Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The decline of mainstream print media

How many people bother to pick up and read a newspaper nowadays? I used to be an avid reader of the local press but my interest has waned in the last year or so.

The problem is that there is very little that is in any way challenging or interesting. Even when a decent story emerges coverage tends to be superficial.

I now glance at the printed papers on Sunday and occasionally flip through the weekday papers, usually a day or two late. The best thing in the Sunday papers are the Hit Ads; the Sunday Times is worth getting for this. The rest of the paper is worth glancing at, there are the occasional stories that are worth reading but the Hit Ads can be studied carefully over the whole week.

In a funny way things seem to have come full circle: I remember my parents saying that the Sunday Observer (and to some extent the Daily News)was bought mainly for the obituaries, the vacancy advertisements and sometimes the tender notices.

There is a major story that is breaking now: that of the Mannar mass grave, but it has (as far my limited reading allows me to judge) received scant attention in the mainstream press. Yesterday's Daily Mirror had banner headlines about a child being run over by a lawn roller in school but nothing on the mass grave.

The silence tells us something about the state of the media; either bought, controlled, mesmerised or kept; which in turn reflects on the health of our democracy.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The new aerial menace

I was amazed to read that there is now a new and growing aerial menace.

Are we being threatened, once again by the LTTE's air arm? Hordes of flying cockroaches? Perhaps vampire bats that descend from the heavens to suck the blood of the sleeping townsmen?

No, we are now being threatened by peacocks; not vampire peacocks, or even vampire ducks, just plain peacocks. 

They are a threat not to the population at large, the people in the surrounding areas or to the vast majority of the airline traffic to the country but to the handful of flights that touch down at the Mattala airport.

The authorities are, with admirably straight faces, now calmly proposing a mass cull. The only minor niggle that has apparently prevented the execution of this brainwave has been some religious beliefs surrounding the peacocks.

Lucky for the peacocks, but not so lucky for the multitude of other wildlife being threatened by the airport. The airports authority previously closed up all the waterholes in the vicinity, now they seem to torching the surrounding jungle as well but this has not had the desired effect since the airport happens to be in the middle of the Eastern Bird Migratory Path.

Aha! What we suspected all along! These are not local birds at all, as usual it is the interfering foreign intruders who are the problem.   

In the nine months since the airport opened the only airlines to touch down are the state carrier and one budget carrier. Few people seem to want to fly in that direction voluntarily, except the birds so the simplest solution would be to close down the airport. It will eventually have to close anyway, once the debt laden state carrier goes bust.

The airport itself seems to have cost something in the vicinity of Rs.35bn to build, which, funnily enough, is close to the loss that SriLankan Airlines seems likely to make this year.

In relative terms writing off the cost of the airport is not a huge loss. Besides, keeping it running will only incur further losses so on the principle of not throwing good money after bad it would be sensible to shut it down.

This will never happen, so I will leave my readers with a quote from a different aerial menace, a vampire duck. Its from one of my favourite cartoons: (watch the intro here, its pretty funny)

Castle Duckula, home for many centuries to a dreadful dynasty of vicious vampire ducks: the Counts of Duckula. Legend has it that these foul beings can be destroyed by a stake through the heart or exposure to sunlight. This does not suffice however, for they may be brought back to life by means of a secret rite that can be performed once a century when the moon is in the eighth house of Aquarius. However, the latest reincarnation did not run according to plan – and when tomato sauce was ineptly substituted for blood during his resurrection ceremony, Count Duckula was brought back to life as a vegetarian vampire.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Online visa's, trying to buy bus and railway tickets :Regular frustrations in Sri Lankan life

The Company I work for was expecting some visitors, potential buyers from Africa and South Asia, We told them that they need to apply for business visas and the simplest was to get it on line.

Unfortunately the Process for ETA business not clear. The home page claims that it can be obtained from missions overseas or on arrival. Sri Lanka does not have embassies in all African countries so the buyers thought that the simplest thing would be to get it on arrival.

Apparently this is not how it is supposed to work.

Talked to a friend in the Foreign Ministry, he tells me that the process is to apply for ETA on line, get the on line approval and then get the visa stamped on arrival.

Unfortunately the on line application has no section for business visa. It was there a few weeks ago when we last had visitors but apparently no more. No explanation why it is missing or alternative instructions either. Therefore I need to call the Department of Immigration.

I get in to work early to beat the traffic, so I'm in office by about 7.30am but now I need to cool my heels until about 9am before I can start ringing up the Department of Immigration.

I was advised to speak to an Assistant Director or Deputy Director but the website only has the contact of the Controller, so I rang him up.

