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Using maths to combat COVID-19

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‘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.

 

Criteria

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.

 

Relevant?

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.

 

Benefits

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.”



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Who does Sri Lanka’s fuel subsidy really benefit? 

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by Prof. Amal Kumarage

In a recent article, parliamentary MP and former VP of CitiBank, Eran Wickremaratne said Sri Lanka’s policies are skewed towards the rich and not the poor of the country.  He was referring to fuel subsidies where the government pays the difference between the high global fuel price and the price it is sold at the pump to cushion the people.  But the MP says it is not the man on the street who benefits from this subsidy but the wealthy private vehicle owners with big vehicles that require more fuel.

“As a country, when we choose this subsidy, we are actively choosing to give more money to wealthier families to drive their large vehicles. We are saying that our government would rather support the businessman with a fancy gas-guzzling car in Colombo over the school children in Monaragala who are struggling from a lack of food.”

Pump prices of petrol and diesel in Sri Lanka, even after the increase, are still lower than in most neighbouring countries. It is ranked 50th lowest from 170 countries listed, with almost all those having lower fuel prices than Sri Lanka being oil producing countries. Sri Lanka then becomes a country having the lowest pump prices for a non-oil producing country. It is also lower than the inflation-adjusted price in 2008 when global crude oil prices exceeded $100 per barrel, and the US dollar was only LKR 110. Oil crossed $100 per barrel even in 1981-82 during the Iran-Iraq war when the US dollar was just LKR 20. Sri Lanka has weathered such price hikes before. But what is needed is not just a temporary tiding over in terms of the fuel over-consumption, but a permanent policy that will make fuel use sustainable.

It is becoming more and more clear that the widespread practice of cushioning people from fuel price shocks in the long term, no longer works and it has also come to a point where the country can no more afford it. There is just too much oil consumption and eventually, it is the affluent heavy consumers who benefit from the subsidies.  Incidentally, the cost of kerosene in Sri Lanka is the lowest in the region, sold at a concession of around 60%.  Yet, it is manageable since the consumption is only 206 million litres per year, which is around half the domestic use of LP gas and around 5% of the fuel used for transport.

Therefore, efficiency targets should be given to fuel companies (CPC/LIOC) to reduce operating costs by 20%, equal to Rs 1 per litre of fuel, enabling the savings of Rs 3-4 billion per year.  This should be connected to programs supporting the reduction of fuel consumption in the long term.

Unlike other goods, fuel imports should not be restricted or just rationed as it is necessary for almost every category of economic production. But at the same time, our selling prices should be pegged to market prices with a reasonable tax component introduced.  This will discourage heavy consumption and encourage alternate use.

Most countries build in a tax for fuel that goes to assist in developing public and alternative modes of transport. This should be an important aspect of our long-term fuel policy as improved public transport means more people using it, and this would bring us another step closer to reducing our massive fuel costs. Countries that have implemented this successfully have been able to reduce their fuel consumption without reducing productivity or convenience.  In the current Sri Lankan context, adopting a similar policy will allow more funds to be allocated for goods that are vital for daily living.

While annual car imports keep adding to our fuel bill, another issue is the concessionary permit system provided by the government to certain state officials to import cars with tax benefits. According to statistics, the concessionary permit system is a huge loss annually to the Treasury averaging Rs. 94 billion per annum.  This figure is almost equal to the LKR 97 billion per annum the Treasury gathers from the country’s overall car imports. Furthermore, because of the tax concession, permit holders tend to go for more expensive vehicles in consideration of the resale value and more often than not, these expensive choices are heavy on fuel consumption.

Therefore, policy readjustments such as scrapping the concessionary vehicle permit system, and allowing concessions only for electric vehicles, should be brought in.

(Prof. Amal Kumarage is a transport sector professional with over 35 years of experience in academia, government and consulting. He is a Senior Professor in the Department of Transport & Logistics Management, University of Moratuwa, a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and Founder President of the Sri Lanka Society for Transport & Logistics. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. He completed his PhD at the University of Calgary, Canada.)

