Dilemmas of Sri Lanka

Friday, 6 December 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Whatever may be the history of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the way he thinks, he has to function as the President of the people who voted for him as well as those who voted against him, during his tenure. 

The Sinhala Buddhist majority constituted the major driving force of the President’s victory. Apparently about 25% of Sinhala Buddhists and almost the entire population of Tamils ​​and Muslims voted against him. But, he is the President not only of the Sinhala Buddhists who voted for him but also the Tamil and Muslim people who voted against him. 

Despite the victory of the new President being huge and unprecedented, the inability to garner the support of Tamil and Muslim people can be considered an inherent limitation of his victory. The kind of leader a country like Sri Lanka which is afflicted with ethnic and religious differences must have is one who is well received and accepted by everyone, regardless of race or religion. Yet, so far, Sri Lanka had not been able to produce leaders of that stature. 

Although Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been elected by an overwhelming majority of Sinhala Buddhist vote, he can become a successful and pragmatic leader only if he will be able to win the confidence and respect of Tamils ​​and Muslims, in addition to the support of Sinhala Buddhist population. 

National unity and integration is an essential prerequisite for the progress of Sri Lanka. If there is a genuine commitment to promote national integration, a greater likelihood of achieving it lies more with a leader who is well-respected by the Sinhala Buddhist community than with one who lacks it. This principle I learnt from none other than Sampanthan, the leader of the TNA, during the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.



The way the President thinks

Though the symbolic message conveyed to the minority communities by choosing the precincts of Ruwanweli Maha Seya as the venue for swearing-in ceremony of the new President cannot be considered a good move, it must be admitted that the signal given to the people of north by adopting a policy that permitted the Virusamaruva, remembrance of LTTE war victims of the north is a good indication. Both Tamil Prabhakaran in the north and Sinhalese Wijeweera in the south should be treated as terrorist leaders. 

In an atmosphere where there is no ban on the JVP to commemorate the rebels who died in JVP insurrections, there should not be a ban on the north to commemorate Prabhakaran or those who died in the course of his rebellion. Although it would not be possible to condone the path of violence chosen by the rebels of Sinhala South and those of the Tamil north, it is nothing but fair that they all, following their defeat, are treated as a misguided lot of children of Sri Lanka. 

It is a fact that Wijeweera and Prabhakaran were commemorated on political grounds. But, it is important that we understand that those who died in the rebellions launched by them are being commemorated by their parents, brothers and sisters, not for political reasons, but in memory of their beloved children and loved ones whom they had lost. 

The measures already taken by the new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reflect a tendency that he is making an attempt to deviate himself from the legacy of the Rajapaksa family, of which he is a member, which had ruled the country for nearly a decade from 2005 to 2015. He has chosen not to wear the ‘kurahan’ sash, the most significant symbol of the Rajapaksa family. Instead, he has chosen the usual short sleeve shirt and the long trouser as his uniform which he did not change when he made his maiden Presidential visit to India. 

The policy of not using the official residence of the President, reducing the number of security vehicles to two, reduction of the number of staff of the Presidential Secretariat, refraining from displaying his portrait in public offices, and introduction of a system to appoint qualified people for State legislative institutions and State-run commercial establishments can be reckoned as symbolic measures that can be appreciated. 

MPs doing business with the Government, contrary to the law, is one of the main reasons for the deterioration of the standards expected of the Parliament. Essentially, this practice must be stopped. Similarly, the right granted to ministers to maintain a private staff of their own in addition to the official staff system should be stopped. 

The cost the country has to incur to maintain this ugly and corrupt system is enormous. This system which is solely intended to provide undue employment opportunities and privileges to the family members of ministers is not to be found in any other country except in Sri Lanka. 

At the same time, the Asset and Liability Law can be regulated. The penalty for refraining from submitting declaration of assets and liabilities wilfully and with the intention of covering up the assets can be subjected to a punishment of one-year prison sentence with a fine of Rs. 1 million. 

The form used for the declaration of assets and liabilities can be updated and make it mandatory to be submitted with an electronic copy. By doing so, all declarations of assets and liabilities can be posted to a website maintained exclusively for public displaying of assets and liabilities so that the public can inspect them without incurring an additional cost. 


