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Sri Lankan PM remains non-committal

Sri Lanka wants India to allow debt repayments by Colombo to be deferred for three years, visiting Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said, in order to help the country deal with its massive debt burden. The issue was at the top of the agenda when Mr. Rajapaksa met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on Saturday and discussed plans to utilise a $400 million Line of Credit extended by India.

Speaking to the media after their bilateral talks at Hyderabad House, Mr. Modi said he had raised the issue of post-LTTE war reconciliation with Sri Lanka’s Tamil population.

Under 13th Amendment

“I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will realise the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect within a united Sri Lanka. For this, it will be necessary to carry forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka,” Mr. Modi said.

However, in an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Mr. Rajapaksa gave no firm commitment on the way forward for the 13th amendment, which prescribes the devolution of powers to the Tamil minority north and eastern provinces, and ruled out any resolution that was not acceptable to the “majority community” of Sri Lanka.

Once parliamentary elections are completed in April this year, which his party is expected to win, the government plans to hold provincial elections, and engage with whomever the Tamil population chooses, he added. “We want to go forward, but we need to have someone to discuss, who can take responsibility for the [Tamil] areas. So the best thing is to hold elections, and then ask for their representatives to come and discuss the future with us,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

Dalal is first wholly visually-challenged man to finish event

Proving his mettle: Niket Dalal celebrating after completing the Ironman 70.3 race. Special Arrangement

Niket Dalal, a 38-year-old from Aurangabad, created history on Friday by becoming the first completely visually-challenged athlete to finish an Ironman triathlon.

Associated with Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation (ABBF), Mr. Dalal completed the gruelling Ironman 70.3 — consisting of a 1.9 km swim, a 90 km bicycle ride and a 21.1 km run — with assistance from his sighted companion, Arham Shaikh.

Mr. Shaikh is the youngest Indian to finish the 5000 km coast-to-coast cross-country race in the U.S.

“The first Indian achieved an Ironman finish in 2005. Till 2020, we had no disabled athlete to have completed the race. I believe if we have to work towards complete inclusivity, this huge gap of 15 years needs to be bridged and this is one of the major reasons why I did this,” Mr. Dalal said.

Mr. Dalal and Mr. Shaikh completed the race in seven hours and 44 minutes, with 46 mins to spare. They stood second in their category of physically disabled athletes, and were the first Indian team to finish a Ironman 70.3 triathlon.

Mr. Dalal, a professional speech therapist, participated as part of a team from the Pune-based PowerPeaks Athlete Lab, which is founded by coach and pro-athlete Chaitanya Velhal. Mr. Velhal has been racing as well as training participants for triathlons, cycling races and marathons for the last five years.

Rigorous training

“It took a lot of detailed training, endurance and fitness assessments and diet planning to bring Niket up to the training required. The first leg of the race required Niket and Arham to complete the entire swim course while being tethered together. Swimming together for 1.9 km in the open sea with hundreds of other athletes, while trying to keep to the course was extremely challenging,” Mr. Velhal said.

“This was followed by a quick transition to the 90 km bike ride, where the riders faced heavy winds and dehydration but there were special aid stations set up. The most exhausting segment was the 21.1 km run. The temperatures were soaring and the landscape was difficult, but they conquered with strength and flair,” the coach said.

Mr. Shaikh added, “Both of us trained hard under Mr. Velhal for the last four months, continuously refining and improving upon our skill-set for the huge task facing us.”

Always having had a passion for sports, Mr. Dalal has been a State-level swimmer and has participated in and won many sea swimming competitions. He took up cycling as a sport last year and completed the grueling Manali to Khardungala cycling expedition in August 2019.

Seeds were made available after successful trials in both the wet season and the dry season

Poison-free: Studies show that arsenic from groundwater and soil can enter the food chain via paddy.special arrangement

Researchers have developed and commercialised a rice variety that is resistant to arsenic. Several studies have shown that arsenic from groundwater and the soil can enter the food chain through paddy.

