Thursday, May 31, 2012

Youth alcoholism and addiction – a serious problem

One only has to look at the Revenue growth of Distilleries Corporation and Ceylon Tobacco Company and the billions given to the state in taxes by them to know that the “mathata thitha” slogan of the Government is just that! like most of what they do ‘a mere slogan’. The volume of alcohol consumption is actually on the rise and so is that of tobacco. It is a more serious problem amongst young people, and I believe a growing problem NOT a lessening one. The fact the Govt. has failed miserably in this campaign is an indication that, either they are not serious and doing this merely for political smoke and mirror tricks or that they tried and failed miserably.

It is also becoming a serious community health issue, as the illnesses caused at a young age due to this abuse creates addicted people who need help out of addiction, putting severe stress on the limited resources we have at our disposal and related health issues of liver and lungs.

Further it is cool to be smoking especially at a young age, and it is even cooler to be drunk and pass out so that the next day your peers can explain how you were after you had passed out as if it is a right of passage to be proud of. This attitude needs to stop!

It can happen if the youth create a movement from within, not use outside assistance. If young people start a movement, then every one who makes a commitment to change their behavior in keeping with members of the movement, can by the small example mushroom into a rapidly expanding phenomenon where it is cool to be in it. If it takes off, there will be no one trying to undermine its spread, and all the tricks the tobacco and alcohol industry get up to can be deflected by the Youth of Sri Lanka.

I was approached by a 23yr guy, member of our youth movement the day before with this issue as being of paramount importance to him. He says that if this is not arrested now, our society will turn into a something quite irreversible and unsavory. Perhaps I should ask him to head this project and start it in small way at first getting him to gather his friends to make a pledge and go from there. No guesses as to where it could lead to and what changes in society we could make from a young man’s idea of an obvious documented problem facing young people, and most especially disillusioned young people of Sri Lanka Today!


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Revisiting the ‘only three at the back rule’ for three wheelers

In an earlier blog entry, I agreed with the new regulations, (I am not sure if it has been inacted) that said that only three individuals can go at the back) This was because it was just plain unsafe for more to travel, especially if it upsets the equilibrium of this quite unstable mode of transport, and reflected by the number of accidents involving three wheelers reported daily. If one asks a three wheeler owner, they would put the blame squarely on the larger vehicle that is also often involved, a bus or a tipper truck the most likely ones. Often the driver of the latter does not even see the three wheeler, due to the height of the driver seat.

It has now become a huge issue in the rural areas, where bus services are few and far between and people are packed into three wheelers with many sharing the fare so that they can get from A to B. If one were to share the fare three ways it might still be too high for the poorest who do not have a bus to rely on. In that sense I do agree that the three wheeler has provided relief for people at the bottom end of the ladder to go about their essential business, but only if they can share the cost more ways than three.

There is a dilemma here. This can cause accidents with many fatalities and then there will be agitation for safety based restrictions. Just as seat belts have only recently been enforced and that only for English number plated vehicles, regulations governing three wheelers are also overdue. When a country grows and problems crop up, one has to set standards to mitigate problems and therein lies the quandary.

The driver also lays his life on the line when his three wheeler is packed and so should also shoulder the blame if he agrees to this overloaded fare. School children who we also try to protect are packed in like sardines, because the parents can share the cost but no three ways. What is the compromise?

I do not have an answer. One example is that Insurance can only agree to cover the driver and accidents if only three are carried, where the risk is transferred squarely to the driver for overloading. It has to be some form indirect control, where the risk is assessed by the risk taker before he undertakes the risky journey. The parents must agree to the risk of the lives of their children. It is a contract between the driver and passengers.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The call for the strict enforcement of 80% attendance for A levels

The Minister of Education has requested today, that all school Principals strictly enforce the regulations, which call for a student to attend a minimum of 80% of the school days during the A level course period, before he or she is permitted to sit for the A level exams. It must also be remembered if one sits A levels through the school, then one must have the forms signed by the Principal, and therefore in order for him to sign the form, the student must satisfy this requirement.

