Saturday, May 30, 2009

Playing politics with Agriculture-an integral part of democracy in Sri Lanka

Agriculture is an emotive issue in Sri Lanka, as most of the population live in the rural areas and have some kind of bond with the land. In terms of the old-fashioned caste system, the Govigama forms the largest block of any grouping in Sri Lanka. The reality however is that within this sector less than 5% of families depend only on agriculture for their livelihood, having a surplus, from personal use, for sale. In addition over half the urban population have roots in the villages they or their parents came from, and so have a bond. Using anecdotal evidence, when one greets a stranger in SL one asks where one is from, and one expects the name of a village to be mentioned, even if one has never been there. I am frequently asked this, and ironically, the people who live in Raja Ela, are descendants of colonists, but still lay claim to the village where their ancestor came from!

The subsidy given to paddy farming, not to vegetable or fruit crops, is a ploy to garner votes. The productivity of this is questionable. It only applies to farmers with up to 5 acres (2hectares) of land under paddy cultivation. I agree that at present this small farmer supplies the bulk of our rice requirement, and are so subsidized as otherwise they may not get the yields needed to feed the population. This high cost farming is not sustainable. In future with less labor, only larger cultivations will be viable, as the need for equipment becomes paramount and their costs can only be recoverable in larger cultivations.

We must face the reality of the future with no agricultural labor to speak of and therefore encourage and give incentives to productive farmers to take on more efficient agricultural methods, in order that we can reduce our costs of production per kg, which can then be passed on to the consumer, while also giving the remaining farmers a larger return. It is absolutely pointless to support this vote bank of farmers who can barely produce enough rice to feed their families, and whose primary source of income is in some other field. Those in the armed forces, police, government servants including teachers and the retail, construction and transport industry account for the bulk of these so called “farmers”

The state subsidizes by giving low cost fertilizer, free land and free water, which encourage inefficient planting methods. These people are merely kitchen gardeners, an essential part of the food chain, who should not be given public funds. Agriculture is for the seasoned professional with dedication, and resources as well as skill from education.

I am aware that I am addressing a very controversial, and emotive topic, but if we are to win the war on food production, we must take a leaf out of the books of the farmers who are most efficient and emulate their methods. This is not possible for the majority of the people, as they are not looking at this vocation for their bread and butter. Our land policy must change to permit those “Govi Rajas” of Sri Lanka with a greater vision, to progress without silly bureaucratic restrictions aimed at preventing risk taking.

We need a sea change in attitudes to farming in Sri Lanka if we are to come close to countries like India in terms of costs of production. I am not trying to leap into the Western sphere of agriculture, but one where only those serious about farming should be given the tools (knowledge, land, seeds, water, fertilizer and equipment) to succeed.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Betrayal- English speaking countries – US, UK et al

Though I have now settled in Sri Lanka, I have lived most of my life in the UK and the USA, and in fact have lived in the UK longer than my total time spent in Sri Lanka, so I consider myself entitled to make the comments below, not with malice but with regret about the behavior which is tantamount to a betrayal of our democracy, where SL is still working hard to empower all its people on its principles. We can longer be guided by their examples or actions, and have to find other friends who are more respectful.

The attitude of the UK, and US as enunciated by their foreign ministers, as well as their European partners, and no doubt Canada, to the conflict that just concluded in Sri Lanka is at best condescending and at worst a brutal assault on freedom from terror. The dragging through the mud that Sri Lanka had to endure in its finest and proudest hour, at the UN HRC was a show of one-upmanship that completely failed. In fact it failed so miserably, that I believe it empowers more autocratic, dictatorial and down right criminal regimes to commit no end of crimes, knowing full well that the moral superiority has completely disappeared, with little hope of resurrection.

In short countries with worse Human Rights records will have no compunction but to continue with their activities. I lay the blame squarely on the incompetence and arrogance of these nations that completely failed to measure the real rights and wrongs, for the new order of terrorism. Using International Fora towards petty ends backfired with more venom.

Sri Lanka is one of the founding members of the Commonwealth, and it that secures a top spot with India in seniority. They have been very supportive of US & UK except in the case of Israel, which is a special case and should not be compared with in any other conflict, requiring a different set of criteria.

