That perhaps is the country’s best known telephone number. Punch those four digits on any telephone and an ambulance will be at your door in less than 15 minutes, the average time of response. This is what the Suwa Seriya Ambulance Service, launched against a myriad of obstacles five years ago, has given the sick and injured free, gratis and for nothing rushing nearly a million people for hospital care since its innauguration. For many of them, this has been a life saver thanks to something a country, long used to doing otherwise, got right. It was not all plain sailing though. There was very strong opposition to the project, funded by India on a grant basis. The powerful Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) opposed it. So did several other influential parties and groups fearing job losses for locals, misplaced nationalism and other reasons now proved wrong. At the initial stages, even parking the ambulances in government hospitals was not permitted. But it has all ended well and today it is acknowledged to be one of the finest public services available to Sri Lankans.
Last week, Suwa Seriya which means “a journey to health/wellness” celebrated its fifth anniversary. The project was launched at the initiative of Dr. Harsha de Silva, then a non-cabinet minister of the Yahapalana government and now an Opposition MP. He suffered a traumatic experience on a trip to the Eastern Province with a group of family and friends when one of their vehicles suffered an accident and a member of the party was seriously hurt. Getting an ambulance to rush the injured to hospital proved problematic. It was then that the germ of the project that has given this country so much during the last five years came to be. De Silva says in an article we publish in this issue of our newspaper that on July 28, 2026, what was called the 1990 Suwa Seriya Project was launched in the Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces with 88 ambulances purchased from India with a grant of USD 7.6 million. Following the success of that pilot project, India granted a further USD 15.2 million to cover the whole island with the service.
Today as many as 297 ambulances are operated countrywide and they are a common sight even in remote areas. The service is managed entirely at the expense of the Government of Sri Lanka through the Suwa Seriya Foundation set up by an Act of Parliament. It is run by an eminent group working in an honorary capacity. There is no gainsaying the founder’s claim that the “last five years have been a period of healing for the country.” People who have benefited from the service and their near and dear are all too aware of its value as also a wider segment of the population who have seen and heard of the good that it has done and continues to do. All of us Lankans must be truly grateful to India for gifting us this invaluable service, her second biggest donation to an immediate neighbour. In value terms, it is only behind the ongoing 60,000 houses grant costing nearly USD 400 million. There was one condition attached to the gift – that after the initial phase, the Government of Sri Lanka must take over the service and run it. “We readily agreed,” de Silva says.
Making an outright grant to purchase the ambulances was not all that India did to get the service started and keep it running. Since the project was setup, New Delhi and Colombo organized training for Lankan ambulancemen and technicians to hone their skills at a specialized institution in Hyderabad. The well known newspaper, The Hindu, in a recent report marking the fifth anniversary of the ambulance service reported that so far, all 709 technicians working round the clock for Suwa Seriya have been trained in India. The report quoted Sohan de Silva, Suwa Seriya’s CEO, saying that this hands-on training has greatly helped our emergency technicians who also undergo refresher programmes periodically. The not-for-profit Foundation which runs the service has a staff of 1,400 and is a semi-government institution including medical technicians and drivers. It is under the purview of the Ministry of Health with State Minister Sudharshini Fernandopulle, a qualified doctor, in charge. While each ambulance carry a sticker saying it is a gift from the people of India to the people of Sri Lanka acknowledging the Indian connection, as Harsha de Silva told The Hindu, the service is Sri Lanka’s and run entirely by Sri Lankans.”
It is a matter of satisfaction that despite the political orientation of those who initially opposed the project, the new government is wholeheartedly supporting what its predecessor began. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently went of record saying that the ambulance fleet will be augmented with 112 new vehicles. The situation caused by the current explosion of the Covid pandemic has demonstrated anew the value of this service which has over the past few months redoubled its efforts attending not only to medical and accident related emergencies but also in helping the transfer of Covid-infected patients to hospitals. The country certainly owes a debt of gratitude to India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a personal interest in the project when Dr. Harsha de Silva first made the request to him while he was here on an official visit some years ago. Equally so to de Silva for all the hard work he has put in to make the project the success it is. Thanks are also due to all those others, who in an honorary capacity, helped move it along and continues to help manage it.
Whether the announced local elections will be held as scheduled on March 9 remains a question that is wide open. The confusion became more confounded last week with the resignation from the Elections Commission of Mrs. P.S.M. Charles and speculation that its chairman, Attorney Nimal Punchihewa, would also resign. This was subsequently denied by Punchihewa himself but that is not the end of the story. The new Constitutional Council, meeting for the first time with the Speaker in the chair ex-officio decided to reconstitute all the so-called Independent Commissions mandated by the Constitution. This, of course includes the Elections Commission and raises the question of how any changes in its composition can affect the local elections for which nominations have concluded and a date set.
