Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fascism, anyone?

I came across a very interesting list of characteristics that mark a fascist regime.

Do all fascist regimes necessarily display all of these characteristics? Probably not, as in everything else I suppose there are shades of grey but if one finds that too many boxes are being ticked then its time to start worrying.

The rest of that site is worth reading as well, seems to have quite a bit of information on the subject.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In the winter of discontent

In a far off country a vegetable vendor, an unemployed university graduate, frustrated that the police would not allow him to trade set himself ablaze and unwittingly set off a chain of events that rocked the Near East.

There have been subterranean rumblings for a while. The mysterious phenomenon of the 'Grease Yaka' seems to capture the tone of many incidents, before and after.

The latest is vegetable traders and farmers who have taken to the streets. A rather troubling pattern seems to be forming. Once again, the imposition of laws and regulations with little consultation or foresight. Once again, the people have taken to the streets in protest.

The imposition of rules or laws that are seem to be unjust, creates anger that spills over to the streets. Some may call this attitude, high handed or arrogant while others would use stronger terms.

There have been many such instances of late, but to examine just a few, a year ago, the 18th amendment to the constitution, which had far reaching ramifications was rushed through as an "urgent bill". The average man in the street could make no sense of the complex constitutional questions and no one could explain its significance properly, so it passed unremarked. A certain minister who had been removed following mass protests earlier was then promptly reappointed.

Two months ago, the so-called expropriation bill was smuggled through, as an "urgent" bill. The business community was aghast but it was beyond the comprehension of the man in the street so it passed.

In both instances there was criticism but it could easily be shouted down and safely ignored.

The proposed pensions bill in May this year did however affect the workers directly and they understood its significance. They took to the streets in mass protest. The Government eventually backed down, but not before a worker was killed. Now it is the vegetable traders who are on the roads.

It is not the plastic crates that are the problem, it is the way in which it is imposed on the people that breeds this anger. I think reducing losses in transport is important and reducing waste will contribute to better income for farmers and traders while bringing lower prices to consumers. However the way to approach this is through education. If people see it is to their benefit, they will quickly adopt it. If the high cost of the plastic crate is the barrier then subsidising it, at least at the introductory stage would be a good idea, for it could bring long term benefits.

Employing the police to stop transport if the approved crate is not used should not even be contemplated. In a democracy, that is.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Green Path, renamed, for the second time.

I just received a news alert that stated that "The road from the Horton Place roundabout up to the Public Library roundabout is to be named as Nelum Pokuna Mawatha from December 15, after the Arts and Theater complex, titled “Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theater” is declared open.

I had to think a bit to work out which road this was. The news alert simply described two different points on the road. The road in question is actually Green Path or at least a part of it. The most extraordinary thing is that Green Path has already been renamed once, it is now officially known an Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, after the last major round of renaming that took place somewhere in the 1960's and 70's.

I have no patience for this silly business of renaming roads and public buildings. I have grumbled about it before, but the latest one really takes the cake, because the usual specious argument that the renaming is necessary to erase colonial influence is no longer valid. Which is probably why the news alert discreetly omitted mentioning the current official name of the street.

If there was any Sri Lankan who actually deserved to have something named after him it was Coomaraswamy, not that he would ever have wanted such a thing, he was far too modest a man. A brilliant scholar, he was fluent in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, English, French, German, Spanish, Tamil, Persian, Hindi and Sinhalese. The American's are happy enough to list him in their list of distinguished Asian Americans, he probably qualifies due to his long stay in that country.

In fact, in his first career as a geologist, he did discover a new mineral, which he could name after himself if he so wished, but did not, it is Thorianite. He would surely have turned in his grave, if he knew that some thoughtless politician had decided to rename Green Path in his name.

In his second career as an art historian he achieved great fame, ending up as curator of of the oriental collection of the Boston Museum. The rulers would have served the people a a lot better if they had done something to promote wider understanding of his work or funded studies that could have continued what he had started, instead of naming a road.

Read more on his work here.

Friday, December 09, 2011


This is something that I have been thinking about for a while.

They are the thing on which we rest our heads every night, yet do we know where they came from? Why is it so difficult to sleep without pillows? I need two pillows, one is not quite enough, although I can just about manage (on a trip for example) with one if pushed.

I have a large foam rubber pillow and a softer cotton one, the springy foam rubber one sets a foundation and the cotton one goes on top.

How far back in history do we find references to them and why do none of the other primates need them.

I have heard of an old campers trick, where one scoops out a small hollow in the earth, just to fit the hips. It apparently guarantees a good nights sleep. Has anyone heard of this or used it. Was it a sort of precursor to a pillow?

Your pillow thoughts, please?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Up the plantain tree

The weekend newspapers carried a story of a rare triumph for the rule of law. The company running a farm that encroached on a wildlife sanctuary has vacated the sanctuary, full story here and here.

What is noteworthy is the reason for the withdrawal from the sanctuary. It was not the law enforcement authorities or the courts that forced the company out. In fact the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Ministry of Agrarian Services and Wildlife claimed that there was no encroachment at all.

It was the multinational partner in the project, Dole Bananas of the US that acted, on being informed of the encroachment by local activists. Given that no local agency was even willing to look at the matter Dole could easily have followed the (now well trod) path of brazening it out and denying that the sanctuary was violated. Luckily for the public they chose to do what was right and not what was convenient or profitable.

Things have come to a pretty pass when it is a foreign multinational that acts responsibly, while the rulers, law enforcement and other agencies ignore a problem. Multinationals are frequently painted as evil, exploiting corporations. While not all of them are squeaky clean, many have embraced the concept of accountability and responsibility seriously. Do we now need to turn this concept on its head and treat Governments, rather than multinationals as the likely villains in the play?

Why did no one else act? Powerful forces were involved, as a quick glance at the Sunday Leader story will tell.

The rule of law is one of the foundations of a functioning state, the events above testify to the extent to which it has been undermined. Laws exist to protect the population from the whims of the rulers, as the rule of law unravels citizens will find themselves being preyed on by the rulers, as in this case. Looks like we are up the plantain tree?

Addendum 29th November

Serendipity looks at some other aspects on the same question here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Colombo Hilton now vested with the Government?

Hotel Developers (Lanka) PLC, the listed company that owns the Hilton property in Colombo made a very strange announcement yesterday.

The announcement states that consequent the enactment of the Revival of Underperforming enterprises act the assets of the company are vested with the Government and all the shareholdings of the company are now held by the Secretary to the Treasury.

This has left many people in the stock market utterly confused, although the announcement may seem innocuous to the uninitiated. This is a public, listed company with many shareholders, all of who are unaware as to how the shares have been transferred.

How were the shares transferred? There is no record of any shares trading on the exchange, indeed the share has been suspended following the announcement of the bill. Were the shares traded privately, off the market?

If shares are traded off the market, the stock exchange has a share transfer form that needs to be signed by the buyer and the seller. No existing shareholder signed anything. They have not even been informed, they only read about the announcement in the news.

They have not been paid compensation, which is stipulated under the act. The electronic registry run by the stock exchange still lists the shares under the names of the original owners.

Are we to take it that the registry is no longer valid? Or that procedures necessary to transfer shares are no longer required, that a directive from the state will suffice to change ownership? Will this apply to the land listed for acquisition under the Act, with the requirements for land registry entries being dispensed with?

