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SUSIL SIRIVARDANA: A JOURNEY WITH THE HAVE NOTS

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by MERRIL GUNARATNE

Many articles extolling the virtues, integrity, erudition, intellectual brilliance and simplicity of Susil have flooded the print media upon his demise. We have to laud those who wrote in such a vein, and yet express sorrow that this country and many political establishments had abjectly failed to fully tap the unique talents of such a man for the benefit of Sri Lanka.

Susil’s reputation was well known in professional circles. His precious worth described in the eulogies, stand testimony to his repute. Perhaps the reluctance to offer recognition, except by President Premadasa, who utilized his talents to the maximum, to a public servant of such calibre is both a malaise and a malignancy with us.

Success to many in the public service depends on their acquisition of influential and powerful patrons to back their greed for positions, promotions and recognition. This sad syndrome has had iniquitous implications, for not only has it provided a conducive environment for mediocrity to flourish over merit, but has also placed those seeking undeserved recognition, under obligation to patrons who helped them.

Susil Sirivardana, humble and fiercely independent, was cast in a different mould. He abhorred, like a mere handful of retired state officers who are yet among us, such a pernicious practice; and this perhaps explains why his inestimable services had not been sought by many political establishments. Most of those who refused to canvas influence and interference to acquire positions, often found recognition elusive.

I consider it a privilege to have been closely associated with Susil from 1989 to 2012, and am sad that the same proximity of contact could not be maintained subsequently. But meeting him regularly in those halcyon days not only made me appreciate his inestimable qualities, but also provided an insight into his competence and familiarity with a wide range of fields and subjects.

He was a genuine and thorough professional. He was quick to capture the essence of a problem, and for such reason, was also blessed with the capacity to offer simple yet lasting solutions to seemingly intractable issues. He had versatility, being at home with subjects such as national security, policing, defence, finance, foreign relations, economics, industry, agriculture, reconciliation and diverse cultures. He therefore had an extremely wide reach.

His sheer brilliance and creativity were patently visible. Such limitless capacity was born out of experience, close communication with the depressed and the downtrodden, commitment, reading, pursuit of academic interests, and most of all, an innate affection for justice, righteousness, virtue and ethics. When his views and advice were sought, he was totally objective at all times, looking endlessly for the right solutions. In such pursuit, he treated expedience, opportunism, bias and exploitation with total disdain. His discipline and commitment were of a unique kind, not commonly seen in the public service.

Meeting him frequently as I did in better times was a continuous learning experience. I had embodied some of his suggestions in novelties and innovations practised by me in the police. The establishment of a ‘Task Force’ of government and non government organizations to contend with vice and violence in Negombo in 1990 which paid rich dividends was just one instance where I benefited from his advice. I also recall how Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe once asked me for names of persons of eminence who could be considered to engage in analysis in the field of national security, when I served as an Advisor in the ministry of defence in 2012. I responded with three names: Dharmasiri Peiris, Susil Sirivardana, and Jayanath Rajepakse. Their names came easily to mind. They were undoubtedly eminent administrators and intellectuals.

Susil did not fuss over frills and trappings. He was born to considerable wealth, but shunned extravagance and publicity. He did not crave a “place in the sun”. Genuinely modest and simple, he dressed in the simplest national attire, and was always seen with his “malla”. He carried these habits into the SLAS where he topped his batch, and imbued with idealism, showed great empathy and sincerity for the poor and the downtrodden. He placed his skills and talents at the feet of the have nots. His vision, exemplified by his writings, speeches, and his work as a state officer, was to bring the state administration and establishment as close as possible to the people, for he considered such a prerequisite necessary to foster mutual trust and confidence across the great divide.

Transparency was always a cornerstone of his character. He always cared for those who suffered discrimination and persecution. We have to shower limitless admiration for a person born to wealth, but chose to sacrifice comforts and luxury in order to share the plight of the poor and the persecuted. He was a solace to them. His commitment to the needy and his sacrifices for them were laced with intense idealism and altruism. His consistency with such convictions characterized not only his career in the public service, but also his relations with society outside it. His candour was not cosmetic. Susil was a synonym for simplicity.

Except for a relatively short period of recognition, Susil went to his demise unsung. He was blessed with the potential to have had a perpetual niche in the top administrative caucus in the country. Those who have been eulogistic about him in death have been persons of stature in the country. They have in unison voiced the view that Susil possessed unique and remarkable skills, amply supplemented by moral courage, ethics, values and sincerity. We have to ponder why and how political establishments time and again failed to recognize and exploit his skills for the service of the country.

He was a visionary and sage, not easily matched by many. President Premadasa alone recognized his talents and virtues, and Susil responded to such recognition by leaving his imprint on the Janasaviya programme, a poverty alleviation concept which acquired permanence. He also contributed substantially to the Housing Projects of the time. These contributions reflected his commitment to the poor.

Susil Sirivardana wrote the ‘Foreword’ for my book ‘Cop in the Crossfire’. He offered words of wisdom for my first book as well. When this book was launched in 2011, I expressed the view that Susil should have had a permanent niche in the inner sanctum of the Presidential Secretariat at all times. He was amply equipped to assist governments in formulating policy at the highest level in diverse fields, and would therefore have excelled in contributing to national policy making bodies. If called upon to play roles in policy planning, he would never have betrayed the interests of the people. A man of strong convictions, he always believed that the establishment should be told the truth at all times.

Being extremely innovative, mere mundane roles may also have restricted scope and space for Susil to give full expression to his vision, energy and enormous creativity. Sadly he had too often been been ignored and overlooked, like a small coterie of retired officers from the CCS, the Foreign Service and the SLAS who are yet around, and did not have to masquerade to make claims for competence. Susil’s name deserves to be etched as one of the best in the pantheon of administrators and visionaries who have done Sri Lanka proud from the time of independence. If only his services could have been harnessed to make this country a better place to live in, this incomparable son of the soil would have left the world in the consciousness that he had fulfilled his mission.



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Features

Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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