2nd July 2000

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Essentials become luxuries as cost of living soars

By Nilika de Silva, Faraza Farook and Tania Fernando

Battling a never ending list of bills, the people appear to be giving up, and cutting down on all expenses, ultimately sacrificing the life-style they had got used to for one in which only essential expenses were met.

It's not luxuries that the people cannot afford anymore, but simple necessities. A survey carried out by The Sunday Times revealed that the people were having to adjust to a 50 percent increase in their daily budget. Essentials become luxuries as cost of living soars

"The Rs. 2.50 cup of plain tea now costs Rs. 4," Kapila Perera, a clerk in a private firm complained. This change mirrored the economic roller coaster Sri Lanka has been on with the dawn of the millennium.

To some people this cup of tea does more, since they depend on it to keep away their hunger pangs.

Thirty-six-year-old Vidanage Lalani is a single mother living in Borella. She fends for her three-year-old child, Rajani, by working in a bungalow and earns Rs. 50 per day.

Rajani attends a pre-school in the neighbourhood, and the expenses which come with it are many, and life is hard. On some days Lalani is forced to sleep on an empty stomach as she gives any food she gets to her little one.

"My employers don't increase my salary even though the cost of living is going up daily. The two cups of tea with milk which is the only breakfast we have, used to cost Rs. 8 each but now costs Rs. 9.50. This is a large slice off the Rs. 50, and the balance is hardly enough to feed and clothe my child," Lalani said.

Since costs have gone up people have had to learn to stretch their limited earnings.

"Even to make a simple meal of rice, dhal, and one vegetable costs us Rs. 150," said Manonmani, the breadwinner of a family of seven living at Castle Street, Borella. Earlier this meal cost them only about Rs. 100.

The household of seven depends on the money earned by taking on contracts for painting houses. "On many days we go without work and making ends meet on such days is very difficult," she said.

"On the rare days when we can afford it we buy some dried fish to supplement our meal, because buying fish or meat is out of the question," Manonmani said.

While we think that it is only the poor people who have been hit by the soaring prices, it is mainly the middle class who is having to face severe changes in their lifestyles. Dragged down by financial difficulties, they also struggle to keep up appearances.

"We are breaking down part of our house, to sell a section of the land, because we cannot meet the high cost of living," said Mrs. F.C. Weerasinghe living in Thimbirigasyaya.

Although Mr. Weerasinghe is retired he is not eligible for a pension. The couple are assisted by their four children. "But we do not want to be a burden on our children," Mrs. Weerasinghe said.

"Today one cannot even afford to offer a cup of tea to a visitor as the day to day expenses themselves are so high," she said adding, "we used to make four curries, now we have cut it down to two. Even so we are finding that our daily expenses have gone up by more than Rs. 50. Those days our daily food bills added up to Rs. 200 but now it's Rs. 250."

Among the thousands of people suffering due to the series of price hikes, are the widows of service personnel, who are surviving on their spouse's salaries or pensions.

There are 2,664 such families depending on this money, the Ex- Servicemen's Association reported.

Mrs. C. Gunawardena, of Rawatawatta, Moratuwa is a widow.

Her husband who was in the Army, died in action. Mrs. Gunawardena and her two children live on the husband's pension which is about Rs. 7,000. However, the expenditure of the family is more than Rs. 10,000. And this hasn't changed even after cutting down on many expenses.

"There are days when I have only Rs. 100 in my hands," said Mrs. Gunawardena, adding, "I have even stopped using the rice cooker because we cannot afford to pay high electricity bills."

"One can limit the consumption of electricity by not using convenient electrical appliances, but when it comes to water it is not the case. One can't stay without bathing" she said.

A pensioner living in Bambalapitiya, H. C. Goodchild (76), said that the pensioners have been very badly hit by the series of price hikes.

"In every way it has shaken the people," he said. "As it is things were bad and now bills have gone up. Electricity, water, telephones charges have all gone up, so it is very difficult," he said.

