17th August 1997


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[Susanthika displaying her Silver medal]

A day after her return from Athens, Susanthika Jayasinghe was back at training. When we met her at the Sports Ministry grounds in Torrington she had just showered and changed after her morning training session. All signs of jet lag and tiredness of a hectic return were non existent as Sri Lanka's sprint queen settled on a wooden bench, spreading her jean clad legs, folding her arms across her chest.


Run in the morning run in the evening and relax in between

By Tharuka Dissanaike

"So you are back at training?"

"Yes," she replies shortly, matter-of-factly.

Sri Lanka's star athlete appears to have taken the glory that came her way well in her stride. She smiles when we complain of the difficulty of reaching her after her return on Tuesday.

"I was besieged by reporters," she replies.

Susanthika Jayasinghe, the kalu kella of local athletics turned world champion sprinter, is no stranger to the local press or public. At 15, her talent recognised by her teacher in Warakapola, she was wrenched from her village home and put to training in Colombo. Hard years of athletic preparation resulted in her glorious sprint in Athens on Friday (08), coming off with the silver, pushing world champion Merlene Ottey into third place.

Hers is a success story recanted over and over again as the poor village lass who rose to the heights of athletic fame. Today at 21, the simple ponytail is gone, in its place a smart cropped look. She is a confident, cosmopolitan young woman driven around in a vehicle of her own and preparing to make a few adjustments in the house gifted to her by the government.

"I won't get to go to the village for a while," she said.

"This house in Narahenpita needs some work, and I have to attend to it."

[Susanthika flanked by her proud parents]The youngest in a family of five children, Susanthika discontinued her studies at that early age and never thought of going back to it. "My parents did not have enough money to educate me very far. So they are quite happy with the achievements I have made. If I remained at home, I could never have become a good athlete."

Her sporting career is entirely sponsored by Keells and the Ministry of Sports. She does not work.

"I have no inclination to do a job. This is the life I like. Run in the morning, run in the evening, and relax in between. I like to spend my time sharing a joke with friends. This is where I hang out mostly, almost my second home," she gestures at the grounds and buildings around.

Marriage too, she says is not in her horizon right now. "All I am concentrating on at this moment is athletics."

She claims that it was sheer determination that saw her through her rather turbulent career. Her path to fame was not without hitches. She created great controversy several times. Once last year, in China when a trace of a drug was found in her urine test, she was later vindicated and allowed to run the 100 m and 200 m at the SAF games in Madras. She won both. Most recently there was a year's ban on her sporting career because of drunken behaviour. Her ban was suspended and she was allowed to participate in the World Games in Athens. Again she excelled. More than anyone dared to hope.

" Every time trouble came my way, it became a source of determination. I am a person like that. I have great strength of mind and determination. That is the force that carries me through," she said.

Susanthika said that she has had to face much adversity on her path to fame. "I have learned not to take these things to heart. I hate injustice. I get into trouble because I go to intervene when my friends are in trouble," she said smilingly.

"What about training abroad, under an expert?'

"No. I do not want to. My coach has been able to mould me from a village sports-girl to a world class athlete. I'm sure he could very well do the rest," she said.

The rest would entail several regional meets. Asian Games, Commonwealth Games are on the cards next year. But all these pale against the challenge of the Year 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"I will definitely win gold in the 100m and 200m there." There is no hesitancy when she makes the statement.

Her forte is athletics, other sports do not hold Susanthika's interest. "What of Cricket?"

"I do not like the game. I like to watch it sometimes. I admire the talent in our team," she said of the cricketers who vied with her for headlines throughout last week.

Her success she owes to Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake, she said. "He looked after us, not only by ensuring that we had our sports gear and money to see us through, he even intervened when we had personal problems and trouble at home." She said that the Minister made sure that they had no worries on their minds, nothing but athletics.

"He is a lucky Minister. I started performing really well only after he came to the helm," she recalls.

"Why the hair cut?"

" Because it is much easier to run now," Susanthika replies running her hand through the short curly top.

"See, I've just bathed, now in a little while it'll dry. When you have long hair, it is so messy."

She looks at her watch. It's time to say good-bye. "I have to be at Lakhanda at eleven," she says. Her hour of glory is still not past. As we walked out, more reporters thronged the gates of the grounds, some interviewing her coach Derwin Perera. Forty nine years after Duncan White, Sri Lanka is back up there on the highest echelons of athletic prowess.

