By Rajan Philips –
The government may have wanted to change the political channel from gloomy pandemic news to hopefully sunshine Port City news. Instead, the government is stuck on a split screen with double-whammy news stories. On the left half, you can see a botched-up Port City Bill, heavily bandaged by the Supreme Court, limping through parliament with as many amendments as there are commas. On the right half, is the daily and depressing news of rising Covid-19 infections, mounting deaths, multiplying variants, shortage of hospital beds, long winding queues for short supplies of vaccine, and new restorations of old restrictions. In the background, you can see the burning silhouette of Modi’s India, a subcontinent of mass cremations. The images sum up the Sri Lankan government’s quandary. Desperate for China’s helping hand in Port City, the government’s default setting for managing the pandemic in Sri Lanka seems to be set on following Modi’s disastrous footsteps in India.
It is not often in a millennium of years do you see the whole planet caught up in a pandemic. People in Sri Lanka have only the government of Sri Lanka to turn to for protection from Covid-19. So, the only question that now matters in Sri Lanka is – how well or ill equipped the government of Sri Lanka is to protect Sri Lankans from the global pandemic. As the Sunday Times editorially put it last week, “there’s little point any more in blaming the Government for allowing the COVID-19 pandemic to slip into virtual free fall. Reports coming in from all parts of the country are distressing. The time for blame-games is over, it’s time for action.” But is the government up to it? Will it keep playing port city politics to salvage its pandemic image, or seriously take a new direction for managing Covid-19?
Port City Questions
Parliament has now passed the Port City legislation by a simple majority, if not a simpletons’ majority, as a result of the government accepting all the amendments that were marked up in the Supreme Court’s ruling. I do not think Minister GL Peiris was quite accurate in saying that all the amendments in the ruling had been proposed by the Attorney General before the Court. In addition to AG’s amendments the Court added its own in a number of instances. But the real question that Minister Pieris as a former law professor is not answering is this: how come a bill that needed so many amendments could have left the drawing board to become law, and would have become law without any amendment were it not for its objectors and the Courts intervention?
Worse, in its original form the bill stood for weakening Sri Lanka’s economic interests and enhancing foreign investors’ profit making interests by withdrawing oversight across the board and offering incentives with no one to oversee. It is a sad commentary on the government’s usual apologists, who brought the sky down over the Millennium Corporation Compact screaming sovereignty, that they were ready to give this bill a pass and give abuse to those who raised valid questions about the bill. Sovereignty has been reduced to a worthless red herring, and the referendum mechanism is not a real safeguard. A successful referendum cannot turn a bad bill into good law; it will only enshrine it as bad law.
No one in the government has been able to explain why the bill was presented in its original form in the first place. And in my view there are still a number of questions that have not been persistently, rather not at all, asked. Only someone like Anura Kumara Dissanayake can vigorously pursue them in parliament. Opposition MPs like Champika Ranawaka, Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne are eminently knowledgeable, but they have all had their right hands in the port city pot during their time in the last government, and seem to be having only their left hands free to swing at the blunders of this government.
The CHEC (China Harbour Engineering Company) Port City Colombo website includes plenty of information about the discussions and agreements reached between the private company and the previous government of Sri Lanka. The original draft of the bill (before its was bandaged dressed up by the Supreme Court) significantly deviated from the earlier understandings and documentations, and potentially an earlier bill prepared by the previous government. This point was publicly asserted by Yuthukama Group leader Gevindu Cumaratunga, who is also a government National List MP. But no one from the government has explained why or in the present government made the decisions to prepare an entirely different bill. I believe Harsha de Silva highlighted some of the difference during the debate in parliament. Champika Ranawaka or Ranil Wickremesinghe should be able to shed more light on this matter. Neither has, nor likely will. Hopefully, the JVP leader will add this to his list of national questions.
The second question is about the Port City Bill’s deviations from the financial and economic assumptions underlying the Economic Impact Assessment of the Port City Colombo, that is in the report prepared in February 2020 by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Colombo. The government has been using PwC’s assessment to make its economic case, but how many of the premises and assumptions underlying PwC’s projections were invalidated by the original bill? And how many have been revalidated by the new amendments? The forty year tax holiday in the bill was a shocker. With the new amendments, parliament’s approval will be needed but getting a simple majority will not be a problem for this government. Economic assessments are as good as the assumptions on which they are made, and as far as I know no one in parliament has brought attention to PwC’s report and the need to potentially engage the company to provide updates on how its assumptions are faring as port city developments get under way.