The incompetence of their foreign missions in Sri Lanka failed to measure the pulse of those who have endured daily insecurity. It is possibly due to over representation with pro LTTE staff, who did a disservice. The one-sided view of the Tamil Diaspora that funded LTTE make these countries party to the suffering of the Sri Lankans. To delay the end of hostilities and further to take the country to task on acts of war, where the other side is not amongst the living to answer to their egregious conduct, smacks of sour grapes, and vicarious pleasure at humbling a victor. I don’t like to use double standard as SL conflict stands on its own justification. BETRAYED

It is never late to admit one made an error of judgement, and patch up a relationship worth keeping

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Not too late to correct the miscalculation by the US, UK, EU, Scandinavia regarding the LTTE

Fundamental to the appreciation of the conduct of war by the SL government and the Security Forces, was the attitude and the tacit assistance of the West in their relationships with both parties to the conflict. The most important error of judgment by the West was the belief that the LTTE represented the true aspirations of the Tamil people, and therefore had an equal right to be heard in negotiations. The intervention of the Scandinavians in particular as honest brokers, has proved in hindsight to be counterproductive, and one could argue resulted in a great loss of life of both communities in Sri Lanka indirectly.

Lets us not go too far back, but to the negotiations the current Govt. pursued in Europe a misnomer called ‘Peace Talks’. They failed not because of the bad intentions of the Govt. but the obvious disinterest of the LTTE. If the West came out strong with an ultimatum to them to drop their arms, and their cadres then about 40,000 lives would have been saved in the past three years, much more than half of them were soldiers I might add.

It is now apparent and shamefully still not accepted by them, the West was fooled by the Diaspora who funded the war, maintaining LTTE was a legitimate outfit despite the official bans for cosmetic reasons. The obvious violence in terms of indiscriminate suicide and other bombings were not enough to persuade the West on the error of their judgment. I remember only a muffled condemnation of the terrorist bombings was the result of each attack. They even seemed to condone the attack on off duty serviceman in the case of the Digampathana attack where over 100 service personnel died near Sigiriya on their way home on furlough.

What is hard to rationalize is that the victory over the most brutal terrorist outfit on the face of the earth has not been followed by one word of congratulations from any of the Western powers! What kind of duplicitous behavior is that? Is it hard to accept, are they sad that VP and his mob have been totally routed and massacred? However much I disagree with the War, I cannot see nor has any party shown any other workable option as they were all tried and failed, and so the only reasonable option, that of the complete vanquishing of the LTTE was all that was left.

I appeal to the West, that they are gradually losing their influence over this area by this act, and as there are other allies to rely on it is they who are showing Sri Lanka the path to China and Russia, not the latter who have come here. It is surprising that no forward thinking is taking place, as a growing Tamil militancy in the West will be the result, this will affect the Western nations more than Sri Lanka. Tamils by their indoctrination and their past experiences have not seemed to integrate to the host communities as much as the Sinhala Diaspora have done. I make this comment as someone who has lived in the US and UK for 33 years, and am sorry to see how the Tamil Diaspora has completely hoodwinked the strategy of the West towards Sri Lanka.

It is not too late to make amends. Due to the perceived connivance of all INGOs and the UN agencies with the Tamils in Sri Lanka, even at the latter stages of the war, the SL govt. is obviously wary of allowing them unfettered access to the displaced people, for fear of stoking resentment leading to future militancy, by indirectly alleging their rights have been violated. So please don’t play games with people’s lives.

I am in no way a SL govt. supporter, but I do support the elimination of the LTTE, and that the rules of engagement have to be compromised in this regard. Debate that argument before calling on Human Rights investigations, and a whole host of allegations, which will only drive the SL authorities further away from Western influence. Be realistic, they will not result in any prosecutions. You only have to look around you to see how worse atrocities have not even had a hearing. There is absolutely no question that the SL authorities don’t care a toss, and my fear is that the West part in this will embolden them to more destruction of individual freedoms that have nothing to do with Tamils. So in the interests of Human Rights, do not take an ethnic line, as it will backfire on all peace-loving peoples of Sri Lanka.

