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Open letter to US

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I know quite well that Americans do not like too much formality, and let me address you by your first name, Julie.

So, dear Julie,

Let me introduce myself first. I am a Fulbright Scholar (1998-2000), and I am extremely proud that I am one. After my Fulbright period, I was awarded a series of other fellowships by the University of Wisconsin to finish my PhD. Before joining the University of Peradeniya, I taught for four years at Cornell University. All those 10 years in the US and the education I received there enriched my vision of life and the world. After my education in the US, I was able to develop as a relatively influential public intellectual and a literary writer. While always appreciating the opportunities given to me by the US, I have always opposed imperialisms of all kinds.

As a scholar in Comparative Literature, I have been a cosmopolitan person all through my adult life, teaching literary works from nearly all the countries of Europe, the US, Russia, Japan, India and so on. In that sense, I am familiar with some of the ‘best thoughts’ happened in those countries, and I have worked hard to familiarise my students with those thoughts. I believe that no single culture can provide everything needed for human flourishing within that culture.

Having established the fact that I am not a parochial nationalist with a heart full of xenophobia, I must tell you this: I am quite active in the on-going protests against our ruling family. With thousands of other Sri Lankans, I too believe that the entire Rajapaksa family and its close relatives, have to vacate their posts in the country’s power structure. You know that more than seventy five percent (75%) of the country budget is controlled by them. The ministerial portfolios they hold are the most powerful ones. That is what they are right now. Or course, a slight change has happened as of today.

You must have seen that there is increasing pressure from people to the ruling family and its cronies to step down. They have no legitimate reasons to hold on to power. People from all walks of life, women, children, even infants, have taken to the streets to send a message to a single greedy family. And some of the key members of that family are US citizens. I do not want to claim that they are your puppets political or otherwise. Real US citizens resist being the puppets of the government; and it is in both democratic and republican tradition. But here in our country, there are growing concerns that the US and other powerful countries will eventually ensure that the Rajapaksas get safe havens, and their loot will also be safe. Speaking of the loot, it is already in such countries in the form of money and property. Given the strength of your intelligence services, you must already know where the Rajapaksa assets are. Some WikiLeaks communiques revealed that the US mission in Colombo always knew that the Rajapakasas were disgustingly corrupt. You must have inherited that knowledge of your predecessors.

I am writing to you to request that you must not, by any means, help this family to escape with their stolen money because that money belongs to the people of Sri Lanka. Perhaps, you can begin right now the process of freezing their accounts in your countries.

What you are witnessing is something historic. Please, do not interpret these as a ‘communist riots’ or something. It has been one of your old cold-war mistakes to see ‘communism’ in all our protests. You, Julie in particular, must give up the perennial habit of hating even a mild form of ‘socialist economic policies.’ With or without that phrase, what we are trying to create is an economic system whose achievements are shared by everyone with relative equality and a sense of justice.

Neoliberal economic programme carried out with your blessings for many decades in Sri Lanka has created a huge gap between the haves and have-nots. The majority of the population has no access to quality education and healthcare. On top of that failure, in the neoliberal ideology, corrupt political families such as the Rajapakasas have robbed the country so bad that we can no longer tolerate this crime. As of today, many people do not have access to the basic needs of everyday life. If neoliberalism was so good, how come it collapsed here within a few difficult months?

When people demand social justice, economic democracy, free education, and free healthcare, and the like, you tend to be alarmed. Here, I am speaking especially to you, Julie. Please stop interpreting those as communist demands; you have all those ideas of justice and democracy built into the US public life and public virtue. Yes. You do not have free health care in the US; but you cannot be proud of that fact. There is significant demand for such things in the US, too. And you have a host of programmes for giving an initial support to underprivileged people to take a shot at a decent life.

Please allow us begin working towards establishing a new form of government formed on the principles of economic justice and democracy. If you cannot help us do that, because of your ideological commitment in the global scene, please do not at least disrupt our efforts.

