In yesterday’s issue of the Daily FT, we highlighted in the front page how the Pettah’s Manning Market Traders Association barred our journalists from doing a report on the status of food prices as well as the level of business in the popular outlet to buy vegetables and other essentials.
The association’s standpoint was that journalists would have to obtain prior permission from the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) to enter the Manning Market, find information, do interviews and take pictures and so on.
Even if prior approval was granted by the CMC, the media would be allowed only to speak to pre-determined or handpicked traders of choice by the association.
Explaining the reason for this new stand, the association alleged that some media organisations which had visited the Manning Market in the past had misreported or hadn’t done a fair coverage.
Manning Market is perhaps the only place the poorer and low income earning people in Colombo could buy their requirements at relatively cheaper prices. It is a public and a popular market. In that context, irrespective of whether the Manning Market gets fair media coverage or not, which is more based on perceptions or interpretations, the new conditions imposed by the Traders Association are ridiculous, to say the least.
In the recent past we have seen traders associations in several parts of the city being overly political. This could be for several reasons. One is, as part of the Government’s decision to beautify the city, pavement hawkers and small time traders have been evicted and relocated in formal complexes. This process results in a nexus between political authorities or officials and traders. The more established places like Manning Market and the St. John’s Fish Market are also politicised in terms of traders having political links or politicians over stepping their power and wielding considerable influence over traders.
This is an unhealthy development. Part of the blame lies in the unprofessionalism and lack of unity among traders. At times traders are also helpless in a situation where politicians or the Government abuse office by interfering too much in matters of business or even mere trading of goods. Even some of the strategic moves made by the Government in acquiring Shell’s operations, Emirates’ stake in SriLankan Airlines, the Air Force’s near two year monopoly in running Helitours and CEB’s decision to make an aggressive foray into mini hydro power projects despite their political sense, are being viewed by private sector as a certain enlargement of the Government’s role in running businesses.
The deployment of the Army to procure, distribute and sell vegetables, though as contingency measure to deal with food crisis, in principle suggests that even the State-owned network of Lak Sathosas have failed, apart from undermining the entire private sector supply chain ranging from the village boutique and traders in the pola to supermarkets.
In post war Sri Lanka, despite the temptation, it is wiser for the Government to stay clear from running businesses that the private sector can do best. Whilst ensuring a fair amount of regulation or checks and balances, the Government could show its true commitment to unleash growth and prosperity to all by facilitating the development of a bigger private sector and creating an enabling environment for the same. The Government must also desist from unnecessarily interfering with the private sector, be it traders, manufacturers or industries, or overly extending political influence on the day-to-day running of their businesses.
Since independence, Sri Lanka has become highly politicised. Despite being the first in South Asia to liberalise its economy, Sri Lanka in recent years has seen many reversals. We need smarter governance and not big government. If not, as dished out by Manning Market Traders Association to the media, the watchdog or the Fourth Estate, the overbearing influence of excessive government will kill the very essence of a democratic society and the freedom the nation has begun to enjoy after many sacrifices for nearly three decades.