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The ‘good governance’ regime made two statements recently which can have serious repercussions, which makes one wonder if they have properly been thought through. The first was an announcement by President Maithripala Sirisena that the import and manufacture of asbestos sheet would be banned. One wonders at what prompted this measure. Asbestos sheet is the roofing of choice for the not-so-wealthy, requiring far less maintenance than traditional Sinhala or Calicut tiles and being much far less noisy than takaran and zinc-aluminium sheet. The demand has prompted many local industrialists to begin manufacture, and it is a thriving industry. One wonders what measures the government has put in place to help these manufacturers in the transition from asbestos to an alternative fibre. In the first place, has the government identified an alternative fibre? Or is it simply proposing to close down the asbestos sheet factories and begin importing an alternative roofing material?

Asbestos has been identified as an unsafe material elsewhere in the world – It is banned in European countries. However, has the government found reasonable evidence that it is dangerous in the Sri Lanka context, given Sri Lankan climatic conditions? For example, how many people have contracted asbestosis, the disease primarily associated with asbestos?

Asbestos has been identified as an unsafe material elsewhere in the world – It is banned in European countries. However, has the government found reasonable evidence that it is dangerous in the Sri Lanka context, given Sri Lankan climatic conditions? For example, how many people have contracted asbestosis, the disease primarily associated with asbestos? Has there been more than the single case – a person who lagged pipes with asbestos fibre all his life, unprotected – identified by Dr Chris Uragoda of the Welisara Chest Hospital? Anecdotal evidence from a friend, now in Canada, suggests that asbestos might have caused her skin condition. Has this kind of thing been researched in the Sri Lankan context?

If such an exhaustive study has not been carried out in Sri Lanka, then the banning of asbestos appears less urgent than the banning of, say,  polystyrene foam, melamineware, car paint, house paint or white sugar, all of which have been identified in an overseas context as causing disease. Why, for example, did the government not ban Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) materials? This was attempted in the early 2000s, but was withdrawn because of pressure from a certain foreign government.

One suspects that the measure is simply Yahapalanaya spin, intended to turn the heat off the government regarding the Coca Cola-water pollution issue and to prove the regime’s ‘environmental-friendly’ credentials.

The second announcement goes even further. Dr Harsha de Silva, the UNP’s self-appointed economics ‘expert’ says that the export cess should be removed. He appears to be under the impression that it was used to boost some unnamed person’s ego.

The cess on tea was intended to be used to fund the overseas promotion of tea and domestic research and development. In the 1970s, for example, these funds were used (in conjunction with India) for a series of television commercials in Europe, the slogan being ‘Tea, the best drink of the day’. If Dr Harsha had just taken the time to ask his party colleague, Rosy Senanayake about it, he might not have appeared to be so ignorant. Under the UNP’s 17 years of misrule, both tea propaganda and research and development were put on the back burner and the cess was diverted to other, non-tea expenditure.

However, at least part of the cess has been devoted to institutions such as the Tea Board and the Tea Research Institute, both of which   possess assets built up over the years, especially in terms of personnel. Wouldn’t a better solution be to use the cess to get those assets to work better? Surely, any person in his right mind would say, “This cess has not been put to the purpose for which it was intended, so let us do so”. The answer is not to do away with as asset simply because it may have been misused. That is the same argument the UNP used when it hived off previously profit-making corporations, ruined by its own mismanagement.

Unfortunately, none of the ministers in charge of the plantations had the vision of the late Dr Colvin R de Silva, who developed them as a national asset should be developed. This was practically demonstrated when, some years ago, this writer suggested to the then Minister of Plantation industries, that a private-public partnership tea logistics centre be established in Slovakia, at the very heart of continental Europe’s tea consumption area. This would service both supermarkets and hypermarkets in the region and would discourage tea packagers in the area from abusing the ‘Ceylon Tea’ label with low-quality teas bought in Hamburg. This was to be supplemented by the establishment of tea centres and an aggressive marketing campaign which would use tea tasters from the Tea Board to spread a ‘tea-tasting culture’, similar to the modern ‘wine-tasting culture’. The idea was to make Ceylon Tea more an up-market product, bringing greater value to the country. Unfortunately, this advice was not heeded.

Dr Harsha’s shallow thinking of course, exemplifies the narrow ideology of his own party. The UNP has always been a party of the compradore rentier class, with too few true national bourgeois figures of the calibre of AYS Gnanam or Cyril de Zoysa. Its economic thinking does not extend beyond that of a petty trader who adds brick powder to chilli to make up the weight, only thinking of the day-to-day profit, not the long-term prospects. They can read a profit-and-loss account, but their comprehension does not extend to the balance sheet. Their answer to money problem is selling off the family silver, not solutions intended to boost long term income enhancement.

It was because of the UNP’s inability to understand simple economics that the Ceylon Tea Centre, at Piccadilly Circus, in the heart of Britain’s commerce, was disposed of, robbing the country and industry of a vital propaganda asset. It is charitable to think that it is the regime’s grocer-ideology and not something more sinister behind these Yahapalanomic measures, harmful to the country and industry.