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illustration by KAL (great to have met him in Sri Lanka at the US Embassy btw)

“Kabul ain’t Colombo” I said unthinkingly. My Afghan friend laughs. Leaving things in one’s car while one wanders off into a restaurant or a mall isn’t done in Kabul. Not if you want to find them still there when you come back.

Kabul isn’t Colombo by a long way. Katmandu isn’t Colombo either. For one thing we have better roads, cleaner streets and better public services. Neither is Karachi, Lahore, Delhi (our rape count is much lower for instance) or Male for that matter. For a country that likes to complain a lot, Sri Lanka has a pretty good capital city. Sure, Colombo is kind of boring and it can sometimes feel very claustrophobic and stuffy (that’s what long weekends are for) but you can still travel in public transport with relatively low risk of getting pick pocketed, same goes for the rest of the country. You don’t have that luxury say, in Europe. No Colombo and Sri Lanka are comparatively crime free.

Or perhaps I should say Sri Lanka is pretty street crime free. Most of the crime committed in Sri Lanka is carried out by the so-called civilized. The new elite and the haute bourgeoisie of post war nepotism, which is more a culture here than a contrived state of affairs. From bribery and corruption to burglary, murder and kidnappings most high profile crimes today lead upwards; into rarified stratospheres the country’s weakened law enforcement mechanisms dare not venture into.

Economically, Colombo and Sri Lanka appear to have it pretty good. We’re growing at above six percent a year, we’re doing well on indicators like global competitiveness and our human development indicators trump most of our South Asian counterparts. But Colombians and by extension Sri Lankans don’t seem to be happy. The numbers tell us that we have it good, but we’re not happy. Why?

One explanation could be that I’m an elitist. Living in a bubble of economic prosperity and social comfort that the vast majority are deprived of. Another explanation is that Sri Lankans are just a bunch of unsatisfied materialists that will stoop to anything to get at personal prosperity. And in a context of rapid development, tend to forget their own modest improvement in the face of the vast wealth accumulated by the ruling classes.

Yet another explanation is that yes, there is jealousy. But there is also strong economic discontent and dissatisfaction, exacerbated by the feeling that the top of the pyramid has it easy. The evidence is in front of us, the amount of people complaining about the rising cost of living aren’t just restricted to the poorer segments of society anymore, the number of people taking to the streets in protest of not having basic services is indicative of the failure of the state’s administrative capacities at that level.

In Sri Lanka it is normal for leaders to steal from their subjects. It is almost expected of them. The petite bourgeoisie needs role models after all. And rarely does a Sri Lankan from any walk of life think of not taking advantage of his/her position if they can. Just walk into any government public services department, have a euphemism laden conversation with a traffic policeman or see how many times that bus conductor will hand over your change voluntarily. But at the larger level, Sri Lanka’s nepotistic and hand-out based economic structure seems to be unraveling.

As an example, take the numerous accounts of foreign investors being turned away due to the myriad bribes, protection fees and other baksheesh demanded by its bureaucracy and organized crime networks, which are incidentally indistinguishable from each other. Any foreign projects approved are locked up tight with contracts awarded mainly to parasitic contractors with connections to the ruling classes. Trickle down is minimum What is worse, as the pagawa demanded rises above all reasonable levels, the amount of investment coming in is stalling, drying up reserves of cash that could otherwise have gone into appeasing the people. What trickle down there is, is stalling.

And it’s all about trickle down. Because leaders, while being allowed to enrich themselves, must also ‘take care’ of their subjects. The people must be given a part of the spoils. In effect steal from the poor and give back to the poor, but with a significant cut. The cut is forgiven if their share comes fast enough. Efficient government services thus become a hindrance to this system of patronage. But some rudimentary form of it needs to exist in order to be put into motion as and when the need to dispense some patronage comes up. It is perhaps telling that increasing breakdown of public services is happening though, that means that the upper echelons are either getting too greedy or simply running out of money.

