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Using maths to combat COVID-19



‘The pandemic has now reached a level in which no human can make an optimal decision without the aid of a computer. Therefore, we need to start working on quantitative models to identify optimal decisions, instead of pointing fingers for not making proper decisions, when decision making is literally beyond the capacity of a human.’ – Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Colombo,    

Dr. Anuradha Mahasinghe

by Sajitha Prematunge

What has math got to do with a pandemic? At the outset, it might seem the two are completely unrelated. One has only to observe that the number of infected in certain districts is higher than that of others and making informed decisions based on those numbers could mean the difference between stifling a cluster and a full-blown third wave. Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Colombo, Dr. Anuradha Mahasinghe knows only too well how important the numbers are in combating COVID-19. This is why, in June, he and his colleagues proposed an optimization model, aimed at minimizing the damage to the economy, while confining the COVID-19 incidence to a level endurable by the available healthcare capacity in the country, while their compartment model projected COVID-19 transmission. Their study investigated the effectiveness of the control process with the aid of epidemiological models.


Epidemiological models

Mahasinghe explained that an epidemiological model is a model that simulates and describes an epidemic. “Modelling is essential if you want to describe a phenomenon. From the spin of an electron to the rotation of the heavenly bodies, these phenomena are understood with the aid of models. It is the models that help us describe the changes in economies and fall of financial markets,” said Mahasinghe. And pandemics are no exception. He explained that an epidemiological model, based on a reasonable theory and supported by evidence, is a collection of entities and their operations, that when put together simulate and describe an epidemic, which provides important insights into the transmission of the disease.

But how does maths factor comes in when dealing with a pandemic such as COVID-19? Mahasinghe pointed out that math is inevitable whenever dealing with numbers or quantities. “Aren’t we really sensitive to numbers in this COVID era more than ever? Every person is anxious to know the numbers of reported cases and deaths.” One might say the numbers are governing us because decisions are also made based on these numbers. However, these numbers are only the smoke, warns Mahasinghe. “One should be able to make a better decision if he sees the fire. Therefore, to make the best decisions during the pandemic you have to look into a mathematical model that can best describe the phenomenon.”

Numbers may govern us but what governs the numbers? According to Mahasinghe, this can only be uncovered by a model that captures the quantitative aspects of the pandemic. “It’s what we call a mathematical model which provides us with an explanation to the occurrence of these numbers.” Such a model can also forecast how these numbers are going to change in the future.

But how credible are these models? Hopefully, they are nothing like the local weather forecast. “Such models are based upon very fundamental and well-accepted laws in nature such as energy conservation, which cannot be falsified,” reiterated Mahasinghe. “Such models are supported and validated by empirical evidence. People use such models very often to make decisions in industry to make profit. So, why not look into the numbers and the math behind them to make optimal decisions accordingly, in a pandemic scenario?”


Where we went wrong

When asked where Sri Lanka went wrong in attempting to contain the pandemic, Mahasinghe said, “I guess we didn’t see the fire, we only saw the smoke. More precisely, we didn’t pay enough attention to the transmission dynamics or to optimal decision making. We were able to make some good decisions in a qualitative sense, but I seriously doubt we had the insight to make quantitatively sound decisions.” He pointed out that even when the decisions were made, the outcome could not be predicted due to a lack of a mechanism to forecast.

When asked whether the authorities were too quick to lift the lockdown, Mahasinghe answered in the negative. “I don’t think it was too early. Lifting strict lockdowns was essential at that moment. We were struggling to achieve two conflicting goals; containing the disease and sustaining the economy. Stepping down from strict curfew to partial lockdowns is indeed a good decision in such a context.” But was it methodical? Was there a mechanism to decide on the nature of the partial lockdowns? Did we know how to optimally restrict mobility in order to achieve those conflicting goals? Did we know to what extent the lockdown of a district should be optimally eased? Did we estimate the potential increase in positive cases from a district when its lockdown would be relaxed? Did we know the magnitude of the economic loss caused by shutting down a region? These are questions Marasinghe believes that authorities should have paid attention to, when easing the lockdown.

“Lockdowns could have been relaxed with the aid of proper optimization models capable of providing answers to these questions.” He repeated that such models are used very often in industrial decision making and provide promising solutions. “You can’t bring the COVID incidence down to zero even with such models, but at least you know what’s going on and the effectiveness of a decision so the health sector can take relevant measures.

According to Mahasinghe, authorities have overlooked the significance of data. “Even now I don’t think enough attention is paid to data.” According to him, some important data were not gathered. For example, he pointed out that, despite Western Province residents being advised against crossing borders, some invariably did, as there were no strict rules against it. “There is no point in regretting the fact, but we could have counted the number of vehicles that crossed the borders and used it to estimate the impact on transmission.”

He explained that the entire country can be regarded as an epidemiological network, where the nodes are the cities and the interconnections are the roads. “There are elegant models in network theory to gain many insights into transmission through such a network.” He also noted another pertinent issue, that even if data were gathered, they were not used. “Much effort was made to gather and organize COVID related data such as incidence per region etc, and that is really commendable. However, have we used them; what were the insights we gained into transmission from them except for some trivial speculations?” questions Mahasinghe. He reiterated that such insights can only be gained through an extensive study that involves the collaboration between mathematicians, computer scientists, epidemiologists and economists. “The mathematician’s part alone includes exhaustive algorithmic development and computational modelling challenges,” explained Mahasinghe.