West Bengal is among the States with the highest concentration of arsenic in groundwater, with 83 blocks across seven districts having higher arsenic levels than permissible limits.

The new rice variety, Muktoshri — also called IET 21845 — was developed jointly by the Rice Research Station at Chinsurah, coming under West Bengal’s Agriculture Department and the National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, over several years. A gazette notification for the commercial use of Muktoshri was issued by West Bengal last year.

Bijan Adhikari, one of the scientists who worked on developing the variety, said that the State government’s decision to make the seeds available for cultivation came after successful trials in both the wet season and the dry season in different blocks of the State. The trials were done in areas with arsenic contamination in groundwater, particularly in Nadia, North 24 Parganas, Bardhaman and Murshidabad.

Yield per hectare

“During our multilocational trials, we found that this variety absorbs very less amount of arsenic from soil and water than the other varieties of rice. The variety yields 5.5 metric tonnes per hectare in the Boro season and 4.5 to 5 metric tonnes per hectare in the Kharif season, respectively,” said Mr. Adhikari.

The work on developing the variety started in 2006 and by 2013 the scientists were successful. Pradip Kumar Das, a farmer at Birnagar in Nadia district who cultivated the variety on over four hectares (30 bighas), said that the yield was satisfactory, despite a dry spell.

“In Nadia, arsenic contamination is a major health problem. So far about 150 farmers are cultivating the variety and it is going to increase in the next few years,” Mr. Das said. He said the rice was long and thin, and aromatic. Across the State, thousands of farmers have started cultivation, even in areas where arsenic in groundwater is not an issue, because of the aroma and the yield.

According to the World Health Organization, long-term exposure to arsenic, mainly through drinking water and food, can lead to poisoning. Skin lesions and skin cancer are the most characteristic effects.

Farmers groups have urged the Central government to show the same political will as during the RCEP talks

Fragile farms: Cotton cultivators could be especially threatened by an adverse deal, activists said. M. Srinath

Farmers groups and lobbies, which successfully protested the agricultural and dairy free trade provisions of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) leading to India pulling out of those talks, are now urging the Centre to ensure that agricultural products stay out of the ongoing Indo-U.S. trade negotiations as well.

Reports suggest that with U.S. President Donald Trump set to visit India later this month, Amercian negotiators are pushing hard for the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to facilitate access to the Indian market for major crops including corn, cotton, soybean, wheat and nuts. The U.S. is also keen on reaching a deal to open up the Indian dairy market, which had been hindered by the fact that the U.S. cattle feed often includes non-vegetarian elements.

Indian farm lobbies worry that this could have a disastrous impact on domestic farmers, already facing a struggle to get remunerative prices for their produce.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to show the same political will that he displayed during the RCEP talks and continue to stand firm for the interests of small and marginal farmers,” said S. Kannaiyan, who heads the southern chapter of the Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements. “American dairy farmers receive heavy subsidies. How can there be a level-playing field if they are allowed to dump their products?” he asked, noting that 15 crore livestock farmers — many of whom own only one or two animals — depend on dairy for their livelihood.

Ashwani Mahajan, convenor of the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch which was vocal in defending the dairy interests during the anti-RCEP protests, expressed confidence that the BJP-led government would protect the farmers now too. “This is a political issue as well. We have expressed our concerns to the government,” he said.

While there are reports that the U.S. has been pushing for amendments to the Indian intellectual property laws, which do not allow for patents on seeds or plants, Mr. Mahajan said this should be a “non-negotiable” issue. “The government of any colour cannot change this,” he said.

Cotton farmers could be especially threatened by an adverse deal, says Kiran Vissa of the Rythu Swarajya Vedika in Telengana. “Cotton farming is already in crisis. Farmers are unable to get remunerative prices and a large number of suicides comes from their ranks,” he said. “If U.S. cotton farmers enter India, they can afford to sell at very low prices and undercut the domestic farmer.”

