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A strange paradox: Political stability in spite of circumambient crises

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by Rajan Philips

Every crisis in Sri Lanka’s checkered history, both before and after independence, began and ended with a political crisis. More accurately, perhaps, every crisis got extended, for nothing ever ended except the war. Ironically, it is the Rajapaksas, who claim sole ownership for ending the war, that are now caught all ends up in all manner of crises. What is strange and paradoxical about their situation is that for all the crises that they are the primary cause of and are being resoundingly blamed for, their political positions are in no immediate danger.

There is no threat to the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. No one is even thinking of impeachment, let alone saying it. The SLPP government has a solid majority in parliament to ward off any no confidence motion (NCM). Not that anyone is looking like trying one. And the Samagi Jana Balawegaya will not risk a second setback after falling on their face when they tried an NCM against Minister Gammanpila over petroleum price hikes. Where there might be some reason for worry, for President Rajapaksa and the SLPP in parliament, is over prospects at the next elections. But elections are a full three years and more away, which are a long time in politics by any measure.

When government worked

The next three years are also going to be peppered with crises if what is going on now is any indication of what is going to follow. It is this juxtaposition of political stability and circumambient crises that renders the current situation strange and paradoxical. This is a uniquely unprecedented situation. In the past there was political instability, governments were elected and ejected, but the departments of government did their job like clockwork, unlike the broken clocks and daily alarms we now have for government agencies.

In the past there was always a political dimension and overtone to a serious crisis. The malaria health crisis in the 1930 became the baptismal fire for Sri Lanka’s left movement. The 1947 General Strike, Sri Lanka’s belated substitute for an independence struggle, hastened the departure of the Empire and the arrival of independence. Public outrage over food scarcity and prices precipitated the Great Hartal of 1953 and the resignation of a young Prime Minister (Dudley Senanayake) who had won a popular landslide victory barely a year earlier.

Three years later, in 1956, the blunderbuss government of Sir John Kotelawala was routed at the polls. The next eight years were years of tumults and crises – communal riots, labour strikes, the assassination of a Prime Minister, schools take-over, a failed army coup, Tamil satyagraha in the North, emergency rule and so on. There were three elections, four Prime Ministers, two centre-left coalition governments and several cabinet overhauls. Through it all, and to my point in this essay, the government worked.

The schools and hospitals were open. Children studied and played. The sick were attended to. Look where they are now. Trains and buses ran, though not like in Japan or Singapore, but infinitely better than now after 40 years of economic liberalization and privatization. Farmers and fishers, the largest of Lanka’s working populations, subsisted and produced. Colonial era plantations were past their productive peaks, but they were kept on a plateau through careful research and correct ministering. Now the bottoms are coming apart.

The farmers effortlessly straddled tradition and modernity, switching from the plough to the tractor, blending the organic and the inorganic, and reaching the elusive self-sufficiency in rice in the 1980s. There were middlemen in agriculture, but no mafia. No one executively told farmers, no more pohora, only manure. Until now. And no one apparently advised the current omnipotent executive that tea doesn’t grow on cow dung unless there is a cow for every bush.

For all its travails, the 1956 government introduced income tax and taxation became the staple source of government revenue. Until someone lamebrained in the current government decided that removing taxes is a shortcut to economic growth and bigger revenue. In one stroke, half a billion rupees of revenue were written off. Balance of payments and imports became chronic problems in the 1960s, but government after government kept managing them.

Foreign reserves began to be counted in terms of months of imports, but never in terms of weeks or days. No one ever thought there will come a day when a Sri Lankan government will run out of cash to import basic food and the new necessity of fuel. And after imposing the biggest import ban in history, this government actually ended up increasing the annual import bill. That is the record. Not even the most blinkered Rajapaksa apologist can pretend to not see the record for what it is.

Stability and Crisis

After two decades of government turnovers, electoral stability was realized for the first time between 1965 and 1970, when the third and the last Dudley Senanayake government lasted its full elected term. It was badly defeated in the 1970 election, but the UNP maintained its largest vote base despite the poor electoral returns. After 1970, electoral stability came to be more contrived than democratic.

The 1972 Constitution provided for a one-time extension of parliament by two years. Objectively, it should have been a defensible extension to make up for the time lost owing to the JVP insurrection. But the United Front government’s intentions were not pure, and the First Republican Constitution itself was arrogantly adopted as a proud government product to the exclusion of not only the UNP opposition but also the constitutionally sensitive Tamil Federal Party.

After lambasting the two-year extension of parliament from 1975 to 1977, JR Jayewardene went for broke and cancelled a whole election for the chicanery of a referendum in 1982. JRJ had already upended the country’s parliamentary system in the name of providing political stability. The outcome though was not political stability but electorally enduring governments.

Internal instability of governments has been a feature of Sri Lanka’s political history from 1947, if not from 1931. The difference before and after 1977 is that, before 1977 internal instabilities eventually brought down governments and precipitated elections. After 1977, governments lasted in spite of internal instability. More often than not, after 1977, presidents and governments have lasted in office much longer than they deserved to last. But there has been no political stability in spite of prolonged government tenures.

What President Jayewardene was planning to achieve by way of political stability, was to have the same party, obviously for him – the UNP — in power over several electoral terms, if not for ever. What he did not bargain for was that internal instability would arise within his Party (and his government) almost instantly over the position and powers of the Prime Minister in the new presidential system, and more persistently over presidential succession. As it turned out, the presidential system that was created to entrench the UNP in power ended up devouring the grand old United National Party itself.

What JRJ could not also have foreseen was how his constitutional experimentation would play out in the event of the SLFP returning to power with a younger Bandaranaike as President. True to form, as under the UNP presidential governments, internal political instability became a government problem for President Chandrika Kumaratunga. More so in her second term, and she was even forced to bow out earlier than she was planning to, and reluctantly left the family torch to be usurped by the newly arrived Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What JRJ most certainly could not have seen coming, at least in President Jayewardene’s view of the Sri Lankan society, was the arrival of the Rajapaksas out of nowhere. The now powerful brothers and their extensions were not only out of JRJ’s political radar, but were not even embryonic in the presidential order when it was newly set up. Whatever may have been their status in the 20th century, the Rajapaksa brothers have dominated Sri Lankan politics in the 21st century, and it would be correct to say that their dominance over the last two decades has no parallel in the politics of the last century.

There has never been an instance in Sri Lankan politics when so many brothers and sons and nephews have been part of the same kinship political apparatus. It is their kinship apparatus and their success in subordinating the state resources to kinship power that has made their hold on power internally stable. The 2014 defection of Maithripala Sirisena was an aberration that has only proved the rule, in that even after defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential battle, Sirisena lost the war over the SLFP to the Rajapaksas. Whether there will be another defection to end the Gotabaya presidency three years from now, it is too early to speculate.

The more immediate question is how will the current contradictions between regime stability, on the one hand, and the plethora of crises – health, social and economic, on the other, play themselves out between now and the electoral reckoning more than three years from now? The traditional perspective is one of crisis heightening and potential confrontations between public protests and government forces. The government is far too entrenched to be knocked over by a single strike. Equally, the government is not in a position to permanently rule by force, suppressing protests.

Between these contending options, is there a role for the national parliament to play – to make the current regime change its ways, rather than the proverbial regime change? The 1972 Constitution exalted parliament, the National State Assembly, as the Supreme Instrument of State Power. The 1978 Constitution trashed that notion and introduced the notion of separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But from day one of the 1978 constitution, the executive has been the dominant instrument of state power. It is time for parliament to restore its role as a co-equal branch of government. Is the current parliament capable of restoring itself? (To be continued).



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Features

Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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