Jaishankar means Victory of Lord Shiva! – Part II
By Austin Fernando
(Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India)
(Continuied from yesterday)
Development and relationships
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and his Indian counterpart Dr. S. Jaishankar considered developing mutual relationships concerning existing projects, e. g. the East Container Terminal (ECT) and the Trincomalee Petroleum Tanks.
The Indians have observed increasing involvement of the Chinese in the Colombo and Hambantota ports; in Colombo through the Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd – (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd., and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). The main stakeholders of South Asia Gateway Terminal – (SAGT) are A.P. Moller Group and John Keells Holdings PLC. The CICT Transshipment business has been there since 2013 with the Chinese owning 85% of its shares; the SAGT has been operational with 10 partners since 1999, with 85% ownership. Therefore, it is only natural that the Indians seek the same terms as China and the private sector.
Transshipment and ‘Sale’ of ECT
India accounts for 66% of Colombo’s transshipment; it is projected to become the world’s fifth-biggest economy. Hence, Sri Lanka’s transshipment business may heavily depend on India. The argument being peddled in some quarters that a possible Indian policy decision to avoid Colombo could deal a crippling blow to Sri Lanka’s transshipment business has been rejected by the protesting trade unions, which insist that vital decisions in this regard are taken by shipping companies, and not governments. I believe the unions are right to a considerable extent on this score.
The transshipment business involves a complex integrated network of industrialists, shippers, ports, and a market that demands fast, timely, secured goods transfer at competitive prices, and, most of all, sustainability. For these reasons, reputed foreign shipping companies engaging with the SLPA, is welcome. As it happens elsewhere, it could be a joint venture (JV). The ‘sale’ of any physical assets is out of the question because the term ‘sale’ triggers protests.
Perhaps, the fact that Adani is an Indian venture might have ignited protests. The Indians may be questioning why such protests were absent when the CICT (with 85% shares against the proposed 51% for Adani) and the SAGT similarly partnered with the SLPA. Of course, the term ‘sale’ was not used then. Secondly, the Indians may be wondering why there was no hostile reaction to questionable actions benefitting the Chinese, e.g., the alienation of extremely valuable land for the Chinese, and permission for Chinese submarines to be berthed at the CICT, allegedly at a risk to the country’s sovereignty. Thirdly, due to other geopolitical contradictions, India may be suspecting that anti-Indian competitive business interests find expression through protesters, despite claims to the contrary. Fourthly, the Indians are concerned about not an only port-related business but also politics, defence, security, and self-respect.
Sri Lanka must strive to strengthen economic ties with India, whose economy is expanding fast. Therefore, transshipment networking should be re-evaluated in that context. Transshipment competitors such as Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, Oman, Abu Dhabi, etc. have gone into overdrive in developing their ports. If Sri Lanka does not do likewise to remain competitive by developing its ports, it will lose.
As for the importance of upgrading ports, one can look at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port. It handled around 2.5 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo in 2018 and expects to increase the volume to 8 million-plus TEUs by 2023, by the addition of more ship-to-shore cranes and deeper berths. The investment of $ 1.1 billion comes from the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC). Another example is the Port of Salalah benefitting from over USD 800 million in investment expecting to handle over 5 million TEUs. Therefore, the Sri Lankan government must look for lessons on suitable partner/s.
Terminal operations are complex even in India. Although most Indian ports are state-owned, individual terminals are operated by large private companies such as DP World, AP Moller Terminals, and PSA International. Sri Lankans are demanding that ports be managed by the state when competitors are opening doors to foreign and local private partners. Given the generally poor performance of our state-owned ventures, the demand for state involvement in operating in a highly competitive environment must be gladdening the hearts of private competitors elsewhere and even here.
To understand the advantages of integrated terminal management I quote Rohan Masakorala. Having explained how shipping partners negotiate and undertake sharing assets, he has said:
“Therefore, it is proven beyond doubt that irrespective of the country’s wealth and the size of the shipping line, they do partner with competing lines for logical reasons as networks, provide better business models and solutions than working in isolation.”
We are not a large goods producer or shipowner. We must depend on ‘partnering with competing lines for logical reasons,’ utilizing favorable logistics networks, providing “better business models and solutions than working in isolation.” Thus, the challenge before Dr. Jaishankar may be to find a mutually agreeable business model. Probably, the managerial structures may be of some help, but They should have been transparently negotiated with all stakeholders.
Protesting India or JV concept?
Are the ongoing protests against India, or the proposed ECT deal? Or are they due to domestic political frustration or an attempt by the mainstream/social media to embarrass the government? Or are they to finally withdraw and show the hierarchy was reasonable? Is it to force withdrawal and antagonize India to make China to be the saviour from other economic problems? So many complications! Whatever, the protests are huge even to change stances.
