Sunday, June 30, 2013

Felling timber on tea estates - to help bridge the budget deficit?

Namini Wijedasa has written an interesting article on the latest brilliant idea - that the timber on tea estates be felled to pay the EPF liabilities.  As has been pointed out before, the EPF simply lends its funds to the Government, usually at rates below market, to help plug the budget deficit.

So what is really happening, in a roundabout way is that the Government is felling timber to bridge its budget deficit.

There are however, many other concerns that this raises. Some of the timber on the estates was planted for the purpose of harvesting, so provided it is mature and is part of a proper programme of forestry management harvesting some timber will do no harm. A quick fix, which is what this looks like, is likely to lead to long term damage to the estates.

Trees on estates provide much more than timber, I had a quick chat with a planter friend who gave me very brief rundown. They are usually grown for five reasons:

1. To provide windbreaks.
2. To provide shade.
3. To provide "green manure" and improve the soil.
4. To reduce water run-off and soil erosion.
5. For use as fuelwood.

The trees commonly found on Sri Lankan tea estates include Grevillea robusta (silky oak), Acacias, Dadaps and Eucalyptus. 

Of these the primary purpose of the Eucalyptus is for timber. They are also said to draw a lot of moisture from the soil so are probably not the best trees to have around, so felling some of these in a controlled manner will do no harm.

The shade and windbreaks play an important role in long term productivity of the estate. 

Tea should not be exposed to excessive sunlight, which is why shade trees are planted at regular intervals. Apart from damaging the tea (in the long term-short term yields pick up with bright sunlight) excessive heat reduces the activity of earthworms and other lifeforms in the soil that will result in lowered levels of soil fertility.

Excessive wind is also a problem as it tends to blow away mositure, topsoil and nutrients. Very strong winds, which are prevalent in some areas can even damage the leaves and tender shoots of the tea bush. 

The fallen leaves of the Gravillea are said to "claw the ground" and prevent water runoff. Acacias and Dadaps are leguminous, meaning that they fix nitrogen into the soil, the so called 'green manure' that improve soil nutrients. All may be used as fuelwood, which is quite valuable these days, especially outstation due to the high price of kerosene.

According to my planter friend a really big Eucalyptus tree can fetch around Rs.50,000 less the cost of felling, sawing transport etc. If the number of trees quoted in the article referred to above is accurate (67,132), it is possible that the sum of around Rs.3bn can indeed be raised. This is a tidy sum of money and given the rampant corruption, the attendant dangers that:

a. They will fell every single tree, regardless of the purpose it was planted for; 
b. that the lions share whatever funds raised will go into the pockets of crooks/politicos/cronies (they are interchangable terms);
c. any money that does end up with the EPF/ETF will be promptly (and cheaply) lent to the Government.
The words of Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian economist of the early 20th century, nicely sum up the situation: “It may sometimes be expedient for a man to heat the stove with his furniture. But he should not delude himself by believing that he has discovered a wonderful new method of heating his premises.”

The Sunday Times article lists some of these very abuses that have already taken place, although on a smaller scale. Allowing large scale felling may open the floodgates.

According to my friend some he had heard that some state estates have now been reduced to a state where they are deducting a rupee from the wages of workers - to help pay for weedicide!

The debts owed are supposed to be Rs.1.74bn what the Government should do is to deduct 0.6% from the Defence budget and leave the trees alone. Cleared of their major liablities the estates can then be handed over to private management to see what can be salvaged (the estates are in such bad shape that they are impossible to sell) but something may be possible.  

An indepedent, transparent process managed by an external body that calls for proposals and selects the best is the way to go forward, if we are to save whatever is left.

I am neither planter nor botanist, just an interested onserver. Does anybody else have alternative suggestions? 



Monday, June 24, 2013

Sri Lanka moves up one place on Failed state index

Apparently,  Sri Lanka’s ranking among failed states has deteriorated, based on the findings published in the annual Foreign Policy and Fund of Peace report. The report puts Sri Lanka at 28th position as compared to 29 in the 2012 report.

