Reimagining a city

‘City Game’ is a participatory exercise in urban planning developed by the Bangalore based think-tank ‘Fields of View’. Using whatever material available to represent structures, locations and spaces, participants are encouraged to build a city that they would like to live in and interact with. The exercise is engaging on many levels. A traditional workshop model would usually entail detailed presentations followed by little time for meaningful discussion, especially around a topic as multi-layered as urban development. The ‘City Game’ provided a framework for each participant to contribute what they thought was a meaningful construct towards an ideal city, and for others to contest or complement what was placed through other structures they felt necessary, or by engaging others in a discussion around the meaning, implications, placement or the politics of choices made.

The ideal city our group came up with had a port and beach, suburbs, a central business district, airport, waste management plant, schools, bars, public wifi, solar and hydro-power generation, parks, hospitals, clinics, a university and other features. Part of the city was on mountainous terrain, serviced by a cable car. Most of the city was imagined to be at a lower altitude, tapering down towards the seaside. The initial placement of a Town Hall organically grew into a single city centre, with a constellation of neighbourhoods and other administrative, commercial, residential, recreational and educational spaces around it. The central business district around halfway into the simulation got a hotel and a monorail service that linked it to the city centre and suburbs. The beach area was negotiated away from the port, by at least two participants who had a vested interest in its placement near a suburb they had contributed to the creation of. Others made places of religious worship into multi-faith centres, and cemeteries into crematoriums. The inclusion of Police was thought of very late into the simulation, with participants focussing more on supermarkets, accessibility of government services, public transport and parks. Interestingly, to my mind, the simulation ended before participants got around to creating city parking, a train station or bus depot.

The game, through what was created as well as what was avoided, reflected what a city often is and should be, at least, for the participants who took part in the exercise. Fields of View, which has done over one hundred similar simulations around the world, had a number of interesting insights to share with the group. In Europe, for example, consultation and planning amongst the group preceded any kind of actual construction or placement of objects. In South Asia, we were told that conversations were usually around what was placed first, and only then around its location, nature, purpose or selection. A rare exception we were told was a group from the Sri Lankan Administrative Service (SLAS), who had started with substantive discussions around the kind of city they had wanted to create before anything was placed on the floor. Another notable feature of the SLAS group’s city had been a lot of trees and green spaces.

Aside from the city we ended up with, which many of us said would be very close to one we would love to live in, the conversation at the end of the construction phase of the simulation was illuminating. Everyone brought into the imagined space their experiences, bias, frames of perception, notions of justice and visions of the good life. The game is obviously more interesting the more diverse the group of participants are, but even among the like-minded, interesting tensions emerged around choices. A participant who wanted a place of religious worship found that others in the group wanted a more secular city, changing the building into, ultimately, a multi-faith centre. Many felt the construction of a hydro-power station was unnecessary given the city’s investment in solar – with one participant flagging Elon Musk’s path-breaking very high-capacity battery technology in South Australia as a marker of what cities in the future, and future cities, would invest in. What we left with was a greater appreciation around just how much urban spaces and their development should be a conversation more than a product, place or process dumped on inhabitants with little to no consultation. A city is and can be many things. Depending on one’s gender, politics, experience, age and so many other identity markers, a city is an organism negotiated through a spectrum ranging from ease to discomfort. The simulation was a useful tool in bringing these assumptions centre and forward in discussions around how what was created could actually serve the inhabitants who would go on to live in a particular neighbourhood, area or suburb. Conversely, as Fields of View also reminded us, so much of what we want to see in our ideal city is an extension of what we enjoy in our own neighbourhood or community. The projection of the familiar is the default mode of imagining what an ideal space for everyone must look like, downplaying what others may think or feel. Needless to say, this leads to conflict, the management and productive negotiation of which is absolutely central to urban development.

My own contributions focussed on bike lanes, the Internet of Things (IoT) and its application in urban development as well as clean energy based urban transportation networks. A participant who wanted the city’s inhabitants to easily access administrative services wanted to place government offices around the city, including in low-income areas. My submission was that even today, the smartphone – cutting across socio-economic groups and other identity markers – was central to keeping in touch, as well as alerting and informing others. Any city in Sri Lanka today, leave aside the future or the ideal, needs to invest more in ways that administrative services are rendered accessible over smartphone and tablets, including through voice-driven services like 1919 for those who were relatively illiterate. My point was that the development of these always-on, on-demand, multi-lingual and multi-media services would militate against the need for brick and mortar administrative structures dotted across a city. Public wifi, following cities like New York, Bangkok and more recently, London, would allow anyone, anywhere to access, at the very least, all official and administrative services and beyond that, private news, information, communication and entertainment options. One benefit of this could be the diffusion of commercial, office space, allowing a culture of co-working and home-based telecommuting to take the place of a physical commute to work every day, contributing in turn to a less congestion on roads and public transport systems. Mobile charging points dotted across a city could enable shared electric vehicles to take the place of individual vehicles when coming into and driving within the city. Dedicated bike routes, coupled with bike share and pay-per-use hire programmes, could encourage those with a short commute to work to avoid personal and public transportation and instead, just cycle into and around the city.

All this aside, a quick scan of social and mainstream media in just the past year surfaces a wealth of conversations around how, for example, Colombo’s urban development can take place, instead of what actually is taking root, broadly supported on aesthetic grounds, largely unquestioned, often deeply violent and generally accepted as inevitable in the way it is presented. Just like the ideas generated at the simulation today, there are also ideas in the public domain around how things can and should be done better. The disconnect seems to, as it is in other domains, be more with the disinterest of local and national authorities to listen to and consult citizens, than the paucity of ideas, innovation or interest. City Game offers no concrete solution to this. However, the possible democratisation of the game – played with as many communities and in as many spaces as possible, with a robust capture of the output and discussions, would for the conscientious urban planner or policymaker offer insights that can make our urban spaces work and feel better, for everyone.

