Health effects of fertilisers and pesticides: A critique
A report entitled “Health effects of fertilizers and pesticides” has been submitted to the authorities on 22, October, 2021 by Dr. S. H. Munasinghe of the Ministry of Health. The report may be read at: https://dh-web.org/place.names/posts/MinistryOfHealthReviewAgroChem2021.pdf
We believe that Dr. Munasinghe has attempted a very fair and competent evaluation of the situation, especially in boldly stating that there is as yet no direct link between Kidney disease and agrochemicals. However, what he can say may be constrained by government policy. As independent scientists, we present more wide-ranging comments on the Ministry document below.
In particular, the Health Ministry Review (HMR) nowhere mentions how the use of agrochemicals increased harvests and cut down the worst of all diseases, namely, MALNUTRITION. It boosted life expectancy from 48 years in the 1950s to 80 years today, and reduced infant mortality to near zero.
1. The HMR cites Ekanayake et al (2009), and Chandrjith et al (2009) to state that there are traces of heavy metals and metalloids in the agrochemicals used in Sri Lanka.
Records reveal that nearly 3.5 million premature, non-communicable disease deaths, for example, in 2017, were from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes.
Records reveal that nearly 3.5 million premature, non-communicable disease deaths, for example, in 2017, were from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes.
Indeed, we know the amounts of trace metals or contaminants in conventional agrochemicals, while this is usually unknown with organic fertilizers although, in effect, they add MORE contaminants, as shown in item 5.
Sri Lankan standards
Sri Lanka uses a standard requiring that only fertilisers containing 5 mg of Cadmium (Cd) per kg of fertilizer be imported to Sri Lanka. In contrast, Canada allows 889 mg of Cd/kg of fertiliser as being safe.
No other country has such a ludicrously small value for the cutoff “standard” for cadmium. May be all agrochemicals that enter the country become “substandard”. Hence importers have to “facilitate” the approval of all agrochemicals using “kickbacks”!
Even with agrochemicals 10 times more polluted than the Sri Lankan standard, simple calculations show that changes in concentrations of toxins in the soil (e.g., a hectare ploughed to 20 cm plough-blade depth, with 100 -200 kg of the fertilizer/ha) are undetectably small.
2. HMR cites Weggler et al (2004) to state that “contaminated” fertilizers used since the green revolution may have increased heavy metals and metalloids in the soil and ground water aquifers.
The HMR statement is incorrect, and does not follow the latest research on Cadmium accumulation in soils. See the journal EG&H, i.e., “Environmental Geochemistry and Health, volume 40, pages 2739–2759 (2018). In EG&H it is shown that the heavy-metal accumulation in soils due to agriculture is minuscule. Even if 10 times more contaminated fertilizer were used in Sri Lanka for a century, it would have little impact, especially given the ambient concentrations of cadmium in the soil (see EG&H).
3. In its 4th paragraph the HMR refers to Perera et al (2021) and states that “Sri Lankan scientists have reported that paddy soils in the Mahaweli Development areas (most of the CKDu endemic areas) are polluted with toxic metals”
This reference is to the Hindawi Journal of Chemistry, vol. 2021, Article ID 6627254 | https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/6627254. Hindawi is an Egyptian publisher once considered predatory that improved its practices a bit. The paper by Perera et al contain fallacious references and indicates the uncritical peer review used.
Nevertheless, the main thrust of the article is the very opposite of the HMR position.
We quote from Perera et al (2021):
“Mean concentrations of heavy metals/metalloids such as Mn, Co, As, Cd, Pb, Cu, Zn, and Fe in drinking water of CKDu endemic areas were far below Sri Lankan water quality standards (permissible limits)”.
Nevertheless, in Sec. 3.3 Perera et al say
“Sri Lankan scientists reported that paddy soils in Mahaweli development areas (most of the CKDu endemic areas) are polluted with potentially toxic metals, and paddy soils in Sri Lanka are highly modified by artificial fertilizer applications .
However, Ref . has little to do with Sri Lanka and refers to metal toxins in Vineyards in Sauo Paulo, Brazil !
