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Don’t give up on Sri Lanka

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By Remy Jayasekere

Chartered engineer

Periodically, we have presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka. After each election, the supporters of the winners hope for a better future while the defeated lick their wounds. The winners try to support the government while the defeated criticise and obstruct every move of the government. After the last season of elections the situation was no different. However things have changed after less than a year of the new government. It is difficult to find any support for the government now. The people who supported the governing party are disillusioned. The pandemic has contributed a lot to this but there are many other factors involved.

More than 20 million people live in Sri Lanka, each needing food, shelter, education, healthcare and many other services. Most people work hard to get these, with differing levels of success. As in any other country, people complain when they fail to get what they want. Their frustrations are reflected in what they write in mass and social media. Somebody reading these may think that people have given up on the development of this country, because they paint such a bleak picture. Most people are disillusioned and downhearted. Among other things they highlight corruption, political, racial and religious divisions, poverty and lack of leadership. Country’s financial debt is a major concern as well. Most of these claims appear to be true and have contributed to the mess the country is in today. Many, are trying to get out of the country as quickly as possible. However, we cannot give up – we need to soldier on. If we gave up, the situation would become even worse – more violence, increase in poverty, hunger, frustration and chaos.

The brunt of such criticism is aimed at the government. It is hard to justify getting a member of the parliament, the latest luxury car when there are thousands of schools without toilets or running water or when hundreds of thousands of children in the country are malnourished. The bond scam, Easter Sunday bombings have been investigated but no culprits have been found and punished so far. Both sides of politics seem to be equally corrupt and incompetent. More importantly they seem to protect each other. French philosopher Joseph de Maistre said that countries get governments they deserve. One wonders how this applies in the Sri Lankan context. Are we corrupt as a society to end up with such corrupt governments? Do we have to bribe every step of the way to get things done? Principals of schools are caught taking bribes. Remembering giving bribes is equally as bad as receiving one, what can we do to get rid of this menace?

Then we have our divisions – political, racial and religious – each responsible for massive bloodbaths. It is hard to find another country in the world that has a continuing history of such violence – 1958, 1971, 1983 (1983 – 2009), 1989, 2009. Then, when we thought bloodletting had ended, 2019 happened. In all these events, Sri Lankans were killing other Sri Lankans – Tamil Vs Sinhalese, Government Vs Sinhalese youth and in 2019, Islamic terrorists attacking Christian churches and hotels. Some accuse foreign powers of inflaming prevailing tensions but successive governments and political parties have created and made use of these divisions for their political advantage. If we are to succeed, we need to rise above these petty differences and act as one nation under one flag and end these uncivil wars. Our differences do not have to be raging fires destroying everything in their paths. We will always have our differences but the challenge is to live in peace and harmony in spite of our differences.

As a result of the above and a multitude of other factors, our economy has suffered. In round figures, we are a nation of about 20 million people with a nominal annual GDP of about USD 80 Billion.

Therefore our per capita annual GDP is about USD 4,000. While this is high in comparison to our neighboring countries, it is very low by world standards. Singapore’s number is above USD 60,000. Even more alarmingly, the annual production in the agriculture sector is 8% of GDP or about USD 7 billion. This sector employs one third of the population (about 7 million people). Therefore, the annual per capita product in the agriculture sector is only USD 1000 (7 million people producing USD 7 billion ) and their incomes are at a similar level. This is one of our biggest problems – a third of the population doing things the same old way and being condemned to eternal poverty. To illustrate what is possible, in the Australian agriculture sector, 300,000 people produce AUD 60 billion worth of goods, annually – per capita product of AUD 200,000 or about USD 150,00. The difference between the two countries seems to be the size of farm, level of technology and mechanization, education, training and commitment. This also explains the difference in the living standards of farmers in the two countries.

Healthcare is the key sector at the present moment, because of the pandemic, and so it should be. In addition to what I have written above, to develop our country, there are so many other sectors such as education, infrastructure, services and unity of the nation that need to be addressed.

