More than 300,000 displaced people in the war ravaged Vanni region are reported to be facing starvation or death, while raging monsoonal rain threatens to turn the area into another Sudan or Eritrea. Do they hear any silver bells or know its Christmas time?
Less than 10 days ago up to 150 highly trained Army commandos - some of the best and bravest young men in the country-perished in a raid on what turned out to be mock LTTE camps. For them also there are only bells of silence. The silver bells are for the multi million dollar internnational arms indsutry and their local agents who, as we see today, are getting air cover from high places.
Millions of our people are caught up in a whirlpool of pain and fear. Yet in Colombo city where 5-star supermarket lifestyle presents a spectre that is both outrageous and artificial we see again this year the trend of celebrating Christmas without Christ.
If we all have been part of the problem and the process through which Christ was gradually thrown out of a commercial Christmas, now we need to be part of the solution. These reflections are intended to bring about a deeper awareness of what has happened and what needs to be done.
These days most people would be getting their bonuses and festival advances. As a small step towards making Christmas less commercial and more spiritual we could all do something. If you spent Rs. 10,000 on Christmas last year, why dont you avoid some non-essentials, cut your expenses down to Rs. 5,000 and share the balance Rs. 5,000 with less fortunate people. Then it will be not only be a double Christmas for you and for them but Christ will also be back in it saying, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a refugee and you gave me a home, I was lonely and you gave me your love...
Shall we in this context go to a familiar scene at a Colombo Parish hall. They were having a Christmas party for the middle class parishioners - with cakes and carols, balloons and bon-bons while some were boozing though the bottles were under the table. A disappointed priest spoke to them of the need to be aware not only of the historical Christ Child born in the cattle shed at Bethlehem but also of how the Lord would come to them this year abandoned and unseen in the marginalised and suffering people. The prophetic words were dismissed with scorn and some of the revellers even invited the priest to come and have a drink.
The priest then went to a corner, quietly waited and watched to see how the Lord would manifest himself. A passing beggar then came to the parish hall. The revellers tried to get rid of him by giving him a few crumbs, like the trickle-down theory of western economic pundits. But the beggar would not go. He sat at the foot of one of the tables with Scotch whisky at his feet.
Angered by what they considered to be the stubbornness of the dirty intruder, some of the drunken church members dragged him and virtually threw him out of their sacred premises. The priest waited and watched.
A few minutes later the priest noticed that the beggar had left his worn little bag under the table near their bottles of whisky. He took the bag and went out to give it to the beggar. But the poor man was missing. The priest came back to the booze party and told the story to the revellers. One drunken man suggested there might be an identity card in the poor mans bag. There was. They found three nails, a crown of thorns and a blood stained cloth. The message was clear. Those church members had again crucified Christ who came to them through the poor man at Christmas time. There was no need for the priest to preach another Christmas sermon.
Let us go to another Christmas scene. It is a fashionable city church and midnight mass has just begun. The church is packed with people dressed in their Christmas best. Outside the church there is a simple man in a sarong and slippers. He feels embarrassed to go in. Suddenly Jesus stands near him. He asked the poor man, Why dont you go in? The poor man replied, I feel ashamed to go there. There is no room for me. Jesus said, I am also ashamed to go in there. There is no room for me in my church even on my birthday.
As Christmas nears we might hear a media announcer amidst all the jingle bells saying there were just 10 shopping days to Xmas. It is scandalous. Christmas has been turned into Xmas and one hell of a shopping spree where tycoons make millions.
Who is responsible for this commercialisation of Christmas? Largely, Christians themselves. It may not be comforting to hear that Christ is crucified at Christmas time but that is what happens amidst all the extravagance and bust-ups.
It would be enlightening to meditate at this time on a parable that is not popular or palatable among those who believe in a prosperity gospel. Jesus Christ gave his greatest teachings through parables the prodigal son, the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Sower and others. Yet in only one of the parables does he give a name to a person involved in it. The father or the prodigal son are not given names, neither is the Good Samaritan. It is only in the parable of the rich man and the beggar that Jesus Christ gives a name to the poor man eating the crumbs at the table. When Jesus named this man Lazarus, he was identifying himself, personally and deeply with the poor man. We generally give a name to a member of our family so that he or she would be identified closely with us. When Jesus Christ named the poor man as Lazarus he was identifying himself deeply with the beggar and the need to change the structure that keeps the beggar in enforced poverty.
