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“Selling the Family Silver” and India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations

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by Dr. Sarala Fernando

A remark attributed to the US Congress that “Sri Lanka is a valuable piece of real estate” had made the news here hinting at the strategic value of our island location while some had connected the remark to the MCC, an economic project integral to the US pivot to the Indo Pacific. This sudden interest in Sri Lanka’s land assets made the headlines after Harvard economists in 2016 advised on the incorporation of a land project under the MCC to address constraints to national growth by a re-survey, re-valuation and deed grants on lands around the country. Local experts argued that such a programme would lead to pressure on smallholders to sell land to more powerful entities for commercial exploitation increasing rural poverty, environmental and wild life destruction and water scarcity.

The Harvard economists and the MCC have come and gone. However, it seems the spirit of their view of land as a commodity is still alive judging by recent government decision to release nearly 1.5 million acres of other state forests to be repurposed for development work. This has become a hot topic of discussion and environmentalists have filed court cases to revert to the previous protection provided to unrecognized forest covers. The silent constituents, the trees and the animals have felt the brunt of this decision with the increased deforestation and destruction of mangroves, the killing of large mammals like elephants and even our prized leopards and most recently hundreds of birds found dead, probably poisoned, off Wilpattu. Are there criminal gangs behind the sudden spate of shooting of tuskers and snaring of leopards, questions still not answered by the authorities?

The government focus on land has extended to the urban areas where long standing wholesale markets, social and sports clubs have been taken over by the UDA with scant explanation of the reasons behind the seizures and plans for redevelopment of these valuable lands (urban housing/recreation for the public?). Selling lands, the equivalent of the proverbial “family silver” is to be expected in these extraordinary times where Sri Lanka has heavy foreign debt obligations. However since the government land acquisition strategy remains opaque, without consultation or explanation of any business plan, public protests are now spreading even to non-agricultural foreign investment proposals ranging from allocating the ECT terminal in Colombo port and the KKS port to India, to mining of titanium from sands in Mannar – a water scarce area – to an Australian company .

Land issues came to the fore early when the Tourism authorities set up a one-stop shop for new hotel construction despite the crisis in the hotel industry with the Covid epidemic and drying up of tourist flows. In other countries, empty hotels are being taken over by the government and converted to new uses like urban housing; however our authorities seem more concerned about allocating land in water shortage areas like Kalpitiya and Mirissa for 600 room hotels, so called “foreign” investments promoted by local barons. In Yala, a new foreign managed hotel has suddenly emerged and is said to be destined for those “high spending” East European tourists irrespective that Yala is suffering from over-tourism and the animals are more in need of food and water. Added to the confusion, in parliament it was announced that the source of the second wave of Covid infection had been traced to a Ukrainian pilot and now the public is in a panic over the pilot project to bring in hundreds of Ukrainian tourists.

Public protests are spreading in agriculture areas with the Mahaweli authorities demarcating lands for large scale foreign investment taking from forest reservations and commons, dislocating animal feeding grounds and overriding even the demands of the local villagers for protection of their rights to customary land and forest use. A recent news item featured the Agriculture Ministry offering Rs 700 million to local farmers to grow fruit for a foreign multinational company which will provide the plants and drip technology and presumably buy the fruit cheap and retain the export earnings for its own profit! What will be the value addition for the government if they have also provided tax concessions for the foreign investor? Even more serious, what will be the negative impact of these tasteless new hybrids on our heritage varieties of delicious local pineapple and bananas?

Once the valuable land is allocated, the promised foreign money transfer may not even take place, the foreign investor’s preference usually being to bring in little foreign exchange and to borrow from local banks. Thus, when there is trouble, the “footloose” foreign investor gets away leaving local banks and insurances saddled with non-performing loans. From the time of the Greek civilization, people have been lamenting over the vagaries of weather and other threats invariably faced by agriculture, which makes large scale operations a risky business. The problem is that tax concessions are being offered today to promote large- scale agriculture without the safeguards to prevent expensive failures.

