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Between Mahara and Burevi, amid anxiety and relief

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THE WEEK THAT WAS

by Malinda Seneviratne

Fire and brimstone. That’s one way of talking about the week that has passed. Fire, on account of the tragedy that unfolded at the Mahara Prison, brimstone as metaphor for what was feared (but didn’t transpire) by way of a cyclone, Buravi. Of course we are still caught in the so-called Second Wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and a budget debate.

Let’s first get to the Covid-19 situation. As of December 3, total infections confirmed stood at 26,038 against 19,032 recoveries with 129 fatalities. As such, according to Epidemiology Unit data, there are a told of 6,877 active cases. The relevant authorities impose restrictions and, probably following careful monitoring, relax the same and even lift them completely. Colombo is clearly the hardest hit district. This has obvious implications for economic activity. Most institutions have opted to restrict numbers coming to work and have put in place work-from-home systems. Until when, however, is a question that no one can answer.

‘Let’s wait for the vaccine’ is, in a sense, a sign of resignation. The fact of the matter is that despite promising updates on multiple vaccines, there are none yet that the World Health Organizations have approved. Affordability will probably be an issue that will accompany availability. Meanwhile, as has been the case from the beginning of this story, it is best to assume that YOU ARE INFECTED or, if that’s a bit terrifying, to assume that YOU MAY BE INFECTED. So what do you do? Well, if you can’t stay at home, isolated, and indeed aren’t required to since you’ve not tested positive, limit travel, avoid public places, wear a mask as per mask-protocol, wash your hands and maintain recommended social distance. In short, follow guidelines.

That’s what civic responsibility is all about. Of course, not everyone is responsible. Forget civic responsibility, even basic civility is spat at (literally) by some. Yes, we are talking about the incident in Atalugama (yes, the very same village that’s acquired a poor reputation on account of Covid-19) where an infected individual spat in the face of a Public Health Inspector.

Gross, first and foremost. Irresponsible to the core, moreover. If someone is infected, knows it and knowingly acts in a way that could infect someone else that’s not just irresponsible but criminal. Given the nature of the virus and the possibility of death, it has to be treated as equivalent to ‘attempted murder’.

The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), which has been offering regular advice to the Government with regard to how the pandemic ought to be handled has, on behalf of health professionals, issued a dire warning. It is mulling ‘very serious decisions regarding the provision of services for people in the area.’

The GMOA is a trade union. It is made of professionals in the medical field. It has every right to air the grievances of its membership and to contemplate collective action in the face of any act(s) that put them at risk of any kind. The GMOA’s advice should be taken in good faith, but this doesn’t mean that decision-makers should take it as the last word on the matter. They have the qualifications to talk about viruses, diseases and treatment, but they are not experts on the social and economic entirety in which the pandemic is located and moves.

In this instance, it’s about protecting members from possible infection. Understood. However, to contemplate what is essentially the punishment of an entire community for the wrongdoing of a single member of that collective is morally wrong.

After the incident of a Covid-19 infected individual spitting in the face of a Public Health Inspector (PHI) in Atalugama in Bandaragama, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) said health professionals would have to take very serious decisions in future regarding providing their services for the people in the area. They claim, ‘no one in the village spoke against this person (the spitter)’ nor offered support to the PHI officers. That’s not crime enough for a deliberate denial of health services.

 

Let’s go to Mahara. The prison riots and the outcome brought back memories of ‘Welikada’ (2012 and 1983). This time around there wasn’t an armory for the prisoners to raid. The target was the pharmacy. There was unrest over PCR rests and here the blame falls squarely on the health authorities of the prison who were either ignorant or mischievous with respect to possible anxieties and alleviating the same.

 

How did it escalate to a point where arson took place, hostages were taken, prisoners attacking one another and a warranting of the use of force? At the end of it all, 11 persons were dead and over 100 wounded. A prison is all about security but insecurity was what was most evident in this incident.

Whether the victims were in prison for drug-related offenses, petty theft, brigandry or scamming the Central Bank is absolutely irrelevant here. No one subjected to a prison sentence would think he/she would enjoy luxurious accommodation, but neither would they believe they could die there.

 

The Government has taken responsibility. Inquires are under way. Those responsible for negligence or incompetence or both at every key point in the process need to be held accountable.

 

It is not illogical to move from prisons to courts, so let’s discuss judicial appointments. A few weeks ago, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nominated several persons to the Supreme Court. When the 20th Amendment was first proposed, the objectors raised questions about judicial independence. These objectors, nor surprisingly were ardent fans of the 19th Amendment. They applauded the Constitutional Council and decried the Parliamentary Council the 20th would replace it with. The CC was politician-heavy and even the non-politicians were essentially political pals of the then regime, in particular the Ranil Wickremesinghe faction of it. Meritocracy and seniority were shoved aside in favor of the ‘safe’ and ‘loyal.’

Six individuals have now been promoted as judges of the Supreme Court. They were the six most senior judges in line for promotion. A total of 14 have been appointed to the Court of Appeal. Eleven are senior judges of the high courts, two from the Attorney General’s department and the last from the unofficial bar who is in fact a former district judge.

