Saturday 3rd July, 2021
The government has, in its wisdom, chosen to fight on several fronts simultaneously while putting up resistance against an elusive yet formidable enemy—coronavirus. It provoked the public sector nurses into resorting to trade union action. The same is true of the ongoing farmers’ protests against the Agriculture Ministry’s failure to make fertiliser available for the current cultivation season. These agitations have become a daily occurrence. Cultivators are seen protesting on fields and roads. The government continues to ignore their demands, insisting that their allegations are baseless.
The government cannot wish the fertiliser shortage away. Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage has sought to play down the issue by claiming that the Opposition has made a mountain out of a molehill; he is apparently doing it the other way around. He seems to believe in his own mistruths and act accordingly. He cannot be unaware that not all farmers taking part in protests are Opposition supporters, and that they would not have taken to the streets, exposing themselves to the Delta variant of coronavirus but for their sheer desperation to save their cultivations affected by the fertiliser shortage.
The Opposition, no doubt, is trying to gain some political traction from the farmers’ protests. It may be dreaming that the ongoing agitations will spin out of control and lead to something like the farmers’ struggle in India. Hope is said to spring eternal. But what really drives the farmers to protest is not a political motive but the losses they are suffering. They have families to feed and clothe, and debts to repay; their crops are obviously dying for want of fertiliser. They have already suffered heavy losses due to lockdowns, which caused their produce to perish on their fields. If the government listens to the protesting farmers and takes action to redress their grievances, they will give up their agitations and go back to their fields, and the Opposition will have to find some other issue to flog.
The government ought to realise that it needs farmers’ cooperation more than anything else if it is to steer its organic fertiliser project to success. Antagonising the farming community is certainly not the way to set about the task. Even the JVP, whose leaders are seen at farmers’ protests, insists that it is not against the government policy of promoting organic fertiliser. The outfit may be blamed for anything but a conspiracy to derail the government’s fertiliser project. It says it is only asking the government to meet the fertiliser needs of the farmers in the short run and effect the switchover to organic fertiliser gradually. This sounds a sensible suggestion that the government should take on board. Extreme actions must be avoided. The SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77) took its agricultural experiments to an extreme, and the political price it had to pay for its obduracy and arrogance was huge. If it had acted sensibly without causing so much of suffering to the public, it would not have suffered a humiliating defeat in 1977, when the UNP secured a five-sixths majority in Parliament and abused it in every conceivable manner to suppress democracy for 17 years.
The country needs mass protests or gatherings like a hole in the head at this particular juncture. The country’s fight against Covid-19 has become an uphill task owing to the costly blunders of the government and the noncooperation of the public. Protests will only make an already bad situation worse. They are super-spreader events although the organisers thereof claim that the protesters fully comply with the Covid-19 prevention protocol.
The government ought to be flexible in handling farmers’ protests and guided by the oxymoronic aphorism, festina lente or ‘make haste slowly’, in carrying out its fertiliser experiments. Its ill-conceived attempts to bulldoze its way through will only cause unnecessary problems for the country.
A rotting fish head
Wednesday 4th August, 2021
What is this world coming to when female legislators complain of sexual harassment in Parliament itself? SJB MP Rohini Wijeratne yesterday complained to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena that SJB MP Thalatha Athukorale had suffered verbal sexual abuse at the hands of some government MPs during the recent debate on the no-faith motion against Minister Udaya Gammanpila. She alleged that the Chair had done nothing to rein in the unruly SLPP MPs, who went scot-free. It was Parliament’s moment of shame.
Speaker Abeywardene later told the House there was no truth in MP Wijeratne’s claim, but the SJB insists that the incident happened, and a probe must be conducted.
A few years ago, the media revealed that some male MPs were sexually harassing their female counterparts. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised action and asked for formal complaints, but nobody came forward, and the issue fizzled out. The victims obviously chose to remain silent for fear of reprisal and stigma.
Allegations of verbal sexual harassment are not limited to Parliament. The local government institutions have their share of frustrated males notorious for insulting and/or even making advances to female councillors; they cannot utter a single sentence devoid of smutty double entendre.
