Healthy Planet Needs ‘Ocean Action’ from Asian and Pacific Countries

Asia-Pacific, Climate Action, Climate Change, Conferences, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs, Sustainability, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

BANGKOK, Thailand, Jun 27 2022 (IPS) – As the Second Global Ocean Conference opens today in Lisbon, governments in Asia and the Pacific must seize the opportunity to enhance cooperation and solidarity to address a host of challenges that endanger what is a lifeline for millions of people in the region.


Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

If done right ocean action will also be climate action but this will require working in concert on a few fronts.

First, we must invest in and support science and technology to produce key solutions. Strengthening science-policy interfaces to bridge practitioners and policymakers contributes to a sound understanding of ocean-climate synergies, thereby enabling better policy design, an important priority of the Indonesian Presidency of the G20 process. Additionally policy support tools can assist governments in identifying and prioritizing actions through policy and SDG tracking and scenarios development.

We must also make the invisible visible through ocean data: just three of ten targets for the goal on life below water are measurable in Asia and the Pacific. Better data is the foundation of better policies and collective action. The Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) is an innovative multi-stakeholder collective established to enable countries and other stakeholders to go beyond GDP and to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development.

Solutions for low-carbon maritime transport are also a key part of the transition to decarbonization by the middle of the century. Countries in Asia and the Pacific recognized this when adopting a new Regional Action Programme last December, putting more emphasis on such concrete steps as innovative shipping technologies, cooperation on green shipping corridors and more efficient use of existing port infrastructure and facilities to make this ambition a reality.

Finally, aligning finance with our ocean, climate and broader SDG aspirations provides a crucial foundation for all of our action. Blue bonds are an attractive instrument both for governments interested in raising funds for ocean conservation and for investors interested in contributing to sustainable development in addition to obtaining a return for their investment.

These actions and others are steps towards ensuring the viability of several of the region’s key ocean-based economic sectors, such as seaborne trade, tourism and fisheries. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface. Seven of every 10 fish caught around the globe comes from Pacific waters. And we know that the oceans and coasts are also vital allies in the fight against climate change, with coastal systems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows at the frontline of climate change, absorbing carbon at rates of up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest.

But the health of the oceans in Asia and the Pacific is in serious decline: rampant pollution, destructive and illegal fishing practices, inadequate marine governance and continued urbanization along coastlines have destroyed 40 per cent of the coral reefs and approximately 60 per cent of the coastal mangroves, while fish stocks continue to decline and consumption patterns remain unsustainable.

These and other pressures exacerbate climate-induced ocean acidification and warming and weaken the capacity of oceans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Global climate change is also contributing to sea-level rise, which affects coastal and island communities severely, resulting in greater disaster risk, internal displacement and international migration.

To promote concerted action, ESCAP, in collaboration with partner UN agencies, provides a regional platform in support of SDG14, aligned within the framework of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Through four editions so far of the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean, we also support countries in identifying and putting in place solutions and accelerated actions through regional dialogue and cooperation.

It is abundantly clear there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Our leaders meeting in Lisbon must step up efforts to protect the ocean and its precious resources and to build sustainable blue economies.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

IPS UN Bureau

 

Reclaiming Our Future

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Climate Action, Climate Change, COVID-19, Education, Headlines, Inequality, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

BANGKOK, Thailand, May 23 2022 (IPS) – The Asia-Pacific region is at a crossroads today – to further breakdown or breakthrough to a greener, better, safer future.

Since the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) was established in 1947, the region has made extraordinary progress, emerging as a pacesetter of global economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty.


Yet, as ESCAP celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, we find ourselves facing our biggest shared test on the back of cascading and overlapping impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, raging conflicts and the climate crisis.

Few have escaped the effects of the pandemic, with 85 million people pushed back into extreme poverty, millions more losing their jobs or livelihoods, and a generation of children and young people missing precious time for education and training.

As the pandemic surges and ebbs across countries, the world continues to face the grim implications of failing to keep the temperature increase below 1.5°C – and of continuing to degrade the natural environment. Throughout 2021 and 2022, countries across Asia and the Pacific were again battered by a relentless sequence of natural disasters, with climate change increasing their frequency and intensity.

