Sri Lanka: A Silent Revolution

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Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

The dramatic build-up to the Presidential election in Sri Lanka on 08 January 2015 turned out a silent revolution. The common candidate who ran against the then President Rajapaksa was from within his Government. President Sirisena’s intended crossover pre-election was planned in utmost silence. Earlier commentaries published under this column over 2014 also reflected this trend in the regime’s character. “Stronger Democratic Values for a Better Tomorrow” and “Train to Jaffna” demonstrated why a largely popular regime could lose its governance focus despite being the very regime that ended a three-decade war. Both these commentaries were questioned by the former secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs as to why this author’s expression illustrated sentiments against government policies. In response, this author maintained that these were recommendations to the government to strengthen its democratic values, and questioning questionable policy was one’s right to the freedom of expression. This month’s column is written in a free political environment.

Less than 500,000 votes gave President Sirisena his victory. Much of the voter base responsible for the political overhaul lay in the majority of the minority population and the rest on the floating vote and new voters featuring strongly the social media generation. Over the final three weeks of the election campaign, social media was used as a tool to expose the Rajapaksa regime of allegations which could not be effectively countered on the same platform. Of nearly 1.5 million users of social media active on the election platform, a majority expressed the need for change by voting or otherwise. This was the silent revolution similar to the format in many places that toppled strong regimes, such as in the Middle East, and geographically closest to Sri Lanka, India.

This change expressed by voters was democratically achieved. The new interim budget introduced this year isa great relief to many common citizens who would feel great relief from the high cost of living. The RTI (Right to Information Act), repealing of 18th amendment and bringing back the 17th amendment to secure Independent Commissions will cement the aim towards good governance and restoring citizen power. After RTI, websites such as ipaidabribe.lk that report on corruption and quantify the amount of corruption could be strengthened like in India. Political corruption could be minimised by introducing new tools, for example for the Election Commissioner to understand the growth of assets of individual political candidates, to analyse the difference of asset growth from election to election, and to see the growth of assets of politicians. RTI will also give power to ordinary citizens to question the ministries, provincial, local councils and departments of their budget allocation and spending.

Sri Lanka, with its new administration, will need to do some serious reforms especially to strengthen the loss-making institutions, fight corruption and introduce meritocracy at all levels. The journey from 2009 after winning the war from a factor-driven economy to a efficiency-driven economy is an improvement but to qualify to the next level – an innovation-driven economy – energy must be focused on producing the best knowledge workers and invest in innovation and R&D. Sri Lanka, with its ancient history, was a nation of great engineers who built amazing irrigation systems. This will have to be emulated to restart its role in innovation by creating the right eco system.

The importance of innovation to a society was discussed at the foot hills of Davos earlier in January 2015, where this author participated as a Young Global Leader from Sri Lanka. The World Economic Forum was founded more than four decades ago by Prof Klaus Schwab, a visionary who got the great minds of the world to Davos to discuss global issues and design solutions. This time, the theme was “the new global context.” It is evident that the horrors by many terrorist extremist groups, the economic instability and social political changes that are taking place are the reasons for a new global context with a better vision and direction by our leaders. The massacres in Paris, Nigeria and Peshawar threaten democratic values. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “This year has started with a bang that shook us to the core. This terrible attack against Jewish citizens, journalists and police forces in Paris shows us all that we are facing challenges that don’t stop at the borders of Europe.” The millions that rallied in France with forty world leaders was a great example of the existing strength to preserve the true values of democracy. Trust is another area that needs to improve. As Prof Schwab said, “How can we restore trust in our future in our institutions? Trust is not only related to ethical behaviour. Trust means a leadership responsibility, where you respond to the needs of those who have trusted you with leadership.” The contribution from science and technology discussions explained many developments in information management, DNA, robotics, brain science and many more including the neural processing units (NPU) that will transform the computational processing when commercialised this year.

