30th December 2001, Volume 8, Issue 24

Home

News

Politics

Issues

Editorial

Spotlight

Sports

Business

Review

Nutshell

Interviews

Fashion

Archives

ISSUES

A fine blended controversy

By Asgar Hussein

Controversy surrounds a tea strategy contract awarded, under the influence of the previous government, to an Indian consultancy firm. Investigations have revealed serious irregularities and alleged corruption in this US Dollars 800,000 deal.

The issue revolves around a directive by the then Prime Minister and Minister of Plantation Industries Ratnasiri Wickramanayake to his ministry urging that the contract be awarded to the New Delhi based firm A. T. Kearney Limited.

The agreement signed in April this year was to obtain consultancy services to undertake a strategic study for the Sri Lankan tea industry. It involved a payment of US Dollars 800,000 in foreign currency and further local costs to the contractor from the proceeds of an ADB loan to the government.

One fails to understand why such a huge sum was spent on this contract as its conclusions were similar to those in an earlier report written by a commission which included the eminent economist Dr. J. B. Kelegama.

The controversial contract (under the plantation reform project funded by the Asian Development Bank) was made between the Planters' Association of Ceylon and the Indian firm.

The Sunday Leader understands that the Planters' Association was selected in order to circumvent normal government tender procedure, in the procurement of consultancy services. Furthermore, the draft contract agreement was not submitted to the Attorney General for approval, as is usually the case. The contract agreement was instead drafted by a person named D. C. Jayasuriya for whose work the Ministry of Plantation industries paid over Rs. 84,000.

What is truly sad is that a much needed welfare plan for plantation workers was curtailed to get this deal through. In order to finance the tea strategy contract, Rs. 75 million (US dollars 815,000) provided under the Plantation Reform Project loan to re-roof 5,000 houses of plantation workers was cancelled. Plantation companies and trade unions have strongly protested against this callous move.

Another irregularity in this deal is that a tea strategy deal does not fall within the scope of the Plantation Reform Project Loan Agreement 1402-Sri (SF) signed by the government with the Asian Development Bank.

One also fails to understand why A. T. Kearney was awarded the contract since they have no experience in handling any work relating to the plantation industry in any country. They have not even handled any international consultancy contracts for ADB funded projects in any country.

The tea strategy contract was signed by Planters' Association Chairman Mahendra Amarasuriya and Director, A. T. Kearney Ltd., Dr. C. Sirinivasan. Questions have arisen as to how Amarasuriya obtained authority to sign such a contract where government officials had to make payment in US Dollars out of Plantation Ministry funds. It is alleged that former Treasury Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundera had devised this scheme of payment.

In any case, awarding the contract was a meaningless move as an earlier report, which was not acted upon, had reached similar conclusions.

It was in July 1994 that then President D. B. Wijetunga appointed a commission of inquiry to recommend a suitable strategy for the tea industry in Sri Lanka. The four member commission including Dr. Kelegama submitted their report in January 1995. They recommended a strategy to radically change from selling tea as a commodity through auctions to service foreign owned brands and instead market tea directly as a Sri Lankan branded consumer product. They also made some good recommendations, but their report was not followed up by the Kumaratunga administration. This was the case even after the report was published as sessional paper No. 11 of 1995. The cost to the government was very low as the commission was paid just Rs. 300,000 for the entire report. As such, one fails to understand the rationale behind a similar study paying such a colossal sum.


'Active' conservation

Winner of the Year 2000 Rolex Award for Enterprise, Rohan Pethiyagoda is the discoverer of dozens of new species of freshwater fish and amphibians in Sri Lanka and author and editor of more than 50 biodiversity-related books and research papers. He is Managing Trustee of the Wildlife Heritage Trust, Sri Lanka's leading biodiversity research institution, and editor of the journal Zeylanica. He was formerly Director, Biomedical Engineering Services of the Ministry of Health, and Chairman of the Water Resources Board.

(Part I of this article was published on December 23, 2001.)

