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Opinion

Reaching out to unify the nation

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by Jehan Perera

Much is hoped for from the new government which triumphed with an unprecedented 2/3 majority. The fate of the country at this critical juncture depends on the government’s sagacity when the Covid virus continues its rampage throughout the world and the world economy is in decline. There was an expectation of new faces in the cabinet equal to this task and equipped with the professional orientation that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has brought to the fore. However, the exigencies of competitive politics, the need to reward loyalty and those who can bring in the votes appear to have prevailed over the demands of professional competence.

Most of the ministers selected are those from the past, including those accused of various offences and have cases in the courts against them. Particularly disappointing has been the failure to appoint women, with only one of the 27 cabinet ministers being a woman. The equal representation of women at all levels of society is a modern ideal. Those who seek international legitimacy, whatever other failings, would tend to improve the status of women. However, in a rather unfortunate turn of events, the subject minister of women’s affairs is a man, and one who is not known to be a specialist in the field of gender equity.

On the plus side, there are silver linings in the appointments of ministers. The main one has been the government’s discipline in keeping the number of cabinet ministers limited to 30 and under as mandated by the 19th Amendment. This is an act of restraint, as less restrained governments have reached the 50 mark in terms of cabinet ministers in the past. Another encouraging action has been the appointment of Mohamed Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice despite criticism that he has been President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lawyer in a number of cases in the past few years and also on account of his community. By doing this the government has ensured that the cabinet will be multi ethnic and multi religious in its composition as befits a multi ethnic and multi religious polity.

FILLLING LACUNA

For the past six years at least since the anti-Muslim riots took place in Aluthgama, the Muslim community has been the target of a hate and vilification campaign by extremists mainly from the Sinhalese community. Anti-Muslim sentiment got a further boost after the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community. The presidential election of November 2019 saw anti-Muslim sentiment being stoked to fever pitch by members of the current ruling party and its allies which resulted in the Muslim community voting in unison for the losing presidential candidate. In this context, the appointment of Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice can be considered as an act of political reconciliation which will perhaps give the Muslim community the expectation that they can engage constructively with the government.

There is a lacuna in today’s national politics with regard to national politicians who can reach out to the ethnic and religious minorities to make them feel included in the governance of the country and Sri Lankan in their identity. The recently held elections were notable for not having any of the major political parties proposing how they would bridge the ethnic and religious divides. The last of the champions of non-racist politics, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is now battling for his political life partly on account of having been identified with being over-sympathetic to the demands of the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Previous champions, such as former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera are presently out of the political centre stage.

The disintegration of the UNP which Ranil Wickremesinghe leads created a vacuum at the recently held general election which resulted in more than two million voters either not voting or spoiling their votes. There is a possibility of the ruling party claiming a part of these votes. This would require new strategies of reaching out to the minorities. The promise of economic development on an equitable basis and regardless of ethnicity or religion can be a powerful motivating factor at elections. Indeed, the recent elections saw a significant shift in the pattern of ethnic and religious minority votes in relation to the presidential election held nine months earlier. In both the North and East and in the central hills which have large populations of minority voters, the ruling party was able to make inroads both directly and through its political allies.

ENSURING BALANCE

The government’s relative success in wooing the minorities at this election is noteworthy as it has rejected the reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor as unsuitable to the country’s ethos and damaging to national sovereignty. However, the need for national reconciliation continues to remain. Despite the gains achieved electorally by the ruling party and its allies, the electoral map that emerged after the elections continues to show signs of this division. The big majority of seats in the Northern and Eastern provinces went to Tamil and Muslim parties in contrast to the voting pattern in the rest of the country. However, the victory of government allies who promised economic development in parts of the North and East suggests that the ethnic and religious minorities are no different from those in the majority community in seeking to improve their economic situation.

It is significant that several key institutions that were set up by the government as part of its national reconciliation process have been newly allocated to the Ministry of Justice. These are the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), formerly headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations and the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses. Both ONUR and the OMP were engaging in pioneering work at the time that the government changed. ONUR had just embarked upon a mass programme of peace education at the community level and the OMP was beginning to find ways to ease the material sufferings of families of those who had gone missing during the war and its aftermath. These are both worthy causes that need to be supported and for which there was significant international goodwill and support.

The government has indicated that its approach to national reconciliation will lie through economic development which requires both political stability and assurance that those who invest will be protected by the law. Apart from the reconciliation mechanisms set up by the previous government, the Ministry of Justice will be responsible for overlooking the Attorney General’s Department and other institutions which play key roles in ensuring the rule of law. Ensuring a balance between the imperatives of justice, rule of law and national reconciliation are the prerequisites for economic development if Sri Lanka is to live up to its potential in a way that it never did in the past.

