Mar 23, 2021

Politicians redundant - It is now People’s turn

Three days ago on Wednesday morning a friend called me to ask where I was 29 years ago that morning. Morning the historic “Kataragama Pada Yathra” left Colombo, challenging Ranasinghe Premadasa presidency then considered “mighty powerful” and unshakeable. A “pada yathra” that brought to the streets the “Collective Power” of people led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The second in independent Sri Lanka, after 1953 August “Hartal” pioneered by LSSP that drove the entire cabinet to the HMS Newfoundland a British navy ship in Colombo harbour.

We have now come to an era, where politicians and political parties are redundant in public life. Yesterday Friday 19 March (2021) in Colombo, a lone agitation “to create awareness against Ecocide” was organised by Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) with its youth group at Nelum Pokuna junction, Vihara Maha Devi park. A massive hoarding done by youth artists erected for the protest was removed that same morning on orders from Presidential Secretariat. Organisers claimed they had approval from police and CMC to erect the hoarding.

Meanwhile a few days before, social media especially FB had numerous posts slandering a 19 year old school girl for her statements made in a popular TV programme on illegal deforestation in Sinharaja. She was questioned by Rakwana police visiting her residence the following day.

Coincidentally, police media spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana told the public on 15 March, there are over 30 major complaints on illegal deforestation. He also said over 1,800 minor complaints have been dealt with. At the same media briefing, Chairman CEA Mr. Amarasinghe said there are no illegal logging or deforestation in Sinharaja. Numbers given by DIG Ajith Rohana nevertheless prove there is heavy illegal deforestation and encroachment of land within and outside “protected areas”. That cannot come other than with “political dealers”.

Apart from school girl Bhagya Abeyratne claiming d estruction in Sinharaja, there are residents, villagers and environmental activists who claim Muthurajawela – Sinharaja – Knuckles – Kanneliya – Dahaiyagala - Kahalla-Pallekele - Mahaweli Flood Plains - Dambulla Wevala, Sigirimulla and Alakolaweva - Galgamuwa Paalkadawala - Lahugala Kitulana - Bakmitiyawa Thimbirigolla, - Bogahapelessa – Deraniyagala - Pothuvil Sengamuwa forest, Kataragama and Hambantota Walsapugala including state forest land in Nilgala, Pallegama-Laggala, and Erathna Gilimale State land have been seriously damaged and continue to be illegally logged, deforested and devastated.

Meanwhile Veddah chieftain Uruwarige Wannila Aththo has filed a petition with the Court of Appeal, against illegal deforestation in their traditional lands in Rambaken Oya reservoir area. Another Veddah leader Wanaspathi Wannila Aththo had threatened to take legal action if illegal deforestation of their lands in Pollebedda, Seethala Wanniya and Horikana Mountains by private companies are not immediately stopped.

All that adding to over many thousands of hectares vandalised in this small island of 6.6 million hectares of land is what “Ecocide” means to People and to all biodiversity. “Verité Research” claims forest cover has now been reduced to 29 percent of land. Obviously resulting in an open clash between farmers and elephants with increasing fatalities.

On record or not, our rich biodiversity from the tiniest insects to giant trees including birds and animals is being destroyed. Destroying eco habitats and the environment also bring adverse weather conditions. This then is what it could mean. “Occurrences of natural disasters due to extreme weather conditions such as prolonged droughts, flash floods and landslides deprive lives and livelihoods of people.” records “Climate Change Secretariat” (CCS) in the Ministry of Mahaweli, in its “National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change in Sri Lanka” (NAP) for the period 2016 to 2025.

The NAP also says, “Around 28 per cent of the country’s population depends on livelihoods related to agriculture, which are highly dependent on climatic conditions. Impacts on agriculture will place not only the livelihoods of farmers, but the food security of the entire population under risk.”

All that in carefully crafted language means, mega deforestation and land grabbing is not just about local environmental issues. They are not about technical issues like absence of project proposals, EIAs and approvals gained and how. “Ecocide” is about quick “profits” a heavily corrupt political system allows in a mega corrupt free market economy.

It is therefore straightforward politics that raises the question “will the parliamentary Opposition challenge “Ecocide”? Three ironies including political opposition in this unfolding environmental tragedy continue without any search for answers. One, large numbers of those “environmentalists” who made massive noise against “Wilpattu deforestation” prior to elections, are no more heard or seen. Post-elections, they perhaps have not been able to spot any “Muslim presence” in this Ecocide. “Save Wilpattu” campaign was therefore not about finding real time sustainable solutions for illegal deforestation.

