Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Elders Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 25 2015.

Colman's Column3

Elders Time Bomb

Over thirty years ago, I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee in New Court, London. One major issue that SSAC was grappling with even then was the problem of an ageing population. Now that I am part of the problem rather than someone looking for a solution, the issue seems more acute to me. I was part of that cohort born after the Second World War known as baby boomers. The post-war surge was then followed by a fall in birth rates, which means there are not enough people of working age to support we oldies in our twilight years.

Population ageing arises from two demographic effects: increasing longevity and declining fertility. In all human history, the world has never seen as aged a population as currently exists today. This is the case for every country in the world except the 18 countries designated as “demographic outliers”.

Who Pays?

Today, for the first time in history, Britain’s over-65s now outnumber people under the age of 16. Many people in the UK labour under the misapprehension that they are paying for their own pensions through income tax and national insurance contributions. The number of contributions I made while working governed the amount of pension I receive. However, the pension I currently receive does not come out of a kind of savings account in my name. People working today pay my pension.  There are currently four people of working age supporting each pensioner in Britain; by 2035, this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just two. The number of people of working age in relation to retirees is known as the ‘dependency ratio’. Future pensioners might not have anyone to pay them.

The current UK government seems to be protecting pensioners by making severe cuts in other public spending. They have made clear that they believe they need to make significant savings from working-age benefits. Chancellor George Osborne has said he will press ahead with hefty cuts to welfare despite tens of thousands engaging in protest marches against austerity.  Iain Duncan Smith said the Conservative government would go ahead with plans to cut welfare spending by 12 billion pounds, out of an annual budget of 220 billion pounds. Cuts under consideration included banning people aged under 25 from claiming housing benefit and restricting tax credits to a couple’s first two children.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka already has the highest proportion (13%) of old people in South Asia; this is expected to rise to 20% by 2031, 25% by 2041 50% by 2050. At the same time, the proportion of working age people will progressively decrease. Longer life expectancy and improvements in health care means that people are enjoying many more work free years after retirement than used to be the case. The down side of better life expectancy is that there are more very old people who need care because of dementia and general exhaustion of the soft machine that is the human body.

Business Opportunity

In the UK, many saw the ageing population as a business opportunity. That would be fine if a decent professional service were provided at a fair price- there is no ethical dilemma in  entrepreneurs making an honest profit by relieving  the state (or individual families) of the burden of providing care. Unfortunately, it did not always work out that way. Even as long ago as the early 1970s, many dodgy operators caught on to the potential of a captive market. Even today, one finds countless internet sites advising how to set up a business caring for elders. Here is one random example:

http://franchises.homeinstead.com/franchise-opportunity/Pages/Why-Home-Instead-Senior-Care.aspx

Abuse

Traditionally, elders were cared for within the family. This did not protect them from abuse and even today, many today suffer even when living at home at the hands of family members or professional carers. A study conducted by Agewell Foundation​revealed that 25-30% of older Indians are suffering abuse, mistreatment and even torture in old age. The study said only about only five per cent of those mistreated complained to the police or any other authorities.

Figures released to mark World Elder Abuse Day on June 15, show that in Ireland more than 13,000 cases of financial abuse were reported up to the end of 2013. Financial abuse is the second most common form of mistreatment and is most often perpetrated by a family member. The day also brought revelations from Age Concern New Zealand that abuse of old people in that country was an “epidemic”. They get an average of eight calls every working day about alleged elder abuse. Many more cases are reported to health providers, the police, lawyers, community support organisations and other prevention services.

Profit without Care

One  entrepreneur website says: “In-home care and assisted living is essential as we get older. If healthcare is your passion, consider owning your own senior care franchise business.” Too often, the passion was for making money rather than providing care. The UK government allowed care homes to directly receive the pensions of residents from the state.

There has to be a worry that businesses providing care for profit might put profit before care and that abuse might take place undetected. Care homes for adults in England are regulated by the Care Quality Commission, which has a remit to inspect each care home at least once every three years. This has not prevented many instances of abuse being reported in the press.

The charity Action on Elder Abuse (AEA) claims that over 500,000 elderly people in the UK suffer abuse and that women are particularly vulnerable. The five common types of abuse are physical, psychological, financial, sexual abuse and neglect. Often these abuses are also crimes. “it is important to think in advance about ways in which someone can reduce the possibility of abuse, by avoiding isolation or dependency, and by having more than one person keeping an eye on matters. Reliance on others does not mean having to be dependent on others. Thinking about self-protection is more about commonsense than about being distrustful.”

Old Deanery

In April 2014, the BBC Panorama programme secretly filmed a 98-year-old woman, in Oban House care home in Croydon, crying out for help 321 times over a whole hour. She died less than a month later. Two members of staff were convicted of common assault. Secret filming inside the Old Deanery home in Braintree, Essex showed a staff member slapping a partially paralysed woman who suffers from dementia.  A Panorama reporter worked undercover as a care assistant and saw “rough handling” of residents, calls for assistance repeatedly ignored, and elderly people goaded and left to sit or lie in their own mess.  Residents were ignored, call-bells were unplugged and one man in his 80s was repeatedly called a “bitch”. Inspectors gave the home a glowing reference around the same time. CQC CEO Andrea Sutcliffe said the treatment was “unacceptable” – but said inspectors could not be expected know “what goes on behind closed doors”.

The Granary

The Old Deanery home charges £700 a week. The Granary in Somerset charges £800 per week. A judge at Bristol Crown Court barred Daniel Baynes, Tomasz Gidaszewski and Janusz Salnikow, employees at The Granary, for life from working with vulnerable adults. Footage from a camera, secretly placed in her room by her son, showed an 87-year-old woman with dementia being pushed around on a number of occasions while she was subjected to a tirade of verbal abuse. Baynes admitted stealing food and was jailed for four months. Salnikow was  given a suspended jail sentence, while the others were given community orders. AEA had written to the attorney general’s office calling on him to review the sentences handed out to the three men. AEA  argued that what the men did was “appalling” and that the sentence “did not convey the seriousness with which the public view such abuse”, and “will not act as a deterrent”.

I was prompted to look into this subject following a recent trip to Colombo to rescue my wife’s Aunt from abuse. I will look into the issue of abuse of elders in Sri Lanka in next week’s column.

 

An Australian Coup Part 2

Colman's Column3

This article was published in Ceylon Today on June 19 2015.

NAAGough

Rule by  Minority

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister voiced doubts about the value of this country’s long-standing commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement. The US Secretary of State is taking a strong interest in moving Sri Lanka away from China and into the US orbit. Perhaps we should remember what happened to Gough Whitlam, who, despite being democratically elected as prime minister of Australia, was deposed by the representative of the Queen of England with the connivance of the US government. Imagine if the Queen decided to sack David Cameron if he failed to get a bill through the House of Lords and replaced him with the leader of the opposition – whoever that might be.

Before Whitlam, the Australian people had been electing the “right people,” namely the Liberal-National Country Party Coalition headed for many years by Robert Menzies. Menzies was always happy to do the bidding of the US and the UK. He once said, “A sick feeling of repugnance grows in me as I near Australia.”

Three months after Whitlam’s election victory in December 1972, Senator Withers, the leader of the Liberals in the Senate warned: “the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional power”. He said that the election mandate was ‘dishonest”, that Whitlam’s election was a “temporary electoral insanity” and that to claim that the Government was following the will of the people “would be a dangerous precedent for a democratic country”

Kerr’s Cur

After he was ousted, Whitlam made a speech: “Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day”. However, Fraser easily won the election  and remained prime minister.

