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Business vs Covid19 or Health before Wealth?



Hard-nosed business has been the bane of many countries when it came to controlling the spread of Covid 19. We see it all over the world, especially where business has influence/control over politics. USA, UK Brazil etc. have suffered and is still suffering the worst brunt of the virus outbreak. Why? Because they listened to business instincts than health warnings. Economics sense took priority over health risks. By their actions, they have jeopardized not only businesses and economies now, but the whole country as a result.

Only a few weeks ago in the Island newspaper, a doctor wrote a very pertinent piece on the choices we are left with in the face of the current pandemic. Open up the country for economic reasons and risk health repercussions or stay closed and healthy. One is at the expense of the other, whether you like it or not. It is the reality. She gave very prudent advice to look for safe economic activities that can flourish within a closed country, at least for the time being.

Sri Lanka which had strict lockdown in the 1st wave of the pandemic, had almost negligible cases and deaths. We beat the virus beautifully. We were one of the top countries in the world to have done so. We have shown the world how it is done, for so many months. But then the economy was biting and Sri Lanka needed to listen to the rumblings of the businesses. As businesses were allowed to open, it was a matter of time.

One can bet on the hard nosed business people to break or flout the health guidelines at their whim. Brandix cluster is a prime example of bending and bypassing health regulations. It cost Sri Lanka a second wave and a heavy price in human lives. Now we are doing the same with tourism. Hard Nosed businessmen have already flouted the health rules within days, and burst the health bubble supposed to be maintained around tourists, Why this total disregard to the risk factors to the rest of the country? It’s Just to keep their businesses going. If the whole country is plunged into a health crisis because of it, is not their worry. Foreign currency jangling in their pockets, is all that matters.

Today the UK went into total lockdown. The USA will follow suit. Japan is declaring an emergency. The world is far from over the hill where Covid 19 is concerned. Sri Lanka will also have to come to total lockdowns soon, if the current trend in the virus spread continues, without being arrested. Whatever the methods and control systems that are in place are not working, it seems. We need to be dynamic in our policies and actions when dealing with this virus. If one method is not working, it needs to be changed, and changed very quickly. We need to respond accordingly.

Yes, the tourism industry is suffering. But this is not the time to revive it with the huge risks involved with that industry. Most countries have closed borders for foreigners. Even India. Some are not even opening to their own countrymen to come in from abroad, as in Canada. This is considering the risk the returnees pose to the rest of their countrymen at home. But what is happening in Sri Lanka? I think it’s a case of too many cooks spoiling the soup situation here. During the first wave, only the president was in charge and he was happy to let the health authorities do their work, unhindered by himself or anybody else. The task force formed was devoid of any political or business interests. They had no other agenda than saving the country from an unknown and microscopic enemy. The forces, police and the health sector was more than equipped to handle it and control it effectively. And they did. Then came elections, and the parliament, and the usual cacophony of noise, opinions, protests, oppositions, etc which the president is compelled to listen to. And of course, the voice of the businesses rose through the mouths of the politicians in the parliament. Rescue us, was their cry .We are going under, they screamed.

As the good doctor who wrote to the Island advised, we need to look local for business. To keep the economy ticking, there are a lot of businesses/economic activities that can be done along with health restrictions. Local supplies, local tourism, local produce and agriculture, and the biggest – the exports. Exports of produce, goods, and services like IT, financial services etc. All this can be done without opening the country to outside risks. We must adhere to the ‘Safety first’ rule, as said in any construction project site.

There are ample examples when health bubbles burst. It’s a matter of time. Brandix was one instance. Now the Ukrainian tourists’ project. It won’t be too long before we have a ‘tourism’ cluster too. This is not going to fare well with any tourist initiatives Sri Lanka will do in the future. Sri Lanka should be known for its wellness and health tourism. Going by the health guidelines ignorance shown by the businessmen, travel agents, service providers etc involved with it, wellness would be the last thing to be associated with Sri Lanka tourism. A country should not be put at risk for the fancy of one businessman, who wants to showcase his colors or rescue his tarnished reputation.

