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Opinion

Looking forward to a hopeful future 

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By Rohana R. Wasala

All sensible adult citizens of Sri Lanka confidently hope that today’s youthful politicians will realise the importance of working together with their rivals in the national interest while maintaining their separate political identities, because, in the final analysis, all politicians of whatever party or faction they are affiliated to have no reason for their existence except their commitment to serve our motherland Sri Lanka . It is time they understood that any ethnic or religious or cultural community struggling to promote its own welfare disregarding the interests of other communities is not going to achieve permanent success. This has been demonstrated by the failure of the older generations which pursued such divisive strategies in the past, regretfully slowing down the country’s forward march. Though they may be committed to different political ideologies they should be able to resolve their differences democratically in a cultured manner. Only when an atmosphere of value-based politics becomes the norm will politicians, whether in the government or the opposition ranks, be able to make their fullest contribution to the survival of the nation as an independent sovereign entity and its future wellbeing.

Friendly personal relations among politicians who fiercely clash in public are nothing new. This has been always the case. But today such interaction between political opponents must be seen in a new light in view of the more widely shared socio-cultural and political sophistication of the Sri Lankan populace.

It can’t be denied that Sri Lanka has achieved some tangibly positive results at least in terms of a much larger proportion of the population being afforded a chance to dream of a better future. This is a direct result of a high rate of literacy achieved through free education. Economically, she may have lost the stability she used to enjoy at independence, as so often pointed out by those interested in the subject, and slipped a few notches down in the scale of overall development in comparison with some neighbouring countries. However, the generally growth-oriented policies of the successive post-independence regimes led in turn by the two main parties have brought about considerable human development, and a corresponding improvement of the lot of the common people, and that too in the face of unprecedented problems posed by a steadily increasing population, overt and covert foreign interference in our affairs, politicization of issues and institutions, terrorism, economic and political upheavals elsewhere, and other crises that threw a spanner in the works most of the time.

Within a generation our society has undergone tremendous change. The nation has emerged  victorious after one of the most trying periods of its history, which, though it slowed down the rate of growth, failed to arrest it altogether. Today our literacy rate is among the highest in the region. We enjoy fairly satisfactory healthcare services, both public and private, in spite of occasional lapses. More people own houses and cars than before, and more young people take part in cultural activities such as singing, dancing, and drama than their parents used to in the past. Increasingly accessible modern technology is revolutionizing every aspect of their life. People living in the remotest districts are aware that they too have a democratic right to a decent living standard like those placed in better circumstances in urban areas. Amidst all this, today’s young, particularly those in their thirties and forties, have known no life other than the one they have had to live under terrorism (which is now fortunately out of the way; the under-twenties  were spared any adult experience of it). They expect more from life, are less prepared to put up with privations, and are more aggressive in meeting challenges than earlier generations. Their expectations are high. 

These social, economic, and political realities influence the thinking of the youngest section of the population, particularly those below 30. They are almost completely insulated from any meaningful memory of the conditions that prevailed 30 to 50 years ago in which their parents grew up, and that helped form the latter’s values and attitudes, which may not be in tune with the existing state of affairs today. Youth are usually more responsive to change than the old. The former love the excitement of change, while the latter prefer the sedateness offered by a settled order.  The traditional clash between the old and the young in any age in opinions, values, and attitudes known as the generation gap applies to those involved in parliamentary politics too, though it is often obscured by an ostensible unanimity of opinion among members of the same party. In this context, the young are in a better position to decide what is in the best interest of the country. 

By this, however, I don’t mean to say that every young politician is invariably forward looking and progressive in outlook, and that every old one is incorrigibly retrograde. There are enough examples of senior politicians adopting fresh viewpoints in keeping with the changed circumstances in principled ways; there are also young novices who squander their youth and energy by aligning themselves with old fossilized elements of yesteryear with no future. In other words, a certain fossilization of ideas and attitudes is characteristic of an older generation; but there can be exceptions; some older politicians prove themselves more progressive, and more adaptable than their younger colleagues. 

When politicians decide to accept the membership of a particular party, they do so after committing themselves to the ideology and the policies of that party. It is important to adhere to these. But since situations may arise in which a particular party line is not the best position to adopt in regard to a critical issue, it becomes necessary in such instances to be flexible in order, for example, to avoid betraying the whole country through blind adherence to a particular policy such as some conservative politicians’ unrealistic commitment to a negotiated settlement of the separatist crisis in the face of the intransigence of the separatist terror outfit, which is now no more. A critical turn of events may demand that established beliefs and ways of behaviour be given up in favour of new modes of thought and action to serve the national interest.

