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Hands off Sinharaja

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It makes one sad, angry and puzzled. How could anyone, even with an iota of love for the country of one’s birth, who has been breathing its air ever since, bring oneself to do this? It is despicable. It is a heinous crime of immense proportions, an unthinkable instance of rape of Mother Lanka.

It seems that some of these half-wits wearing immaculate white, wielding political might cannot go to sleep without hearing the sounds of music (to them) playing in their minds: of trees falling, of bulldozers/caterpillars digging, and gnawing at soil that had been there undisturbed for millennia, while the surrounding forest or whatever is left of it wept in silence.

No matter whether it is Wilpaththuwa or Sinharaja or anywhere else, the story is the same: ‘they come, they see, they destroy, they make a huge profit and they go.’ How else can it be? They are just paying back to whomever they owe for the services (both in matter and money, of course) rendered during the election campaign, by robbing the land of their birth, while making sure that there will be enough for themselves too.

And this despicable political drama has continued for decades. The newcomers or many of them think it’s all theirs now. They take it for granted that everything under the sun of Lanka is for them, for the taking. Forests and rivers sit at the top of the list, amongst the most attractive, in terms of their personal returns and revenue.

Sinharaja, a world heritage site, has become the prime target once again. It escaped destruction in 2013, when some concerned environmentalists stepped in and lodged a complaint at the UNESCO World Heritage Site office, which stopped an intended road construction project that would have caused great harm to the forest.

Now, it seems to have started all over again. Even before the victorious finished their celebrations, one of the new custodians of the ‘Land of Lanka’ seemed to have decided to finish the unfinished job, which started in 2013. Fortunately, our new president, who, I am sure, is a people-listener and a people’s pulse-reader too, heard the uproar that has been on all papers and social media, intervened and stopped it. Even though the news reports say temporarily, I am sure he will stop this madness of politicians’ playing with our natural habitats, once and for all.

It is interesting to note whether these villagers are planning to drive motor cars on this patch of footpath, which now supposedly needs extension and widening. Or could there be another more attractive motive, such as facilitating vehicular traffic to something at the other end of the road, cutting through the ‘induction zone’ of the forest?

This is an extremely sad state of affairs. Our politicians taking turns to wreak havoc on our natural habitats and what not, at will. Quite often the damage caused to the environment by their actions is irreparable. And yet, they still get away scot-free.

The story so far “While the top order was busy with bigger affairs, the middle order was busy cutting and digging our forests and rivers, in that order. And the tail-enders at the bottom waited for the crumbs”.

I sincerely hope the new president would take timely action to end this sad story, never to be repeated again.

 

LAKSIRI WARNAKULA



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Opinion

Today’s Parliament burden on people

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The post-independence legislature of Sri Lanka consisted of two houses – the House of Representatives (parliament) and the Senate. This bicameral system, established in 1947, which replaced the State Council of Ceylon, provided some checks and balances in the system of governance. Under this system, the House of Representatives had 101 members (95 elected by the people and 6 appointed by the Governor General) and the Senate had 30 members (15 elected by the House of Representatives and 15 appointed by the Governor General). The numbers increased to 157 after the 1960’s.

The Senate was abolished on October 2, 1971 resulting in the establishment of the unicameral National State Assembly. It was a political decision and not a decision made for the betterment of the country or for a better governance structure. The National State Assembly, during the period from 1972 to 1978, had 168 members and from 1978 onwards the membership has been increased to 225. The increase in quantity of course, was at the expense of quality, which can be seen when a comparison is made of the level of education, integrity, honesty, selfishness, corruption, etc., of the members of parliament in the pre- and post- 1970’s. Even a person convicted of murder and sentenced to death by the highest court in the country had been sworn in as a law maker in the parliament. It is an irony that law breakers can also be lawmakers!

