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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

When mutts try to be docs

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Saturday 8th May, 2021

The police are busy, these days, arresting, as they do, scores of ordinary people daily for violating the Covid-19 protocol. They are shown on television bundling offenders into police vehicles. They deserve public plaudits for taking such swift action against the quarantine law violators, who are a threat to others. But, unfortunately, these laws do not apply to the ruling party politicians.

Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge stands accused of having had the pandemic-related restrictions in Piliyandala removed against the advice of health professionals. No sooner had the Piliyandala police area been isolated, on Sunday, owing to a rapid spread of Covid-19 than it was reopened reportedly at the behest of Lokuge. Only the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) has the authority to impose and lift such restrictions, based on recommendations made by the Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) in the areas concerned. DGHS Dr. Asela Gunawardana insists he did not have restrictions in Piliyandala lifted.

The government, as a face-saving exercise, sent a team to assess the Covid-19 situation in Piliyandala; the latter has decided that there was no need for a lockdown in the area! The highest number of Covid-19 cases in the Colombo District has been reported from Piliyandala during the past several days. That was the reason why the MoH and the PHIs concerned had the area isolated. Only the naïve may have expected the government team to reveal the truth and incur the wrath of the powers by embarrassing them. The issue, on the other hand, was not whether the situation in Piliyandala warranted a lockdown; instead, it was why the restrictions imposed in the area had been arbitrarily lifted by someone other than the DGHS.

The thinking of the present-day rulers seems to be that if any illegal practice cannot be stopped, the solution is to legalise it. This is what they did when they were in power previously. The MPs sold their duty-free vehicle permits illegally, and when the racket got out of hand, the then Rajapaksa government legalised the sale of permits! Since the destruction of forests is illegal, the SLPP leaders have removed some forests from the purview of the Forest Department. Now, any government backer can encroach on forestlands on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture!

Likewise, since the likes of Lokuge cannot be reined in, will the government consider changing the current health regulations to empower its provincial potentates to countermand decisions taken by health professionals responsible for pandemic control? These politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than medical professionals, and their bosses take their opinion seriously and defend them while refusing to take on board the advice of educated, intelligent ministers such as Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle. Therefore, a wag says the government should consider awarding medical degrees to its omniscient MPs and ministers and put them in charge of the pandemic control programme. Thereafter, the anti-Covid campaign in areas south of Colombo could be carried out under the supervision of Lokuge, who can also be appointed State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control while medical consultant, Dr. Fernandopulle, who currently holds that portfolio but cannot have herself heard on matters concerning public health, is made the Minister of Transport. This should be child’s play for a government that readily intervenes to have court cases against its politicians withdrawn, abolishes import duties on some commodities and tries to set up gyms countrywide amidst a crippling health crisis to help its financiers make a killing. One may recall that during the previous Rajapaksa government ‘Dr. Mervyn Silva’ took over the dengue control campaign in Kelaniya and even tied a health worker to a tree in full view of the police for being late for a meeting he had called.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is known as an allegory of the Bolshevik revolution and the situation in Russia thereafter, but we wonder whether Orwell foresaw what would happen in this former British colony, decades later, when he wrote that dystopian novella, especially where the proclamation by the Pigs that control the government in the enthrallingly satirical story is concerned: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Nothing exemplifies this ‘commandment’ more than the manner in which this country is being run by those who came into power, promising a utopia.

 

 

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Editorial

Minister in china shop, and big ego trips

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Friday 7th May, 2021

Most government politicians are in the news, always for the wrong reasons. Minister Gamini Lokuge has not only endangered the lives of people but also caused what remains of the government’ popularity to plummet further by having Covid-19 travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area arbitrarily lifted recently. We thought the 20th Amendment to the Constitution would restore the dictatorial powers of only the Executive President, but it looks as if it had led to the emergence of dictators at the provincial level as well. These self-important politicians who countermand vital decisions of health professionals tasked with controlling the pandemic must be kept on a tight leash.

Close on the heels of Minister Lokuge’s high-handed action came a government announcement that the Cabinet had approved a proposal for setting up a large number of gyms countrywide. One wonders whether the ruling politicians have taken leave of their senses.

There is no gainsaying that physical fitness goes a long way towards warding off diseases and battling them. Not everyone can afford modern gym facilities and coaching, and the public will gain tremendously if they could be made available free or charge. Public walking tracks and recreational parks built under the previous Rajapaksa administration have stood the ordinary people in good stead. But the government must get its expenditure priorities right at this hour of crisis.

There is a pressing need to rationalise state expenditure on account of the current national health crisis; projects that can wait must be put on hold immediately. The country must remain maniacally focused on beating the runaway virus, which has brought even the developed world to its knees.

The government has sought to justify its irrational spending by claiming that it has allocated enough funds for the fight against Covid-19, but the truth is otherwise. The country is without enough PCR machines to detect infections, and genome sequencing equipment to identify new variants of the virus. The number of PCR tests conducted daily remains woefully low.

