by Dr Sarala Fernando
Former Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinghe recently referred to the need to reshape Sri Lanka’s outward migrant flows to become “smaller, smarter and more sustainable”. From where does this concept derive? Internet sources point to a recent GTZ document on SME Reporting in Global Supply Chains. Whatever its origin, this vision offers a valuable guide for government policy in the new normal that is emerging in the aftermath of Covid 19 and in the background of deglobalization trends. It is in keeping with our Buddhist heritage of proportionality and human development including gender empowerment within a framework of environmental protection and compassion for animals.
Around the world even in the most advanced societies, infrastructure growth seems to have reached a dead end – renting is slumping in hi-rise buildings (as prestigious as the Empire State Building in New York) as workplaces get smaller with social distancing, automation is replacing on site workers, many of whom are being made redundant or asked to work from home. Everywhere, mobility is being reduced with current disincentives on global tourist travel and transportation while new modes of transactions like ecommerce and online sales are booming in place of retail sales in traditional malls. The question is, however, whether our new government which has scored a huge victory at the recent election and amassed a massive majority in the new Parliament, will see that as an endorsement of an opposite vision, more prestige buildings and large scale projects in manufacturing and agriculture, irrespective of their cost to the environment.
It is not only the government but also the private sector which seems to find it difficult to adjust to the “new normal”. Projects for 600 room hotels in fragile environments are being mooted, huge office cum shopping malls and apartment blocks are still coming on stream around Colombo, all of which raise public concerns on the distribution of limited supplies of water, electricity and stress on sewerage and waste disposal capacity. Is it too late to offer a new paradigm that all this new building infrastructure should be ” smaller, smarter and more sustainable” with resort to solar power instead of tapping the national grid, recycling water use instead of just relying on the mains and even handling its own waste disposal on site. This is particularly important in respect of the new Port City which has the technical capacity and is well placed to support municipal assets instead of drawing them down. The Port City enticement of opening park areas to the public is welcome but what price leisure if water pressure is reducing and electricity and telecommunication supply becomes more erratic and more expensive for city residents?
At the same time, there is hope in that many small groups organized and driven by young volunteers are mobilizing entirely on their own, to spruce up railway stations and clean pilgrimage sites and beaches.These scattered efforts are being supported by the security forces especially the Navy under its blue –green programme. It is also good to hear of local companies developing cost effective composting machines for household to industrial waste, networks for collecting and converting plastic waste and a factory for disposing of hospital waste. There is even an ongoing initiative to make a machine to collect plastic and other waste from the river mouths before this goes on to contaminate the ocean.
A concerned citizenry determined to protect the environment and connected through social media can help form a national green movement to put the environment first. Perhaps a start could be made in the debate over the proposed new constitution calling for a clause to be added on the lines of the Indian example: Fundamental Duty: (I) Article 51-A(6) : By Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976. … “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”.
President Rajapaksa appears to be aware of the challenges as he has shunned extravagance preferring to operate out of his own home and with minimum security and entourage. He would however have access to all the “smart” security infrastructure, data and equipment although it may take time to train a “smarter” human support. In his previous work on urban renewal he has given indications of sensitivity to the need to green the city, restore its heritage assets and keep it clean. He has had to strength so far, to limit the ambitions of the palm oil lobby to cultivate more acreage at the cost of drying up local water resources but has allowed the controversial road to be cut through Sinharaja rain forest opening the way for uncontrolled development which may jeopardize its UNESCO Heritage status.
Today environmentalists are worried whether the government’s financial crisis will lead to the destruction of forests, alienating lands reserved for the environment and for its denizens to make way for example to foreign multinational companies to resort to large scale agriculture using genetically modified (GM) seeds. Already conflicts have arisen on the ground with Mahaweli lands to be given to foreign investors, removing local cultivators from these lands. Can we not learn from across the waters where a different struggle is taking shape to restore traditional farming practices and saving indigenous seed varieties from foreign exploitation? Recent full page press advertisements by a multinational famous for its pineapple products, which entered Sri Lanka in the past by using reserved forest lands for growing a monocrop of Cavendish bananas, hints of the controversies of the “new agriculture” that is coming and the dangers posed to the wealth of indigenous varieties and seeds in this country.
Instead of allowing the destruction of forest lands for commercial exploitation and foreign investment, why does the government not make an assessment of the many buildings and lands currently occupied by government ministries and departments in the major cities, organize all the public services in a few strategic locations, thereby releasing the excess for sale or other uses? Not so long ago the Department of Poor Relief was located in Colombo 7 and even now government staff quarters are located in this same area which commands a high property value. Construction of huge buildings coming up for local assemblies could be discouraged which include those famous imported chairs and other extravagance at public expense. It is said that many school buildings around the island are in need of essential refurbishment and are empty for lack of students or teachers and a monk mentioned to me recently that there are hundreds of temples abandoned for lack of resident monks. How could these be brought back to life for services to the communities near by?
Some rationalization of renting buildings for government departments is required. I had some experience of this in Geneva having overseen bringing back of the consular office from an outside location to the Sri Lanka mission leading to savings of 25% of the mission budget without loss of productivity. In Sri Lanka, a specific example is the Foreign Ministry consular division which has been moving from rented location to rented location in Colombo while,logically it should be housed within the Immigration building for the sake of public convenience. Similarly should not the CEB and Water Board share city offices for the convenience of the public, leaving their headquarters separate for reasons of data and critical infrastructure security? My perspective is based on personal experience, having visited many offices after retirement and rather appalled at these flashy new buildings constructed for revenue generating Ministries like Immigration and Customs where the public entrance is open to the elements while the portico covered entrance is reserved for VIP vehicular traffic. It seems that computers are all networked together in these buildings so that one failure sends the whole system down and customers are forced to wait or return another day. This is definitely not smart. Too late to make “smaller” but certainly opportunity for making more user- friendly and more sustainable.
This vision of “smaller,smarter and more sustainable” is attached to a larger vision of urban renewal but how to bring this about? The lack of organization and neglect of cleanliness is seen by a simple example, the chaos in the rail yards in the south clearly visible when taking the train from Colombo to Jaffna, and from that chaos then like a miracle, entering into to neat fenced areas in the North. Some may argue that this is not a good example because new reconstruction has come to the North and the smaller population makes management easier. Yet, the question arises whether the chaos in the south is symptomatic of a deeper problem, an unconcerned local citizenry or the lack of caring leadership? Driving through Kurunegala town recently I was wondering how this urban mess, dug up roads and pavements, has come to pass, given that this constituency sends some of the most powerful Members to Parliament. The city of Galle sometime ago was another example where the entrance to the city along the coast was cluttered with heaps of garbage, ignoring the importance of the first impression, (a basic lesson in diplomacy). I am remembering also former Foreign Minister Kadirgarmar who told me once that on setting foot inside a mission and seeing its arrangement and upkeep he would know instantly the state of that diplomatic mission.
(Sarala Fernando PhD, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. She writes now on foreign affairs, diplomacy and protection of heritage).
Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective
by Harshana Rambukwella
Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).
Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.
Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.
Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.
But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.
Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.
However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.
Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies
No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment
by jehan perera
The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.
There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.
The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.
The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.
In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.
In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.
Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.
It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.
To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.
Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity
By Hema Arachi
T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.
This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.
President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”
A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.
During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.
I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”
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