Monday, May 18, 2015

How to 'solve' Wilpattu

courtesy: Flickr
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has raised concerns about deforestation around Wilpattu National Park. Four environmental organisations have charged Rishad Bathiudeen of complicity. Now guilt isn't always about direct involvement. People can be indirectly involved. That is why the allegation that he has cleared more than 18,000 acres of forest land throughout three districts is serious. He needs to be investigated. Period.

An inquiry would make sense. President Maithripala Sirisena has called for one. That sets precedent, and certainly a good one. But there's another issue here. If illegal acquisition was all that mattered this wouldn't be a big problem. Indeed one can argue that illegal resettlement in the guise of land clearance is a problem that can easily be remedied.

There's an underside to Wilpattu, however. This has gone unnoticed. It came to me through a comment to a Facebook post. Not the media. The comment was about certain visitors to the park who are engaged with "hunting safaris". Animals are being shot and no one seems to be aware of this. To make matters worse these hunters are actively bragging about what they do on social media (as this photo quite clearly shows).

No action has been taken here. This reflects lethargy on the part of the Wildlife Ministry. To top it all no less a figure than the president himself heads it. Letting these hunters off the hook would reflect badly on him and his government. This is not because evidence lends credence to allegation but because those who perpetrate these crimes are bragging about them. That warrants public outrage. Naturally.

Here's what we know. Most of these "visitors" are from overseas. This indicates that the wrongdoers aren't Sri Lankan. It also indicates that more vigilance should be demanded from relevant authorities in cancelling their visas. Hosts should not tolerate behaviour of this sort from guests, naturally enough. But while they are committing these acts, it is alleged that local criminal gangs are abetting them. That is despicable and demands immediate remedy.

I raise these points because this government has shown itself capable of persecuting wrongdoers. Unfortunately most of those they have persecuted thus far have been officials from the previous regime. That does not and indeed will not license unchecked allegations on the part of Ministers who belong to this government. President Sirisena himself should know this.

There are two courses of action that must be followed. The first and most immediate would be to book those hunting illegally. This can be done with assistance from the Immigration and Emigration Department. Secondly those abetting these "invited guests" must be investigated, arguably the harder of the two given that they remain unidentified. Given how active the government has been in booking members from the former regime I don't think it will be difficult to persecute both criminal and accomplice here.

It doesn't make sense to go on a rampage against former Ministers but let this issue go by unnoticed. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) hasn't spoken a word about it. That is not surprising. We are after all talking about an organisation that raised hell over Rishad Bathiudeen when he was with Mahinda Rajapaksa but stayed shut when the former joined Maithripala Sirisena's election campaign. BASL has always been ready to urge constitutional reform. That is why continuing silence on its part about Wilpattu disgusts me.

It is the government and the government alone that must combat this problem. Yahapalanaya after all isn't about regime-change. Problems that crop up must be investigated. Action must be taken. A top-to-bottom coordinated program must be implemented. Solving a problem like Wilpattu takes more than just harping on about the government's stance on good governance. It should involve active engagement with issue and nothing short of that.

The litmus test for this problem is whether or not a presidential inquiry will be implemented and how objective it will be. The findings of such an inquiry must involve not just alleged deforestation, moreover. It must also involve those hunters bragging about what they do on social media. Simple as that.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at