FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS | Sunday Observer

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne, 1624.

In an eerie replay of events exactly one year ago, give or take a week, Sri Lanka is once again at the mercy of global warming, killing more than 100 and displacing thousands from their homes. Landslides and floods caused similar damage in mid-May 2016 and millions of rupees worth property were completely ruined in addition to the deaths and injuries suffered by our people.

Then, as now, countries around the world, specially our neighbours, India and Pakistan, responded quickly, sending in essential items in ship loads while others, like Australia and the United States launched programmes to supply safe water and other necessities to affected areas over a period of three years.

Our own Disaster Management Centre, in the meanwhile, it appears, went to sleep.

As reported elsewhere in this week´s Sunday Observer, the DMC found it without a single bottle of 5 litre water, a single blanket, life jackets, mats, tents, towels, matchboxes, and even appears to have run out of bed sheets, with only 175 being available with the number needed recorded as 8,300.

As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was to note at a hurriedly convened officials' meeting held at 'Temple Trees' on Saturday, 27 May 2017, something is amiss in our disaster preparedness.

The Prime Minister pointed to an alarming communication gap amongst the relevant agencies while calling for better coordination. “When I studied the statistics relating to the rainfall during the last few days, Kukuleganga had a highest rainfall of 500 odd millimetres. Had the relevant authorities communicated this information at least when the rainfall reached 150 millimetres, we could have taken precautionary steps before it was too late,” the Premier observed.

Rainfall as high as 500 mm was reported in several parts of the country on Thursday, 25th, with highest rainfall of 553 mm recorded from Kukuleganga in the Kalutara District while nearly 500 mm of rain had fallen in Weeraketiya.

India, once again, was the first to respond, sending a supply ship from Tuticorin. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted “We stand with our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters in their hour of need,” while promising to send one more ship, due to arrive on by Monday.

More relief is expected to come from the international community within the next few days.

Asking for relief

As one of his first acts, new foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake was to appeal to the United Nations, International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (ISARAG) and neighbouring countries to assist the people affected by flash floods and landslides on Friday itself. Meanwhile, new Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, was seeking ways and means of providing immediate finance assistance to the flood affected. Premier Wickremesinghe was to direct Minister Samaraweera to immediately provide relief on Friday.

The government may find itself in a tough spot after some reports indicate that the National Insurance Trust Fund (NITF) may not have renewed the natural disaster cover for 2017 after terminating the re-insurance cover with Munich Re, that paid off over Rs one billion for claims made for the damage caused last year. While around Rs 800 million is yet to be paid out in claims from last year (according to one source, nearly 90% of this is due to be paid to one factory), sources claim that the delay is due to non-submission of claim documentation. If the reports are correct and the tender process to select a new re-insurer has not yet been completed while the old agreement had not renewed, the government will have the additional burden of paying off the insurance claims itself.

On Friday, a supplementary estimate presented to the parliament to spend more than Rs.360 million to purchase vehicles for some ministers and renovate official residences of several other ministers came in for heavy criticism by members of the JO, JVP,and the TNA. The notes of the supplementary estimate said funds that were allocated for the purchase of vehicle in 2016 but remains unutilized will be used.In addition Rs.3.4 million was sought for the repairs of the official residence of Social Empowerment and Social Welfare Minister, Rs.1.2 million for the repairs of the official residence of Digital Infrastructure Development Minister and Rs.5.9 million for the renovation of Central Province Governor's official residence.

Meanwhile, President Sirisena, who was on an official visit to Australia while the floods struck, said in a twitter message that he has ordered officials to take necessary action to provide relief for individuals affected by floods and landslides. ‘I was dismayed by the news of the disastrous situation which has taken many lives’ President Sirisena said.

