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The altar on which we sacrifice our children

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By Dr. Ranil Senanayake

It is stated that Cuba, “is a small country which has for almost 50 years refused to relinquish its national sovereignty to the greatest superpower on the planet”. Sri Lanka is the opposite; ‘it is a small country which has for almost 50 years worked to relinquish its national sovereignty for loans from any superpower on the planet”. The most fundamental cause of becoming such a loser, was the linking of ‘development’ to the consumption of fossil energy. Thus, Sri Lanka can serve as a classic case study on how to become addicted to external inputs and loose independence.

In Sri Lanka, in December 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defines with clarity what is to be considered development by the policy makers of that Nation. Here was a fundamental and fateful decision that cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil. The increasing addiction to fossil fuels (Coal, Oil, Gas) is clearly seen in the growth of oil and gas imports. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. The public discussions on the irrationality of clinging to coal, oil and gas for the development of our power needs in the face of the modern technologies, clearly demonstrate serious flaws in the current energy policy.

After the heat energy of biomass used for the hearth and local industry, electrical energy is the fundamental force that drives modern civilisation. While the sources of this energy were many, the political/industrial nexus ensured that the energy source was restricted to fossil fuels. The planetary crisis with climate change has forced us to look at developing technologies that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as source of energy to generate electricity. Today there is a choice of from a multitude of other sources, hydro, solar, wind, bio, tidal, etc. All of them being ultimately driven by the power of the Sun.

With such developments, the old arguments that ‘economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty, but industrialisation leads to emissions’ rings hollow. Industrialisation, if so desired, need not lead to emissions, if modern technologies are used and a caring government is in place. A vision of development based on the profligate use of fossil fuel, may never be attainable. However, a vision of power for our homes and industry, based on ‘renewable’ sources of energy, is attainable. Indeed, one indicator of ‘development’ could be ‘the per capita consumption of power’ if that consumption of power is non fossil in generation sustainable development goals could be reached easily.

The consumption of power is a double-edged sword. While it will improve the quality of life, it will like a drug, create dependency on that level of input to maintain that quality of life. This relationship has been exploited by politicians and salesmen to promise an increasing supply of power, without considering the cost to the future. To a nation that is rapidly modernizing, there is a great danger of investing in fossil fuel dependent infrastructure and centralised, energy production.

It is commonsense that, as the demand accelerates and price increases, allowing fossil energy-based power production to move to more expensive, ever more problematical and polluting sources such as coal, fracking or high sulphur oils.

The fact that all fossil fuel dependent countries are in deep trouble is indicated by two trends. One is that the cost of fossil fuel is a driving factor of inflation. The other is that, in a warming world, the call for punitive taxes on the use of fossil fuel will get stronger with each climate crisis. At such a time, if development policy focuses on fossil energy based acquisitive consumerism, there lies a recipe for ‘the perfect storm’ of debt, suffering and despair, in a resource hungry world.

For all the commitments on paper, the inequality of health, wealth and trade the world over, continue to rise. The ethic of ‘He/She who consumes the most is the best’ still rules the world and propels us, blindly, to a frightening future.

Commenting on the bright displays of advertising lights of consumerist London 1920, A.M. Hocart Ceylon’s Archaeological Commissioner observed that, ” Every one of them has been placed there in chaotic confusion by a cold calculating purpose. Each one is designed to make a gaping crowd desire what they never dreamt of desiring before and what they had been perfectly happy not to desire. It is intended to destroy that happiness and take away from the soul its rest until it has satisfied the newborn desire.” The creation of desire has not slowed any and inequality not lessened. It is this model of development has brought us to this precarious present.

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process accepted.

Development must be determined by protecting the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any activity that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental needs.

The toxic substance used in electricity generation is one half of the altar, the toxins used in the production of our foods, fibre and medicines is the other.

