Thursday, February 04, 2016

What do people in Kandy DO? and other random thoughts

Some random thoughts on a couple of topics, the result of a chat with a few people last evening.

What do people in Kandy do? 

I was having a chat with someone who mentioned that she was from Kandy. Apart from the usual gripes about the terrible drive to actually get to Kandy, we got on to the subject of economic activity in the town.

My friend, like many others from Kandy works in Colombo. She travels to Kandy on weekends to see her family. I remarked that there did not seem to be a lot of opportunity in Kandy, which she agreed with. She said that apart from Banks and Finance companies there was not a lot else to choose from. She went on to state that observing the number of people queuing at the Pettah bus stand on Fridays waiting to return to their villages one wonders if there is any significant economic activity outside Colombo and its suburbs.  

Why is it that most economic activity seems to be centred around the capital? I don't have a proper answer but I wonder if this is a historical accident caused by the agriculture centred economy we had until the 1980's.

For eons Ceylon had three principal exports: tea, rubber and coconut. Much of the population was rural and lived on the land, tending smallholdings. The main plantation crops were run on a more industrial scale and the towns in the countryside catered to the needs of the plantations. The hill country towns would have branches of Walkers or Brown & Co; firms that supplied equipment to the tea and rubber industry. Baurs and similar firms that supplied fertiliser would have outlets as well as a few motor repair shops, some banks, a general store or two and a few other shops supplying the people with their daily needs.

Beyond this there was not much else. As the majority of the people lived on the land there was not much need for anything else.

After independence in 1948 the country experimented with a closed economic system for a few decades, effectively putting the country in a time capsule. In 1977 things had little changed from the 1950's. When the economy was liberalised in 1977 growth seems to have taken off around the capital. Why? I don't know but perhaps the infrastructure was better?

Whatever it was, the Western Province spurted ahead of other areas of the country in terms of growth.  The towns in the rural areas were left largely untouched, which is why they offer little new opportunity.

Does anyone have any views or comments?

Why does everyone want to come to schools in Colombo?

In 1981 Sri Lanka had a population of around 14m, today we have something close to 21m an increase of about 50%. Casual observation suggests that the number of students attending schools in Colombo in the same period has increased many fold, maybe by as much as a factor of ten. Where did these children come from? Its not the population growth, it is something more that this.

Was it that children who were not going to school entered schools? No, Sri Lanka had high school enrollment for decades.What seems to have happened is that rural schools were abandoned in favour of schools in Colombo, presumably because this improved job and marriage prospects.

I have heard that there were Central colleges in all districts that used to be good, did they decline or were they abolished?

Assuming that there is a demand, why do the Colombo schools not open branch schools to cater to students from rural areas? The private "international" schools like Ceylinco Sussex, Gateway and Lyceum have established branch schools in outstation towns. Why can't the other state and private schools follow this example instead of burdening pupils, parents and residents of the city with extra traffic? One of the people at the table, from Musaeus College remarked that they used to have students commuting daily from Ratnapura and Embilipitiya! I have no idea what went through the minds of the parents and teachers when subjecting children to a daily commute of 3-4 hours, one way. 

Migrants in Europe and Islamic extremism

We also had a conversation with a Frenchman who now lives in Asia. On the subject of migrants in Europe and fundamentalist Islam he felt that the problem is one of poverty. When France was growing in the1960's they needed labour and attracted workers from places like Morocco. The children of those workers are now in the labour market but due to the recession many do not have a proper job. This breeds frustration and resentment which extremists are able to channel into their own nefarious purposes. If these people had jobs, a mortgage, a house my acquaintance mused they would be focused on paying their loans, maintaining their property and advancing their job and lives; not thinking of blowing themselves up.

Personally, I wonder if the attraction of religious extremism is similar to the attraction that Communism held for blacks and minorities in the 1950's and 1960s? The Soviets were attempting to spread their ideology and perhaps disadvantaged and discriminated communities who had little hope in their lives thought a change in the system would improve their lot?

