By Shavini De Silva,
Programme Officer, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
South Asia is home to 40% of the world poor, even though it is considered one of the fastest growing regions in the world. In the last 15 years, South Asia has also experienced the highest number of terrorist activity in the world. The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on multifaceted inequalities in South Asia is profound and it affects vulnerable and marginalized groups disproportionately. It tends to widen inequalities and deepen insecurities in society, particularly among marginalized sections. The paradox of the COVID 19 pandemic, on the one hand, has increased the amount of existing social inequalities and on the other hand it has subdued the vibrant social movements in the region. One of the defining features in social and political landscape in South Asia is the existence of a variety of social movements through history. During the pandemic period, the world also witnessed the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the United States and the West. It was in this context Regional Centre for Strategic Studies held a webinar on the theme “Social Inequalities and Emerging Trends in People’s Movements in Post- COVID South Asia. The purpose of the webinar was to generate a discourse to identify trends in people and movements in post-COVID South Asia.
Four world-renowned scholars/social activists in South Asia spoke at the webinar. The distinguished panelists consisted of Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva, former Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Umakant, a well-known social activists in New Delhi, Prof. Rasul Bakhsh Rais a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and Mr. Hari Sharma, the Executive Director of Alliance for Social Dialogue/Social Science Baha, Kathmandu. Professor Karori Singh the Emeritus Fellow/Professor of South Asian Studies and Former Director, South Asia Studies Centre, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, INDIA, and Professor Keerawela, Executive Director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. moderated the panel discussion.
In bringing Sri Lankan experience to the discussion, Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva stated that Sri Lanka could be seen as an outstanding success in terms of control of COVID-19 during the past six months. The well-developed health infrastructure in the country also reflected in earlier success in malaria eradication and various other public health achievements including reduction in infant mortality and progressive increase in life expectancy and coordinated effort at COVID-19 control by a new political regime committed to the task of containing the disease at points of origin are among the factors contributing to the crisis management.
There are, however, some important concerns about the social inequality connected with the pattern of infection. During the early phase, the community infections were reported disproportionately in urban low income neighborhoods, typically with a notable minority presence. The worker returnees from other countries and the substance users and their contacts have been two groups of civilians most affected by the COVID-19 infections. The decision by the state to impose mandatory cremation on all deaths attributed to COVID-19 has been heavily criticized by the Muslim community, who believe in maintaining religious rituals of burying the dead. The National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 established by the president in response to the pandemic chaired by the military commander is conspicuous by the absence of any civil society representation or any persons with professional skills in understanding and responding to social and cultural issues related to handling the multifaceted social crisis inevitably resulting from the pandemic.
Discrimination and exclusion during COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown in India was the focus of Dr. Umakant’s presentation. He stated that as the number of reported COVID-19 cases has surpassed 3 million in India. It is now high time to not only address the ways and means for ending the pandemic but also to highlight the caste based discrimination and exclusion faced by Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Caste (OBC) people in different parts of India during pandemic. Any disaster is not caste/race neutral, it affects the disadvantaged people quite adversely leading government officials along with society at large to maintaining colossal amounts of socio-economic inequality. The case of sanitation workers stands as a dehumanizing experience can be cited as a case in point. Having to eradicate dirt and filth along with the inhumane fact that society at large practices have remained an issue of great concern. Despite being the frontline warrior against Covid-19, they have not been provided with enough safety equipment and even parity with health personnel’s. The fact that migrant workers are been labeled as nowhere people stands at a critical issue. Within a four-hour notice, the national lockdown was announced by the government which led millions of migrant workers to a state of vulnerability. This in turn resulted them to walk thousands of kilometers back to their villages facing great hardships and misery. In recent research findings, it was also noted that the most marginalized sections of society namely, Dalits, Adivasis and LGBT had to endeavor extreme levels of suffering during the nationwide lockdown Furthermore the response of State has been completely dissatisfying as levels of inequality have risen which may take a long time to overcome. The question still lies at the necessary precautions that need to be exercised during the discourse of a pandemic. Social distancing within the South Asian context has its own connotations of discrimination and exclusion relating to cast which makes it more challenging to combat. More than anything else a sense of solidarity, empathy, generosity, warmth, compassion, share and care is needed, not only in helping the humanity but also to inculcate values in the younger generation. This could be distinguished as Ubuntu, a term popularized by Bishop Desmond Tutu during Anti-Apartheid struggle days. A society without Ubuntu is a dead society.
