Friday, May 24, 2013

How far can we trust a Government?

I was pondering the question of how far a Government can be held to account, after the debate around my last post.  Let's pose a practical question that should be of concern to us all:

How many people are aware that most of the Chinese-made ceramic ware for sale in the country is contaminated by lead?

The contaminated products should have been detected and stopped at import, but they were not. Clearly the Government failed in an important task.

I discovered the facts of this a few years ago after talking to a friend in the ceramic industry. The company my friend worked for had a dispute with the distributor of Noritake and as a result Noritake stopped supplying them with goods. The company had a number of outlets and it was necessary to stock them, so my friend went to China to look for alternative sources.

They found many suppliers but only a few were willing to guarantee their products lead-free. They eventually settled on one vendor. As a standard procedure, for customs clearance the products are tested for lead contamination. The first and the second shipment passed. The third shipment was lead contaminated.

The supplier was informed, he apologised and sent a replacement consignment, which also turned out to be contaminated. After much argument the local company abandoned discussions.

This left the company in a dilemma-showrooms with nothing to stock them with. As an interim solution they decided to buy products wholesale from the local market, simply to keep the shelves stocked.

They met many vendors in Pettah but when testing the products every single one was found to be contaminated with lead. These were being sold quite happily in the local market. Standard customs checks that should have detected this were bypassed, obviously because of corruption.

There are rules that exist on paper but when money and influence can bend or break them they are rendered worthless.

How do we ensure that everybody abides by the rules? The system by which the rules are enforced; the bureaucracy (in this instance customs and port officials), the police (who would normally investigate violations) and the judiciary (which ultimately rules on these matters) must be free of political influence.

This is far easier said and done. Sri Lanka and most of Britain's former colonies (including the USA) inherited traditions that evolved over centuries. They had been implemented in its colonies for over a century and half until they had become ingrained, a habit that many follow unthinkingly.

In Sri Lanka today the rule of law does not exist, yet we can still trust that the local ceramic companies comply - they do so out of tradition and habit, not out of any fear of law-enforcement. They could easily bribe officials, as the importers of ceramics have obviously done, but they do not because the testing is an established process, set up decades ago when Ceylon was a law abiding land. People who work within the industry are aware of the dangers and act with some sense of responsibility.

New businesses have no such traditions to follow and with no fear of the law can do as they please. Worse, many of these are set up by politicos and their cronies for whom no law need apply. This is also the problem in China and in many places that suffered under communism: Russia, the Eastern block- no proper system of rules prevails. Vietnam is a good example.

This is reflected in the driving in Vietnam, which is absolutely chaotic. No one sticks to a side of the road, drunken motorcyclists bump from vehicle to vehicle, without bothering stop.  I've even heard horror stories of vehicles reversing over pedestrians that they knock down-to kill them so that they do not make a complaint.  

In Sri Lanka children are taught traffic symbols and rules from an early age so as adults they have some concept of the rules of the road. The steep deterioration in behaviour on the road over the last decade reflects of the parlous state of Governance in Sri Lanka.

Given the failure of the Government, the bad situation is made worse, with the media beholden to the State: no one reports this so people carry on, unaware of the danger.
In sum; how far can we actually trust a Government? Only as far as they can be held in check.

ps. On ceramics, check the back and avoid anything made in China. Especially beware of brightly coloured or gold or silver edged products, plain white is a bit safer.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Coca Cola and Goodness; evil multinationals and a response to Raashid Riza

Raashid Riza carried a post about a campaign by Coca Cola to try and promote unity amongst the people of Pakistan and India. He then goes on about the supposed evils of capitalism and cites a fire in a textile factory in Bangladesh to support his argument.

I try to avoid junk food in general and sugary drinks in particular. I can't even remember the time I last drank a Coke but I have no particular object to them selling their products or other people consuming them.  

Coming to Coke's project; if the same act were carried out by a group of citizens would it be considered good? If so, why does it become bad or negative if Coke or a crook (say a underworld gangster) does it?