Some of those who protested then are now ministers who have realized the need to address realities of development, geopolitics, diplomacy, neighbourly relations, other anticipated economic and political favours, etc; they support President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the ECT issue. Similarly, some of those who were in the Yahapalana administration supporting the ECT deal is now in the Opposition, protesting the Indian involvement. They have forgotten that their government initiated this project with the Indians. The protesters need to take cognizance of the un-explained truth of mutuality as mentioned by Dr. Jaishankar.
Facing issues for solving
For decisions, clarity is needed on issues. There are six major issues”.
The first is the conceptual agreement of developing the terminals with foreign involvement. The Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa governments by establishing the SAGT and the CICT respectively accepted it. The incumbent President has realized this, but the circumstances have changed.
Chronologically, the Yahapalana government had only a terminal in mind when the MOU-2017 was signed. In 2018, President Sirisena insisted that the ECT be developed by the SLPA as currently demanded by Unions. He was for foreign participation in developing the West Container Terminal (WCT). In 2019, a Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) was signed after President Sirisena’s discussions with PMs Modi and Abe for ECT development by an Indian and Japanese operational JV. About a fortnight back President Gotabaya Rajapaksa preferred developing WCT by the SLPA and ECT by Indians. The latest is the Unions accepting external investment in WCT, and the government developing the ECT. (The Island February 1st, 2021). Note the sea changes the wavering state policy on this issue has undergone during the last years and even within a fortnight.
The WCT was on offer in 2018 and the Indians refused. Will they change their stance now? It is too early for the Indians to respond to the latter. If they have stronger bargaining chips, they will remain tight-lipped with a view to winning finally. Anyhow, in inter-state business, if such a change happens, parties discuss and agree before making public statements. In a way, Sri Lanka, which withdrawn from the UNHRC resolution as publicised, withdrawal from a MOC will be no issue. It will depend on the chip in Indian hands.
Still do do not be surprised if the Indians strictly demand implementing the MoC.
The second is the operational mechanism. The CICT is operated by a Chinese company. At the SAGT, the mechanism involves international and local private operators. Therefore, according to the precedent, the agreed mechanism is foreign private operators with the SLPA. But now, is it Adani Group or a different company or other like above Abu Dhabi ports? Or is it an SLPA-Private Sector Project? Could it be Adani’s allied domestic private sector? Many equations are possible.
The third is the selection process. Adani Group is the nominee of India. How Gautham Adani’s company was selected is unknown. If the CITC or the SAGT partners were selected by established procurement procedures, the precedent must be followed. One may recall that Minister Arjuna Ranatunga informed the Cabinet before 2017- MSC that the ‘new operator should be selected following the established Procurement Guidelines.’ Recently, Minister Namal Rajapaksa has also spoken of procedures. These must be discussed across the table because there could be exceptions to procedures.
The fourth is the ownership of the ECT project. The Presidential Media Unit (PMU) Statement and PM Rajapaksa’s statement in Parliament said: “No selling, no leasing of ECT’. But the PMU statement signified an “investment project that has 51% ownership by the government” and the remainder by Adani and other stakeholders. The term ‘51% ownership’ unfortunately but logically makes Adani and others the ‘owner of 49%.”
However, in the aforesaid MOC these percentages are for a “Terminal Operations Company,” meant for the “explicit purpose of providing the equipment and systems necessary for the development of the ECT and managing the ECT.” This difference between ‘ownership’ and the operational company’s objectives clear doubts, but this fact has not been highlighted, fertilizing suspicions.
Ownership is the legal relationship between a person and an object. Therefore, the protestors harp against giving ‘part-ownership’ to Adani, because SLPA owns the whole ECT now. The protestors understand “ownership” as an outcome of a ‘selling’ process. As damage controlling, the President repeated about a JV, with SLPA participation with Adani’s, and others as stakeholders. It is the reality matching the MOC. But the explanation came one week after the PMU statement. By then protestors have socially marketed ‘selling ECT.’
The fifth issue is the influencers/motivators. How views against the President’s wishes are being expressed smack of a move to keep the Indians away. Clearing such doubts is difficult when efforts are organized concertedly.
Sixthly, the happenings unrelated to the ECT could muddy the waters. The destruction of the Jaffna University memorial, Indian fishermen’s deaths, and the Cabinet decision to establish Hybrid Renewable Energy Systems in Nainathivu, Delft, and Analathivu islands through a Chinese contractor (upon international competitive bidding) are three such issues. The last is an extremely security-sensitive issue for India although it was presumably not a favor done to the Chinese by Sri Lanka. The Indians have previously vehemently protested the berthing of Chinese submarines in Colombo and the Chinese housing projects in the North. The Indian protests will be diplomatic and subtle. Nevertheless, their repercussions could override the ECT issues and may influence other bilateral and multilateral matters.
Way forward amidst contradictions
The need is to develop the ECT. Sri Lankan governments are known for policy changes and contradictions; Indians are different. Just see the aforesaid policy contradictions. Even the ECT protesters have double standards. When the CICT with ‘85% foreign ownership’ was established, there were no grudges. When the government announced its decision to form a JV with Adani and others, having 49% shares, therein to run the ECT all hell broke loose!
