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20A misfiring, biodiversity warnings and tremors near Victoria Dam



by Rajan Philips

No one expected a misfiring start for a supposedly no-nonsense government that was expected to hit the road firing on all cylinders after the parliamentary election. There is a difference between majority in parliament and competence in government. Two-thirds majority does not make whole of one-third competence. The 20th Amendment fiasco illustrates well the gap between power and competence. No one knows who drafted the now ‘paused’, not ‘withdrawn’, 20A draft bill. No one will admit to drafting it, nor can anyone else find out. That should not be surprising given the now established law and order culture in the country that permits those who commit crimes to safely remain at large and unexposed, without fear of arrest and arraignment. Alternatively, if you commit a crime and even if you are convicted, you can get away with it so long as you have the right political connections to get on the nomination list of the governing political party, win the election with full government backing, and enter parliament as a matter of privilege over criminal conviction.

The parliamentary welcome extended by the government with appellate blessing to Premalal Jayasekara from the Ratnapura District, who is convicted of murder, and S. Chandrakanthan from the Batticaloa District, who is in remand custody for murder, sets the most edifying backdrop and ennobling tone for the impending new constitution. The government could even present this as a rare instance of national parity insofar as a Sinhalese and a Tamil are equally receiving privileged rewards for their political crimes. And take the business of reconciliation to an altogether different level. Especially with CV Wigneswaran dropping obiters in parliament about the old age of the Tamil language. From misfiring starts let us turn to misplaced priorities.

Sri Lanka is easily the only country in the world today where the government is pre-occupying itself with making a new constitution. The pre-occupations everywhere else are about containing Covid-19, refiring the economy, and coping with extreme vagaries of weather. India is all but set to take the lead in the global Covid-19 cases in a matter of week. The recovery rates are good and death rates are low, but there is nothing to be complacent because the worst is yet to come in India. The US is still the global Covid-19 leader, a strange status for a sole superpower. It is also getting inundated with water in the southeast, being set on fire along the west coast, and is stuck in the middle with a President who malaprops “herd mentality” (for herd immunity) as his national health plan for Covid19, and ignorantly opines, “I don’t think science knows, actually” about climate change and the surge of forest fires.


UN Report on Biodiversity


Next to climate change, the fear of biodiversity collapse is the other major global environmental concern. On Tuesday last, the UN issued its 10-year Global Biodiversity Outlook report with a sweeping warning that the continuing local and global threats to the planet’s biodiversity will not only wipe out species and ecosystems, but also endanger the food supply, health and security of the world’s nations and peoples. The new report is a sequel to the 2010 gathering of leaders of 196 countries in Aichi, Japan, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, that set out a 10-year plan centered on 20 goals, known as the Aichi Biodiversity targets. The 10-year report card is not at all encouraging. Of the 20 goals, only six have been “partially achieved,” and reporting countries have generally indicated that they can meet one third of their national targets. According to the UN press release, “the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history.”


Sri Lanka is one of the participating countries in the UN Biodiversity Convention and operates through the Biodiversity Secretariat that is set up in the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. The Secretariat submitted its (sixth) National Report to the UN Convention as one of the reporting country contributions that fed into the main UN report. The Sri Lankan report, viewed online, is impressive both for its content and its ecological and scientific contributors. That has never been a problem for Sri Lanka. The problem is in delivering the ecological knowledge to the political decision chambers where there is no intelligible interest in understanding the environment, let alone protecting it.

The Sri Lankan report identifies six main threats to preserving the island’s biodiversity: River Diversion; Habitat Fragmentation and Ecosystem Losses; Pollution from both Organic and Inorganic Wastes; Over Exploitation; Spread of Invasive Species; and Climate Change. River diversion tops the threat list, and, hopefully, the report authors did not miss the irony of writing from within a Ministry that is all about river diversion. My criticism is not about the authors, but about the Cabinet makers for housing in the same Ministry the regulatory responsibility for protecting the environment (that includes rivers) and the engineering function of ‘harnessing’ rivers for human purposes.