By Rohan Pethiyagoda

 

When a species is on the brink of extinction, what is the best course of action to save it? Two schools of thought exist. The first maintains that it is best to protect as many members of the species as possible in a carefully monitored habitat. In the case of many animals, there is no choice, as maintaining and breeding them in captivity is often futile (e.g. the Giant Pandas, which have proved almost impossible to breed and raise in captivity). In others, even if the species is bred in captivity, it cannot be released to the wild as it has not learned to fend for itself. The failure of the Adamsons to teach Elsa to hunt was one of the most touching parts of Born Free. Likewise, when the Wildlife Department released into Yala a number of confiscated pet deer raised in captivity, they were soon devoured by leopards.

Nevertheless, for some species, captive breeding may be the only way out and we need to learn to breed in captivity species that may one day be endangered. A single example will demonstrate my point. In 1990, I described a small carp-like fish, Puntius bandula, which is known only from a single small stream running through the village of Galapitamada in the Kegalle District. The entire length of stream in which the fish occurs is less than a kilometre long. The Bandula Barb, as the species came to be known, was estimated to have a population of no more than 1,000 adults, a critically small number for a fish, especially given that a single dose of insecticide could have rendered it extinct.

Shortly after my discovery, an aquarium fish dealer, Ananda Pathirana, collected a few of these fish and over the years bred several thousand in his facility at Ratmalana (the Wildlife Department prohibited capture and export of the fish in 1993). By 1998, the Bandula Barb was on the brink of extinction, thanks to intensive agriculture upstream of its habitat. Pathirana came to the rescue when, with the blessings of the Wildlife Department, several hundred fishes from his captive stock were released into the same stream. This is a simple example of how a species could be saved from the brink, but it is an easy one. Many animals, including birds and snakes can be notoriously difficult and expensive to breed or even keep alive in captivity.

Over the past year, at WHT's conservation centre in Agrapatana, we have succeeded in breeding in captivity for the first time in the world, the so-called direct-developing tree frogs of Sri Lanka. These frogs are unlike any you probably have heard of. Their eggs are not laid in water and do not turn into tadpoles. Instead, they are laid on the forest floor and turn directly into small frogs, entirely bypassing the tadpole stage. This unique adaptation has given Sri Lanka what is probably the highest frog-species diversity in the whole world.

It took us months of effort, communicating with international experts, and having one of our staff specially trained in the Durrell Zoo in Jersey before we succeeded. Even then, the precise conditions each species required had to be worked out: diet, soil type, rainfall, humidity, temperature, atmospheric pressure etc. Then, when all the conditions were right, after two years, finally one day a pair mated and laid a clutch of eggs. Monitored as if they were our own babies, the young were marked and released after they had been kept in captivity for varying periods. Now we know for sure that the seven species we have bred so far can, if it is one day necessary, be bred in captivity and successfully released.

Problems arise however, when such projects are commercialised. Conservation activity needs money, and one way to generate cash is to have paying visitors. While we have never had to do this, I sympathise with people who do. A case in point is the turtle hatcheries on Sri Lanka's southwest coast. Strictly speaking, all these are illegal under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Yet, on the assumed premise that these hatcheries serve a useful purpose, the Wildlife Department turns a blind eye. As with most conservation issues, there are two sides to the coin. Some hatcheries are clearly businesses, making money from foreign tourists by showing off captive turtles and hatchlings. Others are serious conservation centres, disturbing the eggs as little as possible and ensuring that hatchlings are released only at night in order to minimise predation.

Private zoos

Everyone agrees that the Ahungalla zoo was a disaster. The child who was mauled to death by a lion was an accident just waiting to happen. While the zoo owners have justly been vilified for their negligence, I feel that they alone were not to blame. The law on private zoos is ambiguous, especially if no Sri Lankan animals are involved. Nevertheless, as has been demonstrated at the Jersey Zoo and so many other such institutions worldwide, zoos can play a very important part in conservation through the development of conservation breeding programmes.

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is living testimony of this. However, the notion that zoos should only be owned by the government makes little sense. The Dehiwala zoo is owned by the government and has made no contribution whatever to conservation. It has been said that the animals enter by the gate and exit via the incinerator. For its part, Ahungalla was the worst possible example of a private-sector operation. Wild animals were treated not just as pets, but grossly abused and tortured, even bears being made to engage in mock fights with keepers.

