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Is Organic Agriculture ‘Toxin-Free’ and the way forward for us?

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Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

It is regrettable that the President as also some uninformed high-ups are obsessed with the belief that conventional agriculture is fraught with toxins (wasa wisa) and the answer to it is ‘going organic’ which is free from toxic chemicals. The hasty decision to convert the country’s agriculture fully to organic from conventional, virtually overnight and non-provision of appropriate agrochemicals has thrown the country into an unprecedented chaos, with farmers up in arms daily. The poor agriculture minister is the scapegoat, and his effigy is now daily displayed and burnt. Regrettably, the effigies of the several advisors who pushed the President to this decision have not been displayed.

A farmer demonstration against the agrochemical ban

Such a far reaching decision needed a prior in- depth consultation with experts in the field, exhaustive raw material resource assessment and a production and distribution management plan. That these have not happened is also evident from the consistent reaction of the large bulk of the agriculture academics and other experts in the field in recent times.

The crux of the matter is that the country has been driven ‘organic’ in a hurry largely because of empty national coffers and inability to meet the fertilizer and subsidy costs. However, even at this late stage, as the writer has stated in a previous article, in The Island of Oct. 16, rather than ‘biting the bullet’ and continuing, it is better for the government to compromise, for discretion is the better part of valour. It is now happening, but gradually.

Organic agriculture which was rejuvenated in the 1960s has only reached 1.5% of the global cropland to date and is growing at a meagre 2% annually. Of many countries that worked hard to expand their organic farm cover, only 16 were able to reach 10%; and bulk of it is pasture comprising 66% of the total organic farmlands. Bhutan with a mere 54,500 ha of arable land and plenty of animal farming for farmyard manure, targeted in 2008 going totally organic by 2020 but was able to achieve only about 10% and has now extended the target date to 2035. On the other hand its chemical pesticide use is reported to be growing at 11.5% annually.

Constraints relating to organic material availability and other standard technologies such as microbial ones applicable across a wide range agro -ecologies not yet being available, are serious limitations to expansion of organic agriculture locally and globally.

Of numerous calculations of comparable potential for organic and conventional farming to produce food per unit area, the bulk stand out as conventional being superior. Two scientists at the proceedings of the International Crop Science Congress in 2004 pointed out that 25-82% more land would be required to produce the global food needs. The father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, in his address to the Nobel Forum in 2010 remarked that if all agriculture were organic, the cropland area should have to be dramatically increased, spreading into marginal lands and forests, cutting down millions of acres of forests with huge environmental destruction. A British study supports Borlaug’s contention showing that 65-200% more land would be required to meet the global food demand. Bulk of the calculations reveal that conventional farming is superior in producing food, not that there are no calculations from the organic side claiming organic farming to be more productive.

The real challenge today is generation of technologies to produce 60% more food by 2050 from the same land. Can organic agriculture do it? The oft quoted saying is that organic agriculture may save the earth but conventional will feed the world. And the differences are like night and day. Let us now examine evidence as to which camp is more toxin free.

Fertilizers

It must be stressed that chemical fertilizers of the approved specification used in the recommended quantities are harmless to health. The problem is overuse. The downside, however is that chemical nitrogen fertilizer manufacture (urea, ammonium sulphate ( etc) utilizes five percent of all natural gases and fossil fuels and excessive application of synthetic fertilizer contributes to global warming through production of nitrous oxide. Chemical nitrogen fertilizer through leaching leads to the formation of riverine and oceanic dead zones. Leaching, erosion losses of chemical fertilizers is high, and in tea plantations, for example, because of the terrain on which it is grown, the losses can be as high as 40-60%.

On the other hand, the usual belief is that nutrients from organic soils usually leach into the surrounding water and air far less than from chemically fertilized soils. However, extensive field studies in Sweden in the 1990s revealed that nutrient losses can sometimes be higher from soils under organic farming than conventional. This study showed that whereas, under controlled conditions, 65% of the nitrogen was taken up by crops 35% leached from organic plots; the corresponding values for conventional plots were 81 and 19%. This may appear unbelievable but is reported in the famous book ‘Just Food’ by James E McWilliams (2010). Contrary to expectations, leaching losses from green manures are reported to be higher, especially phosphorus, than from synthetic fertilizers.

Sodium nitrate, a mineral (calche) mined in South America is widely used by organic farmers in America and Europe as it is a mineral like rock phosphate and potash. It contains sodium hyperchloride which, when leaching into the water bodies, enters the food chain and interferes with iodine uptake in humans and animals, and is considered as a contaminant in the U.S.

Pesticides

Organic farming is allowed to use several chemicals such as sulphur , copper and copper sulphate as natural fungicides. Sulphur, for example, is reported to cause worker injuries in Californian grape farms than any other pesticide. Sulphur dust sprayed on organic grapes is reported to cause chronic respiratory problems. Copper sulphate is classified as a Class 1 toxin, especially to fish and soil earthworms. Copper heavily accumulates in the soil after spraying as it does not biodegrade. One study on the accumulation of copper from copper sulphate concluded that a female vineyard employee contaminated with it had 6.2 times more of it in her breast milk than that in an uncontaminated employee. A further study reported that its continued application in organic apple orchards could jeopardize sustainable apple production.