More recently, the rapidly evolving crisis in Ukraine will have wide-ranging socioeconomic impacts, with higher prices for fuel and food increasing food insecurity and hunger across the region.

Rapid economic growth in Asia and the Pacific has come at a heavy price, and the convergence of these three crises have exposed the fault lines in a very short time. Unfortunately, those hardest hit are those with the fewest resources to endure the hardship. This disproportionate pressure on the poor and most vulnerable is deepening and widening inequalities in both income and opportunities.

The situation is critical. Many communities are close to tipping points beyond which it will be impossible to recover. But it is not too late.

The region is dynamic and adaptable.

In this richer yet riskier world, we need more crisis-prepared policies to protect our most vulnerable populations and shift the Asia-Pacific region back on course to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as the target year of 2030 comes closer — our analysis shows that we are already 35 years behind and will only attain the Goals in 2065.

To do so, we must protect people and the planet, exploit digital opportunities, trade and invest together, raise financial resources and manage our debt.

The first task for governments must be to defend the most vulnerable groups – by strengthening health and universal social protection systems. At the same time, governments, civil society and the private sector should be acting to conserve our precious planet and mitigate and adapt to climate change while defending people from the devastation of natural disasters.

For many measures, governments can exploit technological innovations. Human activities are steadily becoming “digital by default.” To turn the digital divide into a digital dividend, governments should encourage more robust and extensive digital infrastructure and improve access along with the necessary education and training to enhance knowledge-intensive internet use.

Much of the investment for services will rely on sustainable economic growth, fueled by equitable international trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). The region is now the largest source and recipient of global FDI flows, which is especially important in a pandemic recovery environment of fiscal tightness.

While trade links have evolved into a complex noodle bowl of bilateral and regional agreements, there is ample scope to further lower trade and investment transaction costs through simplified procedures, digitalization and climate-smart strategies. Such changes are proving to be profitable business strategies. For example, full digital facilitation could cut average trade costs by more than 13 per cent.

Governments can create sufficient fiscal space to allow for greater investment in sustainable development. Additional financial resources can be raised through progressive tax reforms, innovative financing instruments and more effective debt management. Instruments such as green bonds or sustainability bonds, and arranging debt swaps for development, could have the highest impacts on inclusivity and sustainability.

Significant efforts need to be made to anticipate what lies ahead. In everything we do, we must listen to and work with both young and old, fostering intergenerational solidarity. And women must be at the centre of crisis-prepared policy action.

This week the Commission is expected to agree on a common agenda for sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific, pinning the aspirations of the region on moving forward together by learning from and working with each other.

In the past seven-and-a-half decades, ESCAP has been a vital source of know-how and support for the governments and peoples of Asia and the Pacific. We remain ready to serve in the implementation of this common agenda.

To quote United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “the choices we make, or fail to make today, will shape our future. We will not have this chance again.”

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific

IPS UN Bureau

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In Sri Lanka, Things Fall Apart

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

The protestors’ main rallying slogan is ‘GotaGoHome’

LONDON, May 4 2022 (IPS) – When I ended last month’s column hoping that April would not prove to be hapless Sri Lanka’s ‘cruellest month’ (in the words TS Eliot), I hardly anticipated the current turn of events.


In April, the country was to celebrate several ethno-religious festivals. The biggest among them was the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, celebrated by Sri Lanka’s majority community and its main minority. It was also the Muslim month of Ramadan and Easter, commemorated by the Christians.

For over one-and-a-half years Sri Lanka had been grappling with a fast-failing economy. The dwindling of foreign reserves and the consequent shortages of food, medicines, fuel, gas and kerosene for cooking were more recently compounded by power cuts, at times as long as 12hoursper day, bringing manufacturing industries to a standstill and forcing businesses to close down early.

With the country struggling to avert bankruptcy and an unprecedented rise in inflation and spiralling commodity prices, many working-class families, daily wage earners and farmers were facing penury and starvation.

Against this dire background Sri Lanka’s 22 million people were anxiously preparing for the April festivities, wondering whether there would be anything to celebrate.

Then it happened.

