Kath Noble

On the not so natural rise in electricity prices

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 24, 2013

How the Government is making the masses pay

Handing over Presidential Taxation Commission reportOne of the many conspiracy theories that has emerged with regard to the anti-Muslim campaign of the Bodu Bala Sena and others is that it is an attempt by the Government to distract people from other concerns, primarily the state of the economy.

If so, it isn’t working. Last week’s increase in electricity tariffs hasn’t been overlooked by anybody in Sri Lanka.

However, the Government has succeeded in convincing a fair share of the electorate that it isn’t really its fault. Keheliya Rambukwella summed up its argument at the regular media briefing on Thursday. He explained that the tariff increase was unfortunate but unavoidable, since ‘no administration can subsidise utilities forever’.

This sounds reasonable, but it isn’t actually true.

The concept of ‘breaking even’ doesn’t make sense when discussing a public enterprise. The CEB is not a company. We have come to talk of its ‘losses’, but this is to accept the neo-liberal logic that the Government claims to reject. The Ministries of Health and Education also spend more than they earn, but we don’t consider them to be ‘indebted’.

In that sense, the Opposition is right in pointing out that the Government is neo-liberal, as its economic affairs spokesman Harsha de Silva did in response to the hike. Of course he should have said ‘also neo-liberal’, since the credentials of the UNP as the vanguard of neo-liberalism in Sri Lanka are unquestionable, thanks to Ranil Wickremasinghe. Unfortunately, he combined that accurate observation with a totally misguided suggestion as to what to do about it, saying that if the economy is in so much trouble, what is needed is austerity.

Even the IMF is having second thoughts about ‘cuts’ as a response to a downturn, as its advice to the UK just days ago shows, with that country on the verge of an unprecedented ‘triple dip recession’.

Austerity isn’t the same as tackling waste and corruption. There is a difference between ensuring that expenditure is productive and targeting an overall reduction in expenditure.

In the same way, there is a difference between targeting subsidies so that the right people benefit and reducing the level of subsidies.

This is not to suggest that there is no problem with the amount that the Government spends on the CEB. It comes to 0.8% of GDP, which is an awful lot in comparison with the 1.9% that it allocates for education and the 1.3% that it gives to health.

Efforts should certainly be made to reduce this amount.

In terms of costs, Tilak Siyambalapitiya has produced a very succinct analysis (‘Talk sense about electricity costs and prices’, The Island, March 6th). He says that the approved cost of Rs. 2.56 for distributing a unit of electricity, which includes the cost of investment and maintenance of the distribution network and the supply of electricity, including metering and billing, is comparable with international norms, but could be brought down by 1% per year in real terms. A similar conclusion is reached for the transmission of a unit of electricity, with an approved cost of Rs. 0.73. He makes the same assumption as Keheliya Rambukwella that expenditure should be met by income to conclude that a unit of electricity has to be generated for Rs. 10.74, taking into account 12% losses and a total income of Rs. 15.50 per unit (10.74 = 0.88 x [15.50 – 2.56 – 0.73]), which is the case only for the CEB owned hydro and coal power stations.

An equally helpful discussion of prices is needed. The Rs. 15.50 per unit charged by the CEB is an average, and the way in which the burden should be shared is not obvious.

In response to the hike, everybody from bakers to the manufacturers of bathroom tiles have said that they will have to increase the prices of their products to compensate. This has to be taken into account in deciding who should pay how much.

Unfortunately, this is not going to happen by itself.

The Government carefully avoids debate of ‘zero-sum games’. It doesn’t want to admit that it makes choices between different groups in society, since that would mean alienating somebody. It prefers us to believe that all situations are ‘win-win’ or at least ‘lose-lose’.

This is equally true of taxation, and we should remember that the 0.8% of GDP that the Government spends on the CEB is only a problem because the share of taxation is so low and falling.

