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‘Unholy alliance ruling the roost in health sector, fleecing people’

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A nexus between senior Health Ministry officials and powerful businessmen is the main reason for many issues plaguing the health sector, President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS), Ravi Kumudesh, says in an interview with The Island. These sinister elements are fleecing the public by preventing the state sector labs from carrying out COVID -19 testing, and was behind the deletion of the NMRA database, he says.

Q: The elimination of data from the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) website has been in the news for several weeks. Recently, a committee was appointed to add data back into the database. However, given that this committee is acting in great secrecy, can you be satisfied?

A: A so-called expert committee has been appointed. However, this committee was appointed by the Secretary of the State Ministry of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals. The Secretary is an experienced official. However, the State Ministry is one of the parties accused of entertaining the drug mafia. The drug mafia is behind the deletion of data. As you can understand it is hard to trust that this committee wants to do the right thing because of the obvious conflict of interest. The Committee should have been appointed by an independent body, at least by the President or the Minister of Health. That would have indicated that the government wants to get to the bottom of this.

Given that one of the accused parties has appointed this committee to oversee the insertion of data back into the database; we feel that they might do what the drug mafia wants done.

You may remember that the State Ministry of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals initially insisted that nothing fraudulent has happened. However, the CID found that something malicious has taken place and that someone has deleted the data over a period of five hours. As the CID was taking the investigation forward, the State Ministry announced that they have recovered the data and that they are appointing a committee of experts to feed the data back into the database. This is suspicious and we don’t even know who is on the committee.

So, we insist that a committee must be appointed by a party that is not involved in the case and we must also know who is on this committee of experts. There can be representatives of the (Information and Communication Technology Agency) ICTA, Epic Lanka Technologies, or even associates of other guilty parties. Therefore, it is highly likely that this is a committee appointed to cover up the data theft.

Another problematic development is that the data is being restored by Epic Lanka Technologies. It is obvious that this is a distraction tactic of State Ministry officials. It is not serious about getting to the bottom of the problem or ensuring that something of this nature does not repeat.

Q: Isn’t it also possible that only the data that the State Ministry wants will be restored in the database? How will we know whether all the lost data will be restored?

A: Yes, they can feed the data they want. They can also decide to enter the data at times that are convenient to them, they can also remove data and insert new data. Only the Expert Committee knows what data has been recovered and they also decide what data will be entered. They can easily input the data of companies that they are partial to and erase the data of companies that they do not like. This will give the drug mafia a chance to accomplish its goals legally.

Q: Has this happened before?

A: We have never seen something like this. However, we all know that there are many irregularities at the Ministry of Health. Digitisation was introduced to minimise these irregularities and there has been a lot of resistance to digitisation in the Health Ministry. The digitisation of the database commenced in 2018, however it was only in 2020 that the project was completed. Since the system came online, a lot of officials, as well as the drug mafia, have been greatly inconvenienced and the deletion of data was their way of getting back.

They are using this instance to prevent further digitisation. This is another dangerous development. We don’t think that this is a digitisation issue, but a last ditch attempt of people who have been inconvenienced by it.

Q: There are some people who say that a database can be manipulated and that despite many drawbacks, one should ideally have access to a physical file. Your comment?

A: A robust digital system is hard to tamper with. And when someone does try to tamper with the system, it’s easy to detect. In institutions like NMRA, a lot of irregularities take place by inserting various documents into the files. Digitisation leads to less corruption, evidence from the rest of the world proves this. But Sri Lanka seems bent on trying to show the world that corruption can continue unabated, despite digitisation.

Q: What can we do to ensure that such things do not happen in the future?

A: I think that government agencies must develop internal capacity to digitise. We now depend on various private entities. If the ICTA was in control of the process, this would not have happened. Right now, ICTA takes responsibility, but the actual work is done by a private entity. The role played by these third parties is problematic. If the ICTA digitised the NMRA database, it would have been much easier to find the person responsible, what exactly happened and punish the guilty parties. Consequently, in our opinion this sub-contracting has to stop, the ICTA must develop its capacities.

This happens in Lankan Government Cloud and ICTA controls it, but by bringing in third parties into the Cloud, the ICTA jeopardises its operation.

Q: This is just like private labs conducting COVID-19 tests. Are these companies solicited because powerful officials get a cut?

A: Undoubtedly, these contracts are awarded to companies that are connected to senior officials. There are a number of such companies, and they end up getting most of the tenders. This is a big problem in the health sector. When we investigate companies that win tenders, we find that they have affiliations with decision-makers. Some of these tenders are tailor made for these companies. Such contracting must not happen.

