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Tribute to Mangala Samaraweera

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By Samantha Power

Administrator – United States Agency for International Development

Mangala Samaraweera was a remarkable public servant and one of the most remarkable individuals I have ever known. He was also a courageous leader, who dedicated his life to pursuing his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual Sri Lanka that would, as he described it, “guarantee equal rights, justice and dignity for all.”

I was devastated by Mangala’s passing and these days find myself craving his wise counsel, irrepressible mischief, and rare gift for friendship. I also miss knowing that Mangala is out there hustling, refusing ever to give up on the idea that people could change for the better, that his country could realise his ideals, and that the world’s nations could think—and act—beyond their immediate self-interest.

The son of an open-hearted, trailblazing mother and a pioneering human rights lawyer father, the seeds of Mangala’s immense impact began, as he witnessed the brutality of Sri Lanka’s civil war, with a simple thought: “Maybe I can make a difference…”

As Mangala would later recall, when he got involved in organising and politics in the late 1980s, “I dreamt mostly of peace where all Sri Lankans—irrespective of their caste, class, race or religion—could live in harmony and dignity.”

With this desire as his guiding light, Mangala would embark on over 30 years of service to his country, while using his growing influence to try to make this foundational dream a reality. While he took on a number of different roles throughout his career, Mangala was always trying to ensure that Sri Lankans were not only surviving daily life, but able to build lives of dignity. When I had the opportunity to visit Colombo in 2019 to celebrate Mangala’s legacy of public service, this was the word I heard over and over when I spoke to colleagues and peers about what they felt most defined Mangala: “Dignity, dignity, dignity.”

From helping launch the renowned Mothers’ Front to spearheading the creation of the Office of Missing Persons, helping secure passage of a law to provide for reparations for war victims and survivors, and orchestrating the forgiveness of loans taken out by desperate families after the war, the pursuit and promotion of individual dignity was perhaps the animating principle in Mangala’s career. But the best measure of Mangala’s regard for the dignity of those who lost their loved ones or their livelihoods was that he knew none of this was nearly enough.

Mangala once described true reconciliation as “a journey that requires constant striving.” He recognised that building a more inclusive society was a generational challenge that demanded sustained efforts and a willingness not to be deterred by the many visible obstacles that stood in the way. An indefatigable reformer and insistent moderniser, Mangala never wavered in his belief that democracy and strengthened institutions were the necessary foundations for achieving the change he hoped to see in Sri Lanka. This commitment earned him not just widespread recognition, but widespread respect—even from political rivals and those who disagreed with various decisions he made over time. Through it all, not even his political opponents could deny how much Mangala loved Sri Lanka and its people.

I experienced Mangala’s devotion to Sri Lanka not only in my many conversations with him when he described, with a poet’s precision, the country’s stunning scenic beauty—from majestic mountains, like the Sri Pada to the beaches of Unawatuna, as well as the vibrant celebrations that occurred on Poya days— but also as he incessantly texted me, after I became USAID administrator in April this year, in support of the Rajapaksa government’s effort to secure more COVID-19 vaccines. Watching the pandemic take Sri Lankan lives broke Mangala’s heart, and, even if he had stepped back a bit from public life, he couldn’t let an hour pass without trying to do something to…”make a difference.”

Mangala would be the first to admit that the dream which started his career in public life has yet to be fully realised. But in addition to the progress he helped achieve on numerous fronts, his leadership, integrity, and ceaseless energy are a blueprint for new generations who share his commitment to equality and opposition to injustice. As one Sri Lankan newspaper editorialised after his death, “to keep hope alive for a different future, citizens must demand political leadership that inspires, and dares them to dream of a kinder, more inclusive country. Someone to finish what Mangala started.”

That is our shared mission now. Without Mangala here to steer—and prod—us, we must do all we can to support the next generations following in Mangala’s footsteps as they seek to finish what he started.

Mangala never, ever gave up, and neither can we.



