Kath Noble

The one and only family

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 29, 2012

How Mahinda Rajapaksa is promoting his relatives to consolidate his power

The rise of Basil Rajapaksa has been rapid to say the least. Having spent years out of the country pursuing other interests, his return to support his brother’s presidential campaign was unexpected. Even more surprising was the popular backing he managed to acquire within a very short period in an unfamiliar district – he recorded the highest number of preferences in Gampaha in the 2010 parliamentary election, about as many as the next three candidates combined.

He is projected as a man who gets things done. The idea is that he will do for the economy what Gotabhaya did in terms of security, with Mahinda Rajapaksa being the figurehead who holds it all together.

The family brand is now so strong that people either love them or hate them.

It is perhaps understandable that Mahinda Rajapaksa is so obsessed with his family. Politicians adore power and want to hang onto it for as long as possible, and in this region in particular one means of extending their period of influence is to promote their relatives, lining them up for eventual succession.

Some months ago, Namal Rajapaksa gave a most amusing speech in Delhi at a forum on ‘political dynasties’ in which he claimed that the only real advantage of being the President’s son was that it had been slightly easier to get a nomination to contest elections. He argued that it was then up to the public to decide. This must be one of the most ridiculous statements of 2012. Yes, they have to collect votes, but even if they do so honestly on the basis of their image and not through the abuse of state resources that we all know is rampant in Sri Lanka, their image is only partly reflective of their capabilities. It is far more dependent on the opportunities they are given.

And both Namal and Basil have had a lot of help.

Why does Sri Lanka even have a Ministry of Economic Development? Because after the 2010 parliamentary election, Basil wanted a portfolio that would enable him to get involved in everything that might help to increase the family vote bank while making him responsible for nothing that could jeopardise it.

The Economic Development Ministry undertakes programmes that involve distributing freebies, money and jobs, especially focusing on young people in rural areas. Divi Neguma is an excellent example. Launched in 2011, its first phase involved the creation of one million home gardens. A lot of people were recruited to go around handing out seeds and equipment, or the money to buy them, and the whole exercise was given a lot of publicity. Never mind the impact of an increase in household production on farmers, since their marketing problems are the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture.

Or is it the Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife? Livestock and Rural Community Development? Rural Affairs? Could Divi Neguma be run by the Minister of Food Security?

Does anybody actually remember who is responsible for these subjects?

Mahinda Rajapaksa believes in the centralisation of all useful power in the hands of his family, and the distribution of all useless responsibilities among as many other people as possible, so as to reduce the likelihood of any challenges to his authority from both inside and outside his governing coalition. He is constantly on the lookout for Parliamentarians he can induce to join the Government. Crossovers weaken the Opposition, but they also dilute the influence of each Cabinet Minister – instead of being one of about 20, they are now one of 60.

The resulting confusion obviously creates tremendous wastage and inefficiencies, which people ‘tut tut’ about from time to time.

But wastage and inefficiencies are only really actively opposed in Sri Lanka when they are sins committed by provincial councils. People are ever ready to find reasons to get rid of provincial councils, and their consumption of resources without producing much in the way of improvements to well-being is the issue cited most often as justification.

However, this problem too is created by the Government. Provincial councils don’t get a lot done because the Government doesn’t want them to do a lot.

The Government implements whatever projects it likes, wherever it likes, never mind whether their subjects fall within its purview or within that of the provincial councils. Cabinet Ministers may be given a chance to get involved to stop them feeling too bad about their increasingly powerless situation, but the really important stuff is bound to be given to a member of the Rajapaksa family. Why else would Basil have been put in charge of reawakening the East and bringing spring to the North – as far away from his constituency as one can get while remaining within Sri Lanka’s borders?

It is obviously nonsense to suggest that there are no capable people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, or that the Chief Ministers couldn’t have done the job with appropriate support from Parliamentarians representing those areas.

There is not even the explanation generally put forward as regards Gotabhaya, that Mahinda Rajapaksa really needed somebody he could trust due to the sensitivity and urgency of the situation during the war.

There was no justification for giving the responsibility to Basil.

I have made the same argument about the recent expansion of the Ministry of Defence to include street cleaning and landscape gardening as surely the world’s only Ministry of Defence and Urban Development (‘The Army’s No-War Games’, The Island, June 20th). Gotabhaya is apparently now spearheading the Rajapaksa family’s popularity drive among the middle class in Colombo.

Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t want devolution on anything other than a highly selective basis to people who won’t be in a position to use the power they are given meaningfully.

