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Ingratitude – farmers’ woes

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It is immensely disturbing, to see members of the farming community, compelled to abandon their fields and take to the roadsides, holding up placards to draw attention to their plight. This is a national shame. We are not short of jokers who parrot the “The farmer is king” or “wash off his mud and set him on the throne” – that kind of claptrap simply will not do, or that kite will not fly, or that cock will not fight. Let not the insensitivity or arrogance of the “powers that be” which, one fears may drive a normally peaceful community to resort to unpleasant or dangerous reaction. The signs are ominously evident.

On the one side there are the marauding elephants, who in a single night can devastate the entirety of a season’s labour or knock down the walls of modest hovels, which pass for homes. It could be argued that this recurring problem is something that the officers in the field can do nothing about. This is only partly true. The initial error was committed by officialdom choosing to locate settlers across the customary elephant migration paths, used by the animals for decades. The provision of elephant corridors, and electrified fences provide little relief, at very high cost. There is no immediate remedy that the hapless Agricultural and Wildlife officials can provide.

On the other hand there are remediable defects in supplying irrigation water. It has been widely said that we do not have many true “irrigation engineers”, only those who can “competently lead water from point A to point B.”

Then there is the very ill-advised (or non-advised), move to 100% “organic” fertilizer, and to abruptly cease fertilizer imports. If ones child is ill, it would be better to consult a pediatrician than a soil chemist. If one is in need of spiritual guidance, it would be wiser to seek a monk than an agriculturist.

In taking such a drastic step, radically changing a long practiced agriculturally central issue, drastic reversals are dangerously unwise. Several well-informed and knowledgeable scientists, quoting from acknowledged authorities, have urged caution. There have been no corresponding interventions from those who support this radical change. In a profoundly vacuous declaration, it was surmised that we wish to achieve the record on being the first to go “completely organic”. Maybe so. But we run a greater chance of being the first nation to commit “Organic Suicide”. Thus, wrecking over a century’s work in this field of plant nutrition, in the universally acclaimed Agriculture, Tea, Rubber, Sugar, Minor Export Crops and Coconut Research Institutions. Years of dedicated effort and the countless millions of hours and rupees invested in such work, is to be felled in one sweep? Who will take the responsibility and cover the losses certain to be experienced, in this fancy adventure? When it comes to matters of such grave technical importance, are we to be guided by sane scientific knowledge, or of un-informed upstarts or transient politicos and ‘Wannabies’?

As support for this folly, there have been two relevant “shots” fired by the valiant who favour this heroic venture (i) Mineral fertilizers bring in health hazards like CKDU. I do not need to pursue that line, shown to be wildly unproven. (ii) that all scientists who do not support this progressive move (someone even quantified this misconduct to 99.99% ), were bribed by multinationals. This is such a tiresome chant, that it need not be given the dignity of even a mention. I do so, because I feel “Short Changed” Having been involved in work related to crop nutrition for six decades or more, I have yet to be offered even */50 cents for my support, never mind the MN’s , not even by a local “Pohora velendha”. Maybe, I comfort myself by the thought that I am in that 0.01 % of incorruptibles. How nice. Who else, please?

But there is something shatteringly murderous. In answering the legitimate inquiry that since we have an unattainable and immediate need for millions of tons of compost for this 100% move, (as I recall, by that estimable Dr Mahindananda Aluthgamage), that if the is any shortfall in organic fertilizer, we could import compost, available in ample amounts in international markets. This is a palpable falsehood. I have seen only one advertisement for sales from one single country, and significantly well-timed for the remark of our good Min. of Ag.

If this is anything like possible, we should all stand up and in unison, chant “Not on your bloody Nelly.” This stark ignorance of the implication of dumping other peoples ’rubbish, (possibly carrying dangerously toxic metallic pollutants, pathogens (human and plant), weed seeds and a lot more fatally injurious “passengers” in imported compost, should be evident to the meanest nitwit of a village idiot.

