Victor Meldor

Sri Lanka’s emergency needs in various sectors including agriculture, education, ICT, transport and disaster management brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are to be handled at cost of over Rs.10 billion under the Contingent Emergency Response Components (CERCs) framework, a Finance Ministry report revealed. Following the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the ministry has requested the banks to activate several CERCs in the existing portfolio to finance a set of emergency activities for the COVID-19 response. The funds from several project CERCs will be “pooled” into one Designated Account (DA) to finance a common emergency action plan and similar activities, the Treasury document disclosed. A sum of Rs. 3.15 billion has been set aside to assist agriculture and food security during COVID -19 while Rs. 985.28 million was allocated for the establishment of a system for tele-education and e-learning for school and university students. Emergency needs in the establishment of a platform for the government to implement home-based work will see a financial allocation of Rs.1.08 billion. A sum of Rs. 4.55 billion has been set aside as support for public transport to implement sanitation and physical distancing measures and SLTB operating costs and introduce pre-paid cards for buses that operate within the Western Province. Flood response activities and project management during COVID-19 will be done at a cost of Rs. 396.74 million. The safeguards due diligence process will be managed via this Environmental and Social Management Framework (ESMF) which has been developed to cover the CERC financed activities defined in the CERC Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The Presidential Secretariat (PS) will provide overall oversight and monitoring for the implementation of CERC activities as the PS also coordinates the Presidential Task Force for COVID-19 Response. A CERC Steering Committee (CERC SC) will be established under the Presidential Secretariat to provide overall oversight, monitor implementation progress and decide on critical multi-sectoral actions to address implementation challenges. Apart from this, the Finance Ministry is implementing a strategic preparedness plan since March to date to achieve the key objectives of preparedness and response to sporadic cases of COVID-19 at a cost of Rs. 98.billion. With the current transmission scenario of having clusters of cases, the interim plan has been updated to consider the evolving situation and needs and to plan for combating possible community transmission. The COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project is supporting the government’s ‘test, track, isolate and treat’ strategy to control the pandemic by providing a steady supply of essential medical necessities, testing kits  (Sunday Times, 1.11.2020)

According to data from the National Building Research Organisation’s (NBRO) Air Quality Measurement Centre, Sri Lanka is witnessing an unusual increase in air pollution levels these days. The atmospheric particulate matter levels in Colombo, Kandy, Puttalam, Vavuniya, Jaffna and other areas have risen abnormally since 27 October. The Disaster Management Centre shows that even though traffic congestion is at a low level these days, due to the spread of COVID-19, the abnormal rise in the level of particulate matter in the atmosphere in Sri Lanka is suspected to be attributed to the recent changes in the wind flow patterns around the island. Therefore, according to the World Air Quality Distribution Data, on the Air Visual website, most of the air pollution in the upper Indian subcontinent is due to the influx of air into the Sri Lankan atmosphere. This condition is expected to continue for the next few days and will have some impact on vulnerable groups of people, such as children, the elderly, pregnant mothers and those with respiratory illnesses. Seek medical advice if you have any respiratory problems,” it said. The Centre urged the public to be vigilant in this regard, to seek medical advice if there is any physical discomfort in the face of the prevailing COVID-19 condition, and to follow the instructions given by the Health authorities. (Ceylon Today, 3.11.2020)

The total number of COVID-19 patients identified in the island exceeded 12,000, with 443 persons testing positive for the virus yesterday. The new cases include 418 contacts of the Peliyagoda COVID-19 cluster and 25 persons from quarantine centres. The Divulapitiya and Peliyagoda dual cluster has increased to 8,709 cases. This brings the total number of patients identified in the country to 12,187. Besides the dual cluster, the total case count also includes 1,465 Sri Lankan returnees from abroad, 950 Navy personnel and their contacts, 651 persons connected to the Kandakadu cluster. (Daily Financial Times, 5.11.20230)

