Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Religion and Politics – Intertwined for good or bad

I had a comment on my Facebook by a friend who noted that as part of our political activities, wherever we go there is some sort of religious connotation. He lives in America, and there is STRICT separation of Church and State there, and there is NO religious involvement in everyday politics. There are a few notable exceptions such as the National Prayer Breakfast at which the President of the USA officiates, so I can understand his dismay.

In Sri Lanka on the other hand we received religious blessings no matter what religion we happen to practice, usually the majority religion in the location we visit as a guest, we partake in whatever function, like a prayer or pancha seela or whatever other religious practice. On Sunday I was first at a temple and soon after at a Devale. There were two different types of ceremony. We from time to time have to go to Mosques to give chairs for a Muslim Daham Pasala or a Christian Church for a function, and accordingly the local traditions of the area, namely of the congregation gathered at the event is observed.

I would like to point out that the Provincial Counselor at the event on Sunday, a Muslim, had a pirith noola tied on his hand by the Chief Priest of the Temple. So in a multi religious country, we must respect all religions and be flexible in how we handle religious observances. The Cricket grounds the tournament that we participated in on Sunday was next to a temple. Accordingly the Chief Priest of the Temple was invited to the podium, and stayed throughout the tournament, in the most important position in the order of preferences.

I personally do not find it a distraction, as it is accepted as part of Sri Lankan custom even in politics. So there are a few items we stand up for, namely any religious observance, then the singing of the National Anthem, and the Party Song, and also to remember the Political Party people who have sacrificed their lives in the interests of democracy. Further when we observe a moment of silence for those who died in the Insurgency, we also stand and observe a minutes silence.

I write this to give my readers, and some of my friends who now see numerous photos of my with many people I meet in my daily activities in Facebook, and see me with different religious clergy at different functions. One must also remember that many religious places of worship also double as community halls in villages, and therefore it is intertwined with the fabric of village life.

Any observations by my readers in this regard will be welcome.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The KICK OFF of the 5000 Primary Schools program is nothing more than hot air!

Our Schools are in a mess. However a plan to hoodwink people into believing funds have been allocated under the above schools program is another step in this campaign of disinformation, not just misinformation. If one reads what it is all about it is about more toilets, water facilities and protecting the security of the school from fences. After all the Rs500,000 MAX allocated to that is hardly a drop in the bucket, and is CERTAINLY NOT going to make a school good enough so that the current rush to put children into prestigious schools will abate.

Funds are not just needed to build toilets in schools as this Rs3B funding suggests. It should be more like Rs300B over 5 years into state education so we change the direction completely from wasting money on spurious defense, that is defending Sri Lanka from its citizens, as we do not face an external threat. We must use the funds to improve education as the products of a good education, will show an immediate productivity gain in the work place, which no Hambantota Harbour of Airport will ever be able to show!

It is with intention that we must direct our resources where it is needed. Firstly to put at least Rs10B additionally this year to train the teachers. There is no point even thinking about education unless we use the latest techniques of training, and with distance learning and training techniques available it is a matter of using the latest technology to cost effectively spend this money in as short a time as possible to maximize on the resources available to produce the highest reward.

I am at a loss as to why the distance learning techniques are not more widely used in Sri Lanka schools. It is possibly still due to the old fashioned by rote education which we don’t seem to be able to get rid of from our psyche.

To benefit more fully from the resources distance education that many countries and organizations are now engaged in, English is a link language that is essential. I therefore would put emphasis, including financial incentives to train teachers in this area, use English as the language in which these techniques are usually made available, and use it to train the techers.

Once teachers are trained it is relatively easy to train the pupils. The teachers will go through this through their teaching lives, and so will be able to impart this knowledge from one group to the next. Let us get cracking without wasting time!!

My estimate of 100,000 sites of archeological interest turns into 275,000!!!!

The Minister of National Heritage said that huge sums are required to preserve and maintain 275,000 sites of archeological interest, when only a day earlier in my blog I had estimated it to be 100K. The problem is that not even 50,000 of these sites are actually properly recorded in a way that it is indexed and can be assured that it is not double counted elsewhere. So in reality his figure is more of a figment of his imagination than mine!! However as I have constantly maintained, it is their job to dream up numbers, but not to do anything about it. So how useful are they really?