One risks disappointment to hope that this will be the case, instead of what today is a process that alienates, evicts and disempowers, all in the name of visual beauty, cleanliness, efficiency and social progress.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 July 2017.

Hacking the referendum

The government, despite strong opposition led by senior monk Anamaduwe Dhammadassi Thero, said last week that it will nevertheless continue to pursue the constitutional reform process, which will be put to a referendum. This comes after PM Wickremesinghe was reported in the media the week before saying the task of the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee (CASC) will be to draft the new constitution in such a manner that will not require a public referendum. Adding to this confusion, data in the public domain over two years from Social Indicator, the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests quite simply that if a referendum is held in the near future, the socio-political context is such that it is very difficult to see how a Yes vote would win. Given that a referendum is really an electoral litmus test of governance, entirely independent of the questions asked, the government is not on a winning wicket. Less well understood is another danger – in line with what is now a disturbing trend in other countries, including the West. But first, some data.

According to the official 2012 census, 23.2% of Sri Lanka’s population is between 20 – 34. In a survey around media consumption and perceptions in the Western Province of Sri Lanka, conducted late 2015 by Social Indicator, 42.2% of those polled said that it was necessary for Government Ministers to use social media to communicate with the public. Those between 18-34 wanted to see regular updates from the Ministry or Minister. 61.5% said that after they came across interesting content online, they went on to share and create awareness amongst friends and family. This last point is important, because it clearly suggests the importance of digitally produced content, online, having an impact on a far larger number of citizens than those directly connected to social media apps, the web and Internet. Data gleaned from the Elections Department suggests there were seven hundred thousand first time voters in January 2010 out of fourteen million in total. There were nine hundred and fifty-five thousand nine hundred and ninety first time voters in January 2015 out of over fifteen million in total. The total 18-34 vote bank of first to fourth time voters was over two million by mid-2017. This is around 13.3% of all registered voters. Indubitably, social media – through smartphones, Facebook in particular and increasingly on private groups over popular instant messaging apps – is the primary vector through which this demographic gets their news and information.

If and when the constitutional referendum is held, and any national or local election in the future, content engaged with over social media by a young demographic, including first time voters, will in large part determine the outcome. There is research from the US and the UK which looks into social media as a quantitative indicator of political behaviour, noting that heightened engagement does in fact translate into votes. Research done at the Colombo University suggests that students who directly work for politicians and act as co-ordinators (opinion leaders) between the politician and university undergraduates have been able to influence first time voters. The research goes on to note that social media acts as a multiplier effect, widening the reach of what (younger) politicians have to say by placing partisan content in peer groups.

Politics in Sri Lanka has gone digital, moving away from rally, newspaper ad, manifesto, radio or TV spot to hyper-local, demographically targeted, visually engaging, constantly updated, self-promoting content over social media, embracing sound, audio, video, photography and professional marketing skills outsourced to teams of skilled individuals who post on behalf of the leading influencers. Not a single account from the incumbent government springs to mind as a key example. The best of what is now an established set of vectors to influence votes comes from the JO writ large and in particular, individuals like MP Namal Rajapaksa.

And therein lies the rub.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to election violence and vote rigging through voter intimidation, disenfranchisement, ballot stuffing or somehow tampering the electoral registry. For a chilling few hours starting around 2am the morning of 9th January 2015, all election results froze. Desperate calls were made to ascertain why and the worry grew that dangerous measures were being contemplated in order to rig the result of an election which, as it turned out, had the largest turnout ever in a Presidential election. We may never know what really happened, but details of meetings held at this time at Temple Trees, involving highly placed members of the armed forces, Police and the then government are in the public domain. The partial amnesia of those who attended these meetings to recall who else was in the room also reveals the sensitive nature of what must have been contemplated. What however your author didn’t buy, despite a range of conspiracy theories, was the wholesale hacking of the vote counting system and network infrastructure. If as suggested, the tampering was done at the point of data entry by systematically manipulating figures, the high turnout coupled with what endures as an extremely laborious, manual system of sorting, counting and tabulation well before electronic data entry, was its own best safeguard. No doctored result would gain public legitimacy precisely because Sri Lanka’s voting architecture is so maddeningly archaic and labour intensive.

What can more easily happen today is the targeting of individual voters in a young demographic – who are influential and reciprocally, easily influenced. Information and media literacy remains, amongst this group and more widely, very poor in Sri Lanka. We do not critically engage with what we consume, and instead believe, spread, act on and respond to content that passes very poor or low subjective tests of credibility. As we discovered through our social polling in the Western Province (and reflected more globally) the Facebook News Feed is seen as a more trustworthy source of news and information entirely independent of source and veracity, simply because it is perceived as coming from friends and thereby having, unconsciously, a higher degree of trustworthiness. The voter is the new target of hacking. A new discipline called psychometrics is taking root around elections, that targets individuals or key socio-economic, geo-located, language, religious and ethnic groups with content geared to nudge them, over time, into positions that then act as proxies to an agenda set by others in power, or desirous of it. The sophistication of all this is quite remarkable, and is almost impossible to detect using traditional media monitoring techniques. What’s increasingly evident is that one of the aims of spoilers – those who want the status quo to continue and are inclined towards a No vote at our constitutional referendum – is to muddy the waters by getting citizens to disbelieve everything, become vehemently cynical and approach the promise of reform with apathy. This electoral disengagement means that the votes which are in fact counted are around the rejection of an idea or question, rather than the support of reform.

