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UN Speeches as Whited Sepulchers: Marble Outside, Skeletons Inside

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by Rajan Philips

September is the month for speeches by world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York. Last year, the pandemic put paid to travel plans and speech plans by many leaders and their retinues. This year they were back in numbers. South Asia was represented in force this time. Former Maldivian Foreign Minister, Abdullah Shahid, is the President of the current, 76th, Session of the UNGA. The President of Sri Lanka and the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh attended the sessions and addressed the Assembly. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan zoomed in from Islamabad with a fiery speech that blamed everyone else except Pakistan for all of Pakistan’s problems. Mr. Khan’s speech triggered a harmless war of words between two young and articulate female diplomats from India (Sneha Dubey) and Pakistan (Saima Saleem), exercising the right of reply, so to speak, to the delight of patriotic audiences back home and on twitter.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted the historic significance of this year for Bangladesh. It is the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, her father and the father of her country, as well as the golden jubilee of the creation of Bangladesh. Impressively, she went on to list Bangladesh’s achievements over the last decade, after being dismissed as world’s basket case for nearly three decades after its fiery birth. To quote Ms. Rahman: “We are now among the five fastest growing economies in the world, ranking 41st in terms of GDP. Over the past decade, we have reduced the poverty rate from 31.5%to 20.5%. Our per capita income jumped to more than threefold in just one decade to $2,227. Our foreign currency reserve has reached an all-time high to $48 billion.”

The last statistic, Bangladesh’s foreign currency reserve, is Sri Lanka’s sorest point now. President Rajapaksa did not try to whitewash that blot in his speech. The speech was cleverly crafted – short, crisp and avoiding oratorical flourishes that would have been too challenging to deliver. But there were factual flourishes, quite a few of them, and all of them at odds with the realities at home. The gaps between speech claims and ground truths were too obvious to send eyes rolling and twitters chirping. In fairness, President Rajapaksa was not the only one who was guilty of embellishment, if not exaggeration.

Prime Minister Modi came in for some lampooning in India for claiming before the UN that India had achieved “all-inclusive” development goals only under his government in the “last seven years.” The gospel according to the BJP is that nothing worthwhile happened under the Nehrus, or even other non-Congress governments. He was also constrained to answer his many critics at home and abroad that Indian democracy is getting worse than stepmotherly treatment from the Modi government. He took cover under India’s universal motherhood, claiming that Bharat had been named the “mother of democracy.” And the rejoinders were swift, calling on him to match his words at the UN with actions at home.

For Prime Minister Modi, addressing the UN in New York was only a minor part of the American trip. Far more important were his summit meetings in Washington – first with President Biden and then the first in person meeting of the leaders of the Quad countries, besides Biden, the Prime Ministers of Japan and Australia. In the wake of the controversies over AUKUS announcements, the Quad summit downplayed security matters and highlighted the softer areas for global co-operation, namely, climate change, Covid-19 cooperation, technology, and supply chains to reboot global production. The singular outcome for the Modi government, with both domestic and regional implications, was of course President Biden’s reaffirmation of America’s position that India is now America’s ‘Major Defence Partner’.

Rice Power and Gas Power

Sri Lanka’s President was away for only less than few weeks, but many things have gotten worse by the time he got back. The only redeeming, touch wood, change has been the declining numbers of Covid-19 infections and deaths. Not by a whole lot, but good enough for a breather. Everything else has either got stagnant bad or gone worse. Two developments are sticking out sore. The first is the cartel power of Polonnaruwa rice millers over the governmental power of the Medamulla brothers. The powerful rice millers are now announcing retail rice prices overriding the government’s gazetted maximum retail prices. For the hapless but not at all harmless government, it might be easier to get rice even from the moon than to ‘price’ it out of the miller mafia.

The second sore development is the corporate power of an American energy company to unilaterally announce the sole-sourced deal that it has struck in Sri Lanka for supplying a seemingly endless flow of liquefied natural gas at potentially higher non-market prices. The subject company, New Fortress Energy, is a liquefied natural gas (LNG) company founded in 2014 with the salutary mission of achieving universal access to clean energy. But there is nothing salutary about striking sole-sourced contracts, in small countries, and by-passing tenders.

