by Professor W.A.J.M. De Costa
Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science, University of Peradeniya
Five months have elapsed since the government’s, in all probability the President’s, decision to ban inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals to immediately transform Sri Lanka’s agriculture into totally ‘organic’ (or ‘green’ as the President referred to in his address at the SL Army’s 72nd Anniversary last week). At present, almost the entire agriculture sector is in crisis and the farming community is facing uncertainty at this crucial period of the year when the major crop-growing season is about to begin. Therefore, it is imperative that the President reconsider his decision to avert a national disaster. A recollection of the events leading to the President’s decision and its aftermath shows the extent of confusion that reigns, the muddled thinking of those in charge and the consequent mismanagement of this issue.
Background to the Decision
According to the President, the decision to ban the use of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals (which include pesticides and herbicides), was taken to safeguard peoples’ health and protect the environment. A close examination of scientific evidence, available in Sri Lanka (or worldwide), has failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between inorganic fertiliser use and any of the major human health issues prevalent in Sri Lanka (e.g. Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology). A similar conclusion can be made on synthetic agrochemicals as well. While excessive use of fertiliser and agrochemicals could lead to human health and environmental issues, available statistics on fertiliser and agrochemical use in different countries show that their use in Sri Lankan agriculture cannot be categorised as ‘excessive’. Therefore, it is clear that the decision to ‘go 100% organic overnight’ was based on ideology and wishful thinking rather than on solid, scientific evidence.
Was there a clear plan in place prior to taking the decision?
All actions of the government, since the implementation of the fertiliser and agrochemical ban, clearly demonstrates a complete absence of an alternative plan prior to the decision. A major decision, such as this, necessitated a comprehensive analysis of its costs in terms of potential reduction of crop yields, its economic and social implications on farmer livelihoods, national food supply and the entire social fabric. The perceived environmental and human health benefits should have been weighed against the risks of disrupting the food production and supply chain and the ensuing social instability.
Furthermore, there should have been a rational evaluation of the alternative strategies (e.g. local organic fertiliser production) with regard to their practical feasibility, time frames available, effectiveness and cost. However, it is abundantly clear that none of the above has taken place prior to the decision. Unfortunately, this is another example of a major policy decision being taken without a rational, scientifically-valid analysis of either the current status of the issue or possible consequences of the decision.
Stakeholder response in the immediate aftermath of the decision
The stakeholder responses to the decision have fallen in to three broad categories. A minority consisting of hard-core organic agriculture advocates and environmentalists voiced their approval, arguing that: (a) protection of human health and environment should take immediate precedence over any concerns about reduced crop yields and consequent shortages of food supplies; (b) a gradual transition to 100% organic agriculture would be difficult to implement because of farmer preference for inorganic fertiliser and agrochemicals when they are available. Hence, it was argued that their total ban was needed to implement organic agriculture. For example, the highly-influential Buddhist monk, Ven. Omalpe Sobhditha Thera, who is often a strong critic of the present regime, advised the government not to ‘take a step backwards’ on the fertiliser and agrochemical ban.
The second category of responses came from a majority of the general public, including a fair proportion of agriculturists, who accepted the decision to go ‘100% organic’ as a ‘good’ decision in principle, but one that should have been implemented over time and in phases. This group assumes that it is possible to fulfil the national food requirement by 100% organic agriculture at some future date (by which time the national population also will have increased further).
In contrast, a majority of agricultural scientists and practitioners who are knowledgeable about the science of crop production based on the principles of agronomy, soil science, plant nutrition and plant protection is of the opinion that 100% organic agriculture will not totally fulfil the country’s food requirement, either now or in the future, but can be practiced on a limited scale for niche markets (as is the case worldwide). The majority of farmers, in their conventional wisdom gained from several generations of farming, also comes to the same conclusion that national-scale crop production, in an economically-viable scale, is not possible with 100% organic agriculture. This constitutes the third category of stakeholder response. For example, the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, which consists of more than 110 academics with expertise in different sub-disciplines and specialities of Agriculture, in a communication to the President and the Government, advised identification, based primarily on soil fertility status, of specific areas in Sri Lanka, for possible gradual introduction of the practices of organic agriculture to pilot-test the feasibility of transition to organic agriculture in the future. This position also underlies the fact that 100% organic agriculture across the whole country and its agriculture sector is not a viable option.
