Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Future for our youth 2010 onwards


What have we as a country planned for our youth who form the backbone of a prosperous future? Without them any talk of development or projects and investment become meaningless. There is a well intentioned slogan called “tharunyata hetak” or “a tomorrow for our youth” but it has been completely hijacked by its founders as another political platform with which to hoodwink the electorate thereby barstardizing the future of our young people.
Let us follow this logically so that we can implement a program of inclusiveness and empowering of youth so they truly have a future that is full of hope and promise, as well as a path, which if followed will help them in achieving goals.
Firstly we should provide direction to these people who are currently rudderless to the point of drifting in the high seas. Education has failed them for the most part in setting objectives and attainable goals. This has to be corrected without delay. Living skills so that they are aware of how to survive in an increasingly sophisticated world, from obtaining their own bank accounts and skills in managing finance and understanding savings and investment are important. Relationship skills, such as fulfillment in relationships, are important as parents have failed to explain some of the harsh facts. I am still amazed how 18year olds are fully committed to the first relationship they have entered into and are convinced this person will be the person they marry at a future date, when circumstances are appropriate.
Income earning skills are equally important so they know what it is they are good at, what is practical that pays, and how one goes about obtaining the job, or going ahead with a business opportunity. Here again we have failed miserably, and seeing 40,000 graduates who have been waiting, some for 10 years, for the government to provide them with jobs is a case in point.
Commitment skills, both to one’s career, goals and relationships is another that seems to be sadly lacking. Then taking responsibility for ones actions and for one’s commitments is a part of adulthood is non-existent. Cooperative and participatory skills, so that they can be useful members of society is yet another area that requires further development. It is surprising how poor our youth are in pooling their resources to achieve a common objective, as they do not understand how to work as a team, not believing that often, compromise is inevitable.
This list should form part of the mandatory education of youth prior to them leaving school so that they end up with a clear direction to follow.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

why kalpanakaranna as my blog address

A new life given to a rocking chair that had been discarded and picked up from a rubbish heap

I was with some acquaintances recently and was asked about my blogging and why I had so many. What I have tried to do is separate different subjects out as otherwise it would further confuse the readers. My main blog tags the day to day travails of life in Sri Lanka that I have chosen to lead, warts and all.Then I have tried to devote exclusively to the subject of farming and note some of the issues I am confronted with in this regard. Then is to showcase the little lodge at the edge of the forest that I hope one day will be my permanent home, where I can pursue my hobbies and finally live my dream. This still appears a long way off! I have recently opened another blog for my two dogs, Sinha Bahu and Megha as a pictorial record of sinha bahu's view on life.

This blog is to take the subject that Sri Lankans are least proficient at, namely lack of thinking, and illustrate the pitfalls we fall into due to the lack of thought attached to what we do. In my view we have a tendency in Sri Lanka to live our lives for someone be it for show, or to please someone, and thereby lose any sense of identity of ourselves and fail to do what we like within reason and practical possibilities, and then fail to rationalize our lives into some logical and meaningful path.

Due to these weaknesses in the national psyche I have found it very hard to explain to people that we need to have some purpose to our lives as well as some goals which we aspire to and not let ourselves be led by others.

It is important that in these complicated times using very sophisticated technologies and especially in the era of the Internet that we take stock of our lives, and attempt to summarize the lowest common denominator so we move forward in a more purposeful and meaningful way. We have never been pushed in so many directions by so many people all offering conflicting advice that complicate our already confused thoughts.

We must go back to basics, find what is important to us individually, and then make a plan to attain some of those desires as otherwise we will just live for the sake of living, where we would rather be dead if we have no reason to live!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is anyone born to lead? I believe it is earned through struggle and experience!

I touched upon the characteristics which I believe are required for leadership in Sri Lanka, in my previous blog entry below, which I believe is expected to be published in a Newspaper on Sunday. The major disqualification I believe is a lifetime in Politics which tends to remove the person from the real world. That then becomes more a game of playing one lawmaker against the other to get the requisite backing for one’s agenda, a game that is learnt through years of insider horse-trading. Another is having dynastic politics saying a person of such and such a name has been in parliament since the year dot, as if that is proof of service of a family to a country, which is automatically not.
One must note that even in India, a dynasty gave way to meritocracy, where the dynasty is on the sidelines; as trustees only of the party, so that the capable new blood, with a fresh outlook can govern. Dynastic secession can be a self fulfilling prophecy, as elder members can groom younger ones due to the privileges and access they have to get elected. This presumption that the next generation will be as committed to the development of the country, as the prior is grossly erroneous. This should also be considered a disqualification as the logic is suspect.
Once we eliminate these usurpers or princes, depending on your point of view, one levels the playing field a little more, though not totally as that is impractical. I have advocated that the time servers act as trustees and bring in fresh ideas from people out of the mainstream political pool, and develop and promote them, through clever use of the media and advertising; persons who are more capable of being objective in leadership of the nation. We will then give those people who are really capable a chance at fair leadership, not tainted with years in the wilderness, waiting for the opportunity to take the reigns by fair means or foul.
It is obvious that power so gained as is the case in Sri Lanka, is such that they will do their utmost to hold onto, at all costs for as long as possible. Power gained on a meritocratic rise is more likely to be result oriented and limited to a time frame. This latter principle is very important so that time servers who cannot see the failure of their performance will not hold onto power. Why is 5% growth publicized as being good, when 10% should be the norm. This lack of accountability and failure on the part of the public to punish poor performance is what keeps an extremely incompetent regime in power, as the criteria that they and the public have set them is not challenging, and incompetence is shrouded. If only a fraction of the energy expended to hold onto power is used for development what then would be the result? It is time we all raise the goal post so failure is obvious.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

whose life is it anyway? it is all about me stupid!


Is it any wonder that in discussions accross bedrooms, boardrooms and reception rooms and public places we fail to concentrate on the obvious but dwell on the heresay in this election campaign?

In my opinion it is playing to the baser instincts of man when we use election propaganda and advertising to imply that without mentioning names, and just using images and words, that the future can only be guaranteed by one leader with no name!!

Little guessing who that person is. It is important to be direct and not sidestep the issue as both parties can then say it is them that the message is trying to promote!

I see the blue and green flags now together in one place crisscrossing the roads while I drive about the country, something I have never experienced before. Is that also a subtle message? that being it does not matter what the color is! At present I see one side far outspending the other, and that too in private media more than in state media, another quite novel phenomena. So is there overkill by one and quiet confidence that overkill is killing by the other?

All these observations together make me uneasy with the whole campaign, which is not specific about what one or the other is going to do, thereby easily saying they did not promise anything so nothing needs to be delivered.

This kind of double speak makes potential voters very cynical about the whole process, isolating them from reality and the feeling that they can make a real difference to the quality of life of themselves personally.

After all lets go back to basics. It is all about me, however we couch it. Am I happy now, will I be happy in the future and am I being shown a realistic path of attaining this happiness? Answer that simple question and we may then be able to make our personal decision. What if we come up with the answer that there is noone offering even a semblence of the solution we so desire? Then do we not vote?

Of course we all have our personal loves and hates and we should each be entitled to form our own opinions. One hate is that I hear so often that only a professional politician is capable of leading the country, and those with the most experience supposedly with the best credentials. To me those with the least experience in politics, but the most experience in life, especially having had to undergo hardship and who have made it to a certain stage of attainment make the best leaders, truly understanding what it is like to be poor, and what it takes to achieve success. They are then more able to motivate, encourge productivity, empower, provide confidence and leadership and finally pride in patriotism.

So ask the question, try and answer it as best you can and then go for the lesser of evils. Look at the mirror ask not what you wish for the country, just what you wish for yourself. You will then find the answer, as the sum total of the individual needs is what the nation needs!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Which way is the rural voter in the hinterland likely to vote?

I am asked this question time and again in conversations with my customers in Colombo on my delivery route as I lug bunches of thambili or shake the coconuts to ensure they are sufficiently mature for their consumption.
I will honestly say that it is a very difficult question to answer and more so at this Presidential Election. One must realize that in rural areas in villages, political patronage is a very important thing. I have known households who have lost Samurdhi (welfare benefits) for being on the losing side of an election. Job recommendations are given by the local Grama Sevaka(the state’s bureaucrat at village level) and recently a host of Samurdhi officers have been given appointments as Grama Sevakas. It is extremely sad that this position is becoming more like a political appointment and not one on merit, resulting in security of tenure only as long as your party is in power. No wonder then that with so much at stake, an entrenched bureaucracy will try to preserve the status quo at all costs.
As a broad generalization, people know which households are PA, JVP and UNP. This is referred to sometimes as the block vote, and the others the floating voter. Needless to say the block vote is also susceptible to permanent change due to personal circumstances where either a promise was not fulfilled or if a household determines that changing sides will help them get a benefit such as electricity to their home or such like. These examples of a highly politicized system affect the openness with which people are likely to speak their mind. I have referred to the two faced approach earlier where they may tell me something on the basis of what they think I want to hear, and not what they really think.
To explain this further, if they determine you are of a particular party they may sing praises to you about them, and if you make clear to the contrary that you are in fact fed up with them, the person in an instant is likely especially if he was lying initially to completely change his tune in an instant.
No wonder opinion polls will never work to gauge public sentiment. To get back to the original point, as General Fonseka is really of no particular party, there is absolutely no reason why one would want to openly stake allegiance to him, as they have nothing personal to gain from and a lot to lose. This will be the first election where either the result is a foregone conclusion, or one that is completely a surprise due to the different ground rules. The first time voter is also less likely to toe the household line, and be more independent depending on what they perceive as the opportunities or lack of open to them to achieve their personal goals.