The ranking is prepared by the Fund for Peace, an NGO (Wikipedia has more details).

A change in one place is probably not very significant but it does place us in pretty poor company. The listing and weights used are here

The Foreign Policy site lists 10 key reasons why they believe countries fall apart. Many are obviously not applicable to Sri Lanka but some definitely are.

The preamble to the list starts of by saying

Some countries fail spectacularly, with a total collapse of all state institutions, as in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and the hanging of President Mohammad Najibullah from a lamppost, or during the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone, where the government ceased to exist altogether.
Most countries that fall apart, however, do so not with a bang but with a whimper. They fail not in an explosion of war and violence but by being utterly unable to take advantage of their society's huge potential for growth, condemning their citizens to a lifetime of poverty. This type of slow, grinding failure leaves many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America with living standards far, far below those in the West.
  Which is fair enough.

Their list of top 10 reasons why states collapse however is a bit strange. Most are not really central to the collapse, some seem to describe the end results (eg no law and order, weak central state, poor public services) as causes. A couple of points are important and I've analysed them below:

1. Lack of property rights
North Korea's economic institutions make it almost impossible for people to own property; the state owns everything, including nearly all land and capital. 

Property rights are very important, they are the cornerstone of capitalism but not many countries are in the state of North Korea. In Sri Lanka property rights may exist on paper but with the courts corrupted enforcing rights is difficult. If the opponent of the landlord happens to be the state or one of its cronies the likelihood of a fair hearing is virtually nil.

Expropriation of property, by the state via dubious bills and by cronies through coercion and fraud are ever present dangers.

Now do the lack of property rights contribute to the failure of the state? It will certainly have long term adverse impact on business and investment affecting job creation and tax revenues. May be it is a case of the state starving itself to death?

It is important, but can it be considered the most important? Probably not, in my opinion.

4. Egypt: The big men get greedy
When elites control an economy, they often use their power to create monopolies and block the entry of new people and firms. This was exactly how Egypt worked for three decades under Hosni Mubarak. The government and military owned vast swaths of the economy -- by some estimates, as much as 40 percent. Even when they did "liberalize," they privatized large parts of the economy right into the hands of Mubarak's friends and those of his son Gamal. Big businessmen close to the regime, such as Ahmed Ezz (iron and steel), the Sawiris family (multimedia, beverages, and telecommunications), and Mohamed Nosseir (beverages and telecommunications) received not only protection from the state but also government contracts and large bank loans without needing to put up collateral.

I think this is true and describes Sri Lanka's kleptocratic rulers perfectly.

In my opinion the single most important reason world be decline of the rule of law. As it detriorates the state will progressively pass through stages of uncertainty, chaos and finally anarchy.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Back to two hands-just about

Finally removed the cast on my arm yesterday. In short a period as three weeks it is difficult to believe the extent to which muscles have atrophied and stiffened.

One arm looks as flat as a board, the range of movement is severly limited and what movement is possible tends to be jerky and mechanical.

Bushing teeth, eating, even moving the mouse (although not using the keyboard) are a bit difficult and I don't think I can still attempt to wear a T shirt

Getting back to normal is going to a bit more painful than I thought but at least there is steady progress.

Expect more bored and annoyed posts......... 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

He who protests is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse

I was watching a programme on the Khmer Rouge and the slogan above set a bell ringing.

It is only a step away from an all-too familar refrain that we hear constantly.

Found a few other of their popular slogans here. Shhhh. Listen very carefully; see if one can hear any of these, whispering of the wind.

No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out. (p. 210)
This adage was often expressed even more bluntly: To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain.

"You can arrest someone by mistake; never release him by mistake." (p. 208)

"Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." (p. 209)

"Better to arrest ten innocent people by mistake than free a single guilty party." (p. 209)

"If you wish to live exactly as you please, the Angkar will put aside a small piece of land for you."(p. 298) The "small piece of land" refers to a burial pit.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A DIG’s fall from grace - what does this tell us?