This level of demographic targeting, increasingly possible even in a small country like Sri Lanka along with more conventional means of propaganda, circumnavigates the labour intensive electoral system and the problems therein of mass scale vote rigging. What could in the past be achieved by more traditional means of violence and intimidation can now, on a daily basis, be engineered by carefully crafting media content that spreads over social media, shifting, over time, entire groups against or for ideas, exploiting what endures as an information and media literacy deficit. Put another way, the explosive growth of social media is in fact a risk for progressive, democratic forces, because it provides easy, cost effective vectors through which spoilers can now influence and reach key demographic groups, who don’t go to political rallies, have multiple, liquid affiliations with mainstream politics, aren’t card carrying party political members and don’t engage with mainstream media through broadcast and newsprint. However, what is a risk is also an opportunity. Much can be recommended in this regard, but it all starts with the one thing that is lacking to date – political leadership and will. The vacuum of doubt created by silence and the confusion created by inchoate official communication needlessly helps those intent on holding back our democratic progress and potential. It’s easy to demonize technology when traditional party-political architectures are far removed from the aspirations and hopes of young voters in particular. The truth is far older than a fascination with social media.

Reform requires political will. And that is precisely what we don’t see much of in Sri Lanka today.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 July 2017.

A hidden design

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats

Last week I wrote and warned against a creeping saffronisation of mainstream politics and the tacit embrace of what the Bodu Bala Sena and its head, Gnanasara Thero stand for, by the sangha writ large. There has been pushback. Several senior monks have publicly disassociated themselves from the Asgiriya Chapter’s explosive statement, providing a rare but telling insight into what is a complex and enduring power-play between and within each nikaya. Strongly worded statements by civil society have been published, admonishing government for not acting against the incitement to violence by the BBS, and the hatred it spouts. Like a kindergarten bully, the BBS acts with impunity on the playground of politics and society, but when occasionally caught and placed in a corner, projects to the public a face that suggest it has been unfairly accused and punished. The cycle continues.

Arguably, the likes of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anarchists, those who believe in and fight for ISIS, xenophobes, racists and bigots are a feature of a healthy democracy, precisely because they are on the fringe. At the margins of society and politics, shunned by mainstream media, opinion, policymaking and politicians, these grotesque groups and their frenetic followers exist only as a reminder of what a society, politics and country should never be, or aspire to follow. Though a full study is impossible to cover in a single column, there are two key reasons why in a developed democracy these groups don’t grow and infect a country writ large with their psychosis – one, the institutional fabric of governance, including the rule of law, is strong and applies to everyone without fear or favour. This provides citizens with a variety of options for the good life no matter who they are, what they do or where they live, within a democratic space – a prospect far more appealing than subscribing to the ideals of, and a sense of belonging that comes from being part of a smaller group. Secondly, more advanced democracies have institutional frameworks and a strong civil society that stem the growth of radical extremism and fascism. Rechts gegen Rechts (Nazis against Nazis), an initiative against right-wing extremism in Germany is a key example, where residents and local businesses of villages and towns that suffer neo-Nazi demonstrations and marches, give ten euros for every meter participants in the rallies advanced to a group called EXIT-Germany, which supports those who wanted to leave fascist, right-wing groups. The idea was that the more neo-Nazis marched, the more funding would be raised to undermine their very existence. Like drops oil in a body of water, extremist groups in more developed democracies find meaning in their existence but within a very circumscribed space.

Content featuring or published by French journalist Nicolas Hénin on ISIS also offers another perspective on the likes of the BBS. Hénin, held hostage by ISIS for ten months, in an article penned in The Guardian newspaper late 2015 notes that the likes of ISIS are drawn to ugliness on social media, and “heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia”. He notes that central to the world view of ISIS is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and that finding supporting evidence is what they are geared towards. He ends the article with a key, strategic idea, noting that what they expect is bombing, but what they really fear is unity. In a video interview with the Independent, Hénin goes on to note that “the winner of [the war against ISIS] will not be the party that has the newest, the most expensive or the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to win over people”.

It is with these points in mind that the developments last week give further cause for disquiet. The argument is often made the government and President came to power because the minorities voted for them. While electorally accurate, neither President nor government openly embrace this fact because they perceive it will somehow reduce their appeal amongst the majority community in the South. What you find as a consequence is a government with an ostrich mentality in the face of growing fascism, intolerance and violence – that hopes it will all go away if silence is maintained and its gaze averted. This author believes the situation is in fact much worse – that instead of or in parallel to strategic disengagement, there is also tacit support of what is essentially the agenda of the BBS, voices through individuals who are proxies to those higher up in power. Over the course of just one week, we have heard the kind of rhetoric from the present government that stripped of context, could be mistakenly yet easily identified as being produced under the Rajapakse regime – a political order many of us thought we had overturned and left-behind, for all the obvious reasons, in January 2015. NGOs are yet again to blame for everything that is going wrong in the country. This isn’t new – the same voices that rail against NGOs today earlier this year noted that the Consultations Task Force – that architected one of the most comprehensive consultations around transitional justice in any post-war context and appointed by the Prime Minister – was also not to be trusted because it consisted of individuals from NGOs. Individuals from civil society who state facts, which are openly in the public domain, are now forced into exile and hiding. Individuals who spout conspiracy theories, appear shoulder to shoulder with the BBS, who repeatedly call people lunatics and mad for being opposed to violent extremism, who say all temples are beyond the control or remit of government, are allowed to speak and act with impunity.