I suspect it’s the latter. Rampant corruption has begun to deprive the economy of what efficiency it had. Political gridlocks and deep rooted biases are pitting it against an international community in a battle that threatens to permanently damage its reputation. And somewhere in the complicated system that is Sri Lanka’s political/social structure, the cogs that facilitate the smooth functioning of this hand-out machine are clogging up. Favors are not being churned out at the pace they should be. Whether there is recourse to address this problem through the coming elections is questionable. In fact, no real solutions other than the ending, or at least cutting back, of corruption can help. Aberrations, like the recent spurt of racist propaganda, have failed to distract. And people are getting angry.

Town Hall/ White House

Original post from the SAES blog. I’m blogging and tweeting from the South Asian Economic Summit along with a few others, hastag #saes2013.

This morning Pakistani economist Akmal Hussein talked about how mainstream economics/capitalism teaches that inequality is essentially an un-avoidable by product of growth. He said that equity is not only a measure of social justice but can also be a powerful driver of growth. You just have to open the lower and middle classes to opportunities to grow, giving you a much bigger base.

Great sentiments, I agree 100%. But how easy is it to talk about equitable growth while many countries in South East Asia are facing a ‘neoliberalize or die’ situation? And indeed, are enthusiastically jumping in the very same capitalist bandwagon that facilitates this systematic inequality. India for example is notorious for facilitating corporate expansion. It is, in fact, one of the most characteristic features of its growth. I think the tendency is to hope that equity will come after wealth is achieved, but if the West is any example, a semblance of equity within one’s borders is only achievable by impoverishing peoples beyond it.

Earlier still Ahsal Iqbal Chowdhry, Federal Minister For Planning in Pakistan, spoke bold words about the ‘failure’ of the Washington consensus, and even mentioned discarding it for a Colombo consensus, whatever that may mean, hopefully achievable starting today. But seeing as the most powerful economy in the region got its early nineties boost by the very same Washington Consensus, has it really ‘failed’ in that sense? What would India have been if it wasn’t bailed out? If it wasn’t invested in heavily by Western corporations?

I’m not defending the Washington Consensus, far from it. It has indeed created a lot of harm by seemingly creating growth, but it is ironic that it is this very growth that we celebrate, and hope to convert into something that is fundamentally against its nature. The Washington consensus ‘worked’ because it was essentially hegemonistic. It is the patronage of the powerful to the weak, and beggars cannot choose luxuries like equity.

Will Choudhry’s imagined Colombo Consensus incorporate some similar form of hegemony? Assuming it can even shrug of its Western counterpart as easily as he makes it sound. Indeed can South Asia with all its deep running conflicts, ever form a collective without some entity dominating?

Perhaps the fear of outside interference can enlighten the region to the benefits of mutual cooperation. But it has already incorporated many elements of Chowdhry’s ‘Washington Consensus’, perhaps too many to think of turning back without completely destroying and remaking itself. Perhaps in retrospect, it is telling that both speakers were Pakistani?

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Galle Face (and a shameless plug for my Instagram)

Washed out streets and a clean Colombo welcome the start of SAES2013. A literary metaphor for a fresh beginning? Perhaps. But also an ominous symbol of one the themes of the conference. The weather in Colombo hasn’t been normal for years now. When I was a kid, the monsoon was like clockwork, April was always hot, August was rainy, and December offered slight relief from the repressive humidity.

Over the last year mostly, and the year before that somewhat, Colombo has felt more like a mildly warmer version of the Central Hills. Not that I’m complaining. I hate the humidity, and now I just need some mosquito repellent to grab a good night’s sleep on most nights. The reprieve gave way to a month or two of absolute scorchers, but that is a price I’m willing to pay. I like the new Colombo weather.

However, this post is not about weather, at least not in the conventional, hi-how-are-you-doing-its-very-hot-no? kind of way. Climate change, the likely culprit of Colombo’s newfound coolness (a very relative term still), is a major problem for the region. And a topic that the South Asian Economic Summit (SAES 2013) where I’m sitting at right now, is quite concerned about.