None of the above can be achieved without committed and competent leadership. The sad state of Sri Lanka’s socio- economic development since independence is a good measure of the success or lack of It, of all past leaders. The present political system does not allow outsiders or new leaders to get in easily – No Donald Trumps, Emmanuel Macrons or Jacinda Ardern. We saw what happened to Nagananda and Mahesh Senanayake. However good you may be, you cannot helicopter in and win elections in Sri Lanka. There were a few exceptions such as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sirimavo Banaranaike, where family connections were crucial in their victories. As history in Sri Lanka and elsewhere has shown recently, armed struggles are out of the question – they do not succeed but only cause suffering and death for many. Unless something unforeseen happens the only way forward to a successful future seems to be talented people, taking up politics, and becoming leaders.

As a member of the common man brigade of Sri Lanka, what will I do to help and not give up on Sri Lanka? Here is my wish list.

First of all, one will consider becoming a political leader, if one has the necessary attributes, especially a vision for developing the country. It is just one good leader a country needs – Lee Kwan Yew developed Singapore to be what it is today almost singlehandedly. Everybody cannot become the President but there are many in the teams who can influence outcomes. If I have the ability but do not take up the challenge, how I can I blame the others for messing things up.

I will become an activist and an agent for change. I will campaign vigorously for a just society through mass or social media or by any other means. The need of the hour is to build a united country of love, compassion and inclusion. I will campaign against corruption and division – racial, social, political and religious. I will set an example by living according to these values.

I will do an honest day’s work at work. If we all did this, our workplaces will be happier and our country will benefit through increased output. The people who deal with us also will be happier.

I will learn as much as I can, on as many topics as possible. It is education that enables people to widen their horizons, identify opportunities and succeed. If I have the will and time, learning is so easy now, with so much information available on the internet.

Keywords in development these days are mechanisation and automation. Automation is going to make life much worse for countries like Sri Lanka. As an example, imagine rich countries developing machines to make clothing automatically and hugely reducing the labour content. They are working on this already. The need for importing clothing will dry up as they can produce their clothing themselves. I will try to be an agent of change in this field – think of mechanisation and automation wherever we can. Mechanisation need not be fancy. They can be improved ways of harvesting vegetables, drying your clothes or making string hoppers.

Governments cannot develop countries by themselves. They can create the right framework for businesses to thrive. It is mostly the private sector that grows food, manufacture goods and provides services. The higher the output the higher the GDP. To contribute towards this, I will start a business when I can. Consider the impact it will have, if a million people started new businesses. In most countries, while big businesses are important, the engine of growth is small and medium enterprise (SME). Most of what we consume including food, manufactured items and materials and parts for our service provision are imported. I will look at the opportunities these present and start my business and become rich, contributing to the development of the country as well.

All the above will be irrelevant, if in a few years the world has problems due to climate change. Climate change is going to change our weather patterns and sea levels. It is the duty of everyone to contribute towards reducing the effects of climate change. I will be an activist on this front and do whatever I can do and encourage others to the same as well.

If we do all the above, Sri Lanka will gradually develop but we should not expect quick results. Even if our GDP grows at the unlikely but very attractive rate of 10% annually, at the end of 2025, our annual per capita GDP will still be around USD 6000 – still a developing country. Development is a long- term game and requires patience, persistence and perseverance. The challenge is not to be disappointed but to keep working at it.

Finally, I will help those who are less fortunate than me. Sri Lanka is the 6th most generous nation on the planet but we need to keep giving even at a larger scale to minimise the suffering of the poor.

We should take note of what President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. We cannot give up now. The country needs a lot of “doing” by all of us. The future of our children, friends, relations and countrymen is at stake. We need to build a country that respects alternative viewpoints, inclusive of minorities and listen to all voices and accommodates the will of the majority. The situation seems grim but if we persist and work hard to achieve our goals, the results could be very pleasing.

May Sri Lanka prosper!



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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Features

New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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