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More reality on fertiliser debate



In common political discourse, it is seldom that differences in measurable facts form the basis of debate. It is a reason for some satisfaction, that the current divergence of opinion on the merits and demerits of “going organic”, for providing harvests that growers expect from them, is a healthy change. The ability to apply basic principles to specific situations is an important purpose of science education. Therefore, discourses of the present type, must be a measure of how virile and healthy our education system is. This trend should be encouraged, away from the drudgery and monotony of personality politics, that currently dominates and trivializes.

Plants (and by extension, live-stock), require a great deal from the environment, fertiliser (nutrients) is one. There are three principal elements (N, P, and K), a few more (Mg, Ca, S, Fe) as median, and six or seven Minor (B, Mn, Cu, Zn, Si, Co and Cd). There may be differences of opinion of what elements are considered “essential” and which of the groups they fall into – but this is of marginal concern, for the present. These “minerals” enter the plant through their roots (always as a solution). Some are of geological origin (by the weathering of rocks) and others from additions as manure (organic) or fertiliser (inorganic). Plant roots are capable of some discrimination – taking what they need and ignoring what they do not, from the soil solution. They are not particularly bothered whether they come from factories or waste dumps!

It is rather intriguing that the elements Aluminium and Silicon, being the most abundant (the “Framework/scaffolding” of soils are alumino silicates), yet have no special position or function in soil dynamics!

Elements that enter the plant go into structural (e.g. Nitrogen in protein and enzymes, Magnesium in chlorophyll Calcium and phosphorus in cell wall structure and so on) – some also intervene in reactions which constitute “life”. The Trace Elements (as Vitamins), are in this category (as catalysts or coenzymes). Potassium is special, as far as is known, it is not a part of any structural entity, nor does it take part in any reaction, even as a co-enzyme or catalyst. Yet, no plant (except a microscopic Alga, Scenedesmus sp) , seems able to do without it!

Soil has fascination when considered as a microcosm, parallel to what goes on upon its surface. It is a World of its own, with a “mineral sector,” deriving from its rocky parent, transformed physically and chemically into aggregates according to particle size (Gravel, sand, silt, clay and most importantly, a ‘colloidal‘ fraction). In the present discourse, the last is the most important. And in this mix, is the fascinating kingdom of the soil biosphere. The throbbing populace of bacteria, fungi, worms, earthworms, insects, ants, termites, snails, slugs and mice abound in a World of their own. Among the bacteria are those that can “fix” nitrogen in the air (nitrification) and those that reverse this (denitrifiers). Some live within the root nodules of legumes – that is one reason why beans should be an important component of crop rotations. This is part of that intricate machine – The Nitrogen Cycle.

The term “organic” has come to mean much more than merely the origin of nutrients. It also requires that no “synthetic” pesticides, weed-killers and “performance enhancers” have been employed. In sophisticated markets, the tag can only be used for products conforming to strict observance of rules, and with prior registration with a licensing authority, who also monitor and certify compliance. Interested readers may wish to access “Biodynamic Farming” on the Internet. In certain senses, it carries a strong message about the wisdom of a “return to nature” approach, incorporating elements of traditional (empirical) wisdom. It is a mix of myth, astrology, astronomy, logic, spirituality, voodoo, Feng Shui and Science. Whichever way one may look at it, it is a fascinating study. In practice, it seems that Australian farmers, (with their massive Farm Size) have taken to it in a big way.

I am unaware of the local situation in respect of “Organic certification”. We may have unknowingly gained a “head start” by the very fact that our “negligence” may have simplified approval of some products – of striking potential (eg. Jak). Whoever manures a jak tree?, leave alone pest control sprays! The so-called “Kandyan Peasant Garden”, usually symbolic of the lazy owner, can become the beacon of an “organic farming “culture! When a person was asked, “Why do you grow a beard?” Responds “I don’t grow it, it simply grows!” Or, when asked, “Are you now retired?” Replies “No, I am just plain tired!”

Apologising for that diversion, to get back to the subject, ignoring the usual irrelevancies of “inferior Western Science” Plots to destroy our farmers, sell their land to rapacious foreigners, Bribed researchers and such rubbishy generalisations, there are some valid points.