Friday, November 27, 2009

After being back in Sri Lanka for five years - a short list of one liners

some observations that came to mind in no particular order of significance

The decision was to attempt to live in a village outside of my existing comfort zone

1 The village was not the romantic serene idyllic place of my imagination
2 Much of the poverty I observe is self inflicted and based on ritual of expectations
3 There is no such thing as “my word can be relied upon for anything”
4 Level of illness, hypochondria and downtime is of gargantuan proportions
5 People are two faced, saying one thing and behaving quite the opposite
6 When it comes to an almsgiving you can expect unlimited help
7 No one ever says they cannot come, especially when you invite them for a meal
8 People are very contradictory often denying what they have earlier said
9 I have never been invited for so many meals at short notice in my life
10 I cannot imagine how I have lived on so little and perceived as having so much
11 My being let down by those I had financial transactions with is astronomic
12 The density of con artists trying a fast one is probably the highest in the world
13 The level of generosity of the poor person knows no bounds
14 Every bus journey has people singing for supper due to the above generosity
15 Never give anything expecting anything in return, it’s a lost cause
16 The amount of cooked food that does not get eaten by humans is mindboggling
17 People look for stray dogs and cats to feed with the expectation of merit
18 Each cow saved from slaughter permits the butcher to kill 3 more with the profit
19 Lack of sense in financial transactions is legendary even amongst the wealthy
20 The fear of experimenting with a new idea prevents innovative thinking
21 There are too many pied piper followers and too few genuine leaders
22 There is inherent belief that what they see on TV or read in the paper is true
23 The complete absence of thinking in society at large spawned my blog
24 I am stopped at road blocks for my King Coconuts and not to check my ID
25 Farmers have no idea of their soil’s nutrient content or lack of it
26 80% of the Fertilizer subsidy is wasted
27 People have no concept of nutrition, and what is a healthy diet
28 Powdered-milk is preferred to fresh cow’s milk
29 More mangoes are lost to bats than what we consume
30 There are more monkeys than people in rural areas and they eat too much
31 Very little cultivable land is used, as it is considered unprofitable
32 Mothers being physically abused by sons they spoil is tolerated
33 Boys want to marry the first girl he falls in love with at age 16
34 Farmers quarrel and disagree amongst each other more than they cooperate
35 The level of superstition and ritual, control people’s lives and thinking
36 Almost all bureaucrats look at ways of making some money on the side
37 A government job is coveted over any other due to security and pension at 55
38 The police are more intent on catching speeders than in preventing accidents
39 Drivers have no sense of direction or that there are cars behind them
40 The country is paradise on earth but the people living there choose to spoil it

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Politics appears to be a game for people with little else to do

A school friend of mine, who I had met again for the first time in 5 years only a week ago, called me this morning, saying he had just been promised nominations by the President for the Kurunegala District list, and demanded that I raise money for his campaign, or he would never speak to me! “Nor don’t come to me for favors when I am in power as I will only help those who helped to put me in power.”
This in essence is what is wrong with politics today in Sri Lanka. Whilst this chap is not all bad, on one thing he said I do agree. You have to be in power in Sri Lanka to make a positive difference to the people or constituents you represent, whether they appreciate what you have done for them or not.
Another sad fact that is also true, is that it is now a case of wanting to go into politics not to improve the lot of the constituent, but to make money for the person, by lying to the constituents to get elected, the standard practice, due to the general assertion that telling the truth in Sri Lanka will not get votes.
I also know for a fact that there is a power struggle first to get on the nomination list, and people are fighting to be named, hanging around like leaches in Temple Trees hoping they can get the ear of the Boss. That sadly is how the system works, and once you have the OK from the Boss, he then says find enough friends amongst the current leadership to help you as otherwise you don’t stand a chance, and the Boss also demands you help him win the Presidency, the main ingredient being funds for the massive costs of the campaign, with Arrack being one of the highest expenses of the “mathata thitha campaign”(full stop to alcohol being a major slogan of the current administration). You literally have to buy a bottle for each campaign helper to get him to canvass or distribute pamphlets. He or she does not do it out of conviction, but in the hope of getting tangible in return, either now in the form of a bottle in the case of the alcoholic or later in the form of a sinecure or contract by which the helper hopes to make a huge return on his investment.
I agree with those who say this is the same in any democracy and it is the question of the degree to which it happens that differs and matters to the society in question. It is no lie to say that it is this form of government that has reduced a once successful nation, to one that is performing at about 25% of its potential. 100% of its potential will certainly put the country on a par with the best bearing in mind the huge human resource potential that lies dormant in this country, only to wake up in countries other than in Sri Lanka, where they migrate to.
The main point of my argument is that from the aforesaid it is a game that has huge returns for a winner, and is a gamble with high stakes. There is a large section of the community who are genuine about their altruistic motives to get into politics, but they just do not stand a chance, as they don’t have the pedigree of nepotism and personal gain that is required to get a party’s nomination in either of the main parties, but to an extent now creeping into the minor parties too.
It is this type of person who should be encouraged to enter politics; some of whom have worked all their lives in private enterprise, working for others, and then for themselves, who know the real world. The struggles of coping with bureaucrats, whose agendas are different from the supposed objectives of their employment, are known to them. They will then make the system what it should be, a servant of the state. The law currently is not fair by all, and has to be applied without favoritism.
These people who are not generally wealthy, but are of high moral standing and integrity, with a limited life span left, with no band of relatives to procure largess, don’t stand a chance of being elected unless they are adopted by a party that is able to sponsor them. Therein lies the rub. A genuine party has to emerge, where its trustees don’t aspire to public office, but are able with the integrity they command to attract donations and who by a selection process are able to nominate worthy individuals, giving them the necessary backing to carry out a credible campaign in both educating the potential voter on the merits of the party and its platform of candidates and the genuine objectives of the manifesto. This new direction from a main party in Sri Lanka politics is what is needed first to turn the country round, and not the same old game that is now playing like a broken record yet again, ready to hoodwink the unsuspecting population.
It is not the years of party membership that matters for nomination, it is the years spent in the service of ones specialty that matters. It is the level of experience on the subject matter, the degree of commitment to the objectives of the party and the willingness to commit the rest of one’s life or a stated period of one’s life that matters. We can then eliminate those who get into politics at an early age to work themselves through the system, as they really have no idea of life outside elected office, which elevates them from real life in Sri Lanka.
To clarify the point I am making, I would like to leave the reader with this thought. Every bus-stand in Sri Lanka has deep pot holes full of water, after each heavy thunder shower. The passengers invariably get drenched when the bus comes to where they are. No elected official appears to travel by bus so is not aware of this as otherwise corrective action would have been taken. I travel by bus regularly.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A coastal fisherman’s tale – from tsunami to post conflict