Traditional caste system, tribal identities and ethnic biases along with minority religion and economic class are the contributing factors that play a role in marginalization and discrimination against certain groups, Prof. Rasul Rais said. The issue of economic and social inequality spans to the vast portion of the countrysides as minority of big landlords own much of the agricultural lands, the rest of the remaining majorities work as peasants. The landowning class dominating the political parties and the electoral system have not allowed land reforms to take place. The urban areas that are growing rapidly, with the migration of landless and the rising middle classes show the same trend in housing, allocation of geographical spaces, access to educational facilities and categories of jobs, or joblessness. As an elite-dominated society, Pakistan runs an “elitist economy” and a hierarchical social order. The decades of economic growth and modernisation have not altered much the social structural reasons that continue to reproduce inequality in different forms. The poor have larger families, mostly illiterate and live in congested places and live on daily wages. By their economic circumstances, they have been exposed to the pandemic disproportionally more than the affluent sections of the society that have better education, living conditions and economic means.
The social movements in Pakistan against class discrimination, land reforms, social equality and equal right are weak or non-existent whereas the liberal sections of the civil society are more focused on political, gender and ideological issues replicating the agenda of political parties. The religious groups that have proliferated and have more means and street powers have greater interest in identity construction, Islamization and conservative social ethos while weak, fragmented and divided social movements, equality, rights, health and justice remain marginalized issues.
Dr. Hari Sharma of Nepali Social Science Baha paid attention to impact of political structures on social and political processes. It is of key importance to take political interests into consideration as it is a main factor in deciding how preventive and remedial measures should be exercised accordingly, especially in the face of social, economic and natural disasters. This could be viewed against the backdrop that populist politics has integrated with nationalism over the most recent years posing a grave threat to the democratic political practices and minority interests. The rational politics in Nepal stands at a critical juncture and the Nepalese people live in difficult times, despite unprecedented challenges created by COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Hari Sharma emphasized that it is a vital fact that democratic elements reclaim political space which has been lost.
Professor Singh moderated the session by questioning what went wrong and how new form of inequalities came into existence. Those who want to stick to the status quo turn a blind eye to growing social inequalities emphasizing the importance of growth and development. One of the outcomes of this approach would be that society at large becomes less sensitive to social inequality and academics also play a very poor role in bringing real social issues to the discussion forums. Hence, it is necessary for new social movements to recognize emerging trends of inequality in post COVID South Asia. The discussion underscored the need to give priority to emerging inequalities in post CIDID South Asia in national and regional discourses.
Deteriorating rural economy, and food security
By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna
Sri Lanka is a land of villages. There are around 14,000 of them. According to the Dept. of Census and Statistics, around 80% of the Sri Lankan population live in villages and estates. Most of them are farmers who are supposed to be suitable to be kings if the mud on their bodies are washed out. According to recent estimates, about 30 percent of the total households, in therural districts of Sri Lanka, live below the poverty line. A socio-economic survey, conducted in the recent past, indicates that although the rural sector has the ability to engage in productive activities, there are many constraints.
Wild elephants roaming in some of the dry zone villages,causing death to many and destroying property, aggravate the socio-economic hardships the rural sector has to face, affecting their health, education and many other aspects of the lives.
Chronic Kidney Disease:
Around 70,000 people of the country are affected by a chronic kidney disease (CKDu) . They are mostly in the rural areas of the country and are affected socially and economically. The patients in the final stages of CKDu have to go for dialysis which again affects the economy of rural people . In some families both parents have died and their children are helpless.