It is necessary to stop bickering if it is development that we seek. The country must prioritize the economy, neighborhood relations, private sector involvement, foreign investment promotion, diplomacy, security, financing, other personal and political issues.
Although decisions on the Sri Lankan ports must be economic, in this complex world, they are invariably influenced by other factors. I hope the government will strike a balance and select the best option. Sri Lankan must not enslave itself to other countries. It must negotiate for the best profitable and sustainable solutions, be it with China, India, or the US or with large shipping companies undertaking port development. The government must maintain transparency in negotiating the terms of port development. A move to sell a state asset or any move that can be construed as such is sure to lead to negative responses. Concurrently, let the protesters engage with the government and work toward developing the Colombo Port.
As it is, DR Jaishankar’s victory has not yet come about completely. There are roadblocks on his path. The Indian silence is deceptive. However, the Indian responses may not be restricted to shipping. When responses deceptively happen, the consequences could be hurting. Dr. Jaishankar knows Kautilyan deception and would have learned from Sun Tzu when he was the Indian Ambassador in China. Hence the need for Sri Lanka to tread cautiously.
Reciprocation of relationships
Nevertheless, the professional diplomat that he is, Minister Jaishankar highlighted the grand mutual relationship with Sri Lanka, the “trust, interest, respect, and sensitivity.” Perhaps, Indian critics could question this mutuality having seen the protests.
During the Yahapalana regime, mutuality on the part of India was diminishing, although India does not publicly admit it. This for example was reflected in the budgetary allocations for the neighborhood in Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget, where only INR 250 crore was provided for Sri Lanka out of INR 8,415 crore total, while countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Mauritius, the Maldives received much more. The reason may be the security considerations of India. India further expanded a package for the Maldives (August 13th, 2020), that included a $100 million grant and a $400 million new line of credit, for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project, expressing extra neighborly attachment.
Concurrently, requests for a $ 1 billion financial lifeline swap and nearly $ 1 billion debt moratorium made by President and PM Rajapaksas from PM Modi are delayed for months, irrespectively of the much-flaunted mutuality. Sri Lanka should read these signs carefully and understand the message.
Minister Gunawardena (understandably) did not mention competition that may arise from the seaport Projects at Vizhinjam in Kerala, and Nicobar, owned by Indians. Both did not bother about PM Modi’s declaration: “There is a proposal to build a transshipment port at Great Nicobar at a cost of about Rs. 10,000 crores. Large ships can dock once this port is ready” (The Times of India -Business- of August 10th, 2020). Mark the words, “transshipment port!” These ports will invariably compete with Colombo’s ETC in the future, and India may through Nicobar aim to become the transshipment hub, being in proximity to the busy east-west shipping routes. This points to the need for developing the ECT fast and making it competitive.
For sustainability and safety in this competitive business, it will be necessary to be cautious if joint ventures are to be formed, especially by reaching an agreement on time frames, exit clauses, investment programming, senior managerial positioning, arbitration in Sri Lanka, etc. For these the active participation of the SLPA, which has expertise is mandatory. Unfortunately, nothing is heard about such moves. One hears only the voice of the protesting Unions.
Security aspects of relationships
Dr. Jaishankar mentioned maritime security and safety but did not make specific mention of Quad or Indo-Pacific interventions or China. What we must understand about the Indian attitude towards security is that India expects us to be India-centric as could be seen from the following statement by Shri Avatar Singh Bhasin on Indian security relationships:
“There could be no running away from the fact that small states in the region fell in India’s security perimeter and therefore must not follow policies that would impinge on her security concerns in the area. They should not seek to invite outside power(s). If any one of them needed any assistance it should look to India. India’s attitude and relationship with her immediate neighbors depended on their appreciation of India’s regional security concerns; they would serve as buffer states in the event of an extra-regional threat and not proxies of the outside powers…”
The proxy need not be only China; even if it is the US, India will be perturbed, if lines are crossed. Therefore, Minister Jaishankar’s security concerns must be viewed concerning the aforesaid criteria. Dr. Jaishankar subscribes to these. About his visit, the Indian Television had this to say: “An important focus of his visit will be the Chinese presence in the Hambantota harbor on a 99-year lease. It is an understanding between China and Sri Lanka that they will not undertake any military venture there. So, India will take the help of Sri Lanka to ensure that Chinese military or Chinese hegemony don’t come to this region.” This is the Indian attitude.
India’s position always remains the same: “Do not be a proxy of the Chinese, be a buffer state! Do not allow the Indian Ocean to be the Chinese Ocean!” However, considering the proximity, long relations, the possibility for political displacements, regional economics, etc. Sri Lanka will think of the advantage of being with the Indians, of course, without being a buffer. To what extent other motivations—financial, economic development, diplomatic, security, etc.—would work is also important especially when Sri Lanka is haunted by international interventions like the one at the UNHRC. It is not easy to gain the required balance.
