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Unrealities of call for Covid-related burials

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London protester’s carrion call

By ROHANA R. WASALA

Jehan Perera has proffered unsolicited advice to the government (‘Religious clergy take stand for religious right to burial’/The Island/December 29, 2020) seeking to force its capitulation to foreign interventionist forces, through false propaganda. The same article appeared simultaneously on the organization’s website under the title: ‘Government to take a stand for religious right to burial’. The charge implied by this title (i.e., indecisiveness in allowing burial of Corona-dead Muslims) against the government is baseless.

It was in March (nine months ago) if my memory doesn’t fail me, that the Director of Health Services (DHS), the duly appointed Competent Authority in the Covid-19 containment situation, issued a special gazette notification decreeing that bodies of persons who die of the disease be cremated. That decision was taken by the Competent Authority based on the advice of experts, not directly by the government which had delegated the power to do so to that official. Muslims’ (or anyone else’s for that matter) right to burial has never been denied, and is not being challenged in any way. But that right cannot be exercised in this national emergency. It is only because of the strict health guidelines laid down on a cold scientific basis that cremation has been made mandatory.

Religious sentiments are common to all. Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, and others are also affected by the same painful restrictions in the performance of religious rituals, and in the choice of the proper mode of disposal of the bodies of their near and dear ones dead from the corona infection. If our local experts say there is no alternative to cremating bodies to prevent the virus from contaminating the soil or the water resources of the country, then that has to be accepted in the best interest of all. The WHO periodically issues certain broad health guidelines, but common sense tells us that they need to be adapted to suit the specific local conditions that exist in each country. It is absolutely wrong to cry out to the world that the government is trampling on the right of Muslims to bury their dead.

The government is not neglecting its duty out of a sense of complacency (‘a kind of self-satisfaction’) as JP seems to suggest. Only those without an iota of humane concern for the wellbeing of all Sri Lankans, can discount or totally ignore the prodigious amount of work that our health workers and the security personnel (the latter looking after the logistics aspect of the massive operation) do, and the tremendous personal sacrifices they make in helping the nation to survive the catastrophic corona pandemic. If the present administration was as dysfunctional as the cursed yahapalanaya that JP supported, could this sort of efficient mobilization of the nation be realized? There is no need for me to refute his false allegations of delays in decision making regarding the artificial burial-cremation issue or in ordering suitable vaccines (several of which, globally, are still being tested); the government has already taken the necessary steps in obtaining them at the earliest possible.

JP drags in the (recent Mahara) ‘prison riots’ in order to highlight them as ‘a harbinger of what can happen in the larger society, if a large section of the people feel they are being trapped and marginalized to suffer the consequences’. The implied allegation that Muslims (because the prison population cannot be described as ‘a large section of the people’) ‘are being trapped and marginalized’ is entirely baseless. There is congestion in prisons. That is a longstanding problem that must be fixed. The incidents are under investigation. JP’s concern is not with the welfare of the prisoners (most of them drug addicts under detention) or the difficulties the prison and security forces personnel experience in dealing with groups of drugged inmates fighting among themselves, while others were trying to break the gates to escape.

He asserts that ‘among these worst affected sections of the population, it appears that the Muslim community has been disproportionately affected by the Covid infection’, thereby falsely suggesting that, like the prison population, the Muslims are being confined to cramped conditions, enabling the rapid spread of the deadly infection. JP who knows how abominably some innocent but ill-informed and irresponsible Muslims behaved towards the health workers who were doing their level best to help them, while taking the risk of exposing themselves and their loved ones back home to the virus through contact transmission. Ten times more non-Muslims also live in congested areas, not out of choice, but for lack of better places to live (in spite of the fact that Muslims, according to JP’s opinion, as a traditionally trading community, tend to live more in urban settings than the Sinhalese and Tamils, being basically agrarian communities, who possess lands and live in more spacious environments).