Whether public or private, zoos should be covered by a strict set of regulations that ensure not only that they educate the public, but also serve a function in conservation breeding of endangered species. This is today the only moral justification for a zoo. The 'Barnum and Bailey' type of Chimpanzees' tea party and Elephants' circus are abhorrent and barbaric practices in which wild animals are 'tamed' to entertain humans. This is certainly no part of a modern zoo. Biodiversity and conservation awareness is so high amongst the public nowadays that people want to see more than just animals in cages. They want to know that the zoo too, serves a conservation function. Few zoos measure up to this ideal. What is more, zoos must assure humane treatment of the animals they house. I was ashamed during a visit to the 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2001' exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London earlier this year, to see among the finalists, a tragic photograph of a sloth bear in Dehiwala Zoo, held up to the world as an example of inhumane treatment of zoo animals.

Nature Tourism

Eco-tourism (both local and foreign) has become one of the most hotly debated biodiversity-related issues in recent years. Opponents of unrestricted eco-tourism fear, with some justification, that excessive visitation of the few wild places that remain in Sri Lanka can negatively affect the habitats and their animals. People, vehicles, pollution, litter, noise and illegal plant and animal collecting are the reasons many conservationists fear unrestricted tourist 'exploitation' of biodiversity. They have a point, but opponents argue that 'if biodiversity is to stay, then biodiversity must pay'. They feel that unless a value is attached to the national biodiversity resource, there will be no funds to help support the protected-area infrastructure. Yala, for example, can gross a million rupees a week: quite substantial in a time of economic downturn.

But look at the positive side. Sri Lanka, or at least a sizeable minority of its people, are becoming increasingly affluent. Almost 100,000 new vehicles are imported each year. Every Saturday morning, thousands of urban dwellers anxious to get some fresh air crowd into their Hiace vans and say, "Where shall we go today?" There is precious little for the growing number of nature-lovers among them to do. Once they have been to the zoo, Pinnawala, Peradeniya and Hakgala Gardens, Horton Plains and Yala (and the really adventurous to Sinharaja), they have covered the available turf. Certainly, Horton Plains and Yala are over-visited. The solution is not to restrict entry by jacking up prices, but to develop more attractions for nature lovers, closer to the population centres: public aquariums, enlightened zoos and nature theme parks. These will not only earn revenue for conservation, they will also cater to growing nature awareness and take away pressure from fragile over-visited habitats such as Horton Plains.

Animal rights

For a Buddhist country with a value system that recognises animals as equal life forms, we Sri Lankans have a long way to go in the field of animal rights. As this article is about biodiversity, I will neglect the case of domestic animals. Consider the plight of wild animals in captivity. It is illegal in Sri Lanka to keep almost any but a handful of common 'pest' species such as porcupines and macaque monkeys in captivity. Ironically, almost 400 elephants (an endangered species) are today in captivity. There is no law that governs the treatment of these animals and the veterinary care that should be administered to them. It is compulsory to vaccinate your dog against rabies but there is no such rule for elephants (one captive elephant died of rabies at the Gangarama Temple in Colombo a few years ago). Almost all elephants in captivity today were born in the wild. When I see these poor creatures being made to walk long distances on hot asphalt between towns to be shown off in peraheras, I wonder why it is that the usually articulate wildlife enthusiasts are silent.

A similar dilemma faces all animals in 'captivity', especially in temples and homes that have offered them refuge from poachers. These include all species of deer, and in a few cases, smaller animals such as mongooses. To keep these animals in captivity is illegal, but the answer is not to confiscate them and send them to the zoo or release them into the wild, both of which result in certain death. But what is a temple to do when a devotee brings in an injured deer or bird? Refuse to care for it on the grounds that it is illegal? I myself was faced with this dilemma recently when I encountered an endemic leaf monkey that has been injured on the Low-level Road at Ruwanwella. It would have been illegal for me to treat it, or even take it to a vet. We need to develop a compassionate policy that will on the one hand encourage genuine competent agencies legally to care for such animals (given that the government has no facilities) and on the other to deter people from capturing wild animals as pets.

Bio-piracy

Among all the debates on biodiversity-related issues in recent years, the most misinformed has been that on so-called bio-piracy. Jingoism, nationalism, paranoia and ignorance have combined to elicit an almost hysterical reaction on the dangers of foreigners stealing genes from our plants and animals, and the secrets of our ayurvedic practitioners.