Indo-Lanka relations were highlighted by both Ministers. The impending global situations after COVID 19 and the complexities arising due to geopolitics and developments will compel Sri Lanka to work with the world powers. In that respect, even if the past is forgotten the present and future will make it imperative that we maintain friendly relations with everyone, especially with India and China, latter expected to be the future number one economy. This is the reason why Sri Lanka should pay attention to the purpose of Dr. Jaishankar’s recent visit and maintain balance.
Overall, the Indian Foreign Minister visited Sri Lankan not to lose, but to prove that he was ‘Jai Shankar.’ Whether he departed on January 7th, 2021 with expected goodies, officially satisfied to celebrate his 66th birthday the following day, are secrets and will be known in days to come.
Finally, it will be mutually beneficial for both Sri Lanka and India to make compromises and strengthen their relations instead of being obdurate.
Trump indicted, Aragalaya in Israel, and IMF in Sri Lanka
by Rajan Philips
Halfway through my writing this piece news broke out that a Grand Jury in New York has voted to indict former President Donald Trump on reportedly more than 30 counts in connection with his alleged role in a hush money payment scheme and cover-up of his affair with an adult film star. The sordid affair was before Trump began his presidential run; the crime of payment was committed when he was the Republican candidate. The Grand Jury in the US criminal justice system is a group of citizens who hear evidence from a prosecutor and other witnesses against an accused person and votes in secret to decide if there is enough evidence to charge that person with a crime.
That the Grand Jury in Manhattan, New York, believes that there is enough to charge a former president with a crime is unprecedented in US history, but it should be considered par for the course when it involves Donald Trump. A separate criminal trial with another jury awaits the indicted Trump, but the legal theatre that the Manhattan District Attorney has opened in New York will preoccupy US society and politics for months, even years, to come. America will trundle along with no dramatic changes internally because as a highly federated leviathan it is too cumbersome for swift overhauls. Externally, the US President will have the necessary autonomy to plough ahead, but only with impaired credibility and not without universal derision.
Besides the case in New York, Trump is facing the real possibility of a separate indictment in the State of Georgia over election interference, and the growing possibility of indictments by a federal prosecutor for his involvement in the January 6 (2021) violence at the Congress in Washington and over his handling of confidential government documents and obstructing the course of justice. Trump is still bluffing and believing that the indictments will boost his campaign for another shot at the presidency, but the only ones falling for his bluff are those in the Republican Party – those who believe like him and others who do not have the backbone to call his bluff. Trump has been calling out on his faithful to come out and protest for him, but no one seems to be falling for his demagoguery anymore.
Global protests now are against those in power and for throwing them out. They are not for reinstating someone like Trump who didn’t deserve to get power in the first place, the first time. There will be a lot of drama but nothing like what is going on in France and Israel, or what happened in Sri Lanka last year. Israel is having its own version of aragalaya with nearly a three-quarter million people storming the streets of Tel Aviv last Sunday to protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political scheming to subordinate the country’s judiciary to its legislature. The pretext theory for Netanyahu in Israel, as with others of his ilk elsewhere, is that unelected judges should not be allowed to frustrate the so called will of the people that is conveniently expressed through the governing majority of their elected representatives in parliament. Mr. Netanyahu’s real purpose, however, is to prevent the courts from finding him guilty on charges of fraud, corruption and potentially sending him to jail.
The scale and persistence of protests in Israel are not unlike the explosion of aragalaya in Sri Lanka. But both are different from the protests in France in that they are not about government corruption or an authoritarian President. Also, the judiciary is not implicated in the French standoff between President Macron and the people protesting over the working life span of ordinary French people, especially women and wage workers. Sri Lankan governments and Presidents, like colonial Governors before them, have had their monkeying moments with the judiciary, but the judiciary has been spared of political ignominy for some time after the cowardly impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake by Rajapaksa bullies.
Now there are rumblings that Supreme Court Judges might be hauled before a Parliamentary Privileges Committee to clear up just who the bosses are when it comes to disbursing government funds. This is President Wickremesinghe’s tit-for-tat response to a divisional bench of the Supreme Court directing the Treasury not to withhold funds needed for local government elections that are now past their due date. This is not the same situation that Netanyahu has stirred up in Israel, and it is not likely to stir up the same level of protests as in Israel. Put another way, there will be no aragalaya for the judges in Sri Lanka.
But the judges should feel free to stage their own form of silent protest and rebuff any highhanded call to attend a parliamentary committee meeting. They can take a leaf from Justice TS Fernando’s playbook when he stood up to Felix Dias’s tricks and entreaties to drop the curtain on the proceedings of Sri Lanka’s first Constitutional Court in the 1970s. Such a judicial pushback against a clever-by-half executive will command huge public support and sympathy, even if the people may not take to the streets (or Galle Face) as they did during aragalaya, or as it is going on now in Israel. There are other differences too.
