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What to expect in the short term and long term



Banning the import and use of synthetic chemical fertilizers:

By Darshani Kumaragamage, PhD

I read with interest and concern the conflicting and controversial views expressed by many experts and stakeholders, regarding the Sri Lankan government’s decision to ban the importation of agrochemicals, including synthetic chemical fertilizers. Undoubtedly, some have genuine concerns regarding the negative impacts of synthetic chemical fertilizers on the environment and human health, while others see the potential threat of a food shortage if synthetic fertilizers are totally replaced by organic sources. Any action adopted in a quest to do the “right” thing should be guided by careful analysis of the expected outcomes as well as the unintended consequences, which are often difficult to foresee.

Based on my training and experience in Sri Lanka and in Canada over the last three decades as agriculturist, soil scientist, and environmental scientist, I will attempt to provide a balanced analysis both from an agronomic and environmental point of view. My hope is that these arguments perhaps could shed more light on different thought processes expressed and guide the momentous decisions that are being made.

Organic farming has its benefits and is gaining global popularity. The demand for organically produced food is steadily increasing, particularly in the developed world. Certain aspects of organic farming such as the avoidance of pesticides, have potential benefits in producing food with less negative impacts on the ecosystem health. However, to date, there is no evidence to support that total replacement of synthetic chemical fertilizers with natural organic sources is better for the environment and human health. I am using the term “natural organic fertilizer” in this article, since urea, the most common chemical fertilizer used in Sri Lanka, is also an organic fertilizer, but synthetically produced. While synthetically manufactured urea is not considered an ‘organic’ fertilizer, manure containing naturally produced urea as a metabolic by-product of animals is an approved ‘organic’ fertilizer in organic farming systems.

Chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) and agrochemicals

The alarming rate of chronic kidney disease incidences among farming populations in some regions of Sri Lanka is a grave concern. The decision to ban agrochemicals is undoubtedly taken with the best intention of protecting farming communities against this deadly disease, considering that agrochemicals are the root cause, even though this is yet to be proven. I would like to make three arguments against banning inorganic fertilizer and its replacement with organic sources in relation to CKDu prevention. Firstly, the incidences of CKDu are not from the regions in Sri Lanka where farmers use heavy inputs of inorganic fertilizers such as the Hill Country, which leaves us with an uncertainty whether CKDu is indeed linked to fertilizer. Secondly, even if CKDu is linked to fertilizer, replacing synthetic inorganic fertilizer by natural organic fertilizer will not solve the problem as both these sources have similar impacts on ecosystem and human health. Thirdly, unlike pesticides which are toxic by design (since the intention is to kill an organism), fertilizers are not toxic at recommended rates. Therefore, any environmental or health impacts with fertilizers (inorganic or organic) could be better addressed by importing fertilizers with higher standards (with low impurities), combined with efforts to increase awareness to farmers on the use and management of fertilizers.

Based on current knowledge research findings from Sri Lanka and elsewhere, total reliance on natural organic sources to supply nutrients in crop production systems is likely to cause a serious food shortage with negligible benefits to the environment. Below, I am listing some of the challenges in using natural organic sources, and the major concerns regarding the total replacement of chemical fertilizers with organic sources for mass crop production in Sri Lanka.

Low inherent soil fertility. Despite our unsubstantiated belief that Sri Lanka is blessed with fertile soils, the majority of agricultural soils in Sri Lanka exhibits serious fertility limitations for crop production. This is not unique to Sri Lanka, but common to most tropical countries. The soils are much older (highly weathered) than in temperate regions and high temperature decomposes organic matter rapidly while heavy rainfall removes nutrients from the soil system. Therefore, unlike soils of temperate regions, tropical soils have low organic matter, low supply of nutrients, and low ability to retain nutrients. Even if a shift to complete reliance on natural organic sources for nutrients could be sustainable in temperate soils, it is not a sustainable approach for mass production of crops in the tropics.

Nutrients not available at critical stages. Unlike synthetic chemical fertilizers, nutrients in natural organic sources are in a form not readily available to crops until the material is decomposed, which takes time. When organic material is added to soils, activity of microorganisms increases, resulting microorganisms and crops competing for nutrients that are in limited in supply in tropical soils. This may cause an initial deficiency of nutrients at the early, but very critical, stage of the crop.

Food security at a time of pandemic. It is well established that crop yields are usually reduced when nutrients are provided with only natural organic sources, compared to synthetic sources or a combination of them. The most serious and immediate consequence of shifting to total reliance on natural organic sources for crop production in Sri Lanka would be a significant reduction in crop yields, which will threaten the country’s food security particularly at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has interfered with the international food supply chain. Such a move will also have a devastating effect on livelihoods of vulnerable farmers and will impact foreign exchange earnings through plantation agriculture and horticulture.

Myth of healthier and better-quality food. The belief that foods produced through natural organic sources of nutrients are healthier and are of better quality is a myth. Whether we supply nutrients through synthetic chemical fertilizes or natural organic sources, the crop plants take up nutrients primarily in the same chemical forms, i.e., as inorganic cations and anions. On the other hand, recent studies conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA has shown increasing incidences of disease outbreaks, which the authors linked to Salmonella and E. coli contamination from animal waste used in the production of organically grown food ( ). As such, a cautious and careful assessments of such risks should precede a shift towards 100% organic farming for an entire nation, which is quite a gigantic step.

