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Editorial

Cash from wonder herb Komarika

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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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Editorial

Prohibiting cattle slaughter

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The prohibition of cattle slaughter which has been bruited around for many moons was announced last week with our stablemate, The Island reporting on its front page that the government had approved a ban on cattle slaughter. This subject also made news some weeks ago but was laid by, possibly out of concern of hurting Muslim sentiments. Muslims generally are beef eaters and for as long as living memory serves, and probably much longer, they have controlled the beef and mutton stalls in Municipal and other markets. Most butchers belong to that community and previous efforts to ban cattle slaughter has been strongly resisted by Muslims.

Although Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country and Buddhism frowns on the taking of life, most Buddhists are carnivorous. True many Buddhists do not eat beef but are quite happy to eat mutton (actually goat meat in this country), chicken and fish. Many of them accept in their minds and hearts that consuming fish, flesh and fowl run against the tenets of their religion, but they lack the will power to give up their carnivorous ways of pandering to their senses. Not eating beef, of course, has cultural roots. Cattle serve man as draft animals and help us to till our fields and cows give us milk. So how can we as claimed Buddhists eat beef? In India, the vast majority of the Hindu population is vegetarian and the cow is a sacred animal. Many non-vegetarians here say that had they lived in India, it would have been easy to convert to vegetarianism.

The report we quoted in our opening paragraph, though stating that government had approved prohibiting cattle slaughter, did not say that beef eating was being prohibited. It has already been announced that import of beef will be permitted. Last week’s announcement merely said that the Legal Draftsman has completed amendments to certain Acts and Ordinances including the Cattle Slaughter Ordinance No. 9 of 1893, Act No. 29 of 1958 concerning animals, Sections 252 and 255 of the Municipal Councils Ordinance and Ordinance No. 15 of the Urban Council Act of 1987. It added that the Attorney General had certified that these Bills did not clash with the Constitution.

Given the government’s current foreign exchange-strapped situation, how much money will be available for beef imports? That is anybody’s guess. Will it be possible to procure from abroad quantities of beef now consumed by ordinary people at prices they can afford? We have our doubts. Beef and other exotic meat and fish are already imported to the country. The finest Australian beef, lamb, salmon and what have you are on the menus of top-end restaurants in posh hotels and elsewhere – of course at a very high price. They can also be purchased at gourmet food shop and delicatessens although only the very rich patronize such establishments. We are struggling to revive our tourism industry on which very heavy investments have been made and non-availability of epicurean cuisine in the menus of existing classy hotels and restaurants will obviously hinder that not only short term but also in the medium and longer terms. We live in a largely non-vegetarian world and even in India, home to a very large population of vegetarian Hindus where cows are held as holy, cattle slaughter is not prohibited.

Animals as much as humans have a right to life and that is unarguable. Buddhists exhort ‘may all beings be well and happy’ but too many Buddhist live lives which makes that impossible. Goats, pigs, fish, chicken etc. have as much right to life as humans or cattle whose slaughter is to be prohibited. The moral argument against killing cannot be enforced in a lopsided way where some are more free than others although that’s the prevailing order. Hundreds of thousands of our people depend on fisheries for their livelihoods. Is it practical to enforce a ban on fisheries? President Premadasa, influenced by a Buddhist monk he held in the highest regard, imposed a prohibition on state participation in the inland fisheries industry. Large investment made thereon was jettisoned but with years passing, the restrictions were relaxed and the state is once again active in this field. There is little doubt that most dairy cows, once their milk providing days are over, end up with the butcher. So also chickens when they do not lay enough eggs to be economically viable. Also, broiler chickens are widely farmed for their meat. There is no escaping the reality that enforcing a ban on cattle slaughter will be fraught with immense practical difficulties. We will have to wait and see whether these will be overcome and the intention implemented.

Ironically, it was only at the end of last year when it was reported that Asia’s largest meat processing plant was opened in the Katunayake Export Processing Zone by no less than Minister Namal Rajapaksa with other political VIPs in attendance. Social media seized on this in the context of government’s expressed intention on prohibiting cattle slaughter. That report was not accurate. While a large meat processing facility had in fact been opened and is now running in the Katunayake EPZ, it is certainly not Asia’s (nor South Asia’s) largest. It is an export targeting value adding project which, while using some imported beef (though not much), was working mainly with local chicken meat and also has plans for a fish processing factory . The promoter is taking advantage of fiscal incentives for value addition to develop an export segment of his meat processing business. All this amply demonstrates the prevailing hypocrisy in Sri Lanka’s methods of governance. Examples are too numerous to mention so do take your pick.

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Editorial

Confusion worse confounded

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Saturday 23rd October, 2021

Sri Lanka is like a mental hospital under an air raid, with doctors and patients running helter-skelter. Those who came to power, flaunting their medals, epaulettes, brass buttons and accoutrements, and promising to bring order out of chaos are all at sea. They seem to have brought chaos out of order. They signal left and turn right, and make numerous U-turns. The Sports Minister goes overseas to attend events of religious significance; the Trade Minister rushes to the airport to receive consignments of fertiliser while the prices of comestibles and other essentials are skyrocketing; the Agriculture Minister is blaming the Opposition for the current agricultural problems, and the Minister of Power is trying to set up zoos instead of power plants. Everyone at the levers of power seems to have got his wires crossed. Scaremongers are having a field day confounding as they do confusion prevailing in the country; with each passing day, they work people up into a frenzy via social media,

People are running around stocking up on essentials. Fuel pumps have run dry due to panic buying, and refilling stations hoarding stocks in anticipation of price hikes. The government issues official statements denying reports of scarcities, but nobody buys into them.