Bible scholars today have also given a name to the rich man in the parable-Dives. It means capitalist or in popular Sinhala Dhanapathiya. In the gospel of St. Luke we read how this Dhanapathiya suffers horribly after his death, begging even for a drop of water amidst the fires of purification while the poor man Lazarus enjoys eternal peace and happiness.
In Sri Lanka and in the world today where do we see the manifestation of Dives and Lazarus? Who or what represents Dives in todays social order? One apparent manifestation is the system that the rich Western world stands for - a system that continues to exploit and oppress the poor third world, a system that is increasing the gap between the rich and the poor worlds to monstrous proportions. We could ponder on just one of the thousands of ways through which Dives, as represented by the rich world, continues to plunder the wealth and resources of the poor. A recent news report spoke of the rare wealth in the African island of Madagascar. More than 80 per cent of its trees and plants are rich in medicinal value and are not found elsewhere in the world. From one of these plants a multinational drug company manufactures a drug to treat blood cancer and other diseases. The rich drug company makes millions of dollars while the poor people of Madagascar get poorer.
In the social order of Sri Lanka today the Dives or Dhanapathiya of the Gospel Parable is symbolised by the economic system where a small privileged section of the people are controlling and enjoying more than 75 per cent of the nations wealth and resources. The manifestation of this system, the Dives in Sri Lanka today, might be the manoey maker who has built one financial empire and is building others while the poor mans enforced poverty is none of his business.
The luxury comforts, multinational companies and other structures that support the system of inequality exist for the pleasure and benefit of this capitalist. Like Dives he is considered by the world to be a good man because he has made millions and allows some crumbs to trickle down to the poor. This capitalist sends a big donation to the church regularly and is often invited to be the chief guest at parish functions.
Dives allowed the poor man to eat the crumbs. He did not throw the beggar out of the mansion. What was the sin of Dives? It was his unlimited personal greed as institutionalized in crass western capitalism and his indifference to the social structure that keeps the poor man in enforced poverty.
Christians need to take a decision during Christmas time this year. Which side are you on? On the side represented by todays Dives or on the side represented by todays Lazarus? You cant sit on the fence. Jesus Christ takes a clear and powerful stand on the side of Lazarus by identifying closely with the poor man and his cause for the restoration of his human dignity. He clearly spells out the fate that awaits the Dives, its multifaceted monstrosities and all who knowingly support it.
In this parable Jesus Christ portrays the structural sin or injustice in society today. Being born in a cattle shed suffering as a refugee child and undergoing all the pain of stark poverty, Jesus Christ clearly makes a preferential option for the poor. He is strongly on the side of the poor and the oppressed. The system represented by Dives has emerged as the most powerful manifestation of injustice in the world today. God has a plan for a just and fair world. A selfish system is attacking that plan of God through the Dives of today. Whose side are you on this Christmas?
The gaunt-looking man who shuffles to open the steel gates to the compound surrounded by small wooden buildings, has distorted facial features. He looks far from normal and walks with a slight hunch.
He is our security guard or gatekeeper, says Herman Ferdinando, proudly.
Ferdinando, is a rare breed himself. His small factory, at Moratuwa in the outskirts of Sri Lankas capital, Colombo, which produces plastic goods from waste material is home to young people who are mentally impaired, blind, deaf or dumb, and poor.
It is not just a home.. but also an environment where these people - most of whom have little chance in life to make an honest living - are able to work in dignity and earn a living, get married and have children like the rest of us.
Ferdinandos Seth Sevana - meaning house of benefits - in addition to lending a helping hand to Sri Lankas needy also contributes to protecting the environment.
The factory produces plastic cane chairs, rubber bushes, plate racks, vegetable racks, steel chairs, grills, gates, wheel barrows and plastic granules - all from garbage collected by dozens of poor people from dumping grounds and heap-yards of household and industrial waste spread across Colombo and the suburbs.
D. Jayasundera, a 33-year-old worker makes steel frames. Both he and his wife are deaf and dumb, but their 2 1/2-year-old son is a normal child.
