11th March 2001

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Rupees and cents that make little sense

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby Correspondent

In the British parliamentary tradition, a certain black valise steals the parliamentary show annually. Originally known as the 'bouge', this valise was carefully kept at the Exchequer and ceremonially taken out, decked with ribbons once a year to carry the confidential documents pertaining to financial matters to the House.

But when Minister G.L. Peiris carried his brown valise adorned with pink and blue ribbons containing financial chaff and grain on Thursday afternoon it couldn't have been a joyous duty for the professori. Especially when it becomes obligatory to dish out explanations on how the government intends handling its rupees and cents this year.

At 2.30 pm the stage was set, as legislators trooped in, all spruced up while the galleries remained somewhat vacant. Perhaps Speaker Anura Bandaranaike, was correct as he noted with concern that the proposal to telecast live parliamentary proceedings should be reconsidered, if what unfolded then was anything to go by. Live tele coverage seems to bring out the worst in our representatives, and swiftly on the heels of prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake's announcement about his impending visit to Pakistan to urge the protection of the priceless Buddha statues in Afghanistan, came attention grabbing antics.

UNP's Mahinda Samarasinghe, fast becoming a master at interpreting Standing Orders to serve his own ends, stood up in protest alleging that the opposition had not been provided with statistics to participate in the debate. This earned the wrathful response from the minister on a demolition course, Mangala Samaraweera.

His query about the suspension of Order 23 and a violation of a vital party leaders' decision was drowned in an incoherent mess with government legislators accusing him of seeking cheap publicity.

Just then in walked minister Peiris as JVP's Wimal Weerawansa wished to know why the entire budget debate was not to be telecast, unleashing a violent government response. " Why should the public only know the government version and not the opposition point of view," he asked.

Speaker Bandaranaike who had always remained supportive of the decision said it would cost Rs. 1.5 million, hinting that finances stood on the way. Pat came Weerawansa's query-"Then why not re-think the decision to build a palace for a Queen? " and all was lost in the ensuing din.

As for the budget, understandably plagued by many constraints, it was a wash out. If a glimmer of hope existed of some relief, that was soon extinguished in the litany of economic woes. The government announced no big plans but called for a curbing in expenses, reduction of public holidays and staff, suspension of duty free concessions for vehicle imports by politicians and the like. It also spoke of relief for overseas employees and increased the defence levy- advocating further tightening of belts.

Wednesday generated more heat as the extension of the state of emergency was debated. The witty W.J.M. Lokubandara now having developed the art of digression to a level of a fine art, obviously considered some unruly ministerial offspring to be the growing menace to the country's security.

"One minister's sons have reportedly assaulted school boys- shedding all traces of gentlemanly traditions of cricket, while another went on the rampage at the biggest school cricket encounter last week, with no action being taken against the latter. You have two yardsticks for two families?," he sniped inviting minister Ratwatte to add something about his own errant sons.

"His sons decided the outcome of the recent elections- and before all these sons become security threats, the fathers should control them," he noted, as minister Richard Pathirane wished to know the UNP's stance on the proposed UK ban on the LTTE. And WJM responded that political amnesia couldn't erase the fact that it was the UNP, which had prompted the US to list the LTTE as a terrorist organization.

Soon Kamalawathi of the eye-patch fame became a topic of discussion and minister Dinesh Gunewardane, a recent convert into defending the PA leadership mustering all the 'Boralugoda fire' defended the lady at the helm.

This was followed by a battle cry when deputy speaker Sarath Moonesinghe made his maiden speech. The senior officer who shed the military garb to don the political dress hailed the proposed UK ban on the LTTE, while showering praise on the common soldier.

Recalling the IPKF days, he accused the then government of confining troops to bunkers while shamelessly holding secret talks with the LTTE."We even needed the LTTE's permission to walk. They controlled the administration of the entire area until General Kobbekaduwa liberated the area. I never thought I would visit Jaffna in my life time," he said.

The officer turned politician conceded that victory on the battle front would not be easy. But the recapture of Jaffna he said reduced the LTTE strength, as it was its biggest recruitment base. In the same breath, he warned the JVP- not to think of another uprising. "We have seasoned men who have seen blood, You shall not be spared," he allegedly charged.

JVP's Wimal Weerawansa who spoke next was an amused man, posing the seemingly innocent query- "Wasn't this the same man who was charged for some misappropriation while in service? Mr. Moonesinghe sprang to his feet in hot denial, thundering that he was no "jawaramkaraya", adding that Weerawansa would only earn the hatred of personnel for that remark.

"Is that a veiled threat from an officer? My opinion is that the war is a money-spinner for many. While you celebrate the proposed LTTE proscription, it is important to look at the negative aspects of the ban as well.

The Che-Guevera lookalike noted that the decision to ban the LTTE was not due to pressure from Sri Lanka but due to a European Union recommendation.

Mr. Weerawansa also complained to the Speaker about alleged harassment to his partymen- particularly from a politician in Katana. A furious Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, hotly denied the JVP charges while Mr. Weerawansa invited him to wear the cap if it fitted him.

"Are you the Katana politician, going on rampage?," he challenged, to which Mr. Fernandopulle shot back that he would do so if he thought it fit.

The House gave a decent hearing to Ravi Karunanayake who gave an account of the gruesome gifts sent to his mother and mother- in -law-reminders of the depth our politics had sunk to.

