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Don decries failure of authorities to keep country ticking despite lockdowns

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Eighteen months had passed since the first lockdown but the government had not put a system in place for public servants to work from home and ensure service delivery, Prof Manuj Weerasinghe, Head of the Department of Community Medicine, University of Colombo said yesterday.

The government should now at least use the current lockdown to introduce a system for government employees to work remotely in the long term, he said.

Prof. Weerasinghe said that many public servants still worked maintaining files and digitalisation was still not widespread.

“It has been 18 months since the first lockdown, and we still don’t have a system where government servants can work from home. If we had started the digitization process and worked from home protocols in 2020, a lockdown wouldn’t affect the service delivery of the government. In fact, the government could have saved tens of millions every day by keeping most of its employees at home. In New Zealand they have the systems in place and they immediately shutdown the country after they found one delta case, but the government sector didn’t shut down,” he said.

A few months ago, the government decided to bring back all government sector workers to office and there was a massive congestion in public transport and that too probably contributed to the spread of the virus, Prof. Weerasinghe said adding that once the current lockdown was over and offices resumed, buses and trains would be packed, which in turn would lead to more COVID cases.

“The transport system is a big problem. We had 18 months to set up a working public transport system and we had done nothing. Once the lockdown ends and buses are on the road, you will see that we are back at square one. It’s as if the last 18 months never happened,” he said.

Prof. Weerasinghe said the government as well as the general public believed that once the vaccination was over, the country could go back to what it was before COVID-19. Thus, there was no interest in setting up any system. Taking the example of problems in the food distribution system, Prof. Weerasinghe said that there was a crisis in food distribution during COVID-19 because our cooperative system had collapsed.

“Because of this we encouraged mobile trucks to distribute food. When the country was shut for a few months in 2020, a system of distribution was established where essential items were brought near people’s homes. When the country was opened the system died a natural death. When we had to shut down again, it took a few days to set this system up anew. Again, we see some mobile vendors on the road, are we going to let this system die once we lift the lockdown? Or are we going to formalize this so that people don’t need to move about much?” he asked.

Prof. Weerasinghe added that many countries in the world had learnt from COVID-19 and had changed their systems to be more resilient. A number of protocols, from introducing new technologies to remote working, had been introduced to make the system more efficient and resilient beyond the pandemic, he said.

“The world won’t go back to 2019. Neither should we. We must look at establishing systems where essential items are delivered home and promoting remote work. We must get along with the times,” he said.



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‘Ratwatte’s boorish actions unbecoming of a Minister’

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DEW alleges cover-up, warns of dire consequences

By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time Prisons Minister Dew Gunasekera yesterday (16) called for an immediate police investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s recent wild behaviour inside the Anuradhapura prison, where he issued death threats to two LTTEers incarcerated there.

Gunasekera pointed out that the minister had forcibly entered the Anuradhapura prison on 12 Sept. around 5.30 pm in the wake of the government turning a blind eye to his earlier drunken raid on Welikada prison on 06 Sept. Gunasekera served as the Prisons Minister after the end of the war in May 2009. The former minister stressed that on both occasions the State Minister in a state of inebriation had been armed with a pistol and was accompanied by several others. Law enforcement authorities couldn’t afford not to investigate the incident, the ex-minister said, referring to the presence of a woman among the crowd that entered Welikada and they went onto visit the gallows.

Prison sources said that Ratwatte had arrived at the Anuradhapura prison after being to week-long Sathi Pirith chanting ceremony at Anuradhapura sacred Mirisawetiya compound in order to invoke spiritual blessings for eradication of COVID-19 epidemic from Sri Lanka and the world. The pirith chanting culminated on the following day evening after conducting a special Buddha Pooja.

“Conduct a proper investigation or face the consequences,” the former General Secretary of the Communist Party told The Island, pointing out the responsibility on the part of the ruling SLPP to conduct its own inquiry.

SLPP General Secretary attorney-at-law Sagara Kariyawasam said that the matter could be taken up with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also the Chairman of the party on his return from an overseas visit. Lawmaker Kariyawasam said so when The Island asked him whether the party would initiate disciplinary action against Ratwatte.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, also a member of the SLPP, should brief the Parliament how he intended to address this issue, Gunasekera said. The outspoken political veteran said that the Police Headquarters should make a public statement on those incidents.

Gunasekera emphasiSed that the Anuradhapura incident could have been averted if the government took tangible measures in the wake of Ratwatte’s raid on Welikada prison several days before.

Alleging that the Prisons Department suppressed both Welikada and Anuradhapura incidents, Gunasekera questioned the rationale in Ratwatte being allowed to avoid a proper investigation by giving up Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation portfolio and also queried how Ratwatte could be allowed to continue as the State Minister of Gem and Jewellery related Industries as if nothing had happened.

“I’m really disappointed and disgusted with the way the government handled Anuradhapura and Welikada affairs,” Gunasekera said.

Responding to queries, Gunasekera pointed out that the incidents placed Sri Lanka at an extremely embarrassing position at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) ongoing 48th sessions.

