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Appropriate time to appreciate Abraham Kovoor and his son Aries

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By Prof.Kirthi Tennakone
(Email: ktenna@yahoo.co.uk),
National Institute of Fundamental Studies

 

Abraham Kovoor and his son, Aries Kovoor, rendered an exemplary service to the nation; it is now largely forgotten and not acknowledged to the extent they deserve. They were unassuming characters whose ideals stand pre-eminently important in the context of retrograde tendencies in the present day society.

A resurgence in actions, based on superstitions and myths rather than rational argument seems to be escalating as evident from recent happenings in our society. Rituals and quackeries have stood in the way of the efforts to contain the pandemic. Deities not known to exist are said to have prescribed cures and disclosed causes of the illness. Listening to folk healers and soothsayers, people suffer or die in situations where a doctor would have cured their condition permanently. Children are made to feel inferior because of their horoscopes. On the eve of the Grade Five Scholarship Examination they are taken to shrines dedicated to various deities. Decisions based on superstition engender harm to individuals and the society and cause backwardness and misery.

Abraham Kovoor stood against superstitious beliefs, debunked occult practices and equated hoaxers to criminals, demanding their prosecution.

Aries Kovoor, following in the footsteps of his illustrious father, upheld rationalistic views and denounced extravagance. His main concern was why Sri Lanka and many other developing countries continued to remain weak in science? Hence the need to determine causes and adopt remedial measures. He was also critical of institutional empire building – the expansion or enhancing the authority of organisations, for purposes made to appear as development, even though in reality, the outcome turned out to be largely the opposite.

 

Abraham Kovoor: A born rationalist

Abraham Kovoor was born to an acclaimed Christian family in Kerala in 1898, His father was the Vicar General of the Thomma Syrian Church of Malabar. Despite his religious upbringing, he began to question dogmas of faith from childhood. He contracted flu, when he was eight years old, and his mother gave him a syrup, asking him to sip it while praying. The child opposed the instruction, saying, “If I take the medicine while praying, I cannot decide which cured the cough – whether it is the medicine or praying. Therefore, I will first consume the syrup and pray later if the cough had not been relieved.”

Abraham received basic education in a Christian Seminary and earned a degree in Biology from the Bengabasi College, Calcutta. After graduation, he served as a lecturer in Botany at CMS College, Kerala, for a short period, and migrated to Sri Lanka in 1928, accepting a teaching assignment at the Jaffna College. Subsequently, he held similar positions at Richmond College, Galle; S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and Thurstan College, Colombo.

Throughout his career, Abraham Kovoor pointed out the fallacies of superstition and obscurantism and the need for enlightening the society. In one of his books, Abraham Kovoor wrote “All those who claim to possess psychic, para-psychic and spiritual powers are either hoaxers or mentally deranged persons suffering from cryptesthesia (psychological disorder of abnormal perceptions). Nobody has and nobody ever had supernatural powers. They exist only in the pages of scripture and sensation mongering newspapers”.

After retirement, Abraham Kovoor invigorated his effort to curb superstition, presenting challenges to be answered by those who believe or indulge in such practices. In 1968, he offered a reward of Rs. 25,000 to anyone who could reveal the serial number of a currency note concealed in an envelope. Later, the value of the reward was increased to Rs. 1000,000. Understandably, none came forward to take up the challenge! A large majority of persons who claim paranormal capabilities, being frauds, fear exposure.

Supernatural powers do not exist to perform feats ruled out by rational logic. All phenomena determined to exist with certainty have been explained in terms of science or under its scrutiny. Everything observable comes under domain of science. The muddle-headed argument that there exist unobservable things, entails no meaning.

Abraham Kovoor, who said “I do not believe that I have a soul or spirit to survive my death and go to heaven or hell, or to roam about as my ghost, or even to be reborn”, passed away 18th September 1978.

