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Wimal moves: Play of Power in political reality

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The latest we are witnessing in the political scenario is the live discussion about events surrounding Minister Weerawansa of the ‘ pohottuwa’ regime. Amidst several conjectures expressed and unexpressed, the associated events have assumed highly important contours spreading across the nexus of the political picture of the country. Some sections of the opposition try to make out that this is another well planned ruse of the government, to divert the attention of the public from the predicaments seriously affecting their day to day lives. There is another school of thought that it is a manifestation of the developing internal conflicts in the Rajapaksa clan. Some Independent political critics view it as a timely maneuver, orchestrated to properly guide the direction of the government, which is now in a somewhat astray and adrift course. Few claim that it is a reaction of some of those in the government, disgruntled over the happenings going beyond their individual satisfaction, and who think enough is enough.

Well, we are yet to see the reality. But if we look at the episode with an open mind there are many possibilities towards this culmination. The group is far more formidable to be regarded as an unthreatening adversary. Whatever is the stunt, if it is so, the grouping itself constitutes a potential risk similar to that of a dormant volcano. The eruption can be activated internally as well as externally. Even if the numbers superficially visible are taken into account, it carries significant weightage, sufficient enough to tilt the balance at any crucial juncture. Unhappy external power blocks can catalyze a reaction. (We have learnt in chemistry that a catalyst can activate a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any change in the process). We cannot forget that we are exposed to and become the focus of several hawkish and no fewer belligerent forces now, unlike in the recent past.

The development too is associated with a highly vulnerable conglomeration , comprising left, ultra-left, center of left, chauvinist, diverse protagonist and senior figures in local politics. The chances are that there is a strong possibility of more diverse social groups joining in, particularly in the context of a long felt need for the country to be steered by a new third force, eliminating the dynastic influence the politics of the country has been subject to. The failure of the so called few ‘viyath-maga’ members to make any significant contribution to the political direction of the country after the last general election, and the many issues pending without any solid basis or plan of resolution, is further assisting in the process of this precipitation.

It is only after sometime will we know whether the polarization is due to and based on national issues, or parochial concerns of a few individuals. Any progress of the movement of this grouping is highly dependent on this. In order to get a clear view of this we have to examine some of the important issues that came to limelight;

= MCC agreement from USA: There was an element of uncertainty surrounding the issue, before it was finally declared that MCC grant would not be accepted which hung fire over a period of time. It is noteworthy that the final decision was announced after the deadline given by the US for accepting the MCC grant expired! It was a sour grapes story in the eyes of many.

= Colombo Port East Terminal Fiasco: We saw the level of opposition that was built up before it was finally declared that the ECT would not be given to the Company recommended by India. Expression of controversial viewpoints on the policy stand of the Government by different members became a common feature. The divergent stands were obviously wide apart, and so unusual to have originated from the same government source.

The decision-making process did not unfortunately display any degree of concern about the profile and the standing of the enterprise that came forward to get into the business jointly with the SLPDA on a partnership basis. The very fact that the WCT becoming the substitute alternative to ECT, shows that the GOSL has not properly assessed the background of the interveners. Unless precautionary safeguards are secured properly, there is a strong possibility of the activities of ECT becoming seriously hampered during the development process of the WCT by these contenders.

Then there are several other issues overhanging, which have caused serious apprehensions and concerns where the interests and policy stands among the decision makers appear to be diverse.

= One country one law: This was a political slogan which carried much weight with the voters, virtually leading them to the expectation of comprehensive legal reforms, removing several outdated laws and introducing legislature ensuring the impartiality of the judiciary.

People expected the judiciary to be secure from undue influence and autonomous functioning within their own field.

Appointment of Judges, rules to protect judicial independence, executive and the administration of justice, reforms to eliminate laws with preferential treatments applicable to communities, classes or religions were concerns in this regard.

Some of the views now expressed by those responsible in the government appear to have taken a different course direction.