The protests in Israel against Netanyahu’s scheming against the judiciary are also a manifestation of simmering differences between secular Jews and orthodox religious Jews over the future direction of Israel, the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the provocative Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The orthodox religious Jews of Israel generally of Middle Eastern descent are hostile to the courts which often rule against ultranationalist Jewish claims and agendas. The courts are seen to be dominated by liberal judges who are Jews of mostly of European origin.
Israel’s ultranationalist and religious Jews have largely been a fringe force in Israeli politics until Netanyahu reached a Faustian pact with them after the elections last November to become Israel’s Prime Minister for the sixth time in his checkered political career. He cobbled together a coalition comprising rightwing and religiously conservative parties, all of them more conservative than Netanyahu’s Likud Party, to form the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. Their aim is to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank, subordinate the courts to the will of the governing coalition, and transform the state of Israel to become more religious and less secular.
Netanyahu calls his era Israel’s golden age to the dismay of the country’s moderates and its overseas benefactors. The country including the military is gravely divided, and the protests have been successful in forcing Mr. Netanyahu to call for ‘a pause’ to his legislative scheming, to have more dialogue with his opponents. But he has given no indication that he will scale down the changes that he is pursuing. However, the PM’s pause has becalmed sections of the protesters. Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union with 800,000 members, has now called off a general strike after successfully staging a token strike that even included Israeli officials in foreign missions walking out of their embassies.
In France, on the other hand, the unions are demanding that their President follow Israel and call for a pause on the retirement age! The Macron government has responded that it is prepared to dialogue with the unions on any and all of their other grievances except the age of retirement. So, the standoff continues with no end in sight. But neither in France nor in Israel, is there any attempt to clampdown on protesters or declare emergency rule. That happens to be only in Sri Lanka, thanks to President Wickremesinghe and his political machinations.
The IMF and its Discontents
It has been clear that after the tumultuous exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Wickremesinghe has been the beneficiary of a protest fatigue in the country. Strangely enough, it is the President who seems to be bent on poking the protest tiger to give himself the excuse to impose a clampdown. His poking is all political; for on the more critical issue of the economy, the President is shadow boxing because there is no real opposition to his economic initiatives including his ‘pre-historical’ (inasmuch as Sri Lanka’s economic history is just beginning with Ranil at ’74) deal he signed with the IMF. While the Sri Lankan protest universe is mad as hell with the President on specific issues – taxes, LG election etc., no one has the stomach for a general strike over the IMF.
While a strike may have been averted, that was no reason for government bozos to light firecrackers to celebrate the IMF deal. There is nothing to celebrate here. The IMF is not the end of the road, it is only the end of the beginning. At the same time, the old detractors of the IMF seem to be immaturing with age – to borrow Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s classic putdown of Tony Benn, then keeper of the Labour Party’s left-conscience, that “Tony immatures with age!” There is no point in rehashing the rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s against an IMF deal in 2023. Those who eternally bring up the venerable name of Joseph Eugene Stiglitz and his searing criticisms one time of the IMF, may want to know what The Economist said recently about Mr. Stiglitz and the IMF, that they may have “warmed to each other,” after their earlier differences. All of this is table talk that is not going to help Sri Lanka in any way.
Apart from the details of the Ranil-IMF agreement, what is remarkable now is the openness of the IMF officials to engage directly with the Sri Lankan public. On March 21, after the IMF agreement was finalized, there was an extensive Press Briefing and Q & A session conducted virtually from Washington. Quite a few commentators and journalists participated from Colombo, and the IMF website carries the transcript of the whole briefing and exchanges. Questions and answers were free and frank, and covered, besides details of the agreement, even the timing of local and presidential elections in Sri Lanka. The exchanges were livelier and more informed than one might come across in today’s parliament in Sri Lanka. This was followed by a virtual roundtable meeting with trade union representatives in Colombo, in which the IMF officials indicated that the government might be able to revise the current tax proposals to address some of the union concerns.
The onus is on the government to finally set about revamping the economy. For the opposition, there are parts of the IMF agreement that can and should be used to hold the government accountable and answerable in a very political way. These include eradicating corruption, going beyond the IMF’s goal of “reducing corruption vulnerabilities; strengthening social safety nets; and revisiting the tax concessions currently offered to potential Port City investors. The IMF Staff Report includes a number of Annexes, one of which, Annex VII. The Social Safety Net: Recent Developments and Reform Priorities, could be a technical blueprint for a political manifesto. Annex VII. Colombo Port City Project, provides a sobering account of what the Galle Face venture may or may not bring to Sri Lanka after all the shouting. There is a lot to chew here besides the shouting.
The Need To Feed And Invest In The Future Of Our School children
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
Undoubtedly, children, particularly from low-income families, have borne the most significant hardships due to the unprecedented economic crisis that has beset our country. The single biggest challenge has been the skyrocketing food prices of even essentials, resulting in many families adopting coping strategies from reducing the number of meals consumed to eating less preferred meals lacking nutrition. As a result, the impact on schoolchildren has been a double whammy from constant hunger to skipping school, thus impacting their education.