If I am not mistaken, Mahaweli and the Environment were grouped in one Ministry for the executive convenience of Maithripala Sirisena. The same portfolio continues today along with a handful of other Ministries and State Ministries divvying up the environment between them. The fragmentation of responsibilities is identified in the Sri Lankan Biodiversity report, along with the widened gap between committed and informed environmental activists and government policy making.

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth – in all its vastly different ecosystems. Sri Lanka, small as islands go, is quite rich in biodiversity. Protecting biodiversity is important for protecting freshwater resources and soils formation, nutrient storage and recycling, for medicinal resources, sustaining the varieties of food crops and enhancing food resources, breaking down pollutants, contributing to climate stability, and for facilitating speedy recovery from natural resources. It is for these reasons that the UN report is warning that breakdowns in biodiversity will have adverse consequences for human food, health, and security everywhere.


Archaeology and Geology


Three of the six threats to local biodiversity identified in the Sri Lankan national report to the UN, fall under government development and infrastructure projects. They are river diversion, habitat fragmentation and ecosystem losses, and over exploitation. Dealing with a fourth one is direct government responsibility, namely, managing organic and inorganic wastes. In less than a month, the government has had three encounters with the environment – in the Sinharaja reserve, the Anawilundawa wetlands, and most recently in Kuratiyamohotta, Aruwakkalu where more than 200 acres of residual forest are reported to have been destroyed.


The government should consider these encounters as useful lessons for finding new directions for environmentally sustainable economic development. The government should realize that the environmentalists are not lying when they say that only 3% of the island’s total land area is covered with rainforests, and only 65% of it has been designated as protected areas. Why cannot the government bring the remaining 35% that is currently under the Land Reform Commission within the protected areas? Maintaining and extending the forest cover is crucial for consistent rainfalls, water replenishment, and the protection of the island’s precious wet zone.


Sri Lanka’s more immediate concern should be about natural disasters that are becoming more frequent in every country with the onset of global warming. The 2004 tsunami was an epochal event and perhaps the country’s worst disaster ever. Alternating droughts and floods are now almost a fact of life. Landslides are a constant threat during major rainy seasons. But recent reports of earth tremors in areas around the Victoria Dam create a new concern.


According to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) Preliminary Report, there were two events within the last four weeks. The first tremor was on August 29 (8:00 PM) and was “felt by people living in Haragama, Milapitiya, Anuragama and Kiual-Linda areas of the right bank of the Mahaweli River, as well as by dwellers at Ambakote, Aluthwatte and Kengalla areas of the left bank of the river.” The second tremor was on September 2 (7:00 AM) and was “felt by few people mainly in the left bank of the river, Ambakotte and Aluthwatte villages.” The two events took place between four and five kilometres from the Pallekele seismic station, and the first main event registered 2.0 units in the Richter scale, which is considered a small earthquake.

Victoria Dam, a concrete arch dam, is Sri Lanka’s largest dam – 122 metres (400 feet) high and 520 metres (1700 feet) long, and is the subject of a recent academic case study under “possible earthquake loading.” Dulip Jayawardena, a former Director of Geological Survey, wrote a comprehensive article in The Island (September 7) providing a scientific explanation of the observed earth tremors and their implications, and urging “the government to appoint a multidisciplinary team of experts comprising of geologists , geophysicists, hydrologists, civil engineers and those from the NBRO as well as the universities to study the state of the Victoria dam as well as other gravity dams and recommend an effective method of monitoring such tremors.”


There have not been any follow up reports after Mr. Jayawardena’s article, to indicate that the government is seriously looking into this. Victoria Dam and reservoir should come under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. I have not seen any statement in parliament by the subject Minister (Mahinda Amaraweera), or any question put to him by anyone from the opposition. But there is plenty written on the 20th Amendment and plenty more has been written about the attention given by the government to Archaeological investigation in the Eastern Province. Perhaps it is the geology of the area around Victoria Dam that deserves greater government attention than archaeological digs in the Eastern Province. Any problem at the Victoria Dam can create downstream flooding, all the way to Trincomalee.

