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Opinion

Key takeaways from British election

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PM Keir Starmer

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The fact that political parties splintered by internal strife, culminating in open warfare, would be punished mercilessly by the electorate at the first available opportunity is, perhaps, the key takeaway from the UK parliamentary election held on 4th July. Conservatives, who held power for 14 years were humiliated and reduced to only 121 seats, 9 fewer than even exit-poll predictions. However, exit-polls predicted the landslide for Labour spot-on, missing the mark by only two; Labour ending up with 412, prediction being 410. This Labour win was second only to the massive victories by Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001. Terms used by news media to qualify this Labour victory, tsunami and earthquake, perhaps, are inaccurate as both are unexpected events whereas this win was not. What surprised most, however, was not the Labour victory but the scale of the humiliating defeat of the Tories, losing 251 seats. This to a large extent, was self-inflicted!

Conservatives ended 13 years of Labour rule in 2010, but as they did not have an outright majority, winning only 306 seats in a house of 650, were forced to form a coalition government with Liberal Democrats who won 57 seats. In the subsequent election in 2015, Conservatives won 330 seats, just clearing the threshold of 326. David Cameron, who was PM from 2010, resigned in 2017 when the UK voted for Brexit in a referendum, which he forced on the country, hoping to get the opposite result. Conservative divisions bloomed following the referendum disaster and Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron, went for a snap poll hoping to get a larger mandate but was unsuccessful getting only 317 seats, forcing her to continue with a minority government. However, she too, had to resign in 2019 as the draft withdrawal agreement with the EU, she negotiated, was rejected by the parliament. Boris Johnson, who succeeded her, went for an election in 2019 and was able to secure a comfortable victory with 365 seats and it was the worst defeat ever for the Labour Party, which got only 202 seats. This catastrophe resulted because of Labour being out of tune with its own supporters, majority of whom were for Brexit whereas the party policy was to remain in the EU. This was a unique event in British political history where Labour supporters switched in droves to Conservative. Worsening internal strife in the Conservative Party and the blatant breeches of Covid rules, led to the ouster of Johnson in 2022, which resulted in the disastrous 45-day tenure of Liz Truss, shortest in British history. She had to resign in disgrace when the British economy tanked with the drastic economic policies she rushed through. Not surprisingly, she could not even retain her seat, which she won with a huge majority of over 26,000 in the previous election in 2019.

Most political analysts opine that the Conservatives lost the general election in October 2022, when their acknowledged economic competence was thrown into question with the antics of Liz truss. Rishi Sunak, who took over under the most difficult of circumstances, in addition had to face frequent backstabbing, mostly from a colleague also of Indian origin. He had the unenviable task of leading a badly divided party, on top of attempting to repair the massive economic damage caused by his predecessor. Although he could have gone on until December, he called a snap election and, ultimately on 4th July, faced the inevitable!

Perhaps, the humiliating defeat suffered by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has its origins to the demand for Scottish independence, was even worse than that of the Conservatives. SNP once exercised virtually a dictatorship over Scotland, winning almost every parliamentary seat. It was humbled down to having only 9 seats, a loss of 39 seats, in spite of stoking the fire of nationalism by campaigning that this would be a vote for the demand of a second referendum for independence. The first independence referendum held in 2014 was lost, 55% voting against independence. Therefore, the most positive takeaway from the 2024 election is that it ensured the persistence of the union between England and Scotland. This clearly illustrates that a single-issue party like the SNP has a limited lifespan, a valuable lesson for some of the communal parties of Sri Lanka.

This election is remarkable in that, rather than being a Labour win, it was a Conservative defeat, as a detailed analysis of statistics clearly show. It had the second lowest turnout with only 59.9% of registered voters voting, the lowest with 59.4% being the 2001 election where the outcome, of re-electing Tony Blair’s government with a massive majority, was never in doubt leading to voter apathy.

