Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Chuckle Muscles Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 22 2015

Colman's Column3It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going – Mona Lott, a character on the 1940s radio show ITMA (It’s that Man Again).

Legal scholar and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein wrote in the New York Review of Books that in 2010, when he was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, he asked a colleague how things were going. The reply was: “My moment-by-moment happiness is pretty low, but my life satisfaction is great.” The colleague was an expert on  research into happiness, and he was referring to two different measures of “happiness”.

Can’t Buy Happiness?

In the US and in many other industrialized countries, happiness often means money. Economists have assumed that they can measure progress and public welfare by looking at consumer confidence. The Beatles sang that money could not buy you love. Can it buy you happiness?

In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin published a paper, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” Above a low level of income, Easterlin found no correlation between happiness and GNP per head. In 1972, two economists, William Nordhaus and James Tobin, introduced a measure that they called “Net Economic Welfare,” which showed that a society with more leisure could have as much welfare as one with more work.

Lord Layard of Laughs

Kenneth Clark was an art historian who won international fame with a BBC TV series called Civilisation. Such was his subsequent fame and prestige that he won a peerage. Although he took the title Baron Clark of Saltwood, the satirical magazine Private Eye facetiously dubbed him Lord Clark of Civilisation. Richard Layard should be Lord Layard of Laughs.

Some people make a living studying happiness. I wonder if they are happy in their work.  It is of some significance that Richard Layard’s early work was on unemployment and inequality. In the early 1970s, Layard became interested in Easterlin’s work and, in 2005, he published the book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, in which he emphasised the importance of non-income variables. In 2012, he co-edited, with Jeffrey Sachs and John Helliwell, the World Happiness Report for the UN. Layard cites three factors that economists often fail to take into consideration:

  • Happiness depends on relative as well as absolute income. Constant compulsory competition makes work and life unpleasant.
  • People will invest more time at work than is good for them if they do not accept that their idea of what is a sufficient income will change.
  • The relative values of one’s accumulated possessions depreciate and consequently the store of happiness depreciates.

It’s All Relative

At a conference on happiness in Nova Scotia, Siddiqur Osmani, a professor of applied economics from the University of Ulster in Ireland, said, “Even in a very miserable condition you can be very happy if you are grateful for small mercies. If someone is starving and hungry and given two scraps of food a day, he can be very happy.” That reminded me of the closing scene of the film of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of  Ivan Denisovich. Tom Courtenay looks back on a wretched day in the gulag on the icy tundra and remarks: “Well, it wasn’t so bad. I managed to get two bowls of porridge”.

Taxing for Happiness

Layard argues that government can, through tax policy, help citizens preserve a healthy work-life balance. One purpose of taxation is to counteract the cognitive bias that causes people to work more than is good for their happiness. What we see in the USA and the UK is that taxation is bad, inequality acceptable and redistribution through taxation anathema.

A common measure of happiness is to ask people to say how satisfied they are with their lives, on a scale of 0 to 10. One concern has always been that people’s responses to happiness surveys are unreliable. Through these self-evaluations, social scientists are not measuring people’s actual feelings as they experience their lives.

Purpose

Paul Dolan’s contribution to the debate is a book called Happiness by Design.  Dolan is an economist who is now a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics. He has worked with UK public officials on their efforts to measure happiness. To Dolan, the purpose of our activities affects how we perceive the quality of our experiences. The idea of attention is crucial. This reminds me of something WH Auden wrote: “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention — on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God — that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying.” Whether we have a sense of pleasure or purpose depends on where we are focusing our attention. To be truly happy, Dolan concludes, we need to experience both pleasure and purpose, and when the balance is wrong, or when people focus on one at the expense of the other, their lives will be impaired.

Dolan’s Idea of Happiness

Like mygoodself Dolan was brought up in a working class Irish household on council estates and was the first of his family to go to university. However, we have very different ideas of how to achieve happiness.  In a Guardian article, Dolan wrote: “I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities other than reading made-up stories.” Fair enough. He goes to the gym four times a week and enjoys partying and holidays (without the kids) in Ibiza. He loves his wife and children but scoffs at the delusion that they are an unalloyed joy. Having got the science out of the way, he concludes: “the most important and yet most underappreciated ingredient to being happy – luck. I am a very lucky man: not because I have a great job and family and all that stuff but because I have a sunny disposition.” Someone commented: “Hey look it’s a bloke who likes doing some stuff but doesn’t like doing other stuff, yeah? Mind-blowing.”

