By Dr UPUL WIJAYAWARDHANA
“While the country is burning”: the caption for the front-page photograph in The Island of 29th October, displaying the antics of our senior government politicians at the opening of “Colombo Dunes” ATV adventure centre, said it all! Have they inherited the genes of Nero, who is supposed to have played the fiddle while Rome was burning? I wondered; or, has the Covid-19 virus had a specific effect on Sri Lanka, making many sections of the populace mad to varying degrees? This second explanation seems more plausible due to a variety of reasons.
Craziness does not seem to be confined to Pohottuwa politicians, the others behaving equally badly at the time of a great national disaster. There are rumours that the SLFP will split into three, and that would be the death knell of the Bandaranaike era! The leader of the SJB, who tries to cover up his inadequacies by verbosity, often inappropriate, is being undermined by some in his alliance. Ranil shouts loudly that the future of the UNP is with the youth, but refuses to hand over the reins to a young leader!
Of course, the government takes the cake! It seems to progress from one fiasco to the other. It wants to ‘go green’ and stopped importation of fertiliser at the most inopportune of times. Can we afford experimentation that may adversely affect the economy, at a time when the economy is on its knees? A secret midnight deal signed by a Minister holding dual US citizenship with a US energy firm is now threatening a split in the Pohottuwa, some ministers openly attacking in the strongest possible terms. When I posed the question “Pohottuwa: Will it blossom or wither?” (The island, 6 July), I never expected the withering to start so soon!
Unfortunately, the medical profession lost the esteem of the public, due to the long-standing erratic behaviour of its prime trade union. Even leaders of ‘learned societies’ seem to be making headline grabbing statements, rather than making positive contributions during a grave medical emergency. However, no one can beat the life-president of the GMOA, for making pseudoscientific statements that embarrass anyone with even a basic knowledge of science! I felt squeamish, to say the least, when I watched a video clip that showed him telling the President that kidneys should be given with chemical fertilisers! He seems to have his own statistics that show Sihalayas of yore had longevity, not recorded in any other source. He has written, in a Sinhala newspaper, that there was a time when human beings lived so long that a woman had to be 500 years old to get married! He seems to be propagating ‘folk’ Buddhism, not as a path to Nibbana, but as a path to Diyawannawa; or, perhaps, to the seat of Secretary of Health!
Talking of my profession, a retired physician, has written a piece supporting the teachers strike (‘In defence of teachers’ struggle; The Island, 25 October) maybe because his parents were teachers, or because he had been an active trade unionist in the past, or both. I got an interesting response to this from a friend of mine Dr Upali Abeysiri, retired Plastic Surgeon:
“One justification is that his parents were teachers. So were yours and mine. They were a special class. We always had at least two poor kids fed and housed at our home while having education. None did private tuition. If any student asked for tuition, it was given free when possible. Whenever there were any extra activities, they did not grudge or expect payment. Contrast some of the present generation. Their best talents are spared for tuition classes.”
He has not mentioned the fact that this old problem, not solved by many governments, cannot be solved at once due to the present circumstances. While an estimated 60% of the population of Sri Lanka did not have even two meals a day for over a year, they were paid for demonstrating on the road. Children were educationally at a standstill. How human are they?”
Another reason why Sri Lanka is a ‘land like no other’ is because it continues to pay those on strike! To its credit, the government went out of the way to find a solution to the teachers’ salary issue, but how did they respond? They left the youngest of children stranded for two days, extending their strike in a vain attempt to show their might. To me, this is madness of the highest order. Anyway, what is there to lose; they get paid whether they work or not! My parents, who dedicated their lives to teaching, would turn in their graves if they knew what is going on.
Among the striking teachers were Bhikkhus of the pirivena schools. As pointed out by Upali Abeysiri: “They don the robe saying, ‘sabba dukkha nissarana – nibbana sacchikaranatthaya’ meaning to strive to end all suffering. Is that ending suffering, demanding payment for teaching novice monks dhamma?”