Q: Although it has been around 18 months since COVID-19 was first detected here, we still have many issues with regard to testing. What is the reason for this?

A: Again this is a problem of conflict of interest. Several officials who have a say in how testing is done, work part time at private labs. Consequently, they benefit if private labs are allowed more testing. We have been telling the government throughout this year that we can easily increase PCR testing by 300 percent overnight, around 75,000 a day. We insisted that there was no immediate requirement for more PCR machines, and the ones already available could be used to conduct more tests if the Health Ministry so desired. However, Health Ministry officials insisted that state-run labs do not have the capacity.

This is a blatant lie, none of the state-run medical labs are operating at full capacity. The facilities can operate 24 hours a day and there are facilities and personnel to carry out the task. All our members are willing to work longer hours given the pandemic situation and paying people extra would not have cost that much.

Q: There was another issue with rapid PCR testing?

A: This is another example for the nexus between Health Ministry officials, private labs and quarantine hotels. Initially, when the pandemic broke out, PCR testing was time-consuming and it was lab-based. However, things have changed a lot in the last 18 months and rapid PCR technology has become popular given that international travel is picking up again. The major difference between the standard lab-based RT-PCR test and the Rapid RT-PCR test is the turnaround time. If you get the Rapid RT-PCR test done, you’ll be able to get the results on-site within 30 minutes, whereas it’ll take up to 72 hours to get the results of a standard RT-PCR test.

Moreover, rapid PCR tests don’t require setting up of costly facilities. Sixteen Sri Lankan hospitals already conduct rapid PCRs. All 16 machines were donations and Health Ministry officials had continuously undermined President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had instructed the Ministry to buy 30 rapid PCR machines. The President issued the order after we wrote to him on eight separate occasions.

However, Health Ministry officials reduced this number by half and although tenders were called in June, nothing came of it. We wrote to philanthropists and they responded. For example, the rapid PCR machine at the Embilipitiya Hospital was donated by Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera, the machine at Lady Ridgeway Hospital was donated by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane.

Moreover, Tata has offered us five mobile PCR units. These units could be taken anywhere. However, the Health Ministry refused to use them over some bogus claims. We could have used these units during the lockdown to better understand the spread of the pandemic.

Q: Why are health officials delaying the tender process?

A: Apparently a businessman affiliated with the government wants to bid on this tender. However, the rapid PCR machine that the President wants imported isn’t registered with NMRA yet. So the officials are stalling until the businessman gets things sorted out at his end. Our inquiries have also revealed that the businessman is lying about the costs. The big wigs at the Health Ministry are aware that the businessman is lying but are covering up for him.

Their behaviour is an embarrassment to senior government officials. A few months ago, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo claimed that several Sri Lankas who were issued negative PCR and antibody test reports by the Nawaloka Hospital had been diagnosed with COVID-19 after their arrival in China. The Embassy said that China will not accept PCR and IgM antibody test reports issued by the hospital from July 13, 2021 in order to ensure the health and safety of all passengers to China.

This is a great embarrassment to the country. We usually accuse other countries of issuing false test reports, but here we have one of the most powerful nations in the world and a key ally of Sri Lanka officially claiming that some of our test reports are false.

The government should have immediately suspended the state officials in charge of laboratory services and regulating private laboratories following China’s decision. But nothing happened. The officials are shameless and the government does nothing to punish people who mess up. So, why change your behaviour, if you are a corrupt official?

Q: On the subject of the PCR lab at the BIA, you have been agitating for the establishment of a state-of-the-art PCR lab at the airport since April or May 2020. However, 18 months later the private sector still tests inbound passengers and some hospitals still mint money by quarantining them. A newly established lab, at the cost of hundreds of millions of rupees, is left idle after operating only for two days. What’s going on?

A: From the beginning, some senior Health Ministry officials prevented the government laboratory service from testing inbound passengers. This group of Health Ministry specialists make considerable money from private laboratories and quarantine centres. These officials have publicly stated that the health sector was not equipped to test all those who arrived from overseas. These are false claims.

In mid-2020, we established a PCR lab at the BIA. At this time, even the most advanced nations had just started establishing such facilities at airports.

There was a lot of resistance from certain officials of the Health Ministry and doctors who worked at private labs and received money from quarantine centres. Private labs were entrusted with the task of conducting PCR tests on all tourists arriving in Sri Lanka. The state-run lab did not receive a single sample. This is unfortunate because we can test 4,500 people a day and issue reports within 90 minutes. Each test costs about USD 30 to 40, and the government could have minted money which it could have used on anti-COVID-19 activities.

