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How to prohibit unsafe consumer products:

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Lesson from electricity industry

 

by Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya

The list gets longer by the day. glyphosate, asbestos, thin polythene, palm oil, coconut oil and now, chemical fertiliser and insecticides. I have no knowledge of whether the above-mentioned products should be prohibited or not. However, I can explain the process followed over four years starting 2015, to prohibit unsafe electrical plugs, sockets and converters. The experience revealed that still there are experts, academics and efficient state officers, who are willing to dedicate time and effort, for no extra payment, and drive a transition to prohibit an unsafe product. Systematically, not in an ad-hoc manner––certainly not overnight––provided there are no politicians messing around, trying to accelerate or buckle the process of transition and prohibition.

It was an unusually rainy day in January 2015. Electrical engineers of the Institution of Engineers (IESL) were discussing the safe use of electricity. A worried member highlighted the increasing deaths and fires caused by unsafe plugs, sockets, multi-sockets and extension cords. A total of 180 deaths a year by electrocution. “Toddler dies playing with extension cord”, or, “five shops in Pettah gutted – electrical short circuit suspected”, were frequent headlines.

You buy a new appliance or borrow an appliance from your neighbour. You struggle to connect it to the wall socket because the plug is of a different shape. Run to the shop again, bargain and buy the cheapest multi-socket, make the connection and be happy. You have just made the most dangerous electrical connection; loose, fire hazard, no safety shutter.

Not anymore.

By now, your familiar round pin plug, sockets and the multi-socket are not available in the shops. Aiyo, who prohibited this round-pin plug; even my grandmother used it, but now, no more. Here is why and how it was prohibited.

Step by step up to approval

First, a research paper on the what were in use and what the options were was prepared by an undergraduate of the Jaffna University. I, too, was surprised to learn that there were 15 types of plugs, used in the country, and three types of sockets on the wall. Yes, 15 to three! Thirty countries used one single standard, meaning all plugs and all wall sockets everywhere, in such countries, match each other. Dangerous multi-sockets are not required. The study concluded that the 13-ampere rectangular pin plug and socket should be Sri Lanka’s unique standard.

How on earth did we get there? Fifteen down to one plug, and three down to one socket. Did we force all households to rewire, replace sockets and cut the plugs and put new plugs? No. Such action would have led to a protest march from the Fort Railway Station to the Presidential Secretariat. Unlike items that are frequently ‘prohibited’, a plug and a socket last for 20 years. The transition is going to be complicated, long and painful. This is where the collective professional expertise and wisdom mattered.

The Institution turned to the Public Utilities Commission, which is legally responsible for ensuring the safe supply and use of electricity. A committee, assembled by the commission, had the country’s finest professionals (i) experienced electrical engineers, (ii) a respected academic, (iii) electricity distributors CEB and LECO, (iv) Sri Lanka Standards Institution, (iv) Import Export Control Dept, (v) Sri Lanka Customs, (vi) Consumer Affairs Authority, (vii) Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau, and most importantly, (viii) manufacturers and suppliers of plugs, sockets, accessories.

The committee debated for five months, examined all possible options and problems expected in transition. What would happen to raw material available with manufacturers, half-manufactured goods, stocks with traders and shops? Substandard plugs, sockets, converters on order, in transit, for sale in shops and on pavement in Colombo?

Procedures to follow were many. Sri Lanka Standards publishes standards and tests devices presented to them; they cannot issue prohibitions, which has to be done by the Consumer Affairs Authority. If the import of any item is prohibited, it should align with WTO accords Sri Lanka has ratified. The Sri Lanka Customs Department implements import prohibitions; the Consumer Affairs Authority monitors local manufacture and sale prohibitions.

Complicated procedure, but fair enough. There is a neat system to prohibit import, manufacture, display and sale of an undesirable product.

