Happenings in Sri Lanka during the month of October 2021 can be summarised as “Politics of Majoritarianism, Security and Scams.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, known for goal-oriented action. But two of his recent decisions, abolition of the use of chemical fertilizers and introducing “one country one law” are having ripple effect not only on economy and ethnic peace, but also on relations with China and India. The name of one of the Rajapaksa’s figuring in the Pandora papers is probably yet another scam in the making. The month saw India making news more than once in the media. Visits by Secretary for External Affairs Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Indian army chief General MM Naravane, Indian and Sri Lankan armies’ joint exercise and visit by six warships of the Indian Navy highlighted India’s sustained interest in making India-Sri Lanka relations multi-faceted.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had imposed a total ban on agrochemicals including fertilizers and pesticides in May, to make farming totally organic. It also helped the cash strapped government save around $400 million for import of fertilizers. The President’s action was ill timed, as the economy was already reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tea industry and farmers cried hoarse as shortage of fertilizers peaked and food prices shot up. In August, the government placed an order for the import of 96,000 tonnes of organic fertilizer with Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group, a Chinese company. The samples of the imported fertilizer were found to contain Erwinia and other harmful bacteria when tested by Sri Lanka’s National Plant Quarantine Service. The Chinese embassy in Colombo condemned the tests, questioning the competency of the testing agency and maintaining the fertilizer was found sterile on testing before export. The Department of Agriculture banned import of all fertilizers from China and the agriculture ministry suspended the $ 63 million contract awarded to the company. To make up Sri Lanka’s urgent needs, India organised the supply of 3.1 million litres of nano liquid fertilizer, which were tested and found to be free of contamination.
The whole episode was a big loss of face for China. China took exception to Sri Lanka scientists action and wants the samples rested at another laboratory “acceptable to both sides”. The Chinese embassy has blacklisted the state-owned Peoples Bank of Sri Lanka for not paying the contracted amount. Sri Lanka has now announced that it was reversing the decision on import of fertilizer to help growers of Ceylon tea, one of the main foreign exchange earners.
President Rajapaksa’s appointment of a 13-member Presidential Task Force (PTF) headed by the controversial Buddhist cleric Galagodaathhe Gnanasara to implement the concept of “One Country, One Law” (OCOCL) has drawn a lot of flak from opposition parties and civil society on many counts. The PTF is tasked to “make a study of the implementation of the concept ‘One Country One Law’ and prepare a draft Act for the purpose and submit a report by February 28, 2022.”
The announcement of a PTF on OCOL comes as no surprise; the President had used it as a slogan during his 2019 presidential campaign to garner Sinhala Buddhist votes. The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in a statement has pointed out the concept of “One Country, One Law” smacks of majoritarianism. It added that it was “by no means an expression of a desire for equality or equal protection under the law.” It also questioned the President’s style of governance through task forces.
The appointment of Gnanasara Thera to head the PTF, surprised many. Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Harin Fernando pointed out the PTF is headed by someone who is blamed by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry which probed the Easter Sundays attacks of April 21, 2019 and whom the Commission has also called to be prosecuted. The Colombo daily Island aptly editorialised: “It defies comprehension why the President has handpicked as the head of the PTF as person who was granted a presidential pardon while serving a sentence for contempt of court, which in other words means causing an affront to the dignity of the judiciary”. Its question “How come the President thinks a person sentenced to jail for violating the law is fit to carry out his one country one law project” though relevant will continue to remain unanswered.
Moreover, the PTF is constituted a few months after the cabinet took a decision to amend the country’s Muslim personal laws. At present, The Kandyan Law and Thesawalamai Law apply to Sinhala and Tamil communities respectively. In view of this it is doubtful the PTF composed of nine Sinhalese members and four Muslims but no Tamils is competent to sit and evolve OCOL that would deliver justice to all ethnic communities.
India-Sri Lanka relations appear to be seriously undergoing some repair. After India came with a supply of nano nitrogen organic fertilizer to bale out Sri Lanka from the fertilizer crisis, Sri Lanka was reported to be seeking $500 million credit from India to pay for petroleum purchases as petrol shortage reached a critical stage. India may accommodate Sri Lanka’s request as oil shortage can cripple the country’s economy, already battered by the impact of Covid-19 pandemic. In this context, it is interesting to note the issue Sri Lanka finalising India’s longstanding offer to develop the oil tank farms at Trincomalee came up when India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla called upon the President during his three-day visit to Colombo. Elevating bilateral relationship of to a strategic level, bolstering foreign investments and expand strategic cooperation in defence and Indian Ocean security are probably some of the issues the Foreign Secretary discussed with the President and the Prime Minister during his Colombo visit. He is said to have stressed the importance taking forward long pending projects beneficial to both countries and enhancing air and sea connectivity. He reiterated India’s position on complete implementation of the provisions under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, including devolution of powers and holding of provincial elections at the earliest.
A week after the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit, Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane visited Sri Lanka. He is also said to have underscored the importance India attaches to expeditiously taking forward mutually beneficial projects. During his meeting with the President, General Naravane said India “highly expects” the stability of neighbouring countries for regional security. According to the Presidential Media Division, a specially designed training course for 50 army officers will be provided to Sri Lanka in the near future at the request of the Chief of Defence Staff and the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. It is interesting to note India-Sri Lanka joint army training exercise Mitra Shakthi was being held during his visit.