Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lies, lies and bald faced lies says who?

Have you noticed that we are a nation of pathological liars? Those who don’t believe it, simply live in a cocoon of their own making. It does sound unpatriotic to say so, but then again it is even more patriotic to tell the truth. Their again begs the question, what is truth and what are lies?

Taking my first assertion, it seems pretty obvious that lying is not something that is the exclusive purview of the poor or less educated, who try to skirt the truth in their struggle to survive in a harsh world, and do so out of necessity. The shamefaced lies come from the top, and in my opinion, the pathological nature of the lies, make it seem that the liar also believes in the lies, which he may do, as he is not even in a position to distinguish between right and wrong.

We have been so used to being lied to we even vote for the politician who lies the most even though we know the promise made to gain the vote is too far fetched to hold any sense of reality. What does that make us? We have made lying normal.
So here I go again, “kalpanakaranna” is the operative word, in disseminating any item of news one hears or reads, and then come to your own conclusion, based on your ability to judge. You may be right or wrong, but you came to the conclusion based on your experience and knowledge.

Just a few minutes ago I received a text from Ada Derana, saying the Government has given approval for a 500 room hotel at a cost of US$500M to Shangri La. If you believe that is true, then a room will cost on average US$1M, and a minimum of 15% net return on investment is required. That is US$150K a year, which on 75% occupancy, very high by international standards means 240room nights. That is a clear profit of US$150,000/275 which equals US$540 profit per night on a 500room hotel, something that has yet to be achieved anywhere in the world.

So when we get pathological lies passed to us even in this form, where the sender is so dumb as to pass such asinine figures around as being fact, it is up to us the recipient of the news to have a good laugh at their expense, rather than at the next cocktail party make a fool of oneself quoting this text verbatim as if it is the truth.

The truth of the US$500M investment is probably not just for the hotel, but includes an apartment complex, and a shopping mall which when viewed in its entirety is more logical. We then come to the next point of discussion, of will it ever be built, and if so when will it be completed, in our lifetime or after!!! The obstacles and pitfalls are humongous and lets hope the investor does not back out.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A rational and consistent approach to the “resettlement of 150,000”

There are 150,000+ living in Colombo, who will have to be resettled within the next decade as part of the Colombo Redevelopment Plan as envisaged by the Town Planners. The UDA has now been entrusted to the Defense Secretary under the MOD. I don’t envy him the task he is entrusted with and hope it is handled with thought and consultation as we are talking about the lives of a lot of people of all ages, who will have to undertake, one of the hardest choices of their lives. Just look in the mirror and ask yourself, what you would do if you were asked to leave where you are currently living. What guarantees and assurances would you want?

I hope this necessary translocation will not become politicized, by either side, and most of all that no suspect insiders benefit from them. There has to be transparency in all the activities from using the land so regained as part of the development plan for the city, and providing long-term housing solutions that are effective.
If there is one thing we have learned from the Tsunami experience, then we must be able to tackle and effectively deal with the possibility of those who have been relocated, disposing of their new abodes and returning to their original haunts thereby completely negating the original purpose as happened in the Koralawella sea side tenements in the Moratuwa area that are now back to the original state.

It must be understood that people do not like to move, however uncomfortable, or primitive their homes might be. It is the neighborhood, schools, employment and a whole host of reasons that keep people attached. In the same vein you cannot relocate them into a neighborhood, and provide them with facilities and new homes, while people living in the new area are not provided with such, and create resentment and in the end hostility that further compromises the move.

Sri Lanka has not been able to build high rise community housing in close proximity to relocated property, as high rise living in the best of places like Wellawatte area private apartments have turned slum like due to inadequate maintenance. This leaves town planners with a very difficult task. They will have to scour the world to find the best compromise, as no scheme is going to completely satisfy our notoriously spoilt electorate, fed on political promises that cannot be justified.

I know people in Slave Island who have been given a paper informing that they will have to leave, but with no other information, leaving them totally confused, worried, depressed with the uncertainty. A notice to vacate should accompany with it available options, which if they accept within a short time frame will accompany them with goodies and preferences that may be denied later.

LAUGFS GAS IPO – Lessons to be learnt for the future

It was unfortunate that the Stock Market conditions were such that even with a share which was touted as being over 20times oversubscribed, the Voting shares barely ended the first day with 15% premium and non Voting with about 10%. If this happened three months ago these figures would have been about 3 times as much. There are a few salutary lessons that have emerged. Namely, it was known that Shell decided to dispose of their shares and exit this business in Sri Lanka, with the minority holder, the government having the first right of refusal. This created an added sense of uncertainty to the investors. Even though Litro is a fully government undertaking there is uncertainty as to what will be done with it, though the LAUGFS Board was not worried. This overhang was not good timing.