Please let us be compassionate in meeting the legitimate fears and travails of our farmers, realistic in our need to be prepared and plan for widespread and certain to occur food shortages, even possibly starvation, to highly diminished export crops, domestics for the Middle East, unemployment in tourism involved sectors, GSP loss, emergency imports of essential foods and pharmaceuticals. Intelligent enough to seek and heed the counsel of those who know. Review the impetuous proposal for change in fertilizer, while taking note that a prudent mix of chemical and organic fertilizers is a worthy long-term goal that has to be based on sound science and not on the populist dreams of adventurers.

 

Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda



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Opinion

Menace of university violence

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By Dr Anula Wijesundere 

Consultant Physician

I wish to draw your attention to a subject that is very close to my heart and a subject that causes much concern to most civic minded people. This problem has also caused untold misery to all families affected . The title of my presentation today is “Violence in the universities of Sri Lanka”.

I will begin with the saga of Pasindu, an undergraduate of the Faculty of Management of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. The young boy, at the threshold of a bright future, was wilfully hit by a massive tractor tyre which was rolled down the staircase when he was climbing down, as part of the sadistic joy of ragging associated violence. We are all aware of the terrible consequences.

Pasindu lay unconscious in the Intensive Care unit of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka for many months, during which time he had several brain surgeries to correct the massive brain damage he sustained following intense brain haemorrhage. He survived largely due to the competence of the neuro surgeons and the excellent nursing care he received. However, he was left with residual weakness of limbs and an unsteady gait. We all fervently hope that Pasindu will be able to complete his education and will improve further from the residual neurological deficits he has at present.

Pasindu was certainly not the first and obviously will not be the last to be subjected to ragging as long as this culture of violence is allowed in our universities. The drastic consequences that this terrible malady has had on the university system must be emphasised to realise the stark consequences.

Pasindu was indeed unlucky to be ragged in such a ghastly manner by his immediate seniors. Possibly they were envious of Pasindu as he came from an upper middleclass family, had good knowledge of English and I T and was an excellent sportsman from St Peter’s College and a popular all-rounder. In fact, Pasindu was brimming with all the features that most ragging seniors detest in freshers.

Consequences of ragging in universities –

1. Over 2000 students selected for universities have abandoned their careers

2. At least 18 students have committed suicide.

3. Many students have become partly or totally paralysed, attempting to escape from aggressors.

4. Hundreds suffer from depression, anxiety and stress syndromes.

5. Current victims of violence invariably become the aggressors the following year.

The following list indicates the names of the unfortunate students who committed suicide as a consequence of ragging. This is the available list. The actual list may be much longer.

1. 1974 – Torture of mathematics teacher at Vidyalankara University.

2. 1975 – Rupa Ratnaseeli. She jumped from the top floor of a building in the University of Peradeniya to escape the raggers. She was permanently disabled, suffered for 27 years and finally committed suicide in 2002.

3. 1993 – Chaminda Punchihewa.

4. 1993 – Prasanna Niroshan

5. 1997. – Kelum Thushara

6. 1997. – Selvarajah Varapragash was a student of the University of Peradeniya. He was subjected to strenuous exercise and died of acute kidney failure.

7. 2002 – Samantha Vithanage of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. He led a group of students against ragging and was killed by a pro-ragging mob.

8. 2010 – Shanthamali Dilhara Wijesinghe

9. 2014 -D. K Nishantha. He was sexually abused by senior undergraduates. The perpetrators had the audacity to collect Mahapola and other allowances from junior students to pay their legal fees.

10. 2015 – Amali Chathurika, an applied science student of the University of Sabaragamuwa

What is ragging?

Ragging is a criminal act, according to the law. Ragging is a deliberate act which causes physical, psychological or sexual stress or trauma. This invariably leads to humiliation, harassment and intimidation. Ragging also leads to psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety and stress situations,

From – Prohibition of Ragging and other forms of violence in Educational Institutes Act No 20 of 1998.

