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Dr. Ajith C.S. Perera, a fighter to the last

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Disability activist, accessibility consultant, accomplished author, writer and speaker

This is no eulogy. I leave the appreciation of Ajith’s work to others who knew him and his work better than I. I belong to another generation, that of his father. So what I say here is personal, not quite what a reader would expect, but it is honest and heartfelt and, above all, something to think about.

Ajith was a tragic and heroic player in a script not of his choosing. This is the role in which he was cast in this life. As a Buddhist I know that whatever befell him was the result of some cause or other – what, we do not know – and I know that the good generated by him in this life will generate good fortune to someone else down the karmic stream. Somewhere, today, a baby lies cocooned in a mother’s womb: a baby who will reap his legacy. That will be his gift to that child: but that child will not know from where it all came. As Ajith, himself, must have spent many hours wondering why things happened to him, himself.

I call him a tragic figure because so many things went wrong. I remember him as a little boy with a cricket bat in hand, waiting for someone who would bowl for him. Sometimes, that was me, and Ajith remembered those days. How was I to know that I was bowling to a future International Test Umpire? He did become that, and an authority on cricket. I lost sight of him after that till I met him in the office of the late Dr. N.R de Silva, my contemporary and colleague, who introduced “this bright young man with an enviable future.”

The road ahead was strewn with flowers: but then, the skies turned dark. One “dark and stormy night” snuffed out that promise. Two promising international careers in cricket and Chemistry, was cut short when a tree fell on his moving car, leaving Ajith paraplegic for life. Thus tethered at so young an age, he took upon four tasks: Keeping his father’s memory evergreen, caring for his widowed mother, giving back from his knowledge to Cricket and taking the lead in moves to make life easier for those who were as disabled, or rather differently-abled as him, or worse.

I do remember taking him to address a gathering of disabled soldiers. Ajith would not go on stage but spoke from his wheelchair on the floor of the Auditorium. He deftly wheeled his way down the aisles, stopping to speak to the soldiers on the same level as he, himself. His dexterity in handling the wheelchair, his ability to speak to one man at a time with full attention, and his self-confidence impressed the soldiers and they left the Hall with shoulders squared and heads held high again.

By reason of personal adversity he turned a voluntary disability activist, accessibility consultant on ‘Enabling Environments’, and accomplished author, writer and speaker. He is also the founder and Hony. Secretary-General of IDIRIYA, a not-for-profit humanitarian service organisation born from his passion and commitment for creating environments that are ‘enabling for all’. He didn’t appreciate pity on behalf of the disabled, nor dependency on part of the disabled, pointing out that able-bodied people often tended to see the ‘disability’ of disabled persons instead of their numerous ‘abilities’. He argued that if everyone adopted a charitable attitude to differently-abled people they would become unwanted dependents of society.

He believed that Sri Lanka needed social empowerment rather than social welfare. He discarded the medical model that labelled people like him ‘disabled’ in favour of the social model, which taught him that human abilities vary widely and is subject to continuous change leading to often debilitating conditions. It was Ajith’s a voluntary efforts that lead to the Supreme Court order to provide differently-abled persons with unhindered access to new public buildings. He hoped that, with the proper implementation of the law, all government and private sector buildings will soon be enabling for all. His tireless efforts made accessibility a legal obligation, rather than just a social responsibility.

He will be remembered for ensuring that his father’s name was remembered in the Navy and, when an oration in his name was delivered on the Golden Jubilee of the Naval Academy, that was Ajith’s day.

On top of it all, his father’s eyesight began to fail. A teacher by nature, Commander M.G.S Perera, had retired from the Navy to be a Staff Captain training Ceylon Shipping Corporation officer cadets. The man who taught celestial navigation to generations of trainees suddenly lost his sight: “the most unkindest cut of all.” Not being able to see “the sun in the morning and the stars at night.” Death would have come as a welcome relief.

With his mother getting older and weaker, he had to run house for her and, unlike most of us, he had no pension, having been disabled so young. It must have been a tough time for him. How can we understand what he was going through? He badgered people to do things, but what else could he do? He managed, though, not wonderfully well, but well enough. That is why I think of him as a tragic figure raging against Fate. He was hard and demanding at times – what else could he do, with no tools in his hand but his voice and his computer? We all found him hard, at times, and even resented it, but we knew that he was tethered to a wheel, and to others who looked to him.