Stray dogs

Social media carried a post on the disappearance of dogs straying in and around Viharamahadevi Park with several comments on the safety of stray dogs. The problem of stray dogs is an issue that Sri Lanka has to solve. The population of dogs in Sri Lanka is estimated to be around 2.5 million. Of this, 30% or 750,000 are believed to be stray dogs. 

According to the latest estimates of accidents for the year 2017 presented by Dr. Thilak Siriwardena of the Ministry of Health, the highest number of accidents in that year had caused by animal bites. It has accounted for 33.1% of total accidents whereas the percentage of all road accidents had been only 15.9%; 300,000 patients are being treated annually due to dog bites and of this number, around 30,000 are being treated at the Colombo General Hospital alone. The cost incurred in treating rabies in Sri Lanka amounts to Rs. 592 million per year.

The dog has been a domesticated animal living closer to human beings since the age of hunting. Yet, it is only dogs having a master that should live in a human society. The damage and destruction caused by stray dogs is enormous. Treatment of stray dog bites can cost a great deal of money. The stray dogs constitute an important cause of road accidents as well. The road accidents occurred due to stray dogs had been estimated to be around 26,000 per annum.

According to the law of Sri Lanka, dogs that do not have an owner and stray along freely in public places are considered a category of animals that must be destroyed. According to the law, not only the local authorities but also the public have the power to destroy them. There was a system in Sri Lanka to catch the stray dogs and kill them. However, the Government banned the killing of stray dogs during the regime of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the stray dogs got a lease of life, and they began to live freely on the streets of Sri Lanka. Consequently, there had been a rapid increase in the number of stray dogs. If at least the new President will take some measures to rectify this error, it should be considered a beneficial thing, not a bad move.


Agriculture and wild animals

I am of the view that a rigid policy must be adopted not only in regard to the stray dogs, but also wild animals like monkeys, rilavus, dandulenas (rodents), pigs, porcupines and peacocks that harm agriculture. 

According to Government estimates, the damage caused to rural agricultural crops by wild animals is more than 30% of the total production. The value of the damage caused is approximately Rs. 350 billion or Rs. 350,000 million. Damage to crops by wild animals has greatly diminished the income generated from agricultural crops while discouraging the farmers in engaging in agricultural pursuits. 

A policy designed to reduce the enormous damage to agriculture caused by wild animals will undoubtedly lead to a significant increase in the income of the rural population and generate a renewed interest and hope in them thereby overcoming the lack of interest that prevails currently among the farmers. 

Almost every country has a policy to control the damage caused to agriculture by wild animals. Prior to the beginning of armed insurrections, farmers were allowed to hunt the wild animals that harmed their crops, thus controlling the density of wild animals that harmed agriculture. However, the guns possessed by the farmers were taken over by the Government following the armed rebellions coming to the fore. 

The guns seized from the farmers were not returned to them even after the rebellions were over which invariably resulted in a rapid increase in the population of wild animals that threatened agriculture. For whatever reason, the disappearance of foxes from forest areas can be considered an additional factor affecting the rapid growth of peacock and wild boar population.

The monkeys and rilavus have become the most destructive and uncontrollable species in the field of home gardening. The damage done to coconut and fruit crops by them is enormous. If the density of their population can be reduced as much as 80% of their present level, certainly it would lead to a massive revival in the field of home gardening and almost double the income generated from home gardening. 

The huge growth of population of these animals can be controlled by giving the farmers the right to hunt and sell the meat of animals such as wild boar, peacocks and porcupine. Further, adopting a policy that would allow the hunting of wild animals that cause damage to agriculture in the rural areas outside the forests will provide a viable source of income for hunters.


Milk and meat

The average annual cost incurred by Sri Lanka for importing milk powder is around $ 400 million. If Sri Lanka wants, the milk it needs can be produced within the country itself. It will help drastically to cut the cost of importing milk powder. However, the major obstacle Sri Lanka is facing in this regard is not the lack of grazing lands but the cultural and religious attitudes. It is not possible and feasible to pursue cattle farming only for producing milk. Cattle farming will be economically viable only if it is utilised for production of beef in addition to producing milk. But Sri Lanka perceives slaughtering of cattle for meat as a great sin.

In many Buddhist countries, per capita consumption of beef remains at a higher level compared to Sri Lanka. In Tibet and Mongolia, not only the lay Buddhists but also the Buddhist priests themselves consume beef. Bhutan has the highest per capita consumption of beef among the South Asian countries.