The unpredictability of monsoons, while mildly inconveniencing the city’s cubicle warriors with cumbersome umbrellas, plays havoc in the region’s agricultural sector, the rise in sea level threatens low lying islands, the melting of ice caps in the Himalayas threatens norms of water flow and while Colombo may have been benefitted with a welcome bout of cooler weather other parts of the region have feced extended spells of debilitating heat. Besides, of the sea level rises that stroll along Galle Face could soon turn into a wade. All these changes affect millions of lives and threaten the already struggling development processes of the region.

The carbon neutral conference happening in Colombo right now is talking about how to address this and many other problems. It’s easy to be cynical in adventurous discussions like the ones taking place today, especially being in a region bogged down by political corruption and policy blindness. Economists and policy wonks can talk and talk but you and I know that when it comes to implementation it always boils down to what the politicians stand to gain on the ground.

But ideas are important. Ideas, if powerful, can eventually trickle through the political processes, even those as mired as the ones in S. Asia, and create some change down the line. People here are talking about regional integration, investment promotion, collective agricultural initiatives, regional transportation and energy management etc. All very adventurous stuff for countries with long histories that are used to justify enmity just as much as to justify friendship.

The conference live streams here. Join the discussion on Twitter on #saes2013.

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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.

labour-movement-610x282

As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

humber dates

Picture by Sanjaya Senanayake

ප්‍රශ්න නැතිවට ප්‍රශ්ණ is an old famous Sinhalese saying. The creation of problems because of shortage of problems in other words. The mysterious case of the ‘Humber’ dates smacks of just this. Unearthed at Cargills, Sri Lanka’s largest supermarket chain’s, now apparently racist, shelves their presence was first alerted (to me at least) by the ever watchful Sanjaya Senanayake.

The word ‘Hamba’ or ‘හම්බ’ certainly smacks of a racist slur. It’s been used enough of times in recent hate campaigns by the Bodu Bala Sena and affiliated groups to bring it permanently out of the rather murky folds of history it had retreated to, giving way to the more civilized slur (if such a thing exists) ‘Thambiya’ (read my post on their origins here).

Anyway, after months and months of racism and hate speech against Muslims in Sri Lanka from a small but loud minority of extremists/jingoists, where we saw everything ranging from attacks against Halal certification, the hijab, animal slaughter, non-existent sharia laws and fictional terrorists in the East, things had finally seemed to subside. And now this happens.

It is not clear yet what form of contraceptives these dates carry, if any, and precisely what age group of Muslim girls’ wombs they threaten, of what bodily organs of Muslim children unlucky enough to eat them. But these darn Humber dates are threatening to inject a new wave of paranoia into what many was hoping were steadying race relations in Sri Lanka.

I jest of course, no one is claiming the Humber dates are lethal to a specific ethnic group yet (strangely enough, only No Limit has so far succeeded in developing confectionery with such precise targeting), but eyebrows are being raised, ears are being perked, there is something in the air again. Epic fail, subtle racism or attempted mass murder?

Vikalpa has tried to get to the bottom of it. But with no results.Their calls have been ignored, and aside from a single name, Cargills has so far been mum on the suppliers. Very strange indeed.

මේ බිහිසුනු බව නිසාවෙන්ම එම නිශ්පාදනය අලෙවි කරන කාගීල්ස් ෆුඩ් සීටී ප්‍රධාන කාර්යාලයට ඇමතු අතර පැයකට ආසන්න කාලයක් උත්සහ කළ මුත් සාධනීය ප්‍රතිචාරයක් අපට ලබා ගත හැකි වූයේ නැත. ‘රටගැන හිතන, ඔබ ගැන හිතන‘ වැනි අසිරිමත් ආදර්ශ පාඨයන් අසමින් දුරකතනය තුළ පැයකට ආසන්න කාලයක් රස්තියාදු කරමින් අපට ලබා දුන්නේ එම නිශ්පාදනය ෆුඩ් සිටී ආයතනයට ලබා දුන් තැනැත්තාගේ නම පමණය. නමුත් අප කල්පනා කරන්නේ වෙළද ආයතනයකට, එයට එහා ගිය, සමාජ වගකීමක් ද ඇති බවය.