The 26th December 2004 tsunami devastated the coastal fishing industry, where only the fishermen, who were at sea when the tsunami hit were unaffected as far as loss of boats was concerned. Many lost their loved ones who lived on the coast.
The post tsunami rehabilitation resulted in many people who did not even own fishing boats receiving them, by making claims. Many multi boat owning fishing mudalalis were reduced to competing with their previous employees who now owned their own boats, having received them free from INGO’s, and the former had to begin anew not having received compensation as they were uninsured.
The ongoing war with the LTTE left large extents of the coast-line out of bounds for fisherman. They were restricted to the type of outboard motors they could use for fishing. The few fisherman who remained who were able to bring in fish were rewarded by high prices prevailing in the market for fish, though as in every case the fisherman receives the a fraction of the eventual price the consumer has to pay in their home village or town for the purchase of the fish at the fish stall or outlet.
Since the end of the war, the coastal areas have gradually opened up to fishing, and once the IDP’s are settled back in their home villages, those who engaged in fishing will be able to return to their previous trade if they so choose. This together with the relaxation in the permissible outboard-engines, will allow more power that permit greater distances, and result in a significant increase in the sea fish that is available at markets all over the country presumably at significantly lower prices.
Just this weekend in Godagama where my farm is, I purchased 500g squid at Rs 180 and 500g salaya (I think that is sardines) at Rs 80 both for frying for my dad and myself, and 500g prawns at Rs 280 and 500g paraw for Rs260 for the staff on the farm. It is possible that prawns are either farmed or lagoon ones, I am not sure. I however, certainly don’t think these prices are much lower than in the past.
I saw in today’s paper (November 24th) how a drag net fisherman Lal Fernando and his team, had caught 5000 paraw fish weighing 100,000kg on Sunday on the sea off Iranavila between Chilaw and Puttlam, where a 10kg fish was selling at the beach for Rs1,300 at an average selling price of Rs130/kg. I am however skeptical about the reports from newspapers as journalists don’t have common sense to verify that the figures given to them bear any semblance of reason or logic. If it was true his night’s catch would have yielded Rs13,000,000. Note that I had purchased paraw at 4times this price at retail level providing employment and profits for all in the food chain, allowing for some wastage along the way.
The government is also in the process of building a new state of the art wholesale Fish Market in Peliyagoda just outside the Colombo city limits, to replace the St John’s Market which has seen better days and is now more like Covent Garden, having outlived its usefulness and just needs a preservation order on the building and a new regeneration in the heart of the overcrowded Pettah where it stands.
It is important that refrigerated transport facilities along with cold rooms are established to enable storage and extended life of the fish catch that can be quite haphazard to meet the increased demands of a consumer base that eats little beef. There is also now concern about eating chicken due to the hormones used to speed up their growth to come to table in double quick time. Natural sea fish as well as lake fish is the natural alternative source of protein for the majority of the people.
I believe that this industry is poised for take-off, for people in this industry to benefit. The growth has to be managed is such a way that it does not impoverish the poorest people who engage in this business. The small one boat owner who for generations has been fishing in coastal waters is seeing a declining fish catch. Suddenly he is faced with lower prices for his catch that has further reduced his income. The cost of inputs like nets, labor and diesel has risen. He does not see any improvement as a result of the end of the war, but in fact a decline. So the issue has to be tackled head on. His special skills have to be recognized and if he is a candidate for a team to go on a multiday craft where the fish stocks are plentiful outside the range of the day craft, of 4km, he will be able to increase his income with better and more efficient fishing and economical methods of fishing.
This is a further example of poor management of a golden opportunity that the government has been presented with after the end of the war that already appears to have been squandered. The stooges of government have been given some of the benefits of the use of trawlers and multiday craft for those who know little about fishing but who see this merely as another opportunity for making money. They have no knowledge in the business and will stifle genuine competition.
Sadly, I see that the fish stalls in the new market have also been allocated, not based on competitive tendering but on largesse being bestowed by the relevant minister to him and his friends. In what country does the minister of fisheries have his own fish stalls where the fish are diverted to? That is just the tip of the iceberg, the result of one sorry tale.
Let us get a grip on the fish, and tackle it like any serious issue, find out the nub of the problem and find a solution that satisfies the aspirations of the industry.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

those who have left SL please give your opinion - its time to think

Many people in Sri Lanka want to leave for a myriad of reasons. They rightly or wrongly believe that leaving is better than remaining. There are over 3million people born in Sri Lanka or whose parents were born in Sri Lanka who have rights of abode in Sri Lanka, but now live outside. There are at least that many who given the chance would also want to leave. What a sad state of affairs that this is the case! This very fact should be an embarrassment to all of us who remain.
The government in my opinion is doing all in its power to encourage this exodus, by legal or illegal means. They should in fact do the reverse. The legal means is by providing skills that are marketable overseas and then make bilateral agreements with countries to take them, either as immigrants or short term workers. I presume the thinking is that if they leave permanently that will lower the population and reduce the pressure of governing them! Those leaving for employment alone will fill the coffers of the state with their remittances, thereby benefitting the economy, as it currently does to the tune of more than US$3B per annum.
This safety valve is in my opinion the ruse used by all governments in the country to solve the economic problems within Sri Lanka. It absolves the responsibility of the government to create the conditions necessary for full employment and economic growth. Will anyone argue that had there been no opportunities for Sri Lankans to leave, this country would be the basket case of the world? That is because successive governments have failed to identify the resources of this country and put it to productive use within the country. This country really has not been governed during the last 60 years. The rulers have just ruled by decree misleading the people, which led to tragic civil strife, both with the JVP uprising of disaffected Sinhala and LTTE uprising of disaffected Tamils. The latter was more sinister, due to the massive overseas funding available to them.
We do not choose the country we are born in. It is the state’s responsibility, through policies to make all its citizens proud of the country of their birth. This country Sri Lanka has singularly failed to do this job. It is up to us who live here to take up the mantle and create an inclusive just society with morals instilled into our children, where individual freedoms are respected and people feel a sense of belonging. The practice and respect of the rule of law that safeguards fundamental civil liberties will automatically create a society where people want to live, do business, promote true patriotism, which will reduce if not negate all reasons for wanting to leave. Let us build a ‘paradise’ where no one wishes to leave, and be the envy of the world. “It is not just words, it is a call to action.”

"sell Sri Lanka to the Sri Lankans - that is the challenge"

The government has made a statement that it will prosecute people smugglers to the full extent of the law. This means that hitherto, this has not taken place, and thousands of Sri Lankans of all races have been able to leave the country’s shores primarily if not exclusively by sea to destinations far and wide. Of course India has been the quickest escape route to refugees fleeing the war, where over 100,000 currently reside in camps, many of which are in a far worse state than the IDP camps in Vavuniya except that they are not surrounded by barbed wire!!
There are those fleeing tyranny, and others willing to risk their lives to start a better life in a developed economy where they perceive they will have a better life. I know Sri Lankans who have taken this route all the way to Italy, and who are living there illegally hoping one day to legalize their status. Some of whom have done well for themselves in those countries and who have been able to send money home, as evidenced by the little Italy mansions in Wennapuwa.
This route to Italy is still being carried out by professionals who charge a huge fee, and some sell all their personal assets in Sri Lanka to make this journey. For their sake one hopes they get lucky, as it is a gamble! The latest incidents that have been in the news is as a result of the Australian Coast Guard alerting the authorities in Indonesia to intercept boats at their behest, with the promise that costs of holding them will be borne by Australia, while a diplomatic rumpus is created as to their fate, whatever the outcome they will not be returned to SL.
In the latter category are those who have paid handsomely for this journey, and if they just wished to flee the country they could have just hopped a fishing boat to India at very little cost. I firmly believe all those making the hazardous journey are taking a gamble that they hope will pay off, namely receiving refugee status even though for all intents and purposes they are hoping for a better life. They are economic refugees. They say they do not want to be second class citizens in Sri Lanka, but really will they be first class citizens in Australia that has treated their own native Aboriginal population as second class citizens.
It is clear from my interaction with many in Sri Lanka that they are all seeking the opportunity to go overseas. They are not necessarily thinking in the long term, just that they wish to leave for better prospects than they currently have. Some have lost fortunes to people who have duped them with the promise of either employment or visas or both and have disappeared with their money. The only way to arrest this need is to sell Sri Lanka to the Sri Lankans. That is the challenge!!!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sri Lankan Entrepreneurs are control freaks and very secretive

In an earlier blog entry I was questioning why it was that the CSE was unable to get more companies to list. Apart from the obvious of realizing a sizable tax free gain they can bank or use for other purposes, they seem bent on holding onto their companies so they could do as they please. They are frightened of letting go, and with this mindset, these become one generation companies as the children usually never have the same aptitude or the inclination of the founder and forfeit the inheritance in a short space of time.

I have noticed that the vehicles are in the company name and the running costs are charged to them, including security, drivers, and domestics. Phone and electricity bills are also put to the company as well as the entertainment expenses. Going public means this practice is not permitted. They see this as a perk they cannot countenance paying themselves as they have got used to this benefit.

Money is made by some big organizations out of kickbacks and large bribes are also paid to get some of the government contracts. How does one show these if one were a listed company? I am sure some of the listed companies also engage in this and find an appropriately named diversionary slot to book that into.

Then there are sensitive business relationships that are built over the ages, which the owner feels cannot be divulged and shared, using that as another reason for not wanting to list. This too is short sighted as nothing in life is permanent, but the company takes a life of its own while the individual has no surety of life span. It is important therefore to be more open about the reality and transform the relationships into more flexible ones. The lack of delegation and trust of those that one is delegating to is part of the problem here.

Transnationals and MNC’s have grown as a result of clear procedures and policies for the hierarchy to follow. Individuals should realize that raising capital and bringing in professional managers is an important aspect of growth and longevity of corporations, as otherwise there are limits to growth and prosperity often being overtaken by events outside one’s control. Competition can be tackled head-on.

In summary the Capital Market structures should enable a gradual transition to full listings for such people showing the real benefits in the long run of such a move, which far outweighs the costs that are more perceived that real. The ability to convince the naysayer is at the heart of the real deal. So go for it take no prisoners!

A nation of gamblers – lets try and turn it into a positive force

Efficient capital markets require a broader based share-ownership structure, liquid shares and a wide choice of companies to invest in, along with regulation that safeguards shareholder rights especially small shareholders if they are to be encouraged to enter the market.

