By Rajan Philip –
The pictures that have been circulating as part of the unfolding Sinharaja saga say more about the power-status of the Executive Presidency than all the protestations about the alleged fetters of the 19th Amendment on the presidency. The pictures and the news reports tell a different story as well. It is the total absence of anything technically environmental or engineering informing the presidential visit. The omnipresent President landed on Lankagama, the newly storied village in the jungle, met with the villagers, and listened to them complain that the environmentalists are lying. He then went to the road site with half a dozen Ministers and even more officials following, surveyed the scene, and gave the order to build the road in 90 days, but without harming the environment. All of this has been photographed and reported.
But there were no pictures or reports of government officials explaining to the President the details of the project and how environmental impacts were identified and how they would be mitigated. It is not the best construction practice to avoid harming the environment without pre-identifying impacts and mitigation measures. Independent of the presidential visit, no government agency has provided clear and detailed information about the limits of the road work, who did the design, if an environmental assessment was undertaken, whether mitigation measures were identified, and how they will be implemented.
Not surprisingly, there are bouquets for the President’s hands-on mode of execution. Equally unsurprisingly, there will be brickbats as well, and petitions to UNESCO will follow from environmental activists (who are now being called terrorists by Mahinda Pathirana of the Sri Lanka People’s Front and Chairman of the Sri Lanka Press Council). Without showering flowers or throwing stones, it is reasonable to say that – what Sinharaja forest needs is not roadside decision making but organized and systematic care.
What is also missing is a single government agency that is exclusively responsible for the protection and stewardship of the island’s most pristine forest reserve. And that is after more than forty years when Sinharaja forest was first recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1978, and later as a World Heritage Site. What is even more surprising is that nobody seems to know how the current road construction got started, which agency is responsible for it, and how it will end.
According to reports, Sri Lanka Army Engineers started the road work on August 10, five days after the election. If that is true, that is a clever way of by-passing tender and avoiding government funds to pay a contractor. Give credit for cleverness, but Sri Lanka will benefit immensely if those who are clever in this government are also straight. Civil engineering work can be ideal for gainfully deploying the armed services when they are not militarily engaged. But that should not be for work that is normally done by government public works and private contractors. It should be for extraordinary work such as emergency restoration and disaster (i.e., floods, landslides) prevention. Not haphazard road building on a natural heritage terrain.
A haphazard project
The whole haphazardness of the project has become clear with the President first issuing a stop work order ten days after the road construction had started, and then reversing it after another ten days following his site visit. Which government agency or officials advised the President first to issue the stop work order, and then gave countervailing advice to rescind that order. It is also unfair to use the needs of people in the small, isolated villages in the buffer areas of the forest to justify infrastructure projects. Unlike the demands of the timber industry or tourist industry, the needs of the villages are not a significant burden on the Sinharaja natural environment. There have been plenty of studies, reports, and plans for just doing that. Emeritus Peradeniya Ecologists like Savitri and Nimal Gunatilleke have done their life work for the Sinharaja forest.
But there has been no corresponding follow up action by any government from 1978 when Sinharaja forest received world environmental attention. Even now, the responsibility for the forest area is fractured administratively between Rathnapura, Galle and Matara districts, and between different line ministries and departments in the central government. God only knows what, if anything, the Southern and Sabaragamuwa provincial governments did for the forest. To repeat what I said earlier, Sinharaja deserves a single agency, like the Gal Oya Development Board or RVDB, not for developing and colonising the area, but for protecting it from profit seeking encroachers while sustaining the lives of people in the forest area villages.
Sinharaja is not the only situation where the government was forced to put out environmental fires. While the President was visiting Lankagama last Saturday, Forest Conservation Minister C. B. Ratnayake went to Puttalam to stem the fallouts at the Anawilundawa wetlands where a business group with alleged political connections has been clearing sensitive areas for a prawn farm. Prawn farms have become a fancy but dubious business operation causing lasting ecological harm without creating jobs or foreign exchange in any significant measure. Studies have shown that most of them have been non-starters and are abandoned after digging up wetlands. River sand mining is another area where the government ignored all concerns and allowed unsupervised sand mining to be restarted. Similar to the human-elephant conflict, this government is poised to run into environmental conflicts if it begins to aggressively push its ‘development’ agenda. Launching major development or infrastructure projects without assured funding and adequate preparation will only exacerbate environmental harms.
On the other hand, the government seems all set to launch the 20th Amendment. This is one area, if not the only area, where the President may not be called upon to put out fires. From what is being reported, everything in the 19th Amendment other than the presidential term limit is ready to be tossed out. There is a historical cycle at work here. Every major constitutional change to the Soulbury Constitution has produced an equal and opposite reaction. The 1972 change begot its 1978 rejoinder. Similarly, the 18th Amendment scuppered the 17th Amendment, 18A was undone by 19A, and now the 20th Amendment (which had an earlier version that was used by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the JVP and the TNA to fool everybody) is set to take out 19A. No one knows when and how the SLPP’s currently embryonic 20A will get its nemesis. But it will come.