(Mis)recognising Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence:
by Sivamohan Sumathy
Kuppi Talk is committed to democratising education. It is an ongoing process. Our discussion has centred on concerns of militarisation, commodification, corporatisation of education, the KNDU Bill, the externalities of power. We have also initiated discussion on the internal workings of educational spaces, the hierarchies embedded in the structural apparatus, ragging, and other attendant violences.
One of the major but unspoken enactments of violence in our midst is sexual harassment and sexual violence. Given the overwhelmingly male dominant structures of power that we inhabit, gender means a binary of man and woman, placing the woman and the feminine in the subordinate position. While the woman is marginal, the marginal is feminised, too. While sexual violence can happen across any identification of gender and sexuality, the figure of the woman, or the “feminine”, stands in for the figure of the other. Our bid to democratize the university space and take on sexual violence is a part of a larger movement to take on questions of gender, namely, the marginalisation of women and other sexual identities in the spaces of education.
Sexual violence is often taken to be an extraordinary happening. It is also understood as an act arising from a natural division of genders. The social marginality of the “victim” is hardly taken into account. Often the victim is deemed the guilty party, accused of using “her” sexuality to lure the “innocent” perpetrator. As we work toward democratising our gendered spaces, we need to denaturalise sexualised and gendered behaviour, and approach sexual aggression as an act of power; and recognise its imposition on the gendered body of a vulnerable person, for what it is: sexual violence, perpetrated on the “body” of the other.
It is important not to confuse a misplaced morality with ethical considerations. A person has a right to express sexual desire in a non-aggressive and non-exploitative manner. Such an exercise of one’s right should not be conflated with the exploitation of a vulnerably positioned person by a person in power. It is important to identify and locate acts of harassment and violence within the political culture of a place, in this instance the university, as we look at place as a space of power. It is not an easy task, but keeping our eyes focused on the disempowered person will help us develop some strategies toward action.
Sexual harassment and violence are rooted in the everyday, as the everyday actualises relations of power and reinscribes them in the spaces of our civil and political lives. It is a scripting of the relations of power that obtain in our home, public spaces like markets, streets, theatres, and spaces of work and study. Habituation inscribes and reinscribes power relations in its speech, encounters, and in the spaces that we inhabit. One becomes habituated to sexual harassment and sexual violence in speech and act; the habits are naturalized. The “victim” who is situated oppositionally to all this becomes the outsider to this norm, the other. She/he/they are rendered helpless and powerless in the process.
Theoretically speaking, this habitual, extended and elaborated, can be understood as the habitus proposed by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s habitus weaves together the everyday, the habit and the structural features of a domain, in which relations of class, gender, and other social forces intertwine to produce dispositions of power within a structural apparatus. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are deeply intertwined and operate on a continuum in a structural field of dispositions, a domain, a place like the University, through the habituation of manners, through the claiming of spaces, and through the marginalisation of subjects, as others.
Analytically, I suggest that we place sexual violence within hierarchies in the university, including gendered hierarchies and the gendered nature of our spaces; and break open the culture of silence that surrounds the subject, leading to a “recognition” of sexual humiliation and power play as harassment and violence. This recognition should take place in a nurturing and empowering environment. Where does a student, or junior faculty, go to, to seek redress if she finds herself in an uncomfortable, embarrassing, demeaning or downright dangerous situation, and be assured that the supposed “perpetrator” is not the one who will arbitrate on her case? Where are the assurances, when in a closely knit institutional place like the Sri Lankan University, one would get a fair hearing? Can this be assured, when relations are hierarchically arranged, power is not always transparent but resides in the unspoken corridors of power, and operates in the habitus, along the threads of a fine web of social and institutional relations?
Most universities in Sri Lanka today have a Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Sexual Violence policy, formulated with the intention of providing guidelines of conduct and support to the “victim” when her/his integrity as a person is violated, usually by a figure of authority. Measures such as this are broadly designed to protect female and male students from harassment by academic and administrative staff, provide safety for junior staff who are made to feel reliant for their jobs on more senior staff, provide safety measures for the working staff from being harassed sexually and otherwise by people in administration or other positions of power and protect students from being ragged sexually and otherwise.
