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Towards necessary exercise in discursive disentanglement?

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(Prof. Sasanka Perera’s recent speech as guest speaker to the National Academy of Sciences)

In present times, there is an intriguing, but at times seemingly dangerous entanglement between science, belief and state policy or government action. This kind of phenomena range from the government’s sudden ban of Glyphosate in 2015; the state sponsorship of a conference on the air power of the mythical king Ravana to the layers of stories surrounding the advent of what is now popularly known as the Dammika Peniya. These are merely three well-known phenomena from a whole series of such phenomena in the country with varying impacts on social life, politics and commerce. As a collective of occurrences with their own structure of associated events, these phenomena have not been reckoned with seriously. We have not carefully reflected upon them and asked ourselves why they are more evident now, and what their broader consequences and reasons for manifestation might be. As a result, we do not have credible sociological explanations for these phenomena that goes beyond popular rhetoric. These phenomena are seemingly dangerous too, because many of them defy what we might think of as commonsense and leads in the direction of collective chaos and counter-productive action on the part of the state. And in this journey, ‘science’ is one of the most obvious casualties.

To me, all this points to a contradictory entanglement involving science, belief, and state policy when ideally such contradictory entanglements should not take place. By ‘science’ I do not merely mean the vast systems of knowledge that originated in the west, which now have global hegemony including in our country. Instead, science is any system of knowledge “concerned with the physical world” and phenomena emanating from this world along with formal “observations and systematic experimentation.”i In other words, a “science involves a pursuit of knowledge” that covers “general truths” as well as “the operations of fundamental laws.”ii In this sense, Ayurveda, Unnani, present day engineering, allopathic medicine or any other system of formal knowledge are mostly matters of science though the bases for their fundamentals would vary considerably from the more dominant post-enlightenment sciences to much older systems of knowledge.

Similarly, by ‘belief’, I mean not only matters of faith rooted in religion and tradition but also contemporary beliefs that are created by the repetitive circulation of ideas across media whether they are based on fact and science or not. Often, these ideas address contemporary issues and politics though they might be camouflaged in a rhetoric of the past, resort to specific conventions, and identity politics. And these associations are quite important today given the propensity for fake news and the enhanced ability of people to accept these ideas easily without being formally countered.

In the same sense, ‘state policy’ and actions linked to such policies are expected to be based on formal legal principles and empirical facts, and ideally should have nothing to do with matters of faith or untested assumptions and should benefit the polity.

Generally, I consider science, belief, and state policy to be independent discourses with their own epistemological routes and purposes though there will be close and necessary interactions among these such as between science and state policy. At other times, as we are seeing now, this association can be between belief and state policy where science might be eclipsed.

My intention today is to simply place in context three recent phenomena of this kind that are structurally very similar but contextually very different, which I think would explain to some extent how this amalgamation of discourses function, and the ways in which their politics manifest. As far as I am concerned, what I have to say today are simply preliminary thoughts about which I would like to think further and theorize.

 

Phenomenon 1: Glyphosate Ban

The use of the weedicide glyphosate was banned by presidential order in 2015. In a paper published in the same year, Jayasumana, Gunatilake and Siribaddana note that people in areas where kidney disease has become endemic have been exposed to multiple heavy metals and glyphosate.iii Their conclusion as far as I could see as a non-expert, was very vague, which amounted to the following observation: “Although we could not localize a single nephrotoxin as the culprit” “multiple heavy metals and glyphosates may play a role in the pathogenesis.”iv This is one of several public articulations related to this matter that has some semblance of what I may call scientific noise, but clearly inconclusive.

The ban was quite sudden and was implemented following on the heels of intense lobbying by Member of Parliament and Presidential Advisor, Reverend Athuraliye Rathana. He argued along with his supporters that this chemical caused chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in the North Central and Uva Provinces. But what is clear is no reliable and specific scientific evidence was offered by him or the President’s Office as the basis for the ban. In this overall process, it does not seem that the Registrar of Pesticides; Fertilizer Secretariat; Medical Research Institute and Tea Research Institute, all of whom could have presented valuable and more formal input into the decision were consulted. It almost seems that the ban found its genesis in the popular belief that chemicals are bad.

