By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies”. – Avraham Burg (International Herald Tribune – 6.9.2003)
‘වෙළද පොල බිද වැටේ ආන්ඩුව නිදි’ -මෑනිං වෙළපොල සුරැකීමේ වෙළද සංගමය – Protest in Against Vegetable Law of the Sri Lanka Government – 14 Dec 2011 – Front of Railway Station Colombo Fort-pic courtesy: VikalpaSL
The ‘plastic crates saga’ is a quintessentially Rajapaksa tale.
Arbitrariness is a hallmark of the ‘Johnston Law’, decreeing plastic crates mandatory in transporting vegetables and fruits.
Amidst the furore over this inane law, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa told its maker, Minister of Cooperation and Internal Trade Johnston Fernando, “if grass roots level stakeholders are involved a lot of problems can be avoided” (Daily Mirror, December 14, 2011).
Minister Fernando’s doppelgänger law is unintelligent because it ignores actual conditions and is indifferent to real-life problems of small-scale traders and farmers who struggle to eke a liveable income. In talking to Derana TV, these grassroots-level stakeholders argued that this law would make farming more expensive and life more precarious.
Traders explained that two or three crates would be needed for what could be carried in one sack. An elderly farmer lamented that though he can walk the long distance from his plot to the road carrying a gunny bag on his back, carrying two or three plastic crates will be beyond his capacity.
Another said that several gunny bags could be strapped onto a bicycle easily but not several crates. Upcountry vegetable farmers pointed out the dangers involved in carrying crates downhill (especially on slippery or uneven tracks). These problems should have been obvious, had the power-wielders considered the issue with just a pinch of sense and a drop of sensibility.
The law criminalised what is harmless, normal and cheap. A trader who transported some papayas in sacks was reportedly fined Rs.8,000. When farmers and traders started protesting, the regime reacted as if they were national enemies. Protesters were tear-gassed and scores arrested. The army was called in and the Dambulla Economic Centre and the Manning Market occupied, under the guise of providing security. The Minister, a UNP defector turned Rajapaksa-favourite, threatened to transfer the Manning Market to Narahenpita, immediately, “if the vendors in the Manning Market continue their protest” (Lanka Page – December 14, 2011).
For the Rajapaksas, development is mostly facelifts. This beauty-parlour approach to development, which prioritises appearances even at the risk of economic fundamentals, is central to the Rajapaksa plan of imposing a First World façade on a Sri Lanka languishing in Third World conditions.
The resultant delusionary-development is a concomitant of the Rajapaksa project of building a one-family state behind a Democratic façade.
The ‘Johnston Law’ fits in well with this approach: colourful crates are easier on the eye than gunny bags/sacks; they seem ‘First Worldish’ unlike gunny bags/sacks which carry an unmistakably underdeveloped aura!
Even the Southern Expressway is not immune to this psychological-malaise. Last month, the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) issued a public statement warning that it informed the authorities of shortcomings in the Expressway but did not receive a ‘noteworthy response’. The CILT also wondered whether “vital safety features have been compromised in design and cost cutting”).
The Rajapaksas have a habit of making bad laws, arbitrarily. The failed amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act is an excellent case in point. As Namini Wijedasa revealed, the amendment did not specify what a ‘sacred area’ is; this seminal omission would have given the Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs a boundless right to declare anything a ‘sacred area’ and rendered legal remedies impossible: “How would one argue that one’s property is not ‘sacred’, if the law does not explain what ‘sacred’ means? (Lakbima News – December 11, 2011).
The indifference to the problems and concerns of ordinary people, a common condition of North-Eastern existence, is becoming increasingly manifest in the South as well. For instance, the regime is planning to build a 1,435 acre sports village in Suriyawewa by filling six tanks! Recently Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa appealed to the Minister of Sports to “be more sensitive to the needs of the farmers affected” (Daily Mirror – December 9, 2011).
The sports village will cost the people of Suriyaweva far more jobs and income than it can ever create. And one can imagine how many livelihoods and lives will be endangered by closing six dry zone-tanks and replacing them with a water-guzzling sports village (it would also raise the human-elephant conflict to new highs).
The regime says it will provide the affected families with alternate sources of water. Which irrigation scheme will be used for the purpose? At what cost to the nation and the people will this water be provided, if it is provided?
The Rajapaksa regime carries a makeup box in one hand and a gun in the other. When political/economic facelifts do not suffice, repression comes into play. Last week 45 human rights activists from the South were arrested in Jaffna, when they tried to join a protest to mark the International Human Rights Day. Disappearances too are mounting. The deployment of the army to counter Democratic protests by traders and farmers indicates why new military bases are mushrooming, post-war
The President has agreed to postpone the implementation of the ‘Johnston Law’ by a month. Will the regime do the sensible thing and allow this asinine law to lapse into oblivion by disuse? Or will it use that month to break the will of the farmers and traders through acts of targeted repression?
‘Who will get the commission for the crates?’ read a poster held aloft by a Manning Market protester against the ‘Johnston Law’. It was an apposite question. According to former Chief Justice Asoka de Silva, “the country’s development rate has dropped by 2% due to the increase in corruption…. Corruption costs Rs.100 billion to the country which in turn affects the poverty levels” (Sri Lanka Mirror – December 12, 2011).
Mr. de Silva is not only a former Chief Justice; he is also a current Presidential Advisor. Therefore his critique, made at a ceremony to mark International Anti-Corruption Day, cannot be dismissed as a piece of anti-Rajapaksa propaganda. Mr. de Silva is very firmly on the Rajapaksa side of the political divide and his remarks indicate that the regime’s outré conduct disturbs its more perspicacious supporters.
The former top judge turned presidential advisor drew attention to another dangerous malaise – income inequality: “The per capita income stated by the government in the budget is earned only by about 4% of the country’s population while the rest of the people earn around US$5 or 6 (daily)” (ibid). There is a connection between the exacerbation of inequality and the ubiquity of corruption.
The beneficiaries of corruption are mainly the powerful and the rich; the poor and the middle classes lose, because the money so stolen/frittered could have been used in alleviating poverty and improving services. The injection of more than Rs.3 billion of public funds to Mihin Lanka in just three years is not just a measure of Rajapaksa profligacy. It also indicates how governing by the Rajapaksas for the Rajapaksas can undermine national economic-health and popular living standards.
Even as traders were protesting against the ‘Johnston Law’ in Pettah, hectic preparations were going on in adjoining Fort for a game of night-races, reportedly a pet-project of the Rajapaksa Sons. Two antithetical worlds, which cannot co-exist, fated to collide