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Editorial

Sinharaja in danger

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Saturday 20th March, 2021

Rain forests, known as such due to high precipitation they receive, are believed to be the planet’s oldest eco systems, some which are thought to be more than 70 million years old. They are critically important for maintaining the balance of global climate, which is becoming increasingly erratic. Hence the pressing need to protect these ecological treasure troves at any cost. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan politicians are no respecters of the environment. They seem to think forests are there for their supporters to encroach on; they consider environmentalists who are striving to prevent the destruction of precious forest reserves an impediment to their development projects.

The construction of a hotel in the Sinharaja reserve has given the lie to the government’s claim that the UNESCO World Heritage Site forest is safe. Trees have been felled in an area encompassing seven acres for the illegal construction, according to media reports. But for vehement protests by environmental activists and the media, the government would have continued to turn a blind eye to the forest destruction. The knee-jerk reaction of Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has been to blame the environmental crime on some state officials. He has also expressed doubts about the authenticity of the deeds the owners of the construction site have furnished in support of their claim that they own the land where the hotel is coming up. An investigation is underway, he has said, stressing that the state would take over the land. Such action is long overdue.

Minister Amaraweera would have the public believe that neither the Central Environmental Authority nor the Ratnapura District Secretariat has granted permission for felling trees for the construction of the hotel. He blames the Grama Niladharis of the area and the Divisional Secretary concerned for the environmental destruction. These officials may be made to explain why they have allowed the forest clearance and construction, and action taken against them, but their superiors and the government cannot wash their hands of the offence. Nobody would have invested in a hotel project in a forest reserve without a guarantee from some government higher-ups that his investment would be safe.

Now that the Environment Minister has blamed a Divisional Secretary, among others, for allowing the destruction of a part of Sinharaja, described by UNECO as the country’s ‘last viable area of primary tropical rainforest’, it is not difficult to imagine what will happen if the task of managing sections of forest lands is entrusted to District and Divisional Secretaries.

The management of all forest resources must be the preserve of the Forest Department. The areas that the government has declared as ‘other forests’ and placed under District and Divisional Secretariats must be brought within the purview of the Forest Department. When the government issued a gazette removing some peripheral forests from the purview of the Forest Department and tasking the District and Divisional Secretariats with handling them, environmentalists protested. We pointed out in this space that the government had done so because administrators were easy to manipulate. It is not being argued that the Forest Department is perfect; it has its share of crooks, who are colluding with the logging industry and land grabbers, but, overall, its personnel have the necessary expertise and motivation to protect the forest resources.

Some politically-backed persons are reportedly encroaching on the Sinharaja forest on the pretext of expanding their tea plantations. Protests against these illegal activities have gone unheeded.

In 2019, the then President Maithripala Sirisena ordered that the size of the Sinharaja rainforest (currently 8,864 hectares or 21,903 acres) be increased by annexing the surrounding forests to it so that the protected area would consist of 36,000 ha or about 89,000 acres. Perhaps, this was about the only sensible thing Sirisena did as the President. It is now up to the incumbent government to ensure that the proposed expansion of the forest area will be effected immediately. If the boundaries of Sinharaja are redrawn with more forest lands added thereto it may be possible to ward off encroachers, loggers and gem miners in a far more effective manner. Sadly, the present-day leaders are busy bashing environmentalists and tilting at windmills; the need to protect forests does not seem to figure high on their agenda.



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Editorial

The Grim Reaper in overdrive

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Tuesday 20th April, 2021

April is the cruellest month, one may say with apologies to T. S. Eliot, on seeing the increase in fatal road accidents during the festive season in this country. During the last five days alone, 52 lives have been lost in road mishaps, and about 670 persons have suffered injuries, according to the police. In fact, the number of deaths due to road accidents averages eight a day, and road fatalities receive media attention only when there happens to be an uptick therein. Not even coronavirus carries off that many—for now, at least.

With an average of 38,000 crashes that cause about 3,000 deaths and 8,000 serious injuries annually, Sri Lanka has the worst road fatality rate among its immediate neighbours in South Asia, a World Bank study has revealed, as we pointed out in a recent comment.

Why this unfortunate situation has come about is known to the authorities tasked with ensuring road safety. The traffic police have identified 25 causes of road accidents, prominent among them being reckless driving, negligence, indiscipline, drivers’ lack of knowledge of road rules and regulations, fatigue, human error, driving under the influence of liquor and drugs, pedestrians’ disregard for road rules and safety measures, poor conditions of vehicles and road infrastructural defects. Other causative factors, identified by independent experts, are an exponential increase in the number of vehicles, irregularities in the process of issuing driving/riding licences and lapses on the part of the traffic police themselves.

