special gazette notification allowing the importation of refined palm oil, easing the total restriction of palm oil imports. Once again we see how the Government weakness of timely decision without data.

 

 5) Fertiliser banned?

Then came the cracker, post the Government deciding to ban chemical fertiliser and moving the country to the new policy of converting to organic fertiliser, two shipments from China carrying 18,000 Mt of chemical fertiliser for paddy were cancelled in keeping with the directive from President to switch over to organic fertiliser with immediate effect.

But, across the country, farmer organisations said they were already experiencing a shortage of fertilisers for the current Yala season although the authorities claimed adequate stocks were available. Company representatives from leading agri-based companies have pointed out that production of organic fertiliser required for all crops may not be possible immediately and it would take a considerable time to produce the required quantities. 

Dr. Hemakumara Nanayakkara, an expert in organic fertiliser, said that although the Government’s decision was in order, such policy decisions could not be implemented hurriedly and there should be a gradual process followed. This view can be justified as at present as almost 95,000 metric tonnes of TSP are imported annually and experts believe that it will take a minimum five years for a smooth transfer to take place. 

I guess time will tell the sustainability of this decision. Just one week into the decision, the Sunday papers reported that some items of chemical fertiliser would be allowed to be imported under special import license regulation. Once again the Government is exposing poor decision-making.

 

6) Litro Gas violates CAA Act

The drama continues sadly. This time around it’s the State-owned Litro Gas Lanka, which has introduced the premium hybrid 18 litre cylinder priced at Rs. 1,395. This latest product, which had its capacity marked in litres instead of kilogrammes, came under fire, as it was uncovered that the quantity had been reduced to 18 litres in the usual 12.5 kg cylinder. The 12.5 kg gas cylinder, priced at Rs. 1,493, contained 25 litres of gas equivalent, which means the consumer was been cheated.

The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has already launched an investigation into the new gas cylinder released to the market by Litro Gas Lanka without prior approval. A CAA Spokesman said no gas cylinder could be released to the market without the CAA’s approval.

The Litro Gas Chairman in an interview with Hiru News said that this product was launched in keeping with the President’s idea for a family of four to manage with a cost of Rs. 1,500, which once again questions the policymaking capability given that according to the Chairman both packs are making a loss.

As at now the old pack is scantily available whilst the new pack size is available freely, according to media reports, which means that it violates the CAA stipulation. Once again we see the poor decision-making by the current Government which is so contrary to the initial perception we had. 

 

7) Wage issue

Then we saw a another fiasco that the Government made on payment of plantation wages, which was handed down to the 20 Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) which have filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal challenging the decisions of the Wages Boards for the tea and rubber growing and manufacturing trade for deciding to increase the minimum wage of workers to Rs. 1,000. This was subsequently approved and gazetted by the Labour Ministry. The RPCs’ view is logical as the companies are fighting for financial sustainability and this arbitrary salary increase which is not tied to productivity take the RPCs to the wire. 

The Minister’s view was interesting: “This is very unfortunate as the plantation lands are not their private properties, they belong to the people of the country. RPCs are not cooperating with the Government policy and mandate. Therefore, we have to fight this in courts. I already asked the Attorney General to appear on behalf of the respondents.”

This once again gives a signal to the world on how the Government conducts business in Sri Lanka. This does not augur well for the Government which is yet only in the second year of work.

The Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) estimates that RPCs would incur an additional Rs. 15 billion in expenses due to the wage increase to Rs. 1,000, whilst the Sri Lanka Tea Factory Owners’ Association (SLTFOA) revealed that the membership of the association, joining with non-member tea factories, is in the process of filing a separate writ application challenging the decision of wagers control boards. Hence we see how different segments of the general public have been angered by poor decision-making by policymakers.

 

8) New Tourism Act

Now we see how the already-wounded tourism sector is fired up on a highly-debatable policy reform coming into play. The tourism industry’s private tourism stakeholders are up in arms on a proposal by the Sri Lankan Government to scrap current laws governing tourism policy, a move which would weaken the industry’s representation in various State-owned tourism organisations. By the way the private sector accounts for 99% of the industry revenue.

The Government is proposing to set up a new Sri Lanka Tourism Authority which will merge three State institutions, all of which currently have representations from industry associations. The proposed new authority, however, will not have representations from the private sector. The decision to appoint a new authority was approved by the Cabinet.

At a joint media briefing, officials of the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) and the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) said they were opposed to the change. They urged the Government to focus on the present burning issues and not change the existing Tourism Act enacted in 2005, at a time when tourist inflows are at a record low owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Conclusion

Hence we see that the Government is off beat to the situation in the marketplace. Whilst the country is up against one of the most challenging economic conditions, we know that the only way we can remain competitive is by making smart decisions. But alas we see the reverse happening in Sri Lanka which does not add value to brand Sri Lanka, which is hovering at $ 90 billion.


(The writer is the Country Head of an Artificial Intelligence company for Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan. The thoughts are strictly his personal views.)


 

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