The fact that there is considerable prevalence of kidney disease in parts of the country is a fact, which needs to be more rigorously studied to work out its causes. Personally, I am not a supporter of excessive use of chemicals for anything including agriculture, and to the extent possible, I have made changes in my personal lifestyle to address this anxiety. But that kind of personal, emotional or popular anxieties cannot be the foundation for state level decision-making, particularly if the government and the people both subscribe to the idea of commercial agriculture and the eradication of hunger.

The consequences of the ban have been substantial in monetary terms. It caused production costs to increase substantially and the industry, particularly the tea sector, incurred losses up to 10-20 billion rupees annually while the ban lasted. Though the ban was eventually partially lifted, even at that time, no credible and conclusive data supporting the ban existed. So, it appears, that the ban was solely based on a popular and largely correct general belief of the negative impacts of chemicals, tempered by political rhetoric emanating from matters of faith and popular beliefs. I am sure we can all agree, while we can entertain popular beliefs or even conspiracy theories among people, if they are injected into broader politics and formation of state policy, that would have serious consequences as this event has shown. Part of the problem here is not only the undue credence given to freely circulating popular notions without situating them in the context of formal and reliable knowledge, information and science, but the ability of popular political leaders to convert untested ideas into practices of state policy and action without facing consequences.

 

Phenomenon 2: The State’s Embrace of Ravana

People of my generation will know that Ravana and his flying machine were merely elements in an interesting story in our youth while in some parts of the country specific local stories linked to this myth circulated. Unlike India and elsewhere in South Asia and in the east right up to Bali, there is no evidence of Ramayana performances which may have included a dramatization of the Ravana narrative in Sinhala cultural lore. But this situation has dramatically changed in recent times where Ravana’s popularity has rapidly increased among a cross section of the people, while his name and alleged historicity have also been openly embraced by the state.

By 2019, the story of Ravana had been directly appropriated by the Sri Lankan state and engrossed in a highly superficial but allegedly scientific discourse on aviation. In July 2019, Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lankan organized a “conference of civil aviation experts, historians, archaeologists, scientists and geologists” in Katunayake.v The Authority’s Vice Chairman at the time, Shashi Danatunge told Indian media, “King Ravana was a genius. He was the first person to fly. He was an aviator. This is not mythology; it’s a fact. There needs to be a detailed research on this. In the next five years, we will prove this.”vi He further noted, “they had irrefutable facts to prove that Ravana was the pioneer and the first to fly using an aircraft.”vii The conference’s main conclusion was “that Ravana first flew from Sri Lanka to today’s India 5,000 years ago and came back.”viii Many conference participants in their own peculiar wisdom, dismissed the powerful stories narrating Ravana’s kidnapping of Lord Rama’s wife Sita, as a mere “Indian version.”ix For them, this was not possible because Ravana was a noble king.”x

Intriguingly, one part of the myth cluster became a fact while another became fiction based simply on nothing more concrete than emotional and nationalist appeal. The ideas expressed in public on this matter were not private articulations of individuals. Particularly the Vice Chairman of Civil Aviation was speaking as a representative of a state agency. Also, the general conclusions of the conference and the acceptance of the Ravana story as historical fact could simply not be entrained by formal historiography and archaeology.

 

 

By 2020, the same agency took its sense of scientificity of these claims even further by launching a research project looking for evidence of Ravana’s flying and his “aviation routes.”xi The theme of the project was, “King Ravana and the ancient domination of aerial routes now lost.”xii Towards this, the Civil Aviation Authority placed advertisements in national newspapers asking people to send in evidence they may have. The purported scientific objective and the reason for the Civil Aviation Authority’ central involvement in this state-sponsored effort was explained as follows: 1) Because the Civil Aviation Authority was “the main aviation regulatory authority in Sri Lanka,” it was the most logical entity to host such and effort, and 2) Because “there are multiple stories over the years about Ravana flying aircrafts and covering these routes” there was a necessity “to study this matter.”xiii

Though there are seemingly rational and seemingly scientific ‘noises’ in this episode, the entire exercise is enveloped in taking myth as fact, and that too, with the direct participation of the state.

Phenomenon 3: The Advent of the Dammika Peniya

Now we come to the advent of the Dammika Peniya which is formally known as ‘ශ්‍රී වීර භද්‍රධම්ම කොරෝනා නිවාරණ ප්‍රතිශක්ති ජීව පානය’ (Shri Vira Bhdradhamma Corona Nivaranana Prathishakthi Jiva Panaya). According to its inventor, Mr Dammika Bandara, the formula for the syrup was given to him by Goddess Kali in a dream. This is a crucial point in which the genesis of this syrup differs from the more formal discourses of knowledge in Ayurveda and Sinhala medicine, within which this claim is located.

