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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Friday, May 26, 2006

Being productive despite the odds

Sunday Times: 21/05/2006" By Randima Attygalle

Their white sticks guide them all the way from Negombo to Colombo whilst a sturdy young man is generous enough to ‘lend his sight’ and strength to carry the heavy bundle of bed linen, table cloths, sarees and an assortment of handloom products. Although nature has robbed them of vision, it has not dampened the enterprising spirits of Wilman Tissa and his companion S.Amarasena who have been providing many a household with durable and comfortable handlooms for over 15 years.

Having mastered the craft of cane weaving at the Vocational Training Centre in Seeduwa affiliated to the Department of Social Services, Tissa moved to greener pastures of the handloom business in the mid 80s. “With three children to feed, cane weaving was not the best of trades for me, thus I moved on to the handlooms,” recalls Tissa of his beginnings in the business.

All handloom products sold by Tissa and Amarasena are the efforts of the visually handicapped who have been trained in the art at the Vocational Training Centre in Seeduwa. “Initially, the woven products were bought by the centre itself and it came to a halt in the early 80s compelling the weavers to sell on their own and this created a circle of blind buyers like us who initiated this door to door sale of handlooms,” explains Tissa. According to Tissa, this venture is a mutual one which boosts the quality of life of all visually handicapped. “The art of handloom binds all blind together as both the weaver and the seller earn their daily bread thanks to it,” says Tissa with a smile.

Assuring the best of quality, both Tissa and Amarasena are confident about the material sold. “Our handlooms are durable and consumer-friendly as the best raw materials are used in weaving them,” explains Amarasena adding that pure cotton thread and approved dyes assure the durability and comfort of bed linen, table ware and even sarees.

According to Amarasena the ‘double threading’ is another specialty in their handlooms. “Double threading guarantees the long-lasting quality of the material and their close proximity enhances it,” he said.

According to Tissa, manually-operated weaving machines employed in the craft differ from item to item depending on their width. “For instance, the width of the pillow case is less than a table cloth for which two different weaving machines are used,” he said.

Talking about the average daily output by the weavers, Tissa says, “around 15 large-sized bed sheets can be woven by an experienced weaver and even an average weaver is capable of producing 8-10 sheets per day.” As to how the quality of a material bought from the weavers is judged, Amarasena replies, “it’s purely by the touch. With time, we can assess the quality of a handloom by touching it, although this is difficult for any beginner in the business.”

Although born to blind parents, Jude Prasanna is blessed with sight and renders a helping hand to Tissa and Amarasena in their door-to-door handloom business carrying the heavy bundle of handlooms. Prasanna who works as a machine operator in a garment factory, assists Tissa in his business over the weekends. “My parents who are now quite old, once used to engage in this handloom business to support the family and today I am glad to help out a breadwinner like Tissa,” he said.

Covering Colombo and its suburbs such as Kirillapone, Nugegoda, Battaramulla and Kottawa, Tissa and his mates make a trip all the way from Negombo five times a week.

“We generally have a decent sale but there are days that we return home empty handed,” he said adding that festive seasons such as the April New Year and Christmas are the most lucrative periods for them. “Customers who patronize our products don’t fail to buy gifts for the relations and friends during these seasons and we even get special orders at these times of the year,” he added. Since Tissa and his team walk from door to door they are restricted from many items which they all see as one of the major hardships in their business. “We cannot afford any sort of a vehicle other than public transport, therefore to fill the void, we accept orders from customers who are particular about a certain colour or length and width of bed linen and table ware,” explains Tissa.

Both Tissa and Amarasena are of the view that their business can be boosted if handloom boutiques and other similar outlets come forward to buy their goods. “When you buy our goods it not only helps less privileged people like us but you can be happy that you are taking home a product of quality,” smiles Tissa.

Tissa and Amarasena could be contacted on the following numbers: Tissa: 077-3077027 and Amarasena: 078-5409810

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Tsunami victims hit by cyclone

Sunday Times: 21/05/2006"

More than 125 houses and a government building were damaged in a mini cyclone that hit parts of the Amapra and Batticaloa districts last evening, Police said.