Julie, your country has an inglorious history of supporting corrupt politicians such as Pinochet, Marcos and so on, as long as they stood with you in the theater of the cold war. Many such enemies of the people ended up living peacefully in the US. In our case, today you are especially obligated to be responsible and considerate because some members of our ruling family are American citizens. You must be considerate of our people, not with a family that happened to have blue passports.

What prompted for me to write this urgently is a slogan in the ongoing mass struggle: “Gota go home!” The ‘home’ in this case is the US.

The family might have already communicated to you that some ‘extremist communists’ are threatening them to step down. They know that a term like ‘communist’ can open up the diplomatic hearts of the West. I am sure you know enough of the corruption of the family. If you want to see social justice, lasting peace, and true democracy in the country, let us see what people can come up with through these struggles. I hope you, Julie, and others in powerful diplomatic circles, will not intervene to save a family of crooks and the failed economic programme they oversee.

Once this is over, and, hopefully, a new structure for the Sri Lankan state is created, you all can help us reimagining Sri Lanka. As an activist related to the National People’s Power (NPP), I like to see significant structural change in our economic system and the state. But by writing this letter, I am not representing the NPP, and let’s see what will really emerge at the end. We do all we can to assure that people will not turn violent no matter how much they are provoked.

If you are interested in justice and democracy in the country, please let the ruling clan know that they must not use violence to stay in power. I hope you do not want to see military rulers in South Asia. We certainly do not want dictators here.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely yours

Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Professor

University of Peradeniya



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Opinion

CORRUPTION IS CORROSIVE AND CONTAGIOUS

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Corruption is the ultimate criminality. It is also a contagion that spreads both vertically and horizontally. It is clearly eating the heart and vitals of our Nation.Corruption is indisputably a dominant reason for our plight. A lot of sanctimonious scoundrels have promised, with monotonous frequency, to “eradicate” this rampant evil. Each event that unfolds in the all-pervasive political arena, serves to increase the public’s revulsion towards politics and its practitioners.

For instance, everything that emanates from the Diyawanna sewer increases the penetration of this diabolical menace. In our early life, parents and schools drilled in developing minds, a compulsion to adhere to the total rejection of lying and falsehood. No more.

The indelible example of this, we learnt, that in developed countries, the newsagent leaves a pile of newspapers in a stack on the front of the shop, with a little label indicating the price of each. A customer would pick his choice and leave the relevant price. Seldom, we were told was there a risk of a cheat betraying this trust. This kind of simple event, makes me an unashamed and unrepentant “Anglophile”!

It appalls me to witness how casually people who should know better, are chronically dishonest and do not deserve the genteel “economical with the truth” label. They should, in our lexicon be simply referred to as liars.

A distressing fact is that the closer one gets to top, the higher the intensity and scale. How then can one address such persons as “Honourable”? I am personally inclined to restrict this “honour” to those who genuinely deserve it. A colleague goes even better – when one such undesirable stands up to speak, he simply walks out. This may seem trivial, but it is symbolically powerful.

Financial impropriety is not all, but an important factor under the general rubric of “corruption”. Why does our Government fight shy of using the readily available listings of the “wealthy” on the Internet? Panama Papers, Pandora’s Box.

The information is shocking. Several are possibly not cheats, but many of their likes clearly are. When somebody with no substantial means of becoming rich, having neither talent nor worth, turns up with stashes of millions of dollars, cannot such be called to account? Is it a question of “He who has no guilt, may hurl the first stone?’ No stones, no guilt”. More likely, Is it a case of “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours”. Lots of back-scratching is evident.

The most distressing feature is the lateral and vertical spread of financial corruption. Some seem to display remarkable ingenuity of changing crises to bonanzas. Nothing is beyond their reach. If that “talent” is employed towards the public good, Sri Lanka can become a brightly shining country, like our often mentioned Singapore.

