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20A misfiring, biodiversity warnings and tremors near Victoria Dam



by Rajan Philips

No one expected a misfiring start for a supposedly no-nonsense government that was expected to hit the road firing on all cylinders after the parliamentary election. There is a difference between majority in parliament and competence in government. Two-thirds majority does not make whole of one-third competence. The 20th Amendment fiasco illustrates well the gap between power and competence. No one knows who drafted the now ‘paused’, not ‘withdrawn’, 20A draft bill. No one will admit to drafting it, nor can anyone else find out. That should not be surprising given the now established law and order culture in the country that permits those who commit crimes to safely remain at large and unexposed, without fear of arrest and arraignment. Alternatively, if you commit a crime and even if you are convicted, you can get away with it so long as you have the right political connections to get on the nomination list of the governing political party, win the election with full government backing, and enter parliament as a matter of privilege over criminal conviction.

The parliamentary welcome extended by the government with appellate blessing to Premalal Jayasekara from the Ratnapura District, who is convicted of murder, and S. Chandrakanthan from the Batticaloa District, who is in remand custody for murder, sets the most edifying backdrop and ennobling tone for the impending new constitution. The government could even present this as a rare instance of national parity insofar as a Sinhalese and a Tamil are equally receiving privileged rewards for their political crimes. And take the business of reconciliation to an altogether different level. Especially with CV Wigneswaran dropping obiters in parliament about the old age of the Tamil language. From misfiring starts let us turn to misplaced priorities.

Sri Lanka is easily the only country in the world today where the government is pre-occupying itself with making a new constitution. The pre-occupations everywhere else are about containing Covid-19, refiring the economy, and coping with extreme vagaries of weather. India is all but set to take the lead in the global Covid-19 cases in a matter of week. The recovery rates are good and death rates are low, but there is nothing to be complacent because the worst is yet to come in India. The US is still the global Covid-19 leader, a strange status for a sole superpower. It is also getting inundated with water in the southeast, being set on fire along the west coast, and is stuck in the middle with a President who malaprops “herd mentality” (for herd immunity) as his national health plan for Covid19, and ignorantly opines, “I don’t think science knows, actually” about climate change and the surge of forest fires.


UN Report on Biodiversity


Next to climate change, the fear of biodiversity collapse is the other major global environmental concern. On Tuesday last, the UN issued its 10-year Global Biodiversity Outlook report with a sweeping warning that the continuing local and global threats to the planet’s biodiversity will not only wipe out species and ecosystems, but also endanger the food supply, health and security of the world’s nations and peoples. The new report is a sequel to the 2010 gathering of leaders of 196 countries in Aichi, Japan, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, that set out a 10-year plan centered on 20 goals, known as the Aichi Biodiversity targets. The 10-year report card is not at all encouraging. Of the 20 goals, only six have been “partially achieved,” and reporting countries have generally indicated that they can meet one third of their national targets. According to the UN press release, “the rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history.”


Sri Lanka is one of the participating countries in the UN Biodiversity Convention and operates through the Biodiversity Secretariat that is set up in the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. The Secretariat submitted its (sixth) National Report to the UN Convention as one of the reporting country contributions that fed into the main UN report. The Sri Lankan report, viewed online, is impressive both for its content and its ecological and scientific contributors. That has never been a problem for Sri Lanka. The problem is in delivering the ecological knowledge to the political decision chambers where there is no intelligible interest in understanding the environment, let alone protecting it.

The Sri Lankan report identifies six main threats to preserving the island’s biodiversity: River Diversion; Habitat Fragmentation and Ecosystem Losses; Pollution from both Organic and Inorganic Wastes; Over Exploitation; Spread of Invasive Species; and Climate Change. River diversion tops the threat list, and, hopefully, the report authors did not miss the irony of writing from within a Ministry that is all about river diversion. My criticism is not about the authors, but about the Cabinet makers for housing in the same Ministry the regulatory responsibility for protecting the environment (that includes rivers) and the engineering function of ‘harnessing’ rivers for human purposes.