Divi Neguma is his ideal model. The key actors in the programme are community-based organisations, which operate in just one Grama Niladhari division or indeed in only part of one Grama Niladhari division. This is supposed to be empowering. Indeed it might be if there was a mechanism to enable these community-based organisations to have a say on policy – if the process were actually democratic, in other words. However, this is clearly not what is intended. They are given every opportunity to discuss amongst themselves, in a whole range of different forums at the local and even national level, no doubt involving plenty of wastage and inefficiencies that people won’t mind in the slightest, but all important decisions are taken by somebody else – Basil and officials under the control of Basil.

Provincial councils, which could reasonably expect to be in charge of work to promote home gardens, and more importantly to decide whether promoting home gardens is really the best option to make people in their areas better off, aren’t given the chance. They are not the ones with the money.

Why discuss this now? Because the Government is in the process of further extending and formalising this way of operating by means of a bill that transforms what was once merely a programme into a permanent structure of the Government – the Department of Divi Neguma Development, to be established within the Economic Development Ministry – which will also take over the work of regionally-focused development bodies such as the Udarata Development Authority and the Southern Development Authority, plus the work of the Samurdhi Authority.

The move is being challenged in the Supreme Court this week by a range of different groups, including the JVP.

A particular concern is that money deposited in Samurdhi Banks could be used by the Ministry of Economic Development without oversight, while the bill says that officials will be required to maintain absolute secrecy about their work, which is rather unusual.

However, it is the implications for the coordination of the development process that are most disturbing. Is Sri Lanka really best served by a system in which everything is decided by one, two or at best three people in Colombo?

Even if passage of the bill is blocked as a result of this legal action, it is clear that the real work will still remain to be done – the growth of Basil’s empire will be only slightly affected.

Mahinda Rajapaksa will pay no attention, certainly. He will continue to promote his relatives, in the expectation that being the President’s father will bring plenty of benefits in his dotage, and the space for others to contribute will continue to be closed down.

People may not feel very inclined to care about the fate of politicians, such is the frustration that has built up. The fact that internal democracy is as much of a problem in the SLFP as it is in the UNP doesn’t seem very important. However, it is through political parties that change has to come. The impact of their internal problems is being amply demonstrated by Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is preventing the Opposition from mounting a serious challenge to the Government by refusing to give up the UNP leadership. What Mahinda Rajapaksa is doing to the SLFP should be equally obvious.

Reforms are needed, and soon.

Basil Rajapaksa’s admirers shouldn’t get agitated by this suggestion – if he is as competent as they believe, he can manage without so much assistance from his brother.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 29th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Apologising for saffron terror

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 22, 2012

On the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities

Rauff Hakeem is a generous man. A week or so ago, he issued what he referred to as an ‘unreserved apology’ to all Buddhists in Sri Lanka for a remark he made on the campaign trail that some people had interpreted as an insult to the Sangha.

Indeed, he didn’t just say sorry. The SLMC leader also praised the pluralism practised by Sinhalese Buddhists from as long ago as the time of King Senarath, who gave Muslims land in the Eastern Province when they were being persecuted by the Portuguese, and acknowledged the patronage and benevolence Muslims had always enjoyed under Sinhalese rule.

The media didn’t stint on its coverage of his statement, and the frenzied criticism that both preceded and followed it was also given plenty of attention – Faizer Mustapha, his colleague in the UPFA administration, accused Rauff Hakeem of trying to provoke race riots for political gain.

Race riots? He wants a repeat of 1915? Believe that and you’ll believe anything.

The funny thing is that there was no such widespread reporting of what the SLMC leader actually said in the first place.

The whole episode had very little to do with any offence caused and nothing at all to do with any potential danger to the country – very few people would have come to hear of Rauff Hakeem’s comment if not for the ruckus created by his critics. Instead, it had everything to do with the September 8th provincial council elections, in which the SLMC has decided to go it alone in the Eastern Province. Since Muslims are now a majority in the East, the SLMC is expected to do well, and no doubt it didn’t want to risk the fate of MLAM Hizbullah, who brought his faction to contest with the UPFA in 2008 on the understanding that the community with the most votes would be offered the chief ministerial position, only to see it handed to the TMVP – Tamils won only six seats compared to eight for Muslims.

It is actually Faizer Mustapha who should be apologising to Muslims for attempting to take political advantage by raising the awful prospect of race riots.

What made all this possible was the use of the phrase ‘saffron terror’, which Rauff Hakeem urged must be tackled as was the LTTE.

