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A word of advice to govt.

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By N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA

This Government was elected to office with a huge majority, considered impossible in a PR electoral system. There were two important factors that contributed to this victory; one was the immense popularity of the nationalist leaders of the SLPP, and two was the anti-national policies followed by the ‘yahapalana’ government and its dichotomous leadership, that bungled in every aspect of governance. Voters came, even from abroad, in large numbers, in a surge of nationalist feelings that seemed to proclaim “let us get together to save the country”. The Government, however, must not forget that such strong sentiment, like a tide, can turn against it if it does not get its act together.

It should not take for granted that just because it has the support of a large number of people, who have nationalist feelings, it could get away with major blunders, forever. Already the signs are visible that people are not very happy about what is going on, and all that disillusion is not due to Opposition propaganda alone. There seems to be a vibrant Opposition, as it should be, that grabs every opportunity to badly embarrass the Government. Instead of lambasting the Opposition, though there is enough ammunition to do so on account of their miserable failure during ‘yahapalana’ days, the Government must take stock of the situation and take remedial measures as soon as possible.

Issues seem to crop up almost on a daily basis, which, very often, take the form of a comedy of errors, with Government high-ups becoming the target of lampoons. There were several issues that impacted on the daily life of people, which were mismanaged and allowed to grow into disastrous situations; with growing suspicion that there could be corrupt practices also. Price of rice, the irregularity in relation to Customs duty on sugar, and import of contaminated coconut oil, were three such issues that caused a lot of damage to the reputation of the Government, recently. What made it worse for the Government was the unprofessional manner the Government explained matters to the public, and the appearance that an attempt was made to cover up. The various spokesmen for the Government could not, at least, speak in one voice. One would say contaminated coconut oil has not been released to the market and another would say coconut oil in the market is being tested for aflatoxin . The Opposition would latch on to this and shout from the tree tops that the coconut oil will bring cancer to the people in the New Year. With regard to price control of rice, one minister would say they will raid the stores of mill owners and take over the hoarded rice, while another would say they will import rice. The Opposition would shout that there will be no rice for the New Year “kiribath”.

Anyway, the issues regarding rice, sugar and coconut oil should have been more efficiently managed, without appearing to be bumbling along. If there had been any corruption, related to these matters, the Government must get to the bottom of it, find the culprits and punish them, irrespective of whether they are top ministers, government politicians or supporters. Else the canker will grow, resulting in the downfall of the government.

70% of those who voted for this Government are poor people. If the Government makes a genuine effort to improve their lot, mainly their income, health, education and housing, the effort of the Opposition to exaggerate the issues, which it must be said could occur under any government, would have less success. At present the Opposition seems to be having a field day with people tending to rally around it. The President’s visits to the villages would give a lot of confidence to the poor people, but whether what he promises are being implemented by the officials is something that needs to be looked into. The President must also focus on a comprehensive plan to take the people out from their abject poverty. He has said that is his intention and seems to be genuinely concerned about this matter. He had changed the strategy to combat Covid and avoided large scale lockdowns, keeping in mind the need for the economy to recover and things would have not been bad. Covid seems to be under control and the economy also seems to be recovering, according to the World Bank. The World Bank goes by economic parameters, like GDP, but whether the apparent growth reaches the people is not certain. Whether enough is being done to improve the poor people’s living standards is the question.

The President has said he would concentrate on developing an agro-economy. This indeed is laudable as 30% of the workforce, in Sri Lanka, is engaged in agriculture and related activities. Land is of short supply in a small island, and there is a tendency for encroachment, into forest reservation, for expansion of agricultural and other economic activity. This is like the stomach invading lung space and could be equally disastrous. Several such instances have been detected, and the Opposition may have exaggerated all this and attempted to show that the President is Eco-unfriendly. Some of his own MPs have added fuel to fire by taking on the forest conservation officers who are trying to do their job.

How could this problem be solved? An agro-economy would need to contribute at least 25% to the GDP. Now its contribution is only 8%. How could agricultural produce be increased without damaging the environment? What experts like Prof. C.S.Weeraratne have proposed is to employ scientific farming methods, like the use of high yielding varieties, better seeds and fertilizer, improved irrigation, greater mechanization, better storage and transportation facilities. Funding for this work must be found and there cannot be any excuses because people can see that the Government has enough money to spend on the comfort of their politicians. Further, if corruption is curbed, money would be available for these projects. The President is known as a big achiever and a ‘no-nonsense’ person, and his track record in this regard is excellent. It is disappointing and sad to see a Government, headed by such a person, bungling along, due to the activities of incompetent ministers.