 

Draconian. Hitler-like. Dictator. Military-mindset. Those were the tags pinned on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Well, the president seems to have done an immense disservice to his reputation! His detractors, meanwhile, are in thumb-twiddling land on these appointments.

That said, the course of action chosen by Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not necessarily mean that someone else would do the same if in his place. Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Prime Minister, was ‘okay’ with the Near-n-Dear Mode. If he, or someone like him (and there are many in all political camps), was in Rajapaksa’s shoes, there’s no guarantee that meritocracy and seniority would be similarly affirmed.

 

The President, however, has set a precedent. A good one. Reason has bested emotion and self-interest. We should applaud. Related to all this is of course ‘The Constitution.’ A committee has been appointed to draft a new constitution. The public has been requested to submit recommendations. Well, there’s a set of recommendations which may require constitutional amendment that this committee headed by Romesh de Silva can wipe the dust off and use as a foundational text when deliberating on certain elements of constitutional amendment: The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security.

This committee was appointed in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019. The 17-member committee headed by Malith Jayatilleka, came up with many recommendations on 13 different subject areas which, in their minds, would ‘eliminate new terrorism and extremism,’ or rather threat of the same. It is all about streamlining matters, especially in key areas such as education, religion, media and defence.

The Report was released days before the expected dissolution of Parliament, i.e., on February 19, 2020. That could have been a coincidence. Dissolution was followed by Covid-19 related restrictions and then parliamentary elections. The document was the work of a previous Parliament, true. The movers and shakers of that parliament got creamed on August 5, 2020. Nevertheless, some of the committee members were returned. All this notwithstanding, we don’t have any report that can even come close to this in terms of taking cognizance of relevant factors and recommending corrections with a view to tackling the vexed problem of extremism.

Not all recommendations require constitutional amendment. A simple gazette notification would suffice for most of them to be put into operation. Others may require cabinet approval or acts of parliament. Some, amendment of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Law and the Waqf Law might require an amendment; no doubt interested parties will petition the Supreme Court to hear their objections. All that, for tomorrow. Today, it makes sense to use the report at least as the basis for conversation if not far-reaching restructuring of institutions and adjusting of processes to ensure reconciliation and peace.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his election campaign, fervently pledged that he would work towards a system that affirms the notion ‘One-Country, One-Law.’ The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) used that slogan in the run up to the August elections. They need to make good on that pledge. They have 6.9 million backing them. In fact they have more, for if they use this Report as a base document for reform that aims for cogency in the law, the constituencies of the authors and the parties they represent would significantly swell those numbers. Let us not forget that Sajith Premadasa’s campaign also insisted that the unitary nature of the state would not be fiddled with. His backers also spoke the one-country-one-law language.

The report can be found online if you go to www.parliament.lk and look for ‘committee reports.’ It’s the one right on top. We recommend a close reading of that text.

Finally, we have the anticlimax. Buravi.

There was much anxiety on account of Buravi. It was heartening to hear that the Governor of the Eastern Province, Anuradha Yahampath, visiting villages considered to be at risk, advising them, offering help and instructing all relevant state agencies to be ready for any eventuality. The Disaster Management authorities were ready. Officials on the ground were on alert.

The devastation feared did not take place. One person has gone missing, four are reported to have been injured and over 12,000 persons adversely affected. The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) has released the following numbers: 2, 252 people in 3, 575 families affected, 15 houses fully damaged and 192 partially damaged. A total of 10, 336 persons in 2, 911 families have been placed in 79 safe locations Mannar, Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts.

 

The district-wise breakdown of the affected is as follows. Mannar: 7, 749 people in 2, 236 families; Jaffna: 2,986 people in 829 families; Killinochchi: 41 people in 10 families; Mullaitivu: 1, 149 people in 405 families; Vavuniya: 236 people in 74 families; Trincomalee: 91 people in 21 families.

 

What next? Provincial Councils? Ruling party politicians are making a bit of noise about PC elections. Maybe they are testing waters. It’s in their interest. Political consolidation is part of the story.

PC elections have been repeatedly postponed. This is not a good thing. The democracy-watchdogs, not surprisingly, haven’t uttered a word about this. Interestingly they also happen to be high on ‘devolution.’ Maybe they are punch-drunk. Maybe they were never sober or were unsighted by party loyalty and outcome preferences.

The 13th Amendment, which gave us PCs, was illegally pushed through. However, it is not part of the constitution. As such elections should be held. On the other hand, we are told that a new constitution is on the way. In that case, why waste time and money on maintaining this white elephant which was the issue of an ungainly union between Indian hegemony and a spineless regime way back in 1987? The intended beneficiaries, after all, aren’t lamenting the fact that they haven’t elected representatives to relevant PCs. Administration has not come to a standstill.

The drafters of the new constitution should consider these issues as well. We await word from them on progress made, what we can expect and when. We need to know what they propose to do with the 13th Amendment as well.

One week rolls into another and Covid-19 rolls along. We are relieved that Buravi’s bark was worse than its bite. We are alarmed that ‘Mahara’ happened. We are encouraged by judicial appointments. We remain wary, as is prudent, always.

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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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