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Right to Information: We need it now! Shame on them who deny us this right

2013 Jun 19

* SMEs crash in the absence of national policy, high interest rates and energy costs – Aloy Jayawardene

Excerpts of a speech delivered by the President of the Sri Lanka Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises Aloy Jayawardene at the Golden Anniversary celebrations and Industrial Excellence Awards 2013- held at "Waters Edge" , Battaramulla yesterday (17).

Over 25 percent of Sri Lanka’s Small and Medium Enterprises have collapsed over the past two to three years amidst grueling financial hardships, including Bank Interest rates on loans which have soared to 20 percent. This is most unfortunate considering that the SME sector is the "backbone" of the country’s economy accounting for 75 percent of the Gross National Product.

The appeals of the SME sector for relief from their financial pressures have fallen on deaf ears. No less a person than the President pledged to ensure a more affordable bank interest rate and connected relief in 2010, but nothing positive had resulted from these pledges to date. Many of the SMEs have suffered collapse because they have mortgaged their prime assets as collateral to Banks to obtain loans and cannot pay back these loans on account of increasing losses. The high interest rates of bank loans are a prime factor in rendering the operations of the SMEs highly uneconomical and loss incurring.

Another factor of concern is the continuing "non-recognition of the export sector by the Government. There is no recognition coming for the export sector from the Government, particularly in the form of annual awards ceremony, for instance which allocates due merit for our high performing exporters. Such incentives will go a long way in galvanizing our export sector into doing their best for the national economy. The last time such awards ceremony was held was in 2008, the time that Brian Angunawala was the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

No National policy…

Another drawback which is holding up the growth of the export sector in general and the SME sector in particular is the absence of a National Industrial Policy.

How could the State expect the export sector to thrive in the absence of a National Industrial Policy? Way back in 2002, a draft white paper entitled" National Strategy for Small and Medium Enterprise Sector Development" was brought out by a body called the Task Force for Small and Medium Sector Development Programme of which I was a member. This was presented to the then Government, but it drew a blank. It is yet to be acted upon. Apparently the State does not want to commit itself to the recommendations and other positive inputs made in the white paper.

It is most unfortunate that these negative trends, in regard to the SME sector in particular, are remaining uncurbed because this sector was within itself to contribute heavily to the national economy.

Some organizations in this sector which are thus contributing substantially are DSI, Orange, Sinwa, KIK and Impressions Labels Lanka (Pvt) Ltd. Impressions Labels in particular has joint business venture, currently with organizations in countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam and India. The SME sector has a huge potential for growth and the State is obliged to help out in their growth process.

Besides relief on the Bank interest rate front, high energy costs combined with rigid labour laws are getting in the way of rendering the SME sector increasingly dynamic. It needs to be noted that the energy costs in Sri Lanka are the highest in South Asia and progressively productive SME sector cannot be envisaged in isolation from relief on the vital fronts.

Right to Information and Liberty…

The LTTE waged its deadliest battle against the security forces. The Tiger launched a massive propaganda campaign and resorted to various means to discredit Sri Lanka and its security forces until the LTTE leadership was vanquished on May 18th 2009. They used international platforms to inject their ideology and mislead the international community. Sri Lanka’s landmark achievements since terrorism was eradicated almost four years ago, especially in development, resettlement and reconciliation should be properly evaluated by the international community, more importantly, infrastructure development and the new lease of life enjoyed by the people in the North and East are commendable achievements that have set new world standards.

The President’s crowning glory was his successful prosecution of the war against the LTTE. He went against international opinion and stuck to his guns literally and metaphorically. He may have angered Western Powers by doing so, but conversely his popularity rose exponentially within Sri Lanka. He was no longer just another political leader, he was the savior who delivered the country from the three decade long scourge of terrorism.

The right to information, we need it now. Shame on them to deny us the right to information.

Whether we like it or not we are living today in a country where government (politicians and the bureaucracy) have increasingly encroached on our daily lives.

We the citizens should have a legal right to know what the Government is said to be doing on our behalf. We must therefore have a right to information in our statute book.

In this ‘information age’ when a communication culture has taken over and new ideas, new concepts and new movements are changing our world almost daily, there is today a massive and unimaginable flow of information. In this information culture’ knowledge’ is power and the sharing of information has become instant and is necessary for our wellbeing. There is a feeling among certain sections of our people that those in power have been having a great time at the expense of the people. This is why we need to have transparency in government.

Parliament which has the responsibility of acting as the watchdog of the people has failed miserably. Power must be shared not concentrated.

Openness in government or transparency is not something which our politicians and bureaucrats wish to see given legal effect to. They prefer a culture of secrecy.

Kath Nobel has stated that there are 70 countries today which have legislated, giving their citizens the right to information and this includes India.

Reconcilliation…

The time to act is NOW, for we must exercise our sovereignty. "Appamaado amathapadam" said the Buddha – Yes we must never postpone we must act in the present. Let us therefore make our politicians and the political parties promise us that they would empower us by giving us the Right to Information which would make democracy meaningful and enable us to also participate in the governance of our country in a meaningful way.

How far can one go on the road to forgiveness ?

When the war with the LTTE drew to a close, we are aware the Government appointed a commission called the "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" (LLRC) to study all the lessons we can learn after the 30 year war.

This move was to take all the steps necessary to bring reconciliation among the many ethnic groups in our society. Eminent persons represented the commission and any one had the opportunity to go before and give evidence.

A similar commission was appointed in South Africa when Nelson Mandela won freedom and independence for the black people in South Africa and South Africa became a country ruled by the black people forming a majority in the Government with Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black President culminating in the end of "apartheid"(sectarian) in South Africa . The commission was called The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Before this commission, a certain frail black woman stands slowly to her feet; she is over 75 years of age. There are white security officers across the courtroom facing her. Among them Mr. Van de Broek, is being tried and found guilty for murdering the woman’s husband and son some years ago.

The incident that took place was recollected once again. Mr. Van de Broek visited the woman’s home many years ago, took her son and shot him at point blank range. He then burnt the young man’s body while he enjoyed a party with his fellow officers. After seven years Mr. Van de Broek and his gang came back to take her husband away. The husband’s whereabouts were unknown for many months.

However, after nearly one year, Van de Broek came back in search of the woman herself. She recalled all what happened that evening, visiting a place near a river where she saw her husband bound and beaten and still alive, lying on a pile of wood. The officer poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame, the3 husband cried out "Father Forgive them".

The woman now standing in the courtroom and listens to the confession of Mr. Van de Broek. A member of the commission turns to her and asks, now what do you want? How can justice be done to this man who so brutally destroyed your family? "I want three things", the woman says clearly, "take me to the place where my husband’s body was burnt so that I can collect the dust and give his remains a decent burial. My husband and son were my only family. I want secondly for Mr. Van de Broek to become my son, I would like him to come twice a month to my ghetto and spend time with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I have remaining within me.

And finally, she says "I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. So I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I take Mr. Van de Broek in my arms, embrace him and know he is truly forgiven.

As the court assistants came to lead the elderly woman across the room. Mr.Van de Broek overwhelmed by what he has heard, faints. Those in the court room, friends family and neighbours, who were all victims of many years of oppression and injustice began to sing softly, the great hymn "Amazing Grace, So Sweet the Sound, That Saved A Wretch Like Me"

This Lady has taught us the supreme level of forgiveness. Forgiveness is something many of us find it difficult to practice. If someone has wronged us, it is difficult to go to him and say "I forgive you and let’s forget it", but certainly we can forgive him in our heart.

 

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