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PM hints at full term, opposition in boycott mode, no relief for queuing public

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by Rajan Philips

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made yet another statement in parliament last Wednesday (June 22). Apparently, these are biweekly statements he has committed himself to make “since taking over the reins of this government,” as he put it. With cynical self-deprecation he acknowledged the mockeries directed at him for making too many statements with too little action or results.

Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake have taken the criticism to another level by boycotting parliament until the PM and the government present a plan of action to address the economic crisis. This is the first instance the two leaders have reached common ground in the current parliament. Ironically, their agreement is not over some positive intervention but inexplicable abdication in the face of national suffering.

One appreciates the enormity of the challenge that the Prime Minister and the government are facing and the extremely limited and constantly diminishing assets available to them. People know that supplies are chronically short and they are going to get severely worse. What nobody gets is why cannot the government arrange orderly distributions of limited supplies, and spare the already suffering people the additional trauma of standing in long queues for something they are not going to get in any case.

A case in point is the supply of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. They have been in short supply since February, and nothing has been done to regulate their distribution. Those who have little or nothing, stand and suffer to get nothing much, while those who can afford – send proxies to collect more for the purpose of hoarding and potentially reselling.

The young and confused Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera, has promised to have a quota system in place by July. That is already too late and would be far too little as well. The bigger question is why the PM and the government are not thinking about implementing a system of priorities for procurement and distribution – food, medical supplies, cooking gas, and allocate fuel only to public transport (including three wheelers) and lorries involved in internal food transport. With all the shortages and closures, it makes no sense continuing with fuel supply for private vehicles and transport.

Given that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is leading a cabinet of old worn-outs, the onus is on the Opposition to constantly raise these matters in parliament and force the Prime Minister and government into taking concrete action. Instead, the SJB and the JVP are running away from parliament apparently intending to force the government to come up with a plan. JVP leader Dissanayake who made big splashes in parliament last year and announced that the JVP is ready for national leadership, is now missing in action and missing out on opportunities to demonstrate his and the JVP’s readiness for leadership. Sajith Premadasa has become the occasional Leader of the Opposition. After weeks of silence, he appeared in parliament only to announce his boycott of parliament.

Political opinion is divided, as the Prime Minister himself acknowledges, between those who ridicule his ‘statements,’ and others who welcome his apparent openness and transparency. The problem is that Mr. Wickremesinghe has not been able to dispel the perception that he is still playing his old political games while appearing to provide a new form of leadership. The Prime Minister and the President are not at all working together. This is the same as what it was during the yahapalana administration, according to former President Maithripala Sirisena. There is a huge difference, of course. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were elected to work together, but between them they botched a joint venture that began with much promise. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have come together by mutual consent and out of desperation. It makes no sense for them to work at cross purposes now. It only weakens the administration and adds to public cynicism.

There is no politics without gossip, and the going gossip is that the Prime Minister has been trying to get one of his sidekicks to step in as the new Central Bank Governor when the Governor’s current term expires. That would mean the replacement of Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe, who came out of premature retirement from Australia to head the bank in a state of crisis, by a rank outsider and a new Arjuna Mahendran. Why? Why would Mr. Wickremesinghe repeat the same colossal blunder that ended his legitimate political career? Fortunately for the country, and for himself, he may not be having his way around this time. But it only shows that there is no end to playing political games even when the country’s economy is in flames.

Full Term as PM

The Prime Minister statement last week included a surprising hint that ‘his’ interim government would go on until firm economic recovery is achieved and only then elections will be called. In a pertinent paragraph towards the end of the statement, the Prime Minister shifted his target audience from parliament to the people, and said:

“Once we have established a firm economic foundation you can hand over power to any political party as per your wish at an election and elect 225 suitable representatives to parliament. The responsibility and power to do so lie with you, the citizens of this country. You will be then given the opportunity to reject those you believe were responsible for the predicament Sri Lanka is facing today.  In turn, the new government will be given the mandate to bring those responsible before justice. But all this can only be achieved following the revival of the country.”