Aggressive testing is a prerequisite for curbing the spread of the pandemic. The state hospital network is under severe strain, and all pandemic treatment centres are bursting at the seams. The procurement of vaccines has become a problem. The poor are crying out for relief. This situation has come about mostly due to lack of funds.

Ideally, the country should go into another round of lockdowns if the rapid tranmission of the virus is to be halted and the number of infections brought down to a manageable level, as public health experts argue. But the government is wary of adopting this method, given the heavy socio-economic costs it entails; if the country is to remain open safely, there are some essential facilities that must be provided to the public.

The public transport sector should be given priority. The Covid-19 health regulations require the number of passengers in buses and trains to be drastically reduced so that physical distancing could be maintained. But there are not enough buses and trains, and the available ones are overcrowded. Private buses cannot be expected to run at a loss, and, in fact, it is not fair to force them do so. The government has to step in to solve this problem, but the fleet of state-owned bus service alone cannot cater to the demand. Everybody realises the value of the Sri Lanka Transport Board during crisis situations, but nobody cares to do anything to develop it. Thus, instead of procuring new aircraft and fitness equipment, the government ought to purchase buses to enable workers to commute safely so that the economy will not contract further.

There has emerged a pressing need for more ambulances for Suwaseriya, which has proved to be a huge success. Sri Lankans must be grateful to India, which made this service a reality, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP, who fought quite a battle to set it up, under the previous government, amidst unfair criticism from those who are currently in power. The procurement of more ambulances to transport the sick ought to take precedence over that of fitness centres and choppers.

The government keeps faulting the public for lack of co-operation to beat the virus. True, people have to follow the Covid-19 protocol without leaving the task of battling the pandemic entirely to the health authorities. The government must also act responsibly; it must get its expenditure priorities right instead of embarking on ego-boosting projects, and rein in its unruly politicians who have become a nuisance to the public as well as health professionals.

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Editorial

Warning shot from Darley Road

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Thursday 6th May, 2021

The SLFP, which fears that legal action will be taken against its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena, over the Easter Sunday carnage, has fired a shot across the SLPP’s bow, in the form of a veiled threat to go it alone at future elections. Its trepidation is understandable. Former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando have already been indicted for murder, etc., in the Colombo High Court as they failed to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite several prescient warnings.

Pressure is mounting on the government to refrain from shielding Sirisena and ensure that he is also prosecuted. The SLFP seems to fear that the government may throw its leader to the wolves when push comes to shove. There is no love lost between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas; they are only a bunch of strange bedfellows.

A split in the SLPP coalition is the last thing the government wants at this juncture; the SLFP has 14 MPs elected on the SLPP ticket. An SLFP pullout will not bring down the government, but the SLPP will be hard put to muster a two-thirds majority in the House in such an eventuality.

What are the issues that the SLFP is likely to use against the government in case of a split? One could guess the answer to this question from what Senior Vice President of the SLFP Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa told the media in Kandy the other day.

Prof. Piyadasa did not mince his words when he said that the biggest scam in recent times—the sugar tax fraud—had happened under the current government. Mentioning the VAT fraud and the bond scams under previous regimes, he emphasised that the sugar tax fraud was the biggest of them all. The SLFP had come forward to address corruption and irregularities under the present dispensation as it did not want the corrupt UNP to make political capital out of them, he added. Claiming that the SLFP was under pressure from its ranks and file to contest future elections alone, he said his party’s goal was to form an SLFP government.

So, the SLFP’s battle plan is now clear. If the SLPP tries to throw Sirisena overboard, the SLFP will not only pull out of the ruling coalition but also launch an all-out political campaign against it. It has already identified the key issues to be flogged, and prominent among them is the mega sugar tax fraud.

Having made use of the bond scams issue to destroy the UNP, which failed to win a single seat at the last general election, Sirisena is apparently planning to mete out the same treatment to the Rajapaksa government; he will use the fraudulent reduction of duty on sugar, among other things, for that purpose, in case the SLPP does not protect his interests. Sirisena may be having some more cards up his sleeve. He may not have used some of the damning information he had ascertained on the present-day rulers, while he was the President, because he did not want to burn bridges; he later joined forces with them. But he may not hesitate to use such information, if any, against them in case of being jettisoned.

Prof. Piyadasa has also told the media that other SLPP constituents are also disgruntled and having meetings to discuss their grievances. One may recall that they met at the SLFP headquarters a few weeks ago. The leaders of some SLPP constituents have likened the situation in the government to what the late Felix Dias Bandaranaike created in the United Front administration (1970-77); he was accused of driving the leftists away, and debilitating the SLFP-led coalition. The SLPP dissenters have stopped short of naming the grandee who, they say, is doing a Felix in the government, but their patience is obviously wearing thin. Perhaps, the SLFP is toying with the idea of forging an alliance with these SLPP constituents one day. This may be a tall order; the SLFP runs the risk of losing some of its MPs to the SLPP if it chooses to vote with its feet. But the government will be weakened both politically and electorally in the event of a split.

There seems to be no end to the problems Sirisena causes to the Rajapaksas, and vice versa!

 

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