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Editorial

A welcome judgment

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Tuesday 17th November 2020

The Court of Appeal (CA), which heard a case filed by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) against SJB MP Rishad Bathiudeen over clearing part of the Kallaru forest reserve in Mannar for a housing scheme, has ordered him to bear the cost of reforesting the affected area. The CEJ deserves public plaudits for its successful legal battle against the destruction of forests.

The CA judgment is most welcome and sure to have a deterrent effect on those bent on destroying the country’s precious forests. The onus is on the government to reforest the deforested section of the Kallaru reserve; the affected area is believed to encompass as many as 2,500 acres. How much Buthiudeen will have to spend on reforestation has not been estimated. However, senior lawyer Ravindra Dabare, who fought the successful legal battle against Bathiudeen, has said the cost of replanting will be about Rs. 3 billion.

The question, however, is whether the present regime that has ordered the construction of a road through some parts of Sinharaja, a world heritage rainforest, and sought to ridicule environmentalists as a hindrance to development, has any concern for forests in Mannar. It has also taken steps to allow what are known as ‘other forest’ lands to be utilised for cultivation purposes. It looks as if forests had to be protected from the government as well!

The blame for what Bathiudeen has done to the environment cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the yahapalana leaders, who gave him free rein between 2015 and 2019. His deforestation drive began during the Rajapaksa government, in which he was a powerful minister. In fact, it is the Rajapaksas who created him and benefited from his block vote until he decamped in 2014. The rise of Bathiudeen in politics was possible due to the internally displaced Muslims’ grievances that have gone unaddressed all these years. Before and after the conclusion of the war, governments led by the UNP and the SLPF, let them down badly. Bathiudeen, who himself is a displaced Muslim, undertook to champion their cause, but after being established in politics, emulated others who are notorious for seeking political expediency and carrying out various rackets on the pretext of helping the public.

Now that the CA has determined that the forest land where the newly built houses stand in Kallaru was cleared illegally, the people living there will have to be removed. Bathiudeen says the houses have been given to internally displaced Muslims. The LTTE chased about 100,000 Muslims out of the North in 1990. They were given a few hours to leave, and their assets plundered. They fled to Mannar, and some of them moved to other areas. These people have been denied their right to return where they had lived before being driven away.

The Muslim IDPs, occupying the newly built houses in areas like Kallaru must be resettled in a proper manner. Crafty politicians must not be allowed use their plight as an excuse for grabbing forest lands or carrying out other rackets. Bathiudeen deserves severe punishment for destroying forests, but the grievances of the Muslim IDPs must be redressed. The same goes for the IDPs belonging to other communities, who also became victims of the LTTE’s ethnic cleansing campaign, and have not got their properties back in the North.

In this country, even a person who cuts down a jackfruit tree in his own garden without a permit gets fined or thrown behind bars. Now that the CA has given its much-awaited judgment, the state is duty bound to prosecute Bathiudeen for destroying a forest reserve. Whether the state prosecutor will get cracking remains to be seen?

 

 



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Editorial

Give And Take

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Sri Lanka heads into the Sinhala and Tamil New Year at a time of difficulty and hardship unprecedented in our contemporary history. Covid 19 has cost us much, as it has cost nearly all countries in the planet. There have been claims that the worst is over and we continue to hope that this is correct. But that is not something that can be said with certainty. However a semblance of normalcy has returned although sections of the community, such as those dependent on tourism, continue to suffer hardship. Nobody can claim that the economy is in good shape with the rupee plunging to a historic low of Rs. 200 to the U.S. dollar. This must reflect both on the import bill and on external debt servicing and repayment. But tea prices remain good and the weather has been fair. While we can take comfort that we have not yet defaulted on our massive debt servicing and repayment obligations, the situation is far from rosy with our ability to raise new loans at interest rates that are not exorbitant declining by the day.

Although the ever-rising cost of living continues to impose hardship on both the poor and the middle class, this has been something that has been always with us for a very long time. Although incomes have grown, prices have grown much faster and we know too well that the value of money is now a fraction of what it was. This has particularly hurt savings and the prevailing low interest rates have dealt a kidney punch to large numbers of retired people dependent on interest income for their livelihood. While grumbling continues, people have learned to cope as best as they can. Despite all the negatives, the rulers continue to project a bold front. But there is no escaping the reality that the government has rapidly lost popularity since the last elections, both presidential and parliamentary.