On March 31 the residents of Mirihana, a middle- class town on the outskirts of Colombo, held a candle-light protest to highlight the daily power cuts that disrupted their family activities. The protest, initially by women, attracted passers-by and huge crowds from neighbourhood towns and residential areas as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lived in Mirihana in his private residence.

Swelling crowds shouting slogans later clashed with police firing tear gas and water cannons to break up the demonstration, but many of the protestors held their ground till the next day.

The Mirihana protest has sparked the island-wide conflagration that now has the once all-powerful Rajapaksa family-run government teetering on the wall like Humpty Dumpty awaiting a splintering fall. It will remain an important landmark in this uprising, which some have called, rather erroneously, Sri Lanka’s ‘Arab Spring’.

Mirihana began the assault against the Rajapaksa fiefdom that once seemed impregnable. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is president. Brother Mahinda, who served two terms as president, is currently prime minister. Another brother, Basil, a dual citizen with US citizenship and a home in Los Angeles, was until last month finance minister, and the eldest brother Chamal holds the post ofirrigation minister and state minister of security. Mahinda’s eldest son Namal, whom his father sees as heir apparent, was sports and youth affairs minister, among other portfolios.

It appears that the prime minister suspects he is going to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency

Together, the family reportedly controlled 72 per cent of government resources, free to use as they deemed fit, even to farm off to their acolytes and business friends in the way of government contracts and import monopolies, even during the Covid pandemic.

Today, however, that fortress of power and privilege appears as exposed as France’s Maginot Line, set to crumble against a German Blitzkrieg.

All the Rajapaksas, except Prime Minister Mahinda, lost their positions last month when President Gotabaya suddenly dissolved the cabinet in a desperate attempt to quell the mounting outrage against him. It seemed a weak moral sidestep, for the protesters’ cry was not only against the president but against the entire Rajapaksa family, which they claimed had dipped their hands into the country’s assets for personal gain.

Mirihana lit the fuse for the enormous protest that flared up at Colombo’s beach-front Galle Face Green, right opposite the Presidential Secretariat from where political power radiated. It was this that breached the Rajapaksa citadel.

Economists urged the government seek IMF assistance

At the time of writing, this protest – which shows signs of unifying the country’s multiracial, multi-religious society and has drawn crowds of all ages and a wide cross-section of the Sri Lankan community, including the professional classes – has entered its 17thcontinuous day, with hundreds of protesters camped there day and night despite the heat and rain.

Yet it is no Arab Spring. It is an orderly, non-violent protest, mainly of youth of all shades, with an inventive genius to keep themselves and their cause alive.

Never in Sri Lanka’s 74 years of post-independence history has the country seen anything like this, even though anti-government protests are nothing new to the country, which has seen Leftist political parties and associated trade unions functioning even under British colonial rule.

The main rallying slogan is ‘GotaGoHome’, telling Gotabaya to return to his home – also in Los Angeles –though he relinquished his US citizenship to be eligible to contest the presidential election in November 2019.

Built round that slogan are a myriad other satirical comments in song, verse, caricatures, cartoons and videos, the creative work of the protesters deriding the Rajapaksas, some demanding they return the country’s supposedly stolen assets and otherwise accumulated wealth in tax havens.

Although the protesters are now demanding that the whole Rajapaksa family pack their bags and quit, the main target quite rightly is President Gotabaya. It was his military arrogance – having played a role in the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in 2009, under the leadership of his president brother Mahinda – and his ignorance of politics and governance, and over-reliance on incompetent advisers that started the economic rot.

With a group of retired and serving military men appointed to key civilian positions and a coterie of so-called intellectuals and businessmen as advisers, he plunged head-first into economic policy decisions.

Within a few days of assuming office, he had slashed VAT from 15 per cent to 8per cent and abolished some other taxes that cost the state a whopping 28 per cent in revenue. It led the Central Bank to print money feverishly to meet budgetary commitments, causing inflation.

Also disastrous was the overnight decision to ban chemical fertilisers that drove farmers to burn effigies of ministers and demonstrate on the streets, demanding restitution of their fertiliser needs or face food insecurity in the months ahead, forcing a once adamant president to retract.