Murdoch Misinformation

Whitlam wanted an independent, free and democratic government for the people of Australia  and he was elected on that manifesto. Collusion between vested interests and those who believed they were born to rule destroyed his plan. The Murdoch media ran a virulent anti Whitlam campaign because Whitlam would not do as Murdoch ordered.

murdoch

Former CIA deputy director of intelligence, Ray Cline, denies that there was any “formal” CIA covert action programme against the Whitlam government during Cline’s time in office (Cline left the CIA in 1973). The method as outlined by Cline would be for the CIA to supply damaging information which the Australian security services would leak to the media. A US diplomat stationed in Australia at the time tells how CIA station chief in Australia, John Walker would “blow in the ear” of National Country Party members, and not long afterwards, the Whitlam government would be asked embarrassing questions in Parliament. An ASIO officer said he believed that “some of the documents which helped discredit the Labour Government in the last year in office were forgeries planted by the CIA.” In 1981, a CIA contract employee, Joseph Flynn, claimed that he had been paid to forge some documents relating to the loans affair, and also to bug Whitlam’s hotel room.

CIA Involvement

Whitlam at one point complained openly about the CIA meddling in Australian domestic affairs and tried to close Pine Gap, the CIA’s surveillance centre. When Whitlam was re-elected for a second term, in 1974, the White House sent Marshall Green to Canberra as ambassador. Known as “the coupmaster”, he had played a central role in the 1965 coup against President Sukarno in Indonesia – which cost up to a million lives. One of his first speeches in Australia, to the Australian Institute of Directors, was described by an alarmed member of the audience as “an incitement to the country’s business leaders to rise against the government”.

marshallgreen

Victor Marchetti, the CIA officer who had helped set up Pine Gap, told John Pilger, “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House … a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion.”

marchetti

Kerr had longstanding ties to Anglo-American intelligence. He was an enthusiastic member of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, a group exposed in Congress as being founded, funded and generally run by the CIA. The CIA “paid for Kerr’s travel, built his prestige … Kerr continued to go to the CIA for money”.

Pine Gap’s top-secret messages were decoded by a CIA contractor, TRW. One of the decoders was Christopher Boyce, who revealed that the CIA had infiltrated the Australian political and trade union elite and referred to the governor-general of Australia, Sir John Kerr, as “our man Kerr”. In 1977, Boyce was arrested in the US for selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Boyce was disillusioned by the state of America. One day, he discussing the Watergate scandal and the CIA inspired coup in Chile and  said, “You think that’s bad? You should hear what the CIA is doing to the Australians.”

kerr queen

Cline said, “I’m sure we never had a political action programme, although some people around the office were beginning to think we should.” He explains that the US and Australia had a very healthy relationship in the area of intelligence exchange. “But when the Whitlam government came to power, there was a period or turbulence to do with Alice Springs [Pine Gap].” He went on to say, “the whole Whitlam episode was very painful. He had a very hostile attitude.”

Cline outlined a scenario he saw as acceptable CIA behaviour. “You couldn’t possibly throw in a covert action programme to a country like Australia, but the CIA would go so far as to provide information to people who would bring it to the surface in Australia. For example, a Whitlam error “which they were willing to pump into the system so it might be to his damage.” Such actions do not, in Cline’s opinion, amount to a “political operation.”

Security Crisis

On 10 November 1975, Whitlam saw a top-secret telex message sourced to Theodore Shackley, the notorious head of the CIA’s East Asia division, who had helped run the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile two years earlier. The message said that the prime minister of Australia was a security risk in his own country. The day before, Kerr had visited the headquarters of the Defence Signals Directorate, Australia’s NSA, where he was briefed on the “security crisis”.

Also, in 1975, Whitlam discovered that Britain’s MI6, “were actually decoding secret messages coming into my foreign affairs office”. One of his ministers, Clyde Cameron, told Pilger: “We knew MI6 was bugging cabinet meetings for the Americans.” In the 1980s, senior CIA officers revealed that the “Whitlam problem” had been discussed “with urgency” by the CIA’s director, William Colby, and the head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield. A deputy director of the CIA said: “Kerr did what he was told to do.”

Sir John Kerr, the man who sacked Whitlam succumbed to alcohol. After a drunken performance at the 1977 Melbourne Cup winner’s presentation, he was forced by public outrage to relinquish an appointment as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO. He lived in England for some years and died on 7 April 1991. Whitlam did become Ambassador to UNESCO. He died last October at the age of 98.

memorial

Malcolm Fraser became involved in international relief and humanitarian aid issues and, domestically, as a forthright liberal voice for human rights. He resigned from the Liberal Party because he found Tony Abbott too right wing. He died in March 2015 at the age of 84.

 

An Australian Coup Part One

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday June 8 2015.

 

It's Time

Lessons for Sri Lanka?

As Sri Lanka’s foreign minister voices doubts about the value of this country’s long-standing commitment to the  Non-Aligned Movement and the US Secretary  of State takes a strong interest in moving Sri Lanka away from China and into the US orbit we should pay heed to what happened to Gough Whitlam.

poster

Peter Carey

Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has been in the news recently because he was one of the six authors (including Michael Ondaatje)  who protested about PEN International giving an award to Charlie Hebdo magazine. Salman Rushdie was not impressed and wrote an article entitled “Six authors in search of a bit of character”.

Carey has a new novel out called Amnesia. Critics drew parallels with a previous Carey novel (which I have been re-reading) The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, published in 1994.  Amnesia’s central figure is Felix Moore, who describes himself as “Australia’s last surviving left wing journalist”.

Governor General Sacks Prime Minister

kerrand queen

In 1975, the governor general of Australia,  Sir John Kerr, the unelected representative of Queen Elizabeth II, removed  Labour Party leader Gough Whitlam from the office of prime minister and replaced him with Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the opposition Liberal (conservative) Party. Felix, like many others in real life (among them John Pilger) described this as a coup. Before the coup, there was a concerted campaign of disinformation and manufactured scandals designed to show Whitlam in a bad light. Rupert Murdoch was a major player in this campaign.

In Carey’s 1994 novel Tristan Smith, Efica is Australia and the US is Voorstand. “The alliance between the parliamentary democracies of Voorstand and Efica is built on three areas of joint co-operation—Defence, Navigation, Intelligence—DNI.” The Labor Party is the Blue Party, the conservatives the Red Party. Tristan footnotes his autobiography with explanations of the events leading to Whitlam’s ouster —the concocted scandals, the VIA (Voorstand Intelligence Agency), the DoS (Department of Supply, a version of the Australian spy service ASIO). The two services worked closely at all times, it sometimes being said that the DoS’s loyalty lay with the VIA, not with the elected government of Efica.

John Pilger

John Pilger, veteran Australian investigative journalist and polemicist (I do not know if Carey had Pilger in mind when he created Felix) has written extensively about the CIA’s role in engineering Whitlam’s ejection from office.  The coup against Whitlam is described in full in his book, A Secret Country (Vintage), and in his documentary film, Other People’s Wars, which can be viewed on http://www.johnpilger.com/ Whitlam’s government had provoked the US by withdrawing Australian troops from the Vietnam War. He also opposed nuclear weapons testing, and made a nuisance of himself by querying the purpose of the Pine Gap signals intelligence centre near Alice Springs.

An Independent Australia

change nation

Pilger wrote:  “Australia briefly became an independent state during the Whitlam years, 1972-75.”  Whitlam challenged US values and interests with radical reforms pushed through in less than three years between 1972 and 1975. He also challenged Britain. Whitlam moved Australia towards the Non-Aligned Movement.

Beneficial Reforms

The Whitlam government abolished the death penalty for federal crimes. The government established offices in each state capital. It abolished university fees, and established the Schools Commission to allocate funds to schools. Whitlam founded the Department of Urban Development and, set a goal to leave no urban home without sewers. The Whitlam government gave grants directly to local government units for urban renewal, flood prevention, and the promotion of tourism. Other federal grants financed highways linking the state capitals, and paid for standard-gauge rail lines between the states.”Advance Australia Fair” became the country’s national anthem in place of “God Save the Queen”. The Order of Australia replaced the British honours system in early 1975.

abo

Whitlam campaigned for indigenous rights creating the Aboriginal Land Fund to help indigenous groups buy back privately owned lands, as well as the Aboriginal Loans Commission to help establish indigenous-owned businesses, pay for health and education expenses, and for the purchase of property with a view to home ownership.

girly2

Opposition Blocked Funding.