The WFP situation report in October 2022 said, ” Even before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across Sri Lanka were already high. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lankan women and children suffered from far higher rates of malnutrition than most other middle-income countries: 17 per cent of children aged under five were too short because of stunting, and 15 per cent were too thin for their height (wasted). The current economic crisis will likely aggravate this further.”
However, the statement made in September 2022 by the SLPP Anuradhapura District Parliamentarian K.P.S Kumarasiri in parliament that he had received reports of instances where 20 students fainted in three schools at the Vilachchiya Divisional Secretariat division caused a media storm and highlighted the problem. He went on to name the schools where the fainting of the students had occurred. He also highlighted media reports of a student bringing coconut kernels as her midday meal to the school in Minuwangoda.
True to form, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said he was unaware of such incidents in Vilachchiya. However, he assured that he would look into the matter and denied the occurrence in Minuwangoda. Chief Governmen Whip Prassana Ranatunga, also got into the act by saying that Minuwangoga was his electorate. Having inquired from the principal about the media reports, Ranatunga attributed them to lies fabricated to instigate people!
The government reacted to continued social media posts citing incidents of schoolchildren fainting by extending a ban on public servants speaking to journalists to include social media posts. In addition, the order said, “Expressing opinions on social media by a public officer shall constitute an offense that leads to disciplinary action.” This was after certain provincial health officials, and teachers claimed students were fainting in schools because of a lack of food. The government also suspended the former Hambantota Regional Director of Health, Dr Chamal Sanjeewa, charging him with “causing inconvenience to the government” by presenting “false” information to a media briefing about child malnutrition in Sri Lanka. One hopes that he has now been reinstated and an apology tendered to him.
Why the government denied the existence of the problem is a mystery because several months before that, the World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization, stated in a release, “An estimated 4.9 million people – 22 per cent of the population – are currently food-insecure and require humanitarian assistance. Reduced domestic agricultural production, scarcity of foreign exchange reserves and depreciation of the local currency have caused food shortages and a spike in the cost of living, limiting people’s access to healthy and affordable meals. The economic crisis will push families into hunger and poverty – some for the first time – adding to the half a million people who the World Bank estimates have fallen below the poverty line because of the pandemic. The latest WFP assessment reveals that 86 per cent of families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and, in some cases, skipping meals altogether.
Similarly, in its 2022 report, UNICEF said, “Children are disproportionately affected by the rapidly unfolding economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Rising food and fuel prices, frequent power cuts, and shortages of life-saving medicines are particularly impacting the poorest and most marginalized. More than 5.7 million people, including 2.3 million children, require humanitarian assistance. Sri Lanka is among the top ten countries with the highest number of malnourished children, and the numbers are expected to rise further.”
Save the Children Sri Lanka released in March 2023 their “Rapid Needs Assessment Report – Phase 2,” a comprehensive report based on a country-wide survey done in December 2022. Some of the critical findings were:
Food was a significant contributor to household expenses, which increased by five percent from 44% in June 2022 to 49% in December 2022.
33% of households reported they still cannot meet their food needs.
30% of households could not provide adequate nutritious food for their children, and six percent could not provide any nutritious food.
50% of households have reduced the quantity of food consumed
74% of households are eating less preferred food.
27% of households have reduced the frequency of food intake (three times to twice or once)
25% of adults skipped food
Almost 90% of households adopted some coping strategy to meet their daily food demand. The most cited report of coping strategies adopted was relying on less preferred and less expensive food.
The manual on the School Nutrition Program published in 2020 by the Ministry of Education states, “Many surveys reveal that school-going children’s physical, physiological and nutritional status directly or indirectly impacts the students’ attendance, participation in learning and performances. Therefore, improving the nutritional level of children of school-going age is essential”.
The Observations of a Medical Consultant
I reached out to Dr B. J. C. Perera, Specialist Consultant Paediatrician, for his observations on the importance of nutrition for children. He sent me a short note “It is abundantly clear that optimal nutrition is of seminal importance for children and adolescents. Right from the time the baby is in the womb, where adequate nutrition for the foetus is provided by the mother, to the time after birth, where the golden elixir of mother’s milk provides all necessary nutrients to the baby during the first six months of life on earth and then afterwards to the time during early and late childhood as well as adolescence where a well-balanced diet provides adequate nutrition, the young ones of our land are totally dependent on the parents for the provision of optimal nourishment. All essential nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals have to be provided for children and adolescents for physical and mental growth. Physical growth in stature leading to satisfactory weight gain and an increase in height depends to a great extent on the provision of adequate food.
On the other hand, the inadequacy of essential nutrients leads to a reduction in height or stunting and poor weight gain, leading to different types of malnutrition states. Moreover, the inadequacy of certain essential nutrients leads to the development of well-documented diseases and increases the susceptibility of malnourished children to catch various infectious diseases. Many believe that the inadequacy of food leads only to disturbances in physical growth. However, it must be pointed out that optimal nutrition is also crucial for cognitive and mental development. There is accumulating evidence from research studies that inadequate nutrition has significant effects on intelligence as well as the proper development of all types of mental skills”.