The new standard will be the rectangular pin plug and socket, engineers concurred. If households are not compelled to change the wall sockets, and if new appliances will all have “square pin” plugs, isn’t it the same problem as we have now? Each problem had a solution and a time frame to implement. All this was included in the concept paper.

The next step was to hold a public consultation. Views expressed were overwhelmingly in support of the transition plan, to achieve a single standard: 13 ampere, “square” pin. There were only two dissenting views on sentimental grounds. So far, no politicians on the scene!

By now, it was almost two years since the first meeting at the Institution of Engineers. No need to hurry, but no need to delay either.

Cabinet approval was obtained for a two-year transition in four steps to prohibit non-standard plugs, sockets and accessories.

 

Step 1:

August 2016: An announcement was made prohibiting new wiring to have non-standard sockets, encouraging imports and production in transit to conclude soon. Sale of non-standard items was NOT prohibited yet.

Step 2:

August 2017: Regulation was issued under Import Export Control Act, prohibiting import of non-standard plugs, sockets, multi-sockets, converters. Sale of non-standard items was NOT prohibited, yet.

Step 3:

December 2017: Regulations were issued under Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Act to prohibit sale or manufacture from January 2019 (a one-year grace period). Publicity and seminars to encourage selling off stocks. The sale of non-standard items was NOT prohibited, yet.

Step 4:

January 2019: Prohibition became effective. Only “square pin” plugs, sockets, extension cords and converters were allowed. The CAA commenced raids.

Throughout the process, the efficiency of state officials was at its highest. The SLSI promised to prepare the new standards in six months but completed them in five. Gazettes under import-export control were issued on the dot, with officers working overnight on the due date. Prohibition under Import Export Control Act required re-definition of customs codes, which was handled by excellent officials from Sri Lanka Customs and the Ministry of Finance. Officers from the CAA issued regulations and implemented them on the dot.

Still no politicians on the scene. The Public Utilities Commission too did not invite politicians to numerous seminars and meetings. The entire process was managed by officials and professionals.

Politicians would be just another group of electricity customers, who would also benefit when the plug exactly matched the wall socket––always.

 

Success is 90%

Now, almost two and a half years since the prohibition became effective, all appliances for sale have had square pin plugs. New wall sockets being sold are also of the same type. If not, please inform the CAA. All new houses and buildings have the square pin sockets on walls. The transition is 90% successful. Why not 100%?

Imported unsafe multi-sockets are still ‘leaking’ into the market in small quantities. The square-to-round and round-to-square safe convertor with SLS certification is still not popular. Locally manufactured ‘extension cords’ are still not SLS compliant; university professors are assisting such local manufacturers to upgrade the quality of thier products. The socket with modern USB is now allowed, but local manufacturers have not come forward to produce it. So, six years on, there is still more work to be done.

In fact, the complete transition will take 20 years or more, until the last socket on the wall breaks off. Follow procedures, examine all issues in full, allow professionals to manage it, give adequate time for transition, are the lessons learned.

If the “Minister” had announced that round pin sockets would be banned from the following week, the process would definitely have been a flop. Shops would have continued to be gutted due to “electrical short circuits”. The public would have a good laugh, as they do now, when they hear of something to be “banned”. Because they are sure the decision will be reversed.

The transition of a relatively simple product to a safe product took four years. This is a lesson as regards how the transition of more serious products should be carried out.



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Echoes of NM’s dismissal may have an impact on present crisis

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by Tissa Vitarana

Dr. N. M. Perera, one of the greatest politicians and statesmen produced by our country, was born on June 6, 1905.

In recognition of his stature as a freedom fighter, a trade union leader, an authority who consolidated parliamentary democracy in the country, an economist who defended the rights of the developing world and sacrificed political power to defend minority rights, he remains in the heart of the people 43 years after his death. Each year on June 6, it has become customary to celebrate his birth anniversary by paying floral tribute at his statue in Colombo. Leaders of the Left and many other political parties participated, together with some leading supporters of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which he had helped to form in 1935 with socialist objectives.