As ragging in universities continued unabated, Prof Mohan de Silva, during his tenure as Chairman, University Grants Commission, appointed Prof Uma Coomaraswamy as the Chairperson of the Centre for Gender Equity/Equality for Prevention of Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Ragging, of the University Grants Commission.

The findings of the committee are indicated below:

1. Sex and gender-based violence is mainly perpetrated against female students, especially against under privileged students from remote areas.

2. Includes physical, sexual, verbal and psychological harassment.

3. Results – physical violence 12 %, verbal violence 13% and sexual violence 13%.

 As a result of the establishment of this centre, the following help lines have been provided to students (who have been ragged or wish to prevent ragging,) to lodge complaints:

1. Director of UGC Centre for Gender Equality/Equity: on + 94 11 305 6885./

2 . Vice Chancellor/Registrar of University, in writing or in person.

3. UGC Call Centre on. +94 11 212 3700

4. UGC Ragging Complaints portal on www.ugc.ac.lk/rag

5. Use of “Emergency Safety app”, to make immediate call for help.

6. The Police

Consequences of ragging

It is well known that ragging causes hatred, crushes self-esteem, instigates negative attitude and leads to mental and physical trauma. Unfortunately, the victims of ragging, during the current year often become the aggressors the next year. Thus, ragging or violence in Sri Lankan universities is a vicious cycle, which needs to be stopped as early as possible. to promote healthy learning and prevent the drastic consequences.

In this context, one can wonder why ragging has not yet been eliminated from the Sri Lankan university system. This unfortunate state has happened due to the following reasons:

1. Lack of concern, or awareness, among the public

2. Apathy among the professionals, even university lecturers

3. Inactivity by Vice Chancellors, especially politically-appointed VCs, fearing strikes and closure of universities

4. Deans, lecturers and administrators of universities

– neglect or ignore ragging despite knowledge

– accept ragging as a normal occurrence

So far, the only silver lining, in the tragedy of ragging has been the action taken by the Vice Chancellor of the Ruhuna University, Professor Sujeewa Amarasena. Seventeen students, who engaged in ragging, were charged, remanded and subsequently expelled from the university. It was subsequently found that the Peratugami organisation, a breakaway extreme leftwing group of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, were mainly responsible for the strikes in the universities. However, it is gratifying to note that, despite the stern action taken against the aggressors, the University of Ruhuna functioned normally. This debunks the myth that action against raggers would lead to strikes by university students.

The Peratugami Organisation

This is a highly organised breakaway group of the Janatha Vimukthi Party, that controls students, often holding them to ransom. They select mostly students from financially deprived families, in remote areas. In certain instances, ragging starts even before the university academic year begins. The freshers are programmed to obey orders of seniors and prevented from attending classes in English and IT. This will certainly deprive them of good employment opportunities in later life.

Role of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) in prevention of ragging in universities –

 An expert committee, on prevention of ragging, in universities, was formed in 2019, with Dr Tara de Mel, former Secretary of Education as the Chairperson and 10 highly motivated members. The terms of reference for this committee were formulated by Dr. Tara De Mel.

1. Identify accurately the nature of violence in the universities.

2. Assess accurately the toll it has taken on the entire higher education system.

3. Identify the measures that the authorities have taken to stem the tide.

4. Identify the reasons why the universities have failed to eradicate this problem.

5. Identify impediments to implementing action against the perpetrators.

6. Identify measures to be taken to prevent violence the following year.

7. Need to delegate responsibility of eliminating violence to all university academics.

In the run up to the Presidential elections of 2019, the SLMA wrote to the three main presidential candidates to voice publicly their opposition to ragging and condemn all forms of violence in the universities. We released the letters to the press on the 22nd of October, 2019, hoping the candidates would express their opposition to ragging vociferously at the political rallies

This letter hit the headlines in the very next edition of The Sunday Island on the 27 October in very bold print. The entire editorial of the very next edition of The Sunday Island of 03 November 2019 was devoted to ragging, under the topic ‘Ending university ragging’. A senior academic of the university responded to these articles with a full-page reply, titled “Ragging in universities: An urgent National question”. This was published in The Island newspaper on the 04 November 2019.