There are many countries that have fared well in the face of this tragic pandemic. Not just wealthy countries like New Zealand, Australia, China etc., who are rich enough to weather the economic battering of a total shutdown; but small countries like Vietnam and Cambodia who have cracked the secret of controlling the pandemic from ravaging their countries. Cambodia has NO deaths and a few 100’s of Covid cases since the pandemic began. How come? I’m sure they suffered economically as much as any other country. But their priorities were right. Health before wealth. Let’s do the same Sri Lanka. Because even if we pursue an economy driven agenda now, the virus will bring us to our knees soon, and force us to total lockdown, like it is doing in countries which dared to carry on business as usual with minimum restrictions. They are all forced to go into total lockdown now. The UK , USA are prime examples of business driven health policies, now paying the price with the lives of their citizens.

What is Sri Lanka’s choice? To go ahead and open up the country, calculating and knowing fully well the human cost of it, and accepting it. Or going it safe for everybody. Unfortunately it looks like this decision is up to the politicians to make. Not the health authorities nor police nor the armed forces, which managed it beautifully all on their own in the first wave of the pandemic.





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Is government in self-destructive mode?



The government seems to have forgotten the two main factors that propelled it to power. One factor was the threat to the national interest that developed due to the evil deeds of the previous government in their disastrous tenure, and the other is the deleterious effect the ruined economy had on the poor people. Governments which never forget what helped them come to power and face electoral debacles.

Of the two political parties that had governed this country, the SLFP is more nationalistic and the UNP is more neo-liberal and pro-West. The latter governed this country from 2015 to 2019, and adopted policies that made the country almost a vassal of the West, and also ruined the economy by robbing the Central Bank. Nobody wants to invest in a country where the government robs its own central bank. Further, that government colluded with the separatists and Western powers to hound the war- winning armed forces. Those misdeeds on the one hand caused an upsurge of nationalism among the middle class and the professionals, and severe hardship among the poor. These two groups that account for more than two thirds of the population could easily be rallied against the government, as never before.

The electoral system that was in operation was not expected to allow anything more than a thin majority, but given the people’s frustration now SLPP won with a huge majority. The economy and nationalism are the two main factors that decide elections in Sri Lanka. Here it is the economy of the poor people, the large majority, that matters. This is evident from the fact that during the period 2010 to 2015 all economic parameters like the GDP, debt ratio, inflation, etc were favourable but the SLFP government lost the election, because their development effort, notwithstanding all indices, did not help the poor people. It seems those big projects that resulted in good economic indices like a high GDP, did not alleviate the hardship of the poor.

This government has the opportunity to base its economic policies on nationalism, to help those who improve the lives of the less affluent. More than 60% of people who voted for this government are poor rural people. The government should have focused on these people.

More than 70% of people live in the villages and are sustained by an agricultural economy. Yet, the government in its recent budget has allocated less than 6% to the development of agriculture. Although it has stopped the import of some goods that could be produced locally, and this has helped the local farmers to some extent, much more should have been done for the development of agriculture.

Not enough is done to initiate the local manufacture of seeds, fertilizer, aggro-chemicals, storage and machinery. At least 20% of the budget should have been allocated for the agriculture, plantations and fisheries sectors. These are the major areas of the economy that need to be developed to improve the living conditions of the rural population. It will also lessen our dependence on foreign imports.

Further, if more money is invested in this sector, it may be possible even to give employment to those workers who are returning from abroad due to Covid, and also reduce the number of people leaving the country for semi-slavery, which is a disgrace to the country, not to mention its adverse social impact.

This is the time for this government to lay the groundwork for the development of the rural economy, health, education, household income, housing, sanitation, availability of potable water etc. It has not allocated sufficient funds for the education of poor people. Economy cannot be improved without developing education. Rural schools lack basic facilities like toilets, pipe- borne water, electricity, buildings. We have seen on TV children and teachers holding umbrellas during classes as roofs are leaking. By developing the national economy the government can “kill two birds with one stone”. Economy of the poor could be improved without compromising the national interest. A national economy would make optimum use of natural and human resources. Experts need not be imported for simple development work and also for solving connected problems. For instance, entomologists need not be brought from abroad to deal with the problem created by the Sena caterpillar. Governments may not have to sell or lease valuable national assets like the harbours, airports, industries sector, if those are better managed. This government pledged in its election campaign to protect the national assets. But now it seems to have forgotten that promise. 6.9 million people who voted for it are disappointed. This is another reason why the government is losing its popularity. No foreign power should be allowed to force the government to sell the country’s national assets. In the context of today’s global geopolitics, Sri Lanka is in a position to resist such pressure.

