Victor Meldor

The Government of Japan provided a total sum of $ 620,379 (approx. Rs. 115 million) to Skavita Humanitarian Assistance and Relief Project (SHARP) for humanitarian demining activities in northern Sri Lanka. The grant contract was signed on 11 February at the Ambassador’s Residence in Colombo, between Ambassador of Japan Sugiyama Akira, and SHARP Program Manager Lt. Col. (Retd.) V.S.M. Jayawardhana. The Government of Sri Lanka aims to achieve ‘A Mine Impact Free Sri Lanka’ within a few years and become the next mine impact free country in the world. Towards this endeavour, Japan has been a major donor in mine clearance in the country since 2002. The Government of Japan is SHARP’s primary donor and has provided necessary funding for mine clearance since its inception in 2016 when its first program was launched in Kilinochchi. Subsequently, SHARP cleared more than 1.5 km2 of mine field through funds disbursed from Japan’s Grassroots Human Security Project (GGP). Japan has provided financial assistance amounting to $ 38.8 million to SHARP and to the other three demining NGOs currently operational in Sri Lanka.  The project is expected to contribute to the efforts of the Government of Sri Lanka in ensuring that mine-contaminated areas are safe, enabling resettlement of displaced people and enhancing their livelihoods directly or indirectly in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts. Commenting on the provision of this grant, Lt. Col. (Retd.) V.S.M. Jayawardhana stated, “Today marks the granting of GGP funds to SHARP by the Embassy of Japan for the fifth consecutive year, for which we are indeed very appreciative and grateful to the Embassy of Japan in Sri Lanka for assisting and encouraging SHARP to initially commence demining operations in 2016, and thereafter continuously grant funding support annually for SHARP. Most significantly, SHARP receives funding only from the Japanese GGP program. “SHARP has cleared a total of 1,574,573m2 and recovered 9,135 anti-personnel mines, 119 anti-tank mines, 3,289 UXOs and over 12,000 SAA since November 2016 to-date, with over 1,500 families directly and indirectly benefitted (Daily Financial Times, 13.2.2021)

The 125 year-old tea industry has been dealt a severe blow following the recent wage hike that is set to contribute to further losses to the plantations and at least Rs. 15 billion annually to the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) which are now readying to protest against the “unfairness of this methodology.” As against obtaining a pay based on productivity, trade unions had demanded that workers be paid Rs.1000 that should be included in the basic pay. As RPCs continued to insist that the workers can earn even more through a new model of an out grower system, the unions resisted and finally last Monday amidst objections from the RPCs, the government appointed members had voted in favour of the trade unions at the Wages Board committee. This ensures estate workers with daily wages of Rs.900 plus Rs.100 supplement budgetary allowance and EPF/ETF contribution of Rs.150. The wage hike under the Wages Board model will create an additional hit of Rs.15 billion per year to the RPCs on top of the losses already incurred as the tea industry faced a Rs.6 billion loss and rubber Rs.2 billion in 2019, former Planters Association (PA) Chairman and Hayleys Plantations Managing Director Dr. Roshan Rajadurai told the Business Times. He noted that in 2020 the annual high grown average prices of tea was Rs.580 although cost of production was higher at Rs.615. In this respect, losses are estimated for 2020 at Rs.2.5 billion. At the last Collective Agreement meeting between the plantation companies, the trade unions and the Labour Minister, the RPCs had reached agreement with the minister to pay estate workers Rs. 725 including Price Share Supplement of Rs.50 and another Rs.225 as Attendance Incentive and Productivity Incentive that amounted to Rs.1000 according to the current model they were working on. He noted that this new set up is good for the colonial times and today people prefer to become entrepreneurs with least supervision “and this is the modern trend and this is a job they know so well”. Having offered workers the opportunity to be independent they continue to take to the “undignified daily wage earner” model, he said. Plantation workers brought down specifically to cultivate tea bushes in Sri Lanka by the British to this day continue to reside on the estates that their fore fathers toiled on but now they are moving out to other jobs while ensuring that their sustenance is met by returning to the estates that they continue to call their home. As RPCs retain a workforce of 125,000 on the estates that provides space for one million lives that will enjoy a higher basic wage but new conditions of reporting to work on time and with no inducements for productivity the RPCs fear the quality will fall and with a surplus of teas on the global market Sri Lanka will stand to lose further this year as demand will drop. As the cost of production on the estates soar and as prices continue to slip despite improved rates last year the December prices were at Rs.580 but cost of production will increase under the present circumstances to around Rs.848 per kilo that would result in further losses to the RPCs, Dr. Rajadurai explained. Factories have been shutting down in the recent past or operating on an ad hoc basis as they were unable to bear the cost, Mr. Ranasinghe said adding that this new wage increase will “have a huge impact and we might become an unprofitable organisation.” Mid-sized private tea estates will also face a crisis as they point out that they are compelled to purchase everything for the estate at a price and in this respect, a further increase in wages was not conducive. Smallholders that also includes the mid-sized plantations contributes to 75 per cent of the total production of Ceylon tea with the RPCs making up for the rest of the 25 per cent. But if the companies fail, the tea industry worries whether this could spell the downfall of the tea plantations in a country that has already made a name for producing one of the best quality teas that is akin to killing the golden goose that laid the golden egg! (Sunday Times, 14.2.2021)