Agriculture

Much has been written about the pros and cons of ‘modern agriculture’ the focus always being on the levels of crop production or on the ‘feeding the hungry’. Irrespective of the global scandal of feeding much of the crop to livestock and industry, when people still go hungry. It is salutary to examine the basis of the crop increase gained by the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ (fig 1). The natural defences and modes of feeding of the plant have been done away with, these needs now being supplied by the farmer through the use of fossil fuels. Competition and predation by pests are taken care of by chemicals and the roots and shots made small so that there will be much energy left over for seed production. Traditionally ‘improved’ seeds perform well without such high fossil based inputs, but a problem with modern agriculture is that farmers are forced to use ‘modern’ varieties and methods where increases in productivity are only made possible by a high input of fossil energy.

Fig 1. Traditional Wheat and Improved Wheat

The ecological impact of increasing energy input into a system has been well documented. It is an ecological axiom that ; In any ecosystem, an increase in the flow of energy tends to organize and simplify that ecosystem, with the destruction of many homeostatic mechanisms of the original system. Field studies on identified ecosystems at various levels of organization have confirmed the loss of original stability following a large influx of energy into those systems. A good example is provided by experiments which looked at the effects of sewage (as an energy source) as it was added to a stream whose biotic composition was known. The effect was to drastically reduce the number of species in the original community, producing a new community made up of large populations

of very few of the original species. Studies of insect communities, have shown that pest outbreaks are characteristic of systems with lowered species diversity. The application of fertilizer or the use of mechanical energy in a field situation produces the similar ecological effects.

An increase in the input of energy to an ecosystem often provides a useful measure by which ecosystem modification can be addressed. Thus in a heavily energy dependent agricultural system the natural or biological system has been dispensed with and an artificial environment has been created to allow production (fig 1) . Such a system of production is sustainable only as long as the inputs are provided, it also raises many biological questions, for this system is clearly not sustainable in a biological sense. It also raises economic questions, especially in regard to input costs and subsidies. Further, this process has been demonstrated to be increasingly dependent on a steadily increasing quantum of energy input to produce a unit of output. It is estimated that for US agriculture, fossil energy based production input, accounts for over twice the amount of energy gained by eating a potato. The dependence on fossil energy for food production increases with an increase of fossil led, industrial agriculture. The demand for tractors, transport and processing, all based on fossil energy will grow. As this process keeps increasing, the fossil carbon footprint of the food we eat will also enlarge.

So, much the same as in the area of power for the generation of electricity, power to ensure sustainable food production has also fallen prey to fossil fuel. It is in this context that we should examine the role of fossil fuels in today’s development vision.

What are the assumptions and costs?

“It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving” says the Government of Sri Lanka who have no oil of their own and has to depend on imports for every drop.

“Oil represents the spirits of the dead, to ask it for power you sacrifice your children” says the Shuar, an Amazonian tribe under whose feet lie reservoirs of oil that they will not allow drilling for.

Indeed, the reality of climate change and acceleration of development diseases would seem to justify the concern of the Shuar that, “to ask it for power means sacrificing the future of our children”. Are the unlettered Shuar more sensitive to global and human needs than the wicked Governments throughout the world, who profit from extracting, promoting and selling fossil fuels as the path to development ?

The bottom-line question is “Is the current development policy increasing the national dependency on fossil fuels? “. If the answer is yes, and everything we see about us seems to confirm that reality, we are being herded into an ‘Energy Trap’ where we will become totally reliant on fossil fuels to sustain our society. Totally dependent on whoever supplies those fuels. Not the way to develop into an independent nation !

The price of addiction is to neglect of the well being of the public, in pursuit of power. In the rush to establish dirty coal fired power plants, they have been sited where the maximum damage to public health and our national heritage could be compromised. Perhaps India’s health experience with coal-fired power plants will make us think twice. So-called ‘natural gas’ is no panacea either, it comes from the same toxic ‘fossil carbon’ source. While it produces a lower volume of toxic outputs, the total output from burning it produces the same impact on climate change. Fossil fuels are biospheric toxins, they reduce the ability of living things to have a stable environment to live in. The Shuar are right, even now oil is demanding the health and well being of our children. Is the current development processes the altar on which we will sacrifice our children? Are the compliant politicians and corporate heads of fossil companies, promoting this myth of ‘development’ facilitated through fossil energy, the high priests at the altar who justify and facilitate this horrendous sacrifice ?



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Features

It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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