What we have to realise is that a full 70% of Sri Lanka's plant species, and almost 90% of the plants used in ayurveda, are shared with India. However much we restrict access to our native flora, we cannot control the vast strides that India is making in the culture of medicinal plants and their extracts, especially those shared with Sri Lanka. Two years ago, an enormous fuss was made in the newspapers about protecting the medicinal properties of Trichopus zeylanicus, known in Sinhala as bim pol. Foreigners, it was feared, would steal the secrets of this miraculous medicinal herb and make millions from it, depriving Sri Lanka of the benefits. Exports of the plant were prohibited amid much fuss. Yet, unknown to many, three years before, in the August 1995 issue of the journal Plant Cell Reports (vol. 14, pp. 708-711), three Indian scientists reported their success in culturing no less than 7,848 plants from a single shoot tip of this plant. A shoot tip is about the size of a pencil point: not all the policing in the world could prevent a determined foreigner from smuggling a shoot tip out and culturing 7,848 plants in just two months, or a staggering 60 million plants in four months! To make matters worse, the TBGRI in Kerala (an Indian Government institution) patented the plant extract worldwide. Sri Lanka's access to one of its own species has thereby been shut out.

This is not to say that biopiracy is not a concern. It is just that it has to be handled in a balanced way. Rather than shut the door on exploration and research and allow India and the rest of the world to steal a march on us, we should take the initiative in researching ayurvedic formulations and helping local practitioners to patent these. Wherever possible, our government should enter into genuine partnerships with reputed international pharmaceuticals companies, on the basis of shared benefits, for exploring our flora for medicinal extracts and converting these into marketable pharmaceuticals, as Costa Rica has done with such spectacular success. Just as total prohibition of alcoholic beverages gave rise to the mafia and moonshine in post-depression America, a total prohibition of research into medicinal herbs will only result in our being left behind the rest of the world in this rapidly developing field. The need of the hour is regulation, monitoring and enlightened thinking, not prohibition.


Breaking down the siege mentality

The general elections of December 5, 2001 saw a change of government. With the change came the opening up of several prominent roads within the Colombo city which had earlier been closed to the public. Due to the many attacks by the LTTE in Colombo and outstations, the PA government closed the Attidiya Road (Bakery Junction), Bullers Road, Rosmead Place, Galle Road and Wijerama Mawatha to the general public. Bus routes from Moratuwa to Pettah and Fort, from Ratmalana to Nugegoda, from Katubedda to Maharagama and from Katubedda and Mount Lavinia to Kiribathgoda were diverted irrespective of the inconvenience caused to thousands using these routes daily on their way to work. Now the roadblocks that made life difficult for almost everyone travelling in and around Colombo City have all been removed. To find out the public response The Sunday Leader spoke to people, in and around the areas where now the roads are cleared.

By Risidra Mendis, Shalindra Seneviratne and
Hemamala Wickramage

Y Ariyaratne a businessman down Attidiya Road said all though the road was opened on December 21, 2001 it is still hard to say how business is especially with the Christmas holidays.

The Attidiya Road was closed after the attack on the Katunayake International Airport. I feel it is good to take precautions in such situations especially since the Ratmalana airport is close by. However I'm very happy that the Attidiya road is finally open. Whatever the government is, it doesn't matter to me. As long as politicians do a good job that's all that matters.

N Muthukumarana a pharmacist from Attidiya Road said from the day the road was closed he had lost Rs 1,32,000.00 per month.

"We earn around Rs 13,000.00 to 15,000.00 per day, because patients coming from the Sri Jayawar- denapura hospital purchase their medicine from us. But with the road inaccessible to many travelling by bus our earnings have dropped to Rs 9,000.00 to 10,000.00 per day. We are not allowed to bring in vehicles transporting goods due to security reasons. Tamil people don't use this road anymore as they are nervous to pass a checkpoint. Travelling was a problem to me as I had to use a longer route to get to the pharmacy. Even though we survived, others had to close shop and leave. We were fortunate as there was a doctor practising next door to us. All his patients used to purchase their drugs from the pharmacy as this was convenient. I don't see any sense in closing this road, because there are so many by-roads leading to the airport. For a person determined to transport a bomb there are ways to do it. By closing roads only innocent people like us get affected by having to walk all the way to Galle Road. Our business has been in operation for two years, but despite our pleading to open this road it wasn't done. Thanks to the present UNP government we now have some relief.

