Monday, December 30, 2013

Will Sri Lanka become like Spetses?

Our Rulers want to make Sri Lanka a hub for aviation, tourism and many other things. Will they inadvertently end up creating something like Spetses?

Spetses is a small Greek island, a an exotic playground for rich tycoons. Once a destination for cheap package holidays, the country moved up-market in the 1990's and now caters mostly to the super-rich who can afford to pay high prices for all services and products, much to the dismay of the small population of residents who find that living there is unaffordable.

The parallels between the two struck me when a friend rang me up asking if I knew of a place that would charge a reasonable rate for a holiday. Some friends had come from overseas and were looking to get out of Colombo. Many places were full and were quoting the most absurd rates.

When checking with a friend in the travel trade he told me that a couple of Eastern European and Russian charters had arrived, filling up a number of hotels. Sri Lankan expats, returning home for holidays and willing to splash out (partly to show off?) had booked up the rest.

The problem is that Sri Lanka has witnessed a continuous outflow of people over the last few decades. Some for political reasons but many because life was hard. They return for holidays and December seems to be the month that most now favour.

Hotels, clubs and restaurants make the most of it, gouging their customers with exhorbitant prices. The expats and the tourists may grumble but eventually cough up. Its either that or stay under-entertained on a holiday, which does not seem worthwhile, given the time and expense taken to get here in the first place.

For the locals, this presents a huge problem. If its just a case of planning a holiday for oneself, then its a simple case of postponing, but what do we do if one wants to go somewhere with some of those same expats? Not a happy choice to make, its either spend time with friends or worry about costs.

The holiday rush generally takes place in December, with a slightly smaller 'season' in March/April (Easter/'Big Matches) and July/August (summer). Its fairly predictable so canny locals can try to avoid these months when planning holidays, although going to the gym or finding parking at a shopping complex can be real headache.

Discretionary costs, like holidays can be managed but the bigger issue is high cost of living, a daily problem from which there is no escape. Unlike in Spetses where it is the rich visitors who have driven up prices in Sri Lanka it is the Government that is driving up prices through taxation. This causes people to leave, who then return for holidays and drive up the costs of everything for the season. A bit of a vicious circle, or a virtuous one, depending on how one looks at it.

To the expats, marvelling at the smart streets, shops, hotels and flats Sri Lanka looks to be booming. There are places to go and things to do, at a price. The expats who marvel at the skyline will look for opportunities to return. Many don't. Although things seem to be booming, somehow the opportunities don't really seem to exist. 

It does seem strange, with all the constuction and smartening up going on there must surely be jobs? There are jobs for construction workers, waiters, barmen, room boys but not a lot that would be of interest to the educated. The problem is that, apart from construction, and that too mainly Chinese, not a lot of investment is taking place.

Those that do return soon find that old evil-the cost of living, dogging them again so they leave. I know workers at my local garage who have been on several overseas stints; each time they swear it will be their last. After a while they are forced to leave again.

The funny thing is that it is actually the remittances from overseas workers that props up local demand- not many families can live comfortably without the help from overseas. It is also my (unverified) belief that this is the critical the factor that has pushed Sri Lanka to middle income status-not low-wage manufacturing/service jobs (although this factor is not absent).

From casinos to night races, from luxury shopping to boutique hotels Sri Lanka seems to be gearing up to cater to the rich. Will we then find ourselves in a trap, a country where we love to visit but can never afford to live? 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tales of public buildings in Sri Lanka

"Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children: but its art, only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race.

Again, the policy of a nation may be compelled, and, therefore, not indicative of its true character. Its words may be false, while yet the race remain unconscious of their falsehood; and no historian can assuredly detect the hypocrisy. But art is always instinctive ; and the honesty or pretence of it are therefore open to the day."

John Ruskin (from St. Mark's Rest: The History of Venice)

Old Parliament Building , Colombo 

New Parliament, Kotte

 Old Law Courts Complex, Hulftsdorp

New Supreme Court Building

Take a look at the pictures above. The new Parliament building was constructed during 1979-1982, shortly after the second republican constitution of 1978 sounded the death-knell for democracy in the country.