We reported, on 18 Jan. 2021, that female local government members were denied their right to speak at council meetings, dominated by unruly males. Maharagama Urban Council member (SLFP) Chandrika de Zoysa was quoted as having said, at a press conference organised by a collective of female councillors, that their male counterparts heckled them and even shouted them down whenever they tried to speak. A similar situation prevailed at all other councils, the female councillors said. We editorially commented on the predicament of women, and called for action against the misogynists. Some women’s rights groups took up the issue, but the problem persists, we are told. How can we get rid of the scourge of gender-based discrimination against women when the so-called people’s representatives themselves promote it with impunity?
The SJB-led Opposition should ensure that action is taken against the bad eggs in the garb of government MPs who made lewd, demeaning comments on Thalatha, who is a former Minister of Justice. The members of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, whose mission is to empower women and eliminate violence and harassment against them, must circle their wagons, and protest until a probe is ordered.
The Opposition must name the SLPP MPs who harassed Thalatha so that the public will know who these sick characters are, and action can be taken against them. It should also explore the possibility of moving a no-faith motion against these shameless elements, and making the House discuss the issue of gender-based discrimination against its own members and adopt measures to solve the problem once and for all. The Opposition holds protests over numerous issues, but is silent on the sexual harassment of one of its female members.
All political parties have women’s wings, which must take up the issue of discrimination and sexual harassment female representatives undergo in political institutions.
Women account for more than one half of Sri Lanka’s population, but there are only 12 female MPs. The number of women legislators should be increased. Women must push for this. This is something the Parliamentary Select Committee, tasked with identifying ‘appropriate reforms of the election laws and the electoral system’ and recommending ‘necessary amendments’, should give serious thought to.
We are not short of male MPs who pretend to be paragons of virtue and pontificate to others. We hear them urging the protesting teachers to behave. Shouldn’t they put their own house in order before faulting others for indiscipline? A fish, as we keep saying, is said to rot from the head down.
Friends of the virus
Tuesday, 3rd August, 2021
Coronavirus is an elusive enemy, and it is a mistake to declare victory prematurely in a country’s war against it. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Arden performed the hongi, a few weeks ago, presumably in a bid to show the world that their countries were safe. But, today, the virus is troubling Australia, again. Brisbane and Gold Coast have been locked down, and the army is patrolling Sydney to ensure that travel restrictions are fully enforced. The US also made the mistake of lowering its guard after a successful vaccination campaign. It now has a resurgence of coronavirus to contend with; the daily infection rate is expected to reach 300,000 soon. The Delta variant has also caused China’s Covid-19 defences to collapse with a surge in infections even in cities declared coronavirus-free. Japan has extended the state of emergency to more areas. This is what the Delta variant is capable of.
It is against this backdrop that the Sri Lankan government’s decision to make all state employees report for work with effect from yesterday should be viewed. When all public sector employees start going to work, buses and trains will be chock-a-block, and the transmission of coronavirus will receive a turbo boost.
True, the country cannot afford to remain closed indefinitely, and it has to be reopened to revive its ailing economy. But caution should be exercised when restrictions are removed. It would have been prudent for the government to stagger the reopening of public institutions. The state sector, which is terribly overstaffed, may be able to maintain its performance at a reasonable level with about one half of its workforce. Some processes in the public sector can be streamlined technologically to make them less labour intensive.
The government says that most of the state employees have been vaccinated against Covid-19, and are therefore safe, but the fact remains that breakthrough infections are on the rise, and the vaccinated people could also transmit the virus, albeit at a lower rate.
Chances are that the ongoing protests by teachers will not be over anytime soon. Infections could fan out through protesting teachers, most of whom are said to be fully vaccinated. When teachers return home after taking part in protests, they may infect their families and friends. It took only a single infected cook to land a whole village in the soup, the other day, in the Kalutara district. Nearly 90 persons contracted Covid-19 thanks to him, according to media reports.
The government deserves praise for its hitherto successful vaccination programme, but unfortunately it is driving trade unions to launch street protests and thereby boost the transmission of the Delta variant. It has got its priorities all mixed up. What possessed it to present the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) bill amidst an unprecedented national health emergency, and provoke other stakeholders into taking to the streets?
The focus of the government and the Opposition should be on beating the virus and reviving the economy. Even the existing national universities lack resources and are struggling to maintain standards. They remain closed due to the pandemic. It defies comprehension why on earth the government is in a mighty hurry to upgrade the defence university at this juncture.
