She has shown the way | Daily News

She has shown the way

Those who saw her on internet social media, a slim figure standing with admonitory finger raised and, firmly arguing with the State Minister, may have thought of the legendary Kuveni or Vihara Maha Devi. Such is the stuff of Sri Lankan womanhood – never mind the constantly repeated mantras relegating our females to secondary status.

Gampaha District Forest Officer Devani Jayathilaka certainly will be the toast of all environmentalists, nature lovers and generally all those who cherish our country’s legal and constitutional integrity. The social media showed Forest Officer Jayathilaka overruling a decision by political bigwigs to construct a playground on a bio-diversity-rich island off Negombo.

Video reports of the interaction between the Forest Officer and supporters of a State Minister aired on television showed the public servant – though, junior she might be - holding her ground and refusing to be intimidated by threatening remarks by the mob in the company of the State Minister. Despite the interruptions, she persisted in explaining to the Minister the irreparable damage that would be caused to the environment if the proposal was to be implemented.

The Officer threw the metaphorical book at the State Minister who could only retreat in the face of the data presented by the bureaucrat-expert. Quoting the responsibilities of public officers towards fulfilling their duty to protect the country’s meagre forest cover, Officer Jayathilaka forthrightly refused to implement those ministerial directives that went against the law as well as undermined State environmental policy.

She pointed out that the Gampaha District had the least forest cover (1.6 percent) in the country and, referring to the on-going re-forestation campaigns, she insisted she would not be a party to further destruction of what remained of the forest cover in the country. The denuding of rich mangroves along with forest could have other repercussions such as the depletion of the oxygen in the atmosphere, though one of the minions present there told her: “we do not need oxygen”.

Encouragingly, this intrepid Forest Officer was fully backed by the Cabinet Minister in charge of the subject in a welcome departure from the past when Government Ministers backed their colleagues in all illegal activities. Hopefully, other public officials will follow suit and do what is right, reasonable and legal, with the courage to say ‘no’ to what is wrong or unreasonable or, unlawful.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has vowed, time and again, to create an independent public service and has enjoined all public officials to carry out their duties according to their conscience, declaring that he would stand by their decisions. There should be an end to the culture where public officials merely did what they were told by the political authority notwithstanding their legal validity.

The Forest Officer’s act is significant in other ways too. It showed that there still are individuals in the public service who are willing to risk their office (along with the many perks such as tax-free income, state pension and cost concessions) for simply doing the right thing, irrespective of orders from politicians. She certainly would not have been unaware of the consequences of standing up to a powerful politician in her area. She would also not be unaware that since the day she confronted the political authority she, no doubt, would be a marked woman, going by past happenings to public officials who dared buck the trend.

Is Officer Jayathilaka’s resolute stance inspired by the President’s exhortations for professional best practices?

Happily, the Cabinet Minister concerned is on her side in this instance. Besides, she already has the assurance of the President himself. Let the deed of this Lady Forest officer act as a catalyst to cleanse and purge our public service of the sad legacy of political interference for all time.

This laudable ‘resistance’ comes at a time when, under the directive of the President, an islandwide tree planting campaign has already been launched to mark Freedom Day. We simply must protect our rapidly dwindling forest cover. Already the consequences of this are felt through Climate Change.

It is true that the priority given for development as well has human settlements has, with the rapid increase in the population, necessitated the clearance of swathes of forest. Forests are also being destroyed to construct tourist hotels etc with the blessings of politicians. While the accent was being laid on the economic returns, the larger picture was being ignored.

The present human-elephant conflict is a consequence of rampant destruction of forests in the country. This applies to all other wild creatures as well.

Other consequences of forest destruction include, for example, the depletion of water resources in some areas. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who led the way in beautifying Colombo City, will not condone any harm caused to the environment by whoever it may be in his Government. Hopefully this signal act of the Forest Officer Jayathilaka will be a beacon to others in the public service to do their bit in fulfilling their public duty while resisting the pressures of politicians.

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