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Omicron could hinder economic revival of SL

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In the immediate term, all political parties in Parliament should bury their respective hatchets, and agree on a political truce for the next two years. They could take the next step and agree to form a national government, or a national governance council, for two years. The theme of such a government or entity, should be responsible governance as the most important political activity now is responsible governance.

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Sri Lanka’s dependency on export earnings, foreign remittances and tourist earnings for its survival has made it very seriously vulnerable to the effects of the latest COVID mutant, Omnicron. If it spreads and international travel restrictions become widespread, foreign remittances and tourism earnings will take a hit, and it could be a mortal hit for Sri Lanka which is already on the brink of bankruptcy.

The government appears to continue with its show of confidence that the economic situation of the country will be resolved. Increasingly, governance ineptness, infighting within the government, a seeming lack of leadership, is dashing the hopes of many people who bestowed their hopes on the President and the government. Government’s media strategists appear to be in a stupor as they have failed to pro-actively capitalise on the positive activities of the government. They have become a reactive, ineffective force.

The Opposition, like a set of Vultures, is sniffing a political opportunity thinking and hoping they will have a carcass to feed on soon. Some other politicians continue to wax their eloquence on everything that is wrong but never offering solutions as to how the wrongs can be made right. The TNA and some other North Eastern Tamil political parties act symbolically like the three Monkeys (the deaf, blind and mute) when it comes to national issues as they seem to be giving the impression they are interested only in the welfare of the Tamils in the North and East and not Tamils elsewhere, let alone the Sinhala and Muslim people.

The situation in the country reminds one of Sybil Wettasinghe’s children’s story “Labugediye Thoilaya”. Sri Lankan politicians of all hues appear to be inside the labu gediya, participating in a political ritual to ward off evil forces that have afflicted Mother Lanka, while the labu gediya has been swallowed by a large fish as described in Wettasinghe’s story.

In contemporary Sri Lanka, the labu gediya could be equivalent to the Parliament, and the fish, to the country’s foreign debt which could very likely and very soon, swallow the entire country along with the politicians and unfortunately, the people of the country as well. Some may say not so cynically that the Parliamentarians won’t be missed if so swallowed!

The naivety of the Opposition is only superseded by the reported reliance on personnel similar to devil dancers in the Labugediye Thoilaya by the powers that be, trying to ward off evil that have afflicted them and the country.

For the sake of the country, and the future generations, one can only hope that this collective tomfoolery ceases, and immediate remedial measures taken to keep the country afloat until the global economic situation shows positive signs of a sustainable recovery.

Dire need for a political truce

In the immediate term, all political parties in Parliament should bury their respective hatchets, and agree on a political truce for the next two years. They could take the next step and agree to form a national government, or a national governance council, for two years. The theme of such a government or entity should be responsible governance as the most important political activity now is responsible governance.

What should be the key tasks for a national political consensus when it comes to responsible governance? There are many. However, three key areas are mentioned here.

A stable economic
management structure

In the current and foreseeable future, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will be able to earn enough foreign exchange to sustain itself, unless the entire foreign debt repayments are delayed at least for two years by mutual agreement with the lending entities. Considering that 45% of the foreign debt is in the form of international sovereign bonds falling due in the short term, this is going to be a hard task. However, mechanisms will have to be found to do this.

One avenue would be to seek IMF assistance to take over the short-term foreign debt component with a longer term, low interest long term repayment arrangement. This alone may not be sufficient and IMF assistance may also be needed to augment foreign exchange needs for import of petroleum, food items and medicines.

IMF conditions for such support will be stringent, but Sri Lanka is slowly but surely heading towards a disaster and may not have any other choice left to take but to agree to such measures.

This is where a political truce becomes critical. All governments of Sri Lanka have contributed to the perilous situation the country is in, and today, the Opposition cannot afford to blow their trumpets saying they can do better, considering they contributed hugely to the perilous state of the country with their ineptness for four and a half years, prior to the advent of the current government.

So, the problem is a creation of all previous governments, and therefore, the solution, too, has to be worked out by all political parties who have been a part of a previous government.

A political consensus achieved through a two-year truce should engage in some high-level priority policy settings on economic management, foreign policy, defence, food security, energy, environment and education. These key areas should not be treated like political footballs as they have been for the last 73 years endangering the hopes of future generations.

Measures to curb corruption

Secondly, there should be a consensus on measures to curb corruption, the bane of the country’s society and which has a direct impact on the much sought-after foreign investments. The instability of the Sri Lankan rupee with official rate for a US dollar being Rs 203 while the black-market converting it at around Rs 240, and the real value of the US dollar suspected to be more than Rs 300, show the volatility and the instability of the Sri Lankan rupee and why many would-be investors are not investing in Sri Lanka. Besides this, it is widely known that bribery adds another impost to any would-be investor, and the suspected range of this impost is reportedly anything from 10% to 50% of the value of a project.