With the death of his mother last year life became very hard for him because there was no purpose in running house. But what else could he do but run it? There were others there and there was no place for him to go. And where was the money? Illness finally claimed him and, perhaps, the will to live, a purpose to live for, deserted him. When had he last been happy I wonder? But he had been mere flotsam in a karmic stream he had no control over. All he could do was leave a legacy to an unborn child. And that, I believe, he did.

This is no eulogy. It is but an honest appraisal of a player cast in a tragic role “’midst the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune.” Ajith will be remembered for what he tried to do, rather than what he could have achieved “had he (had) but world enough and Time.”

Anon



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Opinion

Right to travel

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A.G. Noorani

VERY few would dispute that travel broadens the mind. But in the developing nations of this world, the state asserts that it can determine whether its citizen has the right to go abroad or not. The supreme court may take its own time to decide whether or not a citizen — even if he or she lives in a country that claims itself to be a democracy — has the right to possess a passport. Even if that is allowed as an essential travel document, the authorities might decide who can use it or who cannot. The government of India, regardless of which party is in power, seems to have assumed the right to decide whether or not to let a chief minister travel abroad.

The victim is the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, who was to speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore. But the BJP-ruled government, headed by Narendra Modi, felt that he could not go and did not give him clearance. Its approach was nonsensical.

By now, most of the countries of the Third World have ratified the United Nations. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). This is an international treaty in law while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is, in law, just a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. Article 12(2) of the covenant provides that “Everyone shall be free to leave any county including his own” — in other words, there should be no restrictions on travelling abroad.

The covenant sets up a human rights committee of distinguished persons who are not representatives of the government but are individuals of note who have “high moral character” and are elected by the states, who have ratified the covenant.Parties to the covenant have to file reports to the committee on their observance of the stipulations contained within. States send mostly their attorney general to defend their reports. Members of the committee grill representative of the states. They do not publicise much of the report within their own countries or the contents of their reports. Both err on the side of exaggeration.

Unfortunately, civil liberties movements in the Third World are generally not articulate nor well-equipped. The exception that stands out is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based in Lahore whose prominent chairperson, the late Mr I.A. Rehman, never failed to stand up for civil rights.

In India, following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the election in 1977, a liberal government came to power which ratified the UN covenant in March 1979. They ratified it only with certain conditions but these did not concern Article 21 of the constitution of India that says very clearly that “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

The Indian supreme court has ruled that fundamental rights can be exercised outside the country. In 1978, the apex court had to deal with Maneka Gandhi’s case concerning the impounding of her passport. The supreme court held:

“…[F]reedom to go abroad is one of such rights, for the nature of man as a free agent necessarily involves free movement on his part. There can be no doubt that if the purpose and the sense of state is to protect personality and its development, as indeed it should be of any liberal democratic state, freedom to go abroad must be given its due place amongst the basic rights.

“This right is an important basic human right for it nourishes independent and self-determining creative character of the individual, not only by extending his freedoms of action, but also by extending the scope of his experience. It is a right which gives intellectual and creative workers in particular the opportunity of extending their spiritual and intellectual horizon through study at foreign universities, through contact with foreign colleagues and through participation in discussions and conferences.

“The right also extends to private life; marriage, family and friendship are humanities which can be rarely affected through refusal of freedom to go abroad and clearly show that this freedom is a genuine human right.

“Moreover, this freedom would be a highly valuable right where man finds himself obliged to flee: (a) because he is unable to serve his God as he wished at the previous place of residence, (b) because his personal freedom is threatened for reasons which do not constitute a crime in the usual meaning of the word and many were such cases during the emergency, or (c) because his life is threatened either for religious or political reasons or through the threat to the maintenance of minimum standard of living compatible with human dignity.” This ruling has stood the test of time.

(The Dawn/ANN)
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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Opinion

If visitors pay USD at airport, no fuel queues for them

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The above statement was made by Manusha Nanayakkara our Labour & Foreign Employment Minister. How the Minister is going to do it is not known.I wish to make a few suggestions to the Minister for his consideration to implement his proposal. Tourists, migrant workers and the dual citizens were the people whom the Minister referred to in his proposal. Many expat Sri Lankans of whom some could be dual citizens visit home once a year to spend their holidays with their families. Since Covid this might have slowed down.