Thereafter, a follow up letter was also sent to the presidential aspirants indicating the modus operandi of ending violence in universities. This letter, too, was released to the press. The contents of the second letter are given below:

1. Publicly condemn all forms of ragging and violence in universities.

2. Genuinely pledge to eliminate violence in universities.

3. Invite all Vice Chancellors and Deans to discuss atrocities in universities.

4. Develop a scheme of rewards for academics who actively denounce violence.

5. Ensure educational authorities are fully empowered to inquire, take action, and work with Police without interference.

6. Enable the development of a robust victim protection system and witness protection system.

This letter appeared in The Island of 17 November 2019 under the title…

“SLMA Expert Committee submits recommendations to end ragging”

 Unfortunately, none of these letters received any response. Subsequently, the letter of congratulations to President Rajapaksa on his appointment as the President and several requests to meet him to discuss controlling ragging, road deaths and drug dependence were of no avail. Subsequently, with the emergence of Covid-19, the country-wide lockdown, in March 2020, and the continued closure of universities, the momentum decreased and the activities of the expert committee ceased.

Recently, a new organisation, “Coalition against ragging”, was founded by Dr. Tara de Mel and Prof Harendra de Silva. Recently, we met the former Minister of Education, Prof G. L. Peiris, who had openly voiced his opposition to ragging. He agreed to our proposals, but the never-ending burden of Covid-19 has hampered all discussions with the relevant authorities to control ragging.

In conclusion, our contention is that all universities should be centers of learning, creativity, innovation and dissemination of knowledge. These hallowed institutions should certainly be free of violence, intimidation and harassment.

 However, being realistic, in the present context, unless the university authorities take the bull by the horns, it may take a generation or two to bridge the gap between the well-off and not so well-off, competency/incompetency in English, and the disparity between the urban and rural students.

 My parting words for the students are…

 1. Give a “Firm NO” to ragging.

 2. Agree that ragging should be eliminated completely.

 3. Do not be a silent victim of ragging.

4. Do not be a silent witness to ragging of others.

Remember that each one of us has the responsibility to ensure that universities are safe and comfortable for all those who work and study in them.

When I was invited to deliver the commencement lecture to the new medical entrants in the 150th year of the Colombo Medical School, and at the foundation sessions of the Sri Lanka Medical Association in 2020, I based my talk at both events on “Ending violence in Sri Lankan universities”.

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Opinion

Show some sympathy to non-citizen spouses

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(Some errors had crept into this letter, which was first published on 14 October under a different headline. This is the correct version. We regret the errors – The Island)

I have long wanted to lodge a protest against an injustice a dear friend of mine (P.) — and probably many others, too — has been labouring under for over 45 years now.

That is the requirement for non-citizen spouses to regularly — eternally — apply for residence visa renewal.

This must also make one wary of doing anything to endanger the citizenship one is left with and relies upon. When P, a British citizen, first came here, dual citizenship was still not an option, and sole citizenship of an unfamiliar place and people, scarcely tempting.

My English mother came here for the first time in 1955 (with three children). At the time, dual nationality was not allowed here. Naturally, she retained her British citizenship but had to regularly renew the right to residence. And my father’s assent was necessary every time. When, after 23 years of marriage, my parents divorced, my mother had to obtain special permission to remain — her youngest child was not even ten. And my father’s approval was still required. This became more and more difficult, and finally my mother decided to leave Sri Lanka. How life would have turned out for her had she not retained her British citizenship I do not know. Dual nationality was still not permitted. But in England, she had no problem finding a good job and a place to live.