While economists had foreseen the impending danger in depleting foreign reserves and international debt repayments this year, and hence urged the government seek IMF assistance, the president clung steadfastly to the advice of the Central Bank Governor and the Treasury Secretary, among others, who dismissed the idea for more than one year even ignoring cabinet support for IMF help.

In a belated gesture, President Gotabaya sacked the two officials immediately after replacing his cabinet with younger, untested MPs. He sent his new finance minister to Washington to plead with the IMF for immediate relief.

The president is hoping for political concessions he has agreed to – including returning to parliament and the prime minister powers that he usurped on coming to office through the 20thconstitutional amendment. He has now agreed to form an interim All Party government.

But one sees a growing rift in the once close-knit family. Names proposed by Prime Minister Mahinda for the new cabinet were ignored by his brother, causing the prime minister to boycott the swearing-in of the new ministers.

If the president opts for an interim government, it means he has decided to stay put but call for the prime minister’s resignation. It would appear that the prime minister suspects he is going to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

In an interview the other day, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa insisted that he will not resign and any reconstituted government must be under his leadership. In the meantime, he has been trying to whip up support against his ouster by canvassing MPs to muster the required 113 votes.

How the protesting public will react to all these political manipulations will depend on what is on offer. Right now, they are determined to continue until President Gotabaya surrenders, which seems unlikely.

Source: Asian Affairs, London

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London.

IPS UN Bureau

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Indian Agriculture Towards 2030

Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Civil Society, Climate Change, Combating Desertification and Drought, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition, Food Sustainability, Headlines, Natural Resources, TerraViva United Nations, Trade & Investment, Water & Sanitation

Opinion

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Apr 4 2022 (IPS) – India began its journey as an independent nation in 1947 with fresh memory of the Bengal Famine of 1943 which claimed 1.5 to 3 million lives. Against this backdrop, the First Five Year Plan (1951-56) prioritized agriculture which, however, shifted to heavily industrialization in the second Plan.


Shyam Khadka

The mid-1960s was a difficult time when consecutive droughts hit food production and India had to import about 11 million metric ton (MMT) of wheat per year – about 15% of its domestic food grain production – under US Public Law 480. With the availability of high yielding miracle seeds of wheat and rice accompanied by increasing use of chemical fertilisers, provision of minimum support price (MSP) for rice and wheat, expansion in irrigated area, and gradual mechanization of farms, Indian agri-food system fortunately took a definitive positive turn beginning late 1960s. As a result, India has become the largest producer of milk (187.7 MMT in 2019-20) and cotton (37.5 million bales in 2019-20) and the second largest producer of rice (117.5 MMT in 2019-20) and wheat (106.2 MMT in 2019-20), fruits (97.97 MMT in 2018-19) and vegetables (183.17 MMT in 2018-19). India today is not only food self-sufficient but also a net exporter of agricultural produce. In short, the success of Indian agriculture in last six decades has been nothing less than spectacular.

The success, however, has come with significant costs. The resource intensification that the Green Revolution requires has adversely affected natural resources and environment. India pumped 245 million cubic meters – about 25 percent of total groundwater withdrawn globally – for irrigation in 2011. As a result, ground water in 1,034 blocks (16% of total blocks) are over-exploited. Worse, ground water table has become critical in 4% and semi-critical in 10% of the blocks. Similarly, some 37% of land area in the country (120.4 mn ha) is affected by various types of land degradation. Subsidy policy-induced non-judicious use of fertilizers has led to the chemicalization of soil and pollution of water through leaching and run-off. Despite abundant supply of food grains, in 2020 41.7% of under-5 children suffered from stunting. India is home to 208.6 million – or over a quarter – of world’s undernourished people. Other challenges that Indian agriculture faces today include uneven regional growth, rising fiscal constraints, mounting and unsustainable level of subsidies, small holding size and further fragmentation of holdings and accompanying land tenurial issues, and low resource use efficiency, particularly of water. These factors act as serious impediments for sustained agricultural growth and farmers’ livelihoods.