In general I think religion can offer the distressed and the desperate some sanctuary, perhaps a sense of identity, purpose or security. Having found it they can become very passionate and this can be manipulated and misused by others.
Large Muslim families

There is a perception that Muslims have large families.  I don't know if this is true but there is a perception as such. The perception may be due to a cultural phenomenon, the extended family.

In the past all communities lived as extended families, in large houses with several generations, in-laws, siblings and cousins living together. The other communities have, by and large, moved to more a more Westernised (?) practice of individual family units living separately while only a part of the Muslim community seems to have done so.

There seem to be more extended families within the Muslim community than amongst other communities, which may give the appearance of larger families.

Of course when one lives within an extended family it eases the burden of childcare, as there are many who can lend a hand to look after children. This makes having more than one or two children a workable proposition, it is very difficult for two parents to look after one or even two children, especially if both have to work. With an extended family at hand even three or more are not a problem.

Perhaps its a combination of both? Again these are just random observations not based on any systematic study so could be quite untrue. Any thoughts, anyone?    

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Toilet Apartheid: Why not introduce paid toilets?

The Sunday Times carries an expose on railway toilets that are reserved exclusively for tourists. I guess the problem arises from a well-meaning but misguided attempt to make the railway more tourist friendly. 

There is a problem of dirty toilets and the railway probably lacks funds to employ enough people to keep the toilets clean.

The solution would be to introduce a system of paid toilets where the money collected is used to maintain the toilets. The toilets at the rest stops on the Southern Expressway operate in this way and are clean and usable.  Britain has a good system of paid toilets in railway stations.

Some money will need to be invested in upgrading the facilities and then maintaining them. The capital investment to install modern toilets at all railway stations could be beyond the capacity of the railway which lost Rs.11bn in 2014, in which case the upgrade and operation of the toilets could be tendered out to private contractors, who will run and maintain the toilets.

Travellers will enjoy better facilities and there need be no discrimination. Similarly the Government could also consider introducing dining cars on railways, run by the private sector.


Sunday, January 03, 2016

Is Sri Lanka a police state?

A friend of mine came across this and forwarded it to me. If this is correct its a very dangerous extension of police powers that need to be curbed.

The official website of the Sri Lanka police has a page of clarifications entitled "Find out the Truth". The website claims:

Recently, some news items were to be seen in circulation via internet misinforming the public with regard to the power of a police officer. We wish to stress the fact that it is not possible to mislead the citizens of a country like Sri Lanka, a country with a high literacy rate and a reputed intelligentsia.

What follows is a set of fairly straight forward questions and answers but one answer is especially troubling.

Q:Police Officers cannot enter your home or work premises without a Court Order in writing. You have the fullest right to ask for it. If they try to enter by force, you have a right to object it.

A: It has been clearly stated in Section 25 of Criminal Procedure Code that any Police Officer in uniform has the authority either to enter or to inspect a house or a place of business at any time without a Court Order.  “If ingress to such place cannot be obtained under section 24 it shall be lawful in any case for a person acting under a warrant, or in any case in which a warrant may issue but cannot be obtained without affording. The person to be arrested an opportunity of escape, for a peace officer to enter such place and search therein, and in order to effect an entrance in to such place to break open any outer or inner door or window of any place whether that of the person to be arrested or of any other person, if after notification of his authority and purpose and demand of admittance duly made he cannot otherwise obtain admittance.
The police should not, unless in very exceptional circumstances be allowed to enter into a house without a search warrant issued by a court. Under the extraordinary powers granted by the PTA or the state of emergency it may have been possible, but it should not be so under the normal laws. If such power was available it needs to be restricted immediately.

The UK laws on the powers of entry are fairly clear, we need to ensure that similar restrictions on police power are placed here.