There is a dangerous design weaved into what is seemingly chaos and a lack of coordination. Just like Trump’s manic tweets, inflammatory statements by powerful voices in government generate a lot of short-term attention and opposition, but a larger design around majoritarianism’s creep seems to be going unnoticed. In February 2015, at the height of the euphoria around yahapalanaya and its promise, one of the first decisions of the incumbent President was to appoint Rakitha Rajapakshe, the son Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, as Media Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. And while the Cabinet of Ministers and the Prime Minister spoke against intolerance and the rise of extremism, the President has remained largely silent. In the company of MP Rajapakshe, the President last December railed against social media for maligning judges. MP Rajapakshe in Parliament last month launched a diatribe against UN Special Rapporteur Monica Pinto’s report on Sri Lanka, which reflecting the current state of affairs, was far from rosy. The President last week placed the blame on Facebook and social media as impediments in building national unity and reconciliation, forgetting perhaps that not unlike the time of his own Presidential campaign, one of the only open and free spaces available for civil society to actually strengthen both is social media, and Facebook in particular. A terrible tag-team, this, but a telling one at that.

The government, if it is really serious about reconciliation, national unity and suchlike, needs to win people over. Right now, it’s not. Coupled with an economy in a mess, it is haemorrhaging public support. What one arm says, another disavows. What one person says, another undoes. What one person promises, the actions of another undermine. What ONUR wants, the Minister of Justice undermines. What the Prime Minister says, isn’t what the President echoes. What the Foreign Ministry promises the international community, isn’t what is actually delivered or given life to on the ground. What the BBS wants, however, is what is being slowly but surely mainstreamed. Note the silence of Gnanasara Thero, after his both defiant and prescient last words outside court. A larger community of sangha and politicians, from within government, partial to the concerns of the BBS, powerful and predatory, are making their presence felt. President Lincoln said that a test of a man’s character was gaining power. The narrative when the President and this government were desirous of power is markedly different to the narratives they give life to when in power. Which is stronger and which endures remains to be seen, but with heavy heart, I wouldn’t bet against saffron.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 2 July 2017.

A new play

The theatre of racism does not entertain coincidence. When the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, following a meeting of the Karaka Sangha Sabha, issues a statement and the very next day, Gnanasara Thero of the BBS, after over a month in hiding and with two arrest warrants against him, surrenders to the courts, one sees a plan, process, purpose and indeed, peril.

Despite official statements around coexistence, diversity and religious tolerance by the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers, coupled with the surveillance and investigative powers of the entire Police force and our intelligence services, Gnanasara Thero remained hidden until he was ready to come out. The verbal acrobatics of the Police spokesperson when grilled by the media clearly suggests the Thero enjoys the protection of powerful politicians and political elements. The Thero may well be, unknown to himself, a pawn in a greater game. The context that led to surrender, and his subsequent kid-glove treatment by the Police, mark disturbing and dangerous trends that will undermine the 8th January promise of fully realizing Sri Lanka’s democratic potential. The events of last week also indicate a hidden pulsating power grid, within and outside of government, discernible only by looking at the systemic collapse around a clear, coherent response to what is clearly a fascist threat. The head of this snake is the BBS, but its venom writhes and slithers through the veins of government.

The statement by the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter is unprecedented. Even at the height of the anti-Muslim violence under the Rajapaksa regime, almost three years ago to date in Aluthgama, the chief prelates of maintained a silence and distance from Gnanasara Thero, affording at best a rare audience. They didn’t condemn. They didn’t condone. They just didn’t engage. And while their silence was damning enough, allowing the space for the BBS to grow, the statement last week is a dramatic reversal in the dynamics of their engagement – and for the worse. English mainstream media, which featured the statement penned in Sinhala, focussed on a single sentence that noted the Karaka Sangha Sabha did not approve of the aggressive behavior and speech of Gnanasara Thero. In his first interaction with the media after he was arrested, then released on bail, arrested again, and then re-released on bail, Gnanasara Thero indirectly references this concern, and says that the campaign henceforth will be in the hands of other monks, who are more civilised, cultured and well-mannered. What was a campaign of the BBS, in concert now with a statement by the Asgiriya Chapter, is now a campaign of all monks. This is congruent with the tone and thrust of the original statement, couched in a considered, even cunning Sinhala. A gentle knuckle rap on Gnanasara Thero is the entry point into what really is a statement that articulates and amplifies what the BBS has noted in the past. It suggests that many are disrespectful of Gnanasara Thero, particularly in how they address him, and denounces this. It denounces the purported silencing and targeting of Buddhist monks who flag what they perceive to be racist comments by politicians. It denounces the introduction of what it says are new laws targeted against Sinhalese-Buddhists in Sri Lanka. It denounces what it says are acts conducted in the name of reconciliation, around the destruction of ancient archeological artifacts in the North and East, and the appropriation of protected lands. It calls for the intervention of the President. The statement rails against what it says are attempts in the media to destroy the Sinhala race, and reminds that it is the duty of the government to act in this regard. The statement says that there are those in the guise of Buddhists, speaking on behalf of Buddhist as well as non-Buddhists who are engaged in a concerted effort to destroy Buddhist culture and the Sinhalese. It asks the government to hurriedly bring about and enact laws that address these concerns and protects the Buddhist culture and Buddhism. Its final point is the most chilling. The statement reminds all non-Buddhists that Sri Lanka’s Buddhist population has always protected and respected them. It condemns the acts of those, from other religions, who act against the core values of Buddhism and suggests that this destructive plot is also supported by various domestic and foreign forces. The statement ends on a rallying cry, noting that it is the duty of the Sangha and a patriotic public to stand up against the discrimination of the Sinhala-Buddhists.