I will not go into the finer points of the number of months prior to the A levels that the forms need to be submitted to the Department of Examinations, nor the dates from which this attendance applies as well as the valid excuses to circumvent the regulations, as it is not the place here.

So just spare a moment and think through this request. Is it reasonable? I do not think so. What is the main reason for this enforcement? It is the fact that many students instead of attending classes attend A level tuition classes instead. Why do they do that? It is because their parents DO NOT HAVE faith in the school his son attends, to give him the best chance of the best result? Instead of sending him to the free, state school, the child is sent on one or more school days for paid tuition, sometimes by the same teachers, who earn an extra buck. In many instances this is at the cost of poor teaching in the class room, and the student is instead asked to attend the teacher’s tuition class in the evening or at some other time!!!

When one is forced to abide by the regulation, what will the end result be? The student’s A level grade suffers because he was not able to attend sufficient tuition classes due to the regulation. These are all valid questions that need to be debated before we come to any hasty conclusions. In my opinion, it is the dearth of good teachers that is affecting the education system today. Parents therefore who are able to pay for tuition, do the best for their child by that.

We must take a more relaxed approach. We must realize that the remaining students have a better chance with the smaller class size, for better attention from the teachers. Do the teachers take advantage of this fact and give more individual attention to the student and coach him in areas that he finds difficult to grasp? I rather think not. It is not the student who should be the focus of the investigation, but the TEACHER.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What is it with our electorate? They just want, want and continue to want almost anything! even a headache

In my experience the sight of a politician is a trigger to a signal in the brain to see what we can get. Remember these are politicians, most without any elected office, many with sparse funds and some just local government members whose monthly stipend is Rs5000, not those in Government who have access to a largesse others can only dream of.

People believe politicians, part timers are fair game for whatever that ails them! To use the example of a heavy day of work in the Mahara Electorate today, covering Sunday schools of different religions, sports clubs and societies providing death benefits. We gave sports equipment, chairs and lets review the requests, some mindbogglingly cheeky.

At a daham pasala in a Temple today, the Principal of the school said that children sit under trees, and learn their religion, but when a day like today (sporadic rain) comes around they have nowhere to learn, and all children are together in the main hall. They would like assistance with building class rooms so that the children have somewhere to learn.

The fact that no one realizes that as a preposterous request takes my breath away. If they want to learn in a school room type environment use the services of the unused school rooms on Sunday in a school close to the Temple. Why waste a fortune to build school rooms only to be used one day of a week? What a waste of scarce resources?

In my opinion, learning Sunday school under a tree for shade has an aura of religious mysticism to it. I feel I learn better in this serene setting. The fact that it rains in a blue moon on a Sunday morning does not mean that schools are interrupted! They should use the rain day to congregate in these beautifully crafted temple halls, where the gathas can be learned or recited in unison with all the students. I really cannot understand the need for school rooms in temples. In fact it takes away from its purpose.

As a country we fail to realize how fortunate and well endowed we are. Instead we compare ourselves with others and think we are owed something better. It is with this selfish attitude that a religion which teaches one to give up all earthly desires is mired in only a list of wants.

I have yet to go to a temple that has not asked for something over and above the goodies they have been given that day.

One Sunday school asked for a photocopier, another for more chairs and whilst in the car a Headmaster of a local National School asked for an overhead multimedia projector that had been asked previously at the time chairs were donated to the school. The headmaster must have his head examined as he spent Rs500,000 on a useless waste of resources when the President’s wife came to the school earlier for a prize giving, when he could have bought a minimum 6 projectors with that budget.

We are talking about intelligent learned people misusing resources of a country, who have no idea that any money distributed is hard earned by someone and not growing on trees. They should fundraise where appropriate especially from those directly benefiting from the expense, namely parents of students at these places. They will ensure that money is not wasted. Other people’s money is misspent, so this discipline will ensure productive use of resources for only the purposes intended.

