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Central Bank moves: Tears and joys

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The Sri Lankan rupee is coming crashing down. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa himself admitted this in parliament, in the debate on just a one percent fine on those who cheat the country in millions, both in rupees and foreign exchange. That is the reality of this Saubhagya Lanka.

A key move to curb the drop of the rupee is the Monetary Board’s new cash-margin-deposit against the import of non-essential, non-urgent goods. Is this the biggest move of the current Governor of the Central Bank, before he moves out, making way for a predecessor? Who knows?

This certainly puts up the prices of these so-called ‘non-essential’ goods. Have we forgotten those school children who climbed tough and tricky slopes, and also trees and distant roofs, to get messages to their mobile phones; as schools were closed down, and they tried to be informed by the teachers who did e-teaching.  It was the mobile phone that helped them to learn. But now the mobile phone is a ‘non-essential, non-urgent’ product! So, let’s save the rupee, and let the children who use the mobile phone to learn, go to hell, or keep roaming in ignorance through samsara.

The Central Bank and the Monetary Board are certainly involved in matters of great importance. Such as the payment of a pension to the former Governor, Ajith Nivaard Cabraal, and his predecessors and followers, too.

Were the Central Bank and Monetary Board at the time wholly unaware of the Los Angeles-based venture capitalist and political fundraiser, Imaad Shah Zuberi, 50, of Arcadia, California, who cheated the Sri Lanka government of millions of dollars by promising to rebuild the country’s image following the end of the war with the LTTE?

Investigations revealed that Zuberi received USD 6.5 mn in 2014 from the then Sri Lankan government after the conclusion of the war in May 2009, to thwart US moves against this country.

The Sri Lankan government through its embassy in Washington hired Zuberi in 2014 to boost the country’s image in the United States vis-a-vis various allegations.

The US Justice Department said: “Zuberi promised to make substantial expenditures on lobbying efforts, legal expenses, and media buys, which prompted Sri Lanka to agree to pay Zuberi a total of $8.5 million over the course of six months in 2014. Days after Sri Lanka made an initial payment of $3.5 million, Zuberi transferred $1.6 million into his personal brokerage accounts and used another $1.5 million to purchase real estate.”

In total, Sri Lanka wired $6.5 million pursuant to the contract, and Zuberi used more than $5.65 million of that money to the benefit of himself and his wife. Zuberi paid less than $850,000 to lobbyists, public relations firms and law firms, and refused to pay certain subcontractors based on false claims that Sri Lanka had not provided sufficient funds to pay invoices.

In November 2019, Zuberi pleaded guilty to a three-count indictment charging him with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by making false statements on a FARA filing, tax evasion, and making illegal campaign contributions. In June 2020, Zuberi pleaded guilty in a separate case to one count of obstruction of justice. He is now serving his prison sentence.

The US Justice system is not like in Sri Lanka, where the accused are so easily removed from charges by officials who worship the rulers.

The question here is whether the Central Bank was wholly unaware of this crooked role of Zuberi?

Let’s go back to another great loss that Sri Lanka suffered. When Ajith Nivaard Cabraal was the Governor of the CB.

Are we to forget the hedging agreement, where Sri Lanka had to pay USD 110 for a barrel of crude oil which could have been imported at a price of USD 70 – 80, as a result of which the country lost over USD 162 million.

Sri Lanka also suffered a loss of Rs 2,100 billion due to investing in Greek bonds in 2011. The investment took place at a time when the economy of Greece was collapsing. Not only did the country lose profits, but also lost the initial investment. It was people’s money.

Just keep in mind that none of this is corruption. It is the stuff of Saubhagya Governance as we see it today. Like the ever-so-clean sugar imports and crooked trading, and more recently the purchase of rice from so-called hidden go-downs.

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka is certainly moving in the direction of a renewed Cabraal leadership, with a long-delayed pension, a Cabinet ranking, and no doubt more pensions to follow. The Central Bank with its record of Zuberi, Greek bonds, etc., is certainly the stuff of Good Governance by the Rajavasala Rajapaksa Power Squad.

Let’s wish good luck to the current Governor of the CB as he moves to a foreign appointment, and give a truly loud cheer to Cabraal, in his renewed position in the Central Bank. The tears of Sri Lankans will certainly bring joy to those who make our money even weaker.



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Opinion

Red Alert: Need to quarantine imported organic fertilisers

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By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA

Canada

When the government suddenly banned the import of fertilisers and pesticides in April 2021 and went ‘100 percent organic’, many scientists warned of dire danger ahead.

