The Sunday TimesPlus

21st April 1996




Lalith Athulathmudali: The man and his times

By Hiranthi Fernando

April 23 marks the 3rd death anniversary of Lalith Athulathmudali; here Srimani shares her memories.

Three years ago, on the April 23, Lalith Athulathmudali, an able politician, brilliant orator and a promising national leader, lost his life to an assassin's bullet in the midst of an election campaign. Since then, many changes have taken place in the Sri Lankan political scene. His widow Srimani Athulathmudali now leads the Democratic United National (Lalith) Front and is the Minister of Transport, Environment and Women's Affairs in the People's Alliance government.

'Losing Lalith was almost like losing a part of myself", said Srimani Athulathmudali. "He always said that we were as close as thumb and nail. I still feel that void within me."

Srimani looked back on her life with Lalith during the eleven years of their marriage. When I got married and came back to Sri Lanka and particularly

after we had our child, Lalith felt I should pay complete attention to her", she said. "I spent a great deal of time with her, playing with her, reading to her, taking her swimming and so on. We also accompanied Lalith on many of his trips out of Colombo so that he too had some time with her. That way, when he finished his meetings, we could have the evenings together."

It was only after her daughter Serela was five years old that Srimani participated more actively in Lalith's public life. When the Seva Vanitha Movement was established, Lalith felt she should get involved in it since it was more a social service. Srimani played an active role in the Seva Vanitha Unit of Lalith's Ministry. She says that he gave her complete support in these activities.

Speaking of the days when Lalith was Minister of National Security, Srimani recalled how 800 young detainee were brought from Jaffna to Galle to be relocated. Lalith had asked her to go to Galle with the ladies of the Seva Vanitha Unit and see to their needs.

"He was worried that the people in the South would have anger against the detainees", she explained. "He felt that we must see to their well-being and win them over with kindness. We visited these young detainees with food, clothing and other necessities. We also wrote to their families informing them where the detainees were. We received many appreciative replies from these families".

Srimani had accompanied Lalith on several visits to the North. They had gone to the Army camps in the jungles. Thus, she had the opportunity to speak to the soldiers and find out how the Seva Vanitha could help them.

"I also went with him to political functions such as Mahapola and Gam Udawa", she said. "I appreciated the fact that he treated me as a partner. I felt that he enjoyed having me with him on these occasions."

When the 1989 elections came up, Serela was seven years old. Both Lalith and Srimani felt that it was time she helped him with the political campaign. "I went round campaigning with him, not on political stages but speaking to small groups in houses".

Life with Lalith has taught her much and given her many useful experiences which she values. These experiences stand her in good stead in her own life in the political field.

"Lalith always said we should look for what is right and not who is right", commented Srimani. "This was something important I learned from him. He kept an open mind, put across his ideas to people and got their views. He would always consider another viewpoint which he felt was better than his own. He also kept reading on current global trends. He was able to act in the changing scenes as time went on".

"Another important lesson I learned from Lalith is very relevant today in my duties. As a minister, he did not get involved trying to rectify areas of work in another ministry. He said that was a courtesy one has to extend to the other minister. If there was a need, he would always speak to the Minister himself. I was once invited by a school in Galle for a function. When I asked him if I should attend, Lalith said the invitation should be extended through the Ministry of Education."

Explaining her entry into politics, Srimani said. "I was not keen on getting involved in politics on my own after Lalith's death. I needed to give time to Serela as Lalith would have wished me to do. However, after the split in the DUNF, Lalith's supporters requested me to give them leadership since they were left high and dry. I thought about it deeply for a few days. Finally, I felt that Lalith would have wanted me to take this responsibility. He was always appreciative of the support people gave him".

Her ministerial position, Srimani says is just another job to her. "I have a responsibility of seeing to three areas. I am constantly looking for ways and means of improving these areas. I don't have a free hand as in a private company, with a budget to play around. We have to depend on decisions taken by Cabinet and Parliament. Due to financial constraints in the country and political realities, it is not easy to achieve what I feel is the best for each sector of the Ministry."

She strongly believes that we have some very highly qualified and knowledgeable people in the country. "If we can only get over the terrorist problems and press for a strong Sri Lankan identity, we can take this country forward in development and give a place to our youth".

Speaking of the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme which was Lalith's most cherished project, Srimani was happy that this scheme continues. Her hope is that the Mahapola Board will someday be able to realise Lalith's dream of giving a scholarship to every single student.

The Mahapola Graduate Foundation established by Lalith is carrying on the Mahapola fairs in various areas of the country. With the proceeds collected, these graduates who have benefited from Mahapola scholarships are setting up a fund to help AL students. This is their contribution in appreciation of what they received through Mahapola.

Administering three ministries while bringing up a young daughter single handed is no easy task. "I set aside certain times for Serela", said Srimani. "I also try to keep my weekends free for her. The management of time is very important for me. My daughter is not very happy about my involvement in politics. However, she accepts that I have to give my support to those who believed in Lalith and his vision for the future of Sri Lanka."

Eco vs. Econ

By Tharuka Dissanaike

To finely balance development and conservation is, arguably, the biggest challenge in today's

world. To develop countries in the material aspect yet leaving the environment as pristine and unspoiled as at creation is impossible. Industrialization has brought about more ills than the world had bargained for. But development and improvement of living standards is necessary. Conservation of the environment is also necessary. Where does one draw the line?