Perera et al (2021) say:
“urea which is commonly used in paddy cultivation as well as other cultivation in Sri Lanka has contained toxic metals such as Cd, As, Cr, Pb, Zn, and Cu in noticeable amounts. Apart from that, potash and triple superphosphate that are applied in the paddy cultivation also have contained significant amounts of … toxic metals except Cd and As. Furthermore, the risk of accumulation of toxic metals is augmented due to the limitless application of fertilizers in paddy cultivation”.
These arguments have no merit as the chemical analyses the authors give are for the total amounts of these elements, but NOT for the bio-available amounts.
Only the bio-available amounts must be considered for health risk assessment. Furthermore, the presence of large amounts of Zn has the effect of counteracting the toxic activity of any bio-available cadmium (see EG&H).
Perera et al themselves say even in the Abstract that the water (in contact with these soils) contains metal toxins only at very safe levels. Thus, the water soluble (i.e., in effect bio-available) heavy metals in the soil are negligible. So, the agrochemicals have not created a health hazard and this is confirmed by the biomass of micro-organisms, earthworms etc., found in these soils, though not measured by Perera et al or the Health Ministry.
When soils are ploughed, egrets and other birds flock to eat the abundant earthworms and other soil micro-organisms exposed by the ploughing process. This too shows that the soils are not toxic.
Perera et al (2021) say that “risk of accumulation is augmented due to the limitless application of fertilizers in paddy cultivation”. This is seen to be false by simple calculations (e.g., see EG&H, volume 40, pages 2739–2759) where the added toxins, the amounts carried away by run off etc., are taken into account in mass-balance and toxin-accumulation equations. Such calculations show that the cadmium (or arsenic) concentration increment in the soil by agriculture is completely negligible compared to what is naturally present in the soil.
Perera et al uncritically cite Jayasumana et al in the “Journal of Natural Science Research (JNSR)”, a predatory journal (i.e, a “for-profit” journal not supported by a learned society and unconcerned by factual correctness). In JNSR, Jayasumana, Paranagama and Amarasinghe fallaciously state that soils do not naturally contain As, Cd and such toxins, and that they are of agricultural origin! They seem to believe that the cadmium concentration in the soil must increase with depth if the source of cadmium is from “nature”! That soils are formed by the weathering of rocks in the top soil exposed to air appears unknown to these authors! Recently, at a TV programme titled “Pasa and Wasa” (Soil and Toxins”) a pediatrician turned agriculture advisor to the President also attempted to argue that top soil has more heavy metals as a result of fertilizer application, and was ridiculed by the participating soil experts!
4. From page 3 up to almost the end of page 5 of the MHR, Dr. Munasinghe now ASSUMES that there are unsafe levels of metal toxins and proceeds to list the adverse health effects of them, even though Perera et al showed that bioavailable heavy metals were far below WHO thresholds.
However, the MHR signed by Dr. Munasinghe CORRECTLY says that “it is unlikely that low-level exposure to agrochemicals has an impact on the development of CKDu”.
5. The report fails to address the presence of metal toxin pollutants in organic fertilizers. Plants accumulate metal toxins, and products like straw, or cow dung may contain hundreds of times as much cadmium as the soil. So, if such straw, land or sea weed etc., are used in composting, the resulting compost will also be correspondingly higher in metal toxins.
While a kilogram of Eppawala rock phosphate contains 20-30 mg of Arsenic (Gunwardhana 1987), a kilogram of organic fertiliser may contain only 2 mg of as per kg. However, only about 50 kg/ha of rock phosphate are usually used in most crops whereas about 5 tonnes of organic fertiliser need be added to meet the phosphate requirement. So the total arsenic from the organic fertiliser is 10,000 mg per hectare, while that from mineral fertiliser is only 1000 -1,500 mg per hectare!
6. On page 11 the MHR by Dr. Munasinghe gives 7 recommendations. We cannot understand the logic of the recommendation “subsidize organic fertilizer”. No fertiliser should be subsidized. They should be used strictly as dictated by a chemical analysis of the soil.
