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Editorial

Big, bold strokes or hemin hemin?

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it appears, is a firm believer in big, bold strokes in taking far-reaching policy decisions. The recent decision to immediately ban the import of inorganic (chemical) fertilizer is one such. According to reports two fertilizer shipments have already been turned away from our shores. However, stocks of previous imports, believed to be sufficient for short-term requirements are said to be available in the country. So there is a little time yet available to change track if that be the wisest course. Many reputed scientists have published articles in the Lankan press since the ban was first publicized urging that the decision be reconsidered, adducing seemingly valid reasons on why this should be done. There has been no reaction up to now to this request nor has there been credible refutation of the reasons offered by advocates of re-thinking the ban.

There is no doubt that a world without without widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be a better world in environmental terms. But it may also be a hungrier world. Much of the successes in global food production today is attributed to boosting crops by using inorganic fertilizers and protecting them with chemical pesticides. Genetic engineering too has contributed to increased production although there have been many warnings against interfering with nature in some of the ways attempted. However nobody objects to the practice of hybrid agriculture, common for many years, involving cross pollination of two different varieties of plants to get the best traits of the parents in the offspring. We in this country today are able to buy a variety of mango superior to what we were accustomed – though at a price of course – thanks to scientific advances in producing better quality fruit and grain. Older readers will remember a time when there were no seedless grapes that are abundant today.

Writing to a recent issue of The Island, Prof. O.A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry of the Peradeniya University, said an inorganic fertilizer ban will have a “devastating effect” on our economy. Nobody can quarrel with the president’s desire that we make do with compost fertilizer instead of utilizing scarce resources for importing chemical fertilizers issued to farmers at subsidized rates. But the scientific view is that compost alone cannot provide the macro-nutrients necessary for the healthy growth of crops. The president does not disagree with the contention that these inorganic soil supplements mean better crops and resultant better incomes. This applies not only to peasant farmers but also plantations. But he says they pollute waterways – as they no doubt do – and are suspected to cause kidney disease endemic in some agricultural areas. The bottom line according to the president’s thinking is that the cost to society of chemical fertilizer use outweighs the benefits.

The country is virtually self-sufficient in rice today although occasional imports are necessary to tide over temporary difficulties. This has been possible due to the efforts of the Department of Agriculture as well as the development of high yielding varieties such as the ‘miracle rice’ bred at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the sixties. All the pluses achieved would be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertilizer, Ileperuma has said. He agrees that there are positive effects, such as improving soil texture and providing some micro-nutrients. But he says that compost cannot entirely substitute the fertilizer requirements of the high yielding rice varieties now being grown here. That will obviously reduce the income of farmers and also necessitate rice imports to feed the people. The professor has also revealed – what many many may not have known – that rice from some countries, particularly Bangladesh, is laden with arsenic which is an extremely toxic element. As for the argument that inorganic fertilizers is the cause of kidney disease, there is scientific evidence that this is so. It is a suspicion at most and by no means an established fact.

A hemin hemin (slowly, slowly) approach is what is required at this moment. There must be intensive study of the relevant evidence, meticulous evaluation of the various costs and benefits before an ironclad decision to ban fertilizer imports is implemented. We must also look at what is happening elsewhere in the world. Have other countries, many with far better facilities than we can ever hope to match, taken decisions to totally ban the use of chemical fertilizers? What happens in large countries like China and India? When Rachel Carson wrote her celebrated Silent Spring over 50 years ago focusing largely on the negative effects of chemical pesticides, particularly DDT, the world woke up to the dangers that President Rajapaksa has brought to the forefront of our national agenda. But can we forget that we eliminated the scourge of malaria which cost our country hugely in the thirties by using DDT? Very much later we shifted to the less harmful malathion.

There was also the recent decision to ban the import of palm oil which was amended after its impact on the bakery industry surfaced. Whether we will go ahead with the decision to ban cultivation of oil palm, believed by some to guzzle ground water at an unsustainable rate and replant existing plantations with rubber, will be implemented remains to be seen. The big, bold strokes that the president favours undoubtedly helped end our 30-year civil war during his tenure as Defence Secretary. But whether a hasty ban on fertilizer imports, in the teeth of the many dangers highlighted, will have a similar beneficial impact, remains doubtful.



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Editorial

Poaching: Grasp the nettle

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Saturday 19th June, 2021

India has denied media reports that its Navy recently assaulted a group of Sri Lankan fishermen, who claim the attack took place on the high seas. We cannot either confirm or deny these claims. Both sides cannot be expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Fishers are notorious for fish tales, and so are diplomats, who are said to lie abroad for the good of their countries. But the question is who actually set upon the Sri Lankan fishermen, whose torsos and limbs are wealed and raw. (It is not possible that they assaulted themselves or came under an alien attack.) Sometimes, Indian fishermen also complain of attacks by the Sri Lanka Navy, and Colombo promptly denies such allegations.