The government should seriously consider putting the KNDU bill on hold, and the protesting teachers ought to stop street demonstrations and opt for talks with the government to have their salary issues sorted out. Unless the spread of the Delta variant is stopped forthwith, the country will have to be closed again. The economy, which is already on oxygen support, will not survive another round of lockdowns; the government will be left without any funds for any university, and the protesting teachers will not receive even their salaries. All workers including those in the private sector and their families will have to starve in such an eventuality. This is the danger that the government and the protesters are exposing the country to. They are the friends of the virus.
Of that monkey motion
Monday 2nd August, 2021
A government MP has submitted a private member’s motion seeking parliamentary approval for capturing and sterilising monkeys. He wants these animals relocated to vegetated islands in reservoirs, etc., thereafter. Monkeys cause considerable crop damage, and farmers are desperate to hold them at bay. Various methods have been employed over the years to prevent troops of monkeys from invading villages, and even terrorising people, especially women and children. So, the government MP concerned may have been prompted to come up with the aforesaid plan to solve the problem in response to requests from his constituents, but he does not seem to have obtained expert opinion on the issue.
How to catch so many monkeys has not been specified in the motion, the full text of which we published on Saturday, and it will be an intractable problem unless the government assigns the task to the idling local government members, who are too numerous to be counted.
The motion at issue reminds us of a proposal made by a deputy minister in the yahapalana government. He wanted an open season declared on wild pigs and monkeys, and some of the wild elephants shipped to other countries as gifts. He said the populations of some wild animals had increased exponentially, causing problems to humans, and culling was the solution. The wild boar could be killed and sold for meat, he maintained. His proposal struck a responsive chord with some of the people troubled by wild animals, but drew a lot of criticism from others, especially animal rights activists. He chose to ignore the root cause of the problem—the huge increase in the human population, which has led to the opening up of the natural habitats of animals for cultivation and development purposes. It is not only humans who need lebensraum, or the territory needed for their natural development; animals also do. When space, food and water become scarce, animals invade villages.
The main reason for the human-elephant conflict is that many villages and farmlands have sprung up, unplanned, in the middle of animal territories, causing the depletion of forest cover, and in some cases, even blocking elephant corridors. The methods being used at present to tackle the conflict are outdated, and remedial action proposed by experts such as Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando has gone unheeded. Successive governments have been only throwing money at the problem, as we reported on 22 July.
There are other reasons for wild animal invasions. Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya of the University of Kelaniya has, in a research paper presented at an international conference in 2019, pointed out that the prolonged neglect of forest tanks or kuluwew built for special purposes such as storing rainwater, enriching groundwater level, providing water for wild animals, maintaining the food chain, etc., has caused the problem of wild elephants, monkeys, porcupines, giant squirrels and wild boar invading village ecosystems and threatening the settlers in an unprecedented manner. Insects, rats and snakes also enter residential and farming areas as a result, he has said, concluding that if the kuluwew are renovated systematically and forest ecosystems restored, the wild animal threat can be reduced by about 80 percent. This is something President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has evinced a keen interest in rural development, should give serious thought to.
Meanwhile, it may not be too cynical a view that perhaps the SLPP politicians will not have to run around sterilising monkeys unless their supporters who are encroaching on forest lands apace are reined in; at the rate forest clearance is being carried out, the day may not be far off when we are left with no trees and no wild animals.
As for the aforesaid private member’s motion, a wag says he does not think the translocation of monkeys to islands in reservoirs or rivers will be a solution, if experience is anything to go by; the aggressive anthropoids we send to an ait in a lake near the Colombo city every five years or so do not cease to be a nuisance. They, in fact, become a bigger problem after being sent there, and destroy forests, etc. These troublesome creatures in kapati suit are far more invasive and destructive than the brachiating primates that only seek to satisfy their needs and not unlimited wants. If the main remedy that the monkey motion proposes—sterilisation—had been adopted in dealing with the anthropoids that people sent to the lake isle close to Colombo years ago, the country would have been free from trouble currently being caused by their descendants.
One only hopes the motion in question will prompt the government to ponder the problems that wild animals cause to humans, and vice versa, and enlist the support of experts to solve them, without further delay.
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