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Will New Diamond fire be an environmental disaster

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by J.A.A.S.Ranasinghe

Former Director and Acting Chairman of Marine Environment Protection Authority

MT New Diamond VLCC, Very Large Crude Carrier, flagged in Panama was reportedly carrying over 300,000 Mt of Crude Oil on its voyage to Pradip Port, India from Al Ahmadi in Kuwait when it caught fire off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka resulting in the death of a crew member and the evacuation of 23, five Greek and 18 Philippine nationals. The fire that broke out as a result of the explosion of a boiler resulted in a massive fire in the engine room and the bridge, which controls the ship. Fortunately, the fire had not spread to the oil tanks which would h ave resulted in a major oil spill. If the three million barrels of oil leaked, it could have spealt devastation to many of the marine mammals that live in vibrant habitats along the eastern coast of Sri Lanka and the vibrant eastern economy where a hive of activities is taking place such as fisheries, tourisms, agriculture and consequently to the livelihood income of the people.

 

Effects of Petroleum Contamination

Petroleum contamination is a growing environmental concern that harms both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems equally. However, in view of the major disasters caused to the marine environment, the public and regulatory and scientific communities have given more attention to the contamination of marine habitats. This is because marine oil spills can have a serious economic consequence on coastal activities as well as on those who exploit the resources of the sea. Thus, communities that are at risk of oil disasters must anticipate the consequences and prepare for them. The above mentioned disaster is an eye opener for all the stakeholders to take a serious view.

Marine environmental pollution caused by petroleum is of great concern because of the fact that petroleum hydrocarbons are toxic to all forms of life and harm both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. In recent years the pollution of marine habitats has caught the attention of researchers and environmentalists owing to the serious impact of oil spills on marine life, as well as on people whose career relies on the exploitation of the ocean’s resources. Additionally, marine life may be affected by clean-up operations, whatever the precautions taken. It may also be indirectly affected by the physical damage to the habitats in which plants and animals live in.

The writer has had firsthand information while being a former Director of the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) and has attended series of scientific and technical sessions delivered by the International Maritime Organization (IOM) and effectively contributed to the deliberations with regard to OPRC (Oil Spill Preparedness and Response) a decade ago and it is with such an authoritativeness, the writer compiled this short essay on the effects of petroleum oil spills on marine life. This exercise would not be a worthwhile attempt, if the economic impact of oil spills on coastal activities with special reference to eastern theatre in which the above major fire brokeout and on the people who exploit the resources of the sea.

 

GLOBAL OIL SPILL TREND

Over the last 50 years, there has been a marked downward trend in oil spills from tankers. The average number of spills per year in the 1970s was about 79 and has now decreased by over 90 percent to a low of six according to the International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF). The lowest annual number of spills was recorded in 2019 and the highest in 1974. If one were to analyze the quantities of oil spilt, one would note that approximately 5.86 million tons of oil have been lost as a result of tanker incidents globally since 1970. However, there has been a significant reduction in volume of oil spilt through the decades. The total amount spilt per decade has reduced by about 95% since the 1970s.

An interesting pattern of alternating sharp decline and stability can be observed for average volume of oil spilt per decade. Nonetheless, quantity of oil spilt in a particular year or a decade is unpredictable, and the trend can be hugely distorted by a single large spill. In case, the fire caused to MT New Diamond resulted in an oil spill over 270,000 Mts, it would have been the one of the major oil spills recorded in recent times in Sri Lanka. The most frequent causes of oil spills are allisions/collisions, groundings and Fires. However, the proportion of groundings has decreased over the decades, making allisions, collisions and Fires, the current most frequent cause of spills. Today, about 99.99% of oil transported by sea arrives safely at its destination. The positive reports on trends in oil tanker spills endorse the hard work by governments, industry and ITOPF in improving safety and standards of operations.

With a spate of major disasters linked to major shipping routes in the past few years, the time is opportune for the world leaders and the international authorities such as IOM to have the wisdom and courage with a view to taking stock on global shipping reforms. It must be pointed out here that Sri Lanka witness more than 800 vessels passing through Sri Lanka per day posing an imminent threat to the Sri Lankan economy. Hence, it cannot be completely ruledout another disaster of this magnitude, if preventive measures are not taken.