Dolan

Gross National Happiness

As long ago as 1972, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation’s priority GNH, or gross national happiness. His aim was to share prosperity across society and balance it with preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world’s lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years.

Happiness Equation

Many happiness economists believe they have solved the problem of culture difference comparison by using cross-sections of large data samples across nations and time to demonstrate consistent patterns in the determinants of happiness. Objective measures such as lifespan, income, and education are often used as well as or instead of subjectively reported happiness.

A research team, led by Dr Rob Rutledge, at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, backed up by the Max Planck Society, combined their analysis  of subjective surveys with brain scans to correlate happiness-resulting decisions with brain activity. They found significant activity in the ventral striatum and the insular cortex.

The team came up with an equation:

Happiness = baseline average mood + what you can settle for (CR) + what you’ll get on average if you gamble (EV) + the difference between that and what you actually get (RPE). The recurring ∑-function weights each factor in turn by its recent history

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Happiness in Europe

 

The New Economics Foundation (NeF), using over 40,000 interviews from the 2006/07 European Social Survey, found that Denmark topped the league for  overall well-being, with the UK ranked 13th out of 22 countries . The Nef study placed Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Austria and Sweden after Denmark with the highest levels of overall well-being

 

The study found the UK was among the bottom four of the 22 nations when it came to feelings of trust and belonging. While the over-75s scored highly on trust, for the 16-24 age group, the UK reported the lowest levels anywhere in Europe. The Nef researchers said the UK’s poor performance on this “key element of social well-being” was indicative of a “highly individualistic culture”. Britons also recorded the second lowest energy levels in Europe and were fourth highest when it came to feeling bored. This does not augur well for Britain’s future.  Nef said the results show UK government policies have focused too much on economic growth at the expense of overall well-being.

 

The Almost Nearly Perfect People

The Scandinavian countries (and Ireland) usually come out well in surveys of happiness. British journalist, Michael Booth, is somewhat skeptical. Booth is married to a Dane and has lived in Copenhagen for ten years. Booth says Danes “tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is.” In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, he explores the rest of Scandinavia.

Thin Line between Relaxed and Smug

 

Newspaper editor Anne Knudsen cast a cynical gaze on those happiness surveys: “In Denmark it is shameful to be unhappy. If you ask me how I am and I start telling you how bad I feel, then it might force you to do something about it. It might put a burden on you to help me.” Kaare Christensen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark, suggested that the Danes might have been drunk when responding to happiness questionnaires. A similar comment was made about the Irish. “If expectations are unrealistically high they could also be the basis of disappointment and low life satisfaction. Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”

 

Happichondria –Are We Having Fun Yet?

John Updike wrote: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”. JD Salinger confessed: “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people are plotting to make one happy.”Americans are destroying the planet because of their “inalienable right” to seek happiness through rampant consumerism. The Danish corrective – satisfaction with the achievement of low expectations is more attractive than boundless ambitious craving.

 

Inequality and Unhappiness

The Nordic Noir crime novels of Jo Nesbo, Stig Larson and Arnaldur Indriasson show that the Scandinavian countries fall far short of paradise. Sjowall and Wahloo were finding something rotten in the state of Sweden back in the 60s in their Martin Beck series.

 

Inequality has risen in Sweden in the past decade and a half, at a rate four times as high as in the US. In Finland, too, the Gini coefficient has climbed four points since the late nineteen-eighties. Something is going wrong.

Inequality makes us crave for goods by constantly reminding us that we have less than the next person. Health professionals report epidemics of ‘hurry sickness’, ‘toxic success syndrome’, the ‘frantic family’, the ‘over-commercialized child’ and ‘pleonexia’. John Stuart Mill wrote in the 19th Century: “The best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back, by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.”