The SEC in Sri Lanka seem to forget this responsibility and instead of enabling wider ownership of shares, ensuring companies conform to regulations, within practical boundaries bearing in mind the size and capacity, they tend to concentrate on administration, compliance and housekeeping, that is laughable in this tiny market that is manipulated brazenly by high net worth individuals which the Regulator dare not cross swords with as they are too influential and powerful.

Let us get out of this small mindedness and try and stretch out to the nation at large and try and attract the gambler in the psyche of the people and put terminals at betting shops to allow people to day trade at low transaction cost. All they have to do is to sign a deal with two or three large betting business owners, and at a stroke 5000 betting shops all across the island are brought into the fold as investors. Some of the money that goes into betting on Horses can then be channeled into the stock market. One would say the immense profits that the Betting shops earn would be compromised by this less profitable avenue for them. All one has to do is to suggest that this franchise is given to another body to bring them to heal if they perceive a diversion of the pool of funds available to them.

I am not sure if the betting shops are regulated, but this will be a golden opportunity to legitimize this business and turn it into another revenue generating activity for the government whilst at the same time enabling that class of shareholder to own shares in Sri Lankan companies. I was distressed when a senior official at the CSE once told me that that they did not want such people, unaware of the risks, to invest in the market. However I would counter that these people will be betting (I know that is not the operative word that should be used) on shares knowing that the risk of losing is lower than the English Horses, but for a professional gambler, would actually hold a greater degree of certainty.

This new class of shareholder will make it more difficult for the Colombo based stock manipulator/investor to influence the market with a little money. More money chases stocks which grow, which helps more new and rights issues, which in turn directs the small man’s money into the Sri Lankan capital market instead of the bookie. The bookie in turn legitimizes his business and earns a commission.

The Stock Exchange. A structural weakness and a path to correction

There are some 250+ companies that are quoted on the CSE, which now (October 2009) has a market capitalization of Rs1000Billion or one Trillion! However this hides some important facts. The cross ownership of many companies in the exchange gives rise to an incredible amount of double counting. The true capitalization is nearer Rs400B a considerable drop. This when added to the fact that a further chunk of shares are closely held by founders or major shareholders, both local and foreign that are hardly traded (change hands once every 5 to 10 years as strategic investments where in this market they are known as crossings) the shares usually referred to as free float amount to less than Rs100B. This is only a tenth of the market capitalization. This makes the Sri Lanka market tiny with the government not having anything to crow about.Increase of this free float by more tradeable shares should be the goal.

I am afraid the SEC which is the capital market regulator, and CSE which should promote both a larger number of companies to list and even a larger number of investors to invest do not appear to take their respective tasks seriously. In short they are derelict in their duties, which are both a disservice to the investing public and to expanding the equity market in Sri Lanka. An increased participation indirectly results in more investment, which results in greater economic growth.

Now that the war is over and sense has prevailed, a concerted effort should be made to encourage more companies to list their shares. If need be they can begin in a secondary market and migrate to a full listing as is often done in foreign countries. The junior market will usually have closely held shares and only a small proportion in public hands, with a greater proportion being listed once the company graduates to the main market. The main market should have at least 25% of its shares in public hands to gain any sort of credibility. Existing companies should be encouraged to sell more shares to get to this level. It should also be a way of encouraging subsidiaries of overseas listed companies such as Nestle, Chevron and Tobacco to have more shares in the hands of other shareholders.

None of these objectives can be achieved overnight, but unless it is done without delay according to a plan with targets, the credibility and volatility of this market is called into question. Just look at the fact that 80% of the current trades in value take place amongst no more than 50 companies of the exchange. That means that the balance companies account for very little share movement, adding to the volatility of those shares. Such volatility is open to market manipulation that cannot be proved, as anyone with a few million rupees can manipulate shares in the CSE for their personal gain at the expense of the unwary investor.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Taxation Policy – a more equitable route to raise revenue for Government

Way back in ancient history, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Bristol, I did a treatise on the most equitable tax policy that a country should adopt. Sadly in the case of Sri Lanka our taxes are highly regressive (it means that the least well off share a disproportionate tax burden) A committee of notables have been appointed by the President of Sri Lanka to advise him on how best to restructure our taxation system to achieve the revenue targets. The Country is woefully short of the current targets, so much so that they seem to be prepared by wishful thinkers and not professionals. (I mean the targets!)

I presume these new appointees’ brief is to present a more equitable, progressive and workable proposal. This should however not discourage private investment that is an essential engine for growth. I have my doubts that the committee has the will, the intellectual mastery of the complexity of taxation law, or the understanding of their brief, let alone the commitment in time, to avail themselves of this opportunity to put their stamp on the future growth of this country.

A good taxation structure is essential for accelerated growth of an economy like Sri Lanka, as well as for raising funds for Government Expenditure in a more equitable fashion. It must be simple to enact, understand, implement and enforce in order to minimize avoidance and ensure compliance across income streams.

To quote an example from my studies, I came out with a flat tax, on all forms of income (excluding sin taxes that are easy to collect) at a rate of 15%, which would have raised the necessary funds. This rate was considered low enough to reduce evasion, and ensure compliance and collection, increasing the net while eliminating distortions, but collecting the necessary revenue for the government.

The current very complex structure is full of loopholes and tax holidays, with a large proportion of the very wealthy simply outside its catchment, making a mockery of the whole system. With no capital gains taxes, wealth taxes or inheritance taxes Sri Lanka can rightfully claim to be a tax haven for the wealthy.

There are the sin taxes such as on Tobacco, Alcohol and Gaming which are generally easy to collect and yield the greatest revenue, but are extremely regressive, and then there are the import duties mainly on food and fuel that raise another huge chunk for the government. This again is also very regressive in a country addicted to imported food. Import duties on cars have suddenly ground to a halt due to the oversupply in the local market affecting Govt. coffers.
The level of corporate taxation is very unreasonable as there is a two tier tax structure where small companies are taxed at 15% and the moment taxable profits increase to Rs5M the rate increases to 35% creating effective tax rates of over 1000% at the margin.(5M tax 750K, 5.1M tax 1785K effective rate on additional 100K profit is 1035%) or over 10 times the extra profit!! This tax is easy to collect. The banks are highly taxed, a means of gaining more revenue for the government, but this has effectively been as a result of a high discrepancy in borrowing and lending rates. So this tax has been paid by the borrower, and not the bank. You could argue the lender to the bank, the depositor also is effectively taxed by the same logic. It is a no brainer to reduce bank tax rates to the same as other corporate and force them to reduce the margin between lending and borrowing to no more than 200 basis points or 2%. This fact alone should stimulate investment by borrowing by the Private Sector and encourage Savings by individuals.

It is the individuals that are hard to track, document and collect. There are many individuals especially in the provinces that are outside the tax radar. They live in large houses, have a fleet of cars and own numerous unincorporated businesses with hardware stores and tipper lorries. They appear to be very profitable. These individuals have few records that are auditable for taxation purposes.

Including these people with few records but noticeable increases in wealth annually, is going to be a challenge. They generate the money to send their kids to international schools educate them overseas, and remain without a tax file. How can this income get into the tax net to make the system equitable? Government servants should be netted as they are not taxed and vehicle duty concessions for them withdrawn. There should be no incentive other than income to encourage people to join government service. Other fringe benefits, like inefficiency and early retirement at 55 are all benefits that do not need to be made more inefficient by giving duty concessions for their personal vehicles and tax free income.

There is enough fodder for the committee to look at in my analysis above. I go for an across the board corporate and income tax rate of 15% on income both earned and unearned like interest income. As long as everyone is included in the net with an individual allowance be it for a company, single person, married or family of the first Rs500,000, the tax yield will be double what the government currently gets from Income and Corporate taxes at present. I suggest a flat rate of 10% on all non food and medicine sales in the form or a type of VAT as is now implemented.

So guys please brain storm, think outside the box and have the courage to come up with a revolutionary proposal. I am waiting!!

Quango Executives- please do your job, not other’s. If you can't just resign

My thoughts in this area were prompted by remarks attributed to the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka and its Director General. There were inferences that the recent events in the United States of America, where the Sri Lankan born Mr Raj Rajaratnam, the Hedge Fund Manager of the US$3B GalleonFund was arrested on charges of ‘insider trading’, had even the remotest connection to similar activity in the Sri Lankan stock market.

There were categorical statements that said that all RR Sri Lankan share transactions would be investigated for possible insider trading. Additionally the SEC chief has said that they would cooperate with the US authorities if necessary.

These two statements if it is limited to just that is unwarranted, uncalled for and not necessary. If I were an overseas investor in the Sri Lankan market, and I read that enforcement chiefs in Sri Lanka make such statements, I would have no respect for their integrity or professionalism, nor would I want to invest in Sri Lanka as my transactions in Sri Lanka would potentially be subjected to investigation if I was involved in any action that resulted in my arrest in the country of my residence.