“A firm economic foundation” is not going to be established within the next two to three years, which would mean there will likely be no opportunity for an election sooner than when it will be normally due in 2025. That is full term for the current parliament and near-full term for Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The President has already indicated that he will serve out his only term in full. If the Prime Minister wants parliament also to continue for its full term, he must state his intention clearly and categorically to parliament and to the people. It must not be conveyed through hints in a single paragraph in a long statement. Without transparency, there will be no trust.

For instance, the PM cannot be extending his hand for co-operation from the SJB and the JVP for an interim administration of less than a year at most, while seriously thinking of going on for the next three years. Among the people at large the expectation is that the Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will steady the ship of state out of the Rajapaksa chaos, reach agreement with the IMF, implement constitutional reforms as widely understood, and then – in the span of about a year, set the stage for a general election. Beyond Mr. Wickremesinghe’s role, there have also been expectations for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign from office and abolish the system of elected-executive presidency. All of these expectations now seem to be water under the Aragalaya bridge.

President Rajapaksa has announced that he will not resign before his term is over, but he will not contest for a second term. With all the talk about a parliamentary election, the Election Commission has started the process of updating the voter registry and lists. That work is expected to be finalized only in October. So, practically no election till October. In any event, for an election to be called this year, parliament has to pass a resolution for it to be dissolved. This is unlikely given the current dynamic in parliament under the Ranil-Rajapaksa government.

After March 2023, the President will have the power to dissolve parliament and call an election. There has been considerable expectation for an election some time in 2023. That may not happen if what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe suggested in parliament last Wednesday is also shared by the President and their cabinet of Ministers. The Prime Minister may have very good reasons for suggesting that a fundamental economic recovery is necessary before there can be a parliamentary election. But his reasons are not an open book unless he shares them with others. And there is more.

It is the Prime Minister who has been consistently saying that there is not only an economic crisis, but also a political crisis, and that the former cannot be addressed in isolation from the latter. If a full term of parliament is needed to address the economic crisis, what is the implication for the political crisis?

Can the present parliament continue as it is for three more years? Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s 21st Amendment might be acceptable as a stop-gap measure for a limited period, but can it meet all the constitutional reform expectations over a longer period? How will the government handle the next presidential election that will come up before the parliamentary election, if the mode of electing the Head of State is not changed beforehand?

Specific to the executive presidency, how will Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Rajapaksa deal with the question of abolishing the elected-executive presidential system over an extended three year period? The Supreme Court has again stipulated, in its ruling on the SJB’s (ill-advisedly rushed) 21st Amendment Bill, that a referendum will be required to abolish the presidential system or to change the mode of presidential election. This is unfortunate in that the court may not have been sufficiently presented with the benefit of sound legal arguments questioning the appropriateness of extending the referendum requirement to matters that are not specifically included in the referendum provision in the constitution. Prof. Savitri Goonesekere and Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama have both expressed this opinion many times in the public domain, and no less a person than Dr. Colvin R de Silva proffered the same opinion 35 years ago during the forensic debates over the 13th Amendment.

Regardless of the legal position, it would be politically conclusive to decide the future of the executive presidency in a referendum of the people. That is what Prof. Savitri Goonesekere suggested in this newspaper a few weeks ago – to bite the bullet and put the question to the people. But government leaders and the current Minister of Justice do not have the courage for it, and are hiding behind the referendum bogey to keep the presidential system going. The question will become a hot potato for the Prime Minister. It will be over a full term that he seems to be fancying now, and not just in the interim as others understand it.

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A Strategy for the Restoration and Rebuilding the Agri-Food Sector of Sri Lanka

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Submitted to the Government by the members of the Faculties of Agriculture of the State Universities of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has caused immediate uncertainties regarding whether (a) required food supplies are and will be available, (b) the agri-food sector is and will be able to sustain the livelihoods of those engaged in crop, livestock and poultry farming, fishing, food manufacturing, food distribution and allied activities, and (c) the agri-food sector is and will be able to provide food security for those most affected communities by the crisis. As these concerns are particularly pertinent to the agriculture sector, the Faculties of Agriculture of the State Universities of Sri Lanka joined in proposing a plan of action that has been communicated to the President and the Prime Minister through a letter dated June 15, 2022, and signed by the Deans of all Faculties of Agriculture.