The New Fortress’s foray into Sri Lanka was through an MOU with a Sri Lankan company called Lakdhanavi Limited, to “jointly develop a 350 MW gas-fired power plant in the Kerawalapitiya Power Complex.” That became the steppingstone for, as New Fortress has announced, “the signing of a Framework Agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka to build an offshore liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving, storage and regasification terminal located off the coast of Colombo, and rights to supply gas to the existing 300 MW Yugadanavi power plant” at Kerawalapitiya.

The deal which is yet to be announced formally by the government has already attracted criticism and scrutiny. The CEB Engineers’ Union has come out strongly against the deal that is estimated to be worth up to USD 6.0 billion and will leave Sri Lanka dependent virtually permanently on a sole LNG supplier. The government is playing coy and is in a state of non-denial denial. The principal mover and shaker behind the deal is said to be Basil Rajapaksa who famously flew back over the ocean from the US to become Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister. And not a hum of protest from the ‘leftists’ in the government or the patriots on the sidelines over new LNG deal.

Earlier they had raised hackles and scuppered the far lesser and more secure MCC agreement directly with the US government. The port unions and patriots also sank the agreement for India’s lead in the development of the East Container Terminal at the Colombo harbour. Now the government with hardly any whimper of protest has reached agreement with India’s highly connected Adani Group to build a brand-new West Terminal in partnership with John Keells Holdings, and the government-owned Port Authority as a minority partner. The deal apparently will counterbalance Chinese contracts for Port development. The Rajapaksa government unilaterally terminated a serious and well developed agreement with the Japanese to build LRT infrastructure in Colombo. Now there is news that Koreans are coming, God knows at whose behest, to start from where the Japanese were not even allowed to begin. This is the methodical record of the Administration of President Rajapaksa in tender matters.

The speech: Claims and Denials

The domestic record did not prevent the President of Sri Lanka from lofty claims at the UN. He rightly and properly began by drawing attention to the “devastating impact on humanity” caused by Covid19. Then he sympathised “deeply with all who have lost their loved ones during the pandemic.” Unfortunately for Sri Lankans, the President’s sympathy did not quite begin at home. Or whoever who wrote his domestic speeches did not insert a sympathy line in the text. And there is no sympathy in the way the dead and their beloved are treated in administering last rites.

The President’s next homage was to the global scientific and medical communities. There has been very little of that shown by this government to Sri Lanka’s scientific and medical communities. And science too was trashed by government ministers promoting covid-syrups for pandemic cure and presidential decision making reportedly predicated on supernatural influences, not to mention Gnanakka’s admonitions. As for vaccination, Sri Lanka’s vaccination has been impressive and there is much to be said about the inequity in the global distribution of vaccines. But there was also inequity and selectivity in Sri Lanka about who got which vaccine and before who else.

In the area of environmental protection, the President’s claims were quite embellished and they contrast quite severely with the poor stewardship of the environment by the present government. Mr. Rajapaksa proudly asserted that “because of its impact on soil fertility, biodiversity, waterways and health, my Government banned the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and weedicides earlier this year. Production and adoption of organic fertilizer, as well as investments into organic agriculture, are being incentivized.” But the reality on the ground is a looming food crisis compounded by the cartel power of the miller mafia.

The President saved his best, or worst, for the last. Just like Prime Minister Modi, President Rajapaksa too exalted Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions and credentials, claiming credit by implication for their governments’ apparent contributions to protecting these traditions. And just as in India it could be said in Sri Lanka that words spoken before the world body should be matched by actions in their respective countries.

The President spoke of the challenges posed by the “separatist terrorist war for 30 years” till 2009, and the 2019 “devastation wrought by extremist religious terrorists in the Easter Sunday attacks.” In dealing with the aftermaths of these challenges, the President affirmed his government’s commitment to “fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace.” He contended, “history has shown that lasting results can only be achieved through home-grown institutions reflecting the aspirations of the people,” and that “Sri Lanka’s Parliament, Judiciary and its range of independent statutory bodies should have unrestricted scope to exercise their functions and responsibilities.”

The problem is that there is no external source restricting Sri Lanka’s parliament, its judiciary, and its institutions from fulfilling their roles and responsibilities. The primary source for these restrictions is an entirely domestic one. And it is called the executive presidency. What is more, even without restrictions, Sri Lanka’s parliament, judiciary and institutions have not been exercising their functions and responsibilities properly and consistently all the time. They were also co-conspirators in creating the behemoth of an executive presidency.



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Features

Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that :

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

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

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

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

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

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

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

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

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

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

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

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

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

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

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

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

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

EARLY WARNING

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

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

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

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