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11th June 2000

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Cost of living relief unlikely, opposition parties up in arms

By Roshan Peiris and Shelani de Silva

Amid speculation that more price hikes were in the offing, there is little consolation for people in terms of salary increases or other concessions, The Sunday Times learns.

Following last week's shocking and staggering hike in gas prices, along with increases in telephone, water and electricity, there were reports of salary increments for public servants.

But this was unlikely with the government paying full attention to end the war, ministers told The Sunday Times.

President Kumaratunga, in her War Heroes Day speech on Wednesday said the Government was determined to end the war and called on the people to bear the high cost of living and make sacrifices in this effort.

Minister Alavi Moulana said the Government did have a plan to increase the salaries of public servants three months ago but it was dropped.

"The Government can do little at the moment. We have had to cut down on development projects and the country is going through a difficult period. We should all understand that with the war it is not possible to bring down the prices," he said.

Mr. Moulana said the Government was also finding it difficult to introduce subsidies to bring down the prices of some commodities, because of the heavy cost of war.

He said it was necessary for the government to place before the people the true picture in view of the upcoming general elections.

Minister Batty Weerakoon who was critical of the Shell Company for increasing the gas price, also said people should understand the difficult situation and bear up the burden for the time being.

"Even with elections round the corner the government is unable to offer any concessions," he said.

Meanwhile with the ban on political rallies lifted, several opposition parties and trade unions are gearing up to voice their protests against the high cost of living. The JVP said it had plans to launch a demonstration in Colombo soon.

Party leaders and trade unionists are adding their voices to widespread public protests over the escalating cost of living and especially the recent gas price explosion.

UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale demanded immediately measures to reduce the burden on the people and to give an immediate wage increase.

JVP leader Tilvin Silva said Shell was playing hell and the government should resign if it could not control that foreign company.

Puravesi Peramuna leader Sirisena Cooray was equally hard-hitting.

He said: "Everything has gone up and seem to be going up to burden the people. I do not know what the Opposition is doing about it."

Sihala Urumaya leader S. L. Gunasekera again called on the government to resign without dragging the people and the economy into a bigger mess.

Referring to the massive gas price hike, he said foreign companies were known to be exploitative, but it was the duty of the government to check and control them.

TULF parliamentary group leader Joseph Pararajasingham said government was overburdening and punishing the people by making the war an excuse.

A CWC parliamentarian said the price hikes were having the worst effects on the poorest people like estate workers and an immediate wage increase was needed.

Veteran trade unionist Bala Tampoe accused the government of trying to finance the war by overburdening ordinary people.

"While burdens are increased, some people are making millions out of the war and filling their pockets at the expense of the ordinary man.

I say the government must now make a proper accounting of the war. We said this on May Day," Mr. Tampoe said.


Amidst tears from sky, a people's man bids farewell

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti and Nilika de Silva

Thousands of people braved torrential rains yesterday to attend the funeral of Minister C.V. Gooneratne and his wife Sheami, who were slain by a suicide bomber while they were participating in Heroes Day commemorations in Ratmalana.

The two-hour long funeral service at the S. De. S Jayasinghe grounds in Dehiwela last evening, was held amidst tight police security.

Buddhist and Catholic priests and other religious dignitaries turned out in large numbers to pay their last respects to Mr. Gooneratne and his wife.

Earlier in the morning, his parliamentary colleagues paid their last respects when the sealed coffin carrying Mr. Gooneratne was brought to the parliamentary complex.

Dark clouds gathered early, and rain softly fell down. From morning, the Ceremonial Parlour of the Parliament thronged with fellow legislators from all hues, united in their grief at the loss of a valued colleague. It was a sigh and a tear that escaped as they stood struck by the gruesome reality of losing yet another colleague whose whole- hearted support to the military drive brought a cruel end to his very life.

Outside the Parlour, silence reigned. The security blanket had been tightened with more barricades being put up. The parliament drive appeared mournfully deserted with no vehicular traffic as if silently grieving. White flags flew at half mast, banners, streamers and buntings of the same mournful white also swayed in the morning breeze. And the dampening drizzle reflected the nation's mute grief at losing yet another peoples' representative who transcended the ethnic barriers and walked shoulder to shoulder with the common man.

By 9 am, Speaker K.B. Ratnayake, Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickremenayake, Chief Government whip Richard Pathirana were seen receiving MPs and members of the diplomatic Corp, minutes before the arrival of the funeral motorcade.

Half and hour later, accompanied by parliamentarians of all hues, Speaker Ratnayake received the remains of the late minister. To everyone's surprise, it was President Kumaratunga who joined the Speaker on the opposite side to receive a beloved colleague's remains. She was fighting for composure and struggling to keep the tears at bay.

Visibly moved, the President, joined the short procession accompanied by the Speaker and other ministers. Paying her respects, it was poignant to watch the head of state tearfully reaching out a hand to touch the framed picture of a smiling minister, kept on the sealed coffin.

Near the coffin were Rajitha, Chandev and Shamista, the three bereaved children of the late minister. They valiantly fought back tears and dutifully greeted and silently accepted the condolences of many people who had loved their father, and carried his vibrantly live memory from within.

Among the late arrivals was Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickre-mesinghe, accompanied by party general secretary Gamini Atukorale. As the military police stood on guard, with their heads bent low, by 10. 30 am, it was time to say a final fond farewell.


Power cuts averted but crisis remains

By Hiranthi Fernando

Though an imminent power cut has been averted, emergency measures taken to reduce power consumption cannot be relaxed immediately, CEB officials said yesterday.