The Act itself left many unanswered questions, most pertinently on the status of mortgages on the properties to be acquired, the status of the winding up procedures that were being followed and the claims of the various other creditors. All norms and processes seem to have been thrown out of the window.

These seemingly mundane procedures are all part of the legal framework of the country on which business is conducted and which is taken for granted.

Now it suddenly seems to have given way, hence the confusion as to how businessmen should operate in the future.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I went on a bit of a binge for breakfast today. I usually don't each too much bread and avoid butter altogether. Today I had home-made buns with butter and honey, accompanied by my favourite Mattekelle tea. It is a combination that I used to enjoy regularly as a child but have not tried in many years.

Good honey is the key and for best results should be accompanied by freshly baked bread (I ate some rolls that my mother made yesterday afternoon, so it was not a perfect combination, but it was good enough).

There is now a fairly good supply of local honey available. When we were children we had to rely mostly on imported Australian honey. The Australian honey is not bad, it is well packaged in nice jars (usually with a pretty picture of a bee) and has a rich golden colour, almost like golden syrup. Unfortunately (to my palette at least) it does not taste as good as the local honey.

I had been spoiled in my childhood by my grandfather, who used to return from his shooting trips to the jungles with a bottle of wild honey. This was honey that was collected by the Veddah's and was usually filled into an old arrack bottle, stopped with a cork or bit of wood cut into the shape of the mouth of the bottle. (I have heard stories that the Veddah's collect the honey in old kerosene oil tins and then empty it into the arrack bottles). Because the stopper was never perfect, there was some paper and string tied around the mouth. It was very messy, with some honey oozing down the side, soaking the grubby bits of paper and string.

The packaging was terrible, but the product was delicious, even if it had bits of honeycomb inside it. The honeycomb is perfectly edible (I think) and the beeswax has a nice consistency to it. We did not bother with the impurities, we just ate the stuff.

The Australian honey, for all its nice packaging, was never as sweet. After my grandfather died supplies of honey stopped and for years the only thing available was the Australian honey. I tried buying some honey from villages when on holiday but it was not good. Although the bottles looked the same it was heavily adulterated with treacle and sugar. After a few days the sugar and treacle starts to crystallise and it needs to be thrown away.

A few years back I discovered a small plastic bottle of honey in the supermarket. I was delighted because the dark, slightly messy contents looked very familiar. When I tasted it, it was exactly as I remembered it and we have been buying it ever since.

When I looked at the bottle this morning it claimed to be 'wild honey', I could not quite believe this, so I did a bit of research on it, it does seemed to be farmed, but in small remote villages, so its probably pretty close to wild honey.

I found that the company that is producing the honey is even trying to export it, in slightly smarter packaging.

I was amused to see an expiry date on the bottles, probably necessitated by law or possibly, requirements of sale. I don't think pure honey can expire, the Veddah's even used it as a preservative. It will not last for ever, but it lasts pretty long and will surely get eaten before anything can possibly go wrong, so who cares about expiry dates?

PS. For reference on how Veddah's preserve meat, Google books has an extract from Samuel Bakers Rifle & Hound in Ceylon(incidentally a book that I remember seeing in my grandfather's library) here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Gold Coast edges out Hambantota, awarded Commonwealth Games 2018

I had a feeling that Sri Lanka could pull off the bid to host the next Commonwealth Games in Hambantota (in 2018). It was a close thing but the Gold Coast prevailed in the end.

Hosting a big sports event is a huge PR exercise. It brings in a lot of publicity but reaping long term benefits can be tricky. After co-hosting the last cricket world cup Sri Lanka Cricket is now virtually bankrupt and has asked for a bail out. The same thing, on a far larger scale would have been likely had Hambantota won the bid, so on the whole the country probably better off having lost the bid.

I have a theory that the straw that broke Greece was its hosting of the Olympics in 2004. Originally expected to cost $1.3bn, later revised to $5.3bn and now thought to have cost $20bn (the official cost was $14.2bn but others estimate it to be higher). Total Greek debt in 2009 was around €374bn.

Hambantota is a sleepy little town, with charm of its own. The comparison, with the Gold Coast could not be more stark, as these pictures testify.

I would rather it remained that way.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


I have mused on the subject of gentlemen before. To the male of the species, this endlessly fascinating topic has more aspects to it than one, work being rather important.

What one does plays a a role in defining ones place in society and as far as gentlemen are concerned the less work the better. You see, a gentleman is a gentleman of leisure. He does not work for a living, instead he manages land or perhaps, property.

He will usually manage other investments, in shares, bonds or (even better) works of art. In these straitened times he may be forced to work, something he will despise and avoid as far as possible, endlessly shirking responsibility in the office, making him a rather lousy (if charming-otherwise one can never get away with it) employee. He will never, ever, engage in trade.

The great industrialists of 18th and 19th century acquired respectability with a country seat, so my devious mind was went off on one of its usual tangents when I read about this.

In a feudal society, where the economy is primarily agrarian, land represents wealth and in turn social position. This state of affairs persisted for many centuries until it was overturned by the industrial revolution, which created new paths to wealth and the aforementioned quest for land by the industrialists.

Coming a couple of weeks after the bill to acquire underperforming entities, does this signal a renewed fascination with this feudal idea? Or are we turning the clock backwards, to a more glorious feudal past?

The preamble to the bill talks of vesting underperforming enterprises or assets with the state, yet the schedule lists only one enterprise (Hotel Developers), the rest is all land.

There are thirty six other companies listed - but only the property will vest with the state, not the company. Some of the companies have multiple plots of land listed, so this adds to to a lot of land.

The latest to join the foray is the Central Bank, which has now bought an office in New York. Doubtless a flat will follow, for the country may as well as save the hotel costs,since we may expect frequent travel in future (else why buy an office?).

We may live in interesting times but the truly bored can read my musing on work, here.

That's, all folk, now get back to your jobs. You must work you know, your taxes are what pay for all of this.

The dangers of multitasking

I sometimes read email, blogs or browse the web while doing other things in the office.

Last morning I was reading something online when a friend called. While I was on that call I saw the bank manager's direct number blinking on my office line. I ignored it (we have our priorities, right?) and went on with my conversation.

When I had finished, I called my bank manager while trying to read Dee's post on the Hed Kandi Girl at the same time.

When my bank manger asked why I had not answered I thought I heard the words "sorry I was on another girl at the time" coming from my lips. I wasn't quite sure if I just thought I'd said it or if I had actually said it.

There was a stunned silence on the other end. "Do you know what you just said?"

Shit! Talk about Freudian slips. And its all Dee's fault.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Curious and curiouser

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

Amidst the stormy weather some strange doings are afoot.

Take for instance the report that some 249 state enterprises lost a total of Rs.19,000m between 2007 and 2009. The usual culprits, the Ceylon Electricity Board and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation were there (and probably lose the most money) but the surprise inclusion is Sri Lanka Cricket. Cricket is a very lucrative game, the ICC shares some of its revenue with member boards which is in addition to direct advertising revenue earned locally. Yet they lost money. Some white elephant investments, built with expensive debt is the probable cause of the loss.

The Government's recent forays into business including Mihin Air and Lankaputhra Bank have also lost money. The timing of this report is rather unfortunate coming within the week of the bill to vest underperforming assets with the state. Why these State ventures lose money is anybody's guess.