To my knowledge, a full and accurate translation of the statement has not been published in any English media. This itself is revealing. The thrust and tone of this extraordinary statement, aimed at the majority community and religion in the country and with the powerful symbolic imprimatur of the Asgiriya Chapter, lays the foundation for the internalization of all the BBS stands for, by the sangha writ large. Those like the Ven. Dambila Thero, who have been openly against the BBS and Gnanasara Thero, and are now also in opposition to the Asgiriya Chapter and the Karaka Sangha Sabha, stand to be even more marginalized than they are today. The end result of developments this past week is to make the agenda, concerns, fears and targets of the BBS, the same as that which the Asgiriya Chapter and other senior monks will support, secure and indeed, strengthen. Mark how fundamentally different this response is to how in Myanmar, in May this year,  the Sangha Maha Nayaka (MHN) Committee, a government-appointed group of monks responsible for regulating the country’s Buddhist clergy, announced a four-point order effectively banning Ma Ba Tha, the equivalent of the BBS.

This places Sri Lanka is a precarious situation, and to my mind, more incendiary than what it faced in 2014, which is saying a lot. The BBS may well have same electoral impact as  the odious UKIP before the Brexit referendum, in that it moves the centre, fearful of losing a majority vote, far more towards the right and into a new normal that is in fact the cementing of fringe lunacy and continuation of deeply racist responses, structures and discrimination by the State against minorities. The pernicious political project isn’t in fact the generation of votes to enter Parliament. Rather, it is the rejection of an alternative future proposed at a referendum or any other electoral contest through uncertainty, fear and the generation of distrust around everything and everyone. To this end, far more than Gnanasara Thero and the BBS, it is the Asgiriya Chapter’s statement that I find deeply troubling, catapulting strained ethno-political relations in polity and society into a mine-field of uncertainty, ripe for spontaneous violence that can easily lead to sustained conflict. That all this happens before a promised constitutional referendum is also not mere coincidence – it is the hacking of our democratic future by targeted, timely measures to undermine the government’s confidence and public standing. None of this is helped by those like the Minister of Justice, who is the equivalent of a computer virus that undermines and sets out to destroy a network from within it. In targeting lawyer Lakshan Dias for what he went on record saying in public using research also in the public domain, as well as for what the Minister has said, done and not done since his appointment, any statement, any project and any desire of government to meaningfully address racism today is a cruel joke as long as he holds the position he does.

Large sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist and even the Sinhala-Catholic communities are being primed to countenance, if not directly engage in violence against religious minorities and Muslims. Rwanda had Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, broadcasting content that normalized hate, violence and othering. We saw in Aluthgama, three years ago, what impact a single rally could have around the incitement to violence. The stage is being readied for a new play. And in the wings are saffron guillotines, ready to be pushed centre-stage at any moment.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 25 June 2017.

Priorities

Last week, a large rally took place in Colombo. Villagers from Pānama, a coastal village in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, were demanding the return of their land currently occupied by the Air Force, and were in the city to hand over a petition signed by 20,000 to the Presidential Secretariat. This is a struggle long struggle, for years out of sight, out of mind, by citizens who have little to nothing by way of livelihoods, belongings or hope. Their lands continue to be occupied by the military. They have tried multiple avenues, reached out to multiple levels of government, demonstrating an incredible patience and resilience. They have suffered indignity, callous indifference and insensitivity. In Colombo, Police at the rally photographed them like suspects engaged in some of criminality. The only threat they posed was to bring shame to a government that since coming to power with the promise of reform and redress, hasn’t lived up to expectations. News updates over SMS alerted subscribers to a burning tower in London. There was no mention or coverage of this rally.

On the subject of the fire in London, the Foreign Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a day after a horrible blaze destroyed an apartment complex in the city, published consular contact details and even the mobile phone numbers of key staff. No Sri Lankans were reported to have been in or near the building, or in any way affected by the inferno. Conversely, to date, the MFA and the Minister are yet to issue any information around consular access, hotlines and services for the tens of thousands of our citizens in and around Qatar. For whatever reason, expatriates in London who aren’t affected by a localised blaze get more attention and care from the Foreign Minister and Ministry than a vastly greater number of migrant labour deeply anxious and hostage to the growing volatility of the Qatari region.

As evident from what I have penned over the past two weeks, when catastrophic flooding hit Sri Lanka, the Minister in charge of disaster management, not in the country at the time, decided to spend a day or two in Dubai for indeterminable reasons on his way back to Sri Lanka. We have a government that let lapse a vital insurance scheme that helps pay compensation and damages for citizens who are victims of large-scale natural disasters. This money now has to come from a government already steeped in debt. Hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign funding directly to government around early warning and disaster risk reduction has had no visible impact. All the relevant officials and the Minister continue in office, with no contrition.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto, released late December 2014, noted that he would undertake an investigation into “the import of super luxury motor vehicles, racing cars and motor cycles” and that “action will be taken to recover pertinent taxes”. In 2016 alone, well over a billion rupees were allocated to purchase brand new SUVs for MPs. This sum of money was announced in a year that saw catastrophic flooding, a devastating landslide in Aranayake and the munitions dump disaster in Salawa, leaving over two thousand homes and businesses severely damaged. Education, infant milk and food subsidies, government scholarships and the development of health infrastructure, including a new cancer ward, all cost less than the allocation for the new SUVs.  Worse, many SUVs were resold by the MPs who received them duty free.