Despite the presence of these formal features, sexual harassment continues to be an intractable problem. Without collective and institutional will, it is difficult to create a conducive culture in which women and others in vulnerable positions can voice their grievances; most suffer in silence, or in murmurs of dissent, never able to fully articulate their discomfort and even fear. A probationary lecturer at the University of Peradeniya has sought redress for a case of sexual harassment and violence that purportedly took place in university premises, in the court of law of the country. Does this mean, the university has failed this member of its body? The justness of this case notwithstanding, the university can do more for its junior staff and students, proactively.
The University of Peradeniya’s SGBHSV policy, while being decent, does little to empower the individual before commission of the violation. There is little focus on dissemination. How many of our students and staff know about the policy? Staff Development Courses do have a segment devoted to dissemination of the policy, but many other universities do not seem to have such a mechanism. On the other hand, the policy at Peradeniya states that its clauses shall be written into the service contracts of all employees. However, such an incorporation has not happened so far.
It is telling that the policy is tucked away in the “Complaints” section on the University website and is nowhere else to be found, as far as I can see. Our notion of justice is far too steeped in punishment and does not focus on the everyday. This is not an oversight. Punitive measures leave the structures of power intact and untouched, focusing on gross violations, leaving the everyday and the habitual untouched.
How does then one strategise around prevention and denaturalise the culture of sexual violence and harassment in society and in university spaces? The obvious course is de-hierarchising relations of power, but that is a distant dream. In the short and the long term, we need dialogue. Dialogue is not merely workshops and awareness raising. Workshops and awareness raising on what needs to be done would be meaningless if the hierarchical structure is not challenged simultaneously. On the other hand, such discussions may provide the entry point for a view from below and for a campaign.
Gender units that lead and implement the SGBHSV policy need to be strengthened and allowed to play a central role. The policy needs to be widely disseminated, among staff and students. Gendered discourses are always already about class, ethnicity, language, and other axes of power and inclusion and exclusion. Ethnic minorities are rarely fully integrated into university spaces; class wise exclusions exacerbate unequal sexual relations in a place. A far-reaching policy on ragging needs to be brought about through discussion. It is also important that student-student relations are de-hierarchized. To this end, first years need to be nurtured with facilities and support. Junior staff need to be fully empowered with representation, participation and impartiality. Janitorial services are outsourced in most cases, and the staff, almost always women, are on contract. How do they navigate their way about the halls of silent power in the university?
Change has to come from women, students, minorities, and those placed on the lower rungs of the hierarchy, academic and non-academic, in a spirit of collaboration. Democratisation is to be collectively fought for, and is to be fought for an enduring intimacy with the spaces we habituate.
Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the Department of English at the University of Peradeniya
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies
The Sandahiru event – celebrating failure
by Anura Gunasekera
A few days ago President Gotabaya Rajapaksa(GR), the first military man and, unarguably, the most ignorant in the ways of governance to occupy the presidential seat, celebrated the completion of two years as the eighth president of the Republic of Sri Lanka. The salutation coincided with the formal vesting with the Sangha, of the “Sandahiru Seya” in Anuradhapura, a project commenced during brother Mahinda’s last term as president. A towering stupa rising above the Jetawana and the Abhayagiri, ostensibly to honour the services rendered by the armed forces and the police in our ethnic conflict but, in reality, a monument to the Rajapaksa delusions of grandeur, aligns the Rajapaksa Family dynasty with the Sinhala Kings. A tribute to the heroic is justified but the supreme incongruity of conflating the quintessential Buddhist symbol, with success in a bloody military campaign, is inconsequential to a hegemonic mindset. The incompatibility was also ignored by the Rajapaksa-adoring Sangha, including the Anunayake Theros of both Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, who participated and enthusiastically endorsed its purpose.
Notwithstanding a grandiose commemoration, as Rajapaksa’s second year in the presidency ends and the year 2021 draws to a close, the country stands mired in calamities on every public front.
The economy is in disaster mode. Foreign reserves which were at USD 7.5 Billion in November 2019, when GR took office, had declined to USD 2.8 Billion by August 2021. Despite Central Bank Governor Cabraal’s blithe assurance that the economy can be restructured without IMF assistance, and that wildly reckless money-printing has no impact on inflation, banks are unable to provide importers with forex to import essentials, whilst prices of basic commodities are placing them beyond the reach of ordinary consumers. According to most economists, in the real world, when money printing increases in a background of stagnant or declining national output, all other factors being equal, hyper-inflation is the certain outcome. Recent historical examples are too numerous to quote here. However, Cabraal, who is one of the architects and, also, a highly privileged inhabitant of the Rajapaksa Dystopia, is obviously reading from a different text!
