The country is shocked and saddened by the tragedy at Mihiriyabedde in Haldumulla, a village with such a sweet name having to face such sorrow. As the rains continue there will much more cause for alarm and the need to be watchful of floods, landslides and other crises. The necessity to abandon the rescue attempts due to poor weather conditions on Wednesday evening signaled that there would be little hope of good news about survivors. The larger number lost is children...and the country must not only bear the loss, but also act to prevent such tragedies being repeated.
The relief action came quickly. In keeping with his nature in such crises, President Rajapaksa was at the scene early the very next day, carrying out his own supervision of the relief work, and taking important decisions on assistance to those in need. This was very much like his decision to go to the LTTE bomb attack site at Kebitigollewa, during the height of the terrorist violence. His feelings for the needs of suffering people were very clear. His first decision was to instruct officials to take full responsibility for the orphaned children.
A special Cabinet meeting was held the next evening, where more action was planned out. What is important now is to decide on firm policy as to how both officialdom and the people are convinced and motivated on the necessity for timely action to prevent such tragedies. There must be more education on the need for safety and preparedness. There must be more training of people who can provide speedy relief to one's neighbours. While disaster management is a necessity, disaster prevention must get higher priority in official thinking. This applies both to the state and private sectors, civil society and community organizations.
There is the need to look at again at the living conditions of plantation workers. I recall the recommendation by the late Bernard Soysa, in his report on the former Agency Houses and the Plantation Industry, that line rooms in estates should be replaced with proper housing. That was decades ago. How much has housing in the plantation sector moved ahead since then? No doubt President Rajapaksa will look into this in his moves for infrastructure and housing development, and work out ways how this could be achieved, with local and foreign inputs to support the plantation sector and its workers, who contribute substantially to the national economy.
Politics will be compelled to take a back seat in public thinking, as the nation seeks to come to terms and recover from this shock and tragedy at Haldumulla. There were signs of new trends emerging in the preparations for electoral politics, with several political parties showing signs of re-thinking their opposition to a presidential poll or the issue of the Executive Presidency. These will have to await calmer days. It will also be interesting to see the role of astrology in political prediction as some Zodiac pundits are claiming to show today.
"Best for Business"
Among the encouraging news in the field Sri Lanka and United States relations, was the recent meeting of senior officials of the two countries in Colombo, to continue their dialogue on trade and investment issues and evaluating progress under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
The wide range of issues discussed market access, the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), labour, trade promotion efforts, intellectual property rights, agriculture, and sector-specific investment challenges.
Progress on trade and investment issues fosters economic growth and provides a strong foundation for greater economic cooperation and stronger bilateral relations. Two-way trade between the both countries has now reached USD 3 billion.
The U.S.-Sri Lanka TIFA, signed in 2002, is the primary forum for bilateral trade and investment discussions between the two countries. The TIFA process has been the focal point of a sustained and multi-faceted high-level engagement between the United States and Sri Lanka on trade and investment issues.
There was understanding that under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka is now on a journey to achieve upper middle income country status in the near future, as stated by Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, at the 11th Joint Council Meeting of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in Colombo.
The TIFA process encourages public and private sector dialogue facilitates Private-Public Partnership discussions as well as business opportunities events being held simultaneously with TIFA official meetings. In this context, U.S.-Sri Lanka Business Forum was held under the patronage of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, hosted by the AmCham (America Chamber of Commerce), Colombo and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce at the CCC Auditorium followed by business meetings with visiting US business delegates.
Addressing the Forum, Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lankan Envoy to United States, said that being the most liberalized nation in South Asia, World Bank has rated Sri Lanka as the best for business in the region. TIFA provides an important platform for Sri Lanka to address remaining challengers to get to the next level in economic development.
Head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant United States Trade Representative for Central and South Asia, Michael Delaney said that United States is the largest "customer" of Sri Lanka, with U.S. importing $2.5 billion worth of Sri Lankan products ranging from apparel, precious stones, rubber, spices and tea. However, the trade and investment relationship between the two countries is still "far below potential" and there is a need for pragmatically "review all of the specific problems traders and investors are experiencing, with an eye toward easing barriers, and grow trade and investment to create more jobs".
Boost to SL - China trade
In keeping with Chinese President Xi Jinping stated during his recent visit to Sri Lanka, which brought considerable assistance for infrastructure development and other areas of progress in Sri Lanka, there is now the credible expectation that the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Sri Lanka and China is to be signed in June 2015, as stated by Deputy Secretary to the Treasury S. R. Attygalle.
It will be recalled that President Xi Jinping was very clear in his statements during his visit that signing of this agreement should not be delayed and that China was ready to launch it by 2015. The FTA, is expected to boost Sri Lanka's future development and further promote trade between the two countries, which have developed increasingly closer economic and trade relations in recent years.
On the planned FTA dialogue, President Rajapaksa had said, "Our cooperation covers many sectors including industry, energy, technology, infrastructure and tourism."
Although Sri Lanka's exports to China have increased from US$ 28.39 million in 2005 to US$ 121.63 million in 2013, the exports have not increased up to its potential with the bilateral trade reaching US$ 3.62 billion in 2013. Sri Lanka hopes the FTA will help the country to gain easier access to the Chinese market and gradually reduce its trade deficit towards the world's second largest economy. It is the view of the economists and the business community that upcoming FTA offers an ideal platform for Sri Lankan business; especially export oriented enterprises, to exploit the Chinese market for optimum benefit.
Post- conflict progress
Despite critics both local and abroad, especially from those refusing to accept the reality of peace in Sri Lanka, The United Nations says post-conflict Sri Lanka has made significant progress in relation to the resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in a short span of slightly over five years and the agency is continuing its work with the Sri Lankan government to resolve remaining issues.
Addressing a function to mark the 69th UN Day in Colombo on Friday, UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Subinay Nandy, said Sri Lanka has taken commendable steps for the resettlement of displaced persons and to develop property that were damaged due to terrorism. He added that development in the infrastructure and facilities available in the North and East today is significantly notable.
It was also noteworthy that Sri Lanka has made significant strides in achieving millennium development goals, and that Sri Lanka has become the best country in the region that has a better environment for children and gender equality, he said.
With these indicators of progress it is no surprise that the UN work currently emphasizes on peace and reconciliation agenda and continues to work with the government to address post-conflict issues, which must take into consideration the length of the conflict, which was nearly three decades, wholly ignored by those pushing for international action against this country.
Sri Lanka would no doubt agree with the encouraging words of the UN's representative to continue making progress on the post conflict agenda, including issues of political dialogue, inclusive governance, reconciliation and accountability. These are all matters that have been clearly dealt with by the LLRC, the recommendations of which are in progress, and much progress achieved in several areas of importance.