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Editorial

An intrusion into Yala?

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The Wild Life and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka, established in 1894 when we were Ceylon under the British Empire, has over one and a quarter centuries rendered yeoman service for the preservation of our rapidly vanishing wilderness. Thus the alert it sounded last week that there may, we repeat may, be a possible attempt to intrude into the Yala National Park by the construction of an illegal road must be taken seriously. WNPS is not accusing anybody, least of all the Government, of authorizing such a project. But it’s antenna are up following the surfacing of information that the Director General of Wild Life Conservation (DWC) has authorized three officials of the Archaeological Department to conduct a survey around Akasa Chaitya or Elephant Rock within the Park.

There have been reports that some military officers had accompanied the survey team but these have not been verified. As WNPS has said in a statement we publish in today’s issue of our newspaper, it is yet to learn the real scope and purpose of the survey but it was deeply concerned by these developments in the context of what has been happening over the past 10-12 years. Certain “interested parties,” it says, have ambitions to lay claim to the ancient Akasa Chaitya site as a place of pilgrimage and build a road to it from Sithulpahuwa. The dangers of such a road being built is self-evident. WNPS warns this would lead to “the catastrophic division” of one of the country’s premier National Parks which is a precious resource. It is not necessary to labor the fact that our National Parks are already over-visited resulting in serious consequences for wildlife living within them. The construction of any new road would obviously aggravate this already sorry situation.

All Lankans of goodwill, anxious to preserve what is left of the country’s natural heritage, will join WNPS in hoping that what is happening is no more than an archaeological survey of an ancient site and not what it called “a feint for more sinister purposes.” Denials of such intent have already made by the Minister of Wild Life and others including Minister Namal Rajapaksa who has a special interest in his home district of Hambantota where Yala is located. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, a wildlife enthusiast, has gone public with a contrary view. However that be, it is incumbent on all to be wary of possible dangers in the context of past experiences. The process of chipping away or aggressively intruding into natural reserves in the name of development has been gaining momentum over the years; this despite several bad experiences ex post facto of consequences of such intrusion. The country is now saddled with the human-elephant conflict which has assumed massive proportions with tragic consequences for both elephants and humans. Everybody knows that the Sinharaja rain forest continues to be under grave threat and it was only recently that an attempt to build a reservoir within it was abandoned thanks to public opinion. The Archbishop and the Catholic Church are resisting an attempted assault on Muthurajawela. The Thalangama wetland is under threat by an expressway. The list goes on.

There is no escaping the reality that a fine balance must be struck between the country’s development needs and environmental concerns. There will never be a proper answer to where the priority must lie. This will be a continuing struggle not only in Sri Lanka but throughout the planet. We already know how human activity has sped climate change to the detriment of not just mankind but all living beings. The population challenge that the earth faces is ever-growing though developing technology and scientific advance will provide some though not all the answers. Developmental and environmental interests will always be in conflict but increased ‘green’ awareness will act as a brake of some sort.

 

 

Marx, Lenin or Stalin?

 

Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachi went on record with a delectable one-liner by recently saying that it matters not whether it’s Marx, Lenin or Stalin, all those who broke the Covid rules would have to bear the consequences. The reference of course was to the teachers union boss Joseph Stalin who was in quarantine at Mullaitivu as this is being written. Few, if any, will buy into the claim that the government had no hand in giving Stalin the treatment his namesake in the Soviet Union meted out to his people; it was all action by the police on orders of the Director-General of Health to deal with the fast-spreading virus, the rulers have claimed.

The government was obviously getting seriously bothered with the myriads of protests occurring countrywide beamed into hundreds of thousands of homes every evening by television. Such protests were first against fertilizer shortages and then against the forthcoming Kotelawala Defence University Bill. Farmers also protested about not being able to market their produce. Hence the heavy handed response sending off their leaders to distant quarantine. This despite their being bailed out by the courts. Such action is now being challenged and the outcome is yet down the road. Meanwhile several protest leaders had tested Covid negative but were yet being held in quarantine. The powers that be had taken their own sweet time in doing the tests, it is alleged. However that be, subsequent protests have been handled less roughly with compromises on both sides: a semblance of social distancing by the protesters and less strong arm tactics on the part of the police.



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Editorial

Friends of the virus

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Tuesday, 3rd August, 2021

Coronavirus is an elusive enemy, and it is a mistake to declare victory prematurely in a country’s war against it. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Arden performed the hongi, a few weeks ago, presumably in a bid to show the world that their countries were safe. But, today, the virus is troubling Australia, again. Brisbane and Gold Coast have been locked down, and the army is patrolling Sydney to ensure that travel restrictions are fully enforced. The US also made the mistake of lowering its guard after a successful vaccination campaign. It now has a resurgence of coronavirus to contend with; the daily infection rate is expected to reach 300,000 soon. The Delta variant has also caused China’s Covid-19 defences to collapse with a surge in infections even in cities declared coronavirus-free. Japan has extended the state of emergency to more areas. This is what the Delta variant is capable of.