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Opinion

Do they know what Parliament is there for?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The behaviour of our elected representatives, at times, is so reprehensible that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate them from village thugs. In a way, it is not surprising because thugs are elected to positions of power. In fact, many others are waiting to be elected to the Provincial Councils, but I am sure many voters are hoping that these elections would never be held as they do not want more thugs to harass them. It is hoped that the second rung of government would be scrapped whatever our ‘big brother’ may say. However, we cannot do without the Parliament, and the behaviour of the members of the hallowed chamber has left us aghast. They simply do not seem to understand what the Parliament is there for. Maybe, the younger generations are not that concerned but we, ‘oldies’, are worried as this was not the way the ‘honourable members’ behaved in the past.

It is a great shame that the MP do not seem to understand that the Parliament is a place for discussion and debate, not cheap protests. If they have to be held, they should be within the confines of parliamentary norms. Though the Opposition uses this tactic more often, the governing party, too, indulges in this kind of gesture politics. Perhaps, it is the telecast of parliamentary proceedings that has resulted in these theatricals aimed at impressing the public.

What we are witnessing today, in addition to an inept government, is an Opposition engaged in gesture politics which, it seems to think, would propel them to power. Instead of contributing to nation building, in a constructive manner, with debate and discussion based on facts, members of the Opposition seem keen to hold protests inside the Parliament and spreading misinformation. Worse still, they engage in street protests, in spite of the fact that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that is far from being controlled, as well alluded to in The Island editorial “Enemies of people” (The Island, 17 November).

Even if all this can be excused, the despicable behaviour of some ‘honourable members’ can never be condoned. They seem to relish using unparliamentary language, even raw filth! Quite often, exchanges between the government and the Opposition descends into a slang match, not infrequently leading to fisticuffs. too. Instead of being punished, they are rewarded for their misdeeds. One ‘honourable member’ who tampered with the private parts of a man-in-robes was rewarded with a ministry during the previous Rajapaksa administration! By the way, I have stopped referring to those who act against the teachings and the Vinaya rules of the Buddha as Bhikkhus, as they are nothing but men-in-robes seeking personal glory and power. They are more selfish than laymen and fight for seats in the Parliament. I am waiting for a government bold enough to stop Bhikkhus being elected to Parliament!

Obviously, disgraceful behaviour does not seem to be limited to uneducated MPs. Whilst there is a justifiable clamour for the introducing of minimal educational qualifications for MPs, lack of educational qualifications does not seem to be the only problem. What we need is an attitudinal change. I was shocked to watch a recent news item, where only a part of a speech made by MP Sarath Fonseka, former Army Commander, was broadcast. More than half of his speech was ‘bleeped-out’, making me wonder whether he was using unparliamentary language. What would have happened if schoolchildren had been present in the public gallery to watch democracy in action!

The Speaker of the House is supposed to be the guardian of the dignity of the chamber and it is his bounden duty to stop MPs from using unparliamentary language and behaving like thugs, but our modern-day speakers seem to be behaving like puppets! In the British House of Commons, the word that often rings loud is “Order”, sometimes repeated in a terse manner. Recently, the British Speaker reprimanded the PM when he was out-of-order! When will that happen in Sri Lanka? By electing a former Army man as President, voters expected discipline at all levels of government and public administration but, unfortunately, we seem to be having indiscipline from Parliament downwards.

MP Tissa Kuttiarachci opened a new low in the Parliament by making a speech full of double meanings in referring to some female MPs. It was so offensive that even a female minister raised objections. When the Speaker reprimanded him, he had the audacity to demand to know what wrong words he had used! Any decent individual would not hesitate to apologise to anyone upon being told that their feelings were hurt, but he refused to do so! Do these MPs lack even common decency? Or, are they deluded by grandiosity?

Parliament need not be a dry place. Debates can be, and should be, interesting. Good natured humour would be tolerated, enjoyed even though remarks may carry hidden meanings. After all, it was the great democrat and parliamentary debater Dudley Senanayake, on an interruption by Maithripala Senanayake, turned to the Speaker and said “Sir, he has reasonable use of Tamil at night”, alluding to the ethnicity of his wife Ranjini. The house roared with laughter, Maithripala Senanayake was amused! That is the finesse the politicians of the modern day lack. Crudeness seem to be their forte!

