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The Rally For Unity crew has done a pretty neat timeline and infographic (click to enlarge) of the events that took place in Grandpass between June and August this year. Accurate information is crucial if anything is to be done about the upsetting problems we’re seeing today. IMO mainstream media, due to various restrictions, is failing at providing a cohesive and honest picture, a much needed vacuum for some solid citizen journalism to fill.

Sinhala and Tamil translations are on the way according to R4U’s Facebook page, which posted the below along with the graphic.

“What Really Happened in Grandpass?” – This infographic was developed to shed light on the events that unfolded at Grandpass from June to August this year. All information has been factually verified and vetted. Sinhala and Tamil translations will be made available by the weekend.

It is regrettable that certain groups can unduly influence and divide peacefully co-existing multi-ethnic communities. We encourage all Sri Lankans to remain vigilant against such interference and to continue to preserve goodwill among all communities.

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Azath Salley was arrested yesterday. One of the allegations made against him is making comments that incite religious hatred.  Azath Salley in recent months has built a reputation of of sorts of being pretty much the only Muslim politician with the courage to go up against the BBS in public.

This affidavit penned by the General Secretary and Leader of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) Dr. Vickramabahu Karunarathne, gives a bit of broader context to what Salley was up to in the run up to his arrest. The NSSP, Salley’s NUA and several other parties were part of a “Movement for Unity with Power Sharing” with a mandate that involved tackling racism.

According to the Defense Ministry, Salley has apparently said that Muslims must start an armed struggle like the LTTE, and that they are actually ready and waiting to be armed. Salley is also suspected of having links with the LTTE. No evidence has been brought forth to prove these allegations as yet.

After some heavy drama where he was denied medical care and had to resort to a hunger strike he was admitted to hospital on Friday afternoon. Where his case will proceed is still not clear. Hopefully we will see a fair and transparent legal process. Anything else could be a serious setback to perceptions of government support for ethnic harmony.

But double standards are not nice. For instance, the Bodu Bala Sena has clearly engaged in hate speech and incitement of ethnic hatred. Yet the BBS has only been allowed to grow and prosper. They seem to have quietened down lately, and rumors of anti-BBS foreign pressure have been heard on the grapevine, but there is no telling if the BBS is now a thing of the past; a mere spike in the long line chart of public distractions giving away to the next (Duminda perhaps?); or in fact a sleeping dragon.

The BBS bias though, begins to make clear sense in the murky twilight of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik. Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is nothing new to the country. It has always been there and maybe it always will.

What is worrying to me is not that the government is responsible for unleashing the BBS, because that would imply that it was actually capable of controlling it. What is worrying is that the government, if those that allege that it is behind the BBS are right, is only trying to appease it. Because it plainly poses fatalistic threats to near term stability in Sri Lanka.

From an economic angle, Sri Lanka has a consistent savings to investment gap, so the only way to seriously grow the economy is to attract solid foreign direct investment (or to borrow, but that way lies disaster). But foreigners are notoriously sensitive to political instability; and ethnic strife along with human rights allegations, the Chief Justice fiasco and sudden price hikes just add to the list of cons when it comes to investing in Sri Lanka, especially given enough safer options in the region like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia etc.

So the argument that this is merely another ‘distraction’ pre-supposes an extremely short-termist, even stupid government. Because for it to invent ethnic disharmony out of thin air as a distraction from a flagging economy, a tactic that can only worsen the economy’s prospects would be a very stupid thing indeed.

But I don’t think the Rajapakse’s are short termist, in fact, they could just be one of the most long termist entities in power we’ve had. But they are still playing a balancing act, despite their outward show of power. Mark Juergensmeyer has a few great passages on Sri Lanka in his “The New Religious State” (the whole of it is well worth read). This was written in ’95 but still sounds coldly relevant today.

The present rulers in Sri Lanka face the same dilemma as their predecessors: they need Sinhalese support, but they feel they can not go so far as to alienate the Tamils and other minority groups. They have been attacked viciously by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for attempting to achieve what might be impossible: a national entity that is both Buddhist and secular. The use of Buddhist symbols is meant to appeal to the Sinhalese, and the adoption of a secular political ideology is supposed to mollify everyone else.