The COVID-19 death toll yesterday increased to 24, when a 79-year-old resident of Colombo-13 passed away in her home on Tuesday and was later identified as having contracted COVID-19. According to the Department of Government Information, the individual was unwell for over a month and suffered from chronic illness. The death is classified as a COVID-19 death as health authorities have determined that she died of a heart attack that occurred due to her having contracted the virus. There are currently 6,305 persons undergoing treatment, including 664 at the Punani Treatment Centre, 487 at the Gallela Treatment Centre, 420 at the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital, and 395 at the Bingiriya Treatment Centre. Hospitals are also monitoring 400 persons suspected of having COVID-19. The total COVID-19 recoveries in the island yesterday increased to 5,858, with 277 persons leaving hospitals. This includes 53 persons from the Ichchilampattu Hospital, 39 persons from the Kamburugamuwa Hospital, and 34 persons from the Pimbura District Hospital. Meanwhile, the National Operations Centre for the Prevention of the COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) said 34 persons left quarantine centres yesterday, bringing the total number of persons to leave centres to 63,223. The NOCPCO added that 2,776 persons are currently undergoing quarantine at 33 centres. According to the Health Promotion Bureau, 545,043 PCR tests have been carried out to date, including 10,655 tests on Tuesday. Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera yesterday said there are 20 PCR testing laboratories in the country, explaining that the country’s health sector has had to manage the medical and laboratory equipment with great care, due to difficulties in obtaining equipment. Given the spread of COVID-19 in the country and the impact it had on the public, the Government introduced two relief programs. One was to provide a Rs. 5,000 allowance to low income families that lost their income due to the pandemic and quarantine curfew. The other was to provide provisions worth Rs. 10,000 to families undergoing home quarantine.
In a statement issued yesterday, the Department of Government Information explained that the Government has set aside Rs. 7.3 billion to provide relief for the public in October.
A total of Rs. 6.9 billion has been allocated for the Rs. 5,000 allowance, of which Rs. 2.7 billion is for the Gampaha District, Rs. 2.3 billion is for the Colombo District, and Rs. 1.3 billion is for the Kalutara District. In addition to this, Rs. 467 million has been provided for families in the Kurunegala District and Rs. 128 million for those in the Batticaloa District. As for providing families directed for home quarantine with dry rations, Rs. 336 million has been spent, including Rs. 75 million for the Colombo District, Rs. 40 million each for the Gampaha and Kalutara Districts, Rs. 24.61 million for the Kurunegala District, Rs. 17.86 million for the Galle District, Rs. 15.92 million for the Batticaloa District, and Rs. 15.60 for the Nuwara Eliya District. The Department of Government Information stated that Rs. 56.16 million has been provided for quarantine measures in 11 districts. While families have previously received relief with the help of various organisations, Pushpakumara said Government funds have been received and families will thus receive Rs. 10,000 worth provisions from today. (Daily Financial Times, 5.11.2020)

The Ministry of Environment will launch a project under the ‘Surakimu Ganga’ theme, to conserve 103 rivers. The Cabinet Paper submitted by the Minister of Environment, Mahinda Amaraweera, was approved. The objective of this is to conserve all river basins, by preventing pollution. “80 per cent of the river system belongs to the dry zone. Of the 103 rivers, 16 are nearly 100 kilometres (kms) long. It is currently estimated that the total flow of water from this river system to the sea exceeds 55,000 cubic metres every year. The Mahaweli River Basin, the largest and longest river in our country, is one fifth of the land area and covers an area of about 10,800 square kms,” he added. Amaraweera said major pollution is taking place in rivers, adding that it has been found that industrial effluents as well as effluvia from toilets in factories, other institutions and public places, are being discharged into the Kelani River. Amaraweera also said other rivers in the suburbs are polluted and that legal action will be taken against those who engage in these activities. “If certain factories or other business establishments are to be built near rivers, environmental reports should be obtained. However, more than 60 per cent of the hotels, factories and other buildings that are being built do not have environmental reports, and even some of the agencies that have obtained environmental reports have not complied with the recommendations,” he said. The Surakimu Ganga project is expected to cost around Rs 32 billion. It is to be implemented under the full supervision of the Ministry of Environment and the Central Environmental Authority.  (Ceylon Today, 5.11.2020)