We may assume that the reason the Government has still not published the report of its Presidential Commission on Taxation, submitted to Mahinda Rajapaksa way back in 2010, is that it doesn’t want to upset people who really ought to be paying more. It thinks that it can get away with collecting almost everything from taxes on goods and services, rather than taxes on incomes, which is very bad news for people with low or no incomes.

High income earners not only pay relatively little in taxes on goods and services, they also pay relatively little for electricity.

The JVP raised another important point with regard to the electricity tariff hike. Its spokesman asked why the Public Utilities Commission bothered to hold a ‘consultation’ when it paid absolutely no attention to the opinions of anybody who participated.

Its report makes amusing reading. An unfortunate employee clearly wasted a very long time summarising the suggestions of the 275 people who either sent a written submission or made a presentation at the public hearing. Every single one of them is marked ‘no’ or ‘no comment’. Even proposals to ‘reduce corruption in the CEB’ are ruled out.

Given that the public has to pay for the opportunity to express their ideas, this is more than a little disappointing.

However, it is hardly surprising.

The Public Utilities Commission was established by the administration of Ranil Wickremasinghe, as part of its effort to privatise the CEB.

By now, everybody knows that this is a policy that has failed in many countries.

Even the Government has accepted that the private sector cannot help with electricity. At the media briefing, Keheliya Rambukwella also confirmed that it would be progressively reducing its purchases from the private sector, in favour of CEB owned power stations. If only it had worked this out earlier!

Also, it doesn’t seem to have understood why, since it is cheerfully pursuing exactly the same policy of privatisation in even less appropriate sectors of the economy.

Most extraordinarily, last week it was reported that the Government is to sign agreements with companies interested in investing in medical equipment such as MRI and CT scanners to be installed in public hospitals. The Secretary to the Ministry of Health was careful to explain that these services would continue to be free at the point of use – the Government will pay the owners of the machines according to the number of patients treated. How on earth they can’t see that this will end up in the Government spending more than if it had bought the machines itself is a mystery.

It may not be long before the Government thinks that the country’s health needs can just as well be met in private hospitals, in much the same way as it is so eager to have private universities cater to its education needs.

A little more attention to the state of the economy is therefore most certainly needed.

That doesn’t mean that the Bodu Bala Sena and others can be neglected, since they present a very serious immediate danger to society. However, what could very easily be ignored are the rest of the conspiracy theories that surround the anti-Muslim campaign. Far more likely than it being the work of Norway or Israel or India or the United States or any other country is that Sri Lankans have created this problem all by themselves. In any case, nobody else is going to solve it.

This article was published in The Island on 24th April 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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And the beatings go on

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 17, 2013

On the upcoming election in the Northern Province and the violence associated with it

Fire at Uthayan officeThe Government is getting really good at denying responsibility for attacks on the media. Within hours of the incident at the Uthayan office in Jaffna on Saturday, its spokesman had issued a several hundred word statement claiming that it was an ‘inside job’. How’s that for efficiency? If only it put a fraction of that energy into finding proof of its imaginative theories, we might actually be convinced.

Unfortunately, it has not been able to identify the culprits in even one previous case, although there have been many.

That is what I would describe as an ‘interesting phenomenon’.

The statement claims to have spotted a rather different ‘interesting phenomenon’. It says that Uthayan is the only newspaper to have faced harassment in the ‘recent past’, which it suggests is odd because Uthayan is owned by a TNA parliamentarian who is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’.

The first point to note is that unless one adopts a very narrow definition of the phrase ‘recent past’, this is simply not true. Faraz Shauketaly of The Sunday Leader was shot less than two months ago. Less than six months before that, the editor of the same newspaper, Frederica Jansz, left the country claiming that she was under threat, having had a run-in with the Defence Secretary. And before that, it was the turn of Lanka-e-News. Its office in Colombo was attacked by arsonists, and its news editor Bennet Rupasinghe and a journalist Shantha Wijesuriya were both jailed for a time. Its editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, also fled the country. Cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance took place just three years ago. That all seems like ‘recent past’ to me.

But let’s concentrate on the last few weeks.