But JP goes on to distort facts to project the few deliberately non-cooperative Muslims as victims of alleged governmental insensitivity to their religious feelings: ‘They are afraid that if they are confirmed as Covid patients, both they and their relatives will be at risk of being forcibly cremated if they fail to recover from the coronavirus infection, which goes against fundamental Islamic tenets.’ Won’t these Muslims listen to reason, if their educated leaders explain to them that if cremation is what the health authorities order in this hopefully temporary situation, that is the law, and that it must be obeyed without questioning.

The dangerous implication of what JP writes is not hard to guess: at least some Muslims may try to hide Covid patients and deaths from the authorities, and put paid to all the latter’s endeavours to contain the spread of the virulent virus. JP even refers to the Minister of Justice having raised concerns about mandatory cremation of bodies of Muslims who have died of Covid-19. In this situation sensible people listen to doctors and scientists, rather than politicians. The local experts who know what is best for Sri Lanka in the current situation say that cremation guarantees the total destruction of the virus, and that burial doesn’t, and that therefore the first (cremation) is the only option for the country.

JP tries to bolster his arguments by quoting BBS General Secretary Ven. Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thera: ‘The fact that the religious belief of the Muslim community is being violated has led the leader of the nationalist Bodhu Bala Sena, the Buddhist prelate Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasara to speak up for the religious right of the Muslims to be buried even in cases of Covid deaths.’ JP butters him up as a ‘Buddhist prelate’; the monk is no prelate (no Nayake); he is just an ordinary monk, who has nevertheless achieved some success in waking up the Nayake monks at least to a sitting up position, prising open their eyes to the existential threats currently posed by religious fundamentalists of both varieties to the Buddha Sasana. Originally, he was vehemently against burial, because that is contrary to expert advice and is in contravention of the DHS’s ruling.

As a Buddhist monk he is suggesting this out of compassion for innocent Muslims who are upset (out of ignorance) about having, for this while, to burn the bodies of their relatives dead from corona. He must be thinking of some way to stop Islamic religious extremists from gaining a firmer foothold within the Muslim polity by exploiting this highly sensitive burial issue. Ven. Gnanasara, remained apolitical, whatever critics might say, until Ven. Ratana’s fast in Sri Dalada Maligawa precincts, something that the Most Ven. Mahanayakes censured in no uncertain terms, and Ven Gnanasara himself criticised. The BBS secretary may be launching a preemptive strike at Ven. Ratana, who is going to parliament as the national list MP from the AJBP.

About a fortnight ago, Ven. Gnanasara told the media how NGOs were creating global hatred and ill-will against Buddhist monks, based on the false allegation that it was they who were demanding the cremation of bodies of Muslim dead, out of spite. In a video of a protest rally held in London on December 13, 2020 against Sri Lanka’s (health-authorities-imposed) Corona-related temporary burial ban, a female demonstrator, speaking in Sinhala, is heard loudly demanding that our President should reject offhand what she mocks as the ‘legal advice of the bald-headed uncles dressed in yellow robes’ (sivuru porawagath thatta mamalage neethi upades piliganta epa). BBS General Secretary Ven. Gnanasara Thera played a fragment of the woman’s denunciatory harangue containing this remark from his phone at a short news briefing on December 22, 2020. The phrase ‘thatta mamala’ is an utterly disrespectful way to refer to Buddhist monks that only an ignorant insensitive uncultured person could use. It is deeply offensive to all Buddhists, especially to Sinhalese Buddhists, who treat monks with reverence whatever criticisms are justly or unjustly made about them. Obviously, the woman is an uncouth non-Buddhist Sinhala speaker. She says: ‘We don’t want any religious frictions. We want to live in peace, without having to burn our children, these people, like animals. Mr President, please (mediate in this matter and) arrange for us to bury (our dead). We have no use for the yellow-robed thatta uncles’ advice’. She hardly conceals her callous disregard of the feelings of fellow Sri Lankans who make no issue of cremating their dead relatives in the present circumstances in the interest of public health.

