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Three governmental actions to be prioritised

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

The ruling party has requested President Ranil Wickremesinghe to facilitate the return of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the country and his appointment as prime minister. The former president left the country when large numbers of protestors who had been actively protesting against the economic collapse and corruption in the country took over his presidential residence.  Few would wish to see a former president going from country to country seeking asylum. Even those who have supported the protest movement are unlikely to oppose his return to the country.  However, any attempt to promote his active participation in political affairs is likely to be controversial and would also go against the “GotaGoHome” struggle’s main objective and can undermine the government.

The primary target of the protest movement was the former president who was held responsible, as the political leader holding the most power, for the economic crisis in the country.  There were other reasons as well, such as his ill-advised decision to ban chemical fertilisers and convert Sri Lankan agriculture to organic status overnight. This policy brought visible disaster to farmers within a few months.  Further, appointing the former president as prime minister will necessarily displace the sitting prime minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, who is a leader of an influential faction within the government and is also personally close to President Ranil Wickremesinghe in a way that makes a partnership possible.  The fact that the prime minister is the person who will succeed the president if anything should happen to the president is also likely to play a role in the final decision on this matter.

The ruling party’s other request to the president to appoint several SLPP stalwarts to ministerial positions will be difficult for the president to accept.  Most of them stand accused of corruption and abuse of power on a significant scale and have also been the focus of attention of the protest movement.  There is considerable resentment against President Wickremesinghe for having stepped forward to accept the prime ministerial position himself when those who now seek reappointment as ministers had resigned from their positions in the government.  It was felt, and continues to be felt, that President Wickremesinghe’s stepping forward at the time he did, has saved those who are corrupt and abusers of powers, and preserved them for future reappearance, which appears to be now in the offing. Those who want their ministerial positions restored appear not realise or not care in the least that they have lost the trust and legitimacy in the eyes of those who voted them into power. The stark truth is that they are unable to go back to their constituencies and inform them, for instance, on how the IMF conditionalities will affect their lives.

NORMALCY RESTORED

The first five weeks of President Wickremesinghe’s presidency has evoked a mixed response.  His unexpected suppression of the protest movement by the use of force have dismayed those who have seen him as a liberal icon in national politics.  Those who have backed the protest movement against those who were originally his political foes cannot understand the new president’s lack of empathy with the protest movement that paved the way for his rise to power.  Beginning with the midnight  storming of the protest site outside of the presidential premises on Galle Face, to  the impunity with which unarmed and sleeping  protestors were brutalised in the  darkness of the night, and to the hounding  of anyone who committed the slightest act outside of the law, including taking  the president’s beer mug as a souvenir, the governmental repression has come as a shock. Not only have Sri Lankan human rights activists and those citizens who want the best for the country been outraged at this type of pettiness, the international human rights groups have been taken notice.

The past month has also seen a somewhat shaky restoration of normalcy that the general population appear to endorse though it may be more visible than real.  The power cuts and queues outside fuel stations which were contained for several weeks now appear to be threatened, suggesting a problem with sustainability.  The presence of the IMF delegation in the country and negotiations have given hope that the anticipated financial inflows will materialise sooner rather than later.  Statistics of the World Health Organisation indicate a severe fall in  nutrition that is affecting children, which indicates that the suffering of people is inside their homes where they cannot make ends meet and are unable to provide food at the table, which is not yet manifesting itself outside in renewed public protest.  The claim that the protest movement has been hijacked by leftists and extremists has been used to forcefully quell the protest movement.  However, this use of force and false narratives are bound to come unstuck in the longer term.

On the other hand, it appears that at the present time the people are by and large willing to give the new president more time before subjecting him to rejection.  There is general acknowledgement that the president is an experienced politician with a cosmopolitan understanding of local and international political affairs and is best suited for negotiations with the international community which holds the key to Sri Lanka’s economic revival.  There is also the belief that the president is a liberal at heart whose orientation is not to be discriminative on the basis of race or religion or to hold grudges or prejudices against entire communities of people.  During his periods as prime minister under presidents D B Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena, the president was seen as the person more attentive to issues of peace, reconciliation and giving space to civil society in line with international and human rights norms.

URGENT ACTIONSF

There are three urgent actions that the government in general and president in particular need to take.  The ongoing crackdown on the protest movement needs to cease.  Its excessive nature is discrediting the government in the eyes of the international community as well as within the country.  The excessive nature of the current spree of arrests can be seen by the tolerance being practiced within the government to those who have even been convicted by the courts for abuse of power relating to corruption but have been brought into the cabinet of ministers.  The blame for this asymmetric repression is falling squarely on the president as he is both the commander in chief of the armed forces and minister of defence and all-powerful under the 20th Amendment to the constitution which continues to be operational.  It is important that the president should defuse these misapprehensions regarding himself by ensuring that an amnesty is given to all in recognition of the fact that the government goons are unlikely to be ever brought to justice.

Second, the government needs to be more forthcoming about its economic plan.  This is the issue that is of most concern to the general population.  The recent shortages of petrol and diesel in the Colombo area led to long lines forming which led to panic buying in other parts of the country as well.  There are speculations about the lengthening of power cuts.  The temporary import ban placed on 300 items is an indication of adjustment measures being taken in order to access IMF funding.  The government may not wish to be forthcoming about its plans as it may believe it will have more leverage to steer the economic restructuring process to its advantage, both politically and personally, if there is a lack of transparency.  But this will further antagonise those sections of the population who are already feeling that this is an illegitimate government.