 

Aries Kovoor questioned why science was weak in Sri Lanka

Aries Kovoor, born March 3, 1927 completed basic education in Jaffna and pursued a degree course in Botany at the Madras University. Thereafter, he returned to Sri Lanka and worked as a teacher at S. Thomas College. The principal of the school Dr. R.L. Hayman, persuaded him to continue research, making arrangements for him to visit Tata Institute, India, where he studied biological effects of radiation, in a laboratory headed by the nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha. In 1952, he succeeded in earning a research position at Sorbonne University, Paris, later ascending to a professorial rank at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France. He was also Professor at the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka and served as the Advisor on Scientific Affairs to the President of Sri Lanka from 1996-2005.

Aries Kovoor in his capacity as science advisor to the President, analyzed scientific performance of Sri Lanka adopting international norms of judging scientific research.

Scientists are supposed to publish their findings in scholarly journals. Normally, journals accept articles for publication after a strict review by experts in the respective areas of study. Thus, being able to publish in such periodicals, indicate the worthiness of the work. The evidence that your work is read and cited by other authors, further strengthens the recognition of what you have done. Today, there are data bases providing statistics pertaining above criteria determining the quality of research. Aries Kovoor used these data bases to analyze research performance in Sri Lanka. He didn’t fully advocate consensus prevalent in the country that our scientific weakness was a consequence of poor material facilities.

Instead, he believed lack of emphasis on quality of research, institutional bureaucracies and how they were manned, played a bigger role.

Aries Kovoor, opposed institutional empire building, another malady that silently dampens developmental plans and social progress. Empire building means expansion of organisations in terms of material possessions and personnel to meet egos of an individual or group in deviance with the purpose of their establishment. Incompetency, insecurity and seeking undue publicity, prompt empire building. Failure or underperformance, corruption and wasteful consumption of resources are often the causes of empire building.

Aries Kovoor cautioned that the funds allocated to an academic and research institution to achieve an objective should not be utilised to build an extravagant and redundant infrastructure with glorified officials and shining tables. He advocated contractual modes of hiring with higher perks and performance based renewals to ensure elimination of deadwood. The countries where scientific research flourishes have adopted similar strategies.

Aries Kovoor pioneered the establishment of the National Research Council (NRC) of Sri Lanka to accommodate ideals essential for uplifting scientific research and provide funding. He was of the opinion that in order to boost research and higher education, all appointments to academic and research institutions such as Chairmanships, Directors and Members of Governing Boards should be based on their accomplishments. Therefore, he adopted statistics based scholarly publications to recommend the membership of the managing board of NRC. He maintained the view that heads of academic and research institutions should be active researchers, who read write and publish; otherwise, they are unfit to hold such positions. He emphasised that talented Sri Lankan researchers should strive to become leaders in their discipline, and not mere assistants to collaborators overseas.

Aries Kovoor managed NRC as the elected chairman with the help of one single assistant and no other officers. He was always available in office and readily accessible without intervention of a third party, who would truly or falsely say he was not in office or was busy.

The true personality of Aries Kovoor is apparent from the following incident. Once he met with a minor road mishap because he could not properly manoeuvre his old car, when the engine suddenly developed a problem. Although he apologised the aggrieved party expressing willingness to compensate, police took vehicle into custody to check its road worthiness. He was sitting on a bench in the police station for hours. When his official driver arrived, a police officer arrogantly said, “Who this insane man is, he gave a private residential address in Wellawatta and declared he had no religion”. When the driver replied, “He is the Science Advisor to the President”, police officer replied “Sir, why didn’t you tell me all this earlier?”

Aries Kovoor too humble and unassuming in all his dealings, loved to work in the laboratory and amusingly interacted with his students as a primus inter pares. He was a listener, observer and avid reader, rather than talker. At official forums, he spoke mostly when his response pertained to an important decision or a clarification. Unlike his father, he never made public appearances, but was keen to engage in intellectual dialogue with students and colleagues. His attitude was not to work tirelessly to gain credit for himself, but to encourage and praise the good work of others. Unfortunately, such persons do not shine manifestly in the society; many whose success owes much to them, rarely recollect and fail to acknowledge.

Aries Kovoor remained active in his research and mentorship until he reached the age 80 years. He passed away peacefully on 1st December, 2006.

 

 

 

 

Features

31st night…Down Under

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The NYE scene at the Grand Reception Centre, in Melbourne

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, the Voluntary Outreach Club (VOC) in Victoria, Australia, was able to hold a successful New Year’s Eve celebration, at The Grand Reception Centre, in Cathies Lane, Wantirna South.

