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A Pervasive Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security

By Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

Biosphere is a common heritage of the mankind. The free flow of fauna and flora is a natural process. The natural flow of fauna and flora does not take in to account the man-made political boundaries in their natural dispersion. In the past, this dispersion has served human kind greatly. Tea and rubber in Sri Lanka can be cited as a good example. These two plants came to Sri Lankan soil from far and dominated the Sri Lankan economy for years. In terms of nature’s systemic flow of fauna and flora around the world, any attempt to have exclusive right or monopoly contradict the the nature. The relationship between the humans and their surrounding is complex and multifaceted. History of human kind is a story of how they made use of their environment, natural and otherwise, for the benefit and progress. Cultures and Knowledge systems evolved as result of this human endeavor. With the advancement of science, their ability to make use of fauna and flora has enhanced rapidly. This has created serious challenges to the biodiversity, which is a cardinal principle of nature of dynamics. The issue of bio-piracy came to the forefront in this context. The use of modern technology and science goes to the extent of exploiting biodiversity and becomes a manipulated act, bio-piracy. Within this complicated process, traditional and indigenous knowledge get misappropriated and exploited. Using the power of science and technology, combined with political and economic might corporates and other actors commits acts of bio piracy, by monopolizing the use of fauna and flora and exploiting the traditional knowledge marginalizing the local and traditional communities who initially owned the knowledge and who were entitled to biodiversity in their locality.

In this context, the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) organized a webinar on the topic “Bio Piracy: Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security”, on Thursday 25th March 2021. Three world renowned Sri Lankan scholars: Prof. Siril Wijesundara, Research Professor (Plant Taxonomy and Conservation) at National Institute of Fundamental Studies and Former Director General at the Department of National Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya; Prof. Veranja Karunarathne, Senior Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Peradeniya and Former Vice Chancellor of SLINTEC ACADEMY, Homagama; and Prof. Sarath Kotagama, Professor Emeritus, Department of Zoology and Environment Science, University of Colombo, presented and shared their views on the topic at the webinar. Prof. Gamini Keerawella, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Peradeniya and the Executive Director of Regional Centre for Strategic Studies moderated the webinar.


Introduction to Bio-Piracy and the formation of Convention on Biological Diversity

Primary thought of bio-piracy comes into being when knowledge becomes livelihood. Knowledge became a livelihood, built on traditional knowledge of indigenous people. With this came the desire to come up with an international agreement of some sorts and there came into being the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1993. This convention came into existence with the idea that biological material need to be considered a resource highlighted Prof. Sarath Kotagama.

Prof. Sarath Kotagama remarked that the word “Biodiversity” was coined in 1986 and put into use in the 1980s, but the discussion about bio-piracy did not start until the recent past. Any piracy or pirate action of bio items is known as bio-piracy. Bio piracy is the practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while by failing to pay fair compensation to the community for which it originates. According to him, the illegal appropriation of life, micro-organisms, plants and animals (including humans) and the traditional knowledge that accompanies it, which then gets commercialized is known as bio-piracy. Doing something “any effort to find biological resources and the related indigenous knowledge for commercial exploitation” is called Bioprospecting. But, until recently, there has been no mention of bio-piracy or bioprospecting even though this had been occurring since the colonial times.

Prof. Kotagama highlighted the fact that biological diversity was a common heritage in the past. It didn’t matter where it originated. But in 1992, after the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the developing countries said traditional knowledge is a sovereign resource that should not be common heritage. By this time, the traditional knowledge and knowledge inherent to indigenous communities was identified as common heritage. Later, in a battle (between the meetings in cities of Washington D.C and Rio De Janeiro) they claimed that the traditional knowledge is not common heritage and it is a sovereign right of the country that owns the bio items and traditional knowledge. According to Prof. Kotagama, even if the ownership was established and the countries secure the sovereign right for bio-items exported from their countries and their traditional knowledge, it was declared that if there is a humanitarian purpose and if it is for the use of humanity, the substance needs to be shared with the rest of the world.

