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100% Organic Agriculture:A costly experiment leading to National Disaster – II

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Farmers protest, demanding fertiliser (file photo)

by Professor W.A.J.M. De Costa
Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science
University of Peradeniya
(continued from yesterday)

Measures that contravene the principles of organic agriculture

According to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of the key advantages of converting Sri Lanka’s agriculture into 100% organic is the expectation of a higher price premium for its agricultural products in the global market. It was also argued that any reduction in yield would be off-set by the higher price premium for organic food products. However, with the realisation that crop requirements of potassium and phosphorus, two major plant nutrients which are essential for production of any crop on an economically viable scale, could not be supplied with organic fertilisers, the government decided to import Potassium Chloride (KCl) and to use Eppawala Rock Phosphate (ERP) as sources of potassium and phosphorus, respectively.

Similarly, it dawned upon the advocates of 100% organic agriculture that some of the key pests, diseases and weeds, in large scale agricultural crops, in Sri Lanka, cannot be controlled by exclusively organic means. Blights and soft rots in a range of vegetable crops caused by various bacteria (including Erwinia species) are a case in point. Consequently, the government has allowed the import of certain synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

These are rational moves that bring the initial idealism of 100% organic agriculture back to reality. However, the downside is that despite the rhetoric of 100% organic agriculture, Sri Lankan agricultural products will not receive international certification as ‘Organic’. Therefore, the expected higher price premiums will not materialise and farmer incomes will plummet because of the decreased crop yields.

Many soil scientists, who have expertise on fertiliser, have pointed out that the claimed concentrations of nitrogen, the foremost plant nutrient that is required for crop production, in the organic fertiliser that was to be imported from China, could not have come exclusively from its organic source, the seaweeds. They expressed the strong possibility of this organic fertiliser being fortified with an inorganic source of nitrogen, such as urea, to raise its nitrogen concentration to the levels that were claimed. Therefore, it is possible that this consignment was ‘organic fertiliser’ only by name.

A darker side of this issue emanates from reports of these agrochemicals being smuggled into the country, from India, via the Southern coast. It is reported that the government, and the relevant regulatory authorities and armed forces, are turning a blind eye to this activity. Such tacit approval by the government is akin to how it managed the COVID19-related restrictions during recent months. Therefore, while the government tells the whole world that it promotes 100% organic agriculture, agrochemicals are used on the ground. A similar situation prevailed when the ban on Glyphosate imports was in place, from 2015 to 2018, where smuggled Glyphosate, of dubious quality, was available in the blackmarket.

On 13 October, a government media release claimed commencement of the distribution of 30,000 tons of ‘organic potassium chloride’ imported from Lithuania. It is difficult to determine whether this is a demonstration of ignorance or an attempt to delude the farming community and the general public. There is nothing called ‘organic potassium chloride’. Potassium chloride (KCl) is an inorganic fertiliser obtained from the Earth’s mineral deposits. For well over 50 years, KCl has been the main form of potassium fertiliser for agricultural crops all over the world, including Sri Lanka. In organic agriculture, potassium is supplied in the form of crop residues (e.g. rice straw) which contain potassium as a component of their tissues.

Promised payment of compensation to farmers for loss of crop yield

In the immediate aftermath of the issuance of the Gazette notification, in May, when the strong possibility of plummeting crop yields was pointed out by several stakeholder groups, the Cabinet Minister said that farmers would be compensated for loss of yield due to the absence inorganic of fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals. The advisors to the Minister, and the few hard-core organic agriculture advocates, claimed that these compensations could be paid from the substantial savings of foreign exchange that would become available because of the ban. However, to this date, this promise has not been fulfilled, despite a significant proportion of the national farmer population, growing a wide range of crops, including paddy, pulses, onions, potato, low-country and up-country vegetables, tea and various horticultural crops, including cutflower and pasture, already incurring substantial losses of production due to the ban of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals during the yala season of 2021.

Ministry officials, task forces and advisory panels

The dis-jointed management (or mis-management) of this vital national issue is exemplified by various personnel in-charge of the Ministry of Agriculture and in advisory panels to the President and the Minister. The Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, at the time of implementation of the ban, who showed enthusiasm and optimism for successfully implementing the conversion to 100% organic agriculture, resigned after three months in office, reportedly over a disagreement with a key proponent of the inorganic fertiliser and agrochemical ban who was functioning as the top advisor to the Minister, on importing organic fertiliser in contravention of the Plant Protection Act. Following this resignation, a senior academic, who is an agricultural economist by training, has been appointed as the Ministry Secretary to oversee implementation of the organic agriculture policy. Despite his brilliant academic record as an undergraduate in the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, in the early 1990s, this official has so far demonstrated little understanding of the biological realities of meeting the national food production targets with the limited nutrients from organic fertiliser and in the absence of commonly-used synthetic agrochemicals to control pests, diseases and weeds of crops.

