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Dr. Ajith C.S. Perera, a fighter to the last

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Disability activist, accessibility consultant, accomplished author, writer and speaker

This is no eulogy. I leave the appreciation of Ajith’s work to others who knew him and his work better than I. I belong to another generation, that of his father. So what I say here is personal, not quite what a reader would expect, but it is honest and heartfelt and, above all, something to think about.

Ajith was a tragic and heroic player in a script not of his choosing. This is the role in which he was cast in this life. As a Buddhist I know that whatever befell him was the result of some cause or other – what, we do not know – and I know that the good generated by him in this life will generate good fortune to someone else down the karmic stream. Somewhere, today, a baby lies cocooned in a mother’s womb: a baby who will reap his legacy. That will be his gift to that child: but that child will not know from where it all came. As Ajith, himself, must have spent many hours wondering why things happened to him, himself.

I call him a tragic figure because so many things went wrong. I remember him as a little boy with a cricket bat in hand, waiting for someone who would bowl for him. Sometimes, that was me, and Ajith remembered those days. How was I to know that I was bowling to a future International Test Umpire? He did become that, and an authority on cricket. I lost sight of him after that till I met him in the office of the late Dr. N.R de Silva, my contemporary and colleague, who introduced “this bright young man with an enviable future.”

The road ahead was strewn with flowers: but then, the skies turned dark. One “dark and stormy night” snuffed out that promise. Two promising international careers in cricket and Chemistry, was cut short when a tree fell on his moving car, leaving Ajith paraplegic for life. Thus tethered at so young an age, he took upon four tasks: Keeping his father’s memory evergreen, caring for his widowed mother, giving back from his knowledge to Cricket and taking the lead in moves to make life easier for those who were as disabled, or rather differently-abled as him, or worse.

I do remember taking him to address a gathering of disabled soldiers. Ajith would not go on stage but spoke from his wheelchair on the floor of the Auditorium. He deftly wheeled his way down the aisles, stopping to speak to the soldiers on the same level as he, himself. His dexterity in handling the wheelchair, his ability to speak to one man at a time with full attention, and his self-confidence impressed the soldiers and they left the Hall with shoulders squared and heads held high again.

By reason of personal adversity he turned a voluntary disability activist, accessibility consultant on ‘Enabling Environments’, and accomplished author, writer and speaker. He is also the founder and Hony. Secretary-General of IDIRIYA, a not-for-profit humanitarian service organisation born from his passion and commitment for creating environments that are ‘enabling for all’. He didn’t appreciate pity on behalf of the disabled, nor dependency on part of the disabled, pointing out that able-bodied people often tended to see the ‘disability’ of disabled persons instead of their numerous ‘abilities’. He argued that if everyone adopted a charitable attitude to differently-abled people they would become unwanted dependents of society.

He believed that Sri Lanka needed social empowerment rather than social welfare. He discarded the medical model that labelled people like him ‘disabled’ in favour of the social model, which taught him that human abilities vary widely and is subject to continuous change leading to often debilitating conditions. It was Ajith’s a voluntary efforts that lead to the Supreme Court order to provide differently-abled persons with unhindered access to new public buildings. He hoped that, with the proper implementation of the law, all government and private sector buildings will soon be enabling for all. His tireless efforts made accessibility a legal obligation, rather than just a social responsibility.

He will be remembered for ensuring that his father’s name was remembered in the Navy and, when an oration in his name was delivered on the Golden Jubilee of the Naval Academy, that was Ajith’s day.

On top of it all, his father’s eyesight began to fail. A teacher by nature, Commander M.G.S Perera, had retired from the Navy to be a Staff Captain training Ceylon Shipping Corporation officer cadets. The man who taught celestial navigation to generations of trainees suddenly lost his sight: “the most unkindest cut of all.” Not being able to see “the sun in the morning and the stars at night.” Death would have come as a welcome relief.

With his mother getting older and weaker, he had to run house for her and, unlike most of us, he had no pension, having been disabled so young. It must have been a tough time for him. How can we understand what he was going through? He badgered people to do things, but what else could he do? He managed, though, not wonderfully well, but well enough. That is why I think of him as a tragic figure raging against Fate. He was hard and demanding at times – what else could he do, with no tools in his hand but his voice and his computer? We all found him hard, at times, and even resented it, but we knew that he was tethered to a wheel, and to others who looked to him.

