Wednesday 17th February, 2021
The government has, true to form, sought to make light of severe environmental degradation caused by some of its development projects, and programmes to help the rural folk. Its ill-conceived scheme to promote traditional agriculture by releasing what it calls residual forests for farming has had a devastating impact on the country’s forest cover, which has decreased to an alarming 17%. Land grabbers are having a field day. They have encroached on the Sigiriya sanctuary as well on the pretext of growing crops.
Minister of Highways Johnston Fernando, speaking at a recent function to mark the launch of an irrigation project, lashed out at environmentalists. He seems to consider them a nuisance. What he ought to realise is that the proposed irrigation reservoirs will invariably fail for want of water if the country’s forest cover recedes further. He should know the value of trees more than anyone else because his electorate, Kurunegala, is in the North-Western Province affected by a chronic water scarcity.
In ancient times, Sri Lankan kings built reservoirs to raise the water table and thereby facilitate the growth of forests besides meeting the water needs of humans and animals. Those rulers believed in sustainable development. They knew that the success of their irrigation projects hinged on the expansion of the forest cover. They succeeded in their endeavour and the country became the Granary of the East. Today, there are reservoirs, but the forest cover is fast disappearing. Rains fail; so do crops, and food is imported.
Johnston is one of the few ministers who work really hard. But he must not dupe himself into believing that environmentalists are an impediment to development and the ongoing protests against the destruction of forests and wetlands are part of a conspiracy to sabotage the government’s development drive. He is seeing more devils than vast hell can hold.
Johnston said, at the aforesaid event, that he could not understand why an endangered tree, Curdia zeylanica, in the path of the Central Expressway under construction, in Gampaha, was being given the same treatment as a Bodhi. Some Buddhist monks have draped a saffron robe around the tree to save it. Environmentalists will tell the Minister that every tree is sacred and must therefore be protected. The challenge before the Ministry of Highways, the Road Development Authority, the Forest Department and the protesting environmental outfits is to put their heads together and figure out how to construct the expressway while saving the invaluable tree. An intelligent solution is called for.
Meanwhile, environmentalists and concerned citizens have come together to save a wetland in a suburb of Colombo; an elevated highway is to be built across the Talangama wetland, which is an ecological treasure trove, and the historical Averihena tank. This biodiversity hotspot, declared an EPA (Environmental Protection Area) in 2007, is home to a wide range of flora and fauna, and more than 100 bird species are sighted in the area, according to ornithologists. The area is also a famous tourist attraction. It is surprising why those who designed the highway did not care to spare the biodiversity hotspots, recognised under the Ramsar Convention, and some populous areas. The process of issuing the Environmental Impact Assessment Report for the road project has hit a snag.
One may argue that development is always at the expense of the environment. But development has to be made sustainable if it is to benefit humankind and other creatures; we must do everything possible to reduce environmental damage to a bare minimum in achieving our development goals and might as well do without the development projects that entail huge environmental and social costs.
It behoves governments to consult all stakeholders when development projects are planned and decisions that affect ecologically sensitive areas are taken. Political leaders and bureaucrats must not consider it infra dig to do so if environmental degradation is to be avoided.
Sport: Arousal of savage instincts
Tuesday 29th November, 2022
What is this world coming to when sport sparks violence and engenders animosity instead of unity and friendship? Riots broke out in Brussels, of all places, on Sunday during a World Cup football match between Belgium and Morocco, which pulled off a 2-0 upset win. It was too much for some football-crazy Belgians to stomach. But their reaction cannot be condoned on any grounds; violence engulfed several other Belgian cities as well with rioters setting vehicles on fire, pelting police with stones, and inflicting heavy damage on public and private properties while the football fans of Moroccan descent were painting the town red.
Football riots in Belgium occurred only a few weeks after a sport-related tragedy elsewhere. More than 130 people including children perished in a stampede at an Indonesian football stadium, where a pitch invasion led to clashes and police excesses.
Sporting contests are full of uncertainties, but most people cannot come to terms with this reality, much less defeats. These events have become ruthless competitions where sporting spirit has no place. Sport has long ceased to be fun, as a result. We are said to be living in a civilised world! The so-called enlightened Western nations that never miss an opportunity to take moral high ground have also failed to be different although they urge other nations to be tolerant of even terrorist outfits responsible for heinous crimes against civilians.
Sports and nationalism are an explosive mix, which turns sporting encounters into wars of sorts. Cynics say that one need not be surprised even if a cricket World Cup final between some nations in this part of the world happens to trigger a nuclear war!
Some Saudis are reported to have fired into the air in celebration of their country’s shock win against Argentina in a recent football World Cup match. It was no mean achievement for Saudi Arabia, but why should rifles be taken out? Such is their patriotic fervour; they are not alone in celebrating victory so passionately although in other countries, sports fans do not go to the extent of discharging their automatic weapons.