It is not a very helpful phrase, certainly. Muslims don’t like it when people call Al Qaeda Islamic terrorists, on the basis that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism – just because terrorists claim to be acting in the interests of a particular faith doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously. Predominantly Islamic countries never use the word Islamic in connection with Al Qaeda, in the same way as Anders Behring Breivik isn’t called a Christian terrorist in countries where the dominant religion is Christianity (he sometimes isn’t even referred to as a terrorist!) – indeed, this label is rarely applied elsewhere either, so dominant is the West in the formation of the global narrative.

Also, ‘saffron terror’ is the phrase in common use by Indians including the Congress and its now former Home Minister P Chidambaram to describe terrorism by rightwing extremist groups adhering to Hindu nationalist ideology.

This is obviously not comparable with anything that is happening in Sri Lanka.

Rightwing extremist groups in India have been linked to a series of blasts in the last half decade that together have killed hundreds of people. When a bomb explodes, as happened in Pune on August 1st, the first reaction of the Police is now to acknowledge that it is as likely to be the work of Hindu extremists as it is of Muslim extremists.

Even generally speaking, the relationship between communities in the two countries cannot be compared. Race riots are a current reality in India – since July 20th, violence in the Northeastern state of Assam between Muslims and indigenous tribes has claimed more than 75 lives and resulted in 300,000 people fleeing their homes, while there has also been a mass exodus of Northeastern migrants from Southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai due to fears of a backlash.

Sri Lanka is much better off.

However, this is not guaranteed to remain the case. Given the history, which includes several events like those of 1915, and the fact that the country is just emerging from a generation long war fought by a group claiming to represent one particular community in the face of discrimination and oppression by a chauvinist state, it might be wise to err on the side of caution.

More important than how Rauff Hakeem expressed himself is the point he was trying to make. The phrase ‘saffron terror’ as employed by him was meant to refer to the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities.

The Dambulla incident in April this year made the headlines around the world thanks to the availability of rather compelling visuals of monks leading a mob in storming and vandalising a mosque they claimed was built illegally within the declared sacred area of the Golden Temple. Anybody who still hasn’t watched the footage should immediately search for it on the internet (‘Bigoted monks and militant mobs: is this Buddhism in Sri Lanka today?’, Groundviews, April 23rd), since it is bound to change your perspective on the seriousness of the problem. The sight of a monk disrobing and jumping up and down exposing himself outside the mosque while other monks break down the door cannot be forgotten, nor can the explanation given by the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero that the act of destroying the mosque is actually a shramadanaya in which all Buddhists should participate.

Three issues merit repetition. First, the monks used their status to achieve their objectives – the Police were present in numbers, but they did not prevent the monks from breaking the law, although they did restrain lay people.

Secondly, their concerns could have been resolved with very little difficulty if they had chosen a different path. The mosque is not like Ayodhya or the Temple Mount. It grew up to serve the Muslims of the area, but there is no desperate attachment to that particular location – it is not the Prophet’s birth or deathplace. Also, the structure itself is more or less makeshift. Putting up a new one in another place wouldn’t have been an unthinkable task before the mob attack inflamed passions. The Government could have negotiated for suitable land outside the declared sacred area.

Thirdly and most importantly, Muslim leaders responded very sensibly, moving to reduce rather than increase tensions, ensuring that protests were non-violent.

It is a shame that the Government has not apologised to Muslims for its failure to protect their religious freedom on that occasion. In particular, if saying sorry for statements that some people find upsetting is in order, Prime Minister DM Jayaratne should have done so for responding to the mob attack with an announcement that as Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs he was ordering the immediate removal of the mosque – this was hardly the responsible course of action, if there was even the smallest chance of race riots.

Meanwhile, the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero is clearly not going to issue an ‘unreserved apology’, since he apparently believes that violence is a perfectly acceptable way of getting what you want (‘A monk on the rampage’, interview by Niranjala Ariyawansha of the Sunday Leader, May 6th).

The Dambulla incident happened months ago, and it may be argued that the damage done by the Buddhist priests was minimal – the mosque is back in operation and the people of the area have resumed their normal practice of peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Indeed, it is true. Sri Lanka must certainly not be castigated as an intolerant society, since to do so would be to ignore the common behaviour of the vast majority of its people and even the general attitude of its leaders. However, there would have been no damage at all if not for the Buddhist priests – they guided their followers in what was very definitely the wrong direction.