In spite of the country receiving around 100 billion cubic meters of water, annually, there are frequent water shortages, mostly in the rural areas where there are around 12,000 tanks. Most of them are silted, reducing the water holding capacity of these tanks, causing rural communities to face shortage of water which seriously affects crop production and various domestic activities.
Lack of reasonable transport facilities, in the rural areas, is one of the main setback to Sri Lanka’s overall prosperity. People living in some rural areas have to cross rivers, using inflated rubber tubes, as there are no bridges. A large number of rural roads remain in a dilapidated condition but, the authorities were more interested in constructing highways.
Fertilisers are a major input in crop production. During the last two cropping seasons, inorganic fertilisers, and pesticides, were not available due to the utterly foolish decision of the former government. Currently, fertilisers are available but they were not available at correct times.
Farmers are forced to obtain seeds at a high cost. For example, a kg of chilli seeds is around Rs. 170,000 and a kg of cabbage seed is sold at Rs 400,000 in the market.
Pest attacks cause considerable problems to farmers. Last year there was the sena caterpillar called “Fall Armyworm” (Spodopteria Frugipedera) which destroyed large extents of cultivated crops. According to press reports, the same pest destroyed thousands of hectares of maize in Ampara causing severe difficulties to the farmers. Brown Plant Hopper tends to destroy paddy.
Those farmers who manage to harvest the crop of rice/vegetables are unable to sell it for a reasonable price. Currently, paddy farmers are unable to sell their Yala paddy crop to cover the costs. Often vegetable farmers are forced to destroy their produce due to inability to market their produce at reasonable prices. Marketing of agricultural products, at a profit to the farmer, is an issue which the authorities need to take cognizance of.
Unemployment is rampant in the country. As a result of government-imposed restrictions on imports, commercial activities of thousands of companies are slowing down, seriously affecting the private sector in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those companies have been compelled to reduce employment, non-renewal of employment contracts, and halting new recruitments, resulting in an increase in unemployment. Thousands of workers, in the construction sector, have already lost their jobs. These business enterprises are currently facing liquidity issues due to a loss of revenue and difficulties in the importation of raw material. Thousands of SMEs have closed down mainly due to lack of inputs, resulting in an increase in unemployment.
As a result of these limiting factors, rural economy is deteriorating. For the success of any development programme to improve the rural economy, it is essential to address the problems of the rural communities. However, the previous governments did not give priority to these critical issues, faced by farmers, who continue to live in abject poverty as a result. Most of them have to pawn their jewellery, or resort to some other ways ,to obtain finances to obtain agricultural inputs, such as seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and labour. Some of them have become prey to micro-credit companies.
All these issues cause untold hardships to thousands of farmers and have a negative impact on the rural economy. No effective actions appear to have been taken, by the relevant authorities, to implement appropriate solutions to these problems, except appointing committees. Those representing the farming community, in the Parliament, appear to be not concerned about the plight of our farming population who have voted them to power.
There is no centralized planning in farming in the country which, sometimes, leads farmers to cultivating the same crop/s, ultimately resulting in gluts. Previous governments attempted to solve this problem by implementing programmes, such as Api Wawamu-Rata Nagamu and Divineguma. But we continue to spend nearly Rs.300 billion, annually to import food. If the authorities are genuinely keen to improve the rural economy, they need to address these issues.
Food Security is closely related to rural economy. According to the United Nation’s Committee on World Food Security, food security is at maximum level when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. According to World Food Programme’ s latest food security assessment, about three in 10 households (6.26 million people) in Sri Lanka are food insecure. Cost of essential foods has increased during the last few months hindering the population’s ability to consume nutritious food in sufficient amounts. The food security situation is worst among people living in the estate sector.