The cyclone hit Tirukkovil, Thambulvil, Mandani and Kalliyanthivu in the Ampara district causing damage to houses and the College of Education at Thalankuda in Batticaloa.

Among the houses that were damaged were 50 recently-built houses for tsunami victims, police said adding that a welfare centre in Kalliyanthivu where 20 tsunami-refugee families were living was also damaged. They said roads in the area were impassable as trees had been uprooted and power lines had fallen across them.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

CIC grows exotic rice with export aim

Weekend Standard: 20/05/2006"

Chemical Industries (Colombo) Limited (CIC) is conducting experiments at its paddy farms to grow exotic, indigenous varieties of rice with the aim of identifying exportable types that could find buyers in high-end, niche overseas markets.

The company has had a positive response from potential buyers to whom it has show some of the varieties it has cultivated on a trial basis, CIC Group chairman B.R.L. Fernando said.

With the island heading for a local rice surplus and farmers’ market prices affected because supply is higher than demand, alternative marketing avenues are required.

“Various remedies are being looked at - such as encouraging people to eat more rice, higher tariffs on imported rice, using rice for other purposes and products – to use up available supply and increase demand for local rice,” Fernando said in an interview.

“But we’re likely to continue producing a surplus crop. So the question is: what do you do with it?

“Various proposals like improving storage facilities are being studied but ultimately we need to get farmers to grow exportable varieties of rice,” said Fernando.

About 200 indigenous varieties of rice have been identified of which only some have the characteristics that offer export potential.

CIC has not done any test marketing of these varieties of rice yet but has shown some to potential buyers.

“The response was quite good,” said Fernando. “They asked how much we can supply. We will probably test market some varieties this year.”

CIC experiments are aimed at finding out what the export varieties are and to improve yields and bring down the cost of production.

“So, it is in that context that we’re working with some of these exotic varieties of rice and aim to improve yields.

“We’ve been growing traditional rice called ‘raththel’ and ‘vel vee’ and varieties of rice similar to Basmathi,” said Fernando.

Raththel yields a brilliant golden colour paddy grain compared with the brownish colour of normal rice varieties.

CIC experiments are aimed at getting better yields – up to 100 bushels an acre. If yields are not improved, the cost of production would be too high to make it commercially viable.

“We have had some success with our trials,” said Fernando. “With some varieties like ‘raththel’ and ‘al vee’ we have got yields of 85-90 bushels with better management and selection, compared with 65-70 bushels previously.”

These are slightly aromatic varieties of rice which would find acceptance in international markets.

The company has had some of its staff trained in China in growing hybrid rice and continues to grow some acreages of the promising varieties every cultivation season at its farms in Hingurakgoda and Pelwehera.

CIC has also recruited scientists and bought experimental equipment to conduct its trials.

“The problem with local rice production is that our milling capacities are antiquated. So we bought lab scale equipment with which we are now milling rice to see what sort of mill grain quality we can get – we need to get an acceptable look,” explained Fernando.

The company is aiming to get consistent grain size and sufficient volumes before investing more money in its research and development effort.

Most of the 200 varieties of rice indigenous to the island are no longer commercially cultivated by paddy farmers.

The company’s aim is to exploit the characteristics such as high nutrition and more aroma and flavour found in the ‘wild’ or traditional varieties of rice and seek niche overseas markets for surplus rice now that the country has achieved self-sufficiency in the commodity.

The programme is somewhat similar to the effort by the Ceylon tea industry to identify and promote different types of tea grown in different elevations and ago-climatic regions.

Good rains and resumption of cultivation in the north and east have resulted in surplus rice production, raising fears among farmers they might not be able to sell their produce.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"One Coast, One People: the Tsunami Story"

Asian Tribune: 08/05/2006"

A multimedia exhibition in commemoration of the tsunami, titled "One coast, One People: The Tsunami Story" will continue to remain open till today. The exhibition was inaugurated on 6th May at the Galle Face Green, Colombo.