Also, Buddhist priests continue to be involved in such incidents, while nothing is being done about what looks like becoming a trend in the post-war environment.

In the last fortnight alone, reports indicate that a mob led by a Buddhist priest took away a statue of a god from a Hindu kovil in Panama, Eastern Province, while in Deniyaya, Southern Province, another mob including Buddhist priests beat and threatened to kill a Christian pastor and his wife whom they accused of spreading Christianity in the area.

These are much worse insults to the Sangha than anything that was or ever could be said by Rauff Hakeem.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 22nd August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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What India really wants

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 15, 2012

Assessing the resurrection of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement

While Tamil Nadu is fixated with the politics of India’s relationship with Sri Lanka, as was amply demonstrated by the hullabaloo over the conference of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation in Chennai on August 12th, the rest of the country has been focusing on rather different issues.

The August 2nd to 5th visit to Colombo of Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma brought with it announcements of several major developments on the economic front. He spoke of doubling bilateral trade to $10 billion per year by 2015, plus a considerable increase in investment and the resumption of negotiations on the much-postponed CEPA. Meanwhile, a 20-member delegation of India’s top business leaders were holding talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts, and more than 100 companies were showing off their wares at the India Show organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry at BMICH.

Of course, economics is not apolitical. Indeed, making the Sri Lankan economy more dependent on India has often been suggested by Indian analysts as a means by which New Delhi can acquire greater leverage over the Government.

However, Sri Lanka is already economically vulnerable, with around 60% of its exports going to the West. We have seen the follies of such dependence in the last few years as demand from Western countries has fallen with the Global Financial Crisis and subsequent recession. And during the war, we saw the potential political impact when trade preferences under their GSP schemes came up for renewal – both the European Union and the United States attempted to use the opportunity to push for their preferred policies, never mind what the Sri Lankan public wanted. A more balanced export profile would reduce these problems. Anyway, only 15% of Sri Lankan exports go to Asia, and with the region likely to continue growing faster than Western nations for decades to come, Sri Lanka really ought to be thinking about where it wants its markets to be.

India’s desire to increase Sri Lanka’s dependence on its economy may be motivated by other concerns, but that doesn’t mean increased Indian involvement is a bad thing. The Government just has to be careful.

To that end, let us look at a few concerns with the Indian proposals.

First and foremost, the CEPA is being sold to the Sri Lankan public using exactly the same rhetoric as was employed for the FTA. It is described as a wonderful opportunity for Sri Lanka to access the huge Indian market, with absolutely no danger of huge Indian companies swamping their Sri Lankan counterparts since India is not asking for reciprocity.

Who do they think they are kidding? The FTA was driven not by any desire on the part of India to help its neighbour but by the interests of the Indian business class, who had precisely two objectives – exporting more of their goods to Sri Lanka without paying tax and thus increasing their profits and increasing their profits by avoiding tax on their imports to India by diverting them through Sri Lanka.

Officials present the considerable increase in trade between the two countries since the entry into force of the FTA as undeniable proof of its success. However, this is far too simplistic. For a start, while Indian exports to Sri Lanka have been increasing steadily throughout, Sri Lankan exports have followed a rather different trajectory – going up rapidly at first, then from 2005/6 gradually falling back. More crucially, the increase in Sri Lankan exports was largely in goods in which Sri Lanka is not competitive globally, and the trade proved unsustainable.

In 2005/6, more than 50% of Sri Lankan exports to India were of just two items – copper products and animal and vegetable oils – which is rather surprising, given that Sri Lanka doesn’t produce the necessary raw materials.

In fact, the raw materials come from ASEAN, and they were heavily taxed by India at the time of the signing of the FTA. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, applied low tariffs, due to its earlier and deeper liberalisation – starting in 1977 rather than 1991 in India – and the fact that it offers incentives to foreign investors enabling them to import inputs for goods to be manufactured for export without paying tax at all, plus tax holidays for operations in Free Trade Zones. Indian businessmen promptly invested in a number of processing units in Sri Lanka. However, in the end this led to trade disputes, following which Sri Lanka had to introduce various limits on its exports to India, and finally in 2010 an FTA between India and ASEAN came into effect. The tariff difference disappeared, and Sri Lankan exports of copper products and animal and vegetable oils fell almost to zero.

We cannot say this trade was definitively a bad thing, since India’s exports to Sri Lanka would have grown even without the FTA – more than 50% are either petroleum products, vehicles or iron and steel, which are all excluded from the agreement. The trade reduced Sri Lanka’s problem with its balance of payments.