Mangalika Gamage, a sales girl in Collpetty said thanks to the UNF government the road was opened on December 18, 2001.

"It is hard for me to say how we will fare where business is concerned. This road was earlier a bus route, but now people have automatically got used to walking and finding other alternatives. If buses start running on this road we might have better business. Even though everybody is saying this government is good, one cannot be too sure. After a couple of years they may change their principles to suit their needs.

Sheraz Packeerally, employed at a telecommunication bureau said, the PA first opened part of Galle road on November 21 or 22, 2001.

"The only difference was that the vehicle owners who used this road went a little faster while passing Temple Trees. Then the road was closed once again by the same government. It was only five months ago that we opened shop here. We knew the government was going to change and there was a good chance of the road being opened. Even though we were given special passes to use this road, most often the passes were of no use. We felt as if we were trapped in one place with nowhere to turn. Just because the government cannot provide adequate security in the city it doesn't mean they should close the roads and inconvenience the general public. I hope this government will provide better freedom facilities for the people.

D Anurasiri, a client at the telecommunication bureau in Colpetty said, the UNP government shouldn't have opened the roads in Colombo so soon. The LTTE is a very dangerous organisation. If by any chance the UNP disagrees with the LTTE on some issue the terrorists might start attacking Colombo again. Though there was an army bus transporting people on Galle road many people didn't use the bus as the times were inconvenient to them.

"If the UNP government proceeds in this way I think Sri Lanka will be one of the lucky countries. However since I don't trust any government we will just have to wait and see".

Ranjith Fernando, from a film company on Galle road said, "We have been in operation since the road was closed seven years ago. At that time we lost around 75% business. Before the roads were closed you should have seen the crowds going this way. Even though the road is opened now people need time to get used to this idea. Nobody talks about the many accidents that took place while the road was closed. People don't realise that vehicles are coming from one direction and step on to the road. Within the first week of closing the Galle road a policeman guarding Temple Trees was knocked down by a vehicle and died on the spot. A famous gem merchant died on the spot in front of my shop. People are still suffering in their homes from broken legs and hands from accidents. But there is no one to talk for them. All these years our showcases have been empty. Now we have to find ways of improving our business.

Many bus drivers still use the old route as they have better business. When we get into a bus we don't know if the bus is going to turn at the Colpetty roundabout or continue along the Galle road. There is a lot of confusion right now. I think the authorities should look into this problem soon.

Kithsiri Dharmatilake, the assistant registrar of the Buddhist and Pali University said he was overjoyed the moment he heard that roadblocks on Bauddhaloka Mawatha were to be removed. "I'm extremely happy with this decision and so are most of the others who work here and also people who come here from different directions. In the past it was a real hassle to get here. Most of the people who come here are just ordinary folk who use public transport to get here," said the assistant registrar.

"As public servants we are more concerned about the welfare of the general public. Therefore, the present day government should be commended for taking this brave move," he added. In his opinion, road blocks alone are not the answer to the ethnic conflict. "These things only inconvenience the poor public. There have been numerous attacks within the city despite all these roadblocks and checkpoints. See what happened at the airport?" he pointed out.

Shanika (not her real name), a regular at the Queens Club tennis court on Bauddhaloka Mawatha was another to express her joy over the removal of the security barriers. "This is superb. The best thing that happened after a long time. We feel a lot free now," she said.

Travelling up and down to tennis practices had been a nightmare for them since they had to go around the block to get to the courts. Her coach too shared similar sentiments.

Speaking to us next was Dayan- anda, a three wheeler driver who operates around Bauddhaloka Mawatha. According to him there has been a dramatic increase in hires particularly on the stretch on Baudd- haloka Mawatha, from Borella to Thunmulla. "While the roadblocks were in place people chose to take public transport to avoid the extra cost. Now we can do the same trip for Rs. 20 less as we no longer need to go in circles to get to Thunmulla" he explained. Travellers on the 154-bus route were another set of beneficiaries of this move.

Gunasiri, the driver on one of the buses told The Sunday Leader that passengers were pleased as the journey has been shortened, thereby saving them precious time, especially in the mornings. We were also told that the travel time has been dramatically reduced and at peak hours almost up to 30 minutes.

