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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. 

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Rural is rich

Daily Mirror: 01/02/2006" By Nisthar Cassim
Two young firms Dialog and Bodyline showcase richness in reaching out to the provinces for business success and greater stakeholder value

Two compelling cases on the benefits and success of going rural were showcased by two young but dynamic companies last week at a top level business forum driving home the richness in the grassroots to enhance stakeholder value.

Leading mobile telecom firm Dialog Telekom and apparel giant MAS Holdings member Bodyline Ltd, effectively showed to rest of corporate Sri Lanka or those who are skeptical how companies can strike it rich and also be good corporate citizens by going rural at the final session of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce Economic Summit.

There were several other but much older firms (Hayleys, JKH, The Maharaja Organisation, HNB and CIC) who also showcased their success stories or the benefits of and the need to go rural but Dialog and Bodyline stood out because they are relatively new in the corporate sector yet highly successful.

Understandably passionate about operating from a rural area and encouraged by its success, Bodyline Managing Director Dave Ranasinghe made a very stimulating presentation at the Ceylon Chamber summit session titled “Dialogue with the business leaders – Invigorating the rural economy.’

Mr. Ranasinghe said that leadership was all about the art of the possible and strongly emphasized that going rural and operating in the provinces successfully is possible and the private sector must do it. He admitted that there is a notion that Sri Lankans are not disciplined, inefficient and in rural areas there will be lot of quality problems but these must and could be changed provided the entrepreneur or the firm has the will to do it and make a difference. He said that workers would get the message if the company sets an example and for Bodyline it has been possible to get the staff on time through efficient but outsourced transportation, higher productivity etc. “Bodyline which employs 2,200 people ploughs back Rs. 900 million per annum to the Horana area and such wealth can have a highly beneficial impact on the community,” he said. MAS Holdings has 21 factories in eight districts.

He said that three challenges faced by the Company when it set up operations in Horana in the 1980s were gaining acceptance and integrating meaningfully with the village, overcoming shortcomings in infrastructure such as roads, power, and transportation and the other was attracting professionals to fill middle management positions.

“These challenges will remain but the right thing to do as Sri Lankans is to go rural,” Mr. Ranasinghe said adding that effective management and leadership determines to do it right. Among measures suggested were using local contractors for transportation, using the local bank branch for leasing of buses, local operator for the canteen, sourcing of fruits and vegetables from the village itself, use of local entrepreneurs etc. He said that the inculcation of 5S method in Bodyline was also a result of a Horana School winning the national 5S competition. This he said goes on to confirm how a corporate could transform the rural society.

Mr. Ranasinghe said that MAS Holdings took a bold stand and in a win-win proposition has endeavoured to raise the standards of living in the areas they operate as opposed to putting products be it affordable or not on the shelves of rural boutique.

If Bodyline proved a manufacturing unit can produce world class product from rural areas, Dialog Telekom CEO Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya showcased how a service company could succeed from an empowered rural consumer. The formula recommended by the CEO of Dialog, the country’s most profitable company is “Invest (in rural areas), have Inclusive approach and Innovate with technology.

Dr. Wijayasuriya said that most often everyone forgets the rural consumer who is indeed the power behind most successful companies. “The rural consumer may be a low spender but look at their collective power. Divergent needs give diverse opportunities,” he added. He also said that of the 2.2 million customer base of Dialog, 1.7 million are pre-paid small customers spending on average Rs. 400 per month. For Dialog rural consumers contribute 50% of the Company’s profit while the pre-paid markets generate Rs. 1 billion in turnover per month.

“However to be successful companies must first invest in and develop these areas and bring the best out,” he said adding that of the US$ 300 million investment by Dialog in infrastructure, 60% was in rural areas including $ 40 million in the North and East.“The rural markets are fertile grounds. Companies must go out there, invigorate the rural economy, and add value and make money,” Dr. Wijayasuriya emphasized.

Pointing out the need for an inclusive approach, he said that companies will be successful if they offer a product that is affordable and ensuring it is freely available. Having identified technology as a “great social leveler,” Dialog CEO said that companies need to innovate through the use of technology especially in rural areas.

HNB Chairman and veteran banker Rienzie T Wijetilleke said that the villager or rural people must be made a stakeholder of national and micro projects if socio-economic prosperity is to be achieved.

Maharaja Organisation's Director Mano Wickramanayake said that there has been lot of talk about going rural, its benefits etc but there was little action. “We need a coherent policy with concerted and quick action,” he added. He said that there has to be greater linkages between the formal and informal sector. The need to incentivise the private sector to invest in rural areas was also stressed.