Can any other country on Earth boast of so many archeological sites? So here we go again. I suggested a method first of protecting these sites. There is no point in preserving them if they cannot be protected from destruction. The ministry just does not have the resources to protect and preserve even 5,000 sites, so talking about 250,000 is just too much to comprehend, and I dare say he is even not serious about tackling the issue.

I do not envy the job of the Minister, however I do not know if he really has a blue print or suggestion on how he can make SOME headway in this area. It is important that taking a look at my previous blog entry suggestion of using the underutilized forces personnel first to protect, can then in some fashion use their skills in preserving or in some way ensuring when the time is right for excavations, then there is some method of taking off the wraps and beginning the work.

I am afraid I do not believe there are sufficiently qualified people in the field of archeology in Sri Lanka to even begin to tackle the problem. It would therefore be a matter of priority to train sufficient specialists in this area using some form of international assistance in this very specific area of preserving ancient sites, from destruction.

Education of our youth in this area is important so that the next generation can take the issue to a different level, and guard the national treasure as if it is theirs. Today, no one looks at a site other than ask the neighbors if they think that there still is some unexcavated treasure!!

It is this mindset that MUST change, I hope this Minister has the courage to go out on a limb and make a better case, rather than just pick a number out of a hat without a suggestion for their preservation, and instead provide a red rag to a bull!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

How do we protect our 100,000 ancient sites from artifact hunting?

Sri Lanka has the unique distinction of having the highest concentration of sites of archealogical value of any Country on Earth. A rich 2500 + year history has seen to that, and in the past 10 years with the advent of relatively cheap metal detectors, most of the sites referred to have been desecrated of any item of historic interest. As I write there are probably 10 sites being excavated now!!!

“Nidan Harana Aka” (digging for antiquities) has become the pastime of choice of all get rich quick dreamers, and most Government Ministers. After all it is said that the Government chose a site for their Deyata Kirula, so that they may first remove all items of historical interest from the site by the use of Excavators and Bulldozers, before they prepare the soil for the exhibition. Accordingly this daylight robbery of the National Treasures has received State Patronage, as is believed by the public as the work of elected officials.

Not a day goes by without an incident of this nature, and now people appear to be digging their private property for such items. When I point out inexplicable holes in my property in Polonnaruwa, the locals say that it was as a result of someone digging out some antiquity or another in that spot!

Stories, and gossip and hearsay are legendary today of people making their fortunes after discovering or digging up a treasure from some historic period. The finding of King Dutugamunu’s ceremonial sword, is supposed to give the owner powers over the subjects. The people of Sri Lanka suckers for anything otherworldly lap it up hook line and sinker as the truth, even if an artifact was in fact excavated or not.

The beleaguered and underesourced Archealogical Department is at pains to dissociate themselves from any of these allegations, by just saying that they just do not have the resources to guard all these sites, and that they need an army!

I have the privilege of going to all sorts of places in the Country, and invariably find places of historical interest, with sometimes a marking on the road, pointing in the direction of the source, and in others only the local people are aware of them and direct me to the site. I am amazed just how much there is.

In some instances there are temples that are used, with a resident priest tasked with guarding it, and who is now beside himself, saying he just does not have the resources to guard against the theft, that even his small temple suffers from.
It is in this context that many living or existing temples which also double as places of historical interest have a precarious existence. I was at a temple last Sunday in Bibile, where the priests have not been permitted to build (the first stages of the foundations have had to be abandoned) due to the intervention of the courts, saying it is of historic interest, and until a proper excavation is done, they are not permitted to build a permanent structure because of it.

In this instance they have to live in temporary very basic accommodation until the matter is resolved. They appealed to us to intervene on their behalf.

Then there are many other places, some deep inside forests that have been desecrated, and often, even the Chaityas (Dagobas) raided, broken into and whatever was deposited inside, removed. The readily available heavy equipment has enabled more of this plunder to take place, even a few weeks ago

I am sure the reader will not be able to comprehend a number such as 100,000, but if one even goes to Kotte, there is a whole section of palaces and sites in the heart of Colombo, that few people know of, and is hidden from view for all sorts of reasons. If I was an archealogist, I would have to spend many lifetimes, just understanding what is in just a district only, let alone the 25 Districts we have in Sri Lanka today, and cry my heart out seeing the destruction in 10 years

How can we guard these places from Plunder without further public spending? My answer is to give the task to the Army or the Forces. They are the best equipped to guard, having had sufficient experience in the insurrection of guarding electricity sub stations, hydro dams and a list of other sensitive sites. We have a huge Security Force, that engages in building hotels, building their own Security Forces HQ in Pelawatte, and engaging in activities such as farming, transporting vegetables and competing with established businesses.

