Carrying on from last week where we referred to the annual Thai Pongal harvest festival without the harvest, the plight of the country’s farmers, especially those in the Northern Province, is worthy of further mention. Those living in the rest of the country must appreciate their plight, if for nothing else than the fact that [...]


The plight of the battered Northern farmers


Carrying on from last week where we referred to the annual Thai Pongal harvest festival without the harvest, the plight of the country’s farmers, especially those in the Northern Province, is worthy of further mention.

Those living in the rest of the country must appreciate their plight, if for nothing else than the fact that they are the consumers of their produce. These farmers were first battered by a long and protracted insurgency, and now, by natural disasters and ministerial incompetence.

Last week, we said how an extended drought and a change in the rainy season coupled with a fertilizer shortage had hit the farmers in their solar plexus, knocking the wind out of them. In the South, floods took a toll compounding matters. But in the otherwise harsh northern terrain, farmers are further emasculated by absentee landlordism, a bad rural road network to transport perishable produce, poor rail links with big cities, high cost of production, and ‘middle-men’ exploiting connectivity, or rather the lack of it, between producer and consumer etc.

Additionally, there are a multitude of other factors like banks offering loans with short grace periods for repayments breathing down the necks of the debtor-farmer forcing him to sometimes take drastic personal decisions. Interest rates go up to 8 percent because much of the money doled out is linked to falling currency exchange rates. Leasing is no better. The inability to pay back has also driven farmers to take these extreme personal decisions.

Sri Lanka’s North is always considered a dry zone, but excessive rainfall without smart irrigation systems should be of concern to the Northern Provincial Council. Though classified a dry zone, partly due to the scorched earth, the Northern Province can be a lush, green, cultivatable land mass. It is still supported by the farmer-peasant, basically engaged in subsistence farming. A safety net is what these hardworking farmers need to grow more food for the province and the rest of this united, unitary country.

Timely reminder of the three pillars of democracy

India has just completed its 70th year of Independence and will next week celebrate its 68th anniversary of becoming a Republic – as Sri Lanka is on the eve of its own 70th year of Independence.

It is, therefore, of some merit to read what a frontline Indian Cabinet Minister with a political past, present and future ahead of him had to say (please see Op-Ed pages) on the past, present and future of his country, whose freedom movement was intrinsically interwoven with the freedom of this country.

No doubt, World War II, ironically as it turned out to be, helped weaken the British Empire, economically. Though Britain had profited immensely from centuries of colonial rule over India, Sri Lanka and many other countries, once Great Britain could ill-afford to maintain its presence in these countries whose loyal subjects had helped salvage the Empire from “a war against a monstrous tyranny”, as Britain’s wartime Premier Sir Winston Churchill put it, the call for freedom and self-governance in these neck of the woods was also ringing in the empirical ears at Whitehall.

India’s Law, Justice and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad speaking at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture in Colombo this week recalled the personal friendship between the social and spiritual reformers of the 19th century, Anagarika Dharmapala (Sri Lanka) and Swami Vivekananda (India) and how the shared heritage has seen India issue a stamp in honour of Dharmapala and Sri Lanka, one of Vivekananda. The Congress Parties of the two countries had close links in the 20th century. “It was more than merely for casting off the colonial bond…. it was to create a new nation free, sovereign and proud,” he said.

He went on to quote the iconic Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a Buddhist by conviction, and main architect of India’s Constitution as then Law Minister about political democracy and social democracy and India’s first president Dr. Rajendra Prasad about the need for honest men of strong character to guide the destiny of India.

Around this time 70 years ago, at home, free Lanka’s first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake echoed similar sentiments. He said on February 4, 1948 while unfurling the ‘lion flag’ which had been brought down by the British in 1815: “At a time we are celebrating Independence, let all Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, unite in brotherly love to rise with determination seeking development of our country, and our people”.

The Indian Minister pointed out that the success of India remaining united for 70 years amidst such a kaleidoscope of peoples was based on three pillars — an independent Elections Commission; an independent Judiciary; and a free Press. India remained a secular state when all expected it to be a theological state.

Like all nations, India has its share of problems. In 1975, the country survived a looming parliamentary dictatorship. While the visiting Law Minister was speaking in Colombo, all hell had broken loose with an implosion among its Supreme Court justices. To its credit, the ruling BJP is commendably resisting pressures from its fraternal parties to make India a Hindutva.

But the glue that holds that huge sub-continent together comprises the three pillars he mentioned – free elections; Courts; and the Media. It behoves Sri Lankan political leaders who tinker with these three pillars from time to time to heed what was said.

The Minister’s insight into modern India’s futuristic plans and its missing out one technological generation, but catching up on the digital age is food for thought for Sri Lanka. Recently, Sri Lanka Telecom torpedoed a dialogue with Malaysian Telecom so that it preserves its own monopoly. Such actions do not do any good for the development of the country.

In the bad old days of not so long ago, Sri Lanka had a bumpy relationship with India owing to the latter’s sponsorship of a controlled separatist insurgency in this island-nation and the late Minister Kadirgamar had to navigate in those turbulent waters between the Palk Strait. One should expect the present Government of India to have turned over that ugly chapter of the country’s own modern history of interference in its neighbourhood and opened a new chapter of genuine friendship and goodwill, building on what had existed for millennia.
For Sri Lankan political leaders now in the throes of the ‘noise and chaos’ of democracy, and whose stock is on the wane among the general citizenry, a gentle reminder that the three pillars of free elections, an independent judiciary and a free press are the cornerstones of any functional democracy, is timely.

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