However, it is silly to suggest that it proves how good liberalisation was and will be for evermore, as officials do. After all, the trade didn’t go on for long – the few Sri Lankans who found jobs in Indian-owned factories lost them after a while, and the factories themselves are now unused and indeed useless.

The question for Sri Lanka is what to replace it with.

As usual, India seems to have the answer. This is the second major concern.

The CEPA is another of India’s babies. The expansion of the FTA to include not just trade in goods but also trade in services and investment is its much-cherished and long-awaited next step in its bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka. India is Sri Lanka’s number one investor. Also, services are its fastest growing export. The Indian business class wants more security for its investments in Sri Lanka and more opportunities to sell not just its goods but also its services – energy and education (hence the Government’s mysterious determination to push forward with the Private Universities Bill?) have been mentioned as priorities.

The major stumbling block has been Sri Lankan business, a section of which has been vigorously opposing the CEPA ever since it was first proposed, coincidentally or otherwise in 2005/6.

However, last week it was reported that the Chairman of Laugfs Holdings, who was one of the businessmen professing to be so worried about Sri Lanka being swamped by huge Indian companies if the CEPA were signed, is now quite keen on the idea. What changed? India has promised to bring Sri Lankan businessmen into joint ventures in services and also into the Indian manufacturing production chain. There are plans to set up Special Economic Zones, one in Trincomalee to make parts for vehicles and other engineering goods, and another somewhere yet to be decided to produce pharmaceuticals – a delegation to discuss the modalities was expected in Colombo on August 14th.

This could well be good for Sri Lanka. At least, it will add to capacity in both manufacturing and services and hopefully support exports, including to India, improving the ever-worrisome balance of payments. There will also be employment.

India has claimed that it is not seeking tax holidays in the Special Economic Zones (the Government may still give them, willing as it always seems to be to forego revenue!), arguing that the provision of land is incentive enough. They are quite right. The biggest problem the Indian business class faces at home is finding a place to set up their operations – there are regular and very serious agitations by farmers and tribal communities over land acquisition, with particularly intense conflict over Special Economic Zones.

Will the Sri Lankan public be overall winners or losers if this really is a quid pro quo for the CEPA? That is anybody’s guess.

Economics and politics are difficult to assess without information, and negotiations between the two countries are kept secret. Even documents that commit Sri Lanka to a particular course of action for generations to come are not shared before they are signed – sometimes they aren’t shared afterwards either. This means that vital details are often only discovered when it is too late. For example, while a phrase like investment protection seems quite harmless, in some cases protecting investments from expropriation has been interpreted by courts to mean that companies have to be compensated for any action that reduces their profits, even a general increase in the tax rate. A lot depends on the wording.

Indians have much more experience in this area, so it might be a good idea for Sri Lanka to spend a bit more time studying and a bit less time burning effigies of Karunanidhi.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 15th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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The trouble with Tamil Nadu

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 8, 2012

What to make of the upcoming conference of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation

The 65 million Tamils across the Palk Strait have played a huge role in the Sri Lankan conflict. They make Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority a minority both globally and in the immediate region, and they have become extremely hostile to the Government, which many of them regard as Sinhalese rather than Sri Lankan. They are commonly perceived as a threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Indeed, there is no doubt that at least some of them have actively supported Sri Lankan militants – Tamil Nadu was once a safe haven for the LTTE, among others. Although many things changed over the course of the war, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, there was always a hardcore calling vociferously for Eelam. Three years after the last bomb exploded, the majority of Indian Tamil politicians continue to talk as though they are on the verge of launching an all-out assault on Colombo.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the resurrection of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, whose first conference in many years is to be held in Chennai this weekend, has been greeted with considerable concern in Sri Lanka.

However, simply being worried won’t do.

Karunanidhi’s initiative is motivated – as always – not by any great commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils but by a desire to boost his own position in Tamil Nadu. The DMK and AIADMK have alternated in power in the state since the 1980s, and it is currently Jayalalithaa’s turn in the Chief Minister’s seat. The DMK suffered a particularly crushing defeat in the 2011 Assembly elections, coming third behind Vijayakanth’s DMDK, and it will have to wait four more years for a chance to redeem itself. Meanwhile, its people are being pursued both in the state and by the central government for corruption – Karunanidhi’s daughter is one of several DMK politicians now being prosecuted for their roles in India’s biggest ever scam. His chances in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections look pretty bleak.