Bulk quantities required. One of the main challenges in supplying plant nutrients through natural organic sources is the requirement of bulk quantities due to their low nutrient concentrations, which makes it costly and inconvenient to use. While synthetic chemical fertilizers are required in rates no greater than a few hundreds of kilograms per hectare (few bags), natural organic sources are required in a few tons per hectare (truck loads) to meet the crop requirement of nutrients. The economic and environmental cost of long-distance transportation offsets the environmental benefits of organic farming unless the organic material is locally available in adequate quantities.

Pollution of freshwater bodies.

A more serious and long-lasting threat with continuous application of natural organic sources for crop production is the buildup of certain nutrients in soil that eventually ends up in water bodies polluting aquatic environments. Natural organic sources such as animal manure have low nitrogen to phosphorus ratio, and their use to meet the crop nitrogen requirement result in over application of phosphorus to crop lands. This has resulted in P-laden soils polluting surrounding water bodies. Many regions across the world are experiencing algal blooms in freshwater lakes (e.g., Great Lakes in North America, Lake Winnipeg in Canada), with phosphorus from intensive agricultural lands contributing to aggravate the problem. Therefore, regulations for restricting manure applications exist in several provinces and states across North America as well as other parts of the world.

Potentially toxic metals. Potentially toxic metals present in some inorganic fertilizers as impurities (e.g., cadmium in triple superphosphate), poses a threat to human health through polluting drinking water or contamination of food sources, particularly when low quality fertilizers are used. These potentially toxic metals are naturally present in rocks and soils and can remain in the fertilizer after processing of rocks (e.g., rock phosphate), used as raw material. Natural organic sources also contain appreciable quantities of potentially toxic trace elements. Accumulation of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel, selenium, and lead in agricultural soils have been well documented with the application of manure and manure-based composts, which can lead to phytotoxicity and a threat to human health. In this regard, a total shift to natural organic fertilisers could make the situation worse.

My intention is not to undermine the benefits of organic farming, but to caution that more needs to be considered before taking such a huge step as banning all agrochemicals for the entire country. Research findings have shown that the potential environmental and human health threats through the nutrient inputs in agriculture exist even with organic sources. It should also be noted that the early arguments for excluding inorganic chemical fertilizers in the organic farming movement are now being debated by scientists. A concluding statement in a recent review by an eminent Swedish Professor in plant nutrition and soil fertility published in Outlook for Agriculture reiterates that “The decision to ban inorganic fertilizers in organic farming is inconsistent with our current scientific understanding.” ( ).

What then is the best approach?

Integrating synthetic and natural sources – middle path?

The best approach in my view is to continue taking the middle path avoiding the two extremes. Thanks to the many years of excellent research conducted by scientists at the Department of Agriculture and various Research Institutes in Sri Lanka for various crops in different parts of the country, most of the current fertilizer recommendations takes an integrated approach (or the middle path) combining inorganic fertilizer with organic sources that are locally available. The benefits of adding organic sources to soil is unquestionable; not only do they improve soil properties and soil health but sequester carbon and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in combating climate change. Combining synthetic inorganic fertilizers with natural organic sources provides the flexibility of adjusting the rates as required to supply nutrients in sufficient quantities while improving the soil organic matter and soil health, thus ensuring greater productivity while protecting the environment. It is however important that we address the non-compliance of farmers in the correct use of chemical fertilizers. This can be achieved through comprehensive farmer education and training on the 4R concept of nutrient management (applying the right source at right rate at the right time to the right place) . This will improve the fertilizer use efficiency, reduce waste, and minimize nutrient losses to broader environment, which will ensure the most economical outcome, while providing desirable social and environmental benefits essential to sustainable agriculture. Regular soil health assessments and environmental monitoring for pollutants and corrective actions would also be needed.

I have no doubt that the decision to ban the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers in crop production in Sri Lanka, if implemented, will be reversed possibly after a few seasons of cultivation, but that may be too late for the most vulnerable farmers and consumers, and for the maintenance of soil health. I am hoping that professional advisors promoting and supporting the decision to ban the import and use of chemical fertilizers in Sri Lanka, most of whom were my former colleagues, would give more thought to this important decision considering the facts I presented as well as views expressed by other scientists at various forums. If the decision to make Sri Lanka the first country in the world with 100% organic farming remains unchanged, my final appeal is to do it in stages, targeting only the regions that are affected by CKDu as a trial, before implementing it to the whole country without knowing the consequences of such a decision.


About the author:

Dr. Darshani Kumaragamage is a Professor in Environmental Studies and Sciences at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and a former Professor in Soil Science at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. She has a BSc in Agriculture from University of Peradeniya, M.Phil. in Agriculture from the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, Sri Lanka and a PhD in Soil Science from University of Manitoba, Canada. She served the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya as a faculty member for 23 years. She currently teaches courses in “Environmental Impacts of Agriculture”, “Environmental Sol Science” and “Human-Environment Interactions” at the University of Winnipeg. Her current research focuses on assessing and mitigating environmental impacts of agricultural activities with emphasis on fertilizer and manure use in crop production. She continues to actively collaborate in agricultural research activities in Sri Lanka and is involved in training students and early career researchers from Sri Lanka at the University of Winnipeg.

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Implementing 13A: Some thoughts



The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

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Aiyo, Sirisena



By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise



by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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