The issue here is whether a small country like Sri Lanka needs a top-heavy legislature, with such a large number of MPs. India which has a bicameral legislature has 543 members in Lok Sabha and 245 members in Rajya Sabha for a population of over 1.3 billion; China which has a unicameral system has 2,980 members in the National Peoples’ Congress for a population of over 1.4 billion; Japan, which has a bicameral system, has 465 members in the House of Representatives (Lower House) and 245 members in the House of Councillors (Upper House) for a population of over 126 million. Similar comparisons can be made with countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., Taiwan, which has almost the same geographical size and population as Sri Lanka, which had 225 members until 2005, now has only 133 legislators equivalent to one legislator for over 179,000 citizens.

It is not only the ratio of the population to the number of legislators that is important. Legislators in Sri Lanka are supported by the wealth created by ordinary citizens. One MP is supported by about 95,000 citizens. The actual number of wealth creating citizens of the country that supports them would be much lower. In comparison, one parliamentarian in India, China, and Japan respectively represent over 1.7 million, 482,000, and 178,000 citizens. One can only guess the actual cost of maintaining a parliamentarian in Sri Lanka, but there is no doubt that it is extremely high, compared to the income levels in the country. MPs hold the best jobs in the country and enjoy a luxurious life. Not only are they supported during their terms of office but also for life, if they secure two terms. This is quite a substantial burden on the citizens, and the only way to reduce the per capita burden of supporting legislators is to reduce their numbers. There is also the saying that ‘too many cooks spoil the soup’. A reasonable number would be about 100 with electoral boundaries based on districts and/or provinces, with the details to be determined by the Commissioner of Elections. The prime objective should be to cut down the numbers.

Another related issue is the absence of checks and balances in the governance structure. Under the bicameral system, which Sri Lanka had prior to 1971, a bill had to be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate before it could become law. Under the current unicameral system, it is possible to enact any law if the political party in power so wishes, regardless of whether it is for the benefit of the citizens or not. There is no mechanism for checks and balances. Many countries in the world have bicameral systems to provide checks and balances to the governance structure. It would therefore be prudent to re-introduce the Senate, or an equivalent system, consisting of members selected from diverging sections of the society, who have proven credibility and acceptability in the society, with integrity, honesty, intellectual capacity to judge what is right and what is wrong on any issue. They should be selected rather than be elected by popular choice. These two issues should be addressed with high priority, not only because of the above reasons but also, rather unfortunately, the status of the parliament has been severely degraded.

Both these changes for a better, more efficient and citizen-oriented system of governance require amendments to the present Constitution with a referendum. Either way, it needs to be done with high priority, before the next general election, as any postponement will result in carrying the burden of supporting the 225 incumbents in Diyawanna Palace for at least another five years. All patriots are therefore urged to promote this idea and push for the next stage of system change, which the Aragalaya” campaigned for.

A. W. JAYAWARDENA

Mt. Lavinia

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Opinion

Right to travel

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A.G. Noorani

VERY few would dispute that travel broadens the mind. But in the developing nations of this world, the state asserts that it can determine whether its citizen has the right to go abroad or not. The supreme court may take its own time to decide whether or not a citizen — even if he or she lives in a country that claims itself to be a democracy — has the right to possess a passport. Even if that is allowed as an essential travel document, the authorities might decide who can use it or who cannot. The government of India, regardless of which party is in power, seems to have assumed the right to decide whether or not to let a chief minister travel abroad.

The victim is the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, who was to speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore. But the BJP-ruled government, headed by Narendra Modi, felt that he could not go and did not give him clearance. Its approach was nonsensical.

By now, most of the countries of the Third World have ratified the United Nations. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). This is an international treaty in law while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is, in law, just a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. Article 12(2) of the covenant provides that “Everyone shall be free to leave any county including his own” — in other words, there should be no restrictions on travelling abroad.

The covenant sets up a human rights committee of distinguished persons who are not representatives of the government but are individuals of note who have “high moral character” and are elected by the states, who have ratified the covenant.Parties to the covenant have to file reports to the committee on their observance of the stipulations contained within. States send mostly their attorney general to defend their reports. Members of the committee grill representative of the states. They do not publicise much of the report within their own countries or the contents of their reports. Both err on the side of exaggeration.