The contest for the sovereign right was more of an effort after the blunder in bio-diplomacy between the United States and Nicaragua. Prof. Kotagama pointed out that when in Nicaragua potato blight occurred and potato started dying, North America had the solution, they had the original gene from the type of potato that Nicaragua was losing. Nicaragua wanted to get the original material the genetic production from the US as a solution to the issue at hand. But because of the political differences the US did not agree to send their genetic production to Nicaragua. Biodiversity issue became a matter of concern with this diplomatic occurrence. Prof. Kotagama highlighted that, with such issues amounting to tensed diplomacy between the countries, after the Convention, how resources must be used sustainably and equitably and how it should be conserved became a point of debate.

According to Prof. Kotagama, when biodiversity came into the picture, animal and plants were looked at differently, more of a resource with a commercial value. Coming to grips of the fact that livelihood is built on the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people (of traditional people) by them mattered most. Still the ongoing destruction of resources and nature in the word of development has not stopped and it is another fact that generated discussion on bio-piracy. What is traditional knowledge is important to know. In-situations – found in the ecosystems natural environment and ex-situation in gardens and home gardens, brought and planted in commercial and non-commercial situation, have an end product, a very good genetic production. Both non-commercial uses, taxonomy and conservation and commercial uses – biotechnology, horticulture, pharmaceutical, ultimately can achieve genetic production. All these together are considered traditional knowledge. This knowledge base was what has been in use and data were collected from the availability of such information. Taking substances from traditional knowledge it will be brought to a commercial platform and look at in benefiting from monetary way. Prof. Kotagama highlighted that giving it a commercial value is the issue. It comes to a point where some countries make money out of somebody else’s knowledge and possessions mercilessly.


Historical background of Bio-Piracy

Prof. Keerawella in his introduction highlighted that Patenting system as a form of blatant colonialism as it monopolizes the ownership of bio items of other countries and vested the power and authority in using the items and knowledge related to them with others other than the indigenous communities who owns the knowledge. He stated that one dimension of early colonialism was gathering information and data of fauna and flora from colonized countries and this has been a practice since many decades ago since the colonial times. When colonialism started, Alexander Johnston collected many books that contained information of fauna and flora and they were collected from Sri Lanka and India and he took them to London. Later Sir James Emerson Tennent (1804-1869) in his book “Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical, and Torpographical with Notices of Natural History, Antiquity and Production” recorded all the information gathered on fauna and flora from Sri Lanka. And there is one Williams Johnes who was not only interested in language but culture, plants and animals in Bengal and India. These are the evidence that shows that the knowledge system was the most important aspect in Colonial domination.

The legitimate governments have motivated individuals to do various bio piracy activities, from gathering information to establishing gardens that will enable information gathering of fauna and flora in colonized countries. According to Prof. Siril Wijesundara, some of the historical events of bio-piracy shaped agriculture, forestry and even the economies of recipient countries. According to him, early explorers played a major role in expeditions where plants were involved. In terms of plant expeditions, even in the distanced past 3500 years ago, plants were taken from places they originated by the Egyptian rulers during their military expeditions. Passage of plants across geographical borders, aided by man became prominent about five centuries ago.

In recorded history, Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer and navigator, is the first person to sail directly from Europe to India in 1498. Prof. Wijesundara remarked that the first man to come to India was Da Gama and then lot of other people followed him. Therefore, the Portuguese played a major role in global dissemination of plants. They were the carriers of plants from temperate to tropics areas and vice versa. Some were to become major crops in their new habitats. In terms of introduction of new plants and crops, the Potato, the world’s fourth largest food crop, was introduced to Europe by Spanish conquerors from Peru in the 16th Century.

According to Prof. Wijesundara, the greatest bio-piracy in the 19th century occurred with Sir Henry Alexander Wickham falsely declared 70,000 live seeds of a valuable tree as “academic specimens” and smuggled those out from Brazil to England. Today. It is known as rubber. 27,000 of those germinated and on 12th August 1876, the Colonial Office, sent 38 cases containing 1919 rubber seedlings from Kew Gardens to Ceylon. The seedlings were planted at the Henarathgoda Botanical Gardens in Sri Lanka. In 1877 twenty-two of these young trees were sent to Singapore from Sri Lanka, and seedlings from those trees were distributed throughout Malaysia and Borneo. This is known to be an experimental station. That is how the Asian rubber industry began. In 1848, the British East India Company sent a Scottish Botanist, Robert Fortune on a trip to China to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. Prof. Wijesundara mentioned that the book “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” by Sarah Rose discloses the information on how tea became the most favourite drink of the entire world. Robert Fortune has travelled from China to India and then to Ceylon bringing his stolen knowledge to these countries. These are the very known cases of bio-piracy in the colonial times.