He was followed by Sihala Urumaya member Thilak Karunaratne who said the banning of the LTTE, was not yet complete. Both Houses have to ratify the decision before legislation proper was enacted.

The LTTE was in a superior position, largely due to the appalling silence of Tamil political parties who allow the LTTE to pose off as the sole representative of Tamils, he noted.

Palitha Ranga Bandara , the police officer who shed his uniform to mount the UNP election platform was next. Making his maiden delivery, and doing it with much aplomb he spoke with apparent disgust about the politicization of the public service.

"I represent the hub of political violence, Anamaduwa. We have laws which are not implemented and this has aided the soaring crime rate," he said.

Generally, minister Ratwatte is a man of few words when it comes to winding up the debate. In a militant mood, he stumped the UNP successfully this time, by coming out strongly - defending his ministerial colleagues and law enforcement authorities.

Listing 35 violations of the unilateral ceasefire declared by the LTTE, Mr. Ratwatte said the alleged assault of some students of Asoka Vidyalaya by the Ranatunga brothers would be probed.

"Both of them have been produced before courts. When my sons got embroiled in some fiasco they too went through the legal process. Nobody used any influence, something which we cannot say about your party," he threw back.

Slump in tea as CWC fights on

By Chris Kamalendran

The near three week satyagraha organised by the Ceylon Workers' Congress and backed by at least 22 political parties and trade unions has caused grave concern in the plantation sector, with fears the industry would suffer severe setbacks.

The CWC's protest campaign already has made an impact on the industry with production being affected and tea brokers in Colombo expecting the auctions in the coming weeks to be affected.

In the hill country nearly 300,000 people joined the protest campaign launched to demand an additional allowance of Rs. 400 a month while in 27 other locations protest campaigns were held to show solidarity with the workers.

Though the protest campaign stopped short of a strike, on a visit by The Sunday Times to the plantation sector it was obscrved that plucking of leaf had dropped while production too had been affected.

"This season is one of the most productive and the tea produced during this period fetches the highest prices in the foreign market. If production and quality drop we could lose our main buyers," says Anil Cooke, Director of Asia Siyaka Commodities (pvt) Ltd, one of the leading tea brokers.

His concern is equally shared in Colombo and among the upcountry planters.

While plantation companies and tea brokers were concerned about the loss of production and the demand of the trade unions, the workers in the estates were complaining that due to the high cost of living it was time they were given an additional allowance.

"Unlike in the olden days most of our children go to school. We need to educate them while living a normal life. If two members in the family are working we get Rs. 214 a day which is not sufficient to maintain a family', R. Ramiah told The Sunday Times.

"We have to spend additional money on food and kerosene oil. These are our main items of expenditure. It's not that we want more money for clothing or for travelling, but just for our basic needs," he said.

The last increase of Rs. 6 was granted last year after they demanded an increase of Rs. 16, he said.

He said the estate workers were always forced to carry out protests to obtain benefits and not because they wanted to destroy the industry.

In Hatton workers were taking turns to take part in the main protest campaign. CWC chief Arumugam Thondaman taking part in the biggest protest campaign since he took over leadership following the death of his grandfather, was in touch with Colombo and the plantation companies to work out a settlement.

In a marked contrast to previous CWC protests, the campaign stage was equipped with two land phones and a laptop computer which were regularly used to communicate not only locally, but also with international organisations.

The laptop was being used to keep the international trade unions and the media informed.

Back in the estates the workers were complaining that their conditions needed further improvement, though there has been a difference after the plantation companies took over.

"The living conditions including housing, sanitation and drinking water facilities need further improvement," CWC Central Provincial Council member S.Kandasamy said.

While the workers demand higher wages the plantation companies fear that if they meet the demand the industry would not be viable.

The Planters' Association has rejected the demand saying the industry is currently surviving with difficulty due to local and international developments in the industry.

President of the Planters' Association Mahendra Amarasu-riya told 'The Sunday Times' that six plantation management companies are on the verge of collapse while the other companies made only marginal profits last year.

He said though the companies make profits large sums are being reinvested in the industry while the prices paid for fertilizer, tea chests, agro chemicals and electricity have increased.

Responding to allegations of the CWC that the overheads of the plantation companies management were high he said the allegations were false and said the privileges were provided to the management staff in the past as well.

The CWC had alleged that a manager of an estate gets a monthly salary of Rs. 40,000, a cook, three labourers paid by the estate, unlimited fuel and also an unlimited supply of tea.

According to the plantation companies their production had increased by only 2.7 per cent during the past year though the national production had improved by seven per cent. The increase had come from the estates of tea small holders which account for 52 per cent of the country's tea production.

The plantation companies also point out that the cost of production had also increased during the past year. The cost per kilogram of tea was Rs. 134.84, but the average sale price per kilogram was Rs. 130.57. Meanwhile two rounds of discussions have been held between the CWC and the plantation management representatives during the past three weeks, with no immediate solution in sight.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga had directed Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickram-anayake who is also the Plantations Minister to initiate discussions and resolve the issue.

At the last discussion on Wednesday only six companies were represented at negotiations with the CWC, but no settlement had been reached With the protest campaign dragging on and tea production being adversely affected, Sri Lanka may face competition from Kenya again which suffered a setback last year and is now returning to normal, Mr. Cooke said.

But the CWC maintains that the industry could thrive only if the workers are looked after as the younger generation is reluctant to work on estates.

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