With elections approaching and Sarath Fonseka back on the campaign trail, powers are converging against the status quo. To take Juergensmeyer’s view, this rise of extremist nationalist forces could be the Rajapakse’s first ‘attack’ at the hands of  “Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists” for trying to achieve a “national entity that is both Buddhist and secular”.

I still think that the Rajapakse model of government, while far from ‘good’, is the best we can have in our current context. We can help improve it, but if it is toppled we would probably descend into disarray. From a policy and historical perspective, and in line with examples of East Asian success stories, a ‘benevolent autocracy’ is probably the only model of government capable of giving Sri Lanka the stability it needs to grow in the longer term. Maybe what John Kotelawala said in 1974 is still largely relevant.

Sri Lanka is not ready for democracy. In a country like Sri Lanka democracy becomes government by bloody mugs and idiots.

But how benevolent is this autocracy? Evidence so far has proven that it can be quite belligerent and reactionary. But is that due to this balancing act, this need to keep all sides happy? And now, how autocratic is it? With movements like the BBS emerging, the stranglehold the Rs have on power is beginning to be questioned as well.

The Krrish project has been making waves, if only for its absurd proportions. The complex’s tallest tower is going to be the third tallest residential tower, are you ready for this? In_the_world. I hear three quick bangs on a bell; the crowd goes wild as the fighter in the right corner shrugs off his glittering robe. All hail the Krrish project, destroyer of third world woes.

But seriously. I snooped around a bit (and by now this is relatively common knowledge) and found that Krrish doesn’t really have any completed real estate projects anywhere in the world. Closest thing they have is a few projects underway in Guragon, India. As a company laying claim to such a massive venture, Krrish has virtually no media mentions in India, and its only ties to solid listed corporate are a claim to own a stake in Cobra Beer. And in fact Krrish is better known for its brewery business than anything else.

It’s projected to bring about $560mn into the country. But that number exists only on paper. In reality these projects bring a fraction of that amount, usually 10%, and try to source the rest locally. Krrish, which hasn’t started building yet, is rumored to only have brought in $5mn, as a 10% down payment for the value of the land. The completed project will have some 750 apartments plus equal amount of office spaces, each of the apartments are priced at roughly a million dollars.

The plan is to pre-sell them to raise money to build.  But as you can see from the chart below, demand for apartments hasn’t exactly been booming. If demand does not meet supply, the project will have to be abandoned. Far worse though, is the prospect of the project being bankrolled by a country eager for any kind of investment (especially something with a result so grandiose) ending up with the local banking system owning roughly $500mn of bad loans. And this will probably at the very least result in a major banking/debt crisis for the country. Just putting some thoughts out there. What does everyone else think?

krrishh

Not in the name of Buddhism

The plight of the Rohingya has been exacerbating while the world was caught up with the Olympics. Scores have already died gruesome deaths and tens of thousands have been internally displaced. Aan Sun Suu Kyi has been silent, contributing to the violence by actually saying that she ‘doesn’t know’ if the Rohingya are Burmese, and continues a trip around Europe hob nobbing with the equally silent elites of the West that recently effectively dropped all sanctions against the military junta that controls Burma.

To give some context from the AJStream video above, the Rohingya have been around since before the state of Burma itself. Like many other people in the region they repeatedly came under the rule of invading forces. The Persians, the Mughals, the British. The argument that the junta uses, and what Suu Kyi has also used, that they are effectively stateless is built on the racially prejudiced law known as the ‘black law’ by Rohingya activists, passed in the sixties when the junta took over. A time when Burma, in its newfound independence from the British, embarked on a national vision defined by the lofty ideals of ethnic purity and economic independence. Sound familiar? I see strange parallels with Sri Lanka’s own anti-Tamil stance in early independence years. Though our historical fling with ultra racism brought us entirely different results. None of them good.