For the last few months, in every village, town and city across the island, for the first time since the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime 50 years ago, desperate citizens have been waiting in queues to buy the most basic items. There are frequent shortages of sugar, rice, milk powder and cooking fuel; very recently, suppliers ran short of kerosene oil, the only convenient and affordable alternative to cooking gas. Gathering firewood is not an option, especially for the four million urban population of Sri Lanka.
The government has responded to the foreign exchange shortage by imposing drastic regulations to limit dollar usage, declaring over 600 imported items, including mobile phones, clothing, household appliances and a range of foods, as non-essential. Vehicles imports are also included in the restrictions.
Prices of essential foods, vegetables and staples have seen an astronomic escalation during 2021, due to low supply, either because of import restrictions or, in the case of locally grown items, a result of poor harvests due to denial- through unavailability- of basic nutrient inputs, and disruptions in the supply chain from distant growing areas.
The pandemic has contributed to the crisis, dismantling livelihoods with some of the monthly paid subjected to wage cuts or layoffs, whilst daily paid workers are denied earnings through inability to access places of work or, because the lockdown has compelled the closure of many small establishments, which rely mainly on casual labour. As in many countries in the developing world, in Sri Lanka, the informal, small and medium scale entrepreneurial sector collectively supports more livelihoods, than either the State or the corporate sector. However, the Covid pandemic is only a contributory factor to an escalating socio-economic disaster. The government, through the implementation of a series of imprudent and ill-conceived policies, has aggravated the situation to a degree beyond retrieval.
Immediately after assuming the presidency, GR ordered sweeping tax concessions, which resulted in the diminution of government revenues by about 30% in 2020. These concessions were beneficial to a minute proportion of the population, which actually needed no such relief. They did not cascade to the ordinary citizen. Soon thereafter, to bridge the cash supply deficit the money printing spree commenced, according to some sources injecting as much as an additional 35% – 40% in to the economy, by mid-2021.
The pandemic Task Force was led by a retired army commander, appointed by a president unable to distinguish between the scientific complexities of fighting a virus, and the tactical requirements of assaulting an enemy garrison. This mindset was also compounded by an inherent insensitivity to the suffering of ordinary people. The mismanagement of the project in its early, critical stages led to an escalation of infections and deaths, especially amongst the elderly who were denied vaccinations at the outset. Successive waves of infection even led to embarrassing State sponsorship of miracle cures- the ridiculous “Dhammika Elixir” and the casting of holy water pots in to flowing water!!
Whilst people were desperately scrabbling around to sustain themselves in a setting of loss of income, essential item scarcities and other privations, overnight, the president decreed a ban on the use of inorganic fertilizer and agro-chemicals. All professional agriculturists in the country (the writer was one for over 50 years) and scientists in related disciplines, have pointed out the certainty of the disastrous outcomes from the implementation of this irrational, unscientific and impractical policy; the adverse consequences are already visible in the case of short term crops, especially rice and vegetables, whilst the impact on the long-term plantation crops, particularly tea, will very soon be evident in the form of crop declines, diminished exports and shrinking foreign exchange earnings.
The island-wide uprising of despairing farmers, beating and burning effigies of senior ministers and demanding a reversal of the fertilizer ban, was met with the promise of organic fertilizer as an alternative. The imported organic nutrient, apparently a mixture of sea weed and faeces- a second virus from China after Corona- was found unsuitable, leading to imports from India of “liquid nitrogen”, a product untried on a large scale in that country. One of the President’s responses to the anguish of the farmers was to declare at a public meeting that he could, if he considered it desirable, use the army to seize the farming community by the scruff of its collective neck and compel them to use organic fertilizer!!