The Ceylon Today, one of the few newspapers worth reading carried a detailed story on the recent murder of a businessman, allegedly carried out by a DIG of police.

A summary of the critical issues raised in the story are:

a. it appears the DIG was taking on assignments to assassinate individuals on a regular basis;

b. a police squad appears to have been carrying out abductions, whether for political reasons or for gain we do not know, possibly for both;

c. an extortion racket, probably connected to (b) above was also being run. Other businessmen have apparently now come forward with various allegations of extortion.

A DIG, as per the police organisation structure is the second most senior officer in the force, which means, if true, the above crimes are being carried at the very highest levels of the force.

Why has this come to light?

Only because the murdered businessman was connected to the President, so a green light was given to investigate.

Note that his connections, being unknown to his assailants, were not enough to save his life. They at least allowed an investigation into his death.

What lessons must the public draw from this?

If such a senior policeman was running such a heinous crime ring there must have been complete apathy or incompetence from the IGP and from the Minister concerned.

If incompetence were not the problem, the official complicity must be in place. The reactions of the people in charge should offer us a clue.

If the ministers concerned, IGP and fellow officers express shock at this outrage, take responsibility for their inactions and show some willingness to correct the problem then we have some reassurance. At least they acknowledge the problem. A credible independent inquiry into the matter to discover the root causes is imperative.

If there is silence at the top, a few bland statements and the whole issue is swept under the carpet then we know what conclusions to draw.

The only thing is what do other businessmen need to do? Perhaps wear a T shirt that says "I am a friend of the Prez, don't touch me"? Perhaps a secret handshake or a ring that would indicate that they were untouchable?

And for the rest?

Deiyyo Saakki?

Update: more explosive revelations here.  You may need to use a proxy server since the site is inaccessible via SLT. The link is below: 

Bailing out the bankrupt cricket board - a wise use of tea cess funds?

Sri Lanka Cricket is in deep financial trouble, having burned millions of dollars in stadia that lie unused.

The Tea Board will be a part sponsor of the team at a cost of Rs.530m. Dialog, the other sponsor, will pay some Rs.753m.

So far so good,

Only that the last time when Dilmah sponsored the team, they only paid $2m. Dilmah did not renew the sponsorship. Although no reasons were given it is reasonable to assume that the commercial return was insufficient to justify a larger sponsorship.

Now the Tea Board is paying twice what Dilmah paid, for a partial sponsorship. Does this really make commercial sense? The tea industry is already crippled by politically motivated wage hikes and unnecessary regulation, it is imperative that tea cess funds be used for the maximum possible benefit of the industry.

Does this looks like a thinly veiled bailout of the Cricket Board? To save a Government bail out and embarrassing questions as to how the body of the most lucrative sport went bust?

The finances of the Cricket Board are actually quite similar to that of the Government, its just that the latter still has the capacity to borrow.

Update: I was watching the cricket yesterday. Although I kept looking quite hard I could see neither the Tea Board nor Dialog anywhere. Someone said that since Reliance was sponsoring England the Dialog logo could not shown  and since Pepsi was also involved the Tea Board logo could not be displayed. Not sure if this is true but the team sponsorship does not seem to have brought any publicity to either sponsor, at least as far as the UK tour is concerned.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Development As Development Of The Heart: Why Are We So Poor? - a response to Vagisha Gunasekara

Vagisha Gunasekara has published an article on development. This is an extended version of the reply that I posted on Colombo Telegraph.

What she presents is an agreeable philosophical argument, one that I have much sympathy with. Unfortunately the solution, the pooling of resources, while intrinsically appealing is unworkable in practice.

Pooling is the essence of Socialism and Marxism.

The problem is that pooling or sharing is only possible within ones own social circle - family and friends - or a small tribe. Man is a tribal animal, pooling and sharing will take place within a tribe but never between tribes.

