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Cash from wonder herb Komarika



Many years ago President Ranasinghe Premadasa had a favourite slogan: “Big investor, small producer.” This related to a strategy of helping the rural agricultural community of this country, comprising a very large segment of Sri Lanka’s population, to enhance their incomes and lifestyles by cultivating largely non-traditional crops. What the president, well known for his genius of addressing and overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges, was looking for was largely private sector investment for establishing processing factories, nurseries and extension services that would provide guaranteed markets for outgrower agricultural production. Another such project with Aloe Vera, a wonder herb, (Sinhala Komarika) is now in the pipeline.

This fleshy, cactus-like plant, ubiquitous in many home gardens in the country, has been known for centuries for its medicinal, skincare and a myriad of properties. It is used as a treatment for heartburn, as an alternative mouthwash, blood sugar, digestion and even in the treatment of breast cancer. It has been in the Ayuveda Materia Medica for eons and is a common home remedy for burns. Its many amazing properties are being continuously unlocked and, with today’s appetite for natural products, commands a market worth billions of dollars in the western world. We in Sri Lanka and our South Asian neighbors are very familiar with the manifold uses of this herb which grows well even in the dry zone areas of our country.

The government has approved a USD 783 million project to commercially grow the herb in the Anuradhapura district targeting abundant export markets. This involves leasing 66 acres of government land to a company called Aura Lanka Herbals (Pvt) Ltd. owned by a businessman named Viranjith Thambugala. It’s website claims that it is the largest privately-owned agro project in the country with a focus on finding and identifying bare land not cultivable due to the lack of water. Aura is confident that the very ambitious project of a diversified business group that’s into many other areas including gems, will create thousands of job opportunities. The capital investment for this project according to the Government Information Department is USD 300 million. It envisages harnessing privately owned and government-granted land and the business plan appears to be a modern processing factory, plant nursery and outgrower mobilization model used before by Pelwatte Sugar and others.

Long before Mr. Premadasa and his ‘Big investor, small producer’ model germinated, the Ceylon Tobacco Company owned by the giant multi-national, British American Tobacco (BAT), succeeded in eliminating the need for importing tobacco leaf for their super-profitable cigarette manufacturing business by ensuring that small farmers grew the tobacco they needed right here in Sri Lanka. A surplus was produced making possible tobacco leaf exports to other BAT production units of their sprawling global business empire. Ceylon Tobacco did not build large factories for this purpose but funded tobacco curing barns owned by small entrepreneur in the growing areas. Farmers were provided with extension services helping them to improve both the quality and quantity of their product purchased at guaranteed prices to supply the cigarette factory in Colombo. This proved to be a huge success benefiting all stakeholders.

There is no need to belabor the fact that tobacco is a most harmful industry. Ironclad evidence of this has been widely disseminated for several decades. Yet the tobacco industry continues to survive on the face of the earth on a flimsy argument that smoking is an adult choice. Despite regulatory measures worldwide, including health warnings on cigarette packs, and the price stick that has been long used in many countries including ours to make smoking a most expensive habit, people continue to smoke out of nicotine addiction or plain stupidity. Governments worldwide reap enormous revenue from sky high ‘sin’ taxes on tobacco. Cigarette manufacturers propagandize their massive tax payments to governments, including our own, to hammer home the message that they provide a significant slice of government revenue. The counter argument that smoking costs the healthcare system more than the revenue it generates is commonly bruited. Be that as it may, tobacco growing in Sri Lanka is now discouraged if not prohibited altogether, and the early story is now history.

There have been other successes in diversifying non-traditional agriculture by private investment encouraging production. One example is gherkins which are widely grown in our country for processing the pickles that are an essential relish in hamburgers. Readers would know that these are finger-length cucumbers pickled in brine that are unsuitable if they grow too long. Our supermarkets have long stocked the over-sized gherkins which, though unsuitable for export pickles are widely used for salads and other preparations. Hayleys was among the companies that pioneered this thriving business and commands a dominant market share in this product that has greatly benefited farmers here. There are other players too catering to the global demand for pickled gherkins.

Pelwatte Sugar which attracted investment from a global giant, Booker Tate, and other government-owned sugarcane growing and processing projects, despite massive tax and other incentives did not take the country anywhere close to the envisaged self-sufficiency. What happened was that the potable alcohol byproduct of sugar molasses proved more profitable than the production of sugar. Pelwatte is now back in government hands. Although it does provide an income for peasant outgrowers in the Moneragala district, among the poorest in the country, they have not been able to lift themselves above subsistence levels of existence. Like sugar, the new aloe vera project looks promising on paper. Hopefully it will achieve the desired result.