Among the chief speakers were the current Leader of the LSSP and the Chairman of the Dr.N.M.Perera Centre or his representative. Similar functions would be held at the statues in Thun Korale, Ruwanwella and Yatiyantota, in turn bi-annually.

As usual on June 6, 2021 the function was held, but only with three persons present as a token event, to conform with the three health regulations required to control the Covid 19 epidemic . As the present General Secretary of the LSSP I gave a short speech, the Chairman of the Dr.N.M.Centre who was unwell was represented by Ranil Vitarana, and the LSSP rank and file by Nuresh Rajapakse, a member of the PB whose ample size filled the space left by the absent LSSPers. We retired home to discuss how NM might solve the present crisis if he was alive.

The crisis that NM faced as the Minister of Finance in the SLFP/LSSP/CP Coalition Government in 1972 was far worse than what confronts us today. In 1972 there was the perennial crisis of over production that dogs the capitalist economic system. But in addition the fossil fuel price went up seven times due to the getting together of the oil producing countries to form a cartel, OPEC. The worst global drought in 30 years led to a severe food crisis, with thousands of deaths worldwide. As a result, due to the traditional import dependent policies of the UNP Governments, our people were in grave danger (e.g. the price of a ton of imported sugar went up from $ 40 to $ 600).

NM explained to the people the magnitude of the crisis and called upon the people to tighten belts, stop the import based luxury lifestyle, and develop an import substitution national economy, producing our food and developing value added industry (his budget allocation for science and technology was increased four times). The bulk of the burden should not be passed on to the people but borne by government and the rich. The direct personal tax on the rich was raised to a maximum of 75% (today it is only14%). He managed to balance the budget and in one year in office earn more than the loss. The strict import restrictions reduced the foreign trade deficit and helped to cut down foreign borrowing. The foreign debt was reduced to the lowest in our history.

Today the biggest problem is the high cost of living, mainly due to huge profits made by rapacious middlemen (big mill owners, local money lenders to farmers such as traders etc.). To end this NM and the coalition developed the producer cooperatives (such as farmers) and the consumer cooperatives as genuine peoples’ organizations. By direct dealings between the two he wiped out the profiteering of the middlemen. The cooperatives were so successful that NM brought down the price of essentials to affordable levels, and even gave a measure of rice free. The result was that no one died of starvation unlike in other parts of the world. Due to the opposition of the traders, outsourcing to them was not possible. The result was long queues at the co-ops. This and the other shortcomings were exploited by the media controlled by the rich to lay the blame on the government. They hid the global nature of the problem, but blamed the government.

Besides food shortages a major problem was the shortage of medicine in government hospitals and the high cost of medicines in private pharmacies. Prof.Senaka Bibile, a member of the LSSP, came up with his Medicinal Drug Policy, which was accepted by WHO. NM strongly supported it and it was implemented. The outcome was that medicines for practically every disease was available in all government hospitals free of charge. The shortages were overcome, unlike the situation that prevails today. The foreign drug companies got their governments to intervene and promise a large sum of money to the government to overcome the crisis, provided the NM and the LSSP was expelled. The finance portfolio was taken away from him, and he was given a minor post which he refused and the LSSP was forced out of the Government.

The CP left the next year and the SLFP suffered a major defeat in the 1977 general election. The UNP led by JR Jayewardene came to power in 1977 and opened the door for the commencement of the process of change referred to as neoliberalism. This ideology led by the USA reached its zenith throughout the capitalist world, most of all in America. But it was a failure. It was rejected by the Sri Lankan people at the last presidential and general election.

The anti-UNP political parties helped form the SLPP-led government and are committed to do everything possible to solve the economic, social and health problems facing the country and people.