The ban on the slaughter of cattle is a similarly ill-considered directive. Alleviating animal suffering is a noble cause but the consequences of the ban will be dire for several hundred thousand people. The cattle rearing industry is multi-faceted and interconnected. Milk production, beef supply and the supply of animal skin to the tanning industry go hand-in-hand. Dairy industry, which is essentially a small farmer collective enterprise, becomes unviable unless unproductive animals are converted to meat. This ban will disempower around 200,000 individual farmers island-wide, many of them Muslims in the Eastern province. The certain consequences will be the decline of local milk production, scarcity of allied dairy products and the unpreventable escalation of illicit cattle slaughter. That proverb of unknown origin, that ” The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions,” is an apt commentary on both the fertilizer and cattle slaughter ban.
Younger brother Basil, hailed by Rajapaksa acolytes as an economic genius of Einsteinian proportions- despite the absence of previous experience and known academic background – has produced a budget reinforced by bloated statistics and unrealizable dreams. His disgracefully incoherent Budget speech, delivered in Sinhala, justifiably lampooned in multiple forums, was not improved by his rambling, garbled contributions in a subsequent English language interview on the same subject, with Ms Indeewari Amuwatte on Ada Derana. The questions were intelligent, precise and designed to elicit clarity. The responses were vague, evasive and inarticulate, by a man struggling to defend the indefensible in a medium clearly unfamiliar to him; at best a cringe-worthy performance.
A frustrated electorate propelled GR in to power in justifiable disgust at the dysfunctional governance of the Sirisena- Wickramesinghe regime, only to be confronted, in less than two years, with an ineptitude of colossal proportions. The enormous parliamentary advantage of a two-thirds majority and a presidency with unlimited power, the two moving in parallel rather than in unison, has paved the way for an economic and social disaster. It is an inevitable consequence of the 20th Amendment, which has expanded the powers of the President, whilst encroaching on the authority of the parliament and the judiciary. When the individual so elected believes that he is the sole repository of wisdom in governance – despite a total lack of experience in the field and a wretched absence of ordinary commonsense – chaos ensues. That is what we see everyday, in mass protests against moronic directives.
The only visible success in governance in Sri Lanka today is the inexorable onward march of the Rajapaksa project, which commenced during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term and, after a slight hiccup during the abortive Sirisena regime, has gathered a terrifying new momentum since end 2019. It is conservatively estimated that about 64% of the country’s economy is directly controlled by the Rajapaksa family and those connected to it. In a country rapidly sliding in to an abyss where lies the bleak certainty of food and other essential item scarcities – including pharmaceuticals – widespread malnutrition, loss of employment and livelihoods, declining foreign exchange earnings, disruption to education at all levels and the disintegration of the society, the only glow in a leaden sky comes from the Rajapaksa comet. The State will surely fail but the First Family will surely prosper.
Unless a disoriented and vacillatory opposition quickly gathers its wits, firstly jettisoning the toxic Ranil Wickremesinghe and then rallying round Premadasa – not necessarily the best of men but the only possible alternative – the Rajapaksa dynastic succession, from elder brother to younger brother and from uncle to nephew, and thereafter to another sibling or relative, is a certainty.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President by the convergence of normally divergent political forces. But, once elected, by-passing the legislature and other democratic institutions, he has chosen to govern through the armed forces and a collection of “Task Forces”, staffed or led by ex-military men, and other disciples and profiteers, answerable to only him. A spineless, collusive and essentially corrupt legislature has become a rubber stamp to his will. A reading of the two year performance report establishes beyond doubt that the “Viyathmaga” is the road to certain ruin, and that the “Eliyamaga” will condemn this country to economic darkness before the Gotabaya presidency ends.
Very recently, parliamentarian Kumara Welgama delivered a speech at the Diyawanna assembly, amusing, but brutally frank, in its exposure of the venality of recent regimes and the familial considerations which overrode national interests in decision making at the highest levels of governance, whilst highlighting the aberrant mentality that pervades the current dispensation. It was also prophetic in the warnings sounded to the ruling regime. Not one of his statements were contested. It must now be clear to all that when madmen are allowed to run the asylum, lunacy becomes institutionalized and insanity infiltrates governance.
“Perspectives on Constitutional Reform in Sri Lanka”
Editors: Hiran W Jayewardene and Sharya Scharenguivel
Published by the International and Comparative Law Society 2021.