 

Crude oil and its properties

The ill fate MT New Diamond carried crude oil which is a complex mixture of organic compounds. These mainly consist of hydrocarbons, in addition to heterocyclic compounds and some heavy metals. The different hydrocarbons that make up crude oil come in a wide range of molecular weights and structure compounds. These compounds include methane gas, high molecular weight tars, asphaltenes, resins, waxes and bitumen. They also include straight and branched chains, single or condensed rings and aromatic rings such as the monocyclic (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene). They additionally include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) such as naphthalene, anthracene and phenanthrene. Obviously, the chemical composition of crude oil is injurious not only to the mankind but also to marine ecosystems.

Physical contact is the major route of exposure and usually affects birds and furred mammals. These animals rely on their outer coats for buoyancy and warmth. Consequently, they often succumb to hypothermia, drowning and smothering when oil flattens and adheres to the outer layer. A second general exposure route is through the ingestion or inhalation of the hydrocarbon by organisms that reside on the surface. Exposure by these routes leads to absorption into the bloodstream via the gastrointestinal or respiratory tracts.

 

Toxicity of oil dispersants

Oil dispersants (57 chemical ingredients approved for use by the US EPA) are a common tool used after oil spills in marine environments. They break up oil slicks on the water surface and increase the oil’s rate of biodegradation. Oil dispersants are quickly used when other means, such as oil containment and removal, are insufficient. However, consequences of the toxicity of oil spill dispersants alone or in the presence of oil must be evaluated. Generally, undispersed oil poses the greatest threat to shorelines and surface-dwelling organisms. However, most dispersed oil remains in the water column where it mainly threatens pelagic and benthic organisms.

Fate of oil spills in the marine habitats

After oil is spilled at sea and with the effect of wind and water current, the oil spreads out and moves on the water surface as a slick a few millimetres thick. At the same time, it undergoes a series of chemical and physical changes. These processes are collectively termed ‘weathering’. Weathering causes the spilled oil to break down and become heavier than water. Some of these processes, like the natural dispersion of oil into water, lead to the removal of the oil from the sea surface and facilitate its natural breakdown in the marine environment. Others, particularly the formation of water-in-oil emulsions, cause the oil to become more persistent and remain at sea or on the shoreline for prolonged periods of time. The speed and relative importance of these processes depend on a number of factors. These include the quantity spilled, the oil’s initial physical and chemical characteristics, weather and sea conditions and whether the oil remains at sea or is washed ashore. Ultimately, the marine environment usually eliminates spilled oil through the long-term process of biodegradation.

 

Oil spills on marine organisms

Ultimately, the impact of oil on marine organisms depends on the fate of the oil. As previously described, when oil is present in the environment, it is either dispersed in the top layer of the water (littoral zone) or remains on the surface and, consequently, on the coastal areas. If the oil is not dispersed, it remains on the surface. In this case, currents bring the oil towards coastal areas which harms coastal organisms like invertebrates, mammals and birds. However, if the oil is dispersed, organisms, such as fish, plankton and larvae, are immediately subjected to oil toxicity.

 

Oil spills on planktonic organisms

Zooplankton is a particularly important food resource, especially for baleen whales. It can influence or control the primary productivity by top-down effects in return. Its population dynamic change can influence the biomass of other marine animals like fish by bottom-up effects. Some zooplankton, such as copepods, euphausiids and mysids, assimilate hydrocarbons directly from seawater and by ingesting oil droplets and oil contaminated food. The ingestion of oil by these organisms often causes mortality, while surviving organisms often show developmental and reproductive abnormalities.

 

Oil spills on coral reefs

In addition, recreational attractions for divers, coral reefs are considered to be important constituents of marine ecosystems. This is because they are important nurseries for shrimp, fish and other animals. The aquatic organisms that live within and around the coral reefs are at risk of exposure to the toxic substances within oil, as well as smothering. They are rapidly deteriorating because of a variety of environmental and anthropogenic pressures. Thus, they are suffering significant changes in diversity, species abundance and habitat structure worldwide. Oil dispersants are potentially harmful to marine life including coral reefs. In a study using coral nubbins in coral reef ecotoxicology testing, found that dispersed oil and oil dispersants are harmful to soft and hard coral species at early life stages.

 

Oil spills on fish

Due to the well-developed hepatic mixed function oxygenase (MFO) system, in addition to the reactivity of the metabolites that would not be released in a toxic form during digestion and absorption, most fish, even in heavily oil-contaminated environments, do not accumulate and retain high concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons. Thus, they are not likely to transfer them to predators. Thus, no serious threat is predicted.