2015 ushers in an era that strengthens the citizen’s power through technology. It was clear from the usage of social media in the Sri Lankan elections. The traditional processes of election rallies and massive political campaigns played a negative role as most citizens are owners of a super computer in their hand. The processing power of today’s smart phone is equal to a super computer of several decades ago. The transition manifested in Sri Lanka’s political overhaul towards good governance. This transfer of power to the citizens is a positive thatmust be strengthened and used to its fullest over the coming months and years.

As Rousseau says “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” – it seems modern technology has helped to break the chains and empower individuals for the silent revolution.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the government of Sri Lanka or the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), Sri Lanka.

The goal of my life

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Dr. Bushra Ahmed

The University of Bedfordshire celebrated International Women’s Day this week with a journey through the life of one of its most successful scientists.

Dr Bushra Ahmed, Course Leader for BSc Biomedical Science and Portfolio Leader for Postgraduate Courses at the Department of Life Sciences, took staff and students through her experiences across the world, from humble beginnings in Pakistan, to spells in Japan, the Netherlands and the USA, culminating with a ten-year stint here, at Bedfordshire.

Speaking two days after Women’s Day, Bushra acknowledged that “there are so many problems that come in your life but you just have to go on”.

She added: “It [being a woman] was a minor problem earlier on. When I got a scholarship in America, the only reason I was not allowed to go alone was because I was a girl.

“My brother went abroad and was not stopped. My mum never differentiated between a girl or a boy but she was worried about the society.”

Despite that, Bushra, Principal Lecturer in Biochemistry, never strayed from her path to becoming a neuroscientist.

Bushra’s fascination with the human brain led to last year’s breakthrough discovery that neurons in patients with Parkinson’s disease die as they cannot detoxify the chemicals produced during metabolic reactions that are normally non-toxic in unaffected individuals.

The next step in Bushra’s journey is to prevent those cells from dying and, ultimately, invent a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

“During my breakthrough one and a half years ago, I was just looking at one cell,” said Bushra.” It’s important to find where the fault is; we need to find the mechanism of the fault and correct it.

“That’s something that I’m working on. If I am able to save this neuron, that means we are going to save lives.

“That’s the goal of my life. So far, whatever I have planned, I have achieved.”

How Budget reforms can help Modi’s “Make in India” campaign

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By Girish Vanvari

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

The government’s “Make in India” initiative is being closely followed by Indian companies and foreign investors. A lot of hope rests on the BJP government’s first full-year budget following its victory in last year’s general election as the announcements made by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will impact the investment cycle.

Some reforms that will help the “Make in India” campaign are:

A stable tax regime – Reforms proposed in the budget should be in line with the long-term vision for India. There should be no surprise addition of taxes or removal of tax holidays or deductions.

Clarity on tax law – Taxation in India is subject to multiple interpretations by the taxpayer and the tax department, and some of them need to be addressed at the earliest. For example, the rule on taxability of offshore transactions resulting in an indirect transfer of assets in India needs clarification. The government should come out with detailed guidelines on the methodology to compute the tax liability in India in case of such indirect transfers. The deferment of General Anti-Avoidance Rules till the tax regime stabilizes would be helpful.

Further, there are many industry-wide tax issues wherein tax officers in different jurisdictions have taken different positions. The government needs to set up a panel which would address specific industry issues, and the same should be made enforceable through the country.

Tax sops for investment in key sectors and reduction in the Minimum Alternate Tax (MAT) rate – Tax holidays for new manufacturing facilities set up across sectors would boost investment. Such new facilities should not be subject to taxes under the MAT regime. Also, the existing MAT rate should be reduced for units currently availing tax holidays.

Implementation of GST – Implementation of a nationwide goods and services tax (GST) and removal of the numerous indirect tax laws would have a major impact on businesses. A clear roadmap for implementation of GST would enable investors to take calculated calls on their investment/expansion plans in India.