Reviewed by Neville Ladduwahetty
The publication of a book on Constitutional Reform containing the perspectives of eminent contributors recognized for their expertise on the subject at a time when there is an ongoing process set up to develop a new Constitution in Sri Lanka is a valuable and necessary contribution to the Constitution making process. As is usual, the book starts with a Foreword, followed by a Preface. However, what is unusual is the material in the Prologue that follows.
It starts with a personal background of the first Executive President of Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayewardene, as being a lawyer with a legacy of five generations of lawyers and proceeds to incorporate his “THOUGHTS ON CONSTITUTIONALISM”. This section covers the evolution of Constitutional Reform in Sri Lanka starting with the Donoughmore and Soulbury Constitutions, and explains the influences that made him an advocate of the presidential form of government in preference to the parliamentary system.
It then records the historical development associated with the adoption of a presidential system and how President Jayewardene defended its merits as being the most appropriate form of government for a developing country. The Prologue also gives the key features of the 1978 Constitution. Another noteworthy feature is the presentation of an overview of the perspectives of all the contributors to this volume, thus enabling the reader to gain a broad outline of their perspectives without having to labour through each contributor’s views individually.
One fact that should be borne in mind is that however progressive are the constitutional reforms and however independent institutions such as the judiciary and other key institutions are, their service to the public depends not on the written words in their respective instruments, but in the integrity and commitment of those who make them meaningful.
The perspectives of 22 contributors are presented under seven sections. The majority, if not all of them, are lawyers. I am not a lawyer. However, the majority of us are affected by the perspectives expressed by them when they become part of the constitution under which we are governed. Therefore, there is a relevance that the perspectives presented are reviewed from such a source.
PRESIDENTIAL v. PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEMS
Prior to addressing issues relating to Constitutional Reforms, there is a need to make the hard choice between the two fundamental Constitutional Systems, namely Presidential as at present or Parliamentary as it was in the past. It is only after making such a fundamental choice that one could proceed to explore the reforms that should be introduced to make its provisions best serve the interests of “We the People”.
Bearing in mind that the most cherished interest of the People is stability and security above all else, the choice that needs to be made is whether the Presidential or Parliamentary System would better equip the State to serve the primary interests of the People. While some contributors have addressed the pros and cons of each system and even gone to the extent of expressing their preferences, they have failed to take into account the context in which either system has to operate.
There are however, a few caveats that must be borne in mind when making the choice. The first is to recognize the context in which such a choice is made. The context in particular, is that although the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party are the two major political parties to represent the People, neither is capable of mustering a majority to form a government. As a result, governments formed are invariably coalitions made up of several small parties that represent parochial interests. Consequently, policy decisions are compelled to operate within the constraints imposed by the narrow interests of these coalition partners.
The second is the recognition that the Legislative and the Executive are not separated under the parliamentary system of governance. Consequently, it is the supremacy of Parliament that makes the Executive represented by the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers responsible to Parliament. However, the fact that both the Legislature and Executive need to function as one body, the stability of Parliamentary Systems is dependent on the solidarity of the Coalition; a fact which historically has not been known as an arrangement for stability, both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
On the other hand, the Legislature and the Executive are separate under the recognized principle of Separation of Powers in Presidential Systems. This separation of power reinforced by elections to each branch separately means that even if the stability of the Legislature is tenuous, the Executive remains intact to serve the urgent needs of the People even during a crisis. Despite this advantage as far as the people are concerned, the disadvantage is that fresh legislation is not possible if the political ideologies governing the Legislature are different to that of the Executive; a fact that was highlighted during the debates as the primary reason for rejecting Presidential Systems for governance. However, even under such circumstances compromises by each branch would not only make legislative outcomes more representative of the People, but also may even turn out to be more progressive.
The other criticism often cited is that presidential systems tempt authoritarianism arising from the fact that all Executive power of the People is exercised by one individual. While this is inevitable with presidential systems under separation of power, a rational way out is for Oversight Committees of Parliament to review Executive action through appointed Executives. However, authoritarianism could also exist under Parliamentary Systems as well, depending on the backing the Prime Minister has in Parliament as evidenced in other countries and admitted as a possibility in the Book.