 

Oil spills on seabirds

As one of the major routes of exposure, physical contact usually affects birds. For example, thousands of African penguins (Spheniscus demerus) were oiled following the 2000 Treasure oil spill in South Africa.An evaluation of the impact of oil spills on seabirds has not been fully appreciated during incidents, despite pressure from the public concern, media and other interested parties for precise and up-to-date information on the damage. Consequently, the approximate numbers of seabird casualties involved in many major spills have only been estimated, while impacts at the population level have been difficult to determine. Natural variation and the huge range of factors that influence bird population statistics make it difficult to assess the impact of oil spill on sea birds.

 

Oil spills on marine mammals

Marine mammals include bottlenose dolphins, fins, humpbacks, rights, sei whales, sperm whales, manatees, cetaceans, seals, sea otters and pinnipeds. As previously indicated, the physical contact of oil with furred mammals usually affects these animals because they rely on their outer coats for buoyancy and warmth. Consequently, these animals often succumb to hypothermia, drowning and smothering when oil flattens and adheres to the outer layer.

As part of their activities, all marine mammals spend a considerable amount of time at the surface. Here, they swim, breathe, feed or rest. Thus, the possibility of their contact with a surface slick, water-in-oil emulsion, or tar balls, is high. In heavy pelage marine mammals, such as fur seals, sea otters and polar bears, this contact may lead to fouling. Polar bears and otters groom themselves regularly as a means of maintaining the insulating properties of the fur and may, thereby, ingest oil. Animals with smooth surfaces or relatively little to no pelage, such as whales, dolphins, manatees and most seals, have an advantage as oil would have fewer tendencies to adhere to their surface.

Oil that contaminates a shore is likely to severely affect pinnipeds. Pinnipeds require such areas for nursery and, to a lesser extent, otters and bears. Some of the oil is eventually returned in subtidal sediments, where it may transfer to gray whales, walrus and some seals. Such species feed heavily on benthic animals.

When marine mammals encounter fresh oil, they are likely to inhale volatile hydrocarbons evaporating from the surface slick. These volatile fractions contain toxic monoaromatic hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene and xylenes) and low molecular weight aliphatics with anaesthetic properties. The inhalation of these volatile hydrocarbon compounds is potentially harmful. The inhalation of concentrated petroleum vapours can cause the inflammation of and damage to the mucus membranes of airways, lung congestion or even pneumonia. Volatile benzene and toluene, which can be inhaled, can be transferred rapidly from the bloodstream into the lungs. Furthermore, they can accumulate from the blood into the brain and liver, causing neurological disorders and liver damage.

 

Oil spills on marine plants

In several aspects, aquatic plants are important to the functioning of ecosystems. These include the fact that they are oxygen producers, their ability to sequester carbon and for their base position in aquatic food chains. In addition, they serve as nursery, feeding and breeding habitats for a variety of animal and plant species, including recreationally and commercially important fish. Plants and animals are affected by the oil in which they come into contact with as a result of an oil spill. In their review of toxicities of oils, dispersants and dispersed oils to algae and aquatic plants.

 

Communities at risk of marine oil spills/anticipation and preparation

The threatening of marine environments with the petroleum oil spills has caught the attention of many communities, encouraging them to develop their own plans and policy issues. These have ranged from permitting or prohibiting increased oil transport volumes, to developing the capacity to respond to and recover from potential spill disasters.

Local communities that depend on the fishing industry, aquaculture and tourism should realize that the impact of an oil spill is governed by complex factors. These include the oil spill’s volume and location relative to fishing/cultivation areas, currents, tides and wave action. Other factors include whether species harvested in the region are sedentary or mobile, as well as government decisions relating to fishing bans and compensation schemes.

Economic impact of oil spills in the Eastern Region

Though Eastern Province (EP) has primarily an agriculture-based economy, it has an appreciable contribution to the national economy by way of Fish production and tourisms. Approximately, 25% of the nations fish production is generated by the EP and livelihood income of the fishing community employed in the coastal belt has a tremendous impact of the socio-economic status of the people. The EP has also received an unprecedented development in the tourism sector in the last few decades in that Pottuvil Arugam Bay, Lahugala Panama Beach, Pigeon Island, Nilaveli Beach have become attractive tourist destinations. Hence, any possible oil spill of a huge magnitude could have a devastating impact on all these vibrant economic sectors. Marine oil spills can have a serious impact not only on marine life, but on the gamut of all economic coastal activities and the communities that exploit the resources of the sea as seen above.

