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A Hectic Week in Politics: Political Stalemate Compounding Economic Crisis

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by Rajan Philips

Last week I ventured to suggest that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could emulate US President Lyndon Johnson’s pre-emptive abdication speech in 1968, and inform the country that he will not seek a second term as President, and will use the remainder of his single term to work with all the political leaders and parties in parliament to make sure that Sri Lanka avoids mass starvation and that its derailed economy is put back on track. The key feature in this scenario is the President reaching out to the people and asking for their consent for him to continue in office after all the tumults that began in Mirihana.

After a hectic week in politics, the President is yet to address the nation, let alone ask for the consent of the people for him to continue in office. The events of this week and the continuing hardships in people’s lives warrant a national address by the President. A Head of State is not a backroom operator but the interface between the state and the citizens. Effective national communication is an essential part of an elected president’s job. In the current situation, when so much is at stake and so many people are genuinely hurting, the President is also guilty of not showing empathy besides being unacceptably unforthcoming.

All we have are reports that the President had informed political parties in the government that “he will not step down from the Presidency but will hand over the government to whoever that holds 113 seats in Parliament.” Later the President let his dummy in parliament, Johnston Fernando, the Government Whip, to declare in the Assembly that “the President will absolutely not resign.” On Thursday, the President showed up in parliament and took his seat, only to be seen but not heard.

Inexecutable Powers

While there is no sign of the President resigning any time soon, there is no sign either of the people letting up on their insistent demand that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa must leave. To-date there has not been any public sign of support for the President to continue in office. There is no mistaking the direction in which the political wind is blowing. It is more than the proverbial wind. It is a storm, an unprecedented tsunami on the political landscape. At the same time the economic crisis and the people’s hardships are not showing any sign of abating. The economic crisis and the political stalemate are merging into one another. Others watching Sri Lanka from the outside are raising similar concerns.

From its neighbourly perch, The Hindu has editorialized that “the road to Sri Lanka’s economic recovery will have to pass through political change.” The rating agency Moody’s has warned that “protracted political uncertainty is likely to hinder progress in obtaining external financing from key development partners or attracting foreign direct investment, or both, because of Sri Lanka’s reliance on capital inflows to repay its sizeable foreign-currency obligations.” Further, “the difficult political environment could also weigh on policymaking and the economy’s recovery from the pandemic, compounding challenges to fiscal consolidation and government efforts to shore up reserves to service its external debt obligations.”

By continuing in office, the President is not only aggravating the challenges facing the country, but he is also setting himself up for a harsh exit relative to the somewhat quiet way out that he can take advantage of now. So far, the government has tried imposing a curfew, declaring a State of Emergency, and disbanding the SLPP-led government and forming a new national government. But nothing has worked. The President has all the powers but he seems unable to execute anything.

He declared a State of Emergency on Friday and revoked it on Tuesday. Easily the shortest duration of Emergency Rule in Sri Lanka. The government knew that parliament would have rejected an extension. The curfew last Sunday became a political picnic for the people. The President staged a cabinet resignation as a sop to the protesting people. Now he cannot find enough MPs to have a cabinet of more than three ministers.

Literally, as I am writing this on Friday afternoon, Ali Sabri has told parliament, “I was compelled to revoke my resignation as the Finance Minister, as no one was willing to take over the ministry.” So, Sri Lanka has four ministers and a Finance Minister!

The President has also appointed three eminent Sri Lankan economists as Special Advisors. But this comes two years too late, after the country has been taken to the cleaners by charlatans who were tasked with running the government.

The President’s efforts to form a national government have been brutally rebuffed. On Thursday, the JVP/NPP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake greeted the President’s attendance in parliament by reiterating the JVP’s position that it will not accept any proposal for an interim government unless the President resigns. The Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, has said the same thing on Tuesday. And so has every other political party in parliament. Forty two MPs have left the governing alliance. The government has a majority of one, one day, and no majority the next day. Still, the President seems to think he can go on merrily for three more years without resigning.

Breaking the deadlock

The government has lost its two-thirds majority in parliament. But the governing party, the SLPP, still has about 112/113 MPs out of the total 225. That slender and fleeting majority of SLPP MPs is the only political support the President has in the country. The near-equal divide in parliament is not a portrayal of the country that is overwhelmingly united in calling for the President’s resignation. As I said earlier, there is no one outside parliament standing up in support of the President staying in office without resigning.

It is unfortunate that the Speaker of Parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardane, reportedly ruled out the possibility of Parliament asking the President to step down. Apparently in his view “Parliament has no democratic right to ask the president to resign.” I beg to disagree. Parliament can ask for anything but the President does not have to abide by it. Yet, a resolution calling on the President to resign will carry a powerful symbolic effect. It will resonate with what the people are calling for from outside the scaffolds of the state.

To his credit, the Speaker also made a special statement in parliament to warn about an impending food crisis and “appealed to lawmakers to sink their political differences … and come together to find solutions.” The Speaker knows full well as to who is stopping lawmakers from coming together. It is the President who is refusing to resign. The role of the Speaker in the current situation is unenviable. His role is not to intercede on behalf of the President in parliament. It is to faithfully convey to the President the mood in parliament, which ought to be the mood of the people.

On the other hand, it is wrong for GL Pieris, the resigned and re-sworn Foreign Minister, to suggest, as he reportedly ‘explained’ to Colombo’s diplomatic community, that the current demonstrations are “not directly against the government, a political party or the ruling party but against the entire political establishment of the country and that the very foundation of the system was under criticism.” It is also beneath him to use isolated protest rhetoric allegedly calling “for all MPs to resign and allow academics and professionals to run the country,” and suggest that the protest demands are infeasible. They have only one demand – for the President to resign.

Minister Pieris is also reported to have “outlined the Constitutional provisions that were currently available which included the Prime Minister taking over for 60 days in the event an incumbent President resigns, after which the MPs would have to elect a suitable leader among them to lead the country for the remaining period until an election could be held.”

Perfect! But he was speaking to the wrong audience, the diplomatic community! The former academic should have a tutorial for the President and the Prime Minister and explain to them that there is nothing unconstitutional about the public outcry calling for the President to resign. He could also be helpful by suggesting that both the President and the Prime Minister should resign and Parliament can elect one of its MPs to be sworn in as interim President. That is all the people are asking for.

Not only Minister Pieris, but opinion makers and editorial writers are also missing the mark when they keep preaching to the people to keep peace and avoid violence. Instead, they should aim at the bullseye and call on the President to resign with honour and spare the country from prolonging the agony. In the current mood of the country, the only way the President can serve democracy is by resigning. He can do it in time for the country to celebrate New Year in high spirits even if people’s stomachs are not full and their nights are without lights. And he can do it in time for the country to mark Easter with new hope and optimism.



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Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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