By Jehan Perera
There are multiple signs that the country is in a major crisis that is most visibly manifesting itself in the economic downturn but also in the moral sphere, law and order and international relations. The reopening of the country after the 40-day lockdown saw lines of people forming outside of supermarkets in their attempt to purchase milk powder for their families. There were accompanying media reports of a shipload of milk powder being diverted to another country’s port due to the inability of the Sri Lankan importer to obtain the foreign exchange necessary to pay for the containers they had ordered. It is not only that imported goods are unavailable, their prices have also shot up. Social media has shared visuals taken from the early 1970s when queues formed in Sri Lanka for rice and basic staples during the time of the world food crisis. It happened due to external forces on that occasion, which cannot be applied at this time. It happened, therefore it can happen again.
The weekend media headlines were also about the huge loans that the country is being forced to obtain from other countries to pay for fuel and other basic imports. Even though these loans will ease the immediate problems and transport will not be disrupted, they will not prove to be a long term solution as these loans have to be repaid with interest. There was also a report of another huge loan from the World Bank to improve the road connectivity system. It evokes memories of a similar road connectivity project that was to be supported by the MCC grant offered by the US government but which was rejected on the grounds that it would be detrimental to national sovereignty. Some of those who govern the country today warned that this project would divide the country into two by means of an electrified fence and US visas would be needed to travel to the holy sites of Anuradhapura. It is such attitudes and distortions that contribute to divide the country.
There was also the shocking news that the country was about to accept organic fertiliSer with harmful bacteria in it. In the past, travellers returning from abroad have had their apples and other fruits brought for personal use confiscated by customs on grounds that they might bring in micro-organisms and pests from abroad that would be detrimental to local agriculture. In this case samples of organic fertiliser imported from abroad proved to have harmful bacteria. Initially those who wanted the fertiliser said it might be the sample that was flawed and not the container load that followed, but when this too was found to be infected, the entire consignment was rejected. There has been no adequate answer to the farmers and associated field advice regarding how to continue the cultivation in these circumstances.
Underlying the economic and other travails of the country are two key factors. The first is the pursuit of private gain by those entrusted with public responsibility. In this regard it was not a foregone conclusion that the shipload of contaminated organic fertiliser would be turned away. The problem is that it might find its way back. The agricultural authorities now say that the company that produced the infected organic fertiliser will send a batch of fresh fertiliser to Sri Lanka without the harmful bacterial pathogens. The usual practice would be to blacklist a company that sent harmful pathogens in their shipment. But considerations of private profit or loss can make this an exception.
The second key factor is that decisions are made without sufficient understanding of the inter-connectedness of all life, whether political, economic or personal. This may be seen in the decision to ban chemical fertilisers without adequate preparation. Experience has shown worldwide that victories have been won after years of preparation and learning from mistakes in which the decisions are made by veterans who have become experts in their fields. The decision to ban chemical fertilisers without similar years of preparation and participation of experts in the field needs to be reconsidered. There needs to be much awareness creation and advocacy on the ground before it really happens and in stages. In particular, the import of infected organic fertiliser may cause more damage than the chemical fertiliser which it replaces.
As a result of the ban on chemical fertilisers the price of the stock that remains has gone up and crop yields have dropped due to the unavailability of adequate fertilisers and herbicides on time. This was the deficit that the organic fertilizer that was imported and sent back was meant to fill. The reduction in production would mean there is a need for more imports of food grains and other staples for which the country has limited foreign exchange as the milk powder shortage has shown. The Planters’ Association of Ceylon has urged the Government to immediately to avoid major loss of foreign exchange earnings and further worsening the crisis with reduced crops and possible wipe-out of rubber plantations due to the fungal disease. They also estimate a 40 percent drop in tea exports next year.