We are also informed that Gazprom will start oil exploration in the Mannar basin. All very well, but what happened to the proposed tender for exploration blocks? Was it called? Who bid? How was it awarded? And where did Gazprom turn up from?

When the blocks were originally auctioned the sole bidder was Cairn, a small but respected operator that specialises in niche markets. Listed on the London Stock Exchange, they have reasonably transparent operations, some details of the exploration bid and recent gas strike being available on its website. Gazprom's website contains nothing on Sri Lanka other than two reports of meetings where the participants considered the prospects for bilateral cooperation in the energy sector.

Gazprom has a well earned reputation for opacity. It was a formerly privatised venture that the Russian state reacquired under controversial circumstances. Perhaps there is more in common between the parties than we thought?

In the meantime, the Central bank has told directors of banks to be diligent. This is all very well, but it was only a few months ago the directors at a couple of banks were changed under strange circumstances.

The BOI is now set to receive a CEO, a new position that has been created within the organisation. Last year, it was announced that the BOI was to be abolished...

I'm beginning to understand what Alice felt when she remarked "Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

SEC Director General removed, market moves 200 points

It has been a good week for Governance. I just received a news alert that the Director General of the Securities has been removed, the market moved up 200 points during the day, before closing a 178 points up.

Many players in the market including some big fish have reportedly been pushing for the removal of the DG on the basis that the SEC was responsible for the recent decline in the market. How so? By imposing unnecessary regulation, including the necessity of payment for purchases three days after the transaction. What the players wanted was less regulation and, above all, credit. Credit! Credit in unlimited quantities. Credit makes the world go round and if no further restrictions are placed, the market is set for a heady, debt fueled ride.

Unfortunately the announcement is only that the DG is being transferred, there was no mention of any change in the rules. Perhaps these will follow? If it does not, then there will be some very disappointed people, more painful declines and another outcry for credit. The last time the players wanted credit, the SEC did approve it, but it took the market a week to work out that the amount was too little. Part of the problem is that the people don't know exactly what they ask for and may not really know what they are getting until it hits them.

This follows just days after news leaked out of a bill to vest underperforming assets with the state. Drafted by a private law firm and sent for review by the Supreme Court as an urgent bill (more details here), it is set to be approved next Wednesday.

People have sometimes accused the islanders of leading slothful and indolent lives, fast service is quite uncharacteristic. Parliament, however is setting the right example with legislation being made with the speed that MacDonald's reserves for its burgers. In contrast, the Mother of Parliaments serves a leisurely four course dinner consisting of green/white papers, draft bills, pre-legislative scrutiny before the final bill is taken up for debate. Here we just have the preprocessed burger, all ready for deep frying in cheap oil with a side order of chips.

Light regulation is best, no regulation better still. Half of Mexico no longer requires driving tests. In the 1990's driving tests were difficult and a bribe was often necessary to pass. Instead of tackling the corruption, they abolished the tests.

Six out of ten road deaths worldwide take place in just 12 countries, one of which is Mexico, but critics claim these statistics are wrong. Given the size of its population, Mexico they say, is no more unsafe than anywhere else. They claim that the absence of tests actually makes driving safer, since the drivers learn to expect the unexpected. We too can do the same.

Addendum: 4th November 2011

The Daily News has finally deigned to report on the bill to vest assets with the state, a full week after news of the extent of the bill began to trickle out (and about two weeks after rumours began to circulate). "Decision prompted by poor management, corruption etc" read the banner below the headline, "No hurry to pass Act" read another. Quite.

I have noticed a pattern, matters that closely involve the rulers are almost never reported in the State owned press, at some point when it does make its way its usually couched as a rebuttal or denial. Where did we see that last???? Hmmm that little matter of the beggars? See also here.

Addendum 2 4th November, 4pm

It now appears that the Sevanagala sugar factory has been stormed and the management thrown out.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Goings-on in Arsik Land

Arsik Land is a fictional place, ruled by the Hon Pusswedilla (Campaign slogan: Puss for Boss). This popular political satire was originally set in Sri Lanka but its latest reincarnation had to take place in Arsik Land due to some rather strange circumstances. Perhaps art was imitating life too closely? Or was it the other way around?

Anyway, now it appears that websites are to be monitored and television is to be censored.

Neither is foreign to this country, indeed television is already censored; scenes with alcohol or tobacco are pixalated. The mania was at its height during the war but things had become a little more relaxed after its end, so the renewed interest is rather surprising.

Clearly, the rulers feel threatened by something, but what?

Could the recent spate of activism surrounding the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting unnerved them? Could it be the murder of Bharatha Lakshamn, which sent ripples of discontent through the party? Perhaps his family's plan to seek justice abroad? Do the soothsayers foretell hard times ahead?

A combination of the first two is likely. More difficult economic conditions may be foreseen by pessimists but the Central Bank is good at managing the statistics so this should not present any unusual difficulties. It is the other rumblings that need to be kept out of public view. In case they set off a chain reaction?

Housing the homeless

Lack of housing is a common problem in many developing countries, the late President Premadasa launched a scheme to build a million houses in 1977.

Although we are a lot richer than we were in 1977, there are still enough homeless people around, from slum dwellers to IDP's from the war.

It is therefore welcome that a new programme to build shelters has been launched. Commendable, too that the people selected are the most deserving of all: the honourable members of parliament.

Given that many of the honourable members are drawn from the ranks of footpads, vagrants and the like, none could be more deserving.

Some appropriate theme music is available, which could be accompany any television publicity of the event, news crews please note.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gaddafi: a question

Regular readers (all six of them!) will know that this blog looks into many burning issues, particularly those missed by the mainstream.

The death of Gaddafi, who died horribly at the hands of a mob, leaves many unanswered questions. What does his death say about those who overthrew him? What prospects beckon for Libya and for the rest of the Middle East?

Amidst all of these issues a crucial question has been missed. What became of the late Colonel's famed team of female bodyguards? Were they by his side or did they desert the ship?

I'm glad I'm not the only one to pose this question...

Some facts are emerging, but most of them seemed to have vanished in a puff of smoke, speaking of which, whatever happened to Poonam Pandey?

Further reading here.

Post script:
An excellent article on the killing of Gadaffi was contributed by a reader, access it here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

WW: The inner voice of government?

Wimal Weerawansa plays a useful role for the Government. He voices opinions or carries out acts that more respectable members of Government would rather not do. Thus a message can sent without embarrassment, if the opinions or actions come in for criticism the Government can safely distance itself from it.

A case in point is the incident at the UN mission, or his later fast.

He has now issued a statement on the death of Gaddafi that surely comes from the heart.

The regime has viewed the 'Arab Spring' with barely disguised horror. The state media gave the matter minimal coverage, with various columnists sniping on the usual theme of hypocrisy. Gaddafi however was a special friend and his passing was surely mourned, yet fearful of annoying a potentially useful supplier of oil/credit no official statement praising the late leader could be issued. Wimal Weerawansa obligingly steps into the breech.

Who needs wikileaks when we have the voice of Wimal?

Monday, October 24, 2011

How many is a billion?