The Supreme Court was established by the constitution of 1972. That constitution abolished the right of appeal to the Privy Council in the UK, leaving the Supreme  Court as the  highest court of appeal.

The decline of the judiciary was a slower, less sharply defined process than the decline of Parliament but the rise of the new courts complex reflected the erosion of the independence of the court.

These buildings serve now only as tombstones, unwitting monuments to the dead institutions they house.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Recipe : How to Make a Banana Republic.

I know cooking is one of the more popular topics on Kottu, so let me take a stab at my own, a Christmas Special, if you like.

I am a great fan of plantains, sometime referred to as banana's. I was looking for some interesting things to do with banana's (for the record I do not possess a dirty mind) when I came across a recipe, for the making of a proper Banana Republic.

Things you’ll need

Theology – An established religion is a necessary ingredient. But if not, then any set of whimsical thoughts, hallucinations and outdated ideas will suffice.

Slogans – Slogans are mandatory. Without them you are not going to end up making a successful banana republic. In fact, banana republics chiefly rely upon slogans – slogans of democracy, slogans of rule of law, slogans of becoming the best nation in the world, slogans of triumph over the enemy, slogans of ‘national sovereignty’, slogans of chosen nation by gods, slogans of Mard-e-Mujaahid, slogans of food, clothes and shelter, slogans of the ‘shinning’ nation are all the buzz words which can be utilized to tranquilize masses in your banana republic.

A Constant Enemy – banana republics can’t exist without a constant enemy, which you can continuously keep the masses afraid of. A constant enemy is actually your friend, because it serves the purpose of enabling you to drag the attention of masses over it, while giving you time and chance to loot and plunder them. There are many benefits of a constant enemy. Your armies can churn up a fair share of budget on name of defense. Your institutions can utilize public money one name of developing new war technologies. Your every policy can be formed keeping in view the danger of that constant enemy. You can plant the seeds of patriotism because of that enemy. In fact, the advantages are numerous, the list is long.

Note: Class society is a presupposed fact in this regard, since no state can be erected in a classless society.

How Tos
1-      Start by propaganda in press and media that the country is in real danger, its finances are low, taxes are essential, austerity measures are inevitable – thus people have to sacrifice.
2-      Often repeat the mantra, ‘Motherland is passing through difficult times!’
3-      When inquired about your governance, again repeat the mantra, ‘All is fair’.
4-      Start a controlled exchange of fire or a semi-war with your constant enemy, and often keep that side of danger open. This will enable you to fool the masses into thinking that country is really in danger. They ought to drop aside their usual economical and democratic demands.
5-      Whosoever dares talk to you on matters of state and affairs, try to make him/her subdue by making excuses from banana republic’s theology/theory.
6-      Tighten up policing, keep judiciary in your pockets, offer bribes often, and keep in close touch with religious clerics.
7-      You may sabotage the political activists who are against you.
8-      Secret police and your intelligence agencies should often pick people and kill them after. Off course, you have need not bear any voice of descent in your banana republic
9-      If people get tired with your autocratic rule, return to shallow ramshackle democracy, which should continue the same old rule under new name and faces.
10-   For direct exploitation of your masses, sell your all resources of country to private firms, multinational companies, privatize as much as you can. And then call it ‘development’.
11-   Dose people with religious dogmas; celebrate religious rituals and days often.
12-   Put the label of ‘national interest’ on every action you do in your self interest.
13-   Make national fascism, while exploiting people’s natural love with their homeland. This patriotism is your most useful weapon.

This way, you will at least lay the foundation of a banana republic.

When I wrote this almost seven years ago, I think I was only half-serious. Reading through this article made me think: have we reached the level of lunacy where this appelation is now entirely appropriate? Will anyone care to fill out the list of ingredients and see what we end up with? Certainly not a Breudher, thats for sure. Maybe a Banana Split?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sri Lanka in the Limelight

The fightinme had written something about Sri Lanka being in the spotlight.

It is true that some of the criticism is orchestrated by the Tamil/Tiger diaspora; I’m never sure where the Tamil diaspora ends and where the Tiger diaspora begins. Whatever criticism made needs to distance itself completely from the Tigers, which unfortunately it does not. As I pointed out here the Tigers have equal responsibility for the final war and its terrible end.