The Cult of Happiness

In his recently published book, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business sold us Well-Being, William Davies writes about governmental and corporate entities working hard to convert the concept of happiness into a “measurable, visible, improvable entity.” He says that the notion of “happiness” has moved from being an add-on, to being a measurement useful in the business of making money. Being depressed will no longer be socially acceptable. The state or big business will deal with that. Governments and business are ready to exploit the “science of happiness” to manage the dislocations of contemporary capitalism. Marcuse wrote about “repressive tolerance” – keeping the masses comfortable enough materially to stop them rebelling. Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, recognizing even then that it was inimical to individual freedom when governments became interested in promoting happiness as a means of social control. Further back than that in 1920 Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fantasy We depicted the horror of a society where happiness was compulsory.

We still have not learnt.

Chuckle Muscles Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday July 6 2015.

 

Colman's Column3

More than his Share?

Dodd1

Journalist Stephen Smith called Ken Dodd “the Chuck Berry of comedy, a cussed and self-made pioneer.” Smith interviewed both entertainers and lived to tell the tale.  Ken Dodd had a hit record singing: “The greatest gift that I possess/Is more than my share of happiness”. One cannot help but wonder if Dodd really had his share of happiness. He has never married (being unmarried does not, of course, preclude happiness).

According to proverbial wisdom: “Money cannot buy happiness”. In 1989, Dodd was charged with tax evasion. He was acquitted, but a strange picture of his miserly life emerged. He had never paid the children who featured as Diddymen in his act. He had very little money in his bank account but there was £336,000 in cash stashed in suitcases in his attic. When asked by the judge, “What does a hundred thousand pounds in a suitcase feel like?” Dodd replied, “The notes are very light, M’Lord.”

dodd2

Joy through Work?

Even at the age of 87, Dodd still follows a punishing work schedule. During the 1960s he earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest ever joke-telling session: 1,500 jokes in three and a half hours (7.14 jokes per minute), undertaken at a Liverpool theatre, where audiences were observed to enter the show in shifts. He continues to tour and, despite his age, his shows still frequently do not finish until after midnight.

Another Liverpudlian, John Lennon, sang that happiness was a warm gun but Mark Chapman shot him dead.

Happiness Measures

What is happiness and how can we measure it? Many league tables attempt to compare the performance of different nations. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) defines GDP (gross domestic product)  as “an aggregate measure of production equal to the sum of the gross values added of all resident, institutional units engaged in production”.

The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices used to rank countries into four tiers of human development. Sri Lanka moved up six places on the CPI (Transparency International annual  global Corruption Perception Index) to 85th out of 175 with a score of 38 points (compared to 37 the previous year).

Happy Planet

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) concocted the Happy Planet Index in July 2006. The HPI is an index of human well-being and environmental impact. It is not a measure of which are the happiest countries in the world. The index is designed to challenge well-established indices of countries’ development, such as the GDP and the HDI. The GDP is seen as  deficient because the ultimate aim of most people is not to be rich, but to be happy and healthy. The HPI sets out to be a measure of the ecological efficiency of supporting well-being.  Whatever the caveats, the results are still surprising. The 2012 ranking compared 151 countries and the best scoring country for the second time in a row was Costa Rica, followed by Vietnam, Colombia, Belize and El Salvador. Costa Rica is often thought of as a good place to be but El Salvador seems like hell on earth. Sri Lanka comes in at 35, between Switzerland and Iraq.

What Use Is the HPI?

Critics point out that the HPI completely ignores issues such as political freedom, human rights and labour rights. The subjective measures of well-being are suspect. The ecological footprint is a controversial and much criticized concept. The index has been criticised for weighting the carbon footprint too heavily, to the point that US Americans would have had to be universally happy and would have had to have a life expectancy of 439 years to equal Vanuatu’s score in the 2006 index. The highest-ranking OECD country is Israel in 15th place, and the top Western European nation is Norway in 29th place, just behind New Zealand in 28th.

This seems to be a useless kind of index. However, the British Conservative Party cited HPI as a possible substitute for GDP in 2007. The European Parliament lists the following advantages to using the HPI as a measure of national progress:

  • Combines well being and environmental aspects
  • Simple and easily understandable scheme for calculating the index
  • Comparability of results (‘EF’ and ‘life expectancy’ can be applied to different countries)
  • Data online available, although some data gaps remain
  • Mixture of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ criteria; takes into account people’s well-being and resource use of countries

Sri Lanka Unhappier than Sudan?