Another worker, K. Dharmadasa is blind and his hearing is impaired. He walked into the factory several years ago and Ferdinando gave him a job. He has been there ever since.
Ferdinando speaks to them softly and in sign language, skills he learned at a school for the deaf and dumb, more than 25 years ago.
The Seth Sevana founders dual mission of helping the needy and protecting the environment came purely by accident and through unfortunate circumstances.
As a 19-year-old schoolboy, Ferdinando was advised by the priest of the neighbourhood Anglican Church that he went to, to work at a nearby deaf and blind school to supplement the family income, while continuing his studies.
His father was ill and unable to work but with six children, all still schooling, the family had fallen on hard times. The young Ferdinando joined the Anglican Church-run deaf and blind school at Ratmalana, a town adjoining Moratuwa, to manage the hostel and pursue his education.
But Ferdinando got immersed in the work, launching himself in scouting activity and coaching the lads in cricket, volleyball and soccer. His studies suffered as a result.
He gave up his lessons and joined the school staff, teaching special education. A two-year stint at a Government Teachers Training College tremendously improved his skills and meetings there with other teachers working at the 19-odd schools for the deaf and the blind across the island, also helped.
In 1984, he started Seth Sevana with one disabled youth. Now the vocational training and sheltered workshop for the disabled, as it is defined, has 30-people - 50 percent of whom are disabled while the others are poor.
Ferdinando says he has found employment for more than 30 disabled youths elsewhere after being trained at his centre, which he hopes to expand, funds permitting.
Raw material for Seth Sevanas use is provided by dozens of collectors who scour garbage yards for waste polythene and discarded plastic like basins, buckets or bowls. Factories in the vicinity of Seth Sevana also provide the bulk of waste polythene.
In addition to using waste material, which would otherwise be burned and pollute the environment, Ferdinando has also created a new breed of employees - waste collectors whose income helps impoverished families to keep their home fires burning.
The factory requires 10 tonnes of waste a month, and Ferdinando pays his workers, reasonable wages. They get what any worker gets.. and more depending on experience.
There is a hostel in the premises occupied by 14 workers. The rest of the workforce go to their respective homes after each workday. Meals at the hostel are paid for and prepared by the hostellers, themselves as they should learn to fend for themselves and be independent, Ferdinando says.
Impressed with its work, Seth Sevana has received financial help from the Netherlands, non-governmental organisations and assistance from the government which gave it tax-free status. Several awards have also come its way, but Ferdinando says that is not enough.
The buildings are dilapidated and in need of repair. Most floors are not cemented and during the monsoon season get flooded. Two years ago, we had terrible flooding, Ferdinando says.
The organisation needs a new building, equipped with modern machines but money is the stumbling block. Staff needs to be trained. I wish I could get some special training from abroad to help us turn out quality plastic goods working with the disabled, says Ferdinando.
His deputy, Jayantha Fernando agrees. Fernando, a seaman, has travelled the world but returned to his motherland to help his boyhood pal at the centre.
If only we could get more help in putting up a new building, buying new machines and being properly trained.. there is much more we could do...much more employment, Fernando said.
Sometimes getting waste, too could be a problem. Sri Lankan authorities are concerned with protecting the environment, but ironically, some of the countrys laws, stand in the way of progress in this field.
Tonnes of polythene waste and plastic cones, used mostly by garment factories, are burned daily in the countrys free trade zones. All this material, says Ferdinando, can be used by Seth Sevana but some laws stand in the way.
According to rules governing the free trade zones where production is exclusively for export, no item can be disposed of in the local market as these factories are given generous tax concessions for the import of raw material.
Even if companies are prepared to donate their waste - as many have offered to Seth Sevana - they cannot do so without breaking the law. The Finance Ministry, whom Ferdinando wrote to for relief, has said it was helpless unless special government sanction is provided.
So valuable waste material goes up in smoke, polluting the air when it could be put to productive use.
Ferdinando says the disabled dont wish to be treated as disabled by the outside world as they too are talented and have various skills. The only difference is that these talents are hidden due to their condition.