In a venue that comfortably holds 800, the 200 guests (Covid restrictions), spanning three generations, had plenty of room to move around and dance to the array of fabulous music provided by the four bands – Replay 6, Ebony, Cloud 9 with Sonali, Redemption and All About That Brass. 

The drinks provided, they say, oiled the rusty feet of the guests, who were able to finally dress up and attend such an event after nine months of lockdown and restrictions. With plenty of room for dancing, the guests had a thoroughly enjoyable time. 

According to an insider, the sustenance of an antipasto platter, eastern and western smorgasbord, and the midnight milk rice and katta sambol, were simply delicious, not forgetting the fantastic service provided by Jude de Silva, AJ Senewiratne and The Grand staff.

The icing on the cake, I’m told, was the hugely generous sponsorship of the bands by Bert Ekenaike. This gesture boosted the coffers of the VOC, which helps 80 beneficiaries, in Sri Lanka, comprising singles and couples, by sending Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 3,500, per month, to each of these beneficiaries, and augmenting this sum, twice a year, in July and December, with a bonus of the same amounts.

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Fall armyworm:

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Strategies for effective management

by Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

Emeritus Professor of Entomology University of Ruhuna and former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy

Fall armyworm Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera; Noctuidae), a quarantine pest, has been identified as a very destructive insect pest of Maize/Corn. This insect originated in Americas and invaded the African region in 2016 and was detected in India the following year and perhaps would have naturally migrated to Sri Lanka last year from India. Now, it is reported that FAW is present in all districts of Sri Lanka except Nuwara-Eliya and Jaffna. In winter in the USA the pest is found in Texas and Florida and subsequent summer when it gets warmed up, the pest migrates up to the Canadian border. The corn belt of China is also at a risk due to its migratory habit and the cost to Africa, due to this invasion, will exceed $ 6 billion. Maize is a staple food crop in Africa and millions depends on it for food. Hence in Africa and now in Asia it is a global food security issue for millions of people that could be at a risk if FAW is not controlled. The adult moth migrates very fast almost 100 km every night and nearly 500 km, before laying 1,500 eggs on average. The entire life cycle lasts 30 days in tropical climate. There are six larval instars and mostly the destruction is caused by the last three instars and the growing moth pupates in the soil for 10-12 days and the nocturnal adults lay eggs on leaves for about 10 days The pest thrives on about 80 host plants but the most preferable host is Corn/Maize. In Sri Lanka the preferred hosts includes Kurakkan and Sugarcane in addition to Maize. The symptoms of damage- scrapping of leaves, pin holes, small to medium elongated holes. Loss of top portion of leaves fecal pellets in leaf whorl which are easily recognizable. The Comb is also attacked in later stages with a heavy infestation, but after removing the FAW affected portion of the comb the remaining portion is still suitable for consumption and there is no fear of any toxicity. There are two morphologically identical strains––maize strain that feeds on maize and sorghum, and rice strain that feeds on rice and pasture grasses. However, in Sri Lanka only the maize strain has been detected so far. FAW thrives in a climate where drought is followed by heavy rains on a similar way we have experienced last year.

Although new agricultural insect pests are found in Sri Lanka, from time to time a number of factors make FAW unique (FAO Publication 2018)

1

FAW consumes many different crops 2 FAW spreads quickly across large geographical areas 3.FAW can persists throughout the year. Therefore Sri Lanka needs to develop a coordinated evidence based effort to scout FAW for farming communities and effective monitoring by the research staff

 