When asked what factors were taken into consideration in their optimization model, Mahasinghe reminded that a delicate balance must be struck between two conflicting goals. “We need to find the optimal compromise between containing the disease and sustaining the economy. As a developing country, we can’t afford beyond a certain level of the control process, so budgetary constraints must be considered.” It is obvious that COVID-19 is transmitted through human mobility. He pointed out that, consequently, inter-regional travel plays a significant role. “On the other hand, transmission dynamics can be modelled to a certain extent by well-known compartment models. However, human mobility affects the compartments and the relevant model has to be moderated accordingly to reflect that reality.” The optimization model considers all factors, such as medical capacity to deal with the pandemic, economic concerns, transmission dynamics, regional contribution to the economy, and generates a lockdown relaxation strategy that keeps the level of incidence below a desired threshold, while minimizing damage to the economy.

However, Mahasinghe pointed out that this was a prototype and it can be made closer to reality by incorporating more constraints. “For instance, I haven’t considered the fact that most agricultural activities are done in the North Central province. But, if required, that too can be incorporated without difficulty.” According to him epidemiologists and economists can introduce more constraints to the optimization model, and the applied mathematician’s job is to overcome the computational challenges posed by incorporating them.



There is no point in closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted. Months after the lifting of the lockdown are such models even relevant? “The compartment model that captures the transmission of COVID-19 is still applicable, irrespective of any lockdowns, unless it is quite certain that there is absolutely no community transmission. I think we were in such a stage only at the very beginning of the first wave,” said Mahasinghe. According to him, the network-based model that captures human mobility is also applicable irrespective of lockdowns or any other preventive measures. In contrast to these, the optimization model is applicable in its existing form only when lockdowns are in force. “Having said that, this model may still be useful with some changes in the present context where small regions are isolated. For instance, a slightly changed variant of that model can determine which areas should undergo isolation. Moreover, it is possible to modify the optimization model further to be used in the process of making decisions on identifying the persons to be quarantined.”

Human mobility is a critical factor in the spread of a pandemic as well as any models targeted at managing such, how could a mathematical model factor this in? “Not only COVID-19 but even dengue is transmitted mainly due to human mobility. A mosquito doesn’t travel very far during its lifetime. Humans are more responsible for carrying diseases.” Mahasinghe pointed out that COVID-19 is not very different. “If you know the way humans move from place to place, and also know the level of incidence in each place, it is not that difficult to model how the disease is transmitted through humans.” He observed that most preventive measures are also focused on restricting human mobility, which he deemed commendable. “A mathematical model can prescribe the optimal way to restrict mobility.”

What are the implications of mobility? For example are people of certain districts more inclined to travel and therefore may contribute more to the spread of the disease and are such implications reflected in the numbers? “As long as the model is deterministic and you can overcome the computational challenges by necessary algorithm development, closed-form and conclusive solutions can be generated.” Mahasinghe implied that math helps to see the big picture. “Consequences of travel from the Western to other provinces is obvious. However, considering the transport network, Southern and North Western Provinces are also at high risk.” He observed that less attention has been paid to those regions. This begs the question, are the Southern and North Western provinces a time bomb waiting to go kaboom? He reiterated that special attention must be paid to regions that are relatively less danger, such as North Central, which contributes significantly to economic growth, as the Western province is not capable of contributing to the economy in its full capacity. “It is important to keep the incidence at a low level in such places.”

The study predicted that easing lockdown in the Western Province would have adverse repercussions. “As long as vehicles cross inter-provincial barriers, the disease is transmitted to those regions. But in what magnitude? We had access to certain transport data, so we knew to a certain extent how people would mobilise within the country. Also the epidemiological data were available. So we had enough inputs to be fed into our algorithm.” The results were appalling. In fact, this computer experimentation was done in the early days when Sri Lanka was hit by the first wave and there were no strict measures to curtail inter-provincial mobility. During the days in question, Mahasinghe ranked the provinces according to their vulnerability to COVID-19, using another model, by adopting some ideas from network theory. Recently, upon perusing a map that indicated the countrywide spread of the disease Mahasinghe came to realize that the ranking has been validated, eventually. “What I don’t understand is why we failed to foresee this.”

Mahasinghe and his team had access to certain transport data, such as the number of buses, trains and bus routes. However, his models were prototypes. To make the prediction more accurate they would need current transport data, such as the number of private vehicles crossing provincial borders. “There are a number of police barriers between borders, so a vehicle count would not be impossible. If health planners are willing to use that type of model, these could be extremely valuable datasets.”


Quantifying the qualitative

In their model they quantify the degree of social distancing. But can criteria so human in nature be quantified? Moreover, how can something as complex as a pandemic, with so many variables, human in nature, be simplified into ones and zeroes? Mahasinghe maintained that it is possible to estimate the degree of social distancing observed, if provided with sufficient data. “I understand that it sounds quite unrealistic. It is because we think of individuals.” Mahasinghe emphasised the importance of noting that they are not modelling an individual, but rather a population. “Though a population consists of individuals, the dynamics of the population is not merely the sum of the dynamics of an individual. When you single out a person, the behaviour of that person is surely very uncertain and unpredictable. Take two persons, they may have certain things in common, so it is not that unpredictable. If you take a thousand people, a lot of commonalities can be extracted and the situation becomes predictable now.” He explained that, therefore, it is possible to assign a value to the degree of distancing with the aid of necessary data.

