Social Security


image from the Colombo Gazette

Tonight’s protest against the BBS (well, actually a vigil to promote the ‘true values’ of Buddhism which the BBS are going against) was an eye opener in many ways.

Number one, injustice

And this MUST be mentioned first and foremost. It was an eye opener to be on the wrong side of injustice, assuming there is a right side to it of course.

The protesters turned up for a peaceful vigil. They had candles and were preparing to light them. However the police, based on some trumped up claim that the gathering was to promote a change to the national anthem, promptly arrested two of them. Later, around four more were arrested. All were subsequently released. Apparently they merely got a free tour of a couple of police stations and got to see what it looked like inside a police jeep; prisoner’s perspective.

The point though is that the cops appeared to be completely on the side of the Bodu Bala Sena on this. They dispersed the protest, claiming that it was to ‘avoid a kalabala (problems, trouble)’ but it was only the BBS that were causing the problems. Yelling, screaming and making false accusations. False accusations which the police, and apparently Swarnawahini, seem to have had no problem propagating with complete lack of evidence.

This video shows the appalling site of a poor protester being manhandled by cops for lighting a candle. While a BBS  guy, clearly trying to instigate some sort of violence from those present, was only being gently and respectfully shoved aside.

Number two, the media.

I think Swarnawahini is the best example, the footage of their protest coverage (linked above) showed a clear bias to the BBS, on no occasion did the supposedly objective news broadcaster think to show BOTH sides of the story, because that would completely defeat their purpose of being a vehicle for the BBS to propagate their extremist ideology. Sirasa/MTV gave an unbiased coverage, and so did Hiru News, in the ten seconds or so they dedicated to it. Kudos to them.

It is a concern that media sources that actually reach the people at large, the Sinhala newspapers, the state TV channels appear to still have a clear bias against showing the anti-BBS view. For example, by entertaining BBS claims that average Sri Lankans that turned up for a peaceful candle lit vigil were ‘NGO funded’, while ignoring clear evidence to the fact that the BBS could have far more substantiatable links with foreign funding. A case can easily be made that they are a disruptive mechanism funded by foreign sources given their alleged unscrupulus-to the-patriotic-eye involvement with Norway, Israel and its latest proselytising in the US, if anything, ‘patriotic’ media should be investigating this.

Number three, the protesters themselves.

I expected the vigil to be left alone, ignored and typecast as an elitist operation that deserved to be merely humored, as these things usually are. But the angry reaction by the BBS and belligerence of police changed all that. You could tell that many were perturbed.

Still others left as soon as they turned up, perhaps alarmed at the news of the arrests, and perhaps disillusioned. The BBS can, and will fight dirty, they will intimidate, and as was so clearly demonstrated, will use state apparatus like law enforcement for added effect. In light of this, how should protests continue and how will they reconcile their significant interests (jobs, family backgrounds, social standing) with the danger of getting arrested, beaten up and losing it all? (BBS agents, presumably, were busy taking pictures of all present).

Everyone present tonight acted admirably today. And I am proud to have been among them. Question is, will we come back, and risk really getting arrested again next time? How many of us have family connections that will bust us out? The movement needs lawyers (there were few on hand today btw, thankfully), funding and more organization.

The crowd was diverse; academics, theater and arts, media, civil society, corporate, intellectual and just young people concerned with the state of affairs. But excuse me for saying this, it was also homogeneous. Privileged, mostly English speaking and well off compared to average Sri Lanka. This is where the BBS has the advantage.

First they’ve got the ear of the people via the media. Second, they LOOK like and SPEAK like the people, while being nothing like them and having interests that are completely contrary to theirs. They are here to con the people, and as far as confidence trickery goes, the BBS is very effective.

How do you mobilize ‘the rest’ to participate? how do you turn this into a ‘people’s movement’? Tonight, many who were there were there because their interests were directly threatened. To ‘the rest; it must still seem like the BBS is fighting against someone else, that their interests are safe. That ‘someone else’ right now are minorities such as Muslims, ‘Night Club’ Buddhists, the NGO and peacenik crowd and the list goes on. All of these elements have been at some point or the other the traditional enemy of the standard-model Sri Lankan patriot. It seems to me that propaganda has created complexes deep in the public psyche that will not be easy to break through.

I don’t have answers, just questions. And in the meanwhile I am wholly in support of acting within the range of what we know. Kudos to those who organized tonight’s event and those who supported it. The challenge now is to keep going. A few of us have organized a petition, and some others are organizing a peace rally soon. Numerous other efforts are going on in social media. Whatever your capacity, there is always some way in which you can contribute.

Part 1 of News First footage. Continued below.

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Sri Lankans have a fascination with everything foreign. Going ‘to the foreign’ or ‘ab-road’ is considered to be the epitome of success. For after you are ‘in the foreign’ life there is going to be all feather beds and high disposable income.

I’ve run into many people like that in my time, who hasn’t? Once i had someone explain to me in great detail how to make a convincing case to seek asylum in Canada. The process involved coming up with a newspaper article/advertisement calling me a wanted man, going through highly exciting cut-throat late night border crossings and conning Canadian judges. I was sixteen at the time.