Unfortunately, civil liberties movements in the Third World are generally not articulate nor well-equipped. The exception that stands out is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based in Lahore whose prominent chairperson, the late Mr I.A. Rehman, never failed to stand up for civil rights.

In India, following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the election in 1977, a liberal government came to power which ratified the UN covenant in March 1979. They ratified it only with certain conditions but these did not concern Article 21 of the constitution of India that says very clearly that “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

The Indian supreme court has ruled that fundamental rights can be exercised outside the country. In 1978, the apex court had to deal with Maneka Gandhi’s case concerning the impounding of her passport. The supreme court held:

“…[F]reedom to go abroad is one of such rights, for the nature of man as a free agent necessarily involves free movement on his part. There can be no doubt that if the purpose and the sense of state is to protect personality and its development, as indeed it should be of any liberal democratic state, freedom to go abroad must be given its due place amongst the basic rights.

“This right is an important basic human right for it nourishes independent and self-determining creative character of the individual, not only by extending his freedoms of action, but also by extending the scope of his experience. It is a right which gives intellectual and creative workers in particular the opportunity of extending their spiritual and intellectual horizon through study at foreign universities, through contact with foreign colleagues and through participation in discussions and conferences.

“The right also extends to private life; marriage, family and friendship are humanities which can be rarely affected through refusal of freedom to go abroad and clearly show that this freedom is a genuine human right.

“Moreover, this freedom would be a highly valuable right where man finds himself obliged to flee: (a) because he is unable to serve his God as he wished at the previous place of residence, (b) because his personal freedom is threatened for reasons which do not constitute a crime in the usual meaning of the word and many were such cases during the emergency, or (c) because his life is threatened either for religious or political reasons or through the threat to the maintenance of minimum standard of living compatible with human dignity.” This ruling has stood the test of time.

(The Dawn/ANN)
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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Opinion

If visitors pay USD at airport, no fuel queues for them

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The above statement was made by Manusha Nanayakkara our Labour & Foreign Employment Minister. How the Minister is going to do it is not known.I wish to make a few suggestions to the Minister for his consideration to implement his proposal. Tourists, migrant workers and the dual citizens were the people whom the Minister referred to in his proposal. Many expat Sri Lankans of whom some could be dual citizens visit home once a year to spend their holidays with their families. Since Covid this might have slowed down.

With the Covid jabs even though one could catch Covid people have started to travel. Travelling to Colombo again will slow down due to the pathetic situation that exist with a shortage of everything, particularly fuel, gas and medicines. The Minister’s statement is some encouragement, but he must place his plan for the consideration of the prospective travellers and shoe by action.

The Bank Of Ceylon Branch at the Airport can sell a Dollar debit card to expats, migrant workers and tourists or in other words those who arrive with a return ticket. The minimum value can be USD 500 with provision to put more dollars attending any BOC Branch. When selling the card, a separate certificate in a little booklet format can be given with the Passport details of the traveller entered. The registration details of the vehicle the traveller intends to use can be entered in the booklet by any BOC branch after the traveller finds the vehicle, that is hired or owned by a relation. If the traveller changes the vehicle the new vehicle details can be entered only after 3 days of the first registration. This will help to prevent misusing the debit card.

The traveller must be able to purchase fuel and other rare commodities on production of the certificate to pay by the debit card referred to in the certificate.

Expats and the tourists visit to travel, and fuel must be available at petrol stations, at least one station ear marked in every town with stock always available for this category. Purchase of fuel can be restricted to at least 15 litres per day that will be good to run about 150kms approximately.

I have suggested the above as a base for the Minster to work out a reasonable plan. Once it is made and implemented whether it works smoothly or with hiccups will be known to prospective travellers through the newspapers. If the system works well, the travellers will have confidence in visiting Sri Lanka and there will be many wanting to visit in the near future.

Hemal Perera

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