Like NM, I and the LSSP are very happy that the neoliberal foreign market dependent policies have been rejected, and the commitment is to establish an indigenous economy, where local agriculture and value added industry are to be developed. A major problem is the Covid 19 coronavirus epidemic. In view of my training in virology and experience here and abroad in association with WHO, I could have made some contribution to overcome this problem. In addition where local value added industry is concerned I have already made a significant contribution as the Minister of Science and Technology when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President.

In the four years I established 263 Vidatha Centres, one in each division, and helped 12,300 micro, small and medium entrepreneurs to develop island-wide (17 exporters, 64 suppliers to Cargills and other food chains, and 53 to hotels). To promote large scale industry for the export market I set up a Hi-tech Centre, SLINTEC, with emphasis on nanotechnology near Colombo. But it would appear that I am not fit to be a minister, leave alone a cabinet minister. I wonder whether what happened to NM and Senaka Bibile had any bearing on this.

But why was Prof Sirimali Fernando, Senior Professor in Medical Microbiology at Sri Jayawardenapura University left out. For her post-graduate research in London she not only worked in the field of Virology, but also used the PCR. She could have seen that the PCR test (and the RAT) were properly standardized to give reliable results. Control of the epidemic will be difficult with many false positives and negatives.

You can understand what a person of NM’s stature felt when he was kicked out of the finance ministry, when what has happened to me is related. The only occasion that I could express my views was when the Health Advisory Committee of Parliament met on one occasion, at very short notice, with the Minister in the chair. I proposed that a National Committee of party leaders in Parliament be set up to interact with the minister to exchange views so that we all unite to fight this common enemy. Then truly national Covid committees could cooperate down to village level in the interest of all the people.

The minister turned this down and said that this Health Committee will meet twice a month and any party leader is free to come. Four months have gone and this committee has not met once since then. Secondly I proposed that as community spread had begun a new community based approach was necessary to control the spread and I gave an outline of the necessary measures. She rejected my assessment and approach, stating that it was still in the cluster stage. I said that the cluster approach could continue where indicated, but my proposal too should be implemented. She rejected this proposal.

I might mention that the day Dr. Fernandopulle was appointed as minister she invited me to meet her and I had a fruitful discussion with her for more than an hour. I hope that she will get the necessary support.

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Monastic food – vegetarian food (mildly selective)

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I was directed to the film series on food on Netflix titled Chef’s Table and enjoyed watching the first of series three. It was on the South Korean Zen Buddhist nun, Jeong Kwan, and her preparations of monastic food.

Jeong Kwan

(born 1957) is a Zen Buddhist and chef of . She lives in the Chunjinam Hermitage at the in , where she cooks for fellow nuns and monks, as well as occasional visitors. She had no formal culinary training but is now directing the preparation of vegetarian food in a café in Korea and has visited China and Japan as ‘food ambassador’. Temple food is literally food consumed by ascetic Buddhist nuns and monks. Since their goal is enlightenment, achieved by both mind and body, ascetic food aims at this great achievement – enlightenment.

The bustling Chef

Jeong Kwan ran away from her home in a northern province of South Korea at age 17, leaving her family of seven siblings. At 19 she joined an order of Zen nuns and took to cooking with joy, food for the nuns and monks in an adjoining monastery. She had learned to turn out noodle dishes when she was just seven years old. She refers to her being chef to monks and nuns as her way of spreading the Dhamma as food is a very important component of ascetic life, the food certainly not to be relished, drooled over, hungered for, but eaten mindfully to sustain the body in health and thus contribute to the development of the mind.

Jeong Kwan’s recipes use aubergines, tomatoes, plums, oranges, pumpkin, tofu, basil, chilli pepper, and other vegetables and of course rice or noodles. vegan, Jeong Kwan’s recipes omit garlic, green onions and leeks, which are believed to be mildly aphrodisiacal. In the Netflix film I watched, this fairly well set nun with a serene face and charming smile, grows all the vegetables used in her menus. She sows seeds or plants seedlings, tends then lovingly and then harvests what she needs day by day. She says however: “It’s up to nature and the plants themselves to stay alive. Time flows for them and for myself at the same pace.” Her philosophy on cooking monastic food is: “We cook food that can become one with the person eating it; then it functions like medicine inside our bodies.”