The monks have repeatedly made it clear that they, like the rest of the people of Sri Lanka and the government, are not concerned about whether dead bodies are buried or cremated, or about whether one method is of greater merit than the other, except that in the deadly Corona pandemic situation, the mode of disposal of corpses of Corona dead should be done according to the strict instructions of the authorised health experts, who, invariably take into consideration the global guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). The wording of the WHO guidelines shows that they are not expected to be followed blindly by every country; they need to be modified primarily to suit the local physical conditions, and only secondarily to the religious sensitivities of the people. It is common sense that religious sensitivities are common to all communities, and that these must be inter-communally respected without discrimination.

Anti-Sri Lanka agents abroad and anti-national forces at home have launched a carefully calculated propaganda blitzkrieg whose barely concealed target is the present government, although it is overtly based on the false allegation that Buddhist monks are demanding the cremation of bodies of Muslims who have died of Covid-19 spitefully disregarding their surviving relatives’ religious sensitivities. Nothing is further from the truth than this charge against Buddhist monks.



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Opinion

Use existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas

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By MAHINDA PANAPITIYA

Irrigation Engineer who has worked for Mahaweli Project since 80s

As originally planned, the present phase of the Mahaweli Project should be focused on social and economic development of the families settled in Mahaweli areas. It could be done by promoting food production in a sustainable way, to gain the return on investment of capital cost incurred on the infrastructure constructed for delivering water to fertile lands in the dry zone. The potential available in lands under Mahaweli Project, which cover about 1/3 of farming areas of the Dry Zone, could easily help the country to become self-sufficient in healthy foods, deviating from monotonous rice cultivation, provided it is managed with a right vision.

Concept

According to the concept explained below, there is a need to change the present management approach to a role focusing food production using limited water resources in the Dry Zone. For example, the term “Block Manager” in the Mahaweli Management System was used during the construction phase in the 70s, because areas were blocked for the purpose of managing construction and settlement activities. There are five such blocks, each of about 3,000 Hectares, under Kalawewa Reservoir. Now the project is in the production phase. Therefore, the Block Managers appointed earlier should now be named as Regional Production Managers, because the very word BLOCK implies negative at the production phase.

The role of a Production Manager replacing Block Manage is a completely different discipline from what was adapted during the construction phase. In the current production phase, Irrigation projects should be perceived as a Food Producing “Factory” – where water is the main raw material. A Production Manager’s focus should be to maximize food production, deviating from Rice Only Mode, to cater the market needs earning profits for farmers who are the owners of the “factory”. Canal systems within the project area are just “Belts” conveying raw materials (water) in a Typical Factory. Farm labor, fertilisers etc. are other inputs.

Required Management Shift

In order to implement the above management concept, there is a need for a paradigm shift at national level in managing large scale irrigation projects. In the new management paradigm, the farmers would be treated as clients, not the servants at the mercy of receiving water, according to rigid schedules decided by irrigation management staff. In this approach, the main purpose of managing irrigation systems is to deliver water to the farm gate at the right time in the right quantity.

It is also very pathetic to observe that main clients of irrigation projects (farmers) are now dying of various diseases caused by indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals. Therefore, there is a need to minimize the damages caused to the ecosystems where these food production factories are located. Therefore, the management objectives should also be focused on producing multiple types of organically grown crops, profitably without polluting the soil and groundwater aquifers.

Proposed Strategy

Existing Engineering staff should either be trained or new recruitments having Production Engineering background, should be made. Water should be perceived as the most limited input, which needs to be managed profitably with the farming community – jointly. Each Production Manager could be allocated a Fixed Volume of water annually, and their performance could be measured in terms of Rupees earned for the country per Unit Volume of water, while economically upgrading a healthy lifestyle of farmers. Staff of agencies such as Central Engineering Consultancy Burro (CECB), established in 80s at construction phase of the Mahaweli Project, can be trained to play the role of Production Engineering. CECB could be renamed as Central Food Production Burro (CFPB).

