By Themiya L.B. Hurulle,
Former Minister of Science & Technology and Former Director-General, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has come a long way from the 1960s, when communicating instantly was limited to a few, was costly, and, at times, subject to long delays. I remember my father, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, having to wait three-six hours to make a long-distance telephone call to Colombo from his hometown Horowpothana even though he was a Member of Parliament and had OFFICIAL PRIORITY calling facilities
However, we tend to take for granted the communication facilities that we have at present. It is easy to forget the past and what led us to the present. The present pandemic, too, has accelerated the actions of more people using computers and telecommunication-linked facilities for purposes of commercial and domestic communication and this has helped all, greatly.
The purpose of this article is to outline the positive steps that all past governments took to develop Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Sri Lanka. Before that, Computers, Telecommunications and Media were almost ‘stand-alone’ activities. However, the convergence of computer, telecommunication and media, and their inter-dependency led to this field being called Information and Communications Technology.
With the formation of the government of President J R Jayawardene and Prime Minister R. Premadasa, Sri Lanka took a giant stride in development, moving to an ‘open economy,’ and this was done by enabling legislation to facilitate market competition and de-regulating imports and exports. As a result state corporations and the private sector adapted themselves to the free market economy to play vital roles. This included the Computer, Telecommunication and Media Sectors, as well.
During the 1989 government of President R Premadasa and Prime Minister D B Wijetunga, there were associations of software developers, hardware sales, and service providers, all working with dedication to establish the industry. However, more encouragement was given with Industries, Science and Technology Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe chairing meetings of the organizing committee to hold the first INFOTEL ’92 ICT exhibition that gave national attention to the use of computers for development.
Towards the end of the period of the government, the Department of Telecommunications was converted to a state entity, as Sri Lanka Telecom, with more autonomy and resources to meet the growing need for modern telecommunication services.
The 1994 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickremanayake took forward the predecessors’ efforts, expeditiously. Telecommunications Minister Mangala Samaraweera led the privatization of Sri Lanka Telecom. The privatization took place with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation of Japan (NTT) purchasing 35% of shares and the employees of SLT also being given shares to ensure more employee participation. The NTT corporation thus brought in Japanese management and expertise. This helped SLT eliminate the delays encountered in providing telecom services to applicants.
The government also took action to expand the post of the Director-General of Telecommunications to a fully-fledged commission named The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka by an act of Parliament.
This regulatory commission paved the way to clear many bottlenecks, including the assignment of radio frequency spectrum in a transparent manner. It further ensured that radio frequency spectrum was deployed in an effective manner for telecommunication services. Contentious issues, such as interconnection, caller party pays, were addressed for subscribers, to get maximum benefits from telecom services. It might be added that the service providers, at that time, were Sri Lanka Telecom, Suntel, Lanka Bell, Dialog, Celltell , Mobitel and Hutchison. The year1993 saw Mobitel being established as mobile service provider as a collaboration between Sri Lanka Telecom and Telstra of Sweden. However, Mobitel was later purchased by Sri Lanka Telecom Ltd. during Chairman Thilanga Sumathipala’s time.
The 2001 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe further advanced activities related to the ICT sector. This included the ending of the monopoly of SLT for international communications. External gateway operator (EGO) licences were issued to the rest of the telecom operators and new entrants. This resulted in a reduction in the costs of overseas calls and further helped the country to connect with the rest of the world.
During this period, the government and the TRC were supported by the World Bank to expedite reforms in ICT. Minster Milinda Moragoda of the Ministry of Economic Reform and Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, ICT and Public Policy Consultant, co-ordinated the reforms through the Ministry of Mass Communication where Minister Imithiaz Bakeer-Marker led the Ministry and the TRC came under his purview.
A notable event that took place was the public auction of radio frequency spectrum to mobile cellular service operators to further modernize the mobile telephone services. Bids were called for the allocation of RF spectrum and millions of dollars were raised. Therefore, governments should note that radio frequency spectrum is public property, should be assigned at the highest possible prices so that the resources of governments will be augmented by billions of dollars.