An issue that has not received the attention it deserves and therefore should be part of the reform process is the uniqueness of the presidential system that exists in Sri Lanka. Despite the separation of powers enlarged in Article 4 of the 1978 Constitution, the accommodation of some Members of Parliament who essentially are members elected to the Legislature to also serve in the Executive as Members of the Cabinet of Ministers needs to be addressed. This anomaly needs to be addressed for the sake of clarity. In the absence of clarity, provisions exist where the Cabinet with an independently elected President as its Head is responsible to Parliament. Such contradictions are inevitable when the principles of separation of powers are compromised.
The need for an independent judiciary cannot be over emphasized. However, the selection and appointment of such a judiciary depends on the process, and the process in turn depends on the independence of those who recommend the appointments. Therefore, the institution and the mechanisms deployed need to be independent and free of influence in the exercise of their mandate. In order to achieve such an objective, current processes should be reviewed and reformed if the judiciary is to function as an independent body. In order to make the selection process more open and transparent, it may be necessary for the candidates selected by an Independent Commission to appear before a Parliamentary Oversight Committee for assessment, instead of limiting the process entirely within the judicial fraternity as recommended in the book.
Two others issues that should be part of Constitutional Reforms should be constitutional provisions for judicial review without any time constraints, and the other is the recognition given to the Preamble to the Constitution, because it is the Preamble that sets the broad principles of the Constitutional Framework for the judiciary to be guided in their deliberations whenever the ambiguities and limitations in the written law prevent the administration of justice. The recognition given to the Preamble is what would permit purposive interpretations thereby expanding the scope for administering justice without being bound by literal interpretations of the written word; a practice that could lead to justice being compromised.
The topic of Devolution as in the past, is addressed from a majority/minority perspective as if communities live in defined territories with specific and distinct identities, thus confirming the absence of a fresh perspective to devolution. The inability to accept that in reality this is not the case, is regretted. In reality the composition of the Sri Lankan State is not a collection of Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim monolithic communities living in defined areas. Instead, it is a collection of human beings often with similar aspirations living in politically demarcated areas with political powers assigned to Local Governments as the lowest peripheral unit.
Such areas may be exclusively Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim or even Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim majority areas. However, even within such areas there are gradations and hierarchies within them that challenge their homogeneity. The issues that bind them are common interests in civil, political, economic, social and cultural advancement as they relate to human development; an interest that is common to all, whatever the composition of the community in terms of race, ethnicity, religion or other identities that make one community different to another. Consequently, devolution should be perceived from the standpoint of human development since it is an aspiration common to all human beings within communities and addressed from a fresh perspective if the lives and livelihoods of all communities are to advance.
There is a common thread in the perspectives between the title, “Human Rights and Development – the Need for Indivisibility”, in the section on human rights and the comments cited above on devolution. However, the difference between the two perspectives is that the former is represented as a right whereas the latter is implied as a responsibility of the community within the peripheral political unit.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains a total of thirty articles. The majority of the articles are devoted to human rights an individual is entitled to within a sovereign State. Only Article 29 makes reference to “duties to the community”.
Article 29 states: (1) “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Therefore, Human Rights is not only about rights and entitlements an individual could expect from the State but also about duties and even more so, responsibilities an individual has to the community, and through it to the State. Devolution should be addressed from this perspective. If this aspect is to be given its rightful place, it should be incorporated in the Preamble.
Article 157 of the 1978 Constitution is the only article that addresses issues relating to International Treaties and Agreements. However, the provision in this Article that calls for a two-third approval of Parliament is required only in the case of Treaties and Agreements that are “essential for the development of the national economy…”. In view of this limitation and because any Treaty or Agreement is bound to have an impact on national interests, it is imperative that Constitutional Reforms address this lacuna and provide for ALL Treaties and Agreements between States to be subject to two-third approval of Parliament, because any and all commitments in such instruments become the responsibility of whichever government is in power. Furthermore, even non-treaty instruments such as Memorandums of Understanding should be subject to simple parliamentary majorities.
Dr. Hiran W. Jayewardene should be congratulated for taking the initiative to persuade an eminent group well versed in the complexities of Constitutional Reform to make public their views that could be of benefit to the ongoing process of Constitution making currently underway.
Are we heading for an unprecedented disaster like the Irish Potato Famine?
by Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha
When the potato crop, the staple diet then in Ireland, began to totally fail with a fungal infestation that lead to the historic Irish famine (1845-1852), the Irish leaders in Dublin turned to Queen Victoria and the British Parliament for redress. However, the British government under which Ireland was then a colony, acted negatively repealing certain laws and tariffs that made food such as corn and bread prohibitively expensive. Tenant farmers were unable even to produce enough food for themselves, and hundreds of thousands died of starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition!
