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Can the Rajapaksas regain their charisma?

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Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of the more, if not the most, popular political leaders of this country. When he lost the presidential election in 2015, people started visiting him in their thousands, and they had to wait in line to meet and greet him. Such a phenomenon has never been witnessed in this country, particularly in relation to a politician who has lost an election. They were almost apologetic for voting him out of power. Some were worshiping him, some were crying. And when the next election came along, they voted for him with a vengeance as if to make amends for the previous injustice done to him.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also very popular and could have won the election on his own steam if that was necessary. He had proven his capabilities in winning a war that was supposed to be unwinnable, and then developed Colombo City to be the number one city in the world. He was apolitical and was believed to be intolerant of inefficiency and corruption.

Gotabaya took over a government with a very poor economy, which had been brought down due to mismanagement and unprecedented corruption. the GDP which was about 6% in 2014, had been reduced to 2% by 2019. Heavy loans had been obtained with nothing to show for them. The country had been betrayed at the UNHRC in Geneva. The Central Bank had been embezzled, not once but twice. War heroes were being hounded at the behest of foreign powers and LTTE agents. Foreign interference was threatening to make Sri Lanka a subject nation, and perhaps divide the country or create a federal state in the least. People who had spurned the Rajapaksas turned up in millions and voted for them. People domiciled abroad came in their thousands to vote for them. Gotabaya won comfortably and the parliamentary election was won with a two-third majority, which was said to be impossible in a proportional representation voting system. Rajapaksas had done the impossible yet again.

Yet both of them, at the present moment, seem to be in the doldrums, as far as political popularity is concerned. Gotabaya had come to power at the most unfortunate moment. The economy at the time was in a very poor state. And then the country was hit by the pandemic. Initially the pandemic was satisfactorily controlled and the economy also made a V recovery. But the second and third waves proved to be devastating from the health point of view, as well as the economy. Thousands died and the economy contracted by about 11%. Foreign reserves have dried up, and servicing the heavy loans has become almost impossible.

Under such circumstances, what the government should have done was to carefully manage the economy and effectively control the pandemic. The effort to control the pandemic has been excellent. But the economy has been badly affected, not entirely due to the Covid. One of the worst blunders was the sudden ban on the import of chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals. Gotabaya’s reasoning is that what is good must be done no matter what. What is good must be done at any cost. But not when a pandemic is raging and devastating the economy. Not when 30% of the economy is dependent on agricultural exports. Not when 70 % of the people are involved and dependent on an agricultural economy. The warnings of the agricultural scientists were not heard, and now the country is paying the price. Farmers have got onto the streets asking for fertiliser. Vegetable and tea production has reduced significantly. Prices of vegetables have skyrocketed. The adverse effect on the dollar reserves due to the declining tea production would come later.

The government also failed in the attempt to control the mafia involved in rice, sugar, gas, and milk powder rackets. As a result, the cost of living has gone through the ceiling. The government must remember that the cost of living is the biggest single factor that operates in the determination of election outcomes. Several governments, including the Rajapaksa government in 2015, had been rejected by the people due to the high cost of living. If the present trend continues unabated, there is no hope for this government.

The SLPP came into being due to the blunder made by the SLFP in joining the UNP. The SLFP stood for nationalism and represented the national interest and the common man of the country. In contrast, the UNP historically represented the forces that opposed the national interests. This is why Western powers support the UNP and plot to oust SLFP and SLPP governments.

Thus, the question arises whether the country could afford to lose nationalist political leaders like the Rajapaksas, and a political party that represents the national interest — like the SLPP. Could we afford foreign interference once again, interference in internal affairs like constitutional making, the security matters and armed forces, the national economy, etc.? Could we afford to be held to ransom by minority political parties? Could we afford to be betrayed at international fora? like the UNHRC? Could we afford to live in fear of being turned into a federal state? It is of paramount importance that we have a nationalist government in power at this juncture.

The Rajapaksas and the SLPP must not betray the people who had shown immense confidence in them. The country needs them. But not the Rajapaksas who commit blunder after blunder. They must take stock of the situation, be humble enough to accept their mistakes and take corrective measures. There is no moment to waste, they have only three years to correct the blunders of two years. They know what their mistakes are. They must be big enough to accept it and correct themselves. Otherwise, they will be rejected by the people. They must remember that without the farmers’ support they are doomed. And the country, too, would be doomed, for without power the national forces will be ineffective, until a new leadership is developed which may never happen. The Rajapaksas must rise to the occasion.

N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA



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Opinion

CORRUPTION IS CORROSIVE AND CONTAGIOUS

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Corruption is the ultimate criminality. It is also a contagion that spreads both vertically and horizontally. It is clearly eating the heart and vitals of our Nation.Corruption is indisputably a dominant reason for our plight. A lot of sanctimonious scoundrels have promised, with monotonous frequency, to “eradicate” this rampant evil. Each event that unfolds in the all-pervasive political arena, serves to increase the public’s revulsion towards politics and its practitioners.