Reminding people of the ‘glory’ days of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, when he mobilised the masses to force Rajiv Gandhi to reverse the expulsion of Anton Balasingham following the collapse of the Thimpu talks, may help.

What is interesting about recent developments is not Karunanidhi’s motives but the issues on which he has chosen to focus.

First, he has announced that there will be no discussion or resolution on the establishment of a separate state. Either he genuinely believes that the situation in Sri Lanka is no longer that bad or the central government has been able to persuade him to drop or deprioritise the demand.

This is good news. Eelam is no solution to the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka – it would cost a lot of blood to achieve and even more to sustain, and there has been more than enough bloodshed already.

Making Sinhalese believe that Tamil Nadu or anybody else is ready to intervene to make it happen is also not helpful. Yes, Sri Lanka needs to change and maybe it will not do so by itself. But it is even more likely that any change will be for the worse if people perceive such a threat. When India sent its troops to enforce an agreement a generation ago, the reaction was overwhelming. It would be still more so today, in the aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE. Karunanidhi is doing Sri Lankans of all ethnicities a favour by ruling out talk of a separate state at the conference – he should go further and rule it out altogether.

It is only natural that the demand for Eelam is losing strength in Tamil Nadu. Indian Tamils were never ready to do very much in support of the LTTE, but what they would do was inspired by the ‘romantic’ notion of freedom fighters roaming around the jungles of Sri Lanka in a ‘heroic’ battle against the odds to overthrow the oppressive state. They won’t summon up the same enthusiasm for the TNA, who are after all mere politicians.

If the Government were smart, it would capitalise on this decline in support for a separate state by doing a few simple things to demonstrate that it is willing to accommodate Tamils. For example, it could give up its farcical explanation of why elections to the Northern Provincial Council need to be delayed for another year to update voter lists when local, parliamentary and presidential elections have all been held since the end of the war. It could also forget its other delaying tactic in the form of a Parliamentary Select Committee and get back to negotiations with the TNA on a political solution.

A particularly smart move would be to do a deal with India on the 100,000 refugees living in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi is calling for them to be offered citizenship in India, which is only fair considering the length of time many of them have spent in the country – sometimes their whole lives – but the Government should work out a package that makes it genuinely attractive for them to come back to Sri Lanka instead, thereby making it clear to the world that Tamils are not just accepted but actually wanted.

Karunanidhi made this suggestion while noting that it would help to put a stop to human smuggling, which is rife in the camps. This shows that what really interests Tamil Nadu, and what will interest Indian Tamil politicians increasingly in the months and years to come, are problems that affect their own people.

The most urgent concerns India’s fishermen.

Karunanidhi says – as he puts it – the Sri Lankan Navy’s indiscriminate attacks on Indian Tamil fishermen will also be considered at the conference. This was a major issue in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, with extensive media coverage both locally and at the national level.

The problem is understood in totally different ways on either side of the Palk Strait. In Sri Lanka, it is believed that Indian fishermen enter Sri Lankan waters illegally because they have exhausted fish stocks on their side of the international boundary due to prolonged use of inappropriate technology, and they are periodically arrested by the Navy, after which they spend a few days in jail before being sent back home, as reportedly happened with 23 Indian Tamil fishermen only last week. Indians, on the other hand, think that fishermen of both countries come and go as they please – a fishing community leader was quoted in the Times of India a couple of days ago saying that Sri Lankans need the tuna in Indian waters as much as Indians need the prawns in Sri Lankan waters – and that the real cause for concern is the Navy, who beat them up and shoot at them, seize their catches and sink their boats.

Undoubtedly there are elements of truth in both versions. Indian journalists have interviewed numerous fishermen from Tamil Nadu who claim to have been attacked by the Navy – a 2011 article in Tehelka claimed that as many as 72 had been killed in the previous six months, with one witness describing how his brother was thrown overboard with a rope around his neck and dragged in circles until he drowned. These fishermen almost always admit that they were on the wrong side of the international boundary, and many are critical of their state government for encouraging unsustainable growth in the number of trawlers operating out of Tamil Nadu, but that is hardly the point.

Recent months have seen some efforts by the two countries to address this issue. However, there is clearly still a long way to go.