Composting for Organic fertiliser produces large amounts of methane, CO2, and reactive nitrogenous compounds that are greenhouse gases that Sri Lanka is committed to cut down.
MHR fails to note that if agriculture were to become totally “organic”, there will be a crop loss of 20-30% with serious repercussions to both the farmer and the consumer, and then malnutrition, the worst disease of all, will return with harvests typical of the 1940s!
7. The HMR notes that urea contains heavy metals/metalloids. This is true for nano-urea as well. All nano- fertilzers pose a great danger to health. (see https://island.lk/human-health-and-nano-fertilisers-where-is-the-safety-clothing/).
In conclusion, there is overwhelming evidence that consumption of water from dug wells in high ground containing hard water and fluoride is the cause of the kidney disease, and people consuming water of rivers, streams, reservoir or wells in the planes do not contaminate the disease. There is no clear evidence linking agrochemicals or heavy metals and CKDu. Regrettably, the government has failed to accept this fact, and the President and ministers continue to blame agrochemicals in their public speeches in regard to CKDu! No politician utters a word about ambient air pollution, which records reveal, caused 3.5 million premature, non-communicable disease- deaths, globally in 2017, for example, from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes. We urge the health authorities to provide more discreet advice than done in the report to them and the government at large on this matter.
Growing foreign dependency and India’s USD 4 bn lifeline
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Japanese embassy and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund, previously known as United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), on 16 March, 2023, issued a joint statement that dealt with the impact the developing political-economic-social crisis is having on the poor in Sri Lanka.
The statement focused on the suffering of the children and measures taken by UNICEF, in consultation with the Governments of Japan and Sri Lanka, to provide relief to the needy.
However, what really captured public attention was the declaration made by the Japanese Ambassador, in Colombo, Mizukoshi Hideak, that with the latest contribution, amounting to USD 1.8 mn, the total Japanese financial assistance, provided through UNICEF alone, exceeded USD 3.8 mn, since the beginning of last year. That is definitely a significant package provided through a single UN agency, particularly against the backdrop of the unceremonious cancellation of the Japan- funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, in late Sept., 2020, by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government.
The directive, in this regard, was issued on 21 Sept., 2020, by Dr. P. B. Jayasundera, in his capacity as Secretary to the President, to the then Transport Secretary, Monti Ranatunga. That move ruined Sri Lanka’s relations with Japan.
Whoever advised the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to terminate the project, without consulting Japan, as head of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, he couldn’t absolve himself of the responsibility for the ruination of vital relationship with Tokyo. Had it not been the case, Japan, most probably, would have delivered a substantial assistance to Sri Lanka, at the onset of the ongoing unprecedented crisis.
Sri Lanka made a failed bid to secure as much as USD 3.5 bn loan from Japan, during the tenure of Sanjiv Gunasekara as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tokyo. Gunasekara, a close associate of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned in the wake of the 09 May, 2022, violence, that gave a turbo boost to the campaign against his government.
Unlike Japan, India provided direct aid in various forms to Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with what became an insurmountable crisis to overcome on our own. India has repeatedly declared that the continuing assistance is in line with Premier Narendra Modi’s much touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Sri Lanka received concessional credit facility, amounting to USD 1 bn, in March last year. In addition to that, by the second week of March this year, Sri Lanka received other lines of credit, worth over USD 3 bn. Therefore, the total Indian assistance is worth over USD 4 bn, a staggering amount as Sri Lanka’s debt before the Japanese and Indian interventions stood at over USD 53 bn. Indian intervention cannot be compared, under any circumstances, with assistance provided by any other country.
The Indian assistance is of immense importance as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after much deliberation, promised USD 2.9 bn over a period of four years. The delay on the part of China to provide an assurance as regards debt-restructuring support, hindered the finalization of the tripartite agreement involving Sri Lanka, creditors and IMF. Finally, China gave that assurance, in writing, early this month.