With the death of his mother last year life became very hard for him because there was no purpose in running house. But what else could he do but run it? There were others there and there was no place for him to go. And where was the money? Illness finally claimed him and, perhaps, the will to live, a purpose to live for, deserted him. When had he last been happy I wonder? But he had been mere flotsam in a karmic stream he had no control over. All he could do was leave a legacy to an unborn child. And that, I believe, he did.

This is no eulogy. It is but an honest appraisal of a player cast in a tragic role “’midst the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune.” Ajith will be remembered for what he tried to do, rather than what he could have achieved “had he (had) but world enough and Time.”

Anon

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Opinion

Import substitution in Covid-infested Neoliberal World

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Covid-19, which has taught many a lesson to the rich and the mighty, is causing unparalleled turmoil in the neoliberal economies of the world. It has made governments and economists think of alternatives to the market driven dependent economies that most poor countries practice or are forced to practice. Sri Lanka too is trying its hand with options like export control, import substitution, taxation, protective tariffs, etc. Most countries are forced into it due to the disruption of several aspects of the system, such as foreign exchange earning capacity, international transport, and local export oriented industry. Sri Lanka is faced with considerable decline in its main sources of foreign exchange, such as foreign employment, tourism and garments. The foreign exchange thus earned are, in the main, spent to import food items, textile, medicines, fertilizer, etc., that could be locally produced. Is there any logic in advocating the continuation of this policy – Covid or no Covid?

Yet there are people including parliamentary bigwigs, who criticize the present government policy of controlling imports and attempting import substitution. They say such policy would antagonize Western countries who buy our products, like tea and rubber. Yes, it would make them angry but then that is how they pursue and perpetuate the practice of neoliberalism and exploitation of our resources. They say Western countries would stop extending preferential treatment and favourable terms to us in trade. Yes, they may do that but we must know that these are only tools they use to trap us into their system of neocolonialist exploitation. These people who talk like this in parliament must be tools of the neocolonialists.

It may be worthwhile to look at other countries which had adopted import substitution, in the past as well as recently and see how they have fared in their effort. This concept and policy could be traced back to the 18th Century German economist Friedrich List who proposed a “National System” of political economy where tariffs were to be imposed on imported goods while free trade would operate for local products. Later in the 1950s and 60s the Global South, particularly Latin America, adopted this policy and came to be known as Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). ISI is based on the premise that a country should attempt to reduce its foreign dependency through local production. It envisaged industrialization of production for greater efficiency and mass production. Most of the Latin American countries, like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras employed this system, the larger countries with big populations were benefited to a greater degree than smaller countries.

African Socialism, which started about the same time with leaders like Kwome Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania giving it leadership, took up ISI as its economic policy. These movements were socialist and nationalist and naturally anti-west and the Western powers did not view these developments kindly. In the 1980s with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the IMF and the World Bank gaining immense ground, the Global South abandoned ISI policy and turned to the West and again became the servant of neoliberalism.

However, there is a country which recently adopted these ISI measures with great success. Russia has managed to save several billions of Dollars by vigorously following ISI policies in the industrial sector, mostly in the areas of agriculture, automotive, chemical, pharmaceutical, aviation, etc. In 1914, their cost of food imports was 60 billion dollars, it was brought down to 20 Bn by 2018, in 2012 the pharmaceutical industry was negligible and by 2017 it has developed into a 50 Bn industry. These achievements were mainly due to subsidization of vital industries, import restriction by heavy taxation and other protective trade policies.

There may be lessons for Sri Lanka from what has taken place in the above mentioned countries. First and foremost the essential food items that could be produced here should not be imported and everything required for this endevour such as land, water, seeds, fertilizer, machinery should be made available. Every effort should be made to manufacture locally these things necessary to achieve self-sufficiency in food. If we are self sufficient in food, medicine, clothes and housing we need not be afraid of economic warfare that imperialists resort to when they want us to do their bidding. We must get assistance from friendly countries like China and Russia to achieve self-sufficiency in essential items and not for mammoth projects that politicians think would enhance their image.

As mentioned above, ISI policies employed for heavy industrial development had succeeded in large countries like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina but in smaller countries like Ecuador and Honduras such attempts at industrialization had failed. This was the experience in Africa too. Development of one industry at the expense of others or one crop like tea for instance could also lead to failure.

