7th October 2001
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Will consumers be lucky in fight with CEB?

A state bank and several private companies housed at a Kollupitiya shopping complex are to take legal action against the Ceylon Electricity Board, after the employees were taken to police custody following a raid.

A senior bank officer and more than fifty employees, some of them shop owners, were taken to the Kollupitya police following Thursday's raid.

The raid followed a complaint made to the CEB that around 58 shops and business outlets were using electricity through unauthorised meters.

However, the tenants claimed they had not obtained electricity illegally, as they had been paying the building owner the bills under an agreement.

They said their fundamental rights were violated when they were detained at the police station for nearly ten hours and later produced before a Magistrate and released on personal bail.

The People's Bank which had most of the corporate clients rushed a senior officer along with the others volunteering to deposit the sum. However, the bank claimed the CEB had refused to accept payment.

A bank official told The Sunday Times it was a clear violation of human rights to take an innocent party before courts.

"According to the agreement we make our payment to the owner and in return we get a receipt. So we have not done anything illegal," he said.

Sterling Flowers owner Sushila Fernando claimed the officers had been abusive and rude towards her when she refused to go to the police station as she had paid all her electricity bills.

She said about 60 officers stormed the shop and demanded whether she had paid the bills. When she produced all the bills they had asked her to get into the vehicle. 

Meanwhile, a CEB official told The Sunday Times the racket had been going on for a number of years causing the CEB to lose about Rs. 20 million.

"It was a complicated situation as some of the tenants had their own meters and paid the bills to the CEB. The building owner had been tapping electricity from the CEB lines and even fixed meters on his own," he said.

The official said it was quite legal for the CEB to charge the consumer in a court of law. He said consumers were bound to pay the electricity bills to the CEB and to no one else. 

Meanwhile, he said the raid was carried out without a search warrant as the CEB had the authority to conduct such raids.

Independent drug regulatory authority soon

An independent drug regulatory authority including eminent medical professionals is to be set up soon to monitor the import and distribution of medicinal drugs, a top official said. Dr. A. M. L. Beligas-watte, Director General of Health Services told The Sunday Times the new authority would comprise about 15 members including the president of the Sri Lanka Medical Association and the heads of various colleges of physicians and surgeons. He said the authority would be broadbased so as to prevent or curb commercial influence on the registration of medicinal drugs. 

Dr. Beligaswatte said as part of a new national drug policy he had also directed the State Pharmaceutical Corporation to make large scale parallel imports of medicinal drugs under generic names. Through this the government hopes to provide safe, effective and good quality drugs at affordable prices. A committee of eminent persons has also been appointed to monitor the imports. 

Meanwhile, the Action Committee on Justice for Patients (ACJP) and the Medical Faculty Students Involved in Rational Health Action (SIRHA) are conducting a national campaign to make people aware how they could slash medical bills by getting drugs under generic names. 

Dr. Beligaswatte said if medical consultants and doctors prescribed drugs mainly under generic names, the patients and the country as a whole could slash their medical bills by a big margin. 

The ACJP, the SIRHA and other civic action groups are going from house to house, to schools, places of worship and other institutions to make people aware of how they are being defrauded by some drug companies and pharmacies which promote highly expensive brand names. 

Child abuse: Causes take precedence over prevention

By Faraza Farook
Despite an increased awareness of child abuse today the authorities have failed to rehabilitate abused children, says Prof. Harendra de Silva.

National Child Protection Authority chairman Prof. de Silva addressing a media conference said the authorities had been digging deep into the causes of child abuse wihout focussing attention on measures to prevent them or to rehabilitate abused children.

He said four key areas could be identified to formulate the National Plan of Action (NPA) to combat trafficking of children for exploitative employment. Thus, law reform and enforcement, institutional capacity building, prevention and rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration would be the basic blocks that would form the NPA. Prof. de Silva said the NPA had been formulated with recommendations from a cross section of society. Children's views and ideas too had been incorporated following several focus group discussions with the children of internally displaced persons, those living in refugee camps, on the streets, in homes and other vulnerable groups at risk of being trafficked.

He said a national task force comprising government representatives, trade unions and NGOs was a part of the formulating process.

The NPA had focused on a wide range of issues including how to implement the Compulsory Education Act effectively and problems related to birth certificates which sometimes hindered school admissions, he said.

Prof. de Silva said through the NPA they hoped to draw children dropping out of school after 14 years into vocational training to avoid being trafficked.

He said the NPA was considering suggestions by the participatory group to raise the age of compulsory education from 14 to 16.

The NPA, drafted by the national task force in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour would be presented to parliament for approval within the next two months, the ILO's Shyama Salgado said.

South Asia Anti-Trafficking Programme's chief technical officer Tine Staermose commending Sri Lanka's commitment in fighting child trafficking said it was a sign of success when compared to other countries in the sub region.