Perceptions matter. Consider the 23 Indian Tamil fishermen repatriated last week. They were arrested by the Navy on July 21st, and by July 22nd the entire fishing community of Rameswaram was on strike demanding their release. Due to the incident at the Mannar courthouse, this took longer than anticipated – precisely six days – and they were on their way back to India by July 28th, apparently without having incurred any penalty. Pressure was put on the Government and it delivered. However, it is not in a position to secure the same treatment for Sri Lankan fishermen. Only days after this incident, the Fisheries Ministry announced that it had paid Rs. 925,000 to secure the release of 11 Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian custody since May 15th – they were due to return to Sri Lanka on August 6th, having spent almost three months in prison somewhere in Andra Pradesh. They were accused of the same crime of crossing the international boundary. The difference is that there were no protests.

The Government must obviously ensure that the Navy behaves itself and that accusations of wrongdoing are responded to with the seriousness that they deserve. Doing so is not just the proper course of action – it will also make the Government’s life easier, as it will reduce pressure from the likes of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation. Karunanidhi may not be very inclined to rebuild the relationship with Sri Lanka, but he has demonstrated that he is willing to be pushed in that direction. To do more, he needs the support of the Government.

Jayalalithaa is not so different.

Meanwhile, it might be wise to avoid sending any more ministers or members of the Security Forces to Tamil Nadu, since in the current climate this is only likely to result in embarrassing retreats, and these incidents only make things worse for everybody.

Tamil Nadu need not be a deadly foe for Sri Lanka. The two states have much in common. Indeed, being just a few kilometres away, Tamil Nadu had better be a friend or at the very least a state the Government can work with. Anything else is dangerous. With the power of regional parties growing in India, the attitudes of Indian Tamil politicians can only become more important as time passes – it would clearly be better for Sri Lankans if they were favourable. This is not just a matter of convenience, to make it easier for Sri Lankans to go on pilgrimmages, although that too would be nice. Sri Lanka’s relationship with its 1.2 billion strong neighbour will be a major determinant of its future, which we all hope will be both peaceful and prosperous.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 8th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Another kind of elephant in the room

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 1, 2012

On the Government’s hit and miss plans for infrastructure development

It’s hard to know when to take official statements seriously. The Government isn’t known for taking the quiet, cautious approach. Indeed, its spokesmen very often make obviously false claims, such as that Mervyn Silva hasn’t done anything wrong or that no civilians were killed during the war. They seem to think the public are idiots.

When it comes to informing people about their plans, they are equally blasé about the difference between fact and fiction. We can never be sure what to believe. Take the proposed reclamation of land at Galle Face. This project sounded most unlikely when it was first announced back in 2010 – why spend so much money raising the seabed to build more luxury hotels and malls when supply already outstrips demand? Colombo has enough for the number of visitors it gets. But now this mildly ridiculous idea has somehow developed into total lunacy. According to the Chairman of the Ports Authority, speaking at a conference a few weeks ago, the Galle Face reclamation will now include a yachting marina, golf course, centre for water sports and most extraordinarily of all a Formula One racetrack!

There are undoubtedly a handful of people in Sri Lanka who would be delighted if this project were to materialise. The problem is that there are millions of others for whom it would be of absolutely no use.

Consider the Formula One racetrack. Never mind the capital cost of building the racetrack or even the recurrent costs of maintenance and the organisation and security of the three-day event. These are of course massive. But according to reports in the Indian media – Delhi was home to the inaugural Formula One event in India last year – the licence fee alone comes to $200 million. That’s more than the annual budget of the Ministry of Higher Education. Do Sri Lankans want to watch a few cars driving round in circles for an hour, or might they prefer to have twice the number of universities? It’s a tough one.

And in case anybody was wondering, the Delhi event made a loss. They could fill only two thirds of their seats, despite India’s fast growing engagement with motorsports. (India now has a Formula One team.)

If visitors didn’t flock to India for the inaugural Formula One event, it is hard to imagine them descending en masse on Colombo to play golf or go jet skiing. There are more attractive parts of Sri Lanka to stay in, to be honest, with less traffic and better weather. So the Galle Face reclamation probably isn’t going to boost the Sri Lankan economy or create jobs – it will simply consume funds that could have been used for something more productive.

The project is of course going to be carried out by a Chinese company. Who else?

China has been financing more and more infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka in recent years, most obviously in Hambantota, many of them implemented by the China Harbour Engineering Company.

On the plus side, the Chinese don’t try to tell Sri Lanka what to do. This makes a refreshing change from agencies like the World Bank, which refuses to lend unless the Government undertakes major reforms to key policies. Want to build a power plant? Tough luck, because they will only give money to the private sector, and then only if the Government promises to buy the electricity these companies generate at inflated prices for decades to come. Meanwhile, tariffs will have to be increased, particularly for home owners, and part of the Electricity Board must be sold off. Some deal! The entire sector has to be transformed for the sake of a few million dollars, which anyway have to be paid back with interest.