The proposal addresses the present crises by identifying immediate actions to address the most pressing needs of the current moment and also identifies actions requiring immediate attention that if unaddressed can exacerbate the crisis in the long-term. The action plan is designed to address the two objectives of ensuring food and nutrition security and of protecting and sustaining livelihoods and employment in the agri-food sector. It focuses on the entire food system considering all economic actors and priority sub-sectors in the agriculture value/supply chains.

The prevailing situation has brought to the forefront serious concerns, especially relating to increases in food prices and shortages in food. Food inflation in Sri Lanka during May 2022 (year-on-year basis) has stood at an all-time high of 57.4%. The recent appeal from the United Nations (UN) to the global community for USD 47 million in humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka to provide lifesaving assistance to 1.7 million people indicates, to some extent, the depth of the crisis. It is estimated that 4.9, 3.5 and 2.4 million people are in need of food security, agriculture and livelihood, and nutrition, respectively (United Nations, 2022). Although national-level data on the depth and breadth of the crisis is unavailable and the situation is still not well understood by many, we note with concern that if the country continues its current trajectory, especially with respect to the food consumption patterns, it will move beyond crisis into a state of emergency and potentially famine (United Nations, 2022).

Within this context, we recognize and acknowledge the short-term measures adopted to-date by the Government of Sri Lanka to support agriculture; for example, import of agrochemicals and seed stock with the support from World Bank and Asian Development Bank, , urea fertilizer with support from the EXIM Bank of India and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and prioritizing seed paddy supply for the Maha season 2022/2023. This, however, neither reflects the broader set of urgent concerns that the sector confronts nor provides solutions to the overarching problems that we face as a country.

The proposal providing A Strategy for the Restoration and Rebuilding the Agri-Food Sector of Sri Lanka, submitted by the members of the Faculties of Agriculture of the State Universities of Sri Lanka includes two sections of activities. The first section is an emergency preparedness plan that specifies a list of actions addressing four broad areas: (1) immediate food security issues of Infants (under five years of age), adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating mothers, and elderly groups. It recommends a screening process for malnourishment, strengthening pre-school and school lunch programmes, the distribution of dry rations and supplements for particularly vulnerable groups, (2) The estate sector and war-affected areas are identified as a second vulnerable population and recommendations include providing essential nutrients, support with growing food sources for carbohydrate requirements, (3) To support low-income groups, food rationing to ensure equitable distribution, improvements in marketing and distribution channels, encouragement and support of community kitchens, and facilitation of access to emergency funds and foods through the support of private actors, NGOS, foreign sources are recommended, and (4) A series of actions to protect industries that are critically important to the nation’s food supplies and foreign exchange, specifically the rice farmers, export agriculture, and poultry industry are identified. These activities must be complemented by awareness, extension, and educational programmes.

The second section of the proposal includes short-, medium- and long-term actions organized by sector (crop and animal production and processing, and cross-cutting) and identifies the relevant government agencies whose attention is sought in implementing each action. The attached figure is a graphical representation of a summary of the proposals. We note that the problems confronted by society today are a result of a lack of a consistent long-term policy and action programs for agriculture, which could have prevented a crisis of this nature from occurring. Such a policy must be developed and must include mechanisms to address future crisis situations by effectively using knowledge, other resources, and institutional structures (state and others). It must use consultative processes in a holistic manner that ensures that a system to address pressing issues, over the long term, in a sustained manner, is developed in which relevant institutions and bodies are represented with nominees identified through proper channels of communication.

We wish to note that the Faculties of Agriculture are committed to address the problems faced by the people of this country and will gladly extend support to any follow up actions of the State in implementing this plan.

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