“Horizontal spread” is where the dishonest in one Institution (say Assembly or Department”), spawns the practice in another. The vertical spread is within such a body, where subordinates are inspired to feel “If it is good for my boss, how can it be bad for me”?

To take a simple scenario. Say, someone is flicking his petrol coupons or fudging his traveling claim, a whole chain of persons participate in continuing the chain, down to the officer who writes the cheque.

This spreads of the contagion of corruption, corrodes and fouls all. When stashes of currency notes are unearthed, it strongly indicates that this is highly suggestive of dishonest acquisition. With such evidence being readily available, it is no mystery why is there no effective follow up action? Is it not strange why these products of crime cannot be confiscated and used to meet our nation’s needs. How so? It seems as though we are displaying the caution of one who is walking on eggs.

Everyone would know about the (James) Bond scam. There are strong suspicions, but again an inexplicable delicacy and neglect of follow-up. In relation to inexplicable and undeclared hoards in banks and safe havens abroad, why have these clearly corrupt treasure troves not been captured and restored to their rightful owners, in this case, the Sri Lankan State. Such action is morally and ethically proper. The usual excuse of “the Law does not provide” is a feeble and unacceptable stance.

I believe that even the famous “Numbers only” accounts held in Swiss Banks etc. have been made more transparent. This is action (endorsed by the UN?), that permitted the gold snatched from the Jews, and national wealth that has been robbed by persons of the likes of Marcos (Phillipines) and the Suhartos (Indonesia). There would be ample space for more.

One understands that such remedial measures, require the aggrieved nations to institute legal action within their jurisdictions. In our case, there are several cases of astronomical amounts held by persons who have engaged solely in “politics” with no inherited wealth or talent, to generate such astronomical wealth. If a dozen or so of such delinquents are showed into jail, there could be little need for future “Aragalayas”.

Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda.

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Opinion

Transformation of agro-food system:

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A culture-based local solution for Sri Lanka

BY Prof Nimal Gunatilleke

The Thirty-seventh Session of the UN-FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) is being held as a high-level Ministerial in-person event in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 19 – 22 February 2024. This was preceded by the Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) held virtually from 31 January to 2 February 2024.

This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

This regionally significant meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is being held in Colombo at a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to keep its head above water in the post-COVID era knocked down for the second time in quick succession by her economic crisis.

A government report and data from the health ministry quoted by Reuters indicates that the people in Sri Lanka are currently burdened with soaring prices, including food, largely caused by its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948.

According to the Central Bank Report ‘rising malnutrition among children has become a forefront policy concern in Sri Lanka amidst heightened food insecurity of households caused by the host of economic and social issues that exacerbated during the economic crisis in 2022’.

The following human health statistics extracted almost verbatim from the Reuters report on Jan 18, 2023, are equally disturbing, to say the least.

The number of children grappling with various forms of undernutrition in Sri Lanka has increased for the first time in at least six years in 2022.

More than 43.4% of the country’s children under 5 years of age are suffering from nutrition problems, according to the report released in October, with 42.9% suffering from some form of undernutrition.

Data available on the website of the health ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicate that the percentage of children under five who are underweight, stunted (low height for age), or wasting (low-height for age) increased in 2022 after dropping steadily since at least 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients, or impaired nutrient utilis ation.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC REGIONAL OVERVIEW OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION STATISTICS AND TRENDS

According to the World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranked the second worst affected country in the South Asian region in terms of wasting among children under five years. Further, underweight among the same group of children remained around 20.0 percent since 2000, while no significant advancement was reported in terms of children with stunted growth.

Meanwhile, the persistent disparities in malnutrition prevalence across regions and economic sectors in the country suggest that nutrition anomalies remain unresolved for a prolonged period. Across residential sectors, the estate sector has become the most vulnerable sector with the highest prevalence of stunting and underweight children under five years. According to the DHS-2016, around 31.7 percent of children in the estate sector are stunted, compared to 14.7 percent in urban areas and 17.0 percent in the rural sector. Particularly child malnutrition represents a deep concern that carries a generational burden.

UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.1

A yet another alarming set of nutrition statistics has been published in the Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, in December 2023 in addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY.

The percentage of people unable to afford a healthy diet in Sri Lanka was 54% in 2020 and the figure has been increasing ever since.

Prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka is 5.3% (cf. India 16.6%)

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity during the period 2020–2022 in Sri Lanka has been 10.9% (cf. Bangladesh 31.1%)

Undernourishment is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, and healthy life. The indicator is reported as a prevalence and is denominated as “prevalence of undernourishment”, which is an estimate of the percentage of individuals in the total population who are in a condition of undernourishment.

People affected by moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have been forced to reduce, at times during the year, the quality and/or quantity of food they consume due to a lack of money or other resources.

MALNUTRITION: SUSTAINABLE

DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.2:

This section reports on four global nutrition indicators: stunting , wasting in children under 5 years of age, and anaemia in women aged 15 to 49 years.

The prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka in 2022 has been 15.9% (cf. India 31.7%).

The Prevalence of wasting among children under 5 years of age from 2015 to 2022 in Sri Lanka has been 15.1% (cf. India 18.7%)

The Prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka is 1.3% in 2022 (cf. 2.8% in India).

ANAEMIA AMONG WOMEN AGED 15 TO

49 YEARS

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years in Sri Lanka in 2019 has been 34.6 % (cf. India 53%).

HEALTHY DIET AT NATIONAL SCALE

In this regard, notable transformations in the country’s food system are essential to deliver a healthy diet for people at an affordable price. These include improving productivity in the agriculture sector along with more innovations and research and development, reducing post-harvest losses, more value addition in the agriculture sector, reducing import dependency on food systems, introducing climate-resilient food crops, promoting a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, particularly through the popularising integrated farming, rebalancing agriculture sector subsidies, and tax policies and improving agronomic practices as well as maintaining adequate food buffers to face food emergencies.

Among the solutions provided at the national level include the provisioning of school meals, provisioning of food/cash allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, the Thriposha program, school water sanitation, and hygiene programs, and the salt iodization programme, among others. Reflecting the impact of these efforts and commitments spanning over several decades, malnutrition among children declined remarkably during the period from 1975 to 1995, with stunting among children below five years of age almost halved to 26.1 percent in 1995, compared to 49.9 percent in 1975, while the underweight child population declined to 29.3 percent in 1995 from 57.3 percent in 1975. However, these trends have reversed since the double whammy started in 2021 with COVID-19.

In addition, some of the small-scale community-level initiatives established under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture such as Hela Bojun Hal (Native Food Courts) are gaining popularity in several provinces in Sri Lanka. These food courts serve a variety of nutrient-rich native food preparations using rice flour, finger millet, local vegetables (leafy porridge), and many other sweetmeats prepared by local womenfolk and sold at an affordable price. Also, there are many beverages and local fruit drinks that are equally popular among the customers.

These food courts providing healthy and nutritious meals are making steady inroads into the food and beverage trade among the health-conscious public from all walks of life including schoolchildren, university students, and blue- and white-collar workers, alike which is indeed an encouraging trend.

If these types of Hela Bojun food courts could be promoted in rural as well as urban schools with the participation of the parents of the schoolchildren under the direction of the school administration and local health and agricultural authorities, it may help to address some of the issues under discussion at the on-going UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference such as undernourishment, food insecurity, and malnutrition. At the same time, it may give a shot in the arm for promoting nutritious food production while ensuring food security befitting the theme of this year’s UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference, which is “Transformation of the Agro-Food System”.

Sri Lanka as the host country’s special ministerial event for this conference has put forward her theme as ‘Agro-tourism in Asia and Pacific – accelerating rural development and enhancing livelihoods’ showcasing agrotourism most likely in the world-renown Kandyan Spice/Home Gardens and as a spin-off of this, the local food courts utilizing these home garden produce too, can be highlighted at the same time.

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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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