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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. 

Thursday, May 17, 2007

New beginning for Lanka schools after tsunami

Kuwait Times: 17/05/2007" By Sandra Laville

The derelict shell of Al Hussain school stands like a monument overlooking the clear blue sea, its waters lapping gently on the white sandy beach. On Boxing Day 2004, primary school children sitting at their desks for holiday tuition were washed away by the force of a very different sea, when the Asian tsunami swept Sri Lanka. Fifty-eight girls and boys from Al Hussain were killed. Today, many of those pupils are buried a few steps away from their old school, under mounds of sand in a makeshift graveyard on the beach. Each grave is marked with a small wooden stake, flying a piece of white cotton, the colour for sorrow in the Muslim faith. Two and a half years on, no one in the town of Sainthamarathu needs a memorial to remember the devastation of that day; more than 3,500 men, women and children were killed in this area on the east coast. When international aid agencies rushed to Sri Lanka in the hours and days after the tsunami, few chose to tackle the worst- affected eastern Ampara region, where more than 10,000 of the mixed Tamil and Muslim population died. It is a tortuous 10-hour drive from the capital Colombo to Ampara, which has long been a battleground between the Tamil Tigers to the north and the Sri Lankan army to the south. In 2005, when aid agencies were choosing where to base themselves, the breakdown of the peace agreement and the resurgence of the fighting meant the security of staff, supply routes and workers could not be guaranteed. Yet some did come here and, after battling bureaucracy, corruption and the fallout of the civil war, there are now signs of regeneration amid the rubble. In a country that prides itself on offering free education for all, the emergence of a brand new Al Hussain school this month warranted the pomp of a three-hour opening ceremony for local dignitaries, teachers, parents and children. The four-storey building, with its large classrooms, bright corridors, computer room, science lab and library, stands 400m back from the sea to accommodate those children who are still too terrified to contemplate classes anywhere near the water. In the hours before the opening ceremony, the principal, Ahamed Lebbe Mohamed Abdul Nateer, is overseeing the final touches. "This is a momentous day for us," he says. "The building is such high calibre. We have classrooms here that we never had before. These children are the future for Sri Lanka and now we have a school which will help them find jobs, make the best of themselves and achieve things." Al Hussain is one of 62 schools serving 31,000 pupils in the war- ravaged east of Sri Lanka that have been rebuilt by the aid agency Goal Ireland in what, by any reckoning, is a remarkably short time - 24 months. Each building was destroyed by the freak wave or severely damaged after being used to house some of the 1 million people who were displaced in the disaster. The agency is clear about why it chose to take on the schools programme in the troubled east. But no one could have predicted the problems that lay ahead when Goal staff signed up with the ministry for education to take on the project. Contractors who signed fixed-payment contracts demanded higher and higher fees before walking off site; workers downed their tools during a sand strike; inflation soared by 20 per cent; suppliers refused to drive to the unstable east; and corruption resulted in cement being watered down, so that Goal staff had to demolish work and start again. Finally, Goal withdrew 12 of the 62 schools from the contractors, recruited its own labour force from the local population and completed the buildings itself. Over the past two months, problems have increased as fighting has intensified. The Sri Lankan government jammed all mobile phones for eight weeks to stop the Tamil Tigers communicating, causing huge problems for contractors. Military roadblocks have sprung up everywhere and attacks by both sides are continuing, with a resulting displacement of around 300,000 people, many of whom are taking shelter in the schools that once housed tsunami refugees. "It's been a bit of a nightmare," says Mark Ford, a former British Royal Navy seaman who is coordinator of the Goal schools project in Ampara. "I don't think any of us realised how hard it was going to be. We had to push, push, push to get the work done. "You would go on site to see 20 people doing a job that we had a machine to do. Then there were the 36 public holidays a year, which involved workmen taking the day before and after off as well. In the end, it was a matter of going on site every day to make sure everything was going ahead." Watching the ribbons being cut at Al Hussain makes the frustration and hard graft worthwhile, however. "You do feel a huge sense of achievement," says Ford. For the pupils, the opening represents a new beginning, after two years in which they have struggled to learn in tin huts and hastily built shacks. Many are still coping with the trauma of losing family members and seeing friends die. "They have terrible dreams, wet their beds and are unable to concentrate in class," says one teacher. "If they see a symbol on a blackboard which even looks like a wave, some of them become upset. We take them to the seashore for lessons sometimes, we sit them on the beach and tell them stories, and we keep saying the tsunami will not come again." Al Hussein is number 58 on the list of 62 schools that will be opened by the end of this month, before Goal staff leave the country, their job finished. Each was designed by a Sri Lankan architect and built to modern specifications. For the first time in Sri Lanka, every school was equipped with computers, thanks to the $10m budget for the project. At neighbouring Al Jalal school, the girls of class 6a have been using their new classroom for a matter of weeks. Adambawa Meera Mohideen, 13, finds it difficult to talk about the disaster without crying. "I just remember people screaming and crying," she says. "As the water came, my mother grabbed me and we ran upstairs to stand on our roof. There were bodies being washed up the streets, rocks and rubble floating in the water. We ran away for 15 days. When I came back I saw my school, it was totally destroyed. Now it feels like I am in heaven in this new school." But even when the buildings are ready, issues of bureaucracy, security and petty corruption have combined to keep the gates closed. At a vocational training centre, John Wain, country director for Goal, can scarcely disguise his anguish at the sight of classrooms that are fully equipped but empty of students. The problem, he is informed by a local bureaucrat, is that only half the instructors have been hired. At another school, Wain winces when he sees cattle calmly chewing their way through the sports field. But against a backdrop of allegations that the billions pledged following the tsunami have been embezzled, pocketed by corrupt officials or have simply not materialised, the achievement of the school-building programme in Sri Lanka cannot be overestimated. "When we came here it was just utter chaos," says Wain. "The devastation was massive; just here, half a million people took refuge in the schools still standing. So after the initial relief phase, which took four to five months, the schools were in a very bad state - those that were still standing. "The initial pressure was on to get the work done quickly. All the money had been pledged and donors wanted to see it spent. But you have to consult with the ministry, design the schools, carry out surveys, get architects, engineers and surveyors on board, produce tender documents, advertise for interest and tender out the schools. We had to make the packages attractive to make sure contractors would be drawn to the east, where many of them didn't want to travel because of the security situation. It was only after doing all that that we could start the building work." But it has, he insists, been worth it. "To see the kids in their classrooms is the icing on the cake. They have sports and other modern facilities like any child in the west would have. We can leave with a smile on our faces." At the lavish opening of Al Hussain school, Abdul Jabhar, who runs a charity for social change, reflects on the past two and a half years. "The tsunami was terrible for our country, but some good things - this school and the others that have been built - have come out of it," he says. "And that is really wonderful to see." - Guardian

