By TENNEKONE RUSIRIPALA
Events become more important and focused in the context of their after effects. Criticism leveled beforehand will only be conjecture yet to become realities. Diplomatic initiatives demonstrate how a small neighbor state can successfully move towards a pro-active bilateral relationship, interacting with other countries in the neighborhood OR even in the region, within the confines of available economic space.
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s move to initiate a dialogue with our Immediate neighbour India, is an extremely wise and timely move, in keeping with the important components of governance and principles of diplomacy. This is so, considering the essential need for re-affirming the mutual trust between the two states, and how a nation could act with a drive to become relevant, influential and acceptable in its bilateral relations with another big country, specially when the latter is playing a significant role in quickly transforming itself into a fast growing nation in the global scenario. It appears that the move and the conclusions reached awaiting finalization, is a disposition of trust and confidence vital for the mutual national interests of both countries.
The growing economic strain we are experiencing right now is compelling us to look for immediate relief measures, to seek remedies which do not affect our core interests due to interactions with powerful players. The choice of non-controversial scopes is also an important factor being mindful of the credibility issues, and long term effects while addressing short term relief as a priority in such accords. Let us now examine the areas of concern and the basis of understanding to be reached, as already announced in a media release about the Finance Ministers proposals from our side. It also has to be acknowledged that this early release of the relevant information will dispel any skepticisms and avoid misrepresentations and distortions.
I. Food and health security package on an urgent basis that would envisage the extension of a line of credit to cover the import of food , medicines and other essential items from India to Sri Lanka.
It needs no emphasis to explain the essential nature of food imports from India to our day- to- day food requirements. India has been a main source for several items of a staple nature over a long period, and any disturbance to this line of supply will be critical to the daily routines of our people. Sri Lanka’s Trade Share with India alone is approx.. 2.5 Billion US $ per year. Food items and medical supplies largely account for our imports from India. Funding imports is a problem due to the prevailing depleted balances in our foreign exchange resources. Hence, the negotiation of a facility on extended payment terms for the (imported) supply of these items becomes extremely important, to prevent any shortfall or disruption in the supply of essential drugs and consumer food items.
ii .Energy Security Package that would include a line of credit to cover import of fuel from India , and an early modernization of Trincomalee tank farm Fuel and Energy are so vital to our day to day lives. We do not have any access to Crude Oil supplies or refined Oil, other than importing them. Our annual Fuel Import Bill is averaging between US$ 3800 to 4000 million.
A day’s black out in the supply of Electricity in the country, which we experienced very recently, indicated how essential it is to have a smooth supply of uninterrupted electricity supply. Besides, the denial of the luxuries of air-conditioning , instant lighting, lift-systems, building escalators; we saw the water supply too getting affected in certain areas raising alarm signals. Hospitals, operation theaters and even traffic light signals were disturbed. While the public cannot condone any action upsetting their daily routines, the power failure signaled a severe warning to all about the need to run it as an essential Public Service. Fuel is a predominant factor playing an important part in the energy supply equation.
In a situation where our Reserve balance has gone below 1.4 Billion US$, we have to take adequate safeguards in maintaining the supply position, considering it as a national priority.
The Finance Minister’s choice of approaching India becomes appropriate due to many reasons, particularly to address our fuel issue with Indian support. The two countries already have an ongoing business relationship in the field of fuel supply in the country. India is very advanced in the Oil Refinery industry and it is interesting to examine their involvement in the Fuel Industry.
With a total refining capacity of 69.2 million tons per year, the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation was the largest refiner in the country by capacity. Indian Oil’s refineries processed 69.001 MMT of crude oil in 2017–18.
In September 2021 the total installed capacity of the Oil Refinery Industry stood at 246.9 million metric tons and their Crude Oil production was 32.2MMT in addition to their importing volume of 4.54 Million barrels.
India aims to commercialize 50% of its strategic petroleum reserves to raise funds and build additional storage tanks to offset high oil prices. This gives a clear picture of the Oil Industry of our neighboring country. There is a big potential arising out of the need to increase their Crude Oil storage facilities.