The hubris of becoming the world’s first to be free of alleged agricultural toxins made the government stand firm. Its rag-tag of ideologically motivated advisors pointed to roadside mounds of leaves, or Salvinia on rivers, and claimed that enough organic fertiliser can be produced, locally, to meet all needs. It was claimed falsely that Lanka’s ancients had even made it the ‘granary of the East’.

A decades-old ‘good food for health’ movement, among elite circles and fashionable eco-activists, gained a foothold among Sri Lankan nationalists as well. They falsely claimed that even the Chronic Kidney disease of Rajarata is caused by agrochemicals and that Lankans die of cancer due to the use of agrochemicals. According to one politicised doctor, the ancients ate toxin-free food and lived to 140 years, while modern Lankans have eaten poisoned food since 1970 (see https://dh-web.org/green/cdw-Padeniya18May2021.pdf, or Pethiyagoda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnmRk3BRtQc).

According to news reports, Sri Lanka is to import organic fertilisers costing Rs 3.8 billion, to cultivate 1.1 million hectares. This is alarming news. Organic fertilisers should not cross borders, as microbes, viruses and other components in them, benign in the local biosphere, may become harmful in a different biosphere.

More alarmingly, the organic fertilizer is from China! China is the country using the MOST amount of the harshest types of agrochemicals and industrial toxins. Its ‘organic fertiliser’ is made of urban waste, raw ‘night soil’, seaweeds or whatever, and processed for local use according to standards satisfactory for those ecosystems; but certainly ‘not’ for Sri Lankan ecosystems. Sri Lanka uses very low amounts per hectare of agrochemicals, even in the tea estates, as compared to most countries (see: The Island, 2021/05/6 ‘Political rhetoric, or sounding death knell for Sri Lanka’s agriculture?’ https://island.lk/political-rhetoric-or-sounding-death-knell-for-sri-lankas-agriculture/).

So, importing Chinese ‘organic fertilizer’ is like exporting bags of ‘processed’ Meethotamulla garbage to some country foolish enough to pay 3.8 billion rupees for it! While such humus is useful to the soil, the universally valid chemistry of proteins shows that such ‘organic fertiliser’ cannot contain significant amounts of nitrogen or phosphorus needed for plant growth. Claims of organic fertiliser, with unusually high nitrogen, content are pure propaganda.

Precautionary principle

Viruses, bacteria and other organisms in any imported product mutate and infect the host country rapidly. This danger is well understood and reflected in Sri Lanka’s import control standards.

Dr. Chris Panabokke, Director General of Agriculture some decades ago, strongly opposed suggestions to even ‘test’ the use of imported nitrogen-fixing bacteria, to enhance Sri Lanka’s relatively poor soils. A ‘good’ bacterium of a foreign ecosystem may become dangerous in a new ecosystem. Even an accidental release is a catastrophe. So the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ becomes relevant.

If a traveller had even visited a farm in a foreign country, or brought a mere twig of a plant, strict rules are applied at immigration, even though invasive pathogens and pests hitching a ride on imports is inevitable. Such invasions, including the invasion of the COVID-19 virus, are processes that countries have learnt to control as much as possible.

Importation of fertilisers and other agrochemicals, be they inorganic or organic, requires that the product be sterile, which means free of living organisms, and free of soils. Impurities like heavy metals and chemical residues should only occur at levels below the maximum allowed limits (MALs).

No country willingly imports potentially dangerous materials that can irreversibly implode a country’s food system and the health of its citizens. The organic fertiliser needed to cultivate 1.1 million hectares may be anywhere from 50-500 million metric tonnes, depending on the planted crops and soil conditions. No exporter of organic fertiliser, anywhere in the world, is set up to sterilise such large quantities of organic fertiliser or remove any residual soils from such fertilizer. So it is safe to distrust any large export.

Facing danger when much is at stake

No country can properly sample a huge amount, 30 to 500 million metric tonnes of a non-uniform material like organic fertiliser. Elementary statistical theory shows that for such non-uniform materials a fraction 1/e of the total, where “e=2.718” (the base of the Napierian logarithm) must be sampled. Even all the analytical chemistry labs of the whole world working for the President of Sri Lanka, cannot do the job!

However, a non-uniform material contaminated with pathogens has billions of pathogens. So even a few samples may show SOME pathogens, though not all types of pathogens, and that is the red alert.

News reports say that two advanced samples were found to be contaminated with Erwinia and Bacillus bacteria dangerous to crops, and also other pathogens harmful to humans. This is extremely alarming news. The food security of the country, the health of its residents, and prospects for generations are at stake. When so much is at stake, the precautionary principle must be applied.