In 2019, Labour got 32.1% of the vote, winning only 202 seats, which is considered Labour’s worst defeat. However, five years later, the share of the vote increased only to 33.8%, the increase being mostly due to a 19% increase in Scotland whereas there was hardly any change in England. Conservative share of the vote dropped from 45.6% to 25.7%. How can a mere increase of 1.7%, lead to a gain of 211 seats, Labour ending up with 412 of the 650 seats? The main reason for this is that Nigel Farage’s Reform party siphoned off a fair share of the Conservative vote in many electorates enabling Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates to win with small majorities. Reform got 14.3% share of the vote, a remarkable achievement for a new party. Farage, who started the chain of events that led to Brexit, took over the leadership of the right-wing Reform party immediately after the election was declared and threatened to take over the Conservative party ultimately. He may well do it unless Conservatives work out a robust strategy for revival! Wonder whether Farage got letters of thanks from the leaders of Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

This is not the first time that the ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP)electoral system, used in the UK, has produced paradoxical results. As Liberal Democrats were regularly getting fewer MPs compared to their share of the vote, one of the conditions for the formation of a coalition government in 2010 was a referendum to change the electoral system. However, the ‘Alternative Vote referendum’ held in 2011 ensured the continuation of FPTP as the Alternative Voting (AV) system was rejected by 67.9%.

Another big paradox of the 2024 election is Liberal Democrats gaining 64 seats, increasing their tally to 72 with only a 0.6% increase in the share of their vote from 11.6% to 12.2%. This probably will make them lose their enthusiasm for a change to a Proportional Representation (PR) system!

By far, the biggest paradox is Reform, which polled 14.3% got only 5 seats while Liberal Democrats, who got a smaller share, 12.2%, secured 74 seats! Reform is bound to clamour for change of the electoral system, with other minor parties, but the question is whether they would have a sufficient clout to bring about changes to the electoral system?

All parties in opposition clamour for a change but when they get power, completely forget about it, especially if they muster massive majorities. It is just like our Presidents, who promise to abolish the presidency during the campaign but, once elected and having savoured power, stick to it like leeches! Politicians, wherever they may be, behave the same way, subjugating everything to self-interest.

It looks very unlikely, in spite of all the anomalies, that the newly elected Labour government, which has a two-thirds majority in spite of having only minority support, would be interested in changing the electoral system, unless they start losing support quickly. This is not an impossibility, as they promised a lot which seemed almost impossible to deliver. They rejected Sunak’s Rwanda plan, which would have been a deterrent to illegal immigration and are now looking for a ‘Chief’ to solve the problem! PM Keir Starmer wants closer ties with the EU, which however is demanding free movement for the young but that would lead to an increasing number of immigrants; a very thorny issue. He has made some backers of his as ministers by appointing them to the House of Lords, in spite of having 412 elected members to choose from. The Lords is the chamber all parties never abolish despite their promises to do so as it is the place to accommodate cronies! I do hope, if a second chamber ever becomes a reality in Sri Lanka, it would not be like the Lords.

Even if politicians want to change the electoral system to PR or AV or even the French system of two-stage elections, which seems to have created a huge problem with the latest election, will the voters opt for change? Perhaps, not. After all, the best way to mercilessly punish politicians, in spite of all its disadvantages, is FPTP!



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Opinion

Becoming a water-wise citizen

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

According to current demands and availability, potable water resources are rapidly depleting in Sri Lanka. Finding new potable water sources has become increasingly challenging due to the competition between irrigation water and drinking water needs in many areas. Population growth, industrial demand, pollution, and climate change exacerbate water scarcity more than ever. Despite this, society often overlooks the importance of water conservation, with water waste remaining widespread. As responsible citizens, it is high time to adopt effective water management practices at household and industry level for its sustainability. On the other hand, doing so will reduce the energy requirements for water treatment and distribution, helping lower greenhouse gas emissions.

According to NWS&DB only about 46% of the population in our country are supplied with pipe-borne water. Therefore, wasting water deprives others who really deserves fresh water but currently lack access.

Here are several common ways water is wasted presumably by users due to ignorance, along with effective strategies for reducing waste at the household level.Following are some other practical measures to save water.

Standard plumbing

Using standard pipes and fittings and skilled workmanship are crucial for preventing water waste, especially in embedded areas where such leaks are hardly noticeable. PVC pipes should not be exposed to the sun as that will deteriorate the quality of pipes over time leading to water leaks. Properly installed systems are often devoid of leaks and ensure efficient water distribution minimizing maintenance costs.