Rajan Yatawara, Chairman of Hayleys which is by far the only blue chip which has an active and widespread rural presence, said that its rural strategy had always made commercial sense especially when most of its businesses focus on adding value to agri produce, commodities or raw materials.

Agriculture specialist CIC Group Chairman B.R.L. Fernando also conceded that “there is money in rural areas” and the true potential of rural areas could be better harnessed with proper utilization of land and water resources.

Premier blue chip JKH Director Sumithra Gunasekera highlighted his Group’s successful model of sustainable development involving its leisure business which co-exists with an enriched community.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Social Constraints

LBO: 28/01/2006"

Sri Lankan architects say post-tsunami reconstruction has ignored the coastal community’s social makeup and small neighbourhood lifestyles.

Sri Lanka Institute of Architects President Rukshan Widyalankara says the island’s population live in a small neighbourhood setup, with each household establishing its “status” through the size, structure and contents of their homes.
“Neighbourhoods thrive on the concept of being better than each other and competing to outdo their neighbour.”

Widyalankara says though basic housing was the immediate need in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami which damaged or destroyed over 100,000 homes, ignoring the social aspects of how they lived would have a mid to long term negative effect on the community.

The Association’s chief says some families will eventually leave their post-tsunami homes for bigger, better quarters.

This situation could lead to other social problems like a drop in job creation, a drain in entrepreneurship and capital investments even in small projects like groceries.

Instead, Widyalankara says donor and government agencies involved in the reconstruction effort should have designed a basic unit for the immediate need, while leaving provision in the design to add extensions.

“Home owners can then build another bedroom or extend their living-room, kitchen and so on based on their incomes, helping each household to distinguish itself from another.”

Out of Style

Less than five percent of buildings approved for constructions in the island are designed by architects, says Widyalankara.

“… this leads to badly built buildings that affect the overall look of neighbourhoods and even to bad physical and mental health.”

Widyalankara says architects can help correct this situation, but a general perception that their services are very expensive, has builders opting for self designed projects or turning to the industry’s “quacks” offering cheaper alternatives.

“The public needs to know the perils of bad design and that getting a professional to design their homes leads to long term cost savings…” says Widyalankara.

“…for instance, quite a few home owners have to make modification to a completed house due to flaws in the design which causes inconvenience to the occupants.”

-Shafraz Farook: shafraz@vanguardlk.com

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Lakhs of tsunami victims still at sea

Daily Mirror: 28/01/2006" By Gihan de Chickera

Only 20% of houses completed as INGOs pull out and block funds

More than one year after the tsunami, just over 20% of the houses destroyed in the catastrophe have been completed – and with several NGOs unilaterally terminating their agreements to rebuild houses, tens of thousands of tsunami victims continue to languish in transitional shelters and tents, an official committee reported yesterday.

It said of the 98,000 houses destroyed in the tsunami only 20,000 had been completed up to now.

The Reconstruction and Development Agency appointed recently by President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a report that the NGO question had added to the woes of the government’s tsunami rebuilding efforts.

“The buffer zone has been a critical issue in the recovery process” the RADA report said.

It said of the targeted 60,000 transitional shelters 54,000 had been completed and almost 2000 are nearing completion.

RADA was formed by the President to replace the TAFREN, headed by Mano Tittawella who last year pledged to complete the construction of 90 percent of tsunami houses by last December. Mr. Tittawella was replaced by Thiran Alles - the present chairman of RADA.

The latest crisis is the case of several INGOs which signed MoUs with the government to build houses going back on their pledges and leaving the country. The situation has resulted in tsunami victims facing an uncertain future and continuing to languish in transitional shelters.

The government appears unable to tackle the current situation and has no legal hold of the funds due to the monies pledged being channelled directly from donors to the NGOs.

“All we can do at the moment is stress to the INGOs the moral obligation they have by the victims to build the houses”, a government spokesman said. Over 270 NGOs and INGOs had signed agreements with the government to build houses for tsunami victims.

Minister of Housing Construction Mrs Ferial Ashraff however said the money pledged to rebuild the houses must be viewed as State funds. “All monies pledged by NGOs are monies belonging to the Sri Lanka State. If this situation continues we have to bring it to the notice of the world community”, she said speaking to the Daily Mirror. The Minister added that not all NGOs were guilty of the offence and said she was grateful to the ones that were engaged in productive work.

The NGO scandal surfaced in Parliament as well with Minister of Urban Development Dinesh Gunewardane recently saying that he had facts to prove that some INGOs had left the country with monies pledged for the construction of over 16,000 houses.

