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Need for more accommodationist policies in the new year

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

 

By Jehan Perera

As the new year dawns, the government appears to be moving in the direction of more inclusivity in both domestic and foreign policy. The most contentious domestic political issue over the past nine months, and growing in intensity to include public demonstrations, has been that of the disposal of bodies of persons who succumb to the coronavirus.  The Sri Lankan claim to be exceptional in the world in respect of the practice of enforced cremation has been met with the opposition and increasingly public agitation of the Muslim community to whom burial is a matter of religious faith and is a human right guaranteed under the constitution and international law.   Until recently the experts in the medical and scientific field consulted by the government and elevated to government committees were adamant in taking the position that burials should not be permitted on safety grounds. 

The willingness of the government to go ahead for over nine months with a policy that has been challenged both on scientific and religious grounds both locally and internationally needs to be understood.  Muslim countries worldwide have joined hands to ask the Sri Lankan government to respect the right to burial.  However, the proponents of cremation, both amongst the scientific community and general public, have a worldview that is centered around their own ethnic identity and its historical experiences.  They see the need to assert their dominance or risk losing ground as occurred in the distant past.   When these primordial fears are set in opposition to those of the ethnic and religious minorities who are vested with equal citizenship rights, and in addition are contrary to international practices, the outcome is bound to be contested, divisive and harmful to the country as a whole.

A more recently appointed expert committee by the government, on the issue of the disposal of bodies of Covid-infected persons has adopted a more pluralist perspective and recommended both cremation and burial as options.  This will provide the government with a science-based rationale to change the present policy that has divided the country.  It will be to the credit of the government that even as it moves towards accommodation within the country, it is moved to accommodation in the foreign policy sphere as well. The government’s ability to eschew polarization in foreign policy can be seen in its ability to tide over the foreign exchange crisis by negotiating to raise USD 3.5 billion in currency swaps from China and India who are rivals on the international front as well as in relation to Sri Lanka where they have both being vying to take the first place.  In recent years the Chinese presence has increased significantly in terms of economic enterprises operating within the country including the country’s ports.

 

INDIAN SUPPORT

With Sri Lanka being just 30 km away from India and having overlapping territorial seas that can harbour security threats to itself, it can be expected that India would have concerns about Sri Lanka’s growing closeness and dependence on China for both economic and political sustenance. The Sri Lankan government would have no interest in taking sides in the rivalries of China and India and making itself part of a big power struggle by siding with one over the other.  The decision to lease out the Eastern terminal of the Colombo port to an Indian-owned company, which is in partnership with the Japanese government, can assuage Indian concerns regarding China’s potential security threat to itself by giving them also a similar presence in the country’s ports. This is a positive action as India is not only physically close to Sri Lanka, but is also culturally close, which makes it the closest to Sri Lanka in more ways than one.

For the past three decades since the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, India has sought to be a benefactor to Sri Lanka offering more and asking for less. The cynical actions of the Indian government in the early to mid-1980s, when it decided to train and arm the Tamil militancy that pushed the country into a protracted ethnic war will always be remembered in Sri Lanka.  However, the Indian efforts to make amends needs to be appreciated.  During the final decade of the war, India gave its military and diplomatic support to overcome the LTTE threat.  The amends that India has made comes in three important ways.  The first is economic, in which India has emerged to be among the top three aid donors along with China and Japan. Indian economic support is wide ranging including the construction of railways, providing housing for war victims, ambulances countrywide and educational scholarships.  India has also offered to sign a free trade agreement which Sri Lanka has not been prepared to accept so far due to fear of being overwhelmed by much bigger and wealthy Indian economic enterprises.  

The second area of India’s support has come in the form of political support in international forums, particularly those in which Sri Lanka is politically vulnerable due to its blemished human rights record due to wars and authoritarian rule when it was capable of doing much better.  In the votes taken at the UN Human Rights Council, India invariably voted along with Sri Lanka in opposing international sanctions of any sort being imposed on Sri Lanka.  Only once did it abstain from voting for either side in 2014.  India’s support has been particularly helpful to Sri Lanka as it provides leadership to other developing countries which tend to look to India for guidance. The forthcoming session of the UNHRC in Geneva in March will be particularly important as the issue of the UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 will be coming up, and the present Sri Lankan government’s unilateral withdrawal from commitments made by the previous government will be taken up.

 

PROVINCIAL COUNCILS

The third area of Indian support to Sri Lanka has been in regard to supporting a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the country that has dogged it since the time of Independence and which successive government leaders have tried to bring to a conclusion.  The current framework of devolution of power which is suited for ethnically and regionally diverse countries such as Sri Lanka is an outcome of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord of 1987.  It induced the Sri Lankan government to amend the constitution through the 13th Amendment to establish Provincial Councils.  This was a challenge that previous Sri Lankan leaders, starting from S W R D Bandaranaike in 1957 to Dudley Senanayake in 1965, had attempted to do but failed.  The early models of devolution of power, which those earlier generations of leaders proposed, would have given the ethnic minorities the power of limited self-government in the areas in which they are a majority.  They were akin to asymmetrical devolution as they were not meant to be operational outside of the Northern and Eastern provinces. 

It was India’s pledge to stop the ongoing war with the LTTE by disarming it that prompted President J R Jayewardene to give the necessary political leadership to ensure that the 13th Amendment was passed into law.  This constitutional amendment provided the framework for devolution of power on a uniform basis to the entire country rather than to the North and East alone on the principle of one country, one law, which the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa champions.  The Provincial Council system has been in operation for over three decades.  Those who have been a part of the system and been chief ministers and government officials within them have expressed their belief that this system can be improved.  The ethnic minorities, too, support the system of Provincial Councils but the ethnic majority and nationalist politicians are opposed to it. 

The decision of the government to further postpone Provincial Council elections till the proposed new constitution is formulated is an indication that the present government or some of its leaders may wish to amend the Provincial Council system or eliminate it entirely.  However, there are also other reasons that may have motivated the government to make this decision, including the widening Covid infection and the expense involved in holding the elections which could be used for other urgent purposes.  In any event, if the Provincial Council system is to be modified, abolished or replaced with another system of power sharing, this needs to be done with the concurrence of the ethnic minorities and not be unilaterally imposed on them.  At a time when Indian is supportive of Sri Lanka it needs also to be kept in mind that India lost the lives of over one thousand of its soldiers to implement the Indo- Lanka Peace Accord, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was the co-architect of the Accord also lost his life as a result.  Any change in the system of devolution of power needs to be a considered one.



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Sinharaja world heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

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As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul

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The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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