Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Is it not enough that politicians both in the Government and the Opposition are squabbling in the dark, literally so, as the Parliament chamber joined the rest of the nation this Friday with a full day blackout crippling essential functions? Do we not suffer enough by politicians and state agents disregarding the law and claiming privilege in so doing? Should we also have to undergo the ignominy of the Chief Opposition Whip no less, requesting the Government to allow Members of Parliament to enter higher educational institutions, including Universities, without a merit exam?
Disgraceful entitlements of politicians
These are part of disgraceful entitlements that Sri Lanka’s politicians claim for themselves, regardless as to whether they sit in the Government or Opposition benches. It is not only the nature of the request that is made but the sheer brazenness with which this claim is made in the first instance. The Opposition Whip appears to be laboring under a misapprehension that leeway for parliamentarians to be exempted from minimum requirements applicable to ‘ordinary’ students should be part of parliamentary privileges. Perhaps he should first read Erskine May to understand what that privilege means and the strict circumscribing of its reach in developed jurisidictions.
More to the point, is the Opposition tone deaf to the multiple enormous crises afflicting the land? From gas cylinders blowing up in the faces of hapless consumers forced to purchase them at exorbitant prices to the skyrocketing prices of essentials,is a free pass to Universities what the Opposition can think of? Two years from the largely inglorious spectacle that was the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition Government apart from rare moments of glory where it seemed that, at last, Sri Lanka would change its dismal governance culture, one would have thought that, at least, the Opposition may have learnt some lessons.
But alas, this is not the case, it seems. In fact, the performance of the Opposition in the face of what would have by this time, should have been taken on a wave of people power to unseat at least a Minister or two is the best example that we have of collusion on both sides of the House to the breakdown of governance. There is little point in the Opposition withdrawing from the budget debates on the ground that the security of their members have not been assured. Frankly, the security of the country as a whole is at grave risk.
‘Are we human beings?” a worker asks
And one rally or two does not a responsible Opposition make as it must, most categorically be told. And so a desperate populace is left without redress. Close upon Friday’s blackout, a ragged worker going home without his daily wages was heard shouting to the unsympathetic heavens, saying, ‘a human being must at least have one out of these three, power, water or gas to cook, but we do not have any of this. Are we human beings?’As misery bubbles, gas consumers who have been injured and have paid precious money for defective products, are now threatening to get onto the streets, along with a formidable array of trade unionists and farmers who have been left destitute.
All this is part of an obscene process whereby the poor gets pushed to the gutter while the rich become richer. What indeed is the point of having such a number of oversight agencies run on public funds if basic safety processes are not ensured in respect of consumer products? That is the common question that we have to ask, from contaminated coconut oil to gas cylinders. Behind each are commercial motives, the unmitigated greed of a few. And the collusion of key persons in ministerial and official ranks who offer both patronage and protection to profiteering rogues and are, in fact, bigger rogues themselves.
So when the Government says that it has prevailed upon companies supplying domestic gas to Sri Lanka to withdraw their cylinders due to the composition therein not meeting the required standards, that assurance by itself hardly suffices. There are serious questions in issue which by this time, should have led to the resignations of responsible Ministers en masse along with the relevant officials.Who decided to change the composition, who authorised the same, who decided to dispense with subjecting the cylinders to routine safety tests?
Compensation for those afflicted
And who will now have to compensate for the physical and monetary loss suffered by consumers? That is the primary issue. Have these questions been answered in order to permit the relevant companies to recommence the distribution of domestic gas to the market from next week which, it is reported, the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has decided to do? Apparently, even as the buck was being passed from one agency to another, it was widely claimed that no agency, including the Sri Lanka Standards Institution, had the legal power to test and regulate the composition of material inside the cylinder.
On the contrary, we were told that this regulatory power had to be specifically given to oversight agencies. If so, how did this lacuane get miraculously corrected in order for the supply of domestic gas to resume? Or are we relying on the internal regulatory process of the companies themselves which resulted in these grievous mishaps in the first place? Imposing conditions on these companies to ensure safety standards, as the CAA has done, is hardly reassuring. Neither is the ad hoc testing of supplies that arrive at Sri Lanka’s ports of entry.
Rather, a systematic mechanism must be put into place for rigorous quality control. And due punishments must be meted out to those responsible. But it is safe to assume that this will never happen. The explosions of domestic cylinders, the unholy circuses that take place in doing away with consumer protection, from poisoned food to black marketeers making gross profits with their patrons in Ministerial garb are only festering symptoms of a rotten State. The islandwide deprivation of power and water supply which Sri Lanka experienced this week is a harbinger of worse fates to come.
Looking at Lebanon
Blame being laid on ‘saboteurs’ is an old story and one that we are heartily tired of. So as extreme dysfunction in the Government deepens, resignations of public officers take place en masse, the very basic process of governance splutters with not even a semblance of accountability. As the Opposition flounders, this land’s most unfortunate citizens are left to their own devices. It does not matter that the Governor of the Central Bank threatens punitive sanctions on migrant workers who refuse to send hard earned moneys to their families through the formal banking channels.
This is due not to any wild disobedience of the law by otherwise law-abiding citizens but entirely owing to the artificial low rate of foreign exchange that the Bank, in its infinite wisdom, has sought to impose. The law and the very notion of its dire consequences ceases to have meaning to a man or a woman when pushed to the wall of extreme poverty. This is a singular warning that the Central Bank and indeed, the Government itself, may take note of. To what greater extent can the Centre collapse within itself?
We may look at Lebanon to find the grim answer to that question.