Involvement of multiplicity of Players

All in all, the joint efforts put in by Sri Lanka Navy, Air Force, Ports Authority and our Indian counterparts in dousing this fire have to be commended. His Excellency’s timely appreciation to all the players in averting this major calamity is most praiseworthy. It would be grossly unfair, if the names of the Chairperson and the General Manager of the Marine Environment Protection Authority namely Mrs. Dharshani Lahandapura and Dr. Terny Pradeep Kumara gone unnoticed for the magnificent roles they played behind the scene in educating the public and the media as to the possible marine consequences that could have arisen of this catastrophe as well as the mitigatory measures silently adopted to meet the possible oil spill.

Ironically, the above incident has raised many unanswered questions as a whole. As organizations, how much of advanced preparedness the authorities have set in motion to avert maritime catastrophes of this magnitude. Sri Lanka is woefully lacking the sources and resources to meet any eventuality of this magnitude, though it is claimed as a major maritime hub. As committed institutions, what proactive measures have we taken as a nation to deal with the sensitive marine ecosystems referred to above. It is intended to deal with these aspects in a separate column in due course.

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Features

Neuro-science that underlies Buddhist philosophy

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Dr Channa Ratnatunga

Buddhist philosophy does not mention the Brain, only the mind or citta. It does not mean that the organ i.e. the brain was unknown at the time. Recorded in the Maha-Vagga, ’the book of Discipline’ of the Tripitaka, one Jeevaka Kohombacha a reputed physician was trephining the skull, presumably to drain blood accumulated within the skull. He would have known how it could affect brain/mind function.

In the Western front, it was Galen who was thought to be the 1st to attempt changing the existent opinion, in 200AD; he held that it was the brain and not the heart that was the seat of ‘intelligence’.

We have now moved on far beyond. I thought it appropriate to place Buddhist philosophy on a more scientific footing by correlating it with current Neuro-biology of Neuroscience. The data is both subjective and objective as a science.

‘The Reptilian Brain ’

A portion of the brain of all vertebrates, becoming more prominent in mammals, more than birds and reptiles is the reptilian brain. It is now described as the Limbic system. It deals with a whole lot of reflexes which deals with survival. For a species, the typical instinctual behaviours are involved with it: flight-fight reaction, aggression, dominance, territoriality and ritual displays. In mammals, specially the higher groups, which include Chimpanzees, Gorillas and man, it subscribes to most emotional responses for survival, procreation and other basic needs of fulfillment i.e. of thirst and hunger. Links through the hormones and the autonomic nervous system, permits fulfillment of the different roles it is responsible for.

Structurally they are constituted by the sensorial input through the Thalamus (other than smell), Hippocampus, Amygdala, hypo-thalamus and the Cingulate Gyrus of the Brain (see diagram) below.

All emotional responses, are kept controlled by the pre-frontal cortex often described as ‘the leader of the Orchestra’.

Hence inbuilt into all of us by millennia of selection are reflexes for survival. Social anthropology teaches us that security of survival is enhanced by belonging to a society. After all, we are inbuilt to be, a social animal. Dominance in the society, needs suppression of competition to get the cream of both the spoils for; food and procreation. Both Tribalism and a hierarchy, is born and needs to be sustained. Anger, greed, theft, promiscuity and other ill-gotten traits are hence a part of our inbuilt armamentarium. Most are inherited by being installed on our limbic system (in the human brain). The degree of pre frontal lobe control to keep checked these primitive urges is what Buddhist philosophy is all about.

Current studies of neuroscience, using; functional MRI and other imaging and electrical recording procedures have shown that Mindful Meditation enlarges the prefrontal cortex (i.e. more cells, synapses in this area) of the brain. Mindfulness skills are now recognized in the west, as premium in many areas of human endeavour. In fact, it is hailed as the ‘way to go for evolution for the human kind!

As long as we have the Limbic system installed for survival, we will continue to volitionally (think, speak and act) behave to survive, permitting the karmic energy to be formed. Maybe the survival apparatus was installed to maintain sentient life-forms in the universe, a part of nature (could even be a natural law i.e. like gravitation). The Buddha discovered it and showed a way to avoid it, so securing avoidance of karmic generation.