Selecting water-saving fixtures

There are many water-saving fixtures available today as low-flow showerheads, taps, and dual-flush cisterns having two flushing options. For instance, kitchen taps with fine mesh give the feeling that more water runs through it than the actual flow. Replacing the existing fixtures with these advanced items will reduce water usage significantly.

Fixing water leaks

If there are leaking taps or pipes in the house or business premises they should promptly be rectified. In addition, it is wise to have regular infections to identify such defects so that possible water wastage can be minimized.

Mindful showering habits

One mode of heavy water consumption at the household level is showering. Even small reductions in shower duration such as reducing the shower time by a few minutes can save many litres of water. Any habits of keeping the shower running while applying soap and shampoo should be avoided.

Using domestic appliances only for full loads

Making a habit of using washing machines and dishwashers only for full loads not only saves water but also reduces electricity consumption. Operating appliances at full capacity also enhances their efficiency and prolongs their lifespan while reducing repair costs.

Harvesting rainwater

Rainwater can be used for many household activities, especially for gardening, landscaping, and washing vehicles. Currently, treated water is often used for these purposes, which results in unnecessary treatment costs. Rainwater can be used even for drinking if properly collected, treated, and filtered for better hygiene. However, rainwater can be used for drinking after boiling if it is collected through a clean roof exposed to sunlight. Avoiding early rain is advisable to minimize the risk of impurities mixed with rainwater.

Gardening and landscaping

For hotels, public parks, playgrounds, and similar venues with extensive gardens growing native and drought-tolerant species that require less water can lead to massive water savings. This approach not only conserves water but also enhances landscape resilience during times of water shortages. Further applying mulch to retain soil moisture and installation of drip irrigation systems and garden sprinklers for watering can minimise water requirements. Watering the lawns should be done in the morning or late evening to minimise evaporation losses.

Water Recycling

Water from sinks, showers, and washing machines which are called “grey water” can be used for toilet flushing and gardening. By diverting grey water away from the sewer system and integrating it into these activities, freshwater requirements can significantly be reduced.

Awareness and Education

Making children aware of water conservation is crucial for fostering responsible water usage habits. At the domestic level parents and elder family members can be role models by demonstrating water-saving habits. As organization-level initiatives, educating children at schools, public awareness campaigns, promoting and giving incentives for water-saving appliances, and formulating sustainable water management policies are vital.

Adopting simple, yet effective methods as discussed can save water to ensure the sustainability of this scarce resource. As the adage goes, “Water is life”, every citizen has to be water-wise by understanding its value and actively taking steps to use water efficiently and responsibly.

(The writer is a chartered Civil Engineer specializing in water resources engineering)

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Opinion

A different take on wind power projects in Sri Lanka

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A representational image

by Eng. Col. N. N. Wijeratne
(Retd)
Secretary General / CEO

Chamber of Construction Industry of Sri Lanka

Saudi Arabia aims to utilize her vast arid lands to harvest renewable energy resources and to increase her share of renewables to around 50% by the year 2030. This is similar to Sri Lanka’s stated goal of 70% renewable energy usage by 2030. However, sadly this is where the similarity ends.

Recently, the Saudi Power Procurement Company entered into two agreements with Marubeni Corporation of Japan to purchase wind power at a staggeringly low rate of 1.566 U.S. cents per kWh. Now compare this with Sri Lanka and the power purchase agreement with a foreign investor Adam Green Energy Ltd at 8.26 US cents per kWh. True, the government states that this will be the single most significant foreign investment in the country with a price of 1 billion US dollars and Sri Lanka will have uninterrupted electricity for the next 20 years, etc., and makes the convoluted argument that it is cheaper than thermal power which is 26.99 US cents per kWh and that the Ceylon Electricity Board purchases wind power from 9.67 to 13.99 US cents per kWh. Additionally, the power bought from Odamwadi solar project is higher in that it is 8.75 US cents per kWh unit. Be that as it may be, if competitive tenders were invited even in Sri Lanka a more competitive rate could have been possible keeping with the global norms. But this was an unsolicited bid negotiated by the Government high ups. Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda has pointed out that for newly commissioned onshore wind projects, the global weighted average internationally for wind power is between 3.5 US cents per kWh to 3.3 US cents per kWh (2022 figures) and falling. In fact, in India the levelised tariff for wind power is 3.8 US cents per kWh. The very same investor is supplying wind power to the Indian power grid at this competitive rate.