WhitCrowd

Although Labour had a majority in the House of Representatives, the Liberal-dominated senate refused to release the funding to enact the reforms on which he had been elected. Whitlam asserted the primacy of the House of Representatives and his right to govern so long as he retained a majority there, whereas Fraser claimed that a government denied Supply by the Senate should resign. Whitlam had already won two elections so apart from the Liberals refusing to bring the budget bills to the vote was there should have been no need for an election. Whitlam went to the polls in 1974, only 18 months after winning power in 1972 to resolve the deadlock. He was re-elected. Whitlam had sufficient supply to run the government for another two weeks.

Foreign Loans

The Whitlam government looked for foreign loans from the Middle East, rather than from traditional American and European sources, to finance its development plans. Just as the Sri Lankan government upset the US by turning to China for development assistance, Whitlam put  American noses out of joint by preferring Middle East backing. Whitlam attempted to secure financing before informing the Loan Council (which included state officials hostile to him), and his government empowered Pakistani financier Tirath Khemlani as an intermediary in the hope of securing US$4 billion in loans. While the Loans Affair never resulted in an actual loan, according to author and Whitlam speechwriter Graham Freudenberg.  In the end, no loan was ever obtained, no commissions were paid, but the government was made to look reckless and foolish.

The Opposition believed that if Whitlam could not deliver supply, and would not advise new elections, Kerr would have to dismiss him. Supply would run out on 30 November. In October 1975, the Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, determined to withhold supply by deferring consideration of appropriation bills.

kerr and fraser

Whitlam and his ministers repeatedly claimed that the Opposition was damaging not only the constitution, but the economy as well. Whitlam told the House of Representatives on 21 October, “Let me place my government’s position clearly on the record. I shall not advise the Governor-General to hold an election for the House of Representatives on behalf of the Senate. I shall tender no advice for an election of either House or both Houses until this constitutional issue is settled. This government, so long as it retains a majority in the House of Representatives, will continue the course endorsed by the Australian people last year.”

After he was ousted Whitlam made a speech: “Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day”.

rage

At the ensuing election, Fraser’s conservative coalition won a resounding victory. The Australian publican public forgot its temporary aberration of not electing a Liberal government, decided that change was too disturbing  and went back to boozing and sunbathing.

 

 

Getting Death off Our Roads Part 3

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday June 5 2015.

busespart3

Economic Cost

According to iRAP (the International Road Assessment Programme) road deaths and injuries,  because of medical bills, care, lost output and vehicle damage, cost 2% of GDP for high-income countries and 5% of GDP for middle- and low-income countries —$1.9 trillion a year globally.

Road accidents are the main cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds. A dead or maimed 17-year-old costs much more in lost earnings than an 80-year-old. Avi Silverman of the FIA Foundation, (http://www.fiafoundation.org/about-us) says a victim’s family is often plunged into poverty for generations.

From 1977 to 2007, 120,848 accidents were reported in Sri Lanka in which 40,000 people died and 370,000 were injured. More than 75% of road deaths were from the age group 20 to 55 years – family  breadwinners. The estimated cost of road trauma in Sri Lanka was Rs. 10.25 billion, nearly 2% of GNP, as long ago as 2001.

Travel and Terror

Although terrorist bombs are no longer destroying buses, buses themselves are making Sri Lankan roads deadly and terrorising the public. There was an interesting double interview in the Sunday Observer on June 1 2008. SSP Ranjith Gunasekara, police Media Spokesman, and Gemenu Wijeratne, spokesman for private bus owners, were asked a number of questions about the safety of bus passengers during the LTTE bombing campaign. Wijeratne said: “I am happy that the private bus sector is not that much threatened, comparatively. If we consider the past bomb explosions, the majority of the buses were Sri Lanka Transport Board buses and not private buses…On our part we are always highly vigilant and all the time we strongly emphasize the bus owners and conductors should keep their eyes open! And of course they do it with a sense of commitment.”

It is a pity that there is not a similar sense of vigilance and commitment to passenger safety in peacetime. During wartime, it was a common to see buses halted at the roadside while police searched for bombs. One never sees buses stopped for being unroadworthy, belching out black smoke, crossing the white line. One sees many three-wheelers, motor bikes and private vehicles being stopped for no prior cause. Why not buses?

Ireland

Richer countries have cut road deaths more successfully than developing or middle-income countries through higher vehicle standards and infrastructure investment. Governments enforced speeding and drunk-driving laws and hammered home the message about seat belts, helmets and mobile phones.

The Republic of Ireland once had one of the worst accident records in Europe. More than 23,600 people have died on Irish roads since records began in 1959. That is the equivalent of the entire population of the town of Tralee, County Kerry. From 1977 to 2013,   76,586 people received serious, life-changing injuries. Reforms have reduced the number of deaths considerably. In 2012 there were 161 people killed on the Republic’s roads, the lowest on record. The number of people killed on the State’s roads increased for the second year in a row in 2014 a rise of 6 to 196. However, in 1997 there were nearly 500 deaths. In 1978, there were 628.

The Road to Hell

I often say that the road to hell is paved with false analogies. Although the island of Ireland is the same size as Sri Lanka, it is very thinly populated. The Republic of Ireland’s population is 4.58 million, while Sri Lanka’s is 20.48 million. There are low traffic intensities on many Irish roads. Nevertheless, perhaps Sri Lanka could learn something from the Irish experience.

The Irish Government Strategy for Road Safety 1998-2002 says: “Human action is a contributory factor in over 90% of road accidents. The principal emphasis of all road safety strategies must therefore be on improving road user behaviour. This behaviour needs to be informed and trained, and to be modified, so as to improve interaction between road users, to ensure consideration for others and to reduce risk. In this way a culture of road use is created that is both precautionary and pro-active in relation to road safety”.

 

Professor Fred Wegman 

 

Professor Fred Wegman advises the European Commission and many national governments on road safety. In 2002, he wrote a report on the Irish strategy. He said an “important question is whether Irish society is prepared to accept a higher level of enforcement…Are they prepared to change their own behaviour, and are they prepared to accept (far-reaching) government road safety measures? Influential social groups could be invited (and perhaps forced in the position) to show the courage of their convictions: road safety would then simply have to be defined as a top priority. Recent research suggests that the Irish population would support this point of view.”

 

Zero Casualties

 

Sweden’s roads are the world’s safest. Although the number of cars in circulation and the number of miles driven have both doubled since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths during the same period. In 1997, the Swedish parliament wrote into law a “Vision Zero” plan, promising to eliminate road fatalities and injuries altogether.  Sweden builds roads with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children younger than  seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.

 

What to do in Sri Lanka?

Perhaps the government should commission the FIA Foundation to undertake a study or invite Professor Wegman to Sri Lanka. Wegman asked if Irish society was prepared to press for a higher level of enforcement. We might ask the same question about Sri Lanka. The government has to show willing and society needs to put pressure on government to take effective action.

 

There will be immediate costs. The current court system is already overloaded and will collapse completely dealing with a more pro-active policy. Should there be separate system outside conventional  courts? How about a digitised fine system linked to payment of utility bills?

 

There are costs in doing nothing. Is this something that the business community should be taking on board? Should business magazines, chambers of commerce, Lions Clubs and Rotary Associations be raising awareness?