The situation was so precarious, Sri Lanka couldn’t have even provided the free text books that have been given, annually, to the student population ,from the time of the JRJ regime. Those who had been at the helm of political power, over the past three decades, to varying degrees, ruined the economy, and, by 2021/2022, Sri Lanka was unable to provide even the basic requirements, like cooking gas, kerosene, petrol, etc., as even remittances from our expatriate workers, which in the past amounted to about seven billion dollars per year, dropped drastically due to the illegal underground banking system, hawala/undiyal, hijacking much of it from the normal banks. The government didn’t have the means to provide school text books for the 2023 academic year. In consultation with India, of the USD 1 bn concessional credit facility, over USD 10 mn was utilized by the State Printing Corporation, and private importers, to procure printing paper and other material from India. India met 45% (four mn students) of the total requirement. Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay visited the SPC, on 09 March, 2023, to dispatch a consignment of textbooks to schools. Education Minister Dr. Susil Premjayantha joined Baglay. The Indian High Commission statement, issued two days later,, was aptly titled ‘India’s support for text books investment in Sri Lanka’s future.’
The government and the Opposition should be ashamed of their failure to provide for the children’s need.
Perhaps, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) should be appointed to examine the circumstances leading to Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status. Decades of utterly irresponsible management of the economy, coupled with an explosive mixture of causes – waste, corruption and irregularities – caused the current crisis.
Political parties, represented in Parliament, are responsible for the continuing crisis, to varying degrees.
Controversy over ISBs
The Island discussed some of the issues at hand in last week’s midweek piece, headlined ‘All praise for Lanka’s saviours!
What Dr. Coomaraswamy didn’t say was that as the CB Governor, he was also directly responsible for the Yahapalana government borrowing a record USD 12.5 bn from the international bond market, at high interest rates, from private lenders, primarily in the West. So what did that government achieve with such huge borrowings? All that the Yahapalana regime achieved, with all that money, we cannot see, except to lay the foundation for the current debt crisis?
Our comment on the basis of recent claims that the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Coomaraswamy (2016-2019), only told one side of the truth, attracted responses from several parties, including the Central Bank.
Consequently, the writer discussed the borrowing of USD 12.5 bn, and related matters, and was told the following: First, it is important to point out that the Governor, Central Bank, has no authority to approve or undertake any borrowing on behalf of the government. The borrowing limit, in any given year, is set by Parliament. Therefore, the government cannot borrow beyond the limit set by Parliament. In addition, all external borrowing has to be approved by the Finance Minister, and the Cabinet of Ministers. The Governor and the CBSL only have an advisory role. On ISBs, they have marketing and issuance as additional responsibilities once the Cabinet approved the transaction.
It is also important to recognize that ISBs are only one channel for external commercial borrowings. Others include short-term SWAPs, foreign term loans/syndicated loans and external flows into government rupee securities. The article dealt with only one instrument, having ignored the switching that was undertaken during 2015-19 to increase the maturity and reduce the cost of foreign borrowing.
As regards the USD 10 bn increase in ISBs outstanding during 2015-19, USD 5 bn of this increase can be attributed to switching away from shorter term (one year or less) and more expensive SWAPs and highly volatile foreign portfolio investment (hot money) in Government rupee securities to longer term (5 and 10 years) and less costly ISBs. SWAPs were reduced from approximately USD 2.5 bn to USD 500 mn.
Volatile and foreign investment in government rupee securities was reduced from USD 3.5 bn to USD 600 mn. In addition, during the course of 2019, a second ISB of USD 2 bn was issued to create a stronger buffer of external reserves to address the inevitable increase in uncertainty going into elections due shortly thereafter. (The money required for 2019 had been raised through an ISB, issued in March 2019.)
So about USD 7 bn of the USD 10 bn increase in the stock of ISBs outstanding, during 2015-19 may be attributed to increasing the stability and reducing the cost of the ISBs outstanding by switching instruments and raising the buffer provided by external reserves prior to a period of uncertainty, associated with elections.
The remaining increase of USD 3 bn may be partly attributed to the fact that borrowing incurred earlier had not resulted in a sufficient increase and/or saving of foreign exchange. Hence money had to be borrowed to repay debt incurred earlier. In fact, Verite Research found that 89 percent of external debt, repaid during 2015-19, could be accounted for by liabilities incurred prior to 2015.
