Sri Lanka’s tea industry had been hit hard in recent times from several quarters. The drought brought trouble for tea, and even more trouble for the paddy farmer. The knee-jerk ban of the herbicide glyphosate falsely claiming it to cause kidney miles away from the tea plantations, in the Rajarata, was another set back. Then the Russians discover a Khapra Beetle in the tea, an insect that feeds on grain and not on tea. It is a native Indian ‘Kallathoni’ that spread to other countries by hitching rides on exported grain.
The Khapra Beetle.
Although the Khapra beetle is widely recognized in India, this is not the case for Sri Lanka. H. J. Banks, writing in 1977 in the Journal of Stored Products Research (volume 13, p183) includes references that suggest that the country was free of the insect, although reports of detection of the insect exist. However, Western countries have routinely (and unfairly) classified Sri Lanka with India, to Sri Lanka’s detriment. H. J. Banks’ review was in 1977, the year when the free market was launched in Sri Lanka. The relaxation of all controls in the name of the free market has led to many difficulties. To cap it all, a bridge to connect Sri Lanka with India has been proposed by a neo-con government without the slightest concern for the integrity of Sri Lanka’s biosphere.
The key to Khapra-beetle control is ensuring its absence in grain. It is actually quite easy to keep grain free of the Khpara beetle. Simple and inexpensive irradiation of grain is all that is needed. Such irradiation will also remove all types of weevils and bugs, and save perhaps 40% of the grain crop in tropical counties from becoming unfit for use. Unfortunately, here again baseless public fear has been fanned against “radiation”. Just as vaccination or fluoridation is feared and opposed by some, irradiation is rejected in many communities. Instead, Methoprene which is an insect growth regulator is used in North America and must be applied at the larvae stage.
However, although controls in Sri Lanka have been rapidly relaxed since 1977, that it has taken two decades to detect a Khapra beetle in a Sri Lankan export is remarkable. The detection is in tea, and not in an exported grain! It has not been established that the beetle was found in tea itself. There is the likelihood that the beetle joined the Cargo during the voyage and did not even originate in Sri Lanka.
Appeasing the Russians.
The government went to great lengths to appease the Europeans to win a questionable GSP-plus respite for exporting apparel, processed food products, etc., to Europe. It has been suggested that the Khapar beetle is an excuse for the Russians to express their displeasure over Sri Lanka’s continued neglect of the Russian market, together with the recent ban on asbestos imports from Russia. Neither this government, nor the previous government had been a regular client of the Russia market except for controversial MiG deals of the previous regime, or the bizarre purchase of an old Russian ship by the present government, going against the recommendations of naval experts. Using a Russian credit line is essentially a form of barter. The powerful wheeler dealers in governments cannot conveniently collect secret commissions from such barters. They prefer shady hard-currency tenders passed through Singapore or Dubai.
However, if the President of Sri Lanka is serious, we can truly profit from the Russian credit line by importing much that Sri Lanka needs, instead of buying armaments, planes and ships which are ultimately an enormous drain on the country. A large percentage of the nitrogen in the bodies of everyone living today comes from synthetic urea, essential to all agricultural sectors. Even the organic farmer secretly adds it to his plot to avoid a deficit! Today Sri Lanka is facing a grave shortage of Urea. Russia is a leader in Urea production, and the Russian credit line can be used for Urea. Another essential item is phosphate mineral fertilizer. This too is produced by Russia, and furthermore, the Russian fertilizer is one of the cleanest mineral fertilizers in the world as it is virtually free of cadmium and other heavy-metal contaminants. Sri Lanka should regularly buy their mineral fertilizer for her tea!
The Soviet Union used to buy wheat from the Americans, and Khrushchev was stunned to see American super markets full of goods. Post Khrushchev Soviet Union, and then Russia, rejected the Marxist agricultural thoeries and embraced modern agriculture and biotechnology. Today Russia is a world leader in wheat production. Given the shortfall in harvests in Sri Lanka after several years of misguided “Vash-Visha Naethi” agriculture and the drought, Sri Lanka has opted to buy three times the usual quota of wheat flour. It could have easily used some of its Russian credit line to buy wheat, instead of buying it from the NATO block.