Transparent and quick resolution of disputes – Increasing the scope and power of the Dispute Resolution Panel could help tackle the long list of unresolved litigation matters. Also, additional benches of the Authority of Advance Rulings (AAR) would strengthen the tax tribunal and result in speedy disposal of applications for advance rulings.

Transfer Pricing – Introduction of the concept of the rollback provisions for advance pricing agreements (APAs) in the 2014 budget was a welcome move. One expects the necessary legislative amendments being introduced in the upcoming budget to prescribe the extent and manner of the applicability of these provisions.

Going forward, the government should consider creating a financial zone to turn India into a manufacturing hub. Benefits such as lower taxes, no permanent establishment issue and non-applicability of transfer pricing provisions could be provided to businesses in this zone. They would act as enablers to convince firms to conduct their business without having to worry about the tax consequences on their overseas income in India.

Can India close the wealth gap?

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By Karishma Vaswani, BBC

Many of India’s poor are being left behind by the speed of change
Sixty years after India was freed from British colonial rule, the country’s economy is booming. But will the wealth be shared more equally in the future?

On the eve of independence India’s newly elected Prime Minister Jawarlahal Nehru made an impassioned and oft-quoted speech saying India had made a tryst with destiny.

At the time he was talking about India’s struggle to gain the right to govern itself and to make its own decisions about its future, be they political or economic.

It was an austere, simple time when idealism was at its height and the distribution of wealth was a priority.

Today, it would seem that India has taken a slightly different route towards its destiny.

‘Not enough’

In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, symbols of India’s economic success are all around – from flashy billboards advertising the latest perfumes to trendy young women dressed in the latest Tommy jeans.

The India of today is vibrant, confident and ambitious – and not afraid to show it.

Take Rishi Rajani for example. The 30-something garment tycoon based in Mumbai and Denmark is a self-confessed workaholic who also loves the good life.

His latest acquisition is a black Porsche sports car, which he drives through the streets of Mumbai.

In the money capital of India, flaunting your wealth is now fashionable.

Mr Rajani has always dreamed of owning the mean machine, and now his dream is a reality thanks to the success of the economy and his business.

“I work hard, you know, for my money”, he says. “And I need a reward. This is my reward.

“But it’s not enough. My next goal? A yacht. That’s when I’ll know I’ve really made it. I’m already working towards it.”

Fast city

This is the stuff dreams are made of.

Fast life, fast city – money in Mumbai cannot be spent or made quickly enough.

And it is this dream that leads millions of migrants to the city every single day.

They come here in packs, having heard legendary tales of Mumbai’s streets being paved with gold.

Travelling thousands of miles by train, they leave behind their families, their friends and their desperate lives.

Many end up in the one of the city’s numerous slums and struggling to survive by doing odd jobs on the street.

The city they came to conquer, ends up engulfing them.

Demolition job

Saunji Kesarwadi is a potter by profession who lives in a 10×10 foot flat in Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum.

Dharavi in Mumbai
Many of India’s poor live within sight of the wealthier people

In this box, he works and supports a family of six who live in the attic.

Barely eking out an existence, he fears being thrown out of his home to make way for development.

“We hear the builders are coming,” Mr Kesarwadi says as his two little girls look on.

“But no one has told us anything. They say they’ll give us a flat if we sell them this land – but how can all of us leave? This is where my work, my life is. It may not be much but it’s all I have.”

But while life in the big city often falls short of expectations, thanks to the growth in the country’s economy there are new opportunities in some villages.

Rural choice

Some 300 kilometres away from India’s technology capital, Bangalore, lies Bellary – an industrial town born out of a sleepy village.

When you first arrive, all you can see is dusty farmland for miles around. But behind the quiet exterior, there is a dramatic change afoot.

Bellary is home to one of India’s first rural outsourcing centres, run by Indian steel maker JSW Steel Limited.