The other point is that there were so many shares issued that it was inevitable that the desire of the small shareholder is to sell on the first day, especially as the number of shares given to them was also very small due to the oversubscription. I have 500 non voting shares which if I sold today would have given me a profit of Rs750 hardly worth my while in taking the risk of uncertainty into account. A large investor should have been lined up, as was the case with the last Hydro Power Free Lanka IPO, to support the price. In the latter case he supported a 50% premium which has stuck, but granted he bought one third of the new shares.

At the various briefings on the IPO the confident Chairman was confident in his attitude. I asked him why the Prospectus did not state (as is done in all other countries) that the existing shareholders will agree not to sell their shares for a time period of say 3 years. His answer was that they were reluctant to issue even this amount of new shares, why would he or his partner want to sell, and gave oral assurance to that fact. Well that assurance is not in writing and does not hold legal standing. It is the fault of the CSE new listing rules that do not require this clause.

The ‘Roadshows’ were well attended and a lot of money spent on schmoozing and advertising, but the shares are now at real risk of going below the issue price. That kind of ignominy is something that the Board will not countenance and will probably support at the issue price by purchasing, especially as the employees, dealers and customers of LAUGFS who were given preference would stand to lose.

It therefore goes to show that despite profit forecasts being achieved, substantial over-subscription resulting in a record of Rs50B of interest, the issue could be considered a flop in the eyes of the public. The company has achieved its immediate goal of raising the required funds, but future confidence is questionable.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

There is no FDI in the private sector, for that matter even Local Investment

It is almost unbelievable that over a year and half after the hostilities ended, there just is no increase in private sector investment, from Local or Foreign sources in Sri Lanka. The Central Bank statistics amply point out there is no net Private Sector Job growth either. All the domestic job growth in the past 5 years has been in the Public Sector and Security Forces. The budget was aimed at increasing Private Sector Employment by providing more incentives.

There is no time to waste, as the government seems intent on doing keeping busy with accusing the opposition of a host of ills, to shift focus away from the real problems at hand. The stock market has risen to great heights in anticipation of the future, but if there is no real activity, we could see a crash of confidence followed by a crash in the market with the inevitable consequences for the economy.

A liberal budget is not the only requirement for takeoff. It is the confidence of the investor that the conditions are ripe for new investment. That is not there. The banks are awash with money with no one borrowing. I can get Rs1B loan at .25% above the repo rate, namely at 7.5%, but I do not have credible investments to invest with confidence that will guarantee a return, worthy of me taking the risk.

The question as to why this is so is what the Government should be asking. Once they can understand this and act on changing the scenario, only then will the investors move in with Investments and Expansion of existing businesses. I am not saying there is no Investment, it is that the level has not changed from pre conflict days. The level needs to be much higher if we are to grow at a rate that is forecast.

There is a lot of hype in the press about new hotels being built, but until we actually see construction taking place these are all still on drawing boards. I agree the power projects are good investments, as well as the expansion of the Colombo Port, but other infrastructure projects will take a very long time to payback, and if we do not have a return to be able to debt service in the short term we will have severe problems to pay off our foreign debt. This will especially be so once the Eurozone and US economies pick up, and then we will find it more difficult to borrow to repay loans falling due, unless they are refinanced at higher rates.

The logic that is used now to keep the exchange rate strong, so that our imports and borrowings can be cheap will then immediately evaporate, resulting in a huge depreciation to protect capital flight, something that will then become hugely counterproductive. The answer lies in ensuring we start viable investments without delay, having regard to the investment climate, which MUST BE IMPROVED

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What happened to the Night Bus Service that there was such a hoo haa about?

Those of us who work all hours, and keep the engine of the economy running had occasion to be greatly assisted by the night bus service that the Government with a lot of fanfare publicized about 3 months ago. When I work late in the heart of Fort sometimes till 9pm, I have no way of getting home, short of walking the deserted streets which I have done. For a fearless walker like me having to risk my life over the uneven pavements full of potholes and obstacles is foolhardy. Not muggers, drug addicts or inebriated Security Forces personnel do I fear. It takes me a brisk 40 minute walk to get to the flat I rent. How about to Malabe, Athurugiriya, or God forbid, Godagama where my farm is, there is absolutely no hope of going.

Further for passengers taking the intercity night buses or arriving from outstations, there is no relief, having to wait till 5.30am for the buses to start again. When I take the 2am bus to Minneriya, at what time should I get to the Gunasinghapura bus stand? Unless I have a generous friend who is willing to drop me at 1am I can’t even attempt this journey. I am therefore still waiting for this to commence.

Another case of “it has been conveniently forgotten”!! Rational people do not believe a word that is said in the media, especially as it concerns an agent of the Government making a proclamation. It will never happen, and at best if it does happen it will be very temporary, as the sustainability is not thought through.