Therefore Sri Lanka must not go for heavy industries. First it must achieve self sufficiency in food and other essentials. Later it could start small machinery like power looms, electrical and electronic items. Industrialization should be at the manageable level of agriculture, clothes and such items and perhaps not heavy industries like automobiles, etc. The threat posed by Covid-19 must be converted into an opportunity and made full use of to make the country’s economy and politics independent of external factors.

 

N. A. de S. Amaratunga

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Opinion

Light a lamp for ‘Maha Viru’ national tragedies

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“Wiggy vows to light lamps in every Jaffna household to commemorate dead LTTE cadres” was the heading of a news item carried in The Island on 27.11.2020 with the cartoon of the day, depicting ‘Wiggy’ lighting a lamp with a flame in the form of a tiger head.

The JVP commemorate their fallen comrades in November ‘Il Maha Viru Samaruma’. The ‘LTTE’ also commemorate their fallen cadres in November ‘Maha Viru Day’. Both of these groups are viewed, according to different perspectives, as either terrorist groups or liberators. When it comes to terrorism, it seemed, the JVP was on a much smaller scale of a home grown variety of terrorism; with no international support or training, targeting a select set of people on a specific ideological basis. On the other hand, the LTTE was on a massive scale that earned them the title of being one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations of the world. The LTTE had an enormous amount of international support and training, with killings and massacres of an unprecedented scale. When it comes to liberators, the difference is that the JVP was interested in liberating the entire country, regardless of ethnicity or religion, from what it perceived as a ‘pro capitalist government’, supported by an international base that was exploiting the masses of this country. The LTTE on the other hand was interested in liberating a specific part of the country exclusively for the Tamils, which they felt were being exploited.

Nevertheless, the truth is that both these groups were made of the youth of this country- the future of this country – who were ‘forced’ into this ‘terrorism’ through sheer desperation as a result of being ignored by ‘us’. When one considers the JVP, in their case at least, they were on their own. In the case of the LTTE the tragedy is much worse, as this group’s frustration was hijacked and exploited by a set of power-hungry politicians, who were in collaboration with ‘an international agenda’ with no regard to the loss of life and destruction caused.

A Colombo-based Mr. C.V. Vigneswaran, is demonstrating from his actions that he is indeed one of those politicians who has no scruples in continuing to exploit the Tamils for his own personal agenda. But we as a nation should rise above this. We as a nation should all light a lamp for the ‘Il Maha Viru Samaruma’ and the “Maha Viru Day’ — not to commemorate those who lost their lives but to remind ourselves of the meaningless destruction that we as a nation were/are responsible for.

The government should organise events for both these days that involve a serious socio- economic/political discussion that analyses the factors behind this national tragedy. Let us stop lighting lamps that symbolize the rebirth of terrorism and destruction, but light ones that symbolize a rebirth of a nation.

 

Dr. SUMEDHA S. AMARASEKARA

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Opinion

Killing the proverbial goose

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I am an investor in tourism, in the southern province beaches. Along with me there are about 50 other, mostly foreign and a few local entrepreneurs who have put in huge amounts of effort and money into a stunning bay in Tangalle, called Mawella. This article is to highlight how ill-thought out and self-serving plans of government ministries and officials can jeopardize and ruin your investment. Suddenly we find out the fisheries ministry/department has come up with plans to develop it as a fisheries harbour/anchorage!! An outdated plan done without anybody’s knowledge or consultation. Not even the fishermen!!

This is one of the most pristine of beaches in Tangalle, untouched by any commercialization or destruction, or pollution. It’s a quiet, peaceful and secluded long stretch of a bay. It’s what the high-end tourists crave for, when they look at places like Sri Lanka and the Maldives for holidays. The unique features of Mawella bay are – the whole bay is swimmable, shallow and crystal clear calm waters almost all year round, a unique and natural long cliff outcrop in one corner of the bay protecting it (I don’t think there’s anything like it in the whole of Sri Lanka’s coast line). A wide and long perfect crescent of a beach (an hour long walk, one way), white powder sand all year round lies like a white carpet of welcome to everyone who visit it, from fisherman to tourist, and Mawella still remains untouched by ‘development’. Whatever tourism developments that has taken place here is well concealed, unobtrusive, low profile, luxury villas situated all around the bay. Majority of these are foreign investors making their home here or investing in tourism. Large amount of foreign investments have been poured into this bay. This is after the fishermen who owned these properties sold them. These lands and houses remained ruined, derelict and abandoned for nearly 10 long years since the tsunami destroyed them. When tourism began reviving after the end of the war in 2009, demand for these properties went up and the fishermen made a tidy sum out of selling them, having themselves been housed inland, by the government.