It is against this backdrop that the Sri Lankan government’s decision to make all state employees report for work with effect from yesterday should be viewed. When all public sector employees start going to work, buses and trains will be chock-a-block, and the transmission of coronavirus will receive a turbo boost.

True, the country cannot afford to remain closed indefinitely, and it has to be reopened to revive its ailing economy. But caution should be exercised when restrictions are removed. It would have been prudent for the government to stagger the reopening of public institutions. The state sector, which is terribly overstaffed, may be able to maintain its performance at a reasonable level with about one half of its workforce. Some processes in the public sector can be streamlined technologically to make them less labour intensive.

The government says that most of the state employees have been vaccinated against Covid-19, and are therefore safe, but the fact remains that breakthrough infections are on the rise, and the vaccinated people could also transmit the virus, albeit at a lower rate.

Chances are that the ongoing protests by teachers will not be over anytime soon. Infections could fan out through protesting teachers, most of whom are said to be fully vaccinated. When teachers return home after taking part in protests, they may infect their families and friends. It took only a single infected cook to land a whole village in the soup, the other day, in the Kalutara district. Nearly 90 persons contracted Covid-19 thanks to him, according to media reports.

The government deserves praise for its hitherto successful vaccination programme, but unfortunately it is driving trade unions to launch street protests and thereby boost the transmission of the Delta variant. It has got its priorities all mixed up. What possessed it to present the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) bill amidst an unprecedented national health emergency, and provoke other stakeholders into taking to the streets?

The focus of the government and the Opposition should be on beating the virus and reviving the economy. Even the existing national universities lack resources and are struggling to maintain standards. They remain closed due to the pandemic. It defies comprehension why on earth the government is in a mighty hurry to upgrade the defence university at this juncture.

The government should seriously consider putting the KNDU bill on hold, and the protesting teachers ought to stop street demonstrations and opt for talks with the government to have their salary issues sorted out. Unless the spread of the Delta variant is stopped forthwith, the country will have to be closed again. The economy, which is already on oxygen support, will not survive another round of lockdowns; the government will be left without any funds for any university, and the protesting teachers will not receive even their salaries. All workers including those in the private sector and their families will have to starve in such an eventuality. This is the danger that the government and the protesters are exposing the country to. They are the friends of the virus.

 

 

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Editorial

Of that monkey motion

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Monday 2nd August, 2021

A government MP has submitted a private member’s motion seeking parliamentary approval for capturing and sterilising monkeys. He wants these animals relocated to vegetated islands in reservoirs, etc., thereafter. Monkeys cause considerable crop damage, and farmers are desperate to hold them at bay. Various methods have been employed over the years to prevent troops of monkeys from invading villages, and even terrorising people, especially women and children. So, the government MP concerned may have been prompted to come up with the aforesaid plan to solve the problem in response to requests from his constituents, but he does not seem to have obtained expert opinion on the issue.

How to catch so many monkeys has not been specified in the motion, the full text of which we published on Saturday, and it will be an intractable problem unless the government assigns the task to the idling local government members, who are too numerous to be counted.

The motion at issue reminds us of a proposal made by a deputy minister in the yahapalana government. He wanted an open season declared on wild pigs and monkeys, and some of the wild elephants shipped to other countries as gifts. He said the populations of some wild animals had increased exponentially, causing problems to humans, and culling was the solution. The wild boar could be killed and sold for meat, he maintained. His proposal struck a responsive chord with some of the people troubled by wild animals, but drew a lot of criticism from others, especially animal rights activists. He chose to ignore the root cause of the problem—the huge increase in the human population, which has led to the opening up of the natural habitats of animals for cultivation and development purposes. It is not only humans who need lebensraum, or the territory needed for their natural development; animals also do. When space, food and water become scarce, animals invade villages.

The main reason for the human-elephant conflict is that many villages and farmlands have sprung up, unplanned, in the middle of animal territories, causing the depletion of forest cover, and in some cases, even blocking elephant corridors. The methods being used at present to tackle the conflict are outdated, and remedial action proposed by experts such as Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando has gone unheeded. Successive governments have been only throwing money at the problem, as we reported on 22 July.

There are other reasons for wild animal invasions. Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya of the University of Kelaniya has, in a research paper presented at an international conference in 2019, pointed out that the prolonged neglect of forest tanks or kuluwew built for special purposes such as storing rainwater, enriching groundwater level, providing water for wild animals, maintaining the food chain, etc., has caused the problem of wild elephants, monkeys, porcupines, giant squirrels and wild boar invading village ecosystems and threatening the settlers in an unprecedented manner. Insects, rats and snakes also enter residential and farming areas as a result, he has said, concluding that if the kuluwew are renovated systematically and forest ecosystems restored, the wild animal threat can be reduced by about 80 percent. This is something President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has evinced a keen interest in rural development, should give serious thought to.

Meanwhile, it may not be too cynical a view that perhaps the SLPP politicians will not have to run around sterilising monkeys unless their supporters who are encroaching on forest lands apace are reined in; at the rate forest clearance is being carried out, the day may not be far off when we are left with no trees and no wild animals.