The law in the UK is :

Powers of entry

Police can only enter premises without a warrant if a serious or dangerous incident has taken place.
Situations in which the police can enter premises without a warrant include when they want to:
  • deal with a breach of the peace or prevent it
  • enforce an arrest warrant
  • arrest a person in connection with certain offences
  • recapture someone who has escaped from custody
  • save life or prevent serious damage to property.
Apart from when they are preventing serious injury to life or property, the police must have reasonable grounds for believing that the person they are looking for is on the premises.
If the police do arrest you, they can also enter and search any premises where you were during or immediately before the arrest. They can search only for evidence relating to the offence for which you have been arrested or to some other offence which is connected with or similar to that offence, and they must have reasonable grounds for believing there is evidence there. They can also search any premises occupied by someone who is under arrest for certain serious offences. Again, the police officer who carries out the search must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that there is evidence on the premises relating to the offence or a similar offence.
In other circumstances, the police must have a search warrant before they can enter the premises. They should enter property at a reasonable hour unless this would frustrate their search. When the occupier is present, the police must ask for permission to search the property – again, unless it would frustrate the search to do this.
When they are carrying out a search police officers must:
  • identify themselves and - if they are not in uniform - show their warrant card, and
  • explain why they want to search, the rights of the occupier and whether the search is made with a search warrant or not.
If the police have a warrant, they can force entry if:
  • the occupier has refused entry, or
  • it is impossible to communicate with the occupier, or
  • the occupier is absent, or
  • the premises are unoccupied, or
  • they have reasonable grounds for believing that if they do not force entry it would hinder the search, or someone would be placed in danger.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The thieves of old

A friend of mine was narrating a rather amusing story today. It concerned his father and of an incident that took place in the early 1980's.

My friend's grandmother was living alone at the time in her house in Angoda. As there were no telephones in the immediate vicinity and no way of calling for assistance my friend's father would sleep over a few days of the week, just to watch over things.

He would usually drive over in the evenings, park his car under the porch and sleep on the verandah, as it was cooler than the inside of the house. One night he awoke to see a thief trying to remove the windscreen wipers from his car.

He shouted and the thief took to his heels. Although my friend's father was not fit, he tried to give chase. In the dark he tripped over a flower pot, fell in a drain and broke his wrist. He was screaming in pain when something strange happened.

On hearing his cries, the thief turned back and with the help of someone else who turned up, took my friend's father to hospital.

An incident I thought was worth sharing, reflective of a more innocent age.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Lunacy in Tax Policy: Super Gains Tax now suspended ?

The PM has apparently made a statement that the recently imposed Super Gains Tax is to be suspended; just hours after the Finance Minister boasted that the tax would raise Rs.65bn.

What on earth is going on?

The Super Gains Tax, a one-off 25% additional tax (ie over and above normal income tax) imposed on an individual  or a company that reports a profit in excess of Rs.2bn for the year of assessment commencing 1st April 2013.

This was first announced, to widespread dismay, in the mini budget of 29th January 2015. Fortunately, the Government was unable to pass the bill in parliament so the tax did not become law.

Following the August parliamentary election, the Government followed the bad practice of the past and 'bought over' a score of opposition MP's by offering them cabinet portfolios, saddling the country with yet another jumbo cabinet.

Using its captive majority, the Government passed the Super Gains Tax bill on the 20th of October. Two weeks later the PM has a sudden change of heart and claims that the Super Gains Tax will be suspended.

It seems that the laws of the land are dependent more on the whims of individuals than any sort of process, a truly disturbing situation.

To begin with policy making should not be in the manner of a conjurer pulling rabbits out of a hat but needs to follow a process of Green Papers and White Papers, as in the UK. 

Green Papers set out for discussion, proposals which are still at a formative stage. Once a firmer set of principles are agreed on, White Papers are issued by the Government as statements of policy, and often set out proposals for legislative changes, which may be debated before a Bill is introduced. Some White Papers may invite comments.