Bread rise hits home

Once again the price of a loaf goes up. And it continues to rise, increasing the cost of living of the majority of the population. Tharuka Dissanaike and Chamintha Tillekeratne report

[Image]Bread, today is sold at a variety of prices. Since Monday's flour price hike, bread prices have fluctuated over the week. The government bakery sells a loaf at Rs. 7.75, while most others have increased the prices to Rs.8, 8.50 and even Rs. 9. Although the government strongly declared that they would not allow bakeries to increase prices at will, it has happened and most quite blatantly declare that they cannot sell bread for any less, taking into account, not only the flour price increase but also increases in all other products that go into a baked loaf of bread.

No doubt that as a country we eat more bread than we do rice. Therefore movements in the very volatile indicator that is the bread price are always topic for heated discussion. The price of bread has never before aroused such controversy, debate and emotion. Its radical sweep into the limelight came when the present government was voted into power. The lowered bread price was one of their much proclaimed election promises. In July 1994, on the eve of the General Election the price was a more or less stable Rs. 5. The very next month, after their resounding victory, the government promptly lowered the bread price to Rs. 3.50 in keeping with their promise. But unfortunately, to provide for this, the government had to absorb the discrepancy in the real price and the subsidised rate at which flour was sold. This could not be maintained for long and soon prices were increased again. In a year's time, the price of a kilo of flour was increased by 90 cents. Again prices were increased later in 1995. In 1996, there were two more increases until the price stayed at Rs. 6. 75 a loaf of bread, until now. Of course, the prices at the governent bakery compared in no way to the prices of the private bakeries outside. The government bakery's price remained a good rupee or two behind the real consumer price, and resulted in only a very weak kind of price control.

The price of flour is yet subsidised, but since the government has a monopoly over flour imports, the wholesale price is automatically controlled. The government claims that the price increase was necessary due to a world market wheat flour price hike but according to informed sources the flour subsidy that exists at the moment is graually being eased out too. There is no control over the price of bread since those laws were removed from the books in 1992 to promote the liberalising of trade.

Therefore we now find various bakers selling virtually the same pound of bread at a variety of prices. Another phenomenon that saw the light of day during the fluctuating fortunes of bread (prices) is that bakers began to produce more exotic varieties of bread like soft bread, currant bread, milk bread, sandwich loaf etc. and stock less of the normal bread. These breads are sold at much higher price than the normal bread although it constitutes little more than normal.

"It is not only the price of flour," W. Jayaratne, of Dhammika Bakery in Ekala said.

"The prices of yeast, margarine, sugar, oil and fuel are all going up. So we calculate all these costs and since we can't increase the price of bread at every turn, we do so when an opportunity like this arrives."

He said that his bread is priced at Rs. 8.50 from last Wednesday. Earlier he sold at Rs.7 a loaf.

Royal Bakery in Colombo said that they use an electrical oven and therefore, they will have to add the increased price of electricity from September to their costs.

"We produce about 8000 loaves of bread daily. If we don't sell at least Rs.9 a loaf, there is no way we can meet the expenses," the manager said.

Don and Sons, another popular baker expressed similiar sentiments. " We buy Prima wheat flour and this is more expensive than the flour distributed by the co-operatives. Sugar, coconut oil and electricity are all on the increase and we will have to increase the prices of bread and other flour products like buns and pastries."

Bread is sold at Rs. 9 here.

Mitrapala Perera of Salgado Bakery in Kalutara said that he has increased the price to Rs.8 a loaf from Wednesday.

Consumers, now quite adjusted to the periodic increases in bread prices, were nonetheless angry that such a move should have come a week after an announcement of an increase in electricity tariff. Most consumers wait in dread of the next increment- be it in gas or fuel or electricity.

"People can find alternatives for bread. Maybe eat more rice, sweet potatao, manioc," Ashok Vitharana, a company manager said. "But it is the electricity hike that most of us cannot bear."

"It is not only bread, everything seems to be on the increase. The government does not pay cost of living accoording to a proper index. Now we will have to cut down on other things to accomodate bread," Somasundaram, a resident of Wellawatte said.

"It is not practical to eat rice for all the meals or give rice to children to take to school, so we have to buy bread. The price hike is unfair, people just can't afford it," Kumari Senaratne, a housewife in Nugegoda said.