Blind lawyer appeals against conviction

By Laila Nasry
A blind lawyer convicted for defrauding Rs. 155,200 appealed to the Supreme Court stating he accidentally signed as the recipient of the money when he wanted to sign as witness. 

The appellant Wimal Wickremasinghe of Mount Lavinia, an attorney having passed the exams with the aid of Braille and served 18 years at the Bar was convicted by the Colombo Magistrates Court on February 25, 1999 of cheating the complainant M. S. Kingsley of Rs, 155,200 on the promise of sending him to Japan for employment within two weeks. 

However, in his petition Mr. Wickremasinghe said the money was accepted by Namal Ruwan de Silva, another blind person, who was with him at the time of the transaction and conceded the same in his testimony made in the Magistrates Court, further adding that he received the money. 

The prosecution led the evidence of complainant Mr. Kingsley and seven others whilst the defence led the evidence only of Mr. de Silva. Mr. Wickremasinghe said he was acting out of sympathy and tried to help the complainant who was deceived by Mr. de Silva. The Colombo Magistrates Court convicted Mr. Wickremasinghe and sentenced him to 12 months rigorous imprisonment suspended for seven years and a fine of Rs. 1,000 and six months imprisonment in the event of default of payment of the fine.

As Mr. de Silva had pleaded guilty to the charge the petitioner appealed to the High Court. However, the High Court delivered an order on June 1 dismissing the appeal. 

When the case came up before the Supreme Court, state attorney R.Hamza said a settlement was possible if Mr. Wickremasinghe repaid the sum to the complainant.

Mr. Wickremasinghe asked the Supreme Court to grant leave to appeal against the High Court judgment to set aside its order and to acquit him of the charges. 

A thought for dumb friends

The campaign against the slaughtering of cattle gathered momentum when Gevagal Mithuro' an umbrella organisation took to the streets on Friday.

Organisers said cattle saved from slaughter would be given to Girandurukotte farmers. A program launched in this connection will be held at Colombo Sambodhi Viharaya on Poya Days.

Writing off farmers' loans

Plea to avoid discrimination

By M.Ismeth
The decision to write off farmers' loans has reportedly run into problems with vegetable cultivators crying foul.

Association for the Protection of National Resources president Rathna Gamage told The Sunday Times the government should not discriminate between paddy famers and others cultivating chillies and potatoes.

"The whole process appears to be a political gimmick by the PA and the JVP. Nobody can get a loan from a state bank without the right connections with a ruling party politician," he said.

Mr. Gamage said the JVP was speaking for banana cultivators only to establish their vote bank in the Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Moneragala districts.

He said in certain instances some farmers had to pawn their national identity cards to obtain a loan of Rs. 50 to buy medicine for their children. There were many famers who had obtained loans from private banks by pawning their jewellery or mortgaging their houses. He asked why such loans could not be written off.

Mr. Gamage said most of the successful potato farmers had turned out to be workers under large scale vegetable farmers. Some of them had lost their homes which had been mortgaged to the banks.The government and the JVP should look into such cases, he said.

He said similar concessions should be given to tea small holders and others working in tea, rubber and coconut estates and shrimp and prawn farms to get their votes.

Mr. Gamage said while some farmers were languishing in prisons due to non-payment of loans taken from banks it was unethical to write off loans given only to two categories of farmers. He said it was a political fraud perpetrated on the farming community.

Meanwhile, he suggested that an auction system should be adopted for the sale of rice. For this, he said, Polonnaruwa could be the hub of activities. He also said paddy mill owners should be given a better deal as some of them had closed their mills. If the government was keen to promote farming, pesticides and fertilizer should be given to farmers at concessionary rates.

Mr. Gamage said the government should waive off the duty on agricultural tools and tractors. 

More rain needed for removal of power cuts

By Shelani de Silva
The Ceylon Electricity Board said yesterday that the total withdrawal of the power cuts would be possible only if rains being experienced now continued till the end of this month when the monsoon begins.

CEB officials said they took the decision to reduce power cuts as the water levels at several hydropower reservoirs had improved, though some of the main reservoirs such as Victoria and Randenigala still had not received substantial rain.

Meanwhile the CEB Engineers Union has warned that there would be a similar power crisis in 2004 if power projects were not initiated.

The union called on the government to launch the Norochcholai coal power plant as the Chilaw Bishop who initially objected to the project was now agreeing to it on strict conditions.

Gas firms wage ding-dong battle

By Tania Fernando
The two gas companies are at logger-heads and throwing accusations at each other that the gas price can be reduced further.

Shell Gas Lanka Ltd., the present supplier of LP gas to the market claims that the new entrant to the market is being heavily subsidised and at the price they will be buying LP gas from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), could sell a cylinder at Rs. 250 and still enjoy a reasonable profit.