Pesticides whether conventional or organic kill more than the targeted pests, and Bruce Ames, a highly reputed molecular biologist and member of the National Academy of Science points out that 99.9% of the chemicals we are exposed to are completely natural (Strong Views on Origins of Cancer, New York Times ,July 5, 1998) and our obsession with conventional pesticides overlooks this reality. He also argues that when we consume plants, organic or otherwise, we consume, on average, 50 toxic chemicals, most of them natural pesticides.

The evidence is that there is no difference in respect of health effects between natural and synthetic chemicals. A study of the Environmental Protection Agency of the USA (Science, 258, Oct.1992) reported that pesticide residues as dietary pollutants are unimportant. Scientists have also concluded that there is no proven evidence that consuming organic food is healthier.

James McWilliams in his book referred to above also argues that ‘as much as the risks of synthetic pesticides have been overstated, organics own reliance on pesticides has been vastly understated.’ The unsaid purpose obviously is to project a marketable image that what happens in organic farms is ‘all natural.’

Several toxic plant extracts are used in organic farming for insect control such as rotenone and pyrethrins. They cause environmental and health risks. Rotenone is moderately toxic to birds and highly toxic to fish, and kills bees when used in combination with pyrethrum. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S , it can also cause damage to the human liver and kidney. Certain research has established a connection between rotenone and Parkinson’s disease. Pyrethrum has also been shown to be toxic to many animals. Apart from being a human carcinogen it has been shown to be toxic to some fish and even kill lizards. Most botanicals, because they break down rapidly, have to be applied in high doses to be effective.

Antibiotics and Heavy Metals

Antibiotics in compost heaps is a health risk. Composting helps break down of many organic compounds but antibiotics coming from animals are quite resistant to decomposition. Antibiotics are often shown to appear in fruits and vegetables fertilized with organic matter and their consumption can create resistant bacterial strains in the body.

Heavy metals such as cadmium, zinc , arsenic and lead can accumulate far more in organic fertilizer applied soils than from chemical fertilizers because huge quantities of it are applied (usually 10 tons/ha) than chemical fertilizer; and although similar concentrations (quantities as parts per million) are present, the amounts entering the soil and crops are far greater with organic fertilization. This is evident from substantially higher concentrations reported in organic vegetables and fruits.

Agrochemical vs Air Pollution

Minister after minister are obsessed with the “wasa visa” myth as evident from their utterances both in the 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 disease deaths, for example, in 2017, were from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes.

The President should, as a matter of priority, call for 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 dug wells especially on high ground, as those who drank such water were essentially the ones that caught the disease. Those who consumed water from the streams, reservoirs or dug wells in the plains did not contact it. The need is then to provide potable water to residents in the affected areas.

Misuse of Fertilizer and Pesticides

One of the serious concerns, especially of conventional farming is excessive use of agrochemicals; not that organic farming is free of the problem as evident from the foregoing evidence. Some programmes in Sweden, Canada and Indonesia have demonstrated that pesticide use can be reduced without loss of crop by as much as 50 to 60% ( Pimental et at al , Bio Science , 55 (7), 573-581 :2005). As regards toxicity of conventional pesticides over the last half century, there has been a gradual evolution from highly toxic pesticides to far less toxic ones.

On the other hand, there have been numerous reports of chemical pesticides detected in crop protectants ( so called herbal formulations) recommended for organic farming . Dr Naoki Motoyama (Tokyo University of Agriculture – 2012) has reported the detection of at least eight toxic pesticides including Abamectin (LD50 = 10mg/kg), a conventional insecticide, in organic pesticide formulations. So authenticity of organic pesticides is sometimes doubted.

Excessive use of chemical fertilizers is rampant, especially among vegetable growers in the upcountry where on top of huge applications of organic matter two to five times chemical fertilizer application has been reported. More is better is the thinking of some farmers, for which cheap, highly subsidized chemical fertilizer is responsible.

From the Sri Lankan context, what is critically important is farmer awareness building in regard to judicious agrochemical use rather than shifting to organic farming to prevent the supposed disadvantages of agrochemicals. Successive governments have failed to address this issue effectively.

In conclusion, organic farming is not toxin-free but its impact on the populace and environment is small as it occupies only a mere niche in the global agriculture setting. However, judicious use of agrochemicals and generation of safer technologies in the future should substantially reduce their health and environmental risks.



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Decolonising education and critical thinking

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IN BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS (1952), FRANTZ FANON, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination.

By Darshi Thoradeniya

I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.

Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.

As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.

Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.

This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.

History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.

When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.

Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.

The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.

If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.

(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!

Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.

In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.

Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.

It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.

Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!

The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!

Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.

The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.

There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”

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Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology

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By Jehan Perera

The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago.   The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events.  President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.

Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far.  The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability.  This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government.  They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.

There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people.  The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it.  It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling.  But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence.  This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.

SECOND STRENGTH

Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society.  At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress.  These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India.  Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.

Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community.  In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights.  With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months.  The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important.  The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform.  The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.

In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone.  This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges.  These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP.  These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.

BOTCHED ATTEMPTS

The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church.  The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.

Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power.  They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again.  The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied.  Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same.  This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.

The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently.  And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.

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