For now i’m inclined to agree with Sanjaya and go with the ‘it was an epic fail’ conclusion, though Groundviews remains vigilant to alternative possibilities. For one thing the spellings, ‘Humber’ smacks more of an English Lord than a coastal Moor. The ‘er’ at the end brings it. A packager’s attempt at adding some refinement to the brand perhaps? completely failing due to a lack of cultural awareness and utter ignorance? Or a sinister attempt at a subtle disguise and fallback excuse? And Cargills hedging and dodging the matter could be a simple case of PR paralysis. Sri Lanka isn’t alien to those.

Sermons at the mosque, to me, are a good indicator of the levels of prranoia and fear among Muslims and consequently the intensity of the racism out there. When this whole thing started, it took a couple of months for the ulama to start talking about it in Friday sermons, advising and cautioning the community. Now with most of the extreme voices dying down, preaching is back to timely topics such as Ramadan and exhortations to be better Muslims.

people are still very raw and sensitive however, I hope this blows over soon. Ramadan kareem everyone. 

With the perceived failure of its leadership to appropriately address its problems, there is an increasing vacuum for a movement that truly incorporates the Muslim community from the grassroots-up into collective decision making, the recently established Interim Shura Council is attempting to do just that.

puttlam mosquePic: Puttlam Grand Mosque

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community suffers from both internal and external issues. Externally; recent troubles with the BBS and other similar groups have witnessed Islamophobia in its worst global manifestations taking root in Sri Lankan society.

Internally the community has long grappled with rifts along fault lines of geographical differences, norms of religious practice and ideology. Although rather insignificant in nature (the various factions agree on a broad level on the basic principles of the religion but tend to squabble on minor aspects of practice), these differences have over the years developed into major conflicts that have at times torn the it apart (the 2009 clashes between two mosques in Beruwala for instance, which saw two dead). In recent years the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) has attempted to restore a semblance of balance by striving to form an umbrella body that incorporates all of the various factions, with marginal success.

Leadership Losing Respect

The perceived political impotency of the vast majority of Muslim politicians, themselves as a group ferociously prone to petty squabbling, have led to mass scale disgust. There is a strong sense that Muslim politicians have long since abandoned pursuing the goals of their people, opting to enrich themselves and pursue their own agendas instead.

The lack of cohesion and unity within Sri Lankan Muslims, largely perceived as a monolithic group by the outside observer, was exposed like a raw nerve as it came under attack from hardline Sinhala Buddhist racist elements. The first major attack, on a mosque in Dambulla in North Central Sri Lanka in April 2012, was quickly followed up by a broad based hate campaign against Halal certified foods, Islamic legal support frameworks and the Hijab.

At that point the ulama (Islamic scholars) played a key role in managing the tension. Its patience and fortitude in the face of rising racism have been continuously bolstered and reinforced by preaching and messages of peace. Their exhortations for Muslims to continuously look at their own faults and errors in order to find the root causes of their troubles have turned what could have been a mood of collective belligerence that could have escalated into unwelcome reactions, into one of patience and reflection.

However, there is feeling that the ulama themselves have a share of blame in the problems afflictng the people. Many feel that the halal issue for example was an unwanted intrusion into the lives of ordinary Muslims. The Halal certification emerged as a result of demand from businesses rather than end consumers and was managed and implemented by the ACJU, the islandwide umbrella body of ulama. The case of recently executed housemaid Rizana Nafeek left the impression that local scholars did not do enough to examine the integrity of the case against her, buckling down to pressure from Saudi Arabia instead.  These incidents coupled with the inability of key members of the ACJU to appropriately defend their position of endorsing the collapsed Ceylinco investment vehicle CPSI makes a case for the establishment of an accountability framework to ensure that a two way relationship between the people at large and the religious leadership is maintained.

There is also sentiment that the current set of ulama, generally lacking ‘secular’ or worldly education in their strictly theological backgrounds, could use a support framework comprising of people from different areas of expertise to enable them to better serve the community.