However, due to the resistance from the Health Ministry, this lab was hardly used to test passengers. After a year of us agitating, the Airport and Aviation Authority established a state-of-the-art lab at the BIA premises in collaboration with the airport and a private company. We fully supported this move. Initially, the Health Ministry did not authorise the lab to commence operations. Then in late September they were compelled to do so but after two days the lab ceased operations and now this state-of-the-art establishment lies idle. Private labs continue to conduct tests and quarantine hotels keep making money. Such is the power of the nexus between government officials and the private sector.



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Features

The Sandahiru event – celebrating failure

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by Anura Gunasekera

A few days ago President Gotabaya Rajapaksa(GR), the first military man and, unarguably, the most ignorant in the ways of governance to occupy the presidential seat, celebrated the completion of two years as the eighth president of the Republic of Sri Lanka. The salutation coincided with the formal vesting with the Sangha, of the “Sandahiru Seya” in Anuradhapura, a project commenced during brother Mahinda’s last term as president. A towering stupa rising above the Jetawana and the Abhayagiri, ostensibly to honour the services rendered by the armed forces and the police in our ethnic conflict but, in reality, a monument to the Rajapaksa delusions of grandeur, aligns the Rajapaksa Family dynasty with the Sinhala Kings. A tribute to the heroic is justified but the supreme incongruity of conflating the quintessential Buddhist symbol, with success in a bloody military campaign, is inconsequential to a hegemonic mindset. The incompatibility was also ignored by the Rajapaksa-adoring Sangha, including the Anunayake Theros of both Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, who participated and enthusiastically endorsed its purpose.

Notwithstanding a grandiose commemoration, as Rajapaksa’s second year in the presidency ends and the year 2021 draws to a close, the country stands mired in calamities on every public front.

The Crisis

The economy is in disaster mode. Foreign reserves which were at USD 7.5 Billion in November 2019, when GR took office, had declined to USD 2.8 Billion by August 2021. Despite Central Bank Governor Cabraal’s blithe assurance that the economy can be restructured without IMF assistance, and that wildly reckless money-printing has no impact on inflation, banks are unable to provide importers with forex to import essentials, whilst prices of basic commodities are placing them beyond the reach of ordinary consumers. According to most economists, in the real world, when money printing increases in a background of stagnant or declining national output, all other factors being equal, hyper-inflation is the certain outcome. Recent historical examples are too numerous to quote here. However, Cabraal, who is one of the architects and, also, a highly privileged inhabitant of the Rajapaksa Dystopia, is obviously reading from a different text!

For the last few months, in every village, town and city across the island, for the first time since the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime 50 years ago, desperate citizens have been waiting in queues to buy the most basic items. There are frequent shortages of sugar, rice, milk powder and cooking fuel; very recently, suppliers ran short of kerosene oil, the only convenient and affordable alternative to cooking gas. Gathering firewood is not an option, especially for the four million urban population of Sri Lanka.

The government has responded to the foreign exchange shortage by imposing drastic regulations to limit dollar usage, declaring over 600 imported items, including mobile phones, clothing, household appliances and a range of foods, as non-essential. Vehicles imports are also included in the restrictions.

Prices of essential foods, vegetables and staples have seen an astronomic escalation during 2021, due to low supply, either because of import restrictions or, in the case of locally grown items, a result of poor harvests due to denial- through unavailability- of basic nutrient inputs, and disruptions in the supply chain from distant growing areas.

The Cause

The pandemic has contributed to the crisis, dismantling livelihoods with some of the monthly paid subjected to wage cuts or layoffs, whilst daily paid workers are denied earnings through inability to access places of work or, because the lockdown has compelled the closure of many small establishments, which rely mainly on casual labour. As in many countries in the developing world, in Sri Lanka, the informal, small and medium scale entrepreneurial sector collectively supports more livelihoods, than either the State or the corporate sector. However, the Covid pandemic is only a contributory factor to an escalating socio-economic disaster. The government, through the implementation of a series of imprudent and ill-conceived policies, has aggravated the situation to a degree beyond retrieval.

Immediately after assuming the presidency, GR ordered sweeping tax concessions, which resulted in the diminution of government revenues by about 30% in 2020. These concessions were beneficial to a minute proportion of the population, which actually needed no such relief. They did not cascade to the ordinary citizen. Soon thereafter, to bridge the cash supply deficit the money printing spree commenced, according to some sources injecting as much as an additional 35% – 40% in to the economy, by mid-2021.

The pandemic Task Force was led by a retired army commander, appointed by a president unable to distinguish between the scientific complexities of fighting a virus, and the tactical requirements of assaulting an enemy garrison. This mindset was also compounded by an inherent insensitivity to the suffering of ordinary people. The mismanagement of the project in its early, critical stages led to an escalation of infections and deaths, especially amongst the elderly who were denied vaccinations at the outset. Successive waves of infection even led to embarrassing State sponsorship of miracle cures- the ridiculous “Dhammika Elixir” and the casting of holy water pots in to flowing water!!