Self-sufficiency in essential food items should be a priority. If this is the policy of the Government why is it importing coconut oil. If we are not producing enough coconut, why do we export coconut products. About 7% of our exports, in 2020, were coconut products, and 50% of this was kernel. Is it a better trade policy to export local products and import the same products in a different form from abroad? Is there any logic in this? We must export essential items only if we are producing in excess of local requirements. One hopes there is no corruption involved in the practice of exporting coconut kernel, and then importing it back in the form of oil.

Government must not forget that its sustaining force is its nationalist orientation. Its nationalism should be based on the national consciousness of the people, and it must be defensive and protective, but not oppressive or chauvinistic. It must protect all communities and treat them equally. It must look at every issue from the national point of view, and look for solutions within that framework. Nationalism of this government has been castigated as racial by some commentators who support separatism. Government must avoid doing anything that would be ammunition for such commentators.

Its decision not to enter into the MCC agreement is in keeping with its nationalist policies. The way it handled the UNHRC Resolution was also good, but more could have been done in this regard. It could have made use of the seemingly unsolicited helping hand that Lord Naseby extended. By unwittingly spurning it, the Government appears to be accepting the view of separatists and their supporters that Lord Naseby is a “backbencher”, and, therefore, his view does not carry weight. However, it could be said en passe that the viewpoints of people like Siobhan McDonagh, Labour MP who supports separatists, are being made use of by separatists, despite the fact that she is a “backbencher”.

Some say there is no unity in the Government and there are “ginger groups” and disgruntled members. There is reason to believe that this may be true. Disagreements and disputes came out into the open and there was washing of dirty linen in public. This could be very damaging to the future of the government and the SLPP. Such things should not be allowed to happen. Differences must be settled by engaging in cordial discussions in a spirit of give and take. A nationalist government in Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, could have many powerful external enemies. If it develops internal animosity and strife its days would be numbered. Let it learn a lesson from what happened in 2014, which resulted in the ‘yahapalana’ regime and the ensuing huge damage to the economy and the independence of the country.

But more importantly, if the Government does not improve the poor man’s lot, which could be done only by developing a national economy, based on agriculture that contributes about 25% to the GDP, the Government would be doomed. It is not the time for mega projects, like elevated railroads and highways. Such activity will not reach the poor people sufficiently to alleviate their poverty, as shown in the past where nationalist governments were defeated, despite achieving much with such big projects.



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Opinion

Minister Gamini Lokuge’s damage to people’s health

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Two consecutive editorials, published in The Island on the 7 and 8 May, lambasted the despicable intervention of the Minister of Transport, Gamini Lokuge, for being instrumental in lifting the lockdown, in Piliyandala, against the advice of the health authorities.

A team of health officials, led by the MOH Piliyandala, backed by PHIs, and the DGHS, based on the recommendations of his officers, decided to lock down the Piliyandala town, as it had taken a turn for the worse, due to the rapid spread of the epidemic.

Minister Lokuge is reported to have admitted, at an interview with Hiru News, that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown in Piliyandala, and The Island, of May 10, highlighted the circumstances that led him to influence the lifting of the lockdown. The Minister accepted that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown for the sake of the daily wage earners, a claim which has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Close on the heels of the Minister’s arrogant countermand, a cluster of 138 patients was detected from the Piliyandala market.

A vendor collapsed in the market itself and his post-mortem proved that he was afflicted with the coronavirus.

The female MOH, who deserves to be praised for the adroit manner in which she has been performing duties in Piliyandala, said over the television that the cluster could have been averted, if the lockdown had not been lifted.

Hence, the Minister’s overzealous attempt to look after the livelihood of the daily wage earner, is certainly humbug, which cannot be condoned under any circumstances.

Readers would remember that the High Courts of Madras and Calcutta lambasted the Election Commission of India for their failure to ensure the recommended protocol meant for Covid-19, and openly said the ECI should be put on murder charges.

Could we reasonably expect that the authorities institute murder charges against the Minister, in the resplendent island, so that legislators, with bloated egos, could be reined in this hour of calamity.

Undoubtedly, idiotic action on the part of the Minister has endangered the precious lives of the people living in the Piliyandala area.

The childish manner in which the Minister responded to the questions, as reported by The Island correspondent, raises a number of issues. The foremost issue is whether he, as a senior Minister of the government, is capable of running an important Ministry, as he has messed up a vital epidemic issue, involving his own constituents.

Secondly, he has caused much embarrassment to the Commander of the Army and Head of the Presidential Task Force who has undertaking an arduous operation.

His argument that if the lifting of the lockdown was wrong then it should have been imposed again, is ridiculous.

All in all, what I could say is that the Minister’s high-handed intervention has left a bad taste in many a mouth, and it has caused an irrparable damage to the government at a time when its popularity is plummeting at a rapid pace.