The word 'billion' is now in common use, but how many zero's make a billion? Nine? This is the most commonly used but it not strictly correct.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

billion, purposely formed in 16th c. to denote the second power of a million (by substituting BI- prefix for the initial letters), trillion and quadrillion being similarly formed to denote its 3rd and 4th powers. The name appears not to have been adopted in Eng. before the end of the 17th … Subsequently the application of the word was changed by French arithmeticians, figures being divided in numeration into groups of threes, instead of sixes, so that F. billion, trillion, denoted not the second and third powers of a million, but a thousand millions and a thousand thousand millions. In the 19th century, the U.S. adopted the French convention, but Britain retained the original and etymological use (to which France reverted in 1948).

Since 1951 the U.S. value, a thousand millions, has been increasingly used in Britain, especially in technical writing and, more recently, in journalism; but the older sense ‘a million millions’ is still common.

The confusion resulted in a question being put to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson in 1974

Mr Maxwell-Hyslop asked the Prime Minister whether he will make it the practice of his administration that when Ministers employ the word “billion” in any official speeches, documents, or answers to Parliamentaty Questions, they will, to avoid confusion, only do so in its British meaning of 1 million million and not in the sense used in the United States of America, which uses the term “billion” to mean 1,000 million.

The Prime Minister: No. The word “billion” is now used internationally to mean 1,000 million and it would be confusing if British Ministers were to use it in any other sense. I accept that it could still be interpreted in this country as 1 million million and I shall ask my colleagues to ensure that, if they do use it, there should be no ambiguity as to its meaning.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cairn oil strike: All Gas and no Sh*t?

There was a relatively small news item almost three weeks ago announcing that Cairn Lanka had struck gas. After that announcement, there has been near silence on the matter.

When blocks from the Mannar basin were initially offered to bidders, we were treated to banner headlines, for weeks on end, about the enormous wealth that would flow from this. The regime is a great exponent of the art of 'spin' so the muted response to the discovery is completely out of character.

Some have speculated that the discovery was bogus, a piece of 'spin' for the local government elections held that week. While this is certainly plausible it is untrue, Cairn has made a formal announcement of the fact and the discovery has been covered by the press elsewhere. In any case, Cairn is a reputed operator, they are highly unlikely to be making false announcements.

Could there be a problem in geopolitics? There seems to be an issue with India on tendering for the other blocks, but there does not seem to be a problem with the one that Cairn is exploring. There was a Reuters story that the Minister of Petroleum Industries announced that they intended calling for tenders, although I do not recall seeing this in the local press.

Behind the scenes however, there seems to be a flurry of activity with with rumours of all manner of strange characters appearing out of the woodwork and meeting various high ups. Natural resources have proved to be curse for most of the countries that have had the misfortune to stumble on them and one hopes that the lack of news is simply the lack of activity, not an attempt to keep people in the dark. It is a lot easier to loot under cover of darkness, which is why transparency is so despised.

Perhaps this is all speculation, our worst fears may never be realised but if the discovery is commercially viable how does a responsible government go about exploiting it? There is help at hand, the Natural Resource Charter provides an 11-point plan prepared by a group of high-profile economists, lawyers and political scientists, including Michael Spence, 2001 laureate of the Nobel prize in economics; Robert Conrad, an expert on natural resources economics at Duke University, and Tony Venables and Paul Collier, professors of economics at Oxford University.

"We want to provide a policy toolkit," says Collier, who is also the author of the 2008 book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. "We're not here to tell government off. We are saying to them: 'If you want to turn national assets into broad-based development, these are the key steps that you need to get right. These steps are not obvious, as governments and societies have got them wrong over the years." (Quote taken from here)

It is not hard to find the route to prosperity, the world has fifty years of experience, mostly bad, to chose from. The paths are well trodden, the choices are easy, if the wisdom and the political will are present.

For another interesting piece on the impact of a natural resource find have a look here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Here's wishing Deshamanya R Dumindha Silva a speedy recovery

Today's Daily Mirror has reported that two US neurosurgeons have visited Deshamanya R Dumindha Silva; who is in hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.

It is important that he makes a speedy and complete recovery, not only because he is a prominent member of the Government but also because his recovery will prove to be a worthy test of the system of justice and the rule of law in the land.

Should he succumb to his injuries popular opinion will see it as his karma, justice would seem to have been meted out by the gods and the matter can safely be closed by the Government. Should he, as one hopes, survives and makes a full recovery not only will he be able to serve his country, his very survival will test the political system.

The incident last week raises a number of questions: first and foremost, are the police treating the investigation as murder? Are they investigating if the firearms used were properly licensed and if not how these came into the possession of the people involved? Where did the ammunition come from? Is it necessary for ministers to carry bodyguards around?

If these questions are dealt with by the system thoroughly and fairly, justice would have been done and we may sleep safely in our beds knowing that the system is intact. If not, it leaves many disquieting questions.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Changing habits

Has anyone noticed that very few people chew betel anymore? The habit was ubiquitous amongst the working classes: masons, plumbers, drivers, labourers and domestic servants would been seen chewing and spewing long streams of bright red sputum.

One had to be careful walking around public markets to avoid stepping in spittle or being inadvertently hit by a passing stream.

The habit of smoking beedis, a cheap type of cigarette also seems to be near extinct.

There was a public campaign to stop the chewing of betel (it causes cancer), so perhaps that has worked, or it may simply have become unfashionable. People have become richer so they no longer want to have a habit that is associated with the lower classes? The same fate may have befallen the beedi, which despite being cheaper than cigarettes is now very rarely seen.

Indeed given the price of blasted things, I sometimes wonder how anyone can afford to smoke.

Changes in taste have claimed other victims, notably the pipe. I hate smoking but if one must smoke, the pipe is the way to go, the fragrance of a pipe is pleasant, (that from a hookah pipe, most deliciously so) and the whole process has a certain old world charm about it.

The cigar, the other form of tobacco that has a certain 'cachet' does not seem to have been affected by changes in taste, it may in fact have benefited, although I am not quite certain of this.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Good upcountry tea

I have always liked drinking tea, especially in the morning, brewed strong, sweet with milk. It is not hard to find decent tea, most brands in the shops are alright but in the past few years we have been drinking a lot of Dilmah.

I have a friend who has another friend who knows someone (you how the network works) who works in a tea company. The staff are entitled to buy tea direct from the company and my friend offered to get me some. I agreed and we tried it out at home about a month a ago.

It was not bad, but it had a rather unusual aftertaste, a hint of something that lingered on the tongue. It was something I had never experienced before and which I found a bit odd. I did not like that aftertaste much, the tea was drinkable so I thought I would just finish the packet and go back to the old brand.

After about a week this taste was beginning to grow on me and after about two weeks I was well and truly hooked. I had heard that the upcountry flavoury teas had this slight lingering aftertaste; this was the "flavour" that was much sought after by buyers. I was under the impression that most upcountry teas tend to be light so are best drunk without milk. Since I like a strong sweet cup in the morning I never thought this would work for me, but it seems I was wrong.

How badly I was hooked hit me when we ran out of the tea and had to buy the usual tea until fresh supplies arrived. It was strong as usual, but I found it lacking any kind of character, nothing to excite or interest the palette.

The estate where our source gets his tea from is Mattakelle estate. When asking around other friends in the tea industry I was told that this indeed was one of the top estates in the country, one that fetches premium prices. A quick search on the web revealed that it was being sold at pretty high prices. Dilmah was selling it as a single garden tea.