 



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Opinion

Achieving food security:Integrated plan necessary

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BY Dr. C. S. Weeraratna
csweera@sltnet.lk

According to United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, “Food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Pogramme (WFP) estimate that 6.3 million Sri Lankans are facing moderate to severe acute food insecurity. This could be attributed mainly to shortage of food and high food prices. The latest WFP assessment reveals that 86 percent of families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether. This unfortunate situation is the result of many factors among which are poverty, unemployment, decrease in land productivity, scarcity of foreign exchange reserves, depreciation of the local currency, etc. The report further states that the production of maize, mostly used as animal feed, is about 40 percent below the past five-year average, with negative effects on poultry and livestock production. Likewise, the production of vegetables, fruit, and export-oriented crops, such as tea, rubber, coconut, and spices, is well below average, causing a significant decline in households’ income and export revenues. The total cereal import requirement in 2022 is estimated at 2.2 million mt. In the first six months of 2022, more than 930,000 mt of cereals were imported, leaving an outstanding import requirement of 1.27 million mt. Given the persisting macroeconomic challenges, there is a high risk that the remaining import requirement will not be met.

In view of this situation, President of Sri Lanka has launched a programme to ensure food security in the country. The vision of this Food Security Programme is to ensure every citizen has access to enough food at a reasonable price to lead an active and healthy life and to ensure that no citizen of the country should starve due to lack of food and no child should be a victim of malnutrition.

Food Security was not an issue in the past. Even a few years ago we were almost self sufficient in rice. But, the foolish decision of the former President of Sri Lanka Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa banning imports of fertilizers such as urea and other agrochemicals affected local production of rice causing us to import rice which has resulted in lowering of food security level. Not only rice production, production of maize, mostly used as animal feed, vegetables, fruit, and export-oriented crops, such as tea, rubber, coconut, and spices, have been affected.

National food insecurity is due to many factors. Among these are wild elephants roaming in some of the dry zone villages causing death to many and destroying crops, Chronic Kidney Disease affecting thousands of farmers in the dry zone, inadequate water supply, lack of reasonable transport facilities, non availability of fertilizers such as urea, and other agrochemicals at correct times, inability to sell the produce at reasonable prices, land degradation etc. House-hold Food Security is closely related to the economy which has deteriorated during the last few years mainly due to drop-in crop production and several other factors. Prices of most food items have been on a steady rise since the last quarter of 2021 and reached a record high in August 2022, with the year-on-year food inflation rate at nearly 94 percent, further limiting the purchasing power of households.

According to Dept. of Census and Statistics around 14.3 % (nearly 3 million) are below poverty level. Unemployment, lack of resource production factors such as land and/or capital are the main factors causing poverty. Ill-health and sickness among family members, addiction to drugs and alcohol, frequently occurring natural disasters such as floods and droughts in some parts of the country, inborn defects such as deformities, blindness, inadequate knowledge on nutrition also tend to affect food security among households.

Land Degradation: One of the important contributory factors for the decline in the productivity of land is Land Degradation. Soil erosion, soil compaction, and nutrition depletion, cause productivity of land to decline, making crop production less profitable. In view of the importance of land degradation, the Ministry of Environment, in 2005, established an expert committee on Land Degradation and mitigating the effects of drought in SL. This committee comprised a number of experts in the field of land management and the main role of the committee was to advice the Ministry of Environment, on issues related to controlling land degradation. At the first national symposium on Land Degradation held in 2010, organized by the Ministry of Environment and the expert committee on Land Degradation, the participants, who were representing many land-related institutions in the country, revealed that a substantial amount of soil/ha/year is lost due to soil erosion. They were of the view that urgent action such as implementation of proper land use planning and the soil conservation and environment act etc. need to be taken by the relevant organizations to control land degradation.

Milk is an important food item for people, especially children. The total annual expenditure on importing milk and other dairy products is around Rs 40 billion. If we are to reduce our trade deficit which is around US. $ 10 billion annually and increase food security, increasing local milk production is important. To increase local milk production, a few years ago, the Government brought down 5000 heifers from New Zealand and Australia. The heifers imported were distributed among middle-scale entrepreneurs in Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Kandy, Kurunegala and Badulla districts. According to newspaper reports the Government had spent Rs. 520,000 per heifer and sold it to farmers at a lower rate of Rs. 200,000. It has been reported that some of the imported cows suffer from Bovine Viral Disease (BVD) and around 200 out of the 5,000 heifers imported to Sri Lanka have died without contributing to local milk production. Simply importing high yielding cattle will not increase milk production, unless they are properly fed and appropriate veterinary services are provided. Cattle imported from countries such as New Zealand and Australia are not acclimatized to local conditions and hence their productivity tends to decline. The farmers complain of insufficient pasturelands to feed the cattle. There is no appropriate programme to cultivate improved pastures such as Brachiaria sp. Napier and CO3. Pasture grasses can be grown under coconut but there was no effective programme to improve pasture production. It is foolish to import cattle to enhance milk production in the country without implementing an integrated programme to upgrade local cattle, making available cattle feed and improving veterinary practices in the country.