(i) Heavy metal and toxic elements entering the food chain. Leached excess phosphates leading to algal blooms in waterways. Contaminants (eg Fluorides, Arsenic, Lead, Aluminium, etc.) by polluting factories.

(ii) Entry of materials hazardous to human health, eg. weed-killers like Roundup (glyphosate). There is much greater risk of say, antibiotics and other medications through deep litter composts.

(iii) Depletion of soil fertility by exclusive reliance on inorganic (chemical/mineral) in the long term. This emphasises the need to evaluate fertility in terms of Physics as much as Chemistry. Texture, aeration, moisture retention, compaction, erosion, adsorption, binding, release, immobilization. In short – as encapsulated in classic Buddhist Philosophy as Apo, Tejo. Vayo and Patavi !

In summary, the problem really revolves not between the use of mineral/chemical/ artificial versus organic/natural/ carbonic, but really the damage possible through abuse of either. This is the crux and if anything, it should lead us to be more mindful of the abuse of fertiliser or any agrochemical input. Greater focus on optimising, and not merely on maximising.

There is no gainsaying the fact that promotion of compost, done sensibly and methodically, will close the circle for a sustainable “nutrient cycle”. Where in theory, that all that leaves the field is only what constitutes the “crop”, all else is recycled – as dropped leaves, twigs and “agro-waste” being composted and returned. This would be on a “home-garden” scale and can get by with a good extension service to provide guidance, and where possible minor inputs, like composting bins and by arranging markets for on-site surpluses. If centralised production is desired, a major effort would be to procure the raw materials on a larger scale. Obvious candidates would be coir fibre dust, paddy husk, water weeds (Salvinia, Japan jabara, Habarala). It was heartening to hear that massive quantities of bagasse from the sugar factories of Pelwatta and Sevanagala are available.


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Talangama Wetlands in danger due to highway sanctioned by CEA



I read with great interest the following articles published in the Sunday Island and Daily Island, “Proposed elevated highway across wetlands provokes uproar” by Randima Attygala and “De-gazetting and Re-gazetting Gazettes” by Jomo Uduman. Then I came across another article in the Sunday Island, “Some politicians, businessmen don’t understand value of wetlands -Amaraweera “.  The Minister of Environment said this while addressing the media on World Wetlands Day and also stated, “The government had taken legal action against those who destroyed wetlands. Anyone who destroys wetlands will be brought to justice,” Minister Amaraweera also stressed that it was the responsibility of everyone to protect the wetlands.

The Talangama Wetlands is a gazetted EPA as per 1487/10 of 2007 where permitted uses are only fishing, bird watching and paddy cultivation. Shockingly, this very same Minister of Environment  has on 15th July 2021 signed an amendment to this gazette to also permit a four lane elevated highway to be built over these wetlands! This has been done while there are three Writ Applications pending in the Appeal Court pleading for the preservation of these wetlands as per this gazette. Is this possible? Can he and the CEA be in contempt of court? Why are they not considering the practical alternate route proposed by Prof Sarath Kotagoda? Are we seeing mega skulduggery in action here?

We also hear that a Chinese Company will build this elevated highway over a period of four years. The eating habits of many people in China are driving endangered animals there to extinction. Their favourites include monitor lizards, snakes, owls, eagles, exotic plants and small mammals all of which are trapped, killed, skinned and eaten.  According to the National Wetland Directory of Sri Lanka, 41 plant species, 90 bird species (13 are migrants), 12 species of reptiles, 10 species of mammals and 15 freshwater fish species have been recorded from the Talangama tank and its environs. How can we ensure that all of these fauna and flora will be preserved and not consumed during the four years of construction and the 15 years of operations thereafter? Will there be any left thereafter?Ministers and other public officials never answer queries from lesser mortals like yours truly.  So I do hope Mr. Editor that your newspaper will ask the Minister of Environment how and why he signed such a damning amendment to gazette 1487/10 of 2007.  Both gazettes are attached for your reference.

As the appointed custodian of the country’s environment, particularly the Environmental Protection Areas (EPAs) the Minister is accountable not only to the present generations of  the country, but also, to the unborn future generations, including the living animal and plant  species who are  without a voice, concerning the protection and preservation of their habitat and  environment. 