These people clearly don’t know who they are and what they are about. This is an Emerging Market Economy and Stock Market Investors have to be attracted to invest in this market because the rewards are perceived to be high bearing in mind the relative level of risk attached to the market. Investors initially will not be the bluest of blue blood in Western Countries, but money from various legitimate or illegitimate sources could be channeled into this market via the Nominee accounts of reputed banks. It is not the job of the Sri Lankan authorities to question the source of funds, as it has come into the country legitimately. The investing bank through which the funds come have that responsibility.

Is one going to imply that if a Saudi Prince invests money in Sri Lanka, the SL government is going to investigate if his funds are legitimate? We have no idea how those funds were obtained. There could be kickbacks, commissions, drug deals all rolled into one, but it is out of the sphere of influence and investigation of the Sri Lanka authorities. If one takes the case of the considerable undeclared assets of resident Sri Lankans overseas, who then invest in the SL market through a nominee account of a foreign bank, have the Sri Lankan authorities the right to look behind to have the beneficial owner disclosed? Look at potential manipulation closer to home and not come up with knee-jerk reactions to outside forces.
Lets not forget, Mr Rajaratnam invested money in his own name, and in the name of the Fund where it was on behalf of his clients. It was open transparent. If there was insider trading, that is an internal matter for the Sri Lankan authorities and nothing whatsoever to do with an investigation in an overseas country. These comments therefore have a detrimental affect on investor sentiment in Sri Lanka and to this extent these gentlemen if I can call them such are accountable for their actions that cast doubt on efficiency and efficacy of the Sri Lankan Stock Exchange. Their job is to inspire confidence that they have everything under control.

Their statements should have read as follows: “We are watching with interest the news that a significant investor in the Sri Lankan market is faced with insider trading charges in the US. As far as the Sri Lankan Stock Market is concerned we have no reason to believe that there were any wrongdoings. We monitor our market very carefully for unusual trading activity and call for explanation in such cases and investigate them if we have sufficient grounds for so doing.

Mr Rajaratnam, personally, does not have any significant stakes in any of the companies in the stock market and we do not expect any adverse reaction if he has to dispose of these stakes. It is unlikely that there will be a sudden disposal of his shares arising from his problems in the US. There are even lesser stakes, held by the Galleon Fund in Sri Lanka, and any substantial redemption in the US will not have a significant effect in the Sri Lankan companies where the Fund holds investments. We would like to reassure investors of the integrity of the Stock Market in Sri Lanka and that we monitor the market closely to ensure compliance.”

NB His personal stake in JKH of 8% is not considered significant bearing in mind the high market capitalization and the fact that the shares are both widely held and extensively traded, being one of the most liquid shares in the Sri Lanka market. Anyway all his shares are placed and not dumped as he is a strategic investor.

These two officials must realize that their primary job is to give potential and existing investors in the Capital Markets of Sri Lanka, the confidence that they are well regulated to protect their interests from market manipulation and illegal activity. They should be careful in the use of words not to scare potential investors to Sri Lanka, as the government is doing that job well, and reply to any enquiry from the Press, only to what is relevant and to the point. I attribute some of the blame to the short term market turmoil to these irresponsible statements. If I was their boss, I would fire them or at least publicly reprimand them, so that they cease to shoot from the hip in future. Any comments readers?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The case for and against Mega Multinationals such as Unilever

This blog is devoted to the thinking mind, and I am trying to encourage thought on the pros and cons of the operations of large companies like Unilever that have both positive and negative contributions to the economy and the long-term prosperity of the people of this resplendent land, today and for the future.

This company, as an example with its sheer size and extent of brands it owns and markets is just mind boggling. Most consumers are unaware that some competing brands of soap powder are part of the same organization, and different brand managers compete to improve their brand share within this organization.

Their ability to raise capital at lower costs by borrowing from the parent, and their ability to use human resources from a worldwide pool, as well as its ability to recruit people of high caliber due to both prestige, as well as proven career development paths for them is the envy of struggling local FMCG companies. They are also able to use adverts across national boundaries sometimes at lower cost as one can see on Sri Lanka TV where Indian ads are dubbed into to the local languages. Additionally whole factories that are mothballed in other countries can be shipped to SL to set up new manufacturing plants producing low cost products that can seriously undermine the local manufacturers that do not have the same access.

Deep pockets allow them to cut their losses and move on as was the case with the Walls Ice Cream plant in Sri Lanka which failed despite an investment of Rs 3Billion, which was sold to Cargills at a huge loss. This was be a gain to the buyer who is now able to profitably produce Ice Cream, with a low cost base of manufacturing plant which they otherwise would have not been able to achieve.

We have also seen the recent marketing efforts by them for Fair & Lovely and Vaseline creams, with ads aimed at persuading the viewer that both these products are essentials for ones future happiness and well being. I shall not go into the individual necessary attributes of either of these products except to say that all this time our people have maintained healthy skin without them, and I have no reason to believe their skin will be more healthy by their use. I would like comments from the users of either of these products to comment on their particular use, but from my limited knowledge, an employee of mine who began using Fair & Lovely, now has no choice but to use it. If he stops it, his face is a sea of pimples which he never had before he began using it. Granted that each individual’s skin is unique and anecdotal evidence should not damn the product, but I hope I make the point.
There is no question that some of the working conditions at these organizations are far superior to the locally owned businesses, as they have to conform to stricter practices set by the parent company as well as adhere to standards across the globe that they try to meet. Then there are a series of Corporate Social Responsibility Projects they get into to enhance their goodwill with the local community.

They generally have a highly developed and sophisticated marketing system to ensure their customers, mainly the retailers of their products, that their shelves are always full of their products. This is something the local competitors struggle to emulate, and seem to fail, possibly for lack of the economies of scale.

There is the ability to cross subsidize products, so that some products can be loss leaders, and those loss leaders then drown out local competition, as a smaller local company not having this ability is not able to sustain a period of losses that Unilever can on selected products for this exercise which is sometimes a predatory pricing system aimed at dominating the market, especially when a threat from a competitor is seen. Even if the threat of a new competitor is on the horizon, this method can prevent them entering the market for obvious reasons.

On the taxation front, these companies have sophisticated pricing and accounting systems that even some of the local professionals within the organization do not understand but merely follow. It is possible to shift a large amount of profits out by such methods of pricing of products purchased from overseas. It is very easy to do, and anyone who has handled international transactions knows of its frequent use to avoid the tax burden. Often the ignorance of the host country to such actions makes it easy for such practices to be overlooked as there are no local plants(as in humans) to bring this matter to the authorities for investigation. Local politicians are easily bought in very subtle ways by these organizations, usually with relatives of highly placed government personnel or bureaucrats also working for the multinational, a way of diffusing a potential powder keg or even an investigation.

One case in point, unrelated to Unilever, was the recent melamine scare where fingers were pointed at a local company, quite frivolously, and hence hurting its future and prospects, and the finger pointer happened to be a multinational with an agenda.

I have lived most of life overseas and I am not trying to ban these companies, it is just that I believe a level playing field is essential to protect local industry, not tariffs to bar these companies and it is the duty of the Government to level it!!

Foreign Investment and Ownership in Sri Lanka - Think about the realities

There just does not seem to be a proper assessment of what type of foreign participation Sri Lanka needs, wants or should attract. As a result there is a very disjointed and somewhat fragmented approach to foreign ownership and investment in Sri Lanka. The powers running the country just don’t seem to have any sense of what direction they should approach this very important and politically sensitive topic, nor do they understand the pros and cons.

I will gloss over some of the areas and will in future take one at a time to try and give an opinion of the positives and negatives of each type of investment. We must first realize that the world is becoming a smaller place and with the ever increasing migration of Sri Lankans to pasture overseas, there is inevitably a desire of people from other countries wanting invest and/or live in Sri Lanka.

First there is property ownership. Technically the foreigner who wants to purchase property, be it just land or homes on the Island has to pay a 100% tax on the purchase price to the government. One way this is avoided, is in under-pricing the purchase where an element of the purchase is paid to the seller in foreign currency into an account nominated by the seller. Only the value used for the deed on which stamp duty is paid is used to calculate this tax. Other ways this can be avoided is by the purchase of companies with exchange control permission, and these companies which are Sri Lankan can then purchase, build or develop property free of any additional taxes. I am sure a smart mind can come up with more novel schemes, and often foreigners buy in the names of locals to avoid paying the tax.

There is the BOI route which is highly publicized, but in reality unbelievably complicated, and fraught with pot holes along the way. The idea of the BOI is to pave the way for foreign investment, to make it easy and give these investors considerable tax concessions that are not available to local companies engaged in the same business. This enrages and disadvantages local companies. The duty concessions of these companies receive makes it very hard for local companies to compete as there is no level playing field especially when it comes to import duty concessions, unless the local party also forms a new BOI company to obtain these same concessions. BOI investments are also available to 100% local businesses which fall under certain parameters as set out under the Board of Investment rules. The taxation concessions, in my view are significant enough to put existing companies out of business, and is a significant area that requires a complete tax overhaul to make it more equitable to the investor, be they local or foreign, irrespective of them being old or new.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

“Felling a Tree” Its more sensible to break the law than abide by it

This blog is devoted to thinking out what we do and why and to encourage rational thought to improve our lives, and the environment. I would like to report on a current event, where we do our best to do abide by the law, and are obstructed in our endeavor, by the system that is in favor of the law breaker.