“Interestingly, it is true that we mathematicians seek certainty in an uncertain world. However, an event that looks uncertain from one point of view looks certain from another.” The toss of a coin is a simple example. “If you toss a coin, the outcome of it being head or tail is widely believed to be uncertain. However, it is the lack of data that makes it uncertain. Suppose the initial speed, the weight, the angle of projection and such were provided, then the outcome may be predictable by basic equations of motion.” Mahasinghe emphasised that math does not guarantee elimination of uncertainty. “That is definitely not the direction the mathematical sciences are moving, specially with the recent developments in quantum physics and unconventional computing. However, where macroscopic events like pandemics or human behaviour are concerned, there are many certainties that we misinterpret under the cover of uncertainty due to our lack of knowledge, eventually missing an opportunity to gain crucial insights into the scenario.”

Mahasinghe pointed out that many decisions are binary in nature. Let alone policy decisions, many behavioural decisions are inherently binary. “For instance, you may decide whether to wear a mask or not. So the one-zero nature of the action is inherent and not artificially imposed by a mathematician.” He further explained that some non-binary decisions can still be quantified. “For instance, if you decide to wear the mask on three days and go unmasked on four days of the week, it can be quantified using numbers and interpreted using probability.” Mahasinghe elaborated that, with recent developments in non deterministic models, applied mathematicians do not hesitate to incorporate uncertainty. “Consequently, uncertainty is no longer immeasurable. It is possible to confine uncertainty of the solution within reasonable limits.


What next

With all the talk on vaccination, Mahasinghe emphasised the importance of developing two mathematical models prior to vaccination. The first is a compartment model that explains the post-vaccination dynamics of the disease. “This is pretty standard in mathematical epidemiology. The second, developing a model to capture the effects of the interactions between individuals and predict the outcomes, is subtler and challenging.” He explained that once a phase of vaccination is over, persons in society can be divided into two categories: vaccinated and unvaccinated. “Take a random encounter between two persons. What type of interaction would it be? Is it a vaccinated encountering another vaccinated, an unvaccinated encountering another unvaccinated or a vaccinated encountering an unvaccinated? Obviously, the consequences of these encounters are essentially different.”

The discipline of mathematics referred to as game theory is a promising tool in modelling this type of scenario and forecasting the outcomes. In addition, once vaccination commences, there will be the issue of free riding. Due to different reasons, some people in the high risk category will also choose to remain unvaccinated, eventually resulting in a significant number of potential free riders. Mahasinghe explained that this has already been addressed in the game theory in particular, under evolutionary games. “As a nation we can’t be content with an elementary formula for herd immunity. Instead, we need to develop and upgrade elegant vaccination strategies using compartment models and game theory.” Mahasinghe is of the view that, in this pre-vaccination phase, these two are the immediate concerns that need to be addressed by applied mathematicians.



When asked what are the drawbacks of not using a mathematical model are and the benefits of using one, Mahasinghe pointed out that in a scenario of conflicting goals and monetary restrictions, it is impossible to make decisions without seeing where the optimal compromise is. “It is easy to put the blame on politicians and other policy makers for not making the right decisions, but how can a human make an optimal decision in this entangled web of parameters, conflicting goals and constraints? Plainly speaking, we need computers to generate the best decisions for us.” That’s indeed what the computers are intended to do primarily, according to Mahasinghe, although they are more frequently used to watch YouTube videos and log into Facebook!

But to perform the intended task using a computer, models and algorithms that can be read by the computer must be created. “That’s why you need to look into optimization, mathematical programming, computational modelling and game theory. This way, you may be able to keep the numbers within certain limits. Also, you can pre-assess a decision quantitatively. Our health workers and armed forces have already committed much and continue to do so and to receive the full benefit of their commitments, the willingness to switch from qualitative to quantitative methods, is essential.

When asked if such models are used successfully in other countries to counter the pandemic, Mahasinghe answered in the affirmative. Since the very beginning, an extensive mathematical modelling process has been done and that’s how the predictions were made. In fact, vaccination models had long been applied to control epidemics even in African countries. In Sri Lanka, there are many misconceptions about mathematical models.” Mahasinghe has observed certain non-mathematicians presenting elementary regressions, numerical approximations and statistical tests, erroneously referring to them as mathematical models.

“Perhaps that’s why some policy makers have lost faith in math. As mentioned earlier, a mathematical model is based on an unfalsifiable conservation law. It cannot be compared to a trivial curve fitting cakewalk. Our people get easily carried away by exotic words. People tend to admire words like machine learning, artificial intelligence and such, but how many are aware of the maths behind these words?” He observed that a closer examination of news reports on machine learning or AI being used in some country to counter the pandemic, would reveal that they are mathematical models and machine learning techniques are used due to the toughness of generating a closed-form solution. “Even to apply computational heuristics, the problem has to be formulated mathematically. Correct problem formulation is a major component of a so-called AI-powered decision.

Mahasinghe explained that the subject of operations research emerged in the new industrial era to enable industrial decision making using computers, as the number of industrial parameters exceeded human ability to process. “The pandemic has now reached this level so that no human can make an optimal decision without the aid of a computer. Therefore, we need to start working on quantitative models to identify optimal decisions, instead of pointing fingers for not making proper decisions, when decision making is literally beyond the capacity of a human.”