Whilst people were desperately scrabbling around to sustain themselves in a setting of loss of income, essential item scarcities and other privations, overnight, the president decreed a ban on the use of inorganic fertilizer and agro-chemicals. All professional agriculturists in the country (the writer was one for over 50 years) and scientists in related disciplines, have pointed out the certainty of the disastrous outcomes from the implementation of this irrational, unscientific and impractical policy; the adverse consequences are already visible in the case of short term crops, especially rice and vegetables, whilst the impact on the long-term plantation crops, particularly tea, will very soon be evident in the form of crop declines, diminished exports and shrinking foreign exchange earnings.

The Response

The island-wide uprising of despairing farmers, beating and burning effigies of senior ministers and demanding a reversal of the fertilizer ban, was met with the promise of organic fertilizer as an alternative. The imported organic nutrient, apparently a mixture of sea weed and faeces- a second virus from China after Corona- was found unsuitable, leading to imports from India of “liquid nitrogen”, a product untried on a large scale in that country. One of the President’s responses to the anguish of the farmers was to declare at a public meeting that he could, if he considered it desirable, use the army to seize the farming community by the scruff of its collective neck and compel them to use organic fertilizer!!

The ban on the slaughter of cattle is a similarly ill-considered directive. Alleviating animal suffering is a noble cause but the consequences of the ban will be dire for several hundred thousand people. The cattle rearing industry is multi-faceted and interconnected. Milk production, beef supply and the supply of animal skin to the tanning industry go hand-in-hand. Dairy industry, which is essentially a small farmer collective enterprise, becomes unviable unless unproductive animals are converted to meat. This ban will disempower around 200,000 individual farmers island-wide, many of them Muslims in the Eastern province. The certain consequences will be the decline of local milk production, scarcity of allied dairy products and the unpreventable escalation of illicit cattle slaughter. That proverb of unknown origin, that ” The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions,” is an apt commentary on both the fertilizer and cattle slaughter ban.

Younger brother Basil, hailed by Rajapaksa acolytes as an economic genius of Einsteinian proportions- despite the absence of previous experience and known academic background – has produced a budget reinforced by bloated statistics and unrealizable dreams. His disgracefully incoherent Budget speech, delivered in Sinhala, justifiably lampooned in multiple forums, was not improved by his rambling, garbled contributions in a subsequent English language interview on the same subject, with Ms Indeewari Amuwatte on Ada Derana. The questions were intelligent, precise and designed to elicit clarity. The responses were vague, evasive and inarticulate, by a man struggling to defend the indefensible in a medium clearly unfamiliar to him; at best a cringe-worthy performance.

Consequences

A frustrated electorate propelled GR in to power in justifiable disgust at the dysfunctional governance of the Sirisena- Wickramesinghe regime, only to be confronted, in less than two years, with an ineptitude of colossal proportions. The enormous parliamentary advantage of a two-thirds majority and a presidency with unlimited power, the two moving in parallel rather than in unison, has paved the way for an economic and social disaster. It is an inevitable consequence of the 20th Amendment, which has expanded the powers of the President, whilst encroaching on the authority of the parliament and the judiciary. When the individual so elected believes that he is the sole repository of wisdom in governance – despite a total lack of experience in the field and a wretched absence of ordinary commonsense – chaos ensues. That is what we see everyday, in mass protests against moronic directives.

The only visible success in governance in Sri Lanka today is the inexorable onward march of the Rajapaksa project, which commenced during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term and, after a slight hiccup during the abortive Sirisena regime, has gathered a terrifying new momentum since end 2019. It is conservatively estimated that about 64% of the country’s economy is directly controlled by the Rajapaksa family and those connected to it. In a country rapidly sliding in to an abyss where lies the bleak certainty of food and other essential item scarcities – including pharmaceuticals – widespread malnutrition, loss of employment and livelihoods, declining foreign exchange earnings, disruption to education at all levels and the disintegration of the society, the only glow in a leaden sky comes from the Rajapaksa comet. The State will surely fail but the First Family will surely prosper.