It was a claim protected by rhetoric of local medical superiority, power of ancient knowledge and very loud articulations of cultural and political nationalism. But certain things need to be understood clearly. Even within the structure of faith and belief in Sinhala culture, goddess Kali, the alleged ultimate progenitor of the syrup is not known for healing. She is seen more as a powerful deity but with considerable destructive potential. More typically associated with healing is goddess Pattini. So, the claim seems to be out of place even in the context of conventional Sinhala myth and belief. Second, though Ayurveda and Sinhala medicine have associations with faith and ritual, the bulk of their formal discourses on medicine are based on experimentation, repetitive practice and fine-tuning and formally scripted knowledge or that which is handed over word of mouth across generations. My maternal grandfather wrote two books in the early 1970s after he had retired from his Ayurvedic practice and teaching. The first was called Rasayana saha Vajikarana (රසායන සහ වාජිකරණ) in which he presented a specific body of knowledge already known to his field, but with fine-tuning offered by his own practice and studies. The second, called Avinishchitha Aushada (අවිනිශ්චිත ඖෂධ) was very different. It dealt with a series of plants whose medical utility was unknown or unsure. In it, he dealt with the unknown, based on both generations of institutionalized uncertainty as well as conjecture on his part, but based on his long years of practice and observation. Both these point to the nature of the scientific discourse of contemporary Ayurveda.

Compared to this kind of background, Mr Bandara offers a set of contradictions. He is not a medical practitioner, but a mason by profession who runs a small Kali shrine in his neighborhood. However, his claim over having invented a treatment for Corona received massive publicity via media outlets supportive of the state and unreserved public support from numerous local and national political leaders including the Minister of Health and the Speaker of Parliament all of whom consumed the concoction in public along with some of their colleagues. This does not tantamount to formal state support as in the other two cases. But such open adulation and support by senior members of the government is a public performance of confidence for an untested medication with a dubious claim. These actions played a major role in ensuring large numbers of people flocking to Mr Bandara’s house in Kegalle in search of this ‘miracle’ drug – in the midst of a pandemic. This is not a general condemnation of traditional medicine. In the 1950s, the establishment of the Ayurvedic Research Institute was to offer traditional medicine a sound research and dissemination base and bring it on par with formal understanding of science. But Dammika Peniya has no such provenance; it simply came from a dream according to its inventor himself, and such provenance simply cannot be the basis for its public adulation by political leaders. Most criticisms of the concoction and its provenance were vociferously put down in public as acts of anti-nationalism and lack of respect for traditional culture. A dubious study involving several colleagues of the Wathupitiwala Hospital and a handful of test cases had taken place though it is not clear to me if this exercise even had ethical clearance. A committee consisting of medical professionals has now been appointed to undertake a clinical study of the concoction using acceptable clinical trial criteria and practices. Its results have not yet been published.

What does all this mean?

All these three incidents have several obvious things in common:

the core notions in all stories are based on popular assumptions and untested ideas;

they all have powerful political and state support directly or indirectly;

their main arguments are governed by belief whether tempered by faith or by the mere repetition of mass circulating non-facts; and

in all cases, science in the formal sense – from allopathic medicine, Ayurveda and natural sciences to archaeology and history – have been dispelled even though such input could have more sensibly impacted these discourses if they were formally made available.

Moreover, the public manifestation and power of these discourses became possible due to the very clear inability of the public services directly associated with these contexts to be guided by formally collected data and scientific conclusions and their inability to advise their political Masters, and withstand the pressures of political interference. Such political interference is obviously not based on advice from subject experts or from a clear political vision, but from short-term political agendas for popular mobilization. This main conditionality allowed these unstable claims to become part of national politics and in some cases become policy or in the very least lead to actions sanctioned by the state.