Love-hate relationship between airline management and pilot unions



by Capt. G.A. Fernando
RCyAF/ SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, Singapore Airlines, SriLankan Airlines
Former Crew Resource Management (CRM) Facilitator for SIA.
Member Air Accident Investigator Pool

Airline pilots are at the operating end of all decisions, be they policy or practice-related, made by managers of an airline’s various departments. From the ‘pointy’ end of an aircraft, only pilots see the performance of their airline at its best or worst. Furthermore, they see how other airlines solve problems under similar circumstances, and are able to observe those carriers’ ‘best practices’ at work.

Ideally, feedback from pilots to management must be an essential requisite for an airline’s progress, while balancing safety, schedule fidelity, and profitability. That is ‘Productivity with Protection’, as declared by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Now there is also emphasis on Security.

Yet many pilots in this country say that they are treated like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed ‘bovine excreta’. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to improve this loss of communication. Administration should be by participation; not by suppression.


Culture is glibly explained as “the way we do things around here”. Every organisation has its own culture. Naturally, this applies to SriLankan Airlines, too. Over the past 44 years, through its earlier Air Lanka incarnation too, SriLankan has evolved into and ‘grown’ its own unique organisational culture.

According to the ICAO Safety Management Manual, organisational culture has the potential to affect the following:

a)     Interactions between senior and junior members of a group

b)    Interactions between industry and regulatory authority personnel

c)     The degree to which information is shared internally and with the regulatory authorities

d)    The prevalence of teamwork in the regulatory authority or industry organisation

e)     Reactions of personnel under demanding operational conditions

f)      The acceptance and utilisation of particular technologies

g)      The tendency to take punitive measures in reaction to operational errors within a product or service provider or by the regulatory authorities.

Organisational culture is also affected by factors such as:

a)     Business policies and procedures

b)    Supervisory behaviour and practices

c)     Safety improvement goals as well as minimum tolerance levels of management’s attitude toward quality or safety issues

d)    Employee training and motivation

e)     The relationship between the regulatory authorities and product and service providers

f)      Policies on work/life balance

As can be seen, these factors cover all aspects of airline pilots’ working lives. This ICAO document goes on to state further that the method in which administration deals with day-to-day safety issues is also central to improving organisational culture. Collective interaction between front-line personnel and their colleagues in matters of safety and quality, as well as with agents of the regulatory authority, is indicative of a positive managerial culture. This relationship should be characterised by professional courtesy, while maintaining respective roles as necessary to ensure impartiality or accountability.

This statement from the same manual sums it up succinctly: “A healthy safety culture relies on a high degree of trust and respect between personnel and management and must therefore be created and supported at the senior management level.”


Unfortunately, in reality there is a widespread feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’, especially when times are hard and the ‘going gets tough’. When debt-servicing is high and eats into operational profit, the management (at higher and lower levels) chooses not to listen to those operatives in the front line, who have been working ‘red-eyed’ for many hours, to the best of their ability at day and night, in good weather and bad, and have ‘seen it all’.

It cannot be overemphasised that, where airline pilots are concerned, one small mistake, of either omission or commission, could mean a major catastrophe for which they would be held accountable by management who themselves have lost millions for the airline through bad decisions, yet remain exempt from retribution. This results in animosity and mistrust between the airborne and the chair-borne, the latter being those who work, arguably, 9-to-5 hours while wallowing in the belief that they are the prime movers-and-shakers of the aviation world in the eyes of the general public.

The Ceylon (Hatton)-born ‘father’ of Human Factors in Aircraft Accidents, Capt. David Beaty, said that when there is an accident or a serious incident, “Management is part of the establishment. Even small bits of establishment stick together, and there is a political and economic necessity not to rock the boat, nor lower the management status in their own eyes and those of other people.”

Managements will blame the pilots as it is more convenient, and will be relatively litigation-free and, most of all, self-satisfying (Prof. James Reason; former Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester). This is exactly why air safety experts are worried about ‘signs of the times’. After an accident or incident, the investigator has to rely on the help of the pilots involved to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the event. If pilots are now deemed to be legally liable, they are unlikely to provide the investigator with a full and accurate account of events. As someone put it, it is a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t scenario.”

The Pilots’ Association in Sri Lanka has already put up its defences. They recommend to their membership to declare, after an accident or incident: “Before making a report or statement of any kind, I wish to exercise my right to consult with my Association representative and/or attorney”. (This instruction is printed on the back of the ALPGSL Membership Card.)

An airline pilot, manager, or worker?

Gerrard, the holder of Flight Engineer Licence No. 1 in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), also held the managerial post of Chief Flight Engineer while he was President of the Flight Engineers’ Association. He always insisted that as the aims and objectives of both organisations are, or should be, the same, it was possible to serve them equitably. In fact, when the Ceylon Air Line Pilots’ Association (CALPA) was formed in 1954, Capt. Peter Fernando, the Manager-Operations of Air Ceylon, was elected as its President.