LAUGFS Lanka chairman H. K. W. Wegapitiya said the company had agreed to buy LP gas from the CPC at a mutually agreed price. "The price we are paying is higher than what Shell has been paying the CPC for the past six years", he said.

Meanwhile, Shell Gas in a statement on Friday said the CPC had agreed to supply LP gas to the new player at heavily subsidised rates without giving other interested parties a chance to bid. It said the new firm would get LP gas at a low price and market it at Rs. 250 per cylinder keeping a reasonable profit. It was unclear why the selling price of Rs. 409 per cylinder had been agreed and what were the new entrant's obligations as far as the additional profit was concerned, the statement said.

It also said while the CPC would have to bear the cost of the subsidy only the new firm and about 10% of consumers might be benefited.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wegapitiya said Shell Company continued to buy LP gas from the CPC for the past six years at a low price without passing the benefit to the consumer. 

However, Shell Gas statement said the LP gas price could not be reduced because of the high cost of imports. 

Bolt from the blue

Some SriLankan Airlines workers were in for a shock when they received letters asking them to pay up what had been erroneously paid to them as meal allowances.

Most crew members found the letters signed by the in-flight manager in their lockers asking them to refund what the management claimed to be amounts overpaid in July, August and September. The letters also said the money should be paid back before October 15.

Airlines sources said the amounts allegedly overpaid ranged from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 50,000.

SriLankan Airlines media spokesman Manuela Motha said some staff members had been asked to refund what had been overpaid to them inadvertantly.

An airline employee said the company had taken almost three months to detect the alleged overpayment. 

He said with the present crisis at the airport employees' allowances too had been reduced drastically. Therefore, he said, most of the workers were not in a position to refund the overpaid money at short notice.

SB's brother wants JVP to intervene

By Shane Seneviratne
In a strange twist of political strategy, a PA provincial minister has asked the JVP to intervene in taking action against alleged misdeeds by Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte.

Central Province Transport Minister Salinda Dissanayake, brother of the controversial ex-cabinet minister S. B. Dissanayake, in a letter to the JVP has alleged that interference by Gen. Ratwatte was hampering development work in the province.

In the letter to JVP media secretary Wimal Weerawansa, Mr. Dissanayake said one such case where Gen. Ratwatte had been involved in was the closure of the main bus stand in Kandy to set up a vehicle park and a shopping complex.

He alleged that the DIG and the Kandy Municipal Commissioner had been pressurised to act in the interest of Gen. Ratwatte. He has also cited a similar case at Wattegama.

Mr. Dissanayake has asked the JVP which has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the PA to intervene and settle the disputes.

Three-way battle over new MP

By Nilika de Silva
With the no-confidence motion hanging in the balance in parliament, confusion looms large as to who has the moral and legal right to appoint a new national list MP to fill the vacancy created by the death of Rizvi Sinnalebbe whether it is the SLMC, the Ferial Ashraff faction of the NUA or the PA.

Mr. Sinnalebbe was appointed as an MP on the PA national list on the recommendation of the SLMC. He was among the seven SLMC MPs who crossed over to the opposition in July this year.

SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem told The Sunday Times the place was rightfully due to the SLMC. "The SLMC helped the PA to swell its vote bank and two National List seats were conceded to the party on that basis," Mr. Hakeem said.

He said that if the PA nominated a person without consulting the SLMC, the party would see it as a hostile act. "A hostile act would draw a hostile response," Mr. Hakeem warned.

The SLMC leader said that at the funeral of Mr. Sinnalebbe several overtures were made by PA Ministers asking the SLMC to have a dialogue with the PA. 

He named ministers Mahinda Rajapakse, Dinesh Gunawardena, Alavi Moulana and A.H.M. Fowzie as those who urged him to talk to the PA.

Political sources said Mr. Hakeem believed the PA would allow it to nominate the new MP. 

They pointed out the SLMC was softening its opposition to the PA and indicating that it was interested more in national reconciliation than in no-faith motions.

But the issue was more confounded when Minister Ferial Ashraff summoned a meeting on Tuesday to urge Water Board chairman M.L.A.M Hisbullah to accept the post.

However, Mr. His-bullah told The Sunday Times he would not accept it as there were more senior members in the party.

The names of Cegu Issadeen and Nizam Kariyapper, a close relative of SLMC founder M.H.M. Ashraff, are also being mentioned within the Ashraff camp. 

Mr. Kariyapper said he would accept it as he hailed from Kalmunai, the hometown of Mr. Sinnalebbe.

Meanhwhile, reports from Kalmunai said leaflets were being distributed calling on the President, Mr. Hakeem and Ms. Ashraff to nominate Mr. Kariyap-per as the new MP.

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