The exact role of the British government in the Potato Famine and its aftermath—whether it ignored the plight of Ireland’s poor out of malice, or if their collective inaction and inadequate response could be attributed to incompetence—is still being debated. However, even during the famine some food items were exported out of Ireland. Our situation looks very comparable to the Irish fiasco except that our leaders are not acting with malice but with foolish obstinacy, not analysing the issues at stake, not consulting experts in the subject and sticking coherently to their policy of organic farming with unattainable goals.
Our rice farmers may yet not be starving because they have at least the last Yala rice crop which has been reasonable despite the fertilizer and other agrochemical shortages. On the other hand, tea and vegetable farmers appear to be the most hit. Many tea smallholders complain that without adequate nitrogen fertilizer their crops have declined immensely and some are not even harvesting the meagre flush as it can hardly meet even the workers wages. The seriousness of the situation is further aggravated by our losing the markets which the industry claims can be substantial.
At the same time, for the general public, sky-rocketing prices of food and other essentials are unbearable. Our women won’t be able even to emulate what the French women did during the days of the French Revolution due to inflation, carrying the money in the shopping bags and bringinging back the purchases in their purses, because they have no money to carry.
It is regrettable that the President did not consult the agricultural experts in deciding to rush to convert the country entirely to organic from conventional farming within one season.He has not positively responded to the current fiasco of neither chemical nor organic fertilizer being available. His main consultants on matter appear to be a pediatrician who wants to go back to traditional rice varieties which yield less than half the new improved varieties and a professor of agriculture who identified sorghum as a rice variety, Swayanjatha wee’, with which, he claims, King Dutugamunu fed his ‘Dasa Maha Yodayas.’ There are many other ‘yes men’ behind him nodding their heads to every thing he says.
The President should be mindful that the world moved away from organic farming from about the 1850s to conventional farming because even in that era organic farming could not meet the food demand. The writer hopes that he would at least look at Table 1 here which shows how chemical fertilizers and new high yielding varieties pushed production from essentially organic farming and traditional rice to chemical farming and new varieties by three to four fold across many countries. Distinguished Professor Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba calculated that 40% of the global population in 1999 would not have lived if urea fertilizer had not been invented.
Table 1. Comparative Rice
Production (Million MT)
Country 1960 1999
China 48 170
India 46 112
Sri Lanka 1.1 3.4
The transition from traditional agriculture where fertilizer comprised essentially farmyard manure(FYM) and green manures, to conventional agriculture(CF), as we know it today, took place in the mid 19th century with two ground breaking inventions , the synthesis of soluble (super) phosphate(John Lawes,1814 to 1900) and the need for chemical nitrogenous fertilizer for crop growth (Justus von Liebig,1803-1873) by two great scientists. In 1909, another great German scientist, Fritz Haber (1868-1934) successfully synthesized ammonia by combining atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen which revolutionized the production of urea and other commercial nitrogenous fertilizers.
These inventions and the rapidly growing knowledge then in plant chemistry led to the substitution of natural dung with chemical fertilizer. The third important element, potassium, was provided largely by potash, a substance that had been known from antiquity. It has been said that without these inventions, the industrial countries of Western Europe could not have supported the dense population growth of the 19th century. It is the same reason that later led to the Green Revolution. This is ironically the fundamental question that we should ask: is there adequate organic matter and associated technologies to “go green” fully, as the President calls it, now, if it was not possible then with much lower populations but more farmlands. Sir John Russell (1942), the reputed British soil scientist, in an article titled British Agriculture states that: “it is difficult for us in this distance in time to recapture the feelings with which the farmers received the information that a powder made in a factory and applied out of a bag at the rate of only a few hundred weights per acre could possibly act as well as farmyard manure put on the land as dressings of tons to meet the nutrient demands of crops’. The question then is if organic matter was inadequate to meet the fertilizer requirements then, can it do so now on a global scale?