Former Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, who enjoyed wide visibility during his tenure, went on record after Charles’ resignation saying that it will not affect the working of the five-member commission with a quorum defined as three. With four members still in office, the number necessary to make up a quorum is available. When the election day itself was decided, only three members were physically present at the meeting and the consent of the two absent member had been obtained, Punchihewa has said. This has not been denied. But the state-controlled Daily News, in its lead story last Tuesday, quoted Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, a former chairman of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Council, saying that the date of the election must be gazetted in terms of the election law and no gazette had been issued. The date had merely been announced through the media and this was insufficient, he had said.
We do not know whether he was right or not at the time he made the remark or whether there was a subsequent gazette as is probable. Mahanamahewa is on further record saying the names of all five members of the Election Commission were on the gazette calling for nominations and it must be similar with regard to setting a date for the poll. However that be, many would wonder why Mrs. Charles who, having known that the Elections Commission itself was in a “state of flux” (if we may borrow Mahanamahewa’s language), chose to resign at this moment. She, as the country at large well knew that as the Constitutional Council had been constituted, all the Independent Commissions (there are eight of them including the Elections Commission, Human Rights Commission, Police Commission, Public Service Commission etc.) will be reconstituted. So what was the hurry to resign? The terms of all five members of the Elections Commission will soon come to an end.
The Daily News interpreted Charles’ resignation as confirmation of “deep divisions” within the Elections Commission over several issues including the holding of the local elections. It must be remembered that Mrs. Charles is a very senior public official belonging to the special grade of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. She has held high office including Governor of the Northern Province, Director General of Customs, GA Vavuniya when the LTTE held sway and Ministry Secretary. She is a serving SLAS officer. She has resigned in the context of a situation of a government appearing to be afraid, nay terrified, of holding the local elections in the present perilous country conditions. So who can be blamed for suspecting that here is an inspired resignation given that Mrs. Charles herself has publicly given no reasons for her exit.
In this context it may be useful to go back to fairly recent history to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government of the 1970s when there was a conflict between the legislature and the judiciary. Justice Hector Deheragoda, sitting on the new Constitutional Court chaired by Justice T.S. Fernando along with Justice JAL Cooray resigned from the court then adjudicating on the new Press Council Bill, the first matter to be brought before it. The court was sitting in the then House of Representatives with Mr. Sam Wijesinha, the Clerk of the House, as its Registrar. When the proceedings were ongoing, there was a demand in the chamber of the House that the court should be evicted from its premises. Speaker Stanley Tillakaratne made a remark eliciting a response from Justice TS Fernando that interpretation of the Constitution was a matter for the court and not for the speaker. It was amid this furor that Justice Deheragoda tendered his resignation aborting the continuance of the proceedings.
The government keeps tub thumping that the local elections will cost ten billion rupees the country cannot afford in its current economic predicament. The opposition is brimming with confidence that the results of these elections will signal the end of what many in its ranks delight in calling the “Ranil – Rajapaksa” government. The matter is now before court and the last word will probably be its determination. The affidavit filed before court by the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance/Treasury clearly states the financial predicament the government is placed in. While the determination is awaited the angry debate in the political space on whether or not the elections will be held will continue. There is yet no clear sign of countrywide election activity though nominations have been filed by the mainstream and minor parties as well as independent groups. But ominous threats abound of what’s likely to happen if there is no election.
HRCSL in govt.’s crosshairs
Saturday 28th January, 2023
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has placed itself in the crosshairs of the government by carrying out its duties and functions conscientiously. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera has claimed that his ministry is contemplating legal action against two HRCSL members for having allegedly pressured two of his ministry officials to agree to suspend power cuts until the conclusion of the ongoing GCE A/L examination. He says the two mandarins were threatened with imprisonment, and he has brought the matter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s attention and made a complaint to the Constitutional Council (CC).
Those who were present at the HRCSL meeting where an agreement was reached to suspend power cuts for the benefit of the students sitting the GCE A/L examination have said nobody was intimidated. Is the government trying to make a case for removing the HRCSL members.
There is reason to believe that the Power and Energy Ministry officials agreed to suspend power cuts at the aforesaid meeting but subsequently went back on their commitment because they incurred the wrath of the government for doing so. One may recall that in June 2022, the then Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board M. M. C. Ferdinando told the Committee on Public Enterprises that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pressured President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to award the Mannar wind power project contract to India’s Adani Group. Ferdinando said President Rajapaksa had, after a meeting, told him that the latter was under pressure from Modi to ensure that Adani clinched the deal. It was obvious that Ferdinando, an experienced public official, was telling the truth; he had no reason to lie. But he withdrew his statement and resigned when President Rajapaksa took exception to his claim. No action was taken against Ferdinando because the government did not want to open a can of worms. This is how most public officials react under political pressure.