The Government has planned to elevate the Kotmale Reservoir Dam by 30 metres, thereby increasing the existing water capacity of the reservoir. This modification in the structure is intended to irrigate more arable lands in the Anuradhapura and Puttalam Districts of the Mahaweli H-Zone, thereby increasing paddy cultivation and other agricultural crops, State Minister of Mahaweli Zone Canals and Settlement Infrastructure Development Siripala Gamlath said during an inspection tour to the Kotmale reservoir complex this week.  In addition to the existing supply of water to the Anuradhapura and the Puttalam Districts, this project is meant to provide extra water supply to the two districts. “Under this new project to raise the height of the reservoir dam by 30 metres, the water capacity of the Kotmale reservoir will increase from its current capacity of 174 million cubic metres to 391 million cubic metres,” Engineer in charge of the Kotmale reservoir, R.M.S. Wathsala said. The length of the current reservoir dam is 600 metres and its height is 87 metres. Further, the Kotmale Hydropower turbines currently generate 210MW and it could be increased to 240MW when the height of the dam is elevated by 30 metres, Engineer Wathsala said.  Accordingly, more water will be issued via the penstock at Polgolla reservoir to Bowatenna irrigation reservoir, thereby intensifying the capacity of the irrigation tanks of Kalawewa, Rajanganawewa, Dambulu Oya and Kandalama. 
 With the increase of water capacity of these tanks under this project, new arable lands could be utilised for agriculture and the water sources of the new project could be used for drinking purposes in these areas as well.  The Kotmale reservoir project was set up under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme in 1979. A dam was built across the Kotmale Oya at Kadadora and a reservoir constructed at a cost of Rs. 9,000 million; its operation commenced in 1985. 
Secretary of the State Ministry of Mahaweli Zone Canals and Settlement Infrastructure Development, Engineer W.B. Palugaswewa, Director General of the Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority, Engineer, Sunil S. Perera and Residential Enterprise Manager of the Mahaweli E Zone, Gamini Gunawardana were also present during the inspection tour. (Daily Financial Times, 6.11.2020)

The Government’s revenue targets for this year have shown further decline with all indications that even the revised targets will not be met, a senior Inland Revenue Department official said. The Government, which started off with a revenue target of Rs 800 billion at the beginning of the year subsequently brought it down to Rs 600 billion and thereafter reduced it to Rs 470 billion. However, a senior IRD official said the department had sought a further reduction to Rs 411 billion, but that too might not be achievable by the end of the year. He said that in addition to tax revisions which came into effect earlier this year, the two waves of COVID-19 had severely affected the revenue collection and so far only Rs 362 billion had been collected. He said some 600 large-scale taxpayers, including major companies, had been among those affected with  a revenue decline due to the pandemic. In addition hotels and the banking sectors had also been seveely affected .“Due to the losses suffered by the companies, the IRD might not be able to collect taxes from them  even next year,” he added. Last year, the target set to the IRD was Rs 800 billion and a target of Rs 785 billion was achieved.(Sunday Times, 8.11.2020)

Sri Lanka Army has established a Drone Regiment to monitor the activities on the ground, Army Commander Shavendra Silva said. He said the Army hopes to enlist the assistance of this drone regiment to monitor the activities on the ground to safeguard the people and the country. The Army Commander said that as a post-war country, it would be possible to obtain the assistance of the drone regiment in the future to monitor the disaster situation in the country. He said that the Army should be strengthened on all sections and that the process has already begun. The Commander also thanked the Air Force for providing air surveillance to the Army during the war and the President, Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary for providing the necessary assistance to establish the new regiment. (Daily Mirror, 12.11.2020)

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Parliamentarian Kabir Hashim yesterday (12) questioned the Government on how they spent Rs 2,650 billion of State debt, borrowed in 2020. Participating in the Second Reading of the Appropriation Bill 2020, Hashim queried: “The Government has borrowed Rs 2,650 billion in 2020. This is the largest of Government borrowings after the Independence in 1948. What have you done with these monies? The people are questioning it. The Government cannot borrow money without the approval of this House. The Prime Minister is responsible for all Government spendings. Who borrowed money from May to August without an account, and how much? We did not approve it. Who approved the borrowings?” He further stated, for the first time in the history of the country, it is witnessing two Appropriation Bills being presented to the House for 2020 and 2021, in one year. “When the new President was elected in 2019, he appointed a Cabinet of Ministers. The Government had all the power, yet failed to present an Appropriation Bill for 2020. This has never happened before. Even during the most dangerous times of the war and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurgence, the Governments presented Appropriation Bills to this House.”  Hashim alleged that the Government attempted to cover up all their failures with the COVID-19 outbreak. “People are suffering. But the Government keeps saying that everything is going well. If that is true, why can’t the people feel it?” he further queried. (Ceylon Today, 13.11. 2020)