No ban on New Year travel has been imposed although there are inherent risks, in the covid context, of large numbers of people going home to their villages from crowded urban centers they work in. This has been a long-held tradition and it would be a brave government that would interfere however much prudence dictates otherwise. While most people wear masks while moving around in public places, enforcing social distancing in crowded public transport will be next to impossible. Thus the powers that be have resorted to the easier way of leaving the choice to the good sense of the people rather than enforcing strict rules controlling movement. Although other countries have seen spikes of infection by being lenient on holiday travel, Sri Lanka will hopefully have better luck post avuruddhu.

We run on this page today a contribution from the Pathfinder Foundation of Mr. Milinda Moragoda, our High Commissioner-designate to New Delhi cautioning the government against taking too strong a stance on import substitution – a direction in which it is clearly moving. Given Moragoda’s political orientation, Pathfinder may be seen to be sticking its neck out by advocating a hemin hemin policy. Nobody would reasonably object to government imposing certain import bans to encourage local production as in the recent case of turmeric. There is no debate that we must grow crops that we can rather than import them. But governments must always strike the right balance between the interests of producers and consumers. When Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake pushed a massive food production drive during his 1965-70 government, he used to say at public meetings in agricultural areas that enormous foreign exchange expenditure was being incurred for the import of potatoes that some foreign experts had once-upon-a-time said cannot be economically grown here.

But Welimada farmers disproved them. Thereafter potatoes have been successfully grown even in Jaffna although we have not achieved self-sufficiency. “Why should we pay farmers in potato growing countries for their produce when we can pay that money to our own farmers?,” the prime minister used to ask. “But when we enforce a policy to ensure that our cultivators got the money flowing abroad, our opponents accuse the government of kicking the poor man’s ala hodda.” This was also true of chillies and onions where import substitution policies worked to benefit local farmers although at a cost to consumers. Jaffna farmers garlanding one-time Agriculture Minister Hector Kobbekaduwa with onions and chillies when he ran for president against J.R. Jayewardene was testimony to this policy. But it has not worked as successfully as it might have where local sugar production was concerned. Despite this country being endowed by conditions enabling sugar cane growing, we are nowhere near self-sufficiency although different governments have used tariff barriers to ensure better prices to domestic cane growers. Unfortunately we have a local sugar industry which makes more money out of its potable alcohol byproduct than from its sugar.

We have to be always conscious of the trade balance and cannot forget that Europe and the USA are the biggest markets for our garment industry. The ongoing restrictions on motor vehicle imports has no doubt saved us much foreign exchange but we cannot butter our bread on both sides by adopting one sided trade policies. That there must be give and take is a fact of life and it would be useful for the concerned authorities to take note of the Pathfinder perception that “openness to trade improves the tgrowth, employment and income trajectories of economies.”

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Editorial

A tall tale told by cops

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Saturday 10th April, 2021

Thousands of military personnel who died in the line of duty to make this country safe would turn in their graves if they knew the way the state is treating their loved ones. Their widows and mothers were seen recently staging street protests in a bid to have some grievances redressed. On Thursday, while they were conducting a peaceful march from the Fort Railway station to the Presidential Secretariat, demanding that they be paid their spouses’ salaries instead of pensions until the time when their husbands would have reached the retirement age. Ven. Jamurewela Chandrarathana, described as the chief organiser of the event, and another person were arrested and subsequently granted police bail. The police claimed that the arrests had been made over a stone attack on two of their vehicles. This, we believe, is a tall tale.

No one in his proper senses dares to hurl stones at a police vehicle in full view of heavily armed cops, and run the risk of having to keep staring at the ceiling of an orthopaedic ward for weeks, if not months. There have been instances where even protesting students had their limbs broken and skulls cracked at the hands of the police riot squads. So, only agents provocateurs working for the government will carry out a stone attack on the police.

Two stone throwers, caught by some members of the public and handed over to the police, on Thursday, vanished while in police custody, only Chandrarathana Thera and another person were taken to a nearby police station, according to the organisers of the protest. This is a very serious allegation, which must not go uninvestigated. One of the attackers is seen in the CCTV footage of the incident, and the bold manner in which he threw stones in a place swarming with police personnel in uniform and civvies suggests that he was confident he would not have to face the consequences of his action. If the police cannot do their job properly, they must, at least, learn how to lie convincingly!