Another complaint was aired by a group of employed young men, who live in rented quarters in the city. "We eat out most of the time. Now with the flour price gone up, we will be directly affected. Everyone will increase prices of bread, buns, shorteats and even string hoppers, hoppers etc. We don't get marvellous salaries, and rent could go up after the electricity hike in September. We are in a dilemma," Sampath Wijekoon, a Sales Representative said.

And so, grumbling, shrugging shoulders in resignation or shaking heads in a I-told-you-so manner, the public settles down to another subtle decrease in their standard of living. How the government hopes to keep bakeries from selling bread above Rs. 8 is not at all clear, since officials of the Ministry for Internal and External Food and Commerce were not able to enlighten us on the matter. If and when the government subsidy on bread is completely lifted, it would turn out to be a very expensive commodity for the a public, growing poorer with each price hike. Maybe it is time to look for digestible alternatives to wheat flour bread or explore ways of cultivating this precious wheat here on our soil.

Was there fungus in the bottle?

"In his petition, filed before the District Court Colombo, Fernando has referred to the Agro Food Technology Division of the CISIR confirming that the matter found in the bottle submitted for examination, was a fungus belonging to Genus Aspergillus"

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardana

In the first case of its kind, a private citizen has sued Pure Beverages for alleged contamination of its popular fizzy drink Coca Cola. Hearing of the case took place before the District Court Colombo, last Wednesday.

In his petition, attorney-at-law Shanil Fernando has alleged that a 1 litre bottle of Coke which he bought on June 12, 1994 had contained a fungus-like substance which he had swallowed along with the drink.

Fernando had not noticed this before drinking the Coke as the soft drink was dark brown in colour.

He had then suffered a severe attack of nausea, and had continued vomiting for several days.

The matter might have ended there, except for the fact that Fernando happened to be a lawyer, and a lawyer moreover with an interest in human rights, and public interest litigation.In a sense, these were the reasons that pushed Fernando to challenge Pure Beverages, the manufacturers of Coca Cola in court, Court action was resorted to as a last measure.

"We wrote to the Department of Internal Trade.We wrote to Pure Beverages.There was no reply, not even when we sent them a letter of demand," Fernando told The Sunday Times.

Senior officials of Pure Beverages when contacted, dispute Fernando's claims.

"We will be contesting this.If an unopened bottle of Coca Cola was found to contain extraneous matter, the position might have been different. In this case, what proof is there that the matter was not introduced after the bottle was opened ?" they argue.

They point to stringent measures of quality control practised in their factories that have been laid down by international standards.

"If there is any foreign matter, it is automatically rejected," they say. This is the first case filed against the giant multinational company either here, or in Atlanta.

In his petition, Fernando has referred to the Agro Food Technology Division of the CISIR confirming that the matter found in the bottle submitted for examination, was a fungus belonging to Genus Aspergillus.

He is claiming a sum of Rs 500,000 as damages, to be paid to Legal and Social Development Foundation, a body that aims to file consumer protection cases and carry on a champaign for consumer rights.

"I have not embarked on this for the money. It is just that we put up with this sort of thing for too long.It is high time that we took a stand and insisted on some measure of accountability from manufacturers," he points out.

Regardles of the merits of the case which is proceeding, it is bound to focus attention on the crying need for effective consumer protection in the country. Sri Lankan consumers have become immunized to being offered substandard goods, much of which is accepted without any complaint. Horror stories abound. Here there is talk of cockroaches found in a carton of milk, there one hears exclamations of disgust when colleagues open a bar of chocolate and find decaying matter mixed with the sweet.

"Sri Lankans do not have any consumer resistance, or public spiritedness to speak of. Needless to say, unscrupulous manufacturers and traders have a field day," comments Moddy Fonseka who heads the National Consumer Watch of Sri Lanka, a watchdog group for consumer rights.

The Watch has been vociferous in calling for greater public awareness of consumer rights, and has suggested that consumers form vigilance committees among friends and neighbours. The argument has been that a group would have bigger clout against unfair traders, rather than an individual. It has also warned consumers to be carefull of items that they purchase, taking the trouble to look for obvious defects, expiry dates, quality assurance certificates and to demand receipts.

"There is some interest in the matter now. The consumer is awakening, like the proverbial sleeping giant. But there remains a long way to go before we achieve that level of consumer awareness that exists in other countries," Fonseka adds.