In that period, Uthayan has indeed suffered disproportionately – it has been attacked twice. On April 3rd, an armed gang trashed vehicles and computer equipment at its distribution centre in Kilinochchi, in the process injuring four members of staff. Then came the attack of April 13th at its Jaffna headquarters. This time the security guards fled and the armed gang set fire to the printing press and a stack of newspapers awaiting delivery.

That is certainly curious.

Even more peculiar is that it is not only the newspaper owned by a TNA parliamentarian that has suffered. The TNA itself has also come under attack. On March 30th, a mob of about 50 people threw stones at a public meeting organised by TNA MPs in Kilinochchi. Several participants were injured. However, they managed to capture one of the assailants and hand him over to the police, who were supposedly providing security for what was a pre-approved event. He was identified as a member of the CID. Photographs and even a video of the attack was made available to the authorities, but the man was released. No arrests have been made to date.

This was clearly no ‘inside job’.

In other words, while the TNA is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’, somebody has been attacking the TNA. That is the second point to note.

Point number three concerns another ‘interesting phenomenon’. Until the last few weeks, Uthayan had not come under attack since the first half of 2011. On March 16th of that year, a police constable entered its premises and threatened the staff, saying that he would set fire to the building. On April 7th, the Jaffna Mayor declared that the newspaper would not be allowed within the confines of the municipal council and issued instructions not to give any advertisements or news to Uthayan. On April 29th, a reporter was beaten up on assignment at Jaffna University. On May 28th, another reporter was attacked on his way to work near the Jaffna Hindu College playgrounds. On June 16th, a photographer was attacked at a TNA meeting. On July 5th, the TNA parliamentarian owner of Uthayan received a death threat over the phone. On July 29th, the news editor was seriously injured in an assault on his way home near the Navalar Road Army camp. However, from then until the end of 2012, Uthayan was challenged only in court, according to a list that the newspaper has circulated.

And the last elections in the Northern Province were in July 2011.

Given that there is supposed to be a poll in September this year, the attacks on Uthayan would seem to be part of a very established pattern of election violence.

If the Government expects us to believe that it is not responsible, it has only to arrest the culprits and ensure that no further incidents take place. With thousands of soldiers roaming around the Northern Province, this really shouldn’t be too difficult.

The credibility of the election depends on it.

Of course, for that to be a problem for the Government, the poll must actually happen.

In the last few weeks, key personalities have been suggesting that it would be better not to have a provincial council in the Northern Province. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island that a hostile administration could be ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’, and a whole lot of his hangers-on have been agreeing, in quite exhausting detail.

Bizarrely, their argument rests on the assumption that power should only be devolved to one’s supporters.

This may be a reasonable way to run an army, but we are of course talking about a democratic country. Democracy means that elections must be held even when the Government isn’t going to win!

Really ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’ would be for the Government to cancel the September poll on the basis that the people of the Northern Province want the TNA to form an administration.

To do so would be to justify continued support for Eelam.

What is needed is the exact opposite. The Government must focus its attention on undermining separatism, which means that it must work to show that Tamils can live in Sri Lanka. Fear of a TNA administration is understandable, since the TNA has not done enough to distance itself from the struggle for Eelam. However, even if the TNA wanted a separate state, it could not achieve it alone. It would need the very serious backing of the international community, including India, and while distrust of those countries is natural given their records, we should not forget that they all helped to defeat the LTTE. They know that a return to violence would be devastating, so convincing them that it is not necessary should be pretty easy.

Eelam will be a distant memory if the 13th Amendment is made to work, and letting the TNA run the provincial council would be a very good first step.

Unfortunately, the Government may be more interested in consolidating its own power. Indeed, it might actually be quite happy to see the pro-Eelam struggle reignite, in much the same way as it has directly or indirectly encouraged the anti-Muslim campaign. Neither is good for the country, but they may both help the Government to project itself as a necessary evil – the only administration capable of responding to such threats.