China only insists on using its own workforce and materials.

While this is not very good for Sri Lanka either, and the sight of thousands of Chinese labourers wandering around the otherwise pretty empty countryside of the Hambantota district with their shovels is quite peculiar, it is at least straightforward. The Chinese are looking for markets for their companies and employment for their people. Again unlike the World Bank, China doesn’t pretend that it is trying to do Sri Lankans a favour – it is here in its own interest.

It is up to the Government to decide what Sri Lanka needs. That it is now being suggested – after a series of breakdowns – that the Norochcholai coal power plant may be a Chinese cast-off, neither very good quality nor particularly suitable for Sri Lankan conditions, indicates that people are not at all sure that the Government is doing this job properly.

Infrastructure projects are essential for the development of the country, but they can also be a source of little other than debt.

The Greater Hambantota Scheme alone is going to cost Sri Lankans billions of dollars, including to date $360 million for the port and $550 million for its associated tax-free zone (because the Government is already overburdened with the taxes of profit-making companies?), $210 million for an international airport, $15 million for an international convention centre and $9 million for the sports stadium, according to official announcements.

Anybody who has visited the area since work started in 2008 cannot have failed to marvel at how out of place these huge structures appear, surrounded as they are by miles and miles of nothingness – no offence intended to the inhabitants of the Hambantota district. Will they be worth the investment?

In the case of the sports stadium and international convention centre, it is quite clear that the answer is almost certainly no. These are the equivalents of the proposed golf course and water sports centre at Galle Face – while they probably won’t generate much in the way of benefits for the economy, at least their cost is measurable in tens rather than hundreds or thousands of millions of dollars. What a sad measure of the ‘success’ of a project – how much of a failure it is! The number of conferences and cricket matches to which Sri Lanka plays host is not about to leap up exponentially. As we have seen, to make use of these facilities, events have to be diverted from other locations.

Sri Lankans must be hoping that the rather more pricey international airport and port will not turn out the same way.

That the first commercial operation at the Magampura Port took place more than 18 months after its ceremonial opening is hardly a great sign. Even less encouraging is that it involved the transshipment of cars manufactured just 500 nautical miles away in Chennai. One wonders how much if anything the Hyundai Group paid for the pleasure of briefly interrupting their 5,000 nautical mile journey to Africa and Europe – the vehicles were offloaded from one ship on June 6th and put on another on June 17th. It sounded very much like a publicity stunt to make the public believe that all is well. However, given Sri Lanka’s position on East-West shipping routes, there is still every reason to hope that Hambantota will attract a decent passing trade in time, at least once the current global downturn has passed.

The problem is that nobody is convinced that there is a coherent strategy behind the Government’s enthusiasm for infrastructure development – it all looks a bit hit and miss.

The Government seems to think that announcing grand plans is an easy way of boosting its popularity – the public are supposedly impressed by words rather than deeds, hence the surely crazy talk of a Formula One racetrack on the land to be reclaimed at Galle Face. A minister can then unveil a foundation stone that will immortalise his contribution to the nation for all to marvel at for decades to come, and perhaps also pocket a bribe from a Chinese company.

And by the time the public realise that it was all a ploy, or that it was madness that resulted in a loss to the country of billions of dollars, they will have forgotten who is responsible.

However, things are changing in Sri Lanka. In recent weeks, this newspaper has carried several letters from readers angry at proposals to construct domestic airports in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. Is this country really big enough, they have asked. Who will fly from Colombo to Kandy, dragging themselves and their luggage through all the formalities of an airport and requiring them to take a taxi both from home to the airport and from the airport to their destination, when it doesn’t take more than a few hours by car? Aren’t there other priorities in a country like Sri Lanka? (The Government is now pretending that people are worried only about the particular locations it had selected, but this is of course nonsense.)

Similar concerns have also been raised with regard to the network of expressways that are already under construction. I too enjoyed the smooth one hour ride to Galle soon after the much-delayed opening of the Southern Expressway, but I didn’t see very many other people enjoying it – they were still travelling by bus on the free coast road.

It would seem that the public are finally wising up to the need for vigilance. Soon they’ll be refusing to vote for liars and criminals, and then Mervyn Silva really will be in trouble.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 1st August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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