There are numerous organization in the country involved in various aspects of food security which is related to several Sustainable Development (SD) Goals. Authorities such as SDG council, Agric. Ministry, Paddy Marketing Board, Institute of Post Harvest Technology, Pulses and Grain Research and Production Authority, Research Institutes etc., need to take cognizance of all these issues and develop an integral plan and implement it if they are keen to achieve Food Security in the country.

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Opinion

Buddhism in challenging times

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

When the Buddha was asked who would be the successor, the unhesitating answer was that it was the Dhamma. He wanted the followers to tread the path, as enshrined in the Dhamma, rather than what we seem to be doing mostly now: indulge in a vast number of rituals invented since. It goes without saying that the behaviour of some members of the Sangha, who are supposed to be the guardians of the Dhamma, has been a significant source of disparagement of Buddhism for some time. Most Buddhists would have cringed to witness the spectacle of a Buddhist monk being taken into custody, for helping a confidence trickster to plunder money from the rich by recommending such pseudo-investments in a trance! In the land-like-no-other, there is a Bhikkhu leading a nurses’ trade union who has got involved in a suspicious transaction of a super-luxury vehicle! Worse still, a political monk had the audacity to proclaim proudly “Sinhala Buddhist dominance is over”, when President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa resigned.

In this milieu, it was so refreshing to see a Buddhist prelate deviating from the prevailing norms. It is the “Way to go” as stated in the editorial in The Island on 14 November:

“Religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks, usually draw heavy flak for ingratiating themselves with politicians. Some of them have even earned notoriety for dancing attendance on political potentates in public and seeking patronage. But the newly-appointed Chief Incumbent of Atamastahana in Anuradhapura, Most Ven. Pallegama Hemarathana Thera, has made a difference. He chose not to invite any politicians when he assumed duties in his new post at Anuradhapura, the other day. Way to go!”

Commenting on the same issue, in an article printed in another English daily, a writer who writes often on matters related to Buddhism has made some strange remarks; he has claimed that the common goal of both religion and politics is to gain political power and abuse it to achieve their ambitions.

Though he does not refer specifically to Buddhism, when taken in context, it is safe to assume his reference to religion is primarily regarding Buddhism. It is very true that the goal of politics is to gain power and sometimes abuse for personal gain than for the good of many. Maybe, some organised religions too attempt to gain power and control using emotional blackmail but such actions are never condoned in Buddhism. What some unscrupulous elements do, hiding behind the Saffron-robe, reflects badly on Buddhism but it is grossly unfair to blame Buddhism for the evil deeds of men in robes.

The aforesaid columnist has said time creates new challenges and a religion has to respond to them for its survival by adjusting its teachings accordingly until a situation emerges when a religion finds it difficult to respond to unique challenges and finds hard to adjust according to new situations.

This view, in my opinion, denigrates Buddhism. Maybe, this critique holds true for some religions but, again, failings may well be due to the inflexibility of the present-day leaders of these religions. However, this does not apply to Buddhism, at all. Since I retired, I have been studying the relationship of Buddhism and science. The more I study Buddhism, the more I find how scientific Buddha’s teachings are. I am referring to the core teachings, not the stories that have been built around which I have criticised in a number of my articles.

My concept of the Buddha is an exceptionally intelligent and compassionate human being who, noticing the all-pervasive sense of dissatisfaction around (Dukkha), pondered over to find the root causes as well as a solution to this problem. After a prolonged journey of experimentation and thought, the Buddha found the way for ultimate detachment (Nibbana). The Buddha’s analysis has stood the test of time and advances of science. In fact, His analysis of the mind has not been surpassed by any.