Amidst the success and emerging challenges NITI Aayog, the apex public policy think tank of the Government of India and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) decided to facilitate a national dialogue among key stakeholders including government agencies, academia, civil society organisations, farmers, private sector, international organizations, media and others to articulate a vision for 2030 and pathways for the remandating of agriculture in India. To this end, 10 thematic papers were commissioned from distinguished professionals. A 3-day national dialogue entitled, ‘Indian Agriculture Towards 2030: Pathways for enhancing Farmers’ Income, Nutritional Security and Sustainable Food and Farm Systems” was held in January 2021. NITI Aayog and FAO have now come up with a publication with the same title (Chand, R., Joshi, P, and Khadka, S., Editors (2022), Springer).

In addition to the challenges enumerated above the books also deals with issues of climate change and its impact on agricultural production and farmers’ incomes and the strategies to mitigate such change; growing incidence of pests, pandemics, and transboundary diseases and threat to biosecurity affecting agricultural production; and alternative farming systems for transformative and sustainable agroecology and biodiverse future. The role of science, technology and innovation is identified as key to sustainable and resilient agriculture. Similarly, role of structural reforms and governance are discussed in detail and the role of price policies, market reforms and institutions are being highlighted for an efficient, inclusive and sustainable agriculture.

The National Dialogue identified pathways for transformation with emphasis on remandating Indian agriculture in a way that makes it more productive, efficient, resilient, resource conserving, nutrition centered and globally focused. These transformational outcomes are to be achieved by focusing on following pathways:

    • Increasing investment in agriculture, first to reverse the declining trend and then achieving ‘efficient’ growth rather than growth alone, increased adoption of improved technology, reorienting agricultural science, technology and innovations, applying digital solutions and artificial intelligence, better use of information and communication technology, application of One Health concept;
    • Making Indian agriculture globally-focused, shifting attention from self-sufficiency to adding value through increased processing and achieving a high rate of export growth
    • Enhancing the efficiency of the water and other resources, mainly by correcting distorted water pricing, adopting water conserving technologies and agro-ecological approach, changes in the cropping pattern, and reversing neglect of rainfed areas;
    • Making agriculture climate resilient, by adopting several no-regret technological and institutional options as well as by undertaking more targeted research, use of big data analytics, and adoption of a science-based and green growth approach;
    • Tackling nutrition and food safety, by diversifying diet, reducing post-harvest losses, encouraging bio-fortifications, empowering women, enforcing food safety standards, improving water sanitation and hygiene, and promoting food safety awareness and nutrition education;
    • Focusing sharply on innovations, incentives and institutions that contribute to enhance productivity, enhance resilience to climate change, incentivize water and energy conservation, and by adopting more conducive regulatory environment such as for exploiting ground water; and
    • Adopting appropriate policies and improving governance such as by reducing distortion caused by the MSP, accelerating rural infrastructure creation, ensuring greater engagement of the state governments, enhancing access to credit and extension services, and expansion of contract farming.

As emphasised by Honourable M. Venkaiah Naidu, Vice-President of India in his foreword, the book ‘provides a sound basis for reflection because they distil important lessons and present an array of policy options for the government to choose from’.

Shyam Khadka is a former senior official of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations who served as representative in India (2015-18) and was Senior Portfolio Manager in United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (1997-2014). An international development professional, Khadka works on policies, programs and projects that aim at developing agriculture, ensuring food security, and reducing poverty globally.

IPS UN Bureau

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In Sri Lanka, Rajapaksas on the Ropes

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

There were widespread reports over the weekend of hundreds of demonstrators demanding the resignation of the family-run Rajapaksa government. Credit: Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

LONDON, Apr 4 2022 (IPS) – With the economy in freefall and basics such as food and fuel in dangerously short supply, there is mounting public anger against a failing and desperate government in Sri Lanka.


‘O tempora, O mores,’ said the Roman orator Cicero in a plaintive cry, denouncing the political and social norms of Rome in 70 BC.

Unlike the Romans, the people of Sri Lanka have not left it to politicians or orators to berate what they perceive as their rudderless rulers. They have taken on the task themselves, going into the streets to decry their government in words more telling and malignant than any Cicero might have employed.

They watch as their once ‘Resplendent Isle’ hurtles downhill while confused rulers try desperately to halt its economic and social collapse.

Never in the history of modern Sri Lanka have its citizens queued up for hours to purchase one or two cylinders of cooking gas or a few litres of petrol or kerosene, while a wide range of other shortages continue to plague the country.

