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Opinion

Beautification of Colombo: A negative move

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by Ashley de Vos

Desamanya, Vidya Jyothi, Jathika Uruma Pranama Prasada

Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a vision for the beautification of the important parts of Colombo. Some may not agree, but to a great extent this was achieved. He did not hide, but was totally transparent with what he did. We saw trees being cut and the pavements and walkways built. The excessive use of pavements has increased the accumulation of heat due to the creation of heat soaks. Jogging tracks with trees planted away from pavements have benefited many who use them with great appreciation. We have got used to seeing and enjoying the spaces being created.

The trees and the road in front of the National Museum are precious where the beautification of Colombo is concerned. Many years ago, we fought hard to save the majestic Nuga tree in front of the Mayor’s residence at the junction with the Colombo Public Library. There were many meetings with the Director General of the Road Development Authority (RDA).

We were requested to make proposals as to how it could be saved. We did. The concept of the layby round the tree was the result. This concept was taken further to save the trees in front of the CNAPT and the Tennis Club and to create an essential space for a shaded car park. This was achieved and it is working well. The visionary RDA DG Malla, my classmate, and other decision-makers in the RDA should be congratulated on their focussed vision in helping Mr. Rajapaksa enhance his beautification scheme for Colombo.

The Museum and its front wall are part of a declared and protected monument, and as such, it is illegal to destroy or encroach into the museum premises for any activity other than works related to the enhancement of the Museum. The front wall by the road is an inherent part of the protected monument and should remain intact. The road as it stands reduces the speed of traffic that would otherwise be a danger to those trying to access the Museum. It worked well and everyone was

happy. The Museum Director General and garden staff should be congratulated on the great interest they take in the maintenance of the lawn and the low hedge line that defines the space. The lawn as well as the low hedge is an inherent part of the architecture of the period. But then not everyone knows or appreciates history. This expression in the extensive lawn and the low hedge with the statue in the foreground and the Museum building in the back ground has become a tourist attraction as many foreigners stand on the pavement outside and take photographs of the lawn and century old Museum building to take back as a memento of their trip to Colombo.

It needs an understanding of history to appreciate that even colonial buildings are periodised and had their facades detailed according to the building timefame of the period. With every passing decade identified by the changes in details. These buildings could be easily dated by a careful study of the details of the façade.

Unfortunately, every colonial period building restored in the recent past in Colombo has the same façade; and this has completely falsified the period during which they were constructed. It may not have been purposely done, but it is a record of a lack of serious historical research or understanding by those responsible prior to the work being undertaken.

Other countries except those with access to cheap oil, either produced by them or robbed from others are moving away from individual transport to mass transport. There is no need to endlessly keep widening roads as it totally destroys the carefully nurtured avenue planting and the quality of the humanness of the environment that every city needs.

Cities were made by people and never people for cities. Except in city states like Singapore, where they have over the years carefully cloned a human to live and work in their artificial environments. Those who could not adopt have already emigrated. These clones do not even smile any more, making one wonder they are even human. Nor was the vehicle made for the city. Otherwise, it would have scaled to the requirements of the city.

The availability of cheap oil led to the manufacture of large petrol-guzzling cars built in the US for people to move from the cities to the suburbs or to vast distances across the country in reasonable comfort with their families. It was the expression of a new affluence—the American Dream.

The Italians had a good vision for the city when Fiat put out the Fiat 500 Millecento to be driven in the narrow streets of Rome and Britain; it came out with the Mini in an effort to maintain the essential human quality of the city environment.

Visionless bureaucrats copy from others. But Sri Lanka with a rich history and an unbroken civilisation of over two thousand five hundred years—one of the oldest in the world—should have a proud vision of its own as to where it wants to be in the future. The vision should be totally different to what anybody else does. We should not become cheap copycats. Sri Lanka should stop being the dumping ground for crap ideas that are totally out of date and what many countries have rejected and moved away from.

Under the cover of the lockdown, a green plastic screen was put up just behind the front wall of the Museum and furious digging with heavy machinery, went on. One sincerely hopes that the trees carefully planted by a previous Director General of the National Museum to record important milestones in the history of the Museum will be safe.

The widening of the road that would cut across the Museum lawn and destroy what one visionary Director General of the RDA created and achieved to help Rajapaksa further enhance the City of Colombo.

Today, Mr. Rajapaksa, as President of the country, should be most disturbed by what is being done. If the aim of the project is what is feared, it will be most unfortunate as a display of utmost disrespect and insensitivity to a monument; it will amount to a wilful destruction of a very important part of Colombo that has been carefully preserved for the practical and visual enjoyment of all.