With the onset of the long awaited south-west monsoon and welcome rainfall in the catchment areas, the threatened power cuts have been averted, they said.

The total storage levels in the reservoirs rose to 21.59% as at 6 a.m. on Friday.

CEB Additional General Manager D.C. Wijeratne said the water level which stood at 199 GWh during the crisis period, has now increased to 272 GWh.

Since the total capacity is 1200 GWh, the reservoirs still need to fill up before the emergency measures for reducing consumption can be relaxed, Mr. Wijeratne said.

Although the rainfall in the catchment areas early in the week had been considerable, the rainfall on Thursday had been an average of 1 mm to 1.8 mm.

The daily power consumption during the last few days had been in the range 16 to 17.2 million units, which shows a drop from the previous levels of around 19 to 20 million units.


Buddhists honour Kadirgamar

The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress has presented a scroll to Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in appreciation of his efforts for gaining international recognition for Vesak Day, by having a resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

ACBC President Sudath Devapura told The Sunday Times Sri Lankans should be grateful for this gesture by the Foreign Minister.

"Vesak is a significant event for the Buddhists. We felt that it should be made known," he said.

The ACBC also sought the Minister's assistance to build a special institute for Buddhist monks.

Mr. Devapura said that as requested by the minister, he would consult the matter with the Mahanayakes soon.


Brief encounter costs her a fortune

Infidelity cost a woman returnee from Kuwait all her newly gotten wealth resulting in her having to get back home, almost centless, escorted by her husband.

For two years, she worked as a house-maid and on touching down on home soil, she met a stranger at the airport who tricked her into spending a night with him in a hotel in Colombo.

The 29-year-old woman from a village in the Eastern Province is married and has three children.

The airport lover told her he would help her to encash her travellers cheques by taking her to a bank in Colombo. They went to the bank and encashed the traveller's cheques. The man had taken charge of her cash and on the pretext of having to take a photocopy of a document, had given her the slip.

After a long wait, sensing that she had been duped by the man, she had hired a three wheeler and gone to the nearest police station. By then she had only 300 rupees left with her. She was unable to tell the police even the name of the hotel she had put up in, resulting in the police having to take her to all the city hotels and even lodges, but with no success.

She was unable to provide any clue about the man either.

The police later informed the police station close to her village and requested that a message be sent to her husband to come and take her away, which he did on receiving the information. The couple left the city poorer but wiser with instructions from the police to report the matter to their local police station.


Drowning cries from the banks of the Kelani

By Nilika de Silva

Every year the rains come and every year the Kelani river spills over, literally drowning the already battered and bruised poverty stricken people who live by its bank.

Meanwhile celebrity figures have donated land while these people who have been fighting a losing battle with a raging river charge that every now and then promises are made but little action has been taken to give them safer homes.

Recently it was a six-year-old girl who was swallowed up by the swelling waters, in the dead of night. The floods took little Iresha Kumudini away even before those around her knew she was in danger. Her ten year old brother is still in hospital, unable to come to terms with the shock of having lost his little sister.

During the rainy season these people leave their homes that are waist deep in water, clutching on to their babies and whatever little they possess. They make their annual trek to temples or the Kettarama Stadium where they spend time till the water levels recede.

The river claims much more than material possessions. The damaged houses can be rebuilt, but the floods take a toll on the people's health too.

Sometimes the outbreak of diarrhoea reaches epidemic proportions and every household will have its outbreak of cold and flu.

"We are forced to spend a lot of money on medicines for the little ones during the rainy season," M. Apsara, a mother of three said.

"Even to keep the children away from the damp floors is a struggle, as the house gets filled up with water. We have to keep the children on chairs, to avoid them catching a chill. It is mainly when the waters start receding that the children catch various diseases," she said.

P. Gnanasekeram (35), a labourer and a father of three, said his children suffer chest ailments. Even I am prone to it he said. His wife's grandfather aged 99 sat crouched on the floor, a look of fear and hopelessness written on his face.

Each time the water level rises, Gnanasekeram says he buys planks from the saw mill and raises the floor of his house. This costs him about 1,500 rupees but he has no alternative he says as the lives of his children are more precious than the hard earned rupees.

"Nobody comes to help us. If we are given land elsewhere we would gladly leave although I have been living in this house for 15 years," he lamented.

T. M. Leelawathi (63), the grand mother of little Iresha says she can't take anymore of the pain and hardship. The three other grand children who are left in her care tag along behind her as she goes about her daily chores.

Describing that tragic night a still tearful Leelawathi said, "The family had returned home after going to see Vesak decorations and fell asleep, wherever they lay down. In the middle of the night my daughter suddenly woke up to find her little daughter was missing. It was then that we realised that the earth beneath the house had washed away creating a gap in the wall through which my little grand daughter had fallen into the river."

They had just given the seven days alms giving for the little girl.

S. Leela (38), has brought up four children in a hut she calls home on the banks of the Kelani. But she feels the bank has moved several metres. They live on a meagre Rs. 3,000 income her son brings home. But it takes much more to protect themselves from the dangers of flood waters. Her three- year old grandson Tharusha Shehan is not allowed outside the house in case the river takes another victim.

These residents claim that each family gave 500 rupees last year on the promise of getting alternative land in Himbutana. They said Deputy Minister Bennet Cooray had been instrumental in this scheme but so far nothing had materialised.

Meanwhile Mr. Cooray told The Sunday Times he had given an assurance that the people would receive land by June 15.

"I myself went to those houses and inspected them. Each household will receive about four perches. But the land has to be acquired and surveyed. That involves a lot of work," he said.

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