And this provides an ideal opportunity to put into best use of our Gold valley in the form of a dormant Oil Tank Farm, located in a unique strategic geographical positioning in Trincomalee.
There is a strong possibility for a highly win-win situation for both countries to gain advantages from a suitable agreement.
Sri Lanka should use all its bargaining skills to enter into an agreement, where the price fluctuations of Oil Products is given due consideration, for both countries to share the benefits in a fair manner, with due weightage given to our sovereign ownership of the golden property.
At this moment I recall the Rubber /Rice agreement we reached many years ago and the basic concepts and principles underlying that agreement, such as the consideration of a discounted price for the rice on account of the exclusive supply arrangement we tied ourselves into. In a similar gesture, our Oil tanks could be the pivotal focus for a special price for our domestic consumption requirements of fuel.
iii. Offer of a Currency Swap to help Sri lanka address the current balance of payments issues;
India has given us such support and help several times, and with the economic package that is in the center of the negotiations it will not be difficult for the Reserve Bank to consider this in our favor.
iv. Facilitating Indian Investments in different sectors in Sri Lanka that would contribute to Growth and expand employment.
This will build on recent trends in that respect.
We have to recognize the technological advancement India has made both in the fields of Industry and Agriculture, helping them to a high position of placement in the order of GDP growth rates, occupying the highest place in Asia. Their experience, progressing technical advancement, closeness of our Geographic locations, in addition to our traditional, historic and cultural relations will be to the mutual advantage of both countries, to be taken into seriously in reaching an accord. There are several areas of harnessing the resourcefulness of both countries to share the values in offering unique services in many fields hitherto unexploited.
All these will no doubt pave the way for a rational settlement of any minor prickly issues that we may have had between the two countries due to geo-political alienations. Nevertheless, we have continued our relationship with India all these years with a history of sacrifices, and commitment each country has extended on many controversial issues. Sri Lanka’s involvement during the period of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to intervene in the Indo-China conflict, our accords with India on the Migrant Indian labour, and Kachchativu island matter are memorable milestones in this regard.
We look forward to a successful conclusion of the MOU reached following the visit of Minister Basil Rajapaksa, and hope for its best outcome to the mutual satisfaction of both countries.
Dinesh Gunawardena’s call
The call by Dinesh Gunawardena, son of that famous Left Leader Philip Gunawardena, who stood steadfast to protect his ideals for the sake of the poor downtrodden, has said ‘stakeholders must protect the government’.
We elect our representatives to Parliament, based on promises they make during election times, and if the government fails or introduces laws not announced at election meetings, then the responsibility of our representatives is to criticise such action; if the government does not heed their voice, our representatives should be prepared to cross over or resign.
The duty of an MP is to stand by the voter, and not the party he belongs to or is aligned to. Were the voters informed that dual citizens would be elected or appointed to Parliament?
Let me conclude by reproducing the last verse in an apt poem by Sir Walter Scott titled:
“LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL [MY NATIVE LAND]”
Despite those titles, and pelf
The wretch, concentered all in self
Living shall forfeit fair renown
And doubly, dying shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung
UNWEPT, UNHONOURED AND UNSUNG”
People try to wish away the following: the pandemic, especially the impact aggravated by unwise actions of those in charge; ever increasing cost of living, driven by product shortages and excessive money printing; gas explosions, due to unauthorised changes in gas composition and mismanagement; having to stay in long queues to collect gas, milk powder, rice, sugar, kerosene; lack of fertiliser and agrochemicals, by pursuing organic agriculture goals, leading to crop failures and possible food shortages; Inability to attend schools and universities, and the lack of e-learning tools and internet facilities; unauthorised and illegal land grabbing, deforestation, sand/gem mining and human-elephant conflict; unannounced power cuts, due to lack of petroleum and malfunctioning power plants; failing to uphold the rule of law and justice systems, suppressing democratic rights, and inconsistent policy and administration, with several gazettes and frequent revocations; extremely high levels of perceived corruption, wastage, money laundering, nepotism and cronyism; sale of national assets and grant of long term concessions, without best practice valuations; misallocation of scarce natural resources, lack of fiscal discipline, pursuing egoistic/high commissions linked projects, ignoring the priority needs of the poor and vulnerable segments; mismanagement of the external sector, unprofessional external debt management sans debt restructure, channelling short term high cost borrowed funds to pay long term external debt, overvalued rupee, export sector being distressed by disincentives:
Unwise and ineffective foreign relations, failure to optimise networking options with international agencies, especially the IMF and the UNHRC politicisation and ineffectiveness of key independent public institutions, law and good governance, accountability, empowered ministries and departments.