In addition to the government salary, the staff should also be compensated in the form of incentives, calculated in proportion to income generated by them from their management areas. It should be a Win-Win situation for both farmers as well as officers responsible for managing the food production factory. In other countries, the term used to measure their performance is $ earned per gallon of water to the country, without damaging the ecosystem. Another advantage of this approach is that the young generation of the farmers automatically get attracted to commercial agriculture because of high income generation.

Recent Efforts

We were able to introduce some of the concepts explained in this note during 2000 to 2004, under a program called Mahaweli Restructuring and Rehabilitation Project (MRRP) funded by the World Bank. It was done by operating the Distributary canals feeding each block as elongated Village Tanks. Recently we tried to modernize the same concept at Pilot Scale in System B, by independently arranging funds from ICTA. In that project, called Easy Water, we introduced an SMS communication system to the farmers, so that they can order water from the Maduru Oya Main Reservoir by sending a SMS, when they need rather; than depend on time tables decided by authorities as normally practiced.

Conclusion

The World Bank also recognised the above concept in 2003, as the best water management approach suitable for South Asian countries. Due to the lack of vision of existing managers in the irrigation sector focusing on food production, the above approach has not yet reaped the full benefits. What we need in Sri Lanka, is a political leadership to create challenges for irrigation officials to play a role of educated profit-oriented farmers, deviating them from Rice only mode, by promoting concepts similar to above. Also note that while I worked for a project in Azerbaijan funded by the International Fund for Agriculture Development, I was able to introduce the same concept and they are now using it successfully. I do not see any reason why we could not practice here.

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Would anyone in power and sure to lose an election call for an election?

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If she/he would, why don’t tyrants seek election periodically?

(no kerena deege hevnallath adai! Even the shadows of a failing marriage are misaligned.)

by Usvatte-aratchi

I was mightily amused by the demands of several astute political leaders in and outside parliament that president Wickremasinghe uses his constitutional discretionary power and dissolve the parliament, after February 2023. Consider for a moment reasons why he simply cannot.

Wickremasinghe ignominiously lost an election to parliament from his district, after 45 years and after perhaps ten elections, all of which he had won handsomely. Not one member of the party he led, the oldest in the country and which unconventionally had made a president in 2015, won election to parliament in 2020. The party, as a whole, collected enough votes from the entire country to entitle it to nominate one person to sit in parliament. Bhikkhu Ratana’s hurriedly put-together party did equally well! Bhikkhu Ratana was as well entitled to be installed as president as Wickremasinghe. He had distinguished himself by advocating the production of crops without chemical fertilisers and pesticides (vasa visa nati kema). After 12 months of prevarication, Wickremasinghe decided to sit in parliament. He pleased himself in the House with some occasional clever witticisms. After more than two years, a vastly popular Prime Minister was forced out of office. Suddenly, this lone pine in the wilderness grew so tall that Wickremasinghe was appointed Prime Minister. Two months later he was President of the Republic, all constitutionally proper. But the framers of the constitution had made fools of the people, in whose name the constitution was made. In the constitution, there is no office of a vice-president who would be elected to the office along with the president and who would assume office as president for the rest of the period of five years, in the event the office of president felt vacant for any reason Nor was there a provision that in the event that a person not expressly elected by the people as president of the republic were to come to hold that office within the constitution, that he/she would hold the office of the president no longer than it was necessary to elect a new president, to wit, four calendar months. The great republic to the north of us has a vice-president and so has the oldest republic in the world, the United States of America. In our country, the lack of that provision paved the way for a politician who failed to win a seat in parliament in 2020 to decide the fate of that same parliament in 2022. How bizarre? Is that ironic or tragic? Do we laugh or do we cry?