Even local large plantation companies are finding it difficult to operate today with all their experience, given the issues of soil depletion, non use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer and rising labour costs. Yet it seems an intrepid developer with more experience in seafaring than agriculture had demanded 40,000 acres to grow maize – (mind you he may not have heard about the fallworm crisis). Fortunately those in charge of the Mahaweli lands had allocated only 5,000 acres for a trial project but still this is hardly a good example of due diligence which should look for experience in agriculture rather than the usage of prison labour, as announced by the entrepreneur.

Before it is too late, we should learn from the experience of our neighbour India. I recall a lecture by the eminent Dr M. S. Swaminathan many years ago at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (then Sri Lanka Institute of International Relations) where he prophesied that the intensive agriculture “green revolution” would eventually render barren productive areas of their country due to heavy chemical applications degrading the soil. In India today, they are returning to traditional farming practices to revive the soil, re-foresting and trying to connect the farmer to the markets. Instead of cattle grazing on open land, sheds are being constructed within the village and herders encouraged to bring feed to the cattle.

Should we not even now look to small, smart and more sustainable practices to make small farmers more independent? Talking with farmers growing organic high value rice varieties on their lands in Wellawaya with support from Jetwing, it seems they still have faith in traditional practices, calling the mechanical harvester “boothaya” and preferring to bring down buffaloes from Bandarawela to the tractor!

Bangladesh is tapping the Indian experience in elephant conservation which is a new area of their bilateral cooperation. Private sector investors in India have recently set up a hospital for treatment of sick domesticated elephants with ultra modern equipment. Here in Sri Lanka, despite the interest of private philanthropists, the government appears unwilling to give land for an elephant sanctuary or “soft” release area for translocated bull elephants.

A central question is why, as a Buddhist nation, Sri Lankans have not included into the Constitution, the protection of animals and living creatures as illustrated in every step of the Gautama Buddha’s life journey and his preachings? Even today, many proposals to strengthen the environmental safeguards and ethical treatment for animals have been sent to the Committee to prepare a new Constitution, but no one has even received an acknowledgement! By contrast, the Indian Constitution is way ahead of us, Article 51-A (g) which deals with Fundamental Duties of the citizens states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.”

 

Our land endowment also includes the small islands, over 100 around the mainland, enabling extension over expanses of territorial seas. Instead of pushing only commercial fisheries, should the government not think about declaring a marine sanctuary zone all around our island, a domestic security Zone of Peace with proper management safeguards for national land and maritime resources? Sri Lanka received too many multi-day boats after the tsunami, several of which have been converted to nefarious purposes like illicit immigration and smuggling. Furthermore, why prioritize investment in commercial fisheries at a time when global attention is being called to cleaning the oceans, replenishing fish stocks, restoring coral reefs and mangroves affected by rising sea waters and ocean temperature rise? Protecting our seas and coastline should be given high priority since our island is in the vicinity of some of the busiest sea lanes in the world and vulnerable to disasters such as New Diamond oil tanker which caught fire off the East Coast. Cooperation with India has been vital in this regard throughout the years as they have access to both expertise and stocks of fire fighting foam which can be quickly deployed.

While enhancing cooperation with India in addressing marine disasters and security issues such as smuggling, illicit immigration and terrorism/criminal related activities of mutual concern, as a small state with no pretensions for offensive power projection, we should feel free to disagree with India on the imperatives of high defence spending and partnering with the US on security manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean with their latest weaponry. The recent Malabar naval exercises by the Quad in the Bay of Bengal and naval sonars are believed to have impacted the unprecedented beaching of some 100 pilot whales in Kalutara around the same time, rescued after a marathon effort by our navy and volunteers.

 

(Sarala Fernando, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and her last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Her Ph.D was on India-Sri Lanka relations and she writes now on foreign policy, diplomacy and protection of heritage).



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Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small

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‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.

However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?

Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.

Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?

It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.

The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.

However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.

The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.

For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.

For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.

The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.

In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.

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A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention

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The need of the hour:

BY Dr B. J. C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.

It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.

More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.

Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.

Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.

The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.

We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.

 

This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.

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Kudurai Madiri Pona

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The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.

Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.

Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.

We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.

His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.

The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.

That’s when I decided to change the tide.

‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.

‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.

“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”

That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.

On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”

I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.

That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.

The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.

I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,

“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.

I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.

Kudurai Madiri Pona

– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.

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