The PM last week noted that the Government will bring in new laws to stop religious and ethnic violence if needed. Sections 290, 290A, 291, 291A, 291B of the Penal Code already address this issue, aside from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. The IGP in fact recently reminded his staff of commitments under the ICCPR to arrest the spread of religious intolerance. But we don’t need to get too technical in all this. In calling for new laws, the PM seems to have forgotten that a very public arrest order to bring the head of the BBS, Gnanasara Thero, to book, has not been executed for close upon a month. Another arrest warrant was issued last week. And yet, the Thero has disappeared into thin air and with complete impunity. The Police – all of them, all over the country – apparently cannot find him. Meanwhile, Muslim owned businesses and mosques, across the country, continue to be destroyed, desecrated or damaged. Blithely indifferent, the government issues statements around tolerance, calls for new laws around hate speech and reminds Police officers of their legal obligations.

Colombo is reeling under a water, sanitation and waste management architecture that dates to colonial times and hasn’t been upgraded to keep pace with the city’s explosion in infrastructure and inhabitants. Under successive governments, urban development is sold as leading to a green, clean, high-rise city. The only problem is that the affluence and good life many aspire to, is being replaced by the stark reality of untreated effluent and garbage. Meethotamulla brought centre and forward the fact that the billions of rupees allotted for and spent on urban development, mostly anchored to the Financial City project and high-end apartment complexes, have utterly failed to address challenges around waste and garbage disposal that the CMC is already struggling to cope with. A cosmetic veneer geared towards investment and votes hides, quite literally, a rotting mess within.

Last week, news of an evil spell ostensibly made against the President on a copper plate made front page news in a leading English daily. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, the next day, the President himself sought to assure everyone that he was not afraid of evil spells, as part of an official address at a public gathering. By way of comparison, a President unafraid of evil spells is seemingly running scared of establishing the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), despite legislation passed in Parliament in August 2016.

I could go on, but yahapalanaya’s congenital inability, since January 2015, to prioritise what is really important risks everything it promised and on paper, stood for. Many would attribute this to the warp and whoof of Sri Lanka’s zero sum, parochial and partisan political culture, which arguably strangles the best efforts around reform and course correction. Electorally, this alienates in particular a younger demographic and also minorities. Without the vote of both, neither President nor PM would be in power today. When young citizens feel or perceive they are doing more than government around disaster relief for example, their anger translates into apathy, disengagement or a vote against government and what they don’t want to see the continuation of. When minorities feel or perceive they are being persecuted and with impunity, parallels are made with how they suffered under the previous regime and how little has changed. When the families of the disappeared and missing endure hellish heat, torrential rain, incredible indignity and hopelessness to just ask for answers that were promised to them months ago, the seeds of future conflict are sown by creating a vacuum extremist domestic and foreign elements, to further their own agenda, can easily exploit.  When MPs and their convoys take over our roads, blinding other drivers, horning incessantly, breaking all road rules and darting around pedestrians as if they were skittles, the government itself, entirely independent of anything done or said by the more vociferous elements of the previous regime, rapidly and perhaps even irretrievably loses public trust, goodwill and support.

A crisis of prioritisation may well be the defining feature historians choose to focus on when studying the period this government was in power. Increasingly, all signs seem to indicate that time will be just a single-term in office.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 18 may 2017.

Gods in government

Last Sunday, I wrote about how Sri Lanka’s Minister of Disaster Management never returned hurriedly to Sri Lanka to deal with the catastrophic flooding which hit the country last month, and instead, on his way back to the country from an international conference – ironically on disaster management – had an extended stopover in Dubai for indeterminable reasons. Last week, in coordination with colleagues at work, an RTI request was lodged in order to ascertain just what the Minister was doing outside the country, using public funds, when he should have been on the ground leading relief efforts. To date, there has been no statement whatsoever, leave aside any degree of contrition in public from the Minister, his Ministry or other public officials from the Meteorological Department or the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) around failures in early warning, response and relief coordination.

We should be angry. We should demand the resignation of the Minister and all public officials who fail in what we expect them to do. The lack of accountability and near total impunity around governance arises from elected representatives and appointed officials who know that once in office, the public no matter what will rarely seek their removal. This needs to change, but not just because of last month’s flooding.

An article by journalist Amantha Perera, who has perhaps the most experience around disaster reporting in the country, published by IRIN, quotes Lalith Chandrapala, Director General of the Meteorological Department who says the department doesn’t have Doppler radar capability in 2017 and that with Japanese funding, two stations will be set up in the next two years. Four years ago, in 2013, a storm killed at least fifty fishermen at sea. At the time, an article published by Amantha, also on IRIN, quotes DMC’s Assistant Director Sarath Lal Kumara saying that a new Doppler Radar system would be operational by August, that year. One year prior to this, in 2012, the then Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera was quoted in the mainstream print media, after devastating flooding that year, saying that a Doppler radar system had been installed at Gongala Kanda in Deniyaya and that it would be operational by the end of that year. Two years ago, in 2015, mainstream print media reported that the Doppler radar system was dysfunctional, even though it was shipped to Sri Lanka as far back as 2011. The same media report notes that the Meteorological Department was in discussions with Japanese parties to secure two more Doppler radar systems.