The organisation has started two small operations on its Bellary campus, hiring young women from nearby villages to work in their rural processing centres.

Here the girls spend their shifts punching in details of American patients’ dental records, typing in a language many of them have only recently learned, using a machine many had never seen or heard of before.

Twenty-year-old Savithri Amma has a basic high school diploma. She earns about $80 (£40) a month doing this work – the same as one of her peers might earn working as a house-help in Mumbai.

For that money she has to turn up to work every week day by 7am – picked up from her village by a JSW bus at 5am and taken home when her shift ends at 3pm.

“At first, when I started this job, my parents were sceptical,” she says shyly.

“Girls here used to never go out – but now we can because our position in life has improved financially and socially thanks to our work here. My father makes a little more than I do every month.

“I’m proud to contribute to the family finances.”

Growth promise

In Ms Amma’s village, she is looked upon as a role model for many of her peers.

The daily evening prayers at the village temple are a time for her to reflect on her day’s work, and give thanks to the ancient Hindu gods for her good fortune.

She has much to be thankful for. Ms Amma is one of the lucky ones, she is someone who did not have to leave home to battle the millions in urban India to survive.

Growth in India’s economy has to make its way off the streets of Mumbai and Delhi and into all of India’s villages.

Only when it does will it truly be here to stay – and the promise of independence will be met.

Why Do They Hate Us?

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By Fareed Zakaria

Watching the gruesome ISIS execution videos, I felt some of the same emotions I did after 9/11. Barbarism, after all, is designed to provoke anger and it succeeded. But in September 2001, it also made me ask a question: “Why Do They Hate Us?”

I tried to answer it in an almost 7,000-word essay for Newsweek that struck a chord with readers. I reread the essay this past week, to see how it might need updating in the 13 years since I wrote it.

I began the piece by noting that Islamic terror is not the isolated behavior of a handful of nihilists. There is a broader culture that has been complicit in it, or at least unwilling to combat it. Now, things have changed on his front but not nearly enough…

…By 2001, when I was writing, almost every part of the world had seen significant political progress – Eastern Europe was free, Asia, Latin America, and even Africa had held many free and fair elections.

But the Arab world remained a desert. In 2001, most Arabs had fewer freedoms – political, economic, social – than they did in 1951. The one aspect of life that Arab dictators could not ban, however, was religion, so Islam had become the language of political opposition to these secular regimes.

The Arab world was then left with secular dictatorships on the one hand and deeply illiberal, religious groups on the other – Hosni Mubarak and al Qaeda. The more extreme the regime, the more violent was the opposition.

This cancer was deeper and more destructive than I realized.

Terrorism is a challenge

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Shobana Muratee

Terror, for a journalist, is a challenge not an emotion. They are known to be easy targets for kidnappers, extortionists, crime lords, corrupt politicians, and more recently terrorists. And like soldiers, journalists are fully aware of the risks that come with the profession. Yet because the stories and images that they bring to the people are so invaluable, they sometimes pay the price with their lives. The brazen attack on French journalists of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine by three Islamic terrorists Wednesday morning has shocked the world. Stephane Charbonnier, the magazine’s editor and cartoonist who was targeted and killed along with three other well-known cartoonists – a total of 12 were killed – it was self-prophesied. “Without freedom of speech we are dead,” he told the ABC news reporter after an attack on his office in 2011. The slain editor had notably stated, “I’d rather die than live like a rat,” and he died for what he believed in.
When children were attacked, heroes (like Malala Yousafzai) are born. When priests and parishes are gunned down, communities are united. When policemen and the men/women of duty were attacked, they became a part our conscious. Ironically for every innocent life taken by a mindless terrorist, something more profound and prolific is born. This time, the people around the world are saying, ‘We are not afraid!’ Because enough is enough! Killing in the name of God is cowardly and ignorant and should be retaliated only with courage and peace and that is what we need today and going forward. Have a safe weekend!

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