= Presidential Commission findings and the pending indictments on the Easter Sunday Fracas, is another matter that has caused some interest and worry in the SLFP segment of this new grouping. There appears to be a developing anxiety about the possibility of prosecution of some of their members.

= A discontent of the SLFP, from the time of accommodating candidates for the General Election, appears to have developed further after the allocation of ministerial portfolios of the government.

The argument that the entire scene is something orchestrated by the government itself is untenable due to several considerations. It is unlikely that the SLFP- wing, represented in the group by its General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera, would have been given the green light to participate in a ginger group by the Party leader Sirisena, if it is so felt by them. Sirisena himself is in a dilemma about the pending indictments in the Easter Sunday case. So it is more likely that the SLFP, now reduced to a tail end appendage of the ‘pohottuwa’, is taking a risk joining in such a move at a crucial time like this.

Even for the government, it is a potential risk for the future of the ‘pohottuwa’ to pave the way to build up a mock but strong grouping, which can boomerang any moment.

The other political parties are in serious disarray. The UNP is virtually extinct. SJB, the main opposition party, is also fairly fragile with the known history of some of its partners. The Muslim parties are in the opposition after a long time. They always had a place in whatever form of government in power. Any slight opportunity extended will open the gate for them to go to join the government. Already their MPs supported the government to bring the 20th amendment defying the party loyalties.

Therefore, according to the balance of probabilities, the move to form a ‘Ginger’ group within the government by Ministers Weerawansa, Gammanpila and Vasudeva is a formidable step to reckon critically. The standing of these Ministers in the public eye is strongly recognized, and their role played to bring the ‘pohottuwa’ to power is unquestionably acknowledged with no reservations.

The chances are, whether they quit or are made to leave OR continue to remain, they have established themselves as a force capable of balancing the activities of an otherwise wanton passage, maneuvered from behind, regardless by those who claim the sole ownership of ‘pohottuwa’. The flowing river of the progressive sector of the citizenry has many other rills to add on to its waters during its course.

 

T. RUSIRIPALA



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Opinion

CORRUPTION IS CORROSIVE AND CONTAGIOUS

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Corruption is the ultimate criminality. It is also a contagion that spreads both vertically and horizontally. It is clearly eating the heart and vitals of our Nation.Corruption is indisputably a dominant reason for our plight. A lot of sanctimonious scoundrels have promised, with monotonous frequency, to “eradicate” this rampant evil. Each event that unfolds in the all-pervasive political arena, serves to increase the public’s revulsion towards politics and its practitioners.

For instance, everything that emanates from the Diyawanna sewer increases the penetration of this diabolical menace. In our early life, parents and schools drilled in developing minds, a compulsion to adhere to the total rejection of lying and falsehood. No more.

The indelible example of this, we learnt, that in developed countries, the newsagent leaves a pile of newspapers in a stack on the front of the shop, with a little label indicating the price of each. A customer would pick his choice and leave the relevant price. Seldom, we were told was there a risk of a cheat betraying this trust. This kind of simple event, makes me an unashamed and unrepentant “Anglophile”!

It appalls me to witness how casually people who should know better, are chronically dishonest and do not deserve the genteel “economical with the truth” label. They should, in our lexicon be simply referred to as liars.

A distressing fact is that the closer one gets to top, the higher the intensity and scale. How then can one address such persons as “Honourable”? I am personally inclined to restrict this “honour” to those who genuinely deserve it. A colleague goes even better – when one such undesirable stands up to speak, he simply walks out. This may seem trivial, but it is symbolically powerful.

Financial impropriety is not all, but an important factor under the general rubric of “corruption”. Why does our Government fight shy of using the readily available listings of the “wealthy” on the Internet? Panama Papers, Pandora’s Box.