It is hoped that events in the five-month period since the decision, especially during the past month, will have shifted the responses of some stakeholders from category one to category two and from category two to category three.
What has the government done or tried to do since the implementation of the ban?
Local production of organic fertiliser
Everything the government has done or tried to do during the last five months shows its lack of preparation and inability to address the issues and challenges ensuing from the ban. The widely-held assumption among the advocates of the immediate and total ban of inorganic fertiliser was that crop nutrient requirements on a nation-wide scale could be supplied with organic fertiliser, prepared locally. There was a proliferation of programmes, mainly in local authorities and farms maintained by various government institutions including the military, to produce ‘compost’, an organic fertiliser with generally low and variable nutrient concentration, mainly from solid waste, animal manure and crop residue. Because of the rush to produce organic fertiliser on a scale sufficient to meet the national demand within a few months, none of the locally-produced organic fertiliser is tested for its quality in terms of the presence of required nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) and soil amendments (e.g. organic matter) or the absence of potential harmful agents. In this regard, the presence of heavy metals, such as Lead, Cadmium and Arsenic at levels above their tolerable thresholds is a distinct possibility because municipal solid waste, which is a common source material for compost production by local authorities, could contain material having the harmful heavy metals mentioned above.
Now, at the beginning of the Maha cropping season, which is the major season in Sri Lanka, it has become abundantly clear that local production capacity of organic fertiliser, irrespective of its quality, is inadequate to meet the national-scale demand for plant nutrients of crops to be grown.
Importation of organic fertiliser
The discussions that took place among officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture and the advocates of organic agriculture revealed the fact that even those who strongly advocated and advised the President to implement the ban did not have an evidence-based figure on the per hectare organic fertiliser requirement to calculate its national requirement. As a result, the government’s position on importing organic fertiliser was shifting and evasive in the immediate aftermath of the ban, with the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture making contradictory statements, both in and outside Parliament. When the realisation finally dawned on the government officials that local organic fertiliser production will not be sufficient for the coming Maha season, there has been a bungled attempt to import a consignment of organic fertiliser from China, which is still continuing. This is despite the samples of this consignment twice-failing the tests for the presence of microorganisms.
The threat of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils via imported organic fertiliser
At the very outset of the ban on inorganic fertiliser, independent experts had warned of this very significant danger of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils, which could lead to a myriad of complex ecological processes with potential to disrupt the existing soil microbial community and set-off adverse environmental consequences. Unfortunately, this well-meant advice of experts fell on deaf ears. The importance of protecting the native microbial population in a soil cannot be over-emphasised as the microbes play a pivotal role in many soil processes which sustain and regenerate its fertility. One of the major critiques of the large-scale use of inorganic fertiliser has been their modification of the natural soil microbial communities.
Importation of liquid organic fertiliser
When the attempt to import solid organic fertiliser from China was stalled (may be temporarily as attempts to import it are still reported to be continuing behind the scenes), there are reports that organic fertiliser in liquid form, a nitrogen extract according to the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture, has been cleared for importation from India. A loophole in the existing regulations has enabled importation of liquid fertiliser which only requires to be free from ‘harmful’ microorganisms whereas solid organic fertiliser needs to be free from all microorganisms. The term ‘harmful’ microorganisms has no scientific validity in the broader context of environmental microbiology. This is because a microorganism that is categorised as ‘harmless’ at the time of its introduction to a foreign environment could easily become ‘harmful’ by fast proliferation in the absence of the ecological controls (e.g. natural enemies, environmental controls, etc.) that were present in its original environment to regulate its population within ‘harmless’ limits. Therefore, application of imported liquid organic fertilisers has the same level of threat to the local soil microbial population that the solid organic fertiliser poses.