But how does one explain the massive public support especially for the last two incidents. I have noticed for many years that people in our country, and particularly the Sinhalas seem to have a desperate urge to be part of grand historical claims and narratives. But I have not yet been able to gather adequate data or theorize what might be going on. But one can tentatively make some observations. The rediscovery of Ravana and brining him from the pages of myth and epic narrative of the Ramayana to state-sponsored formal discourses of populist and non-empirical historicization, and therefore formal reiteration of myth itself shows the urge to control what might be thought of as a popular and powerful narrative of the past. The way in which Sinhalas have reinvented Ravana over the last decade or so is not only as an aviator, but also as an engineer, medical expert, inventor, scientist and scholar. And this is done within an idiom of nationalist discourse that insists a pre-Vijayan and wholly Sri Lankan civilization once existed in which Ravana is a central attraction. These claims also assert this civilization was somehow superior to the cultural landscape across the ocean in the rest of South Asia. This seems to me to be more like what anthropologists would call millenarian mythmaking where Ravana appears at least in part as a millenarian hero. Generally, millenarian stories, beliefs and heroes have to do with delivering a society from danger, introduction of new ideas and technologies to ensure the safety of a collective, and so on. Such stories generally manifest in times of crisis. In the case of the Ravana story, the preoccupation is to recreate an important place for Lanka in the broader political history of South Asia in the context of a politically unstable present.

Even the story of the Dammika Peniya has some of these millenarian features. After all, it was presented as a very local remedy for COVID 19 based on a lost Sri Lankan body of scientific knowledge delivered directly by a goddess in a dream. And that too at a time when people were desperate to be safe and keen to protect their livelihoods from the vagaries of Corona virus at a time the state’s effort at controlling it appeared to be faltering. The Peniya seemed to be a sign of miraculous deliverance from the island’s past glory emerging in the midst of its chaotic present.

To end this preliminary sketch let me refer to a final comment. It seems to me, these kinds of stories emerge in times of crises – be these emotional, social, or political crises. This is not unique to Sri Lanka, and can also be seen in many other parts of the world in structurally similar circumstances. These stories have their genesis in realms of conjecture. I am not objecting to the deployment of conjecture as such. Most good ideas in all our disciplines would often begin with conjecture. As we know, the philosophy of science has shown us the importance of “assumptions, foundations, methods” and “implications of science.”xiv Reflections in philosophy of science also indicate the efforts to distinguish between what is considered science and what is thought of as non-science.xv It is in the latter domain where untested conjecture would generally be located until they can be given a basis in science or dispelled.

In this general context, it seems to me, these stories allow people to be part of a more powerful and often a winning idea of history and hyper-real present even though that domain of belief might have very little or nothing to do with lived reality as such. Partly, these can also be seen as coping mechanisms in difficult and turbulent times. But these are clearly not remedies for very real socio-political or public health issues that can be utilized brazenly by the state as long as their core ideas remain in domains of belief and conjecture.

The collective failure that typifies our situation is the inability of many people to understand this commonsense and as a result, become dangerously entangled in the internal logic of these stories, which have no external empirical foundations except for the real-life calamities some of them might generate. It is also likely our political leaders consciously and deliberately promote these stories and phenomena to divert people’s attention from evolving crises.

In this situation, I find it unfortunate that Sri Lankan social sciences have not yet spent the time to collect these stories and study them more carefully in their border social and political contexts and offer a more coherent, empirically-based, and nuanced theoretical explanation.

(Sasanka Perera is a trained anthropologist and is a professor at South Asian University in New Delhi. This is the text of a guest lecture delivered at the Induction Ceremony of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka on 22 January 2021)



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Features

Covid-19 vaccination: Is it the proverbial ‘Silver Bullet’?

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Dr B. J. C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

In this emerald isle, people take to any form of vaccination, like the legendary ducks take to water. Offer them a vaccine against anything and they will take it; at least most of them would do so. The vaccine antagonists and anti-vaxxers are extremely few and far between, so as to be almost a virtual non-entity. With a very high literacy rate, and a population that is prepared to take heed to the hilt, the axiom that dictates ‘prevention is better than cure’, it is the absolute dream of the experts in the public health scenario that there is unmitigated abiding interest on the part of our populace to get vaccinated against COVID-19. It has been said that vaccines do not save lives but vaccination most definitely does. Vaccines have to be given to people for them to produce the optimal effects. A receptive population to such a notion is indeed, a much-fancied reverie of all health service providers.

