The Special Report
10th September 2000
Sabaragamuwa: 'We have always been cheated'
By Chandani Kirinde and Dilrukshi Handunnetti
With unemployment levels exceeding above national average and the province's main crop rubber fetching prices below cost and paddy prices also plummeting, Sabaragamuwa's woes which remain largely unaddressed are hitting the political platform once again.
Politicians of all hues and policies are unearthing the province's miseries, largely as a means to get elected at the October 10 general elections.
Though a hotbed of youth unrest in the late 1980s with Ratnapura and Embilipitiya witnessing the worst kind of horror, Sabaragamuwa did not get the prominence the southern province got in terms of rehabilitation, reconstruction and development projects.
In what is seen as a move to woo voters, the government has announced an industrial estate in Kegalle and accelerated the project to develop of the Ratnapura base hospital and water projects.
Being one of the scenic and fertile areas in the country, Sabaragamuwa is also prone to natural disasters such as landslides and flood. This is the irony of the province when it comes to nature. But when it comes to politics, the irony is the province which produced politicians of the calibre of Francis Molamure, independent Sri Lanka's first Speaker, and D. S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister, and Dudley Senanayake, the second Prime Minister is today experiencing a political culture which also speaks the language of violence.
When we visited the province to gauge the political mood, people appeared uncharged by the hive of activity taking place. Politicians were neck deep in campaigning. PA members are rekindling the memories of the past the 1988-89 violence and of course of the recent past boasting of projects, setting up of the university and factories. But the UNP politicians challenge this claim and say that for the past six years the province had remained the same.
But people appeared to be unmoved by political rhetoric. Their disgust was evident when they said that poverty and misery were mere catch phrases used on political platforms.
D. K. Jayawardene, a quarry owner in Yatiyantota, said most politicians took people for a ride. "We vote them into office believing that our stock would improve and poverty would be eliminated. But we have been cheated every time," he said heaping more blame on the PA than on the UNP. "The government has done little. But during the UNP regime, things moved despite corruption."
K. Patrick Perera who along with his wife and two sons aged 14 and 12 years toil to get by expressed similar sentiments. "Whoever comes to office, nothing changes. It's my sons' future that I worry about," he said.
We met several politicians in the province's two districts Ratnapura and Kegalle to know their views and the vision. UNP's Kegalle District candidate Kabir Hashim said levels of income had deteriorated in the past six years with unemployment rate soaring as a result of four factories being closed down in the district.
Asked about his party's plans to develop the district, he said the UNP had pledged to undertake measures to reduce the production cost of rubber, facilitate home gardening, animal husbandry, develop the highly lucrative spice industry and launch small and medium scale industrial projects.
PA's chief candidate in the district and deputy minister Mahipala Herath countered the UNP charge, saying the PA was on a sound platform because people were happy with its performance in the district.
"We have constructed roads, met water and electricity requirements and we are planning to do more if re-elected. An 800 million-rupee ADB funded water supply scheme for Kegalle district is underway while the work on a 400 million-rupee project to supply water to the Kegalle town has already begun," he said.
On the question of unemployment, UNP candidates Champa Kalugalle and U. L. M. Farook said more projects and factories had to be launched within the district to generate more jobs. They said that the government instead of offering doles such as Samurdhi should launch massive projects in the district.
But Mr. Herath responding to the UNP charges said the government had carefully laid the infrastructure for rapid development. Unlike massive, glamorous projects, the PA focused on smaller projects, he said adding that he saw the non-availability of land as a major drawback of the district and assured that the PA would address the issue once re-elected.
The economic scenario in Kegalle is worse than that of Ratnapura. The Kegalle district has the largest rubber growing area with 48,000 hectares under cultivation supporting more than 50,000 families. People said prices of rubber raw latex had dropped sharply from Rs. 80 to Rs. 40 a kilo in the past six years, leaving them high and dry.
In Ratnapura, too, we spoke to a cross section of candidates. UNP candidate Samitha Attygalle charged that the number of people employed in the gem industry had drastically reduced in the past six years.
But PA candidate Jayatissa Ranaweera dismissed this as false and malicious. "The PA created the Gems and Jewellery Authority and introduced many measures to make the industry sound," he said.
Provincial minister Suranganie Ellawala, a PA candidate, identified the prevalence of unemployment, specially among young women as the main problem of the district. The female unemployment rate is around 20 percent, second only to the Southern Province rate.
"There are educated girls who are jobless, but employment generation is still weak in the district," she said.
Vasudeava Nanayakkara, the main candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (DLA) who contested on the PA ticket in 1994 and polled the highest number of preferential votes in the Ratnpura district, said that his party would put into action a sure formula for poverty alleviation and unemployment.
He charged that the capitalist parties the PA and the UNP had allowed only their cronies to become millionaires while allowing the poor to become poorer.
The unemployment rate in the Sabaragamuwa province is said to be around 15 percent well above the national average of 9 percent. More than 1,000 graduates are jobless in the Kegalle electorate alone, and in the Ratnapura electorate, it was mostly educated girls who are seeking jobs.
Saman, a 25 year-old youth from Embilipitiya, a casual employee at a government institution said most of his friends with degree and Advanced level qualifications were either idling or working in the paddy fields. He said their plight had become worsened with paddy prices plummeting.
However, Saman said these socio-economic issues had become secondary in view of the unfading memory of horror people of the area experienced in the 1988-89 period.
"In Embilipitiya alone about 100 families had been directly affected by the state terror in the 88-89 period. The PA would not receive the overwhelming majority received in 1994, but it would still scrape through thanks to the vivid memories of the disappearances and killings," he said.