Management

Since the pest has already arrived in Sri Lanka, the Government/ Ministry of Agriculture should formulate short, mid and long term strategies for its effective management with all stakeholders. Also it has to be clear that a single strategy ex pesticides will not help in effective control but a proper combination of tactics, such as integrated pest management should be employed in the long term. In the short term, the recommended pesticides by the Department of Agriculture should be employed along with cultural and sanitary control strategies. These strategies have now been formulated and what is required to enlighten the farmers and people by utilizing the trained staff. The country should be placed on a war footing and an emergency should be declared in the affected areas to coordinate the control strategies. The integrated control tactics, such as cultural control, should be integrated with pesticides based on the recommendation of the research staff. The residues should be destroyed after harvest and avoid late planting and staggered planting. The Ministry of Agriculture should create awareness among the farmers and train the farmers on early detection of egg masses found on leaves and destroy them by hand. The pesticides for FAW control is recommended by the Department of Agriculture (Please contact Registrar of Pesticides of the Department of Agriculture for the recommended list of Pesticides) and they have to make it available at subsidized rates or given free with technical information considering the emergency. When the larvae are small early detection and proper timing of pesticides are critical for elimination of the pest. With this outbreak some farmers and the private sector is engaged using highly hazardous pesticides which should be avoided to make way for sustainable alternatives. The Department Entomologists should train the farmers for early detection of egg masses when present on 5% of the plants and when 25% of the plants show damage symptoms and live larvae are present on war footing. The economic threshold has been calculated as 2-3 live larvae per plant and the control strategies should commence as soon as this threshold is detected by visual observation. The majority of development officers, agriculture and science graduates working in Divisional Secretariats, are already trained on pest control and their participation on training the farmers for early detection and pesticide selection and application warrants the strategy. Some of the recommended pesticides are follows: Chlorantraniliprole 200g/1SC: Trade name Corogen, Emamectin benzoate 5%SG: Trade name Proclaim,, Flubendiamide 24% WG : Trade name Belt. The Principle Entomologist of the Dry Zone Research Station of the Department of Agriculture ( Mrs KNC Gunawardena) has prepared an effective online presentation on FAW control and this has to be shared by all. The African country Ghana has declared a state of emergency in response to this invasion as Maize is a staple crop which should be followed by us in Sri Lanka.

The long term strategies include early detection. Stopping its spread and initiation of a long term research programme to identify tolerant varieties and granting permission to import such varieties as seeds. The country should ear mark on a Biological control strategy by breeding and releasing FAW parasitoids regularly. In USA larval parasitoids such as Apanteles marginiventris, Chelonus insularis and Microplitis manilae have contributed to keep the pest population down along with egg parasitoids Trichrogramma spp and a similar program should be initiated in the affected districts. Finally the best option is to establish a task force with the involvement of entomologists, extension personnel along with the administrators and scientists working in the universities to ensure the country are safe with regards to food security

 

 

The author has read for a PhD at University of Florida Gainesville in the USA in 1985 and his PhD thesis exclusively deals on Fall armyworm parasitoids and its ecology

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President’s decision on Colombo Port in national interest

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by Jehan Perera

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced that the government will be entering into an agreement with the Adani Group, based in India, to offer them 49 percent of the shares in a joint venture company. This joint venture will include Japanese government financing and will manage one of the terminals in the Colombo port. The entry of Adani Group, into the Colombo port, has been opposed by a wide coalition of organisations, ranging from port workers, and left political parties, to nationalists and civil society groups. These groups have little in common with each other but on this particular issue they have made common cause and even held joint protests together. The main thrust of their objections is that control over the East Terminal of the Colombo port will pass into foreign hands and result in an erosion of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

The cause for alarm, among the protesting groups, may be fueled by the observation that one by one, the ports of Sri Lanka are being utilized by foreign powers. In particular, China has entered into Sri Lanka in a big way, obtaining a 99-year lease in the Hambantota port that it constructed. The Hambantota port, in its early period, showed it was economically unviable in the absence of Chinese cooperation. The burden of debt repayment induced the previous government to enter into this agreement which may become unfavorable in terms of national sovereignty. There were protests at the time of the signing of that lease agreement, too, though not as effective as the present protests regarding the change of management in the Colombo port, which is led by the very forces that helped to bring the present government into power.

In addition to the Hambantota port, control over the South Terminal in the Colombo port, and a section of the harbour, has been given to China through one of its companies on a 35-year lease. In both cases, large Chinese investments have helped to upgrade Sri Lanka’s capacity to attract international shipping lines to make use of the port facilities. The Hambantota port, in particular, could benefit enormously from Chinese ships that traverse the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa. Instead of making refuelling stops elsewhere along the way, such as Singapore, they could now come to Hambantota. However, with these investments would also come a Chinese presence that could cause concerns among international actors that have geopolitics in mind. It may be that these concerns are finding expression in the opposition to the Indian entry into the Colombo port.