Lucky for me I can get it direct from source. My mother made hoppers for breakfast today, which went down very well with the tea. I'm off now to see if there is anything left in the pot.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jamaica and Zambia

Came across a couple of rather interesting reports, one from Jamaica and the other from Zambia.

Drug gangs in Jamaica are entangled with politicians to an extent that is shocking. It was this story and this that prompted the comparison with Jamaica.

Jamaica acts as a transit hub for drugs to the US. Although there are no firm numbers, the US is likely to be one of the biggest and therefore most profitable drug markets.

This means the money made and consequently the influence wielded by the drug barons is enormous. Unfortunately, the rest of Jamaica's economy is small and weak, which tends to magnify their influence still further.

Because Sri Lanka's drug market is small and its economy more advanced, the drugs barons are never going to be as big as in Jamaica, but the parallels are worrying, nevertheless.

On a lighter note, Zambia's opposition leader voiced concern over growing Chinese influence in his country “We want the Chinese to leave and the old colonial rulers to return,” said the populist Michael Sata. “They exploited our natural resources too, but at least they took good care of us. They built schools, taught us their language and brought us the British civilisation…at least Western capitalism has a human face; the Chinese are only out to exploit us.”

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Three killed in election violence

Two politicians from the same party, neither of who is actually contesting the municipal election (for the position of mayor) engage in a shoot out that has claimed three lives.

Does that make sense to anybody?

One of the politicians is dead, the other is in hospital, but if neither was contesting and both belonged to the same party then one wonders what caused the violence. Speculation on the street suggests a turf battle over business.

Another news report links it to a killing the day before. Both were thought to be supporting rival candidates, who would presumably return favours if elected.

In the meantime, rumours are that Bharatha Lakshman's supporters have taken the fight to the streets, torching shops and rioting. A police curfew is apparently in place is some areas.

Why so much excitement over an election that most voters are not taking very seriously? There must be more booty than we thought, in the Municipal Council and it may the stepping stone to greater things.

Seeing what things are getting on the electoral ladder makes one wonder if its time to board the next ship that is sailing out of Colombo.

Some links that point to a possible cause, this took place in the same area as the shooting.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Wahabi cult and Islam

I am trying to understand the rise of militant Islam and from the little I've read, it seems that the problem is not with mainstream Islam per se, but with the Wahabi cult.

The Wahabi cult originated in the mid eighteenth century and its doctrine is taken from the Kitab al-Tawhid, a work that was considered, extreme and unIslamic in its day. Its writer was forced to flee into exile. He found a patron in Muhammad Al-Saud, whose decedents ended up ruling Saudi Arabia.

The Wahabi's caused continuous headaches for the British in the Northwest Frontier, but they were not recognised as a single movement, with various incidents being put down to the work of individual fanatics. They were fanatics all right, but there seems have been some method to the madness.

In more recent times, following the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and its subsequent independence, it appears that the Saudi's are taking the cult, or at least parts of it, to the mainstream.

There is a good article on the subject here and I am also working my way through Charles Allen's God's Terrorists, which is very well written. I have not yet finished the book and I don't enough on the subject to assess it, but its a fascinating read, have a look at the Amazon reviews on the same link.

To try and put things in context, I have also just picked up Angelo Rasanayagam's Modern History of Afghanistan, another very readable book.

This is not intended to stir up controversy, just an attempt to understand, would welcome comments on this, especially from Muslims.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The trouble with international schools

Overheard at a cafe:

The trouble with international schools is that they are full of children, whose parents have earned a lot of money, very fast. These children have the notion that money can buy anything and that money can substitute for love.

Children who go to these schools thus tend to end up with the wrong set of values, unless the parents are really careful.

Never thought of it like this but its quite true, isn't it?


"International" school is term used in Sri Lanka to describe fee levying schools that teach in English. They operate outside the normal educational system, come in all shapes and sizes. A few are known to offer a good education, many are abysmal.

Monday, October 03, 2011

What the heck is wrong with Blogger?

Every time I try to put a hyperlink into the text of a post I get some garbage being posted.

This piece of random text gets thrown in somewhere on the post:


Even if something wrong was being pasted, I would expect it to paste where the cursor was placed, but no, this text can lodge itself anywhere on the post, sometimes where it was intended, sometimes where it was not.

The actual link itself gets pasted either next to the above or where I intended it to go.

What gives?

I have been experiencing this for a couple of months, does anyone know what to do about it? Its very irritating to have to keep going back and editing and re-editing posts, especially when one doing so sneakily during normal office hours.

Uneasy villagers

Strange things are happening in little towns and villages away from the capital. Some incident or the other leads to a mob attack on a government institution, usually a police station. The latest was in Dompe.

There was a spate of attacks over fears of a Grease Yakka (or Grease Devil) over a period of about two months. It sounded a lot like mass hysteria and it ended shortly after reprisals by the military.

Was this anything more than hysteria? It is difficult to tell, but a couple of things are clear: a) the people don't trust the authorities, b) they are turning to vigilante violence as a 'solution'.

There are enough cases of mass hysteria, from UFO sightings to the El Chupacabra in Mexico, but while people in these instances tend to distrust the government turning to violence is unusual.

What do these incidents tell us? People do not see the authorities as being able to solve their problems, in some instances the authorities are the problem and the anger boils over into violence.

The culture of impunity that has been nurtured during the last few years must take much of the blame for this state of affairs. In order to boost morale, the political leadership showed a willingness to back the military, unquestioned. Extraordinary powers were necessary for extraordinary circumstances so oversight was unnecessary and political 'cover' was provided if anything blew up. The result? Deaths in custody soared.

As long as these were confined to the minorities and happened in areas with little access to the media, these went either unreported or could be easily denied. However as the new culture began to take root, it spread to other areas.

To recall a few incidents, just off the top of my head, two boys were killed in custody Angulana, a man was drowned by police and most recently, a worker was killed during a protest.

The reaction of the authorities is usually to deny that the event took place and if denial becomes impossible either to cover it up make some token changes. Nobody seems to want to ask why the problem keeps recurring.

In any case, following a spate of attacks on the media, few have the appetite to ask hard questions. The Dompe incident was given little publicity until a few days after the event when some newspapers ran feature articles on it. It should have been front page news the day it happened.

The recent conviction of the policemen responsible for the Angulana murder is the first action we have seen, so it any wonder that people take to vigilante violence?


There was another death in custody this week. When the spokesman was asked about it he had replied "“you must remember that they are criminals and there is a limit to the protection we could provide." How a suspect could become a criminal and if so whether the judiciary is really necessary are thoughts that have never crossed their minds. The story end with the following:

Meanwhile the Free Media Movement (FMM) said that police have erased a video tape of journalist Indika Sri Aravinda who interviewed the victim's family at the police station.

The MCNS head said, "if journalists behave in a manner that obstructs police duty, they are compelled to take legal action".

Some ideas on reforming the police are available here.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sri Lanka: Animal-Rights, Multiculturalism And “Purity”

A thoughtful essay by Charles Saravan on the above is to be found here.

Worth reading, if you missed it in the paper.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from history

I have always had a fascination for history, something I may have inherited from my grandfather, who was a teacher of history. I have often wondered if something like this could actually be inherited; I did not know my grandfather very well, I was about ten when he died, yet I find myself treading a path that was surely familiar to him.