G.H. Karunanayake, the security OIC at the UN office on Bauddhaloka Mawatha too was pleased with the removal of security barriers. "I think most of the staff here find it easy to travel to and from work now," he said.

Even though most people we spoke to were overjoyed with the government's decision to remove the roadblocks, there were a few who were sceptical.

Rehana de Soyza who resides off Bauddhaloka Mawatha told The Sunday Leader that in her view, the removal of roadblocks may not be a wise move in the longer term, after all. Even though the removal of the roadblocks has made life easier, she said she was more worried about the security situation. "I see no point in complaining of the petty inconveniences. We have to get used to it, as the security situation in the country today requires such measures. The country's security should be a priority," she said. However, commenting on the increased presence of security personnel in the vicinity previously she said she was concerned as to how it would affect the children living in that area.

Venerable Welikumbure Dham- madassi, an external student at the Buddhist and Pali University had similar views. He was of the view that the government should be cautious when dealing with sensitive issues such as national security. "This decision seems to please the public in general but at what expense?" he questioned. "We have seen cease-fires before but unfortunately they were all shrewd manoeuvres by the LTTE to gain time," he further said. "I seriously doubt whether the government have a proper strategic plan in the long term with regards to security within Colombo city," he added.

The roadblocks not only inconvenienced pedestrians and other travellers but also caused enormous economic strain to small business people. We found some relieved business people when we reached the now dismantled roadblock at Bakery junction in Ratmalana. Ajith, the owner of a small boutique that sells thambili said he was almost thinking of closing down his little business. But this timely move by the new government saved him from losing his livelihood.

C. K. Warusawithana who owns and manages the petrol station in close proximity to the air force camp in Ratmalana claimed she used to lose a lot of business due to the closure of that part of the road. The *30 loads of diesel she used to sell before, were later reduced to 15 loads. That also meant that she lost around two million rupees per month. "The cease-fire has increased hopes for peace," she further added.

The Attidiya Traders Association was also pleased with the govern- ment's decision to remove roadblocks around the area. A spokesperson for the association told The Sunday Leader that a research conducted by them showed that around 40 small businesses were badly affected due to the erection of the security barrier in that area.

Commenting on the removal of the security barricade in front of the Hotel Oberoi was Public Relations Manager Narmada Muller. "When the road blocks were there it was a bit of a struggle, and people had to really plan out and decide before they came here, but now when they just drive past they drop in and that is a most welcome and a pleasant change from what it was before", she said.

Three-wheeler drivers operating in and around Rosemead Place who were constantly harassed due to the road blockade and the presence of a large number of security personnel were quite relieved. Premadasa, one such three-wheeler driver who has been working around the area for the past ten years however expressed his concern over the removal of checkpoints around the area. "The removal of roadblocks is a good thing but, hereabouts the roadblocks only protected the rich and the affluent, and the others had to suffer. But what's worrying me most is the removal of checkpoints, the terrorists, and since of late the underworld figures too will very conveniently carry their arms and ammunition in their vehicles and that will not be all that great", he pointed out.

Expressing his views on the current ceasefire in place he said, "The ceasefire, which started on December 24, might be genuine or it could also be a plot to amass their resources and perhaps start fighting with renewed strength in numbers and force".

M. M. Karunaratne who is running an import export business had this to say about the removal of roadblocks. "Earlier long before the roadblocks were made compulsory I had my travel agent at the Makan Markar building in Colpetty and I was able to go there, get my work done and it was smooth sailing and the last seven years was hell. It was one big mess with the one-way streets and the detours I had to make. But now I am very happy that this is all over. If you have noticed, passing Methodist College, the shops and the businesses and the buildings that once flourished look dilapidated, and ruined. Hopefully all this will chan˙ge."

However, Ardil, who owns a hair dressing salon within close proximity to Rosmead Place does not see much change. "The roadblocks at Rosemead Place never really affected me, as my clients did not stop patronising my salon, so I don't really see or feel a difference".

It is clear that despite differing opinions, this timely move by the new government has certainly made life easier for many. Life in and around Colombo city moves on with at least one burden less.

 

 

 

ŠLeader Publication (Pvt) Ltd.
410/27, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07
Tel : +94-75-365891,2 Fax : +94-75-365891
email : leader@sri.lanka.net