If in Ukraine civilians are dying because of the indiscriminate and inconsiderate shelling and bombing by Russian forces, in Sri Lanka they are dying on their feet, some having waited for pre-dawn hours for gas or kerosene to cook what little food they could muster to feed hungry families.

As I write this in late March, reports are pouring in of four people from different parts of the country dying within 48 hours. That is not surprising at a time when the Covid pandemic still persists.

But these four died while waiting in gas or petrol queues, three of then possibly of exhaustion after standing for many hours, and the fourth of stab wounds during an altercation at a filling station.

Today, history is being made. But it is not in the manner the country’s rulers –the powerful Rajapaksa family from Sri Lanka’s south, whose political antecedents go back to the 1930s–ever expected.

Today, the wheel of political fortune has inexorably turned.

It was over a decade ago that two of the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya, were hailed as national heroes for their roles in defeating the dreaded Tamil Tiger separatists in May 2009, after a war that lasted nearly three decades.

Mahinda was then Sri Lanka’s president and Gotabaya his defence secretary.

In April 2019, a couple of days after jihadist terrorists suicide-bombed three churches and three luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, killing some 270 locals and foreigners and wounding another 500, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his presidential ambitions.

Politically untested, the former military officer promised enhanced national security, peace, political stability, economic recovery and preservation of Sri Lanka’s 2500-year Buddhist heritage.

In November that year he won the presidential election with 6.9 million votes and in August 2020 Mahinda Rajapaksa led the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) to victory at the parliamentary election with a near two-thirds majority.

But today, the wheel of political fortune has inexorably turned. Last month in a Gallup-style opinion poll conducted by a local think tank, Veritḗ Research found that only 10 per cent of those queried said they approved of the current government.

Rudderless Rulers

Such is public antipathy that long queues of people spending hours to buy a packet or two of powdered milk booed the president as he passed by.

Some days later busloads of women, led by a former MP whose politician father was shot dead by a rival, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to death but then pardoned by President Gotabaya last year and given a state job, demonstrated outside the president’s private residence.

Teachers, health workers and other trade union-led employees have gone on strike at various times. Farmers have taken to the streets, protesting against the overnight ban last May of chemical fertiliser that saw some rice fields and other agricultural land abandoned and export-earning tea and rubber plantations affected.

Over the past months effigies of the Agriculture Minister have been burnt and posters of the Rajapaksas (four of the brothers are cabinet ministers and so is Mahinda’s eldest son) have been torn or otherwise defaced in blatant displays of public anger and lack of faith in a government that has failed to provide uninterrupted supplies of basics such as electricity, gas, petrol and kerosene, and essential foods and medicines.

It has been said that even the dead have no peace. Some crematoriums have stopped functioning unless they can be certain of continuous electricity.

Outages lasting several hours have often brought factories to a halt. Thermal power stations and other power providers cannot operate continuously for lack of fuel and coal.

Fast depleting foreign reserves have forced the government to slash imports of food, fuel, diesel and gas, compelling many restaurants, bakeries and wayside eateries, as well as other enterprises, to close or restrict their business.

Meanwhile, prices of food and domestic essentials and transport costs have skyrocketed, driving many families, particularly daily wage earners, into penury and starvation.

With foreign reserves at the end of February down to a perilous US$ 2.3 billion and some $7 billion in sovereign debt and loan repayments due this year – including a $1 billion repayment in July – the Rajapaksas turned from their traditional friend and ally China, which that has extended financial help over the years, to neighbouring nations.

A currency swap was arranged with Bangladesh, and last month Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa flew to New Delhi for meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, urging help to rescue Colombo from its foreign exchange crisis.

Never in the history of modern Sri Lanka have its citizens queued for hours to buy fuel

New Delhi extended a $1 billion credit facility to enable the purchase of food, medicines and other essentials. This brought Indian assistance this year to $1.4 billion, which included a $400 million currency swap, besides another half a billion-dollar line of credit for essential fuel imports, and the deferring of a $500 million loan and.

Meanwhile China is considering another $2.5 billion in fresh assistance, China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka stated while turning down the deferment of a loan.

Even as Sri Lanka turns to Asia’s two leading powers, both vying for larger footprints in Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Colombo has finally turned to the IMF for belated assistance due to internal dissension in the ruling coalition.