The tsunami commemoration is a joint venture of UNDP, the Ministry of Finance and Planning, the Reconstruction and Development Authority, the Foreign Correspondents Association and Sri Lanka Press Institute.

This exhibition vividly documents the impact of December 2004 tsunami on Sri Lanka, from the immediate aftermath to the current relief and recovery efforts. It showcases the photographs, print stories, TV footage and radio pieces made available by the International News agencies.

The commemorative exhibition will travel through the island in tsunami devastated areas as well as the interior and will be displayed at a school in each district. The exhibition will become a permanent memorial to the tsunami victims and the 'rebuilding of the survivors' lives' after it returns to Colombo.

We trust this exhibition will serve as a bridge across the ethnic divide and help bring closure for affected families by showing them that they were not alone and are among hundreds of thousands of people striving to rebuild their lives.

According to the organizers, plans are afoot to seek the permission of the Speaker of Parliament to hold the exhibition in Parliament for the benefit of the Members of the House.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

ICTA looks at innovative communication solutions for rural Sri Lanka

Daily Mirror: 09/05/2006"

Mahavilachchiya Mesh Networking Pilot Project

A student in the rural areas of Sri Lanka has to pay an average of Rs. 150 for 30 minutes as internet surfing charges mainly because service is scarce in these areas. This amount does not include transportation costs and the time spent to reach the internet café.

The demand for knowledge of IT has increased in Sri Lanka but not at the pace of other developing countries mainly due to barriers such as the high cost of hardware equipment and system software, high Internet surfing charges (to be paid to the ISP separately), telecommunication charges (to be paid to the telecom service provider), cost of electricity and value added taxes (VAT) applicable to the above services. These reasons prevent rural children from advancing and reaping the benefits of IT.

The Horizon Lanka Institute is a non profit organization situated in Mahavilachchiya that provides education including English, Science, Mathematics, Computer Science and Graphics to about 200 village kids. This school is exceptional because they have been able to receive aid from foreign donors to provide children with computers to their homes. The children have a zeal to learn about computers and have developed websites after studying graphics and web design. Currently about 50 households have computers but they do not have internet access nor are they connected in a network.

In February 2005, ICTA partnering with Enterprise Technology (Pvt) Ltd, was awarded a grant by the Pan Asia ICT R&D grants program to set up a pilot mesh network in Mahavilachchiya. Mesh networking is a new innovative solution that can provide a low cost communication network to villages in rural areas that are hardest to reach.

This pilot project aims at providing high-speed internet access to 30 households and to identify the key success factors for sustainable services. New Orleans recently built a free citywide network using mesh technology after identifying that it could have facilitated in the Katrina hurricane relief.

Mesh networking comprises of a series of smart digital routers (Meshboxes) designed to carry high performance wireless internet over a wide area.

Mesh networking is unique because instead of having a central server which determines how data is passed between computers, the mesh creates a network of equals, so individual computers find the best way to communicate with each other. All the computers are connected together to form a resilient network in such a way that the more devices there are on a network, the more routes there are through it. It can grow organically and will automatically organize itself. The ad hoc nature of the mesh makes it easy to start small and expand where necessary, without the complex reprogramming involved with adding to a traditional, top-down network. If one node were to fail, the network will automatically redirect data through an alternative route.

Despite the fact that his project would cater to the requirements of a very rural community, it is now facing restrictive frequency licensing fees imposed by the Government telecommunication regulations. The jungle terrain of Mahavilachchiya has prevented optimum coverage and necessitated an increase in the number of nodes to be used (preliminary testing was carried out using two nodes); consequently, the frequency charges have gone beyond the budget availability of the project. Currently discussions are underway to reduce the license fees drastically so that the funding for this project will be sufficient to provide connectivity to all 30 homes.