In such a background, it is most laudable that Sri Lanka is going pell-mell, even in an impetuous rush, to vaccinate her population against COVID-19, at what could best be described as at break-neck speed. Even given the spectacle of an insufficiency of adequate stocks of the coronavirus vaccines to freely vaccinate the population, the authorities are making the very best of the situation. We must, of course clearly appreciate the steps taken by the Government and the Ministry of Health in this initiative. The tri-forces, the Army in particular, have to be congratulated, in playing the lead role in organising a scheme of things to administer the vaccines in an orderly fashion. TAKE A BOW; ALL OF YOU, you are indeed giving the very best of yourselves in this endeavour.

Well, the goal is to somehow secure a high enough herd-immunity to defeat the virus; most definitely a commendable final goal. The currently prevalent mantra is to vaccinate, vaccinate, and vaccinate even more. Yet for all that there is much misinformation and an infodemic doing the rounds, especially on social media, about widespread speculations on loss of sexual prowess, impotence, subfertility and infertility, as undesirable effects of the COVID-19 vaccines. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO SCIENTIFIC BASIS FOR ANY OF THESE IMPLICATIONS. NONE OF THE CURRENTLY AVAILABLE COVID-19 VACCINES DO ANY OF THIS. It is just stupid covidiocy on the part of a few anti-vaxxers. It has induced a lot of young people to refuse the vaccine. This is a crime against humanity to spread such falsehoods. It is absolutely crucial to realise that the current vaccination drive is just a very important one of quite a few things we can do to try and keep the coronavirus at bay.

We have seen the fantastic results of immunisations against ‘child-killer diseases’ in paediatric healthcare. This author, as a young junior doctor, was witness to the ravages of the much-feared childhood diseases that killed or maimed scores of young children even in the second half of the last century. Those diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, measles, Japanese encephalitis; just to mention a few that took scores of young lives of yore, are a thing of the past now. Adequate vaccination has completely wiped them out. The last case of childhood polio in Sri Lanka was seen just around a quarter of a century ago. The young junior doctors of today and the current lot of medical students have not seen any of these dreaded diseases.

In the child healthcare scenario, vaccination has become the panacea for all ills in the above-mentioned diseases. In the same vein, it is quite reasonable to expect the coronavirus vaccines to provide a similar end-result. However, is it really so? It is a most lamentable fact that it is perhaps not quite so.

There is a well-recognised fundamental difference between all the vaccines that are used to prevent the much-feared childhood diseases of the past and the currently available vaccines against the coronavirus that is causing the current pandemic. The vaccines against all those childhood diseases COMPLETELY PREVENT children getting the disease!!!, period. Well, if the recipients are protected against getting the infection, it is the end of the story; a definitive conclusion of the matter in hand.

However, right up to just a few days ago, none of the currently available vaccines against COVID-19, were thought to be able to COMPLETELY PREVENT anyone getting the disease to any appreciable degree. How they work is by reducing the severity of the disease and by preventing the deaths. So…, the basic end-result characteristics of all the currently available COVID-19 vaccines were thought to be quite different to the standard vaccines against all other infective diseases. One could still get the disease in spite of being vaccinated against COVID-19 and would still be able to spread the illness to others.

Yet for all this, there seems to be a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. In a most recent scientific publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, released as recently as 22nd September 2021, an interim analysis of a large study conducted in 99 centres of the USA has shown significant protection against CONTRACTING THE DISEASE as well as AGAINST MORE SEVERE DISEASE AND DEATH by the mRNA-1273 (Moderna/Spikevax) vaccine, administered as two doses 28 days apart. Vaccine efficacy in preventing Covid-19 illness was 93.2%, the effectiveness in preventing severe disease was 98.2% and the efficacy in preventing asymptomatic infection, starting 14 days after the second injection, was 63.0%. Vaccine efficacy was consistent across ethnic and racial groups, age groups, and participants with coexisting conditions. No safety concerns were identified.

Be that as it may, added to all our problems, now there is the daunting spectacle of the various types of variants and mutants, ranging from Alpha through delta, even to Epsilon and most recently to a particularly nasty strain called ‘Mu’, of the coronavirus which could cause problems even in the fully vaccinated. We still do not understand completely the potential impact of these more virulent strains in vaccinated people.

