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image from JDS Lanka

image from JDS Lanka

The Pax Rajapakse is almost four years old. In that time I’ve gone from being a relative tortoise in my own country to having a degree of freedom that I never imagined possible. I’ve traveled now to virtually every place formerly torn up by the war. And can travel anywhere else I please should I wish to do so.

But the Pax Rajapakse is just that, peace. It has no moral identity. It has no moral pretensions even though it likes to pretend otherwise. Dreadful things are done to preserve the peace. But in all objectivity some might say that the end justifies the means. Peace is its own reason.

But a once universal peace is now fragmenting into varying degrees of peace; different categories of peace now exist. There is a lesser peace and a greater peace. The greater peace is being able to move around your country with freedom, the lesser peace is demarcated by invisible lines drawn through society with labels saying things like ‘Do Not Cross’, ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ and  ‘Sycophants Only’.

The country, as it strains under the forces of development, churns society like the roiling Indian Ocean and casts up new oppressed classes and facilitates the surge of new elite. Apparently there is ‘good’ corruption and ‘bad’ corruption. So say some, justifying the regime’s steamroller approach to progress with a substantial personal cut. But where is the line, I say?

While people leave on boats, and put up with heavy abuse for want of jobs and are kicked out of their homes to make way for high rises in the midst of Colombo; a whole new class of wealthy and powerful Sri Lankan is emerging. Closely connected to the country’s powerbrokers, they wield high influence that cuts through social and legal infrastructure like butter. Any justice is we have here is highly skewed in the favor of these elites.

All this has not gone unnoticed. The people are restless and feeling the brunt of ever increasing cost of livingn. Straight talking journalists are still in danger. And the briefly stable peace is now crumbling at the edges with this latest drive of racism. The people are hungry for something to blame. A few decades ago it was the Tamils, and now it is the Muslims. 

But peace is profitable, war is not. And the last thing the government needs is another conflict. And therein lies the problem. Sri Lanka is a corrupt animal. This corruption is like a cancer, but it can still grow within it. Most forecasts still place our economy with prospects of around 6-7% of GDP growth per annum. On a global scale this is huge. This means we double every ten years or so. And if we’re patient enough and do not over reach, we can still become a rich country in our own time.

There are however, serious glitches that can ruin everything. Since Sri Lanka stopped being a low income country, it has stopped receiving aid which basically allowed us to spend more than we earned without worry. And over the years a strong parasitic class developed that benefited and prospered from this surplus, the result; a bloated state sector, crazy inefficiency and high levels of corruption. And now it is this transition from being aid dependent that is really killing us.

Finding itself forced to cover up its various deficits (budget and current account) by taking loans, Sri Lanka is realizing (I hope) that it is mixing a recipe for disaster. We need solid foreign investments to replace these loans and they will not come in until the political, and by extension business, environment is made investor friendly; until budget gaps are sorted out sustainably;  until capital expenditure is focused on projects with long term benefits like education, infrastructure and health.

Currently the government is trying to cover its behind by putting the burden on the public. It should be cutting dead weight and increasing its efficiency by turning state corporations (like the cash bleeding CPC and CEB) profitable, instead it is reducing much needed public expenditure and increasing prices of essential goods and utilities. This burden on the public, ever increasing with the latest round of fuel price hikes, is what is contributing to unrest. There is a continuing laxity in addressing post war issues, and fiascos like the Expropriation Bill and the impeachment of the Chief Justice are poorly handled and reflect very badly internationally.

The Rajapakse regime still has my support. Most East Asian giants grew up under pseudo democracies; Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. And the fact that we lack a better alternative has never been more obvious in the light of the UNP’s recent feeble opportunism in attempting to capitalize on racist propaganda. The Rajapakse’s have huge potential to bring something the country has not had for a long time; political stability and long term growth. But they cannot do this by cultivating a parasitic social sub-strata of sycophants and dependents.

Hidden agenda lurks behind this fresh wave of racism, trying to distract from pressing issues at hand. What we should be doing is figuring out the real problems and then campaign for reform, especially with the limitations of our reality in mind. This is undoubtedly hard to do in the current context; the corruption is the cancer and it is within all of us, if you will permit me a bit of drama. If the Rajapakse regime had a big role to play in creating the pax, average Sri Lankans have an even bigger role to play in keeping it.

Stick it to the uncle (Reuters)

Will i though? That’s highly doubtful. yes i know all you democracy wonks love to vote. You think voting is the highest calling of citizenship. But taking pills is not the epitome of good health, staying fit is, when the body is sick, medicines dont matter, thats not the way to solve a problem. Medicine is for people in denial.

Its funny, i can’t seem to attach so much importance to voting anymore. The medicine i think will no longer work. The body has decided where to go, its sick and the doctors can say whatever the hell they want, its gonna go on doing what its doing. It refuses to take exercise. If democracy is the darling of the modern political aesthetic, then our system is the middle aged uncle dancing the baila in microscopic strokes to a beat hidden deep in the music that only few can hear. He’s obese and happy about it, he is a fat model in a world full of anorexic teenage girls.

