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Forest Governance in Sri Lanka: A political conundrum?



Emeritus Professor Nimal Gunatilleke,
University of Peradeniya

Natural forests provide a variety of services that include forest products of utility value, water regulation, biodiversity and soil conservation, climate amelioration and a range of socio-cultural benefits to forest-dependent people. In good governance of natural resources such as that of forests, transparency and inclusiveness in ecosystem management planning, monitoring, and equitable sharing of benefits are safeguarded. Increased pressure on natural forest resources leads to land degradation, biodiversity decline and contribute to change in climate. Major drivers of tropical deforestation are economic, governance, technological, cultural, and demographic factors, all of which are interconnected and interactive. Among the governance factors which contribute to forest degradation and deforestation are i) policies encouraging forest conversion, ii) unclear land tenure, and iii) poor enforcement of environmental laws.

All these factors seem to be influencing the current wave of forest degradation and deforestation in Sri Lanka. A forest governance conundrum has emerged recently as a result of seemingly discordant interests in forest conservation vis -à- vie land development planning and implementation in Sri Lanka. This has become even more pertinent in this post-Covid era during which the concept of One Health is being actively promoted. One Health initiative is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach linking human, animal and ecosystem health which has a deep-rooted cultural significance in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a party to the three global environmental conventions related to sustainable development (viz. the Convention on Biological Diversity [UNCBD], UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification [UNCCD]). All of them have mobilised a strong political commitment as a potential accelerator of ecosystem restoration effort around the world in this United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) which is being advanced as a unified global strategy towards conserving threatened biological diversity, mitigating climate change, and curbing desertification. This has been further strengthened by the commitments made at the recently concluded UNFCCC -COP 26. Over 130 countries, with a coverage within them of more than 90% of the world’s forests, endorsed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use committing to work collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. It is said to be backed by the biggest ever commitment of public funds for forest conservation and a global roadmap to make 75% of forest commodity supply chains sustainable.

Sri Lanka has made a conditional pledge to restore 200,000 ha over this decade as its Nationally Determined Contribution to Bonn Challenge commitment, contingent upon the availability of adequate funding. Complementing this international commitment, the Government of Sri Lanka has incorporated in its National Policy Framework – ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor’, a strategy for an increase of national forest cover up to 30% (p.59). Among the proposed activities under this strategy are i) identification and reforestation of suitable lands, ii) restoration and rehabilitation degraded ecosystems and iii) activities related to urban and road-side tree planting. Similarly, in the sub-sector on land utilization in the same document (p. 57), strategies towards i) conservation of sensitive ecosystems to control human impacts on marshy lands and mangroves and ii) restoring barren and abandoned lands for sustainable agriculture and forestry have been proposed.

Despite these national policy proclamations on sustainable environmental governance while, at the same time, complying with international environment-related commitments, recent declarations (in the form of circulars) relating to ‘other state forest lands’ issued by the subject ministries appear to be undermining the laudable objectives in achieving the environmental pledges made by the government. These ‘other state forests’ reclassified in recent governmental circulars as ‘residual forests’ are those located outside the currently declared protected area network. It is estimated to cover about 400,000 ha or more that include fragments of both mature phase forests as well as regenerating forests serving as crucially important biological corridors connecting protected areas mostly in intermediate and dry zone districts.

The closed canopy forests amongst these other state forests are included within the current natural forest cover estimate of 29.2%. The government has pledged to increase this to 30% by 2025 and to 32% by 2030 by restoring degraded forests and deforested lands, mostly found within these ‘residual’ forests. Accordingly, there is a clear government commitment towards expanding the current natural forest cover by 200,000 ha, in honouring these national and international pledges.

However, a disturbing factor that has emerged in recent times is a steep increase of forest offences most of which are encroachments and unlawful extraction of forest products and services. The Forest Department has prosecuted these forest offenders that has steadily increased with over 27,000 court cases since 2006 (especially since 2019), according to the Forest Department records.

On top of this, there appears to be a move to release at least some of these other state forestlands reclassified in recent government circulars as ‘residual forests’ for agricultural expansion (commercial scale?), infrastructure development and human settlements. with a sense of urgency, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. Government’s thrust towards rapid development in land-use for agriculture, animal husbandry and plantations has put severe pressure on these ‘other state forests’, most of which are located in the Northern, North-eastern and North-central provinces in which only a limited amount of long-term land use planning has gone in since the end of the protracted war in these areas. Therefore, some of the critical areas for conservation in these areas have not yet been included into the national protected areas system.

In such a climate, a series of circulars have been issued since the issuance of the circular MWFC/1/2020 on 04 November 2020 by the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation rescinding all previous circulars related to administration of these Other State Forests (OSFs) or residual forests to be utilised for development activities. By this new circular, all OSFs, except those that are identified as important for conservation of biodiversity, soil, and water, to be handed over to the provincial and district administration for land development programmes, subject to conditions laid out for proper land use. The subsequent circulars and advisory notes issued by the Land Commissioner General and Forest Conservator General spelt out procedural details in speeding up the implementation process of the MWFC/1/2020 decisions.

This attempt appears to be at variance with the priorities of the National Policy Framework which proposes restoration of barren and abandoned lands to increase national forest cover to 30% by 2025. However, clearing of natural forests or regenerating forests for development-mostly agricultural – without identifying and prioritizing the ecological service value, these attempts may be counter-productive with time creating a forest governance conundrum.