Unless a disoriented and vacillatory opposition quickly gathers its wits, firstly jettisoning the toxic Ranil Wickremesinghe and then rallying round Premadasa – not necessarily the best of men but the only possible alternative – the Rajapaksa dynastic succession, from elder brother to younger brother and from uncle to nephew, and thereafter to another sibling or relative, is a certainty.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President by the convergence of normally divergent political forces. But, once elected, by-passing the legislature and other democratic institutions, he has chosen to govern through the armed forces and a collection of “Task Forces”, staffed or led by ex-military men, and other disciples and profiteers, answerable to only him. A spineless, collusive and essentially corrupt legislature has become a rubber stamp to his will. A reading of the two year performance report establishes beyond doubt that the “Viyathmaga” is the road to certain ruin, and that the “Eliyamaga” will condemn this country to economic darkness before the Gotabaya presidency ends.

Very recently, parliamentarian Kumara Welgama delivered a speech at the Diyawanna assembly, amusing, but brutally frank, in its exposure of the venality of recent regimes and the familial considerations which overrode national interests in decision making at the highest levels of governance, whilst highlighting the aberrant mentality that pervades the current dispensation. It was also prophetic in the warnings sounded to the ruling regime. Not one of his statements were contested. It must now be clear to all that when madmen are allowed to run the asylum, lunacy becomes institutionalized and insanity infiltrates governance.

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Features

“Perspectives on Constitutional Reform in Sri Lanka”

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Editors: Hiran W Jayewardene and Sharya Scharenguivel

Published by the International and Comparative Law Society 2021.

Reviewed by Neville Ladduwahetty

The publication of a book on Constitutional Reform containing the perspectives of eminent contributors recognized for their expertise on the subject at a time when there is an ongoing process set up to develop a new Constitution in Sri Lanka is a valuable and necessary contribution to the Constitution making process. As is usual, the book starts with a Foreword, followed by a Preface. However, what is unusual is the material in the Prologue that follows.

It starts with a personal background of the first Executive President of Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayewardene, as being a lawyer with a legacy of five generations of lawyers and proceeds to incorporate his “THOUGHTS ON CONSTITUTIONALISM”. This section covers the evolution of Constitutional Reform in Sri Lanka starting with the Donoughmore and Soulbury Constitutions, and explains the influences that made him an advocate of the presidential form of government in preference to the parliamentary system.

It then records the historical development associated with the adoption of a presidential system and how President Jayewardene defended its merits as being the most appropriate form of government for a developing country. The Prologue also gives the key features of the 1978 Constitution. Another noteworthy feature is the presentation of an overview of the perspectives of all the contributors to this volume, thus enabling the reader to gain a broad outline of their perspectives without having to labour through each contributor’s views individually.

One fact that should be borne in mind is that however progressive are the constitutional reforms and however independent institutions such as the judiciary and other key institutions are, their service to the public depends not on the written words in their respective instruments, but in the integrity and commitment of those who make them meaningful.

The perspectives of 22 contributors are presented under seven sections. The majority, if not all of them, are lawyers. I am not a lawyer. However, the majority of us are affected by the perspectives expressed by them when they become part of the constitution under which we are governed. Therefore, there is a relevance that the perspectives presented are reviewed from such a source.

PRESIDENTIAL v. PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEMS

Prior to addressing issues relating to Constitutional Reforms, there is a need to make the hard choice between the two fundamental Constitutional Systems, namely Presidential as at present or Parliamentary as it was in the past. It is only after making such a fundamental choice that one could proceed to explore the reforms that should be introduced to make its provisions best serve the interests of “We the People”.

Bearing in mind that the most cherished interest of the People is stability and security above all else, the choice that needs to be made is whether the Presidential or Parliamentary System would better equip the State to serve the primary interests of the People. While some contributors have addressed the pros and cons of each system and even gone to the extent of expressing their preferences, they have failed to take into account the context in which either system has to operate.

There are however, a few caveats that must be borne in mind when making the choice. The first is to recognize the context in which such a choice is made. The context in particular, is that although the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party are the two major political parties to represent the People, neither is capable of mustering a majority to form a government. As a result, governments formed are invariably coalitions made up of several small parties that represent parochial interests. Consequently, policy decisions are compelled to operate within the constraints imposed by the narrow interests of these coalition partners.

The second is the recognition that the Legislative and the Executive are not separated under the parliamentary system of governance. Consequently, it is the supremacy of Parliament that makes the Executive represented by the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers responsible to Parliament. However, the fact that both the Legislature and Executive need to function as one body, the stability of Parliamentary Systems is dependent on the solidarity of the Coalition; a fact which historically has not been known as an arrangement for stability, both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

On the other hand, the Legislature and the Executive are separate under the recognized principle of Separation of Powers in Presidential Systems. This separation of power reinforced by elections to each branch separately means that even if the stability of the Legislature is tenuous, the Executive remains intact to serve the urgent needs of the People even during a crisis. Despite this advantage as far as the people are concerned, the disadvantage is that fresh legislation is not possible if the political ideologies governing the Legislature are different to that of the Executive; a fact that was highlighted during the debates as the primary reason for rejecting Presidential Systems for governance. However, even under such circumstances compromises by each branch would not only make legislative outcomes more representative of the People, but also may even turn out to be more progressive.