Role of Botanic Gardens in plant introduction

According to Prof. Wijesundara, in the 17th and 18th centuries botanic gardens became key players in the plant introduction process. This continued through to the 19th and early 20th centuries although responsibility for introductions gradually transferred to agricultural stations or Departments of Agriculture. In Sri Lanka, Chief Justice at the time Aleander Johnston, suggested Sir Josehph Banks to have a botanical garden. Then he assigned the task to William Cur to set up a botanical garden. William Cur set up the first Botanical garden in Sri Lanka, in Slave Island. Since the place did not match the occasion, it was going to be moved to somewhere else and the first Botanic Garden Director, an opium addict dies and perished with the idea. In the last century, the British Empire instituted regular plant collections. Some plant collections were not done with the consent of the owners and this is true to many plant collection occurred in the colonized countries.

Bio-Piracy in the Modern Times: The Cases of Neem, Basmati and Turmeric

Both Prof. Sarath Kotagama and Prof. Siril Wijesuriya highlighted how in the modern times bio-piracy is happening citing the cases of Neem, Basmati and Turmeric as classic examples of modern bio-piracy and how the developing countries took action to overturn this trend of unfair patenting – or rather legalizing theft of bio items.

To be continued

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An air of discontent prevails



We have had a series of “Avurudhu parties” here in Aotearoa. No shortage of Kavum, Kokis, Athiraha, and even Wali Thalapa. Buffalo curd available locally and of course imported treacle in abundance. Yours truly has assumed the role of a fly on the wall during these festivities and gleaned much information, worth talking about.

First to get on to the Pearl, the talk of the botched-up vaccination plan and running out of the second dose of vaccine. Bizarre permutations as to what would happen if the second dose was not available on time and to who would be press-ganged into getting the “dodgier” types of vaccine from China and Russia, etc. The possible repercussions of getting a second dose of another type of vaccine to the original, the speculations of which left me rather glad that the general populace of Aotearoa has not been vaccinated to date. The talk moved on to the Easter bombings and the recent comments by leaders of the Roman Catholic church as to the possible perpetrators of the attack. Some increasingly obvious conclusions as to those responsible for the planning and funding of same are being reached by those other than some of us who dared to voice our opinions over a year ago! This combined with the increasing and very rapid unpopularity of the person they elected to high office hoping he was genie of the magic lamp type, and the possible reverse of Hong Kong that could take shape on the reclaimed land near the Colombo port, does not bode well for an already dubious future. By reverse of Hong Kong, I mean Hong Kong is trying to hold out as a bastion for democracy, whilst the proposed port city seems to be modeled on the opposite!

Moving on to Aotearoa, the rest of the world seems to be praying for a leader such as our own Jacinda Ardern, but the fat cats of Aotearoa are getting rather sick of her. Those who own multiple houses and have been setting off their interest payments against their taxes due to a loophole in the law that has now been plugged are grumbling. The fact that most young people can’t afford to buy their first houses due to rich people and property developers snapping up all available property, happily funded by banks who are only interested in the bottom line, is of no consequence to them. The fact that this could lead to so much discontent that it could even lead to armed insurrection doesn’t bother them. They seem to have forgotten that we have had almost no deaths and hardly any Covid 19 cases in our community when they say that the lockdowns, we underwent were too excessive and how the economy and business sector has suffered. These very people throng the stadia during the rugby and cricket games and enjoy music concerts with gay abandon. Megacorporations are not happy about the restrictions that are coming on with regard to the use of Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) due to environmental concerns. To top it all off I had a lecture from my 13-year-old daughter about how I am being “led by the nose” by Jacinda Ardern and her propaganda! Where she got that from could only be from her elder brothers whose get rich quick schemes have seen a setback due to certain leftist policies coming in from the Labour government that is in power with an absolute majority.

