|Letters to the Editor
18th July, 1998
We were not horrified to read Iqbal Athas's first hand account of a soldier's life at the battlefront published in The Sunday Times of June 20. But how many readers would have considered it to be anything more serious than another teledrama to be read and forgotten the next moment.
In drawing attention once again to the shocking state of affairs described by Mr. Athas, let me recall some points.
*Soldiers live in make-shift huts built with pieces of canvas, rusty galvanised sheets or asbestos. The roofs are of unwoven coconut branches, as picked from here and there.
We have seen how soldiers in the Iraqi desert, refugees in Macedonia and even Indian soldiers in Himalayas have been provided with tents. Can't the Sri Lankan authorities provide a few thousand small tents one for four men? Isn't it a disgrace that the men who are required to sacrifice their lives to make everyone else's life possible, should be treated in this disgusting manner?
* The soldiers' beds are either a collection of palmyrah logs with cardboard on them or just a bed sheet or polythene on the ground.
What is the difficulty in obtaining a few thousand coir mattresses made to manageable sizes which can be transported easily. This should have been thought of before as this war is 17 years old and is expected to go on for a long time, given the present performance.
*Morning ablution means having to take turns walking to a well with an old paint tin to bring water.
This country is littered with plastic and polythene. Is it not possible to provide plastic buckets to these soldiers?
*The soldiers have problems sending and receiving letters.
Can't the military authorities make special arrangements without depending on the postal department? We have heard how the top brass living in Colombo engage half a dozen soldiers as domestics and use half a dozen vehicles for their family. How can officers with a conscience wallow in such luxury at public expense while their men are going through hell?
*When a soldier is injured he is taken in a tractor-trailer to the helipad. A delay of 45 minutes can mean death.
What a sad state of affairs. Have politicians and generals forgotten that these men are risking their young lives to make life comfortable for them and their families? The excuse will be that the government has no funds. Surely, a government that gifted Volvo cars to bhikkus can supply a few dozen ambulances to save these brave men's lives. The annual budegetary allocation for the war is around Rs. 50 billion. Scandals abound as to how these funds are misused. Why can't the authorities ensure that the soldiers get these requisites?
There are several hundred million rupees in the Defence Fund, accruing interest. There were/are plans to construct a residence for the President at a cost of Rs. 15,000 million. The Deputy Minister of Defence is talking in terms of raising Rs. 600 million to build a devale to ward off evil. With a fraction of these funds the government should be able to supply these basic necessities to the men who are laying down their lives for this country.
What is lacking is not funds and public support, but a commitment on the part of those responsible to end this war. It is obvious that they are callously indifferent and grossly apathetic towards a resolution.
There is no sense in expecting shameless, immoral politicians who are only concerned with amassing wealth and looking for power, to end this war. Right-thinking people agree that the war has to have a national involvement and that conscription for a limited period is inevitable. But vote-hungry politicians won't hear of it.
It is heartening that a few public organisations are looking to the needs of soldiers' families and even refugees. But there does not seem to be any to see to the basic needs of soldiers.
We appeal to national minded people to take the initiative to form organisations and set up the machinery to raise funds among the public to supply the needs of these men.
At the opening of the new flyover at Ragama, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was quoted as saying that as a democratically-elected government the People's Alliance always bows to the rights of the people. She is not ready to violate the Constitution to please a certain section of medical men, she had said.
The President needs to be reminded that the Government Medical Officers' Association (GMOA) only requested the implementation of a Cabinet memorandum which dealt with appointments to the provincial health services. If the implementation necessitates a change in the Constitution, it is not the fault of the GMOA, but the architects of this memorandum.
The Constitution should also not be considered a sacrosanct piece of legislation, as time and again it had to be amended due to weaknesses and shortcomings. The doctors are concerned only about the fragmentation of the health system and the dismantling of the all-island service.
Even among other sections of the public service there is growing disenchantment with the provincial system - though the government is trying to make out that only the doctors are against it.
It should also be kept in mind that provincial councils were never sought by the people of Sri Lanka at any election. They were hastily conceived as being capable of solving the ethnic question through devolution of power. After seeing the elections for the PCs and the manner in which they function it can be safely concluded that PCs have been a failure. Not only are they inefficient and insensitive to the needs of the public, but they are also easy targets of corruption, nepotism, political influence and vested interests.
The recent appointment of a corrupt medical administrator in the Puttalam district is one such instance.
The government should first establish whether a majority of the people are for PCs at an all-island referendum. A clearly-worded question such as, "Do you want the PC system to be implemented?" or "Do you prefer a form of centralized government as existed earlier?" should be presented to the public. Then only will we get the correct verdict.
There are attempts to make out that animal lovers are 'racists'. One such instance was a writer from Colombo saying that some articles written by animal lovers are "thinly veiled attacks on Muslims."
If the articles that appear in newspapers are read carefully, it will be apparent that animal lovers are trying to stop cruelty to all animals and also the wanton killing for flesh. They do not differentiate between cattle, pigs, goats, fowls or even wild animals. Letters in the press vehemently attack Buddhists who rear animals for flesh.
They also criticise Buddhist monks who relish eating meat and devotees who offer such 'dana'. So Muslims should not think that animal lovers are against them and are attempting to fan the flames of hatred.
We would like to appeal to Muslims not to kill animals in their home gardens. When we see and hear the anguished cries of animals being slaughtered in a 'neighbour's compound it makes us sick.
The government is suddenly taking an interest in the welfare of the people. Till recently not a cat was interested whether the National Hospital including smaller clinics were functioning properly.
My father spent the last two months of his life in a professorial unit at the National Hospital. I have heard of hell-holes and I am glad that I experienced a little of it during these two months. Almost all the drugs had to be bought from outside, even when one company swore they had delivered stocks of the fluid required for dialysis to the hospital, and refused to sell us the cans.
A ward meant for 60 patients was overflowing with 110-on beds, under beds and on chairs. There were just two nurses and two attendants for the evening, when the hustle and bustle of the medical men was over. Garbage was dumped just outside the ward window and we had to put up with the unbearable stench. On rainy days, water poured into the wards and patients got wet. A back room had overflowing bedpans and urinals. Rats, the size of cats, prowled around at night. Cockroaches were everywhere.
My father was being treated for septicaemia, but what was the use? The ward was so dirty that this disease could be contracted at any time. Meanwhile there has been speculation that the government may scrap the OPD scheme, because of donor pressure. Osu Sala is said to be in debt to the drug companies. The irony is that though there are no drugs at the National Hospital, the government assures the public that stocks of essential drugs are being sent to the north, north-east, and liberated areas'.
Why can't the authorities get help from private companies and do up the dilapidated wards? Why don't they provide jobs to youth by training them as nurses and attendants? Of course it would help if the doctors too would take more interest in the welfare of the National Hospital rather than fattening their own purses through private practice.
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