In the week following the issuance of the Gazette notification, in early May, a Presidential Task Force, consisting of 46 members, which included 20 politicians, several hard-core activists promoting organic agriculture and a miscellaneous collection of agriculture practitioners, academics, industrialists and businessmen, was appointed with the task of transforming Sri Lanka’s economy into a green socio-economy with sustainable solutions to climate change. Preparing a roadmap for the complete transition from ‘chemical farming’ to organic farming (as per the Media Release from the Presidential Secretariat on 10 May) was listed as one task of this Task Force. However, it is notable that the Gazette notification, banning the import of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals, had already been issued on 06 May, effectively transforming Sri Lankan agriculture from the so-called ‘chemical farming’ to organic farming overnight. On examining the track record of the personnel in this Task Force, it is clear that it lacked the balanced scientific expertise to analyse all aspects of a complex issue and plan a difficult operation and provide advice to the President. This deficiency has been borne out by the absence of meaningful action taken by the Task Force and the news of some its members expressing the impossibility of their task. Events of the last five months have shown that there certainly is no roadmap developed and put in place.

In September, the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture also appointed a 14-member Task Force for Sustainable Agriculture, consisting of academics and a few administrators and entrepreneurs. This Task Force also has the same weaknesses of the larger Presidential Task Force in terms of balance and competence in expertise. As expected, no tangible outcomes have emanated from this Ministerial Task Forc, as well.

Given the national importance of the plantation sector of agriculture, the Cabinet Minister of Plantation Agriculture has been conspicuous by his silence and inaction in the Cabinet, the Parliament and in public forums that address this critical national issue.

Visible impacts on different crop sectors and prognosis for next year

The yala cropping season, which immediately followed the implementation of the ban, was completed largely with inorganic fertiliser stocks that had been imported before the ban, but were sold to farmers at exorbitant prices by traders. Although the production statistics are not yet available, it is highly likely that, for a majority of crops, both yields per unit land area and total production in yala 2021 have been below-average. This is because of the yield reductions due to lower rates of fertiliser application and increased yield losses caused by pests, diseases and weeds, which are predominantly controlled by agrochemicals in large-scale crop cultivations. There are reports and images of vegetable crops, both in the up-country and low-country areas, shrunken in size by shortage of nutrition and decimated by diseases and pests in the absence of agrochemicals for their control.

The prognosis for the coming maha season is frightening. There are daily media reports of farmers, from almost all parts of the country, expressing either reluctance or point blank refusal at Pre-Seasonal Meetings (i.e. Kanne Rasweem) to start crop cultivation in the absence of an assured supply of fertiliser and agrochemicals. In a majority of these occasions, farmers specifically request inorganic fertiliser saying that organic fertiliser is simply not suitable for cultivation of paddy and some of the key other field crops such as maize. The government officials at these meetings are unable to provide the assurances that the farmers are seeking. If this situation prevails in the next month and a half, the area cultivated with paddy and maize during this major cropping season will decrease substantially. When coupled with the lower expected yields per unit land area because of the lower nutrition from organic fertilizers and non-chemical control of pests, diseases and weeds, a substantial decline in the total production of paddy, maize and almost all other crops is inevitable. Repercussions of this will be felt in many related food sectors. For example, reduced maize production and the resulting shortage of animal feed in which maize is a major component will cause a reduction in poultry products (eggs, chicken).

The potential social consequences of an overall shortage of essential food items are disturbing to the say the least. A population that has been inducted recently to queuing for rice, sugar, milk powder and gas will have to get used to queues for many essential food items. How disciplined the people will be in the face of this situation over a prolonged period is anybody’s guess.

How has the President and the government responded to this situation?

It is patently clear that the authority to make situation-changing decisions lies with the President. It is also clear that the President has been wrongly-advised by his advisors. More depressing is the observation that members of the Presidential and Ministerial Task Forces are either ignorant or incompetent to analyse the situation and recommend appropriate action or lack strength of character to tell the truth to the President and advise him about what should be done immediately without delay. The bottom line is that the current uncertainty in national food security undermines the national security, the very platform on which the President campaigned and got elected.