I laugh to myself and think about other examples I have seen of self-proclaimed pundits never being content with their lot. My education was in a very large Government school. As a perfect and a member of some sports teams we handled the administration and some of the governance of this school. Later in life when my children were attending a private school I got involved in the Executive committee of the PTA of that school. The “problems” faced by the private school and the vast dramas that were involved in trying to solve those problems were laughable when compared to those faced by even us, senior students (a much lower level in the administration) of the Government school.

It led me to believe that people always grumble. They are never content with their lot and there is always someone plugging their case and trying to sow the seeds of discontent among the populace. If those living in Aotearoa, in the present situation and well aware of the chaos and mayhem that is prevailing in the rest of the world are dissatisfied, when will anyone be satisfied? Everything is relative and one should try to step outside the confines of one’s own situation and look at the broad picture. In the words of learned barristers, I rest my case!

This week’s missive will not be complete without a tribute to the memory of Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. He lived through some of the best and worst times of human existence on this planet and conducted himself impeccably. He showed his humanity and his failings, with a few bloopers down the line but most of those had an undercurrent of humor and couldn’t really be construed as offensive, despite the best efforts of the media and others to make them so. He served as consort to her Majesty the Queen with loyalty and aplomb and he leaves behind an enviable legacy in the world of conservation and youth affairs. It is hoped that his heirs will be up to the task for they face a task which in cricketing terms could be classed as coming into bat after the great Sir Vivian Richards had just scored a century, in his prime. Something very difficult to surpass in skill and entertainment value. Unfortunately, the Duke made just 99. May he rest in peace!


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We have much to learn; and emulation is no disgrace



“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” said Oscar Wilde who, through sharply ironic wit, often proclaimed the absolute truth.

Cassandra quotes him today as she wants to point out how much we in Sri Lanka can benefit by reaping some ideas from the recent royal funeral in Windsor. And she does not excuse herself for placing stress on our mediocrity as juxtaposed with greatness. Nationalists may shout themselves hoarse and bring down a few more majestic trees by decrying the comparison. They can justifiably claim we have a cultural heritage of two and a half millennia but have we remained cultured, following faithfully and correctly the four great religions of the world? A loud NO from Cass, echoed by millions of others. Though Britain’s development of the English language, culture, arts and science was later than our civilization, they outstripped all countries at one time and are again elevated, while we are poised on bankruptcy, with the begging bowl in hand and thugs and thieves as legislators. We in Sri Lanka are mediocre if not degraded against the greatness shown by the Brits in many spheres. This is no Anglophile speaking but a dame who was born when the Brits were leaving us to govern ourselves and grew up with our statesmen doing a jolly good job of it; Sinhalese, Tamil, Burgher, and a few Muslims taking the lead graciously and effectively with complete honesty, to serve the people. They maintained and improved our country so it was admired by others and even some desiring to imitate Ceylon as Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew admitted. And where are we now? Except the Rajapaksa family from Medamulana, wearing rose tinted glasses or with eyes shut by arrogance, and their followers and throngs of sycophants, others see our country and our people for what it, and the people, really are. No need to elaborate.


The funeral of Prince Philip juxtaposed against customs here

The low-key funeral observing all Covid-19 restrictions was noteworthy for being utterly devoid of bombast and vainglory. It was dignified and moving. Cass wonders how many of her readers watched the funeral on Saturday 17, late evening here. Prince Philip had detailed all arrangements from the Navy being prominent and other Forces joining in plus the substitution of the gun carriage with a jeep he had helped design. The horse carriage he was adept at racing was stationed close by the entrance to the chapel. He has bequeathed it to the daughter of his youngest son and Sophie; the Wessexes having been very close to him and the Queen.

The entire proceedings proved first and foremost that the royal family observed strict pandemic restrictions like mask wearing and physical distancing. There was no one rule for them and another rule for us, thus proving beyond doubt that England (usually), and more so the Royal Family (definitely) are a country and an institution despising double standards. The monarch decreed and abided by the same regulations that have restricted everyone else in the UK, sharing their fate. An anecdote is relevant here. The Queen learned that lesson long ago. She was 14 when her mother said, after Buckingham Palace was bombed in September 1940, that she “could look the East End in the face now.”