This shrouded price has spurred Transparency International Sri Lanka to file no fewer than 11 Right to Information applications about this now cabinet-approved project that will come into fruition 2 years down the line and has questions regarding the legality, transparency, evaluation process, pricing, government involvement, and the environmental impact assessment related to 250 MW wind power plant in Mannar and the 234 MW wind power plant in Pooneryn. Additionally, it strongly raises an alarm about the ecological feasibility of these projects which are located in an ecologically sensitive zone and one in a Ramsar declared wetland sanctuary. The Right to Information has elicited a stony silence by the authorities and it is petitioned that the sovereignty of the people has been violated. If we take the pricing factor in isolation, it behooves the government to answer this call at least, keeping aside the energy policy and investor friendliness that the government talks about for this sector. Next question is do we need to buy wind energy in US$ for next 20 years? What justification is there to pay in US$ for our free wind. Capital investment by the developer could have been treated as a loan repayable at a reasonable interest rate.

Geopolitical considerations may have influenced India to be involved in our power sector in order to ward off Chinese intrusions, but there are questions both big and small that require answers for it appears that the people’s sovereignty is being trampled and they have a right to know.

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Opinion

A wake-up call for action

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The SLN intercepting an Indian vessel engaged in illegal fishing in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. (File Photo)

Poachers take an aggressive stand:

At a time when the bilateral relationship is growing on a firm foundation of friendship and cooperation, the political leadership in the two countries should not continue to allow the ‘fisheries dispute’ to fester, realising that political opponents could use such developments to destabilise the relationship. This is all the more valid apprehension when Sri Lanka expects a series of countrywide elections starting in the last quarter of the year.

Over the past several decades, many have perished due to the ongoing fisheries dispute between Tamil Nadu fishermen and their local counterparts within the Sri Lankan territorial waters. Hitherto, victims were fishermen from Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. However, in a serious escalation on June 25, a sailor from the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) was killed due to aggressive manoeuvrings by the crew members of their trawler, northeast of Point Pedro during a special operation against illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters.

Aggressive manoeuvrings by Indian trawlers against Navy vessels and local fishing boats have been a regular feature in the past. Such action has served the marauding Indian trawlers well. When these trawlers, in their hundreds, cross the IMBL three times a week and carry out bottom trawling in Sri Lankan waters, both of which are illegal acts, northern fishermen are forced to remain on shore for fear of being physically attacked and their boats and nets damaged by much larger and heavily crewed Indian vessels.

There is nothing much for the Indian poachers to worry about. Their larger vessels with bigger horsepower engines can out-manoeuvre Sri Lankan Navy patrol boats. If their resistance fails and the offenders get arrested, they can quickly access Indian consular services. If they plead guilty, they will be released forthwith after being fined. According to local regulations, such court cases must be concluded within 30 days. No such reciprocity is granted to Sri Lankan fishermen who get picked up by Indian naval authorities. They languish in jail for many months until the legal processes are completed.

Indian poachers are entitled to other facilities as well. One example is the instructions given to the Navy and Coast Guard personnel not to use weapons against Indian fishermen operating illegally in Sri Lankan waters. Consequently, an Indian trawler could deliberately disregard instructions to stop for inspection or resort to aggressive manoeuvrings to intimidate Sri Lankan naval boats and evade arrest. Such self-imposed restrictions by the Sri Lankan side encourage poachers to be bold, take the law into their own hands, and carry out their illegal activities without fear of arrest.

The Tamil Nadu politicians seem ready to write letters of protest to the Union Minister demanding the immediate release of those arrested. Their concerns appear to be the “loss of livelihoods” and alleged harassment of Tamil Nadu fishermen. Not a word of sympathy or concern is expressed about the economic hardships faced by the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, whose livelihoods are denied by hordes of Tamil Nadu vessels descending on the Sri Lankan waters three times a week. The fact their fishermen engage in destructive and illegal bottom trawling in foreign waters seems to escape their minds.