Who is Doing What?
The Sri Lankan government has funded a school meal programme for several decades. According to the Ministry of Education manual on school nutrition, in 2017, a total of 1,105,605 students of 7,871 schools benefited from the meal programme while 112,088 students of 414 schools benefited from the programme of providing fresh milk.” But unfortunately, one of the economic crisis’s consequences was the reduction in the 2022 budget allocated for the school meal programme. Nevertheless, according to recent media reports, the cabinet has approved a proposal by the President to extend the school meal program to benefit an additional one million students, resulting in nearly 50% of school children benefiting from the program.
Several international organizations have come forward to help with the school meal program. For example, the October 2022 WFP report stated that 556,929 schoolchildren had received school meals prepared with rice supported by WFP. In addition, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and in partnership with Save the Children, the United States donated 3,000 tons of food to nourish school children across Sri Lanka. The U.S. Ambassador Julie Chang said, “This donation from the American people targets the most vulnerable Sri Lankans – children – and enables them to focus on their schooling rather than on their hunger.” Furthermore, UNICEF was planning to raise U.S. $ 28.3 million for various initiatives in the country, including providing nutrition to children.
The Chinese government donated 8,862,990 metres of cloth to the Education Ministry as school uniform material for the 2023 academic year. The donation amounts to 70% of the country’s school uniform material required for this year.
Several charitable organizations and corporates have also gotten involved in supporting the school’s meal program. For example, my former employer, the John Keells group, has taken 12 schools and seven preschools under their wing, supporting 2,415 children with daily meals under their “Pasal Diriya” program. The supermarket arm of the group is also supporting an initiative to feed 1,000 preschool kids aged between 2.5 and five years for over six months. The customers of Keells Super primarily fund this program contributing 80% of the cost and the company the balance. I have also read media reports of a donor-funded project called ” Rise Up School Meals”, supporting 12,000+ children in 81 schools with meals and a glass of milk. The Roshan Mahanama Trust of the former Sri Lankan cricketer too is doing excellent service helping children with school books, among many other initiatives. No doubt, many other organizations and charities are doing their bit.
In addition, in a personal capacity, many assist with meals and purchasing school books, bags and shoes for school children individually or as a group coordinating with school principals and teachers.
All these initiatives are genuinely commendable, and no doubt go some way towards helping children, particularly from low-income families. The smile that you get from a child after providing a wholesome meal is indeed something that will make one happy and fulfilled. However, whilst international organizations, corporates, charitable organizations, and well-intentioned individuals can support the initiative to feed a child for some time, the primary responsibility lies with the government.
Therefore, it is incumbent on the government to allocate the necessary funds and ensure the program’s success. It should not remain only a slogan. UNICEF, in their release, stated, ” In tackling the current crisis in Sri Lanka, put children first. As the situation evolves, Government efforts must include closely monitoring the impact on Sri Lanka’s youngest citizens—the future of the country, but currently the most vulnerable.” No one can disagree with that.
Kumar Sangakkara brings pride to Sri Lanka yet again
MTV 1 in its night news bulletin on March 27, mentioned that Kumar Sngakkara had addressed the Oxford Union and presented a short visual. Interest kindled, I googled and watched the entire Union session on video.
There he sat comfortable and so at ease, looking his handsomest best, dressed near casual in a dark blazer like jacket with grey slacks and subdued tie. He spoke excellently with the slightest of attractive accent, as English should be spoken. Also, no er…s and um…s at all. His talk, whether recounting incidents from his life or answering questions about cricket, was even paced and smooth flowing. Listeners’ reaction seemed to be riveted interest; questions at the end were many and penetrating.
A note on the Oxford Union is apt here. It is a debating society named the Oxford Union Society, commonly referred to as the Oxford Union, in the city of Oxford, England, whose membership is drawn primarily from the University. Founded in 1823, “it is one of Britain’s oldest university unions and one of the world’s most prestigious private students’ unions. It exists independently from the university and is distinct from the Oxford University Students Union.” Women were admitted as late as 1963. “The Union has the tradition of hosting some of the world’s most prominent individuals across politics, academia and popular culture.”