There is a need for an independent group of experts to review the situation. The intentions of the government may be good, but the process of decision making needs to be changed so that private profit and self-interest does not take first place. The present constitutional arrangement is for the president to have the final power to appoint persons to key institutions of state be they in the public service, judiciary, police or even statutory bodies. This needs to be modified to ensure the independence and integrity of those selected to these high positions. There is a need to bring in the opposition and civil society into the selection process along with the government to ensure that the system of checks and balances works with integrity. All institutions, including the presidency, need to be subjected to the principles of accountability and checks and balances.
When problems are not solved by the state institutions that are set up to solve problems it will be the case that people, organisations and communities seek solutions outside the state. Today, whether it is in the Attorney General’s Department, which is being accused of irregular appointments, the police department, which is being accused of not doing their investigations into cases in which government personalities are involved, the prisons department, which permitted a minister to enter with a pistol, the education department which is failing to resolve a protracted dispute with teachers, or the elections department that has failed to hold provincial elections for over three years, there is a loss of confidence in the state.
The most recent example is the Catholic Church which has been asking for investigations into the Easter bombing to yield results after two years and many promises by the government’s leaders. It is time to know the truth and it is only truth that will help Sri Lanka to become free of this burden. Ominously at a time when the Church leaders have said that they are not satisfied with this type of investigation and they will go to the international community, they have been warned that another attack on churches is possible. Instead of identifying the culprits and those behind them, the government system is filing action against those who were clearly not behind the bombings, such as the former Defence Secretary and former police chief against whom 855 indictments had been filed with the prosecution naming 1,216 witnesses which will ensure a very lengthy trial process. This can send a worrying message to those within the state system that they may be scapegoats for actions and omissions that were beyond them.
“It happened, therefore it can happen again” –Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and writer. It seems that for Sri Lanka, ‘’It happened and it will happen again and again” will be the case until we have the leadership that will bite the bullet and change course.
Show some sympathy to non-citizen spouses
(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.
The Fertiliser Fiasco: Discretion is the Better Part of Valour
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!
Jealousy: Is it in our genes?
By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana
In making my contribution to the debate on the supernatural, stirred by the faith in astrology and palmistry expressed by three esteemed colleagues of mine, I took the opportunity to highlight the achievements of a Sri Lankan born Cosmologist of international repute. I posed the question, “Do Astrology and Palmistry predict future whilst Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology explore past?” in the title (The Island, October 7), which was tongue in cheek as stated, and was not an article meant to explore the origin of the universe, as I totally lack the expertise in that field. However, I am thankful to Ivor Tittawella for educating me and the readers with his comment’ “The more important and timely question to ask is how the starting material of the Big Bang, the “cosmic egg” if you will, came into being in the first place, coming out of absolutely ‘nothing’” (Understanding of Cosmology and deep physics: The Island, October 12).
I wish Tittawella had expanded on the topic of the ‘cosmic egg’ instead of casting snide remarks: “The anecdotes given are interesting, of course; but is it worth touching at such length on matters which the public are generally aware of anyway? Folk do know the distinction between palmistry and cosmology; they do know, too, and are hugely proud of, a good few Sri Lankans doing excellent research both at home and abroad”. I agree that few folks would confuse palmistry with cosmology but for many Sri Lankans, astrology is a ‘science’ commanding as much respect as astronomy! I presume when he refers to ‘matters the public are generally aware of’, which I am accused of touching at length, he, I believe, refers to my somewhat lengthy reference to Professor Hiranya Pieris. I came to know about her achievements by sheer chance and many who read my article were pleasantly surprised too.
The response I received from someone who works for the judicial service in Canada was interesting: “This is the first time I read about this lady, Hiranya. She sounds like a mini-Stephen Hawking! Sadly, Sri Lankans do not acknowledge their own, most of the time! Is this jealousy?” This got me thinking and made me wonder why we are jealous, instead of celebrating the success of our fellow countryman? I am sure many in the Sri Lanka music industry must be jealous of the tremendous achievement of Yohani Diloka de Silva whose rendition of ‘Menike Mage Hithe’ has gone viral! Is jealousy a trait embedded in our genes?