We have then multiple officials and Ministers, over successive governments, for at least six years, misinforming and misdirecting the public around life-saving adverse weather detection equipment financed by bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements, as well as public coffers. Over this period of time, due to rains alone and because of little to no warning coupled with abysmal planning, we have had hundreds of thousands displaced, tens of thousands of homes and buildings completely or partially destroyed and the catastrophic loss of human life including children, women and men – a cost to family, community and country that is really incalculable. The responsibility for all this lies with those heading relevant line ministries and government institutions. And yet, they continue in their employment, no questions asked.

Last Sunday, as well as at a meeting at the United Nations in Colombo convened last week to discuss how social media played a role in the flood relief operations, I called this lack of accountability criminal. I also said that institutions like the World Bank, UN and other bilateral and multilateral donors who support Sri Lanka’s disaster risk reduction and prevention programmes are now part of the problem, instead of supporting the development of solutions and proper planning. As part of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the UN Development Group maintains a transparency portal on the web which, for purposes of public accountability, publishes the sum of money going into development in each UN member state, divided by sector. In 2016, Sri Lanka got US$ 100,417,924 towards disaster prevention and preparedness. That’s 25% of the total sum of money towards developmental assistance as calculated on the portal. It is unclear whether the UN country office in Sri Lanka will hold accountable the institutions and ministries it funded, for this considerable amount over 2016 alone, around their inability to plan for, provide early warning around, or create comprehensive collaboration, coordination and communication platforms after a disaster. Without strict controls, key performance indicators or naming and shaming, foreign funding and technical support will just go to waste. Donors and foreign governments need to peg future funding to key deliverables, ask for comprehensive reasons around systemic failures or stop funding the government of Sri Lanka with immediate effect. It is either this, or becoming partners in fostering a culture of impunity that leads to the loss of life.

Much more can be done with data from the private sector that can around emergencies be leveraged by government and other mandated authorities, like the Red Cross in Sri Lanka. Facebook last week, in collaboration with WFP, UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched a way through which near real-time maps of population displacement and movements after disasters can be drawn. This is based on the millions of Facebook users alone, and amongst other sources, data they generate through their actions and the geo-location features of Facebook’s apps on smartphones. Sri Lankan telecommunications companies like to endlessly promote their selflessness and largesse after a disaster. Tellingly however, there is no reported case around how billions of call data records, generated daily, is made available to and used by relevant ministries, departments and agencies for disaster risk reduction, as well as post-disaster search and rescue, or relief operations. This data, pseudonymised to protect individual privacy, is already available for think-tanks dealing with development. Telcos and government haven’t, even in 2017, thought about how beyond the telegenics of a disaster, this data can help with disaster planning and response, in near real time data, based around customer location. This information can help direct relief and supplies to where people are gathered most, moving towards, or those marooned in areas most affected by a disaster, complementing aerial reconnaissance and other means. Another suggestion made at the UN meeting last week was to encourage government to open up their datasets around disasters, and to stop publishing daily updates in proprietary, closed formats like PDFs, which cannot be indexed or ingested by systems tailored for disaster response, or the reporting of urgent needs.

But really useful solutions can also be relatively low-tech. Take the DMC’s Twitter feed, an important source of information especially during and immediately after a disaster. Last year, critical warnings around severe weather conditions were uploaded against a green or blue background. This year, it was red and brown, at various times. In sum, the severity of the alert bears no relation to the choice of colour. This flies in the face of logic, and established protocols around early warning by for example the Philippines Government, which has an alerting system basic on green, yellow and red (mirroring traffic lights) around disasters. The Philippines government even has officially recognised hashtags for use around disasters by those on Twitter reporting on needs, alerts and situation updates. Even in Bangladesh, things are more developed than they are in Sri Lanka. When at the height of flooding, Twitter reached out in order to help them compile a list of the most useful, active and reliable sources on the platform reporting on the floods, they refused to believe me when I said there was not a single line ministry, Minister, department, agency or public official on Twitter, save for DMC, that was active around the disaster. We are so backward in our adoption of basic technology that it beggars disbelief around leading social media companies that want to help save lives.

Just the simple implementation of a colour coded public warning framework can help reduce anxiety, help with planning, coordinated evacuations and public information dissemination. Yet, this eludes government, along with common-sense, accountability, innovation, collaboration, coordination and communication. In every imaginable way official entities can prepare for and respond to a disaster, systems and frameworks are found lacking. There is no doubt that citizens will in the future, independent of government, help others in need. However, the spontaneity, sophistication and success of these citizen led post-disaster initiatives may ironically make government more complacent, allowing them to take credit for things that they have had no role engineering or even supporting. We must not allow the impunity to continue. The loss of life is not the result of severe weather alone. It is the result of openly lying, the misallocation of public money and foreign funding, a lack of accountability and a culture of impunity. Our anger should be directed at our public representatives, who have names, designations and faces.

We may not be able to influence the weather gods, but those who think they are gods in government must be reminded, unequivocally, they are not.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 June 2017.