The Rohingya were officially stripped of their citizenship in 1982  and have lived a life of pain, squalor and effective misery since. The recent spate of violence erupted in June when 3 mulisms were accused of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.

Prior to the Junta, the Rohingya enjoyed full citizenship and rights. I am assuming this was mostly in the British time. But the hate and prejudice against them increased over the sixty post independence years and has ironically culminated just when Burma should have been on the path to international acceptance. The Junta recently released Suu Kyi and some political prisoners and opened up the country to US and European businesses prompting those governments to virtually abolish the sanctions regime. And now that the West thinks it has turned Burma into a poster child for democracy, the Junta is carrying out one of the worst atrocities we have seen in this century. The West is silent. Seemingly hating to admit that its most recent success story is a jarring failure.

The news reports carry some horrific accounts (see video above). Neighbors and thugs aided and/or unstopped by armed forces storming Muslim villages; burning people alive, engaging in mass murder, rape and torture. One account tells of a group of children who were tied up and tortured until they lost consciousness, another was an eyewitness account of attackers who planted swords blade up on the ground and skewered babies alive. A group of escapees recount how a military helicopter swooped down and attacked escaping boats killing about fifty in the process.

The burmese president has reportedly stated that the Rohingya must be deported. But deported where? Aside from Burma these people have no home. No foreign country is willing to accept them. This is racism at its uglist, most deplorable and most violent. What we’re seeing is an emerging genocide. And if so, its probably the most ignored news item in the world today.

International media has largely been silent. The Twittersphere and Facebook has largely been ignoring it. Remember when Aang San Suu Kyi was a prisoner? Being a Suu Kyi activist was fashionable, Saving Tibet was in-the thing to be seen doing in 2008, KONY 2012 went nuts until everyone realized the truth, and the guy who made the video turned to be a little deranged. All of these issues got airtime and the global industrial media complex got behind, graphics were made in pastel shades, celebrities endorsed, and people the world over made them go viral. Causes have become brands, people take them up if they like the packaging and the advertising. The personal kickbacks and ego boosts.

The Rohingya though, are not fashionable, not yet. They have no voice, no power. Right now Bangladesh, the neighboring country and a Muslim state to boot, is turning them away guiltless. Makes me sick. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been throwing money at the problem, offering no permanent solutions. Sri Lanka, as a Buddhist nation, faced with a fellow Buddhist country committing atrocities under a false guise of Buddhism has said nothing. Everywhere mum’s the word. The UN isn’t even in the picture. And the Rohingya are caught increasingly between a rock and a hard place both of which are closing in for the crush.

A Beijing subway map

Traffic in Colombo is not pleasant. Leaving home at the wrong time can ruin your whole day. Do this for a while, and soon cursing behind the wheel everyday will likely give you grey hairs and a prematurely weak heart.

Blame The Cars

Tax reform, low interest rates and possibly increasing middle class incomes have multiplied vehicle imports faster than road networks can expand. The UDA has been trying to keep up, they’ve extended Marine Drive to Colpetty, opened up Bullers Road and have generally tried to fix things like perennially bad maintenance. Traffic lights and police presence has been increased, but still cars pile up faster than hungry people at a dansala.

I drive down Galle Rd often and it used to be that i’d invariably try to take Marine Drive to avoid evening traffic, but now i steer clear because of the massive wait at the turn off back into Galle rd. Similar situations are playing out along all of the major exit-entryways to the city. Baseline Road, Negombo Road and Kandy Road are veritable nightmares in rush hour. Let’s not even go near Rajagiriya, literally, you want to stay away from there when other people exit their offices. There are just too many. freakin. cars bob.

Don’t Blame The Cars

But blaming the vehicles is moot. There are good reasons why people feel they need cars. People are worried about getting to work on time, they also need to get there smelling good. So will drive if they can afford it, or paradoxically take a tuk tuk if they cant. As traffic increases, drivers get more and more frustrated and will wish for alternative ways to travel. But aside from moving closer to the city (an unthinkably expensive option for most) they have no other alternatives. This is absurd, but that’s just the way things stand now.