In the same issue there was a review of ‘Premanishansa’, a Sinhala novel written by Mr Chandrarathna Bandara, which won the best novel award at both ‘Vidoyodaya Literary Awards’ and ‘Swarnapusthaka Awards’ this year. The reviewer has stated:

“‘Premanishansa’ is the ultimate story of love and love is the basis of all value structures that most religions have created. Even though the story traverses mostly on the Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, when it comes to the main premise on which ‘Premanishansa’ is developed and created, it is very clear that it is the Western Christian value structure that has solidified its grounding. The kind of deep love and compassion that we as a country need right now, is the kind of love that ‘Premanishansa’ proposes. The Christian concept of inherent value and dignity of human beings – the idea that all human beings are equal in terms of their intrinsic value is a constant presence in the book.”

Jesus Christ no doubt preached equality, love and compassion, but ‘Christian Western value structure’ is an oft-misused term, by academics who are ignorant of the Asian value systems which are much older than the Western value systems. In fact, for a long time there have been attempts to have us believe that Buddha’s birth coincided with that of Socrates, as most Western values seem to originate from the Athenian period. However, recent archaeological finds have confirmed that the Buddha was born in 563B CE. Gautama Buddha, born half-a-millennia before Jesus Christ and even before Socrates and Confucius, rebelled against the existing order for equality, decrying the caste system which was the great divider of the time, by stating:

Na jacca vasalo hoti; na jacca hoti brahmano

Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman

kammana vasalo hoti; kammana hoti brahmano

By deed one becomes an outcast; by deed one becomes a brahman.

Buddhism was the first religion to offer equality to all including women. Some say that the Buddha showed ambivalence to the ordination of women and it is very likely that the Buddha may have initially had some reservations considering the social milieu of the day.

Unfortunately, attempts are being made to denigrate Buddhism, perhaps due to ignorance at times. However, we Buddhists too should play our part in preserving the Dhamma, which has stood the test of time and challenges of science, by encouraging the separation of religion from politics and getting away from rituals to practice.

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Are ‘clients’ of irrigation projects (farmers) dying of diseases caused by agrochemicals?

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By Chandre Dharmawardana
chandre.dharma@yahoo.ca

Engineer Madinda Panapitiya (MP), writing about “Using existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas” in The Island (30-11-2022) makes a number of claims and suggestions.

1.    One such claim is that “the main clients of irrigation projects (farmers)” are “dying of diseases caused by indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals”?

This is an unsubstantiated claim propagated from at least 2011, as seen from a discussion in the Kalaya website of Dr. Nalin de Silva where he claims precedence to Ven. Ratana in fear-mongering, stating that “Sri Lanka’s food is poisoned by arsenic and other toxins introduced by agrochemicals”. This theme was pushed forward by Dr. Jayasumana, the Natha-Deviyo Clairvoyant Ms. Senanayake, Dr. Sanath Gunatilleke, Dr. Anurddha Padeniya, Dr. Ranil Senanayake and others, various NGOs, as well as Champika Ranawaka, Chamal Rajapaksa and other politicians who launched a program to create a so-called “Toxin-Free nation”, i.e., free of agrochemicals, while ignoring the more important toxin. Many news agencies joined the fear-mongering. The toxins emitted by traffic that burns fossil fuel,  submicron dust, or the vast mounds of urban garbage that emit toxic leachate, toxic fumes,  generate pathogens and spontaneously explode spewing poison into the ecosystem were ignored.

The final banning of all agrochemicals was done by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Agricultural outputs quickly dropped by 40%. When he fled the country due to Aragalaya riots in July 2022, 7 out of 10 families had cut down on food, and 1.7 million Lankan children risked dying from malnutrition – 17% of them from deadly chronic wasting.

That farmers in the Mahaweli area (or anywhere else in the country) are dying of diseases caused by agrochemicals has been discussed and debunked many times in The Island newspaper, as well as in an excellent U-tube emission by the renowned naturalist Rohan Pethiyagoda. I invite Eng. MP to go through Rohan Pethiyagoda’s U-Tube at https://onedrive.live.com/?authkey=%21AJp%2DCX5bpWS4LUo&cid=B41356F321656C67&id=B41356F321656C67%2192406&parId=B41356F321656C67%2192398&o=OneUp so that further misleading statements are not made.

However, if Eng. MP has field data or information that are not well known to substantiate that farmers are dying of diseases connected with agrochemicals, then he should publicise that information.

In fact, the rampant chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) that affect various settlements in the dry zone (e.g., in the Mahaweli C program) are a result of NOT providing clean drinking water to settlers. Those who settled in higher ground away from irrigation water sources dug their own household wells and consumed the well water without knowing that it was rich in fluoride and other electrolytes that cause kidney diseases (see https://arxiv.org/abs/1704.07906 ). So, the blame must transfer to the planners, engineers and politicians who settled farmers in these newly opened areas (in the 1970s) that had not been previously used, even in ancient times.

