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Academics rise to challenge with sustainable solutions



Sri Lanka’s worst post-war economic crisis represents a major blow to the country’s progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), efforts that were already hobbled by the COVID pandemic. However, the situation is also providing impetus to the work of academics that are using their knowledge to tackle the immediate fallout from the crisis, in addition to longer-term sustainability goals, says a report published by the University World News, an online publication that reports on higher education news and developments from a global perspective. It quotes Deepthi Wickramasinghe, conservation biologist and professor at the University of Colombo, having said that university students, from rural areas, studying at the University of Colombo, were cutting down on their food intake to make ends meet.

“In September, Sri Lanka’s cost of living index climbed to a new high over 70%, up from 66.2% in 2020.

“Students from rural areas cannot afford the higher food and living prices in Colombo city.

“With poverty increasing in the country, Sri Lanka will certainly not be able to make progress to achieve its targets by 2030,” she said.

“The [economic] crisis has raised the importance of assessing regional SDG progress, rather than relying on national statistics,” she said.

“Against looming poverty and hunger, the priority in Sri Lanka’s SDG activities should be on support for vulnerable populations – children and the elderly, especially in the low-income sectors,” said Prof Anoma Chandrasekara, at the Department of Applied Nutrition of Faculty of Livestock, Fisheries and Nutrition at the Wayamba University.

Worldwide, SDG progress has been dented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Wickramasinghe said the toll on Sri Lanka, saddled with a huge debt and political uncertainty, is heavy. Imports are restricted to save foreign exchange, and fuel shortages have created major problems, including pushing up public transportation prices, directly affecting poorer populations.

Human rights violations, especially recent arrests of peaceful protesters, in Colombo, have also caused Sri Lanka to deteriorate in terms of SDG 16, ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions’.

A report from an Amnesty International researcher on economic, social and cultural rights, released this month, entitled We Are Near Total Breakdown, also pointed to life-threatening shortages of medicine, such as antibiotics and insulin, and essential equipment.

“To survive we need to eat, and with increasing prices, growing our own food that can provide the necessary proteins and other nutrients is the way forward,” said Visakha Tillekeratne, a nutrition expert involved in a research project started with Wayamba University, in 2019.

“The aim is to encourage people to cultivate a home garden that will provide a good diet. This is a concept [that has] grown out of the pandemic and economic crisis,” said Tillekeratne, who supports rural communities.Supported by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Chandrasekara and her team spearheaded a study on guidelines for a new home garden model, based on technical and dietary reviews.

Chandrasekara has researched the bioactivities, such as antioxidant and glucose response actions of phenolic compounds to ascertain the nutritional value of under-utilised tropical foods, including cereals, legumes, roots and tubers, herbs and condiments.

Nimal Gunatilleke, emeritus professor and a forest biologist, conducting conservation research at the University of Peradeniya, is also a promoter of home-grown funding models to support rural livelihoods.

His research backs the promotion of ‘green labelling’ for local, organically grown foods which contribute to sustainability and improvement of rural livelihoods through traditional cottage industries. ‘Green labelling’ helps smallholder farmers to compete against large plantations that also damage local biodiversity.

Based on his research, he is a leading advocate of additional green financing options beyond Sri Lanka’s traditional approach of loans, grants and national spending measures, which, he said, can reduce the day-to-day impact of the debt crisis. He pointed to the need to rely on other sources of income, apart from a bail-out by the International Monetary Fund currently being discussed by the government.

Gunatilleke has played a role in the development of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Finance Plan established by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, in 2018, to promote green financing as a sustainable financing solution for agriculture, land use and conservation. He advocates the design and development of innovative ways of green financing, such as green bonds, sustainable bonds, climate bonds, etc., that can bring direct benefits to smallholders who are the lifeblood of the Sri Lankan economy.

Gunatilleke contends that ecological schemes are an innovative financial solution to the twin crises of climate change and debt distress in Sri Lanka. “It is a means to mobilise a large amount of financial resources and represents a new source of financing,” he told University World News. Sri Lanka has in place most of its key development strategies and plans for the next several years in conformity with the major global conventions on biodiversity, he explained. “The current [economic] adversity is an opportunity to gain the interest of donor agencies in entering green financing partnerships,” he said.

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Trains on northern railway line will end at Mahawa for five months from 15th January 2023




Minister of Transport and Highways Dr Bandula Gunawardena told Parliament today (28) that trains on the Northern railway line will end at Mahawa for a period of five months commencing 15th January 2023.

The Minister said that repairs to the railway line between Mahawa and Jaffna will commence on 15th January and will be completed within a period of five months.

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SLPP dissidents ask govt. to bring back USD 35 bn ‘parked’ overseas



underscore need to amend Exchange Control Act

By Shamindra Ferdinando

MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, who represents the SLPP dissidents, yesterday (27) alleged that the incumbent government was yet to bring enough pressure to bear on those who had parked as much as USD 36 billion overseas to bring the money back.Cumaratunga said the government’s failure to amend the Exchange Control Act No 12 of 2017 should be examined against the backdrop of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Budget proposal to draw more loans in 2023.