Subsequently, though, it didn’t seem practical as there could be, and were, conflicts of interest. So, is an airline pilot a manager or a ‘worker’? It seemed that they were neither fish nor fowl, in a category of their own. At any given point in time a large portion of company assets are under their charge. Although earning high salaries, they still have to resort to trade union activity, for their voices to be heard. The sad truth is that all over the world the management types seem to hate arrogant confidence (guts?) exhibited by airline pilots, who are consequently and frequently labelled ‘trouble makers’. Often, management and pilots are working on two different ‘frequencies’. When a pilot is ‘loaned’ to management he ceases to be an active member of the Pilots’ Guild until his managerial tenure is over. Only then could he re-join the ‘EXCO’ (executive committee) after a prescribed cooling-off period.

Those brave pilots who go on to serve in operations management are in the minority of the cohort of other managers, and are usually out-voted at management meetings. Later, they are expected to ‘translate’ top management decisions into ‘pilot-speak’ so as to obtain commitment from their flying colleagues.

A possible solution

A possible solution to the problem is a process of continuous feedback directly from the front line to higher management through the Airline Pilots’ Guild, thus completing the ‘loop’. Higher management should attempt to ‘change frequencies and listen without bias to “the unknown, unheralded airline pilots who fly without incident or accident, making decisions, stopping potential disasters before they happened, flying all night to see through scratchy, tired eyes; fighting bad weather in all seasons from ice to thunderstorms; away from home and family for at least half of every month. You see him, and now her, walking through the airline terminals wheeling their black brain bags and overnight cases, unnoticed except for their uniform.” (Capt. Robert N. Buck; former Chief Pilot of TWA)

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Full implementation of 13A: Final solution to ‘national problem’ or end of unitary state? – Part V



Thimphu Talks

By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Executive Director, Lawyers for Human Rights and Development

(Part IV of this article appeared in The Island of 29 Sept., 2023)

Present Provincial Council System and 13th Amendment – Solutions forcibly imposed on Sri Lanka by India

The Indo-Lanka Accord signed on July 29, 1987 is not an accord voluntarily entered into between two independent States of their own free will, after mutual discussion and understanding. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987 are also not documents drafted and enacted by the government of Sri Lanka of its own free will to give effect to the understanding and agreements reached between the Govt. of Sri Lanka and the Tamil political parties and militant groups following discussions that went on for years.

When talking of Indian pressure brought on Sri Lanka to sign the Indo-Lanka Accord and bring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and set up Provincial Councils, the general impression is that it refers to the Indian threat of invading our air space and dropping dhal by air on the North East of Sri Lanka.

However, when one goes through the negotiation process between the high officials of the Indian government and Sri Lanka, as mentioned in the President Jayewardene’s address to Parliament, and the documents cited in the Judgement of the 13th Amendment case, it appears that the Indian government brought pressure and compelled the government of Sri Lanka to move away from the consistent stand taken by Sri Lanka all along and to accommodate certain unacceptable demands of Tamil political parties by incorporating them into some of the provisions in these documents.

As stated by President J. R. Jayewardene in his address to Parliament on February 20, 1986:

‘‘At the Thimphu discussions, on August 27, 1985, when Dr. H. W. Jayewardene, the leader of the SL delegation refused to accept or discuss the ‘Four Cardinal Principles’ raised by the six Tamil groups, and indicated areas on which discussion and agreement possible, the TULF together with the other groups walked out of the conference and refused to participate in the discussion.

The Four Cardinal Principles were as follows:

a. Recognition of the Tamils as a distinct nationality; b. a separate home land; c. self-determination for the Tamils; and d. the linkage of the Northern and Eastern Provinces,

‘‘Thereafter, Dr. Jayewardene left for New Delhi to meet the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and discussion resumed with Indian officials and drafted the Terms of Accord and Understandings, initiated by Dr. Jayewardene and the Deputy Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs of India, Ranjan Mathai. Then Dr. Jayewardene met the Indian PM and informed him of the decision reached. On 31. 08. 1985, the Ministry of External Affairs of India issued a press release on their meeting. Dr. Jayewardene had a detailed and constructive discussion with the Foreign Secretary Mr. Romesh Bhandari. A comprehensive paper was drawn up covering all issues of importance and relevance. This detailed draft could serve as the basis for negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.

‘‘On the return of the delegation to Sri Lanka, it was found necessary to amplify some of the matters in the Draft Accord. Three members of the Sri Lankan delegation had discussions with senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs of India in New Delhi from 10 to 13 Sept. At the conclusion of these talks, the Ministry of External Affairs of India issued a press release: ‘The SL delegation gave some amplification of certain issues which figured in the paper drawn up earlier in New Delhi. They also provided some facts and figures about how some of the proposals contained in the Paper would work in practice. It will be recalled that the Paper drawn up during Dr. Jayewardene’s visit is to serve as a basis for further negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.’

‘‘The SL delegation returned to Sri Lanka with the full expectation that future discussions with a view to arriving at a solution would be on the basis of the Terms of Accord and Understanding.

‘‘The Accord reached in Thimphu and New Delhi were to be the basis of any future discussions. Such discussion would not reopen the Four Principles mentioned in any form whatsoever. This was the understanding of both the Govts of India and SL.

‘‘The Terms of Accord and Understanding were to be forwarded to the representatives of Tamil groups by the Indian Govt. But all the efforts of the SL delegation and the representatives of the Indian Govt. proved of no avail as these groups did not make any response to reach a settlement.

‘‘More than three months later, on 1st December 1985 the TULF submitted some proposals to Rajiv Gandhi. But they were by no means an attempt to discuss the draft Terms of Accord and Understanding. TULF proposals were diametrically contrary to the draft Terms of Accord and Understanding. Govt. observations on TULF proposals was dispatched to New Delhi on January 30, 1986.’’