As for the aforesaid private member’s motion, a wag says he does not think the translocation of monkeys to islands in reservoirs or rivers will be a solution, if experience is anything to go by; the aggressive anthropoids we send to an ait in a lake near the Colombo city every five years or so do not cease to be a nuisance. They, in fact, become a bigger problem after being sent there, and destroy forests, etc. These troublesome creatures in kapati suit are far more invasive and destructive than the brachiating primates that only seek to satisfy their needs and not unlimited wants. If the main remedy that the monkey motion proposes—sterilisation—had been adopted in dealing with the anthropoids that people sent to the lake isle close to Colombo years ago, the country would have been free from trouble currently being caused by their descendants.

One only hopes the motion in question will prompt the government to ponder the problems that wild animals cause to humans, and vice versa, and enlist the support of experts to solve them, without further delay.

 

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Editorial

1990 – Suwa Seriya’s success story

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That perhaps is the country’s best known telephone number. Punch those four digits on any telephone and an ambulance will be at your door in less than 15 minutes, the average time of response. This is what the Suwa Seriya Ambulance Service, launched against a myriad of obstacles five years ago, has given the sick and injured free, gratis and for nothing rushing nearly a million people for hospital care since its innauguration. For many of them, this has been a life saver thanks to something a country, long used to doing otherwise, got right. It was not all plain sailing though. There was very strong opposition to the project, funded by India on a grant basis. The powerful Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) opposed it. So did several other influential parties and groups fearing job losses for locals, misplaced nationalism and other reasons now proved wrong. At the initial stages, even parking the ambulances in government hospitals was not permitted. But it has all ended well and today it is acknowledged to be one of the finest public services available to Sri Lankans.

Last week, Suwa Seriya which means “a journey to health/wellness” celebrated its fifth anniversary. The project was launched at the initiative of Dr. Harsha de Silva, then a non-cabinet minister of the Yahapalana government and now an Opposition MP. He suffered a traumatic experience on a trip to the Eastern Province with a group of family and friends when one of their vehicles suffered an accident and a member of the party was seriously hurt. Getting an ambulance to rush the injured to hospital proved problematic. It was then that the germ of the project that has given this country so much during the last five years came to be. De Silva says in an article we publish in this issue of our newspaper that on July 28, 2026, what was called the 1990 Suwa Seriya Project was launched in the Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces with 88 ambulances purchased from India with a grant of USD 7.6 million. Following the success of that pilot project, India granted a further USD 15.2 million to cover the whole island with the service.

Today as many as 297 ambulances are operated countrywide and they are a common sight even in remote areas. The service is managed entirely at the expense of the Government of Sri Lanka through the Suwa Seriya Foundation set up by an Act of Parliament. It is run by an eminent group working in an honorary capacity. There is no gainsaying the founder’s claim that the “last five years have been a period of healing for the country.” People who have benefited from the service and their near and dear are all too aware of its value as also a wider segment of the population who have seen and heard of the good that it has done and continues to do. All of us Lankans must be truly grateful to India for gifting us this invaluable service, her second biggest donation to an immediate neighbour. In value terms, it is only behind the ongoing 60,000 houses grant costing nearly USD 400 million. There was one condition attached to the gift – that after the initial phase, the Government of Sri Lanka must take over the service and run it. “We readily agreed,” de Silva says.

Making an outright grant to purchase the ambulances was not all that India did to get the service started and keep it running. Since the project was setup, New Delhi and Colombo organized training for Lankan ambulancemen and technicians to hone their skills at a specialized institution in Hyderabad. The well known newspaper, The Hindu, in a recent report marking the fifth anniversary of the ambulance service reported that so far, all 709 technicians working round the clock for Suwa Seriya have been trained in India. The report quoted Sohan de Silva, Suwa Seriya’s CEO, saying that this hands-on training has greatly helped our emergency technicians who also undergo refresher programmes periodically. The not-for-profit Foundation which runs the service has a staff of 1,400 and is a semi-government institution including medical technicians and drivers. It is under the purview of the Ministry of Health with State Minister Sudharshini Fernandopulle, a qualified doctor, in charge. While each ambulance carry a sticker saying it is a gift from the people of India to the people of Sri Lanka acknowledging the Indian connection, as Harsha de Silva told The Hindu, the service is Sri Lanka’s and run entirely by Sri Lankans.”

It is a matter of satisfaction that despite the political orientation of those who initially opposed the project, the new government is wholeheartedly supporting what its predecessor began. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently went of record saying that the ambulance fleet will be augmented with 112 new vehicles. The situation caused by the current explosion of the Covid pandemic has demonstrated anew the value of this service which has over the past few months redoubled its efforts attending not only to medical and accident related emergencies but also in helping the transfer of Covid-infected patients to hospitals. The country certainly owes a debt of gratitude to India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a personal interest in the project when Dr. Harsha de Silva first made the request to him while he was here on an official visit some years ago. Equally so to de Silva for all the hard work he has put in to make the project the success it is. Thanks are also due to all those others, who in an honorary capacity, helped move it along and continues to help manage it.

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