A fleet of 45 vehicles including 31 jeeps, 4 buses and 10 vans, which was donated by Japan for the use of Police Department, was symbolically handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by Japanese Ambassador Akira Sugiyama today. The vehicles valued at Rs. 775 million was the first stage of the full donation of Rs. 1250 million. Sri Lanka is set to receive another fleet of 25 jeeps, 150 motorcycles, 7 search gates, 1 Total Search Machine and 80 (Daily Mirror, 16.2.2021)

Six more COVID-19 related deaths were reported today bringing the death toll in Sri Lanka to 409, the Government Information Department said. Accordingly, a 74-year-old male from Panadura, a 40-year-old male from Vilaoya, a 48-year-old male from Piliyandala, a 77-year-old male from Kochchikade, a 65-year-old male from Ambalangoda and a 62-year-old male from Nainamadama passed away from the virus. A total of 756 more COVID-19 patients were reported within today taking the total cases in the country to 77, 184, the Government Information Department said. Daily Mirror, 17.2.2021)

Inflow of workers remittances has got off to a positive start in 2021 reflecting double digit growth.
As per provisional data from the Central Bank, inflow in January was $ 675.3 million up by 16.3% from a year earlier. In local currency it was valued at Rs. 128.6 billion up 22% from January last year.  
Last year Sri Lanka received $ 7.1 billion in workers’ remittances, up by near 6% from 2019 in which year inflows were down by 4% to $ 6.7 billion. December 2020 saw a record inflow of $ 813 million, reflecting a 22% year on year growth.  Despite the initial lag owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, flow of remittances from June 2020 improved year on year. Sources said the high figure in 2020 amidst COVID-induced lockdowns and restrictions was partly attributed to remittances being channelled via official banking and financial sector as opposed to informal means such as the Hawala system, a popular and informal value transfer system based not on the movement of cash, or on telegraph or computer network wire transfers between banks, but instead on the performance and honour of a huge network of money brokers. (Daily Financial Times, 23.2.2021)

Headline inflation as measured by the Year-on-Year change based on the National Consumer Price Index (NCPI) was 3.7% in January, down from 4.6% in December. The Department of Census and Statistics said contributions to the inflation rate of January 2021 from food group and non-food group are 2.7% and 1.0% respectively; whilst contributions of food and non-food groups to the inflation in January 2020 were 6.0% and 1.7% respectively, resulting in a headline inflation of 7.6%. 
Comparing the month-on-month changes, NCPI in January 2021 has increased to 142.1 from 141.2 reported in December 2020. This shows an increase of 0.9 index points or 0.6 percentage as compared to December 2020. The month-on-month change was contributed by increases of index values of food items by 0.48% and non-food items by 0.14% respectively. 
Price increases of food items were reported for rice, coconuts, green chilies, vegetables, red onions, fresh fish, fresh fruits, turmeric powder, coconut oil, tamarind and dried chilies. However, price decreases of food items were reported for big onions, potatoes, eggs, manioc and chicken. (Daily Financial Times, 23.2.2021

The increases in index values of non-food groups in January 2021 compared to the previous month was mainly due to the price increases in groups of items ‘health’ (fees to private medical practices, payments to private hospitals room charges), ‘furnishing, household equipment and routine household maintenance’ (wages of servants), ‘housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels’ (materials for the maintenance), ‘transport’ (tyres, tubes and spare parts), ‘clothing and footwear’, ‘miscellaneous goods and services’ and ‘education’. However, price decrease in group of items was reported in ‘alcoholic beverages, tobacco and narcotics’ (arecanuts) compared to the preceding month. Meanwhile, the price indices of ‘communication’, ‘recreation and culture’ and ‘restaurants and hotels’ groups remained unchanged during the month. Core inflation, which reflects the underlying inflation by excluding volatile items of food, energy and transport groups in the economy as measured by the Year-on-Year change based on NCPI for the month of January 2021 has declined to 4.2% from 4.7% in December 2020. (Daily Financial Times, 23.2.2021)