The government says it has sorted out the issue over which the widows of the slain military personnel took to the streets, and a gazette to that effect has been put out. If it is telling the truth, then the protesters had not been informed of what it had done. Why didn’t the defence top brass invite the protesters to a discussion and inform them that their problems had been solved? In fact, the government should have solved the salary issue much earlier.

The leaders of the incumbent dispensation never miss an opportunity to boast of having ended the country’s war on terror. They, no doubt, provided unwavering political leadership for the war effort, but the fact remains that it is the military, the police including the STF, and the Civil Defence Force that made the defeat of terrorism possible. One of the main election pledges of the present government was to look after the interests of the armed forces and police personnel. Its leaders, during their Opposition days, shed copious tears for the military and the police, the slain armed forces personnel and their families and gained a lot of political mileage. They, therefore, must not wait until the family members of the late military personnel stage protests, to act, and, most of all, ensure that the latter are treated with respect.

The government claims its political opponents were behind Thursday’s protest. This claim may be true. There is hardly any issue that does not get politicised in this country. Didn’t the SLPP politicise and exploit the Easter Sunday attacks to win elections? The problem of a bunch of bankrupt politicians and publicity-crazy elements including some priests exploiting the grievances of the family members of the slain warriors to compass their selfish ends would not have arisen if the government had cared to give the protesters a patient hearing instead of unleashing the police on them.

Damaging police vehicles is a serious offence, and the duo responsible for Thursday’s stone-throwing incident can be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act and denied bail. An investigation is called for to find out why the police allowed them to escape, as alleged by the protesters.

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Editorial

Dogs, donkeys, fools and lunatics

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Friday 9th April, 2021

A heated argument between SJB MP Sarath Fonseka and Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, yesterday, plunged Parliament into turmoil with the government and Opposition MPs freely trading insults and threats across the well of the house.

All hell broke loose while the SJB was staging a protest against the unseating of its MP Ranjan Ramanayake, who is currently serving a jail term. Protests will not be of any help to Ramanayake, who is languishing in prison. Only a presidential pardon could save him. Not that everybody has welcomed his sentence, but that is the way the cookie crumbles in courts. His colleagues should have asked him to act with restraint. He kept on tearing into the judiciary unnecessarily and asked for trouble. If the SJB actually believes that Ramanayake has not ceased to be an MP, can it allow anyone else from its Gampaha list to fill the vacancy created by his removal?

The MPs of both sides, yesterday, indulged in insulting some animals as well. They were heard calling each other dog, donkey, fool and lunatic, etc. Politicians may be called fools and lunatics, but why should poor animals be insulted in this manner? Animal lovers must be at a loss to understand why some MPs flew into a rage on being called dogs and donkeys, and even threatened their rivals.

Dogs and donkeys are far superior to politicians, in many respects, so much so that one cannot but wish all people’s representatives in this country behaved in such a way as to deserve to be called dogs and donkeys.

The dog is a wonderful creature. It is known for its courage, intelligence, faithfulness, gratitude and readiness to protect its master even risking its own life. What a nice place this country would be if our representatives also had these canine traits. Blessed is a country that has courageous, faithful and grateful politicians who fiercely protect the citizenry like guard dogs. If our MPs were as faithful as canines, they would never switch their allegiance for pecuniary benefits; the problem of crossovers would cease to be.

In this country, there have been several unfortunate incidents, where some wicked humans threw their aged parents into kennels and other such places, and sniffer dogs in their twilight years, needing special care, were thrown out of the police kennels, where they were auctioned instead of being looked after in appreciation of their outstanding contribution to crimebusting. Such shocking incidents come about as humans lack canine qualities; dogs never desert those who look after them.

Sri Lankan politics is characterised by a huge trust deficit. The trustworthiness of canines has never been in question. This must have been the reason why King Matthias of Hungary (1443-1490), trusted his dogs more than his palace guards. Historians tell us that the wise monarch, troubled by intrigue and treachery in his court, which was full of greedy, unfaithful noblemen, surrounded himself with some guard dogs.

The donkey is intelligent and has an incredible memory despite popular misconceptions, according to scientists. They are also known for their ability to carry heavy loads. They coexist with other creatures. So, why should politicians with shallow minds and deep pockets and are averse to shouldering the burden of serving the taxpaying public, who maintains them, be called donkeys that carry heavy loads, expecting nothing in return?

Will our honourable representatives be so considerate as to desist from insulting dogs, donkeys and other such critters?

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