The adverse debt dynamics were recognized and the Medium Term Debt Management Strategy was published in April 2019 to chart the way to sustainability. In addition, the Active Liability Management Act (2018) was introduced to expand the tools available to the CBSL for managing external debt sustainably. The CBSL, as the economic adviser to the Government, also advocated that there should be a primary surplus in the budget and that non-debt creating inflows (such as exports, remittances, tourism proceeds, FDI, inflows into the CSE and government securities) should be increased to enhance the capacity to service debt while supporting the level of imports necessary to achieve the growth potential of the economy.
They also pointed out that only one of the ISBs, issued during 2015-19, has been settled to date. This amounted to USD 500mn. They expressed the view that it is not possible to sustain the argument that servicing ISBs, incurred during 2015-19 ,led to the standstill in debt repayments in April 2023.
Treasury bond scams and tax cuts
Sweeping tax concessions to the rich and reduction of VAT, that had been introduced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government to encourage business in 2019/2020, escalated the financial crisis, leading to the declaration of the state of bankruptcy, two years later. No one in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cabinet dared to challenge such far reaching tax concessions and VAT reduction.
How the loss of as much as Rs 600 bn in revenue, as alleged by the Opposition ,due to tax concessions and reduction of VAT, contributed to the current crisis, should be examined, also taking into consideration (1) Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb, 2015 and March 2016 at a time the CBSL has been under the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs (2) Enactment of new Foreign Exchange Act in 2017 in the wake of Treasury bond scams. Critics say the repealing of time-tested exchange control law that has been in place for decades paved the way for exporters to ‘park’ export proceeds overseas. Of the 225 MPs, 94 voted for the new law whereas 18 voted against. In spite of Justice Minister, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, taking up this issue, both in and outside Parliament, remedial measures hasn’t been taken, to date. The Finance Ministry owed an explanation as to how it intended to compel the exporters to bring back export proceeds (3) Continuing public-private sector partnership in corrupt practices, particularly mis-invoicing (under invoicing and over invoicing of imports/exports) (4) Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila, MP, has moved the Supreme Court against the Central Bank Bill. The Attorney-at-Law alleged that the new law violated Article 3 and 4 of the Constitution hence needing the approval of the people at a referendum. In addition to Gammanpila, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera and Jathika Nidahas Peramuna leader Wimal Weerawansa, too, moved the Supreme Court in terms of the Article 121 against the Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’ Former JVP MP Wasantha Samarasinghe, on behalf of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB), too, moved the Supreme Court in this regard.
A warning from Hanke
The country is in a bind. In spite of the execution of the agreement with the IMF later this month, the situation remains dicey. The absence of economic recovery plan continues to cause further instability.
Therefore, the government and the Opposition should seek a consensus on a national action plan, even if Local Government polls cannot be conducted in late April, regardless of the Supreme Court intervention.
Steve Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics, at Johns Hopkins University, in the USA, recently issued a dire warning to Sri Lanka. Appearing on CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box Asia,’ Prof. Hanke declared Sri Lanka needs institutional reforms in order to achieve long-term debt sustainability.
Referring to Sri Lanka and what was described as emerging markets (Argentina and Montenegro), where he played a key role in establishing new currency regime, former economic advisor to US President Ronald Reagan warned “Unless you change the institutions and the rules of the game, governing these countries, they’re always going to remain in the same … situation that they’ve been in for a long time.”
Prof. Hanke added: “In fact, most of the personalities, involved in Sri Lanka ,at the high level, are exactly the same as they’ve been for years. So nothing has changed.”
In other words, those who have ruined Sri Lanka are spearheading the economic recovery process. The American is spot on. Sri Lanka is in a pathetic situation. Those who had systematically brought Sri Lanka to its knees, by pursuing ill-fated policies, emerged as its saviours. That is the bitter truth. The role of the executive, legislature, and judiciary, needs to be examined. Those who have moved the Supreme Court against the Bill, titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka,’ have quite conveniently forgotten how the Yahapalana government, and Central Bank, twice perpetrated Treasury bond scams. What would have Prof. Hanke said if CNBC raised Treasury bonds scams during ‘Squawk Box Asia.’
