24th December 2000
Interviewd by Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Susil Premajayantha shot to fame as the Chief Minister of the Western Province and received accolades as a clean politician. A lawyer by profession, he successfully contested the recent general elections polling the highest number of preferences in the Gampaha district from the PA, and was made the Minister of Education.
Q: In hindsight, are you happy about entering politics? Or do you feel like a fish out of water in a corrupt system?
A: One shouldn't regret anything in life, as each event leaves one with more experience. The present scenario is a far cry from what it used to be but we must keep faith.
I feel I can do something viable for the people. I have proved my mettle at provincial level. Above all, I have strived to live by example which I think the public appreciated. The day I feel utterly incapable of effecting those positive changes, I will bow out.
Q: There are many clashes in the sphere of education at the provincial and national level. How do you propose to reduce friction?
A: My first priority is to put the house in order here. This ministry requires immediate restructuring and an attitudinal change in officials. It is only thereafter we can address other issues.
The 13th Amendment introduced a division in schools. There are 317 national schools coming under the Education Ministry while another 10,000 come under the provincial authorities. Some have been upgraded to the status of national schools.
Most problems relate to allocations and administration. It took a while to understand the defined functions of each category of schools.
From next year, funds would be released to the provincial authorities directly by the Treasury and not through the Ministry.
We have to identify the overlapping areas and prevent possible problems.
Q: Corrupt activities have got institutionalised in relation to school admissions rendering rules ineffective. Against this backdrop what counter mechanisms have you taken to prevent the large scale preparation of false documents?
A: Preparing false documents has become a thriving industry today. We are issuing strict instructions regarding the 2,002 admissions and will launch a counter mechanism to identify forged documents.
Already the first round of selections for 2,001 has been completed, so rectification should come the following year.
The new circulars will minimise such practices and we have also identified some elements involved in this racket.
The National Education Committee is working out a policy to prevent this as well. Our counter measures will not be disclosed because that would tip off racketeers to become smarter.
Q: Over 280 schools have been closed during the past few years due to poor attendance. How do you intend providing schools for those affected by the government decision, specially in remote areas?
A: The figures cannot be accurate, though some schools have been closed. But the closures were not caused by Ministry directives.
Students create schools and no school can function if there is poor attendance.
In the Western Province, we didn't close down any school.
In Ahugammana in the Mahara electorate when a school was closed down, neither the parents nor the residents protested. I had a provincial committee which identified schools with less students during my tenure as CM. We sent these committees to villages to discuss the issue with parents and residents. It is they who made recommendations and they were given due consideration.
The other explanation for the decrease in students is that there is a marked reduction in our birth rate with the percentage coming down from 3 to 1. In 1989, the student population was 373,000 but it came down to 325,000 in 1999.
Q: As someone who advocates a negotiated political settlement and the new draft Constitution, what chances for peace do you foresee? Does it work with the LTTE as with other militant groups?
A: We should grab each opportunity for peace. Prudent action could prevent the pitfalls. I think the situation is becoming conducive to peace and there have been overtures from both parties to the conflict.
Perhaps a dialogue with the political wing of the LTTE could lay a foundation. History won't give many chances and we must seize the moment.
Young Neomal Perera is a manufacturer of coconut products and an executive committee member of the Desiccated Coconut Millers' Association, the only such body in Sri Lanka. He received his primary education at St. Joseph's College, Colombo and later studied at the Kodaikanal International School, Madras and holds a Diploma in Business Management.
Q: As a successful businessman what prompted your sudden entry into mainstream politics? Is it in pursuance of a family tradition or in furtherance of your business interests?
A: Neither. As the only son in our family, my main responsibility is to run the family business well. Besides my family members, I have over 500 employees. Politics today is a life- threatening concern. But I have always been fascinated by it. Inspired by my grand uncle Paris Perera, at the tender age of seven, I climbed on to a fish crate at the Ja-Ela market and addressed the people, which was my political baptism!
I was invited to contest the PC polls. With Asoka Wadiga-mangawa returning to the PC and Harendra Corea's cross over, a political vacuum was created. And I could appreciate the UNP leader's effort to inject young blood and introduce professionals to revolutionise our system.
Q: As a new entrant, what was the level of competition you faced?
A: As a businessman, I have honoured my contracts and obligations and worked with an objective mind. When I served the people in a different capacity, I did my best, and now that I am in politics, I wish to do the same.
As I have been a businessman who had little to do with politics, my entry neutralized the usual hostility prevalent in the arena. People know that I would work irrespective of their political colour. I am sure the entry of a thug or a man with a past would have generated much hostility.