Corruption has become endemic in the country and curbing it is in the hands of politicians as they are the ones responsible for introducing it and propagating it to the heights it has come to now. They need to enact new laws if what is there is not sufficient, but very importantly, they need to leave the justice system and the law enforcement system to carry out their tasks and responsibilities WITHOUT interference. A strong anti-corruption body with strong teeth, including judicial powers, is needed to instil some fear in potential bribe takers that they and their families could be called upon to pay for the crimes committed and languish in jail even for the rest of their lives depending on the severity of the crime. Everyone, from the President downwards, must be subject to anti-corruption laws and punishable irrespective of whether they are in office or not.

Legal framework for media operations

Thirdly, some measures should be taken through such a political consensus to determine how the politicians and the public should act to facilitate responsible governance via the media. A consensus on a legal framework for media operation including, very importantly, the social media is needed.

Social media, in particular, has become the repository and the facilitator of genuine news as well as fake news. Some information that is circulated via social media platforms is highly irresponsible and harmful to the very society in which such platforms provide the avenues to proliferate information.

While the intent should never be any curtailment of media freedom, responsible governance essentially has to be considered as a two-way process where those governing and those being governed should take equal responsibility about what they say and do. There may be many measures that could be taken to introduce a framework for all media operations without impinging on media freedom.

In this regard, Danushka Medawatte in an article titled Freedom of the Wild Ass (https://danumedawatte.wordpress.com/2015/09/26/freedom-of-the-wild-ass/)

states quote “Law is an ass” says Charles Dickens. This certainly seems to hold true in the light of the freedom that is enjoyed by media through the protections granted by both domestic legal systems and international law. While I am reaping the benefits of freedom of expression in making these claims, it needs to be highlighted that certain freedoms require to be curtailed and/or reviewed in order for the other rights to exist. At present, it is possible to note that some journalists exercise their freedom of expression in a manner harmful to the society. It is questionable whether such practices should be upheld in light of several recent circumstances. While freedom of expression is, without a doubt, one of the most important rights that perhaps functions as a premise for other rights, it is important to establish the framework within which one may swing one’s fist without striking another’s nose”

Medawatte encapsulates the view of all fair-minded citizens about democracy and media freedom.

Essentially, media freedom must be accompanied with responsibility as irresponsible circulation of unchecked, unverified, inaccurate and harmful information is not a characteristic of being responsible. Since politicians are tasked with the responsibility of reviewing and enacting laws, a political consensus becomes critical in ensuring that any media operation law including social media, has across the board support and does not become a political football to be kicked around by political parties.

Major social media platforms are under scrutiny throughout the world, and bona fides of some companies are in question as they have created an impression that revenue and revenue growth is what matters to them and not the means they provide to the good, the bad and the ugly, to propagate information and misinformation, with noble intentions as well as ignoble intentions. The proliferators of irresponsible information, using social media, need to consider whether they are doing a service or a disservice to the society and the country they live in.



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Opinion

Territorial mindset, a recipe for disaster!

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By Chani Imbulgoda

I recall a documentary on animal life on a TV channel. Describing the behaviour of lions, a caretaker said, “These lions are from the Dehiwala zoo. They are vigilant of other lions entering their territory, if one crosses the boundary they fight to death. They won’t like other lions entering their territory.” The announcer remarked, “Just like humans!”

Exactly, just like us. In the animal kingdom the survival of the fittest is the norm and not crossing others’ territory is a rule of thumb. Since the beginning of human civilisation there have been tales of battles. The Trojan war, Alexander’s, Caesar’s, Napoleon’s wars degraded human values. Saddled with cynicism, hostility and jealousy, we humans, like beasts, are at war with ‘others’ who do not fit into our ideologies or our comfort zones. History is a storehouse of tales of human battles over territories in the guise of civilisation. So-called civilisation itself was won over battles. In the local context, the native ‘Yakkhas’ were massacred by Prince Vijaya to develop ‘Sinhale’. America, Canada, Australia inherit a dark history of looting territories of indigenous people in the name of civilisation. Portugal, Spain, Britain tasted the blood of their ‘colonial slaves’. Centuries later, we have not yet shed our primary animal instincts. We battle tooth and nail to protect our territories, our autonomy, values and interests all in the guise of civilised behaviour.

We rarely welcome outsiders into our territories. In the 40s and 50s, women were kept out of men’s territory. Late British Prime Minister aka Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, had to struggle many years to break through another of man’s territories, the Parliament. In the movie ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley’, she sobs to her husband that contrary to what she previously believed, despite hard work she cannot win on merit and that dedication and passion are irrelevant. One-time Prime Minister, Edward Heath condemns Thatcher’s outspoken nature to force her out of politics. Heath says that the Parliament is akin to an orchestra made up of many musicians and Thatcher is a French horn more loud than appropriate, that threatens the orchestra’s harmony.