Most of what she used in the film were familiar to me. There was nelum ala or the ‘yam’ of the lotus used; and various leaves she gathered. She uses oil fairly freely in her preparation. I don’t know what oil it was. And of course kimchi is an integral part of what she serves each nun in small dishes; the typical Korean dish always present, made from a certain kind of cabbage dipped in sauces. Nun Kwan dipped into large clay pots of sauces, some of which were very old, the sauces I mean.

 

Vegetarian and Vegan

It is apt to define these two terms here. A vegetarian is one who does not eat meat or fish and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious or health reasons.

A vegan is one who abstains from the use of animal products particularly in diet and believes in the “philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals.” There are degrees of veganism. The term was coined by Dorothy Morgan and Donald Watson in November 1944. (Wikipedia)

 

Food served at meditation retreats

I wrote a fortnight ago about my experiences of meditation retreats at Parappuduwa Nuns’ Island off Ratgama, Dodanduwa, while Ayya Khema was living there and later; and about 10-day and shorter retreats undertaken at Dhamma Khuta Vipassana Bhavana Centre in Hindagala, Peradeniya. Both places were vegetarian. At Parappuduwa we served ourselves from dishes placed on a trestle table, after the resident nuns and any foreign persons in prolonged retreat, had had their meal. I recollect Ayya Khema would remain in her seat supervising us! I once reached out for a dish to pass on to my neighbour who I thought needed some from that dish. Ayya Khema reprimanded me for reaching out for a dish. I did not explain it was not for me but for another that I did what I did. Extreme respect!

At Dhamma Khuta we went up to the food tables in a two queues – men and women – and held out our plates for rice first and then down the line for the vegetable curries; just four sans red chilly, and a salad or leaf sambal. Everything was served in measured quantities. This was lunch at 11.15 – 11.30. We were served dessert, mostly fruit or a prepared simple pudding. For breakfast we were served boiled seed like green gram, followed by a cup of tea. We were allowed to keep tea and sugar in our dormitories and expected to drink plain tea after noon, which unfortunately some did not follow, copiously adding milk and even snacking, just as they broke the Golden Silence rule. In the evening at around 6.00 we were given the choice of half a glass of fruit juice or a mug of plain tea. Those on medicines were served a couple of biscuits and a banana.

Recollections are many but I will narrate just two. At the first ten-day meditation retreat at the newly constructed and not quite complete Dhamma Khuta picturesque Centre right on top of a hill, with Ven Goenkaji and wife living in the bungalow on the premises, we were rather choc-a-bloc since the organizers wanted to accommodate as many as possible at this unique retreat. We were three in most dormitory rooms with the previous meditators accommodated in the now defunct tea factory below, necessitating an arduous van ride in rain and mud and fog.

One of my roommates was obviously rich and definitely fussy, and oldish. She brought along a huge suitcase which covered half the floor of the room. My small bed was against the opposite wall so I had no jumping across or alongside it. She even brought a winter coat! Before bed there was a ritual she followed: munched crackers and cheese, thala guli and drained a mugful of beverage – cocoa or chocolate made with the hot water given each of us in our flasks after the evening gilanpasa.

The next recollection is me, a novice, standing at the narrow food table with helpers on the opposite side, ready with ladles. On the first day of the retreat, I stood at the rice dish at lunch, waiting for the server to give me another spoonful. I thought the amount served was totally inadequate. A slight wave of her palm to indicate I move on was missed by me. She then moved me to the curries with a big wave of her hand. The point in this story is that by the end of the retreat, say seventh day to tenth, I found the rice served me was too much and waved away the second spoon ready to descend on my plate. Even the measured, restricted quantity was found to be too much as the mind got calmer and body felt rested.