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Singer and different UN tune



Friday 17th September, 2021

State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s violent behaviour inside two prisons has drawn widespread condemnation from the civilised world—and rightly so. The government has stooped so low as to shield him, and in so doing it has brought not only itself but also the entire country into disrepute.

Popular actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake, given to making a melodrama out of everything in life, is serving a jail term for having said something that the judiciary deemed an affront to its dignity; he lost his parliamentary seat as a result. But Ratwatte, who forcibly entered two prisons and held some Tamil prisoners at gunpoint in one of them, on Sunday, is moving about freely, and, worse, remains a State Minister. The least the government can do by way of damage control is to sack Ratwatte and ensure that he will be arrested and prosecuted without further delay, as we argued yesterday. With the likes of him within its ministerial ranks, the government needs no enemies.

Meanwhile, no sooner had Ratwatte’s despicable behaviour come to light than the UN pontificated to Sri Lanka on the need to look after prisoners. UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said that it was the duty of the State to protect the rights of prisoners. “In our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation, UN Sri Lanka works to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody and condemns any ill-treatment of prisoners,” Singer tweeted on Wednesday. One cannot but agree with her. The state of Sri Lanka is duty bound to protect all prisoners.

If only the UN had shown the same concern for its own workers taken prisoner by the LTTE. At the height of the Vanni war in 2007, the LTTE abducted two UN workers, accusing them of having helped the Tamil civilians flee the areas under its control. The captives were kept in a dungeon, badly beaten and questioned. The UN chose to keep the incident under wraps, and held clandestine talks with the LTTE to secure the release of the victims, but in vain. On 20 April 2007, we reported the capture of the UN workers. The LTTE again held a group of UN personnel and their families as part of its human shield in the Vanni, but the UN did not condemn the outfit or call upon the big powers to intervene to pressure the LTTE to release them. So much for the UN’s concern for human rights and the safety of prisoners! This kind of duplicity on the part of the UN and the world powers has stood in the way of the global efforts being made to protect human rights.

What Minister Ratwatte is reported to have done in the Anuradhapura Prison on Sunday is an act of terrorism. No civilised person can condone such brutality. Similarly, all acts of terrorism must be condemned unreservedly if human rights are to be protected. The TNA is also out for Ratwatte’s scalp. It has every right to do so, and the government must heed its concerns about the Tamil prisoners, whose safety must be ensured. But the TNA owes an apology to the Sri Lankan public for having defended the LTTE and acted as the outfit’s mouthpiece in Parliament as well as elsewhere despite its heinous crimes against civilians. The TNA, which is currently on a crusade to defend human rights, has not even condemned the LTTE for assassinating its own leaders, child abductions, civilian massacres, political killings, running illegal prisons, and the violent suppression of dissent, among other things.

Let it be repeated that the government must strip Ratwatte of his ministerial post immediately, make him face the full force of the law and ensure that the SLPP takes disciplinary action against him. It must also stop fielding murder suspects at elections, accommodating killers in Parliament, pardoning convicted murderers and appointing those who should be behind bars as ministers.

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Arrest them!



Thursday 16th September, 2021

Lohan Ratwatte is reported to have resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation over two separate incidents where he and a group of persons, described as his friends, forced themselves into two prisons and threatened some inmates and made a nuisance of themselves to the prison officers. He, however, will continue to function as the Sate Minister of Gem, Jewellery related Industries. (A gem of a minister!)

It is a criminal offence to enter prisons forcibly, brandish firearms and threaten inmates. The government must explain why Ratwatte and others who were with him at the time of the incidents, have not been arrested, yet. The SLPP leaders came to power, promising to uphold the rule of law and ensure public security. Now, people are not safe even inside heavily-guarded prisons!

Legal action must also be taken against the officers of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons for their inaction. They should have prevented the State Minister from entering their institutions allegedly under the influence of liquor and running amok. The fact that Ratwatte was the State Minster in charge of prisons at the time was no reason for them to allow him in, and let him run around in a frenzied state. Shame on them! How would the brave prison officers have reacted if an ordinary person had tried to gain unauthorised entry into a state pen? He would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.

A few months ago, the government lost no time in having an irate young driver arrested and hauled up before courts for tooting and encouraging others to do likewise in protest against the closing of a road in Colombo to make room for a foreign dignitary, at night. It also orders the police to arrest protesters for violating quarantine laws. So, there is no way it can justify its failure to have the unruly State Minister and his gang arrested.

Crush Health Mafia!

Some Health Ministry officials who take vital decisions on Covid-19 testing and allied matters are doctors working at private hospitals, and therefore there is a conflict of interest on their part, we are told. So, how can the Health Ministry be expected to make the optimal use of its medical laboratories to test inbound passengers at the BIA?

