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Editorial

Happy New Year!

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Tuesday 13th April, 2021

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is the time when ordinary people have their fill of merrymaking, and traders and pawnbrokers laugh all the way to the bank. The much-talked-about need to preserve traditions associated with the national festival for posterity is only an excuse for the annual splurge.

What is being celebrated is essentially a harvest festival. In days of yore, people toiled away for months and produced a surplus, part of which was set aside for the New Year festivities. They did not have to worry about the rest of the year as they had enough food stocks. Today, there is no such surplus production, and most people spend borrowed money on New Year celebrations only to regret later when the festive hangover gives way to sobering reality.

Today, harvesting makes only moneylenders and the middleman happy. The farming community is caught in a debt trap. Loan sharks prey on them with impunity. Harvesting is followed by debt-servicing, and farmers either cannot pay back their loans or are left with little or nothing after debt repayment; they have to borrow more for consumption and cultivation purposes, and never will they be able to break this vicious circle unless the state makes a meaningful intervention. Avurudu provides them with some respite from suffering. The same is true of most other people as well.

The koha is said to be conspicuous by its absence, this year. Is it fed up with looking for trees to perch on, given the rate at which the country is being denuded? Its cry which is considered the herald of the traditional new year is, in fact, a desperate mating call. One wonders whether its cry is not heard these days because it has opted for remaining silent by way of family planning, as it were, on account of serious habitat problems.

Health experts have been trying to knock some sense into the public, but in vain. People have thrown caution to the wind, and are behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. They seem to consider Avurudu to be something worth dying for. Shops are chock-a-block, and nobody cares two hoots about the physical distancing rule. People jostle inside clothing stores as if they had never worn clothes before. They also strip bare the racks of grocery stores as if they had never seen food, all these years. Adult males religiously flock around liquor outlets as though their very survival were dependent on the bottle that cheers.

Yesterday, India reported 168,912 COVID-19 infections overnight and overtook Brazil as the second-worst hit country in the world. Unless precautions are taken during the current festive season, Sri Lanka may find itself in the same predicament as its big neighbour.

Politics has apparently taken precedence over the COVID-19 protocol although the health authorities fear that a surge of infections is on the horizon. The government seems reluctant to have the health regulations strictly enforced lest such action should not find favour with the public, who had to be immured in their homes during the festive season, last year. The Provincial Council elections are also expected before the year end. Hence the distribution of cash handouts by the government, which is playing Santa months ahead of Christmas.

The national economy and productivity will take another severe beating due to holidays. Workplaces will remain closed until early next week. It takes, at least, one whole week to reboot the country after the New Year celebrations. Economists should figure out how much the country loses owing to numerous holidays.

Perhaps, it was only last year that Sri Lankans celebrated Avurudu meaningfully. They confined themselves to their homes due to strictly enforced lockdowns, which may have caused numerous difficulties, financial or otherwise, but members of most families huddled together as never before; this is what Avurudu is all about.

We wish our readers a very happy New Year!



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Editorial

Big, bold strokes or hemin hemin?

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it appears, is a firm believer in big, bold strokes in taking far-reaching policy decisions. The recent decision to immediately ban the import of inorganic (chemical) fertilizer is one such. According to reports two fertilizer shipments have already been turned away from our shores. However, stocks of previous imports, believed to be sufficient for short-term requirements are said to be available in the country. So there is a little time yet available to change track if that be the wisest course. Many reputed scientists have published articles in the Lankan press since the ban was first publicized urging that the decision be reconsidered, adducing seemingly valid reasons on why this should be done. There has been no reaction up to now to this request nor has there been credible refutation of the reasons offered by advocates of re-thinking the ban.

There is no doubt that a world without without widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be a better world in environmental terms. But it may also be a hungrier world. Much of the successes in global food production today is attributed to boosting crops by using inorganic fertilizers and protecting them with chemical pesticides. Genetic engineering too has contributed to increased production although there have been many warnings against interfering with nature in some of the ways attempted. However nobody objects to the practice of hybrid agriculture, common for many years, involving cross pollination of two different varieties of plants to get the best traits of the parents in the offspring. We in this country today are able to buy a variety of mango superior to what we were accustomed – though at a price of course – thanks to scientific advances in producing better quality fruit and grain. Older readers will remember a time when there were no seedless grapes that are abundant today.

