* An interview with Dr. Prasanna Cooray
By Udara Karunaratne
Dr. Prasanna Cooray is a social health expert with postgraduate qualifications in Public Health, Sociology and Economics. He has compiled the “Health & Society” and “Environment & Society” for the last 20 years and was adjudged the Best Environmental Journalist in 2017 and the Best Investigative Journalist in 2008 by the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka. In 2018, his contribution to the protection of Sri Lankan forests was acknowledged by the London-based Earth Journalism Network and awarded a fellowship to research and write a series of articles on Sinharaja rainforest covering many aspects.
A social and environmental activist for over 20 years, Dr. Cooray is contesting the upcoming general election from the Jathika Sanvardana Peramuna in the Colombo District. He intends to take his campaign for better health for all and environmental protection to the next level, if elected.
Q – You were a journalist for 20 year besides being a medical doctor. What made you enter politics?
A- I was also a social and environmental activist for over 20 years. I was the founding general secretary of the Green Party of Sri Lanka. In the past I have believed in other people to deliver “good” that I aspired for the people and the country. I backed Mahinda Rajapaksa twice in his presidential candidacy. Then Mr. Maithriplala Sirisena, thinking he would usher in “yahaplana” and bring the rogues of the previous regime to book. All that had, by and large, gone waste. I don’t believe in others anymore. I only believe in myself, and my own honesty. And that’s why I joined the race this time.
Q – But now you are with Dr. Rohan Pallewatte?
A – Yes, we joined hands with Dr. Pallewatte’s party at the last presidential election. That was a collective decision of my group, the Democratic Social Alliance. But we were not card-carrying members of his party. By then we knew he was not a wining horse. But we supported him on principles. For the principles and the brand of politics his party stood for – social democracy. And the economic blueprint his party had for the country. We believe that is far superior to what any other party had. I think that is now becoming evident in the local political scene than ever before. All what they were grappling with in the past – the “billas” and fear psychosis syndrome – all that were just deceptions from the main problem, which is economic. We believe the economic problem of this country will be best tackled by Rohan and his team, ably led by Prof. Krishan Deheragoda, the party president.
Q – What is the programme you offer to people as a candidate from Colombo?
A – First of all, we tell people we are there not to form a government, but to constitute a strong opposition. We contest in eight districts and have put forward some good candidates people can trust.
Also, we need to be cognizant of the primary rolls of a parliamentarian, which are law making and matters related to regulating public finances. Further, these need to be discussed and debated, both in and outside the parliament. Sadly, today both these happen very minimally, and that is why a big gap exists between people’s aspirations and what they get. Unless people are cognizant of these facts, and consider them when electing their representatives, we will never be able to change this corrupt system. After all, you get what you deserve.
With regard to specificities, all what we are to offer to the people are there in our policy document, which is accessible at sdpsl.lk. We have looked at things at macro and micro levels. Also from a top down approach and a bottom up. Further, our policy document remains one and the same for the past four years. It is not something that emerges and disappears “peri-electionally” (in and around elections) like with many other parties.
Q – You have been an ardent writer on health and environment for years. You have fought many battles on both these fronts. How do you expect to further this in politics?
A- On health and environment both our party and I have studied deeply all the core issues and have come out with remedies.
With regard to health, I say three fundamental areas need due attention. One is we have to understand this big myth behind “free” health in Sri Lanka. There’s no more free health in Sri Lanka. Now people have to spend much more than what the government spend on health. As per the grand statistic, out of the total health expenditure of the country the government’s share is only 44%, when people spend 56% out of pocket or through insurance etc. This means today people are made to bare a good part of their health costs, and this could be colossal at times. This even plunge people into poverty. Thus, today we talk of “catastrophic health expenditure” and “impoverishing health costs”.
The second, which is actually the root cause of the first, is that today’s governments spend very little on health. Very much less than what they ought to, considering the growing demands in the field of modern medicine. This figure in the past decades had been on average around 1.5% of the GDP. This is highly insufficient. We propose this to be raised urgently to at least 2.5% over three years.