So let us agitate again for this. Forget the state bus service. Allow private operators to do this with a fare that is double the normal fare for those boarding a bus from 6.30pm onwards to 5.30am. Then set up a once every half hour or once an hour service depending on the route, having regard to load factors etc. If there are no takers, give me 20 route permits, and I will organize the whole of Colombo night bus service, but no bribes to any officials please!! I will take the credit for setting it up and I will also have my nominee vying for the Mayor of Colombo.

It is so irrational to have to pay four times more for me to take a three wheeler to travel the 3km to the Pettah private bus stand than it costs me to go to Minneriya from there. So my suggestion is a no brainer and if we are to take Colombo city to being a 24 hour vibrant hub that is a vital ingredient to the much hyped growth.

The resources of the city are so underutilized because of the fact that except for the wealthy, the place is out of bounds for the average citizen to enjoy its beauty and vibrancy that would be enhanced by such action, spawning a further set of businesses and entertainment for the masses in one place. It is important therefore to lift the price controls on public transport for at least the hours I have suggested.

The immense responsibility placed on Journalists in Sri Lanka today

We are again confronted by a fracas in Parliament where the “Head Lines” of an article published in an English Language daily had been used to accuse an opposition parliamentarian. Despite the clarity of the article in the papers, the inaccurate insinuation made in Parliament by a government with a two thirds majority is a forerunner of a very grave crisis in the country, where every wrong of the government is turned around by the wrongdoers and blamed on the hapless, yes hapless opposition. I reiterate hapless, because if anyone of the readers have been to parliament and listened to a debate, one can be sure that the opposition is hardly ever allowed to finish a sentence, without a cacophony of whistles boos and boorish conduct. It is ironic that some members choose to speak in English. The reason being that many don’t understand what is being said, and when they listen to the translation, by the time they get it on their headphones it is too late to boo at the point. This allows the English speaker to get his point across uninterrupted.

In light of this I appeal to the journalists, if they have any self respect left to understand the ethos of journalism, where one has to be clear to report facts, and then if there is interpretation, clearly attribute it to the source or event and not imply it is fact. This is especially so where there is self censorship of opinion for fear of retribution. Sadly the latter is commonplace in Sri Lanka at present.

To belabor the point, a minister stated that bus fares (presumably only in Colombo) would be reduced during peak hours. The context in which it was made was not clear in any of the reporting. Was it because there was too much traffic in during this time and the intention was to get people who use cars to get onto the buses?

I don’t know the answer but if it was this issue can be argued in many ways. There is no question that it takes longer each day to come to Colombo from the suburbs as 500,000 commuters to every day. I should know because I am a part time delivery driver of a lorry laden with agricultural produce that I bring into the City. How then can we improve the traffic situation? We experimented with a parking lot in Ratmalana, with buses to take people into the City. It did not work, but instead of honestly looking why it did not work, we automatically assume that is not an answer.

Was it because of the lack of safety of the car park, where a person’s second biggest asset is parked unattended all day? Was it because the buses ran infrequently so it was not an option? These issues must be elaborated upon by the journalist, because the minister making the statement is non specific.

What happened to the much touted Airport Express that in total has carried 80 paying passengers to date? Where is the investigative journalist on this? Are you afraid of exposing a half baked execution of a theoretically excellent idea?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Kalpanakaranna – Absence of news is the most important news- just think about it

The aim of this blog is to enable people to think for themselves. You may or may not agree with what I write, but at least you are able to comment and I have never removed a comment that I disagreed with unless it was censored for foul language.
In that vein, it is not just what is written in the media that is news. In countries such as Sri Lanka where the press is gagged, often what is not written about is news and we are left to surmise and sometimes make insinuations that are not correct because of the inability of investigative journalism to get the true scoop.

A case in point recently was when the Commonwealth boxing Gold medalist, Manju Wanniarachchi was stripped off his medal due to testing positive in two tests, for Nandralone, a banned substance ostensibly administered to him by a homeopath by the name of Mudannayake, who the police were investigating.

The shame for him and country, was not mentioned in the press anywhere be it in print, or in TV. It was conveniently swept under the carpet. A thinking individual can only come to one conclusion, namely that the press was gagged as this is a news story worthy of being broadcast. The question then arises as who did the gagging and why. Then we come to the next point as to who it would be most embarrassing to. His promoters and those who helped guide him through, namely those other than him who took credit for it and who suddenly seemed culpable.

Who heads the boxing federation in Sri Lanka, just Google and check that out!! Should he be embarrassed? If so why? Is his integrity in question? Is there a loss of face? Has he threatened the press? Is anyone in the press willing to come forward to confirm or deny this innuendo as it is only an innuendo in the face of a lack of clear corroborative evidence?