It is also important that the parliament be allowed to play its proper role to debate and discuss legislation. Buying over MP's needs to stop. Otherwise we end up with worthies such as Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S Pinafore who boasted that:

I  always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!
I could go on in the vein for some length, there is so much wrong with the process that I don't even know where to begin. Stupidity does not even begin to describe the situation.

We expected much from this Government in terms of  restoration of process and procedure. This looks unlikely now.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The protection of domestic agriculture

President Sirisena has recently called for the protection of domestic agriculture and for import substitution policies to help local cultivation.

Highlighting on the agriculture sector development, Sirisena said it was “a shame” that the country was importing agricultural products which could be cultivated in the country, adding that the Government was spending over Rs. 6,000 million annually on imports of essential foods. Import substitution has been a point repeatedly highlighted by the President, who has insisted Sri Lanka has the capacity to expand its production to competitively meet domestic needs. 

He pointed that high imports had negatively impacted the local farming industry and by extension the entire economy. Thus, implementing new policies to encourage local agricultural products was essential for the country to regain its status of self-sufficiency, he stressed.

Such policy is not new, it has been followed before in various forms in Sri Lanka since the 1960's. President Sirisena is a decent man and I am sure he genuinely believes that helping farmers will alleviate poverty. Unfortunately he is wrong.

Protecting local farmers will help raise prices of agricultural produce and the farmers will undoubtedly be better off. But what of the consumers? The people who must pay higher prices for food, because cheaper imported food is either taxed or its import is banned?

It is easy to assume that townsfolk are richer than rural villagers and paying higher prices for food will leave them unaffected. This is to ignore the large number of urban and rural workers including casual labourers who are amongst the poorer section of the population and who will suffer in consequence.

The Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey for 2014 identifies that just 26.4% of the workforce (or 2.2m people) are employed in agriculture.  The vast majority (73.6%) are employed elsewhere. The statistics do not reveal sectoral break ups but the number employed in agriculture would certainly include the tea plantation workers (several hundred thousand of them); leaving these out means that the beneficiaries of agricultural protection would be an even smaller proportion of the population.

The classic debate for agricultural protection took place in England in the 1840's in the case of the Corn Laws. The laws, which protected rich landlords at the expense of the poor labourers were repealed in 1846.

Sri Lanka already suffers from high food prices thanks to duties imposed on essentials from canned fish to dhal, simply because the Government sees this as the best way to raise revenue.

The Government needs to work on lightening this burden consumers, not increasing it.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

How should we vote?

Indi had written something urging citizens to vote for good people.  Just before the last election I did an assessment of the candidates.

What we have now is something of a re-run of the same issues but with the advantage of having a short track record of the Sirisena administration to compare against Mahinda.  

Looking back at the past few months the worst fear of the Sirisena candidacy - that there would be continued dictatorial rule under a new face has not been realised. Sirisena has not abused the powers of the presidency and some powers were curtailed - despite the best attempts of the Rajapaksa camp to stymie these efforts.

While there have been problems, there is an improvement in the rule of law and governance. Sure, things are not perfect but on the whole thing have been better. Even the notorious Mervyn Silva is quiet.

In stark contrast to the presidential poll, this campaign has been the most peaceful and by all accounts the fairest in a couple of decades. The elections commissioner is asserting his independence and the candidates seem to be abiding by rules, for the most part.

At the end of the day, this is what we really need as the foundation of society: a state run on a system of law, not one run on the whims of a handful of people.

Society also seems far more peaceful; just over a  year ago we had violence in Aluthgama, but since January things have been quiet and restrictions on freedom of expression have abated. In contrast, the Mahinda campaign is playing on fear of minorities and threatens to turn the clock back.

Of course there is a great deal more to be done and the current Government is not without its flaws, but at least we are moving in the right direction.

They say the first thing to do when you are in a hole is to stop digging. The Sirisena administration may not have done a lot but least they have stopped excavating.

The Rajapaksa camp is busy organising spades, mammoties and backhoes to get back to what they know best.

The choice now is fairly clear.