Among many helpful suggestions I received:  Allocate a single bus route to a single private company. Scheduled departures and arrivals would reduce races even if more than one company were plying the same route. Provide a daily map online of all accidents. Compile a blacklist of cops on the take and owners doing the bribing. Owners as well as drivers should be punished. Bus owners need to be brought before a public forum by a neutral body to formulate a solution. Organise meetings of concerned citizens with drivers and owners and senior police officers.

Is the Government Doing Something?

TMKB Tennakoon, Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order recently announced 790 people had been killed on Sri Lankan roads between January and April this year. “The number of accidents reflects badly on the country’s image”.  He said that instructions were being sent out to all OICs to train all police personnel to book traffic offenders.  More ticket books would be printed. For three months, all police would be expected to address the problem. A senior officer said this would place unacceptable burdens on staff deployed for other duties such as crime prevention and investigation. He thought the solution was to train more traffic police.

Someone commented on my previous article that we should bear in mind that transport fares in Sri Lanka are cheap so perhaps things are not so bad. It seems that life is cheap too. Road safety must be a top priority. Whatever about the country’s image, this carnage and waste of human life must stop.Colman's Column3

Getting Death off our Roads Part 2

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday May 26 2015.The article was illustrated with this picture. I am not sure if the red stuff is blood or betel spit.

picpart2rev

In a previous article in these pages, I wrote about the problem of killer buses in Sri Lanka and canvassed the opinions of Sri Lankans home and abroad.

 

Testing for Drugs and Alcohol

 

I had read that drink and drugs might be a contributory factor to the manic behaviour of some bus drivers. I had not realised that evidence for this came from the Private Bus Owners Association itself.  In May 2010, Gemenu Wijeratne, president of the association, made the frightening statement: “We did a survey of buses operating in Colombo and found that about 30 percent of drivers smoked ganja or consumed liquor before operating their vehicles.” He said some bus drivers were even addicted to heroin, blaming them for the high rate of accidents. “We have asked the police… to step up detection because these drivers have given private buses a bad reputation,” So it is the fault of the police that his drivers are killing people because they are stoned out of their minds! Five years on, what has Wijeratne done to clean up his members’ act? Should not his association introduce some form of testing and discipline its own drivers and members?

One commenter on my previous article said that before privatisation a CTB certificate was highly prized, a CTB driver was a respected member of the community and drinking on duty and drug-taking was unheard of.

A recent survey by the IOH (Institute of Oral Health) found that 80% of the bus drivers in Maharagama and Dehiwala chew betel to keep themselves awake. Another survey showed that 70.40% of bus drivers in Jaffna chew betel. It is an offence under the Tobacco and Alcohol Act of 2006 to drive under the influence of drugs. Dr Hemantha Amarasinghe, IOH Head of Research believes that drivers should be banned from chewing betel because the combination of betel, areca nut, tobacco and slaked lime produces a “high” which puts drivers and passengers at risk.

Licensing System

One reader who commented on my previous article thought the current licensing system in Sri Lanka was merely a money-making scheme for the government. Licenses seem to be issued to all and sundry. The system  should be started again from scratch. Drivers who already hold a licence should be retested free of charge.

In other countries, people wishing to work as drivers of vehicles that carry passengers have to have a special driving licence for which they have to pass a rigorous test, following intensive training.  National Transport Commission (NTC) Chairman Renuka Perera said, in September 2014, that the NTC would in, 2015, introduce a special exam for bus drivers who would get a Public Transport Licence. When, on July 8 2014,  the then transport minister Kumara Welgama introduced new rules in parliament, the UNP’s Ajith Mannapperuma objected to plans to renew licences every four years, claiming it was aimed at getting additional revenue for the government.

New guidelines should have been applied by January 1 2015.No one should drive a public service vehicle unless authorised by the Commissioner General under Section 128A of the Motor Traffic Act. Anyone driving a bus or school van needs to satisfy the Commissioner General that he has obtained two years driving experience. He also needs a medical certificate and proof that he has completed a first-aid course. He should not have a criminal record. Recent news reports suggest that the police are not enforcing these new rules.

Training of Drivers

One commenter suggested trainers could be found abroad. Providing a squad of indigenous Sri Lankan trainers will improve the nation’s employment situation. Training should be ongoing and include compulsory workshops for owners as well as drivers. Drivers could be made to attend twice a year a class on accountability and trust in order to sensitise them to their responsibilities. They should be educated to understand their moral responsibility to their passengers by being forced to watch images of road accidents involving dangerous driving of buses and studying the causes.

Zero Tolerance

Some agreed with a point I made in my first article that errant drivers should be apprehended, taken to court and banned from driving. Others found this too draconian and preferred a demerit points system leading through suspension to eventual loss of licence.

Someone recommended a zero-tolerance approach. A zero tolerance policy imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. The theory in New York was that if you dealt with minor transgressions and did not tolerate vandalism or even dropping litter, greater crimes would also reduce. Not everyone believes that worked (see recent events in Baltimore) but that is another debate. In this context, the police should  stop vehicles that appear to be unroadworthy; vehicles belching out black smoke; vehicles driven in an erratic fashion; vehicles infringing the rules, such as crossing the white line. Having stopped them, police should take effective action against them.

The theory is applicable to the context of bus accidents. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively; they are required to impose a pre-determined punishment regardless of, extenuating circumstances, or history or influence.

Bus Lanes

More than one person suggested that, as three-wheelers, motorcycles and buses make a disproportionate contribution to accidents, they should be segregated. Other countries have separate lanes for buses and cyclists. This improves the quality of the transport service for the public and makes it easier for buses to keep to timetable. It would be difficult to impose it up here on our narrow winding mountain roads. The roads are becoming narrower still because of frequent landslips and uprooting of trees. The RDA seems to be starting a process of road widening in this area.

Public Awareness

One commenter suggested that Awareness Weeks should be established to educate the public about road safety, to teach them ways to monitor the crimes of bus drivers and how to report them. Schools should thoroughly teach children about road safety and they should be mobilised, through possibly the girl guides and boy scouts, to carry out intensive village advocacy. The aim would be to teach ordinary citizens how to whistle-blow about bad driving behaviour. The business community, via Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs and Rotary Associations, could play a part in awareness programmes and put pressure on bus owners to clean up their act. The High Priest at our local Buddhist temple is heavily involved in organising community projects, which include local Muslims, Hindus and Christians.  A similar ecumenical approach throughout the country  could address   the problem of road safety.

There should be a hotline that people could call into (perhaps managed by popular radio stations) about driver transgressions. A Citizens’ Watch to put pressure on bus owners and the police. There should be a map of fatal incidents so that citizens can keep the police on their toes.

There is already an excellent website sharing videos of idiocy on the roads. https://www.facebook.com/srilankantrafficviolations

Media

We need some serious deep investigative reporting to name and shame corrupt owners and demonstrate their links with politicos and police. The road safety message needs to expressed strongly in Sinhala and Tamil and not just in print. Are TV programmes dealing with this problem? Can any showbiz celebrities or cricketers be persuaded to help? During the six years I was writing a monthly column for LMD, I frequently suggested covering the topic but the idea was always rejected. I haven’t seen features on road deaths in business magazines like Echelon and LMD. There is a huge economic burden caused by road accidents. Are these magazines reaching out to the business community for solutions?

 

Next week – how they do things elsewhere.

 

Getting Death off our Roads Part 1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday May 22 2015

 

Colman's Column3

Two Boys

Several years ago, we became integrated into our local community because of tragedy. We were invited to a funeral house and were introduced to many of our fellow villagers and many bhikkhus. The dead young man had just won a place at an Australian university and was looking forward to a successful career in IT. He was to be best man at his friend’s wedding the next day. The two boys had been born on the same day and had been friends all their short lives. Born on the same day and died on the same day. They were on a motor bike going to Passara to do some last minute shopping when they encountered an out-of-control bus. The driver was in a hurry to overtake and the boys were killed instantly. Last minutes of promising lives. The parents were mad with grief. The father suddenly became an old man as all the hope and joy drained out of him.