The meat consumption remains at a very high level in non-Buddhist countries. Sri Lanka has the lowest meat consumption among Buddhist countries. The per capita annual meat consumption in several non-Buddhist countries is as follows: UK 84 kg, USA 94 kg and Australia 111 kg. Sri Lanka’s per capita annual meat consumption is only 6.3 kg while it stands at 32.1 kg in Myanmar, 49.9 kg in Vietnam, 25.8 in Thailand and 21.3 kg in Laos. 

Sri Lanka can be made self-sufficient in milk provided beef production is allowed to be pursued as an export industry, while at the same time maintaining its policy of not eating beef, as being done in India. 

The Hindus regard the cow as God. Hindus in India does not eat beef, but they consume dairy products. India is the biggest exporter of beef in the world. In 2014, India exported 2,087,000 metric tons of beef which accounts for 20% of the world’s beef exports. The income that India earned from beef export amounted to $ 4,718.18 million. If Sri Lanka too, can adopt the tolerance espoused by India in regard to beef production, cattle farming can be developed to make the country self-sufficient in milk and convert it to a viable source of income.


The need for an agrarian revolution

It can be said that the stagnating rural agricultural sector that depends on ordinary farmers and the commercial agriculture sector controlled by wealthy companies needs a rapid and revolutionary transformation. A remarkable improvement of the economy of Sri Lanka will be possible only if a discernible transformation leading to make a marked improvement in the income generated by both sectors can be made. 

To develop the rural agriculture sector, it must be relieved of the damage caused by wild animals. In addition, the rural agriculture sector must be directed to cultivate alternate crops that lead to increased productivity and the priority given to paddy cultivation should be eliminated. 

The income earned from paddy cultivation is very limited. If the farmers were lucky enough, the maximum income they can earn from one acre of paddy will be in the region of Rs. 40,000, for one season. In spite of the low income generated from paddy cultivation, still the largest share of cultivated land (933,000 hectares) in Sri Lanka has been devoted for paddy cultivation. A large portion of paddy lands in the wet zone are not being cultivated at all. Also, there are no other crops being cultivated in these lands. Paddy cultivation requires only 19 days of manpower for a season. How can a farmer community that works for 19 days for more than three months a year become rich? 

On the other hand, how can a nation that eats rice for all three meals become healthy and efficient? Sri Lanka must reduce the quantity of rice consumed and complement the diet with more of other nutritious items like meat, vegetables and fruits. It can make a big difference in the quality and efficiency of land-use labour, types of crops cultivated and the practices and methods employed in cultivation, thereby making a big difference in income generated from agriculture.

This will pave the way for creating a situation where Sri Lanka can produce its rice requirement in the dry zone. The lands used for paddy cultivation in the wet zone can be used for growing alternate crops which are economically productive or utilised for other economic activities without changing the contours and lowland landscape of the land. Thus, the wet zone paddy lands can be used for shrimp or freshwater fish farming or they can be turned into large farms to rear buffaloes for milk and meat. If meat is not consumed locally, it would be possible to make it an export industry. Moreover, the wet zone paddy fields can be converted to farms producing ducks for foreign markets.

It is important that Sri Lanka identifies new crops and new economic means that will help make a big difference in the level of income of rural people. One day, we will invariably be compelled to repent if we fail to make the optimum use of market space available for hemp or cannabis. Cannabis can be turned into a lucrative export crop. Vanilla is also another crop that Sri Lanka has neglected. At present, the price of vanilla is assumed to be not less than Rs 20,000 per kilo. Also, cultivation of kithul can be turned into a commercial crop.

Sri Lanka should take into consideration the possibility of using fuel alcohol produced from renewable energy sources ; ethanol is the most commonly used fuel alcohol, to reduce fuel cost by mixing alcohol with automobile fuels up to 15%. Fuel mixed with alcohol is increasingly being used in Brazil, USA, Europe and India. The annual expenditure on fuel imports by Sri Lanka is nearly $ 5,000 million. It would be possible to save foreign exchange to the value $ 750 million annually, if we can get the local kasippu producers to manufacture 100% pure kasippu that can be used as fuel alcohol. 

It can be made a lucrative source of income for rural people while at the same time reducing the amount of foreign exchange spent on fuel imports. What Sri Lanka needs at this juncture, for its progress and sustainable development is innovative and practical ideas which may contribute to a revolutionary change in the sphere of revenue generation.

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