After towing the President’s line for a long time, a few government lawmakers have started to acknowledge the reality and have started making noises about being prepared to listen to the ‘peoples’ voice’ and ‘take a step back’. Last week, the immediate-past President went on record saying that Sri Lankan agriculture is at a historic low and that a day may come when he would not be able to go to his home town. Following these statements from those in his own ranks, there was expectation that the President would review his decision. However, his latest reference to the current fertiliser and agrochemical policy during his speech at the Sri Lanka Army’s 72nd Anniversary showed that nothing has changed. While acknowledging that it is difficult, he still wants the current policy to continue.

The President’s argument that he received a mandate from the people to embark on the current policy on fertiliser and agrochemicals because he had included it (even though not to be operationalised in this specific manner), in his manifesto, is a flawed argument. The people do not approve manifestos in their entirety. In an election, people make their choices based on a few key aspects (e.g. national security on the most recent occasion) without reading each and every statement in a manifesto. Therefore, it is nothing more than self-delusion to still take up the position that he has the peoples’ endorsement to continue the current policy.

What should be done immediately?

In view of the clear and present danger of a nationwide crop failure in the coming maha season and the possibility of food shortages, the President has no option but to reverse the ban on inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals. Steps should be taken immediately to import, at least 50% of the requirement of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser (i.e. urea). This is assuming that at least a limited fraction of the nitrogen requirement will be supplied from the organic fertiliser that has been produced in-country. In view of the shortage of foreign exchange for importation of nitrogen and potassium fertiliser, crops in the current maha season will have to be managed with 50-60% of the recommendations of inorganic fertiliser, which will provide an economically-viable crop yield to the farmer and a level of food supply to the consumers to avert the impending food crisis and social unrest.

Distribution of this fertiliser among farmers, should be strictly regulated and should be done in phases during the cropping season. This is to prevent their over-application and encourage split-application (i.e. providing the requirement in several splits) and thereby minimise leaching and evaporation losses of urea. The same should be done for potassium chloride fertiliser (the so-called ‘organic potassium chloride’), which is equally vulnerable to leaching losses.

What should be done on medium- and long-term?

Continuation of recent initiatives to expand the share of organic agriculture in the local agricultural production

The drive to produce organic fertiliser, by a wide range of stakeholders and entrepreneurs, in both public and private sectors, is one positive outcome of the ban on inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals. These initiatives should be continued. An important step in this regard will be to develop and implement quality standards for organic fertilisers that are locally-produced.

In parallel to the production of organic fertilisers, a drive to produce a variety of organic-based agrochemicals has been initiated. These initiatives should be incentivised and continued with a view to reduce the use of synthetic agrochemicals to expand the practicing of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Phased out reduction or complete withdrawal of the subsidies on inorganic fertiliser

The nearly 100% subsidy of inorganic fertiliser that was in place for nearly three decades in Sri Lanka contributed to their over-use and excessive farmer reliance on them while diminishing their interest in adding organic amendments for natural regeneration of soil fertility. While being a financial drain of public funds and foreign exchange, the fertiliser subsidy also inflated the true economic profitability of farming in Sri Lanka. Its gradual reduction (or complete withdrawal) will prompt farmers to seek ways of increasing the profitability of their farming by improving crop management with efficient cultivation practices (collectively called ‘Good Agricultural Practices’).

Promotion and support of research on an economically-viable mixture of conventional and organic agriculture

Excessive reliance of the farmers on subsidized inorganic fertiliser and widely-available, commercially-supported synthetic agrochemicals contributed indirectly to suppression of research on eco-friendly farming practices with less reliance on inorganic fertiliser and agrochemicals. This has contributed to the failure of the current drive to ‘go 100% organic overnight’ because the researchers in the Department of Agriculture had not developed sufficiently effective alternative cultivation technologies when the ban came into effect. However, researchers in the universities and other research institutions (e.g. National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology) have carried out useful work over a prolonged period and developed useful technologies, which to a large extent, have been ignored by researchers in the Department of Agriculture and higher officials in the Ministry of Agriculture. Some of these technologies are: (a) biofertilisers and biopesticides developed from microorganisms isolated from local soils and plants; (b) chemicals which are generally regarded as safe to human health (called GRAS chemicals). These technologies and products that are already developed have to be up-scaled and commercialised with government support.

The level of inorganic fertiliser that needs to be used for viable crop production and the feasibility of organic agriculture depends on the soil fertility status of a land and the market needs for an organically-produced product. Therefore, a comprehensive survey of these aspects needs to be undertaken with a view to develop a rational mixture of conventional and organic agriculture in different regions of Sri Lanka.

The hard-core proponents of 100% organic agriculture should realise that it is just not biologically possible. It is turning out to be a costly experiment which is leading to a national disaster. (Concluded)



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Impressive Indian scene…

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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.

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Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community

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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.

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The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality

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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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