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Developing the country through individual effort

The Island: 17/05/2007" by Apeksha Senadheera

Extending Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) projects, especially to the disadvantage areas of the country, whilst assisting the citizens to enhance the quality of life, is now believed to be an effective Corporate Social Responsibility initiative by the Sri Lankan business community.

John Keells Holdings Ltd. (JKH), one of Sri Lanka’s blue chipcompanies, has embarked on such projects in underprivileged areas of the country. JKH is in the process of assisting Mahavillachchiya, one such poor village, by enabling villagers to earn a regular income. "We provide them work throughout the year and buy back their products offering them a reasonable sum of money. In the meantime, we help them to enhance there business financially through technical know-how and guidance. We see this as an effective project to enhance the quality of life of our rural citizens, while at the same time there is their contribution to the national effort.
"They need not come to the city to earn a reasonable income, which they receive doing something productive staying in their own villages," said JKH Director Sumithra Gunesekera in a short interview with The Island Financial Review. He added that will stop migration to the city.

JKH intends to spread the programme to other villages in time to come.
Gunesekera said that each and every CSR activity of his company is based on sustainable development of various lines of trade or handicrafts.

"It should not be deemed a charity or handout or a patronising gesture, but continuous support for maintaining productivity, the self-respect and dignity of labour and the individual as well as enhancing the citizen’s quality of life. That should be the CSR focus of any company," Gunesekera stressed.

JKH has also embarked on projects to empower village women. One such project is being conducted in Halmillawe, where women are encouraged to earn an income doing petty businesses, whilst attending to household work. " The mother is a lynchpin of the family and a guide to children. If she acquires a sense of personal and social responsibility in being involved in our projects, she will have imparted a worthwhile value to her offspring.

"We go further than that. Our ambition is to create a vigorous and knowledgeable second generation by empowering mothers," said Gunesekera. He said that a number of projects to empower women is in the pipeline.

JKH has an established ‘John Keells Social Responsibility Foundation’, a special unit for its CSR initiatives since 2005. The CSR projects have been handled by a committee previously. The foundation has since then activated more formal projects, according to Gunesekera. The objective of the foundation was to provide financial assistance to the needy, to undertake projects of social and communal nature, to promote science, sports and cultural activities, to promote commercial enterprise and evince an awareness of the environment and earth resources.

"All these initiatives would be based on sustainable development. Our projects would not end within a year or two but be of an on-going process ," said Gunesekera.

Speaking on the expenses of the CSR activity, Gunesekera said that it was difficult to quantify how much the company spends such activities. "Though we have estimates drawn up through the Foundation at the beginning of the year, we have to have reserves for unforseen contigencies that may suddenly arise. Furthermore, every company under our umbrella is involved in some type of CSR work," said Gunesekara. He noted that the company does not use CSR projects to sell products. "It is obvious that we as a company should accrue some benefits through CSR. But, by and large, the sum total of our CSR efforts should impact on the country’s development in a productive manner, be it small or large," surmised Gunesekera.
JKH had embarked on several CSR projects through it CSR Foundation. Its English language scholarship programme launched in 2004 aimed to enhance English language skills among deserving school children has already touched the lives of over 1000 students.