We had amazing speakers in the Parliament, one of them being the late Anura Bandaranaike. Though I did not have the fortune to listen to him, my good friend Nihal Seneviratne, former Secretary General of Parliament, confided in me that Anura was one of those rare MPs who frequented the library in the Parliament to gather fact for his speeches.

When the new Parliament was constructed, there was widespread criticism which was silenced by Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis with a wonderful speech at the opening session of the Parliament. What has happened to Sri Lanka?

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Opinion

Don’t deride Sri Lankan scientists

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I have been watching with interest the exchange of views among several parties that commenced with the Article written by Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana to which Mr. Chris Dharmakeerti responded. My name and some of my research publications have been quoted in these exchanges. I myself responded to Prof. Dharmawardena stating that I don’t belong to the ‘Natha Deviyo Group’ and he has kindly said that he never did so. I’m sorry for my mistake. Yes, Prof. Dharmawardhana, Dr. Waidyanatha and myself have known each other for over 50 years. Both of them were a couple years senior to me and were serving as junior temporary staff members at the University of Ceylon, Colombo (at that time) when I was a final year undergrad student following a special degree. Immediately after my graduation I was appointed to the academic staff of the University of Ceylon

Peradeniya (later University of Peradeniya) and continued to serve the University for 40 years until my retirement in 2006. During this period, I was the Head of the Dept of Botany (five times), Dean, Graduate Studies, Dean Faculty of Science and acting Vice Chancellor during the most difficult period of 1989/90. While attached to the UoP, I made use of sabbatical and vacation leave to work at the International Rice Research Institute Philippines, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, and at the Washington State University and the San Jose State University in the USA. I’m not trying to brag, but writing all this to educate people like Bodhi Dhanapala who write derogatory, baseless insinuations in his emails as if we are petty thieves.

I share the patent on Prof Gamini Seneviratne’s innovation Biofilm Biofertiliser (BFBF) on invitation because I was the supervisor for his PhD research studies during which he learnt a lot on soil microbiology and also gave him useful advice at the time he was venturing to study rhizosphere microorganisms and develop multi-microbial inoculants. I have not participated in the large-scale field trials he conducted with BFBFs. I think he has effectively replied to his critics, subsequently supported by Prof. Ben Basnayake.

Now I will focus on my own work which also has come under scrutiny. Prof. Dhamawardana quotes some of my publications of 2012 and 2016 where he claims that I have written only of ‘a potential or encouraging results’ but not for large scale application by farmers. I fully agree. Those are publications on cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and Azolla. Even today my position is they only have a potential which has yet to be realised and not yet ready to be recommended for the farmers. What I wrote about applying N2-fixing biofertilisers refer to Rhizobial inoculants which form symbiotic root nodules with leguminous crops. Please read my write up carefully and you will find a statement that ‘out of all N2-fixing organisms and systems application of rhizobial inoculants was the most successful. This technology is nothing new. In fact, it is more than 125 years old! The first rhizobial inoculant with the commercial name Nitragin was patented in the USA in 1896 by Nobbe and Hiltner. Afterwards, this technology was adopted worldwide. Howeison and Herridge (2005) reported that Australia is annually saving 3 billion dollars by the judicious use of rhizobial inoculants. Sri Lanka imports 40% of our mung bean requirements from Australia.

We adopted the technology of using rhizobia native to Sri Lanka and embedding them in a local carrier material (modified coir dust) which enabled us to field test and eventually recommend it for large scale application. In adopting this technology for Sri Lanka, we have gone through several years of study. Commencing with basic studies of isolation, purification, characterisation and identification of rhizobia from local legumes (crop and wild) we have built up a germplasm of rhizobial isolates.

These have been authenticated and screened under greenhouse conditions to select the best strains for different crops, field tested in small plots in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture at HORDI and other research stations. In the final stages of transfer of technology, the most promising strains were used in large-scale field trials, some of which were conducted with the participation of farmers under our strict supervision and those of the field officers of the Plenty Foods company. It is after more than 20 years of painstaking research studies that we were able to get a breakthrough and transfer rhizobial inoculant technology to Sri Lankan farmers.

The Department of Agriculture got confidence in our products in 2017. That year they used our inoculants for extensive field cultivation of soybean. Their trials were successful and we were presented with a CD containing 100 photos of their cultivations with our inoculants. Two such photos are reproduced with this article.