My sister purchased a property over a year ago, and wanted to use the wood from some of the Teak trees that had been planted on her property in Minneriya, to make the doors of her house she is building in Battaramulla. I note below the sequence of events in order to get the necessary paperwork to cut and haul the logs to the building site from the property.

Due the land not having freehold title, as very little land in the Polonnaruwa district have such titles, she had to obtain the assistance of the person who sold her the property. It is not yet registered in her name due to various Jayaboomi land holding laws that make it exceedingly difficult and bureaucratic to transfer property, which effectively is at the discretion of the Divisional Secretary (Pradeshiya Lekam) I will elaborate on the ridiculously restrictive land ownership issues in a different entry in the future as it digresses from the issue at hand.

We met the Grama Sevaka, the local government representative for the village and consulted him on how to go about the process, and we followed his advice. It is the same whether it is to cut one tree or a 100, the quantity is not the issue.

To get a letter from the registered owner of the property, addressed to the divisional secretary giving the property identification, and our identification, requesting permission to cut some trees on your property was the first step. Once that was handed over, the Divisional Secretary authorizes the staff to hand over the forms necessary to fell timber. Before this is handed over, one has to convince the Secretary that it is a reasonable request, such as the purpose for this felling and that the trees were in fact planted and less than 10% of the planted trees will be cut.

Once received, the form is completed. We note each tree, height, girth and location on a map as well as marking the tree for felling. We take the completed form to the Grama Sevaka who then agrees on a time to visit the property to go through the request. He arrives the next morning and goes through the trees that require to be cut. The girth has to be at least 3ft, and no trees can be on the river reservation part of the property, where most of the Teak trees have been planted! Additionally no tree can be cut if they are within 11ft of the canal that brings the water to the property from the Minneriya tank. Both these rules were not known to us till this moment, as all the trees were actually planted so that they could be felled once the time and need arose. Under this ruling 6 of the 16 trees earmarked for felling by the carpenter who had to come from the building site to choose the trees, had to be excluded, so a further 5 had to be found and earmarked to make it economical to transport, and the need for the doors would be fulfilled.

Once the revised number of trees were authorized and certified by him, a further trip to the Divisional Secretariat to obtain their seal of approval for felling had to be obtained before the next layer of authorization, the Forest Department. The next day a trip to Habarana, 35km away had to be made to the Forest Department who now have to approve that these trees can be cut, as only they know type of tree that is permissible for felling. Upon arrival they had gone on a raid (a ruse to profit personally from catching a person who is felling and where the information would have been received by an envious neighbor, rather than a concerned citizen.) Once they returned they said it was too late for them that day and requested to return on Monday morning to pick an officer. That was Friday after a days hanging around waiting for the officers to return from the raid.

On Monday the Forest Ranger was brought, approved, and then had to be returned back to Habarana, making it two round trips. Then the tree cutters had to be commissioned, and they would not give an estimate on the cost of cutting, until after cutting as they need to know the extent of the work and in order to engage transport, the number and length of cut logs had to be worked out. This meant that we were at the mercy of the chainsaw man and the transport man in terms of their charges with little room for negotiation.

Once felled and cut and hauled to a central location using a tractor, we have to go through the whole process of getting the Forest Ranger to put his stamp on each log, and the two round trips to Habarana, for that authorization, and then over to the Grama Sevaka certifying this was all in order, before going back to the Divisional Secretariat to obtain the permit to transport the logs, where one has to give the license plate of the truck, and one is given a window of a day time to put the logs on a truck and haul them to the destination by 6pm at the latest. Along the way despite the correct paperwork, checkpoints require palms to be greased as they can delay the release of trucks. If the truck has not reached the destination by 6pm, it is held and the logs removed and asked to go back to the point of origination to get another permit to take them on another day during daylight hours, something no rational human being can comprehend.

These procedures can be delayed at the discretion of the bureaucrat as he has no reason to speed it up if it interferes with his tea break and any bloody minded reason for delay, so palms have to be greased for them just to do their job and not to cut any corners as this seems to be expected by these people as a right. If one does not wish to bribe this one may have to wait weeks for the relevant permissions and authorizations. Each day of delay incurs lodging costs and meals to say nothing of the long distances to travel, and the attendant vehicle costs. Remember that a Teak tree in this area can be purchased before cutting for Rs4000. So in retrospect it may have been cheaper to arrange to buy someone else’s trees and get them to do all the paperwork of arranging the aforesaid and have them delivered to the destination, instead of coming and doing it yourself. All the time and costs associated above would be avoided.

When one mentions this to the locals, they say they do not get permission to cut, as they just do it illegally as it just makes no sense to go through the paperwork which can cost more than the value of the trees. Small wonder that 90% of the tree felling is illegal, as it is just too time consuming and fraught with too many impediments to do it the legal way.

Most trees are grown on reservation lands as one cannot use this land for housing or agriculture, or along the property boundaries, so if most of those trees cannot be legally felled, then one can either assume that the planter had no knowledge of the felling rules, or if he did he was assuming the person in the future cutting them would just do it illegally. Such is the chaos governing tree felling. The reason this does not get publicity is that no one actually tries to do it legally, and so everyone fells trees that should not or would not obtain permission, thereby making a mockery of the law.

It is important that the law be changed to allow one to three trees a year to be cut on your property without all the paperwork, excluding prohibited trees. We are constantly planting trees with the future in mind and not our personal profit, but do not get any credit for doing so either. Additionally one ought to be permitted to cut a certain number of trees for use on one’s own property for the purposes of building one’s own premises. It is people without means who have property with such trees, and the law seems to help the wealthy, making it harder for the people and leaving them to be exploited by unscrupulous traders and politicians who are able to profit immensely from the huge disparity between market price of trees at source and the value of the logs in Colombo once they have been transported. It is sheer highway robbery that is taking place now, with no safeguarding of trees which is the object of the rules in place.

Update as at 9th Oct 2009: The paperwork was presented to the Hingurakgoda Divisional Secretary to authorize. She after a lot of explanation, passed the matter on to a junior to go to the site and file a report. This assistant had gone through the whole land, looking for non existent boundary stone markings of the last century. A whole day was spent waiting for his report as he was out most of the day at an event- quite unnecessary to his functions, and as yet has not submitted his report before the divisional secretary, for her to be convinced to authorise the request before one tree is cut. No wonder no one goes through all this to cut. They just do it and hope no one notices!!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Victory Parade, a display of what was, is and should never be

Wednesday’s spectacular display by the Armed Forces, a Victory Salute to the gallant men and women who defeated the vilest form of Terrorism, with much of its support from Global forces is one to savor but I hope for the History Books.

While I am against violence, being a refugee for many years myself from it, I have to sadly admit that a strong defense force is necessary to counter any threat on the territorial integrity of a country from within or without. We must learn that reliance on the international community to help defeat terrorism is forlorn and cannot be trusted as that community has agendas quite different to that of Sri Lanka. It was the will and single-minded determination to eliminate this scourge from within that gave impetus to the final result. Even at the eleventh hour when some in the International community were attempting to broker a ceasefire in the guise of helping the innocents trapped, the government from the lessons it had learned the hard way, namely that such would lead to another regrouping and continuance, just had to lend a deaf ear and finish the job, as they had instructed the Armed Forces. Have we forgotten the screams from every quarter and descending of foreign ministers to tell us to stop?

The UN, which has credibility worldwide, lent their contribution insisting we were to witness a catastrophe of horrendous proportions if nothing was done to intervene. When this proved wrong, it was the Times of London using this UN data, attempting to be a media proxy for them, which tried vainly to butcher the truth, and with that the public opinion of their readership. The semantics of war get clouded in battle. The meaning of words ‘safe zone’, ‘heavy weapons’, ‘collateral damage’, and ‘genocide’ were misused by both sides for their own ends as happens in all wars.

Now all they have left are questions, like “does the end justify the means?” And “violation of the Geneva Conventions and International treaties must be prosecuted”. Whose been taken to task on this yet so it is only the last gasp?

We will in time learn about the complicity of the INGOs in this debacle, as little driblets are now coming out. The Norwegian NGOs in the form of Red Barna and Norwegian Refugee Council appear to have been in league where now it is obvious that their vehicles had been used to continue the suffering. The food aid helped feed the LTTE cadres. It is now obvious that NGOs per se have a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict, as their funding is assured. Their staff can enjoy the perks that come with this. It is obvious that a humungous mistake was made with Norwegians as Peace Facilitators when their delegates, especially Erik Solheim, who could not save Prabarkaran’s skin in the end, were found to be partial towards the LTTE.