Please do note that sentence. Thus Sangakkara has been accepted by a most prestigious association as one of the worlds’ most prominent individuals. (In contrast local figures that stomp our stages hubris-filled come derisively to mind: granted PhDs from potty institutions and using Dr with names; claiming educational/professional qualifications that never were and strutting puffed up with self-inflation)
Kumar Sangakkara addressed the Oxford Union on February 23 this year. Seeing him walk up to the small platform filled me with justified pride. The convener, probably President of the Oxford Union, asked the first question on how Kumar got started in cricket. Kumar replied he was more into tennis and swimming as a schoolboy in Kandy, but at around 18 or 19, he moved to cricket and liked it as it was a team game calling for collaboration and playing as a cohesive group. He mentioned his father, several times later too, as being his guide and promoter, wanting him to always excel; while his mother was keener on his studies and educational success. His father had advised him to learn to change and never stop learning. “He threw a book at me each week – Tolstoy or philosophy or whatever and on Friday came question-time. He kept at me throughout. When in Australia for a test match, the hotel reception phoned me one night to say I had received a fax from my father. Initial alarm gave way to suspicion he was being usual. I told reception to put it under my door in the morning. As I had expected it was an entire page from the biography of Don Bradman and advice I should follow him.”
From his talk it was obvious he grew up in a closely knit family of three siblings and now his own family is very important to him. He referred to his wife several times.
He modestly said he was far from being a superior cricketer. “Talent is an overused word. Was I talented? Yes. Super-talented? No, not at all. I went through a learning curve and became self aware. What is identity – mine? Cricket for a short while, philosophy of life now. Personal relationships have been very favourable to me always.” He mentioned that leadership is basically stewardship.
Speaking of cricket per se, he stressed the fact that when they played matches it was more for the people of SL than for themselves individually or for the team or the Board or SLC. “People looked up to us and in a generous manner, more than in most countries; and we represented their yearning. In our country people go through so much they deserve to be given wins on the field. We are looked upon as an integral part of them. Hence winning a match or a series was more than a victory; it was a fulfillment of people’s hopes and dreams. To be Captain of the team carried an extra dimension to it.”
He mentioned that cricket in Sri Lanka, like much else was/is highly politicized and calls for enlightened leadership with vision and transparency. He very sensibly did not elaborate on politicization though we remember full well how after winning a World Cup he and Mahela were subject to probing. Worse was to come after he delivered that excellent ‘Spirit of Cricket’ address at Lords, invited by the MCC, for which he received a rarely given standing ovation. No, the yakkos back home, meaning Colombo, were waiting to question and blacklist him. The then Minister of Sports – Mahindananda Aluthgamage – still a VIP in the present government, pronounced that Kumar’s speech would be ‘investigated’. I commented soon after, in this column, that the use of that word itself showed ignorance. What one can do to fault a speech is analyze it. With hindsight I now wonder whether Aluthgamage was puppet stringed to behave as he did, by other/s who thought they were the kings of sport.
Question time had many hands being raised. One undergrad seemingly from South Asia wanted to know the highpoints of his life. Prompt came the answer: “Leading five winning teams.” Another queried about memorabilia. Kumar said he had no attachment to collecting souvenirs of his cricketing career, he did not know what happened to some of his medals won.
He was asked about cricket in Britain which he answered at length. Then came the question from a young woman how he felt about the Cowdrey lecture. Kumar elaborated that he hesitated at first on accepting the invitation but the people concerned persisted. So he agreed and then thought of what his topics/subjects should be. He decided to speak from a personal perspective about cricket as it is perceived by the common man and other strata of Sri Lankan society; what significance it carries; how it is the most favoured sport – even more than other team sports like rugby. The inherited game from the British colonial rulers was adapted and evolved to be representative of the country with its cultural heritage and ideals et al. Little by little ideas that came to him fell into place and fitted well. His writing the script, however, only ended just before he got dressed to proceed to the venue. He did not mention even in passing how his ‘Spirit of Cricket’ address was received and his excellence acknowledged.
Advice was sought. His answer included: “Think freely, critically, acquire wisdom which is different from education, and be honest. Stand up against policy and politicians that have been negative and caused trouble.” He was asked what his political stand was. He replied that it was of sports and politics; they being interdependent and unfortunately not a healthy relationship as of now. He said his wife more than him was out with the initial Aragalaya and was involved with protest marches and gatherings, “We have an obligation to speak for the greater good of our country.”
I do so sincerely hope more people would listen to his address to the Oxford Union, more so politicians, most of them third rate but preening themselves as the best. A personal opinion I dare place before you is that Kumar Sangakkara has never been given the honour, even public mention, that he richly deserves. Some would bring in the words jealousy and envy – two emotions I personally despise and cannot believe people harbour. But of course there was and still is this from lesser men and some so self-called sportsmen. Also, he was not a ‘hail fellow well met’ type. Not at all that Kumar made himself thus or was elitist in manner and behavior. He just was of a better breed and school from those who harboured within them innate inferiority complexes.
The final question asked of him by an Oxford Unionist was: What now? What next? Kumar smiled broadly and gave no definite answer, except to indicate spend more time being a family man which he always was in boyhood and continues in manhood as well.
He met and spent time with Sri Lankan Oxford University students, including it was mentioned, Insaf Bakeer Markar, Pres of the SL Society of the U of O. I add that the details given when googling his name are that he is a cricket commentator, former professional cricketer, ICC Hall of Fame inductee, businessman and former president of the MCC.
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