Steps to take in facing the ‘Red Alert’

These so-called organic fertilizers are likely to arrive in Sri Lanka anytime soon. Drastic steps are needed to avert an irreversible tragedy. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back on the wall, and his splinters should not spew havoc all over the island. Hence, here are the steps to take:

1.

Leading agricultural and health scientists should file a fundamental rights petition, based on the intrinsic impossibility of fulfilling the plant and biohazard quarantine rules at the scale of the planned imports.

2.

Require that the imported material on arrival be quarantined in an off-shore facility (an army-controlled island, for example) and sterilised to free it of pathogens.

3.

Once sterilised, the heavy metals content must be reduced below the Maximum Allowed Limits, as discussed below.

4.

The only technically viable option for the mass sterilisation of millions of tonnes of a metrical is via gamma-ray irradiation. An off-shore facility must be built where the foreign organic material is slowly and repeatedly rolled over a battery of gamma-ray sources (see, for example, N. Halis, Med Device Technol. 1992 Aug-Sep; 3(6):37-45.)

5. The sterilized organic fertiliser must then be freed of heavy metals such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Mercury that are extremely harmful to human and animal health.

Considering Cadmium (Cd) as an example, and the European average of 50 mg of Cd per kilogram of inorganic fertiliser as the MAL, the safe amount in organic fertiliser (applied in tonnes and not kilos) should be hundreds of times less. In fact, almost all the heavy metals have to be removed. Chemically removing all the heavy metals from millions of tonnes of fertiliser is impossible, and creates the bigger problem of disposing of the impurity. The only option is to render the heavy metals inert and ineffective using a cheap, non-poisonous but powerful chemical chelating agent that is also available in commercial quantities.

The only substance that fits the bill is glyphosate. It is known to promote the growth of earthworms and increase useful microorganisms when applied to contaminated soils (see: Environmental Toxicology, 2014 https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.2683). The imported sterilised organic fertiliser must be mixed with the appropriate amount of glyphosate, in mixing vessels similar to cement mixers at each farming site.

6.

Alternatively, the import should be returned to China and Lanka suffers its loss, but avoids steps 1 to 5.

7.

The recent ambiguous gazette notification on limiting the import of agrochemicals should be challenged by importing a few kilos of urea and TPS as legal tests.

Once the first batch of organic fertilizer is handled according to the steps indicated above, no more organic fertiliser should be imported to avert irreversible tragedy.

Only locally made organic fertiliser must be used to provide ‘organic food’ for those who want it. Local composting must be technically controlled, to sequester dangerous greenhouse gases like methane and CO2 that should not be released into the atmosphere (see: R. Lal, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/abs/10.1098/rstb.2007.2185). The major part of the market can be supplied via conventional agriculture, which is much safer from an environmental and human-health point of view than organic agriculture.

(The author was a professor of chemistry and a Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Jayewardenepura University in the 1970s, then known as the Vidyodaya University. Currently, he is affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada and the University of Montreal)

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Opinion

Disciplined society: Bridge too far?

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By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Discipline, by definition, is the practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not. But there is more to it. The government of the day can lay down the rules as well as the mechanisms for punishment if they are broken, but society has even a greater part to play, as disciplined behaviour is mutually beneficial. The behaviour of the majority of the public, rather the misbehaviour, contributing to the difficulty of controlling the present COVID-19 pandemic, is a case in point.

True, the Pohottuwa government has distinguished itself by scoring many own goals, but it has to be appreciated that the President and the government have done much to control the pandemic, under very difficult circumstances. For an under-resourced country, facing a severe foreign exchange crisis, due to the pandemic, to have vaccinated more than half of the adult population, in a relatively short period, is a remarkable achievement, as it surpasses some developed countries. True, mistakes were made but no country got things correct as this was an unprecedented situation. Had there been more cooperation from the public, including the Opposition, things could have been even better. Having seen how Britain, which was hit very much harder, controlled the pandemic, I wrote an article ‘Learning to live with Covid-19’ (The Island, 26 August) wherein I stated:

“Limitations in force in Sri Lanka, before the imposition of the curfew, were similar to the strictest lockdown measures in countries like the UK. Why is that Sri Lanka needs to go a step further and introduce a curfew? The simple answer is discipline; whereas in the UK the majority show disciplined behaviour, unfortunately, the opposite is true in Sri Lanka.”