Public transport is unreliable, too congested, and completely ruins the attire of your average executive, discouraging most of them from opting for it. The lack of a cheap taxi network is also a problem. Tuk tuks, even metre tuks, are overpriced.

Building Our Way Out

The Defense Ministry/UDA (whats up with that? no one even talks about it anymore) has followed a strategy to expand capacity and increase efficiency by improving roads, building flyovers and increasing police presence. But it has only worked so well. In fact, capacity is so limited that everyone breaks road rules when the cops aren’t looking to get ahead. Our roads are ganglands, whatever you can get way with is legal, Gehan has a good post on driving and its malcontents.

The situation poses some interesting problems for urban policymakers. Things have come to a point where even the bureaucracy must realise that there is no building our way out of this, at least not in the conventional add-em-as-you-go fashion.

Trains have worked remarkably well in other cities. But Colombo’s existing train lines only circle the city and do not venture inside, making them just feed lines to hubs just outside the city centre and that too only from the North and along the coast.

The bus networks are mass market. And probably already transport double the amount of people travelling in cars. The recently launched Executive Bus service has failed to spark much interest. Again due to unreliability, irregularity, coverage gaps arising from the fact that they only traverse a single main route, and did I mention unreliability, the bus service can only do so much too. The much touted ferry service is also floating about aimlessly if you’ll excuse the bad pun.

Innovative work policies can help. Firms can rethink employment policy and offer the option of working from home. Or offer flexible hours to enable employees to beat traffic to and from work, like my new workplace. Individuals can also avoid traffic if they decide to leave early because not everyone will do it especially here where being fashionably late starts half an hour after an appointment.

Bring The Commonwealth Games to Colombo

A subway system would be ideal, as indi says, a good subway system can completely eliminate the need for cars. The Delhi Subway system cost somewhere around 700 million USD. Peanuts in comparison to how much we are borrowing for other projects of dubious worth. Maybe the Chinese can help us out with a loan and even expertise, the Beijing subway lines are superb; and are an excellent way of getting around in an otherwise smoky, congested city.

Both the Delhi and Beijing lines were conceptualised and hurried up because of the 2010 Commonwealth games and the Olympic Games respectively. The need to show off and provide seamless transport to attendees forced these cities to consider building what is probably the most efficient urban transport mechanism invented by man.

Colombo is the centre of the country still, the heart that pumps out all the country’s logistics. The main arteries of it are now getting clogged. If hosting big international games can bring a city a subway then Hambantota might end up getting one. But Hambantota doesn’t need a subway system, Colombo does. So bring the Commonwealth Games to Colombo, and build something useful to the economy in the process.

This is a policymaker standing on a minefield

But the relationship between expanding capacity and reduced traffic is not always direct. This study done by USCB shows that when capacity expands and some traffic is diverted through other channels, latent demand clogs up the free space. Meaning when more drivers take buses, people who took buses because the traffic was too much will start driving.

Colombo being a very decentralized city doesn’t help. Public transport is simply not capable of reaching all the crannies where people need to go, most of the inroads can’t accommodate buses anyway. I work on Thimbirigasyaya Road and it’s barely wide enough for two cars. There is an expansion program going on but it had been in the works for over two years now, no results.

There is also mispriced congestion. Drivers don’t pay for the time loss they cause to others, and so will make inefficient decisions on when and how to travel. These ‘negative externalities’ are the social cost of congestion, and can result in little or no reduction in traffic.

Expansion in trains might divert commuters away from the bus service, because the latter is crap, while not affecting the amount of cars on the road. Deteriorating the bus service even further while causing no improvement to traffic.

So wuttudoo? Maybe an expansion in overall capacity, trains, roads and buses, thereby taking levels of capacity beyond ‘latent demand’. Together with innovative alternatives like carpools, office vans and flexi hours and urban planning focusing on centralized corporate space, these policies might help. What is really needed before anything else is a comprehensive study of the city by specialists (its much more complicated than it looks) followed by bottom up policy making to prevent us from arbitrarily building roads that lead to nowhere worth going slowly.