Nutritious food to meet the dietary requirements of people need to contain mainly carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. The local production of carbohydrates (mainly rice and sugar), and proteins (fish and milk) is inadequate to meet the demand. Hence, these food items are imported. During the last few years, we have spent nearly Rs. 300 billion, annually, on food imports, although it has decreased during the last few months, mainly due to restrictions on import of some food.
Availability of rice locally has decreased mainly because of inadequate availability of plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) through inorganic fertilisers. This has caused large amounts of rice to be imported. There appears to be no effective programmes to increase sugar production in the country. About two decades ago, in the1990s, sugarcane was cultivated in about 25, 000 hectares. At present, only about 12,000 ha are under sugarcane. The sugar factory, in Kantale, remains out of production, for nearly 15 years.
Availability of fish and milk has reduced due to a number of factors which the government appears to be not taking appropriate measures to increase the production of these items. According to press reports, the government is planning to import cattle from India and Pakistan to increase local milk production. It is foolish to import cattle to enhance milk production in the country without implementing an integrated programme to upgrade local cattle, making available cattle feed and improving veterinary practices in the country.
In Sri Lanka, during the last two decades, perhaps a few thousands of research studies, related to food security, involving billions of rupees worth of scarce resources, have been conducted. It is important that we utilize these research findings to find solutions to the pressing problems of the country. But there appears to be no effective system to make use of the research findings. Lack of an integrated plan is a factor responsible for the decline in food security. There has been rhetoric on rural economic development during the last few years. It is meaningful and effective actions that are necessary.
A first indication of readiness to go on a new path
By Jehan Perera
None too soon, President Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be putting the brakes on the government’s policy of repression in dealing with public protests. His decision to initially sign the Gazette notification declaring key areas of Colombo to be High Security Zones was roundly criticised by human rights organisations including the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. The business sector also complained that this decision which appears to have been made by the security establishment would be injurious to business. Revoking the High Security Zones made practical sense in view of the dubious legal basis of the declaration. The High Security Zones were to be set up under the Official Secrets Act which has hardly anything in common with the purpose of the new regulations.
The High Security Zone concept, which was practiced in the North and East of the country during the time of war, would have made it difficult for vehicles to even park on the roads without first obtaining special permission. There were also legal cases filed in the Supreme Court alleging violation of constitutional rights. The president would also have been aware of the resolution on Sri Lanka that is about to be presented for a vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As many as 26 countries have agreed to co-sponsor the resolution, of which 10 are current members of the UNHRC. Sri Lanka is finding itself isolated in terms of human rights in the eyes of the international community which can have costly consequences in terms of reducing the international sympathy and support that the country needs at this time.
The president’s early resort to the security forces to clamp down on the protest movement came as a surprise as his prior track record would have suggested a more nuanced approach to dealing with public agitation. As a follow up to the revocation of the High Security Zones, the president needs to consider revamping government policy on addressing the protest movement. So far the government approach has focused on suppressing the protest movement, on the justification that it will destabilise the economy through strike actions and by chaos on the streets. However, in Sri Lanka’s democratic system a policy of repression is unlikely to be workable. A government that is reluctant to go to the polls must not use the security forces as its prop. The president’s withdrawal of the High Security Zones in Colombo may be understood as an acknowledgement of this reality.
There is general acknowledgement that the President is the most suitable for the task of negotiating with, and making the political case, for more international aid to come to Sri Lanka. During his recent visits to foreign countries he met with top world leaders and would have made his mark. However, it is also important that the president should make his mark on the Sri Lankan people. He needs to win the trust of the people who did not vote for him. Having consolidated himself following his election by parliament to be president, he needs to take a more pro-active role in addressing the roots of the protest movement and not simply quashing its manifestations. There is a need to inform the people what the government will be doing to directly address the terrible impact of the economic crisis on the poorer sections of the population.
