By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…..luxury, opulence, and unjust extractions extorted by self-seeking corrupt individuals who scorn the distress of the multitude and rarely attempt to ease their hardships.” – Jonathan Israel (Revolution of the Mind)
Imported pet food was one of a handful of items accorded a tax break by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his 2014 Budget.
The Opposition is calling it a ‘Cat’s and Dog’s Budget’. Au contraire; Rajapaksa benevolence does not extend to dogs/cats in general; only to dogs/cats who belong to families wealthy enough to afford imported pet food. For normal ordinary Lankan canines[i], the Rajapaksas have neither consideration nor mercy, as is evident from the regime’s pitiless campaign against Colombo’s non-pedigreed and local street dogs[ii]. (The patriotic Rajapaksas seem inordinately fond of all things foreign and Western, including dogs, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s ‘dog from Switzerland’ saga being an excellent case in point[iii].)
The Rajapaksa attitude to dogs is symbolic of Rajapaksa attitude to things in general. For themselves and their kith and kin (including the family pets), the Rajapaksas are generous sans limits. Indeed, Budget 2014 (like its predecessors) has made it easier for the rulers and their coterie to buy designer products or to create lucrative monopolies.
And this in a country which is reduced to felling and selling trees to pay the EPF/ETF dues of some of its workers!
Last week, the Cabinet gave permission to “to cut down trees in state-owned plantations and sell the timber to pay statutory dues of thousand of employees… This is the first time trees are being felled from the state plantations sector to raise money to pay statutory dues of workers”[iv]. Another Rajapaksa Wonder! And an excellent indicator of the true financial state of the nation, after eight years of Familial rule.
Internationally reputed audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has reported that in 2010-2011, Mihin Lanka “incurred a net loss of Rs. 940.49million…and the company’s current liabilities exceeded its current assets by Rs. 1,083.45million reflecting a Negative Networth of Rs. 3,814.45million. This indicates the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the ability of the company to continue as a going concern”[v].
Mihin Lanka may be a financial sinkhole; but about its ability to survive, PricewaterhouseCoopers need not have been concerned. The world’s costliest budget airline will continue its profligate existence so long as the Rajapaksas rule. In his latest budget, the President allocated US$ 50million (Rs. 6542million) to the superlatively expensive budget airline bearing his name.
Sri Lankan Airlines, which made a loss of Rs. 21,750million in 2012/13, was allocated US$ 150million (Rs. 19,627million).
With such institutional prodigies to maintain, it is little wonder that the country is reduced to cutting and selling trees to settle EPF and ETF dues of ordinary workers.
The illegal and unjust impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake (and her replacement with a tame acolyte) is but one more step (albeit a critical one) in a strategic campaign to efface all lines of demarcation between the Ruling Family and the Lankan state. The Rajapaksa habit of using the state and its resources as their private property is an indication of this transformation. In October 2013, the Securities and Exchanges Commissions (SEC) donated Rs. 5million to Namal Rajapaksa’s ‘Tharunyata Hetak’ to engage in ‘capital market promotion’[vi]. The SEC is an independent institution while ‘Tharunyata Hetak’ is a partisan political entity. The month before the SEC gave this handout, this institutional progeny of Namal Rajapaksa held public meetings to ensure the victory of UPFA candidates at the NWP election[vii]. The SEC’s act is thus a clear violation of its own supposed political independence. It is also indicative of how the state resources are being used, in ways large and small, to maintain the Rajapaksas and their kith and kin in the style to which they have become accustomed since November 2005.
Presidential offspring love racing. So racing vehicles are given generous tax breaks and state resources (including the labour of ‘war heroes’) are used, sans accountability and transparency, to facilitate Colombo Night Races. A Presidential son wants to go to space and Sri Lanka, the country which is cutting and selling trees to pay some of its workers their statutory dues, is starting a space programme.
Given this wanton financial irresponsibility, it is hardly surprising that within a fortnight of presenting the budget, the debt ceiling was increased by Rs.178billion[viii].
Last week, environmentalists expressed concern about a government plan to permit the registration of illegally captured elephants for a fee (a calf for about US$ 7.600). According to Vimukthi Weeratunga of Environmental Foundation Ltd, “There is a new set of wealthy people who want to keep elephant calves for prestige. Therefore there is a heavy demand for elephant calves.”[ix] A new ruling caste with a feudal mindset is using its unlimited power to ape some of the manners of pre-modern times. According to Prithiviraj Fernando of the Centre for Conservation and Research, “In the past elephants were owned by nobility and this has some bearing on the desire to keep elephants today as it has a connotation of higher social status/prestige/wealth”[x]. Plus, the elephants can be leased for various functions for substantial amounts. Prestige and Profits: such are the rewards of power.
The wealth and resources of a nation are being used, consciously and deliberately, to subsidise and enrich and a politico-economic upper-crust, to pamper their fragile egos and satiate their carvings for prestige and glory. As the boundary lines which make a modern democratic state evaporate, the Lankan state is becoming the preserve and the instrument of the favoured few.
A Segregated Dystopia
All over Colombo, in this cold and rainy December, homes of the poor are being destroyed. Despite grand declarations about providing alternative houses with better facilities, only a small number of Rajapaksa foot-soldiers will be fortunate enough to get a roof over their heads. For the absolute majority of Colombo’s poor, there will be no alternative homes.
One of the most attractive features about Colombo was that its rich diversity. It was never segregated, ethnically, religiously or economically. In many parts of the city, the majority and the minority communities, the rich and the poor lived cheek by jowl. The Rajapaksas are steadily changing that diversity and turning Colombo into a preserve of the rich and the powerful. As Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera correctly pointed out, it is not just illegal residents who are being forcibly evicted. Families who have owned their land for decades are being thrown out of their homes. Rich Tamils/Muslims will not be evicted but the city will be denuded of all non-rich Tamils and Muslims. A tiny minority of the Sinhala poor will be re-housed in the border areas of the city, mostly to furnish pro-Rajapaksa mobs in time of political need[xi].
What we are witnessing in Colombo is a process of ethno-religious and class cleansing. This project of demographic and social engineering is a critically important step in the broader Rajapaksa effort to transform Sri Lanka into a paradise for the powerful and the politically connected rich, but a country without security, freedom or justice for ordinary people.
[i] Some of the oldest prehistoric dog skeletons were found in the Nilgala cave; “dating from the Mesolithic ear, about 4500 BCE, (these) suggest that Balangoda People may have kept dogs for driving game. The Sinhala Hound is similar in appearance to the Kadar Dog, the New Guinea Dog and the Dingo. It has been suggested that these could all derive from a common domestic stock” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistory_of_Sri_Lanka
[ii] Most of these dogs are inoculated and sterilized; they also have regular feeders/care-givers, like the marvelous Deepal who gave up a comfortable life to live his philosophy of compassion. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-day-with-deepal/
[iv] The Sunday Times – 1.12.2013
[xi] The name of the Rajapaksa housing scheme is indicative of its purpose – ‘Mihindu Sen Pura’ meaning ‘The City of Mahinda Army’.