But the province is also witnessing a new culture of violence during elections times with promising politicians and party activists becoming victims. Just before the 1997 local polls, Athula Attygalle of the UNP and Nalanda Ellawala of the PA were killed in political violence in Ratnapura and the smouldering fires still remained in the political firmament.
Sabaragamuwa Police Chief Kumarasiri Gamage, however, expressed satisfaction. He said police awareness programmes to educate candidates and their supporters were paying dividends. "We are enforcing the law to the letter and all cutouts were removed on Monday afternoon," he said.
When asked about posters appearing on the walls of the police station itself and the election office, he said the police also lacked manpower to enforce the law effectively.
But UNP activist A. Jayasinghe disputed the police claim. He said the UNPers were being harassed in the district but the police were helpless to act in the face of political pressure. "UNP supporter Chatura Saman Kumar was killed on August 23 in a shooting incident at Rambukkana and candidate Champika Premadasa has been receiving constant death threats. PA supporters are going around carrying grenades and guns and intimidating their opponents. People have lost faith in the police in the area," he said.
But PA's Herath said violence was being orchestrated by the opposition to gain sympathy and win the elections.
He said the UNP was linking him with the Rambukkana killing to gain political mileage.
The two Kalugalle daughters, Indira of the PA and Champa of the UNP said they were against the use of violence in politics.
"I think women feel more strongly about putting an end to political violence. Unfortunately it's hidden all around and even we are not safe," Indira said.
Her sister Champa said: "People should be allowed to choose which ever party they want to support. No one has the right to put obstacles in their path."
Election malpractice is another area of concern. UNP's Farook said moves are underway by Samurdhi workers to stop UNP supporters from coming to the polling booths on election day.
He alleged that Samurdhi workers had been asked to stop 50 families from each village going to vote so that the PA's task of rigging the elections would become easy.
PA's Surangani Ellawala said her party was committed to a poll free of malpractice and she said she was seeking the co-operation of opposition candidates in the district to ensure a free and fair poll.
At the October 10 elections, democracy will win if people are allowed to exercise their right to choose a government of their own. If violence and malpractice become the order of the day, then society will move towards a system that is worse than anarchy.
But as things stand, it is the politicians who are showing a greater interest in the elections process. As for the people, the polls have little connection with them any longer.
Sabaragamuwa has been home to many legislators of greatstature and nepotism who have played a major role in the politics of thisprovince.
Heading the distinguished list of Sabaragamuwa legislators isSir Francis Molamure from Balangoda, the first Speaker of independent Ceylon.His wife Adelaine Molamure was the first female senator.
The fertile soilof Sabaragamuwa was also home to two prime ministers hailing from the 'Botale Walawwa' in Dedigama., Ceylon's first prime minister D.S. Senanayake and son, Dudley .
Dr. N.M. Perera (Ruwanwella and later Yatiyantota), Edwin and Nissanka Wijeyeratne, P.B.G. Kalugalle belonged to a different vintage of Sabaragamuwa politics. Other provincial heavy weights included Sarath Muttetuwegama, Dharma-siri Senanayake, Nanda Ellawala, A. Pilapitiya and C.E.Attygalle who rendered yeoman service to their province. Todate, the Sabaragamuwa political landscape is being adorned by the younger generation of some of these families where family links are a key factor in successful politics.
Unfortunately, over the years, its politics has been tainted by violence, and todate, records high levels of political related violence. The second death in the run up to the general election was recorded from Rambukkana a fortnight ago when a UNP supporter was killed while putting up posters.
Sabaragamuwa has shown a strange political trend with the district of Kegalle showing a partiality towards the UNP while the pro-left forces have been dominant in the Ratnapura district with a massive LSSP vote base.
In 1994, the PA secured six parliamentary seats in the pro-left Ratnapura district winning Eheliyagoda, Ratnapura and Kalawana electorates. The UNP also returned four members and secured Pelmadulla, Balangoda, Rakwana, Kolonna and Nivithigala electorates.
In Kegalle, the defeated UNP returned with five members and won Mawanella, Yatiyantoa and Deraniyagala electorates. Four PA members were also elected and secured electoral victory of Ruwanwella, Dedigama, Galigamuwa, Kegalle, Rambukkana, Aranayake electorates.
Kegalle District: 19 political parties will contest including four independent group.
Total number of candidates- 218 ( 12 candidates x 19 groups)
Ten candidates will be elected.
Electoral Divisions and the number of registered voters:
Dedigama - 75,475
Galigamuwa - 58,109
Kegalle - 60,082
Rambukkana - 55,564
Mawanella - 71,439
Aranayake - 46,852
Yatiyantota - 61,299
Ruwanwella - 60,851
Deraniyagala - 55,567
Total No of Registered Voters- 545,238
19 political parties will contest including four independent groups.
Total number of candidates: 13 candidates x 19 groups
Ten candidates will be elected.
Electoral Divisions and the No. of Registered Voters:
Ratnapura - 92,110
Pelmadulla - 60,350
Kolonna - 102,876
The battle for preference votes among candidates of the same is gathering momentum with the rich and powerful candidates having an upper hand.
Money has become a crucial factor under this proportional representation system, said PA's Suranganie Ellawela.
It is only the wealthy candidates who could play this poster war to the hilt and gain an extra edge, she said. In the Ratnapura district, posters of the PA's candidates including father-daughter duo of Dharmadasa and Pavithra Wanniarachchi appeared side by side as did the UNP's Susantha Punchinilame and Mahinda Ratnatilleke, two UNP candidates who have been implicated in the assassination of Nalanda Ellawala.
In the Kegalle district, the predominant poster was that of Mahipala Herath of the PA.
A JVP spokesman said his party stayed out of number-based fray and their campaign would be based on policies and not personalities.
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