Denver David Hokandara

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Disguises of belief and disbelief!



A young father is bathing at the not so deep garden-well with his two kids and the bucket suddenly slips into the well. The little girls look distressed. Their dad thinks that it’s a good opportunity to have some fun at their expense. He pretends to be reflective for a few seconds and tells them that they had better let the bucket be in the well so that the fish could bathe with it! The kids seem scandalized and look at each other and at the father disbelievingly. The father enjoys his joke immensely- for a few seconds, though.

The elder kid picks up the bar of soap ingenuously and drops it into the well telling him “The fish need soap too, don’t they?” Now, it was the poor father’s turn to look dismayed- he had been too slow to have divined what she was up to. That’s hardly the climax, anyway. Down goes the towel next and the younger kid says, “Oh, don’t they need a towel too?” A visibly upset father whose sense of humour is no match for that of his progeny knows not where to put himself. True, the two scamps had looked confused at the beginning – but only for a moment. Next they pretended to believe that the fish actually needed soap and a towel, so that they could afford to have the last laugh by turning the tables on their father.

The episode narrated by a much wiser father to a sniggering audience of officemates the next day might provide comic relief to a layperson’s idle thoughts about belief and disbelief. Did the father succeed in wheedling the girls at least momentarily to visualize a weird shoal of fish bathing with a bucket? How did they, after recovering from the fleeting confusion, build on a blatant falsity to give it a preposterously logical end? Is there a neat fact/belief and fiction/disbelief pairing? Do we use trust and doubt at our own convenience to play the life’s game? Let the experts seek definitive answers. The rest of us may speculate.

Both belief and disbelief accompany us to the grave. They are not averse to sleeping in the same bed, and life is sure to be worrisome if you choose to hold on to one to the total exclusion of the other. And, each of them comes in handy every now and then. It seems as though scarcely anybody could live a normal life without judiciously shifting between these two states of mind- belief and disbelief, or, as some may call them – the twin gears for “cruising in life.” Perhaps, a person newly diagnosed with a terminal illness may find himself amidst the strongest currents of belief and disbelief; the others would navigate between the two consciously as well as unconsciously to the end.

Take children for example. They are natural skeptics and believers at once. Many parents find themselves out of their depth when their children start asking endless “why” questions about anything and everything they see, starting from things like the moon, fire, cow, puppy, shadow, wind, rain, sky or stars and moving towards “metaphysical” questions about birth, ageing, time and death. Even well-informed parents get stumped when they are called upon to explain why the moon and stars wouldn’t fall, why mommy and daddy too have to die one day or why dead people wouldn’t talk, much less wake up. Often the “explanations” need to be fashioned to suit their level of comprehension- so the parents think. The kids continue to believe in them with waning conviction as months and years roll by and sagaciously drop them in favour of more acceptable pieces for the jigsaw of their expanding “universe.”

Some kids “suspend disbelief” long before they hear of Coleridge. As children become smarter or “prematurely mature”- as some hardnosed adults may choose to describe them, they become more and more skeptical about their parents’ obviously guarded explanations on “delicate topics.” They discreetly “suspend disbelief” to avoid embarrassing their parents. Very few of them who may perhaps happen to google Coleridge later would remember that the latter’s counsel to his readers was a trick they had warily used as children to make their parents enjoy their own unimpressive “stories.” Thus, it is hardly likely that they would ever recall using the selfsame trick to optimize their harvest of goose bumps on their arms as they sat cuddled up on the lap of their grannies to listen to the adventures of the brave podi gamarala.

Feigning belief is not the exclusive preserve of children, although the two brats in the above anecdote made use of it to outsmart their father who subsequently became famous among his colleagues for his unlucky ingenuity. Clever grandparents play the same game when they readily believe that their grandchild, who suddenly gets a tummy ache on a Monday morning, is too sick to attend school. When the kid “recovers” too soon and asks for a piece of chocolate to go with the breakfast, she realizes that grandma’s credulity has a sting in the tail. The old lady wouldn’t hear of letting sick children eat sweets- she needs plenty of convincing that chocolates wouldn’t make a stomachache far worse!

