Hold your horses … here’s a news alert and not a particularly nice one: Many of the Sri Lankans committing suicide these days are over 70 years old. An unbelievable statistic, it’s like turning a page from Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”.  While this information came out for the first time in Parliament about 10 [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

All you need is love …


Hold your horses … here’s a news alert and not a particularly nice one: Many of the Sri Lankans committing suicide these days are over 70 years old. An unbelievable statistic, it’s like turning a page from Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”.  While this information came out for the first time in Parliament about 10 days ago, it was repeated by a senior police officer at an event in Colombo on September 3 Saturday by Sri Lanka Sumithrayo, the local befrienders’ organisation. The latest figures based on reported deaths from suicides between January to June 2016 are: In the age group 21-25 years – 12, 40-50 years – 117 and those over 70 years – 146.

Why are older folks suicide-prone? According to the police and Sumithrayo, it could be for a multitude of reasons including loneliness, being distanced from families and/or abandoned by children. There have been a few distressing cases of middle class elders being dumped on the roads by their offspring to fend for themselves.  Another area that is yet to be explored by the authorities on suicidal tendencies is that many of the victims of the post-2008 Golden Key crisis which saw finance companies crash like a ton of bricks are elders. The Business Times has published dozens of stories about the plight of these depositors accompanied with startling pictures.

At least 50 elderly depositors of one failed company have committed suicide while many others including lovable, female comedian Mercy Edirisinghe from other companies have died in vain, all for the sake of getting a higher interest income from finance companies than from low interest-paying commercial banks.  The common argument trotted out – we too are guilty of this from time to time – is that investing in high interest- offering finance companies (many unregistered) is very risky. But look at the ‘other side of the story’ and let’s put ourselves in the position of those dependent on interest income to pay off costly medical bills and other daily expenses.

The choices of getting a decent income are limited.  Loneliness is a terrible thing and in this context the Government needs to come up with a scheme- working with societal interest groups – to look after elders in society, even for a small fee (insurance) and ensure they are properly cared for, for the rest of their lives.  On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s ageing population – statistics show a sharp growth of this category in the next 25 years- , should be considered a blessing in disguise. For instance if one is to examine the breadth of knowledge of elders retired from the public service; in the private sector; in academia, in research and development; in the medical field and the sciences, this is a powerful source of knowledge that could be tapped.

All you need is love and a comprehensive database, getting the information through various institutions, through their records of retirees or directly from the source. At the same time create a database of needs from various sectors and match it with the knowledge data base. Many who are hired through this scheme could even work from home and be part of this country’s development.  While most retirees in Colombo and cities like Kandy or Galle are able to get some work after retirement, others don’t have such influential access to post-retirement work. But the message to elders should be “don’t lose hope … there is always a place in the sun for you”.

It was not all gloom and doom as we discovered, in more detail, that the long-awaited Right to Information Act (RTI) also provides the right to any citizen to ask questions from private sector entities, at least those that come under the scrutiny of this new law.  I can picture my colleagues in business writing rubbing their hands with glee: “Ah you can’t get away from this now”!  Forget the public sector: The private sector is harder to get any information, particularly the banks, even if such information is for a public purpose. There is no culture of open governance or transparency. Listed companies take cover under stock market rules “we cannot give information that could move markets” – is the stock response. The reality is that neither shareholders nor the media is privy to information from listed companies.

Some do respond positively but by and large, many take cover under ‘confidential information’. Not for long anyway.  Curious about what it means to the private sector, I made a beeline to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce on Monday where the RTI was being discussed. Of particular interest were the points raised by Dilini Alagaratnam, Head of HR and Legal at John Keells Holdings, with many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ on the impact on the business community and that the ‘legal fraternity’ would have a ‘ball’ given the number of occasions lawyers may have to be consulted when sensitive information is demanded by a ‘citizen’ who could even be a group of persons acting on behalf of a rival company.  No one needs a reason to ask a question; the RTI is succinctly clear on this point.

So a rival company or a ‘middle-man’ can ask another competitor for information and such information must be furnished in 14 days or in the case of ‘Life and Liberty’ (implying a crisis situation), in 48 hours.  While there are denial clauses pertaining to an organisation’s right to refuse information, by and large, the access to information and the working of a public service organisation (apart from the public sector) will be far more transparent than before.  Let’s see how it works. RTI says that “every citizen shall have a right of access to information which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority”. Public authority is construed as a public corporation; a company incorporated under the

Companies Act in which the state, or a public corporation or the state and a public corporation together hold a minimum 25 per cent; a private entity or organisation which carries out a statutory or public function or service, under a contract, a partnership, an agreement or a licence from the government or its agencies or from a local body, etc. ‘Books’ of such companies can be scrutinised by the public.  This also applies to NGOs involved in public service (former presidents like the late Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa who had constant battles with these groups would have enjoyed such a law) and private schools (as they serve a public purpose).

With new public-private partnerships in the offing, more companies will come under scrutiny. Watch out commercial banks, listed companies (who dish out only the ‘nice parts’ of information and ‘hunky-dory’ media statements on annual or quarterly accounts while hiding the worst parts) and others, transparency is now the name of the game.  Hooray for the RTI and signing off, here are a few more lines from my favourite baila … Aney mage Nona mata gamata yanna ona, mase padiya genath denna ko.”

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