Further, surely, we cannot be lacking in technical and managerial expertise to run state enterprises. If we are short of money, it is better to wait till we improve our economy and are in a position to find the money. Someday things will improve and we will be able to operate them profitably. If we sell even 49% that is almost half, and we may never get it back. Another area that the government has failed is the environment protection sphere. Unscrupulous racketeers are allowed to do much damage to forests, wetlands, lagoons and other valuable ecosystems which are detected only after the damage is done. Are the officials responsible for looking after these national assets blind, or are their palms well-oiled or are politicians behind these activities. These activities are anti-national and are viewed as such by the people. Unless the government remembers that 6.9 million voted for it, most of them the rural poor, and realizes quickly that the lives of rural people have to be developed based on national economic policies, which make optimum use of natural and human resources available in the country, look after national assets and protect the environment, it will be in trouble come the next election. S. AMARATUNGA

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The ‘Sena’ Caterpillar invasion: Where are we heading?




Emeritus Professor of Entomology, University of Ruhuna

This is a continuation of the previous article written by me, published in The Island on 19 Jan 2021. (Fall Armyworm: Strategies for Effective Management). I also wrote about this pest in 2019 and I have emphasised the following: The Fall armyworm – FAW (Spodoptera frugiperda known as sena caterpillar) female is a strong flier capable of flying more than 100 KMs per day, nearly 500Km of flying during lifetime, depositing 1500 eggs an average. The other factors that are centered on FAW are: FAW consumes many different crops but prefers Maize; also it spreads quickly across large geographical areas, and can persist throughout the year.

The FAW, originated in the Americas, invaded the Africans in 2016, and was detected in the Indian subcontinent, in 2017, and believe the FAW naturally migrated to Sri Lanka, from India, in 2018. Sri Lanka lost the initial opportunity in 2018, as we were not adequately prepared to stop the spread, although the Department of Agriculture did some work; but the FAW was present in all SL districts, except Nuwara-Eliya and Jaffna. The ban on cultivating maize, in the following year helped to contain the spread, but now it is spreading again, confirming the belief that once FAW invaded it will stay.

Hence what are the strategies available now? As we emphasized, the management of FAW has to be centered on Short, Mid and Long-term strategies.


Short-Term Strategies:

Destruction of FAW eggs found on leaves and developing whorl by hand. The middle level expertise in the Department, such as Agricultural Instructors, KVS and the development and Project Assistants, recently recruited to the Government service, along with the farmers, should be trained to detect the eggs and destroy them immediately on the ground. If we miss this opportunity, the eggs will mature and tiny first instars larvae could be seen. At this stage, the only opportunity is to apply a Department of Agriculture approved chemical pesticide, using a knapsack sprayer or power sprayer at the recommended dilution. The names of the recommended pesticides are available with all research and extension officers of the Department of Agriculture.

It is also recommended that no single strategy of FAW pest control will yield strategic results. The employment of Integrated Pest Management Strategies should be carried out, such as combining Chemical control with cultural and sanitary control practices, which will give satisfactory control. When the larvae are small, proper timing and spray of pesticides are critical for elimination of this pest.


Mid-Term Strategies

: It is of paramount importance to understand that elimination of these dangerous pests are to be carried out jointly by the Government and Provincial Councils for effective control. The US University researchers, after working jointly with USDA, have identified the effective parasitoids, and they have released millions of parasitoids using the federal government facilities and the Universities in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Sri Lanka should avail this opportunity by writing to the authorities of the USDA, and arranging to import the strategic parasitoids, already identified to suit tropical countries, such as Sri Lanka.