Just yesterday i met someone who expressed a strong urge to go to Germany. Why? because it is ‘awesome over there’. Praneeth (name changed) is a low level executive at a multinational corporation. In other words, he has a job and background that many would kill for. Initially I just thought he wanted to visit, how naive of me.

A friend of his: “do you know what he did? he’s working in a garage in Germany.”

And I say, wow yeah that’s great. Praneeth gets a wistful look in his eyes as I ask him ‘so you want to get a work visa?’ But apparently there are no work visas for Germany, which  brings us to the thorny question; “how is your friend working in a garage there?”

His friend (let’s call him Channa) ingeniously played the system. He didn’t go all ‘Machang’ and escape the hotel the night before the big handball game, but he still lied and connived for all he was worth.

He went there for a holiday, stayed with a monk he knew and somehow negotiated a deal with a local restaurant which produced a letter attesting to the German immigration authorities that ‘Channa is absolutely the best, and pretty much only, cook in the world capable of cooking at our restaurant and it is absolutely essential that you help him come work for us”.

This enabled him to get a five year stamp the next time he applied. And now Channa works in a garage, painting cars and doing other garagy things, cooking be damned. His education is wasted, but he tells Praneeth during his frequent visits home that he feels “very secure” and wouldn’t give it up for the world. And now poor Praneeth wants to quit his corporate job and do the same thing.

If you thought Channa was quite the ‘arch bugger’, let me tell you about Praneeth’s other friend Nimal who is some kind of an ‘international player’. His life involves shuttling between several high profile foreign countries every five months or so. He’d work for five months in the US, come to Sri Lanka, and go work for five months in the UK. I am fascinated, how in the world does he manage this?

Nimal, like Channa, initially went for a holiday. He then came back to Sri Lanka and applied again, and this time got a much longer stamp on his visa. He used this to surreptitiously get a job being a waiter, cleaning stuff or like Channa, working in a garage. Unglamorous, but it pays the bills for a glamorous image back home.

Actually, he is part of a whole network of such ‘international players’ who simply switch jobs with each other when their visas begin to expire; ensuring a constant supply of international jobs that will not cause them to overstay their visas and impinge on the hospitality of their hosts in any way (other than by stealing their jobs of course).

So for example Nimal would give his job in the US over to his friend Riyas as Riyas leaves his job being a street cleaner in the UK which he gives to Nathan who gives up his job as a logger in Scandanavia to Kamal who in turn will leave his job as a shop assistant in Italy just in time for Nimal to come back from a short intermediate stay in Sri Lanka to claim it. And they keep switching ad infinitum. Praneeth thinks its brilliant.

No wonder us unambitious Sri Lankans get so much shtick from Western visa authorities. I don’t blame them either. We enter their countries by the boatload, clog up their social security nets and even contribute with our own brand of organized crime, with raging chain gangs in countries as diverse as Canada, UK and Italy hailing from places like Ja-Ela and Wattala (town names just an example, nothing personal if you live there).

I’ve spoken to others who are a lot more honest about this kind of living. And apparently, hard labor is hard labor whether you are in a developed country or not. Some work three jobs and barely get enough sleep. They show a pretty picture to everyone back home, but they live on the fringes of society and become anonymous automatons with no identity. No life even. And many regret ever leaving home.

*Abroad Yamuda Machang?: Shall we go abroad, mate?

Take some time to reflect on the arch incompetency of the police force. They are increasingly becoming more and more arrogant as the already flaky police becomes more and more uncontrollable.

There is red tape everywhere. The OICs create their own rules and even more red tape to add to the already disgraceful state of affairs. I recently went into lodge a complaint and had to visit 2 different police stations on three separate occasions with no result. The law is the backbone of a nation. The citizens depend on it. Unfortunately the law in Sri Lanka is a premium product. Available only to those with the money/power/ influence to get it.

Officer’s have next to no respect for ordinary citizens. Instead of seeing themselves as servants of the community, they see themselves as its overlords. Their very perceptions of why they exist is all wrong. The police is drunk with power, like all Sri Lankans seem to get when a bit of it is sent their way. They should all watch Spider-Man and learn something about responsibility.

This is in addition to the wasters at the petroleum corporation and other organizations striking for wage hikes. Everyone knows they don’t do a stick of work. Most of our tax money is going into maintaining incompetence and wastage. They are the branches of the problem demanding more leeway from the root; the government, the system, the people.

It’s because of the incompetency of the public servant (from the politician to the cop to the official at your DS, with the possible exception of your teacher) that the public is suffering. They (the public servants) are the intermediary that creates the conditions that is needed for the state and the public to function in harmony. They are the meat in between the slices of bread that is the country and it’s people which together makes the whole of Sri Lanka; the sandwich. Currently the sandwich is full of rotten and cancerous meat. Not a very healthy sandwich.