I have written many times about Buddhist monks undertaking roles unbecoming of them. The latest fiasco involves Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, a controversial figure, about whom I changed my opinion after watching the Derana 360 programme, wherein he pointed out the representations made to him by moderate Muslims that their concerns about extremism has been disregarded by successive governments. It may be because of this that the President decided he should head the Presidential Task Force (PTF) to make recommendations in respect of the ‘One Country, One Law’ concept. When the President made this request, it would have been incumbent on Ven. Gnanasara to point out that it was a position a Bhikkhu should not hold, for many reasons. Unfortunately, he accepted it instead, which may produce disastrous consequences, if one is to go by Shamindra Ferdinando’s report in The Island of 1 November, to the effect that the Minister of Justice may resign over this issue.
As rightly pointed out in the editorial “It’s mandates stupid!” (The Island, 1 November), it is very democratic to question this flawed decision by the President. More so, if it means the resignation of a capable minister. Even a President can make mistakes, and admitting that and making amendments could only enhance the prestige of the President. It is only fools who refuse to admit mistakes and continue to defend the indefensible.
President’s Counsel Ali Sabry, the only Muslim in the Cabinet, is one of the most educated and, more importantly, one of the most effective members of the Cabinet. His attempts to correct the slow turning of wheels of justice is much needed, and if he were to leave it would be a great loss to the country. May I humbly request Ven. Gnanasara to step down from the position, to not only avoid embarrassment to the government but also prevent the country losing the services of an able minister, a rare commodity nowadays. Perhaps, he can continue as a member in view of his experience regarding the grievances of the moderate Muslim community.
Another obvious lapse is the lack of a Tamil representative in the PTF. This anomaly can easily be rectified by the appointment of Mrs. P.S.M. Charles, who is eminently qualified to head the PTF. She, who served as Jaffna District Secretary, held the positions of the Director General of Customs and the Secretary to the Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medicine, before being appointed the Governor of the Northern Province. Someone of that calibre and experience is needed to head a Presidential Task Force.
The need of the day is consensus, to get our problems solved, not madness.
Dinesh Gunawardena’s call
The call by Dinesh Gunawardena, son of that famous Left Leader Philip Gunawardena, who stood steadfast to protect his ideals for the sake of the poor downtrodden, has said ‘stakeholders must protect the government’.
We elect our representatives to Parliament, based on promises they make during election times, and if the government fails or introduces laws not announced at election meetings, then the responsibility of our representatives is to criticise such action; if the government does not heed their voice, our representatives should be prepared to cross over or resign.
The duty of an MP is to stand by the voter, and not the party he belongs to or is aligned to. Were the voters informed that dual citizens would be elected or appointed to Parliament?
Let me conclude by reproducing the last verse in an apt poem by Sir Walter Scott titled:
“LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL [MY NATIVE LAND]”
Despite those titles, and pelf
The wretch, concentered all in self
Living shall forfeit fair renown
And doubly, dying shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung
UNWEPT, UNHONOURED AND UNSUNG”
People try to wish away the following: the pandemic, especially the impact aggravated by unwise actions of those in charge; ever increasing cost of living, driven by product shortages and excessive money printing; gas explosions, due to unauthorised changes in gas composition and mismanagement; having to stay in long queues to collect gas, milk powder, rice, sugar, kerosene; lack of fertiliser and agrochemicals, by pursuing organic agriculture goals, leading to crop failures and possible food shortages; Inability to attend schools and universities, and the lack of e-learning tools and internet facilities; unauthorised and illegal land grabbing, deforestation, sand/gem mining and human-elephant conflict; unannounced power cuts, due to lack of petroleum and malfunctioning power plants; failing to uphold the rule of law and justice systems, suppressing democratic rights, and inconsistent policy and administration, with several gazettes and frequent revocations; extremely high levels of perceived corruption, wastage, money laundering, nepotism and cronyism; sale of national assets and grant of long term concessions, without best practice valuations; misallocation of scarce natural resources, lack of fiscal discipline, pursuing egoistic/high commissions linked projects, ignoring the priority needs of the poor and vulnerable segments; mismanagement of the external sector, unprofessional external debt management sans debt restructure, channelling short term high cost borrowed funds to pay long term external debt, overvalued rupee, export sector being distressed by disincentives:
Unwise and ineffective foreign relations, failure to optimise networking options with international agencies, especially the IMF and the UNHRC politicisation and ineffectiveness of key independent public institutions, law and good governance, accountability, empowered ministries and departments.