If I am not mistaken, Mahaweli and the Environment were grouped in one Ministry for the executive convenience of Maithripala Sirisena. The same portfolio continues today along with a handful of other Ministries and State Ministries divvying up the environment between them. The fragmentation of responsibilities is identified in the Sri Lankan Biodiversity report, along with the widened gap between committed and informed environmental activists and government policy making.

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth – in all its vastly different ecosystems. Sri Lanka, small as islands go, is quite rich in biodiversity. Protecting biodiversity is important for protecting freshwater resources and soils formation, nutrient storage and recycling, for medicinal resources, sustaining the varieties of food crops and enhancing food resources, breaking down pollutants, contributing to climate stability, and for facilitating speedy recovery from natural resources. It is for these reasons that the UN report is warning that breakdowns in biodiversity will have adverse consequences for human food, health, and security everywhere.


Archaeology and Geology


Three of the six threats to local biodiversity identified in the Sri Lankan national report to the UN, fall under government development and infrastructure projects. They are river diversion, habitat fragmentation and ecosystem losses, and over exploitation. Dealing with a fourth one is direct government responsibility, namely, managing organic and inorganic wastes. In less than a month, the government has had three encounters with the environment – in the Sinharaja reserve, the Anawilundawa wetlands, and most recently in Kuratiyamohotta, Aruwakkalu where more than 200 acres of residual forest are reported to have been destroyed.


The government should consider these encounters as useful lessons for finding new directions for environmentally sustainable economic development. The government should realize that the environmentalists are not lying when they say that only 3% of the island’s total land area is covered with rainforests, and only 65% of it has been designated as protected areas. Why cannot the government bring the remaining 35% that is currently under the Land Reform Commission within the protected areas? Maintaining and extending the forest cover is crucial for consistent rainfalls, water replenishment, and the protection of the island’s precious wet zone.


Sri Lanka’s more immediate concern should be about natural disasters that are becoming more frequent in every country with the onset of global warming. The 2004 tsunami was an epochal event and perhaps the country’s worst disaster ever. Alternating droughts and floods are now almost a fact of life. Landslides are a constant threat during major rainy seasons. But recent reports of earth tremors in areas around the Victoria Dam create a new concern.


According to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) Preliminary Report, there were two events within the last four weeks. The first tremor was on August 29 (8:00 PM) and was “felt by people living in Haragama, Milapitiya, Anuragama and Kiual-Linda areas of the right bank of the Mahaweli River, as well as by dwellers at Ambakote, Aluthwatte and Kengalla areas of the left bank of the river.” The second tremor was on September 2 (7:00 AM) and was “felt by few people mainly in the left bank of the river, Ambakotte and Aluthwatte villages.” The two events took place between four and five kilometres from the Pallekele seismic station, and the first main event registered 2.0 units in the Richter scale, which is considered a small earthquake.

Victoria Dam, a concrete arch dam, is Sri Lanka’s largest dam – 122 metres (400 feet) high and 520 metres (1700 feet) long, and is the subject of a recent academic case study under “possible earthquake loading.” Dulip Jayawardena, a former Director of Geological Survey, wrote a comprehensive article in The Island (September 7) providing a scientific explanation of the observed earth tremors and their implications, and urging “the government to appoint a multidisciplinary team of experts comprising of geologists , geophysicists, hydrologists, civil engineers and those from the NBRO as well as the universities to study the state of the Victoria dam as well as other gravity dams and recommend an effective method of monitoring such tremors.”


There have not been any follow up reports after Mr. Jayawardena’s article, to indicate that the government is seriously looking into this. Victoria Dam and reservoir should come under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment. I have not seen any statement in parliament by the subject Minister (Mahinda Amaraweera), or any question put to him by anyone from the opposition. But there is plenty written on the 20th Amendment and plenty more has been written about the attention given by the government to Archaeological investigation in the Eastern Province. Perhaps it is the geology of the area around Victoria Dam that deserves greater government attention than archaeological digs in the Eastern Province. Any problem at the Victoria Dam can create downstream flooding, all the way to Trincomalee.

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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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