Santa has arrived in this trouble-torn land days after Christmas. He must have come riding a three wheeler––hence the delay––if his decision to give the trishaw fraternity preferential treatment is any indication. Santa looked different this year. He had dyed hair and a thundering moustache with a saataka around his neck.
The fuel price revision and the economic stimulus package the government unveiled on Tuesday had the trappings of a clever political manoeuvre, which smacked of typical Rajapaksa cunning.
The Opposition cornered the government badly over the latter's refusal to reduce petrol prices, in spite of a Supreme Court (SC) ruling that petrol be priced at Rs. 100 a litre. But, the government was allowed some room for manoeuvre, as the Opposition was not so vocal on diesel and kerosene prices.
Piqued, the government was determined not to comply with the SC ruling from which, it thought, a great deal of political mileage would accrue to the UNP, which had moved the SC against the unreasonable petrol price. The Opposition, especially the UNP and the JVP, were using the government's noncompliance to mobilise popular support in the run up to the upcoming PC polls.
The only way the government could wriggle out of that political imbroglio was to offer something that would benefit a wider section of the population. A reduction in diesel and kerosene prices and a petrol subsidy, it knew, would benefit many more people than a downward revision of the petrol price.
A decrease in diesel price has a far reaching effect in that it leads to bus and train fare reductions. The Ceylon Electricity Board will also have to revise tariff in keeping with the reduced costs of thermal power generation.
The next move of the Opposition would have been to challenge the diesel and kerosene prices in the SC. Therefore, the government made a virtue of a necessity by reducing them in a bid to take the wind out of the Opposition's sails. However, the UNP, as parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake told this newspaper on Tuesday immediately after the announcement of the government's relief package, can still justifiably claim the credit for having forced the government to effect a fuel price revision.
The JVP can preen itself on its effective campaign that made the government grant relief to tea and rubber cultivators in trouble. Relief for exporters of agricultural products was long overdue. The fertiliser subsidy, soft loan facilities and the suspension of loan repayment will benefit them immensely.
However, the fact remains that the government managed to control damage and upstage the Opposition with only a few weeks to go for two crucial PC elections. The UNP was planning to hold a public protest against the government's refusal to reduce petrol prices on Jan. 07, when the Cabinet was earlier expected to make a final decision on the SC court order at issue.
Bus and train fare cuts expected to follow the diesel price revision and the domestic gas price reduction will go a long way in ameliorating the lot of the ordinary people who would have taken to the streets a long time ago, unable to bear economic hardships, but for their desire to see an end to the scourge of terrorism which has got a thorough beating from the present government.
The relief measures the Cabinet announced on Tuesday are likely to help the government prevent people's consternation translating into a groundswell of public opinion against it in this election year.
Everything is not hunky dory for the government, though. It has dashed the hopes of petrol users who expected a substantial price reduction that they richly deserve, having borne the burden of diesel and kerosene subsidies showered on others at their expense all these years. Thus, on the one hand, the government has antagonised petrol users who have got only a meagre two-rupee price reduction. And, on the other, its noncompliance with the SC order has left a bad taste in many a mouth. One wonders if the government's respect for the judiciary is worth only two rupees.
Curiously, now that the government which accused the Opposition of trying to torpedo the country's war effort by moving the judiciary against the petrol price to deprive the State of a part of its tax revenue, has reduced diesel, kerosene and furnace oil prices on its own at a massive cost to the public purse, the question is whether the government itself is trying to scuttle the war.
The government ought to admit that it uttered a diabolical lie to mislead the public, when it levelled the aforesaid allegation against the Opposition. Lying, the government should realise, is problematic for lies have a limited life span.
The petrol subsidy for three wheeler taxis may look politically wise, given the sheer number of those vehicles. But, how does the government propose to administer that subsidy without leaving room for abuse and corruption?
Moreover, how confident is the government that benefits of the subsidy will trickle down to commuters? Most three wheeler operators who lose no time in jacking up fares when petrol prices go up refused to effect a fare revision when petrol price plummeted from Rs. 157 to Rs. 122 per litre. They are a law unto themselves, save a few decent ones among them. The government must limit the subsidy to the three wheelers with meters and introduce tougher regulations.
There are many super luxury diesel guzzlers in this country and their affluent owners will stand to gain from another diesel price reduction while the humble motorcyclists will have to pay Rs. 120 for a litre of petrol. The government ought to devise a method to prevent the super rich benefiting from a relief measure meant for the public transport operators.
It is also imperative that the government regulate the school vans notorious for fleecing the public. There are numerous complaints that most school van operators refuse to reduce fares in keeping with diesel price reductions. They must be made to fall in line for the benefit of the voiceless parents unable to stand up to the school van Mafia.
The government's relief package is certainly welcome but there is much more to be done to help the public who are struggling to make ends meet.