The other criticism often cited is that presidential systems tempt authoritarianism arising from the fact that all Executive power of the People is exercised by one individual. While this is inevitable with presidential systems under separation of power, a rational way out is for Oversight Committees of Parliament to review Executive action through appointed Executives. However, authoritarianism could also exist under Parliamentary Systems as well, depending on the backing the Prime Minister has in Parliament as evidenced in other countries and admitted as a possibility in the Book.

An issue that has not received the attention it deserves and therefore should be part of the reform process is the uniqueness of the presidential system that exists in Sri Lanka. Despite the separation of powers enlarged in Article 4 of the 1978 Constitution, the accommodation of some Members of Parliament who essentially are members elected to the Legislature to also serve in the Executive as Members of the Cabinet of Ministers needs to be addressed. This anomaly needs to be addressed for the sake of clarity. In the absence of clarity, provisions exist where the Cabinet with an independently elected President as its Head is responsible to Parliament. Such contradictions are inevitable when the principles of separation of powers are compromised.

THE JUDICIARY

The need for an independent judiciary cannot be over emphasized. However, the selection and appointment of such a judiciary depends on the process, and the process in turn depends on the independence of those who recommend the appointments. Therefore, the institution and the mechanisms deployed need to be independent and free of influence in the exercise of their mandate. In order to achieve such an objective, current processes should be reviewed and reformed if the judiciary is to function as an independent body. In order to make the selection process more open and transparent, it may be necessary for the candidates selected by an Independent Commission to appear before a Parliamentary Oversight Committee for assessment, instead of limiting the process entirely within the judicial fraternity as recommended in the book.

Two others issues that should be part of Constitutional Reforms should be constitutional provisions for judicial review without any time constraints, and the other is the recognition given to the Preamble to the Constitution, because it is the Preamble that sets the broad principles of the Constitutional Framework for the judiciary to be guided in their deliberations whenever the ambiguities and limitations in the written law prevent the administration of justice. The recognition given to the Preamble is what would permit purposive interpretations thereby expanding the scope for administering justice without being bound by literal interpretations of the written word; a practice that could lead to justice being compromised.

DEVOLUTION

The topic of Devolution as in the past, is addressed from a majority/minority perspective as if communities live in defined territories with specific and distinct identities, thus confirming the absence of a fresh perspective to devolution. The inability to accept that in reality this is not the case, is regretted. In reality the composition of the Sri Lankan State is not a collection of Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim monolithic communities living in defined areas. Instead, it is a collection of human beings often with similar aspirations living in politically demarcated areas with political powers assigned to Local Governments as the lowest peripheral unit.

Such areas may be exclusively Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim or even Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim majority areas. However, even within such areas there are gradations and hierarchies within them that challenge their homogeneity. The issues that bind them are common interests in civil, political, economic, social and cultural advancement as they relate to human development; an interest that is common to all, whatever the composition of the community in terms of race, ethnicity, religion or other identities that make one community different to another. Consequently, devolution should be perceived from the standpoint of human development since it is an aspiration common to all human beings within communities and addressed from a fresh perspective if the lives and livelihoods of all communities are to advance.

HUMAN RIGHTS

There is a common thread in the perspectives between the title, “Human Rights and Development – the Need for Indivisibility”, in the section on human rights and the comments cited above on devolution. However, the difference between the two perspectives is that the former is represented as a right whereas the latter is implied as a responsibility of the community within the peripheral political unit.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains a total of thirty articles. The majority of the articles are devoted to human rights an individual is entitled to within a sovereign State. Only Article 29 makes reference to “duties to the community”.

Article 29 states: (1) “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Therefore, Human Rights is not only about rights and entitlements an individual could expect from the State but also about duties and even more so, responsibilities an individual has to the community, and through it to the State. Devolution should be addressed from this perspective. If this aspect is to be given its rightful place, it should be incorporated in the Preamble.

INTERNATIONAL TREATIES

Article 157 of the 1978 Constitution is the only article that addresses issues relating to International Treaties and Agreements. However, the provision in this Article that calls for a two-third approval of Parliament is required only in the case of Treaties and Agreements that are “essential for the development of the national economy…”. In view of this limitation and because any Treaty or Agreement is bound to have an impact on national interests, it is imperative that Constitutional Reforms address this lacuna and provide for ALL Treaties and Agreements between States to be subject to two-third approval of Parliament, because any and all commitments in such instruments become the responsibility of whichever government is in power. Furthermore, even non-treaty instruments such as Memorandums of Understanding should be subject to simple parliamentary majorities.