A flat dweller in Bambalapitiya, Mrs. Vijitha Cabraal is living on her late husband's pension of Rs. 4,278. All her expenses including the medical bills add up to about Rs. 6,000. And paying the difference eats into her savings.

"Household costs per day have gone up from Rs. 250 to Rs. 350," says Mrs. Yogendran (37), a mother of three.

Disappointed with the state of affairs she adds "my husband's salary has not gone up."

It is evident that with the price of milk rising by Rs. 3 per packet and even an egg going up by Rs. 1, families with growing children are hard pressed to afford nutritious meals. People are being forced to economise or to take on three or four jobs and make sacrifices to meet the heavy expenses," health economist, Dr. C. de Silva said.

She said that particularly pensioners may be forced to make adjustments on their health expenditure such as consulting doctors regularly. "Therefore these would have long term repercussions," she said.

Many of the essential commodities in the market showed a substantial increase, with even rice packets showing a Rs. 5 increase in most places.

"Life has suddenly turned into a nightmare," said Nihal, a teacher residing in Galle. Nihal who earns Rs. 6,235 said that providing for his wife and two daughters has become difficult.

"I don't know what has happened. Until last December, I was managing without much difficulty, but suddenly the cost of everything started going up," Nihal said. "Now every week I have to borrow money and I am becoming disgusted with life he said."

Nihal's family used to spend about Rs. 200 each day on food and other essentials, but since the price hikes they are spending more than Rs. 300, which adds up to Rs. 9,000 a month, leaving a debt of close upon Rs. 3,000.

In a lower income category there are people such as bus drivers whose salary with overtime is in the vicinity of Rs. 3,000-5,000.

For a family, comprising two children, surviving on a bus driver's income, the daily expenses cannot exceed Rs. 150. However, even one meal of rice prepared at home will cost more than Rs. 100.

"Today young people can't even think of getting married, or look forward to a happy future," Razeena Abdeen said. She said that even though prices keep increasing, salaries remain stagnant, so that making ends meet becomes an impossibility.

There are days when people want to take a break and maybe get a meal from outside, but now that too seems to be impossible. The price of a kottu roti has increased by Rs. 5 to 10, and in some cases where the prices remain the same, the quality and quantity has decreased.

In order to try and save for a rainy day little extravagances such as a snack with a cup of tea or a dessert after lunch have to be considered a luxury. Life is turning out to be a steady stream of work with everyone trying to earn some extra cash to at least try and add some colour to their dull lives.

Where there are little children the demands are endless, and all parents, much as they want to provide for them, seem to have long term plans of trying to save for the future and cut down on extras such as an ice cream or a day at the park.

'Just like a flower, I'm growing wild'

By Chandani Kirinde

Chaturi and Chaminda are two-and-a-half-month old twins. They lie in a soiled cot at a government-run institution for abandoned and destitute children.

Their mother has herself handed over the infants to the home because she has no husband and no means of supporting her new born children.

Wasana is a six-month old bubbly girl. She was found abandoned by the road side.

No one knows who her mother is. She tries to sit up in her cot and stares around wide eyed unaware of the cruelty of the world around her.

Three-year-old "Sudda" as he is affectionately called because of his fair skin was born out of a incestuous relationship between a sister and brother.

The child was locked up in a room in the house and almost starved to death before Probation officials found him, on a tip-off from a neighbour. Although physically he has made a full recovery, the cruelty has left a lasting scar on him. He is both deaf and dumb.

Ten-year-old Sandhani's mother is abroad and her father is somewhere else. She is in the institution because the police have placed her there as she is needed as a witness in a court case.

Thilini Bhagya was six days old when she was found abandoned in the premises of a vihara, wrapped in a piece of cloth. Today she is nearly six months old and is waiting for the court to grant her adoption to a childless couple.

These are a few of the thousands of Sri Lankan children who have to grow up too fast in a world where adults make the rules that suit themselves while children have no choice but follow them.

They have lost the security of a home and have never known the love of parents or grandparents. Their childhoods have been filled with the most horrendous acts unthinkable to many of us who like to believe we are living in a civilised society.