 

RANASINGHE

Septuagenarian, Piliyandala

 

 

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Opinion

Glyphosate Reality:

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Non-science used as science

I have read with interest the article on “Science, Non-science and Nonsense” written by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva in “The Island” of 11.3.2021. In this article “Dr. Sarath Gamini”, as he is popularly known in the medical circles, refers to me (without mentioning my name) and my research and a lecture given by me to the Sri Lanka Medical Association. This is my response to him, particularly, on the issue of glyphosate pesticide.

I take strong issue with Dr. Sarath Gamini’s erroneous characterisation of my research, related to glyphosates, and the categorization of the government decisions and policies related to the glyphosate pesticide. For clarity, let me reproduce the paragraph on glyphosate in toto from Dr. Sarath Gamini’s article, highlighting the area where he refers to me and my research:

“The campaign conducted blaming the weed killer glyphosate as a cause of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin in the farming areas, mainly in the North Central province, was one burning issue then. There was no scientific evidence to prove this, despite the efforts of some professors in the medical field to find some. However, the importation of the chemical was banned mostly due to political expediency. One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so. When a visiting Sri Lankan expatriate doctor claiming to be a researcher in the field was asked, he could name only a small country, still contemplating doing so. He was lost for words to answer probing questions on the matter. His research has since been discredited in the USA. How the ban adversely affected the productivity in the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka has never been assessed or discussed.”

I am an American Board-Certified Occupational Medicine physician, and I have worked as a tenured full professor for over 34 years in the California State University, Long Beach, which is one of the largest and most respected university systems in the United States. Second, I have published more than a dozen peer reviewed scientific articles, and have given over 50 public lectures in relation to the toxic effects of glyphosate pesticide. Except for an unsigned petition sent by some disgruntled supporters of pesticides (the contents of which were found to be completely false) my research has never been discredited in the United States, or anywhere else. In fact, I won several awards for my research, including the Research Accomplishment of the Year award from my university, the prestigious “International Award” from the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (SFR) Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (an award that I shared with Prof. Channa Jayasumana). By the same token. As far as I know, Dr. Sarath Gamini does not have a single publication related to the toxicity of glyphosate pesticide. I raise this issue because one of the conditions that Dr. Sarath Gamini has stipulated, throughout his article, is that one has to be knowledgeable and competent in order to be able to make comments on any issue, within medicine or any other scientific field. Does that apply to Dr. Sarath Gamini, on the issue of Glyphosate as well?

Now, to get on to the content, throughout the paragraph on glyphosate, Dr. Sarath Gamini makes an assertion that the ban on glyphosate pesticide was made without any scientific evidence and “mostly due to political expediency” and he says, “One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so (the ban)”. These statements clearly demonstrate Dr. Sarath Gamin’s ignorance on the subject. Let me state the following facts for his knowledge, as well as that of the general public.

Hundreds of scientific research studies have linked glyphosate not only to Chronic Kidney Disease but also to many other health conditions, including autism, birth defects, inflammatory bowel syndrome and liver diseases. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the scientific evidence in a 2015 report and classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate – brand name Roundup – is primarily associated with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL), a cancer in the immune system. Following this determination, in October 2015, the first Roundup (Glyphosate) product liability lawsuit was filed against Monsanto in San Francisco District courts. In August 2018, a jury awarded $289 million in damages to the plaintiff – Dewayne Johnson – who is a former school groundskeeper for a California county school system when he developed NHL after spraying glyphosate regularly for several years. This amount was later reduced, during the appeals process. During this trial, evidence released by lawyers for the plaintiff tells an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation, collusion with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and previously undisclosed information about how the human body absorbs glyphosate. These documents provide a deeper understanding of the serious public health consequences of glyphosate, and the false advertising related to Monsanto’s conduct in marketing glyphosate.

In a second case, the jury awarded a staggering $2 billion in damages to a couple – Alva and Alberta Pilliod. In court proceedings, the Pilliods testified to using Roundup regularly, starting in 1982. The couple used the consumer version of the weedkiller, whose label lacked any warnings about covering skin or wearing protective masks. Following these successes in courts, more than 18000 cases have been filed by people who developed cancer after regularly spraying glyphosate. According to some legal reports, Bayer – the German company that bought Monsanto in 2016 – has formally submitted a $8 billion for a global settlement. In March 2020, Monsanto also agreed to pay $39.5 million as a settlement for falsely advertising Roundup is “safe” for people and pets. The settlement, which was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Missouri, resolves allegations brought by several plaintiffs who claimed Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the health risks of glyphosate.