The main blame of the President and his cabinet colleagues is on health hazzards of agrochemicals. There is no argument that there are risks largely due to misuse of agrochemicals. One serious problem recently has been phosphate pollution of the Rajarata water bodies due to excessive application of phosphate fertilizers in the upcountry vegetable farms. On the other hand, no comprehensive studies reveal pollution of water or soil with heavy metals or pesticides, a subject much spoken about. Farmer training on judicious use can greatly reduce the risk of agrochemical misuse which sadly is not happening with the very ineffective extension services of the day. Strengthening this service is matter of highest priority.
On the other hand hardly any politician utters a word about ambient air pollution, which is a far more serious problem than agrochemical pollution. Records reveal that it caused 3.5 million premature, non-communicable disease- deaths, globally in 2017. These were from stroke, ischemic heart disease non chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes. Local health records reveal that our situation is no better.
The President and many of his cabinet colleagues including the Minister of Agriculture continue to lay the blame on agrochemicals for the kidney disease in the Rajarata and other non- communicable diseases, apparently the main reason for the President ‘going green.’ At some public meeting the President was heard to say that if he gives ‘chemical fertilizer with one hand he will have to give a kidney’ to the farmer with the other. He was prompted to say so by one of his key advisors in agriculture, a pediatrician turned agriculture expert. Sadly he has not sought advice from the health authorities as to the causation of the kidney disease. Numerous knowledgeable scientists and publications have revealed beyond doubt that hardwater and fluoride are the cause of the disease, and a recent comprehensive report by the Health Ministry reveals that there is no evidence to implicate agrochemicals in the causation of the disease.
In this crisis situation, of diminishing food production, the President does not appear to have sought the advise of real agriculture experts. In fact a letter delivered to him over a month ago with some 140 signatures of qualified agriculture researchers and academics seeking an opportunity to discuss the current agricultural calamity has fallen on deaf ears. Let alone the local expert knowledge, he should have sought evidence from what happens elsewhere in the world. Many countries are only gradually expanding their organic crop cover which, however, yet stands at 1.5 % of the total global croplands expanding annually at a meagre 2% per annum.Only 16 countries have exceeded 10 % of the crop cover in organic farming, and in nearly all them the major extents are in pasture fertilized with farmyard manure.
Policy blunders continue to be committed. To meet the rice fertilizer needs the government claims importing 2.1 million litres of nano fertilizer at a cost of USD 12 per litre. It appears to be nano urea although the Minister of Agriculture vehemently claims that it is not nano urea but ‘nanonitrogen’ to give it an organic stance. Urea is not allowed in organic farming. The authorities claim that the cost of a litre is USD 12, and it has 4% nitrogen, meaning there are 40 grams nitrogen/litre. As average rice crop of 5 tons/ha removes over 100kg nitrogen , meaning to meet the crop demand the farmers should spray 2,500 bottles of which the theoretical cost should be USD 30,000. However, the government makes the ridiculous claim that five litres/ha of nanonitrogen is adequate to meet the crop demand. God save the farmers!
The global synthetic urea prices have soared to about USD 750 per metric ton from about USD500 last November. Assuming that a farmer applies 100kg nitrogen/ha with urea (46% N) his cost should be Rs 32,608 without subsidy; and assuming he sells his crop of five tons at Rs 60/kg, his gross income should be Rs 300,000, and the cost of urea alone should be over 10.6% of the gross income. On the other hand, with the huge fertilizer subsidy in previous years the total fertilizer cost for rice farming was a mere 2 to 3% of the total cost of production or about 1.5% of the gross return. Incisive thinking on fertilizer subsidy is another matter that needs state attention.
The need for a national advisory body like the one in India set up by Nehru in 1963, which still continues with a name change made by Prime Minister Modi to give it more emphasis on technologies. Modi also recently reported repealing antiquated regulations that are adversely affecting small farmers. Moreover, whereas we have rushed to ban palm oil imports (now reversed) and oil palm cultivation, promoting coconut cultivation to meet the national oil yields despite it yielding only 20% of oil as oil palm, Modi has engaged in a policy of expanding oil palm cultivation extending it to irrigated lands and replacing some of the low-yielding arable oil crops. His target is to expand the oil palm cover from the current level of about 400,000 ha to a million by 2025. This writer repeats that our leaders should look at what happens elsewhere in the world apart from listening to proven experts in the respective fields.
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