The UN released the first World Happiness Report on April 1, 2012. It outlined the state of world happiness, causes of happiness and misery, and policy implications. The report presented case studies including one on Bhutan, the first and so far only country to have officially adopted gross national happiness instead of the gross domestic product as the main development indicator.

Denmark comes in at a lowly 111 in the HPI, compared to Haiti’s 79. Nevertheless, Denmark is the happiest country in the world, according to the World Happiness Report 2013, the most recent United Nations happiness study available. Sri Lanka came in at 137, below Mali, Uganda, the Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Haiti. Since 1973, the Danes have also topped the European Commission’s Eurobarometer scale, which measures the ‘well-being’ and ‘happiness’ of EU citizens. Its capital city Copenhagen was also named the “world’s most livable city” again earlier this year by the international affairs magazine Monocle for its quality of life.

I have travelled to many places, including Denmark,  and have lived in Sri Lanka for twelve years. I have never been to Sudan (although I did visit their London embassy on business and did not meet any happy people) but I do not think I would be as happy there as I am in Sri Lanka, for all Sri Lanka’s failings. I have never been to El Salvador but I have written about it and researched it. I have traveled around Denmark. I know where I would rather be, whatever about ecological footprints. I lived in Ireland and I lived in the UK. Ireland came tenth in the UN survey. In answers to the simple question: “are you happy? Ireland came in at number one and number two when it comes to having a laugh.

Professor John F Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia edited the UN report, together with. Lord Layard, Director of the Well-Being Programme at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance; and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The View from the US

A few American commentators do not buy this Scandinavian Utopia thing. Nathan Heller in the New Yorker wrote that  Sweden might mean: “Freedom to follow your talents. Community and coalition-building all around. American life promises liberty, cultural power, and creative opportunity, but by many measures it’s the Swedes who turned this smorgasbord of concepts into a sustaining meal.”However, Heller looks behind the façade and what he discovers makes the HPI look not so silly. Prune out wealth as a factor, and countries like Colombia come out better than in the HPI. Look at  good health, and Denmark falls farther. In the past decade, the proportion of people who live below its poverty line has nearly doubled, to almost eight per cent. Finland may have fine schools, but it is one of the least diverse places on the planet.

Kyle Smith in the New York Post put it more crudely: “So how happy can these drunk, depressed, lazy, tumor-ridden, pig-bonking bureaucrats really be?”

Happy Development

The UN said: “We offer the 2013 World Happiness Report in support of these efforts to bring the study of happiness into public awareness and public policy. This report offers rich evidence that the systematic measurement and analysis of happiness can teach us much about ways to improve the world’s wellbeing and sustainable development.”

More next week on the economic benefits of chuckles.

 

 

 

Elders Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday July 2 2015 under the title ‘Betrayal of the Elderly.

Colman's Column3

 

Professor Indralal De Silva, Senior Professor of Demography, University of Colombo, estimates that 25 percent of the population of Sri Lanka will be over 60 years of age by 2040. He argued that unless our development process is improved and sustained we would have a lower level of income to support this aging population.

Last week, I wrote that the “problem” of increasing numbers of elderly people in the world was seen as an “opportunity” for some entrepreneurs. The danger is that businesses providing care for profit might put profit before care and that abuse might take place undetected.

Abuse in Sri Lanka

I was prompted to look into this subject following a recent trip to Colombo to rescue my wife’s aunt. She had been in a so-called “care” home for three years. It seems that anyone can set up an Elders Care Home without any experience, training, qualifications or aptitude for caring for elderly people. People who seem to detest  senior citizens see that as no bar to “caring” for them. I very much doubt if the home I saw had ever been inspected.

To protect the guilty I will not mention names. The home in which my wife’s aunt was languishing was run by a person I will call “The Matron”. She had no training or expertise in the care of old people. She was a retired teacher who spent a great deal of time in a wheel chair because of arthritis in her knees. She had only one assistant who told us she was not paid a salary- what little money she had was often “borrowed” by the Matron.

We kept in regular telephone contact with the Aunt and visit whenever we can. Recent calls caused concern. Aunt said she wanted her nails cut. When we asked Matron to arrange this, she said she had given Aunt some scissors and she could cut her own nails. At one point Matron said that 80% of what Aunt said was lies and she did not like my wife’s tone.