The government would have us believe that it has embarked on a mission to tame the Rice Mafia. The Consumer Affairs Authority has been conducting raids purportedly to achieve this objective. But the Health Mafia preying on the pandemic-hit people, and causing staggering losses to the state coffers, enjoys the freedom to do as it pleases. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) Ravi Kumudesh has told this newspaper that some high-ranking Health Ministry officials are benefiting from a racket involving private medical laboratories and quarantine centres, but the government has taken no action against them.

The CMLS has rubbished Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath’s claim that the state sector is not equipped to test all those arriving here from overseas. Its personnel were capable of carrying out that task if given a free hand, the CMLS has said, stressing that the number of Covid-19 tests conducted daily could be increased to 100,000 easily with the existing resources if the Health Ministry is willing to do so. Other countries are encouraging home testing by making available Rapid Antigen Test kits at reasonable prices, but the Sri Lankan government has created a situation where its cronies are thriving on testing, the CMLS alleges.

The CMLS informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Health Ministry to purchase 30 rapid PCR machines to ramp up testing, but some officials halved that number arbitrarily. They have overridden a presidential order with impunity! They must be really powerful!

The CMLS ought to lodge a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption against the Health Ministry officials who are preventing the state-run medical laboratories from functioning at optimal capacity to line their pockets.

The Health Department has the capacity to conduct as many as 4,500 tests a day on inbound tourists and issue reports within 90 minutes, but some officials have prevented the state-run lab at the BIA from receiving samples, which are sent to private hospitals, the CMLS has said. Strangely, the government has chosen to ignore these very serious allegations, making one wonder whether its members are also benefiting from the testing and quarantine rackets.

If the ruling party politicians and cronies are not involved in the health scams, the government should be able to order a probe into the allegations at issue.

This is something that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should take note of because the blame for the testing and quarantine rackets is laid at his door while the crooked health officials are laughing all the way to the bank together with their corrupt chums.

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Donations tainted with politics



Wednesday 15th September, 2021

The Chinese Embassy in Colombo is reported to have handed over a consignment of medical equipment to the UNP for distribution among the state-run hospitals. China has made the donation at the request of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, we are told. It defies comprehension why any foreign government should hand over medical equipment, meant for the Sri Lankan public, to local political parties instead of the Health Ministry. As a popular Sri Lankan saying goes, why should a donkey be entrusted with a task that is best left to a dog?

What are the criteria that China adopts in determining the eligibility of Sri Lankan political parties to handle some of its donations to Sri Lankans? There are 70 registered political parties in this country, and 15 of them are represented in Parliament. What if all of them, or the ones with parliamentary representation, ask for medical equipment from the Chinese government to be handed over to the government hospitals and gain some political mileage? Will China oblige? If not, why? Is it that kissing goes by favour? (China got a port from a UNP-led government, didn’t it?)

China has been looking after Sri Lankan politicians very well, as is public knowledge, and therefore does not have to do anything more for them. It offers junkets even to the local government members. But for the pandemic, by now, all the MPs and most local councillors would have been to China on pilgrimage. Even the most vociferous critics of China in Parliament have no qualms about benefiting from the Chinese largesse.

Political parties should not be allowed to gain political mileage from donations that come from the people of other countries to their Sri Lankan counterparts. It is an affront to the kind-hearted foreigners for their donations to be tainted with partisan politics at this end. When foreign governments make donations through local political parties, they are seen to be helping further the agendas of the latter. Is it fair for foreign governments to use their taxpayers’ money for such purposes?



JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, is raking Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa over the coals for having asked the government to hold a snap election. Those who call for elections while people are dying of Covid-19 need psychiatric care, Dissanayake has declared. True, there is absolutely no need for an election at this juncture, and the country’s top priority should be fighting the pandemic, and everything else can wait. But Premadasa should not be singled out for criticism; all politicians see opportunities in crises. If the present-day leaders had been in the Opposition today, they would also have asked for an election; they made the most of a national security crisis in 2019 to floor the yahapalana government and capture power.

The JVP is not acting out of principle when it opposes Premadasa’s call for polls; it is scared of facing elections. It, however, has a history of trying to topple a government while the country was in a bigger crisis. It joined forces with others in a bid to defeat the Rajapaksa administration’s budgets in 2007 and 2008 while the country’s war against the LTTE was raging. Had they succeeded in their endeavour, the government would have fallen, and an election would have had to be held; Prabhakaran would have been given ample time to have international pressure ratcheted up on Sri Lanka to halt or abandon military operations against the LTTE; the armed forces, too, would have been greatly demoralised in such a situation.

In this country, politicians think of everything in terms of elections. It is said that a politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation. Sri Lanka’s biggest problem is that it has not had statespersons.

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