What better way of guarding national treasures from permanent disappearance? Remember we have already lost perhaps 50% of what we had 40 years ago, as it was not noticed, done surreptitiously and with few resources or even knowledge that such places existed. Elected leaders must share most of the blame.

It is now time to document ALL areas of historical interest. Look at who is currently living there, usually a temple with a few priests, if any, and see if they need further protection. IF they do then provide the needed security, and of all other unguarded places of historical significance, grade them with an ABC of historical value and then provide the necessary, starting with the most urgent.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

224 Ambulances to be distributed to Hospitals today – how many will be roadworthy in a year?

The Minister of Health will distribute 224 ambulances to hospitals today, at an expensive ceremony with fanfare at the BMICH, and a further 150 will be delivered in the next 2 months; the latter, with the assistance of JICA, the Japanese NGO, which has been a major donor in Sri Lanka. See link:

It is time to take stock of the whole sordid method by which Ambulances are used in hospitals, and how they are managed. It is my contention that Hospitals DO NOT have the capability of managing Ambulances in the most productive manner, and ambulance drivers are a law unto themselves, spending more time outside of the hospital stating that they are on duty, and hence claiming overtime as part of their entitlement when the said ambulance could actually be used to save lives. Sometimes a hospital ambulance will not be available for over 48 hours due to the round trip, drivers rest, and all the wasted time.

Start with a blank page. Transfer all 2000 ambulances to one central authority, set up 25 or up to 50 ambulance centers, near or at hospitals if need be to be governed by a person responsible at that center for the fleet. He or she will be responsible for ensuring the staffing and maintenance optimized. Using the latest technology of tracking, one central authority WILL KNOW where each of the 2000 ambulances are, which ones are available, (a color coding system will identify – in use, free, unroadworthy and without staffing)

In this way GPS tracking technology along with the communication system, will direct the right ambulance to the right place to optimize patient transportation. Let us remember, that in Sri Lanka it is NOT ambulances that transport patients to the hospital from the accident scene. It is done without adequate safeguards, by three wheelers and lorries etc. Ambulances are used to transport patients from a local hospital to one that can take care of the urgency.

When I had my life threatening accident, when the Senior Cabinet Minister of Justice’s security vehicle (he was at the head of his convoy and was blissfully unaware) carelessly crashed literally into me, it was a passing truck that took me the next 30 minutes to the hospital. Under the rules of the Polonnaruwa hospital, I could only be transferred to the Kandy Hospital trauma unit, for surgery 140 km away, and so opted to pay for a private ambulance service to come from Colombo (225KM away), pick me up from the Polonnaruwa hospital 10 hours after the accident, and then take me to the Accident Service at the National Hospital in Colombo (another 6 hours) as I preferred to be in Colombo, to be given the best chance of basic care. This was over two years ago and I have still not fully recovered, taking various medications and with a painful limp, and no assistance from the perpetrators.

So let us set up an Ambulance Service, with a billing system to all patients who use it, which asks them to pay 5% of the cost of the Ambulance. In this way, they will know the value of the service to them, and that their contribution is a small one bearing in mind how beneficial it is to them. If there are multiple patients then this billing could be divided equally amongst the users.

The GPS system will be able to direct the right ambulance to the right place, ensuring that response times are improved 5 fold from the present. Driver utilization will be maximized, where it is possible that more drivers are hired, and fewer abuse the overtime system. There will be tracking of each movement so the on time off time will be recorded, and if unusual require adequate explanation. In this way no one can fudge, the scarce Nation’s precious resources, will be better deployed, one can use examples of international best practice to develop the best framework, and in the end the patient whose life we are talking about could be saved, and often, expensive care avoided, due to the prompt response to the emergency.

Companies in Sri Lanka already provide the latest GPS tracking technology at a reasonable fee, which can be optimally used to manage the fleet. Talk to any doctor or administrator in a rural hospital, and the frustration they face dealing with errant drivers singing their own tune of Ambulance availability is apparent. My suggestion will save the country millions, provide a better service, employ more drivers and emergency technicians, and allow for quick responses to major accident scenes, where only a trained ambulance crew will be able to reduce mortality and reduce the level of trauma. Arguably many lives will also be saved. Snake bite deaths can be minimized, if prompt transport is available.