There is still a small window of opportunity to get back into line, by providing the relief that is needed, first to alleviate the suffering of the displaced, and then rebuilding the infrastructure of the North. Don’t sit in the balcony and complain that the govt. is keeping people in camps for too long if you have not helped in rebuilding the infrastructure to have them resettled in what is now a mine littered landscaped full of the debris of war. This is a democracy, and the President is astute enough to court the Tamil vote in the North, so he can say he is truly a leader of the whole nation. He will therefore do his utmost to help these people not put them against him. If it is good for the people, why hinder the progress even if you don’t like the morality of the people who currently lead. After all a week is a long time in..

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Blogs as an alternative to on-line newspapers for the latest news.

In my previous blog entry below, a day spent on checking international news on line, left me with the distinct impression that objective journalism is dead in the Western Press being pressured to write sensationalism that sells papers or draws readership, in terms of hits!

So truth and objectivity suffer as sometimes it is just news. In this process, I discovered that there are blogs, that cover different topics of the day and are current. So depending on one’s interests, one can find a blog that is more relevant than a newspaper. A cousin has already told me that some of the best sources of information for financial news are blogs that he follows.

In that context, this is an area the Sri Lanka blogosphere can develop, where individuals cover some topics of their interest, which is newsworthy to others who are interested in the same. I realize that the SL blog community is still in its infancy and are still at the name-calling and swear word level, when one does not agree with another’s viewpoint. However the end of the terror uprising and its consequences is an area where it is time to develop this aspect seriously as I know some of the blogging community are active in areas that they can report on objectively.

To use an example; I just read a report in the London Times, where at the Manick Farm, the reporter had ostensibly interviewed a few people, (don’t know if the reporter just wrote heresay of it or he really went there) and the translator was sympathetic to the LTTE cause and worded the English translation of the replies of the people to sound worse than the person’s actual statement. It sounded awful. This is relative to what? Not to what they had to live through before they got here!

I have heard first hand accounts of relief workers who have gone there with supplies, and they give a completely different slant. Surely is there not an effort by the State to do what they can with the limited resources at their disposal to make the conditions of the people as comfortable as possible? I have also heard that there is space for kids to play and giant screens for people to watch movies as well, and for those who have not had electricity in years this must be a pleasant change. Not if you read the London Times!!

So my fellow bloggers, take up the mantle and help balance the bias. If you are credible you will have an international following in to time.

What have we learnt in the past week from Western Media Sources?

I have gone about my normal activities this week, save for Sunday the 17th where I spent the whole day on the net, absorbing all the international news, I could read, from English language sources, primarily from the Western nations, but also from India and China.

The Western News Media(WNM) was to a fault, very skeptical and totally lacking in praise, contrasting with the sheer joy and jubilation we felt here at home, and the sense of relief that finally we could breathe easy and tread with less care when we step out of our homes. It is only fair that we are allowed to express these feelings in ways that come naturally to us. Some got into pick ups with Sri Lanka flags and shouted the end of the LTTE. Others lit crackers, while still others set up makeshift places to prepare and serve Kiri Bath (Milk Rice) a traditional food served on festive occasions.

What irked me about the WNM was that I have in the past years noted the bias they have for the LTTE. The Tamil Diaspora(TD) have steadily and consistently provided them with the angle in a calculated and deliberate manner, which has also been effective in prodding their political leaders to concentrate on their side of the story, which for obvious reasons contrasts starkly with the side that the SL govt. wishes to portray. However the canard of lies finally was proof beyond doubt, when the civilians were rescued before the final battle that eliminated the hardcore, as well as the whole of the top leadership in a day. There was no admission of being misled, and the media promptly even without 24 hours grace turned on HR violations and mass killings of innocents etc.

This is proof beyond doubt if ever that was needed. I felt that a balance was required, from one extreme of government propaganda on the Island that was very clever, as it was directed towards the whole purpose of winning the war, and I don’t take issue with that, as is their right. Lack of balance in WNM therefore meant that polarized issues were all that appeared. My opinion was taken by each side, as being a lap dog of the other. This is the problem in being objective, as it does not please either agenda.