I do not wish SL to fight another war, and this lesson should teach us that we will never have to show off the might of the sword anymore. The strength of the forces showed that it is unlikely that there will be another insurrection.

There are two opinions now, with the majority in SL, and I also include the majority of all the minority communities, believing that a lasting peace is possible. The other opinion is a warped one, which continues to be spread by a large section of the Tamil Diaspora that this country is heading into a Sinhala Buddhist Theocracy. It is important that SL foreign missions are beefed up with professionals, who know how to counter these allegations effectively with host country governments. This will contain the bleating of this Diaspora once they realize they have no credibility.

All steps should be taken to weed out the threats within the IDPs. Once the re-education camps are set up, they should be run with a proper plan to ensure those in them are absorbed into the community as equal citizens. The quality of these camps is being improved, and the delay was with NGOs believing they should operate under a different set of rules, having been spoiled all this time! I understand they will now abide by a new set of rules.

The SL people have been generous with their help and I for one have offered to keep one or at a push, two families for 6months until it is safe for them to go home. I wish the government considers this help, which will show the IDPs that people in the South are not the racist monsters, they have been led to believe. I know that a Tamil of a different caste is unlikely to make the same offer, being more caste conscious than Sinhala people. While not trying to make a communal comment I just want to show that there are prejudices within the community that the Diaspora like to ignore. I know children’s education is a factor, but I strongly believe it is better for them to live amongst their fellow citizens in freedom, rather than camps, which are institutionalized and can be demoralizing; demeaning for people who have had assets destroyed. Give them the choice. Don’t forget they are citizens in this country and have certain inalienable rights if we are to show pride in one nation under one flag. That is what patriotism is about. Not just waving a flag or insisting on more celebrations at public expense.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Playing politics with Agriculture-an integral part of democracy in Sri Lanka

Agriculture is an emotive issue in Sri Lanka, as most of the population live in the rural areas and have some kind of bond with the land. In terms of the old-fashioned caste system, the Govigama forms the largest block of any grouping in Sri Lanka. The reality however is that within this sector less than 5% of families depend only on agriculture for their livelihood, having a surplus, from personal use, for sale. In addition over half the urban population have roots in the villages they or their parents came from, and so have a bond. Using anecdotal evidence, when one greets a stranger in SL one asks where one is from, and one expects the name of a village to be mentioned, even if one has never been there. I am frequently asked this, and ironically, the people who live in Raja Ela, are descendants of colonists, but still lay claim to the village where their ancestor came from!

The subsidy given to paddy farming, not to vegetable or fruit crops, is a ploy to garner votes. The productivity of this is questionable. It only applies to farmers with up to 5 acres (2hectares) of land under paddy cultivation. I agree that at present this small farmer supplies the bulk of our rice requirement, and are so subsidized as otherwise they may not get the yields needed to feed the population. This high cost farming is not sustainable. In future with less labor, only larger cultivations will be viable, as the need for equipment becomes paramount and their costs can only be recoverable in larger cultivations.

We must face the reality of the future with no agricultural labor to speak of and therefore encourage and give incentives to productive farmers to take on more efficient agricultural methods, in order that we can reduce our costs of production per kg, which can then be passed on to the consumer, while also giving the remaining farmers a larger return. It is absolutely pointless to support this vote bank of farmers who can barely produce enough rice to feed their families, and whose primary source of income is in some other field. Those in the armed forces, police, government servants including teachers and the retail, construction and transport industry account for the bulk of these so called “farmers”

The state subsidizes by giving low cost fertilizer, free land and free water, which encourage inefficient planting methods. These people are merely kitchen gardeners, an essential part of the food chain, who should not be given public funds. Agriculture is for the seasoned professional with dedication, and resources as well as skill from education.

I am aware that I am addressing a very controversial, and emotive topic, but if we are to win the war on food production, we must take a leaf out of the books of the farmers who are most efficient and emulate their methods. This is not possible for the majority of the people, as they are not looking at this vocation for their bread and butter. Our land policy must change to permit those “Govi Rajas” of Sri Lanka with a greater vision, to progress without silly bureaucratic restrictions aimed at preventing risk taking.

We need a sea change in attitudes to farming in Sri Lanka if we are to come close to countries like India in terms of costs of production. I am not trying to leap into the Western sphere of agriculture, but one where only those serious about farming should be given the tools (knowledge, land, seeds, water, fertilizer and equipment) to succeed.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Betrayal- English speaking countries – US, UK et al

Though I have now settled in Sri Lanka, I have lived most of my life in the UK and the USA, and in fact have lived in the UK longer than my total time spent in Sri Lanka, so I consider myself entitled to make the comments below, not with malice but with regret about the behavior which is tantamount to a betrayal of our democracy, where SL is still working hard to empower all its people on its principles. We can longer be guided by their examples or actions, and have to find other friends who are more respectful.

The attitude of the UK, and US as enunciated by their foreign ministers, as well as their European partners, and no doubt Canada, to the conflict that just concluded in Sri Lanka is at best condescending and at worst a brutal assault on freedom from terror. The dragging through the mud that Sri Lanka had to endure in its finest and proudest hour, at the UN HRC was a show of one-upmanship that completely failed. In fact it failed so miserably, that I believe it empowers more autocratic, dictatorial and down right criminal regimes to commit no end of crimes, knowing full well that the moral superiority has completely disappeared, with little hope of resurrection.

In short countries with worse Human Rights records will have no compunction but to continue with their activities. I lay the blame squarely on the incompetence and arrogance of these nations that completely failed to measure the real rights and wrongs, for the new order of terrorism. Using International Fora towards petty ends backfired with more venom.

Sri Lanka is one of the founding members of the Commonwealth, and it that secures a top spot with India in seniority. They have been very supportive of US & UK except in the case of Israel, which is a special case and should not be compared with in any other conflict, requiring a different set of criteria.

The incompetence of their foreign missions in Sri Lanka failed to measure the pulse of those who have endured daily insecurity. It is possibly due to over representation with pro LTTE staff, who did a disservice. The one-sided view of the Tamil Diaspora that funded LTTE make these countries party to the suffering of the Sri Lankans. To delay the end of hostilities and further to take the country to task on acts of war, where the other side is not amongst the living to answer to their egregious conduct, smacks of sour grapes, and vicarious pleasure at humbling a victor. I don’t like to use double standard as SL conflict stands on its own justification. BETRAYED

It is never late to admit one made an error of judgement, and patch up a relationship worth keeping

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Not too late to correct the miscalculation by the US, UK, EU, Scandinavia regarding the LTTE

Fundamental to the appreciation of the conduct of war by the SL government and the Security Forces, was the attitude and the tacit assistance of the West in their relationships with both parties to the conflict. The most important error of judgment by the West was the belief that the LTTE represented the true aspirations of the Tamil people, and therefore had an equal right to be heard in negotiations. The intervention of the Scandinavians in particular as honest brokers, has proved in hindsight to be counterproductive, and one could argue resulted in a great loss of life of both communities in Sri Lanka indirectly.

Lets us not go too far back, but to the negotiations the current Govt. pursued in Europe a misnomer called ‘Peace Talks’. They failed not because of the bad intentions of the Govt. but the obvious disinterest of the LTTE. If the West came out strong with an ultimatum to them to drop their arms, and their cadres then about 40,000 lives would have been saved in the past three years, much more than half of them were soldiers I might add.

It is now apparent and shamefully still not accepted by them, the West was fooled by the Diaspora who funded the war, maintaining LTTE was a legitimate outfit despite the official bans for cosmetic reasons. The obvious violence in terms of indiscriminate suicide and other bombings were not enough to persuade the West on the error of their judgment. I remember only a muffled condemnation of the terrorist bombings was the result of each attack. They even seemed to condone the attack on off duty serviceman in the case of the Digampathana attack where over 100 service personnel died near Sigiriya on their way home on furlough.

What is hard to rationalize is that the victory over the most brutal terrorist outfit on the face of the earth has not been followed by one word of congratulations from any of the Western powers! What kind of duplicitous behavior is that? Is it hard to accept, are they sad that VP and his mob have been totally routed and massacred? However much I disagree with the War, I cannot see nor has any party shown any other workable option as they were all tried and failed, and so the only reasonable option, that of the complete vanquishing of the LTTE was all that was left.

I appeal to the West, that they are gradually losing their influence over this area by this act, and as there are other allies to rely on it is they who are showing Sri Lanka the path to China and Russia, not the latter who have come here. It is surprising that no forward thinking is taking place, as a growing Tamil militancy in the West will be the result, this will affect the Western nations more than Sri Lanka. Tamils by their indoctrination and their past experiences have not seemed to integrate to the host communities as much as the Sinhala Diaspora have done. I make this comment as someone who has lived in the US and UK for 33 years, and am sorry to see how the Tamil Diaspora has completely hoodwinked the strategy of the West towards Sri Lanka.