President Rajapaksa recently sacked two ministers from minor coalition partners for criticising government policy and attacking Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who has dual Sri Lankan-US citizenship, for bending backwards to satisfy American interests.

Some other state ministers have resigned or been removed as internal squabbles begin to take a toll on stability in the 11-party coalition.

With the economy in tatters and mounting public wrath against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with calls of ‘Gota Go Home’, he summoned an all-party conference late last month in the hope of showing a friendly face and seeking solutions to the country’s economic catastrophe.

While some minority Tamil parties which had long sought a meeting with the president and some other parties attended, two of the leading opposition parties, which recently launched anti-government demonstrations, boycotted the conference.

It started on a sour note, with many-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe putting the Governor of the Central Bank Nivard Cabraal in his place for unwanted political remarks, for which President Rajapaksa apologised to Mr Wickremesinghe.

To the average Sri Lankan who has witnessed such conferences over the years, including ones to bring racial peace to a divided country, they are an exercise in political waffling and time-wasting.

With Sri Lanka’s biggest national celebration, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, in mid-April, the working and middle-class families now struggling to survive wonder whether there will be anything to celebrate. Even if families can get together for the traditional meals, will they be able to cook them for lack of gas and kerosene?

Will this April be the cruellest month?

Source: Asian Affairs, London

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media, including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently, he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

IPS UN Bureau

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Can Legal Action Alone Put an End to Child Marriage?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Education, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population, Poverty & SDGs

Opinion

In India, nearly one-fourth of women aged between 20 and 24 were reported to have been married before 18. Credit: Jaideep Hardikar/IPS even when the legal age was set at 18, child marriages continued to take place without any fear of the law. This begs the question: Can legislation alone possibly curb child marriage?

In India, nearly one-fourth of women aged between 20 and 24 were reported to have been married before 18. Credit: Jaideep Hardikar/IPS

NEW DELHI, Apr 1 2022 (IPS) – On December 22, 2021, the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, was sent to a parliamentary standing committee for further discussion.


The bill is built on the assumption that raising the age of marriage will eradicate the practice of child marriage. However, this rationale doesn’t have any prior evidence to support it, because even when the legal age was set at 18, child marriages continued to take place without any fear of the law. This begs the question: Can legislation alone possibly curb child marriage?

Prevalence of child marriage

In a patriarchal society such as India, girls are often raised with the ultimate goal of marriage. They are confined to the household and not educated or expected to enter the workforce. Thus, until they are married, they are seen as a financial burden by the families, and marrying them off early is not only consistent with tradition but also more economically feasible

Child marriage, according to UNICEF, is defined as “a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18, and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married”. It is a consequence of deep-rooted socio-cultural norms and entrenched gender inequalities, which end up disproportionately impacting girls.

In a patriarchal society such as India, girls are often raised with the ultimate goal of marriage. They are confined to the household and not educated or expected to enter the workforce. Thus, until they are married, they are seen as a financial burden by the families, and marrying them off early is not only consistent with tradition but also more economically feasible.

The risk of an extramarital pregnancy—which can endanger marriage prospects and make the girl a financial liability for an indefinite period—also makes child marriage seem to be a solution instead of a problem for many Indian communities.

Thus, even though they’re illegal, child marriages have wide societal sanction. This is evident from the recently released fifth round of the National Family Health Survey, according to which nearly one-fourth of women aged between 20 and 24 were reported to have been married before 18.

The decrease is marginal from the last round of the survey conducted in 2015–16, despite the fact that the existing child marriage law has been in place for over four decades. While there was an impressive drop in child marriages from 2005–06 and 2015–16, this might be attributable to better educational opportunities and other factors rather than the law.

Concerns about the proposed legislation

The proposed legislation to raise the legal marriage age for girls to 21 can have several harmful consequences.

1. Possible misuse of the law

According to a survey by Partners for Law in Development, 65 percent of the cases under the existing child marriage law were in response to elopement (not necessarily involving marriage) and were filed by disapproving parents or families.