The real issue here is poaching, and not the complaints that the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen are occasionally assaulted at sea. Sri Lankan fishers are not entirely blameless; there are times when some of them get arrested for illegal fishing in Indian waters. But the number of these poachers pales into insignificance in comparison to that of their Tamil Nadu counterparts who frequently swarm the territorial waters of this country.

The Indian poachers seem to think they have a legitimate right to enter Sri Lankan waters for fishing. Hence their chutzpah to oppose Sri Lanka’s efforts to create new fish breeding grounds by sinking old buses in its territorial waters; these contraptions will damage their boats, they have argued. They have admitted, albeit unwittingly, that they fish in Sri Lankan waters! The actual reason for their protests is their fear that the submerged buses will damage the nets they use for bottom trawling, which is illegal, as Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda has pointed out. Many more old vehicles must be sunk in the sea to prevent bottom trawling.

Poaching is a far more complex issue than it looks, and the politics of it has not been factored into the efforts being made to resolve it. On 04 December 2013, the then Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne disclosed that certain Tamil Nadu politicians were behind the illegal fishing operations in Sri Lankan waters. He said they owned boats, which they made available to Indian fishers on the condition that they fished in Sri Lankan waters. These elements are bent on belittling Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and pitting the Central government of India against this country.

The issue of poaching has remained unsolved all these years because Sri Lanka and India have been seeking a diplomatic solution to a legal problem. Their interventions, purportedly on humanitarian grounds, only encourage poachers, who know their governments will get them off the hook when they get into hot water.

When Indian poachers are taken into custody, Tamil Nadu politicians pressure the Central government to make interventions, and Colombo meekly releases them. Illegal fishing is a punishable offence under the internatioanl law, and must be treated as such. If Sri Lankan fishers enter India’s territorial waters purposely, they must be brought to justice, and the Indian poachers caught in Sri Lankan waters must be dealt with in a similar manner.

The weak-kneed Sri Lankan leaders release the Indian trawlers taken into custody for illegal fishing. This practice must end. All the vessels used for poaching must be confiscated and serious thought must be given to sinking them in the sea as part of the ongoing project to create new fish breeding grounds. This is the way to make the Tamil Nadu politicians stop promoting illegal fishing. India can do likewise to safeguard its interests. Then only the poachers of both countries will realise that they are not above the international law and feel the need to act with restraint. Half-hearted attempts to solve the problem will never reach fruition. Let the nettle be grasped.

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Editorial

Cheers and tears

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Friday 18th June, 2021

The government is behaving like an inebriated nitwit, doing exactly what it should not be doing during a grave health crisis. The ruling party pundits seem to think the only thing people lack in these troubled times is alcohol; it permitted online liquor sales. Thankfully, doctors succeeded in derailing the ill-conceived scheme. But there is no guarantee that it will not be reintroduced during or after lockdowns.

There is a catchy political slogan popular among Sri Lankans: emathilata caar, golayanta baar, janathawata soor—cars for ministers, bars for their henchmen and intoxication for the general public. This political aphorism has held true, over the decades, under successive governments, and the thinking of the present-day leaders exemplifies it.

What possessed the government to permit online liquor sales? Doctors have rightly pointed out that as many as 63 Sri Lankans die of various diseases related to alcoholism daily; this is more or less the number of lives the pandemic is snuffing out at present, here. They argue that the state expenditure on treating alcohol-related diseases is much higher than the revenue from liquor taxes.

The government has failed to ensure that the supplies of essential commodities reach the public efficiently during lockdowns. It has introduced a mobile delivery system, which is not working properly, and there are many complaints of the captive consumers being fleeced by vendors. Allegations abound that even some established supermarket chains abuse the online delivery system to cheat consumers who are made to pay for rotten onions, fruits, etc. Instead of streamlining the existing distribution system and providing economic relief to ensure that the people are fed, the government, in its wisdom, sought to introduce online liquor sales to quench the thirst of tipplers, of all people. Are the SLPP leaders themselves three sheets to the wind?

Problems, nay miseries that lockdowns bring about affect everyone. There is hardly anyone who is not troubled by the lockdown blues. Online liquor sales are certainly not a solution to any of these issues. They, if permitted, would have worsened the suffering of many families with their heads using credit cards for liquor purchases and racking up more debt in the process. The bigwigs of the government who conceived this crazy idea certainly need help from the men in white coats.