When I returned here in 1975, I had been a British citizen from birth. I needed to work but the first job I was offered required me to be a Sri Lankan citizen. Still no dual nationality. It was a difficult decision to give up what had after all been a valuable asset in so many ways, and to lose certain privileges I took for granted for over 30 years. But this wasn’t a totally strange country for me, and I wanted to commit myself to it in every way. So, I took the risk and to this day I have only Sri Lankan citizenship. But, sadly, there have been many times in the years that followed when I wished I could have escaped the trouble and turmoil.

I don’t know if my friend P. ever contemplated taking SL citizenship only, or even dual citizenship when it became available. And until recently, dual citizenship closed various doors here to their owners — as I believe it should in high positions of politics and government.

P. has thrown herself into life here in every way. She is a much loved and valuable person. Unfortunately, she is not allowed to work, which is also a loss to the country. But naturally she misses her family and goes back regularly to be with them, often together with her solely SL husband.

Were she to take dual nationality now, she could not leave in a time of turmoil/crisis here or to her family in London.

And so, for over 45 years she has had to go through the wretched business of visa renewal — originally every year, but now every two years for people who have been here for a longer period. And this looms large again now, in a few days, amid all the current problems.

Not only that, but forever hangs over her the instant withdrawal of residence rights should her husband predecease her.

I think this last is most inhuman. Just when she most needs the support of people who are close to her here, she is expected to pack up and set up an entirely new home. Not even given time to confront the new situation and decide what to do.

I think that at least two things need to be changed in this matter. The two-yearly renewal should be reduced to at least five-yearly. And the despatch upon the SL spouse’s demise should be changed to a reasonable time, for the bereaved to attend to everything or even consider, at that point, applying for dual nationality. And this should be no less than a year.

I hope this comes to the notice of someone capable of addressing the problem, though it will be too late to make any difference to my now quite “senior” friend, as she stands in yet another queue at the end of this month.

MANEL FONSEKA

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Opinion

The Fertiliser Fiasco: Discretion is the Better Part of Valour

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By Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

In his novel published in 1891, tiled “The Light that Failed”, Rudyard Kipling wrote the phrase, ‘biting the bullet’ to express the thought that fortitude can be gained by ‘biting a bullet’! As things are, should the President and government continue ‘biting the bullet’ or compromise in sincerity as discretion is the better part of valour.

The farmers have a genuine grievance in that there is no fertiliser, organic or inorganic! And organic fertiliser is not something that can be produced overnight. They are adamantly up in arms, and it would appear most likely that paddy and other arable crop cultivations will incur huge production losses. Farmers in the Mahaweli and other irrigated lands have taken up the unyielding stand that unless fertilisers are available, they will not cultivate this Maha season. Crop losses without fertiliser and other inputs can be as high as 40-50%, if not more, leading to a highly calamitous national situation. The same applies to plantation and other crops. Expert calculations reveal that tea yields too could decline by 50%!

More importantly, there are no readily available organic materials, vegetable, animal or other to meet the nutrient demand of the three million hectares of crops! Most plant–based organic matter has only about 1% nitrogen, if not less. Assuming, however, that together with animal dung and other organic matter sources the figure is increased to 1.5% and on average a hectare of cropland requires 100kg N per year, the total annual organic fertiliser demand should be at least 200 million tons if not more to provide the nitrogen requirement.

The average N demand for tea is at least 200kg/ha/yr, and some vegetables and other crops too, require more N than 100kg/ha/yr. The issue then is, how such a huge demand of organic fertiliser is to be met locally.

The recent fiasco with the attempt to import a seaweed- based organic fertiliser from a Chinese enterprise, Seawin Biotechnologies, is well known. Samples tested locally were reported to be contaminated with a harmful bacterium, Erwinia and the importation was stopped. Incidentally, the local Chinese Embassy had the audacity to contest the report of our quarantine authority, that the culture of the microbe could not have been done in the three-or four-day period as reported, but a senior professor of microbiology of the Peradeniya University and other specialists in the field have debunked the Embassy claim!