When I was in school, I wondered what history could possibly teach us, but somewhere in the barren sand a seed sprouted and has kept growing. What history teaches us is that the problems men have faced have not changed much and the wider ones view the more the patterns make sense. In tracing our footprints in the sands of time we see patterns emerging, patterns that recur and in identifying some of these patterns in the present, we may well see our future.

A little short of a century since the Great October Revolution, the Tsar has returned to Russia. The title is no longer used but the system of government increasingly resembles Tsarist Russia.

This was suspected to be the case, when Putin stepped down in 2008. He left the Presidency but became the Prime Minister. His supposed successor turned out to have no real power and the announcement of Putin's candidacy for the Presidency next year confirms the identity of its real ruler. Strip away the democratic facade and one finds power in the hands of a tightly knit group, not a ruling family as in the old days, but a brotherhood of the KGB.

Putin should be able to serve until 2024, unless there is a change in the constitution, and, quite by coincidence, he can keep our Dear Leader company.

Our leader will serve until 2024; the second term expires in 2018 and he will certainly contest at least a third term before questions of primogeniture come into play.

Incumbency is a powerful thing and the recent constitutional changes have made it more powerful still. It worth noting that in thirty years no incumbent has ever been unseated, except by the term limit and once by assassination.

The first thirty years post independence saw parties changing at almost every election, in the second thirty years it happened only once and that too following an assassination.

The newspapers used to carry frequent references to seventeen years of UNP rule but these mysteriously dried up by end 2009, possibly because the PA has now ruled for seventeen years.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New visa requirement for tourists

The current system of issuing a visa on arrival to tourists is to be suspended on the 30th of September. Tourists will be expected to apply for a visa in advance.

The issue visas on arrival will be restricted to countries that reciprocate, which means Singapore and the Maldives. Everyone else will need to apply for a visa. This plan was mooted about a year ago but its implementation was delayed due to protests by the tourist industry, justifiably so because slow processing of visas could hurt the industry.

The Government has announced that visa's will be issued on-line and to make things even simpler, could be sought by applicants themselves, a third party, a registered agent or a Sri Lankan embassy.

This sounds fine, except that the site does not seem to work. It returns the error:

Error 404--Not Found
From RFC 2068 Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1:
10.4.5 404 Not Found

The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI. No indication is given of whether the condition is temporary or permanent.

It gave the same error when I checked yesterday. Perhaps it has not yet been uploaded?


N had commented on the confusion this has sown amongst potential visitors, something that I had missed. Just checked on Trip Advisor, some questions and comments should be read by people in the industry. A few are reproduced below:


5. Re: Sri Lankan visa on arrival

Hi there

I am visting Sri Lanka later this month as a tourist and have seen conflicting reports about whether or not the visa-on-arrival facility is still operating. I am travelling on a New Zealand passport, so the visa-on-arrival option would apply in my case, if it is in fact still operating.

Can anyone confirm definitively whether it is operating? Otherwise, it's going to be a mad dash to get a visa next week before I leave for the Maldives next weekend.


Hi there.....

Visa BEFORE arrival still not in operation, was due around May time, but no confirmation yet.., so at this time, you will get your visa when you arrive..



This notice on Sri Lanka Immigration website (http://www.immigration.gov.lk/web/) has not been updated since early February:

"The on arrival visa facility (Visit Visa, Transit Visa) will remain unchanged until the internet based on-line visa service (Electronic Travel Authority) is established. The general public and the stakeholders will be duly notified when the ETA system is operationally ready."

Also no updates in local newspapers.

When I extended my visa 2 weeks ago I asked the controller at Immigration when the new system will be launched. He did not know.

With the 3 months pilot test that was announced in January I doubt the new system will be effective until August st the earliest.


Following a very recent difficult experience with the arrival visa stamped on the passport, I'd like to suggest that everyone check that the Immigration Officer has written the number of days [ normally 30] on the visa stamp and also initialled it as well. Usually you would assume that has been done - especially if you travel in and out very frequently - and just take your passport and hurry to baggage claim.

I'd suggest that those who were born in SL but travel on a different passport should be more careful about this. I'm just finding out that some unexpected hassles are being encountered on departure regarding this.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Colombo is Colombo: the need for a comprehensive development plan for the city

The Government has been doing quite a bit to make the capital city presentable; roads widened and resurfaced, new pavements, walls around old buildings broken down, the canals cleaned, some turf laid, some trees cut, some saplings planted.

There are bigger things that are hinted at; the reclamation of land from the sea, the clearing of slums and the construction of some infrastructure. So far, on the whole, the city is looking a lot better. I was distressed when the weeping willows on Independence Square were cut down but new trees (partly grown) have been planted and some turf has been laid, so its now looking rather nice, but there have been some disturbing reports on the clearing of slums.

What we do not know is the overall plan, if such a thing exists.

A comprehensive plan, drawn up with public consultation is essential to the success of such large-scale projects. There are many actors and issues that need examination. If embarrassing missteps are to be avoided public consultation is necessary. The process of consultation will also build confidence and bring in good publicity to the plan.

Such a thing has been in the works since the 1990's and Ranil Wickremesinghe, has written a good article on the its last edition. Its a little long, but it should be read by all who intend voting in the next Municipal election.

The plan for the development of the city needs to be placed with a wider policy framework, one that in my opinion should be based on a 'night watchman state' - ie one with limited involvement in business and confined largely to providing essential public goods.

A lower 'footprint' of the state would entail less expenditure, therefore less tax and enable a simple transparent tax code, all of which will stimulate business activity.

The opposition looks in disarray, the article above was buried on page 18 of the Sunday Times, not indicative of a good media campaign.


A letter from a former official on a public housing programme run in 2006/7 is quite interesting.

Although the letter is a bit garbled it tells a tale of a scheme opened with great fanfare only to fall apart after a promising start due to corruption. A mysterious Malaysian party is awarded a tender, even though they did not bid, an advance is paid and no more houses are constructed.

Why the driving on Sri Lankan roads is so bad

Just had a chat with someone who will be sitting for the driving test next month. I asked her if she had read the Highway Code. She said no, she had heard that it exists but no one told her to read it.

She has already sat the written paper where road signs and rules are tested. I asked how she studied for the paper, apparently the driving school provided the answers to the questions, which she memorised. The Department of Motor Traffic apparently has only three standard papers and answers were provided for all the papers.

The driving school charges Rs.15,000/- which includes a bribe of Rs.1,000/- to the examiners. What they seem to be teaching is control of the vehicle and whatever minimal knowledge (which side of the road to drive on etc) is necessary to get on the road.

I was wondering why the driving on Sri Lanka's roads was so bad, now I know why. I have noticed a spate of fatal accidents on outstation roads of late, one needs to be extra cautious when driving long distances, especially with long distance buses.

Perhaps we should use the train more frequently. Then again, perhaps not.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mansoor Ali Khan, The Nawab of Pataudi (1941-2011)

We are supposed to be a cricket mad nation, yet the death of a famous cricketer barely merits a mention in the news. Even the press in Singapore, which is fair way off the mainstream of cricket carried a story.

He was of course a cricketer of a different, more gentlemanly, era; a time when cricket was still a game and one dominated by Australia, South Africa and England. Playing for Oxford and Sussex he may well have played for England, like his father before him. He was one of India's most successful captains, leading them to their first overseas series win.

Even in India, his son, the actor Saif Ali Khan is now more famous than his father. He lived quietly avoiding publicity except once when he was caught up in it, charged with poaching.