With Ven Goenkaji, samples of the cooked curries were taken to him to be tasted and passed as OK. At latter retreats, maybe Brindley Ratwatte or Damayanthi performed that task to see that not too much spices were added. But bland though the food was, it was so very well cooked by the village women who came to help. We ate with gratitude in our hearts to them, the organizers of the retreats and even the farmers.

A very significant point was that with the glass of juice or tea and the fresh cool water off the clay pots placed at strategic positions, I slept more soundly than at home. I found the cup of tea made before going to bed totally unnecessary and even impeded sound sleep until woken at predawn 3.30.

Conclusion: we normally eat far too much, especially at dinner!

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The Rajeewa Jayaweera I Knew

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For a fleeting period, Air Lanka (before its change to SriLankan) lit up the Oman sky, but it was all too brief, as was the life of the initiator of this success. We commemorate the first death anniversary of Rajeewa Jayaweera and recall with pride the achievements of this dynamic individual who left a significant imprint of Sri Lanka’s landscape among those living in the gulf states.

As a journalist my association with Rajeewa spanned over a decade in the nineties. He was a “stoic and principled” administrator who was forthright and considered in his views. As Manager of the Sri Lankan airline in Oman, he delivered exceptional service not only to our community in many ways over the period of his tenure, but also to those Gulf travelers visiting our island. I was amazed at his dedication, determination and discipline; he did not waver in his search for perfection.

When Rajeewa arrived in Oman in the second half of the nineties, Sri Lanka’s National airline was in the doldrums and was considered “just another airline” competing for a share of the Gulf’s travel market catering mainly to the Lankan workforce. Rajeewa’s vision was different, his desire was to raise the standard of the airline to be on par with the best, but he had to contend with the bureaucrats in Colombo. He faced up to the challenge. Not afraid to speak his mind and to take a firm position on issues that were

important to him and the airline, his persistence to enhance the image of the airline succeeded, commencing with the shifting of the airline’s office premises after 13 long years to a prestigious and prominent location. The airline’s logo was displayed for all to see.

This was followed by familiarisation tours to our Emerald Isle for foreign journalists and travel agents and Rajeewa accompanied them as tour guide, mesmerizing reporters with his in-depth knowledge of Sri Lanka’s history and attractions to leave them in awe.  Rajeewa was a true ambassador for the country and its airline, just like his late father, Stanley Jayaweera, a career diplomat of repute. In 1997, to coincide with 50-years of Sri Lanka’s Independence, Rajeewa hosted Air Lanka’s first-ever glamorous “Top Agents Awards” ceremony at the Muscat Holiday Inn.  The invitees were treated to an extravaganza of what Sri Lanka had to offer interspersed with a cultural show, traditional dancing, and authentic Sri Lankan cuisine courtesy of Jetwing’s finest chefs.  Rajeewa’s positive charm instantly propelled the

airline into the limelight, winning hearts and minds of the Gulf’s expatriate community resulting in Air Lanka becoming the preferred carrier of choice for their holidays. As a disciplinarian he may not have endeared himself to many, but he stood tall with his direct and “no nonsense” approach which provided the basis for the airline’s success in the Sultanate.

After completing his term in Oman, Rajeewa was transferred to Madras and then Paris continuing his drive in these two cities to improve the image of Sri Lanka’s national airline.

In later years Rajeewa bemoaned the plight of Sri Lanka’s national airline and mismanagement.  He had a fierce loyalty for the airline and represented his country with pride and would have been an ideal member to serve on the SriLankan Airlines board with his vision and experience. Unfortunately, those with vested interests thought otherwise and the island nation’s loss was Qatar Airways gain. Those who associated closely with Rajeewa will remember him as a strict disciplinarian with a strong work ethic and an abundance of skill. He was an outstanding role model for young people in particular. He was a beautiful, kind and much-loved friend. We are sad beyond words and extend our deepest condolences to Rajeewa’s family.

 

Clifford Lazarus

New Zealand

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