Now the Fisheries Department has unearthed some plans from a bygone era for the bay, to build a fisheries harbour/anchorage and is going ahead pell-mell with implementing it, with scant regard to the current developments already happened there. With their blinkers on, they have no inkling nor care for the current economics or the future potential of the bay. This harebrained plan was probably mooted by the ‘yahapalana’ government in 2017. But to go ahead with it, would spoil (if not ruin) the prospect of continuing high level tourism on one of the finest and largest beaches on the South Coast. This type of tourism is exactly what Sri Lanka needs and exactly what tourists want , in this fiercely contested international market.  Such tourism provides both local jobs and brings more tourists to Southern Sri Lanka who will be spending big money. Its prospect has recently been further enhanced by the completion of the Southern highway. But no tourist will want to visit a stinking mess of a fisheries harbour. It will be the end of tourism for one of the most stunning bays in Tangalle. People who fell in love with this island especially Mawella bay, have brought their investment to Sri lanka. They are the people who have already responded to the government’s call to ‘Invest in Sri Lanka’ launched by the tourism ministry. They have trusted in the Tangalle tourism zone hype made by the heads of government. All this is now in jeopardy, and risk of ruin because of the shortsighted action of another government department. This comes while tourism is reeling from the impact of Covid-19. In spite of expensive advertising it will be very hard to find investors in these unprecedented times. If adverse publicity of this debacle gets broadcast to the rest of the world, it would kill all investments that the government is trying so hard to woo.

The sad part is most fishermen of the Mawella bay are against this development project too. The fisheries officials have had several stormy meetings and clashes with them. Some fishers have already made their complaints/objections to higher officials and ministers of the fisheries department. ‘Maadal’ Fishing, the most ecofriendly and sustainable form of fishing happens here. The Anchorage project will kill this instantly. But in spite of the uproar, the project seem to be steamrolling ahead regardless. Why is this unnecessary and forced development? May be it’s because some funds are available for fisheries development and it needs spending? Or pocketing ?! Rumour has it that an area politician has already got the contract to supply quarry to the project.

If the planed fishing harbour or anchorage happens all our years of effort of development of the bay for tourism will get washed out to sea. Our input to Mawella has been not just large amounts of money, but time and passion. We the investors, are not the only victims of this man made catastrophe. A vibrant environment, a proliferate ecosystem, a lively wildlife, a stunning beauty and the very nature and characteristics of this bay stands to be changed. For the worse. Forever. Thus our urgent appeal to all decision-makers of the government to intervene and prevent this destruction of a perfect bay, and the scuttling of a thriving tourist industry. There is no shortage of fisheries harbours and anchorages in this part of the coast. Matara to Tangalle boasts of the highest concentration of fisheries harbours in the island. New ones are to be added soon. There is a dedicated fisheries bay (Hummanaya bay) right next door to Mawella, if they need to shift this project to a more suitable alternate site. So a solution to this looks very simple, easy and most of all, accommodating for all. There is no reason why both industries can’t exist side by side. They may even complement one another someday in the future – Fishing as a tourist activity/attraction.

Tangalle is not just about beaches. Yes, Tangalle beaches are the next big thing in the tourism map of the world. But then there is Cricket. F1 (If Namal Rajapakse’s projects take off). Mawella Lagoon airport. Expressway connectivity. MIA, Yala, Kumana, and Udawalawe wildlife. Blowhole (By the way, ours is the only one in all of Asia!), home to unique landform – coves, bays, lagoons, cliffs, and headlands not found in any other beaches of Sri Lanka, New heritage and historical sites being discovered which could rival Anuradhapura. As such what facilities do you have to cater to all this? How many rooms? What kind of rooms? Everything is poised for Tangalle to be the gateway to high-end tourism in Sri Lanka.

But we have reason to hope. Because from what we’ve seen of the government so far, It has stuck to its vision. Hopefully there are knowledgeable people installed in the right jobs by now. Especially in environmental, tourism, investment, and economic portfolios. That is President Gotabaya’s secret for success. We hope this will catch the eyes of such. If not the government will be definitely killing the goose that lays the golden egg as far as foreign investment is concerned.

 

Citizen S

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