Exchanging portfolios

Accompanying the President on this official visit were Deputy Ministers Dr. Harsha De Silva and Ajith P. Perera. Dr De Silva, currently the deputy for Foreign Affairs, had appealed to the Prime Minister and to the President that he should be accommodated elsewhere. Sources indicate that come this week, there may be another round of changes, this time at the deputy and state minister levels which may also see the affable deputy minister of power, who is now being labelled the “solar” deputy for pushing a strong renewable energy agenda, may find himself back at the Foreign Ministry, where he was, prior to his Power and Energy assignment.

A major winner from the cabinet changes last week was Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. In addition to the general finance related workload, Minister Mangala may also take some responsibility to find finances for reconciliation with India indicating that they may work more closer with Minister Samaraweera and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. According to diplomatic sources, India had sent a message through unofficial channels that they will extend their fullest support to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, former President Kumaratunga, and President Sirisena, in their efforts to achieve reconciliation and accelerate the constitutional changes that are deemed necessary to achieve this goal. This message comes in the wake of reports that several UNP ministers have indicated to some Western diplomats that the President is under pressure from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party stalwarts to end the joint memorandum of understanding he has with the Prime Minister to continue with the “National" government beyond its mandate this year.

Cabinet reshuffle

While the cabinet reshuffle mainly targeted the finance ministry, one other major change, this at the insistence of the Prime Minister was the move from Ports to Petroleum of Minister Arjuna Ranatunga. The appointment of Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe to the Port portfolio, it is believed, will bring some pragmatism and professionalism to that portfolio.

In the international arena the Ministry of Foreign Affairs holds a position only second to the country’s Prime Minister. While at the beginning Minister Karunanayake seemed agitated with the change of portfolio,with time he has resigned himself to accept the reality.

The President was determined to move Minister Karunanayake out of Finance; may be to appease his own genre in the government, who had joined hands with him to give vigour and strength to the unity government.

There was a general perception among those who joined to form the unity government that there was no flexibility on the part of the UNP to accept their economic policy as a way forward for the unity government. The SLFP policies are not aligned with that of UNP policies since always it had a tinge of nationalism and socialism attached to it though they generally did not oppose the market economy even during the reins of Mahinda Rajapakse.

Market economy is well established but when it comes to investments, the UNP policies are not palatable with that of the SLFP. The nationalist element of the SLFP is live and visible among the SLFP politicians. May be those ideals were not strictly followed during Rajapakse time owing to his strong attachment and commitment to China for economic survival.Nationalism was best practiced during election time as a magic wand that had given them an edge over the UNP in the rural Sinhala areas where people are gullible for nationalist slogans.

The Central Bank fiasco too was at the centre of the controversy for the SLFP to push for this minor cabinet reform. The SLFP and the Joint Opposition were quick to apportion the blame squarely on the UNP and the President moved to appoint a Presidential Commission of inquiry to put the controversy to rest.

Though the Cabinet reshuffle came under the veil of a major change talked for months in many a political forums the target was finance. The change was effected on Monday before the President’s visit to Australia on a state (official) visit.

The President had long and extensive discussions with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and at times consulted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to ascertain the direction of the government.

Last Sunday night Prime Minister Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting of the UNP group where he discussed and explained the mechanics and the circumstances that led to the change.

Minister Karunanayake was edgy and nervous and the Prime Minister was unnerved by the demands put forward by the dejected minister. However, the speculation is that certain sections that were part of his domain when he was Finance Minister would go back to him though he would now hold a different portfolio. These speculations were however quashed by none other than UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera there was no agreement anything of that sort.

The responsibility of appeasing Ravi will inevitably fall back on the shoulder of the Prime Minister.

In the circumstances, there would be a delay in appointing new deputy ministers and allocating the subjects of the new ministries.