In most democratic countries an economic crisis of the nature currently being experienced by Sri Lanka would have led the incumbent government to both resign and call for fresh elections.  However, neither the president nor the present government shows a desire to either resign or to dissolve parliament to call for fresh elections.  President Wickremesinghe will obtain the legal power to dissolve parliament only in February next year under the 20th Amendment.  In the meantime, the government can conduct provincial council elections.  A restoration of the provincial councils could bring back legitimacy to the governmental system, as well as ease the tension in society, by bringing elected persons with a fresh mandate into positions of decision making.  This can defuse tensions among the people, while giving the government more time and space to stabilise the economy. The government in general and the president in particular on whom much faith is being placed need to formulate policies that will last the test of time if Sri Lanka is to get on to a sustainable path of national development.



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Sri Lanka reaching critical level in terms of water stress

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

Water stress occurs when the water resources, in a region, or country, are insufficient for human and ecological demands. Although the planet has got 1.386 billion km³ of water, only 2.5% is available as fresh water. According to the United Nations, 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, of which 733 million live in high and critically water-stressed countries.

The level of water stress is calculated by taking into account all the freshwater withdrawals by all major sectors. The important thing, in this regard, is that environmental water requirements are also considered. The main sectors include agriculture, fisheries, industries, and services. Total freshwater withdrawal is the volume of freshwater extracted from rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater sources for the aforementioned sectors. These sources are renewable water sources as they are replenished or recharged from rain. If water is used solely for power generation, that requirement is also used for the calculation. However, in our country that is not the case, as we use the water for agriculture, after power generation.

Sri Lanka is receiving about 2,500 mm average annual rainfall and is blessed with 103 rivers radially flowing to the sea from the central hills. Further, the country has a net surface water storage capacity of about 6 billion cubic meters, with the help of all the major dams and minor tanks of varying capacities. Despite all that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Sri Lanka’s level of water stress is 90.8%, indicating a high level of water stress. In other words, the country is consuming 90.8% percentage of its total available renewable freshwater resources, at present, apart from environmental needs, which are estimated to be 52.8 billion cubic meters. Accordingly, the renewable water withdrawal is equivalent to 12.95 billion cubic meters for all sectors, except the environmental requirement. When the water stress level reaches 100% it would be a critical situation, as meeting further demands for water, from renewable sources, would not be possible. However, at the river basin level, there can be significant differences in water stress levels.

In contrast, water stress, in Kuwait, is 3,850% indicating that the country has got a very little amount of renewable freshwater, when compared to its requirement. Hence, the freshwater requirement of Kuwait is met with seawater desalination, treated wastewater, and brackish groundwater. In India, the figure is 66.5%, which is much better than in Sri Lanka. In the meantime, the average water stress in south Asia is 78%.

According to the level of water stress, we are gradually reaching a critical level, as far as our available freshwater resources are concerned. Given that only 90% of households have access to safe drinking water, and the population is increasing, more and more renewable water resources will be utilized in the near future. If water stress is reached a critical level, it would be a challenge for economic development as water is an essential requirement for many industries.

Like in many other countries, agriculture is the main user of water in Sri Lanka, which consumes nearly 85% of freshwater, while total consumption, for both industrial and domestic sectors ,is close to 12%. Notably, the contribution to the GDP, from the agriculture sector, is just 14.6%, while that of the service sector is 59.2%. However, climatic and field soil conditions affect water use in agriculture, significantly. Being a country, located in the tropics, crop evapotranspiration is comparatively high in Sri Lanka, especially in the dry zone. Still, behavioural changes, with regard to water use, and the availability of sound water infrastructure, can play an important role in water demand management. Therefore, we have to considerably improve our water productivity, especially in the agriculture sector, by increasing the water use efficiency being the main water user. However, a considerable investment is necessary for such infrastructure improvements, in the form of irrigation modernization, to increase water use efficiency.

Another challenge to fresh water is its pollution, due to human and natural phenomena. Water pollution, due to agrochemicals, sewage runoff, and waste disposal, is a high concern at the moment. Natural disasters, like floods, droughts, and landslides, also lead to water degradation. Floods contaminate freshwater sources with hazardous chemicals and debris. Droughts, on the other hand, increase the concentration of hazardous constituents in water as the amount of water available, in freshwater sources, is rapidly abated during droughts. On the other hand, the growing population, and economy, intensify these negative impacts on water quality.

The garment and textile industries account for 40% of Sri Lanka’s total exports. The industry is water-intensive, and therefore, it is important to guarantee that it meets the required water supply. Tourism is the third largest foreign exchange earning industry in the county, with a GDP share of 4.5%. The industry needs a considerable amount of water for hotel operations. Hence, future water policies should, among other things, focus on each sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP as well. This is more important than ever, given that we have to uplift the country again, at least to the previous GDP level that prevailed before the recent economic crisis.

Therefore, The sustainability of our freshwater use has become a challenge, and effective demand and supply management policies are essential. Unless we succeed in such endeavors, we will have to think of costly solutions such as water recycling, seawater desalinisation to meet the essential freshwater demands of the country. If we fail to do so, freshwater will be extracted at the expense of environmental water demand and it may end up in an ecological disaster.

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specializing in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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President picks up the gauntlet

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by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.

13TH AMENDMENT

Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.

IRONIC PERSECUTION

It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka

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Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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