Rich Countries, Poor Countries

Worldwide, there is a road accident death every 30 seconds and ten people are seriously injured. The WHO (World Health Organisation) expects the number of deaths to reach two million a year by 2030, up from 1.3m now. In poor and middle-income countries road deaths will match HIV/AIDS as a cause of death by 2030. In the very poorest, the WHO expects deaths almost to triple.

The rich countries have cut road deaths through higher vehicle standards and infrastructure investment. Simple and cheap safety measures also helped. Pavements and crossings were provided on roads used by pedestrians. Cyclists and pedestrians were separated from fast traffic. Governments enforced speeding and drunk-driving laws and hammered home the message about seat belts, helmets and mobile phones.

Canvassing for Ideas

On May 5 2015, I published an article in this paper about the carnage on Sri Lankan roads. I was particularly concerned about the reckless behaviour of bus drivers and the reluctance of traffic police to address that behaviour. After publication, I canvassed the opinion of many Sri Lankans at home and abroad.

One commenter told how his neighbour was driving carefully but was killed when a bus coming from behind chose the wrong time to overtake her. He had not seen the lorry coming towards him. When did see the lorry, he quickly cut back into his lane, crushing the lady’s car in the process as she did not have time to take evasive action, stop or slow down.  She died on the spot. Even taking short journeys to do local shopping I witness many similar incidents and always feel lucky to get home alive. The sixteen-hour round trip to Colombo is a nightmare. You are not even safe if you stay indoors at home. On one Colombo trip, we saw a bus on its nose end in someone’s bedroom.

The response to my canvas was extremely impressive. In these follow-up articles, I will try to synthesise the astute comments about the cause of the problem and suggestions for possible practical solutions.

Privatisation

Private bus drivers behave more irresponsibly than drivers of other buses. It was ever thus. Before nationalisation, free market competition for the same routes caused a scramble for passengers, leading to brawls and stabbings.

The Ratnam Survey in 1948, the Sansoni Survey in 1954 and the Jayaratna Perera Survey in 1956 all concluded that nationalisation would bring a better service. Between 1958 and 1978, the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) was the nationalised enterprise providing all public bus transport in Sri Lanka. It was the largest omnibus company in the world – with about 7,000 buses and over 50,000 employees. The present number of buses in the fleet of the successor body, the SLTB, is only 4,500.

When the Premadasa government introduced privatisation, competition on the same routes returned. Currently, bus crews receive a percentage of profits so there is an incentive to overload and pick up too many passengers and run as many high-speed trips as possible.

Endemic National Character

Some of the people I canvassed cited national characteristics as part of the problem. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous – including this one”. I would be particularly wary of generalising about national character, and loth, as a guest in Sri Lanka, to pass judgement on the “Sri Lankan character”. However, my Sri Lankan friends are not so cautious. If I pointed to the success of Sweden and the Netherlands in drastically reducing road deaths, and suggest we might find some lessons, they would say one could not expect Sri Lankans to have the self-discipline of northern Europeans.

One Sri Lankan wrote: “It appears to be the dominant culture that no one is responsible or accountable for anything.”  Another concurred: “We accept chaos. If you inspect the root cause of a traffic jam in Sri Lanka, you will find that it originates in something trivial, like people lacking courtesy, blocking the whole road. There is no sense of coexistence or co-operation. It is the same in banks and post offices. No queues. Everyone wants to be served first”.

Suspension of normal rules during wartime created a pathology of circumventing sensible codes of behaviour. People see politicians bending the rules and think they can do the same. Politicians and military had special privileges, let us all have them.

Police Corruption

One commenter believed the Sri Lankan police force was corrupt and used torture as a routine procedure from its foundation in the 1860s when the force was an instrument of colonial control. It had been further “corrupted and deformed by thirty years of war”. It is now a security force and is incapable of carrying out normal police duties.

Many private buses are “owned” by police in the sense that a policeman or his relative is a silent partner of the people who operate the buses. It is a sort of protection racket; for a share of the profits, police turn a blind eye to unroadworthy vehicles and dangerous driving

One commenter was pessimistic about changing the culture because corruption ran through society right from the top. Another was more optimistic and chose to believe that not all police are corrupt and a Citizens’ Advocacy group could improve enforcement by targeting some of the more intelligent senior officers.

Impunity of Culprits

One respondent thought there were simple solutions available but the state had to be prepared to stand up to the transgressors. Private buses owners have connections with powerful politicians and their stooges. Police issued a circular that the spot-fine system for private buses would be scrapped and that all offenders would be hauled before the courts. Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne threatened an island wide strike and the circular was withdrawn.

 

Private Owners Victims?

 

Although many see private bus owners as the villains, they feel like victims. In April 2013, Wijeratne was threatening a strike if private bus owners were not allowed to increase fares. He said that normal private buses were incurring losses every day.

 

In May 2005, Wijeratne blamed the high accident rate on the government’s failure to prevent competing companies from plying the same routes at the same time. “I have proposed to the government and provincial authorities to introduce a regular timetable,”

 

On April 30 2015, Gemunu Wijeratne claimed that owners are required to give a monthly sum of Rs 17 billion to extortionists. He said that even though officials have been informed of this situation, the matter has been ignored. Wijeratne said that his association had also decided to complain to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption of Minister Ratnayaka’s allegedly questionable dealings with some bus owners.

 

Next week – what can be done?

UK Parliamentary Election 2015

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday 12 May 2015

 

Colman's Column3

Neil Kinnock in 1983: “I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to be old.”

 

What if the UK had PR?

It used to be received wisdom that a proportional representation system for parliamentary elections led inevitably to coalition government. The first past the post system in the UK for a long time meant that either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party governed because of having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

In the 2015 election, the Conservative Party won a clear majority. Under a proportional representation system they would have had 90 fewer seats would have been forced into another coalition.

UKIP

 

Under PR, UKIP (the United  Kingdom Independence Party) would have been the third largest party in parliament. The Lib-Dems with their caring philosophy failed to soften their coalition partner’s policies. There is evidence that the Conservatives moved rightward  because of a perception that  UKIP’s xenophobic policies on immigration were popular. What kind of policies would emerge if the two parties were in government together? There is already the promise of stricter immigration rules, more cuts and a referendum on leaving the EU.

Coalition in 2010

In the 2010 UK general election, no single party achieved the seats required for an overall majority. A total of 326  seats  are needed for  an absolute majority, but because Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats and the Speaker’s team does not normally vote, the real number has been 323. The Conservatives had most seats and votes in 2010 but were 20 seats short of the magic number. A coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was established.

During the 2010 election campaign, Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg was widely seen as a strong performer and his party achieved its largest popular vote since its foundation. Nevertheless, the nature of the electoral system meant they suffered a loss of five seats.

PR Voted Down

The Lib-Dems and their ancestor Liberal Party long fought for proportional representation in order to win seats in parliament that would more fairly match their votes. A referendum on proportional representation was a key feature of the coalition agreement. The 2011 referendum result was Yes 32.1% and No 67.9%.on a 41% turnout. Former Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown told the Guardian there been a “breach of faith”. He accused David Cameron of failing to disassociate himself from personal attacks by the No campaign on Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Poisoned Chalice

The coalition has contributed to the downfall of the Lib-Dem party and its leader. After the 2015 general election, Clegg was one of three party leaders to resign. Although the Lib-Dems in 2010 presented themselves as being to the left of New Labour, they could not sustain that illusion while being complicit in austerity measures that hurt the poor while allowing the rich to prosper. The Conservatives claimed credit for what economic recovery there was and diverted any blame to the Lib-Dems.