Q: If that is so, why did your entry get marred by violence and a UNP supporter get killed?
A: Judas is not confined to the Bible. We meet him everyday. Similarly, our district has a Judas who has nothing to offer- in terms of education, intelligence or vision. Feeling constrained by his limitations, he uses his mafia to attack the opposition and ruling party colleagues in a bid to muster more preferences. Such men are dangerous anywhere.
I became the Puttalam organiser just two months before the election. There was no need for anybody to feel intimidated. During the campaign, I switched from my usual vehicle to another, and the PA goons attacked the vehicle thinking I was travelling in it killing an innocent man.
Q: Being thrust into the mainstream suddenly, would you have preferred an opportunity to first learn the ropes at local level before entering the legislature?
A: I don't think all that is necessary, though beneficial. I have keenly observed the happenings from outside. I didn't contest the PC, despite a UNP offer. As a child, I had witnessed significant political events and I have learned by the happenings around me and the political activity at home.
Q: What have you identified as pressing problems in your district?
A: Contrary to popular belief, Puttalam is not a dry and barren land, but it has not been put to good use. Vegetable cultivation is no longer pursued while inland fishing is also curtailed.
The lesser known fact is that Puttalam is a supply route to the LTTE. We need safeguards. The fisherfolk need to find their daily bread and the restrictions have added to the poverty in the district. With the LTTE threat growing here, the biggest problem is the restriction on movement. We also lack the necessary infrastructure to develop industries here.
The Norochcholai power plant caused unprecedented fear among the people. It is not barren development we need, but sustainable development which would not harm the population.
Q: Shouldn't the UNP which ruled for a long spell of 17 years be apportioned the blame for its lack of infrastructure ?
A: I am sure there were shortcomings. With the intensity of the LTTE activities, the life style has changed. But the economic problems actually stem from not having a plan which addresses the district requirements. The government politicians are more keen to play politics than develop the area.
Q: Despite all the pressing issues, the UNP is not doing much to create a voice for the people. Why are you so inactive?
A: We are not inactive, just doing things differently. Even government legislators in their private capacity agree that the UNP is better at handling the economy. People are suffering owing to the PA's dismal economic performance.
Q: Thrust among the UNP ranks, what can a legislator do for his electorate?
A: Waiting for government funds is a useless exercise. My salary is utilised to fund an educational programme in the district.
I decided on this step because that is the only true way to empowering people and it cannot be stolen. If I put up lamp posts, some foolish politician could destroy them. It is better to light one lamp than curse the darkness.
By Tania Fernando
With more than two million vehicles on the road the Traffic Police are introducing many methods to cut down on the accidents.
'We are adopting several new methods to track down motorists who do not adhere to the road rules,' said Traffic Headquarters OIC Athula Weerasinghe. One such new scheme is contacting police stations around the country and instructing them on what type of detection should be made on that day while another programme is aimed at enforcing all traffic rules to the letter in an identified area.
Inspector Weerasinghe said the most common cause for accidents is non-adherence to road rules by drivers. Since it is quite easy to obtain a driving licence without actually having to go for a driving test, such drivers too contribute to the accidents that occur.
At least one person is killed every four and a half hours in an accident. In 1999 a total of 2038 persons were killed in road accidents and up to October 2000 the total killed is 1688.
He added that although the number of accidents in Colombo is high in comparison to the rest of the country, within Colombo the highest number of fatal accidents occur in the Mt. Lavinia and Kelaniya areas.
Mr.Weerasinghe also said that although using of hand-held phones was an offence, there was no specified fine that they can be imposed. He was of the opinion that even by using 'hands free' phones while driving was a big risk since the person driving is not able to concentrate on driving while having a conversation.
"The biggest problem we have is with three-wheeler drivers", he said.
The problem the Traffic Police Headquarters face is the lack of manpower in the division. The traffic division seems to be one where most officers seem reluctant to work in. He said that some sort of incentive should be offered in order to keep officers in that department.
In addition to tracking down errant drivers, they have to provide a pilot service for all foreign VIPs, be on the interview board of all government institutions recruiting drivers and conduct road safety demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Executive Secretary of the Automobile Association Anton Kandiah said that they have over 10,000 members and are in the process of conducting educational programmes for bus drivers and three-wheeler drivers on road safety.
While education on road rules, road maintenance and effective law enforcement play a dominant role in enhancing safety, finally road safety rests only on the attitudes and behaviour of drivers and pedestrians.
