Wednesday, 06 October 2021 04:04

Who Will Bite The Bullet? - Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere are multiple signs that the country is in a major crisis that is most visibly manifesting itself in the economic downturn but also in the moral sphere, law and order and international relations. The reopening of the country after the 40 day lockdown saw lines of people forming outside of local milk production outlets in their attempt to purchase milk food for their families. There were accompanying media reports of a shipload of milk powder being diverted to another country’s port due to the inability of the Sri Lankan importer to obtain the foreign exchange necessary to pay for the containers they had ordered. It is not only that imported goods are unavailable, their prices have also shot up. Social media has shared visuals taken from the early 1970s when queues formed in Sri Lanka for rice and basic staples during the time of the world food crisis. It happened due to external forces on that occasion, which cannot be applied at this time. It happened, therefore it can happen again.

The weekend media headlines were also about the huge loans that the country is being forced to obtain from other countries to pay for fuel and other basic imports. Even though these loans will ease the immediate problems and transport will not be disrupted, they will not prove to be a long term solution as these loans have to be repaid with interest. There was also a report of another huge loan from the World Bank to improve the road connectivity system. It evokes memories of a similar road connectivity project that was to be supported by the MCC grant offered by the US government but which was rejected on the grounds that it would be detrimental to national sovereignty. Some of those who govern the country today warned that this project would divide the country into two by means of an electrified fence and US visas would be needed to travel to the holy sites of Anuradhapura. It is such attitudes and distortions that contribute to impoverish and divide the country. 

There was also the shocking news that the country was about to accept organic fertilizer with harmful bacteria in it. In the past, travelers returning from abroad have had their apples and other fruits brought for personal use confiscated by customs on grounds that they might bring in micro-organisms and pests from abroad that would be detrimental to local agriculture. In this case samples of organic fertilizer imported from abroad proved to have harmful bacteria. Initially those who wanted the fertilizer said it might be the sample that was flawed and not the container load that was to follow, but when this too was found to be infected, the entire consignment was rejected. There has been no adequate answer to the farmers and associated field advice regarding how to continue the cultivation in these circumstances. 

Inter-Dependence
Underlying the economic and other travails of the country are two key factors. The first is the pursuit of private gain by those entrusted with public responsibility. In this regard it is not a foregone conclusion that the shipload of contaminated organic fertilizer would be turned away. The problem is that it might find its way back. The agricultural authorities now say that the company that produced the infected organic fertilizer will send a batch of fresh fertilizer to Sri Lanka without the harmful bacterial pathogens. The usual practice would be to blacklist a company that sent harmful pathogens in their shipment. But considerations of private profit or loss can make this an exception. 

The second key factor is that decisions are made without sufficient understanding of the inter-connectedness of all life, whether political, economic or personal. This may be seen in the decision to ban chemical fertilisers without adequate preparation. Experience has shown worldwide that victories have been won after years of preparation and learning from mistakes in which the decisions are made by veterans who have become experts in their fields. The decision to ban chemical fertilizers without similar years of preparation and participation of experts in the field needs to be reconsidered. There needs to be much awareness creation and advocacy on the ground before it really happens and in stages. In particular, the import of infected organic fertiliser may cause more damage than the chemical fertilizer which it replaces. 

As a result of the ban on chemical fertilisers the price of the stock that remains has gone up and crop yields have dropped due to the unavailability of adequate fertilisers and herbicides on time. This was the deficit that the organic fertilizer that was imported and sent back was meant to fill even in part. The reduction in production would mean there is a need for more imports of food grains and other staples for which the country has limited foreign exchange as the milk powder shortage has shown. The Planters’ Association of Ceylon has urged the Government to immediately to avoid major loss of foreign exchange earnings and further worsening the crisis with reduced crops and possible wipe-out of rubber plantations due to the fungal disease. They also estimate a 40 percent drop in tea exports next year. 

Ominous Warning
There is a need for an independent group of experts to review the situation. The intentions of the government may be good, but the process of decision making needs to be changed so that private profit and self-interest does not take first place. The present constitutional arrangement is for the president to have the final power to appoint persons to key institutions of state be they in the public service, judiciary, police or even statutory bodies. This needs to be modified to ensure the independence and integrity of those selected to these high positions. There is a need to bring in the opposition and civil society into the selection process along with the government to ensure that the system of checks and balances works with integrity. All institutions, including the presidency, need to be subjected to the principles of accountability and checks and balances. 

When problems are not solved by the state institutions that are set up to solve problems it will be the case that people, organisations and communities seek solutions outside the state. Today, whether it is in the Attorney General’s Department, which is being accused of irregular appointments, the police department, which is being accused of not doing their investigations into cases in which government personalities are involved, the prisons department, which permitted a minister to enter with a pistol, the education department which is failing to resolve a protracted dispute with teachers, or the elections department that has failed to hold provincial elections for over three years, there is a loss of confidence in the state. 

The most recent example is the Catholic Church which has been asking for investigations into the Easter bombing to yield results after two years and many promises by the government’s leaders. It is time to know the truth and it is only truth that will help Sri Lanka to become free of this burden. Ominously at a time when the Church leaders have said that they are not satisfied with this type of investigation and they will go to the international community, they have been warned that another attack on churches is possible. Instead of identifying the culprits and those behind them, the government system is filing action against those who were clearly not behind the bombings, such as the former Defence Secretary and former police chief against whom 855 indictments had been filed with the prosecution naming 1,216 witnesses which will ensure a very lengthy trial process. This can send a worrying message to those within the state system that they may be scapegoats for actions and omissions that were beyond them. 

“It happened, therefore it can happen again” wrote Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and writer. It seems that for Sri Lanka, ‘’It happened and it will happen again and again” will be our fate until we have the leadership that will bite the bullet and change course.