Deputy Controller was dealing with a number of people so no time to talk, gave me some other numbers to call. Tried calling, no one picked up. Called again and someone asked me to try the hotline.

Immigration Hotline 1962 does not work. I tried dialling it does not connect. Called the hunting line, waited on hold for a couple of minutes and gave up.

Eventually got through to someone who said that we can make the application in Colombo. We need to go the Department in person with the passport copies and a letter and fill out the application. So much for that.

On a more personal note, there is a weekend coming up, almost a long weekend (if one takes the Monday off its five days at a stretch). No time to plan anything special so am going to visit a friend in Galle.

I will be going alone so no point taking the car, I will take the train instead. Unfortunately it is not possible to buy tickets in advance (let alone online) so one has to go to the station and buy it just before the journey. Due to long queues this may take anything up to an hour.

Since I plan to leave Friday evening the possible trains are the 17.20; the 17.50 or the 18:45 trains. Even if I rush of from office at about 16.45 there is only a slim chance I can make it to the second train, due to the time taken to get a ticket. The last train only reaches Galle at 22:55, which is a bit late.

Added to this the fact that I will have to squeeze in with the office/long weekend crowd and the prospect does not appear very inviting.

Then I had an idea, why not go by the highway bus? The problem is to get to Kottawa to board the bus which is why I chose the train in the first place (getting to Fort or Maradana is easy, Kottawa is a fair way out of town). On balance, given the prospect of being squeezed in 3rd class all the way to Galle, its probably worth the bus ride to Kottawa for the added speed and comfort on the rest of the journey to Galle. Even if I get in at Kottawa at 6.30pm (which I have a decent chance of doing) I will be in Galle by 7.30pm, hurrah!

The problem is that there is no timetable for the highway bus. Online sources claim that the last bus leaves at 4.45pm, which is far too early for me and the only other link is to the Government information hotline (1919) which is fairly helpful but only operates at normal office hours.

I finally get through and am informed that there are buses until 8.40pm and that they leave every 20 minutes, which is a workable proposition. The question is why did I have to search high and low to try and get this basic information?

How can we ever hope to be a hub for information services if such basic things are not in place? 

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Central Bank Roadmap : NGO's and INGO's to be monitored by CBSL

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka has published a Monetary & Financial Road Map for 2014 and beyond.

Its a peculiar document, part propaganda and part paen to the mighty. I'm still trying to make sense of it but buried on page 150 was the announcement that the Financial Transactions Reporting Act (link to act here) was to be extended to cover NGO's and INGO's.

The Act in question is supposed to identify terrorism financing, money laundering or other crimes and is currently applicable to deposit taking institutions. The reporting follows the broad trend in banks worldwide that has taken place over the last decade or so.

Not that money laundering or financial fraud, both growth businesses in Sri Lanka are of any concern-as long as they are being done by known parties. The CSE has listed Ponzi schemes, laundries and various scams running (see for example this old article here) but no gives a damn.

The Act results in customers and banks having to fill in a lot of forms and supplying documents when it comes to opening accounts or when transacting business internationally.

The Act specifically prohibits the divulging information on the reports sent to the Financial Intelligence Unit (the section of the CBSL that does the monitoring). The CBSL already monitors NGO's/INGO's bank accounts and requests periodic reports from the banks on the nature of transactions, the identity of the people involved etc. All this has been occurring without the knowledge of the customer concerned.

Now it appears that the CBSL will start monitoring the institutions directly. The question is why?

As far as the stated purposes of the Act are concerned all its requirements can be met the monitoring of the banks, so this is probably designed to probe a lot deeper.

It may also provide a convenient tool for the bashing of NGO's. Financial compliance is tricky, the banks already have a hard time working through the thicket of regulations (principally exchange control but some others as well). This is despite having good systems and dedicated compliance teams. The regulations are byzantine (there is a need to refer to various acts, circulars and guidelines, some of which date from the 1960's) and where there is a high volume of transactions it is easy to make a mistake.

Mistakes have been seized upon by Central Bank auditors and the banks penalised. Those that are out of favour report frequent audits and heavy penalties.

For NGO's, especially those not used to stringent financial reporting, this could prove to be a problem. Errors could easily result in fines or imprisonment. Compliance will add costs (they may be required to appoint full time compliance officers and may also have to set up better data storage systems) that will strain budgets.

My advice to NGO's would be to start talking to people with experience in compliance and start thinking about how they store data and documents. They should study the standards reports/templates being used by banks and develop similar ones for their own use.