The information is shocking. Several are possibly not cheats, but many of their likes clearly are. When somebody with no substantial means of becoming rich, having neither talent nor worth, turns up with stashes of millions of dollars, cannot such be called to account? Is it a question of “He who has no guilt, may hurl the first stone?’ No stones, no guilt”. More likely, Is it a case of “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours”. Lots of back-scratching is evident.

The most distressing feature is the lateral and vertical spread of financial corruption. Some seem to display remarkable ingenuity of changing crises to bonanzas. Nothing is beyond their reach. If that “talent” is employed towards the public good, Sri Lanka can become a brightly shining country, like our often mentioned Singapore.

“Horizontal spread” is where the dishonest in one Institution (say Assembly or Department”), spawns the practice in another. The vertical spread is within such a body, where subordinates are inspired to feel “If it is good for my boss, how can it be bad for me”?

To take a simple scenario. Say, someone is flicking his petrol coupons or fudging his traveling claim, a whole chain of persons participate in continuing the chain, down to the officer who writes the cheque.

This spreads of the contagion of corruption, corrodes and fouls all. When stashes of currency notes are unearthed, it strongly indicates that this is highly suggestive of dishonest acquisition. With such evidence being readily available, it is no mystery why is there no effective follow up action? Is it not strange why these products of crime cannot be confiscated and used to meet our nation’s needs. How so? It seems as though we are displaying the caution of one who is walking on eggs.

Everyone would know about the (James) Bond scam. There are strong suspicions, but again an inexplicable delicacy and neglect of follow-up. In relation to inexplicable and undeclared hoards in banks and safe havens abroad, why have these clearly corrupt treasure troves not been captured and restored to their rightful owners, in this case, the Sri Lankan State. Such action is morally and ethically proper. The usual excuse of “the Law does not provide” is a feeble and unacceptable stance.

I believe that even the famous “Numbers only” accounts held in Swiss Banks etc. have been made more transparent. This is action (endorsed by the UN?), that permitted the gold snatched from the Jews, and national wealth that has been robbed by persons of the likes of Marcos (Phillipines) and the Suhartos (Indonesia). There would be ample space for more.

One understands that such remedial measures, require the aggrieved nations to institute legal action within their jurisdictions. In our case, there are several cases of astronomical amounts held by persons who have engaged solely in “politics” with no inherited wealth or talent, to generate such astronomical wealth. If a dozen or so of such delinquents are showed into jail, there could be little need for future “Aragalayas”.

Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda.

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Opinion

Transformation of agro-food system:

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A culture-based local solution for Sri Lanka

BY Prof Nimal Gunatilleke

The Thirty-seventh Session of the UN-FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific (APRC) is being held as a high-level Ministerial in-person event in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 19 – 22 February 2024. This was preceded by the Senior Officers Meeting (SOM) held virtually from 31 January to 2 February 2024.

This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

This regionally significant meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is being held in Colombo at a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to keep its head above water in the post-COVID era knocked down for the second time in quick succession by her economic crisis.

A government report and data from the health ministry quoted by Reuters indicates that the people in Sri Lanka are currently burdened with soaring prices, including food, largely caused by its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948.

According to the Central Bank Report ‘rising malnutrition among children has become a forefront policy concern in Sri Lanka amidst heightened food insecurity of households caused by the host of economic and social issues that exacerbated during the economic crisis in 2022’.

The following human health statistics extracted almost verbatim from the Reuters report on Jan 18, 2023, are equally disturbing, to say the least.

The number of children grappling with various forms of undernutrition in Sri Lanka has increased for the first time in at least six years in 2022.

More than 43.4% of the country’s children under 5 years of age are suffering from nutrition problems, according to the report released in October, with 42.9% suffering from some form of undernutrition.

Data available on the website of the health ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicate that the percentage of children under five who are underweight, stunted (low height for age), or wasting (low-height for age) increased in 2022 after dropping steadily since at least 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients, or impaired nutrient utilis ation.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC REGIONAL OVERVIEW OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION STATISTICS AND TRENDS

According to the World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranked the second worst affected country in the South Asian region in terms of wasting among children under five years. Further, underweight among the same group of children remained around 20.0 percent since 2000, while no significant advancement was reported in terms of children with stunted growth.