Halmillawe village adoption project is aimed at providing basic infrastructure facilities to improve agricultural products and the marketing system, whilst diversifying livelihoods and strengthening youth development.

It has also embarked on HIV/AIDS awareness initiative among the vulnerable groups around their business locations.

‘Vision 2000’ is another project that the company has embarked on in which cataract operations projects were launched aiming to restore the eyesight of patients scattered across the country.

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Lack of NIC cause of poverty in estate sector – WB

The Island: 17/05/2007" by Suranga Gamage

The failure by the Department of Registration of Persons to issue National Identity Cards (NICs) to the majority of plantation workers, even two decades after they were given citizenship rights in the early eighties, has become a major cause for poverty in the estate sector, a World Bank Economist said.

Ambar Narayan, the World Bank’s Senior Economist on Poverty Reduction and Economic Management for the South Asian Region, told a press conference on Tuesday,
organized by the World Bank Institute and the Sri Lanka Press Council, that, a recent survey in the plantation sector revealed that 85 per cent of plantation workers above 25 years of age haven’t been issued NICs by the government.

The survey had also revealed that 35 per cent of estate youth between 16 and 19 years age did not possess NICs.

Narayan said that due to the security situation in the country, the NIC has become a crucial factor in the economic success of a plantation worker as it is crucial for them to access tertiary and vocational education and opt for lucrative jobs outside the plantations including overseas employment.

"Not having an NIC restricts the mobility of plantation youth, who prefer to get even a low paid outside job than getting employed on the estate because of the stigma attached to the plantation worker," Narayan said.

He said that the job opportunities in the plantation sector were shrinking after privatization as the total number of plantation workers had been reduced from the pre-privatization figure of 400,000 to about 225,000.

The research had also shown that dependency in plantation families was on the verge of increasing as working parents have to feed their grownup but jobless children as well as the elderly and invalid.

The survey also indicated that 14 per cent of children in the plantation sector don’t go to schools and 46 per cent of that figure are suffering from malnutrition.

It also revealed that after privatization, the general welfare activities in the sector had declined and plantation companies had failed to improve the living conditions of the workers contrary to expectations that privatization of estates would make their lives better.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Sri Lanka loses 30-40% of its vegetable harvest

Colombo Page: 13/05/2007" Vegetable consumption by Sri Lankans is as low as 100 grams per head per day.

Around 30 to 40 percent of Sri Lanka's vegetable harvest is wasted annually, say figures from the Post Harvest Technology Institute of Anuradhapura.

The amount of vegetables wasted annually amounts to 165,000 to 200,000 metric tons. Sri Lanka produces around 500,000 metric tons of vegetables annually.

Vegetable consumption by Sri Lankans is as low as 100 grams per head per day, and the Post Harvest Technology Institute says the nutritional status of the people can be increased if the wastage is managed.

The Institute attempts to promote the use of plastic boxes instead of the popular poly sacks to transport vegetables so as to minimize post-harvest wastage.

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Tsunami audit delayed, funds suspended

Sunday Times: 13/05/2007" By Chathuri Dissanayaka

International donors, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the German Development Bank, have suspended funds for tsunami reconstruction work as the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA) has failed to submit the audit reports in time, officials said.

The move has prompted one state bank to suspend grants for the reconstruction of tsunami-damaged houses while another state bank says it is continuing the grants from its own money though it has to collect as much as Rs. 2 billion from the Treasury as reimbursements.
Nation Building Ministry Secretary Ravi Dissanayaka said a delay in submitting the audit reports had resulted in the donor community suspending the funds.

The government grants programme for rebuilding of houses damaged by the tsunami pays Rs. 250,000 for a fully-damaged house in four instalments and pays Rs. 150,000 for a partly damaged house through the two state banks.

The Bank of Ceylon has stopped the payment of grants in 14 of its 15 branches from where the payments were being made.“We have not received the reimbursement for the expenditure incurred in 14 branches. We received the money for Matara district and we have restarted paying only in that branch,” a BoC official said.

Thus beneficiaries are faced with difficulties as they are unable to meet the closing dates of each phase due to the situation that has arisen. RADA’s Finance Director Ramesh Selliah said there was a delay in submitting the reports and it had resulted in a temporary setback in the reconstruction process.

“We have not submitted the final audit report yet. Preparing the final audit report is a very complicated process and we are hoping to submit it by the beginning of next week after which all the problems would be sorted out,” Mr. Selliah said. Peoples Bank has an outstanding balance of close to two billion which is yet to be paid by the Treasury. However, the bank continues to pay the grant to the beneficiaries in all 58 of its branches where the programme operates.

“We pay the grant to the beneficiaries out of bank funds and the outstanding amount increases daily as the bank continues to pay as it is our obligation as a state bank. It is difficult to continue it as the profit levels of the branches are reduced,” a Peoples Bank official said.

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