This is how men and also women of the same flock air their resentment towards outsiders, in their own words ‘intruders’ who are colourful and loud in action. Insult, indifference, suspicion, suppression, oppression are not uncommon experiences of pioneers in anything in history or at present. I once heard a senior Professor advising a young colleague attempting to change the system for the better, “Lady, look, do not swim upstream, people would not like it.” Yes, despite good intentions any novel act breaks the harmony…That is why the Buddha had many foes. That is why the notorious thief Barabbas was chosen by the crowd over Jesus.

I tried to uproot a tiny cinnamon sapling that grew through my interlock pavement blocks, failing which I crushed it. It made me realise that this is what happens, no matter how valuable you are. If you crop up in a place where you would not be accepted, every effort is made to root out, failing which, crush you, to ensure that you would not resurface. I suppose many of us had faced similar circumstances at work places, in politics or within social circles. Why does this happen, because of ego, envy, distrust or insecurity? Or because someone deemed a threat by another individual, a leader or a group enters their territory?

A pack of wolves has a leader; the protection of lions’ territory is the responsibility of the leader; the leader is the first to announce danger. No outsider can cross the boundary. We see certain lions, wolves and foxes as alphas. The mentality ‘I am the boss, I know everything’ blinds them. They live on ego, with a superiority complex, under the assumption that no one can challenge their power. If the newcomer is meek and sucks up to the leader, he or she survives and can slowly squirm their way into the pack.

I have heard parents complain about how difficult it is to enrol their kids into various sports clubs in schools. I have worked in private as well as public sector organisations, local and overseas. I have experienced antagonistic behaviour in these organisations. Driven by their insecurity, superior or inferior complexes, they would go to any lengths to harass the outsider and go to any extreme to protect his or her territory. They are myopic to the point of rejecting ideas foreign to them no matter how good they are, as they see ‘danger’ in ideas alien to them. Some group ideologies are thicker than blood. Certain professional groups rarely welcome females. They believe that women cannot meet challenges as men do and can be fiercely territorial. Many qualified and capable individuals are ostracised from organisations or industries or expelled from positions because of this territorial mindset.

A person with a territorial mindset is often overcome by thoughts of safeguarding or enhancing his or her power, control, influence and self-proclaimed status. These are primitive emotions. Taking ownership and defending what people believe belongs to them is a positive trait. But it is this mentality that subjects newcomers to agony when they grow too smart for their own good. They are stifled when the power of those with a territorial mindset is threatened. Many novel ideas and skills go to waste while some newcomers or ‘misfits’ are forced to leave their workplaces, others would continue the fight or be forced to conform.

We talk of harmony, reconciliation, tolerance and unity in diversity. Why cannot we synergize each other’s differences? A French horn would add glamour and at least amuse the audience. A garden consisting of a variety of flowers is more awe-inspiring than a garden of roses alone. Poet Khalil Gibran said that when a river enters the sea, the river is no more, it is diluted in salt water and one cannot trace the river in the sea, but the river grows larger and so does the sea. When we come out of our confining shells we are exposed to greater opportunities as well as benefits for both the newcomer and those already in that society.

(The writer holds a senior position in a state university and has an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management [PIM], Sri Lanka and is currently reading for her PhD in Quality Assurance in the Higher Education Sector at PIM. She can be reached at cv5imbulgoda@gmail.com)

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Faulty decisions

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Farmers protesting against the prevailing fertiliser shortage. (file photo)

The importation of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides was banned by a Cabinet Memorandum, dated April 27, 2021, to promote the use of organic fertilizers and natural pesticides. As a result, inorganic fertilisers such as urea, Triple superphosphate, Muriate of Potash and other agrochemicals (insecticides, fungicides etc.) became scarce. Agriculture Ministry in the meantime promoted manufacture of organic fertilisers (OF) but they were unable to get sufficient amounts of organic fertilisers manufactured. Most of what was available were of low quality with high C/N ratios. Agric. The Ministry is yet to produce natural insecticides, fungicides, etc. Thousands of farmers, all over the country, started to protest demanding that inorganic fertilisers and appropriate pesticides are made available, because they knew that these agrochemicals are necessary to get better yields from the crops they cultivate. The Soil Science Society of Sri Lanka, representing mostly the Soil Scientists and Agronomists of Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association, the professional body representing the agricultural economists of Sri Lanka predicted massive economic losses due to potential yield losses, with the implementation of the import ban on fertilisers and pesticides

In spite of all these protests, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) continued to ban import of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides, This caused immense economic and social problems to the people in general and to the farmers in particular. Farmers who cultivated Paddy in the current Maha complain of a reduction in the yields, and those who cultivated vegetables and other crops had to bear up a substantial decrease in quantity and quality of their produce. Production of maize decreased, resulting in a drop in poultry feed.