This system might work. Old, fat uncles are probably good at many things that teenage girls aren’t. But you can’t put the same moves on both of them. That is assuming you want to put the moves on an uncle in the first place. Right now our system is more old fat uncle than teenage girl. Are you getting this? Am i coming through here? i suppose that’s too much to ask.

But yes, it is crunch time. I was anyway planning on being out of Colombo tomorrow but that might not happen. So there is a very real possibility that i will be within the city but still missing a purple stinky pinky. Oh yes, i’m real bad.

None of the candidates have impressed me really. there’s Moragoda with all his fancy marketing, but he’s tried that before, and Colombo fell into his lap. But then all he turned out to have is good PR. How will that be different this time around? I guess we can wait and see. The UNP, what the UNP is still around?, is barely around.

Instead there are flocks and heaps and herds and masses of career politicians emerging everywhere. They’re crawling out of the wet works. Every Lani, Pani, Ravi and his sister’s estranged husband wants a piece of the cake. You can see the gleam in their eyes. The polished speeches, the rote promises. They’re playing it safe, using the same old methods to dupe the poor people, why fix something that aint broke?

So I’m inclined to suspend judgement. I won’t participate in the process because i am ambivalent. I’m the guy who will go along with what everyone else decides because i plainly can’t see a difference between any of them, and there is no color it is all only gray. So I vote for gray, this better pay.

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.

Military flexing muscles in post-trouble Puttalam

Is the president really in need of several pints of blood of people who don’t eat pork? Are people in specific districts of Sri Lanka undergoing simultaneous mass hallucinations possibly brought on by the collective effects of coastal winds, fasting and being of a particular ethno religious persuasion?

Like the beggar killings, we might never know for sure. Anyone remember the beggar killings? No. Poor souls.

Excuse or no, grease yakas have resulted in increasingly militarized coastal districts. People there have no love for the armed forces, rather they’d just like the police to buck up and start acting like the police thank you very much. Instead, fear and public unrest have had the undesired effect of increasing the presence of the army in these locations.

Grease yakas themselves, though widely pooh poohed as a ‘myth’, are no lie. The people I’ve spoken to and the consistent fantastic facts that keep popping up from different parts of the country testify to this; spring boots, Wolverine like claws, slippery black clothes, high athleticism etc. They are also silent and operate solely to scare, actual injuries having been caused by them being kept to a minimum. Separate incidents from all the districts in the country have produced witness accounts that corroborate with some, or all of these details.

Mauled. His jaw is broken and due for operation

Last week I spoke to a man that fought a grease yaka. He was overwhelmed when the guy he was fighting was joined by two others, and heavily injured.

Like all scary myths involving creatures that draw blood, the GYs come out at night. They target women, and seem to love targeting Muslim women in particular. Perhaps because it is ramadan and they assume that the men of the house must have gone to the mosque, or that breaking fast would have left the people lazy and less inclined or capable of prolonged chase.

Like all good fear mongering tactics, the damage that the greased yakas have caused have been perpetrated purely by enraged crowds and retaliating armed forces. No evidence of foul play. No greasy fingerprints on dead civilians or cops. All that remains of the actual cuprit are stories of shadows that sound slightly ridiculous in the daytime and a clinging fear that has spread like well, greased lightning.

The cops are free to call the people crazy, and the people are free to go berserk with fear and because no one seems to believe them. The people protest, the forces retaliate, someone dies, military presence is increased to provide ‘more security’. This has been a repeating cycle.

The army gets more excuses to set up checkpoints and continue wielding weapons at poor people.; controlling and monitoring their movements. This is not especially strange to the people of these areas, and they’re generally OK with this, having suffered more during the war. Emergency law is more a concern of the international community and liberal intelligentsia in Colombo, these people just want to be left alone, to live in peace.

Ironically though, they are smack dab in the middle of a geopolitical conflict, and are now pawns. Pawns must die. Unrest here serves the purpose of sending a powerful message, that of the continued need for Control. Emergency has now been removed, but that could just be legislative lip service. The army can’t all start cleaning the roadsides.

Meanwhile, Colombo laughs, is slightly shocked, morbidly fascinated and engrossed in cricket by turns, avidly ignoring the steady uptick of taxation and the Colombo Consumer Price Index.

It’s a zero sum game. But who is winning?

Mervyn Silva probably gets the way our system works better than anyone else. I’m not condoning his action of recently tying a Samurdhi officer to a tree, but Mervyn in his act has revealed his understanding of one simple fact that motivates people; incentive.

The Sri Lankan people work just about the same way most other people work, through self-interest. The government services here are especially, and ironically, even more driven by self interest. large scale red tape and lack of accountability kind of ensures that workers can get away with just free riding off the system and going home early by shamming through their work.