Pointing out that UN Resident Representative in Colombo Hanaa Singer as well as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) and the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) roundly condemned Ratwatte’s actions; Gunasekera said the government would have to face grave consequences unless a proper investigation was conducted. The government should inquire into those incidents taking into consideration the ongoing Geneva confab and the forthcoming UNGA.

The former minister pointed out that the Prisons Media Spokesman and Commissioner Chandana Ekanayaka denied any knowledge of the incident.

Gunasekera welcomed the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) launching an investigation into the incidents. Nihal Chandrasiri, HRCSL’s Acting Director – Research & Monitoring told The Island that the outfit initiated an inquiry on its own into the incidents that had taken place in Prisons. “Three Regional Coordinating Officers of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka visited Anuradhapura Prison on 15th September 2021 to investigate the incidents that took place on 12th September 2021. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka will summon all the responsible parties connected to these incidents as early as possible.”

The CP heavyweight recalled how thousands of LTTE cadres and suspects brought under the military and the Prisons system at the conclusion of the war in May 2009 were protected. Those who had been campaigning against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC and the UN would exploit Ratwatte’s actions, the former lawmaker said, adding that the ruling party seemed bent on causing its own destruction.

Gunasekera said that recently Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne and IGP C.D. Wickremaratne explained measures taken by the government to eradicate the underworld especially those directing the narcotics trade from within prisons. They assured the public of safety and security. However, Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons underscored the reality, Gunasekera said and called on the Prisons Chief to explain his failure to address the Welikada incident.

Police headquarters hasn’t so far issued an official statement on incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura.

Ratwatte was sworn in as the Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Minister in the wake of the Mahara Prison riot in late Nov 2020. Ratwatte succeeded Dr. Sudarshini Fernandoplle.

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CTU: ‘Grant demands of principals and teachers before school reopening’

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

The demands of principals and teachers should be granted before the government re-opens the schools, Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU) says.

CTU General Secretary Joseph Stalin told The Island yesterday that the Secretary to the Ministry of Education had said the ministry would use alternative methods to collect GCE AL applications. Usually, it was the principals who sent applications to the Ministry of Education, but principals had refused to be involved until their salary anomalies were rectified. “The answer to this problem is simple. Just solve our issues. The government can easily do it.”

Stalin said that principals and teachers unions had held several discussions with ministers but without success.

On Wednesday (15) the Minister of Health Keheliya Rambukwella said that Grades one to six would reopen after two weeks.

Rambukwella said the government had decided to reopen the schools with fewer than 200 students first. There were around 5,000 such schools he said.

The Minister said so during a meeting with Health Ministry Secretary Major General Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe, Education Ministry Secretary Prof. Kapila Perera, Director-General of Health Services Dr. Asela Gunawardena, high-level officials of the two ministries and several representatives of the GMOA including its President Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya.

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SL – India economic and democratic cooperation extensive – Speaker

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By Saman Indrajith

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena yesterday said that the economic and democratic cooperation between Sri Lanka and India, both now and in the past, was significant.

Addressing the All India Presiding Officers Conference (AIPOC), organised by the Indian Lok Sabha through video technology, the Speaker said: “Parliament of Sri Lanka is the oldest parliament elected by universal adult franchise in Asia. As the largest democracy in the world how India’s legislature functions in a multi- religious, multi-ethnic society offers many valuable lessons for not only us as neighbours, but even to the scholars of democratic governance”.

The conference was held under the theme “The Role of Legislature in Fostering Effective and Meaningful Democracy” to mark the Centennial year of the AIPOC as well as the International Day of Democracy which is celebrated on Sept 15 every year.

The conference chaired by the Hon Speaker of the Indian Lok Sabha Shri Om Birla was attended by the President of Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Duarte Pacheco. Hon. Speakers from national legislatures including Austria, Guyana, Maldives, Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Namibia also addressed the virtual conference. Presiding officers of state legislatures in India joined via video technology. The Secretary General of Parliament of Sri Lanka Dhammika Dassanayake was also in attendance at the conference.

Addressing the conference, the Speaker said that Shri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India addressed the Parliament of Sri Lanka in 2015 during his historical visit, which strengthened the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

The Speaker said that the Parliament of Sri Lanka has adopted a policy of open parliament with the intention of enhancing citizen participation and engagement in the parliamentary process.

He said that Parliament has taken steps recently to reach the public through the newly established Department of Communications. “It is expected to expand the knowledge on Parliamentary process and uphold democracy amongst the population particularly targeting the school children who are the future flag bearers of democracy,” he said.

The speaker said: “After the enactment of the Right to Information Bill, the Parliament of Sri Lanka took a decision to open the sessions of the committees to the media and this was a significant step towards strengthening the parliamentary democratic system that will pave the way for greater transparency and accountability. The Parliament of Sri Lanka has a vibrant committee system which plays a key role in creating a forum for the Parliamentarians and the Ministers of the Cabinet to interact directly in addressing many relevant issues which fall within their respective portfolios”.

He said despite the Covid -19 challenge Parliament has continued with its usual sittings even though the number of sittings days were curtailed to minimize the risk.

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