Coming back to fightinme’s argument, I think we need to change the discourse to one of individual liberties. What we must ensure is that the liberties of individuals be protected. The only lasting protection can come from institutions: the constitution (which is supposed to limit the ruler’s power), the courts and parliament which are also supposed to check the ruler’s power.

The entire system has been broken completely; by corruption and the culture of impunity. Citizens no longer enjoy any rights and if one comes under threat one needs to turn to the protection of some politician; not the police or courts.

The war did not end in Jaffna. The incidents on Katunayake, Chilaw and Rathupaswela are simply extensions of the same culture of impunity and the treatment of opponents.

There are many others, like the above at a smaller, individual level, such as the torture of painter, a small businessman and an orderly in a hospital.

The victims during the war were mostly Tamil. Today it can be anyone, anywhere. You and I may have some political connection that the unfortunates above lacked; we may think ourselves safe; for the moment at least. It depends how much longer our political connections can last and how soon the politico will fall from grace.

Why is the GoSL so agitated about international criticism?

Because local criticism is stifled completely; they can do as they please and get away with it. The press is pretty much under control and with the police and courts doing their bidding, no action is possible anyway. Foreign criticism is a bit harder; it causes them to pause, even for a bit.

Thanks to CHOGM and David Cameron, the regime has paused to think, put the BBS back in the drawer, held the Northern Provincial council election, moved on the Khuram Shaikh murder and is even talking of a TRC style commission.

As I said before; what matters to us today is not what went on in the war; it is the fact that it continues to stalk us today. For the unfortunates like Shaikh, it may come too late, but perhaps their fate will serve to spare us.

How ironic that sixty odd years after independence, the best guarantee of liberty today comes from Britain's Prime Minister.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A hundred posts, a new look and maybe a new beginning

I started playing around with the look of this blog, I'm not not the greatest designer but I think a change in look will help refresh my mind.

I've managed a hundred posts this year but at the expense of quality. There are a few posts that I am happy with but a lot that are below par. Not enough time to think or reflect. I have not done any proper reading for almost six months and my brain is feeling pretty dead.

I changed jobs in July and work has been pretty hectic. When I get home I don't seem to have the energy to pick up a book. Also my Economist subscription was delivered at my office. As I have not yet got around to persuading management here that I need it, my regular source of news and analysis has been cut off.

The local press is hardly worth reading and even the online resources are looking tired and stale; it sounds like the same old story being repeated. The local Blogosphere is as dead as the dodo and while twitter is a useful source of news no debate takes place. 

My New Year's resolution is to start reading again, I'm easing myself in with Tea & Memories and Sri Lankan Memories.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why are the budgets of so many Pradesheeya Sabha's being defeated?

Something strange seems to be going on in the Pradesheeya Sabhas. Many of them, despite having a majority seem unable to pass their budgets.

For a while I was wondering if there was some sort of conspiracy or some underground opposition activity that was manifesting itself. It sounds unlikely but was a possibility; given that the opposition members and some ruling party members seemed to be teaming up.

Had a chat with a friend about this and he was as mystified as I was. He said that the only common denominator was that in each body, it was a move by the members against the Chairman and sometimes the Vice-Chairman.

It was then that a little light bulb went on. Could this be a simple case of thieves falling out?

About seven or eight years ago a classmate of a friend was campaigning for a seat in a Pradesheeya Sabha. My friend was quite involved in the campaign lending his friend his car and helping out by other means. My friend mentioned to me that the target for the Chairman of a Pradesheeya Sabha to earn over a 5 year period of office was Rs.30m!

This sum was earned mainly by collecting bribes for the issue of building permits, authorising water and electricity connections and similar activities. It could not be earned in Colombo and the major towns because there was not much housing being built but in the suburbs where lots of housing schemes were coming up there was much opportunity.

From the point of view of the corrupt official, the Pradesheeya Sabha offers an added advantage: near invisibility. The local press, generally docile anyway, tend to ignore local Government issues as they are seen to be unimportant, which means no likelihood of embarrassment. The liklihood of punishment is rare anyway but occasional embarrassing exposures are sometimes possible.

Based on the limited knowledge that I have gathered over the past few years I believe the scale of bribery has expanded massively in the last 7-8 years, therefore the intensity of competition for political office has increased.