If not for Deepa Seneviratne, the then head of Public Debt Department, Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s role couldn’t have been proved. Former Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe said so at an event organized by the Colombo Municipal Council years ago.
Sri Lanka cannot forget Prof. Hanke’s remark in the CNBC programme. “You have to remember that we have a country that since 1965 has had 16 IMF programmes and they’ve all failed. You get temporary relief in anticipation of a bailout. But in the long run … none of these IMF programmes work.”
It would be pertinent to briefly examine how interested parties brazenly protected perpetrators of the Treasury bond scams.
Having named Mahendran as the Governor, regardless of the opposition from President Maithripala Sirisena, those planning to commit the first daylight robbery of the Central Bank moved Deepa Seneviratne to the Public Debt Department as its head, in spite of her not having had any previous experience in the particular division. It seems they had obviously felt comfortable in having a lady officer there they thought they could manipulate her to suit their need. But Seneviratne turned tables on the bond thieves by putting up a note to register her strong opposition to Mahendran’s move. She should have been rewarded for her fearless stand with at least a national honour if not an international one, even from bodies like the UN, the Transparency International, Amnesty International, etc. But it seems that even these international busy bodies have their own political angles.
It would be of pivotal importance to keep in mind that President Sirisena appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in January 2017, about 10 months after the second robbery, and two years after the first.
The Commission comprised Justice K.T. Chitrasiri, the late Justice P S Jayawardena and retired Deputy Auditor General V. Kandasamy. Sumathipala Udugamsuriya functioned as its Secretary. CoI issued a devastating report that implicated Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in the Treasury bond scams.
President Sirisena went to the extent of dissolving Parliament, in June 2015, to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) tabling its report on the first bond scam. SLFP leader Sirisena owes an explanation. Justice Chitrasiri’s CoI didn’t inquire into that aspect. Sri Lanka’s response to waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement is baffling. Let me end this piece reminding how the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) secured a substantial sponsorship from Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) deeply mired in a bond scam, in 2016, for the Law Asia Conference during the tenure of its then President Geoffrey Alagaratnam, PC. The BASL never explained why it obtained PTL sponsorship even after the exposure of Treasury bond scams. That partnership also escaped the CoI. The rest is history.
Knowing what is now happening to the US economy with a string of bank failures and unprecedented bailouts, especially due to hoodoo economics it introduced in recent decades, like repeated quantitative easing (blindly printing trillions of dollars leading many to say the dollar is now only good as toilet paper) that has been practiced to ensure its world hegemony, the whole world might be hit with bank failures and even by a depression worse than the one that befell with the stock market crash of 1929. Already the contagion has spread to Europe with some leading banks there also requiring help.
Washington’s debt now stands at USD 31 trillion and climbing, but our own debt burden is still under USD 55 billion. So if we can get our exporters, who have stashed export earnings abroad, to bring them back, the picture here will not be as scary as it is made out to be. Even Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse has said that our export proceeds that have been parked overseas is in the region of USD 55 billion.
Soonwe will start receiving the IMF bailout, but our economic whiz kids have not done anything to plug the massive foreign exchange leak that has been freely draining foreign currency from the country, since the nineties, by way of private foreign exchange dealers who have been allowed to sell foreign exchange to any Tom, Dick and Harry, including drug dealers, to take their sales proceeds out of the country!
We would also like to ask the relevant authorities what they have done to recover monies stashed abroad by Lankans illegally that were exposed in great detail by the likes of Panama Papers and Pandora Papers.
A Miscellany of Thought
N. A. de S. Amaratunga (2022)
A Review by G. H. Peiris
I cannot claim to have the scholarly competence to place under critical scrutiny all items in this collection of writings authored by Professor N. A. de S. Amaratunga, and published in The Island from time to time since the early years of the present century. Accordingly, this ‘review’ is no more than an attempt to convey to a wide readership my gratitude for what I have learnt from Professor Amaratunga’s insights on a series of metaphysical and secular issues that have figured prominently during the recent past in the arena of debate and discussion among our intellectual elite, my appreciation of his rational perceptions and his subtle banter in responding to bizarre elements in our public affairs.