The then government also set up the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka by enacting enabling legislation in 2003. This new government agency succeeded the Computer Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka (CINTEC) which was the national policy maker and facilitator in ICT upto then.
As s result, the ICTA became the uppermost institution of government, mandated to take all necessary steps to develop government policy and action plans in relation to ICT. Since success in ICT relied greatly on having good telecommunication systems and networks, the TRC and the ICTA worked in consultation with each other in most development matters. The writer remembers attending progress review meetings at the ICTA during that time.
This agency was tasked with the formulation and implementation of thee-SRI LANKA development project. The project was used to develop the economy, reduce poverty and improve the quality of life of the people with effective deployment of ICT resources all over the country.
The 2004 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, took more positive and beneficial action to advance ICT . This included the induction of Bharati-Airtel Lanka as another mobile telecommunications service provider. This move ensured a wider choice for the public and ensured further competition in the sector.
With advancements in the Internet, the government recognized the need for a state agency to handle the matter of information security. This was to address cybercrimes and guide state agencies, including the police, on how to handle cyber-crimes. The ICTA created the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT) to ensure the protection of the information infrastructure. With the advancement of ICT, harassment of computer users, cyber-attacks on websites have increased exponentially. The police, other agencies of government and the general public rely greatly on the SLCERT to solve their cyber-related issues. This entity is presently headed by Chairman Lal Dias, a Chartered Information Technology Professional.
The Internet (World Wide Web)
In the 1960s, the American defence authorities funded work for their internet to provide internal communication amongst multiple computers over a single network. Thereafter, research progressed until the World Wide Web was launched in 1983 and was made a commercial activity which allowed other countries join the global internet thereafter.
In the 1990s, an initial demonstration for internet access in Sri Lanka was made under a project LEARN i.e. Lanka Experimental Academic & Research Network of the University of Moratuwa when Computer Engineers and Academics demonstrated a successful remote log-in from the University of Moratuwa that was connected to a computer at the University of Colombo.
Thereafter, in 1995, LEARN facilitated the joining of academic and research communities to the global internet. Sri Lanka’s first e-mail service, too, was initiated by the University of Moratuwa. The rest is history.
The past and the pioneers
This article would not be complete unless the beginnings ICT and the pioneers associated with it are not mentioned.
The 1960s saw organisations, and businesses, like the State Engineering Corporation, Central Bank, Insurance Corporation, Petroleum Corporation, AMS Data Services and Walker Sons using large mainframe computers to process their internal tasks. It might be mentioned that each of these computers were the size of a room, were comparatively slower, and consumed much electricity.
The pioneers who made significant contributions to ICT development, such as Prof. V K Samaranayake, Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, Prof.Gihan Dias, Dr. R B Ekanayake, Prof. Abhaya Induruwa, Ms. Nayani Fernando being amongst the many who devoted themselves for the advancement of ICT in Sri Lanka.
The LK Domain registry of Sri Lanka was set up in 1990. This registry has served Sri Lanka as its professional domain registration service and enhanced the development of internet infrastructure for internet. The registry provides the national domain name for Sri Lankan organizations and individuals to create their unique brand identity on the internet with domains such as…..lk, .com.lk, .org.lk and .edu.lk.
The JVP and LTTE insurrections
Sri Lanka had two serious insurgencies, from 1983 to 2009 where telecom exchanges were destroyed and broadcast relay stations were destroyed. However, state and private sector engineers and technicians worked with commitment, under trying conditions, during these times, to restore interrupted services and we appreciate their bravery and commitment.
In conclusion, Sri Lanka has come far in the field of information communication technology but further efforts to develop and regulate the sector in a fair and expeditious manner should be taken to enable all stakeholders to benefit.
Strong on vocals
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.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
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.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
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…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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