For instance, everything that emanates from the Diyawanna sewer increases the penetration of this diabolical menace. In our early life, parents and schools drilled in developing minds, a compulsion to adhere to the total rejection of lying and falsehood. No more.

The indelible example of this, we learnt, that in developed countries, the newsagent leaves a pile of newspapers in a stack on the front of the shop, with a little label indicating the price of each. A customer would pick his choice and leave the relevant price. Seldom, we were told was there a risk of a cheat betraying this trust. This kind of simple event, makes me an unashamed and unrepentant “Anglophile”!

It appalls me to witness how casually people who should know better, are chronically dishonest and do not deserve the genteel “economical with the truth” label. They should, in our lexicon be simply referred to as liars.

A distressing fact is that the closer one gets to top, the higher the intensity and scale. How then can one address such persons as “Honourable”? I am personally inclined to restrict this “honour” to those who genuinely deserve it. A colleague goes even better – when one such undesirable stands up to speak, he simply walks out. This may seem trivial, but it is symbolically powerful.

Financial impropriety is not all, but an important factor under the general rubric of “corruption”. Why does our Government fight shy of using the readily available listings of the “wealthy” on the Internet? Panama Papers, Pandora’s Box.

The information is shocking. Several are possibly not cheats, but many of their likes clearly are. When somebody with no substantial means of becoming rich, having neither talent nor worth, turns up with stashes of millions of dollars, cannot such be called to account? Is it a question of “He who has no guilt, may hurl the first stone?’ No stones, no guilt”. More likely, Is it a case of “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours”. Lots of back-scratching is evident.

The most distressing feature is the lateral and vertical spread of financial corruption. Some seem to display remarkable ingenuity of changing crises to bonanzas. Nothing is beyond their reach. If that “talent” is employed towards the public good, Sri Lanka can become a brightly shining country, like our often mentioned Singapore.

“Horizontal spread” is where the dishonest in one Institution (say Assembly or Department”), spawns the practice in another. The vertical spread is within such a body, where subordinates are inspired to feel “If it is good for my boss, how can it be bad for me”?

To take a simple scenario. Say, someone is flicking his petrol coupons or fudging his traveling claim, a whole chain of persons participate in continuing the chain, down to the officer who writes the cheque.

This spreads of the contagion of corruption, corrodes and fouls all. When stashes of currency notes are unearthed, it strongly indicates that this is highly suggestive of dishonest acquisition. With such evidence being readily available, it is no mystery why is there no effective follow up action? Is it not strange why these products of crime cannot be confiscated and used to meet our nation’s needs. How so? It seems as though we are displaying the caution of one who is walking on eggs.

Everyone would know about the (James) Bond scam. There are strong suspicions, but again an inexplicable delicacy and neglect of follow-up. In relation to inexplicable and undeclared hoards in banks and safe havens abroad, why have these clearly corrupt treasure troves not been captured and restored to their rightful owners, in this case, the Sri Lankan State. Such action is morally and ethically proper. The usual excuse of “the Law does not provide” is a feeble and unacceptable stance.

I believe that even the famous “Numbers only” accounts held in Swiss Banks etc. have been made more transparent. This is action (endorsed by the UN?), that permitted the gold snatched from the Jews, and national wealth that has been robbed by persons of the likes of Marcos (Phillipines) and the Suhartos (Indonesia). There would be ample space for more.

One understands that such remedial measures, require the aggrieved nations to institute legal action within their jurisdictions. In our case, there are several cases of astronomical amounts held by persons who have engaged solely in “politics” with no inherited wealth or talent, to generate such astronomical wealth. If a dozen or so of such delinquents are showed into jail, there could be little need for future “Aragalayas”.

Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda.

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Transformation of agro-food system:

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A culture-based local solution for Sri Lanka

BY Prof Nimal Gunatilleke

The Thirty-seventh Session of the UN-FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) is being held as a high-level Ministerial in-person event in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 19 – 22 February 2024. This was preceded by the Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) held virtually from 31 January to 2 February 2024.

This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

This regionally significant meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is being held in Colombo at a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to keep its head above water in the post-COVID era knocked down for the second time in quick succession by her economic crisis.

A government report and data from the health ministry quoted by Reuters indicates that the people in Sri Lanka are currently burdened with soaring prices, including food, largely caused by its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948.

According to the Central Bank Report ‘rising malnutrition among children has become a forefront policy concern in Sri Lanka amidst heightened food insecurity of households caused by the host of economic and social issues that exacerbated during the economic crisis in 2022’.

The following human health statistics extracted almost verbatim from the Reuters report on Jan 18, 2023, are equally disturbing, to say the least.

The number of children grappling with various forms of undernutrition in Sri Lanka has increased for the first time in at least six years in 2022.

More than 43.4% of the country’s children under 5 years of age are suffering from nutrition problems, according to the report released in October, with 42.9% suffering from some form of undernutrition.