Expenditures over COVID-19 related affairs in Sri Lanka from March 31 to November 13 exceeded Rs.68 billion, the Government said. Issuing a news release, Director General of Government Information Nalaka Kaluwewa said the Government has spent Rs.68.64 billion of public funds so far on COVID-19 measures and of that the highest amount has been allocated to provide the families with the Rs. 5,000 allowance during the lockdown period. Accordingly, 12.7 million families have received this concessionary allowance during this period. Out of 12.7 million families, 11.3 million families had received this allowance in April and May and 1.4 million families had received it during October and November. In addition, 46, 411 families, which are undergoing home quarantine, had received the essential goods pack worth Rs.10, 000 distributed by the Government, he said. Meanwhile, the total amount of expenditure borne by the Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medicine over the COVID-19 related activities including the quarantine process, supply of medicine and infrastructure facilities exceeds Rs.4,326 million. (Daily News, 16.11.2020)

The Ministry of Agriculture has spent Rs.126 million for the purchase of agri products from farmers who were facing difficulties in selling their harvest due to the impact of the pandemic. The Government had also allocated Rs.78 million for COVID-19 related activities through the District Secretaries during the same period to provide relief to the public. “The above mentioned ministries had also spent a considerable amount of money given to them through the 2020 budgetary allocations in addition to these Government-allocated monies,” he added.“The Government’s programme to provide relief to the people affected by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will be continuing through the relevant line ministries and the District Secretaries,” the DG further said. The islandwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka was first imposed on Friday, March 20 and the second wave in the country was detected on Sunday, October 4. (Daily News, 16.11.2020)

A group of researchers have been able to discover two new species of snakes endemic to Sri Lanka in Riverton and Rassagala, Balangoda in the Knuckles mountain range.   Researchers say that with these two discoveries, the number of endemic snakes in Sri Lanka increases to 108 and the number of shieldtail snakes increases to 18.This new species of snakes discovered in Riverston area of Knuckles mountain range situated at an elevation of 1400 metres above the sea level, show similarity to Phillip’s Earth Snake in its outward appearance. This new species has been named Gunasekara’s Shieldtail. The snake has been named in honor of the former Director General of Customs as well as an environmentalist, Samantha Gunasekara who established a Biodiversity Culture and National Heritage Protection branch for the first time in Sri Lanka Customs and dedicated his time to prevent the smuggle of biological resources through the Customs and to safeguard environmental resources for the future generation, said Mendis Wickramasinghe. “We came across this species during our expedition to discover unexplored animal species in Knuckles. First, I believed that this species was the species of shieldtail snakes known as Phillip’s Earth Snake which was discovered by a researcher in Gammaduwa in the northern part of the mountain range in 1929. When I compared the two species, I understood that they were different from one another. Then, we began to explore this new species, he added. There are several differences between the new species and Phillip’s Earth Snake.
Gunasekara’s Shieldtail was comparatively shorter and its tail lacked lines as similar to Phillip’s Earth Snake. It also lacked two extensions in its tail and had more than seven lines in the abdomen as opposed to Phillip’s Earth Snake,”. Herpetology Researcher at Natural History Museum, London, Evolutionary Biologist Dr. David Gower has been able to introduce another species of snake endemic to Sri Lanka in an exploration carried out in Rassagala, Balangoda. He has named this new species as Rhinophis mendis as a tribute to the 28 years of service of the leading herpetologists in Sri Lanka, Mendis Wickramasinghe during which he conducted research about amphibians and reptiles in Sri Lanka and discovered more than 30 species of amphibians and reptiles endemic to Sri Lanka. In its external appearance, this new species shows much similarity to Rhinophis homolepis and is limited to Rassagala area. The first sample of this species is said have been collected during 1894-1925. Other samples collected from Rakwana, Wellawaya and Godigamuwa which are similar to Rhinophis homolepis and Rhinophis mendis could be of other new species and therefore more research should be carried out, Dr. Gower said.
Researchers believe that the main factor which distinguishes Rhinophis mendis from Rhinophis homolepis is its limited number of scales on the abdomen. Additionally, the surface area of the rostral scale of Rhinophis mendis is more pointed than that of Rhinophis homolepis. (Daily Mirror, 17.11.2020)