If that is the case, the media had better brace itself for much worse times to come.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 17th April 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The tragedy of so many errors

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 10, 2013

A review of Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book, ‘Long War, Cold Peace’

DJ-book-coverThe monks of the Bodu Bala Sena have inadvertently done Sri Lanka a favour. Their speeches are so crass and their actions so crude that they have provoked a backlash – the media is full of criticism of their anti-Muslim campaign, much of it coming from Sinhala Buddhists themselves.

People have recognised that these groups are a menace. The question is whether their rise has been properly understood and whether the measures being taken to combat them are likely to be effective.

In my last column, I mentioned and quoted from Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book in connection with the vote on Sri Lanka in Geneva last month, referring to his diagnosis of the mess that the Government is in, internationally speaking, and his prescription of how to get out of it. This is an argument that he has made on many occasions in newspaper articles, but it clearly needs to be repeated, given the near total disjuncture between the world as many commentators on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy see it and anything even vaguely resembling actual reality – implement the 13th Amendment to build up a solid constituency around India and the Global South in order to counter what is inevitable pressure from the diaspora-driven West.

Instead of following this very simple plan, Colombo’s thinkers are busy discussing how best to prepare for sanctions. And if they succeed in bringing this on the country, they will immediately feel compelled to start planning how to dig all the bunkers that they will need to hide from the air strikes that they will then be convinced are bound to follow.

Why risk so much to avoid the 13th Amendment?

The book sets this debate in context, and at the same time explains the rise of groups like the Bodu Bala Sena.

Its central thesis is that the LTTE had to be defeated, since it was a fascist organisation. One of the most interesting sections traces Prabhakaran’s rise to dominate the Tamil struggle. In 1976, when Prabhakaran reconstituted his forces as the LTTE after his split with Uma Maheswaran, he seemed to be at a disadvantage – a relative nobody in his community with no ideology and thus limited access to sources of foreign training. For a long time, the LTTE was also numerically smaller than its competitors. Yet by the time of the Indo Lanka Accord, it had become the preeminent organisation.

Dayan highlights the importance of Black July, which saw the primary contradiction confirmed as being not between the Tamil community and the State but between Tamils and Sinhalese. People supported the group that they considered to be the most effective, and their understanding of effectiveness can be summed up in the massacre at Anuradhapura in 1985. This support enabled Prabhakaran to eliminate his rivals, as he did in the massacres of TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE cadres in 1986 and 1987– a strategy that he continued until his own demise more than two decades later, in the meantime killing everybody from his deputy and top negotiator Mahattaya to TULF leader Amirthalingam to activists and intellectuals Rajini Thiranagama and Neelan Thiruchelvam to Deputy Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Kethesh Loganathan and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Not only was Prabhakaran absolutely ruthless, he was unwaveringly committed to Eelam. As he dared to tell Nirupama Subramanium of The Hindu even after signing the CFA, his famous statement that he should be executed by his followers if he deviated from this goal was still valid.

That is why he went to war against the IPKF, against Premadasa and against Chandrika Kumaratunga, and it is also why he conspired to keep Ranil Wickremasinghe out of power.

He was a fundamentalist.

No state formed by a guerilla movement and no group still engaged in an armed struggle came forward in solidarity with the LTTE, even in its final hour.

The book suggests that the overreach of the LTTE was inevitable.

However, more important in the current context is its analysis of the politics that gave rise to the LTTE and resulted in Tamils ending up with nothing to show for a generation long war. Dayan puts it as follows: ‘The history of Tamil politics in the last quarter century has been blighted by two major errors. The first of these has been the non-use or abuse of united front tactics. The second error has been the substitution of extremism, fantasy and emotionalism, of sheer unaffordable posturing, for serious politics and stone-cold realism.’