Do all our people follow rules common to everyone? Oh! My heavens NO! There are differentiations according to layers in society. Shangri La would host a party for a hundred when only 30 are allowed to gather. During the height of the first wave when restrictions were strict, SLPP electioneering saw hordes thrust together and baby carrying, patting heads and hand clasping mostly by Mahinda Rajapaksha sans a mask. He has a charismatic bond with the masses but that needed to be curbed. Sajith Premadasa’s meetings were strict on physical distancing and mask wearing.

Only 30 were invited to the extremely solemn and yes, beautiful funeral service at Windsor Chapel. This meant eliminating even close relatives of the Family; but it was done. The Queen sat distanced from her daughter and sons and their spouses. Her now diminutive figure seated alone emphasized the loneliness she must be feeling after a close and successful marriage of 73 years.

This brings to mind our First Ladies. Cass steps out bravely to say that Elina Jayewardene was a gracious lady of restraint and dignity, the only perfect consort so far. Cass remembers Hema Premadasa beating her breast (true) and crying over the coffin of her late husband’s remains – in the true sense of the word – at the Prez’s funeral at Independence Square. There is dignity in restraint of even tears over a death in public. Among the women Heads of the country, the mother completely beat the daughter in dignity and ability.

We Sri Lankan women are now much more restrained in our mourning at funerals. Time was when widows even hoarsely wailed their sorrow, coiled and roiled with grief, and begged the dear departed “To look once more; say one word.” Cass in all the expressed grief of such funerals suppressed her laughter with difficulty. How would it be if the corpse obliged?

The choir at the funeral of Prince Philip was just four – one woman and three men. But their singing resounded in the high vaulted, completely majestic, centuries old church. The lone kilted piper within the Chapel evoked much. The service itself was short, just a Reading, prayers and listing of the multitude of honours bestowed on the Duke of Edinburgh, whose medals and decorations were on display beside the alter. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Dean of Windsor, David Conner conducted the service.

To conclude, the Duke of Edinburgh had advised and laid stipulations on a simple funeral with the necessary pomp and pageantry but low key and very unostentatious. The actual funeral was even more low-key with mourners requested not to be on the streets or place flowers. The latter they did in all the residencies of the Royal Family in appreciation of a man who faithfully stood by the Queen and in his own way gave service to the nation.

Coming back to Free Sri Lanka, we seem to stress on that first word Cass inserted to the country name, even in these dire times of no crowds. And the worst is milling crowds are apparently encouraged to boost popularity of certain VVIPs by sycophants and by the preference/orders of the VVIP himself.

Consider the funeral of Minister Thondaman: crowds in Colombo and all VIPs wishing to register their presence before the body, and then the commotion at the actual cremation Up Country. Consider this year’s Sinhala New Year celebrations which were very dignified at the President’s residence but were inclusive of all traditions and a large gathering in the PM’s home, even raban playing by the Second Lady, and milling crowds outside.


Roller coaster ride of the country continues

Cass is relieved she had a topic to write on; namely that we should emulate the manner in which the much admired Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral was conducted, abiding by his stricture of it being low key and the country’s Covid restrictions. Our leaders especially must accept the saying I quoted at the beginning.

The country continues its roller coaster bumpy ride with some crying out the country is being sold to the Chinese, we will be a colony of theirs after they occupy the Port City; and others in remote areas sitting down for days on end, some near 100 days, drawing attention to the human elephant conflict. Much is touted about the Bill relating to the rules to govern the Port City.

Cassandra listens to all, and is somewhat warned and frightened, but cannot comment. However, one matter she speaks about loud and clear. The people must be told the status quo of the pandemic – daily numbers catching the infection and numbers dying. This is not for interest sake or ghoulish appetites; but to know how things are so we relax a wee bit or shut in more stringently. The Covid-19 Task Force, or the Health High Ups (not Pavithra please) should tell the country of the true situ of the pandemic as it holds the country in its grip. We want to know whether the grip is tightening or weakening. Please give us daily statistics. This newspaper announces total numbers. No help. Are we expected to jot down figures, subtract, and give ourselves daily infection and death statistics? No! It goes to prove that other matters – political slanted, ego boosting and economics – are more important than warning, containing the pandemic, and saving lives.