Old-fashioned liberals might have hoped that with a long-delayed place in government the party might have restored Beveridge’s ideals in health and social welfare. The ideology of Ian Duncan Smith prevailed. The Liberal Democrats failed to make themselves heard in the row over tax avoidance, despite having pushed consistently to tighten the lax rules that Labour left behind. They were not able to defend the weak, the vulnerable and minorities, or to stop the privatisation of the health service. In his resignation speech, Clegg said “fear and grievance” had won, while Liberalism had lost.

Another Strange Death of the Liberal Party

Lib-Dem ministers came across as ditherers. This undermined the will-to-live of constituency organisers who had once been notable for their enthusiasm. In 2010, Lib-Dems won 57 seats; in 2015, this fell dramatically to eight. Under a PR system, they would have got 51. They lost their deposit in seven constituencies. Several prominent figures lost their seats – ex-ministers Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Norman Baker, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander (beaten by the youngest MP since the 17th century – a 20-year old student) , David Laws,  Simon Hughes (who had served his constituency for 30 years and won 50% of the vote in 2010) and former leader Charles Kennedy.

 

High Profile Losers

 

Conservative minister Esther McVey was the highest-profile Tory loser, defeated by Labour in Wirral West. For Labour, Gordon Brown’s hatchet man Ed Balls lost (by one percentage point) to a conservative in Morley and Outwood. UKIP leader Nigel Farage failed to win the seat at Thanet South (although UKIP won control of the local council). UKIP retained one seat; former Conservative Douglas Carswell was re-elected to represent Clacton but with a greatly reduced majority.  The Tory candidate at Rochester and Strood soundly beat another Tory defector to UKIP, Mark Reckless. The UKIP leader had increased his party’s share of the vote in Thanet South by 27%, and nationally UKIP’s vote share was up by ten percentage points to a total of 3.9 million. The Electoral Reform Society has modelled what would have happened under a proportional voting system that makes use of the D’Hondt method of converting votes to seats. UKIP would have been a force to be reckoned with in the Commons with 83 seats.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett lost to Labour in Holborn St Pancras but Caroline Lucas retains the Brighton Pavilion constituency she won in 2010 giving the Greens one seat in the new parliament. Under PR, they would have got 24 seats.

Whither Scotland?

After the referendum on Scottish independence, I warned a smug unionist against crass triumphalism. I said that, although the vote for Scotland to stay in the UK was decisive, the fact that over 40% of Scots wanted to leave the Union should give pause for thought. The SNP might have lost the referendum vote but they convincingly won the general election vote, gaining 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. Under a PR system, this would have been reduced to 31. Gordon Brown’s once-safe Labour seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath fell to the SNP. The pro-Union Conservative party now has one seat in Scotland and the pro-Union Labour party has just one. The Lib-Dems also retained  one seat. The referendum was about a positive Scottish identity, rejection of the austerity that Labour had supported. The general election has confirmed a separatist move to the left in Scotland. The referendum did not seal the future of the Union. Resentment from Scotland at a Westminster government dominated by English Tories can only grow, as will English resentment at any preferential treatment given to keep Scotland in the Union.

Social Justice in the Future?



Cameron’s choice of personnel for the  new all-Conservative cabinet makes it clear the way the next five years will go and I am glad I have emigrated. Iain Duncan Smith has been re-appointed to achieve to find a further £12 billion in welfare “savings” and the Lib-Dems will not be there to stop him. While I am fully aware of the deficiencies of the Labour Party, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I could vote for a Conservative candidate. There is much despair among my friends in the UK. They fear for the future of the welfare state and the forcing of poor people, the precariat, into poorly paid jobs with little security. Under the coalition, food banks increased from 56 to 445. More will be needed. Public services will continue to be handed over to incompetent and irresponsible private firms like G4S. The NHS will continue to be auctioned off to private for-profit companies.

Even former Tory prime minister John Major said: “We need to acknowledge the fact we have a pretty substantial underclass and there are parts of our country where we have people who have not worked for two generations and whose children do not expect to work. How can it be that in a nation that is the fifth richest nation in the world, that in the United Kingdom we have four of the poorest areas in Europe?”

Death Coaches

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday May 5 2015

Colman's Column3

Horrendous bus crashes are not newsworthy – happens all the time.

On April 16, I posted on Facebook. “We never hear sirens here. In the past hour we have heard lots of sirens.”  What is going on?  There have been no terrorist incidents since the LTTE were defeated in May 2009. Were the Tigers back again? Were Rajapaksa loyalists staging a coup?

I Googled  for news and found this: “Thirty seven persons suffered injuries when a private bus veered off the road and toppled down a steep slope in the 2nd mile post area along the Maddolsima-Passara road. According to the police, 23 women were among the injured. According to our correspondent, 13 of the injured who were in critical condition were transferred to the Badulla General Hospital. Further investigations into the accident have been launched by the police.”Local people told  us that  five people died instantly at the scene. I have not seen fatalities mentioned elsewhere.  I have not been able to find out anything else on the internet.

Statistics

According to the Ministry of Transport, there were 2,436 deaths on the roads of Sri Lanka in 2014. The total number of road accidents in that year was 28,012. Of those accidents, 9,166 involved motor cycles and 6,467 involved three-wheelers. One can understand why there are so many traffic police stopping motorcycles and three-wheelers. However, 2,936 accidents in 2014 involved private buses. Motorcycles and three-wheelers are a nuisance but a bus driven recklessly at top speed by a drunk can cause a lot more damage. A  Police Media Spokesperson said that the possibility of small vehicles falling prey to large ones had increased. According to a 2002 report from Peradeniya University, on average, road traffic accidents killed six people every day in Sri Lanka. In Western Province, 17% of accidents involved buses.

Demon Bus Drivers

There are more than 21,000 private buses and 3,000 state-run buses. According to police statistics, from January 1 to July 31 2014, private bus drivers were responsible for 2,733 cases of dangerous and negligent driving, 2,260 speeding offences, 367 drunk-driving arrests and 2,117 cases of unauthorised parking or stopping away from bus halts.  3,944 violations concerned buses operating without insurance and licence. Traffic experts say that the problem with private bus drivers is much worse than official figures indicate.

Two Boys

Several years ago, we became integrated into our local community because of tragedy. We were invited to a funeral home and were introduced to many of our fellow villagers and many bhikkus. The dead young man had just won a place at an Australian university and was looking forward to a successful career in IT. He was to be best man at his friend’s wedding the next day. The two boys had been born on the same day and had been friends all their short lives. Born on the same day and died on the same day. They were on a motor bike going to Passara to do some last minute shopping when they encountered an out-of-control bus. The driver was in a hurry to overtake and the boys were killed instantly. Last minutes of promising lives. The parents were mad with grief. The father suddenly became an old man as all the hope and joy drained out of him.

What to do?

The UN General Assembly proclaimed 2011 to 2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety.  We are now four years in to the Decade. Had you noticed?  Among the recommendations are: establishing a lead agency for road safety in the country involving partners from a range of sectors; encouraging the development and adoption of model road safety legislation and sustained or increased enforcement of road safety laws and standards; public awareness and education; reduce drinking and driving and speeding. Former National Transport Commission Chairman and senior lecturer at Moratuwa University, Professor Amal Kumarage said that action in Sri Lanka under the Decade of Road Safety in 2012 has been limited to the launching ceremony.

Suggested Improvements

To this observer, bowser drivers seem to be the Gentlemen of the Roads of Sri Lanka.  Perhaps bowser drivers drive at a more sedate pace because they are carrying highly inflammable material. However, bus drivers should remember, when racing  to the next stop, that they are carrying highly fragile women and children. Most bowsers have a phone number on the back inviting other road users to make complaints about bad driving. Private buses should be made to do the same.

Police should ride in buses as “mystery passengers” or bus marshals, reporting traffic violations. Everybody has a mobile phone these days – passengers and other road users should photograph the number plate and driver of errant vehicles and report violations to the police.