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Opinion

Cosmic Egg, Jealousy and Rhetoric

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Remarks I made (The Island, 12 Oct) on Upul Wijayawardhana’s article on Astronomy, Astrology, Cosmology, etc., in The Island  of 07 October, weren’t at all meant to be ‘snide’ or derogatory as he wrongly alleges in his 15 October The Island article! I just would have liked him to delve somewhat deeper into the subjects he referred to in his article’s title, without fanning out tongue-in-cheek (his phrase) in various directions anecdotally. He listed scientists doing excellent work both at home and abroad, throwing in vignettes too from their lives. This is inspiring, of course, and cause for much pride; but it would have been more useful if he had included, even briefly, some specific findings from their work that had a bearing on his article’s title.

I am sorry I did not ‘expand’ more on the ‘cosmic-egg’ as, he says, he had wished. Far finer heads are grappling with it with little or no success; its understanding could well be even outside the confines of science as we know it. My purpose was to point out that the Big-Bang couldn’t have been the start of it all, as casually accepted by some. Let’s be happy anyway that the ‘cosmic-egg’ did  ‘expand’ by itself to make the Universe – even without my help!

 In his  15 October article again in a familiar vein, he asks in his title,  ‘Jealousy: is it in our genes?’  As before, he then wavers away to give detailed accounts of some scientists doing excellent work abroad, and of Yohani, the successful young singer, and exhorts us, I assume, not to be jealous of them. Message taken; thanks!

To return to his rhetorical title, if jealousy is indeed in our genes no DNA sequence has been found for it as yet, but fingers are always crossed!

Let’s not scoff at it overmuch either; jealousy’s quite human; and harmless too – but only if indulged in extremely lightly and in passing; it could even prompt initiative and creativity!

 IVOR TITTAWELLA

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Opinion

President must match his words with deeds

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa accompanied by Army Commander General Shavendra Silva for the Army Day celebrations at Saliyapura

We were pleased to read the recent speech delivered at the 72nd anniversary of the Gajaba Regiment by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in which he admitted about the voter disillusionment in his government. We are aware that the government had to contend with unprecedented issues on account of the Covid epidemic, and had to give priority in seeking solutions to the challenges by imposing restrictions to the economic and social activities; while channelling limited resources to medical supplies and social service facilities.

If the President is prepared to review and turn a new page for the improvement of the country, one should expect the President to rehash the decision-making procedure of the Government. The voters are of the view that some of the crucial steps adopted, were either introduced or implemented in some instances, without recognising the impact on the country’s sovereignty and security.

As an initial step, the President should consider appointing a National Planning Committee with nationalist-minded experts, to work on a programme to tackle key economic issues and management of nationally important strategic centres for the next four years. Without proceeding ahead haphazardly and creating crisis situations, once such decisions are adopted, if the government can adhere to a plan with a nationalist vision, it will be acceptable to the voters who elected the President. Such a plan should also investigate the country’s priorities, future stability, resources, and national security. The implementation should be transparent and accountable.

Let us examine some of the issues which were tackled without a proper plan, which resulted in causing frustration and disappointment among the voters and the public. The method of overseeing the pricing and supply of commodities, such as sugar, rice, garlic, gas cylinders, etc was atrocious, which brought untold hardships to the consumer and to the producers. The complete mismanagement must be admitted by the government, and a more rational formula will have to be adopted, if the plan is to take the country systematically forward. It is necessary to exercise detailed examination of the supply chain, the storage facilities, and the Government outlets, to get rid of the unconscionable profiteers awaiting to fleece the consumers and marginalise the public organisations, which are established to protect the consumers. Once a rational decision is taken, the government should pursue the implementation with determination; rather than surrender to the dictates of the unscrupulous middlemen who hold onto the stocks, causing loss of confidence of the public.

A crucial area which needs urgent review is how to regulate luxury and semi-luxury imports, which consumes a considerable amount of foreign exchange earned by export of goods and services, including the foreign remittances of Sri Lankan workers. At least as a short term measure, the free trade introduced by JRJ about 40 years ago, should be re-examined and suitable qualitative controls should be introduced, to curb the outflow of foreign exchange for non-essential goods.

The President’s holistic decision on the banning of chemical fertiliser is, indeed, a step in the right direction, which will bring expected results in the improvement in soil and water quality and the general health of the masses. However, such a crucial decision was not followed professionally to ascertain the availability of other nutrients, and enough supply of compost fertiliser to apply in the following growing season. The unscientific method of managing the subject gave opportunities to many to engage in public agitation against this holistic decision.