I am of the opinion that Western Journalism has hit rock bottom, only catering to sensational by lines, and profit motive of attracting readership, no matter what is said. We must give credit where it is due, no matter our opinions on how it was achieved, as the LTTE terror outfit is history.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Our land of missed opportunities but I am still hopeful

I gave a up a comfortable life in the West four and half years ago, to try and make a go of life in rural Sri Lanka, making use of opportunities afforded to me, to build an agro based enterprise from scratch. Many people mistakenly assumed, that I prematurely retired from the hustle and bustle of city life to live in cozy retirement away from the cares of the world.

This period has been full of, and continues to be a litany of pitfalls more than blessings, and as I begun with minimal capital and a negative cash flow farm, it has been the most difficult struggle of my life. I can honestly say the main reason, that I have been able to survive for so long under the conditions, were that my needs are few with no family commitments, having lived on less than US$10 a month for personal expenses, and the belief that eventually I would succeed making the sacrifices worthwhile.

I had hoped to be over the hill in about 3 years, as that was all I had budgeted to survive, however I have still to achieve that initial target, and while I believe I am going in the right direction, the human resources that fate deemed I have to deal with let me down, something I had completely miscalculated on. In this field I have entered into, one relies on the honesty, integrity and attitude of the people one relies on, purely because I just don’t have the physical ability to oversea everything I do. I am glad that I did not borrow funds to finance my activities, except for a Rs100,000 loan I took against my only life insurance policy. I have had to supplement shortfalls out of consultancies, as I have no financial resources to fall back on.

Now I have a clearer vision of what I need to do to achieve my goals, and also how I can finance the capital required for that, as well as hiring the right people for the tasks. The initial years have been essential in knowing the limitations of what can reasonably be expected. One bitter lesson I have learned in Sri Lanka is that the armchair critics and pundits, using anecdotal examples and figures build castles in the air with gratuitous advice that is wholly unpractical in the Sri Lanka of today, which is also vastly different to the Sri Lanka of yesterday, in that I mean pre 1977.

Crucial to this equation is understanding the nuances of the vastly inflated expectations of the work force who have been completely spoilt by successive governments that have promised far more than they can deliver. This along with the release provided by the massive exodus for overseas employment that have created a severe skill shortage and also a devastating effect on the work ethic of those remaining, together with the war that has recruited the pool of all our youth with high income expectations in the security forces, means we must recreate industry based on the same level of labor saving devices used in the west, and not even for a moment assume this is a country of low wages.

On the point of low wages, even though the theoretical wage maybe lower, the actual wage is very high perhaps 3 times higher, when taking vacation time, productivity, lack of reliability and need for supervision, something our policy makers have not taken into consideration. The added dimension of the lower level of morality, also one that adds significantly to employment cost, creates a need for a very small, reliable workforce restricted as much as possible in number of locations, that need to be managed for an individual engaging in a business.

There is so much development work and industry that can be generated in Sri Lanka given the resources it has excluding the human element. The government instead of only managing its main task of setting up a low cost infrastructure, good governance and law enforcement, try to meddle in everything else and create inefficiencies that add to the cost of private enterprise. As a farmer these costs are I believe even greater than that industrialists have to bear, effectively reducing instead of increasing the productivity of that sector.

I can write a book, just listing out the businesses I believe that are viable in Sri Lanka, there is so much unfulfilled demand, due to unfulfilled expectations, and we continue to prevent the entrepreneurial spirit of many in the Island, by putting controls that favor stooges of politicians, and government, taxes that are barriers, oligopolies that favor a few, and despite the talk, not really support small businesses with lending, because the lenders (staff evaluating the loans) are risk averse salaried people who do not know about risk and reward in a business venture.