All these appear to originate due to unprofessional, arrogant, egoistic, childish and rent-seeking governance by the regime in control of the executive; and will deter value adding FDI flows, low growth, high twin deficits, rating downgrades, and possibly excessive stress on the citizens of a country heading towards a failed state.
With the voice of advocacy of the caring professionals and civil society mostly dulled, the business chambers placing all blame on the pandemic, and saying the governance action could not have been any better; the executive and leadership in governance promising to fulfil all remaining actions leading to ‘splendour and prosperity’ over the next three years; the legislative opposition overshadowed by the two-third majority of the party in power; activists and social media harassed, and the traditional media divided, with the few who correctly report and bring to surface bad governance, breakdown in law and order, corruption and engaging in investigative journalism pressurised; all eyes, ears and attention with hope is to the Judiciary, as the only saviours of democracy, rule of law and good governance.
The Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution excludes socio-economic rights, and Sri Lanka is not a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the above context “Suo Moto” epistles are an essential need in the current governance environment?
“A Suo Moto cognizance is a Latin term which means ‘an action taken by a government agency, court or other central authority on their own apprehension’. A court takes a Suo Moto cognizance of a legal matter, when it receives information about the violation of rights or breach of duty through media or a third party’s notification.
In India, the Constitution lays down the provisions for filing Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court and High Courts, respectively. This has given rise to the court’s power to initiate legal action on their cognisance of a matter. Suo Moto’s actions by Indian courts are a reflection of activism by the judiciary, and captivated the general public with the speedy delivery of justice by the courts. Suo Moto cases in India are generally taken up by the Supreme Court. The Indian Judiciary has been undoubtedly holding the baton for democracy for the past few years. In numerous instances, different High Courts and the Supreme Court have risen to the occasion, by taking cognisance of a legal issue on their own, and providing swift justice. Various courts in India have initiated legal proceedings on their own, based on media reports, telegrams and letters received by aggrieved people, taking a Suo Moto cognisance of the issue.”
1. The Supreme Court of India has during 1990-2021 taken up 46 cases ‘suo moto’ without any petition being filed, or interest being brought before them.
2. The best recent example of the judiciary entering in to protect and promote the interests of the citizens also comes from India; where “The Supreme Court of India slammed the Centre and state governments for their inability to present a crystal-clear way forward to combat the menace of air pollution in the national capital. A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, and comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant, after hearing submissions of counsel of the Delhi government and Central government, said it needs clear answers on steps to curb air pollution in the capital, which has become a yearly phenomenon for the past several years.
Justice Kant told Delhi government counsel that nobody understands the plight of farmers and under what circumstances they are forced to burn stubble. “People sitting in 5-star and 7-star facilities in Delhi keep accusing the farmers (contribute four percent and 30 or 40 percent to pollution). If you have a scientific alternative (a resolution) … let us look at it, rather than blaming farmers…”, said Justice Kant. The Chief Justice pointed out that according to an IIT Kanpur study, stubble burning and firecrackers are not main contributors for pollution. The bench pulled up the government and bureaucracy for not doing enough to curb air pollution. The bench said the bureaucracy has gone into inertia and they don’t want to do anything. “Bureaucracy developed paralysis…all these things we have to say — how to use sprinklers, how to stop vehicles…they do not want to take any decision”, said the bench, slamming the attitude of bureaucracy. The bench emphasised that somebody has to take responsibility and everything cannot be done through judicial order. It pointed out that firecrackers were burnt in Delhi despite a ban.