With this background permit me to speculate on the philosophy we have tried to give a more solid scientific background.

The ultimate truth of human existence, we all seek: the ultimate reality, has to be within Nature, bound by laws, known and; as yet unknown that govern it.

Nature as we know it consists of the physical universe as we know it, the dark matter we are not yet familiar with, energy and dark energy associated with it and the sentient life forms that inhabit, so far in at least on our planet.

Science so far has not made inroads into the nature of sentient life forms, other than to define their detailed physical structure, the nature of their behaviour, their evolution by natural selection (Darwin). It is not known what forces form life forms; why they grow? Why the varied circumstances of their individual existence; what their designated purpose is and where they go after death. Into this vacuum, walks religion!

Having said this, all the tribalistic institutions, ceremonies, incantations, etc. that have since developed around a variety of prophets, are at best, a means of keeping man, a social animal, controlled. Society is competitive and to maintain a semblance organization within, laws have to be promulgated. The unknown, have at various times been deified, i.e. the sun, fire, a creator, a destroyer, etc. The Latin saying by Petronius; ‘Timor primus in Orbe, Deos fecit’ (Fear caused Gods first on Earth) has much to say for itself, as does the pithy advice of the Persian philosopher poet Omar-Khayam, referring to the sky and presumably deities, ‘lift not thy hands to it for help, as it rolls impotently on as thou and I’. Security offered by herd behaviour of a tribe, or as offered by supernatural power or being, in trying circumstances is a human need and faith helps. Religion Modern society needs to be re-thought, as to its place.

Returning to the subject of this essay, Newton (Laws of Motion), Einstein (Laws of Gravity), Maxwell (Laws of Electro-Magnetism), the strong and weak force of atomic structure, and others have propounded physical laws for, that govern matter and the known energy forms that exist in the Universe. Based on the accuracy of the application of such laws, man has set foot on the moon. Science prides itself on accuracy and being evidence-based.

If sentient life-forms too are part of nature, the detailed laws have yet to be postulated by science. Unlike the study of matter, a need to understand the ‘nature of existence of life-forms’ has not yet been undertaken by the scientific community. After all, survival and procreation to live on the harsh environment that exists at the time seems to be their only purpose.

To hypothesise, speculatively, could it be that Siddhartha Gautama, by meditative practice of a high order, enlarging his pre-frontal cortex of the brain, broke into ‘the insightful realization of how life forms are governed: it’s laws in nature’.

As evidence-based data has to be adduced for this possibility, I will now place evidence, as to these conclusions, speculative no doubt.

It is claimed that he realised the truth of reincarnation, i.e. rebirth, samsara and the sorrow. We sow and we reap, and the Karmic law will enact Samsara for eons to come.

Rebirth will account for the protean differences that exist in human form, circumstances, talents, life events (Narada Mahathera’s text reproduced in The Island last Poya Day (01 Oct). Stevenson’s1 detailed scientific enquiry on children who could recollect past lives, birth marks attributed to trauma provides anecdotal evidence.

The scientific value of past life regression (PLR) by psychiatrists using hypnosis on selected subjects, Near Death Experiences (NDE) is difficult to assess. For instance, it has been shown that diminished blood flow to the brain as experienced in certain circumstances can simulate NDE.

This leaves the practising Buddhist to focus on meditation to see the veracity of the truth of rebirth. That rebirth is sorrow, I think can be realized, as death in most life forms be it animal or insect, is painful. According to Buddhism, to be born in a human life-form with pre-frontal decision making ability is a great opportunity to negate rebirth and sorrow. This opportunity is yours.

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What’s the Plan?

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We have a new government in Aotearoa; we even have a Sri Lankan born MP! The landslide victory of her party was so marked that some said that even an inanimate object put up as a candidate for the labour party, under Jacinda magic, would have won. Not fair methinks on this young lady who apparently worked her electorate very hard. There is a celebratory dinner to be held for her next month. I look forward to attending that and gleaning a few more facts for my readers. On the other hand I may be banned by the cohorts of her countrymen forming barriers (protective or offensive) around her.