Bandara Menike is the matron at the Isuru Sevena Government's Children's Receiving Centre in Paradise, Kuruwita.

Menike who started serving in children's homes in 1977 has seen the escalation in the numbers of children being subjected to abandonment and abuse over the years.

"The situation is very sad. These children are suffering for no fault of theirs," she said.

According to Sabaragamuwa's Probation Commissioner W.D. Karunaratne, the large numbers of mothers going abroad for employment and the breakdown in many marriages have resulted in the children being abandoned or being handed over to child care homes.

There are also many women who go to West Asia and come back pregnant. They hide their pregnancies, secretly have the child and then dump it somewhere," he said.

Mr. Karunaratne said that in most cases it was difficult to locate the mothers because they entered hospital under false names to deliver the child and then abandon it.

There are 37 children at the Isuru Sevena home and some of them are being adopted with court cases pending. Children whose mothers have placed them in the home cannot be given for adoption without the consent of the parents continue to live there till the mother decides she is ready to take the child back.

The Isuru Sevena is also in desperate need of more staff to look after the children's needs as it now has a staff of only seven including the cook and the security guard.

Mr. Karunaratne said when the home started in 1996, there was only one child.

Till March 1998 there were only two children but this year there were more than 40 with a few being successfully adopted by childless couples.

"There is a big demand among Sri Lankan couples to take children for adoption. "Mr. Karunaratne said.

"Unfortunately we can't give all the children away because where we know who the parents are, we have to get their joint consent."

Some of the children placed in the homes also include those who worked as domestic aides and were subject to inhuman treatment.

A seven-year-old boy who was kept locked in a kennel and a 12-year-old girl who was burnt by a woman when she accidentally hurt the infant she was looking after are among those recovering at the home.

There are also several children who have run away from home saying they are beaten by their fathers. Although the authorities have made attempts to reunite the children with their parents, it has proved unsuccessful in most cases, Menike said.

The abandoned disabled children are the unluckiest because they are rarely taken up for adoption and are forced to live the rest of their lives confined to some institution.

Bomb blast victim faces Shylock

By Tania Fernando

The Human Rights Commission and the Rehabilitation Authority have intervened to help a terrorist bomb victim who is now crippled and destitute while a state bank is insisting that he settle fully with interest a loan he had taken some years ago.

Sarath Upali, a terror victim, was left disabled five years ago when the LTTE set off a bomb outside the Chief Minister's Office in Colombo.

The 46-year-old Mr. Upali, a driver, on that fateful day applied for a day's leave to attend to some work relating to admitting his daughter to a school, when he was caught in that bomb explosion. He was treated for 18 months at the National Hospital and the compensation of Rs. 25,000 the family received was finished by the time he got back home.

Mr. Upali, a father of two girls, aged 11 and 6, is disabled and unable to work. He was able to get about in a wheel chair for some time, but he found it difficult to do even that in recent weeks.

In 1994, to attend to some repairs in his house, he had taken a loan of Rs. 15,000 from the Nawala Rural Bank. After paying a part of it the balance outstanding in 1997 was Rs. 9,940.

Mr. Upali said the bank had sent a letter to him requesting that he settle this outstanding sum. He had explained his predicament, but the bank had insisted that he settle the Rs. 10,980 which was his balance outstanding, together with accumulated interest.

After a legal process, Mr. Upali was told to pay Rs. 500 a month despite a plea that the interest payment be waived.

Mr. Upali said he had appealed to the Human Rights Commission which in turn appealed to the rural bank but bank officials said they had to stick by the law.

In recent years, there have been reports of millionaires defaulting on loans amounting to millions and going unchecked but this is a case where a crippled man is subjected to something like the Shylock treatment. The Deprtment of Cooperative Development which runs rural banks did not seem keen to help or stretch a point for a crippled man and his destitute family, but Chairman of the Rehabilitation Authority M. H. M. Salman told The Sunday Times they would look into the case and see what could be done.

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