Two, some environmentalists believe their posts in Social Media (SM) can create mindsets to pressure governments to change course. They keep proving SM is no participatory platform that can create a “critical mass” to effectively network people’s local protests. Noise they make with “hashtags” and “memes” in SM have restricted environmental campaigns to a virtual world. Worst is, they have turned these issues into “topics of fun” competing to post crude jokes on environmental devastations and presumed culprits.

Third, main Opposition political parties including SJB and JVP in the South and Tamil and Muslim political parties in North-East have not taken any of these issues as serious enough to demand an immediate stop to devastation of environment and stress the right for people to live safe. They cannot perhaps oppose wheeler dealer businessmen who fund politics both ways.

It is more than apparent, opposition political parties both in Sinhala South and Tamil-Muslim North and East, keep all environmental issues outside their political agenda. It is not that Opposition politicians do not understand the gravity of mass destruction of environment. They cannot oppose political dealers, for that would be challenging this free and open market economy they live on.

One should thus understand what present political parties are in this dirty, nauseatingly corrupt system. In a completely ruined and corrupt “State” handled by officials working in tandem with wheeler dealer businessmen, society cannot be democratic and no political party is democratic in any sense of the word. They cannot afford to be, to live with the “filthy rich”. All their decisions are made in Colombo city by a small coterie of men (any women?) chosen and cultivated by the “undisputed leader”. All of them are often patronised by wheeler dealer businessmen or, are such businessmen themselves.

Over the past 02 decades or more there is an increasing number of businessmen, professionals and university dons taking to fulltime politics though conscious of the fact political party leaderships are dictatorial and corrupt. What creates this growing attraction for politics within a horribly corrupt free market economy for the likes of urban middleclass professionals and university dons to enter fulltime politics? Its political power. Political power provides easy access to unlimited wealth and unquestioned income. That explains why there is a serious decline in governance and accountability with increasing corruption over decades.

In such decline, in a pandemic struck world we are debt driven within a shattered global economy. One year and continuing with COVID-19 we have still not found a way out of the economic crisis we were already in before the pandemic. Continuing with an ailing and corrupt free market economy, all what this government could offer their “wheeler dealer” stooges are State land, protected or not.

We therefore do not see even local politicians in these environmental protests when innocent youth get emotionally involved, few concerned officials who believe duty comes first face threats and intimidations and the affected poor villagers stick their necks out demanding answers to their problems. They remain isolated and helpless restricted to their own rural localities, forgotten within a week or two by the media too.

In Colombo, traditional environmental organisations and their activists meanwhile remain unable to read “politics of Ecocide”. They tend to believe few could gather in token city protests “to create awareness” as in “democratic societies” adhering to regulations and legal provisions. Ignorant, in a heavily corrupt system laws and regulations only serve the “filthy rich”. This was what the protest organised by the WNPS with youth helplessly proved on Friday 19 March evening.

Yet this society cannot go on any longer with this galloping tragedy. What then is the answer?

There is only one answer to such major catastrophes in any society. In the absence of opposition political parties providing leadership, People have to take responsibility in forcing solutions for the benefit of society. That needs a good reading of the evolving political context. Two cardinal conditions thus must be accepted without compromise. One is to “trust the collective, participatory power of the People” wholly absent in Friday’s Ecocide protest. Two, that there is no “democratic space and traditions left in this society”, again never thought of by organisers of the Friday protest.

Lessons need to be learnt therefore from the type of campaign that began from Pothuvil in East and stretched to Polikandy in North. Public campaigns on environmental disaster that on the ground would forge unity across ethnic and religious diversity. An island wide campaign that would demand immediate removal of all “political dealers and State sponsored settlers” from illegally grabbed land; from Muthurajawela to Pothuvil, from Rumassala to Mahaweli Flood Plains and from beyond Vavuniya and Ampara in North and East. Demand land for rightful owners and development plans to be first presented to the “People” of the area by the District Secretary, before ministries call for bids and the CEA calls for EIA’s.

Awareness creation is not what people who live through tragedy needs. They need sustainable answers. Answers, they themselves will have to campaign for nationally.

(Kusal Perera)