Though many appreciated my article written in good faith, to offer scientific facts to convince the public that they have a greater part to play than the government, to overcome the epidemic and learn to live with it, most unexpectedly, the only rebuff I got was from a former colleague of mine. He lambasted:

“I was quite amazed and disappointed about your comments about the vaccination programme here. Every medical professional here, except the ever-diminishing number of those slavishly loyal to the Rajapksas, are extremely critical of the way it is done. This vaccination programme has totally ruined the reputation we had as a country with an exemplary immunisation programme for a long time. When the Army, politicians and other businessmen make decisions, overriding medical opinion, the outcome is obvious.

The vaccination queues are the latest super-spreaders. Many have got the infection few days after attending a mass vaccination site. The latter have become carnivals with the army band providing music and the President making a supervisory visit every now and then.

“You have suddenly found Sri Lankans to be very undisciplined. With such a set of power-wielding uneducated, undisciplined set of leaders, what did you expect the people to be? Living thousands of miles away, your extreme ignorance about the ground situation here, coloured by your unwavering loyalty to some politicians, is not surprising.”

I was shocked that a member of my profession sought to politicise a serious public health issue. Whilst pointing out that routine vaccination programmes are not comparable to a programme conducted during an extreme emergency and that many, including Dr. N.S. Jayasinghe, a much-respected physician, has written to newspapers praising the programme, I addressed the issue of indiscipline with the following response:

“I know from personal experience how undisciplined Sri Lankans are and it is not a new discovery! I left the GMOA because I was against strikes, a sign of lack of discipline among the members of the so-called noble profession. If you think Sri Lankans are disciplined, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land! Your statement that the vaccination programme acted as a spreader proves my point. If it did occur, it is because people do not know how to queue. They think if you push, things would be done quicker! If the Army had stood outside ordering people to queue properly, the Opposition would have claimed Gota was using the Army to tame the public!”

The last thing I wish to do is to criticize my brethren unfairly, from a distant land, but I am not left with much choice. It is pretty obvious that indiscipline has grown, as much as each successive government in Sri Lanka, since independence, becoming more corrupt than the previous.

We are supposed to be a Buddhist country and we expect the disciples of the Buddha to be the most disciplined. A Buddhist priest trying to assault a vaccinator, because the stock of vaccines runs out, may be interpreted as an isolated incident, but it is not. Utterances by some Buddhist priests in public are cringeworthy. A Buddhist priest leads a nurse’s trade union; much against the code of conduct laid down by the Buddha and adds insult to injury by getting them to take trade union action during a grave medical emergency, endangering lives. Buddhist priests are seen joining the teacher’s strike, too.

What about the noble profession of mine and my friend’s? Even before the pandemic, their trade union did not care two hoots about patients’ lives; going on strike being their first response to any problem! Unashamedly, they risked innocent patients’ lives during a pandemic to get their demands.

Not that there are no disciplined professionals. Much was made, in the media, of Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema’s resignation and a few others from the expert committee. One of their colleagues has written to this newspaper that they owe it to the public to declare why they resigned. The resignation itself says it all and that is the way decent professionals protest.

Now teachers have joined the strike bandwagon to settle a dispute that had been lingering on for over two decades. They do not care a tuppence about the future of our youth and in the process have lost all the esteem the public held them in. My friend, very conveniently, has failed to notice that the virus spread due to demonstrations held by teachers breaching COVID-19 regulations, despite it resulting in the unfortunate deaths of some teachers.

Leaving politicians aside, most of whom are undisciplined, irrespective of their complexions, when respected segments of the society, like the clergy, medical professionals and teachers, display gross indiscipline during an unprecedented period like this, can there be any hope? I wonder! I do hope the next generation ‘rebels’ against these, as generations do, so that a disciplined society may not be a bridge too far; I can only hope!

Coming back to the political accusations my colleague made, my reply was:

“I am not ashamed to admit that, any day, I would prefer Mahinda, Gota and Basil to Ranil or Sajith.”

Just a few days after my comment, Sajith made his declaration that there should be a snap-election. My assessment was confirmed by the leader of the JVP who responded by saying that Sajith should have his head examined!

Perhaps, there is more to it than that. Considering the number of protests and trade union actions that have taken place in spite of the continuing national emergency, one cannot be blamed for suspecting that there is a hidden hand behind all this. Maybe, Sajith let the cat out of the bag by his unguarded comment.

On top of the inherent tendency, it looks as if there is planned indiscipline too!

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Opinion

When Susanthika did Lanka proud

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As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.

The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.

Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.

As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.

That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.

As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.

Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.

So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.

Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.

LALITH FERNANDO

Panadura

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