The import of genetically modified crops is also a thorny issue. “Most of the U.S. cotton, soy, corn is GM. While Indian farmers also grow GM cotton, India is yet to allow any GM food crop to be grown here. There are concerns about bio-safety,” said Afsar Jafri, an expert on agricultural trade issues.

The previous government took so many loans, they beggared the economy, and it is a mess, says Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajpaksa

On his first visit after being sworn in as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister and following talks with PM Narendra Modi, Mahinda Rajpaksa looks forward to debt-restructuring and completion of joint projects with India. He, however, says his government will not pursue projects of the previous government.

No agreements were announced after your meeting, especially on the $400-million Line of Credit offered by India for infrastructure. Tell us about the talks.

We did speak about several agreements and we have agreed to some of the projects that [the Indian side] were interested in. It was a fruitful and successful meet, for both sides, I would say. The housing project is something that is a priority area for us, and we asked for more funding for that. We have a new initiative to cover the whole country, every village, and we should like to get some support for that. Apart from housing, there were several projects we discussed.

In April 2017, the previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe had also signed a MoU on economic cooperation for infrastructure projects, including energy and oil projects in Trincomalee that India has been keen on. Were those discussed?

Former President [M.R.S. Sirisena] actually rejected all the projects PM [Wickremsinghe] had signed. We are not responsible for those projects.

The Mattala [airport] project is also out. Our government has a firm policy on not allowing any national resources to be given to foreign control.

An additional $50 million from the LoC have been earmarked for security cooperation, especially after the Easter bombings. What was decided about that?

We have decided that we must have more intelligence sharing now, and increase the technical assistance [from India], as well as training. On the Easter bombings, we have an ongoing investigation into the conspiracy, and a commission is looking into it. We hope that India will continue to help us on that. In addition, we want to continue our earlier [pre-2015] project for tri-lateral terror and security cooperation between Maldives-India-Sri Lanka. We might have the meeting for that as soon as possible, possibly in the Maldives and discuss how to take the trilateral idea forward.

Both PM Modi here and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have made a point of their concerns for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, and the expectations from your government...

We have always understood these concerns. Soon after the war ended [in 2009], we had elections, and we allowed the North to select their own Chief Minister. We held those elections despite knowing we would lose them. But nothing moved after that. We are now expecting to hold our parliamentary elections this April, and after that the provincial council elections. We will appoint a team to go to Jaffna to discuss the way forward.

There has been a controversy over the decision to drop the national anthem in Tamil during Sri Lanka’s national day ceremony. How can you reassure Tamils if this is the signal sent out?

But if you look around the world, the national anthem is sung primarily in one language. In India, you have so many languages, yet on your national days, you sing it in one language. Our structure is the same. When I go to Jaffna, to a Tamil school, they sing the anthem in Tamil. We have no objection if people want to sing it in their way. Some political figures are raising this issue; the general public is not interested in this issue.

Your biggest challenge this year will be servicing the domestic and foreign debt, which totals about $60 billion. How do you plan to deal with this issue?

Yes, it is a worry. This is something we discussed with the Indian government as well, and have asked if we could get a moratorium on all loan repayments for three years, until we can revive the economy. If the Indian government takes this step, then other governments might agree to do the same thing, including China. The previous government took so many loans, they beggared the economy, and it is a mess. It all depends on the stand India takes.

Given that the President is also your brother, could the tussle over the 19th amendment [President-PM power structure] cause problems between you?

No, no, no. First of all, we have to get rid of the 19th Amendment….The way the present Constitution is structured and the confusion with the 19th Amendment, only two brothers like Gota and I can handle this (Laughs). Otherwise no President and PM will ever agree on this issue.

Finally, what does it feel like to be back here as Prime Minister, after five years, when you visited, but were out of power?

Well, I am grateful to PM Modi for inviting me and receiving me — both when I was out of power and now. I never felt the difference, in that sense.

Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

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