The leader of the civil society group Yuthukama, Cumaratunga, who represents the Uththara Lanka Sabhagaya, one of the breakaway factions of the ruling SLPP, said that two of his colleagues, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Wimal Weerawansa, had, during the ongoing Budget debate, had raised the issue of forex stashed away overseas.

Cumaratunga said that he couldn’t comprehend why the government delayed making it mandatory for exporters to bring back much required foreign exchange.Responding to The Island queries, lawmaker Cumaratunga emphasised that though the vote on the Second Reading of the Budget was approved on Nov. 22, with a majority of 37 votes, it failed to address even the basic issues. Cumaratunga was among 84 MPs who voted against the Budget whereas it received the backing of 121 lawmakers.

The other Yuthukama MP in Parliament Anupa Pasqual, now a State Minister, voted for the Budget.The parliament couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for taking immediate measures to amend the Exchange Control Act No 12 of 2017, the MP said, pointing out in terms of Article 148 that dealt with public finance this issue should have been addressed long ago.

Cumaratunga was not an MP at the time the Yahapalana administration introduced that controversial legislation.The first-time entrant to Parliament said that the government was on its knees before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for USD 2.9 bn spread over a period of four years, whereas exporters deliberately denied the country more than 10 times that amount in much needed forex.

Addressing the Parliament during the debate on the Budget, lawmaker Cumaratunga questioned the role played by the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in introducing the questionable piece of legislation.  Cumaratunga slammed Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, who previously held the Finance portfolio for ignoring the contentious issue of massive amount of money ‘parked’ overseas by exporters.

Declaring that Sabry hadn’t been involved with the then Joint Opposition following the 2015 change of government, lawmaker Cumaratunga questioned the circumstances under which the prominent President’s Counsel entered politics. The activist asked whether it was fair to accommodate Sabry on the SLPP National List in return for his role as leading lawyer for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his current role.

During two speeches in Parliament, MP Cumaratunga dealt with several contentious issues, including an alleged move to deprive farmers of their land. The outspoken MP warned the government of dire consequences of a decision regarding state land that was to be taken soon, while appealing for Premier Dinesh Gunawardena’s intervention.

Referring to a steep increase in the allocation made to the President at the 2023 Budget, MP Cumaratunga said that the President received Rs 2,467 bn last year, Rs 3,044 bn this year and a staggering Rs 7,888 bn next year.

Appreciating a significant drop in the allocation made for the Premier, MP Cumaratunga said that the ministerial staff received Rs 132 bn last year, Rs 217 bn this year and Rs 263 bn next year. Such allocations should be studied taking into consideration the state of the national economy, lawmaker Cumaratunga said, alleging that the Budget didn’t reflect the actual situation.

The MP said that having received the executive presidency, through a vote in Parliament on July 20, to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, the UNP leader was pursuing an agenda contrary to what he preached as Premier (May 12-July 13, 2022).

Referring to statements made by Wickremesinghe during that period pertaining to the then proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution, MP Cumaratunga questioned the rationale in the President holding onto the Finance portfolio. The MP said as Premier Wickremesinghe continuously expressed the view that the President shouldn’t hold any Cabinet portfolio. The MP said that they were of the view that the President should hold the Defence portfolio. Having vowed to strengthen Parliament, President Wickremesinghe could justify his role as the Finance Minister. The President holds several other ministerial portfolios for want of an agreement with the SLPP pertaining to sharing of portfolios.

Referring to the Budget declaration that the government intended to procure Rs 1,000 bn in loans and settle loans amounting to Rs 440 bn, MP Cumaratunga said that the bottom line is the increase in debt. “Aren’t we getting further embroiled in a debt trap?” he asked.

MP Cumaratunga strongly criticized the government for planning to open Mahaweli lands to outsiders. The declaration that profit-making Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance would be privatized, on the pretext of restructuring, came under fire by the MP, who also expressed serious concerns over the proposed privatization of Hilton as well as profit-making sections of SriLankan Airlines.

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Security stickers on bottles of liquor: The corrupt make a killing – Buddhika



More than 100,000 bottles of liquor with fake security stickers are currently in the market, says SJB Matara District MP Buddhika Pathirana. Addressing the media at the Opposition Leader’s office in Colombo, recently, Pathirana said the security sticker racket has deprived the state coffers of billions of rupees in taxes.

“Leading liquor manufacturers are carrying out this racket with the help of some corrupt Excise officials. The business of counterfeit security stickers is far more lucrative than producing dud notes.  The QR codes printed on the so-called security stickers cannot be read by QR reader apps in mobile phones. Now, a lot of people know how to use mobile phones to scan QR codes to access information contained therein. Many software companies as well as open sources offer QR reader apps free of charge to be downloaded to the mobile phones.

“We have been warning of this security sticker project since inception. We have also warned that the company selected for printing QR code stickers for liquor is under a cloud.”

Pathirana said that State Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya too had admitted that artificial toddy is for manufacturing arrack. “Minister Siyambalapitiya has stated that the country’s liquor industry needs at least 150,000 liters of toddy a day but only 45,000 litres can be produced from the coconut palms in the country, and the shortfall is met with artificial toddy. I know that he too is now in a position where he cannot fight against the racketeers because the Finance Ministry officials do not support him,” Pathirana said.

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