Data available on the website of the health ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicate that the percentage of children under five who are underweight, stunted (low height for age), or wasting (low-height for age) increased in 2022 after dropping steadily since at least 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients, or impaired nutrient utilis ation.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC REGIONAL OVERVIEW OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION STATISTICS AND TRENDS

According to the World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranked the second worst affected country in the South Asian region in terms of wasting among children under five years. Further, underweight among the same group of children remained around 20.0 percent since 2000, while no significant advancement was reported in terms of children with stunted growth.

Meanwhile, the persistent disparities in malnutrition prevalence across regions and economic sectors in the country suggest that nutrition anomalies remain unresolved for a prolonged period. Across residential sectors, the estate sector has become the most vulnerable sector with the highest prevalence of stunting and underweight children under five years. According to the DHS-2016, around 31.7 percent of children in the estate sector are stunted, compared to 14.7 percent in urban areas and 17.0 percent in the rural sector. Particularly child malnutrition represents a deep concern that carries a generational burden.

UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.1

A yet another alarming set of nutrition statistics has been published in the Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, in December 2023 in addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY.

The percentage of people unable to afford a healthy diet in Sri Lanka was 54% in 2020 and the figure has been increasing ever since.

Prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka is 5.3% (cf. India 16.6%)

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity during the period 2020–2022 in Sri Lanka has been 10.9% (cf. Bangladesh 31.1%)

Undernourishment is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, and healthy life. The indicator is reported as a prevalence and is denominated as “prevalence of undernourishment”, which is an estimate of the percentage of individuals in the total population who are in a condition of undernourishment.

People affected by moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have been forced to reduce, at times during the year, the quality and/or quantity of food they consume due to a lack of money or other resources.

MALNUTRITION: SUSTAINABLE

DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.2:

This section reports on four global nutrition indicators: stunting , wasting in children under 5 years of age, and anaemia in women aged 15 to 49 years.

The prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka in 2022 has been 15.9% (cf. India 31.7%).

The Prevalence of wasting among children under 5 years of age from 2015 to 2022 in Sri Lanka has been 15.1% (cf. India 18.7%)

The Prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka is 1.3% in 2022 (cf. 2.8% in India).

ANAEMIA AMONG WOMEN AGED 15 TO

49 YEARS

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years in Sri Lanka in 2019 has been 34.6 % (cf. India 53%).

HEALTHY DIET AT NATIONAL SCALE

In this regard, notable transformations in the country’s food system are essential to deliver a healthy diet for people at an affordable price. These include improving productivity in the agriculture sector along with more innovations and research and development, reducing post-harvest losses, more value addition in the agriculture sector, reducing import dependency on food systems, introducing climate-resilient food crops, promoting a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, particularly through the popularising integrated farming, rebalancing agriculture sector subsidies, and tax policies and improving agronomic practices as well as maintaining adequate food buffers to face food emergencies.

Among the solutions provided at the national level include the provisioning of school meals, provisioning of food/cash allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, the Thriposha program, school water sanitation, and hygiene programs, and the salt iodization programme, among others. Reflecting the impact of these efforts and commitments spanning over several decades, malnutrition among children declined remarkably during the period from 1975 to 1995, with stunting among children below five years of age almost halved to 26.1 percent in 1995, compared to 49.9 percent in 1975, while the underweight child population declined to 29.3 percent in 1995 from 57.3 percent in 1975. However, these trends have reversed since the double whammy started in 2021 with COVID-19.

In addition, some of the small-scale community-level initiatives established under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture such as Hela Bojun Hal (Native Food Courts) are gaining popularity in several provinces in Sri Lanka. These food courts serve a variety of nutrient-rich native food preparations using rice flour, finger millet, local vegetables (leafy porridge), and many other sweetmeats prepared by local womenfolk and sold at an affordable price. Also, there are many beverages and local fruit drinks that are equally popular among the customers.

These food courts providing healthy and nutritious meals are making steady inroads into the food and beverage trade among the health-conscious public from all walks of life including schoolchildren, university students, and blue- and white-collar workers, alike which is indeed an encouraging trend.

If these types of Hela Bojun food courts could be promoted in rural as well as urban schools with the participation of the parents of the schoolchildren under the direction of the school administration and local health and agricultural authorities, it may help to address some of the issues under discussion at the on-going UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference such as undernourishment, food insecurity, and malnutrition. At the same time, it may give a shot in the arm for promoting nutritious food production while ensuring food security befitting the theme of this year’s UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference, which is “Transformation of the Agro-Food System”.

Sri Lanka as the host country’s special ministerial event for this conference has put forward her theme as ‘Agro-tourism in Asia and Pacific – accelerating rural development and enhancing livelihoods’ showcasing agrotourism most likely in the world-renown Kandyan Spice/Home Gardens and as a spin-off of this, the local food courts utilizing these home garden produce too, can be highlighted at the same time.

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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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