Meanwhile, the persistent disparities in malnutrition prevalence across regions and economic sectors in the country suggest that nutrition anomalies remain unresolved for a prolonged period. Across residential sectors, the estate sector has become the most vulnerable sector with the highest prevalence of stunting and underweight children under five years. According to the DHS-2016, around 31.7 percent of children in the estate sector are stunted, compared to 14.7 percent in urban areas and 17.0 percent in the rural sector. Particularly child malnutrition represents a deep concern that carries a generational burden.

UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.1

A yet another alarming set of nutrition statistics has been published in the Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, in December 2023 in addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 2.1: UNDERNOURISHMENT AND FOOD INSECURITY.

The percentage of people unable to afford a healthy diet in Sri Lanka was 54% in 2020 and the figure has been increasing ever since.

Prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka is 5.3% (cf. India 16.6%)

The prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity during the period 2020–2022 in Sri Lanka has been 10.9% (cf. Bangladesh 31.1%)

Undernourishment is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, and healthy life. The indicator is reported as a prevalence and is denominated as “prevalence of undernourishment”, which is an estimate of the percentage of individuals in the total population who are in a condition of undernourishment.

People affected by moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have been forced to reduce, at times during the year, the quality and/or quantity of food they consume due to a lack of money or other resources.

MALNUTRITION: SUSTAINABLE

DEVELOPMENT GOAL 2.2:

This section reports on four global nutrition indicators: stunting , wasting in children under 5 years of age, and anaemia in women aged 15 to 49 years.

The prevalence of stunting among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka in 2022 has been 15.9% (cf. India 31.7%).

The Prevalence of wasting among children under 5 years of age from 2015 to 2022 in Sri Lanka has been 15.1% (cf. India 18.7%)

The Prevalence of overweight among children under 5 years of age in Sri Lanka is 1.3% in 2022 (cf. 2.8% in India).

ANAEMIA AMONG WOMEN AGED 15 TO

49 YEARS

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years in Sri Lanka in 2019 has been 34.6 % (cf. India 53%).

HEALTHY DIET AT NATIONAL SCALE

In this regard, notable transformations in the country’s food system are essential to deliver a healthy diet for people at an affordable price. These include improving productivity in the agriculture sector along with more innovations and research and development, reducing post-harvest losses, more value addition in the agriculture sector, reducing import dependency on food systems, introducing climate-resilient food crops, promoting a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, particularly through the popularising integrated farming, rebalancing agriculture sector subsidies, and tax policies and improving agronomic practices as well as maintaining adequate food buffers to face food emergencies.

Among the solutions provided at the national level include the provisioning of school meals, provisioning of food/cash allowances for pregnant and lactating mothers, the Thriposha program, school water sanitation, and hygiene programs, and the salt iodization programme, among others. Reflecting the impact of these efforts and commitments spanning over several decades, malnutrition among children declined remarkably during the period from 1975 to 1995, with stunting among children below five years of age almost halved to 26.1 percent in 1995, compared to 49.9 percent in 1975, while the underweight child population declined to 29.3 percent in 1995 from 57.3 percent in 1975. However, these trends have reversed since the double whammy started in 2021 with COVID-19.

In addition, some of the small-scale community-level initiatives established under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture such as Hela Bojun Hal (Native Food Courts) are gaining popularity in several provinces in Sri Lanka. These food courts serve a variety of nutrient-rich native food preparations using rice flour, finger millet, local vegetables (leafy porridge), and many other sweetmeats prepared by local womenfolk and sold at an affordable price. Also, there are many beverages and local fruit drinks that are equally popular among the customers.