The Telegraph carries a nice obituary, The Australian has a more detailed tribute.


Addendum: The Guardian has a good obituary.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The race for the mayoralty

I had not taken much interest in the municipal election, its not particularly important and I was quite disgusted with how things turned out the last time around.

To recollect what happened; the UNP could not gets its candidate approved in time and it then went on to ask voters to vote for a proxy party. The voters gave the proxy an overwhelming majority, but the proxy then proceeded to renege on the agreement with the UNP and we had the spectacle of a trishaw driver in the mayor's office. I had resolved not to vote this time around until I became aware of Milinda Moragoda's campaign.

I don't think Milinda Moragoda is a bad character, he is not thug and has reasonable ability, on his own he would be a good candidate for mayor. The question is, how far will he be allowed to follow his instincts? Will Moragoda end up playing the role that Medvadev plays in Moscow? The velvet glove on the mailed fist?

Tisaranee Gunasekara, whose analysis is usually prescient, seems to think so and Harsha De Silva, a UNP MP seems to have a similar opinion.

Would the voters be best served by voting for some opposition candidate? There is no guarantee that the office of the mayor will not be reduced a ceremonial one in the event that the opposition wins, especially if the plan for the Colombo Metropolitan City Corporation comes to pass. As it stands the UDA seems to be overriding much of the authority of the CMC.

Nevertheless it would seem better to vote for some opposition candidate, who may provide some trivial resistance, in the event that unpopular measures are being contemplated. Better that than a yes man.

Who do we have in the opposition? I don't even know, I have been told there are hundreds of candidates, someone shoved a few pictures under the door the other day, god only knows who he is. I'm still confused as to what to do; vote for an opposition which may be marginalised by the UDA and a CMCC or for a government candidate who will execute what he asked to do?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The need for limits on power.

KAL's cartoon (from The Economist), a good illustration of the mentality that seems to prevail in the USA.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely.

Nothing underlines this well-worn saying more than this shocking experience by an American citizen, in her own country.

Terrorism is a tactic that is used by the disaffected, solving the underlying problems is the key to a long term solution. Unless an equitable and just solution is found for Palestine, it will remain a festering sore and a lightning rod for anger against the US.

Sort out the root problem, don't deal with the symptoms.

See Also, King Abdullah's letter of 1947, to the American people As the Arabs see the Jews.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sri Lanka in great leap forward

Today's headline in the Daily News gave me a bit of a shock.

Given the country's fascination with all things Chinese I was wondering if Mao's Great leap Forward had inspired our policymakers.

Phew! Luckily it seemed that it had not, although we see a renewed interest in state directed economic production.

Interestingly enough those who sing the praises of China and praise its ancient society conveniently forget the violence of its recent past. Nor do they remember the aggressive attempt to erase its past. In fact China under Mao was a terrible place, violent and chaotic; such drama naturally inspires political commentators and analysts, especially those with a fascination for power. Rulers with similar passions will naturally identify with these.

However, it is only after China started to shed its baggage of Mao and socialism did its people witness an improvement in their lives. So when China moves slowly Westwards, it does not make sense to go Eastwards. To be sure the path is the same, but the direction is opposite.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Studio Dharshi and the RMV - excellent service

I sold my vehicle (rather too cheaply it seems) and then went and bought another (paying too much because I liked it).

I went to the RMV to get the transfer forms and I expected a certain amount of hassle. Parking was not too difficult, I had to walk about a 100 yards but that was not too bad. The forms were issued from a window that opens on to the pavement so there was no need to go inside the building and there was no queue.

I was told that I needed two photographs (of myself) and a photocopy of my ID, both certified by a JP to transfer the car to my name. I spied a little studio (it was called Studio Dharshi or something similar) almost next to the RMV. They were doing the photographs, photocopies and as a bonus they had an in-house JP who would sign everything.

I walked in and they photocopied my ID, then went to the next room where a girl took my picture, downloaded it from the camera and printed it on a little Epson printer. While waiting I noticed that the girl was also doing the photographs for new vehicle registrations (these require a photo of the vehicle as well). She was downloading pictures of various kinds of cars from the internet and printing them out for the owners who had forgotten to bring a picture along.

Since the photographs were usable for visas and passports as well, I got an extra set printed. The charge is 250/- for four photos, my cost for eight pictures, a photocopy of my ID and the JP's signature on two photos plus the ID was 600/-.

The whole exercise would not have taken 20-25 minutes and Studio Dharshi provided an excellent service.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Lessons from India

I have taken to watching some of the discussion programmes aired on NDTV. I have been impressed by the quality of the panelists; the politicians, the public servants, the journalists and others who have participated.

Last night the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah talked about the controversy surrounding the unmarked graves all over the state. Watch it here.

Its rather refreshing to encounter a journalist willing to ask hard questions and a minister willing to give a proper answer.

Are we missing something here?

Addendum: See the debate on Truth and Reconciliation in Kashmir, here. Quite fascinating to see such seemingly familiar issues discussed with the advantage of distance.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Portuguese influence?

The Portuguese controlled part of the shoreline of modern Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1658. The left their mark on the cuisine (most importantly by introducing the chilli to the local populace) religion and language.

The Portuguese and Spanish tongues are fairly closely related and when a Venezuelan newsreader referred to the editor of a newspaper as un hijo de puta (“a son of a whore”), a bell began to ring....

Thats all folks, now get back to work, its only Monday.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Pascucci café and restaurant

Another new coffee house has opened, on 95 McCarthy Road (Wijerama Mawatha).

Tried one of their coffee's it was excellent. I never knew whipped cream could taste so good and with nougat and a few other things thrown in, it was one of the tastiest drinks I've had.

I have been haunting coffee bars from the time they opened in Colombo, starting with The Commons (when it was on Turret Road), Dons Cafe, Delifrance, then Barista and finally Coffee Bean.I always went to these places to hang around, not for the coffee or the food, although the Commons had some very good deals in the early days.

Pascucci is the first place where I have really enjoyed a coffee and where I might even return to purely for the coffee. This is not a proper review, as its based on just one drink, but I think the place is worth checking out.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chinese building falls over

A friend sent me an email with pictures of a building in China that has keeled over and fallen. For a moment I thought it was joke until further research revealed that it was indeed true.


Given that the Chinese are constructing a highway, a harbour, a coal fired power plant and much else lets hope that they do a better job here than they do in China.

Hang on, hang on a minute. Didn't a bridge of the highway collapse already? That too with no traffic on it, it just collapsed under its own weight. There were also the mysterious fires in the coal power plant. The power plant seems to be operating below capacity and have a few other problems as well. It almost looks like the Chinese are trying to get a rather hot potato off their hands.

The harbour, although opened is not yet operational due to a few small technical hitches.

The collapsed building in China is a good illustration of the impact of corruption. Basic safety, building and planning regulations are not enforced because either

(a) the builders have paid off the officials who are supposed to do their job or;
(b) they have sufficient influence to bypass the regulations. ie The authorities are too afraid to enforce the rules because the officials concerned will be penalised if they do.

Corruption is not therefore just a matter of money; undue influence over public officials has (from the point of view of the ordinary citizen) exactly the same impact. What matters is that rules, principles and policies are bypassed; it is not how they are circumvented that matters.

The second important lesson is that corruption is not about someone making a little money on the side, it is also that it can pose a danger to the public. The controversy over substandard cement is a case in point.