Farmers are protesting against a crippling fertiliser shortage. The Opposition is squawking in Parliament without revealing how they would handle the fertiliser issue if they were in power. Having caused widespread crop losses, the government now claims its agrochemical ban was based on wrong advice. Government politicians who do not know the periodic table from the dining table are giving chemistry lessons to senior university dons! The use of agrochemicals, no doubt, has to be drastically reduced, and organic farming encouraged, but it must be done gradually to avoid shocks.

The present situation has come about owing to a host of colossal blunders the incumbent dispensation had made on all fronts. Immediately after the last presidential election (2019), the government granted tax relief to the wealthy at the expense of the state coffers, and threw money around by way of cash handouts for the people during the first lockdown so as to muster votes to win the general election. Even those who did not need financial assistance were given it for political reasons. Rackets such as the sugar tax scam caused staggering losses to the state. Corruption remains rampant, and those who were in the political wilderness for five years are now making up for lost time. Money printing, which the current administration considers a panacea, has led to huge price increases, which are not reflected in the official inflation rate as figures are massaged.

The first lockdown imposed last year to curb the spread of the pandemic was unnecessarily extended at a massive economic cost, and the government did not care to enforce the quarantine laws properly in the run-up to the last general election (2020) and afterwards. Infection clusters emerged, necessitating travel restrictions, as a result. Health experts’ call for a lockdown during the traditional New Year season in April went unheeded, and the result was an explosive spread of Covid-19 as well as a sharp rise in fatalities. A stitch in time would have saved nine, and many lives, and helped revive tourism, bringing in the much-needed forex. Finally, there was another protracted lockdown, and the country is now gripped by an unprecedented foreign currency crunch, which has compelled the government to raise dollars at the expense of vital state assets.

Thankfully, the ongoing vaccination drive and the costly lockdown have worked, and the country is open again; tourism is showing signs of recovery, we are told. But public health experts are warning of another wave of infections come December because the public is behaving irresponsibly. Religious places are becoming crowded again, and so are buses; health guidelines are not followed at social gatherings. The situation is expected to take a turn for the worse after schools fully reopen. If what is feared comes to pass—absit omen—there will have to be another lockdown, which must be avoided at any cost.

The government, in its wisdom, is trying to introduce a new Constitution and hold the Provincial Council polls. It must get its priorities right. It has to sort out the fertiliser issue urgently to prevent a drop in the national agricultural output. Health regulations and quarantine laws must be strictly enforced to prevent another wave of Covid-19 while wasteful expenditure is curtailed.

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Editorial

Cardinal’s battle

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Friday 22nd October, 2021

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has once again demanded that the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks be fully implemented. The PCoI has not revealed the mastermind behind the carnage; it has only cursorily dealt with the alleged foreign involvement in the attacks. However, those who are seeking justice for the families of the terror victims have been left with no alternative but to call for the implementation of the PCOI recommendations, while demanding a thorough probe. This is what the Cardinal and others have been doing.

Two and a half years have elapsed since the Easter Sunday killings, and it was nine months ago that the PCoI report was handed over to the Attorney General (AG) for carrying out its recommendations. The Cardinal has said that in March, the then AG met him and promised to study the PCoI report and initiate legal action thereafter. But the recommendations have been implemented only selectively.

One cannot but endorse the Cardinal’s call. Why the government has not had the PCoI recommendations implemented fully defies comprehension. The reason may be that the PCoI has recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against the then President Maithripala Sirisena, who is now a government MP. The Commission has said it is of the view that there is criminal liability on Sirisena’s part. Its report specifically states: “The CoI recommends that the Attorney General consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provisions in the Penal Code.”

One of the main promises the present-day rulers made before the 2019 presidential election was to conduct a thorough probe into the Easter Sunday carnage and bring those responsible for it to justice. But this pledge remains unfulfilled. The Cardinal is asking for access to the entire PCoI report, which consists of 22 documents including five volumes. Only Volume One has been released; it may look self-contained, but one has to peruse all documents to get a better understanding thereof. Why the Cardinal’s request cannot be granted is the question.

One may recall that initially the government refused to hand over the entire report even to the AG, citing various reasons, and we had to point out that the PCoI wanted the whole set of documents handed over to the AG. Its report says: “The COI recommends that Your Excellency the President transmit a complete set of the Report to the Attorney General to consider institution of criminal proceedings against persons alleged to have committed the said offences.”

It may be politically difficult for the government to implement all PCoI recommendations, given that former President Sirisena’s SLFP is a coalition partner of the ruling SLPP. But that is no reason why it should refrain from allowing legal action to be taken against him. Criminal proceedings have already been instituted against former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and former IGP Pujith Jayasundera. Sirisena should not be spared simply because he is a government MP and his party has 14 members in the SLPP parliamentary group.

The SLFP is bound to react aggressively if its leader is prosecuted, and the government might even suffer a split, but that should not be allowed to stand in the way of the full implementation of the PCoI recommendations. The government is duty bound to make good on its promise, which helped it muster a lot of votes at the last presidential election held a few months after the Easter Sunday attacks, and at the last parliamentary polls.

The Cardinal did not mince his words when he said, at St. Anthony’s Church, yesterday, that he did not think it was possible to have the PCoI recommendations fully implemented under the present administration. It is only natural that the government is seen to be a party to a grand cover-up.

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