Losing the diplomat

The international community was quite taken aback since they were losing a seasoned diplomat in Mangala. Mangala played a dynamic role as the foreign minister trying to sort out Sri Lanka’s accountability issues with the UNCHR and the international community. Amiable person in the discharge of his duties Mangala was acceptable to both the UNP and the SLFP. A sworn loyalist of President Chandrika Kumaratunga later shifted his allegiance to the UNP when he had differences with President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Lost amongst the fluff of the cabinet changes was an important piece of news that came from the office of the EU ambassador to Sri Lanka last week. As reported elsewhere, The European Union (EU) had noted that the pace of reforms in Sri Lanka had slowed significantly with straightforward deliverables such as the operationalization of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) yet to materialise. Ambassador of the EU to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Tung-Laï Margue expressed these views when he met National Integration and Reconciliation State Minister A.H.M. Fowzie at his ministry last week.

Issuing a statement, the EU delegation said,“Ambassador Margue and Minister Fowzie had discussed the Government's priorities with regards to reconciliation as well as the EU's wide-ranging support to the Government's reforms. During the discussion on resettlement, Minister Fowzie had noted the progress in land returns and underscored the complex realities of resettlement and land restitution in the former conflict zones. Minister Fowzie had assured greater cooperation between his ministry and the EU and expressed the country's appreciation to it for funding already pledged towards strengthening the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.”

“The EU is providing EUR 12 million to strengthen the reconciliation process by seeking institutional consensus across various government entities and civil society, in addition to contributing to strengthening the linkages between the government and the people at the grass-roots. The programme will also facilitate initiatives that link reconciliation and non-recurrence by addressing language barriers and psycho-social needs as well as using arts and culture to break down barriers between communities.”

One of the first issues Minister Karunanayake will have to respond will be this statement from the EU.

As far as Minister Samaraweera is concerned, he appears to be unruffled by what was going on and ready to look at the bigger picture rather than drowning in petty issues relating to subjects on the plate.

Making his views known to the people Minister Samaraweera told Parliament last week he would bring about new dimensions to the subject of finance getting involved in nation building.

The subject of Media is nothing new to Minister Samaraweera since he handled media under President Kumaratunga though at times came under the flak of the media he was generally accepted as a fair person who would not perpetuate self-glory through media and always be a fair person in the discharge of his duties.

The government needs a very pragmatic person who could think rationally to handle the media in the face of growing opposition and the manipulations carried out by the joint opposition.

Another strange report

Meanwhile, hard on the heels of this column reporting last week of an increase in the flow of unsolicited proposals coming for major infrastructure projects from India, a particular report in the Hindustan Times was to catch the eye of officials.

The report indicated that India and Japan will join hands to set up a $ 250 million LNG import terminal in Sri Lanka, with Petronet LNG Ltd, said to be India’s biggest gas importer, proposing to set up the facility.

“An agreement has been reached between the governments of India, Sri Lanka and Japan to set up the LNG terminal as a 50:50 joint venture by Petronet and a Japanese company,” Hindustan Times quoted Petronet Managing Director and CEO Prabhat Singh as saying.

However, senior officials from the Development Strategies and International Trade Ministry were quick to deny this report, stating that the working group to discuss this project, which comes under the recently signed MOU between Sri Lanka and India, is only meeting in June for its first discussion. “ We are not aware of this company and we have definitely not made any decisions regarding this project as this moment,” Secretary to the Ministry, Chandani Wijewardene told this newspaper early yesterday morning.

Also taking the investor community by surprise on Saturday was an announcement made by Advisor to the Prime Minister, R. Paskaralingam, that the solid waste to energy projects, recently announced with much ballyhooby the Minister of Mega polis ChampikaRanawaka, may well be delayed. “When we awarded these projects, we were made to understand there was financing available. However, it appears, there is no such financing,” Mr Paskaralingam was to tell at a meeting called to inform about another delay – that of the proposed Elevated Highway from the New Kelani Bridge to Rajagiriya. The Request for Proposals (RFP´s) for this project was to be issued in the first week of April to 14 bidders who qualified through an EOI process in January this year. However, the government is now proposing to call for fresh, simplified EOI´s, stating the earlier requirements were too “tough” and kept away investors who may have, otherwise, taken part in the bidding process.

Comments

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.