Interestingly enough, poor policy preceded the import of the substandard cement. The Government imposed price controls on cement, which lead to a shortage. The Government then triumphantly rode to the rescue with the import of cheap cement, which turned out to be substandard. Leave aside the question that someone made a buck dumping cement; who will answer if a building collapses and kills someone?

We now learn that there is also a danger from X-Ray machines that have obviously been imported bypassing standard regulations? The patients must now decide which hospitals are likely to be safe, as far as X-Rays are concerned. Hopefully someone in the private hospitals will take the responsibility to check that their equipment is in order, many may actually market their services on this basis. But what of the average man who has to visit the state run hospitals?

I know for a fact that the vast majority of the Chinese tableware in the market is lead contaminated. How do I know this? Because a friend who works in one of these companies was looking for cheap products to stock their showrooms with.

They imported some from China but is was rejected due to lead contamination. Desperate for stocks, they bought some stuff wholesale from Pettah, all from China and all of which turned out to be lead contaminated. They tried samples from many different vendors, all were bad. I think they are now sourcing from local manufacturers, all of who meet the standards.

The question is how did this get into the country? The customs performs tests for lead contamination at the harbour and rejects anything unsafe. Presumably they do the same with X-ray equipment.

No compensation has yet been paid, although many hundreds of motorists faced expensive repairs due to substandard fuel.

The bottom line is corruption is a menace and the public will ultimately pay its price; in terms of shoddy service, high costs or unsafe products.

The cure?

Restoring the independence of the public service (so that its officials can act without fear or favour), something that the 17th amendment to the constitution attempted to do but which was reversed by the 18th amendment. Improving transparency in public affairs is another measure. A lot can take place in murky backroom deals, shining daylight on these will make this a lot harder.

Naturally, like vampires, they hate bright sunshine which is why the Freedom of Information bill was defeated . The less people know the better. The less the media report, the better. These recent controversies should have been headline news, instead we get little bits and pieces, mostly new flashes or a few things on the internet. No one wants to investigate much or ask too many hard questions.

The public, as ever, wrapped up in their daily lives, pay little attention to seemingly minor items of news. Only when it affects them directly do they understand its gravity and by then the rot has gone too deep.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Corruption and the Lokpal bill

Those who have been following the news in India would have heard of the Lokpal bill, an anti-corruption measure.

The bill proposes the setting up of an ombudsmen which will look into issues of corruption, a measure while welcome, only deals with the problem once manifest. Why wait this long? Far better to prevent than to cure, and the surest means to a cure is to eliminate the cause.

Corruption in public office, the type of corruption that is the most serious since it perverts public policy, becomes possible when an official enjoys the power to issue vital documents. The citizen needs these documents in order to go about his business, hence its importance, which creates for its issuer the ability to charge a rent. The more important the document, the higher the rent.

If the need for such documents were reduced, the ability to charge would disappear, therefore simplifying regulations, eliminating the need for pointless permits, would be the first step to rooting out the problem at source.

What the Government needs to do is revisit its laws and regulations and identify which ones are essential. India is notorious for being over regulated. All manner of antiquated rules dating from the time of the Raj are still in force, to which have been added a raft of others in the decades under socialism. Regulations are necessary, this is why we need to tolerate governments, but over regulation creates circumstances in which corruption thrives. India has been ranked as the most over regulated nation in Asia.

Improving transparency in public affairs and moving to electronic or web based means of issuing documents will also help. If officials are holding back, say building permits, publishing on a weekly basis, the number of permits received and the number approved will immediately highlight potential problem areas. Is the official concerned simply inefficient (a problem in itself), or is something else going on? The mere knowledge that the public at-large have a visible performance indicator will have a salutatory effect on both corruption and inefficiency.

Naturally, deregulation and transparency are not popular, vested interests will always rail against them, so what the Indian Government needs to do is quietly deregulate. It took an economic crisis in 1990 for the first wave of deregulation to take place, further deregulation, which will cut the ground from under the bureaucrats.

This will save administrative costs, reduce the hassle people have to through and also give India's economy a much needed boost.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Frederic Bastiat and the Petition From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps etc

We have had a few visitors from overseas recently, who arrived carrying a number of books as presents. They know that I like reading but invariably bring books that I find uninteresting.

The current collection looked particularly unpromising, a fairly large number to start with (which presents a problem of disposal) and some which were rather old. A new book, freshly printed is always enticing. Aging books, even if they are in good condition lack the aroma of fresh ink and paper; add to that the dulled, unfashionable cover designs and the lack of excitement is palpable.

They have turned out to be extremely interesting. While working my way through The Worldly Philosophers, a very well written book on the lives and thoughts of economists, major and minor I encountered Frédéric Bastiat's sharp and witty observations which deserve a wide audience.

His candlestick makers petition is particularly brilliant and is reproduced in an edited form below:

A PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.

To the Honourable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.


You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

.....We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.

We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

Be good enough, honourable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.

First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.

Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion.

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

But what shall we say of the specialities of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.

......Will you tell us that, though we may gain by this protection, France will not gain at all, because the consumer will bear the expense?

We have our answer ready:

You no longer have the right to invoke the interests of the consumer. You have sacrificed him whenever you have found his interests opposed to those of the producer. You have done so in order to encourage industry and to increase employment. For the same reason you ought to do so this time too.

....The question, and we pose it formally, is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!

Read the petition in full here.

Bastiat also had a number of memorable quotes on the predatory nature of the state. Restricting the powers of the state is foundation of liberty, an overpowerful state will invariably prey on its citizens.

To quote him again:

"Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget that the state wants to live at the expense of everyone."


"If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?"

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Growing lawlessness

A friend of mine told me what he witnessed at Union Place yesterday.

They were driving along Union Place and following a small Maruti car, a taxi. Without warning an old Peugeot 406, a government car, pulled out and rammed the Maruti on the side, denting the door.

What happened next was truly shocking.

Two thugs jumped out of the Peugeot and started beating up the driver of the Maruti. The Maruti was being driven by a young boy, a small made fellow who must have been a few years out of school, he stood no chance against the heavies. They slapped him and beat him around for a few minutes and then jumped into their car and drove off.

Mind you, the fault was entirely with the Peugeot, which pulled out without signalling or warning to the main road, so there was no justification whatsoever for finding fault with, let alone assaulting, the hapless taxi driver.

A friend of mine witnessed a similar incident a couple of years back when a Landrover without number plates ran a red light and crashed into a van coming from the opposite side. Again four heavies jumped out out, assaulted the van driver and drove off.

I had a less dangerous experience, again a couple of years back, with a police pickup truck which was overtaking a line of cars stopped at a red light and almost crashed into me (I was turning in on the left lane, but managed to stop in time). The policemen were glaring and mouthing inanities at me while they ran the red light. They were on the wrong side and running a red light, yet the fault was mine.

What does this tell us? No laws apply to the rulers, their families, henchmen or hangers-on and woe betide anyone who crosses their path, even by accident. In other words a breakdown of law and order.

The unfortunate taxi driver in the incident yesterday was trying to call the police but I'm willing to bet good money that the police will never take the entry. It has happened many times before when powerful people are involved.

Sri Lanka, paradise? More like Gangsters Paradise, where the rulers are all-powerful and the citizenry cowed and afraid.