So far, much has been made of CHEC’s initial USD 1.4B investment in the Port City venture, but nothing has been said as to how much the government Sri Lanka has spent, directly and indirectly, in cash as well as in kind. And how much more the government is on the hook for spending in the future. I do not think PwC’s report sheds any light on this matter. There is also no clarity about how rate payments for utilities and services to the Port City lands will be determined and payments collected by Sri Lanka’s utility and service agencies. Extending infrastructure to provide service connections to a new luxury city is an expensive undertaking. Who is paying for the extensions? And where is the capacity to expand these services coming from? I am not suggesting that these details have not been worked out. But in the new culture of sovereignty assertion over technical projects, technical details and their significant costs are getting sidelined not only from the public’s view but also from the scrutiny of parliament.
There is no need to recount how Prime Minister Modi and the BJP have turned India into a pandemic crematorium. As “India’s utmost isle,” Sri Lanka has the advantage of being small (forget ‘small is beautiful’) in size to get away with manageable difficulties. Even as the Covid-19 situation is getting worse by the day, government policy makers can draw some consolation if Sri Lanka’s numbers (of infections and deaths) stay under India’s totals divided by 70. India’s population is 70 times Sri Lanka’s and the ratio provides a threshold for per capita, or 100,000, comparison. India’s current totals are approaching 30 M infections and 300,000 deaths. Sri Lanka at 160,000 infections and just over 1,000 deaths, is still well under the threshold totals of nearly 400,00 infections and 4,000 deaths. However, the proportionality threshold is in danger of being breached.
According to Dr Hemantha Herath, of the Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka is facing the risk of surpassing one million COVID-19 cases within the next 100 days. Independently, forecasting done by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME) at the University of Washington in the US has indicated that Sri Lanka may experience over 20,000 COVID-19 deaths by late September. So, by more than reasonably reliable predictions, Sri Lanka could be reaching one million infection and 20,000 death totals by August/September. And Sri Lanka would be far worse off on a per capita basis than where India is now. India’s case total has begun to show a declining trend, whereas cases are going up and up in Sri Lanka. Not to mention, the official number of cases is based on the number of Covid-19 tests that are conducted. The actual number is generally believed to be three to ten times higher.
The fallouts of such increases will be catastrophic in every respect. One would hope that the government will not waste time arguing that these projections are not correct, but make every effort to prevent them from occurring. Since it has been a virtual one-man show, or no show, so far, it is up to the President to show the greatness of humility and think of a new approach by taking good advice from people who know more about public health than those who surround him. He should seriously think about and seek advice on striking an All-Party Parliamentary Committee that could function as a pandemic cabinet (without perks or titles, for god’s sake) under President’s direct leadership. Medical professionals in universities and government agencies (no medical trade unions, please) will report to this committee and will be responsible for all the medical and public health decisions and communications. The Armed Services could operate in parallel providing practical and logistical support.
For the first time, I believe since the pandemic outbreak, Sri Lanka’s medical professionals are unanimously voicing their frustrations and demanding that the government impose an island wide two-week lockdown or curfew. Will the government listen to the collective appeal of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) along with the Government Medical Officers Association, Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) and Sri Lanka Medical Intercollegiate Committee (SMIC) representing all medical professional colleges? Their assessment could not have been grimmer: “As the current state of the infection is of very high transmissibility, it does not appear as if any of the steps implemented so far have been good enough or effective enough to achieve any kind of control of the infection.” Will the government finally listen to expert opinion? Or will it take the Modi route to madness and let the country reach one million infections and 20,000 deaths in 100 days?
Somehow (of course we know how!) this government has brought the country to a far worse situation after one year of experience with the pandemic than where it was when no one knew anything about it. After one year, medical scientists are acknowledging that there is no permanent state of herd immunity with this global pandemic. But the virus can be contained and controlled. Vaccines are effective and useful, but their long term effectiveness is still a study in progress. For potential herd immunity at the global level, at least 12 billion does will be required for full (two-shot) vaccination. The total global vaccine production is still under 1.5 billion doses. Their distribution is another story. Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Australia have shown that Covid-19 can be managed through effective public health measures and public participation. There is no reason why Sri Lanka should not follow their example, while securing whatever vaccines it can get.