There are two forces contributing to an equilibrium where it is in the interests of the president and a large group of members of parliament to avoid dissolving parliament. The first force is exerted by Wickremesinghe who is abundantly aware that he would lose in an election for president. Recall that two years ago, he could not win a seat in parliament. The other force comes from a majority of members of parliament who are sure to lose their seats in an election, any time soon. Among them, there is a large number of MPs who entered parliament for the first time and would lose the right to a lifetime pension which they would not earn if they did not complete five years in parliament. To most of them, this is a valuable asset which they loth to lose. I am advised that according to the Constitution, the president has the discretion to dissolve the parliament after a minimum of two and half years from the date of their election to office. Parliament itself has the power to request the president to dissolve parliament, provided more than two-thirds of all members of parliament adopt a resolution asking the president to do so. The second force discussed earlier prevents such motion. These two forces ensure that no matter the commotion created by those that seek the president to resign and parliament to dissolve itself, there is sufficient inertia to make the status quo stable. They are each perfectly dependent on the other for survival and they dearly crave survival. The president cannot dissolve parliament and survive. Nor can members of parliament survive without Wickremasinghe a president who, on his own, would not dissolve parliament. This hysteresis can last for about another 3 years legally and longer illegally. I would not rule out the latter probability.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa and President Rajapaksa were both thrown off their perches by forces outside parliament.

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Opinion

Science vs religion – II

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Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method. Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical.

By GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE

(The first part of this article reproduced from our Asia News Network partner in India, The Statesman, appeared on 25 Nov.)

“The known is finite, the unknown infinite”, the British biologist Thomas Huxley wrote in 1887, “Intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.”

Before the last century, the vast unknown territory of inexplicability was ruled by religion.But the last century has seen a tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge, and ever since, science has been reclaiming more and more territory from religion so that scholars started predicting a diminishing relevance and eventual disappearance of religion from human society.

While it is true that religion’s stranglehold has been remarkably weakened in most countries during the last half-century, except in the diehard Islamic states which stubbornly refuse to reform Islam, the resurgence of religion in our contemporary socio-political life negates the prediction of religion’s demise.

There is too much religion on the streets now that is increasingly intruding unto our lives. It is not the spirituality that Sagan had talked about, it is religion in its crudest original form – bloodthirsty, demanding total and unquestioning allegiance from its followers who would not shy away from spilling the blood of non-believers. While science continues to conquer ever newer frontiers and invents technologies that are revolutionising our society, a full transition to a scientific society is not possible without the complete displacement of religion.

From medicine to biotech, from electronics to telecommunication, from AI to nanoscience, the progress of science during the last 50 years has completely transformed the way we organize society, conduct business, and connect with people for ideation.

The paradox is that while we are exploring the frontiers of science and technology driven by limitless human yearning and thirst for knowledge, we are also reinforcing the prejudices, bigotry, and intolerance of contrary ideas and beliefs in our social and public life with renewed vigour and pride. Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method.Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued against recurrent tendencies of applying the methods of natural science in the research of human affairs, which are essentially outside empirical scientific approaches.

The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics, etc. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical. This is always an epistemological problem in social sciences, and this is where religion is supposed to supplement the techno-scientific worldview of science to understand how Nature works her laws in the universe and in human society.

But Nature also includes her children and us humans, and her well-being depends on their activities. No one knows that better than us, especially at this juncture of time when the world is precariously poised between sustainability and irreversible devastation from uncontrolled human greed.

Religion was supposed to impart and promote morality, ethics, love, and compassion among humans to make them understand their symbiotic relationships with nature, with fellow beings, and with animals. Religion was supposed to teach humans to limit their greed, increase empathy towards others, and strike a harmonious balance with nature to make the world a better place for all to live. What it has done and the moral blindness it has promoted instead is for all to see and judge.

Religion today is relentlessly marching to colonize every aspect of our socio-economic and political life with increasing aggressiveness. Suffering has been trivialised by it, the pain has been glorified by it, killing has been sanctified by it and the tattered social fabric that has resulted is being flaunted with egotistical pleasure and pride.