In anything larger, the competitive beast that is the essential nature of man comes to the forefront and the question of "why share when I can enjoy it all?" comes up. The answer, invariably is "let me enjoy it all".

Is this not the very behaviour that we see in the ruling cabal of Sri Lanka? Is this not the observed behaviour that has been experienced in innumerable dictatorships the world over?

On a smaller scale, just observe the typical behaviour at traffic light controlled intersections. When there is a jam in the road ahead how many drivers will wait, regardless of the light until it is clear to move ahead? How many will just drive into the middle of the junction and block all traffic going across? If they cannot even share a little space (and observe the road rules) so that in the long run all will be better off what hope of sharing anything else?

This is why every experiment at practising socialism has eventually ended up a communism-the only way to share on a wider scale is to do so by force. Force leads to terror and repression that leaves everyone worse off.

Related posts on tribal leaders, on re imagining development

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The tragedy of charismatic leaders in the developing world

Whatever his faults, not even the most bitter of the President's critics will accuse him of a lack of charisma. He is without doubt a strong leader, capable of rallying the masses.

Similar leaders have appeared at various times in the third world, this article (which I have quoted before) argues that this is not a good thing.

Some excerpts below (read the whole thing and see if it makes sense).

The history of Ghana is one of sadness and tragedy, of unnecessay tragedy. The post-independence history is that not uncommon case of a charismatic leader feeding the populace on a fantasy that it takes decades to recover from. In Argentina it was Juan Peron. In Ghana it was Kwame Nkrumah.
Before going into the details of the Nkrumah era it is helpful to get some perspective on the nature of the fantasy that has entrapped so many countries. A major legacy and burden of tribal and feudalistic societies is the notion that leaders have the power to solve problems and bring justice.
The village chieftain takes resources from the villagers and to the powerless villagers the chieftain seems like a potential foundation of wealth and luxury. To those who aspire to be chieftain it seems that if only they could achieve that status they could not have a pleasant living but could do good for the villagers. In the American idiom they could be fairy godmothers, solving all problems with the waive of a magic wand. So the possibility of becoming a fairy godmother is a powerful motivation for those who seek leadership. On the other hand, for the powerless who have no hope of becoming a leader the notion of there being fairy godmothers who can solve all problems is likewise a powerful influence. But of course there are no fairy godmothers and can be no fairy godmothers. The resources that the village chieftain dispenses come only from the productive efforts of the people themselves. If the people neglect their own productive efforts in seeking benefits from the chieftain then soon even the chieftain has no resources.
The romance of Third World leaders with socialism is just an attempt to create the status of the village chieftain on a larger scale. Socialism's main function ideologically is to provide a rationale for having all power concentrated in the hands of the central government. (emphasis mine)

The ever-growing role of the state in Sri Lanka indicates this is underway; the expropriation of assets (Hilton, the sugar companies), re-nationalisation (Sri Lanka Insurance, SLT, Sri Lankan Airlines), interference in the banks (changing of directorates), new ventures (from Lankaputhra Bank to military run hotels and restaurants). They don't call it socialism, but that is what it amounts to. (This is quite apart from the enormous centralisation of political power that is also taking place.)

The charisma that the leader exudes and the nationalistic gospel that is preached strikes a resonant chord with the people; one that blinds them to the fundamental flaws that make the whole edifice unsustainable.

How to warn the slumbering population?

W S Senior said Lanka called for bard. We never needed one so badly, will he ever emerge?

“ My cities are laid in ruins,
“Their courts through the jungle spread,
“My sceptre is long departed
“And the stranger lord instead,
“Yet give me a Bard,” said Lanka,
“I am living, I am not dead.”

-W S Senior- The Call of Lanka

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Absurdities in public life

Life in this country sometimes resembles a farce.

Take for an instance the move by sections of the Government to ban cattle slaughter;  something that takes place while the Government itself is proudly supporting the leather and shoe industry. This industry is pampered with duty-protection and tax breaks to the point where badly-made local shoes are becoming an unaffordable luxury.