Is Asbestos a health risk in the context of Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka has even gone ahead and allegedly lifted the ban on asbestos to appease the Russians! In Sri Lanka asbestos fiber is not used (e.g., for home insulation), as in the West. Exposure to asbestos fibers increases the risk of asbestosis (an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, permanent lung damage) and mesothelioma. Only compacted asbestos composites are used in Sri Lanka, mainly as sheets for roofing, but no asbestos fiber is used. So, while asbestos is a health hazard, it is not immediately clear if it is a health risk in Sri Lanka. There is indeed an extremely low health risk (mainly to those drilling and sawing the sheets without protective gear). It should be noted that the particulate density in Sri Lankan house holds (even in rural settings) is usually hundreds of times in excess of WHIO standards. In fact according to a 2010 study by Nandasena et al, (BMC Public Health, volume 10, page 300) the situation is much worse. Hence the health advantages of having proper roofing, reduction in ambient particulate levels in houses with asbestos roofing, reduction of vermin infestations and mold density, as compared to “kajan” thatched or tiled roofing (without ceilings), far over weighs the risk from asbestos exposure.
Blindly following western standards on asbestos usage in Sri Lanka, without taking account of local conditions, ambient particulate densities, etc is completely misleading. Hence the reversal of the asbestos ban, albeit for the wrong reasons, can be welcomed by environmentalists who seek to create healthy home environments with low particulate levels until home-climate control and air conditioning become common place in Sri Lanka.
The recent ban on glyphosate also must be lifted as there has never been any grounds for it in the first place, and secondly because of the re-extension of its use by the European Commission for another five years.
Coal power stations and Russian liquified gas.
The Russians are also world leaders in the production of liquified natural gas. The government is struggling over the coming energy crunch, and two ministers have once again proposed two new coal power plants. They surely know how the previous coal plants made many individuals extremely rich, by way of tenders, cancellation of tenders and relaunching of tenders, refitting of plants etc. The net effect is, we have two lame-duck coal power plants located in Sampur (Samapura) and Norochchollai (Horagolla). I have added the more meaningful old Sinhala place names in parenthesis as they make sense, not only to Sinhala speakers, but also to Tamil speakers, as I found out by asking a few individuals. The politics of coal power plants in these two places is shrouded in illegalities, just as the names of these places have never been properly gazetted when the old names were suppressed.
The justification for coal is based on the claim that there is a large cheap supply and that a modern “clean-coal” technology is available. These are false claims in practice. Even in coal rich Canada we only have nominally commercial experimental operations, e.g., as in the Boundary Dam coal Power Station in Saskatchewan. Canada is trying, at great cost, to utilize its coal deposits. But Sri Lanka has no coal, and no track record of good pollution management given its neglect of even urban garbage directly visible to everyone. The coal-pollution is out of sight, out of mind, and will certainly be mismanaged
Furthermore, we are already under a cloud of toxic rain (containing cadmium, nitrous and sulphurous toxins and particulate dust) from many poorly run coal power stations along the coast of Tamil Nadu. When coal is said to costs “only” about Rs 18 per unit of electricity today, they have ignored the enormous health costs to the nation. The Indian tragedy is there for us to see. According to a report in the Scientific American in March 2013, as many as 115,000 people die in India each year from coal-fired power-plant pollution, costing India about $4.6 billion, even though coal is the fuel of choice and Indian energy demands are skyrocketing. In addition to more than 100,000 premature deaths, the study links millions of cases of asthma and respiratory ailments to coal exposure. It counts 10,000 children under the age of 5 as fatal victims in 2012, the year prior to the study. But the actual costs are incalculable, since the air quality in Indian cities have been nose diving, making life in many cities a nightmare.
Since Sri Lanka is a signatory to the climate accord, it cannot turn to coal. This author was one of the first to hail the Rajapaksa government’s increase in energy Tariffs in 2013 (as it made Solar energy more competitive. See the Island). I had strongly urged the government in 2009 to adopt solar, wind and dendro technologies aggressively, and circulated in Colombo a movie on Solar energy. Nuclear energy from thorium is a clean safe energy souce. But Sri Lanka has no experience with nuclear energy and the technology is available in Canada and a few other research centers. They are all possibilities for long-term strategies.
If there is a need for a short-term energy strategy, then Sri Lanka may look at liquified gas from Russia, using its little used credit line, and at the same time kick start the stalled but important tea sales to Russia.