As a brief introduction to the author I should state that Professor Amaratunga’s career record is featured by several decades of distinguished and dedicated service to the University of Peradeniya in teaching, research and clinical work. Acquiring advanced skills in the field of ‘Maxillofacial Surgery’, he has provided physical and psychological relief of life-long impact to thousands of patients. He is also credited to have trained several of his junior colleagues in the Faculty of Dental Science, had has served as its Dean. The offer he received from the Peradeniya University of the Prestigious Award of the ‘Degree of Doctor of Science’ is testimony to his eminence in Sri Lanka’s community of scholars and professionals.
What probably enhances Professor Amaratunga’s status among the intellectual elite of Sri Lanka is the fact that his talents, interests, and concerns have not been confined to professional expertise. He has authored several creative writings in Sinhala which the cognoscenti place at par with the best works of that genre. More relevant than all else to the present ‘commentary’ is his capacity for elucidating the essence of certain complex metaphysical issues – especially those of Buddhist philosophy ‒ with the same clarity of thought seen in his contributions to media forums on current affairs.
In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume Professor Amaratunga makes a categorical statement regarding the paradigmatic guidelines of his ‘thoughts’. They are rendered below in abridged form as follows:
(a) The distinctive elements of our island civilisation are derived from Theravada Buddhism and the Sinhala language.
(b) The leadership of Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics since the termination of British rule in the mid-20th century has continued to be impaired by a cultural duality – on one side of the divide, the ‘alienated’ whose behavioural values and norms bear the imprint of subservience to values prescribed by the ‘West’, and, on the other side, those who treasure our civilisational heritage and understand the needs and aspirations of the majority of our people.
(c) His standpoint is that of an ardent ‘nationalist’, in the sense that he is unequivocally committed to safeguarding and promoting Sri Lanka’s national interests.
On literature, Professor Amaratunga adds that he is inclined towards the need for ‘social relevance’ of the fine arts, and believes that the paradigm of ars gratia artis (‘art for art’s sake’) is inappropriate for Sri Lanka, especially in creative writing.
The ‘miscellany’ of this volume is structured to constitute four ‘Sections’ – titled as: 1. ‘Literature and Culture’; 2. ‘Religion’; 3. ‘Economy’; and 4. ‘Health’. The first two of these ‘Sections’, consist respectively of 25 and 19 essays of unequal length. In these ‘Sections’ the reader could pick out from different points of the temporal sequence in which they are arranged items that constitute a mutually cohesive group from the viewpoint of content. For example, in the first ‘Section’, there are six such items, each serving as a contribution to an ongoing media debate, but when considered as a group would be seen as an invaluable enrichment of understanding on a significant feature of the educational system of the country – such as, say, the impact of the nation-wide ‘Fifth-standard Scholarship Examination’ or ‘The general decline of standards in higher education’. Likewise, in the total of 18 articles in ‘Section’ 2, thirteen items could be considered as a mutually cohesive group of thoughts that illuminates certain vitally significant aspect of Buddha Dhamma and Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka.
The forgoing observations do not detract from the intrinsic value of the short contributions referred to. Indeed, in my amateur assessment, in Section 1, the items titled ‘Quality of University Education’, ‘Purpose of the Novel and its Appraisal’, and the twin items titled ‘Darwinian Evolution vs. Intelligent Design’; and in Section 2, ‘Truth in Buddhism and Realism in Literature’, and ‘Mind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism’, are examples of the author’s extraordinary depth of understanding and his skill of disseminating that knowledge in a lucid form.