It is not too late to make amends. Due to the perceived connivance of all INGOs and the UN agencies with the Tamils in Sri Lanka, even at the latter stages of the war, the SL govt. is obviously wary of allowing them unfettered access to the displaced people, for fear of stoking resentment leading to future militancy, by indirectly alleging their rights have been violated. So please don’t play games with people’s lives.

I am in no way a SL govt. supporter, but I do support the elimination of the LTTE, and that the rules of engagement have to be compromised in this regard. Debate that argument before calling on Human Rights investigations, and a whole host of allegations, which will only drive the SL authorities further away from Western influence. Be realistic, they will not result in any prosecutions. You only have to look around you to see how worse atrocities have not even had a hearing. There is absolutely no question that the SL authorities don’t care a toss, and my fear is that the West part in this will embolden them to more destruction of individual freedoms that have nothing to do with Tamils. So in the interests of Human Rights, do not take an ethnic line, as it will backfire on all peace-loving peoples of Sri Lanka.

There is still a small window of opportunity to get back into line, by providing the relief that is needed, first to alleviate the suffering of the displaced, and then rebuilding the infrastructure of the North. Don’t sit in the balcony and complain that the govt. is keeping people in camps for too long if you have not helped in rebuilding the infrastructure to have them resettled in what is now a mine littered landscaped full of the debris of war. This is a democracy, and the President is astute enough to court the Tamil vote in the North, so he can say he is truly a leader of the whole nation. He will therefore do his utmost to help these people not put them against him. If it is good for the people, why hinder the progress even if you don’t like the morality of the people who currently lead. After all a week is a long time in..

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Blogs as an alternative to on-line newspapers for the latest news.

In my previous blog entry below, a day spent on checking international news on line, left me with the distinct impression that objective journalism is dead in the Western Press being pressured to write sensationalism that sells papers or draws readership, in terms of hits!

So truth and objectivity suffer as sometimes it is just news. In this process, I discovered that there are blogs, that cover different topics of the day and are current. So depending on one’s interests, one can find a blog that is more relevant than a newspaper. A cousin has already told me that some of the best sources of information for financial news are blogs that he follows.

In that context, this is an area the Sri Lanka blogosphere can develop, where individuals cover some topics of their interest, which is newsworthy to others who are interested in the same. I realize that the SL blog community is still in its infancy and are still at the name-calling and swear word level, when one does not agree with another’s viewpoint. However the end of the terror uprising and its consequences is an area where it is time to develop this aspect seriously as I know some of the blogging community are active in areas that they can report on objectively.

To use an example; I just read a report in the London Times, where at the Manick Farm, the reporter had ostensibly interviewed a few people, (don’t know if the reporter just wrote heresay of it or he really went there) and the translator was sympathetic to the LTTE cause and worded the English translation of the replies of the people to sound worse than the person’s actual statement. It sounded awful. This is relative to what? Not to what they had to live through before they got here!

I have heard first hand accounts of relief workers who have gone there with supplies, and they give a completely different slant. Surely is there not an effort by the State to do what they can with the limited resources at their disposal to make the conditions of the people as comfortable as possible? I have also heard that there is space for kids to play and giant screens for people to watch movies as well, and for those who have not had electricity in years this must be a pleasant change. Not if you read the London Times!!

So my fellow bloggers, take up the mantle and help balance the bias. If you are credible you will have an international following in to time.

What have we learnt in the past week from Western Media Sources?

I have gone about my normal activities this week, save for Sunday the 17th where I spent the whole day on the net, absorbing all the international news, I could read, from English language sources, primarily from the Western nations, but also from India and China.

The Western News Media(WNM) was to a fault, very skeptical and totally lacking in praise, contrasting with the sheer joy and jubilation we felt here at home, and the sense of relief that finally we could breathe easy and tread with less care when we step out of our homes. It is only fair that we are allowed to express these feelings in ways that come naturally to us. Some got into pick ups with Sri Lanka flags and shouted the end of the LTTE. Others lit crackers, while still others set up makeshift places to prepare and serve Kiri Bath (Milk Rice) a traditional food served on festive occasions.

What irked me about the WNM was that I have in the past years noted the bias they have for the LTTE. The Tamil Diaspora(TD) have steadily and consistently provided them with the angle in a calculated and deliberate manner, which has also been effective in prodding their political leaders to concentrate on their side of the story, which for obvious reasons contrasts starkly with the side that the SL govt. wishes to portray. However the canard of lies finally was proof beyond doubt, when the civilians were rescued before the final battle that eliminated the hardcore, as well as the whole of the top leadership in a day. There was no admission of being misled, and the media promptly even without 24 hours grace turned on HR violations and mass killings of innocents etc.

This is proof beyond doubt if ever that was needed. I felt that a balance was required, from one extreme of government propaganda on the Island that was very clever, as it was directed towards the whole purpose of winning the war, and I don’t take issue with that, as is their right. Lack of balance in WNM therefore meant that polarized issues were all that appeared. My opinion was taken by each side, as being a lap dog of the other. This is the problem in being objective, as it does not please either agenda.

I am of the opinion that Western Journalism has hit rock bottom, only catering to sensational by lines, and profit motive of attracting readership, no matter what is said. We must give credit where it is due, no matter our opinions on how it was achieved, as the LTTE terror outfit is history.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Our land of missed opportunities but I am still hopeful

I gave a up a comfortable life in the West four and half years ago, to try and make a go of life in rural Sri Lanka, making use of opportunities afforded to me, to build an agro based enterprise from scratch. Many people mistakenly assumed, that I prematurely retired from the hustle and bustle of city life to live in cozy retirement away from the cares of the world.

This period has been full of, and continues to be a litany of pitfalls more than blessings, and as I begun with minimal capital and a negative cash flow farm, it has been the most difficult struggle of my life. I can honestly say the main reason, that I have been able to survive for so long under the conditions, were that my needs are few with no family commitments, having lived on less than US$10 a month for personal expenses, and the belief that eventually I would succeed making the sacrifices worthwhile.

I had hoped to be over the hill in about 3 years, as that was all I had budgeted to survive, however I have still to achieve that initial target, and while I believe I am going in the right direction, the human resources that fate deemed I have to deal with let me down, something I had completely miscalculated on. In this field I have entered into, one relies on the honesty, integrity and attitude of the people one relies on, purely because I just don’t have the physical ability to oversea everything I do. I am glad that I did not borrow funds to finance my activities, except for a Rs100,000 loan I took against my only life insurance policy. I have had to supplement shortfalls out of consultancies, as I have no financial resources to fall back on.

Now I have a clearer vision of what I need to do to achieve my goals, and also how I can finance the capital required for that, as well as hiring the right people for the tasks. The initial years have been essential in knowing the limitations of what can reasonably be expected. One bitter lesson I have learned in Sri Lanka is that the armchair critics and pundits, using anecdotal examples and figures build castles in the air with gratuitous advice that is wholly unpractical in the Sri Lanka of today, which is also vastly different to the Sri Lanka of yesterday, in that I mean pre 1977.

Crucial to this equation is understanding the nuances of the vastly inflated expectations of the work force who have been completely spoilt by successive governments that have promised far more than they can deliver. This along with the release provided by the massive exodus for overseas employment that have created a severe skill shortage and also a devastating effect on the work ethic of those remaining, together with the war that has recruited the pool of all our youth with high income expectations in the security forces, means we must recreate industry based on the same level of labor saving devices used in the west, and not even for a moment assume this is a country of low wages.

On the point of low wages, even though the theoretical wage maybe lower, the actual wage is very high perhaps 3 times higher, when taking vacation time, productivity, lack of reliability and need for supervision, something our policy makers have not taken into consideration. The added dimension of the lower level of morality, also one that adds significantly to employment cost, creates a need for a very small, reliable workforce restricted as much as possible in number of locations, that need to be managed for an individual engaging in a business.

There is so much development work and industry that can be generated in Sri Lanka given the resources it has excluding the human element. The government instead of only managing its main task of setting up a low cost infrastructure, good governance and law enforcement, try to meddle in everything else and create inefficiencies that add to the cost of private enterprise. As a farmer these costs are I believe even greater than that industrialists have to bear, effectively reducing instead of increasing the productivity of that sector.

I can write a book, just listing out the businesses I believe that are viable in Sri Lanka, there is so much unfulfilled demand, due to unfulfilled expectations, and we continue to prevent the entrepreneurial spirit of many in the Island, by putting controls that favor stooges of politicians, and government, taxes that are barriers, oligopolies that favor a few, and despite the talk, not really support small businesses with lending, because the lenders (staff evaluating the loans) are risk averse salaried people who do not know about risk and reward in a business venture.

I believe there is a pool of budding entrepreneurs in rural areas, who need husbanding and help, but we do not have a culture of individualism, so they need to be able to go it alone with assistance in the skills of running a business, complementing the talent they have in the products or services they can offer. These openings will reduce the skills drain overseas and with good governance I have repeatedly called for, will complete the foundation.