There is a widespread sense that those arrested for being members of the protest movement ought not to be subjected to the heavy hand of the law. At the present time, both in Geneva and in Sri Lanka, government spokespersons are denying the severity of the problems that exists. Successive governments denied the excesses that occurred during the war period, both in Geneva and at home. In Sri Lanka the majority of the population were prepared to go along with the denials of war time excesses due to the nature of the ethnic conflict that pitted the ethnic communities against one another. However, a policy of denying the impact of the economic crisis on the poor will not be able to garner similar support from any community in Sri Lanka and will end up pitting the majority of people against the government, just as happened during the height of the Aragalaya.
A declaration of an amnesty for all those accused and arrested for being part of the protest movement would be an act of follow-up statesmanship considering the controversy these arrests are causing both internationally and nationally with the human rights groups and the general public. The ongoing arrests of some who have been part of the protest movement have been justified on the basis that they engaged in violence or supported it. Others are accused of having burnt down the houses of government ministers, including the president’s own ancestral house which contained his family library and valuable works of art. Some have been arrested without being charged before the courts.
Magnanimity, empathy and fairness are very powerful in binding the community together. This is an opportunity for the president to show his empathy with all those others who down the years have lost their own homes to violence, during the two JVP insurrections and during the long period of the ethnic war. The government plans to compensate its members who lost their houses. It needs to also compensate those who lost their lives due to government failure, the most recent being those who died standing in long lines, or when their substandard gas cylinders exploded.
At present, the government is denying the veracity of studies done by international organisations, including UN organisations, on the extent of the malnutrition and stunting that affects children. They are also denying the veracity of claims of corruption in the procurement of fuel and other large contracts, even in the midst of economic crisis. It is also doing little to ameliorate these problems. The government points to the restoration of reasonable supplies of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and electricity which can create an impression of normalcy, but only for those who can afford the much higher prices at which these commodities are available. The government denials of the unequal distribution of the burden will ring hollow with the masses of people, whose support is needed if the government is to govern in a stable political environment.
Instead of denying the existence of problems, the government needs to accept their existence and take measures to address them. This applies to both the problems within the country and that are being discussed internationally. It needs to recognise that its denials have got no traction in Geneva, which is why Sri Lanka has had to face nine resolutions, each one getting more difficult to respond to. The resolution that will be voted on in the UN Human Rights Council later this week will call for greater support for the UN’s evidence gathering mechanism that has already been set up and to provide more support to those countries that pursue universal jurisprudence for crimes committed by Sri Lankan political and military leaders anywhere in the world.
The government needs to use every opportunity it can to seek the support of the international community. With the draft resolution now presented, the eyes of the international community are upon Sri Lanka. While it is too late to change the draft resolution, which will be soon voted on, the government can still seek to restore goodwill among those that are pursuing the resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva. An amnesty for those who participated in the protest movement could send a positive signal that the government is willing to heed the concerns of the international community regarding human rights and democratic freedoms. The possibility of amnesty to be part of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which there is acknowledgment of past violations, expression of regret and accountability for them can also be explored.
Treaty for a Lost City – inconvenient facts or legal myths?
By Andrew Sheng
Asia News Netowrk
Is Hong Kong a lost city or being re-born after its baptism of fire? Hong Kong was always a “borrowed place, borrowed time”, to quote the legendary journalist Richard Hughes (1906-1984), immortalised in John Le Carre’s novels on the intersection of media and espionage in cities like Berlin or Istanbul located at the borderlands of great power conflicts. Having returned the city on 1 July 1997, can Britain hold China to the terms and conditions of the 1984 Joint Declaration with China?
Chinese University of Hong Kong Law Professor CL Lim’s book, ” The Sino-British Joint Declaration” is a meticulously researched legal history of how the Joint Declaration came into being and whether it still has the force of law on both parties. There is a presumption that the Joint Declaration granted democratic rights to Hong Kong. The legal story is much more complex. This book draws on the British National Archives and study of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (1990), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) [ICCPR], United Nations Charter, etc., to lay out the facts and opinions for the reader to judge who is right or wrong.