H. W. Jayewardene

President Jayewardene’s Address to Parliament, made on February 20, 1986, mentioned only what had happened up to the end of January 1986. Justice Wanasundara’s Judgement in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution Case (1987/2 SLLR Pp. 333 – 383) mentions several things that happened after that date in this process.

The following passages are taken from the said judgement:

‘‘As early as September 1985 the mechanism of Provincial Councils had been proposed. In the Draft Framework of Terms of Accord and Understanding of 30.08.85, it was stated that –

‘ 5. A Bill for the amendment of the Constitution to enable the creation of Provincial Councils and the devolution of powers on them shall be enacted by Parliament by a 2/3 majority. Thereafter Parliament will pass an Act directly conferring on the Provincial Councils the requisite legislative powers. Such power shall not be revoked or altered in any manner except by an Act of Parliament passed by a two-thirds majority after consultation with the Provincial Council or the Councils concerned.’

‘‘The next development was further talks held between the Sri Lankan Government and an Indian delegation, led by Hon. P Chidambaram, Minister of State, in July 1986. Based on those talks a detailed Note containing observations on the proposals of the Sri Lanka Government as the Framework was sent to the Indian Government. The following three paragraphs of the Note are relevant for the purpose of this determination:

1. A Provincial Council shall be established in each Province. Law-making and Executive (including Financial) powers shall be devolved upon the Provincial Councils by suitable constitutional amendments, without resort to a referendum. After further discussions subjects broadly corresponding to the proposals contained in Annexe 1 to the Draft Framework of Accord and Undertaking of 30.08.85, and the entries in List ll and List III of the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution shall be devolved upon Provincial Councils.

2. In the Northern Province and in the Eastern Province the Provincial Councils shall be deemed to be constituted immediately after the constitutional amendments come into force….

7. Any amendments to the constitutional provisions or any other laws providing for devolution of legislative and executive (including financial) powers shall require a 2/3 majority as provided in the present Constitution. Any further safeguards for example a further requirement of a referendum may also be discussed.”

‘‘In a preamble to this Note it was agreed that suitable constitutional and legal arrangements would be made for those two Provinces to act in coordination. In consequence of these talks a constitutional amendment took shape and form and three lists – (1) The Reserved List (List II); (2) The Provincial List (List I); and (3) The Concurrent List (List Ill) too were formulated.

‘‘The next stage of the discussions were the Bangalore discussions between our President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in November 1986. The Agreement between them recognised that the “Northern and Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples who have at all times hitherto lived together in the territory with other ethnic groups.’’ According to these discussions Sri Lanka agreed that these two Provinces should form one administrative unit for an interim period and that its continuance should depend on a Referendum and it was also agreed that the Governor shall have the same powers as the Governor of a State in India.

It was also proposed to the Sri Lanka government that the Governor should only act on the advice of the Board of Ministers and should explore the possibility of further curtailing the Governor’s discretionary powers. The Indian side also proposed that provision be made on the lines of Article 249 of the Indian Constitution on the question of Parliament’s power to legislate on matters in the Provincial list and, likewise, that Article 254 of the Indian Constitution be adopted in regard to the Provincial Council’s power to make a law before or after a parliamentary law in respect of a matter in the Concurrent List. The Sri Lanka Government’s observations on the Working Paper on Bangalore Discussion dated 26th November 1986 show that the suggestions made by the Indian Government were substantially adopted.

‘’ On the 29th July, 1987, an Accord was signed by our President J. R. Jayewardene and the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Colombo. The First part of this Accord reaffirmed what was agreed at Bangalore that the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lanka Tamil Speaking people who at all times hitherto lived together in the territory with other ethnic groups. It also provided for these two Provinces to form one administrative unit for an interim period and for elections to the Provincial Council to be held before 31st December 1987.

The Second Part was the Annexure to the Agreement. It provided, inter alia, for a Indian Peace Keeping Contingent and for Indian observers at the Provincial Council Elections and a Referendum to be held in the Eastern Province to determine whether the Northern and Eastern Provinces should continue as one administrative unit. The legislation now tabled in Parliament is in terms of this Accord. Of course, an attempt is now being made to take shelter under Article 27 (4).’’ (13th Amendment case Judgement – Pp. 369 – P. 371)

When the material placed above relating to the negotiations between Sri Lanka and India for bringing about a solution to the Tamil ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is analysed, it becomes clear that India took the Sri Lankan government for a ride, compelling the latter to abandon its principled stand of rejecting the Cardinal Principles raised by the terrorists and the TULF at the Thimphu Talks, to accept a solution imposed by New Delhi and to accede to some of these unacceptable demands of Tamil political parties by incorporating them into the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment.

On 31. 08. 1985, the Ministry of External Affairs of India issued a Press Release on their meeting. Dr. Jayewardene had a detailed and constructive discussion with the Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari. A comprehensive paper has been drawn up covering all issues of importance and relevance. This detailed draft could serve as the basis for negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.

The Paper drawn up during Dr. Jayewardene’s visit is to serve as a basis for further negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.’’

The Sri Lankan delegation returned to Sri Lanka with the full expectation that future discussions with a view to arriving at a solution would be on the basis of the Terms of Accord and Understanding.