Take the apparition that is Prageeth Eknaligoda: he appears at various times to officials but immediately disappears the moment people ask questions. He's usually seen abroad and I think I have a picture of what they have seen.

The absurdities around this and the new code of media ethics are detailed here. Speaking on the new code, Minister Rambukwelle apparently said it was to promote responsibility in the media.

I just wish there was some way to promote responsibility amongst the ministers. Surely the examples above suffice to prove the need?

Some classic items from the code:

(b) contains criticism affecting foreign relations - The foreign ministry and policy is off limits. The Government will regularly denounce the West and other busybodies but this is a separate issue altogether, OK?

(d) contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate falsehood and suggestive innuendos and half truths or willful omissions - the key term is "suggestive innuendos" which probably means no analysis is possible.

(h) contains materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative - Lèse-majesté. Did the visit of the Thai premier inspire this?

11.3 The journalist shall not cause the people who caught up in emergencies or suffering a personal tragedy under any pressure to provide interviews or reveal information. - no interviews with victims? Anything unpleasant said will be assumed to have been made under pressure?

The best part is that this is a code, not a law. But adhere, unless you want a knock on the door from some Heavies with advice on how to improve your moral fibre.

Alfred Schnittke:Suite in the old style

I have long lamented the inability of modern composers to write a tune. A straightforward enough idea one would have thought; what after all is music devoid of melody?

Just discovered a lovely exception; Schnittke's Suite in the old style. Listen to it here. (Just let it keep it playing, the movements will follow in sequence).

Friday, June 07, 2013

A model for managed wildlife tourism

I have ranted about the problem of overexploitation of wildlife reserves here, and here.

Sashi Jayatunge has written of her experience at Pench National Park, an Indian wildlife reserve here.

What a contrast with Sri Lanka's parks. Some of the highlights of the system include:

1. Jeeps with a very quiet engine, to minimise disturbance.
2. Limit on the number of vehicles allowed into the park, in this case 50 per day.
3. To minimise intrusion still further, strict routes assigned to each jeep through a draw. This will spread the (already limited) traffic through the park so that there is no congestion or noise.
4. Routes are planned so that only 2/3 of waterholes are covered, which ensures that the animals always have area free of human activity at all times.
5. The park closes during the rainy season to further minimise stress on the ecosystem.  
6. No mobile phones or cigarettes.

These are just the highlights, there are a few more at the link above and the story itself is well worth reading.

We can continue to ravage our parks in the name of tourism (but actually in search of a quick buck and a cheap thrill-sight a leopard and upload to Facebook) or we can pose the question as to the founding purpose of a nature reserve, whether we intend them to exist in the long term and start to act; even now.

Dr R L Spittel, who played such an influential role in the establishment of our parks would surely turn in his grave if he were to see their current state.

PS. Found some of R L Spittel's photographs here.


Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The hollowing out of Sr Lanka: the export of "refuse" tea

Our natural resources, history and people are under assault-from within. Now the tea trade seems to be latest victim.

 Serendipity has alerted us that the racket of refuse tea seems to be gaining ground again. As a commentor on his post points out, thanks to politically influenced wage increases the industry is screwed. I just hope that ordinary exporters are not resorting to this out of desperation.

When tea is is produced it is graded,  OP, BOP and the like. The last useable grade is dust, what is left is called refuse.

Raw refuse tea resembles coir mattress fibre; light brown and stringy. Its composition is actually mostly the stems of the tea that has been badly plucked-ideally only 2 leaves and a bud are plucked, but whatever stems and stalks end up as refuse.

It is normally used as fertiliser; due to its appearance its impossible to sell as tea, no one would touch it and it could not brew much either as there is so little tea in it.

How then can it be sold? By treating it with chemicals.

The "production" involves treating the refuse with lime (calcium carbonate) and potassium permanganate. This is what blackens the tea and probably breaks down the fibres. To this is then mixed a small quantity of normal tea and the disguise is complete.