This reminds me of the imports of eggs. Larval and pupal parasitoids from Indonesia, Malaysia, and establishment of those parasitoids in the WP and Coconut Research Institute to eliminate the Coconut leaf boring caterpillar Promecotheca cumingii n early and mid -70s in Western Province, which is in practical operative till now.


Long-Term Strategies:

Sri Lanka should declare an Emergency if it wants to eleminate the pest. Maize is a staple food of many African countries. The Long-term strategies are early detection of the pest, stopping its spread, and initiation of research programmers to import tolerant varieties, and granting permission to import such tolerant varieties produced by SEEDS giants, such as Monsanto.

However, these could be controversial. The Director General of Agriculture should be the leader and chief executive of this strategy, and no one should undermine his authority, as we witnessed a team of Rwandan experts, from Ghana, coming here and advising farmers without the knowledge of the DG, and even the Minister himself. Still no one knows what sort of pesticidesethese Rwandan Experts have recommended?

(The writer is Former Senior Professor of Agriculture Biology, University of Ruhuna. Received his PhD in Entomology from the University of Florida, USA, in 1985, on a research assistantship. The title of this thesis is on the Fall armyworm, its parasitoids and Ecology for effective management)

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How to avoid water shortages and power cuts



A section of the Southern Expressway affected by floods (file photo)


It is a strange thing in this country with so many rivers flowing into the sea right round the island, as soon as the rains cease there is a drought and there are thousands affected with no possibility of getting anything out of what they have cultivated, be it rice or vegetables. And while the rains last there are a number of places that get inundated with roads impassable and people displaced from their abodes.

If one recalls the history of this blessed isle it was King Parakramabahu the Great who said that not a drop of water should be allowed to go into the sea without being made use of. That was the era when Sri Lanka exported rice to other neighbouring countries. How did they do this? They had neither sophisticated equipment nor machines that are available now. They also did not have the help of foreign qualified experts. But with whatever skills they had they were able to achieve what they wanted. All this was done by conserving the water from the seasonal rains the island had.

The weather patterns have changed and now we do not get rain as stated in our books on Geography. What we learnt from the books was that the south western monsoon will be from around May to end August/ beginning September. The North eastern monsoon brings rain from November to February. In between these two monsoons there will be convectional rain in the months of April and October. Does the rainy seasons occur as in the book now? Not at all. The weather patterns have changed completely. The farmers are not sure as to when the rains would come, unlike in the good old days.

The rains are unpredicatable. When it rains it pours for a short period. But in that short period there are floods and roads, paddy fields and houses get inundated. The rains cease and the flooding subsides. The authorities have forgotten what happened and they get back to their normal routine until the rains strike again with the same results.

Then there is a prolonged period of drought. Now the reverse happens. There is no water to cultivate and in some areas no water to drink. What has been cultivated has withered away. The farmers are in a quandary as they are unable to pay back the loans they have obtained to cultivate with the hope of repaying after the harvest.

When there is heavy rain for a long period the reservoirs and tanks swell up and then the sluice gates are open to let the excess water out. This water that is let out just gushes out and goes into the sea without being made use of at all. Why is it not possible for the irrigation authorities to have tanks at a lower level to collect the excess water and make use of this water too? There is such a large amount of water that is released like this which can be made use of for cultivation when there is no rain.

The large amount of water carried by the Kalu Ganga has been flowing into the sea from time immemorial without being used for anything other than for people to bathe and bathe their animals. This is a source where the water can be conserved and if possible diverted to the dry zone to assist the farmers in their cultivation.

Even in the city of Colombo when it rains heavily we have seen the same areas getting flooded. This has been the case for a long time. But so far nothing has been done and come the next rain we will experience the same problem. This is so in the areas in Galle, Ratnapura, etc.

It is time the relevant authorities looked into this and do the needful to conserve the large amount of water that flows into the ocean without being made use of. It may be possible to use this water not only for agriculture but also for generation of hydro power. If this can be done, this island will never have to face water cuts and power cuts.


HM Nissanka Warakaulle

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