If the Headmaster does not think he is cheeky, he really must realize he has abused his rights by the sheer waste of the event, where for personal prestige the wife of the President was invited, and all that spend was in vain as it did not result in any largess from her, as he mistakenly assumed.

At the sports clubs the requests were for grounds to play any sports. In this regard, I believe there must be an arrangement with schools for the use of their grounds. I believe that all these grounds built by Pradeshiya Sabhas for the people are not maintained. It costs a lot to maintain, and the clubs only use the facilities and DO NOT contribute to their maintenance so the PS does not believe it is a cost worth bearing as the grounds itself will go into disuse as I have seen most of these common areas in villages.

At the death benefit society the request was for a easily collapsible hut that can be used for funeral houses, usually with galvanized roofing sheets. Along with these requests are the usual personal requests too! Kid to Schools, jobs for family members, assistance with operations, and today, assistance with building two homes for two of the village’s families who are most in need, and have a dwelling that is not livable!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Challenge of empowering our University Students to be more than Robots

We held a daylong seminar yesterday for 50 University students from campuses all around the country, to take upon themselves the political organization in their particular University, so that they can give a clear message to new members of where they stand vis a vis issues of importance to them, as well as to give them a general education on how the organization’s vision differs from other bodies within the Universities and how they can clearly point out the benefits of joining this as opposed to another, with their personal goals at the head of the agenda.

It was a difficult concept for students to get them to think for themselves on what is of utmost importance to them rather than for someone else. Up to now political organizations have taken the thinking and the personal analysis out and instill a rigid dogma which they do not want their membership to veer away from.

We on the other hand explain the principles of the vision and ask the student to formulate a plan in keeping with them. If they disagree with the principals per se, they have no way of going to the next stage. I found this a hard concept for them to understand as they wanted to be told what to do! Is this what we have inherited from our free education? No wonder, employers do not want to hire a graduate from a Sri Lankan university. In explaining the reasons of this phenomenon and why they are unable to land the many jobs available in the marketplace, I find it difficult to get them to realize that they have many shortcomings, and they would do well to surmount them now whilst at University and not have to face them when they come to the job market and begin their job search and then be disappointed.

We tried to explain what a demoralizing political gimmick the government was engaged in, by taking a few thousand Graduates off the unemployed rolls, by putting them in divisional secretariats, paying them a monthly stipend of Rs10,000 and not giving them a specific task as those offices are overstaffed at the best of times, and is a complete waste of the state’s resources. It would have been better to give them a course paid for by the state, in life skills development where they try to teach people to look inward and find what it is that they are looking for before commencing a job search. That would have been a more appropriate use of this money. I am sure it will pay dividends by empowering those students to think for themselves and not rely on bankrupt state jobs to get them into employment.

We were also tasked with explaining how they could benefit from the global marketplace if they can direct their energy to concentrate on the jobs available in the future another concept alien to them.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Three wheelers – they have had a roller coaster ride lately

I have a confession. I always have a bad feeling when I try to negotiate rates with three wheel drivers. I somehow feel I have been duped or overcharged, convinced that if there was a cab at that moment, it would actually cost much less. So I am paying the extra for the convenience of hailing one! Of course when I get a chance I prefer to use a metered trishaw.

Let me get to the point I was making. The increase in taxes on trishaws was a godsend to the existing three wheel drivers, (let’s wait to see when they need to replace their existing clapped out ones) because they interpret it as it will be more difficult for competitors to join the race for fares. They will have to pay at least Rs100K each extra. They have seen their incomes erode first from a proliferation all over, and then from the metered ones that now seem to grow every day. So, fewer hires per day and less income during a period of increasing costs resulted.

That euphoria was short lived. Within a few weeks of the tax increase, it was announced that owing to the spate of accidents, many fatal, involving trishaws, that the authorities will limit the number of passengers to 3 excluding the driver. This will have consequences for hires as some try to cut costs by piling into trishaws like sardines, endangering their lives, but use it as the only option available to them, especially when buses do not run on their roads, or at times after 6pm.