Though it will be unfair to blame religion alone, it has to take a large share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. It is propelling us energetically to forget our humanity and respect for those who do not share our faith and driving us towards an Orwellian world where intercultural understanding, the richness of culture and diversity, and the ideal of an inclusive and pluralistic society are strongly denounced in favour of a blind pursuance of faith as dictated by its self-proclaimed guardians and their bigoted followers.

The ideal of peace and harmony are receding at the speed of light as religion strives to regain the territory it has lost to science and is countering science with what can best be described as a pseudoscience that is carving out a niche for itself – and a wide one at that.To quote Huxley again, “The question of all questions for humanity is that of the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the Cosmos.”

Religion derived sustenance from the concept that humanity was positioned proudly at the centre of God’s magnificent creation, the Earth, around which revolved everything, and humanity – the crowning achievement of God’s creation in his own image, the pinnacle of his divine handiwork, occupied the centre-stage on this earth.Science would shatter the concept, but not before thousands of Giordano Brunos were burned at the stake for holding a contrary view.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn convincingly explained how paradigm shifts take place in the history of science when one dominant worldview is replaced by another. He showed that scientific progress is like Darwinian evolution – a process of selection of one amongst all the competing theories that have the most predictive power puzzle-solving ability, a concept that was later supported by Bas van Fraassen in The Scientific Image (1980).

But each such major paradigm shift has shaken the edifice of religion from which it could never recover. Thus, when the geocentric Ptolemaic worldview was replaced by the Copernican worldview, man lost his centrality in the scheme of things. Till then, heaven was in the sky, hell was underground and God in heaven ruled all three while religion regulated the entry to heaven or hell.

Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the Universe, and later Hubble displaced the entire Milky way from the centre of the universe, giving us instead an expanding universe of billions of galaxies in which neither is humanity at the centre of creation nor is the earth at the centre of the universe; in fact, the universe itself is one tiny dot in a multiverse of many universes.

Thus, God’s magnificent creation has been relegated to the position of a second-rate planet attached to a third-rate star, discarding religion’s medieval fancies. Today we are humbled by the immensity of the universe and mesmerized by the eternal silence of infinite space.

But for religion, the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the cosmos was not a question, it was an irrefutable truth questioning which meant inviting risk. Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelesticum on his deathbed in 1543, beyond the morbid reach of the Inquisition.

Galileo and Bruno were not that fortunate. Science established that neither does life enjoy any special privilege – countless worlds exist in deep space devoid of life, and countless species have become extinct in the course of evolution. We may be one someday, and going by our misdeeds on this planet, that day even may not be too far.

Darwin would finally dislodge humanity from the centre of the biological universe, giving it a lowly ancestor that was too humble compared to an almighty God to be a creator of such intelligence as possessed by man. Thankfully, the inquisition was dead, but prejudiced minds that shun logic were not. They are again back at the centre stage in force, flaunting scriptures, dictating how we should conduct ourselves, threatening to push us into a hell of ignominy and violence if we disobey.

Creationism is still being taught in many US public schools, despite the Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. Half the people in the USA still don’t believe in evolution, their share in India is unknown. But here, vigorous attempts are now on somehow bringing God inside the classroom in any guise, be it a hijab, or anything else.

Worship only makes you a slave. A slave forgets his reason, and his purpose for existence, and ultimately becomes an automaton to serve the master – Religion – and obey its commands without thinking.Religion is not the source of spirituality, peace, morality, virtue, and ethics any longer. Its principles may be eternal, but its methods are gross. It has now become the source of violence, hatred, unconcealed greed, corruption, and a road to power.

Instead of breaking barriers, it is building them afresh, destroying the very roots upon which mankind has built civilizations through the millennia. Don’t expect the State to control religion and the street will always celebrate it with ever-ostentatious pomp and splendour. It is therefore for us citizens to shield our children from the corrupting influences of religion. It has no place in the fabric of the mind of civilized men and women, just as God has no place in the fabric of the space-time that science tries to untangle. We don’t need the ancient wisdom of the spirit to guide us, because religion which was supposed to imbibe it has lost its divinity. It is now for science to redeem religion.

(Concluded)

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