So, in “using existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas”, a priority concern should be to provide clean drinking water to the farmers, before trying to set up farm factories to get work from people facing CKDu epidemic.

 2.   Eng. MP says that “in this approach, the main purpose of managing irrigation systems is to deliver water to the farm gate at the right time in the right quantity.

That can only be done if there is enough water for the needs of agriculture and power generation. That currently Sri Lanka is not producing enough electricity to even meet its daily needs cannot be a secret to anyone. So any such plan must be integrated with the total management of the hydro-power supply in the context of the CEB national energy plan. Saving enough water and optimising irrigation needs and power needs constitute a major hurdle that will become worse with global warming. One possible inexpensive scheme, which involves saving of water in reservoirs now wasted by evaporation was discussed by me in an article in The Island (12- August-2021 https://island.lk/partitioning-water-between-agriculture-and-hydro-power-to-maximise-sri-lankas-clean-energy-output/). Until such schemes are set up to meet the demand, managers of the irrigation system will not be able to provide water at the right time in the right quantity.

3.   Eng. MP further clarifies that farmers should be treated as clients and not “the servants at the mercy of receiving water, according to rigid schedules decided by irrigation management staff”.

Clients of a utility are people who PAY for the product or service supplied to them. Does Eng. MP propose that eventually the farmers should pay for their water? While this may make sense in a strict market economy, the Mahaweli project, or other infra-structure projects (e.g., roads are not toll roads) in Sri Lanka have NOT been planned that way. Tax payer’s money as well as foreign aid from Colonial Powers who perhaps recognised their role in impoverishing these lands financed the Mahaweli Project. Hence any attempt to charge money from farmers must be purely on a nominal basis, if at all. Farmers should NOT be treated as clients, but as partners in the management process.

4.  Eng. MP also mentions “food production factories”, without explaining what they are. He says that there is a need to minimise the damages caused to the ecosystems where these food production factories are located. Therefore, he says that the management objectives should also be focused on producing multiple types of organically grown crops, profitably without polluting the soil and groundwater aquifers.

Many studies of the soil and water in the dry zone have shown that the levels of agrochemical residues are utterly negligible and far below the danger thresholds specified by the WHO.

Eng. MP supports “organic farming”, without examining the damage to the ecosystem that is inherent in organic farming. Organic methods yield much lower harvests, and hence farmers open up more land to survive, encroaching on the ecosystem.  Control of weeds using water (as in traditional paddy farming) increases the demand for water while manual weeding and tilling (instead of modern no-till farming), all lead to greater erosion.  Furthermore, factory processed organic foods is unsupported by organic markets.

Organic farmers resort to composting which produces large amounts of green house gases. Composting work inefficiently because every compost pit has significant anaerobic regions that produce unacceptable GHGs. As a typical example, research on pig-manure/straw composting shows that methane emissions can be as large as 64%. The obvious solution of ventilating the composter cools the compost bed, reducing the amount of good thermophile bacteria, while enhancing pathogens. More importantly, improving ventilation increases the output of nitrous oxide which is 300 times worse than CO2.

Prevention of formation of such parasite GHGs in composting is difficult even for experienced microbiologists because of variations in the composition of input organic waste, humidity and other factors. Hence more organic farming (now producing less than two % of the world’s food needs), more composting etc., have the potential to catastrophically increase GHG emissions.

5.   The “food factories” that Eng. MP envisages will surely need electricity for their operation as well as for refrigeration, etc. How much power is envisaged? Given the current economic crisis, many people who propose blue prints for progress talk of “rapid industrialisation”, introducing value-added transformations to Lanka’s agricultural and mineral exports and so forth.

 But these are all pipe dreams, as such schemes have two pre-requisites that many planners forget (i) industries need power, (ii) industries need trained technical people, managers, as well as efficient means of disposing their waste products and garbage. All three are currently absent in Sri Lanka, and no effective plans for correcting these short comings are discussed in these blue prints.

In the 1970s, during my time as President of the Vidyodaya University and Professor of Chemistry, I was part of the team that initiated food science, polymer science, and environmental science course units and diplomas. But most of our food science graduates have left the country and work in the USA, Europe, and Australia.  The present day universities, underfunded and firmly in the grip of the JVP and other political parties, are no longer the leaders of scientific education.

So, while there is much to ponder in Eng. MP’s write up, his misleading statements in regard to organic farming, or the etiology of diseases in the dry zone, as well as his neglect of Sri Lanka’s short fall in power production that cripples any development plans, are serious lacunae that he needs to address.

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