A 20 member Parliamentary select committee to study the activities of NGOs headed by JVP MP Nandana Gunatillake was also recently appointed. However Mr Gunatillake was unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him.

Housing reconstruction policy is being carried out in two fronts. One is the donor built reconstruction programme where all affected families are given a house by a donor agency. The other is the home owner driven programme where the government and INGOs provide a cash grant of Rs 100,000 for partly damaged houses and Rs 250,000 for fully damaged houses.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Sri Lanka: promotion of the export of agricultural produce through greenhouse farms

Asian Tribune: 25/01/2006" Sunil C. Perera, - Reporting from Bandarawela

A leading local vegetable and fruit export company, the International Food Stuff Agro-Bio-Tech Private Ltd [IFCO] based in Colombo with farms in Bandarawela, Boralanda and Rathaba now produce export crops and purchase vegetables and fruits from the small scale growers, especially greenhouse farmers to end the role of middlemen in the Uva region.

"We want to assist the farmers to grow more vegetables and fruits and collect vegetables, fruits and other spices from them in Uva region," said Chairman of the Company Mr.Sarath de Silva.

At present Uva Paranagama Export Produce Village Company Ltd which is a brain child of the Export Development Board manages a number of greenhouses in the Uva province. The Indian Credit Line has assisted to grant loan facility for over 600 farmers in this region.

“Each farmer has received Rs.157,000 from the Indian Credit Line,” said R.A. Sirisena of Rathaba , a greenhouse farmer. "We are paying loan back in installments for them," said Mr. Sirisena who was trained at the Agricultural in service Centre at Bindunuwewa.

Meanwhile, Farmers at the Uva province ask for more Green houses, which is a good income earner for the farmers in the province to produce additional export quality fruits and vegetables. The green house owners said that they need additional funds to set up more green houses in their gardens.

"We need over 300,000 Rupees to setup a green house in our lands. If the government disburses funds, we can produce more vegetables for export, " they said. According to the Uva-Paranagama Export Produce Village Company Ltd, the total harvest of these Greenhouses is exported through various companies."IFCO is one of leading exporter for our products," said a Green House owner.

The IFCO buys various vegetables produced by the Green House owners. "We want to increase our export volumes by another 10 per cent. We have enough orders from foreign companies. We need fresh and quality fruits and vegetables," said Mr.Sarath de Silva.

"Our company's aim is to develop the rural economy; it is also a concept of Mahinda Rajapaksha, the President of Sri Lanka. Now we are moving to setup a factory at Ambagasdowa, which will purchase vegetables and fruits from the farmers. The proposed factory will pack all quality vegetables and fruits for exporting purposes," he said.

Mr.Gunathilaka Rajapaksha, a main vegetable collector in Bandarawela said that farmers need assistance from the responsible authorities to send their products to markets without post harvest losses. "At present I educate them to use plastic trays for easy transportation Of fruits and vegetables," he said.

"The IFCO also manages post harvest losses using plastic trays and pay very reasonable price for vegetables and fruits," he said. Meanwhile, the vegetable and fruit growers of Sri Lanka are asking for a number of concessions to cut their production cost and to end the middlemen menace in their trade.

At present middlemen earn very good commission from vegetable and fruit trading, say farmers. A woman farmer R.Piyawathi.of Bandarawela said that vegetable farmers need low-priced manure and pesticides to maintain their cultivations .At present paddy farmers have an opportunity to purchase low-priced manure from Agrarian Service Centers.

"We do not have low-priced manure," said vegetable growers. They said vegetable growers have to spend over 100,000 rupees to cultivate a half an acre land plot. "Due to the prevailing situation, we can’t reduce prices of vegetables," farmers said.

The farmers said that they need non-variable price structure for their products. "If the President can mediate in this effort, the entire vegetable farmers can survive," the farmers said.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

ICC introduces novel concrete system, low cost housing

Daily News: 24/01/2006" by Shirajiv Sirimane

The International Construction Consortium Ltd (ICC) has designed a novel concrete system, which allows to reduce time of a construction by almost half.

The SBS pre-stressed concrete floor system also helps to save over 30 percent the concrete slab installation charges. "The system is easy and does not require skilled labourers for installation," Senior Project Manager ICC, Palitha Ranasinghe said.

The industry faces a problem when building several storied buildings as the masons cannot construct an upper floor until the concrete slab laid gets hardened. This takes around 20 to 30 days and stilts too are needed which makes work on the lower floors impossible.

To overcome this problem, ICC has designed the SBS system which is now very popular. "No frame work is necessary for the slab and the soffit blocks once in place offers an immediate working platform for further construction," he said. Rapid method of construction due to the use of precast elements and the non-use of frame work is a great advantage under this system.