I trust the Minister will have the political will to take up a suggestion such as this, and urgently implement a system of improvement to the existing set up. These are examples of basic common sense suggestions, there are hundreds more, that can improve the quality of life of all citizens of Sri Lanka, and it is the duty of the Government of the day to consider these carefully and arrive at a common sense approach to a practical solution. Let’s go and do it!

The Diaspora – how can they effectively contribute to their homeland?

The Sri Lankan Diaspora is estimated at about 4 million. 2 million of whom carry Sri Lankan passports, and 90% of that 2 million are temporary workers on renewable work visas, in countries, mainly in the Middle East, but also includes, workers in Cyprus, Korea, Singapore, Maldives and undocumented workers in Italy.

The expected remittances directly through banks and indirectly through other means from the workers alone in 2013 is estimated at US$8 Billion a staggering 20% of the US$40B GNP of SL. Let there be no illusion, it is simply this remittance that keeps the country afloat, and the Government drowning in waste and extravagance. These 1.8 million workers with Sri Lankan citizenship who remit their earnings to Sri Lanka DO NOT have a vote in Sri Lanka, and many are not on the electoral roll in the Country, owing to them being overseas. In short they are disenfranchised, and I have no doubt that their vote could make a difference in the way Sri Lanka is governed.

Of the remainder of the Diaspora, there are 80,000 students who are working and studying, some who receive money from their families in Sri Lanka for their education, estimated at about US$1B per annum flowing out of SL.

Then the rest form a large segment who have permanently settled in Europe, Americas and Australasia, with about 400,000 who were born in Sri Lanka but have opted for citizenship in their host country, and the rest about 1.5million, their children and grandchildren who were born overseas, and have generally little connection to their parent’s land of birth, but who often identify themselves as from Sri Lanka and are entitled to be referred to as Diaspora.

I myself having lived overseas for over 33 years of my life, mainly in the UK and the USA, having studied, gone to university and worked in different fields and in many capacities, feel I have a stake in this discussion, and would appreciate comments from my readership, which is overwhelmingly US based.

I returned with no regrets in the prime of my life to help in whatever small way I can, and as the followers of my blogs all these years know, have had somewhat mixed experiences of the good and bad. My related blogs as noted at the top right in this blog, give details of life in Sri Lanka and the experiences I referred to. 8 years as a working farmer in Polonnaruwa, living through the years of conflict has been an experience, I would not exchange with anything!
The article with the link below in yesterday’s Huffington Post tries to answer in some way how the latter Diaspora, can help. The temporary workers cannot be asked to do more than they already are, and so it is to the other category of Sri Lankan ex pats, mostly holding citizenship in their host countries, that I address the subject matter of this essay.

I would ask you, do you wish to help? IF so who in Sri Lanka do you wish to help? How would you like to channel your help? as you wish to be comfortable that your assistance is actually going to the cause which you hold dear.

If you have followed my blog you will realize that I, being at the ground level have helped numerous people over many causes over a long period of time. Some have benefitted, others have taken advantage of the kindness. I still have not come to a definitive answer as to what is the most effective way of assisting so that there is a long term social benefit from it for the recipients.

My life today, is not devoted to farming, but is almost exclusively in social work, community work, and helping individuals with their issues, many of whose demands and requests are unreasonable and difficult to fulfill.

The link refers to a group who assists students from disadvantaged families in achieving their goals, of a basic education. I am tackling this same issue from the other side, of the providers of education, the state, in coming up with some form of document, as a blue print to provide the framework for a real education, not just literacy and school attendance none of which guarantees a person the ability to master living in the competitive world they find themselves in. This will I hope ensure that the scarce funds spent by the State is directed in the most productive and cost effective manner, with the quality of the output being the result! That result and how that 17 year old who decides to pursue their lives will determine if this is the right approach.