RMV racket exposed
The Colombo Fraud Bureau has asked the Motor Traffic Commissioner to submit a report to the police regarding a major scam of issuing of fake driving licences, police said.
They believe that several persons employed in the Registration of Motor Vehicles Department maybe involved in the scam as well.
The Colombo Fraud Bureau on Wednesday took into custody four persons including a woman in connection with the scam and confiscated a large amount of documents relating to this fraud, SSP Kandasamy of the Bureau said.
Police had been on the trail of the suspects for a few months ago when the group suddenly ceased their operations. Police believe that they had been tipped off by an informant that they were under suspicion.
However, last week they had started their operations when the Police team trailing them had raided two places in Narahenpita and seized over 70 driving licences and thousands of forged documents needed to obtain licences including medical certificates and application forms.
Police said that the driving licences looked like the genuine ones and they would investigate if some of those employed in the private company that has the contract to print the driving licences for the RMV are also involved in the scam.
The investigating team lead by IP Jayaratne of the Fraud Bureau who met with the Commissioner had handed over some of the documents to him and asked for a report for the police to take further action and question the employees of the Department.
IP Jayaratne said that since the investigating team's visit to meet the Commissioner, they had received information that some of the old documents at the Department had been burnt to destroy evidence.
The fraudulent activity is believed to have been going on for several years as some of the driving licences discovered had dates going back to the '80s and '90s.
IP Jayaratne said that the scam also involved using forged documents to change the class of vehicles one used which would normally require a person to go for a trial before obtaining the licence.
The suspects had been charging between Rs. 7,500 to Rs. 10,000 from people to get them the driving licences with the price varying from vehicle to vehicle.
The scam had first come to light after a group of doctors from a medical centre in Nugegoda had written to the RMV saying their signatures had been forged on a number of medical certificates used with the application form to obtain a driving licence. The medical centre is run by the CTB and doctors there routinely carry out medical tests on those who seek to obtain driving licences.
Police at the Traffic Headquarters who received a copy of the letter had pursued the matter and tipped off the Fraud Bureau on this illegal activity.
By Chandani Kirinde
The government has spent millions of rupees to build underground crossings for pedestrians and has several more planned for construction in a bid to ease traffic congestion and avoid accidents, but getting people to use them has proved to be a difficult task, police said.
The first underpass was constructed in Kandy nearly four years ago but people continue to jay walk causing much inconvenience to motorists in the busy town area, they said.
In Borella junction, where the second such underpass was opened in September this year, educating pedestrians to use it has become a trying task for the police as well as Road Development Authority employees who have to deal with scared, confused and unruly pedestrians who converge in the thousands on this busy area of Colombo everyday.
According to the RDA employees who are responsible for the maintenance of this underpass, many people refuse to enter it fearing the vehicles going overhead could collapse on them while most others are confused as to which of the five stairways in the underpass lead to their destination.
Efforts to get more people to use the crossing is showing slow progress but stopping pedestrians from jaywalking altogether is proving to be a difficult task, Borella Traffic Police OIC SI Dissanayake said.
He said during rush hours, a number of police personnel were engaged in directing pedestrians to walk only on the pavements and use the underpass to cross the roads without hampering traffic movement in the area.
However the occupation of the pavements by hawkers is a problem for the pedestrians who are forced to walk along the main roads as the pavements are congested with stalls and people flocking to buy goods.
The police have had to resort to some drastic steps to keep people from creeping through the gaps in the steel railings in the middle of the road. Last week they started applying grease on the railings to discourage people from crossing the road haphazardly.
A spokespersons for the Kandy Traffic Police said that a shortage of personnel was making it difficult for Police to be always present to enlighten people on the necessity for pedestrians to follow road rules.
She said many people use the crossing in Kandy although getting every pedestrian to do so was proving difficult.
In Colombo, Police recently met with Colombo Municipal Council officials to discuss a way to permanently close gaps in the fences which allow people to creep through them and cross the road, Sub Inspector Dissanayake said.
The Municipal authorities are to weld some additional bars to restrict people resorting to this kind of action. However there seems to be little deterrent for those who jump over the fences and run across the road.
Warnings to some errant pedestrians by police are also falling on deaf ears at most times.
As the Motor Traffic Act does not provide for the police to impose spot fines on jay walkers, there is little deterrent against such offenders. The existing procedure means a person has to be taken to courts and the Traffic Police who are already under pressure with the growing traffic problem in the city find it a long and tedious task to prosecute a person in this manner for such a minor offence.