Given the sheer number of causes of road mishaps, a multi-pronged strategy and a long-term, holistic approach are needed to tackle them. But it may be possible to contain the problem to a considerable extent if steps are taken urgently to deal with reckless driving, indiscipline, driving under the influence of liquor and drugs, and road infrastructural defects. Last month’s tragic bus accident in Passara shook the country, it killed 14 passengers. The driver of the ill-fated vehicle was responsible for the mishap, but it could have been prevented if the Road Development Authority had cared to remove a boulder that had rolled onto the road, blocking part of it, or at least put up speed breakers and warning signs near the bottleneck. Such issues can be sorted out immediately.

Police deserve praise for taking tough action against drunk drivers. Drunk driving is easy to detect. In most cases, there is no need for even breathalyzer tests. But the problem with narcotic addiction among drivers is that there are no outward signs of impairment. Medical experts inform us that drugs such as cannabis, methylamphetamine and ‘ecstasy’ greatly impair drivers’ ability to control speed and judge distance and hinder coordination. The need for facilities to conduct roadside drug testing to detect narcotic addicts behind the wheel has gone unheeded although many drivers, especially truckers and busmen are hooked on drugs. Bus owners’ associations have been calling for action against drug addicts in the garb of bus crews, but in vain.

Meanwhile, random checks in urban areas to nab drunk drivers have stood suburban liquor bars in good stead because most people patronise these watering holes due to lack of police presence around them. This is something the traffic police should pay attention to. If they step up checks in suburban areas as well, they may be able to net many more drunk drivers, who pose a danger to all road users.

Road accidents are as much of a scourge as the current pandemic; they kill about 1.39 million people around the world annually, according to the World Health Organisation. One is at a loss to understand why there has been no sustained global effort similar to the campaign against COVID-19, to obviate the causes of killer road accidents; this is doubly so for this country where road fatalities outnumber the pandemic-related deaths. It is unfortunate that road traffic deaths get reduced to mere statistics and then forgotten.

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Editorial

It’s sovereignty, stupid!

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Monday 19th April, 2021

Sri Lanka’s sovereignty has taken centre stage thanks to the Colombo Port City Economic Commission (CPCEC) Bill. The Opposition and its allies are all out to scuttle it, claiming that it will severely undermine the country’s sovereignty, which the government vows to protect at any cost. The UNP has joined others in challenging the Bill in the Supreme Court. This, it has done while seeking to justify its decision to appoint its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to Parliament via the National List; he unsuccessfully contested the last general election from the Colombo District.

If the government, the Opposition and their supporters are so concerned about the country’s sovereignty, they must respect the franchise of the people in whom sovereignty resides. Sovereignty and franchise are inseparable. How could the aforesaid politicians reconcile their much-advertised campaign for protecting sovereignty with their endorsement of the practice of appointing as National List MPs unsuccessful candidates and others of their choice in violation of people’s franchise.

The situation took a turn for the worse, under the yahapalana government, which not only appointed a bunch of defeated candidates to Parliament as National List MPs but also made some of them Cabinet ministers! Almost all political parties with parliamentary representation have undermined people’s franchise in this manner. Even the JVP, which never misses an opportunity to take the moral high ground, failed to be different. The lame excuse that political leaders trot out for this blatant violation of franchise is that the law provides for such appointments. If this despicable practice is to be considered acceptable simply because certain bad laws can be interpreted to justify it, then the Executive President should not be faulted for exercising all dictatorial powers the Constitution has vested in him.

Moreover, it has now been revealed that the J. R. Jayewardene government smuggled some sections into the election law to enable the appointment of outsiders to Parliament as National List MPs. The Provincial Council Elections Act was amended in a similar manner in 2017 to postpone the PC polls indefinitely. Questionable practices and actions based on such rotten laws cannot be considered legitimate by any stretch of the imagination.

The National List mechanism, which was devised purportedly to bring in eminent persons as MPs, has in effect empowered political party leaders to violate the people’s franchise with impunity. Therefore, the legal provisions that allow defeated candidates and outsiders to enter Parliament via the National List must be abolished; they are antithetical to democracy and have a corrosive effect on people’s franchise and sovereignty. Strangely, not even those who undertook to usher in good governance, in 2015, cared to get rid of these bad laws.

It is being argued in some quarters that when the seats of appointed MPs fall vacant, only the National List nominees or those whose names appear on district nomination lists should be appointed to Parliament in keeping with Articles 99 and 101 of the Constitution. But we believe that only the National List nominees whose names are made public before parliamentary elections must be brought in as appointed MPs; the appointment of unsuccessful candidates as MPs is an assault on democracy.

Technically, people who vote for a particular political party/independent group also endorse its National List nominees, who arguably attract votes. In 2015, the JVP had, as one of its National List nominees, former Auditor General Sarath Mayadunne. A lot of people must have voted for the JVP to have him in Parliament to fight against corruption effectively. But no sooner had he been sworn in than he resigned, paving the way for the appointment of a defeated JVP candidate. What the JVP did was tantamount to taking the voting public for a ride. Other political parties, too, have done likewise unashamedly.