In my opinion, the resources put into asking the question, and then answering it in a well defined manner, taking into account expert opinion, is a needed objective, if Sri Lanka is to maximize on the true potential of our children. There is no point paying for a child through his University years, with books and living costs, if he is unable to find a job at the end of it. It is better to set up the framework where there is a definite method of living, where he can even borrow needed funds to achieve, knowing he can repay, and then some.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Electricity tariff hike – what it means to the lower income families

There is a raging debate about the ethics and the basis of the huge rise in Electricity, which will see the poorest families of Sri Lanka, assumed to be in the under 60 units of usage a month (as opposed to my household which uses over 200 units on average!) have to pay a whopping 50% increase as compared with the bill they received in March.

This is because their rate has been hugely subsidized by the state where they pay something like (my figures are illustrative only to make the point) Rs15 per unit, and I pay over Rs40 per unit for ALL units I consume, and is not a step up rate. The minute you get on to the next tier, you pay at a higher rate for the whole number. My electricity bill is likely to rise by about 20% from Rs10,000 a month to Rs12,000 a month, while someone using 60 units is likely to see a bill rise from Rs1000 a month to Rs1500 a month.(an increase of 50%)

As I am on a higher tier, I pay about what it costs the CEB to generate electricity and all the inefficiencies of the State supplier. I am not subsidized. However the lower user is still subsidized by over Rs1500 a month even though his bill rises by 50%. So one can appreciate the extent of the subsidy he received previously. His bill should really be Rs3000 and not Rs1000 as now.

In giving a fair analysis of the issue, there has to be some way to plug the hole of Rs100B a year that is lost by the CEB. All Governments, but especially this Government, as it has gone for the most expensive alternatives in retrospect, have contributed to making bad choices with regards to building power stations and the costs to run them. It is also argued that the private suppliers of electricity are paid rates much higher than would be reasonable, as they were forced to do so to attract private players, when the state was unable to fill the demand, and they seized the opportunity and built thermal as well as mini hydros, so they could make a tidy return. However these agreements will lapse in a few years, and can be renegotiated at lower rates.

Given this background I will concentrate here only on the ethics of the massive hike in rates for the lower income households. It is simple arithmetic that the larger number of users of electricity, 40% fall into this category, and raising their tariff is the easiest way of obtaining the total increase in Revenue. It is estimated that this segment of the population will pay an additional Rs30B in electricity charges this year, as their consumption is inelastic. That is as they already use very little electricity relatively, and in my knowledge also have turned to LED bulbs to further reduce their usage, there is NO way they can reduce their consumption, and will HAVE TO pay the higher bills. It is this most vulnerable segment who will have to fork out.

The intellectual argument is whether it is fair for them to be burdened with the increase, or should more be piled on to the heavier users? The Government maintains that they have been subsidized heavily all this time (that is why they have kept this Govt. in power) and accordingly have cost the Govt. a huge loss, and now it is time for them to pick up some of that TAB.(pay for the free lunch)

The Opposition line is, and it is definitely politically motivated for political mileage, and if they word it sufficiently candidly can gain a huge political advantage, that it is unfair to burden the most vulnerable segment, as they are unable to reduce their cost, by lower consumption! They fail to say however how the deficit can be plugged! But as I mentioned earlier this Govt’.s bad policies led to this problem in the first place and therefore they must eat some of the crow and suffer the wrath of a furious public.

It is easier for me to reduce my usage and try not to permit an increase in my bill, by turning off a fan or using the washing machine less! It is so hot these days, not having a fan is a nightmare of sweat pouring down one’s face. If I retreat to Polonnaruwa, where I do not have electricity I will avoid the problem!

I also understand that the PUC has forced the Electricity Board to reduce their costs, which are also outrageous due to inefficiencies within their labor force with very highly paid professionals, who are reluctant to lose any of their perks. The answer is simply to pray that Hydro Reservoirs are full and our reliance on thermal is less. Norochcholai HAS NOT given the expected benefits because of many of the economies of scale have not helped reduce the cost due to the faulty nature of the plant, which due to bribes, commissions and inefficiencies in the technology is costing the Board twice its original estimate.

In conclusion, as the CEB is one of two state enterprises that show the largest losses, something has to be done to reduce them. Bad government has led to high cost Electricity production, and we the people are paying the price. Now it has finally dawned on the poor that even they have been living beyond their means all this time, and it is time for them to pay for the sins of the Govt. It is the wastage and inefficiencies in Corruption that we are all paying for today, and it is time the people of Sri Lanka realize that they have been fooled into a false sense of security by the untruths trotted out daily by the Govt.