In other countries, people wishing to work as drivers of vehicles that carry passengers have to have a special driving licence for which they have to pass a rigorous test, following intensive training.  National Transport Commission (NTC) Chairman Renuka Perera said, in September 2014, that the NTC would in, 2015, introduce a special exam for bus drivers who would get a Public Transport Licence. Do not hold your breath.

Police should stop all buses being driven dangerously or belching out black smoke. They should test the driver for narcotics and alcohol and check his licence and insurance. He should be taken to court and banned from driving if found guilty.

Police issued a circular ordering that all offenders would taken to court. Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne threatened an island-wide strike and the police withdrew the circular. Police hope to issue a new circular to allow them to charge and take to court bus drivers guilty of traffic violations that are specific to passenger transport vehicles.

Police Can Stop Buses

Before May 2009, it was a common sight on the roads of Sri Lanka to see passengers lined up at the roadside while police searched buses. Academics may rack their brains to find a solution to road deaths, but one simple fact presents itself to this non-academic.  Occam’s Razor – police should be stopping buses. Under normal circumstances, one never sees police stopping buses. They have stopped my car without prior cause on many occasions to check my licence and insurance. While they are doing so, they are oblivious of badly maintained private buses careering down the road belching out black smoke in a race to get to the next stop before a rival.

A Special Police Team was deployed during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year from 11 to 16 April 2015. In the first news reports, I noticed that three wheeler drivers and  motorcyclists predominated and there were no bus drivers. However, the final count was 1,122 drivers charged with  drunk driving; 600 motorcyclists, 404 trishaw drivers, 33 motor car drivers, 17 van drivers, 37 lorry drivers and five private passenger bus drivers.

Counting the Cost

Road safety gets too low a profile in public debate. A respected public figure seemed rather dismissive about the fact that I was writing about buses. I contacted a Facebook friend who had been posting pictures of wrecked buses asking for his views on road safety. He thought that people were currently distracted by the political situation and the debate over the constitution and not concerned about road safety.

He told me the pictures he posted were of bus bombings by the LTTE in mid 2000. I pointed out to him that although bombs are no longer destroying buses, buses themselves are making our roads deadly. From 1977 to 2007, 120,848 accidents were reported in which 40,000 people died and 370,000 were injured. More than 75% of road deaths were from the age group 20 to 55 years – family  breadwinners. The estimated cost of road trauma in Sri Lanka was Rs. 10.25 billion, nearly 2% of GNP, as long ago as 2001.

A “concerned citizen” wrote to a newspaper: “Private buses seem to be run entirely to suit the owners, drivers and conductors. The passengers are important only till they pay their fare. After that what happens to them is nobody’s business… I am told that the police are also in tow with these maniac drivers. You never see police officers pulling up bus drivers…. Probably they are getting a cut from the bus drivers, so they turn a blind eye to their faults. I do hope this letter will catch the eye of the authorities and make them catch both the errant bus drivers as well as the misguided police officers who are behind such men.”

“Concerned citizen” wrote in 2002. Researching Sri Lankan newspapers back to the year of the Peradeniya report, I was depressed that people are still saying the same things thirteen years on, and nothing has changed.

 

Etc Etc Amen. Part Two of a review of a novel by Howard Male

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 3 2015.

Part One can be found here:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/etc-etc-amen-part-one-of-a-review/

 

 

male plus cat

 

Howard Male has written on music for the Independent, Songlines, The Word and other publications and on the arts in general for theartsdesk.com. He is also a musician. Etc Etc Amen is his first novel.

cover

Part Two

“Let go of your belief – it’s more trouble than it’s worth! Many have  died fighting over the small print from the undeniably ambiguous texts of their holy books. Belief is an End not a Beginning. Making a choice with regards to a theological position is patently absurd. Because…We. Know. Nothing.”

 

Male’s novel deals with rock god Zachary Bekele who founds a non-religion called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis.

KUU Theology

KUU stands for the Knowing Unknowing Universe. Male says: “I wanted to see if it was possible to devise a theology which went completely against the troubling grain of all that had gone before it, yet made perfect if eccentric sense as an alternative.” “Knowing” suggests something that demonstrates intelligence as well as something beyond our comprehension. “Unknowable” means we have to be content with unresolved guesses because all religion is guesswork. “Universe” symbolises what we find impossible to understand. The more knowledge we acquire the more fragile and contingent we feel. “The Gratuitous just keeps on raining down”.

KUU-ism is a middle way between theism and atheism; an escape from the “tribal binary prison”. Even our greatest thinkers only seem to pose either/or questions or definitive statements. Everything is reduced to the taking of sides while the truths remain ambivalent and overlooked. “Sitting on the fence might actually give us the best view”.

The Tripod built in Marrakech symbolises this third way. It is a middle way between the belief in an interventionist or non-interventionist deity. The KUU is semi-interventionist, and recognises `Cosmic Nudges’ – KUU-incidences (what Carl Jung called Synchronicities). KUU offers a welcome to refugees from any faith or even “agonised agnostics” and atheists. Bekele describes himself as “part evangelical agnostic and part woolly-minded fantasist”. He also says he is, “just a born-again questioner with a novel interpretation of the facts”.

KUU asserts that science is just as likely to be made up of bizarre hypotheses as ancient religion was made of bizarre gods. Scientists have not “made a dent on some of the central mysteries of mind, soul or creation”. KUU is not a personifying name of an entity that explains everything. “Why should we suddenly have all the answers now any more than we did two hundred or even two thousand years ago?”

Religions have dumb rules. The bible gives equal weight to sartorial and dietary advice and serious misdemeanours.  KUU Ground Rules are not Commandments. There are Eleven KUU Non-Commandments (or Gentle Suggestions), concerned with the individual’s well-being, sense of self and relationship with the possibility of a spiritual realm. Here are a few from the eleven: “You can laugh. You can doubt. Meditate on the Mystery of Music. Embrace and delight in the hello of the Cosmic Nudge. Forget about love, Empathy and respect are the real deal. Respect is rarely blind, stupid, jealous or crazy because it requires prior thought and has to be earned.

The central idea is that a connection can be cultivated between The Knowing Unknowable Universe and the receptive “entertainer of the possibility on Earth”. You may be enlightened if you entertain the possibility that unexplainable events such as coincidences are Cosmic Nudges. “It is part of our hardwiring that the unexplained is not worthy of our attention…the fact that you have never witnessed a serious car crash does not mean that car crashes don’t exist…the one form of unusual occurrence that we don’t feel self-conscious about discussing is coincidence…what if coincidences are the subtlest form of supernatural  phenomena?” “The Cosmic Nudge is the light of infinity glimpsed through a tiny rent in the opaque curtain of everydayness”. We are neither favoured nor persecuted by a higher being. Cosmic Nudges do not reward or punish, they just gently tease, they are playful not frightening.

“Here are some suggestions on how to live a more fulfilling life while also getting the occasional glimpse that there could be to that life than meets the eye. Let those glimpses enrich your daily existence but don’t let them go to your head. Be aware and creative, pursue wisdom knowing it can’t be attained, and find someone to love and have a good time with”.

“Get up off your knees! Don’t pray. Dance!” When you lose yourself in dance you lose your ego.

Optimistic doubt: “instead of living in constant disappointment at not receiving what you think is rightfully yours , you live for the moment and so experience pleasant surprise when good fortune comes your way. Life is the now. “

In spite of this sensible approach, the KUU’s followers decide to interpret KUU doctrine in a way that redefines the KUU as a supernatural entity.

Influences and comparisons

While I was reading the book, a number of possible influences came to my mind. I was not suggesting plagiarism but was intrigued enough to ask the author. I was reminded of Vonnegut’s Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, and of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in which Hazel Motes grows up struggling with doubts regarding salvation and original sin. Hazel’s war experience turns him into an atheist and he preaches a gospel of antireligion through his Church of No Christ. I wondered if there might be echoes of The Dice Man by Luke Rinehart.