As a predominantly Buddhist country what we should be practicing are the Four Sublime Attitudes, ‘Sathara Brahma Viharana’: Loving kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), Empathetic joy (Muditha) and Equanimity (Upekkha). Of relevance to this discussion is Muditha, empathetic joy, sometimes referred to as sympathetic joy or vicarious joy, as well. It is the ability to rejoice at others’ success, the cardinal feature of Mudita being that it is pure joy unadulterated by self-interest.
Fortunately, we can have pure joy about many who have excelled in many fields, both at home and abroad. Whilst those at home are well known some who are outside are not so well known. In fact, Ivor Tittawella himself is a distinguished scientist with many papers to his credit published in reputed international journals. As far as I could gather, he is a Microbiologist who worked in Umea University in Sweden.
After reading my article, a friend of mine mentioned Professor Ray Jayawardhana, who is the Harold Tanner Dean of the Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences and a Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University. In addition to researching on the formation and early evolution of stars, brown dwarfs and planets, he is an award-winning writer, his best-known book being ‘Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe’. He has won many awards including Rutherford Memorial Medal in 2014 and American Physical Society Nicholson Medal for Outreach in 2018. He also has the honour of an asteroid being named after him: ‘4668 Rayjay’.
I wonder whether the interest of many in Astronomy and related subjects is due to trailblasing by Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe who was a student, and subsequently a collaborator, of the famous British Astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle. They are well known as the proponents of panspermia, the hypothesis that some dust in interstellar space is largely organic. Their joint work over 40 years resulted in multiple publications. Chandra Wickramasinghe has authored over 30 books on Astrophysics and related topics. However, his reputation was slightly dented by the rejection of some of their theories by the scientific community, including the theory that some outbreaks of illnesses on Earth are of extra-terrestrial origin, including the 1918 flu pandemic and certain outbreaks of polio and mad cow disease. They hypothesised that the 1918 flu pandemic was due to cometary dust which brought the virus to Earth at multiple locations, simultaneously, which has been rejected by experts on the epidemic.
Chandra Wickramasinghe comes from a brilliant family. His father, a mathematics graduate from Cambridge, was the Chief Government Valuer. Chandra is the eldest of four brothers and Suneetha, next to him took to medicine; the third, Dayal is Professor of Mathematics at the Australian National University in Canberra and the youngest, Kumar holds the Chair in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in University of California, Irvine.
Suneetha Wickramasinghe entered medical school in Colombo with me and we sat next to each other during lectures, for five years. He used to drive from his house in Bambalapitiya and I was able to get a lift to and from the Buddhist Medical Hostel ‘Jeewaka’ in Turret Road, Kollupitiya, very often. We both got distinctions in Medicine at the final MBBS examination held in April 1964 and he left for the UK, the day after results were out. He did so because he craved research and ended up becoming one of the world’s leading authorities on congenital dyserythropoietic anaemia, a rare inherited anaemia. He became Professor of Haematology in St Mary’s Medical School in London, in his mid-thirties. Unfortunately, he died prematurely of Myeloma, a disease in his own field, in 2009. ‘World authority on diseases affecting red blood cells’ was the headline for the obituary published by The Guardian newspaper of London on 09 September, 2009.
When I attended the Sri Lanka Medical Association Anniversary session in 2003, to deliver a ‘guest lecture’, I met another batchmate of mine who told me that he would be President, SLMA in 2005. He sought my help and asked who the ideal chief guest would be for the Anniversary Session in 2005. Considering that Suneetha was a prolific contributor to scientific journals and has edited eight books on Haematology, in addition to being a speaker much in demand around the world, without any hesitation I recommended Suneetha to be the chief guest. My friend readily agreed and wished me to contact Suneetha and make all arrangements. Suneetha attended the sessions but I was not even invited. When I telephoned to inquire from Suneetha, on his return, it transpired that he was not the chief guest, the honour being accorded, as usual, to a foreigner! With a degree of embarrassment, he told me that he was made a guest of honour. We were to meet over lunch but Myeloma prevented it. Suneetha died without full recognition in the land of his birth. That is Sri Lanka!
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