It is in the 3rd Section of the volume titled ‘Politics’ that the real ‘miscellany’ of Thought is found, consisting of 78 items, and accounting for well over half the total page-length of the volume. Since they have been presented in a chronological order ‒ with the first item published in 2001, and the last in 2021‒ the list of items, at first glance, looks like a total mess which, indeed, is how our politics look. But a closer scrutiny show that all items in this list could be placed in one or another of 6 ‘Sub-Sections’ titled as ‘Ethnic Relations’, ‘Foreign Affairs’, ‘Electoral Politics’, ‘Development Plans and Projects’, and ‘Constitutional Issues’, with the chronology of the list providing the vicissitudinous background of each contribution which Professor Amaratunga has made, and each discussion or debate in which he has participated.
Once again I should emphasise that foregoing observation does not imply that the ‘Thoughts’ in this section, read individually, are either uninteresting or irrelevant to our present concerns. On the contrary they offer ideal readings both as reminders of the volatile scenarios we have passed though during the past two decades as well as the unshakable faith our politicians appear to have on the widespread dementia among the voter-population and on their own ability to hoodwink the electorate. Professor Amaratunga’s thoughts could re-kindle fading memories, especially on repeated failures to fulfil campaign pledges, the large-scale losses due to financial malpractices, the allegations of ‘war-crimes’ and of ‘violation of human rights’ in the counter-attack by the major powers of the North Atlantic alliance in retaliation to Sri Lanka’s close relations with the People’s Republic of China, the ingredients of success in the US-sponsored ‘regime change’ effort culminating in the establishment in 2015 of a puppet government in Colombo, the betrayal of our national interests by our own self-seeking representatives at the protracted Geneva inquisitions, the constitutional fiasco of August 2018, the euphoric Gotabhaya victory about a year thereafter, and then, the stunning exposure by the pandemic of the fundamental weakness of our dependent economy.
In the 4th Section of the volume titled ‘Health’, most of the items are devoted to diverse experiences witnessed globally and in Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in an unconventional manner in the sense that they emphasise significant aspects that have not received adequate attention in the analytical writings on the pandemic. In my view the most significant issue highlighted in this section is the need for Sri Lanka to adopt development strategies towards self-reliance, especially in the availability of medicinal drugs and on food-security. Implicit in several items of this section is a forewarning of the risks entailed in the pursuit of development policies that enhance Sri Lanka’s macroeconomic dependence on the major global and regional powers.
Many items in this miscellany of thoughts contain a prominent element of dissent and disagreement with other participants in the media debates and discussion for which The Island has served as a major forum. But that dissent has all along been featured by a laudable sense of “civilised intelligence”. As a professional whose skills have an intense demand, his interests and concerns have not remained confined to his professional expertise – a feature often seen among other ‘specialists’ including those of the university community.
This volume is, first of all, a demonstration of intense and well-informed concern on a wide range of issues of vital importance to Sri Lanka. Had that quality been more widespread it is unlikely that those earning six-figure incomes would threaten collective action to bring the economy to a standstill to express their dissatisfaction on a relatively marginal erosion of monthly emoluments at a time of unprecedented national crisis, attempting to conceal their avarice with a façade of safeguarding democracy, or eliminating public corruption, or on grounds of their capacity to earn higher incomes outside Sri Lanka.
Yet another exemplary feature I discern in this ‘Miscellany of Thoughts’ is that its contents are not angry knee-jerk reactions when provoked by thoughts different to his own. Professor Amaratunga’s dissent is entirely free of the crude clashes often seen in the so-called social media. Nor are his thoughts based on a hurried consumption of internet ‘short-eats’. In his thoughts that extend beyond brief corrective interjections of ‘common sense’, what we see is an extraordinary depth of knowledge acquired through serious reading and a thorough understanding of the issues on which he had focused.
Loneliness of the Bottom Half
By Lynn Ockersz
There you crouch by your hearth,
Seeing your fires sputtering out;
Your hopes of a bubbly pot of rice,
Ending in inflationary smoke spirals,
Leaving you with the painful thought,
That your dignity as mother and wife,
Is gravely harmed and beyond repair,
For, a turn of events not of your making,
Has reduced you and yours to penury,
So much for that Trickle-down Theory,
That Pundits say will end your misery,
But they tell you not to stop dreaming,
Because soon you will be bailed out,
Of your State of longsuffering;
Thanks to Princely tips from ancient Italy.
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