It was, indeed, ironic to hear the slogans mouthed by ‘farmers’ of 2021 demanding chemical fertiliser, whereas their fathers were demonstrating in 1970s decrying the government’s and the officials’ dictates to replace bio-fertilizers with chemical fertiliser to ‘usher in thegreen revolution ‘. It is the wish of the majority of the population to get rid of the vicious cycle of poisoning, resulting from the use of chemical fertiliser, and we would request the government to take the required steps in the right direction to implement the laudable decision effectively and efficiently.

We need a clear and dedicated policy in relation to our international relations. We must always be nonaligned in our dealings with the big powers who are engaged in a global power game.

We should know the friendly nations who stood by Sri Lanka when it waged war with Tamil Tiger terrorists and subsequently at UNHCR, and about the other countries which attempted to crucify Sri Lanka for defeating the world’s most brutal terrorist organisation. Their attempts to continue persecuting Sri Lanka will naturally weaken the Sri Lankan state, and at all times Sri Lanka should express her rejection of such vicious attempts, and should bring these facts at bi-lateral discussions and multilateral conferences.

India, our neighbour, is leaving no stone unturned until we have PCs and with all powers. Most of the Sri Lankans do not want PCs, an additional tier of administration at a cost of colossal expenditure and with practically no benefits. At a time when Sri Lankans are required to tighten their belts and manage expenditure, the Government must convey to India that all issues can be managed under the present unitary system of Government. Sri Lanka should be noticeably clear on this issue to enable Sri Lanka-India international relationship to prosper. Sri Lanka should also continue bi-lateral discussions with India regarding oil tanks in Trinco, as to how these can be used for the economic development of the country, assuring that Sri Lanka will not allow any other country to have any control over the strategically important Trincomalee harbour. Recently an Indian writer has stated that India does not bother to understand her neighbouring countries, and decides on inter-state policies without considering the expectations of her neighbours. Imposing PCs on Sri Lanka and insistence on the implementation of the failed proposal emanated from the Indian centralised foreign policy machinery, which in this instance primarily addressed the aspirations of the Tamil Nadu agitators, who were expressing their support for the separatists in Sri Lanka. India’s strategy was to kill two birds with one stone, and executed its policy of proposing PCs to weaken the central government of Sri Lanka, while appeasing the extremists in Tamil Nadu to divert their attention from their own struggle for a separatist racist state in India. Sri Lanka should be firm in rejecting the Indian formula to destabilize the country, and continue to address the common issues faced by ordinary people in Sri Lanka, including the minorities living in the periphery.

The mandate given by the public clearly stated that the proportional representation system should be changed, and all future elections should be held according to the number of electorates, and members should represent the electorates based on the percentage of votes gained by the candidates. All who investigated into the system introduced by JRJ were of the view that the system breeds corruption and bribery, while precluding the visible representation of an electorate.

The President recently invited the expatriate Tamil groups, presumably as an effort to improve reconciliation of Sinhala and Tamil views and expectations. Such discussions should be based on specific conditions that the participants do not support separatism in Sri Lanka, and they accept a unitary Sri Lanka. Otherwise, such discussions will only provide opportunities to reopen the subject of traditional homelands, pushing the country back to the unenviable 1990s.

RANJITH SOYSA

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Opinion

Gamble of Provincial Council elections at this time

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By Jehan Perera

There are indications that the government is planning to conduct Provincial Council elections in the early part of next year.  It is reported that the cash-strapped government will be providing parliamentarians, who are in charge of district development, with Rs 100 million each to engage in development activities in their electorates.  In addition, former members of Provincial Councils, and local government authority members will also be entitled to substantial monetary resources to do likewise.  If these large sums of money are made available to politicians to spend prior to the election, they could contribute to the thinking that the government is investing in development for better times, ahead despite the hardships of the present. But the cost of this gamble which will include printing money could be high, so there must be other motivations.

The present situation on the ground is hardly propitious to the conduct of elections.  The economy is in deep trouble with foreign exchange reserves threatening to be negative if scheduled foreign loans are repaid on time unless there is a fresh infusion of foreign loans.   Among the several reasons why foreign exchange is scarce is that the government is keeping the foreign exchange rate artificially low instead of letting market forces determine the price.  This is no different from the price controls that the government attempted to place on rice which led to hoarding and artificial scarcities notwithstanding the declaration of a state of emergency to deal with the hoarders.  If the government relaxes the exchange rate it is likely that the foreign exchange rate, will soar and prices of imports will soar likewise, adding to the inflation in the country.