I think we should judge an act on its own merits. Something that promotes reconciliation or understanding is probably good, regardless of who does it.

On the subject of evil capitalists, lets take a look at a recent example; the collapse of Rana Plaza that killed about 900.

Lets consider the facts:

1. "The building was called Rana Plaza after its owner, Sohel Rana, a strongman of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League."

2. "Planning approval had been given for only five of the building’s eight storeys."

3. "Cracks appeared in Rana Plaza the day before its collapse."

4. "Both the police and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), a powerful lobby, told the owner his building was unsafe but he ignored them and the factories stayed open. Workers said they had been pressed to show up because orders were overdue."

Bangladesh has laws and systems that could have prevented this. They did not because the owner had influence, to bend or break the rules as he wished.

That power could have been either bought for cash (the conventional idea of corruption) or the result of political patronage-the unseen, sometimes unacknowledged component of corruption.

Who is at fault here? The Government (for being incapable of enforcing laws due to corruption), the local manufacturer (Rana) or the multinationals to placed orders with Rana?

The knee jerk reaction has been to blame the "evil multinational" but what are we really saying?

That we expect the multinational to uphold standards that both the local Government and local businesses are incapable of upholding?

Most probably the only people who will do anything at all will be the multinationals, even if whatever steps taken are dismissed as being an eyewash or not going far enough.

Who is really evil here? 

Details of the collapse sourced from here. Further reading here.


Letter to the Economist on the disaster in Bangladesh

SIR – How odd that foreign clothing companies are being targeted as the main culprits for the factory disaster in Bangladesh (“Disaster at Rana Plaza”, May 4th). International companies should check on their suppliers and abide by local laws and international standards, but let us not forget the simple fact that it was the building’s owners and management who chose to ignore these standards. Let us also stop pretending that they did so wholly in order to survive. Their actions were the result of a calculated bid to maximise profits, which they did on the backs of their less fortunate fellow Bangladeshis.
The owners and managers of factories in Asia, as elsewhere, have a responsibility for their workers, legally and morally. Blaming companies in the West for a disaster that happens in Asia stops local owners from taking responsibility for their business.
Matthias Eckert

Monday, May 20, 2013

Nuga Gama - brilliantly executed concept, excellent restaurant

When people told me about Nuga Gama I dismissed it as yet another Sri Lankan themed restaurant. When someone invited us over I was not especially enamoured. I could not have been more wrong.

Walking in along a path dimly lit by kerosene lamps I wondered why they did not have more light. The pathway was not lined with lamps, just the occasional one burning here and there. When one emerges into the clearing  it becomes apparent why: the lighting is what one would find in a village.

The concept has been executed with a deft hand, great care has been taken to reproduce the buildings and surroundings as faithfully as possible without degenerating into kitsch. The open space, trees and buildings work together to capture the atmosphere and spirit of the village.

When I discovered that the food was cooked in clay pots on a wood fire (for reasons explained here) I was ecstatic. It is some of the little details, such the urn from which one must wash ones hands with the aid of cut piece of Sunlight soap, reminiscent of a scene from the village well that puts it head and shoulders over every other restaurant.

Overall a great experience and a great restaurant.

Try the kurrakkan pittu with the mutton curry and coconut milk or the cuttlefish and prawn curry. Heavenly.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Arrack aged in oak casks - is it as good as the rumours claim it to be?

A friend was raving about a new arrack that he had drunk recently. He had been asked to buy it for a friend living overseas. He found it at the duty free shop  but was taken aback by the price tag - US$31 for a bottle. He bought it anyway and took it to his friend and asked him why he was paying so much for arrack.

When invited to try it he claimed it to be as good as a single malt. He can't remember what the name was, it is not available locally, but is the rage with Sri Lankans abroad. It may have been this, or one of these.

Has anyone tried it ? When one thinks about it, the casks in which spirits or wines are aged are responsible for a good part of the flavours of the finished products. Perhaps the use of oak casks, rather than Halmilla vats lends the arrack the smoothness and consistency of a good whisky?