The Accord reached in Thimphu and New Delhi were to be the basis of any future discussions. Such discussion would not reopen the Four Principles mentioned in any form whatsoever. This was the understanding of both the Govts of India and SL.

Then what happened?

Three months later, on 01 December 1985, the TULF submitted some proposals, not to the government of Sri Lanka, but to Rajiv Gandhi. The TULF proposals were diametrically opposed to the draft terms of accord and understanding. The Sri Lankan government’s observations on the TULF proposals were dispatched to New Delhi on 30 Jan., 1986.

(To be continued)

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Biden and Trump vie for American Workers, Canada and India spar over Sikhs



President Biden on a Picket Line

by Rajan Philips

After burdening this column by writing serially on political reforms, I was looking for a break from, yes, the Constitution. The Canada-India spat over Sikhs seemed a good topic for a thousand words, especially after the long distance lecture by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister to the government of Canada. The most that the lecture managed to accomplish was to make a splash across the Palk Strait in Chennai. Then came the breaking news of US President Joe Biden joining the striking auto-workers on their picket line in Detroit, Michigan. That is quite historic, not only for an American President but also for a head of state anywhere, including China.

It is also a very therapeutic topic to write about, inasmuch as in the world of politics it is usually one step forward and at least two of them backward. You grasp and make the most of whatever foot that progressively steps forward. On the other hand, it may not be therapeutic to write about President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s politics, but it is a Sunday hazard that some of us have grown addicted to. Mr. Wickremesinghe has of late been morphing into a flying president. Let us spare him this week while taking a break from the constitution.

Strike Solidarity

On Tuesday, September 26, President Joe Biden did something that no US President before him has done or would have thought of doing. He may have also set a precedent that future presidents will likely be forced to follow. Biden flew from Washington to Detroit and joined the striking United Auto Workers (UAW) union members who were on a picket line outside a General Motors’ Redistribution Centre in Wayne County, Michigan. Donning a UAW blue hat, the President mounted a wooden platform and used a bull horn to tell the workers, “You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now. Then his middle class theme: “The unions built the middle class. That’s a fact. Let’s keep going.”

Not quite the socialist message, but a message you will hardly hear from another Head of State anywhere in the world today. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the Democratic Congresswoman from New York and the pretty face of millennial socialism, would be pleased. She once remarked, as we were reminded recently in this paper, that she and Joe Biden will not be in the same party in any other country. In many other countries she could be in jail.

But that is America and where Ms. Cotez is assured of a virtual lifetime Congressional seat in a progressive borough, in the heart of New York City. It will not be easy to move up the American political ladder – as Senator, State Governor, or even US President, based solely on progressive politics and hard work. The US political system is stacked against people like AOC by the weight given to America’s insular hinterland in the Senate and in the Electoral College.

Reactionary and systemic stacking against progressives, let alone socialists, is not unique to America. That has been present from the beginning of representative democracy in any country and every country. And attempts at violently overthrowing representative democracy have produced cures that are worse than the ailments.

Yet Ms. Cotez, and her gallant Squad in Congress (that began with four women of colour in 2018 and has now grown to eight including two men) can make a world of difference for many Americans from where they are today. One of AOC’s main initiatives has been promoting the Green New Deal plan for fighting climate change along with fighting economic and racial injustice.

Although President Biden did not endorse the Green New Deal, he had no qualms in borrowing ideas from it for his own Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice. His signature legislative achievement is the euphemistically named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes specific measures for combating climate change. One of the key measures is at the core of the current labour dispute in the auto industry, and that is the shift from gasoline-driven cars to electric vehicles (EVs).

The Biden Plan goal is to make half of all new vehicles sold in America to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. That means greater production of EVs by auto makers, along with government commitment to providing federal funding and tax incentives, and installing 500,000 chargers to make EVs accessible nationwide. More so in rural America, the bastion of the political right, where 20% of Americans live and account for 70% of road miles of national travel. Just like the political lopsidedness. Now to the strike dynamic.

America’s big three in automakers (GM, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler) are laggers in EV manufacturing. They lag behind Tesla, BYD Auto and the Volkswagen Group, the three global leaders, by quite a distance. As they plan to repurpose their production base to increase EV production, the big three face competition from foreign automakers who are also eligible for the IRA tax incentives so long as their factories are in the US, Canada or Mexico. Some of them, mostly Japanese firms, already have their bases in one or more of the three free-trade countries. Also, unlike the big three, the foreign firms and the EV manufacturers like Tesla do not have unionized workers.

The top three are insistent that they cannot afford to pay the current union demands for wage increases and benefits, given the level of investments required for transitioning to EV; nor can they be competitive with automakers without unionized workforce. On the other hand, the union claims are based on the sacrifices workers made during the 2007-2008 financial crisis in order to keep the automakers solvent and in business.

The workers now want restoration of overtime work and retirement benefits, ending of wage differences between contract and permanent workers, as well as protection against potential labour retrenchment as part of EV production. The huge profits that the auto companies made during the Covid pandemic and the inflated salaries and bonuses that flowed to company CEOs, are not lost on the unions and the workers. Nor are they unaware of the huge financial support and tax benefits the US government is giving the automakers to switch from gasoline to electric vehicles.

