The 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution appears to have become a prestige issue more than anything and the Government, having lost face to some extent by trying to rush it through amidst major defects and blowbacks from all corners, has taken the path of least resistance; just go through with it and to hell [...]


The 20A juggernaut


The 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution appears to have become a prestige issue more than anything and the Government, having lost face to some extent by trying to rush it through amidst major defects and blowbacks from all corners, has taken the path of least resistance; just go through with it and to hell with the criticism.

A ghost writer seems to have drafted 20A.  Everyone directly or indirectly connected to it was wringing their hands disowning the draft saying “not me”. Having relentlessly plastered the previous government for what they called the ill-conceived, hastily and poorly drafted 19A, they are now hoist with their own petard.

Eventually, they decided to take collective responsibility for 20A and hung the draft on the poor Legal Draftsman who just couldn’t say “not me either”. Any student of politics knows the LD drafts only what policy is given to him by the Government.

Volleys of fire have come for what is patently a ‘cut and paste’ job by taking 18A and renaming it 20A Plus. Professional associations from retired judges, state auditors to media unions have rung alarm bells that 20A was paving the road to an elected dictatorship.

Some of the provisions in the draft are really regressive features for good governance. State auditors have pointed out that as many as 120 state controlled enterprises including the debt-ridden SriLankan Airlines, Sathosa, Sri Lanka Insurance, Litro Gas and Lanka Coal, are excluded from the scrutiny of the Auditor General. Retired judges have raised issue over senior judges being appointed by the President and the media have pointed out to the power of an Election Commission appointed by the President having overriding power over them at a time of election.

There is the question of dual citizenship. This could be referred to as the “BR Amendment” in line with laws that are introduced in the United States in honour of those who campaigned for such laws. Government spokesmen have found it embarrassingly difficult to justify this provision when it is clearly public knowledge that it is aimed at opening the door for one individual to enter Parliament by retaining his US citizenship.

The eligibility of dual citizens to perform public service in one country has been evolving in recent years. Dual citizenship in Sri Lanka was permitted only in 1987 but applications were few and far between until the process was accelerated in the last few years. Previously, a citizen of another country could not serve in a public capacity either at home or abroad. So much so that a Sri Lankan could not be an ambassador abroad even if their spouse was of another nationality.

Many of these laws have changed. Today, there are dual citizens appointed as Sri Lanka’s ambassadors abroad and holding high office in public institutions. There are even Cabinet Ministers with resident visas abroad, especially in the US.

But dual citizenship in the national legislature is in a different league. World governments haven’t yet embraced this groundbreaking concept. In South Asia only Afghanistan permits it but that’s due to its political realities and the US running its affairs.

In the political realities of Sri Lanka, there is the real danger of the anti-national diaspora elements already armed with dual citizenship, dollars and euros to throw around entering the national legislature. Having their proxies in the House is bad enough but their direct entry can turn Sri Lanka’s Parliament into pandemonium — a Parliament in Hell.

It is even in the interest of the prospective dual citizen to renounce his or her citizenship of the other country, precisely what the President did, so that questions of loyalty do not arise at times of crisis however much a patriot one may be.  But it seems, this Government cares tuppence for any critique of what it intends carrying out, come hell or high water. And turn its avowed declaration of ‘one country; one law’ on its head.

Biodiversity to the fore

 While the country, or at least a discerning section of it, is deeply engrossed in the nuances of 20A, a United Nations report ‘The Global Biodiversity Outlook’ predicts a gloomy bigger picture — the future of the planet we live in.

It offers an authoritative overview of the state of nature. It calls upon governments to shift away from “business as usual” across a range of human activities, reduce the negative impacts of such activity and highlights the urgent need to restore ecosystems.

The UN environment report calls upon world governments to scale up national ambitions and ensure all necessary resources are mobilised requesting that “countries need to bring biodiversity into the mainstream of decision making and factored into policies across all economic sectors”.

The report comes at a time Sri Lanka is continuing to face nagging environmental issues. There is the human-elephant conflict; sand mining; deforestation, forcing the government to make a call on which side to take: people or environment; even an oil tanker blaze has threatened to ruin our coastline.

The world has lost more than 100 million hectares of forests in two decades according to a UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) report. The challenges of dealing with deforestation in Siberia, sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, Latin and Central America face the same problem — cutting forests for human habitation, crops and farm animals. It is only in the larger economically developed nations that forest cover has marginally increased.

Recent months have seen a record amount of carbon dioxide emissions released into the environment. Forest fires in Siberia, Brazil, California, Africa and floods everywhere, tropical storms in the United States where the meteorologists are running out of names for each of them, and droughts are living proof that nature is in crisis.

In Sri Lanka, a series of incidents of felling of forests and clearing lands has been taking place in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Knuckles and Hantane around Kandy and Wanathawilluwa and Anawilunduwa in the Puttalam district. These are not small areas. Heavy machinery is pounding away there right now in what was once trees. The President himself recently visited the Sinharaja reserve where a jungle tract was being upgraded to a road and gave the go-ahead citing the people’s needs.

Environmentalists complain that most of these lands are being exploited by relatives of politicians. Forest cover in Sri Lanka has dropped from 80 percent in 1900 to 60 percent in 1960 to 30 percent today. These politicians say you can’t eat oxygen. The Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation says new trees will be grown. Maybe you can’t eat oxygen but you can die without it.

It is worth echoing the UN report’s call to bring ‘biodiversity into the mainstream of decision making’.  Sri Lanka’s contribution to greenhouse gases may seem negligible but when the lungs of the Earth are choking, its impact is intercontinental. In an inter-connected planet, the Coronavirus is a textbook example.


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