Whilst this has not been gazetted yet, hence this rule is still not in force, it will mainly affect the up and coming middle class that cannot afford a car, but a trishaw as a personal vehicle is within their means. However if they have more than 3 other than Papa who will drive it, they are out of luck, now to travel with the whole family. They will feel penalized, together with some parents who knowingly send their kids in packed three wheelers, at lower costs, which they will now have to bear a bigger daily charge to send their kids to school in a trishaw.

This has become a hot potato politically as I have been asked to agitate against this rule, to prevent the State from enforcing it, as it would affect mainly poorer people who have no choice but to pack the trishaw, to save per person moving costs.

My conscience says I cannot defend them as it is patently unsafe to pack a trishaw. In fact I do believe travelling in one is also unsafe, if any of the recent images of fatal accidents involving trishaws is looked into. It is definitely going to increase the cost of travelling, and so we will be inconvenienced, however at the same breath I would contend that society pays a heavy price for this privilege and so limiting the number of passengers is primarily to help those who in fact go in them.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Tamara Kunanayakam saga – how many more turns before finality?

Ambassador Tamara, who I feel has done a tremendous job against all the odds and interference, has been asked to vacate her post after less than a year on the job, back to her previous post in Cuba. Whilst I am not privy to the backroom intrigue between the Foreign Service and Temple Trees which led to this effective demotion, I believe notwithstanding the appointment of another able Diplomat to replace her, that she has been treated shabbily.

She has just been appointed to some very important committees within the UN diplomatic arms in Geneva, which she will have to vacate, another tragedy for Sri Lanka. I suspect those who made this decision did it more out of envy and spite rather than out of a genuine desire to help SL cause in Geneva.

I rather suspect that after a request to at least send her to begin the new Mission in Caracas, which I believe is of dubious value, she could have been redirected with some dignity instead of the hard to stomach return to Start by sending her back to Cuba. If I was Cuba, I would be offended to be sent a diplomat who had already served there in the same capacity, a fact obviously lost on our Foreign Service.

It is now more than likely that she will tender her resignation, and get a job in the UN in Geneva, a place that is familiar to her. She will then remove all affiliations she had with the Sri Lankan Govt. and go it alone under a new leadership. We would therefore have lost a much needed diplomat, out of insecurity of the Service.

The sort of diplomatic shenanigans that are carried out where we will have the 4th Ambassador in 3 years in Geneva, is an indication of the state of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy or lack of it in direction and consistency.

All I can do is to wish her well in a career she embarks on, and I am sure many of the readers will do to. We can only hope that Ravinatha can do as good or better job in Geneva in light of the threats that Sri Lankans themselves have placed on us.

Being in the Foreign Service in Sri Lanka today, because of lack of transparency in dealing with her own citizens, is a tough assignment in the first place. Those who belittle it are only able to improvise, a third rate reply which will do the country harm. The litany of ills of the service will continue to proliferate until there is a new Govt. which is able to come in on a major platform of reform to undo big time rackets now being carried out. It is important that in the interim, if we could go into the backroom negotiations to confront and debate within the time and resource constraints. It is a credit that our seasoned diplomats can even operate this way.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Bird Smugglers given the Birds back – by the ZOO

It was recently reported this week, May 7th 2012 to be exact that 121 birds that were caught by the customs, as having being illegally imported from Bangkok were to be returned to the smuggler, by the Dehiwela Zoo director who said that they did not have the wherewithal to take care of them.

Having been caught, the smuggler had to pay a fine of Rs450,000 and have the birds confiscated. They were apparently valued at Rs15M. The blue and yellow Macaw indigenous to South America sells at Rs1.2M. It was also reported that the smuggler has been engaged in big time smuggling to satisfy the demand of the local market for exotic birds. Bangkok being a hot spot for the trade in exotic birds appears to be the intersection, where the birds come from the source destination, some being exotic and endangered, and the buyers from all over the world take them to their respective countries!