So, the new Government has big plans. Improve the availability of houses, especially for first home buyers since the National Party when they governed allowed foreign investors to buy up multiple properties with small deposits and then making the tenants effectively pay the mortgage, creating a massive shortage of houses. There was also a rather grandiose plan named Kiwibuild that was supposed to “create houses” at low cost and in no time for those who desperately needed them. There is also Child poverty in NZ, believe it or not. Ranging from children not having lunches to take to school, to not having shoes to wear to school and older children leaving school early to work and earn money to support their families. This of course almost exclusively among the Maori and Pacific Islander communities.

Unemployment is also rampant Covid19 is being touted as the excuse but to be frank we were heading for an economic slump before Covid in Aotearoa. This level of unemployment is blamed on the work ethic or lack thereof among the Maori and Pacific Island communities but there is a deeper connotation to this. It was recently found out that the big fishing companies in NZ have been flying in crews for their trawlers from Russia for 25 years! These fishermen fly in during the Russian Winter and crew on the massive sea going trawlers. This was only highlighted because a whole lot of these fisher folk got Covid 19 while in quarantine. The official story is that for 25 years they have been unable to train or find people who can work on these ships from among the people in NZ. If you buy that, I’ll throw the harbour bridge in free!

What is pretty obvious is that big business in NZ is allowed to prosper regardless of the economic implications of them doing so. They are allowed to use and employ foreign sources purely on a profitability basis with no concern for the domestic economy or the strengthening of same. There are lots of semi monopolies, supermarkets being a prime example. All the major supermarkets are owned by two parent companies. Is it a wonder that groceries are so ridiculously expensive in NZ when compared to Australia? Are we denizens of Aotearoa really expected to believe that an oligopolistic enterprise is charging fair prices? Let’s hope the Labour Government with its huge majority that we have just appointed, looks into these matters.

The thing about the traditional Kiwi is that they spend money. They do not save everything to be able to give houses to their children or dowries! Now that they are “trapped” in their islands, they are spending the money they would have used for foreign travel for domestic tourism. They are also spending on improving their houses and property and of course retail therapy. The NZ economy is still not floundering. In fact, it is buzzing, how long that will last is of course the multi-billion-dollar question!

The Pearl doesn’t look that good does it? No income from the housemaids, tourism at a standstill and even the garment factories under fire. The big hotels are closed except for those who have

been able to wrangle a contract to house those being quarantined. I know for a fact the tragedy of the boutique hotels and other mid-sized tourism ventures. All forms of spending must be curtailed, so, the “wheeler” drivers must be destitute. I don’t even want to think about those paying off leases and mortgages.

Now I see many articles to the papers these days. Written by people with qualifications that would take up the first 500 words of the articles I write, and designations that would account for the balance, size of my articles I mean. Some write them like scientific dissertations, other dabble in humour and innuendo, however I have read nothing so far that has any content that shows us a pathway out of the economic morass that the Pearl is in.

Borrowing has its limits and it has connotations that scare the living daylights out of me. Printing money can of course go on and be used to pay wages in the grossly overstaffed Government institutions that are currently closed and distribute largesse to the selected few. If there are any younger readers of what I write, do you know that the Sri Lanka Currency was Rs15 = US$1, when I started working. Can you even believe it? The last time I checked I was not a thousand years old!

How are we going to stop chaos and mayhem hitting the streets? When people cannot feed their families what are they going to do? WHAT IS THE PLAN? If we are going to grow our own food in our back gardens, use our hotels as storage facilities for the produce, re-export and sell off all those ludicrously expensive automobiles that our politicians gad around in, sell our elephants to zoos, find oil off the coast of Mannar or whatever the hell we have to do, shouldn’t we START doing it now?!! Waiting until the proverbial s— hits the fan and then ordering the army out into the streets under martial law may not work O, people of the Pearl.

Maybe, the plan is to fall back on the good old tea industry. Rubber and coconut seem to have been totally decimated. For your information the tea industry that used lay the golden egg has been so mismanaged by brain dead proponents of management theory and with plantations largely handed over to our rival India for management, what else can you expect. The export trade is so fragmented and totally without principals or ethics that any buyer worth his salt has only to fish around among the many exporters to get the rock bottom price for what he wants. Others have used political influence and robbed the funds demarcated for that wonderful institution the Tea Promotion Bureau (a concept far ahead of its time) and built their own family dynasties and brands. That horse or goose is well dead and long buried.

My question to the brand-new government of Aotearoa which has a massive majority in parliament and the not so new Government of Sri Lanka which now has the 20th amendment to the constitution passed, is WHAT IS THE PLAN? It better be good and it better be quick, because the people are going to be very desperate real soon. It is solely down to the leadership and there are no excuses!