With the Covid jabs even though one could catch Covid people have started to travel. Travelling to Colombo again will slow down due to the pathetic situation that exist with a shortage of everything, particularly fuel, gas and medicines. The Minister’s statement is some encouragement, but he must place his plan for the consideration of the prospective travellers and shoe by action.

The Bank Of Ceylon Branch at the Airport can sell a Dollar debit card to expats, migrant workers and tourists or in other words those who arrive with a return ticket. The minimum value can be USD 500 with provision to put more dollars attending any BOC Branch. When selling the card, a separate certificate in a little booklet format can be given with the Passport details of the traveller entered. The registration details of the vehicle the traveller intends to use can be entered in the booklet by any BOC branch after the traveller finds the vehicle, that is hired or owned by a relation. If the traveller changes the vehicle the new vehicle details can be entered only after 3 days of the first registration. This will help to prevent misusing the debit card.

The traveller must be able to purchase fuel and other rare commodities on production of the certificate to pay by the debit card referred to in the certificate.

Expats and the tourists visit to travel, and fuel must be available at petrol stations, at least one station ear marked in every town with stock always available for this category. Purchase of fuel can be restricted to at least 15 litres per day that will be good to run about 150kms approximately.

I have suggested the above as a base for the Minster to work out a reasonable plan. Once it is made and implemented whether it works smoothly or with hiccups will be known to prospective travellers through the newspapers. If the system works well, the travellers will have confidence in visiting Sri Lanka and there will be many wanting to visit in the near future.

Hemal Perera

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Opinion

‘CEB restructure must be apolitical says CEBEU’ – a reply

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The above captioned news item appearing in your Sunday issue quotes CEBEU mentions that Cabinet approval has been granted to commence restructuring of Ceylon Electricity Board [C EB] and a committee has been appointed to submit its recommendations within a month; a very important and urgent action indeed seeing and learning the mismanagement and conflicting views and action taken to serve two masters viz, the Ministry for Power and Energy and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka [PUCSL] and also political interferences as correctly stated by CEB engineers –”The engineers stressed that political non-interferences is of paramount importance”. The interference of the Minister to award a tender for the construction pf 350 Mw LNG plant at Kerawalapitiya to a Chinese construction Company as against the recommendation of the Tender Board, causing a delay of over four years, and the cabinet approval for a wind farm in the north by an Indian company without consulting CEB are a couple worthy of mentioning. It should be emphatically stated, CEB has knowledgeable expert electrical engineers and I believe there are none outside, other than those retired CEB engineers who have set up lucrative consultancy firms, internationally recognized. During my time serving this sector for nearly two decades, with directives by the Ministry, in electrical engineering, administrative and financial matters, the CEB ran to the satisfaction of consumers and also invested elsewhere which made the Treasury to compel CEB to invest on Treasury Bills. The interferences in the administration and matters were directly settled by CEB and also directives of the Ministry have now to obtain the approval of PUCSL.

I remember that the PUCSL called for tenders to remove electric poles, a minor job done by area engineers. There was an instance where the PUCSL sought legal action against CEB for not consulting the PUCSL on a certain matter. Recently, the PUCSL has reduced the tariff worked out by expert proposed by the CEB. What does this mean, the CEB will have to cut down or cancel certain items which it had, to accommodate PUCSL reduction. For efficient running of the CEB, the committee should recommend an end to PUCSL interference with CEB. Do not forget consumers of electricity, commuters etc., could directly place their grievances to the authorities or through organizations, associations concerned and Trade Union, to get redress. The interference I mentioned is not my not my view alone. This was a request made by former Ministry for Power and Energy, Dallas Alahapperuma to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa; it was approved but overruled by the then Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mahinda Rajapaksa. For reasons perhaps ut ab ordine – chaos from order.

It is hoped the Committee appointed will look into what is stated above and make recommendations accordingly.

G. A. D.S irimal
BORALESGAMUWA
Former Assistant Secretary, SLAS, Ministry P&E.

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