However, a case in point in relationship to these facts is the presently dominant situation in Israel. That country, one of the fastest in vaccination and most-vaccinated nations in the world, in spite of almost the entire population being vaccinated, is having some problems at the present time. By mid-March 2021, Israelis were partying as lockdowns ended and by April, masks had more or less vanished, turning the tiny country into a tantalising glimpse of a post-pandemic future. However, the crafty blight of a coronavirus seems to have come back with a vengeance. From a few dozen daily cases in early June 2021, even zero on June 9, new daily COVID infections twice hovered near 6,000 very recently, the highest daily rate in six months. Having won early access to supplies of the BioNTech/Pfizer jab in exchange for sharing nationwide data on how mass vaccination drives affect the pandemic, Israel is a closely watched indicator of a country where well-inoculated developed economies are heading.

As new infections soared, so did the long tail of hospitalisations in Israel. Even though the unvaccinated were five to six times as likely to end up seriously ill, the vaccine’s protection was waning fastest for the oldest; the most vulnerable, who got their first jabs as early as December 2020. At this rate, health officials predicted at least 5,000 people would need hospital beds by early September, half of them with serious medical needs, twice as many as Israel is equipped to handle. The current Prime Minister of Israel was honest with Israelis when he announced a new measure just a couple of weeks ago, whereby the government was trying to cushion the blow. On August 1, it had started offering people, over 60, a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine, embarking on its own public health experiment as it tumbled into an unpredictable fourth wave. So far, 775,000 people have taken their third shot and doctors say they can see antibody counts rising measurably within days of the third jab.

For Israelis, the booster shots are a reminder that they are still on the frontier of Covid-19 vaccinations. They celebrated when they were the first to get jabbed, cheering Pfizer as lockdowns ended in March 2021. Now, they are the first to experience the limits of the vaccine and the first to accept a long-whispered inevitability: the need to give regular booster shots to stay protected.

All these facts tend to bring into sharp focus, again and AGAIN, the undoubted importance of time-tested manoeuvres of avoiding crowds, maintaining a social distance of at least one to two metres, wearing suitable and effective masks; even double-masking, and repeated washing of hands, as our own personal weapons against this dastardly blight. Vaccination against COVID-19 will probably not be the panacea for all ills in combating this pandemic, although it would be a very powerful tool in the hands of the authorities in their quest towards victory over this disease. It will certainly not be the ultimate ‘SILVER BULLET’ against the disease.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from Israel today, it is this: corona, in fact, is not over; perhaps not for quite a while. This summer was just an intermission. Next may come winter., sadly perhaps, a winter of discontent. We do hope to high heaven that it may not be so for this beautiful and much-treasured Motherland of ours.

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Proposed Parakrama Samudraya walking path devalues ancient heritage

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

The construction work of the proposed walking path on the Parakrama Samudra tank bund was suspended after the protest of a group of Buddhist monks. Whether it is appropriate for monks to intervene in this matter is a different issue and the objection is admirable because many remained silent over this issue of national significance.

Since then many views, both pros and cons, on the proposed walking path, have been expressed by various parties. Experts in the engineering field express views on the safety of the dam after the proposed construction, which meddles with its existing riprap, the structural arrangement that prevents bund erosion by wind-generated water waves. Some others, including local administrative level officers and politicians see this as essential development for the area. However, technical issues can be resolved at any cost, and I am more concerned about the facts whether this track is a genuine necessity and the possible subsequent damage it can inflict on the historical value of the tank and the image of the great King Pararamabahu.

The objective of a walking path is to help people maintain their health, not only by engaging in physical activities like walking and jogging but also by allowing them to be with nature. While walking and jogging, can improve physical health, a serene, natural environment can improve mental health. If we take an area like Polonnaruwa, which is not as urbanized as many of the major cities in the country, there are ample places that offer the above-mentioned benefits. Further, neither visitors of the area nor residents will use it as a walking track, and an observation platform would be sufficient, if people need to stay safe from traffic that moves along the bund. Therefore, this type of project would no doubt be a white elephant that ruins millions of public money.

There was a time when the leader of the country went about erecting clock towers at every junction. Soon after they were built many of them showed the wrong time due to inferior construction work, resulting from corruption, putting the public in difficulty. Unlike those days, today there is no need for clock towers as everybody has the exact time since everyone has a mobile phone, more accurate than a wristwatch. We have to come to terms with the reality that what we value today would become obsolete tomorrow in the fast-changing world. Who is to say that these walking paths would not become obsolete in the future given the fact that lives of people are becoming complex and busy, and people may turn to indoor gymnasiums and exercise machines?