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India at 75



By Gwynne Dyer

Last Tuesday, on the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to turn India into a developed country, within the next 25 years. If all goes well, that could actually come to pass, but it would have to go very well indeed.The demographic and economic signs are positive. The country’s population has grown fourfold, since independence in 1947, but population growth has now dropped to ‘replacement level’: 2.1 children per completed family.

The current youngest generation is so large that the population will keep growing, until 2060, when it will have reached 1.7 billion. The upside of this is that India will continue to have a rapidly growing young workforce for another generation, while its only rival, China, will have a rapidly ageing and dwindling population (1.2 billion and still falling in 2060)

India’s GDP per capita has been growing at about 5% for years, and if that continues for the next 25 years, it will have grown to $7,500 per person. That’s certainly within the lower ranks of developed countries (like Mexico, South Africa or China today). Given the size of India’s population, the economy would certainly rank in the world’s top five.

So, Modi’s prediction was certainly within the realm of possibility, but there are two big wild cards. One is climate: although only half of India, technically, falls within the tropics, all of it, except the very far north, suffers long, very hot summers.This summer has been the hottest ever, with many of the largest cities experiencing temperatures, above 45°C, for days at a time. Whatever we do about climate in the future, it can only go on getting worse for India, for the next 25 years.

That will bring the country into the zone where it literally becomes unsafe for people to do manual work outside, at the height of summer; death rates will go up, and food production will go down. Nobody knows exactly how bad it will get, but it will certainly get much worse that it is now.

The other wild card is war. Since the Indian and Pakistani tests of nuclear weapons, in 1999, the subcontinent has lived under the threat of a ‘local’ nuclear war that would devastate both countries (and also cause global food shortages lasting for at least four or five years).An Indo-Pak nuclear war is not inevitable, but, unlike the major nuclear powers, these two countries have fought real wars against each other – three in the past 75 years. The likelihood of such a catastrophe actually happening is certainly a lot higher than zero.

Each country now has about 160 nukes, and although both are now working to move beyond the dangerously unstable ‘use them or lose them’ phase where a a surprise attack might disarm the other side, there is no real stability to be found when the adversaries are so close and the hostility is so intense.So there is no harm in considering whether it might have been better to keep the entire Indian subcontinent, first united by the British empire, in one piece, at independence, rather than splitting it into two countries (and eventually three, counting Bangladesh).

The split was by no means inevitable. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two main Hindu leaders of the independence movement, wanted an inclusive, non-sectarian republic, including all of British India, although they failed to offer Muslims sufficient guarantees to ensure their support.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the main Muslim leader in 1947, did want to carve a Muslim-majority Pakistan out of the country, but there was no obligation for the British government to satisfy his demand. He got his way because the United Kingdom was virtually broke after the Second World War and in a great hurry to dump its responsibilities in India.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been east of Paris, had five weeks to draw the dividing line between the two new countries. Around 15 million people, who found themselves on the wrong side of that line, became refugees, mutual massacres followed, and within weeks India and Pakistan had their first war. But it could have been different.

The undivided ‘big India’ would have 1.8 billion people today, about one-third Muslim and two-thirds Hindu. That would virtually guarantee that both groups would be represented in every government and in most political parties.

Lots of countries, elsewhere in the world, manage to be both democratic and prosperous with comparable religious and/or ethnic differences. The ‘big India’ would not have wasted 75 years’ worth of high defence spending, and there would be no risk of nuclear war.All those energies would have been devoted instead to civilian priorities, and that united India might already rank as a developed country. Might-have-beens.

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Ukraine War: Mother May I?



By Gwynne Dyer

“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”

The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.

The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”

Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.

But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?

It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.

Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.

Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.

Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.

Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.

The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.

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Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity



Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation

Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran

A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication

Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail:

Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz

This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.

Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.

What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.

The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.

The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’

When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.

At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.

For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.

A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.

‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.

However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.

The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.

Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.

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