Cities and states are defined by their Constitutions, communal values, geography, cultures and histories. Prior to 1841, Hong Kong was a barren rock that was indisputably part of China. Hong was ceded under the Treaty of Nanjing after the First Opium War (1839-42); but the expiry of the 99 year New Territories lease meant that Britain could not hold onto Hong Kong after 1997. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), following earlier Chinese governments, has never recognised any “unequal treaty” with the Western Powers, but adopted the face-saving principle that “a sovereign may delegate under international law such control or authority to another for a limited period.” Once that sovereignty is resumed, the PRC will not brook any interference in its internal sovereign matters.
This book reads like a series of Queen’s Counsel briefs, densely argued on complex and subtle points presenting different opinions and perspectives. In normal legal disputes, the arbiter would be an independent court, but there is no final decision between China and United Kingdom, which are the five members of the UN Security Council that can veto any rulings at the United Nations level. The only appeal left is to the court of global public opinion, which is today dominated by the English-speaking media. As media today becomes more and more ideologically driven, it is unlikely that deeply held views will be changed by legal or rational arguments.
The genesis of the Joint Declaration was the need to ensure a smooth return of Hong Kong to China. In 1983, when the New Territories lease (covering 92% of Hong Kong) was running out, Britain initially sought to renew the lease, but found that China under Deng Xiaoping was adamant that China would resume sovereignty over Hong Kong. With confidence slipping, the Hong Kong currency was under attack, only to be restored by a peg against the US dollar. This gave impetus to settle the terms and conditions of return. As the book painstakingly pointed out, British negotiators were operating from a weak hand, wanting to retain as much influence and economic benefits as possible post-1997.
As described in Chapter 3, democracy under colonialism was never part of the negotiations. Hong Kong representatives played no part in the discussions between two sovereign powers. The Joint Declaration itself did not mention the word “democracy”. It basically stated that the Hong Kong SAR “will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” (Article 2) and that rights and freedoms will be ensured by Hong Kong SAR law (Article 5). Since the Basic Law, HKSAR’s constitution, is PRC law, the final interpretation falls to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, not necessarily by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals.
The real point of dispute lies in the National Security Law, which was passed by the National People’s Congress in 2020, after the Hong Kong legislature was unable to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law. As public disorder arose with violent protests, the practical issue was whether HKSAR government could handle them without a National Security Law. Hong Kong was uniquely handicapped because in every other international financial centre, there exists very draconian national security laws that protect the integrity and security of the financial system, economy and sovereignty. Hong Kong was deeply polarised. No compromise seemed possible, and continued protests and violence would have destroyed Hong Kong. Between a rock and a hard place, the National Security Law was the least painful alternative barring more physical violence.
Treaty on a Lost Place highlighted the absurd situation of two sovereigns signing one piece of paper having different points of view. Such constructive ambiguity papered over destructive alternatives. The last British Governor Chris Patten was successful in persuading some Hongkongers that one man-one vote was what they deserve. Whether that is a cure all for Hong Kong’s ill is another matter. That his Conservative Party leadership was elected opaquely by of British people shows that different systems may not always practice what they preach. Hong Kong elites failed to correct the injustices that many young faced in not providing them affordable homes with meaningful, well paid jobs. Beijing’s mistake perhaps was to trust that Hong Kong could on her own resolve these contradictions within the larger struggle between China and the West on many fronts.
A Treaty is only a piece of paper. A city is not lost to Britain or China, but lost in its own direction, which must be re-found. The answers will not be found in international law, because that is itself being rediscovered in a new age of multipolar contestation. This book is a major contribution to our understanding of how international law is only one of many guides to the future. Hong Kong has to rediscover her own identity inside a larger identity. That is the tragedy and opportunity facing all islands within the grand ocean of mankind.
22A: Jayasumana asks govt. to stick to SC ruling, warns against moves detrimental to unitary status
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