Sri Lanka is seeking $2.2 billion from Chinese banks, the government said, in echoes of a borrowing binge more than a decade ago that resulted in the country having to give up a strategic port to China. Money and capital markets minister Nivard Cabraal said the government was hopeful of finalising a $1.5-billion swap facility with China’s central bank. “Within the next two weeks we should be able to finalise it,” Cabraal told reporters in Colombo while maintaining that the funds would be used as a “buffer” to meet the government’s foreign currency needs. Official figures show Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves plummeted to $4.8 billion at the end of January, the lowest since September 2009 when they fell to $4.2 billion. Officials said Sri Lanka was also in talks with China Development Bank for a $700-million loan that would include the equivalent of $200 million being drawn in Chinese currency. Under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005-15, Colombo borrowed billions from China, accumulating a mountain of debt for expensive infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategic Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to a Chinese company in 2017 after Colombo said it was unable to service the $1.4-billion debt from Beijing used to build it. Three top international rating agencies downgraded Sri Lanka’s creditworthiness late last year after raising doubts over Colombo’s ability to service its foreign debt. Cabraal insisted Thursday that Sri Lanka would maintain its record of repaying debt on time and said the credit downgrades by international agencies were “unwarranted.” He said Sri Lanka had already repaid $500 million this year out of its $3.7 billion debt servicing commitment for calendar 2021. He said the government imposed a ban on luxury imports and several other commodities in a bid to conserve foreign exchange so that the country could have sufficient foreign currency to repay its debt. Sri Lanka’s economy  contracted by a record 3.9 percent last year. However, Cabraal said economic activity was picking up and the country estimated foreign inflows of $32 billion against outflows of $27.6 billion this year leaving a surplus of $4.4 billion. (AFP – Agence France Presse – February 25, 2021)

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan posted his gratitude on Twitter towards the Sri Lankan Government’s decision to finally allow the burial of COVD-19 victims. PM Khan was on a two-day State visit to Sri Lanka and discussed future strategies with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Government officials. He tweeted, “I thank the Sri Lankan leadership and welcome the Sri Lankan Government’s official notification allowing the burials option for those dying of COVID-19.” (Ceylon Today, 27.2.2021)

The Extraordinary Gazette Notification allowing the burial of COVID-19 bodies has been issued. According to the Gazette, the ordinance has been amended including the words “Cremation or burial” instead of “Cremation.” “In the case of burial, the corpse of such person shall be buried in accordance with the directions issued by the Director-General of Health Services at a cemetery or place approved by the proper authority under the supervision of such authority,” the gazette noted. (Daily Mirror Online, 27.2.2021)

The COVID-19 death toll in Sri Lanka climbed to 464 with five more deaths being confirmed by the Director-General of Health Services, the Government Information Department said. A total of 664 more Covid-19 patients recovered and were discharged from hospital increasing the total number of recoveries in Sri Lanka to 77,625, the Health Ministry said. Another 240 COVID-19 positive cases reported today, stated the Department of Government Information. Accordingly, the total count from clusters rises to 78,314.  (Daily News Daily Mirror Online, 27.2.2021)

The Committee On Public Enterprises (COPE) has instructed officials to accelerate the mapping programme to identify high risk landslide prone areas in the Kandy District. The COPE noted that the Thumpane, Minipe, Ududumbara and Hatharaliyadda areas had not yet been mapped as of December 31, 2020. It was revealed that the mapping will take into account the number of recent landslides in the Kandy District, the number of buildings in the area and the nature of the developments taking place in the area. Area mapping identifies landslide high risk and high-risk zones and then categorizes geospatial areas into high risk, medium risk and low risk areas. The COPE Chairman drew attention to the delay in completing the database with location photographs of buildings, people living in high-risk areas and the delay in providing that data to the Divisional Secretariats. (Daily News, 27.2.2021)

A new face mask that destroys viruses including COVID-19 was unveiled in Parliament under the patronage of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa by a team of specialists from the University of Peradeniya following a long period of research. The mask was made of three layers and was the most technologically advanced face mask in the world. Elaborating on the technology of the mask, the Professor said that the first layer was made to remove liquids, such as saliva, with immediate effect, whilst a special chemical in the second layer destroys the virus that finds its way and enters; and the third layer functions to evaporate saliva droplets. He also pointed out that this mask can be washed and reused 25 times consecutively. Specialist Dr. Chaminda Herath representing the research team said that research had shown that this face mask was more secure than the currently-used KN 95 face masks. According to research conducted by the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya, it has been confirmed that 99% of the viruses retained on the face mask are destroyed. He stated that although the virus lasts on a normal face mask for about seven days, the new face mask could destroy it in a very short time, which was a significant feature.
This new face mask is currently being manufactured for the local market and is expected to be exported in the coming future with the assistance of the Trade Ministry. (Daily Financial Times, 27.2.2021)

The price of rubber has risen to Rs 650 per kilogram after a lapse of 10 years according to the Government information department. The department notes that the last time this happened was during a brief period in 2011. The Department adds that unsustainable practices by farmers, including daily tapping, during this period in 2011 led to permanent damage to the rubber plantations and eventually caused low latex production. As a result of this the price of rubber remained low for several years.  The Deputy Director of the Rubber Research Institute, Dr. Priyani Seneviratne, reminded all rubber farmers of the consequences of excessive tapping which is not affordable under the current situation of rubber fields that have not been fertilized properly and with a high percentage of dry trees. She further warns that the rubber fields which are under low-frequency harvesting should not be tapped at a higher frequency adding that that the price of rubber may go further up and therefore, the trees should be protected.  In any case, she requests farmers to immediately contact the Rubber Research Institute or the Rubber Development Department for assistance. (Daily News, 27.2. 2021) 

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