Well these are the questions of news that we bloggers have to take on board if we are to be true citizen activists protecting individual and collective freedom of our motherland from unpatriotic forces who seem determined to take us down a road to obscurity. The country is facing a threat of disinformation and misinformation.

This example is one that should get serious bloggers to report news items in a responsible manner that the press is unwilling to share, due to reasons beyond their control as they are dependent on powers to provide them with various benefits, like livelihood and profits that are not required in the blogging world. The Sri Lankan blogosphere is probably the only area that currently is not censored or self censored, as even prohibited websites can still be accessed in a roundabout fashion.

A thinking individual can then judge for him or herself having regard to the agenda of the blogger, as evidenced in the stance of the content.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The intractable problem of the Tamil Diaspora as recently re affirmed - the UK fiasco

I call this a problem that needs to be solved and can be solved if the Sri Lanka Government takes a constructive approach to handling it with professionalism and boldness in its diplomacy, with less use of anti-Western rhetoric.

Firstly I do not think any of our diplomats, be they career diplomats or not, except for one or two, are competent to tackle this issue in the manner it has to be undertaken. One has to engage the community in a constructive way, something that is tough but doable, so that their incorrect presentation of the ground situation can be EFFECTIVELY countered. We do not have any who can take on the press and face the tough questions with alacrity and zeal instead of defensive mumbling.

Using Bell Pottinger at enormous fee is another failed project of incompetents, who could have actually engaged a skilled home team, who are the public relations vanguard who go for example to London a week prior to the President’s visit to set the media stage and garner enough counter arguments to the vitriol that currently flourishes. Sadly some of the pathetic actions of the Government in its dealings with her own people make it difficult to defend the indefensible, so we must first educate the leaders that they bear a measure of responsibility for this view. “The no smoke without fire syndrome” has turned into a raging inferno.

We must engage each Government where there is a significant presence of such detractors, with the facts at home but with support from the relevant embassy in SL of that country to corroborate the true state of play. A significant push has also to be made to the media, to counter the misinformation that is being spread, much by people who have never even been to SL, as I personally know that foreign born Tamils have a particularly jaundiced view of the facts, which have changed dramatically once they visit SL and find that Colombo is fully of wealthy Tamils.

If the current trend is unchecked the media misinformation will mushroom into a size that will affect the prestige of SL in the outside world, which cannot be supported by India and China alone. The pariah status will then affect all parts of the economy from consumers, investors, tourism and to other forms of economic progress. The smug attitude of the current leadership has got to change as it is the future that will suffer while today’s lot are six feet under and not have to face it.

A five pronged approach with a pincer movement working together concurrently must be started, one country at a time to neutralize Diaspora, media, governments, public opinion, and perception of local missions, but backed up by facts. The latter to be addressed first, without which the former cannot be convincingly conquered.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The cancellation of the President’s address to the Oxford Union

An invitation was extended to the President to speak at the Oxford Union and was graciously accepted. There was much hoopla in the local press that it was the first time a sitting Head of State would speak twice at the venue in its entire history.
On the eve of the event, it was cancelled, with the President’s Secretary citing pro LTTE groups who had pressured the cancellation, while the Oxford Union cited security concerns having had discussions with the Thames Valley Police who were charged with the security of the visiting Head of State.

Whatever reason is correct, it is definitely a slap in the face for the President, despite any spin that is being put out for public consumption. In my opinion it was a pit of his own making, that resulted in this embarrassment. He should never have accepted the invitation unless he was given assurances in advance of the adequate security, and non-cancellation due to pro LTTE pressure.

Having lived in the UK for 18 years, I would have advised him not to have accepted as I know that the Diaspora, have certainly prejudiced public opinion, and our counter points have been too little too late to effectively negate this view. It is futile therefore to attempt damage control, until positive political moves are made to address the grievances, which have been promised, but not yet even proposed.

This act of failed diplomacy must surely rest with the Ministry of External Affaires which has patently failed to advise Head of State of the nuances of British thinking, possibly because of the lack of understanding of our representatives in the United Kingdom. If however they had advised against it and was overturned by the President, due to vanity or some other personal agenda, then it is him who should shoulder the blame and shame. Sadly his visit will not therefore be remembered for the positive steps taken to build a dialogue with the new Conservative coalition government, but for this date with infamy. Such are the pitfalls of a lack of clear direction in the conduct of foreign policy.

If there is a lesson we can learn from this, it is to clearly understand the lay of the playing field prior to starting the game. A thorough debrief of the saga is warranted so that in future such 'faux pas' are avoided, and eventually it is the nation that looks silly and it is in our interests that our representatives act with care and preparation. I wish we had our version of ‘wikileaks’ to this event to better understand the diplomatic communication between London and Colombo to give an opinion on the events that led up to this. This time the Country lost and we better accept it for what it is worth without saving face and sweeping under the carpet.