Meanwhile, religion has also wormed its way into the world of sport. Some sportspersons openly seek the intervention of supernatural forces to clinch victory in competitions, but such invocations often go unanswered if instances of inconsistency in their performance and ups and downs in their careers are any indication. Sri Lankan cricketers are a case in point. They make a public display of their religious faiths as well as superstitious beliefs. Some senior cricketers are reported to be followers of Gnanakka, a former hospital orderly, who claims to be a medium of divine revelations!
Sri Lankan cricket has become a confluence of politics, dosh, gambling, religion and superstition; it sadly lacks the sporting spirit. What they follow is the very antithesis of the core theme of Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada. Besides, their thick gold chains, bracelets, talismans, etc., seem to be weighing them down and impeding their performance.
It is only natural that all efforts to bring about global peace and save lives lost in conflicts have come a cropper. How can tensions among nations or groups of people be defused and armed conflicts averted or resolved in a world where even sport, which is meant to bring peoples together arouses ‘savage combative instincts’ and leads to aggression and even mindless violence?
Reports on football riots in Brussels reminded us of George Orwell, who has pointed out in his famous essay, The Sporting Spirit (1945), that football provokes vicious passions. He has made an interesting observation about all forms of sport: “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.” How true!
Mr. President abort this racket!
Monday 28th November, 2022
Some racketeers are making the most of Sri Lanka’s foreign currency crunch to put through various crooked deals on the pretext of promoting foreign investment and rake in billions of dollars at the expense of hapless Sri Lankans struggling to keep the wolf from the door. They are eyeing the country’s mineral resources among other things.
In June 2022, we exposed a sinister move by a foreign company and its local agents to carry out an ilmenite racket at Aruwakkalu, Puttalam, and the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promptly intervened to stop it, but six months on, the racketeers have made a comeback. They are so influential that they have gained access to President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself, who, we believe, is not au fait with the project. We hasten to add that the President is not involved in this racket; he may be driven by a genuine desire to bring in much-needed foreign investment to straighten up the economy, but some of his advisors seem to have misled him. That may be the reason why he summoned the newly-appointed Cement Corporation Chairman Jagath Dharmapriya on Friday (25) and instructed the latter to ensure that the project at issue was implemented forthwith. Sadly, the legal principle, Audi alteram partem (‘listen to the other side’), often goes unheeded!
Let the President be informed that about one and a half years ago, Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd., and Sri Lanka Cement Corporation planned to embark on a joint venture to extract ilmenite found in overburden red soil removed for limestone quarrying on a 5,352-acre state land at Aruwakkalu. The project was expected to yield a great deal of foreign exchange for the country, but the aforesaid foreign firm, backed by a bunch of corrupt government politicians and officials, derailed it in a bid to secure the contract for ilmenite extraction; the country will get nothing from this firm other than royalty paid to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, which is a den of thieves. The rogue company claims that it will invest a considerable amount of forex in the project, but it will bring in only machinery, which will be of no use to anyone in the end. Does the government want to swap ilmenite worth billions of dollars for a heap of scrap iron? The initial investment could be recovered in a few months, according to the project documents The Island has seen. No wonder some state officials and politicians are all out to have the contract awarded to the foreign firm!
The racketeers are so influential that they even had the then Cement Corporation Chairman Gamini Ekanayake, who together with some courageous state officials vehemently opposed the corrupt deal, removed from his post. But his successor Dharmapriya has proved to be equally intrepid; he too has chosen to protect the interests of the country by opposing the shady deal on the drawing board. He deserves praise. The country needs such upright officials.
Geologists inform us that what has surfaced with top soil at Aruwakkalu is only a fraction of a huge ilmenite deposit lying underneath. Sri Lanka will gain tremendously if it can export ilmenite as a value-added product. At present, a metric ton of ilmenite without value addition fetches about USD 300 in the international market, but its price will increase to about USD 2,200 if it is exported after being processed. What prevents value addition, which consists of several phases, and is very expensive, is that not enough ilmenite is excavated in the country at present to attract a foreign investor. Experts are of the view that the shortfall could easily be met with ilmenite found at Aruwakkalu for an investor to be invited in a transparent manner. The racketeers are striving to obtain ilmenite for a song with the help of corrupt politicians and officials here and make huge profits at the expense of the country.
The racket is being carried out at the behest of an ‘educated’ politician, who pontificates ad nauseam about the virtues of good governance and pretends to be a paragon of virtue. We will name him in this column when our legal team permits us to do so. We have no civil word to say about State Minister of Primary Industries Chamara Sampath Dissanayake but, credit where it is due, he has refused to help the racketeers. Thus, it should be clear that education alone does not make a good minister.
President Wickremesinghe may not be popular but he is widely considered an intelligent leader, and one can only hope that he will ensure that the country—and not a bunch of crooked individuals including some government politicians—will gain from the exploitation of ilmenite at Aruwakkalu. We wish to draw his attention to the historic Supreme Court judgment (2000) in Bulankulama and Others v. Secretary, Ministry of Industrial Development and Others—or the Eppawala case as it is better known; it specifies how to manage the country’s mineral resources for the benefit of the present-day Sri Lankans and generations to come.