Moreover, a closer look at some of the already constructed walking paths would reveal that the selection of locations for such facilities was ill-informed, without proper evaluation as they remain under-utilised. One such example is the track that has been constructed in Badulla urban park which is popularly known as the Wawul Park. This park is located on the edge of three main playgrounds of the city; Vincent Dias ground, cricket ground and football ground. The track is blanketed in thousands of droppings of bats that inhabit the trees of the park, the odour of it so foul that it is very difficult to reach the track. Every day hundreds of people walk in the aforementioned playgrounds while the walking path remains abandoned.

Coming back to the topic, after the walking path is constructed, as per the usual practice of the country, a huge plaque will be erected on the bund mentioning the names of politicians who suggested, advised, supervised, participated and declared open the track. There will probably come a day in future when our children, who visit the Parakrama Samudraya, would say that the tank was constructed by this and that politician. Alas! The statue of the Great King Parakramabahu, who had a great vision to manage the water resources of the country, will be disregarded.

Way forward

Before making any structural changes to heritage sites, opinion should be sought from experts and other stakeholders as well. According to personal experience, when I last visited the place a few years ago, people who visited the tank needed no walking path, but being travellers from remote areas, there was a crying need for other basic facilities. They required shelter, water, facilities to have their meals, dispose of waste safely, and a proper waste collection system, among other things.

In addition, a mini auditorium can be constructed at a suitable place in the vicinity, that has audio-visual facilities to educate children about the history of the tank. A model of the reservoir can be used to explain its components and operation. Then our children will not take this amazing Parakrama Samudraya, that they are endowed with today, for granted but learn to appreciate the great vision and dedication of their ancestors in making this marvel a reality.

Let me conclude with a poem I posted on my FB page sometime ago, with its translation.

There is a huge plaque at the end of the tank bund. It reads that the politician is akin to King Parakramabahu. The river downstream overtops with the sweat of the people who built the tank. Still, the people who built the tank are of no value)

(The writer is a Chartered Engineer. This article is based on his personal views and does not reflect those of the organisations where he holds positions)

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Antics of State Minister and Pohottu Mayor; mum on chemical fertiliser mistake; The Ganga – a link

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Reams have been written in all local newspapers; much comment has traversed social media and persons have been bold to call for justice on two absolutely unrestrained and yes, evil, SLPP VIPs who have recently been dancing the devil as the saying goes. These evil doers seem to be pathologically unable to control themselves and behave as human beings: heads outsised with hubris and apparently bodies often pickled with liquor.

Very succinct comments have been made on Lohan Ratwatte, one being: “a leopard never changes his spots” referring to the many crimes supposed to have been committed by him, and the other that he is a gem of a man who may make a jewellery heist soon enough. He has the audacity to say he did nothing wrong in barging into two prisons; in one to show off to pals the gallows and in the other, to brandish a gun and place it against the heads of two shivering Tamil prisoners. All done within the week when world attention was focused on Sri Lankan human rights violations directed by the UNHRC

Cass’ comment is that Lohan Rat was committing hara-kiri (minus even a trace of the Japanese spirit of self sacrifice) and taking the entire country on a suicidal mission through his inability to hold his drinks and destructive hubris and murderous inclination. Cass particularly favoured Don Mano’s summation in his comment on the unlawful prison intrusions in the Sunday Times of September 19. “Any semblance of a shabby cover-up to enable Lohan Ratwatte to retain his position as State Minister of Gems and Jewellery will not only endanger the economy by depriving the nation’s dollar bare coffers of a GSP benefit of nearly 2.7 billion dollars, but will risk putting 21 million Lankans from the frying pan into the fire and test their tolerance to the core.”

The visit to the Welikada prison by the State Minister of Prison Reform and … was said to be with some men and one woman. Identities were kept under wraps and confusion raised by making the dame a beauty queen or cosmetician. But who she was, was soon known along the vine of gossip. One report said the person in charge of the prison or its section with the gallows, cautioned Lohan Rat and tried to dissuade his advance with friends in tow since the lady companion was in shorts and them walking through where prisoners were, would cause a commotion. But no, the State Minister advanced to show off the gallows with his short-shorts wearing woman companion and imbibing mates.