Some Excise Department grandees have reportedly sought to justify online liquor sales by claiming that owing to the temporary closure of licensed liquor outlets, bars, etc., bootleggers are having a field day. If so, then it is the fault of the Excise Department and the police. Illicit breweries and shebeens must be raided regularly and the culprits brought to justice. That is what the Excise officers and the long arm of the law are there for. The country is awash with illicit brews of all sorts because bribery and corruption are rampant among Excise officers and police personnel. They have allowed the illegal artificial toddy industry to thrive although extremely harmful materials such as old batteries and urea are used to manufacture the illicit brew, as SJB MP Buddhika Pathirana has revealed in Parliament.

Meanwhile, it is prudent to make all pandemic-related relief programmes female-oriented, for women husband financial resources much better than most men, and selflessly look after their families. Not that all men are selfish, pleasure-seeking creatures who neglect their families, but many males are addicted to alcohol, smoking and even narcotics in some cases and do not scruple to buy intoxicants at the expense of their families. This is why swarms of desperate men jostle and shove near liquor outlets when lockdowns are lifted, and unflinchingly waste their money, which could otherwise be used to meet the nutritional requirements of their families, especially children.

What should be given priority during lockdowns is feeding the public and looking after their health needs. Nobody dies due to being without alcohol for a couple of weeks; in fact, during ‘dry’ lockdowns tipplers’ health improves significantly as their vital organs get some rest. This is the best time for unfortunate dipsomaniacs to kick the habit. About 48 percent of smokers have done so, according to a recent news item in this newspaper. Lockdowns thus have the potential to control three pandemics—Covid-19, smoking and alcoholism. Let the government be urged to heed doctors’ advice.

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Editorial

No faith and no sense

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Thursday 17th June, 2021

The SJB is apparently trying to justify its existence. It is planning to move a motion of no confidence against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila over the recent fuel price hikes which have made the public scream. It is eager to see the back of Gammanpila. Interestingly, it has taken the same position as SLPP General Secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam, who accuses Gammanpila of having aggravated the economic woes of the public and made the government unpopular by jacking up fuel prices, and called for the latter’s resignation. The SJB politicians and Kariyawasam are sworn enemies, but it just so happens that they are singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, as regards the allegations against Gammanpila.

The SJB’s move to oust Gammanpila from the Cabinet will lead to an interesting situation; the government will defeat the no-faith motion in question for its own sake rather than Gammanpila’s, but in so doing it will give the lie to Kariyawasam’s claim that Gammanpila alone should be held responsible for the fuel price hikes. Thus, the SLPP’s vote against the no-faith motion will become an indictment of its own General Secretary! Whether MP Kariyawasam, who is out for Gammanpila’s scalp, will eat his words and vote against the SBJ’s motion remains to be seen.

The SJB knows that its vote of no confidence will flop and give the government an opportunity to score another win in Parliament. Why is it tabling the motion, then? It is apparently trying to put the government on the defensive at least temporarily, and divert the attention of Parliament as well as the public away from the problems it is expected to face after the swearing-in of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is said to be eyeing the post of the Opposition Leader; the SJB is apparently trying to get all anti-government political parties to vote for the no-faith motion against Gammanpila, who is immensely disliked by the JVP and the TNA as well, in a bid to claim that its leader Sajith Premadasa commands the support of the entire Opposition. Maybe, the SJB is also trying to prevent the anti-government forces that are disappointed with its poor performance as the main Opposition party, from rallying around Wickremesinghe.

The SJB is barking up the wrong tree. The government has stood by Gammanpila and taken responsibility for the fuel price hikes, and therefore the no-faith motion at issue should be moved against the government instead of Gammanpila.

Fuel price hikes presage only the beginning of trouble for the public; the worst is yet to come. Speculation is rife that the prices of several other commodities including wheat flour and cooking gas will increase soon. The government is desperate for funds and does not care where they come from; it is like a bull in a pandemic treatment centre, goring hapless Covid patients.

There is no gainsaying that the government has to boost the state revenue, which has dropped due to lockdowns, etc., but it would have been able to do so without hurting the public so much if it had acted prudently in April, when the country should have been closed to prevent an explosive spread of Covid-19. A stitch in April, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, would have saved nine each in May and June. The government played politics with pandemic control in a bid to shore up its crumbling image by allowing the public to revel and forget their worries during the avurudu season. Some television channels keep calling the massive cluster of infections that formed in April ‘avurudu pokura—New Year cluster. Instead, it should be called the pohottu pokura—(lotus) bud cluster—because the government created conditions for its formation.

It is surprising that the Opposition has not moved a no-faith motion against the government for ignoring health experts’ repeated calls for lockdowns in April to prevent the rapid transmission of the virus, exposing the public to danger, mismanaging the vaccination campaign, causing economic hardships to the pandemic-hit people, and trying to import luxury vehicles for the MPs amidst the current crises.

The Opposition does not seem to be with it.

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