 

RATIONAL ANALYSIS

It will not only be Sri Lankans who are concerned about the Chinese presence in the country’s ports. As Sri Lanka’s nearest neighbour, India, too, would have concerns, which are mirrored by other international powers, such as Japan. It might be remembered that when Japan’s prime minister visited Sri Lanka, in 2014, there was a diplomatic furor that a Chinese submarine entered the Colombo port, unannounced, even to the Sri Lankan government, and docked there. With its excellent relations with China, that go back to the 1950s, when the two countries signed a barter agreement, exchanging rice for rubber, most Sri Lankans would tend to see such Chinese actions in a benign light. In recent years, China has emerged as Sri Lanka’s largest donor and its assistance is much appreciated. However, India’s relations with China are more complex.

The two countries have massive trade links, but they have also gone to war with each other due to territorial disputes. Even at the present time Indian and Chinese troops are in a stand-off on their disputed Himalayan border. In this context, India would be concerned that the Chinese presence in Sri Lankan ports could eventually take the form of an overall strategy to encircle it and use this leverage to India’s disadvantage. Sri Lanka’s location at the bottom of the Asian continent gives it a strategic importance in the Indian Ocean that goes beyond any possible India-China rivalry. The recent visit of US Secretary of State to Sri Lanka included an acerbic exchange of words between the US and Chinese representatives on that occasion and an open call to Sri Lanka to take sides, or not to take sides. As a small actor in itself, Sri Lanka would have no interest in getting involved in international geopolitics and has a longstanding policy of non-alignment and friendship with all.

More than anyone else, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be aware of these geopolitical issues. As Defence Secretary, during the years of war with the LTTE, he was a key member of the government team that obtained wide ranging international support for prosecuting the war. Today, the President’s key advisers include those with military backgrounds who have special expertise in geopolitical analysis and who have spent time in leading military academies in different parts of the world, including the US, China and India. This contrasts with the more parochial thinking of political, nationalist and even civil society groups who have come out in opposition to the agreement that the government has entered into with the Indian company to manage the Eastern Terminal of the Colombo port.

 

GEOPOLITICAL IMPERATIVE

President Rajapaksa was elected to the presidency in the context of the security debacle of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks and with the expectation that he would provide clear-cut leadership in protecting the country’s national security without permitting partisan interests from becoming obstacles. In his meeting with the representatives of the trade unions, opposing the handing of management of the Eastern Terminal to foreign hands, the President is reported to have said that geopolitics had also to be taken into account. As many as 23 trade unions, representing the Ports Authority, the National Organisations collective, and a number of civil organizations, have joined the formation of a new national movement named the ‘Movement to protect the East Container Terminal’.

One of those political representatives at the meeting, leader of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), Pubudu Jayagoda, is reported to have said, “When trade unions met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday (13), he told them about the broad geopolitical factors in play. This is reminiscent when the unions met former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a few years back. The unions told Wickremesinghe what they told Rajapaksa––the ECT could be operated by Sri Lanka in a profitable manner. Wickremesinghe told the union representatives, ‘You are talking about the port, I am talking about geopolitics’.” However, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may not have had the necessary political power to ensure that his vision prevailed and failed to ensure the implementation of the agreement.

Entering into the agreement with the Indian company will serve Sri Lanka’s national interests in several ways. By ensuring that India is given a presence in Sri Lanka’s most important port, it will reassure our closest neighbour, as well as Japan, which has been Sri Lanka’s most consistent international donor, that our national security interests and theirs are not in opposition to each other. Second, it takes cognizance of the reality that about two-thirds of the Colombo port’s shipping is due to transshipment with India, and thereby ensures that this profitable business continues. Third, it will give Sri Lanka more leverage to negotiate with India regarding key concerns, which includes Indian support to Sri Lanka at international forums and in providing guarantees for the unity of the country in the face of possible future threats and the need to ensure devolution of power to satisfy ethnic minority aspirations.

 

 

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