It should be noted that if liquid nitrogen fertiliser is added to the soil, it is more likely to be leached down with rain or irrigation water and possibly pollute ground water than even the solid inorganic nitrogen fertiliser, thus nullifying a major argument for ‘going 100% organic immediately’. It is possible to apply the important liquid organic fertiliser to the plants as a ‘foliar application’. However, as in the soil, such an application poses a threat to the microbial communities that are present on plant leaves (called the phyllosphere microorganisms) by the foreign ‘harmless’ microorganisms, which are allowed to be applied along with the imported liquid fertiliser. A substantial amount of research done by Sri Lankan as well as foreign scientists has shown that phyllosphere microbes provide protection against a wide-range plant pathogens (i.e. disease-causing organisms such as fungi, bacteria, phytoplasma, viruses and viroids) by various mechanisms and thereby provides natural protection to agricultural crops from a range of plant diseases. A possible disruption of the phyllosphere microbial community by foliar application of imported liquid organic fertiliser containing foreign microbes which are perceived to be ‘harmless’ could potentially increase the risk of disease outbreaks in major crops which will be impossible to control, especially in the absence of synthetic agrochemicals.
Crucially, in a crop such as tea where leaf quality is of paramount importance, foliar application of imported organic fertiliser containing foreign ‘non-harmful’ microorganisms could alter the leaf biochemistry in such a way to disrupt the key characters of made tea such as its flavour and strength. The negative impact that this will have on the Sri Lankan tea industry, which in these COVID-19-affected times has been one of the few assured sources of valuable foreign exchange, will be incalculable and may well be irreversible as a market lost cannot be easily recovered.
Furthermore, foliar application of liquid organic fertiliser would not bring any benefit to the soil. Application of solid organic fertilisers, most of which are really ‘organic soil amendments’ rather than ‘organic fertilisers’, improves the soil physical properties which are important to sustain and regenerate soil fertility. Accordingly, apart from increasing the threat of crop disease incidence by introducing foreign microoganisms, promotion of foliar application of organic fertiliser will not contribute to the government’s perceived benefits of ‘going 100% organic with immediate effect’.
This bungled attempt to import organic fertiliser, in solid as well as liquid forms, clearly demonstrates the government’s muddled thinking in its rationale, planning and implementation of this grand scheme of becoming the first country to go 100% organic in its agriculture. It is telling that Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, who was a strong advocate of this scheme a few months ago, went on record saying that in view of the clear and present dangers of importing organic fertilisers, it would be better to go back to the inorganic fertilisers.
Intervention of the Chinese Embassy and undermining of DoA officers
The statement put out by the Embassy of the Peoples’ Republic of China, a friendly country providing an enormous amount of aid to Sri Lanka, casting doubt on the validity of scientific procedures adopted by the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS), which is part of the Department of Agriculture (DoA), in detecting the presence of microorganisms (i.e. bacteria belong to the genera Bacillus and Erwinia, which contain several bacterial species which are enormously harmful to agricultural crops, both in the field and after harvesting) in the samples of solid organic fertilizer to be imported from a Chinese manufacturer, raises several points of concern. Even though the Embassy claimed that a minimum period of six days is required for detection of the above microorganisms, Sri Lankan scientists with expertise in plant microbiology and plant pathology, pointed out that the microbiological and pathogenicity tests required to make scientifically-valid conclusions on the presence of the above organisms can be done within three days. It is notable that none of the higher authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of Agriculture came out to defend the validity of the testing procedure and the professional integrity of research officers of the NPQS who carried it out.
Instead, conspiracy theories (e.g. contamination of samples by injecting microorganisms in to them) and blatant threats of investigation by the CID by the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture himself sought to intimidate DoA research officers and undermine their work. When the second set of samples, which was reportedly brought under Police protection, also failed the microbiological tests at the NPQS, there is now talk of bringing a third set of samples to be tested. It appears that the government is bent on somehow importing this consignment of organic fertilizer from China. One wonders whether the statement put out by the Chinese Embassy envisaging resolution of this issue for the ‘benefit’ of both parties is a ‘veiled threat’ or not.
In the broader context, this represents another instance where the Sri Lankan government and its institutions have failed to support its scientific and research community whose work, performed with enormous difficulty in severely under-resourced infrastructure, provides the framework and solid facts (instead of wishful thinking based on speculation) for effective policy formulation.
(To be continued)
Impressive Indian scene…
Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.
Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.
Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.
Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.
Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”
However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.
“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”
Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.
She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.
“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”
Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.
“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.
“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”
Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.
And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”
Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.
Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community
On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).
Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.
The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.
Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.
By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.
We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.
The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.
Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.
This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.
Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.
Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.
Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!
Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.
The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.
All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.
To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.
I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.
The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.
I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.
More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?
It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.
The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality
A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.
It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.
However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.
Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.
The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.
Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.
India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.
The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.
But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.
Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.
Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.
Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.
Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.
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