Some time ago an MP from a prominent party, then in the Opposition, said that the main role of the Opposition is to bring down the government at any cost. If what he said was true, then no government would have an opportunity to rule or to implement any development plan without being baulked at every turn, irrespective of the soundness or otherwise of the policies pursued. The irrational way some opposition politicians criticise every move of the government suggests that this in fact is the principle that guides their conduct even today. Probably the same principle was at work when it was clear that not even the December 2004 tsunami nor the raging separatist terror led the opposition to join forces with the government to rescue the country from those disasters. However, in the critical last stages of the then MR government’s campaign against terrorism, it was thanks to the support extended by seventeen opposition MPs acting on their own in defiance of the party hierarchy that made it possible for the government to put an end to that scourge. Now that there are more young MPs who are capable of thinking  in terms of promoting the national interest rather than their own self-interest, we may be hopeful that the constitution making project embarked upon by the present administration will go ahead without a hitch.  

In terms of the ordinary people’s understanding of parliamentary democracy, the role of the opposition is to ensure that the ruling party governs the country well by monitoring its conduct and by criticizing its actions when they believe that it is not  performing its duty, and to be a potential alternative to the government. The broadest interface for positive government-opposition interaction includes the three interrelated areas of  the rule of law, human rights, and good governance. The opposition’s responsibility is to maximize the chances of these three things being realized for the good of the country through constructive criticism of the government’s performance. When faced with external challenges and threats, the opposition and the government must act as a single solid group in defence of the nation, based on the commonsense realisation that in geopolitics a country is obliged to interact with both friendly and hostile foreign rivals.

Such a political culture will evolve only when young broadminded politicians take the centre stage. Of course, they can’t act by themselves unless they have a similarly educated and inspired following. An electorate that will promote cultured politicians is already there to show their mind when the old fossils,  among the present-day leaders, either ensconced in positions of power or already kicked out into irrelevance, finally bow out or are successfully convinced to do so.



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Opinion

Transformation of agro-food system:

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A culture-based local solution for Sri Lanka

BY Prof Nimal Gunatilleke

The Thirty-seventh Session of the UN-FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) is being held as a high-level Ministerial in-person event in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 19 – 22 February 2024. This was preceded by the Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) held virtually from 31 January to 2 February 2024.

This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

This regionally significant meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is being held in Colombo at a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to keep its head above water in the post-COVID era knocked down for the second time in quick succession by her economic crisis.

A government report and data from the health ministry quoted by Reuters indicates that the people in Sri Lanka are currently burdened with soaring prices, including food, largely caused by its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948.

According to the Central Bank Report ‘rising malnutrition among children has become a forefront policy concern in Sri Lanka amidst heightened food insecurity of households caused by the host of economic and social issues that exacerbated during the economic crisis in 2022’.

The following human health statistics extracted almost verbatim from the Reuters report on Jan 18, 2023, are equally disturbing, to say the least.

The number of children grappling with various forms of undernutrition in Sri Lanka has increased for the first time in at least six years in 2022.

More than 43.4% of the country’s children under 5 years of age are suffering from nutrition problems, according to the report released in October, with 42.9% suffering from some form of undernutrition.

Data available on the website of the health ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicate that the percentage of children under five who are underweight, stunted (low height for age), or wasting (low-height for age) increased in 2022 after dropping steadily since at least 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients, or impaired nutrient utilis ation.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC REGIONAL OVERVIEW OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION STATISTICS AND TRENDS

According to the World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranked the second worst affected country in the South Asian region in terms of wasting among children under five years. Further, underweight among the same group of children remained around 20.0 percent since 2000, while no significant advancement was reported in terms of children with stunted growth.

Meanwhile, the persistent disparities in malnutrition prevalence across regions and economic sectors in the country suggest that nutrition anomalies remain unresolved for a prolonged period. Across residential sectors, the estate sector has become the most vulnerable sector with the highest prevalence of stunting and underweight children under five years. According to the DHS-2016, around 31.7 percent of children in the estate sector are stunted, compared to 14.7 percent in urban areas and 17.0 percent in the rural sector. Particularly child malnutrition represents a deep concern that carries a generational burden.

UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.1

A yet another alarming set of nutrition statistics has been published in the Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, in December 2023 in addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY.

The percentage of people unable to afford a healthy diet in Sri Lanka was 54% in 2020 and the figure has been increasing ever since.

Prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka is 5.3% (cf. India 16.6%)

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity during the period 2020–2022 in Sri Lanka has been 10.9% (cf. Bangladesh 31.1%)

Undernourishment is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, and healthy life. The indicator is reported as a prevalence and is denominated as “prevalence of undernourishment”, which is an estimate of the percentage of individuals in the total population who are in a condition of undernourishment.