All these appear to originate due to unprofessional, arrogant, egoistic, childish and rent-seeking governance by the regime in control of the executive; and will deter value adding FDI flows, low growth, high twin deficits, rating downgrades, and possibly excessive stress on the citizens of a country heading towards a failed state.
With the voice of advocacy of the caring professionals and civil society mostly dulled, the business chambers placing all blame on the pandemic, and saying the governance action could not have been any better; the executive and leadership in governance promising to fulfil all remaining actions leading to ‘splendour and prosperity’ over the next three years; the legislative opposition overshadowed by the two-third majority of the party in power; activists and social media harassed, and the traditional media divided, with the few who correctly report and bring to surface bad governance, breakdown in law and order, corruption and engaging in investigative journalism pressurised; all eyes, ears and attention with hope is to the Judiciary, as the only saviours of democracy, rule of law and good governance.
The Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution excludes socio-economic rights, and Sri Lanka is not a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the above context “Suo Moto” epistles are an essential need in the current governance environment?
“A Suo Moto cognizance is a Latin term which means ‘an action taken by a government agency, court or other central authority on their own apprehension’. A court takes a Suo Moto cognizance of a legal matter, when it receives information about the violation of rights or breach of duty through media or a third party’s notification.
In India, the Constitution lays down the provisions for filing Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court and High Courts, respectively. This has given rise to the court’s power to initiate legal action on their cognisance of a matter. Suo Moto’s actions by Indian courts are a reflection of activism by the judiciary, and captivated the general public with the speedy delivery of justice by the courts. Suo Moto cases in India are generally taken up by the Supreme Court. The Indian Judiciary has been undoubtedly holding the baton for democracy for the past few years. In numerous instances, different High Courts and the Supreme Court have risen to the occasion, by taking cognisance of a legal issue on their own, and providing swift justice. Various courts in India have initiated legal proceedings on their own, based on media reports, telegrams and letters received by aggrieved people, taking a Suo Moto cognisance of the issue.”
1. The Supreme Court of India has during 1990-2021 taken up 46 cases ‘suo moto’ without any petition being filed, or interest being brought before them.
2. The best recent example of the judiciary entering in to protect and promote the interests of the citizens also comes from India; where “The Supreme Court of India slammed the Centre and state governments for their inability to present a crystal-clear way forward to combat the menace of air pollution in the national capital. A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, and comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant, after hearing submissions of counsel of the Delhi government and Central government, said it needs clear answers on steps to curb air pollution in the capital, which has become a yearly phenomenon for the past several years.
Justice Kant told Delhi government counsel that nobody understands the plight of farmers and under what circumstances they are forced to burn stubble. “People sitting in 5-star and 7-star facilities in Delhi keep accusing the farmers (contribute four percent and 30 or 40 percent to pollution). If you have a scientific alternative (a resolution) … let us look at it, rather than blaming farmers…”, said Justice Kant. The Chief Justice pointed out that according to an IIT Kanpur study, stubble burning and firecrackers are not main contributors for pollution. The bench pulled up the government and bureaucracy for not doing enough to curb air pollution. The bench said the bureaucracy has gone into inertia and they don’t want to do anything. “Bureaucracy developed paralysis…all these things we have to say — how to use sprinklers, how to stop vehicles…they do not want to take any decision”, said the bench, slamming the attitude of bureaucracy. The bench emphasised that somebody has to take responsibility and everything cannot be done through judicial order. It pointed out that firecrackers were burnt in Delhi despite a ban.