Citizens and civil society believe that the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), currently under a forward looking, courageous leadership, demonstrating by its advocacy that it cares for common citizens and is ready to step in to protect citizens impacted by bad governance, must now seek strategic ways and means of promoting “Epistolary Jurisdiction”; which involves “Invoking writ jurisdiction by a court itself on the basis of any letter or information or any news published in newspapers “which ? can ensure enjoyment of some the very basic fundamental rights by the poor and lay man such as: right to protection of law, enforcement of fundamental rights and equality before law. On this point, this jurisdiction is pro-bono publico in nature. On the other hand, some critics think that it may invite judicial activism in the administration of justice, which should not be in a strict sense. Some think that judicial activism should not lead the judges to transgress the limits of judicial functions nor attract them to intervene into executive policy decisions unless any act of the executive is violative of any provision of law or the Constitution”.
BASL must actively pursue options for getting the judiciary to follow some good practices adopted in yesteryears, by judges such as Justices Mark Fernando and Ranjit Amerasinghe, in showing the way with ‘suo moto judgements” and engaging in judicial activism.
Govt. stubborn on organic manure from China
According to media reports, it is evident that the Government is hell-bent on importing organic manure from the same company that supplied the first shipment, rejected by the Plant Quarantine officials of the Department of Agriculture (DOA). We are aware that US$ 6.9 million of Valuable Foreign Exchange (VFE) has been paid to this company (when the country is hard pressed for foreign currency) as compensation for the manure rejected due to obvious reasons viz. contamination with harmful microorganisms.
This VFE thus paid as compensation could otherwise have been used to import the much-needed chemical fertiliser. for which the farmers are rightfully clamouring. It was also reported that the Minister of Agriculture is planning to get a new SLSI Standard established, to facilitate this importation.
First things first, and it will be best for the authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Government, to sit for a while and study the Plant Protection Act No.35 of 1999, without losing time – better late than never. According to provisions and regulations under this Act, commercial quantities of organic manure cannot be imported to Sri Lanka. Only small samples of such materials can be allowed by the Director General of Agriculture, who is the implementing authority for the Plant Protection Act, and such samples can be used only for laboratory research work and cannot be added to the land.
As a retired officer, who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, I am aware that no amendments have since been brought to the Plant Protection Act to change the provisions referred to above, and the regulations thereon. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether such amendments can ever be brought, since plant quarantine is an issue that cannot be compromised on the whims and fancies of Governments, and is subject to international covenants/agreements, as health issues pertaining to plant, animal and human life are involved.
Whatever standard that the SLSI establishes for organic manure imports, as per the request of the Minister of Agriculture, will have to comply with the aforesaid provisions of the Plant Protection Act. The so-called fresh shipment, if it is called organic fertiliser/manure, will necessarily contain a concoction of microorganisms, coming in bulk from a foreign environment to that of ours, and this itself could be disastrous, That is exactly why Plant Quarantine Services, the world over ( including Sri Lanka), are so strict in adhering to the relevant regulations. ( In this regard, we are all aware of the havoc created by the tiny Corona virus that, in fact, originated in China.)
In the event a fresh shipment comes, and if the Plant Quarantine officials act in the same manner as they acted when the first shipment came, strictly on scientific principles and in keeping with the regulations, the new shipment should get rejected if the material is really organic manure. So once again are we going to pay a massive compensation and lose VFE once more at this critical juncture; when we are in dire need of the same, to meet basic requirements? It is felt the Government should even at this late stage reconsider its policy on importing commercial quantities of organic manure/fertiliser, which no farmers ever wanted, and hence stop it forthwith, without getting this country into a further muddle.
The best is to produce organic manure/fertiliser on-farms as much as possible, due to the hassle of transporting over large distances, the way it was practiced by some farmers earlier, too, and use it as a soil re-conditioner; along with chemical fertiliser, which will give the much-needed plant nutrients in appreciable quantities, to achieve the required yield levels which will be sufficient to meet the national targets. Organic farming per se has been and can be practiced in Sri Lanka in niches over the years; it is nothing new and is known to give low/moderate yields at high cost, for special markets. Organic farming can never cater to our total national need, and the Government needs to understand this fact and reconsider its policy.
A.B. EDGAR PERERA
Retired Director/Agricultural Development
Ministry of Agriculture
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