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration’s imperiousness knows no bounds. The Executive is doing everything in its power to keep all other institutions under its thumb. It has made a mockery of the Constitution by meddling with the independent commissions. President Wickremesinghe, who is the leader of the UNP, which is contesting the local government elections scheduled to be held in March, had a meeting with the members of the Election Commission (EC) and asked them to speak with one voice anent the announcement of the mini polls. The President cannot give such directions to the EC, especially when he/she happens to be a political party leader.
All Presidents save D. B. Wijetunga have bolstered the widely-held view that the executive presidency is a threat to democracy. All of them except Gotabaya secured the presidency while being members of Parliament and offered to strengthen the legislature and ensure the independence of the judiciary, but chose to undermine those two branches of government, and other vital state institutions to consolidate their hold on power.
The incumbent government also stands accused of trying to render the EC incapable of having quorate meetings by causing its members to resign as part of its strategy to postpone the local council polls. One EC member has already sent in her resignation letter. The newly-appointed CC has undertaken to reconstitute the independent commissions including the EC. Speculation is rife that the government is trying to have some pliable commissioners appointed so that it will be able to manipulate the EC.
It is hoped that all those who cherish democracy will unite to prevent the government from bulldozing the HRCSL and other independent commissions, which are the bulwarks against tyranny.
Heed their voice
Friday 27th January, 2023
A group of Central Bank (CB) employees, on Wednesday, joined other professionals in protesting against the recently-introduced steep tax hikes. As part of the ongoing Black Protest Week campaign conducted by a collective of professional associations, those workers put up black flags and stood up to the police, who tried to disrupt their demonstration. Some police officers tend to go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with their political masters, and run the risk of being hauled up before court for fundamental rights violations. Some CB workers were seen protesting in Colombo yesterday as well.
The irony of the CB workers’ protests may not have been lost on political observers. The CB is spearheading the government’s efforts to secure a bailout package from the IMF, which has prescribed the huge tax increases at issue. But the CB employees themselves are opposed to that measure, and with reason! How could the government expect other workers to accept its tax policy?
Why professionals are so incensed as to take to the streets against tax increases is understandable. They are not refusing to pay taxes. Everybody agrees that taxes must be paid, for the state needs money to meet its expenditure, but they must be reasonable, and taxpayers need an assurance that their money will not end up in the pockets of politicians or will be used to support the high life of the rulers and their cronies, in some other way. Soaring inflation has taken its toll on their earnings, and needless to say, tax increases have aggravated their financial woes as never before. They have to look after their families and repay loans. What infuriates them more than anything else is perhaps the fact that politicians live in the lap of luxury at their expense and waste colossal amounts of public money, the allocation of more than Rs. 200 million for the Independence Day celebrations to be held early next month being a case in point.
Worse, all executive level employees in this country have had to contend with multiple taxation. Their salaries are taxed; they are affected by the taxes imposed on the Employees’ Provident Fund. When they retire, their terminal benefits are taxed. They have to pay taxes on their interest income as well. Thus, they live to pay taxes, and politicians are living off them.
Another factor that has exasperated professionals is the cavalier attitude of some government politicians who seem to think those who draw higher salaries deserve to be exploited. A Cabinet minister has drawn heavy flak from trade unions for saying something to the effect that anyone who earns Rs. 100,000 or more is ‘not innocent’. Is it that one loses one’s innocence when one begins to earn more than Rs 100,000 after studying hard, acquiring academic and professional qualifications and gaining experience? It is only natural that workers become resentful when they see semi-literate politicians living like Citizen Kane while they and their family members are suffering.
It will be a huge mistake for the government to ignore the voice of the professionals on the warpath and resort to coercion in a bid to neutralise their protests. They are different from the Aragalaya activists, who were dependent mostly on their numerical strength to win their demands.
The Aragalaya protest movement disintegrated owing to crackdowns, and the government has since embarked on a witch-hunt against its leaders. Notorious drug kingpin, Kanjipani Imran, secured bail and fled the country, but student leader Wasantha Mudalige, who was involved in Aragalaya, has been arrested and remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act! The government will not be able to deal with the protesting professionals in a similar manner, for they possess trade union power, which they will not hesitate to use if push comes to shove.
It behoves the government to stop playing with fire and get the representatives of the warring professionals around the table without provoking them further. The sooner, the better!
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