Citizens and civil society believe that the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), currently under a forward looking, courageous leadership, demonstrating by its advocacy that it cares for common citizens and is ready to step in to protect citizens impacted by bad governance, must now seek strategic ways and means of promoting “Epistolary Jurisdiction”; which involves “Invoking writ jurisdiction by a court itself on the basis of any letter or information or any news published in newspapers “which ? can ensure enjoyment of some the very basic fundamental rights by the poor and lay man such as: right to protection of law, enforcement of fundamental rights and equality before law. On this point, this jurisdiction is pro-bono publico in nature. On the other hand, some critics think that it may invite judicial activism in the administration of justice, which should not be in a strict sense. Some think that judicial activism should not lead the judges to transgress the limits of judicial functions nor attract them to intervene into executive policy decisions unless any act of the executive is violative of any provision of law or the Constitution”.
BASL must actively pursue options for getting the judiciary to follow some good practices adopted in yesteryears, by judges such as Justices Mark Fernando and Ranjit Amerasinghe, in showing the way with ‘suo moto judgements” and engaging in judicial activism.
Govt. stubborn on organic manure from China
According to media reports, it is evident that the Government is hell-bent on importing organic manure from the same company that supplied the first shipment, rejected by the Plant Quarantine officials of the Department of Agriculture (DOA). We are aware that US$ 6.9 million of Valuable Foreign Exchange (VFE) has been paid to this company (when the country is hard pressed for foreign currency) as compensation for the manure rejected due to obvious reasons viz. contamination with harmful microorganisms.
This VFE thus paid as compensation could otherwise have been used to import the much-needed chemical fertiliser. for which the farmers are rightfully clamouring. It was also reported that the Minister of Agriculture is planning to get a new SLSI Standard established, to facilitate this importation.
First things first, and it will be best for the authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Government, to sit for a while and study the Plant Protection Act No.35 of 1999, without losing time – better late than never. According to provisions and regulations under this Act, commercial quantities of organic manure cannot be imported to Sri Lanka. Only small samples of such materials can be allowed by the Director General of Agriculture, who is the implementing authority for the Plant Protection Act, and such samples can be used only for laboratory research work and cannot be added to the land.
As a retired officer, who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, I am aware that no amendments have since been brought to the Plant Protection Act to change the provisions referred to above, and the regulations thereon. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether such amendments can ever be brought, since plant quarantine is an issue that cannot be compromised on the whims and fancies of Governments, and is subject to international covenants/agreements, as health issues pertaining to plant, animal and human life are involved.
Whatever standard that the SLSI establishes for organic manure imports, as per the request of the Minister of Agriculture, will have to comply with the aforesaid provisions of the Plant Protection Act. The so-called fresh shipment, if it is called organic fertiliser/manure, will necessarily contain a concoction of microorganisms, coming in bulk from a foreign environment to that of ours, and this itself could be disastrous, That is exactly why Plant Quarantine Services, the world over ( including Sri Lanka), are so strict in adhering to the relevant regulations. ( In this regard, we are all aware of the havoc created by the tiny Corona virus that, in fact, originated in China.)
In the event a fresh shipment comes, and if the Plant Quarantine officials act in the same manner as they acted when the first shipment came, strictly on scientific principles and in keeping with the regulations, the new shipment should get rejected if the material is really organic manure. So once again are we going to pay a massive compensation and lose VFE once more at this critical juncture; when we are in dire need of the same, to meet basic requirements? It is felt the Government should even at this late stage reconsider its policy on importing commercial quantities of organic manure/fertiliser, which no farmers ever wanted, and hence stop it forthwith, without getting this country into a further muddle.
The best is to produce organic manure/fertiliser on-farms as much as possible, due to the hassle of transporting over large distances, the way it was practiced by some farmers earlier, too, and use it as a soil re-conditioner; along with chemical fertiliser, which will give the much-needed plant nutrients in appreciable quantities, to achieve the required yield levels which will be sufficient to meet the national targets. Organic farming per se has been and can be practiced in Sri Lanka in niches over the years; it is nothing new and is known to give low/moderate yields at high cost, for special markets. Organic farming can never cater to our total national need, and the Government needs to understand this fact and reconsider its policy.
A.B. EDGAR PERERA
Retired Director/Agricultural Development
Ministry of Agriculture
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