The problem with a system like this is its incapability to tackle crises. Waiting for the lethargy to die out and action to be taken in background of a scenario like spreading dengue can be fatal for a lot of people. So it needs to be kickstarted, like by tying someone to a tree. After Mervyn’s fear tactics a discerning citizen of his electorate i overheard said that ‘people clean the roads now even in the night’.

It might not have been right, but i guess it got results. A paradox that scares when you look at the possibilities.

Following is a brief synopsis of the history of economics as i understand it together with a subjective viewpoint on its inherently oppressive nature. This viewpoint as written below does not necessarily reflect my personal opinion on economics, it is simply a viewpoint, that should stand alone in its own right.

-The Raj

Since industrialization humans have focussed on getting more efficient, becoming more profitable. I shouldn’t say humans in this regard, for it is mostly the capitalists who expound such thought processes into practical application. Economics after all, cannot be taken away from the self interest of its proponents, and when brought into the fray of politics, self interest largely depends on who is in power. And, money being tantamount to nearly everything in entering politics, most modern democracies flout the interests of capitalism over ‘what is good for the masses’. Of course this is cleverly disguised, more so from the politicians themselves, but GDP is not a measure of quality of life. Getting richer as a country, with it’s complete wealth distributed according to the laws of the Pareto Principle, is questionable as a purpose of being. Most modern economies can be highlighted as examples.

The prevailing ‘what is good for the powerful is good for the economy’ philosophy can be easily illustrated with simple look at the history of economics. Initial feudal establishments (which were centered around the absolute power of the landowning class and its default omni-ownership of all capital) crumbled with the increase of trade and the appearance of ‘marketplaces’. This only exacerbated with colonialism and eventually led to the Merchant class surpassing in wealth the landowning overlords of feudalistic society. Eventually, the reign of Merchants was the norm.

Mercantilism

‘Mercantilism’ was their philosophy. Mercanltilists were of the opinion that to prosper, a nation must sell more than it buys. In other words, its exports must exceed its  imports. This kind of thinking will seem absurd in the modern day world with interdependencies among nations causing more deficits than surpluses. A system like that cannot survive, for the simple reason that were every country in the world to follow identical princples, trade would simply halt! leading to eventual collapse of the system. As it happened Mercantilism survived for a long while, primarily due to cheap resources readily available from colonized nations and also by oppression of its own country’s peasant class, and economies in that day were controlled more by guilds of merchants that functioned more like cartels; monopolizing trade and commanding prices. Not very good for the quality of life of your average peasant, I would say.

Moving on, the rise of capitalism happened when the industrialists got into the game. They were a class of people who believed in the use of capital to control the arena of trade. They would supply capital to small scale artisans and contract merchants to sell them. This practice formed the basis of what would become the modern company.

Capitalism

‘Capitalism’ full blown, had names like the Dutch and British East India Companies as its flag bearers.  They allowed joint stock ownership and modern share markets found their origin here. They used their vast capital and trade monopolies to import cheap and sell dear. Making their owners’ wealth increase to previously unimagined proportions. Along with the emergence of capitalism, the seeds of the destruction of mercantilism were sown. Some advantage was gained to the common man with the abolition of protectionist measures like monopolies. And free market systems ensured competitive prices but along with its advantages the market economy also increased the sense of work ethic. Previously idyllic lives were now to be spent slaving at factories and workplaces eking out a living.

This hasn’t changed much. In the world of globalization and international trade, corporate interest is the main driving force behind ‘growth’. Obama treads lightly with BP because Obama possibly knows who has a fatal but light grip on his balls. The ecosystem and the small people making a living off it are not really significant. And this is not really a one off example. Trade barriers, free markets, international trade agreements, multinationals etc are all ‘good for growth’ but not really good for the increment of the quality of life of the small man. At least, such increment does not make the betterment of the common good its priority. Leading us to question the validity of the whole system, and our perceptions of human nature.

I didn’t vote at the last elections. And no, i didn’t meet with an accident, i just couldn’t be arsed. I didnt vote and i feel good. And this post is a little late, but meh.

Voting is a method of approving the system. By going out and voting, you are basically saying that you endorse what’s going on. The government wants you to vote precisely for that reason.

So take a *cough* hypothetical situation; you live in a country where the constitution is a farce, the politicians are corrupt and the leader so authoritarian that ‘democracy’ can only manifest itself in an acid enduced hallucinatory trance.

In a place and time like this, lets assume that it didn’t matter if you vote for the opposition, because integrity is an arcane concept to all of them. They’d simply switch sides when they got into parliament and sell their ‘principles’ for a few million. So your vote means nothing in the end. Your vote won’t swing things your way because your ‘way’ is not represented – hypotherically speaking of course.

So then what do you do? Endorse whats going on by going out there and casting your vote blindly? Spoiling your vote and destroying your chances of spoiling the election? not voting?

Or taking to the streets and fighting? Or staying home and watching Burn Notice?.

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