CONCLUSION

Dr. Hiran W. Jayewardene should be congratulated for taking the initiative to persuade an eminent group well versed in the complexities of Constitutional Reform to make public their views that could be of benefit to the ongoing process of Constitution making currently underway.

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Features

Are we heading for an unprecedented disaster like the Irish Potato Famine?

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by Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

When the potato crop, the staple diet then in Ireland, began to totally fail with a fungal infestation that lead to the historic Irish famine (1845-1852), the Irish leaders in Dublin turned to Queen Victoria and the British Parliament for redress. However, the British government under which Ireland was then a colony, acted negatively repealing certain laws and tariffs that made food such as corn and bread prohibitively expensive. Tenant farmers were unable even to produce enough food for themselves, and hundreds of thousands died of starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition!

The exact role of the British government in the Potato Famine and its aftermath—whether it ignored the plight of Ireland’s poor out of malice, or if their collective inaction and inadequate response could be attributed to incompetence—is still being debated. However, even during the famine some food items were exported out of Ireland. Our situation looks very comparable to the Irish fiasco except that our leaders are not acting with malice but with foolish obstinacy, not analysing the issues at stake, not consulting experts in the subject and sticking coherently to their policy of organic farming with unattainable goals.

Our rice farmers may yet not be starving because they have at least the last Yala rice crop which has been reasonable despite the fertilizer and other agrochemical shortages. On the other hand, tea and vegetable farmers appear to be the most hit. Many tea smallholders complain that without adequate nitrogen fertilizer their crops have declined immensely and some are not even harvesting the meagre flush as it can hardly meet even the workers wages. The seriousness of the situation is further aggravated by our losing the markets which the industry claims can be substantial.

At the same time, for the general public, sky-rocketing prices of food and other essentials are unbearable. Our women won’t be able even to emulate what the French women did during the days of the French Revolution due to inflation, carrying the money in the shopping bags and bringinging back the purchases in their purses, because they have no money to carry.

It is regrettable that the President did not consult the agricultural experts in deciding to rush to convert the country entirely to organic from conventional farming within one season.He has not positively responded to the current fiasco of neither chemical nor organic fertilizer being available. His main consultants on matter appear to be a pediatrician who wants to go back to traditional rice varieties which yield less than half the new improved varieties and a professor of agriculture who identified sorghum as a rice variety, Swayanjatha wee’, with which, he claims, King Dutugamunu fed his ‘Dasa Maha Yodayas.’ There are many other ‘yes men’ behind him nodding their heads to every thing he says.

The President should be mindful that the world moved away from organic farming from about the 1850s to conventional farming because even in that era organic farming could not meet the food demand. The writer hopes that he would at least look at Table 1 here which shows how chemical fertilizers and new high yielding varieties pushed production from essentially organic farming and traditional rice to chemical farming and new varieties by three to four fold across many countries. Distinguished Professor Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba calculated that 40% of the global population in 1999 would not have lived if urea fertilizer had not been invented.

Table 1. Comparative Rice

Production (Million MT)

Country 1960 1999

China 48 170

India 46 112

Sri Lanka 1.1 3.4

The transition from traditional agriculture where fertilizer comprised essentially farmyard manure(FYM) and green manures, to conventional agriculture(CF), as we know it today, took place in the mid 19th century with two ground breaking inventions , the synthesis of soluble (super) phosphate(John Lawes,1814 to 1900) and the need for chemical nitrogenous fertilizer for crop growth (Justus von Liebig,1803-1873) by two great scientists. In 1909, another great German scientist, Fritz Haber (1868-1934) successfully synthesized ammonia by combining atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen which revolutionized the production of urea and other commercial nitrogenous fertilizers.

These inventions and the rapidly growing knowledge then in plant chemistry led to the substitution of natural dung with chemical fertilizer. The third important element, potassium, was provided largely by potash, a substance that had been known from antiquity. It has been said that without these inventions, the industrial countries of Western Europe could not have supported the dense population growth of the 19th century. It is the same reason that later led to the Green Revolution. This is ironically the fundamental question that we should ask: is there adequate organic matter and associated technologies to “go green” fully, as the President calls it, now, if it was not possible then with much lower populations but more farmlands. Sir John Russell (1942), the reputed British soil scientist, in an article titled British Agriculture states that: “it is difficult for us in this distance in time to recapture the feelings with which the farmers received the information that a powder made in a factory and applied out of a bag at the rate of only a few hundred weights per acre could possibly act as well as farmyard manure put on the land as dressings of tons to meet the nutrient demands of crops’. The question then is if organic matter was inadequate to meet the fertilizer requirements then, can it do so now on a global scale?