Nandasena Bamberawanage is the Deputy Controller of Passports and Travel, but he sounded like King Dutugemunu when he said I have touts on one side, the Unity Plaza and Majestic City shopping complexes on another and finally when it rains, I am flooded out. Despite these drawbacks he keeps smiling and maintains his cool. His building is called the podium and was meant to have been a supermarket.
For a Sri Lankan citizen to get a passport is a major hassle. The Sunday Times van had to drive through a gaily festooned road with cutouts of bright happy Santa Clauses and Christmas trees. But as the van slowed down looking for parking space, the game of touts versus people began. A man clung on to the slow moving van and before we could even get down offered us Passport forms normally available free, at thirty rupees each.
Amidst the jostling mass of distracted humanity here, there and everywhere, the man got closer and asked me whether I wanted my passport on the same day. I said yes and he said you can join that queue with around two thousand people, (yes around that number). The other option was to give him seven thousand rupees, he said, and he would do the job for me.
It was 9.30 a.m. and before us was this milling crowd, some wilting and almost fainting having queued up from six in the morning.
On the fringes were another two thousand people seated by the wayside drinking tea, eating bombai muttai, gram, pineapple or chewing rhythmically on saravita.
After being pushed around I lost my benefactor the tout and made my way to a lady constable and a policeman trying unsuccessfully to make some sort of order from this chaos.
There was burly Sergeant Ameer with an identity number 8584 who had been on duty since five in the morning with no time off for breakfast, he said. He carried a whistle and a baton and wanted us to look for our particular tout who had adroitly made his disappearance. If they see Ameer they disperse, only to quietly turn up again.
The touts most certainly have assistance from inside, officials to whom they can give the documents to get a passport. Sometimes they play one out disappearing with IDs, passports and other papers and of course the money. However, the Assistant Controller Bamberawanage when asked about this denied such a possibility.
Free passport forms are available at a counter which is chock-a-block and unless one does not mind being pushed and pushed hard, one is tempted to buy a form.
While one appreciated the Herculean task performed by Bamberawanage and his staff, this is a veritable Augean stable which would take a long and painful effort to streamline, and clean up.
Some touts manage to get past the two security guards and get in, where they are helped by friends from within. Asked why security dont check the pictures on the forms to see if tally with the person presenting himself at the counter Bamberawanage said the queue would have to slow down and the people outside would start a veritable riot. So Bamberawanage makes a request for more security from the Government.
As for the forms being sold, he said, some of the touts get into the queue and ask for as many as six forms saying they are required for members of the family. These are then sold. The only way to control this is firstly to have more space for more counters for issuing of forms and then the unemployment problem must be lessened. These men make a living selling these forms.
If we find corrupt people within this office we get rid of them but generally they are honest. After much prodding by us Mr. Bamberawanage who is loyal to his staff did confess, that there isnt hundred percent honesty.
Inside this office, work is done quickly. The forms are checked to make sure all documentation is there. Next a staff officer questions the person routinely, a number is given and the shroff takes the money and issues a receipt to collect the passport.
The congestion is terrible since on average there are 1000 one day passports issued and around 750 to 1000 other passports issued. It is much better now than when we were at the Echelon Barracks. We shifted after the Central Bank bombing. We have more space and hence counters to deal with customers have increased from fifteen to twenty four.
Mr. Bamberawanage suggests that there should be more police on duty. He feels that having two at the exit and two at the entrance, in addition to others walking around the queues and mixing with the crowd, would help keep the touts at bay.
The Government must help by shifting the Passport Office to a bigger place as is planned, at Battara-mulla, he adds. Now we are wedged in by the Majestic City, Lucky Plaza, the sea and the touts. The touts give this place a bad name.
The Municipality he said can help by putting up toilets for the people, both those who come for passports and for those accompanying them.
You see those people seated just outside this room they are awaiting their turn for passports to be given. There is a TV set for their entertainment. There is a canteen nearby from where they can buy food cheaply and four toilets for women and three for men. There is also boiled and filtered drinking water available. There is also a mobile van from the Department of Food which supplies rice packets at only twenty five rupees.
He also suggested that forms be made available for say a token sum of ten rupees at post offices and sub post offices until more space is found.
For most, a visit to the Passport Office is a dreaded experience but one that cannot necessarily be avoided. It is surely all about ones right to obtain a passport of your own country permitting one legitimately to travel abroad.
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