None of the Tamil organisations accepted the Chidambaram proposals of 1986, which foresaw the permanent merger of the North and East, minus Ampara, and as a result they were given a merger subject to a referendum in the Indo Lanka Accord, and space was created for the Sarath Silva-headed Supreme Court to effect a de-merger. Similarly, the TULF rejected the 13th Amendment and the EPRLF took office in the North East Provincial Council promising to reopen negotiations, and their adventurism led to Premadasa deciding that the LTTE was less of a threat than the continuing presence of the IPKF – Tamil groups were busy talking of a ‘Cyprus solution’ – and there was no devolved administration in either the North or the East for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of lives were lost.

Where are the self-criticisms by Tamil leaders? They should start by reviewing Dayan’s book – although he is now best known as a spokesperson for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, he is as much of a critic of Sinhala chauvinism as he is of Tamil extremism.

Speaking of which, what of the failings of Sinhala leaders?

The list of mistakes made is absolutely sickening and far too long to even summarise in this column. I hope that Sinhala leaders will read the book and reflect on it before they make too many more.

Of most relevance to the current context is the claim that these errors led not only to the outbreak of the armed struggle and its dragging on for an entire generation, but also to the rise of an equally ugly phenomenon – Sinhala ultra-nationalism.

Dayan has plenty to say about the early days of Sinhala chauvinism, but he sees a significant difference in attitudes later on. He argues: ‘Sinhala ultra-nationalism was the default option of the Sinhala people in the face of the existential threat posed by LTTE aggression and the vacuum created by the failure or partial and inadequate success of more pluralist, progressive, cosmopolitan or liberal-leaning leaderships.’

In perhaps the most devastating paragraph of the book, he says, ‘Had it not been for the excess and lopsidedness of Chandrika’s ‘package’ and P-TOMS, and Ranil’s CFA, Sinhala fundamentalism would not have enjoyed the surge it did. Sinhala ultra-nationalism, which had been marginalised under ‘Premadasa-ism’ to the point that its key ideologue was sacked by the then VC of Colombo without a social ripple, had reached such a peak a decade later that it was conceded 40 seats by Chandrika’s negotiator Mangala Samaraweera, over the protest of Mahinda Rajapaksa, then PM.’

Ranil Wickremasinghe was of course the leader for whom the least excuses can be made. Although he came to office just after 9/11 when the international mood had turned against the LTTE and when the Sri Lankan Special Forces had finally begun to demonstrate their ability to strike at Prabhakaran’s senior cadres, having killed eight field commanders in as many months, the UNP chose to see how Prabhakaran would respond to appeasement. It exposed its own Military Intelligence in the infamous Athurugiriya raid and agreed via the CFA to disarm the paramilitaries of its Tamil allies, with no concern for the arms of the LTTE and what it would do with them. Without securing access to areas controlled by the LTTE, it allowed the LTTE to move into its own areas and take over as many institutions and functions as Prabhakaran considered useful.

In short, the UNP did everything possible to build Prabhakaran’s confidence, despite the fact that he was the one with the track record of starting wars. Prabhakaran was even allowed to sign the CFA by himself, in his ‘capital’ Kilinochchi, sitting in front of a map of what he very reasonably expected would soon be his Eelam.

For me, nothing sums up the post-war crisis in Sri Lanka as neatly as the choice its voters face even four years after the defeat of the LTTE – Ranil Wickremasinghe, Sarath Fonseka or Mahinda Rajapaksa.

None of these leaders has the capacity to get the better of Sinhala fundamentalism, even if they were motivated to try.

An alternative simply must emerge.

‘Long War, Cold Peace’ shows just how much space there is at the centre of Sri Lankan politics, and provides some much needed hope that it will eventually be filled.

The outpouring of angst about the Bodu Bala Sena is certainly encouraging, as was the sight of those responsible for the attack on Fashion Bug hiding their faces with their robes as they were being taken into custody by the Police, since this implies that they believe that Sri Lankans regard such actions as shameful. They are right. However, it is not just about stopping a few crazy monks and their followers going around throwing stones, although that is essential. There is also an ideology to be tackled.

Sinhala Buddhists are standing up against violence, but they must also stand up against the ideological foundations of the anti-Muslim campaign.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 10th April 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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