Writing to a recent issue of The Island, Prof. O.A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry of the Peradeniya University, said an inorganic fertilizer ban will have a “devastating effect” on our economy. Nobody can quarrel with the president’s desire that we make do with compost fertilizer instead of utilizing scarce resources for importing chemical fertilizers issued to farmers at subsidized rates. But the scientific view is that compost alone cannot provide the macro-nutrients necessary for the healthy growth of crops. The president does not disagree with the contention that these inorganic soil supplements mean better crops and resultant better incomes. This applies not only to peasant farmers but also plantations. But he says they pollute waterways – as they no doubt do – and are suspected to cause kidney disease endemic in some agricultural areas. The bottom line according to the president’s thinking is that the cost to society of chemical fertilizer use outweighs the benefits.

The country is virtually self-sufficient in rice today although occasional imports are necessary to tide over temporary difficulties. This has been possible due to the efforts of the Department of Agriculture as well as the development of high yielding varieties such as the ‘miracle rice’ bred at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the sixties. All the pluses achieved would be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertilizer, Ileperuma has said. He agrees that there are positive effects, such as improving soil texture and providing some micro-nutrients. But he says that compost cannot entirely substitute the fertilizer requirements of the high yielding rice varieties now being grown here. That will obviously reduce the income of farmers and also necessitate rice imports to feed the people. The professor has also revealed – what many many may not have known – that rice from some countries, particularly Bangladesh, is laden with arsenic which is an extremely toxic element. As for the argument that inorganic fertilizers is the cause of kidney disease, there is scientific evidence that this is so. It is a suspicion at most and by no means an established fact.

A hemin hemin (slowly, slowly) approach is what is required at this moment. There must be intensive study of the relevant evidence, meticulous evaluation of the various costs and benefits before an ironclad decision to ban fertilizer imports is implemented. We must also look at what is happening elsewhere in the world. Have other countries, many with far better facilities than we can ever hope to match, taken decisions to totally ban the use of chemical fertilizers? What happens in large countries like China and India? When Rachel Carson wrote her celebrated Silent Spring over 50 years ago focusing largely on the negative effects of chemical pesticides, particularly DDT, the world woke up to the dangers that President Rajapaksa has brought to the forefront of our national agenda. But can we forget that we eliminated the scourge of malaria which cost our country hugely in the thirties by using DDT? Very much later we shifted to the less harmful malathion.

There was also the recent decision to ban the import of palm oil which was amended after its impact on the bakery industry surfaced. Whether we will go ahead with the decision to ban cultivation of oil palm, believed by some to guzzle ground water at an unsustainable rate and replant existing plantations with rubber, will be implemented remains to be seen. The big, bold strokes that the president favours undoubtedly helped end our 30-year civil war during his tenure as Defence Secretary. But whether a hasty ban on fertilizer imports, in the teeth of the many dangers highlighted, will have a similar beneficial impact, remains doubtful.

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Editorial

When mutts try to be docs

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Saturday 8th May, 2021

The police are busy, these days, arresting, as they do, scores of ordinary people daily for violating the Covid-19 protocol. They are shown on television bundling offenders into police vehicles. They deserve public plaudits for taking such swift action against the quarantine law violators, who are a threat to others. But, unfortunately, these laws do not apply to the ruling party politicians.

Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge stands accused of having had the pandemic-related restrictions in Piliyandala removed against the advice of health professionals. No sooner had the Piliyandala police area been isolated, on Sunday, owing to a rapid spread of Covid-19 than it was reopened reportedly at the behest of Lokuge. Only the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) has the authority to impose and lift such restrictions, based on recommendations made by the Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) in the areas concerned. DGHS Dr. Asela Gunawardana insists he did not have restrictions in Piliyandala lifted.

The government, as a face-saving exercise, sent a team to assess the Covid-19 situation in Piliyandala; the latter has decided that there was no need for a lockdown in the area! The highest number of Covid-19 cases in the Colombo District has been reported from Piliyandala during the past several days. That was the reason why the MoH and the PHIs concerned had the area isolated. Only the naïve may have expected the government team to reveal the truth and incur the wrath of the powers by embarrassing them. The issue, on the other hand, was not whether the situation in Piliyandala warranted a lockdown; instead, it was why the restrictions imposed in the area had been arbitrarily lifted by someone other than the DGHS.

The thinking of the present-day rulers seems to be that if any illegal practice cannot be stopped, the solution is to legalise it. This is what they did when they were in power previously. The MPs sold their duty-free vehicle permits illegally, and when the racket got out of hand, the then Rajapaksa government legalised the sale of permits! Since the destruction of forests is illegal, the SLPP leaders have removed some forests from the purview of the Forest Department. Now, any government backer can encroach on forestlands on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture!