This seems to be the question most vehemently debated by the authorities at this very moment weighing the pros and cons of the oil refinery project proposed for Hambantota. The proposal is for a very large foreign investment project to construct an oil refinery and power plant north of Hambantota town. The project has been met with a very hostile reception from the environmental lobby who view it to be a great threat to the Bundala National Park- southwards of the project site- and the marine eco system of the southern coast. The environmental groups worry about the possibility of oil spills in the sea and air pollution by the refinery and power plant being carried towards the national parks ( Bundala and Yala) and further inland to farming lands.

But the project developers- a consortium of local and international companies- assert that they will employ the best pollution control equipment at the site as contingency in case of oil spills and to filter pollutants from the air emissions.

They claim that the project will not only satisfy local environmental authorities but also lending institutions" standards and the requirements of the mother companies of the investors.

The developer, Regional Cooperative Petroleum Refinery Inc. proposes a BOO ( Build, Own, Operate) project to distill crude oil and export petroleum products and a power plant in the premises to supply 300 MW of energy to our starved grid lines. The project proposes to draw its water requirements from the Uda Walawe reservoir through a 30 km pipeline. Ships that come with the crude oil would be moored 4 km out into sea at a Single Point Buoy Mooring (SPBM) and the oil will be transported through a pipeline which will be laid six feet below the ocean bed and then on land running close to Karagan Lewaya up to the site north of Hambantota town.

In the Environmental Impact Assessment done by the developer, the project identifies its goals as boosting the local economy by injecting some 2 billion rupees into the country, creating employment for some 2000 skilled cadre in management, engineering and technical sectors, facilitating the growth and commercialization of the Southern area which is believed to be largely untouched by development.

The environmental lobby protests against the concept of importing oil in order to refine it and re-export it. Ò This means that Sri Lanka only gets the pollution part of the deal." said a representative of Environmental Foundation Limited, an NGO advocating environmental law. The concept of transferring only the pollution to this country is wrong"

Dr. Ranjen Fernando, President, Wild Life and Nature Protection Society said that the entire idea of the developer preparing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, as was done in this case is ludicrous. "When a developer prepares the report which is supposed to assess the extent of damage the project would do to the environment, naturally he would downplay the effects. After all the document is prepared at his cost and he has the stakes in getting the project approved."

Many eco groups criticized the EIA report for Ò the scant attention paid to the sensitive environment of Bundala and the coast.". Both EFL and Fauna International Trust, another NGO, in their comments said that the location of the pipeline in the vicinity of the Karagan lewaya is a potential threat to wild life in the area especially to the migrant birds that flock to the lewaya every year. EFL also claims that the Karagan lewaya is a low lying storm water retention area which prevents the town of Hambantota from flooding and any change in its physical environment would adversely affect its functions as a storm water sponge.

Most groups take offence at the report statement to the effect that the Karagan Lewaya is overestimated for its conservation value. The eco groups claim that the report does not adequately address the issues of the project's effects on bio diversity in the area. The Young Zoologists Association also presented their doubts on the project's effects on the important wetland site- of the Bundala national Park which is an internationally recognised wetland area declared as a protected site under the RAMSAR convention. Both the Young Zoologists and Fauna International especially expresses concern over the turtle hatchery grounds along the coast which could be completely wiped out in case of an oil spill. They state that oil polluting could also destroy the rich fishing ground in the area which supply the livelihood of a large number of fishermen along the coast.

Fauna International also criticizes the fact that the developer plans to lay the oil pipeline from the SPBM to the mainland under the ocean bed which they fear would harm marine life. The developer is criticized further because the report does not contain enough information about marine bio-diversity.

They also said that the project zone covered by the EIA, which is 10 km into the sea and 2 km on either side, is totally inadequate in the case of oil spill, when the pollution would spread far wider than this limited zone. The developer is blamed for an apparent lack of concern and contingency in case of fire or oil spill. The report lacks assurance that the developer would take on responsibility in case of such a situation, EFL accuses.

Environmental groups also claim that the refinery stacks- the report is unclear about the heights of the stacks- would be disorienting to migratory birds which the Bundala national Park is famous for.

Another issue is the use of water from the Uda Walawe reservoir with a 30 km pipeline. EFL claims that the very large water requirement of the project could have adverse impacts on the water starved farmers downstream of the Uda Walawe reservoir.

Air pollution is another important issue regarding the project. EFL contends that the strength of air pollution would depend on the sulphur content of the oil. Although the report says that oil coming into the refinery process has less sulphur content , there is no assurance that this would be implemented, they said.

A final point made by the Foundation in their comments is the lack of details on the power plant which is another proponent of the project. The power plant, designed to generate 300 MW of electricity, has to have transmission lines extending to Colombo and this part of the project is a grey area in the EIA report.

The project developer on the other hand assures that the project would only marginally damage the environment, that too mostly during the construction phases.

Dr. Lakdasa Wijetileke, Director of Regional Cooperative Petroleum Inc. , who coordinated the EIA preparation for the refinery, said that the project was indeed quite environmental-friendly since it would be equipped with the most advanced pollution control measures.

"The water which we use will be purified to irrigation standards. The air emissions will also be purified to minimize damage and all pollutant levels will be under the standards given by WHO," he said.

He said that the project would indeed take the responsibility for oil spills or fires and that the site would be equipped with high tech fire fighting and oil clearing equipment, including two barges and helicopters.

"We have taken very seriously some of the comments from the environmental groups and set about adjusting some of our project plans to accommodate these requirements," he said.

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