"We have designed single beam for housing, double beam for shops and offices and a special construction beam for warehousing," he said. The system does not depend on prior knowledge of site construction.

In addition, ICC has also introduced a special housing unit,(KIT), designed and precasted by them and comes down in knock down form. "This can be easily assembled by four workers in four days," he said.

The lay-out of this KIT house can be designed and constructed according to the needs of the end user. The owners can decide the material for wall cladding and finishing and the ICC would also supply an instruction manual and a tool kit. "This is a low cost housing solution," he said

ICC also had a stall at the recently concluded Maldives Hotel and Trade Fair in Male and it was very successful. "This system is ideal for a country like the Maldives as it saves time, labour and also does not delay the construction," he said.ICC is also into road construction, water supply and drainage and supplies ready mix concrete. Located in Dehiwela they could be contacted on e-mail iccsrlan@slt.lk

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Defaulting NGOs take off with Tsunami funds

ANN: 24/01/2006" By Don Asoka Wijewardena

A number of foreign non governmental organisations, which had signed agreements with the government to reconstruct houses and schools in the Ampara district, have left the country, according to the Housing Ministry mission unaccomplished.

These NGO’s having collected large funds, from their respective countries and other donors, had gone back on their agreements and slipped out to Pakistan where they are now engaged in fraudulent activities.

Minister of Housing and Construction Industry, Eastern Province Education and Irrigation Development Ferial Ashraff told The Island that the government had signed agreements with 25 NGOs to construct houses for tsunami-affected people and the government was also able to provide them the relevant plans and land required.

Minister Ashraff pointed out that these NGOs with collection of huge donations from their respective countries had come to Sri Lanka on the pretext of doing construction work and had deceived the government.

She also said that up to now although 12,500 houses were needed in the Amapara district, construction work had commenced on only 1,200 houses. She added that tsunami-hit people who had been living in transitional houses had fallen into despondency.

Minister Ashraff said that these bogus NGOs with a great deal of collected donations had left Sri Lanka for Pakistan and were reported to have engaged in fraudulent activities disgracing their countries.

Referring to the NGOs activities, Minister Ashraff noted that it was the duty of the government to provide permanent shelter to tsunami victims and the Government would have no alternative but to sign new agreements with organisations interested in humanitarian work.

She also said the selection of NGOs for humanitarian activities should be done with transparency and accountability.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

The State of human rights in ten Asian nations - 2005

The State of human rights in ten Asian nations - 2005: Source: Asian Human Rights Commission, Date: 31 Dec 2005

