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More reality on fertiliser debate

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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.

Dr UPATISSA PETHIYAGODA



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Opinion

When Susanthika did Lanka proud

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As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.

The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.

Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.

As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.

That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.

As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.

Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.

So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.

Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.

LALITH FERNANDO

Panadura

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Opinion

Give teachers and principals their due

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Why didn’t the Education Minister and the Secretary pay due attention to the fair voices of the most vulnerable and largest service sector of this country, at the initial stage, making the alliance of teacher-principal trade unions proceed to street protests, which started in the absence of any positive gesture from the Ministry of Education? That is how the present state of chaos originated.

The prolonged online teaching strike has kept the younger generation of all school-going children in darkness, and their right to learn has been deprived of. Blaming the teachers is not the solution. What is required is the right solution at the time of need. The unions are demanding the implementation of the Subodhini Committee report, plus the Cabinet subcommittee proposals, in a gazette notification. It is more sensible for the government to respond to this final flexible stance of the unions, rather than prolonging the issue with temporary solutions.

The strikers of the teacher-principal unions are not ready to give in to the temporary sugar candy sachet which is a pretty ridiculous joke, a consolation allowance to dodge the crux of the problem. Plastering or patching up the situation by offering an allowance of Rs. 5000 for three months is a shame to the teacher community. Such an allowance should be allocated for COVID-19 affected people of low-income or refugees in flood-affected regions.

What could have been broken with the nail was allowed to grow to the extent that it couldn’t be crushed even with an axe. Successive governments disregarded the demands of teachers and principals, treating them as nonentities; although the ungrateful present-day politicians rose to their present high positions because their bright lives were designed, brain powers sharpened and heads enlightened by teachers.

Although all teachers are not saints, the majority of our teachers are worthy of veneration. They are the architects of nation-building. They must have sufficient pay for a decent living, commensurate with the commitments and their toil. With an ungratified mentality, they may be unenthusiastic to discharge duties. Under such circumstances, the process of nation-building will collapse. So far, they have been doing yeoman’s service but they can’t continue to do so amidst the rising cost of living and unfavourable living conditions. When the salaries of all other employee categories have been brought to a satisfactory level, why does the government not heed to their demand?

In response to the mounting pressure from the teacher-principal trade union strike, the government appointed a cabinet subcommittee to produce another report to solve the problem; but it turned out to be a futile attempt, akin to changing the pillow as a treatment to the headache, wasting the valuable time of both parties. Such a committee should comprise experts from the education field, not from the lobby with the loquacious MPs who are in the habit of suspending and postponing everything until the next budget. On the other hand, what is the need for piling up further committee reports, when there is already a much-quoted and assumed fairly balanced Subodhini Committee report, which has been formulated by a panel of members comprising a former minister, four additional secretaries, and the accountant of the Ministry of Education.

True that the government is in dire straits with financial difficulties, but that is not a sound reason to postpone this issue. If so, why should the government introduce new megaprojects, such as 200 city beautification programmes, import of luxury vehicles for MPs and walking tracks, which are not critical requirements. The problem of teacher salary anomalies could be solved by holding such long term, not so urgent schemes.

The proposed four-phased payment of the salary increments is a nice way of circumventing serious demands of trade unions and yet another fairy tale. It is a way of escaping the main responsibility.

To illustrate this point, let us take the case of the state employees who retired between January 2016 and December 2020. All government employees including judges, ministry secretaries, directors, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces personnel, and mind you, a former director-general of the Pensions Department, was entitled to a revised salary increment system in five stages starting in 2016, and final amalgamation of all increments, due to be paid with effect from January 2020. The salary increment rates are clearly stated in the pension award letter issued by the Director-General of the Department of Pensions, which is a legal document to confirm the claim.

The present government unreasonably cancelled the (2016-2019) pensioners amalgamated salary increment of five stages, by the circular 35/2019(1) dated 20.01.2020 following a cabinet decision. More than 100,000 pensioners have been victimised and deprived of their fundamental right of the salary and sad to say, nearly 1819 pensioners have already died without getting their increments. But the government so adamantly refused to pay up and adopted a slippery policy with various cock and bull stories.

The basis for the development of a country is the education system, spearheaded by the formidable workforce of teachers hailing from Aristotle and Disapamok. All of the so-called thriving politicians; garrulous speakers who look down upon teacher communities; professionals, academics, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, inventors, artists, all of these are the intellectual outputs of the dedicated energies of humble teachers who never gave priority to building highrise palaces for their self-indulgence and luxurious lives. Not to let it happen again and again, they deserve to be freed from this muddle of salary anomalies at this critical moment.

Finally, a word about the mediation of the Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, who are urging the alliance of the teacher-principal trade unions to give the strike up , and restart online teaching. May I appeal to the venerable prelates to be fair to all. Could you, in your respected designations, kindly convey the same message to the government, asking why it is not taking an initiative to resolve this burning issue, by issuing a circular or gazette notification, without postponing it off further, for the sake of the innocent school children?

M.B. NAVARATHNE

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Opinion

Ivermectin for COVID-19 management

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Prof Saroj Jayasinghe’s candid view, published in The Island of September 17, 2021, on Ivermectin use, both in treatment and prevention of COVID-19, has been based on scientific analysis of multiple meta-analyses on the subject. Therefore, his educated opinion must be viewed with great positivity.

Quite correctly, a doctor has to make decisions in good faith in an emergency situation, where any delay in the commencement of treatment could be disastrous. In a life-threatening condition, the treating doctor has no time to wait and waste until the evidence is available scientifically. Instead, the doctor has to make a decision using his clinical acumen and experience in order to save the life of the patient under his or her care.

Another example is: In an instance where an unconscious patient is brought to the accident and emergency department with life-threatening bleeding after an accident, the treating surgeon has no time to obtain the patient’s informed consent (usually a requirement before any surgical procedure), but to attend to (perform surgery on) the patient in all-good faith, in order to save the life. It may require even the amputation of a leg or hand.

Hence, treating a critically ill patient with Ivermectin is more than justified, particularly in the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 as a public health emergency. Further, under this context, the usage of Ivermectin in the prevention of COVID-19 is quite justified. Since no antiviral drug is available hitherto, its usage is further warranted.

As mentioned, Ivermectin is a time-tested and safe drug with no known serious side effects. The call for its usage in the management of and prevention of COVID-19 is time appropriate.

A veterinary surgeon, Prof Asoka Dangolle of the University of Peradeniya, has also expressed his opinion based on his experience with Ivermectin in mammals. In the current context, the world’s attitude is much in favour of the ‘One Health’ concept.

Therefore, in a helpless situation or pandemic of this nature, the consideration of the use of Ivermectin in all good faith is justifiable.

Prof ANANDA JAYASINGHE

Professor in Community Medicine

University of Peradeniya.

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