The Civil Alternative

This dual failure of the political and religious apparatus of Sri Lankan Muslims has created a strong vacuum for the emergence of a civil solution to Muslim issues. Enter the Shura Council. ‘Shura’ is an Arabic term that means ‘consensus’, an idea believed to be of paramount importance in any collective action in Islam. Practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) and his companions, obtaining consensus is put forward in the qur’an itself and is meant to function as a mechanism to ensure that rulers and the ruled are accountable to each other. Modern Islamic political discourse often points to the idea of ‘Shura’ to highlight the essential compatibility of the original idea of an Islamic government with the idea of democracy.

This fledgling Shura Council in Sri Lanka, now in an interim stage, was first convened in early May, but the idea for it appears to have originated right after the Dambulla attack. It aims to work towards establishing a National Shura Council with the goal of reaching into the grassroots in order to involve them in decision making, and to achieve a broad consensus among the various factions. The movement has the full approval of the ACJU (indeed key members of the scholarly organization have encouragingly been at the forefront of endorsing it), and that of the various other powerful bodies in the community such as the tableeq jamat, tawheed jamat and tareeka organizations (that comprise of sufistic orders in the country) whose differences have caused much of the division within it.

The council, led by professionals and social activists, aims to set up sub councils at the district, town and village levels at local mosques. However the process isn’t easy. Many decisions yet remain to be made. The degree of political involvement is one. Skeptics and think that too much involvement will quickly result in the ‘politicization’ of the body; preferring to instead maintain a one way relationship with politicians, hoping that the latter would have no choice but to listen to them once the Shura Council becomes the large, national, community pressure group it intends to.

The council is currently in the process of obtaining feedback from various communities in the country as well as Muslim professional bodies and other organizations, aware that without full consensus the idea will not work. Matters such as what criteria individual members of each town Shura council should possess etc are still to be decided. There is general agreement that members must be upstanding Muslim citizens, be pious and concerned for its problems. But such a system can all too soon fall prey to opportunism, as evidenced by the sad state of many of the Trustee Boards of Muslim mosques in the country, whose members grapple and play politics simply for the social status associated with being on the board, serving their communities becoming a secondary concern.

Risks on the Horizon

Its emergence into the spotlight will also no doubt open it up to criticism from Sri Lanka’s hard right which until recently engaged in a virulent public campaign against quadi courts (small outfits that deal with Muslim family affairs) in the country, planting fears of the wide scale imposition of ‘sharia law’ among the public. The local Islamophobia machine will not stay quiet at the emergence of a large scale body aiming to bring together the whole of the Muslim community into one cohesive body.

But the biggest need of the hour will be figuring out not how to save the Shura council it from outsiders, but how to save it from itself. The integrity of the council is of paramount importance if it is to function with any credibility and that will mean coming up with an organizational system that has checks and balances to prevent corruption. This is usually nearly impossible without moral people. And as an organization built around a fundamentally religious purpose one would expect that this would not be a problem.

But the truth is that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is currently at a heightened state of awareness. It has just woken up from a decades long stupor and taken note of some of the major damage it has inflicted upon itself. It is worried and eager to set things right, and for now its disparate factions have come together in order to achieve a purpose more noble than mutual bickering. For consensus to happen, the parties convening must want it to happen. And for now at least, its recent troubles have galvanized it into placing the objective of unity above and beyond the petty differences that used to dominate its various factions. ‘The fear of God’ so to speak has been instilled within it via tribulation and trial.

Whereas previously a whole bloc would rather have walked out of the room than compromise even a little, there is sacrifice, setting aside of ego and the recognition of unity as a strong need of the hour. Indeed this is highly in line with Islamic teaching, which deplores fractionalization and internal disagreements, but given that an external enemy had to emerge to make it happen, one wonders if the natural complacency of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will eventually cause it to slip back into the dreamlike state it was in before the Bodu Bala Sena saw fit to wake it up.

Originally published for The Sunday Leader

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