The Sunday TimesFront Page

13th April 1997



I hear my country calling though I want to be with you… seems to be the words on the letter of this soldier from a bunker in Kebethigollawa, one of the border villages. No New Year kevums, no kokis, no athiraha. Peace will dawn with this New Year and terrorism will be wiped out before the next New Year could be the thought filling his mind. Pic by Gemunu Wellage


Landmark petition against noisy power plant

Kotte kids seek right to life

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardana

Blazing a new path in Sri Lankan fundamental rights jurisprudence, five children have appealed to the Supreme Court claiming that their fundamental right to life, the right to an environment adequate for health and well-being and the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment have been violated.

Acting through their parents, the children whose ages ranged from 2 1/2 months to 2 years have declared that the unbearable noise being emitted by a private-owned power plant in Etul Kotte is impairing their developing auditory senses, thus resulting in an infringement of their rights. They have asked the Supreme Court to intervene on their behalf as their upper guardian.

The petition filed through the Legal Aid Clinic of the Environmental Foundation Limited (a Sri Lankan NGO) last Friday cites eight respondents, including KoolAir (the company operating the power plant, the CEB, CEA, BOI, UDA, OIC Welikada police, the Director Wildlife Conservation and the Attorney General.

What is novel about this petition is that the right to life and the right to a healthy environment are not expressly guaranteed by our Constitution.

“We are going to fight for this. We are going to say that the right to life is so fundamental that the Court cannot deny it,” said Attorney Lalanath De Silva of EFL.

The petitioners point out that noise levels emanating from the KoolAir power plant have been reported to be excessive by the CEA and the Community Environmental Laboratory. Acceptable standards are 60 decibels (during the day) and 50 decibels (during the night). While the power plant emits an astoundingly high level of 70-100 decibels throughout twenty four hours. Noise impact analysts have set down a split second blast of noise at 150 decibels as being sufficient to significantly change the pulse rate while the human ear actually begins to feel pain at 120 decibels.

“We are all more than just inconvenienced by this constant barrage of noise. It is causing us serious health problems,” says a resident of Etul Kotte living near the power plant. He is one of the 150-200 families resident in the area.

The children have also asked the Supreme Court to declare invalid recent emergency regulations promulgated by the President that suspend several laws governing environment, nuisance and urban development to allow the KoolAir power plant to continue operating. Human rights lawyers complain that the regulations are so widely stated and so arbitrary that there is no connection between the emergency situation and the regulations.

“For example, if the regulation had protected the working of generators for the supply of electricity to army camps, or even if we had reached a stage of actual power cuts and generators were allowed for a specified period, it could be justified. But the total suspension of the laws to all power and energy generation situations is not acceptable. Not even during the most severe emergencies in the past were such draconian regulations passed,” they say.

The tendency of the executive to declare emergency regulations that are excessively severe and out of proportion has long been subject to criticism. In 1993 the Centre for the Study of Human Rights of the University of Colombo recommended that such regulations be rescinded forthwith. The committee which studied the regulations and suggested changes was headed by Justice Minister G.L. Peiris.

The Supreme Court has also in several instances struck down Emergency Regulations that were seen as being unduly harsh, the most famous being in the Joseph Perera case where then Chief Justice, S. Sharvananda delivered a ringing judgment upholding the right to freedom of expression even during emergency.

How the Supreme Court will react to the petition filed on Friday remains to be seen. It is interesting that the claimed right to life is among some of the new rights promised by Justice Minister Peiris in the Draft Constitution released recently.

Human rights activists are now agitating that the draft also include a specific right to a clean and healthy environment. In India the right to life and environmental rights have long been upheld by an activist Supreme Court, which has intervened to protect the rights of the ordinary citizens. In the Philippines, a 1993 decision of the Supreme Court upheld the right of Filipinos to a balanced and healthy ecology. In this case too, the application was made by a number of minors on behalf of “their generations and generations yet unborn.”

Chaos at airport

By P.C. Kamalendran

Hundreds of passengers were stranded at the Bandaranaike International Airport yesterday after all flights to or through India were cancelled due to a sudden strike by Indian Air Traffic Controllers, an airline official said.

According to an AirLanka official, all AirLanka, Middle Eastern airlines, KLM, and other flights were cancelled, leaving all passengers in a panic amidst chaos at the airport. Among those stranded were scores of Sri Lankans going to West Asia for jobs.

Some tourists at the airport said they were deeply concerned about the situation as they would miss their connecting flights in other cities, leaving their all travel schedules buckled.

India hails agreement

India welcomes the historic bipartisan approach towards the resolution of the ethnic conflict reached between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, India’s Foreign Secretary Salman Haider said during a NAM conference in New Delhi recently.

He said the agreement was an internal domestic matter and India was happy about it.

Top woman was a man

A person who won an award for being best female entrepreneur was arrested this week — for being a man, police said yesterday.

The man, identified as 36-year-old Sattambige Sriyaratne, had posed as a woman for about three years, received bank loans amounting to 33 million rupees and ran a successful business exporting prawns, police said.