Often there is little difference between feigning belief and believing- in the former you deceive the other; in the latter you deceive yourself, although you won’t often be aware of it. Take any instance where you are accustomed to taking something as a fact because you have believed in it for ages. For example, you believe that the two people whom you have called “parents” all your life are your biological parents – of course, no reason to verify unless something serious happens to make the identification necessary. So is the case with your siblings. It’s the unrivalled example of an intimate term of family relationships gradually acquiring the nuances of an established biological fact.

However, if you were to ask your “parents” to prove their parenthood, you would be considered weird or, worse still, insane. Such a doubt would surely be made to seem irrelevant and redundant by convention. However, in rare situations requiring scientific validation, such “irreverent” identification would be perfectly in order. As such, under ordinary conditions, our habitual belief as regards family relationships amounts to more or less culturally-sanctioned and convenient self-deceit. Here, what should be highlighted is that a perpetuated belief can often pass for fact leaving you to be ignorant of it all your life. Of course, many would hasten to point out that such ignorance is harmless, sure enough.

Generally, we are hardwired to believe. We believe what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Life would be practically impossible if we refuse to believe what our five senses communicate to us. For example, you suddenly spot a snake on your path but choose not to believe what your eyes report to you; you will immediately pay the price. In fact we have been relying so much on our physical perceptions that we hardly factor in “belief” in the transmission process. In other words, the vital role of “belief” in our sensory perceptions is taken for granted. Don’t we unconsciously provide proof of this when we say, “I could hardly believe my eyes.” As such, disbelief, with regard to physical living, is often the exception.

Faith in sensory perceptions is rarely challenged. When we look at the tree out there we ‘know’ that it is there and the question of “belief” scarcely arises. Yet, let’s take another example. Just as the tree in the garden, we “know” that there are stars in the sky, but we are told that perhaps some of them may not be there now, which immediately makes it clear to us that what we thought we knew was possibly an illusion. Only a scientific explanation of the phenomenon helps us to see our mistake.

So, we naturally take what we perceive through our senses to be a fact, and asking for proof is deemed redundant if not hilarious. However, we don’t necessarily have the same sense of complacency when it comes to responding to an explanation. For example, although we don’t ask for reasons to believe that stars are there, we ask for reasons if we were to believe astronomers when they claim that some of the stars visible now may have died out centuries ago. Thus, taking belief with a pinch of disbelief may perhaps make matters in life a little more wondrous and above all serendipitous.

Bernard Shaw is perhaps a bit too disparaging of belief when he says: “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

Susantha Hewa

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A tribute to Panadura hospital vaccination staff




After many days of hesitations, reluctantly I joined the long queue of people to get the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccination for Covid-19 on Tuesday around 11.15 AM at the Panadura base hospital. It was not a very long queue comparatively as I had seen the queues on previous days.

The queue was along the pavement beside the parapet wall of the hospital. There was one security guard manning the queue. As we entered the hospital premises all were requested to fill a form each and those were collected and taken to another place by a staff member. Then we were asked to sit on the beds (no chairs) that were arranged inside a nicely built makeshift enclosure with a roof to protect all from the sun.

There a pleasant male staff member (may be a doctor) neatly clad in the official attire, briefed us about the process, the vaccine, it’s after-effects if any and other related facts. Although pressed for time, he addressed all aspects that we should know. It was truly informative and a pleasure to hear.

Within a few minutes, people in batches were asked to proceed to a close by building. While we were standing near the building a nurse brought cards which were filled by the hospital office staff accordingly with the data provided by us. Then we were asked to go inside the building where the vaccinations were given. I did not feel anything although the vaccine was given to me in a matter of a few seconds. I came out of the hospital around 12.20 pm.

The date of the next dose is also mentioned in the card given to me.

The entire hospital premises were very clean and the well-maintained garden was full of flowering trees.

On behalf of all I wish to thank the Medical Superintendent and the doctors of the planning department for a job well done giving enough convenience to the general public. Also. to all staff members that we came across as they added luster, honour, stature and dignity to their respective professions when treating all of us.

Lalith Fernando


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