But all this takes intelligent policy making followed by quick implementation. And so far the Defense Ministry/UDA has only been implementing like mad, where the intelligent planning?

Milinda Moragoda has set out a manifesto here, in it he gives some vague outlines of a transport policy that are a bit vague. Aside form promising clean pavements it promises circular bus routes but fails to describe how they will be different from existing bus routes, which cover the city’s main highways pretty well.

pic courtesy jfphotography

Sri Lanka’s interest rates have been abnormally high for ages. This is not because of want of trying by the Central Bank, the sole reason for this disparity was our monopolistic banking market.

Monopoly

More than half the market is controlled by state banks. So when the central bank cut its rates a few months ago, these banks simply colluded amongst themselves and refused to reduce their rates, effectively setting the market standard which private banks weren’t going to go against.

Our rates of inflation, however dubious, appear to be falling down. This of course does not signify goods becoming cheaper; it only tells us that they are getting expensive at a lesser pace. The economy is slowing down and now the government has decided to enforce its monetary policy through giving a directive to state banks to cut the crap and get on with it.

In a less skewed market, we may have seen a more gradual and comfortable decline in rates. Instead, because of our badly managed state sector banks and lack of governmental foresight, this sudden need to cut the floor beneath the feet of the interest rate has arisen.

Losers

A drastic reduction in rates will not harm anyone except the people who depend on interest income. They should have been prepared for such an eventuality ever since the central bank cut its rates several months ago. There really is no point blaming the government if you can’t understand that the rates going down was inevitable given the current policy stance and market dynamics. But I guess you can’t assume your average Jayasinghe is always a savvy investor, even in the most plainly obvious areas.

So what you can blame the government is for its usual last-minute-drastic-action oriented approach. There is absolutely no reason why they couldn’t have imposed a gradual reduction of state bank interest rates before; thereby ensuring the public got the right signals in time to re invest their funds as they saw fit.

Woot

Meanwhile, everyone who is not a dependant on interest income is happy. The stock market will rise again because companies can now borrow more to invest in their businesses, the people are happy now that they can get cheaper loans to buy their houses, cars and fund extravagant lifestyles shamelessly beyond their needs. The government will be happy because money will start flowing through and savings will be cut down. Spending will rise and GDP will improve. The people who lost interest income need simply to reinvest in the stock market. And then we’ll have a happy cycle where everybody gets rich.

Sounds too good to be true? Well that’s cause it is. Monetary policy is just a temporary boost to the economy. As spending rises, so will inflation and consequentially interest rates as well. Yes, it is a somewhat of a self defeating cycle; but what it does do is give that electric burst of energy to the heart of the economy that gets it pumping again. And, like every heart in cardiac arrest, the shock treatment is to help it start beating happily on its own again.

Freakonomics points to a study which researched why the Chinese save so much. Of all the more obvious answers that subsequent commenters on the post came up with (like economic prosperity, social values of thrift etc) they link it it to China’s one child policy;

Apparently

China’s “one child” policy, which created a huge surplus of men in the country, has driven up the cost of getting married, as more and more men compete for fewer and fewer women. To keep up, families with sons have been holding off on spending to save up wealth that boosts their children’s marriage prospects.

This leads one to wonder why there are fewer women in China in the first place, and research studies have attributed this to hepatitis B (but later dispoved by the same author), sex relative wage rates and sex selective abortion as a practice.

Also as it turns out, or as i just found out, Ben Bernanke has been saying the increasing rates of saving in other countries caused the US housing collapse. He claims that increasing savings in other nations along with liberalization and the removal of capital flow barriers created a disconnect between US long term lending rates and Fed Monetary policy.

A credible argument, but it still doesn’t explain how they could just let it happen, and the myriad other inconsistencies in the actions of the fed over the few years leading to the crisis.

From China’s savings to Missing women to the Global Financial crisis; This is why i like Freakonomics.

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