Likewise, since the likes of Lokuge cannot be reined in, will the government consider changing the current health regulations to empower its provincial potentates to countermand decisions taken by health professionals responsible for pandemic control? These politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than medical professionals, and their bosses take their opinion seriously and defend them while refusing to take on board the advice of educated, intelligent ministers such as Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle. Therefore, a wag says the government should consider awarding medical degrees to its omniscient MPs and ministers and put them in charge of the pandemic control programme. Thereafter, the anti-Covid campaign in areas south of Colombo could be carried out under the supervision of Lokuge, who can also be appointed State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control while medical consultant, Dr. Fernandopulle, who currently holds that portfolio but cannot have herself heard on matters concerning public health, is made the Minister of Transport. This should be child’s play for a government that readily intervenes to have court cases against its politicians withdrawn, abolishes import duties on some commodities and tries to set up gyms countrywide amidst a crippling health crisis to help its financiers make a killing. One may recall that during the previous Rajapaksa government ‘Dr. Mervyn Silva’ took over the dengue control campaign in Kelaniya and even tied a health worker to a tree in full view of the police for being late for a meeting he had called.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is known as an allegory of the Bolshevik revolution and the situation in Russia thereafter, but we wonder whether Orwell foresaw what would happen in this former British colony, decades later, when he wrote that dystopian novella, especially where the proclamation by the Pigs that control the government in the enthrallingly satirical story is concerned: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Nothing exemplifies this ‘commandment’ more than the manner in which this country is being run by those who came into power, promising a utopia.

 

 

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Editorial

Minister in china shop, and big ego trips

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Friday 7th May, 2021

Most government politicians are in the news, always for the wrong reasons. Minister Gamini Lokuge has not only endangered the lives of people but also caused what remains of the government’ popularity to plummet further by having Covid-19 travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area arbitrarily lifted recently. We thought the 20th Amendment to the Constitution would restore the dictatorial powers of only the Executive President, but it looks as if it had led to the emergence of dictators at the provincial level as well. These self-important politicians who countermand vital decisions of health professionals tasked with controlling the pandemic must be kept on a tight leash.

Close on the heels of Minister Lokuge’s high-handed action came a government announcement that the Cabinet had approved a proposal for setting up a large number of gyms countrywide. One wonders whether the ruling politicians have taken leave of their senses.

There is no gainsaying that physical fitness goes a long way towards warding off diseases and battling them. Not everyone can afford modern gym facilities and coaching, and the public will gain tremendously if they could be made available free or charge. Public walking tracks and recreational parks built under the previous Rajapaksa administration have stood the ordinary people in good stead. But the government must get its expenditure priorities right at this hour of crisis.

There is a pressing need to rationalise state expenditure on account of the current national health crisis; projects that can wait must be put on hold immediately. The country must remain maniacally focused on beating the runaway virus, which has brought even the developed world to its knees.

The government has sought to justify its irrational spending by claiming that it has allocated enough funds for the fight against Covid-19, but the truth is otherwise. The country is without enough PCR machines to detect infections, and genome sequencing equipment to identify new variants of the virus. The number of PCR tests conducted daily remains woefully low.

Aggressive testing is a prerequisite for curbing the spread of the pandemic. The state hospital network is under severe strain, and all pandemic treatment centres are bursting at the seams. The procurement of vaccines has become a problem. The poor are crying out for relief. This situation has come about mostly due to lack of funds.

Ideally, the country should go into another round of lockdowns if the rapid tranmission of the virus is to be halted and the number of infections brought down to a manageable level, as public health experts argue. But the government is wary of adopting this method, given the heavy socio-economic costs it entails; if the country is to remain open safely, there are some essential facilities that must be provided to the public.

The public transport sector should be given priority. The Covid-19 health regulations require the number of passengers in buses and trains to be drastically reduced so that physical distancing could be maintained. But there are not enough buses and trains, and the available ones are overcrowded. Private buses cannot be expected to run at a loss, and, in fact, it is not fair to force them do so. The government has to step in to solve this problem, but the fleet of state-owned bus service alone cannot cater to the demand. Everybody realises the value of the Sri Lanka Transport Board during crisis situations, but nobody cares to do anything to develop it. Thus, instead of procuring new aircraft and fitness equipment, the government ought to purchase buses to enable workers to commute safely so that the economy will not contract further.

There has emerged a pressing need for more ambulances for Suwaseriya, which has proved to be a huge success. Sri Lankans must be grateful to India, which made this service a reality, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP, who fought quite a battle to set it up, under the previous government, amidst unfair criticism from those who are currently in power. The procurement of more ambulances to transport the sick ought to take precedence over that of fitness centres and choppers.

The government keeps faulting the public for lack of co-operation to beat the virus. True, people have to follow the Covid-19 protocol without leaving the task of battling the pandemic entirely to the health authorities. The government must also act responsibly; it must get its expenditure priorities right instead of embarking on ego-boosting projects, and rein in its unruly politicians who have become a nuisance to the public as well as health professionals.

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