International Human Rights Day Message
The Absence of the Rule of Law and the Actualisation of Human Rights: A Contradiction that Must Be Resolved
International Human Rights Day on December 10 should be a moment in Asia to reflect soberly as to why on this continent, where more than half of the world's population live, basic human rights are denied to most people. Although there are complex factors that contribute to this denial of people's rights, one factor stands clearly above all others: the rule of law does not exist in most parts of this vast continent.
The nexus between the rule of law and the actual realisation of human rights is not something to which the global human rights community has paid sufficient attention. The result is that while enormous attempts have been made to propagate the basic ideas of human rights, as enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other covenants and conventions adopted by the international community under the sponsorship of the United Nations, the effort to create the conditions that are necessary for the actual realisation of human rights compares very poorly with the hard work that has been undertaken to create an awareness of human rights. The result is that people whose rights are so blatantly and continuously violated ask their governments as well as the United Nations, "Where are my rights?" To this question, neither the governments nor the United Nations and the international community are able to give a satisfactory answer as of now.
Burma, Nepal and Cambodia are among the countries in Asia that have no possibility of enforcing the rights of their people. Various political obstructions stand in the way of creating a type of state that is capable of undertaking the responsibilities necessary for the realisation of people's rights. While democratic and human rights jargon may be used by these states, they are preventing the development of the elementary forms of state development within which citizens can approach their state with even a most rudimentary level of confidence and belief that the state intends to respect their rights. From the point of view of accountability for respecting human rights, these states do not even have the basic structures to make such accountability possible. The international community, in approaching such countries, should take into consideration this key issue which, if left unresolved, will make the efforts of the international community likely to bear few tangible results. The example of Cambodia, where enormous international efforts and resources have been allocated over the last 10 years, demonstrates the type of internal contradictions that prohibit even small positive developments in this country. The same problems are evident in Burma and Nepal as well. We therefore urge the United Nations and the international community to pay special attention to these three countries and to develop a more comprehensive strategy to assist the development of state institutions through which people can seek redress and protection of their rights.
Many other countries in the region reflect how the absence of the rule of law in varying degrees obstructs the realisation of human rights. India and China are the countries with the largest populations in the world. Although the political systems and the history of their justice systems differ, there are similar patterns of obstructing the rights of people in both countries through defects in their rule of law systems.
India, for instance, claims long years of legal and constitutional development and the development of judicial institutions from colonial times up to now. However, the enormous delays that affect India's justice system and vast defects in India's policing system deprive ordinary citizens of their basic rights. India today stands as a glaring example of the adage that justice delayed is justice betrayed. Thus, those who suffer violations of their rights naturally have a deeply inherent pessimism about the possibility of actually achieving these rights. Moreover, the corruption and inefficiency embedded in India's policing system is a constant source of torture, particularly for India's poorer and marginalised sections of society, such as the country's minorities. The discriminatory psychology of caste is inbuilt into the policing system of India as well. Those who are considered to be Dalits and lower castes are among the people who are most brutalised by torture and are denied all of their rights. Other minorities, such as India's adivasis, or indigenous people, and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, are also denied the possibility of equality and fairness in their relationships with the police and justice within the basic institutions of the judicial system. It should be noted that although a request has been pending by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture to visit India since 1997 the government of India has not made this visit possible.
The denial of justice in China takes place in a different manner. China's struggle to build a system based on law instead of the arbitrary rule of individuals extends back more than two decades. Although some progress has been made in this direction, China, however, is far from establishing a system based on the rule of law. When social order is maintained without the rule of law, there are hardly any effective means of redress for people who feel that their rights have been violated. China does not recognise a separation of powers between the institutions of the state, and therefore, the independence of the judiciary from the executive does not exist. This present reality prevents the possibility of the judiciary intervening as an adjudicator on basic rights issues and obstructs the development of the rule of law in the country. This contradiction is a matter that China's people and the authorities will have to resolve in the future. The recent visit of Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, reflects the results of these contradictions. He notes that the use of torture is still widespread, though it is not always for political reasons. The general contradiction of the police and other institutions, such as prisons and rehabilitation centres and the like that are operating outside of the basic framework of the rule of law, will remain sources of torture and other violations of human rights. This contradiction cannot be cured by the imposition of the death sentence as China does now. The wide use of the death penalty is only a reflection of executive action to resolve perceived problems in an arbitrary manner rather than through institutional processes that strengthen the state and society.
Moreover, the rule of law is seriously flawed and torture is endemic and widespread in the following countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia in addition to the countries mentioned above. The key issues are the extremely arbitrary nature of policing systems; the lack of effective redress mechanisms in justice systems; enormous obstacles faced by people, particularly the poor, which constitute the majority of the population in these countries, in terms of access to the law; enormous delays in judicial systems; an absence of protection to the complainants and victims, particularly when they make complaints against state authorities; and the weak development of the legal profession in these countries, either due to intense pressure that intimidates lawyers or the lack of traditions of fearlessly defending people seeking justice. The net result is that, despite ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and other U.N. conventions and covenants against discrimination, people have little or no possibility of actually asserting these rights. While a facade of compliance to international treaty bodies is maintained, the observations and recommendations of these U.N. bodies are shamelessly flouted and ignored over and over again, in effect mocking the international effort to make it possible for everyone to enjoy their basic rights.
Meanwhile, the denial of human rights in Singapore belongs to a special category. Singapore makes it effectively impossible for people to live in an environment in which individual rights can exist. The ruling party is also virtually the state. Freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the capacity to assert one's rights do not exist in this environment at all. The absolute denial of rights makes it impossible for the realisation of any of the rights enshrined in the international covenants and conventions. In fact, the official political ideology does not recognise the validity of these covenants and conventions.
Under these circumstances, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) calls upon the peoples of Asia, as well as all others concerned with the actual realisation of human rights, to pay special attention to the link between the rule of law and human rights. Finding ways to resolve this contradiction is the path that has to be tread if human rights are to be a practical reality. As a symbolic means of stressing this issue and keeping it alive for discussion in the immediate future, the AHRC has launched an Asian Charter on the Rule of Law. This effort is a follow-up to AHRC's earlier effort to work towards drafting a People's Charter on Human Rights. We urge everyone to support this effort and to make the theme of improving the rule of law for the achievement of human rights a central theme of engagement in the coming year.
This year on International Human Rights Day the AHRC is presenting a report on the state of human rights in 10 Asian countries -- Thailand, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, the Philippines, Cambodia, South Korea and Indonesia.

Full report (pdf* format - 1.33 MB)

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