We suggest that an expert committee be appointed to study the issue at hand. It should comprise officials from the Treasury and relevant ministries, the Land Commissioner, independent experts in the fields of geology, mining and economics, environmentalists, and representatives of the Attorney General’s Department.
President Wickremesinghe had better tread cautiously on this crucial issue lest he should have his reputation sullied again. The Treasury bond scams will pale into insignificance in comparison to the mega ilmenite racket to be carried out. The UNP does not want to be worsted ignominiously at future elections as well, does it?
Post-budget state of play
The second reading of the Budget 2023 was comfortably passed last week with President Ranil Wickremesinghe strongly affirming that he will not permit another aragalaya and will not hesitate to use armed services muscle and, if needed, a State of Emergency to prevent it. Not surprisingly, it was thrown at his face that he would today not be President, and in that capacity, Head of State and Head of Government, but for the aragalaya. This is a fact of life that he cannot, and did not attempt to refute. But he did say that he did not ask for the job which, we are certain, is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It was undoubtedly thrust upon him and he, unlike Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, did not first drop the catch and thereafter conditionally agree to accept the position of prime minister after Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced out of office. He accepted it presumably unconditionally.
Premadasa laid down the condition that a time frame for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to relinquish office must be laid if he were to agree to be prime minister. And that too after Wickremesinghe, whose UNP was decimated to zero elected seats with him losing his own seat at the UNPs Colombo Central fortress. Nobody can quibble that RW holds an unconstitutional office. He was properly and constitutionally elected president by a comfortable majority to serve GR’s balance term after the former president fled the country and tendered his resignation from Singapore while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was acting as president. RW was elected president by the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), a section of which party backed Dullas Alahapperuma as the common – barring the NPP/JVP – opposition candidate. Wickremesinghe was the Rajapaksa nominee for president earning for himself the sneering sobriquet of Ranil Rajapaksa. Thus he appears for all purposes the captive president of the SLPP.
As we have said before in this space, he will remain dependent on the pohottuwa until he is constitutionally enabled to dissolve parliament after February next year. But he formally went on record last week declaring that he will not dissolve parliament until the economy is stabilized. When that will happen is to all intents and purposes is anybody’s guess. Wickremesinghe, who our popular columnist Rajan Philips who returns to this page after a short absence today says was probably the first finance minister after Ronnie de Mel to write his own budget speech, did not even hint when the IMF bail out can be expected. Various straws are being floated in the wind but the earliest possible date seems to be March next year. Although the cost of living has hit unbearable heights with a sizable proportion of the population being compelled to forego one daily meal, the budget offered no tangible respite beyond repetition of long-held promises of social security cushions to the most vulnerable.
The last several days has seen the return to the country of former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa back from the U.S. whose citizenship he’s clinging on to unlike brother Gotabaya who gave it up to run for president. Basil was not long ago prevented, at the height of the aragalaya, from leaving the country but returned last week to a well publicized welcome at the VVIP lounge of the Bandaranaike International Airport. It has been widely perceived that BR pulls the strings that manipulate the SLPP. That view was enhanced by those who crowded the lounge to sycophantically receive him. They included the controversial presence of the chairman and a member of the National Police Commission (NPC). Former IGP Chandra Fernando who heads the NPC ineffectively pleaded his impartiality following the exposure of his airport presence with Basil’s cheer squad. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene said a new NPC was being shortly appointed, implying that the rotten eggs in the existing body were soon being replaced.
With the Rajapaksas are returning to the national picture, the state-controlled Daily News on Friday front paged a photo of President Wickremesinghe with Mahinda and Shiranthi Rajapaksa at a DA Rajapaksa commemorative event in Colombo. There was a public celebration of MR’s 77th birthday both at the Abhayarama temple in Narahenpita, once the SLPP political headquarters, and at Tangalle where a jayapiritha reportedly attended by 1,000 monks had been organized. One uncontradicted report which we cannot confirm said that hefty contributions running from Rs. 50,000 to 100,000 each was collected from ministers, state ministers and corporation heads to fund this event. In a budget speech MR admitted making mistakes but did not specify what they were. Questions on whether these include the chemical fertilizer and pesticide bans, vanity projects bearing his name as well as Colombo’s Lotus Tower massively displaying the pohottuwa’s election symbol remain hanging in the air.
Perhaps President Wickremesinghe awaited the conclusion of the 2023 budget to expand his cabinet. There have been reports that he’s under pressure to do so and some observers have read ministerial ambitions among those who supported the budget. The voting figures clearly indicate the presence of Rajapaksa political muscle but whether this will presage, for instance, the return of Namal Rajapaksa to the cabinet only time will tell. The president’s focus would and obviously must be more on economic than political issues. While the critical situation that prevailed earlier this year with miles long petrol and gas queues are no longer present, the cost of living remains skyhigh. The budget offered no hope that this would change. Whether the ‘no dissolution before economic stability is restored’ declaration applies to any election whatever remains to be seen. That question will be answered by whether or not local authority elections will be held as scheduled by March 2023. That various machinations are afoot to delay these polls is very well known.
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