It is likely that once ensconced in office, the Pradeshheya Sabha Chairmen have been trying to keep all the loot to themselves and not share it out equally with other members, hence the reason for wanting to eject the Chairman by defeating the budget.

This is only a hypothesis, but does anyone else have any information to share?

Update 20th December

Met a friend yesterday who has to deal with the Pradesheeya Sabha's. He said that he had heard complaints before from members that the Chairman/vice chairman was not sharing the spoils. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Felling trees to pay workers dues - is this sustainable?

The proposal to fell the timber on estates to pay the statutory dues (EPF, ETF) of workers is again in the news, but no one seems to be posing the most fundamental of questions: can this be sustained?

If this proposal works out they may be able to settle the past dues, but once this is done, how do they plan to make payments in the future?

The plantations being (mis)managed by the state are almost all running at massive losses. Things have got so bad that these estates have not been able to pay the statutory dues of employees for decades. I looked at some of the numbers of these estates around ten years ago. At that time there was about ten years of unpaid statutory dues. I don't think anything of significance has been paid since then.

Until somethig is done or a miracle takes place, operationally they will continue to make losses. Therefore there is no possibility that they can meet dues in the future either.

Has anyone even thought about this? Stripping assets is something that can be done on a one-off basis, but how do they plan to stop the financial black hole where money vanishes in to thin air?

Its a bit like surgery; cutting off a limb or some organ is acceptable if the patient is cured. If it does not cure but only provides temporary relief, it will only be  a question of time before something else needs to be cut off, just to survive. Keep cutting and the patient will eventually be killed.

In my opinion, approval for this should not be given until and unless a comprehensive workable plan is in place to restructure the estates. There is also more to this than meets the eye.

For a start, how can a state enterprise not pay statutory dues for a period of a decade or more and not face a problem? How could something this sensitive go unnoticed for so long?

There are plenty of loss-making state enterprises around;  but to my knowledge none of them avoid paying their workers dues. Indeed the principal purpose of many state enterprises seem to be job-creation. If the Government had dared to delay workers payments in any of these the unions would have taken to the streets and there would have much hue and cry raised by the opposition.

Talking to some old planters, they believe that the reason the problem grew so large was because the workers affected belonged to a voiceless underclass: Plantation Tamils.

The Tamil plantation workers are a constituency no one is interested in and are therefore effectively voiceless. Please note that I am not saying that the union is not powerful: it is but it serves mainly as a vehicle to fatten the pockets of its leader, not to speak for its representatives.

The modus operandi of the plantation union leader is as follows: he delivers a block vote to the Government, in return for which he is allowed to extract whatever he can from the estates/ministry. If one recalls the history of this man (and his father); they have been in every single Government of whatever hue. He collects his votes, generally in coalition with the UNP and then joins whoever is in Government.

Once a year he goes and tells the Government that he needs to keep the vote base happy and that in order to do so he needs to extract a wage hike. The Government then muscles the private estates who cough up the money. Since it comes at no cost to the Government they are happy enough to oblige. However the Government estates and other problems where the Government is involved are ignored.

When travelling around tea estates I have spoken to some workers on the Government properties; they claim that not only are the EPF, ETF and gratuity not paid sometimes even the wages are not being paid.

On private estates the rule that the estates must provide 22 days of 'work' a month is rigidly enforced, on state estates it not. One employee on Hare Park told me that they get about three days of work a month. The workers eke out an existence by cultivating other crops and odd jobs.

Since the unions and opposition are silent, the question also needs to be posed as to what is driving this proposal. Most probably the opportunity to make a quick buck by either undervaluing the timber being sold or removing more trees than the estates get paid for.

There is now an enabling culture where dealmakers are allowed to flourish. As there is little transparency in processes and no liklihood of punishment, everyone is looking to make money as quickly as possible.

No one is interested in business; everyone wants a 'deal'. Whether it is ETF and Sri Lankan Insurance funds being used to buy overvalued shares (which just happened to be sold by cronies) to clearing jungles, nothing is off the table and nothing is sacred.

Truly, a bandit economy.

ps. I wrote about some of the other aspects of the problem in felling trees on estates here.