There are a couple of issues. First, the consignment was illegally imported, and under SL law, customs are justified in confiscating the consignment and fining the importer. The birds then become the property of the state. The state must decide what to do with them. They can re-export it to the country of origin, or hand them to an authorized body, in this case the zoo to take care of them. The limited budget the zoo survives on, rightly gives the responsibility to the zoo director to ascertain whether he has the resources for their maintenance; the space, ability to provide the expensive food some of these birds need, and the veterinary services. Upon his determination that he was unable to do so, what should he do?

He is not permitted to sell government property! Without himself getting interdicted! What is the humane thing to do short of killing the birds? If they want to re-export the endangered birds legitimately, where do they send it to? The only person who would accept them with an undertaking was the smuggler.

So can he receive government property free of charge? What if he is asked to pay market value and he refuses? These are all questions to ponder on. On a far more important note, how can we in Sri Lanka do our bit to take action against the trade in endangered species which must form part of some international law somewhere!

What I would propose as the sanest solution, short of killing them, is to advertise and auction the birds in a public auction, cash on delivery at the time of auction, as that is where they will end up anyway. If that bird park in Kelaniya, which is the other place to see a variety of birds in captivity from all over the world is willing they should also bid for whatever they can get! What do you have to say?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What were they thinking? – the TFC share purchase by NSB

CJ on one side and Chairman of NSB her Husband on the other side, flanking the President

“Kalpanakaranna” my dear readers is the theme of this blog, so we can all live ‘serendipitous’ lives in Serendipity (a name given to Sri Lanka in days long gone, by foreign travelers) So any person with half a brain would have realized that a transaction of this nature is bound to arouse suspicion.

Put simply, they realize they are above the law. The NSB Chairman is the husband of the Chief Justice, so they are obviously above the law. Just like in my case when the perpetrator of the vehicle crash that put paid my farming was the Minister of Justice. It was his police jeep driver’s fault for keeping pace with the convoy, the reason the unfit vehicle crashed into me. I cannot sue him, as all Judges are paid by his Ministry, and will not want to give a judgment against their paymaster.
This sort of cocky behavior which is part and parcel of the deals done by Stock Brokers, ( I worked at one for two years when the worst of the cowboy excesses took place and have documented many in this blog) knowing they can get away with it as they have political patronage. So the story in the Media that the President is taking a personal interest in this is all HOGWASH. He is doing as he always does, what is the best PR for the situation at present. Not what is best for the Country. The damage has been done, there is no one taking responsibility.

AT LEAST the Chairman of the NSB MUST take full responsibility for the decision of his executives for agreeing to purchase and then failing to pay for the shares. He should resign. The CEO of the stock broker who was part of the deal and who profited from it MUST also resign. This is a given before any investigation takes place. We know about investigations in this country. The report will come out on a day that has other more important news and will be swept under the carpet and the perpetrators will get off scott free.

It is important that there are rules, which are enforced. The SEC has dickheads who run the respective departments, I know their competencies or lack of them. Has anyone taken them to task for their inadequacies. I rather think not. Further the Stock Exchange is no better, more like a gentlemen’s club, more versed in the art of fine whiskies than in knowing how to regulate their own (Stock Brokers own the CSE) It is just this sort of lack of credibility, that WILL NOT draw overseas investors in the numbers we require to obtain the needed foreign investment.

We fail to understand, those who invest in Sri Lanka, desire to build a company that becomes part of the CSE, which in turn permits them to withdraw some of their investment at a market price in the future. They must have faith in the system!

It appears that no amount of transgressions in the areas of Governance seems to permeate into the establishment. It comes out of a feeling of invincibility that they can do anything and get away with it. This attitude sadly is not a cause for people to agitate, I believe due to overwhelming complacency and the lack of awareness of what is right and wrong!