The impersonator even received an award from a senior government minister after being selected as the female entrepreneur of the year for 1995, police said.

They said the impersonator was also legally married to a 29-year-old man.

Police plan to charge the man with impersonation, taking loans on false documents and cohabiting with another man.

Broadcasting bill blasted

By Shelani de Silva and Ranga Srilal

The government’s surprise move to present a Broadcasting Authority Bill in Parliament without consulting the media or the people as promised in the PA manifesto has run into a storm with media movements and the opposition planning countrywide protest campaigns.

The Free Media Movement in a strong reaction said the bill had already been presented in Parliament, restricting the opportunity for any public discussion on it. This went directly against the Media Minister’s assurance that a White Paper would be presented first for the matter to be discussed in an open and transparent manner before being presented to Parliament.

Both the UNP and the FMM said one of the concerns was that the proposed Broadcasting Authority would comprise officials directly appointed by the minister.

The Broadcasting Authority bill tabled in Parliament last week without much public attention was seen as a violation of democracy and a direct attempt to stifle criticism of the government.

UNP media spokesman Sarath Amunugama, a communications veteran told The Sunday Times they were calling on all people to speak out as the bill would be a direct hit on them.

“The entire procedure is flawed. The government has once again exposed its desire for control over the media by introducing the bill. It is not only a violation of fundamental rights but also shows dictatorial tendencies,” he said. Another unacceptable feature is that no media personnel are included on the Board which will be dominated by ministry officials who do not have much knowledge,” he said. He also expressed fears that the restrictions might be extended to the print media.

Former UNP Information Minister Tyronne Fernando also lashed out at the broadcasting bill saying the high licensing fee proposed would virtually kill the electronic media. He said the UNP also during its regime had thought of such an Authority but not with the restrictions that the current proposal envisages.

Meanwhile the FMM has called on the government to withdraw the bill as it is anti-democratic.

“The bill has been viewed as impinging on freedom of expression and also gives political authorities unrestricted control over the broadcasting media. It is alarming to note that the Authority has not only been given sweeping powers of control over the broadcasting media, but it is also protected from the normal democratic process of judicial scrutiny,” the FMM said in a statement.

Tailpieces over council heads

Infighting both in the People’s Alliance and within the SLFP over the appointments of heads of local councils continued over the weekend, though the PA’s executive committee in a meeting that went on till after midnight finalised the nominations.

The disputes revolved around the PA policy decisions that candidates securing the highest number of preferential votes need not necessarily be appointed to head the councils. The PA decided that the personal abilities of the candidates must also be taken into consideration.

This created a major problem for the SLMC. While the SLMC’s problems were sorted out disputes continued at Kalutara, Panadura, Matara and Hanguranketa.

PA supporters in Kalutara staged protests last Wednesday with some of them climbing the clock tower to demand that justice be done in the appointment of the heads of the area’s Urban Council and Pradeshiya Sabhas. They alleged that a top politico in the area was favouring those close to him.

In Hanguranketa a top cabinet minister’s brother who polled the highest number of preference votes has not been given the chairmanship causing heartburn among his supporters. Party sources said that was done on the basis of a principle that relatives of politicians would not be appointed to head the councils.

Lankadeepa on the web

Lankadeepa, Sri Lanka’s most popular Sinhala newspaper has hit the Internet. It is available on the worldwide web at Lankadeepa is the first Sinhala newspaper to be on the web.

Indian dilemma: fresh polls or new govt?

NEW DELHI, Saturday- India’s Congress (I) party said today it was exploring the possibility of putting together a new government following the collapse of a 10-month coalition a day earlier.

The Congress said it was in touch with members of the United Front coalition, which it kept in power from June 1996 until voting it out in parliament late Friday, to study a new alliance.

“We are very much in touch with these parties,” Tariq Anwar, political aide to Congress president Sitaram Kesri, told AFP. “I think things will be clear after some time.

Meanwhile, the BJP said it would try forming a new coalition government if it was assured of a parliamentary majority.

“We are more keen to have elections,” BJP general secretary M. Venkiah Naidu told AFP.

“But, at the same time, we don’t want to be blamed for forcing a new election on this country within a year.”

The BJP is the largest party in the 545-member lower house with 162 members and has the support of around 30 allies. But it would still need the support of nearly 70 more members if it is to stake a claim to office.

Some of the regional parties in parliament could provide backing but these same groups last year joined hands to pull down a short-lived BJP government.

“If there is a change of heart and the regional parties come up to us, we are willing to consider it,” Naidu said.

Naidu’s comments came a day after the BJP and the Congress, the second largest party in parliament, pulled down a 10-month coalition government led by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda during a confidence vote.

Deve Gowda resigned but was asked by President Shankar Dayal Sharma to remain in office as caretaker prime minister. The president can either call a new party to try to form a government or go for fresh elections.

No single party can form a government of its own in India and both the BJP and Congress would need the backing of smaller parties to assume office.

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