Prime Minister And Finance Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa presented the Budget to Parliament. These are some of the budget features in a nutshell: GDP expected to grow by 5 %, Allocation to the Health Ministry increased to Rs.330 billion from Rs. 176 billion,  Rs. 3 billion for waste management  work in pradeshiya sabhas, Rs. 3 billion for construction of elephant fence and ditches. Colombo Port City special economic zone will create more jobs, wages in foreign currency while special tax relief will be offered. Rs. 5 billion to improve rural health sector. Rs. 2 billion allocation for development of cane and other similar industrial sectors.  Rs.20 billion for development of roads in every village. Pipe borne water for200,000 houses – allocation Rs. 5 billion.  Pension scheme for self employed.  Retirement age (state and private sector) at 60 years. Pension scheme for farmers over  65 years. Sri Lanka Air Force to be deployed to tackle illegal deforestation. Rs 3.5 billion allocation to grow forests. Rs. 200 million for environment presevation. Production of polythene plastics to be banned by January 1, 2021. State sector employees to be allowed to engage in work outside office hours, Two years leave to be given to state employees who want to seek overseas employment. Legal framework to be established for strenghening the financial sector, assist depositors and take action against failed institutions. Strong new laws to be in place for monitoring of non bank financial institutions.  50,000 housing units for low/middle income earners to be constructed by the UDA.. Import tax relief for spare parts. Separate common taxes for goods and services which contribute more than 50% to the national tax revenue. New online tax collection system. VAT unchanged at 8 per cent for businesses with revenue of Rs.25 million a month except bank insurance and finance sectors. (Times Online, 18.11.2020)

Inflation in October reached 5.5%, down slightly from 6.4% in the previous month, the Census and Statistics Department said, putting it largely down to changes in food prices.  
Contributions to the inflation rate for October from food groups and non-food groups are 4.6% and 0.8% respectively, whilst contributions of food and non-food groups to inflation in October 2019 were 3.2% and 2.4% respectively, resulting in a headline inflation of 5.6%. 
With respect to October 2019, the reported increase in percentage of food groups was mainly due to higher price levels prevalent in October 2020, particularly prices of coconuts, rice, turmeric powder, coconut oil and sugar. Comparing the month-on-month changes, the NCPI in October has increased to 139.1 from 138.9 reported in September. This shows an increase of 0.2 index points or 0.1%. The month-on-month change was contributed to by increases in the index values of food items by 0.14% and non-food items by 0.02% respectively. Price increases of food items were reported for big onions, rice, red onions, coconuts, masoor dhal, green chilies, dried chilies, potatoes, turmeric powder and garlic. However, decreases in index values were reported for fresh fruits, fresh fish, eggs, vegetables, chicken and sugar. The increases in index values of non-food groups in October compared to the previous month was due to the price increases in groups of items ‘Housing, Water, Electricity, Gas and Other fuels’ (Materials for the maintenance), ‘Furnishing, Household equipment Routine household maintenance’ and ‘Miscellaneous Goods and Services’.  However, price decreases in groups of items were reported for ‘Alcoholic Beverages, Tobacco & Narcotics’ (Arecanuts). Further, very slight price increases were reported in groups of ‘Clothing and Footwear’, ‘Recreation and Culture’ and ‘Restaurants and Hotels’ compared to the preceding month. Meanwhile, the price indices of ‘Health’, ‘Transport’, ‘Communication’ and ‘Education’ groups remained unchanged during the month. Core inflation, which reflects the underlying inflation by excluding volatile items of food, energy and transport groups in the economy as measured by the Year-on-Year change based on NCPI for the month of October has declined to 4.5% from 4.8% in September 2020. (Daily Financial Times, 24.11.2020)

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