 

The film Privilege starring Paul Jones (a rock star playing a rock star) directed by Peter Watkins and written by Johnny Speight dealt with a music idol who develops messianic powers.

 

 

Male has not seen the film. He admits to being influenced  by “in some sense every decent writer who has ever made me forget I was reading a work of fiction while I’ve been reading their work” However, he has not read Wise Blood and only vaguely recalls The Dice Man.

KUU seemed to have a bit of Buddhism in it, with the absence of a supreme being and prescriptive commandments and the notion of a “middle” way. All faiths except KUU are focused on blinkered certainty. “All moral codes stem from a paradoxical blend of selfishness and altruism…KUUism is about responsibility, rather than the handing over of that responsibility to a higher order, be it human or supernatural”.  I noted that Zachary’s band was called The Now. Male told me: “Buddhism, oddly enough, I only began investigating with any genuine curiosity after I’d finished writing the novel, as my sister – who has been a halfway house Buddhist for about eight years – saw a lot of Buddhism in KUUism.  The new novel Serious Fun explicitly shows this influence in that it centres on a character who has recently taken up mindful meditation.”

Male told me: “KUUism had – as its two starting points – the number of unlikely remarkable coincidences that were happening to me as I considered the idea of the cosmic nudge, and the self-appointed task of devising a religion (non-religion) that was the opposite of the existing religions yet morally and (to a degree) rationally sound.”

 

Reception

Male has written much rock journalism and continues to write expertly on what has come to be known as “World Music”. He brings his own personal inside knowledge of the rock world to the writing of this novel.  He was encouraged by supportive comments from respected music journalists like Charlie Gillett, Robin Denselow, Mick Brown, David Quantick  and Nick Coleman. Coleman described the novel as “an art-school rock-theological satirical thriller.” The book  received glowing praise from Tony Visconti, an American record producer  who has had a long association with David Bowie. Visconti said: “It’s a wonderful book! I am even more awestruck the second time around. Very few novelists get it right when they use Rock as the context for a novel. Howard Male got it right. One of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade’. Whitbread prize-winning novelist Patrick Neate thought it was “something really special”.

Howard Male tells me that he has completed a sequel called Serious Fun  and has started work on the third novel of the trilogy. He is now working on a screenplay of Etc Etc Amen. Etc Etc Amen is available on Kindle.

 

 

 http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40333-howard-male%E2%80%99s-novel-etc-etc-amen.html

Hate Speech and Free Speech

This article appeared on page 7 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday April 28 2015.

 Colman's Column3

I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope. Julie Burchill on calls to ‘silence’ Katie Hopkins.

 

Hate Speech Law for Sri Lanka

Cabinet Spokesman announced that the government plans to revise the Penal Code to make hate speech a crime a crime punishable by a two -year prison term. The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) had asserted that hate speech had exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions in Sri Lanka.

Rwanda Example

Kigali, capital of Rwanda is the safest city in Africa today. Twenty years after the genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, Rwanda has transformed into a peaceful and prosperous nation.

In Rwanda in June 1983, a new radio station called RTLMC (Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines) began broadcasting. Drunken presenters found a large receptive audience of resentful thugs. David Yanagizawa-Drott, a Harvard political scientist, estimates that nine percent of the deaths in the genocide, forty-five thousand Tutsis, can be attributed to incitement by Radio RTLM.

Today, journalists criticising the Rwanda government can be prosecuted for defamation. The law prohibits political parties from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. President Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression while underestimating the importance of stability.

Sri Lankans Hating on Facebook

According to a report by the CPA (Centre for Policy Alternatives), hate speech is a particular problem on the internet and a particular problem in Sri Lanka. The CPA report says that out of a population of 21 million, there are more than 2.3 million users of social media, the majority of them male. Social media provide ”low risk, low cost and high impact online spaces to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted us the license of anonymity and trolls operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable- as Kathryn Schultz puts it:  “like gods and despots, beyond the reach of custom, obligation, and law.”

The CPA report only studies Facebook. One could argue that the CPA’s own website, Groundviews, and its rival Colombo Telegraph, also provide space “to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

The Offensive Katie Hopkins

Most Sri Lankans will be fortunate in that they have never heard of, or, even luckier, never heard, Katie Hopkins. Masochists among you might wish to look at YouTube to get a flavour. Hopkins first appeared on UK television as a contestant on the reality television programme The Apprentice in 2007. She now writes a column for British newspaper the Sun.  She describes herself as a “conduit for truth”. Critics accuse her of expressing controversial opinions to make money.

On 17 April 2015, Hopkins wrote that migrants were “cockroaches”. This appeared in the same week that 400 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and more than 10,000 were rescued.

An online petition to ban Hopkins from television accumulated over 75,000 signatures. By 21 April, a petition calling on the Sun to sack Hopkins attracted 250,000 signatures.

I note that the CPA report was based solely on research done into Facebook. There has been a lot of noise on Facebook about Hopkins. Julie Burchill is a celebrated polemicist and quite practised at giving offence (and taking it). Burchill detests Hopkins, her views and unprofessional mode of expressing them. However, she would not want Hopkins to be silenced. “I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope”.

No Right not to Be Offended

 

Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this, the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No one has the right to be protected from being offended.

 

I am offended when Colombo Telegraph allows someone to call me “a paedophile tourist“.  However, I am inclined to think that the person saying that is just an inadequate boy who feels tough like Gyges hiding behind a pseudonym. I wonder if he would say that to my face. My shoulders are broad and I would not like Uvindu Kurukulusuriya to go to jail for that kind of infantile nonsense.

 

Who Decides?

British journalist Paul Harris offended Anton Balasingham and was punished by being deported from Sri Lanka. Harris gives his own account in his book Delightfully Imperfect published by Vijitha Yapa. Harris wrote in the London Daily Telegraph about flaws in the peace process and called Karuna a “bad egg” and Thamil Chelvan a “rotter”. He called Prabhakaran “Chief Genial Fatty”. It was this irreverent stuff as much as accounts of child conscription and fascist rallies that angered the LTTE. Harris recalls meeting the current prime minister at a Galidari function when Ranil pointedly refused to shake his hand.  The newspaper Nawa Pereliya said that “international arms dealers” were paying Harris’s accommodation bills. That same Rajitha Senaratne who announced the new hate speech law owned Nawa Pereliya. Can we trust people like this to be the mediators and moderators of public debate?

For and Against

 

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: a Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader against the potential for governments to suppress freedom of speech in times of fear. Jeremy Waldron, professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, was critical of Lewis’s stance on hate speech. Waldron argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

 

What to Do?

 

Sanjana Hattotuwa writes: “Civility, tolerance and respect for diversity are as hard to find online as they are in Sri Lanka’s mainstream party political framework even post-war.” Incivility, intolerance and venomous hatred are easy to find on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph.  The comment threads are choked with pseudonymous hate-mongers.  Hattotuwa writes: “It would be a tragedy if the country’s only remaining spaces to ideate, critical (sic) reflect and robustly debate – which are online – are taken over by hate-mongers, to the extent they are allowed to do so in the real world”.

 

Do Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph create the “climate of mutual respect and tolerance” that Waldron desires? Rather than hypocritically neglecting to put its own house in order, CPA could avoid incitement to racial hatred. I recall that, on July 19 2013, during the halal controversy, Groundviews (in an article by no named author)  tried to make something out of a non-issue relating to the brand name on a packet of dates. This could have exacerbated  tensions.

 

Without resorting to law, most publications and websites can use their editorial powers to reduce hatred.  Groundviews tells potential contributors: “Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved. Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.” It is not self-censorship to enforce your own sensible rules.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This and That Continued

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