At present, the National List can be abused to appoint any party member to Parliament, and anyone can obtain the membership of a political party by paying as little as Rs. 10. One may argue that all it takes to render people’s franchise irrelevant is Rs. 10! What moral right do the politicians who unflinchingly make use of bad laws to defy the will of the people have to fight for democracy, sovereignty and franchise?

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Editorial

The finger on the spot

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A television interviewer last week asked Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda what is to be done when a robber enters your home? Is he not to be chased off? The program in which the minister appeared was dealing with the long festering problem of a South Indian fisheries fleet brazenly crossing the International Maritime Boundary (IBM) and entering Sri Lanka waters. These illegal fishermen are not just poaching in our waters. They engage in bottom trawling, using large vessels with powerful engines, destroying the marine environment and seriously eroding the replenishment capacity of this country’s fish stock, a process affecting the livelihood of our fishermen in the short, medium and long term.

The minister responded with a question of his own. What do you do when the robber is armed?, he countered. Devananda put his finger on the spot; perhaps not literally in that the Indian fishing fleet routinely crossing the IBM is not armed to its teeth though its quite probable that there are a gun or two in individual trawlers or boats. What he was in effect saying is that the poachers are backed by the might of India and there is very little that we can do about it. What the minister said evoked painful memories of Operation Vadamarachchi of May and June 1987 when the Sri Lankan forces were on the verge of defeating the Tamil Tigers waging war on the Lankan state.

What did India do? Alleging that the people living in the war-wracked area were starving, several Hercules transport planes escorted by Mirage jet fighters intruded into this country’s sovereign airspace for a claimed “humanitarian operation” – the infamous parippu drop as we came to know it. The signal was unmistakably clear. Either halt the military operation or face the consequences. That would be an Indian invasion of this country. Then President J.R. Jayewardene, fighting an insurrection in the South and a civil war in the North was in a tight bind from which there was no escape. The rest is history. The Indo – Lanka Agreement between Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India was signed and the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. But there was no disarming of the LTTE as promised. Thanks to what India did then, the civil war raged till 2009 when the Tigers were eventually defeated.

This country’s predicament over the rape of our marine resources, grievously affecting the livelihoods of our fishermen eking out a precarious livelihood, and also endangering the very existence of the fisheries industry in the North of this country, is very similar to the parippu drop of not so long ago.

During the decades of the war, the imperatives of fighting the separatist-terrorists required long periods where our fishermen were banned from venturing out to deep sea. They were confined to a coastal fishery and this left expanses of our territorial waters wide open to Indian fishermen to exploit. Those years and what happened then deeply ingrained in the Indians the conviction that they could fish as they like, wherever they would, regardless of the International Maritime Boundary and the Law of the Sea. There were rich picking to be had and the opportunity was seized.

After the war ended and normalcy – or at least some semblance of it – was restored, there was no keeping the Indian fishermen, often manning trawlers owned by Tamil Nadu politicians and their patrons, to their side of the IBM. For several long years efforts at resolving this problem have been made. There have been some placatory noises from the Indians but little attempt, leave alone a serious effort, to tackle this issue. Contacts have been made at the highest levels of government and all they have produced are platitudes about adopting a “humanitarian approach” to the problem. The humanitarianism is all about allowing Indian fishermen to enhance their livelihood, never mind the super profits made by capitalist politically-backed trawler-owners hiring those fishermen to crew their vessels. Nary a word about our own fishermen, long left to fend for themselves as best as they can while the Indians rob what is rightfully theirs.

No end to this situation is in sight. There are occasional reports of poachers and their vessels taken to custody by the Sri Lanka Navy. More often than not, after a little fuss, bother and diplomatic niceties, the fishermen and (emphasis ours) their craft are returned so that they can poach another day. Earlier this year there was was an incident when an Indian fishing vessel poaching in Lankan waters reacted aggressively to a naval craft attempting to arrest it. This resulted in the sinking of the trawler and the death of one of its crewmen. Predictably there was a blaze of publicity and protest in the Tamil Nadu press about the Sri Lanka Navy killing Indian fishermen. Such incidents are clear indications of the sensitivity of the problem at hand. We have to live with the reality that we cannot wield the big stick to protect what is ours. But the government is under pressure from fishermen North and South to do something about it. Devananda has talked about issuing passes for a limited number of Indian fishing vessels, excluding big trawlers, to enter our waters.

But as one northern politician said in a television program, 500 will come if 50 passes are issued. Indian fishery interests are saying “why exclude the trawlers?” In any case do we have the capacity (or the political will) to effectively police our waters, protect the interests of our fishermen and the sustainability of our marine resources against a monster predator from across the Palk Strait? D we always have to bow down to Big Brother?

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