Apparently there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the recent island wide power cut that happened a few nights ago. I slept on the floor cos it was so hot.

Speculation is rife that electricity board workers executed it on purpose in protest of indications that the government is trying to privatize the CEB.

This itself is surrounded with rumor and speculation with certain quarters of the government denying it and certain others giving the impression of being on the fence. There are accusations that the government is ‘selling’ the CEB to pay off debt. There is also some weird IMF bailout related story going about, the details of which are slightly unclear to me.

The electricity board, like all other government departments, is ridden with corruption. A lot of tax money goes into paying idling workers and others who get employment ‘created’ for them after helping out in election campaigns. There are huge inefficiencies which translate into additional costs to the utility paying public; taxing them on both ends.

Further privatization will clean this up; I’m sure huge profits can be made just by clearing up the corruption and inefficiency in the system alone. But controls need to be put into place to ensure that corporate greed doesn’t manifest in another ugly monopolistic situation later on.

Whats shocking is realizing all over again the complete lack of transparency with which most things happen in Sri Lanka.

On Saturday i went to a sort of mobile National Identity Card (NIC) issuing station that had been set up in a building under construction behind a temple. My ID card had long been reduced to a blank yellow slip of paper with my blurred face on it due to an accidental  encounter with a washing machine.

The whole set up was complete with a makeshift studio together with a photographer, lighting and other paraphernalia. I paid 200 rupees and got the pictures in like 20 minutes.

Mobile NIC issuing station, Borapona Road, Rathmalana

Mobile NIC issuing station, Borapona Road, Rathmalana

While the photos were being developed, i stood in line to obtain a form so that i could fill it up. If the timing was right, i’d get the form done just when the photos were ready.

The crowd wasn’t that big so the wait wasn’t too long. But the Sri Lankan tendency to disrespect the social logic behind forming lines kind of kept me there for longer than i should’v been there i suspect. There were kids running around and mothers trying to control them, there were a bunch of cops by a table to my right and one of them and a friend were eying a girl sitting close by; passing coy looks hoping to catch her attention.

The whole thing seemed to be moving pretty quick. And just as i was thinking that it was almost too good to be true; i discovered that it was. Red tape, bureaucracy and outdated technology managed to make a last vengeful comeback and snatch away my satisfaction of actually going through a government process in Sri Lanka without backbreaking hassle.

The list they were using to verify citizens of the area was from two thousand freakin’ seven. We’d only moved here in February this year so even though i was listed as a resident, the list was old so i ‘could not be accommodated’.

Sure they’ve got a lot of room for improvement. But i think its a good start. Records and databases need to be digitized though; not a single computer was visibly in use.

There was another one of these mobile government stop shops i attended that i think was done by the Labor Department. They were processing employees of my company to issue EPF (employee provident fund) Id cards to reduce the hassle of making claims; a great idea. They were a lot more techy with workstations complete with PCs and fingerscan devices etc.

Also on the topic of public development. There is a flyover coming up in Dehiwala. A fact which you would have been forced to confront if you’ve traveled along that way recently and wondered about the traffic. Currently its in its skeleton stage, the main bridgework is done and as far as i can tell they’ve only got to fill it up with road now.

The dehiwala flyover

Air Dehiwala

Thing is, i don’t really know how effective this is going to be since most of the traffic moving along the Dehiwala junction is going to get caught up at the ‘Williams’ junction further up Galle Road right? So as far as traffic goes, we may simply be back to square one, albeit in a fancier manner. Something similar is taking place in Nugegoda as well, where the flyover isn’t really helping the traffic situ much.

Urban planners may need to get their wires inter-connected. Economic development gives jobs to people etc and injects money into the system alright, but building ineffective public infrastructure is just like paying people to dig holes and fill them back up again. It’s a short term boost, but in the long term there is no real economic benefit.

There is a trillion dollar scam happening in the US and its spelt like P-O-N-Z-I.

Except that the perpetrator is no Bernard Madoff type investment fraudist, it is the US government itself. The Social security system wroks like a very large Ponzi scheme according to this Mises Inst article, and its hitting deep deep trouble.

The Social Security program is much like a mass pension scheme akin to the one we have here in Sri Lanka. except for the fact that workers across all industries and sectors contribute to it. As such, it nets massive revenues. But the ratio of workers to non workers is decreasing due to various reasons, and new measures are needed for the system to sustain itself.

This will either involve a reduction in SS benefits or an increase in SS taxation, or a combination of both.

There is little reason why SS schemes shouldn’t succeed IMO. As long as the revenue of the funds outstrips its outflow. But how fair are these on the people they tax?And there they really making as much return on their investements as they could be doing investing the money elsewhere? And is the government taking undue advantage of the existence of such a massive source of idling funds?

Most Ponzi schemes falter due to being unable to meet bulk withdrawals, this factor does not exist in a Social Security system, but it is also subject to the laws of the time value of money and relies on a share of its potential recipients never being able to claim their pension, prompting the writer’s sarcastic suggestion that perhaps the government should rethink its tobbaco policy.