Some of the present day economic problems are beyond the control of the government to resolve. These would include the loss of economic production due to the months of lockdown that followed the rise in Covid spread.  The contribution of the tourism industry to the economy has been much diminished due to the closure of the country’s airports to prevent infection spread from abroad.  However, some of the economic setbacks have been self-inflicted.  The biggest one is the implementation of the chemical-free agriculture policy on a scale that has no precedent in any other country in the world.  Even the most economically advanced countries, such as Germany, where there is a  high demand for organic food, has only devoted around 10 percent of its agricultural land to chemical-free agriculture. And Switzerland, known as one of the cleanest countries in the world, recently rejected the banning of pesticides at a referendum as voters felt it was impractical.

SINGLEMINDED COMMITMENT

The government has so far shown a singular commitment to going ahead with the decision to have chemical-free agriculture.  There has been some concession to big business interests such as in the case of the tea industry. Some of the necessary chemical inputs for fertiliser are being permitted. However, this is an exception and the general rule that agriculture should take place without chemical inputs continues to prevail.   So far there has not been flexibility shown with the farming community who are coming out publicly in protest as they are seeing their harvests being reduced.  These protests are taking place in all parts of the country and in some areas the small farmers have not been planting crops fearing that the yield will be too small. The government has offered compensation but, given the financial crisis it is in, this is unlikely to materialise in the short term.

 The government’s present policy on organic agriculture appears to be following a military logic that sees the objective clearly and goes for it at all costs. One of the key features of democratic governance is that consultations take place with those whose interests are bound up with issues prior to the implementation of change.  These consultations need to take place at multiple levels over a period of time if the decision being made is likely to have major consequences.  Further it is not sufficient to practice tokenism in consultations.  Often consultations take place but the views generated are not heeded.  Those who consult sometimes appear to be listening but do not really listen nor are they willing to change their preconceived attitudes and plans.  The essence of democratic government is to be responsive to public opinion, and to educate public opinion on new measures that need to be taken in the larger interests of society.

 On the positive side, and to the credit of the government, it is providing space for public protests against its policies.  Speaking in New York at the UN General Assembly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he had instructed the police not to use batons and violence to break up peaceful protests.  Restraint has been shown in the case of the three-month long strike by government school teachers who continue to be paid their salaries while doing no work.  There were initial signs of harsh restraint when Covid control laws were used to detain some of the teachers who were leading the protests.  At this time these strong arm methods of control have stopped.  Unfortunately, however, the problems that the organic farming problems and teachers’ strike pose show no signs of being resolved through compromise.

 MULTIPLE MOTIVATIONS

There may be multiple motivations in holding Provincial Council elections at the present time.  These elections are already three years overdue.  The previous government failed to conduct the elections fearing that a bad performance would send a negative message to people who were already moving away from it. They changed the election law to make it more difficult to hold elections again. However, unlike the previous government, the present government leadership is made of sterner stuff when it comes to holding elections and winning them. It appears to be planning new strategies to regain the upper hand.  The 2022 budget which is to be presented to Parliament later this month will offer the government an opportunity to address the immediate concerns of voters at least in the short term. They may also see elections at this juncture as being helpful to ensure political authority and benefits for its second tier of leaders who will be satisfied with them at the moment.

 There is also speculation that the government’s sudden decision to conduct Provincial Council elections is the result of pressure from the Indian government. It is notable that the government’s announcement was made shortly after the visit to Sri Lanka of India’s Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla.  At his meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa he had reiterated India’s position regarding the need to fully implement the 13th Amendment and to hold the Provincial Council elections at the earliest. During his visit the Indian Foreign Secretary had also urged the Tamil political parties not to look to India for a solution to their problems but to discuss the issues that trouble them and resolve them in dialogue with the Sri Lankan government.

 In this context, the decision of the government to go ahead with Provincial Councial elections is the silver lining to the grey clouds that overhang the country.  It is an indication that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being consistent with the pledges he made in New York at the UN General Assembly.  The holding of Provincial Council elections, even in the present disadvantageous political situation that the government is in gives a positive message that the President is not neglecting his promises to the international community with regard to the reconciliation process. Addressing the root causes of the war and bringing reconciliation between the communities needs to be the number one priority of any government.  The provincial council system as presently constituted is in need of improvement, both in terms of the distribution of powers and resources, but it is the way forward if the ethnic and religious minorities are to feel they are a part of governance structures of the country, and hence co-architects of a shared future in which there is national reconciliation.

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