Disaster response

The most obvious disaster around the recent flooding in Sri Lanka was not caused by weather. For the entirety of the height of the disaster, the Minister tasked with Disaster Management wasn’t anywhere close to the areas affected, or even in Sri Lanka. Instead of returning to the country urgently to deal with a real disaster, the Minister was instead in Mexico, speaking about disasters. News media subsequently reported that on the way back to Sri Lanka, he had also broken his journey in Dubai. No news report to date suggests any degree of contrition. Anger directed against the missing Minister on social media in particular took the form of cartoons, memes, tweets, Facebook posts and a petition to call for his resignation. The Minister’s absence was a metaphor for the government’s disaster preparedness, which remains, even in 2017 a good idea. Donors supporting various government line ministries, agencies and departments tasked with disaster risk reduction and early warning need to question, scale back or stop funding. The intended outcomes of loans, technical assistance, grants, knowledge transfers and other measures to strengthen the country’s ability to plan for and mitigate the impact of extreme weather are very far from being achieved. This is basic corruption that bilateral and multilateral donors are supporting – for those in relevant government bodies to enjoy the benefits of training, both local and foreign, equipment and funding, with little to nothing to show for it by way of actual work and warning. Over just the past few years, we have seen this gross negligence leading to the untimely death of hundreds, including children and infants. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been fully or partially destroyed. This is statistical fact, not conjecture, hyperbole or partisan rhetoric. And yet, not a single official or Minister has taken responsibility and even offered to resign. Not a single Minister who owns, or received and didn’t go on to sell off-road capable luxury SUVs were seen in their constituency taking the vehicles out to help flood relief operations, unlike many citizens with similar vehicles who did. With each disaster, the earlier ones are forgotten. And the circus just goes on.

Social media provides a vector through which citizens, tired of and angry with government, are directly helping others in distress. The communication, collaboration and coordination in response to the flooding this year was mediated over social media to an unprecedented degree. The broad contours of entirely organic movements over social media to provide relief and support are already familiar, starting with the flooding from last year to the drought earlier this year. Some aspects of this are worth noting for at least one simple reason. A government writ large, and disaster management authorities in particular unable or unwilling to tap into, monitor, verify, action and archive this wealth of information is not one that is capable of saving lives. There is a growing body of research which looks at the role and relevance of social media content in early warning, disaster response and relief operations, pegged to factors like the media used, medium, language, cost, accessibility and volume. All available research suggests the amount of information produced over social media alone, if ingested in a meaningful and methodical manner, can help official disaster relief operations, contribute to early warning and help in mitigation. Sri Lanka is not there yet, by a long shot. What we do find is the use of social media largely by citizens, for citizens – with information flows that go from WhatsApp to Twitter to Facebook in a matter of minutes. From databases around relief and volunteer operations to rapidly updated lists of collection points, from private taxi companies with their apps facilitating boats and even air support services to the hot-wiring of government agencies with crowdsourced Tamil translation capacity, social media plays a critical role in disaster response entirely independent of government.

This year, Facebook and Twitter played a visibility larger role than with the flooding that gripped the country last year. The hugely successful donation campaign of lunch packets at the Fort Railway Station was facilitated over social media in general, and Facebook in particular. Facebook is now a viable vector into key demographic groups across geography, and importantly, primarily in Sinhala. The communication of and collaboration around relief operations using Facebook has clear implications for information flows far beyond disasters, including, importantly, information flows leading up to a referendum. The same can be said of Twitter. 28,237 tweets were produced in just one week around the response to flooding using four key hashtags on the platform, #floodsl, #floods17, #floodsl2017 and #slflood. Twitter India published, for the first time around any major disaster in Sri Lanka, a list of key accounts including civic media, journalists, the Disaster Management Centre and the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the height of the flooding, Twitter produced well over two tweets a minute with one or more of the hashtags archived, which is for our country an unprecedented volume. Information on Twitter was so important and timely, guides were published on how to get vital updates published by for example the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) on Twitter alone over SMS to any mobile phone, using any network.

The DMC, waking up from deep slumber, stepped up their use of social media. Ordinary citizens, not anyone government, helped with the verification of their Twitter account, thereby raising the credibility of their content. Collaborating with the Gudppl initiative helped DMC put out life-saving information in Tamil, and not just in English or Sinhala. They asked those affected and others to send in photos of affected areas, which was published on a web based map. They publicised WhatsApp groups linked to relief operations. They engaged with enraged citizens over Twitter, and put out content in a carefully curated manner, which though late begin with, was much appreciated. Social media was also responsible in flagging the role and selfless actions of government officials, even as their Ministers, Heads of Agencies and Departments and the official systems failed them miserably. It seems that in the absence of any sort of official recognition, social media is all they have to vent their frustration with what lies beyond their control, and be praised for doing what they can.

Particularly because of the violent and divisive antics Gnanasara Thero just one week prior, a number of social media updates, with compelling entirely citizen generated photography, focussed on how religion and ethnicity played no part in determining relief and recovery efforts. This content went viral. Those in government tasked with reconciliation were encouraged to archive and showcase this content in the months ahead, to combat the rise of what remains a festering, unresolved issue over the hate and dangerous speech produced by the BBS, with near complete impunity.

Other questions remain, from the technical to the practical. Government agencies publishing life-saving information, even in 2017, continue to use proprietary, closed formats that locks in vital information, instead of opening it out. Disaster reporting itself remains a casualty. The mainstream media including social media focussed on deaths and destruction, which is understandable. But there is little to no focus on underlying causes for these disasters, save for the simplistic reporting around rainfall. Deforestation, environmental devastation, lack of disaster risk reduction in urban planning and indeed, ill-advised urban development and other related issues simply go under-reported, at best. Every time, the disaster itself generates headlines and hand-wringing, but what contributes to it, never does. It is unclear to what degree the DMC, which got the capacity to work in Tamil during the flooding, will retain this capacity. Above all, whether government takes accountability seriously.

At a basic minimum, a government that expects to remain in power and win a referendum needs to ensure citizens don’t unnecessarily die. This isn’t rocket-science. It’s basic common-sense. Tellingly, not only does it elude those in power, they don’t really seem to care.