Reduction in local rice production made the government importing large quantities of rice from China and Burma. Food prices have increased causing thousands of people mainly the poor, going hungry resulting, health and social problems. Incomes of nearly two million farmers got reduced which affected their buying capacity resulting in numerous undesirable effects such as increasing unemployment, poverty and related issues. Tea small holders complained of reduction in quantity and quality of tea affecting their income, and also a decline on foreign exchange earnings which those in the Finance Ministry, Central Bank and other relevant institutions are frantically searching. All these are the result of the ban of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, a faulty decision.

In August, the Cabinet removed the ban probably realising the utter foolishness of the decision to ban import of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides. However, it is too late as it takes time to import fertilisers and other agrochemical which were in short supply due to the ban.

The main reason given for banning importation of inorganic fertilisers was that it caused chronic kidney disease with unknown aetiology (CKDU). Several research studies have been conducted since the year 2000, when it was reported to occur in some parts of the country. The findings of these studies do not indicate that there is any relationship between CKDU and fertilisers. CKDU has not been reported in many countries such as China (393 kg/ha) India (175 kg/ha) and United Kingdom (245 kg/ha) where the amount of fertilisers used per hectare is much larger than that of Sri Lanka (138 kg/ha). Note- the fertiliser consumption data given are for 2018 and are based on values given by Food and Agriculture Organization.

The growth rate of Sri Lanka has declined after 2015 . It dwindled to 4.5% in 2016 and 3.1% in 2017 and in 2020 it was -3.6 %. The Trade Deficit ( the difference between exports and imports- TD) shows a decrease but at present it stands at 6.1 US$ billion. Exchange rate continued to increase from Rs. 111 to a US $ in 2010 to Rs, 186 in 2020. Currently it is around Rs. 200. According to Central Bank, External Debt in Sri Lanka increased to 51117.43 USD Million in the third quarter of 2021. These figures indicate that Sri Lanka is heading towards an unprecedented economic crisis. Hence, the government need to implement appropriate strategies to increase exports and reduce imports.

Sri Lanka annually imports food worth Rs. 300 billion. Most of the food imported such as sugar, milk food, lentils, onion, maize, etc., involving around Rs. 200 billion can be locally produced, thereby reducing expenditure on food imports. In view of the current shortage of foreign exchange, it has become extremely important to promote the production of food locally which hitherto have been imported. The plantation sector, which includes tea, rubber, coconut, cashew, sugarcane and minor exports crops such as cinnamon, cardamom, cocoa ,plays a very important role in the economy of the country earning a substantial amount of foreign exchange, Hence, it is important to implement strategies to increase the productivity of the food crop and plantation crops sectors. Inorganic fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and herbicides play a very important role in this regard.

However, the Government is emphasizing that organic fertilisers (OF) are used in the coming yala season as well . Those in the government who made this faulty decision need to realise that OF can never replace inorganic fertilisers and that it can only be supplementary. They need to give serious consideration to the bitter experience of the farmers who applied OF to their crops during the current Maha. The Government needs to understand this fact and reconsider this faulty decision if they want to increase local food and export crop production.

In the year 2022, there will be a severe shortage of food negatively affecting food security, unless the government implements a realistic and effective programme from the beginning of 2022 to solve this issue. Implementation of foolish decisions such as to replace inorganic fertilisers with organic fertilisers, as done in 2021 is not going to solve this problem. Among the 17, he Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015, several are related to increase crop production. The Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka has a responsibility for coordination, facilitation, monitoring, evaluation and reporting on the implementation of strategies related to development of the agriculture sector in Sri Lanka.

As indicated by Edgar Perera, a former Director of the Dept. of Agricultural Development (Ref. The Island of 17 Jan, 2022) the most appropriate thing to be done is to use OF as a soil re-conditioner along with chemical fertilisers, which will give the much-needed plant nutrients in adequate quantities, to achieve the required yield levels which will be sufficient to meet the national targets.

Dr. C. S. Weeraratna

csweera@sltnet.lk

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Opinion

Have pity on Afghans

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A camp sheltering displaced Afghans.

Is there no end to the torment inflicted on the ordinary people of Afghanistan, by the United States?

Having being defeated militarily, and decamping ingloriously within 24 hours, like thieves in the night, the USA now inflicts starvation and destruction on Afghanistan from a “safe distance”.! Money that rightly belonging to the Afghan State is being withheld by the American dominant Financial system. Let this be a lesson to us.

A report in The Island of 17 January revealed that Afghan families were selling children and their organs in order to survive.

After all, what crime did the Afghans commit in resisting an invading foreign power? Sri Lanka should seek ways of offering direct Aid at least in small ways, to Afghanistan, whether the Americans approve or not.

JAYMAN

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