Apart from anything else the stuff is actually poisonous. Main markets are thought to be poor African nations, although thanks to the breakdown of law in the near East, Iraq seems to have been targeted as well.  Worse, they now seem to be targeting other key markets as well.

Thankfully there are well established systems put in by the British that, if they work, can stop the export of this poison:

1. All tea is sold via auction and through licensed brokers;
2. All tea must have a proper factory of origin,
3. All samples for auction are tasted and spare samples stored for retesting if needed,
4. No export can take place without a tea board license which adds an additional layer of control.

These systems were under assault from 2005, from the day this regime came into power. The tea trade has rallied round and kept most of the bounders out, but it is an uphill struggle.

Two Akbar Bros employees paid with their lives for their integrity-they were shot in a drive by killing in 2005/6 I think.

If there is new evidence of the checks being circumvented maximum publicity needs to be brought to bear, Serendipity please bring out any further info.

The Sunday Observer had a surprisingly good article on the problem.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The rubbish that is cable TV

I have not watched much television over the past few years, most of my spare time is spent reading. Unfortunately due to the difficulties with holding books open (due to the incident referred to in one of my earlier posts) I have been scanning the television channels for entertainment.

Dear God.

I don't know where to begin. Unless one wants to stick to the news channels or sports the rest is rubbish. I'm not particularly interested in wildlife documentaries or cooking, which doubtless have their own fans, which is perfectly alright. It is the lack of other documentaries, serious science or human interest programmes that is telling.

Vapid travel shows, even more vapid talent contests and some lousy music is all thats on offer. Mind you, this is just the passably watchable stuff, the movies are all in the gutter.

The Economist has some interesting analysis on the reason for the decline including the desire for tried and tested formulae "usually sequels, prequels, or anything featuring characters with name recognition". Cartoon characters and video games and whatever else fits the bill of name recognition.

The second flaw is to try and focus on a global audience: ie films that can easily be dubbed or subtitled-in other words those that focus on action rather than plot. With computer animation the action can be spectacular, so sometimes plots may be omitted entirely, as in Transformers and Battleship. I watched something a couple of weeks back, think it was Iron Man, people kept getting beaten up and I did not know why, or by whom. It was impossible to figure the goodies from the baddies.

At least when George Lucas did special effects we knew they were 'real', that some real work went into it. Now its just like watching a video game playing, the background, movements, effects, even actors being digitally manipulated.

At least the Bollywood films feature real actors, pretty girls (some quite gorgeous) and surprisingly slick production.   

Saturday, June 01, 2013

A left handed post

My right hand is (temporarily) bandaged due a small accident, been trying to get used to working with my left hand only for the past week.

Being a right hander, the loss of one hand can be surprisingly difficult. Obviously no gym or driving but its the little things that are the most painful: the brushing of teeth, daily ablutions, reading (holding a book open is quite tricky), eating (rather clumsily), dressing.

I am getting a bit better at thing, for example this post is coming a lot faster than the last. I'm also trying to draw some inspiration from this man. Some further reading on one armed pianists here.

The usefulness of customer surveys

A  firm that I know of have employed some Indian consultants to carry out a survey on customer satisfaction of their corporate clients.

I almost fell off my chair when I heard this. Does such an exercise serve much of a purpose?

The number of customers concerned is not very large to begin with, perhaps 100-200. Second, they are existing customers, so it is the responsibility of the account managers to provide the necessary feedback. Even if this channel was not working, at the worst, a tracking of complaints or call centre records should give some indication of obvious problems.

Perhaps management has become aware of a problem and either wants it properly identified or assessed? That would be reasonable, except that I am personally aware of the atrocious level of service being dished out and the innumerable complaints that flood the call centre.

Is this then case of a company out of touch with its customers grasping at straws?  The use of foreign consultants may assure them that the survey is independent, but does this not lead to a possibility of further confusion, if the consultant misses something due to lack of cultural awareness?

Would anyone in the marketing or sales field enlighten me if there is anything more to a customer survey that I may have missed?