In the backdrop to the labour dispute, there are both political interests as well as technological implications. On the latter, industry observers are opining that the transition from gasoline to electric vehicles involves “the biggest technological transformation since Henry Ford’s moving assembly line started up at the beginning of the 20th century.” And the workers and their unions are determined not to get shortchanged a second time as they were at the last technological changeover, not to mention the start of the industrial revolution itself. However, there is a major difference between the age of Ford and the present time, and it is that the economy now is highly diversified and is not ‘over-determined’ by a single industry.

And then there is politics, with the presidential election coming up next year. Regardless of the Republican primary clown show and Democratic party doubters, President Biden and Donald Trump would seem to have decided that they are the de facto candidates and that it is time to start the real campaign. After President Biden’s visit to the picket line of striking union workers, Donald Trump visited Drake Enterprises, a non-union auto parts supplier in Clint Township, Michigan. Trump’s pitch is of course diametrically the opposite. He wants union workers to peel away from their leaders and vote for him because he will save their jobs by removing the requirement for shifting from gasoline to electric vehicles.

The trouble with that reactionary approach is that Mr. Trump will not find any takers for it from any of the main automakers. But Trump being Trump, he is not interested in the fallout for the auto industry or the American economy, let alone climate change. He is only interested in using any slogan to win back the workers who voted for him in 2016 in the three battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won all three of them in 2016 and lost them all to Biden in 2020. And Joe Biden will do everything to keep those states on his side of the tally. Including, joining a picket line.

Canada stuck between China and India

From the auto industry and presidential politics in the US, it is quite a stretch to comment on the recent spat between Canada and India over Sikhs and their politics in the two countries. But in the ‘globalized world’, everything is interconnected, hierarchically and horizontally. It is the global interconnections that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt may seem to have captured in conceptualizing the current global order by counterposing the new global Empire (of superpowers – past, present and wannabe) and its anthesis, the new global Multitude.

One of the empirical processes driving the global multitude is the movement of people across nation-state boundaries. In this process, China and India are giant exporters of the multitude and Canada is literally caught up between them as one of the main recipients of global migrants. And the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that has more immigrant ministers than any other government in the world has become the object of derision and vilification both by India and China, as well as its domestic detractors.

For the greater part of this year the Trudeau government has been facing relentless criticism from opposition parties and the media for its alleged failure to deal with Chinese interference in Canadian elections and intimidations of Chinese Canadians who are opposed to the Chinese government and its representatives in Hong Kong. The criticisms became personal and right wing attacks targeted the Trudeau family as having a soft spot for China, even harking back to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s historic 1973 visit to China as a breakout leader from the western world.

The critics conveniently forgot that for nearly three years (December 1, 2018, to September 4, 2021) the Trudeau government was delicately pre-occupied with getting the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig (the two Michaels), two Canadian citizens who were arbitrarily jailed in China, in retaliation to the detention of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the founder of the Chinese tech giant Huawei and its Chief Financial Officer.

Historic Handshake – 1973

Her detention, while travelling through Canada, was in response to a US extradition request for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran. All three were finally released following a tripartite understanding between the US, China and Canada.

There was a chorus of calls for an independent public inquiry into Chinese interference. After months of back and forth, the government and the opposition have agreed on the launching of a Public Inquiry into “Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions.” The inquiry will be led by an Appeal Court Judge from the Province of Quebec, and will cover not only China but also Russia and other countries with alleged interferences.

Just when the hullabaloo over Chinese interference seemed to be quietening down, Prime Minister Trudeau dropped a bombshell in a statement to parliament on September 19, that there were “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the killing of 45 year old Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June, near Vancouver. Mr. Nijjar was born in India and fled to Canada in 1995 as a teenage refugee allegedly to escape a government crackdown on Sikh activists in Punjab.

He worked as a plumber and was a community leader. In 2019 he became the leader of the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, Vancouver. He advocated Sikh separatism through non-violent means and was one of the organizers of the Khalistan Referendum campaign. He was killed by masked gunmen outside the Guru Nanak Temple.

The Indian government rejected Trudeau’s allegation as absurd and accused the Canadian government of not heeding India’s concerns over Sikh separatist activities in Canada. There have also been questions about Mr. Trudeau’s decision to make an open statement when he was not in a position share detailed information in public.

Apparently, he was forced to go public with his allegation to pre-empt media outlets that were set to publish the story based on their own investigations. It is also known that Mr. Trudeau raised this matter with Prime Minister Modi during the G 20 Summit in New Delhi and asked for the Indian Government’s co-operation in investigating the killing.

Prior to that, Canadian intelligence and security officials have visited India multiple times for discussions with their Indian counterparts. The intelligence premise for Canada’s allegations came through the interception of communications between New Delhi and the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, reportedly by the old Five Eyes (comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) intelligence network. Canada’s concerns were and are shared by its traditional allies. It is also reported that in the face-to-face meetings between Canadian and Indian officials, Canada’s allegations were not formally denied, in contrast to the vigorous rejections in India’s public statements.

After his explosive statement in Parliament, Prime Minister Trudeau has appeared to be trying to calm diplomatic waters by insisting that Canada is “not looking to provoke or escalate.” He has gone on to say, “We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them and we want to work with the government of India to lay everything clear and to ensure there are proper processes.” Further, “India and the government of India needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness.” Similar diplomatic overtures are said to have emanated from the Indian side. After the initial furor, there seems to realization on both sides to let quiet diplomacy take its course.

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