These cases would be wrongfully filed to harass the couple, their age or legality of the marriage notwithstanding. Increasing the age to 21 will bring more consenting adults who choose to marry under the threat of such harassment, and could become a tool for people to oppose inter-religious and inter-caste marriages.

2. Disempowerment of women
A 2008 Law Commission report on reforming family law recommended a uniform age of marriage for boys and girls at 18 years and not 21. The reason: If all citizens can vote, enter contracts, be guardians, tried as adults for crimes they commit at 18, why shouldn’t they be allowed to get married as well, regardless of their gender? The new law could curtail the freedom of choice of a greater number of women.

3. Possible increase in sex-selective practices
The current socio-economic system makes people want to marry their daughters as soon as they can or choose not to have a daughter at all. Increasing the legal marriage age without changing patriarchal social norms can result in parents feeling even more ‘burdened’ by what they view as additional responsibility of the girl child, which in turn could lead to an increase in sex-selective practices.

Recommendations

There are several strategies that have worked globally in reducing the incidence of child marriages. Some solutions that might work in the Indian context are discussed below.

1. Bringing about parity in the legal age of marriage

We endorse the recommendation of the 2008 Law Commission to make the legal age of marriage for boys and girls uniform at 18 years and not 21. When individuals can vote at 18, they should also be allowed to choose their partners at this age.

2. Investing in girls’ education

There is clear evidence that allowing girls to complete their education delays marriage and provides them with the opportunity of being financially independent. According to the NFHS-4, the median age of marriage increases from 17.2 years for women with no schooling to 22.7 years for women with 12 or more years of schooling. Education enables them to fulfil their aspirations and live a life of dignity, and affords them the agency to uphold their sexual and reproductive rights in their choice to marry.

Child marriages are closely tied to low levels of education, poverty, and rural residence. The NFHS-4 reveals that girls living in rural areas with little or no education and belonging to the lowest wealth quintile are more likely to be married before they turn 18.

The government must address the barriers to girls’ education by providing a safe environment, improving the quality of education, and making girls’ education a more useful investment for parents.

3. Economic and social empowerment of girls

Investing in the capacity and skill building of adolescent girls is critical for them to realise their economic potential. Financial empowerment often gives individuals a greater say in their households and their own future. It can give girls the ability to say no to early marriage, and the family won’t see them as a liability. Greater attention to creating safe opportunities for paid work among women and girls is also required.

4. Targeted social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) campaigns

To end child marriage, we must make investments in targeted SBCC. Social norms that exclude girls and boys from marriage-related decision-making need to change.

Evaluation findings from the Population Foundation of India’s flagship SBCC initiative ‘Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon’ showed that reinforced messaging brought about increased awareness of the perils of child marriage and a positive shift in the attitude of girls and parents exposed to the programme.

We need more comprehensive SBCC initiatives that are supported by local leadership—including elected representatives, community, and religious leaders—to transform gender stereotypes of submissiveness and institutional discrimination that denies women agency.

5. Policies and programmes that reach the most marginalised

Marginalised communities are more vulnerable to early marriages. According to the NFHS-4, general category women tend to get married at a later age, with the median age of marriage for women aged 25–49 being 19.5 years. This figure is 18.5 years for women from other backward castes, 18.4 for scheduled tribes, and 18.1 for scheduled castes.

We need more policies and programmes that connect girls and young women, and their families, especially from marginalised communities, to financial institutions, education, information, health (including sexual, reproductive, and mental health), and nutrition services.

6. Ensuring registration of marriages

Despite a Supreme Court ruling making registration of marriages mandatory, state governments have done little to implement the verdict. The governments must develop a mechanism to ensure that all marriages (including civil, religious, and customary unions), births, and deaths are mandatorily registered through a system, as a means to track marriages and the age of marriage.

Moreover, action should be taken against those authorising and facilitating child marriages in rural areas.

Any approach to end child marriage needs to be geared towards securing the rights of girls, especially those vulnerable to early marriage. We have to think beyond punitive measures and legislations and transform the patriarchal socio-economic system that fosters child marriages.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Martand Kaushik works as a media and communications specialist at the Population Foundation of India.

Alok Vajpeyi is the lead for knowledge management and core grants at the Population Foundation of India.

Poonam Muttreja is the Executive Director of the Population Foundation of India

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)

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