Meanwhile, legal protection for Sri Lankan consumers is far from being adequate. Concerned bodies have been long appealing to the Government to take effective measures to protect the consumer.At present, the Department of Internal Trade receives more than 1500 complaints annually. Most complaints are regarding food,clothes and household appliances.The Department is given the power to look into complaints regarding pricemarking, weights and measures, quality of merchandise of consumer items.

The Chief Medical Officer of Health (Muncipal Council) is empowered under the Food Act to make inquiries regarding the quality, distribution. faulty labelling, packing, advertising of food items.Flying squads under the Department of Internal Trade are supposed to monitor fast food outlets and eating houses that have mushroomed throughout the city. The reality is however that these squads have proved to be of little help. Members of the squads as well as the Public Health Inspectors who accompany them bring few cases of infringement to notice.Allegations of corruption are rife.

Sri Lankan consumer law therefore, needs a severe overhauling. The Trade Ministry has been appealed to, in order to issue guidelines to all shopkeepers and service centres regarding fair business practices,commercial ethics and so on. Activists are also recommending that the Government bring all departments involved in consumer affairs under one umbrella, with the ultimate aim of establishing a Ministry for Consumer Affairs, which exists in most developd countries.

A step in the right direction is proposed legislation currently before Parliament, that seeks to set up a Consumer Protection Authority and a Competition Tribunal. It is understood that the Cabinet has given its approval in principle to the suggested laws which are currently being discussed in consultative committee.The proposed laws would replace the largely ineffective Consumer Protection Act which is presently in force, as well as the Fair Trading Commission Act.

The draft bill aims to replace tired procedures of consumer enforcement by stricter procedures. An extensive system of monitoring in the provinces is also specified, with the Minister appointing the Government Agent of each district to ensure the maintenance of standards. The whole will be overseen by a Consumer Protection Authority, consisting of nine members appointed by the President.

"It is vital that competent and motivated people are chosen as members of the Authority, for a great deal will rest on the way they enforce implementation of the law" say consumer activists who partcipated in the drafting of the bill.

That such legislation is being considered is undoubtedly to be cheered. The fact remains however that the Sri Lankan public who will be the most affected by this proposed legislation, remain in the dark about its specifics. Public discussion about the issues have been nil. The entire process is shrouded in secrecy, until the law is placed before the House, where one is then presumably supposed to participate in the debate through one's elected representative. The reality is of course, that this does not happen. As in numerous other instances therefore, the manner in which the proposed consumer protection legislation is passed into law shows something fundamentally wrong in our legislative processes.

This exclusivity and secrecy of the passage of a bill through Parliament result in innovative ideas being whittled down, and the end product falling far short of actual expectations. One example will suffice in the instant case. During the early stages of the Consumer Protection Bill, it was suggested that Consumer Redressal Forums be set up in every part of the country with effective power to look into and punish errant traders. Similar bodies exist in India, at both state and federal level. A recent startling judgement of the Supreme Court of India has in fact, given these bodies the power to pull up even professionals accused of negligence. The forums consist of both laymen and professionals, including doctors and lawyers. Attempts to consider whether such a system could be put in force throughout Sri Lanka, even in a modified manner were shot down by conservatives, eager not to disturb the status quo too much. If the matter had been put before the public for open debate, perhaps the end result might have been different.

Those who argue that the need for public scrutiny is adequately met by calling for public representations at the start of the process, need to radically revise their ideas. Consumer Law reform, as well as law reform of any sort have to be made more open and more visible.This too is a need that activists should agitate for, along with educating the consumer, if any real difference is sought to be made.

Finger in ham{tc "Finger in ham"}

A Tampa couple is sueing Publix Supermarkets after they found a part of a finger in ham they had bought at the chain.

David and Katie Dean told a court on Wednesday they had suffered great distress after finding the finger in ham sandwiches they had made for a boating trip. They are seeking $15,000 in damages.

Publix admits there was a human finger in with the ham, but says the Deans are not as upset as they claim to be. The Deans bought one pound (.45kg) of sliced ham in July 1995 at a Publix store in Tampa. Their law suit says that two days later , after eating most of the meat they "found part of it contained" the top portion of a human finger pad, in addition to a substance in the ham that appeared to be blood."

They are suing for mental anguish, medical expenses for AIDS and hepatitis tests, loss of earning capacity, loss of comfort and attention of each other, and loss of "the joy of living."

The Deans and the Publix worker who cut her fingertip off have tested negative for AIDS.


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