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Fun flying in Sri Lanka

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Thank you for publishing my dear friend Capt. Elmo Jayawardena’s article on ‘Fun Flying’ in The Island of 1 Nov. I totally agree with him. May I be permitted to reproduce the following article with the full story, which was aimed at the golfing community in Sri Lanka? It was published in your esteemed newspaper some time ago.

RECREATIONAL FLYING AND GOLF

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned upward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

– Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), painter, artist, engineer & Renaissance genius from Florence, Italy.

The art as well as science of flight is indeed very interesting to learn and practise. Like golf, it takes a little time to accomplish, depending on your instructor’s ability to teach and your ability to learn. One does not need to have special skills except a passion for flight. Sacrifices have to be made, like waking up early to get to the airport. Everyone can fly. Like riding a bicycle. The prospective pilot is taught to fly, navigate and communicate up to a required level of proficiency, and then the sky’s the limit.

For most people, the sky may be the limit, but as someone once said, for those who love aviation, the sky is their home. One thing is for sure: once the bug bites, it is forever. The most memorable day in a fledgling pilot’s life is the day he/she is allowed (cleared) to fly solo. That is, all by oneself, without the benefit of an instructor in the next seat to give guidance. This also means that the instructor is confident that the trainee is a safe pilot and ready to learn more by himself or herself. A milestone that will usually be celebrated among like-minded friends in the fraternity. In fact, in flying, as in golf, you are always learning and you are so focused, you leave your problems behind (on ground).

“I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things …” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

There are 16 airports approved by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) at locations across Sri Lanka: KKS (Jaffna), Iranamadu, Vavuniya, Thalladi (Mannar), China Bay (Trincomalee), Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Minneriya, Batticaloa, Ampara, BIA/Katunayake, Ratmalana, Katukurunda, Koggala, Weerawila and Mattala. Light aircraft could land at any of these airports. At the moment, although manned by the Sri Lanka Airports and Aviation Ltd., and the Sri Lanka Air Force, some of them are rarely used.

Flying schools in Sri Lanka

There are many CAASL-approved flying schools at Ratmalana and Katukurunda. They will be only too happy to provide an aircraft and an instructor to teach anyone interested in taking up this wonderful hobby. Imagine, after you are trained and qualified you could fly from Ratmalana to Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Koggala or KKS in the morning, have lunch there, and get back to Ratmalana by evening.

“You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” – Amelia Earhart (1897-1937).

When one acquires the skill to fly with reference solely to instruments one could obtain an Instrument Rating (IR). This will allow the pilot to confidently fly through and above the clouds without being always restricted to be in sight of ground or water. The trainee pilot could also learn to fly in the night and get a ‘Night Rating’. This will provide more flexibility by not being restricted to daylight flying hours between dawn and dusk. Initially, the trainees start practising early in the morning, at a time when the winds are usually calm and the air is smooth. When they gather more experience (counted in hours of flying), they will be allowed to fly later in the day when the air is more turbulent, due to heating of the ground by the sun. The winds also usually build up by then. They will also reach competency in landing and taking off in crosswind conditions, at their home airport, before they are allowed to fly in command on cross-country flights to other airports. Being the ‘Pilot in Command’ of the light aircraft builds up the new pilot’s confidence and develops a healthy respect for weather in the tropics. Checklists will also be introduced, so that the pilot will ‘do things right and do the right things’!

Thrill of flying

Once you are competent and comfortable with the type of aircraft you were trained on, you may even want to buy your own aircraft which could be parked at and maintained by one of the many flying organisations/schools. On the other hand, if you don’t plan to fly too often, hiring may be a cheaper option. When you experience the thrill of almost ‘two hundred horses’ hauling you down the runway and the acceleration in the seat of your pants, you never forget it and will come back for more. Come to think of it, pilots are connected to the aircraft only by the seat of their pants! The nerves, muscles and skin in the pilot’s posterior, how it reacts to gravity and acceleration/deceleration, is collectively known as the ‘somatosensory feel’. Along with what you see with your eyes and experience through the balance organs in your ears, it helps in orientation. Age is no barrier as long as you are medically fit (this writer is now past his 72nd birthday!). So, as one gets older, it will be necessary to do regular medical check-ups to ensure that everything is in order. In one way, it helps one keep fit. Bear in mind that the CAASL does not require your health to be that of an astronaut. You can fly with corrective lenses (spectacles), and even if you are slightly deaf in one or both ears, for there is a volume control in the radio receiver to help! You could fly after heart surgery, even a by-pass. Diabetes need not keep you grounded. There are many waivers in the medical regulations for the Private Pilots’ licence category.

“Can the magic of flight ever be carried by words? I think not.” — Michael Parfit, Smithsonian magazine, May 2000

During training, one will acquire ‘stick and rudder’ skills. One will also acquire a working knowledge of Air Navigation Regulations (ANR), engines and airframes, aircraft and human performance limitations, flight planning, weight and balance theory, GPS navigation, meteorology (weather), map reading, the use of the slide rule, protractor and compass. Every minute of flight is exciting, but how safe is it? It is certainly safer than crossing a road in Sri Lanka or riding in a three-wheeler. From the first day, you are taught to be safe and think safety.

Hardly any emergency landing

Modern aircraft engines are very reliable and run smoothly, like proverbial sewing machines. Although fledgling pilots are trained extensively to competently handle emergencies, one hardly hears of an emergency landing due to engine failure nowadays. Engines don’t usually fail suddenly. They usually give some indication of a pending problem in the form of noise, vibration, fluctuations of oil pressure, oil temperature, cylinder head temperatures, coolant temperature, power produced, etc. The pilot could safely reach ‘terra firma’ as soon as possible and have the problem attended to, if necessary. Statistics from around the world show that most engine failures in small aircraft have been due to bad fuel management. resulting in fuel starvation.