Following the lawsuits and the expert epidemiological evidence that was presented in courts, more than 20 countries have now banned, or restricted, the use of glyphosate. Although Monsanto’s new owner, Bayer, is fighting hard to limit these restrictions, the list is growing day by day. Some of these countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Mexico. There are many cities and institutions in the U.S., including, New York, Key West, Los Angeles, the Universities of California and Miami who have now regulations to restrict the use of Glyphosate-based pesticides. (For a complete list of these restrictions please see Where is Glyphosate Banned? | Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman (baumhedlundlaw.com)

In his article, Dr. Sarath Gamini describes the revocation of the ban on glyphosate for the use in tea and coconut cultivation as a “fortunate” one. In my mind, this was one of the most “unfortunate” Cabinet decisions for several reasons: First, this policy decision was taken without much scientific advice. There was an Expert Committee that was appointed to provide advice on this matter. I was invited as an expert to testify. However, two weeks before the hearings were scheduled, the Cabinet paper was approved hastily. The main argument put forward was that there was not enough of a labour force for the removal of weeds, manually. However, many weeds have now developed resistance to glyphosate, so that one has to use manual labour to complete the process of weed removal. Second, there is no tracking and post-marketing monitoring process available in Sri Lanka to ensure that this toxic pesticide does not end up in the hands of fruit and vegetable growers and in our food. Third, the regulatory costs of protective equipment, biomonitoring and the certification of the tea and coconut products to ensure that their glyphosate levels are within acceptable limits is costly – a cost that outweighs the benefits. By now it should be clear to the reader that I have a completely opposing view on glyphosate to that of Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva.

Furthermore, in this article Dr. Sarath Gamini describes how, over the past few years, we have seen many untruths, hypocrisy and myths being propagated by professionals misleading the ignorant public and creating social unrest and even violence. As examples, the author describes, among others, several recent incidents, including the alleged sterilization of women without consent in Kurunegala, the propagation of a questionable local medicine that was touted as a cure for Covid-19, and the issue of compulsory cremation of deaths due to Covid. I will not comment on any of these issues for two reasons: First, I was not present in the country when most of these incidents took place; Second, I have not studied the social and political dynamics, surrounding these incidents, and the policies.

Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to say this to Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva: Now that you have talked about glyphosate, please “walk the walk” and demonstrate that you have the expertise on the subject and that you know what the “established knowledge” is. Dr. Sarath Gemini’s view of the established knowledge on glyphosate is completely antithetical to that of mine. Therefore, I would like to invite Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva to a public debate about the toxicity of glyphosate and the appropriateness of using the pesticide in Sri Lanka agriculture.

Dr. SARATH GUNATILAKE

Professor, California State University, Long Beach, California

Diplomate, American Board of Occupational Medicine

Email – sarath.gunatilake@csulb.edu )

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Opinion

Mindset of Arts Graduates

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Hasini Lecamwasam’s article Why are Arts Graduates Unemployable (The Island of 11 May) is an excellent analysis of the topic.

For decades, our universities have turned out Arts Graduates, very well knowing that with most of the basic subjects offered by them, they become unemployable; but what have the authorities done to rectify this waste of government funds which could have been diverted to other educational areas?

In one way, it boils down to falling values, the objective of just obtaining a degree and being a “Upadhi Dharee” being the main purpose. I have come across this myself and have hands on exposure to this.

About a decade ago, the then Government approached some of the large business organisations (Just before a general election) and made an appeal for them to employ at least two graduates, under a special scheme, at a salary of Rs 6,000/= per month. The company I work for, also agreed to consider this, and informed the Ministry concerned accordingly. The Ministry had short listed 12 graduates for us and they were called for interviews. The company wanted me to interview them to see whether we could select two.

All the applicants were Arts Graduates, and seven were over the age of 35 years. Although all our company work is done in English, I made it a point to interview them in Sinhala, just to make them comfortable. All 12 applicants had some avenue of income and some of them were married. There was one who was looking after their own paddy lands (Govithan), another looking after their plots of tea and rubber, selling green leaf and latex, there were two who ran their family grocery shops and businesses, and one other female who had started a small shop (Kade) initially selling eight loaves of bread a day along with other items, and soon ending up selling over 40 loaves of bread and turning the business into a village grocery shop. The others also were engaged in some vocation.

I had one common question for them, that is; why do they want to give up what they were doing at their villages without improving them, and to come to Colombo and get boarded and work for a salary of Rs 6,000.00 per month? You will be surprised that they all had one common answer, ie “Mama Upaadhi Dhaariyek Ne” (Cos I am a degree holder.) My attempt to tell them that the salary would hardly be sufficient to pay for their boarding and food, and that it would be very much more sensible for them to improve what they were already doing, was like pouring water on a duck’s back. This was their mindset.

SARIPUTHRA

Colombo 05

Chief Financial Officer of a

Leading Group of Companies

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