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Perseverance pays for young engineer

Daily News: 09/05/2006" By Ramani Kangaraarachchi

Success: The Electro Metal Pressings Private Ltd located in the Templeburge Industrial Estate in Panagoda led by its Chairman Chandanandana Diyunuge with a workforce of 125, works like a beehive from dawn to dusk.

Diyunuge has proved himself a very successful businessman through his engineering capabilities and he has set an example to Sri Lankan engineers by raising an investment within a short period to reach Rs. 400 million which sparked off from an initial investment of Rs. 20 million.

An old boy St Thomas' College, Matara, Diyunuge graduated from the Moratuwa University in 1998 and worked in several companies for four years to receive practical experience in the field.

"To my dismay I was not treated to my satisfaction in any of those places and this situation gave me lot of courage to start a business of my own and today I have made it a point to treat my people properly identifying their talents" he said.

It was in the year 2003 that Diyunuge started his company. He purchased a small factory at Panagoda in the present place which was engaged in manufacturing electrical light fittings from 1982 but by the time he purchased the business, it was not performing well.

However after the purchase he did a comprehensive study and drew a constructive plan which expanded it to the present standard.

Recollecting the beginning of his business he said " My university colleague Engineer Suresh Kumara joined me as my Managing Director.

We started only with 10 employees to manufacture high quality products using our expertise for the local market recognising and understanding customer needs with commitment and gradually could enter the export market. .

"Today the company has employed 125 people including 10 engineers and several other professionals. The company's annual export turnover is 2.2 million US dollars. I am confident that it will increase to four million US dollars by next year because we have invested on a large scale to introduce modern machinery and technology."

"We can increase the production by 20 times to meet the demand when we get the new machinery reinforcing us to be able to compete with the Rital brand in the global market. There will be more job opportunities and more accommodation is sought to expand the business with the expansion and new buildings that are coming up," he said.

EMP products are exported to India ,Zambia and Maldives at present. More than ten electrical engineering items required for local companies such as the CEB, Holcim and the plantation sector. It is the No. 1 local manufacturer with 45 per cent market share out of which 70 per cent local and 30 per cent export market.

India has become the biggest market for their panel boards as there is a construction boom. Asked about the challenges he has faced so far, Diyunuge said one bank has let the company down very badly at the beginning but another bank came forward to help them. Other than that there is a huge skilled and unskilled labour problem."

"We have continuous 'in house training programmes' for workers to educate them on technical know how. Another problem is that we have not been given BOI facilities although we are in the Industrial zone.

As a manufacturing company we support the country by saving foreign exchange that drained to other countries to import the same items earlier and providing employment and tailor made services to the people are our crowning achievements. But it is very unfair, that we have to pay duty at the Customs for export orders and for imported raw materials and components., Diyunage said.

The company is proud of its achievements during a short period. The secret behind his success is hard work and manufacturing only good quality products.

Diyunage's advice to the younger generation is to work hard without giving priority to too many holidays.

The company is also engaged in mini hydro projects and cable management systems.

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sri Lanka water supply still suffers effects of 2004 tsunami

EurekaAlert: 08/05/2006" By Harvey Leifert

Sri Lanka's coastal drinking water supply continues to suffer the effects of the December 2004 tsunami, which caused major death and destruction in the region. Much of the island nation's coastal area relies on wells, usually hand dug and relatively shallow. Some 40,000 such wells, each typically serving several families, were destroyed or contaminated by the tsunami. The continued sustainability of the aquifers that supply such wells is in doubt, due to continued saltwater contamination, erosion of beaches, and other human impacts, such as sand mining, increased pumping, and pollution, according to an international team of scientists and engineers.
The 14-member team from the United States, Sri Lanka, and Denmark, reports its findings in a paper scheduled for publication on 9 May in the American Geophysical Union journal Water Resources Research. During investigations in Sri Lanka from February through September 2005, they found that the tsunami had affected coastal drinking water sources in several ways.