The supplier claims that fertiliser is heated to a temperature of 600 degrees centigrade to kill microbes. If so, how was the live pathogen detected. At this temperature not only microbes but also nitrogenous compounds should break down! Then how is the nitrogen replenished?

According to the company’s brochure on ‘seaweed granular compound fertiliser’ there are seven fertiliser formulations available for sale comprising nitrogen (N ) phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O), and nitrogen is replenished as ammonia, urea or nitrate! (Please see Table)

So, evidently, it is a granular fertiliser mixture of chemical and organic materials. The supplier does not claim that the product is organic, and it cannot as other than the ‘organic matter’ and the’ seaweed extract’ the rest are inorganic chemicals! So, clearly, having heated to the high temperature and losing the nitrogenous compounds, inorganic nitrogenous chemicals have to be added to achieve the required nutrient composition. So, the product is no longer fully ‘organic’. Then, who is deceiving whom?

Moreover, these seaweeds are believed to be essentially harvested from the Yellow Sea off the coast of Quindío City, an area highly polluted with metropolitan waste and excessively contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. The status of these heavy metals are, however, not cited in the fertiliser composition table in the brochure. Further, although the supplier has apparently promised a 10% nitrogen content in the formulation, it is impossible to get such a high value from seaweeds! On the whole, then there are grey areas in the fertilizer deal.

The President and the government are apparently now gradually yielding to the countrywide fertiliser demand pressures of the farmers as evident from a recent news item that chemical fertiliser for corn will be imported. Then what about tea and other crops?

As per the ‘grapevine’ there is evidence that some nano (chemical) fertilisers are also to be imported and the Tea Research Institute has been asked to work out how much ammonium sulphate as the nitrogen fertiliser source is needed for the country’s tea apparently because some stocks of the latter being available. Ammonium sulphate has only 21% nitrogen whereas that of urea is 48%. Because of production interferences due to COVID the urea prices have shot up by 35 -43%, from April to September 2021, and the same should be true for other straight fertilisers.

Ammonium sulphate price globally is now reported to be about USD200/ metric ton whereas that of urea is about 450 USD. So, in terms of N contents in the fertilisers, the cost should be comparable except for the haulage. However, over application of ammonium sulphate can be detrimental in that the added sulphur in the soil is reported to inhibit phosphorus uptake by crops affecting growth and yield! Urea is the better option as the nitrogenous fertiliser when large quantities of it are needed.

In conclusion, it is the ignorance and obstinacy of the authorities that has pushed the country into this calamity. Minister after minister are obsessed with the “wasa visa” myth as evident from their utterances both in Parliament and outside! It is the general belief, without evidence that, agrochemicals are the cause of many non-communicable diseases.

No politician speaks about ambient air pollution, the leading environmental health risk factor locally and globally. Records reveal that nearly 3.5 million premature, non-communicable deaths, for example, in 2017, were from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, and diabetes.

The President should, as a matter of priority, obtain a report from the health authorities on this matter of agrochemicals and health. This false belief was aggravated as a result of the initial suspicion that the chronic kidney disease (CKD) of the Rajarata was caused by agrochemicals but none of the research supported this contention. Research evidence gathered over several years, especially during the period 2010 and 2018 by no less than five groups of researchers established that the most likely aetiolating agent is hard water and fluoride in the some dug wells especially on high ground, as those who drank such water were essentially the ones that contaminated the disease.

Those who consumed water from the streams, reservoirs or dug wells in the plains did not contact the disease! Some of the research conducted by the current coordinator of CKD activities in the Health Ministry too supported this contention!

However, it is sad that the health authorities have failed to brief the President, the Health Minister and the government in general on this vital matter! Had this happened the President would, not have rushed into this decision of ‘going organic’ virtually overnight!

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