The third is the step motherly treatment the ayurvedic and traditional systems of medicine continue to receive. Out of the total government health expenditure, this is only a meager 1.5%. This is not only insufficient, unjust as well. Because there are many people who have faith on and seek treatment from this system of medicine, especially for chronic diseases and orthopedic conditions etc. What we propose is that there should be equal allocation of increased governmental spending on health sharing between western and traditional system of healthcare. 50-50 distribution. Of this too, we propose 25% be dedicated to research and development (R & D) of both systems.
To address immediate problems affecting our health system we propose three urgent remedies.
One, to bring the different health systems under a regulatory authority to address the pressing issues urgently. Two, bring private hospitals under regulatory bodies to strike a balance between cost and quality service. Three, to introduce affordable insurance schemes for those who are willing to pay to ease off government health costs to some degree.
Q – What about pressing environmental issues?
A – Yes, environment is one of the worst affected today. Look at some of the things that happened in the last seven months since coming to power of this government. Withdrawal of sand and clay permits, aloe vera project in Wilpattu buffer zone, apple farm project in Pidurutalagala reserve, kaleido beach project in Mount Lavinia and now possible cancellation of 5/2001 circular on other forest lands and to bring them under district secretaries, all these we see as ominous signals of a possible bad time ahead. Not many people understand the gravity of this even if they comprehend the ongoing onslaught on country’s environment. This we have to see in the light of global climate change.
Sri Lanka is one of the worst hit by the global climate change, and this has been shown by many top scientific researches. This we experience on a daily basis with increase in mean temperature, rains not falling on proper time, long continuing draughts, short bouts of torrential rains ending in deluge, loss of important ecosystems, extinction of indigenous species etc. Therefore, turning this tide is very important.
I have made five proposals to be considered on an urgent basis.
1. To bring all the environment related institutions under the environment ministry. Today most of these institutions are dispersed across a wide array of ministries. This has made coordination of these institutions difficult.
2. To assess the forest cover of Sri Lanka by re-surveying. Although government claims the country’s forest cover as 24% of the total land area, this is highly disputed. Some claim it to be around 16%. Whatever it is, there are definite impacts of reduction of forest cover evident by increase in mean temperature, human-elephant conflict, various ill effects faced by wildlife which trespass into human habitations etc. This could only be resolved by scientific reassessment of the country’s forest cover. Even as a party we endorse that the country’s forest cover should at least be 30%.
3. Human-elephant conflict has become a serious issue today. Annually there are about 225 elephant and 80 human deaths that take place in the country. Loss of habitation of elephants is a major reason for this. This has to be addressed urgently through proper scientific approaches.
4. To impose an “environmental tax” on all environmentally harmful products and services, and thereby to discourage their use.
5. To introduce an incentive scheme for environment friendly products and services and to promote them.
Q – What are the social justice issues that you intend to take up on an urgent basis?
With regard to social justice we believe establishing a “Sri Lankan” identity among various ethnic groups in the country as a priority issue. People belonging to all ethnicities and religions should have an environment to live peacefully and without fear. In this regard a proposal against hate speech on social media is one I am campaigning for. The communication norms of a civilized society should be applied to the social media as well.
And also we place special emphasis on the “informal sector” living in the Colombo district. This is a large segment of the population both in Colombo district and elsewhere. They contribute immensely through whatever they do to the local economy and this should be duly recognized. We have already developed a set of proposals in conjunction with some three-wheeler associations in order to establish dignity to their profession enabling them to offer better service safeguarding the interests of both them and the public. Just one line about the magnitude of the hiring three wheelers in the country – there are over 800,000, and if you consider a family of five is maintained by each of these, that means 20% of the country’s population today live on a “three-wheeler economy”.
Q – What would happen to your journalism career if you are elected to parliament?
A- Writing is in my blood. I cannot resist writing. I will keep on writing and would create a bigger platform for the people to engage in governance, policy issues and bring their concerns to the fore. In fact I have already started that through my FB page named Dr. Prasanna Cooray. I’m a strong believer of participatory democracy. I think this age of IT has created the opportunity for that.
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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.
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!.
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!