The main blame of the President and his cabinet colleagues is on health hazzards of agrochemicals. There is no argument that there are risks largely due to misuse of agrochemicals. One serious problem recently has been phosphate pollution of the Rajarata water bodies due to excessive application of phosphate fertilizers in the upcountry vegetable farms. On the other hand, no comprehensive studies reveal pollution of water or soil with heavy metals or pesticides, a subject much spoken about. Farmer training on judicious use can greatly reduce the risk of agrochemical misuse which sadly is not happening with the very ineffective extension services of the day. Strengthening this service is matter of highest priority.

On the other hand hardly any politician utters a word about ambient air pollution, which is a far more serious problem than agrochemical pollution. Records reveal that it caused 3.5 million premature, non-communicable disease- deaths, globally in 2017. These were from stroke, ischemic heart disease non chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes. Local health records reveal that our situation is no better.

The President and many of his cabinet colleagues including the Minister of Agriculture continue to lay the blame on agrochemicals for the kidney disease in the Rajarata and other non- communicable diseases, apparently the main reason for the President ‘going green.’ At some public meeting the President was heard to say that if he gives ‘chemical fertilizer with one hand he will have to give a kidney’ to the farmer with the other. He was prompted to say so by one of his key advisors in agriculture, a pediatrician turned agriculture expert. Sadly he has not sought advice from the health authorities as to the causation of the kidney disease. Numerous knowledgeable scientists and publications have revealed beyond doubt that hardwater and fluoride are the cause of the disease, and a recent comprehensive report by the Health Ministry reveals that there is no evidence to implicate agrochemicals in the causation of the disease.

In this crisis situation, of diminishing food production, the President does not appear to have sought the advise of real agriculture experts. In fact a letter delivered to him over a month ago with some 140 signatures of qualified agriculture researchers and academics seeking an opportunity to discuss the current agricultural calamity has fallen on deaf ears. Let alone the local expert knowledge, he should have sought evidence from what happens elsewhere in the world. Many countries are only gradually expanding their organic crop cover which, however, yet stands at 1.5 % of the total global croplands expanding annually at a meagre 2% per annum.Only 16 countries have exceeded 10 % of the crop cover in organic farming, and in nearly all them the major extents are in pasture fertilized with farmyard manure.

Policy blunders continue to be committed. To meet the rice fertilizer needs the government claims importing 2.1 million litres of nano fertilizer at a cost of USD 12 per litre. It appears to be nano urea although the Minister of Agriculture vehemently claims that it is not nano urea but ‘nanonitrogen’ to give it an organic stance. Urea is not allowed in organic farming. The authorities claim that the cost of a litre is USD 12, and it has 4% nitrogen, meaning there are 40 grams nitrogen/litre. As average rice crop of 5 tons/ha removes over 100kg nitrogen , meaning to meet the crop demand the farmers should spray 2,500 bottles of which the theoretical cost should be USD 30,000. However, the government makes the ridiculous claim that five litres/ha of nanonitrogen is adequate to meet the crop demand. God save the farmers!

The global synthetic urea prices have soared to about USD 750 per metric ton from about USD500 last November. Assuming that a farmer applies 100kg nitrogen/ha with urea (46% N) his cost should be Rs 32,608 without subsidy; and assuming he sells his crop of five tons at Rs 60/kg, his gross income should be Rs 300,000, and the cost of urea alone should be over 10.6% of the gross income. On the other hand, with the huge fertilizer subsidy in previous years the total fertilizer cost for rice farming was a mere 2 to 3% of the total cost of production or about 1.5% of the gross return. Incisive thinking on fertilizer subsidy is another matter that needs state attention.

The need for a national advisory body like the one in India set up by Nehru in 1963, which still continues with a name change made by Prime Minister Modi to give it more emphasis on technologies. Modi also recently reported repealing antiquated regulations that are adversely affecting small farmers. Moreover, whereas we have rushed to ban palm oil imports (now reversed) and oil palm cultivation, promoting coconut cultivation to meet the national oil yields despite it yielding only 20% of oil as oil palm, Modi has engaged in a policy of expanding oil palm cultivation extending it to irrigated lands and replacing some of the low-yielding arable oil crops. His target is to expand the oil palm cover from the current level of about 400,000 ha to a million by 2025. This writer repeats that our leaders should look at what happens elsewhere in the world apart from listening to proven experts in the respective fields.

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