While the Forest Department has identified 389,562 ha of ‘open and sparse forests’ under its jurisdiction in its 2015 Forest Cover estimates, the Land Use Policy Planning Department (LUPPD) has identified a further 373,387 ha of ‘shrub cover’ mostly in the category of other state forests, a total area of open and sparse forest/shrub cover of over 750,000 ha. While a certain level of overlap of these other state forest and shrub cover may be inevitable and hence to be expected, a speedy mechanism needs to be developed to identify these open and sparse forests as well as the shrub cover of LUPPD on the ground.

From amongst them, those which are important for biodiversity conservation, provisioning of ecosystem services, buffer areas for protected forests, riverine/gallery forests and stream reservations, corridors for animal migration and those that are in advance regeneration need to be set aside for increase in forest cover to 30% by 2025 as stated in the National Policy Document – Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor. From a sustainable land development perspective, the remaining degraded lands should be considered for development purposes.

The global priority when it comes to tradeoffs between conservation and development is to conserve relatively intact tropical forests. It has been categorically stated that forest restoration can no way be a substitute for habitat/landscape conservation. Pledges of restoration should not be used to justify forest conversion to other land uses in critical habitats as proposed in the case of construction of Madugeta reservoir near Deniyaya. This reservoir was designed for taking water from Gin Ganga to SE dry zone by submerging a portion of prime rain forest of Dellawa. In this instance, a claim was made to reforest over 100 acres of Hevea rubber as a substitute which was not endorsed by the UNESCO World Heritage Commission. Dellawa forest is in the buffer zone of Sinharaja World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.

It is clearly evident that Sri Lanka faces a formidable challenge in environmental governance in trading off her critical environmental interests with those of rapid development. This has been further confounded by the lack of employing a proper yard stick in estimating benefits and costs of each competing interest. One of the main impediments in moving along the path of good forest governance in Sri Lanka is our incapacity to estimate a more realistic value of its natural capital including the services the forests provide which can be traded against any proposed developmental alternatives. Valuing natural capital enables governments to account for nature’s role in the economy and human well-being. Estimating the economic value of nature’s benefits, as best as we can using currently available methods, can make the contribution of nature to livelihoods and economies more visible, enabling smarter decisions that account for nature in our economic systems (green economy) and ensuring that it can continue to sustain us.

In this green economic milieu, the green bonds or climate bonds are emerging as innovative financial instruments as the environmental issues are raising high on global investment policy agenda. Green bonds are like conventional bonds, but their only unique characteristic specification is that the proceeds be invested in projects that generate environmental benefits. A green bond could be used to finance or refinance projects that contribute positively to the environment and/or climate. Green bonds can mobilize resources from domestic and international capital markets for climate change adaptation, renewables, and other environment friendly projects.

Green bonds enable governments, corporations and the private sector to borrow capital to fund projects that promote environmental sustainability and a low carbon economy. They are commonly used to finance the following types of projects:

* Natural resources and land management projects,

* Energy efficiency projects,

* Renewable energy projects,

* Pollution prevention and control projects,

* Clean transportation projects,

* Wastewater and water management projects,

* Green building projects.

* Water projects

Some examples of green-bond qualified investment projects in different countries are nature-based solutions such as development of biological corridors, ecotourism projects, certified organic agriculture projects payment for watershed service improvements, and purchase of lands for conservation and restoration purposes and conservation easement projects.

Green bonds are emerging rapidly as key green economic financial instruments at a global scale with over half a trillion dollar investments have already been made during the first half of 2021and ‘1 trillion dollar annual sovereign green bond investment is in sight’ according to the Global Climate Bond monitoring website (

There are a number of similar attractive opportunities in Sri Lanka to be explored for being eligible for green bond investments. They can even be used for refinancing international debt capital – as debt instruments which is quite appropriate for Sri Lanka at this post-covid state with a heavy burden of international debt. Central and provincial government agencies, municipalities, as well as private organisations, could consider issuing Green Bonds that are focused on biodiversity and sustainable land use, especially in regions that are known for their natural capital and ecosystems (e.g. wetlands in the Weststern Province, watersheds in the Central and Uva province).

The world-renown Sri Lankan agrarian system, the “ellanga gammana” or Cascaded Tank-Village system in the Dry Zone, which was designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) may be an ideal candidate for sustainable development. Further expansion of the Wari Saubhagya programme into the LUPPD identified ‘Shrub cover’ and the remainder of the other state forests having carved out the conservation areas first, could be considered in this context for green bond investment projects with community participation.

In the face of this current conundrum, estimation of the value of forest biodiversity and the ecosystem services they render, would pave the way for investing in green bonds that takes into account the natural capital in our economic systems. Since there are strict monitoring protocols in place for these green investments, the governance factors which contribute to forest degradation and deforestation such as policies encouraging forest conversion, unclear land tenure, and poor enforcement of environmental laws would be minimised.

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Impressive Indian scene…



Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.

Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.

Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.

Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.

Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”

However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.

“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”

Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.

She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.

“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”

Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.

“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.

“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”

Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.

And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”

Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.

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Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community



On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).

Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.

The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.

Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.

By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.

We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.

The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.

Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.

This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.

Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.

Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.

Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!

Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.

The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.

All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.

To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.

I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.

The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.

I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.

More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?

It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.

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The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality



A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.

It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.

However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.

Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.

The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.

Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.

India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.

The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.

But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.

Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.

Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.

Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.

Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.

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