People affected by moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have been forced to reduce, at times during the year, the quality and/or quantity of food they consume due to a lack of money or other resources.

MALNUTRITION: SUSTAINABLE

DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.2:

This section reports on four global nutrition indicators: stunting , wasting in children under 5 years of age, and anaemia in women aged 15 to 49 years.

The prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka in 2022 has been 15.9% (cf. India 31.7%).

The Prevalence of wasting among children under 5 years of age from 2015 to 2022 in Sri Lanka has been 15.1% (cf. India 18.7%)

The Prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka is 1.3% in 2022 (cf. 2.8% in India).

ANAEMIA AMONG WOMEN AGED 15 TO

49 YEARS

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years in Sri Lanka in 2019 has been 34.6 % (cf. India 53%).

HEALTHY DIET AT NATIONAL SCALE

In this regard, notable transformations in the country’s food system are essential to deliver a healthy diet for people at an affordable price. These include improving productivity in the agriculture sector along with more innovations and research and development, reducing post-harvest losses, more value addition in the agriculture sector, reducing import dependency on food systems, introducing climate-resilient food crops, promoting a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, particularly through the popularising integrated farming, rebalancing agriculture sector subsidies, and tax policies and improving agronomic practices as well as maintaining adequate food buffers to face food emergencies.

Among the solutions provided at the national level include the provisioning of school meals, provisioning of food/cash allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, the Thriposha program, school water sanitation, and hygiene programs, and the salt iodization programme, among others. Reflecting the impact of these efforts and commitments spanning over several decades, malnutrition among children declined remarkably during the period from 1975 to 1995, with stunting among children below five years of age almost halved to 26.1 percent in 1995, compared to 49.9 percent in 1975, while the underweight child population declined to 29.3 percent in 1995 from 57.3 percent in 1975. However, these trends have reversed since the double whammy started in 2021 with COVID-19.

In addition, some of the small-scale community-level initiatives established under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture such as Hela Bojun Hal (Native Food Courts) are gaining popularity in several provinces in Sri Lanka. These food courts serve a variety of nutrient-rich native food preparations using rice flour, finger millet, local vegetables (leafy porridge), and many other sweetmeats prepared by local womenfolk and sold at an affordable price. Also, there are many beverages and local fruit drinks that are equally popular among the customers.

These food courts providing healthy and nutritious meals are making steady inroads into the food and beverage trade among the health-conscious public from all walks of life including schoolchildren, university students, and blue- and white-collar workers, alike which is indeed an encouraging trend.

If these types of Hela Bojun food courts could be promoted in rural as well as urban schools with the participation of the parents of the schoolchildren under the direction of the school administration and local health and agricultural authorities, it may help to address some of the issues under discussion at the on-going UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference such as undernourishment, food insecurity, and malnutrition. At the same time, it may give a shot in the arm for promoting nutritious food production while ensuring food security befitting the theme of this year’s UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference, which is “Transformation of the Agro-Food System”.

Sri Lanka as the host country’s special ministerial event for this conference has put forward her theme as ‘Agro-tourism in Asia and Pacific – accelerating rural development and enhancing livelihoods’ showcasing agrotourism most likely in the world-renown Kandyan Spice/Home Gardens and as a spin-off of this, the local food courts utilizing these home garden produce too, can be highlighted at the same time.

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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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Opinion

Pledges to abolish executive presidency

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With the presidential elections around the corner, the abolition of the executive presidency has come up for discussion once again.

This time around, the proposal for abolishing the executive presidency has come from former President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga. She pledged to scrap it first when she ran for Presidency in 1994. But she did not fulfil her promise.

Former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are also now for scrapping the executive presidency.

Almost all the former Presidents came to power promising to scrap it but once in power they swept it under the carpet.

The Opposition parties claim they are for the abolition, but after the next presidential election. which, they say, they are confident of winning.

Mahinda has recently said it is preferable to abolish the executive presidency because he has already held it twice. However, he seems to have forgotten that he was greedy for power and he failed in his third attempt. For him and most other past Presidents, executive presidency is sour grapes.

They are now trying to have the executive presidency abolished in the hope that they will be able secure the premiership.

Ironically, Anura K Dissanayake, NPP leader and presidential candidate is against the abolition of the executive presidency as he is confident of winning the next presidential election.

So, all of them are in the same boat and one thing is clear; whoever becomes President will never have it abolished.

The campaign for scrapping the executive presidency will go in circles, forever.

Dr. P.A. Samaraweera 

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