Today, the best customers for our inoculants are the Central and Provincial Departments of Agriculture. Our team at the NIFS, which produces and market these inoculants (with the approval of the NIFS Board of Management) was felicitated a few months back by the Governor of the Central Province for the services rendered to the bean farmers from Hanguranketha to Welimada for low cost, eco-friendly bean cultivation. It is not easy to get a new technology accepted by farmers. By August this year we have supplied inoculants for more than 15,000 acres and more orders are coming. All these results of our work with rhizobial inoculants were presented at the Post-`Covid international symposium of the NSF and eventually published in its Proceedings. This is the Kulasooriya et al (2021) publication I have quoted in my write up.

I believe I have provided enough evidence to show that our efforts are to provide as much as possible some technologies based upon local resources for low cost, eco-friendly crop production and not a scam as some expatriates seem to think. They must not make baseless insinuations against genuine local scientists.

Prof. S. A. Kulasooriya

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Opinion

More shipments of ‘organic manure’ from China

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It has been reported that the Minister of Agriculture is trying to resolve the dispute over the Chinese organic fertiliser shipment by paying 75 % of the claim amounting to USD 6.7 million in respect of the rejected shipment and buying fresh stocks from the same company.

Enough has been discussed about why organic fertiliser should not be imported to this country as it is against the law to do so, and the best way is to prepare organic fertiliser on farms as far as possible, since transport of the large quantities needed will be too expensive and also cumbersome and a hassle to the farmer.

It was surprising to hear about the decision to buy fresh stocks of fertilisers from the same Chinese company whose first shipment was not allowed entry by the Plant Quarantine officials of the Department of Agriculture on the grounds that the samples were found to be contaminated with harmful microorganisms.

In the first instance, as an officer who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for more than 23 years, I am pretty certain that organic materials cannot be imported on a commercial scale as per provisions and regulations under the Plant Protection Act of 1981 and also the subsequent Plant Protection Act no.35 of 1999. Only small samples of such materials can be allowed by the Director General of Agriculture who is the implementing authority for the Plant Protection Act, and such samples can be used only for laboratory research work and cannot be added to the land. I am also aware that no amendments have since been made to the Plant Protection Act to change the provisions referred to above and the regulations thereon. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether such amendments can ever be brought in since plant quarantine is an issue that cannot be compromised according to the whims and fancies of governments, and is subject to international covenants/agreements.

Hence, it is pretty certain that importation of tons and tons of this “organic fertilser” is illegal, the irony here being the direct involvement, as a facilitator or promoter in this instance, of the Ministry of Agriculture, which should actually be the guardian of issues pertaining to plant quarantine. Had it been a private company, one could understand.

Besides, if the government decides to buy fresh stocks from the same company, whose first shipment was rejected due to contamination, what guarantee is there that the so called ‘fresh stock’ will not be contaminated. On the other hand, if this imported material happens to be sterile by some chance, it ceases to be organic fertiliser any more, for organic manure must necessarily have microorganisms. If microbial activity is not there, it will be some inert matter only.

Specifications laid down regarding the material to be purchased when an agreement was entered into between the buyer and the seller in this case are not known. If the material is organic fertiliser as the authorities keep referring to, it should necessarily have microorganisms. Then it follows that the samples will fail the test this time, too, and the shipment will have the same fate as the earlier one. This is what I could foresee., what we are buying is not organic manure or ‘organic fertiliser’ but some inert matter.

I sincerely hope and pray that those in charge of Plant Quarantine will abide by the regulations, and stand their ground as one cannot afford to play around with microorganisms especially when they come in bulk from foreign lands to a totally new environment here and right now, the whole world has been brought to its knees by just a virus. Hence there cannot be any compromise especially in dealing with microorganisms. Let us hope for the best any way, as this importation remains an ill-advised and illegal venture, if it goes through and it will be the first time ever that Sri Lanka effected a bulk importation of organic manure or “organic fertiliser”, in contravention of its own Plant Protection Act.

A. Bedgar Perera

bedgarperera@gmail.com

Retired Director/Agricultural Development

Ministry of Agriculture

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