First, the tsunami itself, which reached up to 1.5 kilometers [0.9 miles] inland, poured seawater, along with other contaminants, directly into the open dug wells, rendering those that were not destroyed unusable. In some areas, as many as four large tsunami waves struck, with the second in the series often the largest. Aside from contamination of wells, large quantities of seawater penetrated from the flooded surface of the land through porous layers below and into the aquifer.

Further, efforts to restore wells by pumping out seawater were sometimes apparently counterproductive, as excessive pumping may have allowed more seawater to enter the aquifer from below. This pumping also caused many wells to collapse, as their walls were not reinforced. Finally, contaminated water that was pumped out of wells was often discharged in places that permitted contaminants to seep back into the aquifer and again into the wells.

The researchers, led by Prof. Tissa Illangasekare of the Center for Experimental Study of Subsurface Environmental Processes, located at the Colorado School of Mines, found that one anticipated consequence of the disaster did not materialize. They write that fears of outbreaks of waterborne disease were not realized, due to public awareness of the need to disinfect wells and to practice good personal and food hygiene.

Although some of the affected coastal aquifers in Sri Lanka are composed of ancient limestone deposits, especially in the north of the country, most coastal groundwater is stored in sandy aquifers that are replenished by rainwater, especially during the October-to- February monsoons. This recharge has been slow in many of the most-affected areas, as they did not receive substantial rainfall for almost a year. The December 2005 monsoon rains were substantial, but the researchers say it will take several more monsoon seasons-- they do not know how many--for the aquifers to recover. In collaboration with the American, Danish, and Sri Lankan scientists, a group of researchers at the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka is currently conducting long-term monitoring studies at selected sites.

The researchers say that since March 2005, salinity levels have declined slowly, if at all, in many of the wells that continued to be pumped. They note that planning is underway to provide piped water to many coastal villages, to supplant the individual, and vulnerable, open dug wells. Other social responses include plans for expansion of centralized sewage collection, proposed setbacks for housing along coastlines, and the use of new modeling techniques for integrated management of surface water and groundwater for sustainable water resources.

Around the world, devastating floods can be caused by more than tsunamis, the researchers note, including storm surges, hurricanes or cyclones, and rising sea level. They urge hydrologists to participate in the planning of emergency planning procedures that could greatly reduce human suffering. Documenting the hydrologic impacts of such disasters is, they say, the first step toward developing internationally recognized emergency guidelines for treating sources of contaminated water supplies and for long-term and planning tools for managing coastal groundwater in areas affected by seawater inundation.

The opportunity the group of scientists received to visit the site to observe damage and after-effects of the tsunami and to interact with local scientists will help to develop long-term research collaborations and educational programs to address critical water supply issues in the region, they say. The team has developed a number of recommendations, which they will present to the Sri Lankan government, to help develop local expertise and capacity- building in areas of modeling, data management, and subsurface characterization for integrated water management in the affected regions. The authors say they are continuing to work together to address Sri Lanka's water needs.

###
The research was primarily funded by the U.S. National Science
Foundation, with support from the Sri Lanka National Science
Foundation and the Soil Science Society of Sri Lanka.

The manuscript for the Illangasekare paper appears in Water Resources Research in a new format for the journal, entitled Rapid Communications, in which timely and important breakthroughs in hydrology are accorded both accelerated independent review and priority in publication. This new format is designed to make research findings quickly available to both the scientific community and those responsible for water resource management.

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Investigations on errant NGO’s off to a start

Lanka Truth: 07/05/2006"

Criminal Investigation Department has begun investigations in respect of illegal Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Collecting data for this purpose is now in progress. The CID says that information about personnel and racketeers attached to such NGO’s will come into focus in the investigations.

Accordingly legal action will be taken against those who are found guilty. CID sources say that they have received several complaints regarding illegal NGO’s and several police teams are conducting investigations into their activities.

The information that will be unearthed in these investigations will be forwarded to the parliamentary select committee which has been assigned to probe the NGOs, a senior officer of the department told Lankatruth.

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