“The engine is the heart of an aeroplane, but the pilot is its soul.” — Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (RAF)

To fly over our Fair Isle with your family or friends, spending quality time and watching the places familiar to you as they unravel from the air, makes one appreciate our country. For example, flying over the cities of Kandy, Kurunegala, Jaffna, Bible Rock, Sigiriya, Castlereigh, Victoria, Kothmale, Senanayake Samudra, Lunugamwehera and the Bolgoda Lake. To spot elephants after takeoff from Mattala or Weerawila, see Adam’s Peak in the distance, or the Mahaweli meandering northwards towards Trincomalee from Kandy, and the Mahiyangana Stupa shining in the morning sun. Flying to Anuradhapura and navigating by Ruwanwelisaya to locate the airport. Following roads, rivers and railway lines. Flying over Iranamadu, Fort Hammenhiel guarding the entrance to Jaffna Lagoon, and much more with your newly acquired skill. Flying an Instrument Landing System (ILS), as if on rails, in between the big jets at Bandaranaike International Airport, down to 400 feet followed by a ‘greased landing’, where the tyres kiss the runway.

There are two other fun categories that are practised in other parts of the world, requiring qualifications other than the Private Pilots’ Licence (PPL): ‘sport aviation’ and ultralight flying licences, where the aircraft are smaller, simpler and, in the case of the latter category, allow one to fly with no certification. Unfortunately, such freedoms are still to be implemented in our part of the world.

Here’s a quick comparison of the restrictions and privileges in each category in the USA, as quoted by Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA): (see table)

Unfortunately, at this point in time the CAASL can only provide a Private Pilot’s Licence Category for recreational (leisure) pilots.

Striving for perfection

Flying, like golf, is striving for perfection. You can play golf against yourself. The mathematics involved in flying is perhaps a little more complicated. It is challenging, but not competitive. At the end of the day you have the satisfaction of pitting yourself with nature and doing a good job of it. As in golf, flying has its own jargon.

As one golfer says: “For me, it’s largely that sensation of raw power that comes from hitting a little white ball 250+ yards, sky high, and in all sorts of shapes and sexily curved flights. As others have mentioned, the feel of striking the ball purely and watching it pierce the air like a bullet – or, at the other end of the shot-making spectrum, float on the wind, balloon-like – is, very arguably, a euphoria unmatched in any other sport. “It’s incredibly satisfying when you hit the ball just perfectly.

Another golfer says: “I love taking all of the variables into account: wind speed, wind direction, fairway slope, club limitations, ball placement, and more. Then the whole analysis comes down to one simple swing that’s over in seconds. It’s fun (or sometimes not so much) to see the results immediately, where in business it may take weeks, months, or years to see the results of a strategic decision.”

It is the same with flying. The strategic use of your knowledge and experience in a more acute sense as your decisions will affect you directly. You don’t need to watch anymore. Now you can be a part of it. Although there are many common elements in flying and golf such as self-improvement, determination, concentration and enjoying fresh air, flying must obviously be more fascinating and personal as I have yet to see poems, such as the one below, written about golf.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds –and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark or even eagle flew –

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Fun fliers harassed

There is a small community of ‘fun flyers’ who are harassed by the authorities who drive them from pillar to post as they have to work with bureaucrats who don’t know how an aircraft flies. Above all, they don’t have a passion for aviation. There is a National Aviation Policy (NAP), which has now been issued as a Government Gazette (No 2214/54 of 10th Feb 2021). Encouraging the formation of flying clubs is one of the declared objectives of this policy.

Instead of facilitating ‘Fun Flying’ (officially known as General Flying), these ‘seat warmers’ tend to obstruct their activities by attempting to enforce the archaic Administrative and Financial Regulations (ARs and FRs). The two frontline entities in charge, i. e. the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka and the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka, were formed to eliminate ‘red tape’ in the 1970s. Since then, red tape has crept in through the backdoor, and things have moved back to square one or are even worse in the ‘permanent administration’. To add insult to injury, after the 30-year war the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) behaves like aviation’s self-appointed ‘Dr. No’.

Security clearance

Prospective pilots have to wait for over six months to obtain security clearance from the SIS, NIB, CAASL, SLAF and what have you. In fact, the Aircraft Owners and Operators Association (AOAOA) asked the authorities for a quicker IT-based system more than two years ago, and are still waiting. Capt. Elmo’s suggestion of the practical and profitable possibility of flying training for tourists could be achieved only if and when the security system is revamped and put on a fast track, especially when the country is short of valuable foreign exchange.

As we are not at war anymore, the planning of air space and airports in the country is the sole responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL) as mentioned in the said government Gazette. Instead of coordination with the CAASL, the SLAF still seems to want absolute control of civil airspace over our fair isle. To illustrate the point, a few days ago there was the funeral at the General Cemetery, Borella, of a lady who was a well-known anti-cancer activist who died of cancer herself. In her last will, there was a handwritten request for a ‘flower drop’ at her funeral. After her death, the Ministry of Defence and CAASL were duly contacted and permission granted to carry out a flower drop from a civil helicopter. Flowers worth thousands of rupees were bought, but at the eleventh-hour permission was refused by the SLAF for no apparent reason. However, a week later when a scholar monk died, the SLAF sprinkled flowers at his funeral – demonstrating the existence of two different laws in one country. The tail seems to wag the dog!



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Impressive Indian scene…

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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

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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

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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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