This seemed an unusual approach to customer service, a strange way to address someone who is providing your only income. The Matron became reluctant to communicate and the Aunt kept repeating in a robotic fashion, as if brainwashed, that she was very happy and that Matron and Assistant were very good to her. We heard from another source that Aunt was crying and saying Assistant was pushing her and digging her nails into her arm.

Hell Hole

We searched around for a better home (we had not chosen Matron’s place ourselves but were paying for it on behalf of, and with contributions from, family members). We found something that seemed suitable but were finding it difficult to get to Colombo to inspect it. Before we could get there, Matron said she was no longer able to care for Aunt and asked us to remove her. Fearing that further abuse might occur in these changed circumstances, we made it to Colombo and collected the Aunt while Matron was out at a temple releasing caged sparrows for merit. Assistant was somewhat discombobulated, but we told her she had no choice but to release Aunt.

For the first time I had the chance to inspect the premises. Aunt was sitting in darkness, enduring the intense heat without a fan. Our driver asked to use the toilet and came back looking as though he was about to vomit. I went to have a look. As someone from a working class British background, I am familiar with the concept of the “outside toilet”. Working class toilets were outside in the sense that they were in the yard, but they did have a roof and a door. This one was completely exposed to the elements. There was no roof or door and dirty old saris formed the walls. There was no lid on the cistern. The whole thing was filthy. Close to the toilet was a gas hob with a shelf of dirty spice jars. It seems that this spot near the open latrine was where meals were prepared.

latrine2

latrine1

 

hob

Mission Accomplished

We placed Aunt in an establishment which provided 24-hour nursing care with a nursing station by her door. She has her own bathroom. She can have a TV in her room but she chose to have a radio. There is a menu which changes every day and which offers different options. Matron had provided only a plain bun for breakfast and bought most meals in from outside. She would not provide milk and sugar with tea. She would not allow her to bathe or use a fan.

royal

We will visit Aunt  as often as we can to ensure good conditions are maintained but so far, she is very happy and means it. We can even talk to her on Skype.

Should Sri Lanka Depend on People like the Matron?

If you search the internet, you will find worse cases of abuse than this. We are all going to get old- some of us sooner than others, as a callow internet troll reminded me. Yes, even you bright young things enjoying the full bloom of youth will be like the Aunt one day. Anicca.  Who is going to care for you? Who is going to care for me?

Changing social modalities means that the traditional way of caring for elderly people within the family unit is no longer possible. My English grandmother lived to be 97 and she would not have dreamed of ending her days in an institutional care home. It might have been good for her to be able to spend her final years in her own home but the burden of caring for her blighted the lives of her two youngest daughters who never married.

Caring for the Elderly

Institutional care homes are essential but who should provide them? The state has a responsibility to protect its elder citizens. More homes are needed but they need to be like the one that is now caring for the Aunt not like the one operated by the Matron. I have often pointed out the downside of privatisation particularly in areas like social services. I read with horror that the UK government is planning to privatise child protection services and give the job to a security firm that made a mess of its remit during the Olympics, has killed a few asylum seekers and makes a handsome profit from running prisons.

However, I would accept that private homes such as the one now accommodating the Aunt have a valuable part to play when the state cannot afford to provide such facilities when it cannot get its fiscal house in order or get its spending priorities right . Only today I read the news that Sri Lanka’s trade deficit widened 15.1 percent to US$ 782.9 million in April from US$ 680.2 million a year earlier. I would not have much confidence that the government could develop new capacities for caring for the elderly or mobilising the human resources necessary. Homes like the one I recently visited do have that capacity and they are ploughing back their profits to develop new ventures such as sheltered accommodation and hotel units.

The government does have a role to play in monitoring the care services provided by the private sector. Viewing the Matron’s establishment  made me wonder whether there is anything in Sri Lanka like the UK Care Quality Commission, whatever its faults. If there is such a body, it is ineffective. Monitoring “services” provided by the likes of the Matron will be difficult because such small establishments will sneak under the radar unless whistleblowers notify the authorities of their shortcomings.

 

 

 

 

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?”

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