Cass is actually more censorious of this woman than even of the State Minister himself. Is she a Sri Lankan, so vagrant in her woman-ness? Doesn’t she have even an iota of the traditional lajja baya that decent women exhibit, even to minor level nowadays? Is associating with a State Minister and his drinking pals such a prized social event? Shame on her! She, if people’s assumption of identity is correct, has boasted political clout and been elevated by it too. Such our young girls! Do hope they are very few in number, though this seems to be a baseless hope as social events unroll.

Pistol packing – correction please – toy pistol packing Eraj Fernando is aiding the ex State Minister of Prison Reform to deface, debase and deteriorate Sri Lanka in the eyes of the world. He is interested in land and not in gallows or scantily clad gals. With thugs in tow he trespassed a property in Bamba and assaulted two security guards. Repetition of an incident he was embroiled in – a land dispute in Nugegoda a couple of weeks ago. He was taken in by the police and before you could say Raj, he was granted bail. What quick work of police and courts.

As the editor of The Island opined in the lead article of September 20: “The Rajapaksas have created quite a few monsters who enjoy unbridled freedom to violate the law of the land.” A convicted murderer known for his thug ways was presidentially pardoned a short while ago.

The good thing is that people talk, write, lampoon, and draw attention to these heinous crimes and do not seem scared for their necks and families. White vans have not started their rounds. And very importantly the memories of Ordinaries are not as fickle as they were. Wait and see is their immediate response.

New fad – jogging lanes on wewa bunds!

Some monks and men gathered recently on the partly torn up bund of Parakrama Samudraya and had the foolish audacity to say the bund needed a jogging lane. Tosh and balderdash! Then news revealed that other wewas too were being ‘attacked and desecrated’ to construct jogging lanes. In such remote rural areas which even tourists do not visit? Is there illicit money-making in this activity? Otherwise, no explanation is available for this sudden interest in farmers’ and toilers’ physical well being. They get enough exercise just engaging in their agriculture, so for whom are these jogging lanes?

Sharply contrasting persons

As apposite to the former two, are superb Sri Lankans up front and active and giving of their expertise, albeit unobtrusively. Consider the medical men and women and their service to contain the pandemic; farmers who protest to ensure harvests are not damaged too severely by false prophets who won the day for the banning of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides. The latest blow and justification of what so very many agriculturists, agrochemists, have been saying all along – organic is good but to be introduced very slowly; without importing compost from overseas, is the Chinese import containing evil microorganisms. Experts have categorically stated that chemical fertilisers are sorely needed for all agriculture; more so paddy and tea; and if used prudently cause no illness to humans or injurious side effects.

The four experts who comprised the panel at the MTV I Face the Nation discussion monitored by Shameer Rasooldeen on Monday September 20, agreed totally on these two facts and went on to say that it must be admitted a hasty decision was taken to stop import of chemical fertilizers. We listened to the considered wise opinions backed by true expertise of vibrantly attractive and articulate Dr Warshi Dandeniya – soil scientist, of Prof Saman Seneweera from the University of Melbourne, Prof Buddhi Marambe – crop scientist, and Dr Roshan Rajadurai – media person of the Planters Association. Listening to them, Cass swelled with pride and told herself see what sincerely-interested-in-the-country’s welfare eminent scientists we have in this land of rowdy politicians and uneducated MPs. They labeled the sudden banning of chemical fertilisers and insecticides and pesticides as “very dangerous and causing irreversible harm. It is not too late to reverse the decision, even if admitting fault is not possible.”

Garlic

Oh dear! The stench! Never ending series of scams; executed or approved by politicians and all for illicit gains. Even the tragedy of the pandemic and suffering of much of the population does not seem to have curbed selfish lust for money.

Focus on the Mahaweli Ganga

Interesting and deserving of thanks. Chanaka Wickramasuriya wrote two excellent articles in the Sunday Islands of September 12 and 19 on the Mahaweli Ganga, imparting invaluable facts of the present river and its history, as for example which king built which wewa or anicut. He ended his second article by hoping the waters of the great river will feed the north of the island too: “Maybe then this island will be finally uplifted. Not just from north to south, but across class and caste, language and philosophy, and political partisanship. Hopefully driven by a newfound sanity among its denizens, yet symbolically attested to by the waters of the Mahaweli.”

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