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Executive presidency or premiership?

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Better option:

by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I have been fascinated by politics all my life though not directly involved in it unlike some others in my family. I have devoted some of the free time COVID-19 pandemic has given me to pondering the merits and demerits of the executive presidency and whether it is less democratic than an executive premiership. For a long time, there has been a clamour for the abolition of the executive presidency, but since the election of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa opinion seems to have reversed. The SLPP sought a mandate to abolish 19A and, using the unexpected two-third’s majority, it enacted 20A ensuring reversal to an executive presidency.

On gaining Independence we opted to be a dominion with a Governor-General representing the British Crown; he had some room for manipulation although the Prime minister held the reins of power. In 1972, we became a republic, and the prime minister became even more powerful and a titular President was appointed! J. R. Jayewardene changed all this. Elected with a massive majority in 1977, JR metamorphosed from Prime Minister into an executive president. JR started well, pulling the country out of the economic hellhole created by the Sirima Bandaranaike government, but intoxication with unbridled power affected him.

JR brought about this radical change of having an elected Executive President for good reasons and opted for the French presidential system rather than the American system. Some may argue that JR should have gone for the American system because his main argument was that a presidential system which could produce results quicker was more suited to a developing country. In the American system, Cabinet positions are held by non-elected technocrats. Perhaps, like in the US, had we allowed the elected representatives to debate issues in Parliament, formulate laws governing the country and sit on committees overseeing the appointments for senior posts and performing the function of oversight of their work, a greater purpose may have been served. It would also have prevented politics from turning into a money-making business. The President could have chosen experts in various fields with proven track records to run various ministries to usher in rapid development. Perhaps, this is the sort of radical change we need that warrants serious consideration by those who are tasked with the onerous duty of formulating a new constitution.

JR opted for the French system where all the ministers including the prime minister are elected representatives. The phrase some commentators use ‘Prime Minister is reduced to the status of a peon’ is ludicrous and may well stem from the unguarded statement made by Ranasinghe Premadasa, the first non-executive prime minister. Instead of being impatient, he should have worked towards defining the role of the prime minister in the new system. Of course, JR’s ill-judged remark that he could do anything other than changing the gender, albeit in jest, also contributed to the growing suspicions about the presidency.

All executive presidents, elected directly by the voter at tremendous expense, vowed to abolish the executive presidency just to please the voters but none even attempted to do so. But Gota was an exception, never making such a promise. Further, during the short period he had been in office he had behaved very differently to his predecessors. He has shown that he is there to work, not for the glamour of office. Therefore, I would argue that what matters more than the office is the person who occupies it. This imparts even a greater responsibility on the voter to elect the right person.

In any country, either the president or the prime minister would have to be powerful. In the UK, the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’, Boris Johnson holds power and makes all the important decisions. It is only rarely that Parliament acts to change his decisions. Ranil considered himself to be the executive prime minister and set up various units at Temple Trees, and some of them were not lawful. This too highlights my view that it is not the office that matters but who holds the office.

If not for the powerful presidency, we would still have been fighting terrorism. How the Opposition mocked the war efforts is a long-gone memory. The worst possible scenario is where the power is shared, as happened during the ill-fated yahapalana regime. What is transpiring before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attacks amply illustrates how security of the country was neglected

The passage of 20A is a turning point in the history of our country. By giving the mandate for this to the SLPP, the voters have opted for a presidential system of government and it is my humble opinion that this was almost entirely due to the statesmanlike behaviour of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During his campaign he never attacked his opponents but proved his ability to perform any responsibility he was tasked with. On being elected, he dispensed with glamorous frivolities and got down to hard work. He has faced many challenges with vigour and has been successful so far.

What makes Gota different from all other ‘chief executives’ of Sri Lanka is that he is the first non-politician to hols this coveted position. Perhaps, that is what we needed. I do hope he would set the example for what a good executive president should be so that the electorate would not regret the momentous decision it made. I do hope that he would introduce a new Constitution, which gives due place to technocrats and usher in true reconciliation by ensuring that we obey one law as one nation as well as getting rid of race and faith based political parties which have been the bane of unity. The only purpose these parties have served is sowing the seeds of division and disunity whilst making some leaders rich and powerful.

I do hope Gota would prove that the executive presidency is the better option.

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