These food courts providing healthy and nutritious meals are making steady inroads into the food and beverage trade among the health-conscious public from all walks of life including schoolchildren, university students, and blue- and white-collar workers, alike which is indeed an encouraging trend.

If these types of Hela Bojun food courts could be promoted in rural as well as urban schools with the participation of the parents of the schoolchildren under the direction of the school administration and local health and agricultural authorities, it may help to address some of the issues under discussion at the on-going UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference such as undernourishment, food insecurity, and malnutrition. At the same time, it may give a shot in the arm for promoting nutritious food production while ensuring food security befitting the theme of this year’s UNFAO-Asia Pacific Regional Conference, which is “Transformation of the Agro-Food System”.

Sri Lanka as the host country’s special ministerial event for this conference has put forward her theme as ‘Agro-tourism in Asia and Pacific – accelerating rural development and enhancing livelihoods’ showcasing agrotourism most likely in the world-renown Kandyan Spice/Home Gardens and as a spin-off of this, the local food courts utilizing these home garden produce too, can be highlighted at the same time.

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Opinion

Harin batting for India

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The Minister of Tourism, Harin Fernando, has stated that the Sri Lankan Government will be handing over the operation of Mattala International, Ratmalana International and Colombo International Airports to India. He has added that Sri Lanka is a part of India! Has he lost his senses?

Separately, should it not be the role of the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva to make such a far-reaching decision?

Mattala, Ratmalana and Colombo are the three main airports of entry to Sri Lanka. Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.

What then will be the future of Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL)? They are, in any case, a ‘service provider’.

It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka through its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), to adhere to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and regulations. Will this be compromised?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines for airport governance declare that the State (in this case Sri Lanka) must be accountable irrespective of national, legal or regulatory framework, or airport ownership and operating model. Could that be ensured under this recently announced arrangement?

Such accountability must be guaranteed by enactment of primary legislation in the aviation sector, mindful of the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I believe that the Legal Draughtsman’s Office will take an inordinate amount of time to deliver this guarantee, amongst other things.

There is also the matter of establishing an effective regulatory framework with CAASL to monitor technical/safety and economic performance of the aviation sector, and compliance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) obligations, Standard and Recommended Procedures (SARPs), and policy guidance.

In my opinion CAASL is not yet capable of that. In a combined operation such as this, IATA stipulates “Awareness and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest inherent in the regulatory framework or ownership and operating model through clear separation of powers, for example conflicts between economic oversight and shareholding arrangements, and separation of regulatory and operational functions”.

So, it is not an ‘open-and-shut case’, as Fernando believes. It is complex. His optimism is amazingly unrealistic, to say the least.

Remember, certification of aerodromes by the technical/safety regulator under ICAO requirements will continue to be carried out by CAASL as at present. According to the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), report Sri Lankan regulators tend to be more “obstructive” than “facilitative” when it comes to certification. CAASL needs to be revamped for greater efficiency.

Other refinements involve the independence of regulatory authority (CAASL) from government, and striving for separation of economic regulation from technical/safety regulation. CAASL was formed under the ‘Private Companies Ordinance’ but unfortunately it has drifted back to conducting its business as a regular government office, with political interference and all.

Besides, it is vital to establish an Aircraft Accident Investigation Authority, preferably independent of the CAA. Annex 13 to the ICAO convention says: “The State shall establish an accident authority that is independent of the aviation authorities and other entities that could interfere with the conduct or objectivity of an investigation.”

That, I believe, is what ‘checks and balances’ are about.

Meanwhile, the silence of the Aviation Minister is deafening.

The proposed ‘Indian involvement’ is a sad state of affairs when we have aviation experts in this country who have retired from careers in many parts of the world, and are now capable of sharing their knowledge and experience to good effect.

There is already an Indian-managed flying school at Ratmalana catering to Indian students. Maybe the camel has already put its head in the tent, and only money will talk.

GUWAN SEEYA

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