Maintenance of the underpass and keeping it clean is also proving difficult with people throwing trash inside it with some ever chewing betel and spitting inside the underpass.
The RDA employees at the underpass have started educating people on the need to keep the place clean so it would be a pleasant place for people to pass through.
Similarly, fencing of main roads in many areas in Colombo to get pedestrians to walk only along the footpaths and cross at the designated crossings have proved unsuccessful against unruly pedestrians. Some of the steel fences have already been torn down in a number of areas in Colombo by some of these offenders. The subway at Borella is part of a vast project with an investment of Rs. 2950 million for the completion of phase one.
By Faraza Farook
Despite laws stipulating that schooling is compulsory for the 5-14 age group, more than 25,000 children in that age group are not attending school, a child activity survey has revealed.
Of a total of 25,532 children in the age group 5-14 who are not attending school, 60.3% (15,402) are employed in the agricultural sector, industry, hotel trade or are in domestic service, a Census and Statistics Department report based on a child activity survey conducted last year showed.
Many of these children were employed for a mere Rs. 1000 or even less, while on the other hand, there was the unpaid family worker who accounted for 34.2% in the same age group engaged in a family enterprise, often in the agricultural sector.
Notwithstanding that the law states the employment of a child under the age of 14 is an offence, many children have been forced to take up jobs for reasons of poverty denying their right to education.
The survey which excluded the Northern and Eastern provinces was the first of its kind to study the child labour situation in the country as many critical aspects were hidden under the surface. The survey included 18,828 children from 14,400 housing units.
New legislation and conventions that are in force to fight the problem has not frightened employers from recruiting under-aged children as domestic aides, sales assistants and for other small time jobs.
In a recent incident, a ten-year-old ran away from her employers unable to put up with the work assigned to her. Brought from the estate sector, this girl, in the prime of her life, was entrusted to take care of two toddlers and also attend to other household chores. She was abused (verbally) if she failed to attend to her duties.
Her employers, well aware of the offence, had obtained a written statement from the girl's parents which stated that the girl was being sent for employment because of poverty. After a few months the girl ran away to her home in the estate.
Poverty was one of the commonest reasons cited by many. According to the survey, 14.3% of children in the age group 5-14 were not attending schools due to poverty.
Not more than 22.2% of those employed were paid over Rs. 2000. The payment was often between Rs. 1000 and Rs. 2000.
Today, in addition to having to tackle the child labour problem, child welfare organisations are still to consider means of tackling children employed in home enterprises. In most villages where families are bound by tradition to take over what their fathers and forefathers had been doing, education was not a priority. Thus these children were engaged in cultivation or worked in a boutique they owned.
This aspect of child labour was still to be explored as Department of Probation and Child Care Commissioner S. Rannuge said that it was difficult for them to take action in cases where children were employed in the family business unless specific areas were quoted.
According to the law it is considered an offence if the child in the 5-14 age group was not being sent to school and was employed either in the family enterprise or otherwise.
In some cases, the children attended school and engaged in an economic activity for a maximum of two hours while a very small percentage worked for more than four hours.
The survey also analysed children in the age group of 15-17, a majority of whom were either employed and not attending school or was an unpaid family worker and attending school. Unlike in the 5-14 age group which is the compulsory age for education, children in the 15-18 age group were governed by certain restrictions if they were being employed.
For instance, their working hours should not be extended to late nights, Sunday should be a holiday, they should not be engaged in activities that jeopardise the health and safety of the child, etc. Accordingly, the definition of a child differed from law to law. Thus any activity detrimental to the child's education, health or normal development was a cause for concern.
Torn as it is by an unending conflict that affects children the most, Sri Lanka is very rightly the focus of UNICEF's latest report on "The State of the World's Children".
The lead story in the report for 2001 released here on Tuesday, centered round a Sri Lankan family in Ambanganga in the Matale district depicting the sad plight of families which have been badly affected by the conflict.
The whopping US$ 880 million now being spent on the war, has denied poor Sri Lankans in places like Ambanganga basic amenities like vaccines, books, clean drinking water, adequate shelter and motorable roads.
"Every dollar spent on a warplane is one unavailable to be spent on children," the report says in a hard-hitting indictment of the escalating military budget, which had jumped from $700 million to $880 million in one year.
If a fraction of the money that is pumped into military destruction was spent on providing every child with a healthy start, seeds of animosity could be replaced by empathy and tolerance. An investment in children can pay huge peace dividends," the report said on the long-term social and psychological benefits of spending on children rather than on guns.