I believe there is a pool of budding entrepreneurs in rural areas, who need husbanding and help, but we do not have a culture of individualism, so they need to be able to go it alone with assistance in the skills of running a business, complementing the talent they have in the products or services they can offer. These openings will reduce the skills drain overseas and with good governance I have repeatedly called for, will complete the foundation.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The dilemma of a moderate view, the Sri Lankan ethnic issue attitudes

To a Tamil, I am branded as a Sinhala chauvinist, and to a Sinhala person I am branded as an LTTE sympathizer, so therein lies the problem of growing up from the polarized issues. Having lived in the US and UK most of my growing up life, I have become used to this. As it appears to be normal, when it comes to expatriates of different religious or ethnic groupings, the issues get polarized and completely out of control. Reasoning and truth become the first casualty, and warped logic and unfounded ideas prevail.

Undoubtedly to some, my reasoning will also appear to be warped, based on my personal prejudices, but I am sincerely trying or attempting to find some common ground where we can find an acceptable arrangement to the current crisis. So let me first try and lay down my personal angle to this, knowing I can be persuaded to change my mind, if the arguments are persuasive.

I am Sinhala, with my paternal side hailing from a village in the Wanni, the true Wanni that is, in the Kurunegala District and not the made up one in the north. That is why my ancestors had a ge name of Wanninayaka. One of my ancestors represented the Kandyan people, or Udarata in the Legislative Council under the British rule, and further up the ladder, one was executed by the British, but I hasten to add, after more than 18 years of living in the UK, I bear no malice now to the descendents of the British for that act. One lesson I have learnt in life is that one should not hold descendents, be it families or nations responsible for the ills of their forefathers as then there is no limit to and end to hatred.

With regard to the LTTE, I understand the reasons for its formation, and I also, have concerns for the difficulty of its destruction, due to Diaspora, that cannot see reason. I just hope that time will see sense and a new order return. I also believe that genuine attempts were made by successive Sri Lankan governments and international intermediaries to find a solution, and cease their terror, and the ball was completely on the LTTE court, and they thrashed it outside the grounds. This left only one option for the Sri Lankan state, namely fighting and winning all the ground under LTTE control.

Due to the ferocity of the fighting and the ruthlessness of the LTTE psyche towards Tamils and Sinhala, and the barbarity of its actions in suicide bombings, and callous murders of dissenters, there was no option, but to fight to win, with no ceasefire. I must add that I DO NOT equate LTTE with Tamil citizens of this country, nor do I accept that they represent the will of the Tamil people living in Sri Lanka, but I do acknowledge that there is some element of sympathy for the bravado and fighting capability of the LTTE to take on the whole of the SL forces being completely out numbered and outgunned 100 to 1. I also hold the Diaspora directly responsible for the suffering of both the Sinhala and Tamil people throughout this conflict. I also hold the LTTE responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide, as people of other races have been chased out like animals from the LTTE areas.

Now the war is over bar the shouting, I would sincerely want this state to be a responsible and participatory member of the United Nations, that can hold its own against larger states with respect, and it is that Moral Standard that I am holding the current administration to in my view.

All citizens must have equal rights under the law, the emergency should be lifted, a freer responsible press freedom permitted, and open dissent tolerated without fear of incarceration or death. That means the Police force requires more balance in how it deals with the citizenry both Sinhala and Tamil, and of course all races, and the Judiciary should not just be seen to be impartial, but also act in that way as well. I have not read the constitution, but if such rights are not enshrined, then they should.

I am sick and tired of people always pointing fingers at the wrongs of others when accused of some crime or wrong doing, so justifying their wrongdoing. Something is either right or wrong, but the attitude that somehow you are with the LTTE if you oppose the government, that is anathema to me. To have representatives of the government say things like that demeans their credibility and therefore the country’s credibility as they represent the views of an elected Government of a democracy.

I want a permanent solution, so that our descendents do not have to undergo the same trauma we have. I believe it will work, and I believe compromise is the art of the deal. I know many Sinhala friends who always say that the Sinhala people’s rights need to be protected and Buddhism preserved first and foremost, and anyone one can live here under that regime. However how would you feel if you are not one of them? If you say that’s tough, then you don’t want a permanent solution. You just want all non Sinhala and/or non Buddhist to own most of the assets of the country, but few other rights of belonging to a nation state. Representation in state jobs and a voice in administration should not be just for show. It has to be real and effective.