In this process, Indian acceptance of Sri Lanka’s claim over the island of Kachchativu half a century ago has been made into an issue, as if Indian transgressions occur solely around that island. In contrast, Indian fishing vessels operate near Delft Island, which is 22 k. m. east of Kachchativu Island, Kalpitiya in the Gulf of Mannar and Mullaitivu in the east. On July 1, less than one week after the killing, four fishing vessels and 25 fishermen were detained off Delft Island.

At fault, as far as the Indian politicians are concerned, are the two agreements reached in 1974 and 1976 on the international maritime border after years of complex negotiations. To claim that the Indian side erred during the drawing of the maritime border by yielding the Kachchativu island to Sri Lanka is an irony. Half a century after deciding on the international maritime border line (IMBL), Indian fishermen must accept that their fishing rights end on the Indian side of the IMBL. What if Sri Lankans were to claim the same historical rights, enter the Wadge Bank south of Kanya Kumari or the northern part of the Pedro Bank north of Jaffna, which Sri Lanka gave up with the signing of the two international agreements demarcating the maritime border, and commence trawling?

India acknowledged that the number of trawlers and other mechanised fishing vessels in the Palk Bay area is far beyond the Bay’s holding capacity. Due to that recognition, in 2017, the Union Government and the State of Tamil Nadu proposed to remove 2000 mechanised vessels from the Bay area within three years (i.e. by 2020) and direct those fishermen to undertake deep-sea fishing. However, all that the Tamil Nadu authorities could achieve up to now was to refit around 60 vessels. When that plan misfired, the Union and State authorities should have considered alternatives to reduce the fishing fleet in the Palk Bay area. Instead of undertaking that responsibility, questioning how and why Sri Lanka’s claim to Kachchativu was recognised, requesting the two fishing communities to negotiate the matter or delegating the matter to a Joint Working Group are attempts to irresponsibly kick the can down the road, which has been the case for past several decades.

Road rage resulting in police officers getting mowed down by errant drivers is common in both countries. When such criminal acts happen, culprits will be charged with murder. In this particular instance, it is hoped that the law will take its course and the offenders will be prosecuted and punished. If Sri Lanka were to release the offenders without due criminal proceedings, poachers would be invited to take the law into their own hands.

It was reported that Sri Lanka has gone through the process of making representations over the killing to the Indian side. It is well and good. But will the matter end there? The unfortunate death should be an eye-opener for New Delhi and Colombo to recognise that there is a decades-long unresolved problem that needs to be addressed now, not later. The so-called ‘dispute’ is driven by the unsatiable craving for profit of Tamil Nadu businessmen who operate trawlers in foreign waters and engage in bottom trawling, which is illegal. Perhaps a steady stepping up of detentions and confiscation of fishing vessels and gear will send an unmistakable message that they will lose valuable assets if they continue their illegal practices.

At a high political level, India and Sri Lanka have prioritised improving physical connectivity between the two countries. High-level discussions are underway to provide road, rail grid and pipeline connectivity to boost the economy.

Among the several policies launched by the Indian government is the “Neighbourhood First Policy”, which has been in practice for a decade. Two years ago, India generously provided nearly four billion US dollars to pull Sri Lanka out of the economic morass.

At a time when the bilateral relationship is growing on a firm foundation of friendship and cooperation, the political leadership in the two countries should not continue to allow the ‘fisheries dispute’ to fester, realising that political opponents could use such developments to destabilise the relationship. This is all the more valid apprehension when Sri Lanka expects a series of countrywide elections starting in the last quarter of the year.

Pathfinder Foundation has been actively engaged in the subject since 2012, has published numerous papers, and has organised seminars, workshops, etc., in New Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, and Colombo over the years. Last month’s development is a wake-up call for India and Sri Lanka on the need for urgent measures to address the situation before things shift from bad to worse and adversely affect the plans of the two countries to work in close collaboration. To expect the problem to go away on its own, hoping the passage of time would resolve it, would be a monumental folly.

The Pathfinder Foundation published the View Point articles, which can be read online at   https://pathfinderfoundation.org/ ,  your comments are welcome at : pm@pathfinderfoundation.org

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