The report draws attention to the particularly bad conditions in Jaffna and the Wanni, the eye of the ethnic storm as it were. Here families live on the edge of destruction while children are trafficked to be trained as "child soldiers".
With the internal conflict devouring a heavy budget, more and more children are being deprived of their right to live, learn and to be cared. Though Sri Lanka is doing comparatively better than its Asian neighbours, the need to address certain problems to ensure the best for childhood in an environment free of violence has not been recognised.
According to the report, the economic advantage of investing in early childhood is enormous and irreplaceable. This is particularly true when considering the large sums of money directed towards fighting an infinite war, depriving a child of opportunities to develop his or her potential and to contribute to society.
Elaborating, the report says that it is best for a country to invest during the early years of childhood instead of spending seven times more trying to do it at a later stage. By investing $1 in the physical and mental development of babies and toddlers, a $ 7 return is assured from cost savings in the future.
'Choosing not to provide the earliest care for all children is the costliest mistake of all', the report says. Having given a healthy start and a solid foundation in the first years of life, children are less likely to suffer from illnesses, repeat grades, drop out from school or need remedial services.
The Early Childhood Development (ECD) programme is an initiative by UNICEF to address this category.
In Sri Lanka, the programme is conducted under the name 'Sithuwama', a cost effective early childhood care programme being carried out by volunteers trained in ECD.
A typical volunteer is a respected woman in the community. Each volunteer has to deal with five families spending enough time at their homes teaching him or her how to help their children grow physically and develop mentally.
The United Nations General Assembly's Special Session on Children in September 2001 will review the promises made by Governments at the World Summit for Children. Many countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This session will set specific, time-bound targets for the achievement of the main objectives over the next decade.
Unfinished town hall is makeshift brothel
Work on a multi-million rupee luxury Pradeshiya Sabha and Town Hall complex in Peliyagoda has been stalled for close upon two years, due to an alleged dispute between contractors and architects.
While a big board states 'Proposed Pradeshiya Sabha Office cum Town Hall Complex for Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha', the skeleton of the massive building stands open to the elements with stacks of tiles and concrete pillars bearing testimony to work left undone.
The project is estimated to cost Rs. 36.2 million, out of which nearly Rs. 20 million has already been spent.
Located off the Colombo-Kandy Road, near the Thorana junction various nefarious activities take place at this massive structure after nightfall. While drug addicts regularly visit the site in search of shelter, the place is also being used as makeshift brothel.
Officials of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha said that work had been disrupted following disputes between the contractors and the consultant architects.
Meanwhile, attempts to contact the chairperson of the Pradeshiya Sabha were unsuccessful as she was unavailable.
In a post marketing surveillance conducted by the Drugs Authority, at least eight drugs have been temporarily withdrawn from the market with suspected quality defects.
In a random collection of market samples, the Drugs Authority has withheld the sale of indomathecyn, cloxacillin, compound sodium lactate (injection), predniselone tablets, amoxillin (125mg), calcium lactate and erythromycin (250mg).
Circulars informing of the temporary withdrawal until tests are completed have been sent to Medical Officers of Health, Divisional Pharmacists and Food and Drugs Inspectors, an official of the Drugs Authority said.
He said if the tests fail to prove the efficacy, safety and quality of the drug, five more samples from different sources will be taken for further tests. If this too fails, the drugs will be withdrawn from the market, he said.
A motion was adopted by the Kalutara Urban Council requesting the Health Minister to hold an impartial inquiry into the death of a 13 year old student of Tissa MMV, Kalutara, allegedly due to the negligence of the staff and medical officers attached to the Nagoda hospital.
Submitting a motion Mr. D.V.Prematilleke Fonseka (PA) said that due to the negligence of the staff and some medical officers attached to the hospital the student had died.
It was revealed that an ambulance which left Kalutara at 10.30 a.m. had only reached the Colombo National Hospital at 2 p.m. The vehicle had stopped at Koralawella for about 15 minutes for a personal matter of the driver. The MO at the hospital had said that if the child was admitted 15 minutes earlier his life could have been saved.
The Chairman N.Mahesh Perera ((PA) presided over the monthly meeting held at the Town Hall, Kalutara. He observed that the matter would be brought to the notice of the Health Minister and said that an inquiry would be held to find out who is responsible for the incident.
Meanwhile the Urban Council members have also requested the Health Minister to reappoint Health Committees to avoid the occurrence of such instances in hospitals.
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