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Do you pump Octane 95 Petrol to your car to get better performance?



If your answer is YES, this article is for you

Dr. Saliya Jayasekara.

Senior Lecturer Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Moratuwa

Many passenger vehicles, including three-wheelers and motorcycles are fueled by octane 95 gasoline when octane 92 gasoline (petrol) is available at a lower price. 

Otto engine (petrol engine) is an internal combustion spark ignition engine invented by a German engineer Nicolaus Otto in 1876 and used in most of the light weight vehicles including cars, three wheelers and motor bicycles. Otto engines can burn most of the hydrocarbon fuels (including hydrogen and ethanol) that can mix with air by evaporation (low boiling point). But the combustion characteristics of different hydrocarbons are not the same when burned inside an engine. If an Otto engine is designed for a particular fuel, it would not perform similarly with a fuel that has a different chemical composition.

In a well-tuned Otto engine run on gasoline for which the engine is designed, the combustion of the gasoline (petrol) / air mixture will continue smoothly from the spark plug to the piston head by igniting successive layers of the mixture as shown in Figure 1 (a).

If low grade gasolines are used, the combustion of some of the air/ fuel mixture in the cylinder does not result from propagation of the flame front initiated by the spark plug, but one or more pockets of air/fuel mixture explode (Detonate) outside the envelope of the normal combustion front as shown in Figure 1 (b). This detonation can cause severe damage to the piston and the head of the engine while deteriorating thermal performance of the engine (low efficiency)

Gasoline is a petroleum-derived product comprising a mixture of different hydrocarbons ranging from 4 to 12 carbon atoms in a carbon chain with the boiling point ranging of 30–225°C. It is predominantly a mixture of paraffins, naphthenes, aromatics and olefins. Additives and blending agents are added to improve the performance and stability of gasoline. The engine designers learned that straight-chain paraffin have a much higher tendency to detonate than do branched-chain paraffin.

The tendency of a particular gasoline to detonate is expressed by its octane number (ON). Arbitrarily, tri-methyl-pentane, C8H18 (iso-octane) is assigned an ON of 100, while the straight-chain paraffin n-heptane, C7H16 is given an ON of zero. Hence, a fuel sample with the same anti-detonation quality as that of a mixture containing 90% iso-octane and 10% n-heptane is said to have an ON of 90. Gasoline is made up of a mixture of mostly branched-chain paraffin with suitable additives to give an ON in the range 90 –100. It was also learned through experiments that the ON of a gasoline blends (e.g. gasoline and ethanol) can be calculated by using weighted average ON of each compound. Most importantly, the octane number has nothing to do with the heating value (Calorific value) or the purity of the fuel.

Engine thermodynamics show that engines with a high compression ratio offer higher thermal performance than engines with a low compression ratio. These engines having high compression ratio require high octane gasoline (for example octane 95) to avoid detonation. However, using gasoline having higher octane ratings for the engines designed for a low octane rating (for example, 92 octane) would not provide an additional benefit or loss, other than increased fuel cost.

Therefore, it is important to know the designed octane number of the engine before fueling (refer owner’s manual of the vehicle). For example: the minimum ON requirement for two and three wheelers in south Asia is 87 (The World Bank). Most of the Toyota, Honda and Nissan models including hybrid engines recommend 92 octane gasoline.

Dr. Saliya Jayasekara received the B. Sc. degree in mechanical engineering from university of Moratuwa in 2001, and the M.Sc. and PhD degrees in decentralized power generation systems from Royal institute of technology Sweden and the Melbourne University Australia in 2004 and 2013 respectively. He has well over 13 years of national and international experience in design and installation of centralised/decentralised power plants, boilers (utility/package) and heat exchangers. Currently he is serving as a senior lecture at University of Moratuwa, a visiting lecturer and fellow at Deakin University Australia.

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