Connect with us


`No Kunu’ – how Sumi Moonesinghe galvanized a clean-up movement



by Shehara de Silva

(Continued from last week)

There are so many times I have seen Sumi in a boardroom or at work, where she is like a force of nature. She is like a battering ram who insists on having her way and on getting things done. She is relentless. It was thus amazing to see her sensitive, understated and soft side, as she mellowed in age, towards her less-advantaged school friends, relatives and a plethora of causes she championed. It was in this phase of her life that our lives interfaced again decades later.

In 2018, 1 received a call out of the blue. Sumi had come a full circle and was on a roll again. By now, in her 70s, she still had that incredible tenacity and drive. She called me from one of her famous power walks near Independence Square where she walked regularly and met a motley array of the high and mighty, commanders, politicians and chairmen of companies and State institutions. The good, the bad and the ugly had all come under her ring of influence.

In one of those famous epiphanies she was wont to have, she had decided on cleaning up the banks of the Beira Lake and then the canals and roads around Colombo. Unable or unwilling to get home and start the process, she called me from Independence Square and asked me to create a brand and a concept!

In the next few days, she had moved mountains. I got calls around three or four times a day and a dozen WhatsApp texts in-between with ideas, instructions and additional companies that were joining in, even before the concept was crystallized. This was the birth of the ‘No Kunu’ movement she founded. She raised her clarion call for action in the ‘No Kunu’ pledge, in which each person and company that comes on board becomes the guardian of the city, forest or beach they pledge to protect. The vision that I helped her draft was to build a system of civic engagement that would help Sri Lanka become the cleanest country in Asia.

Within a week she had roped in big guns. Kumar Sangakkara gave a video message that went viral. Ven. Galboda Gnanissara, or Podi Hamuduruwo as he is better known, of Gangaramaya Temple had a large power base that was mobilised. Rosy Senanayake, her former face of Anchor and now Mayor of Colombo, pledged teams of planners, engineers and street cleaners. The Navy added boats, rigs and suction devices. Her A Team of former sales and marketing personnel were her work horses, and soon Sumi’s home was a war room of experts and benefactors.

Municipal engineers, corporate CSR and HR heads – big and small, Sumi collected them all! JKH, DIMO, Aitken Spence, Virtusa, NTB, NDB, Worldlink, Coca-Cola and Shangri-La were a part of some 30-plus leading corporates in her fold. She added some national and international schools as well as the Rotary Clubs to boot. The media joined in with Daily FT, Derana, Rupavahini and Roar publishing regular features to educate the public.

A concept of stewardship and continuous education was put in place. “Don’t just clean up and forget about a space; be a guardian!”

One Galle Face was an early pledger, taking over Galled Face Green and promising to ensure an ongoing cleaning system, after the Colombo society ladies and their offspring, after some arm twisting by Sumi, were made to come in and do an initial clean-up. Two thousand five hundred slums were cleaned, dwellers educated and trained on waste disposal, while plastic buckets for collection and cloth bags for shopping were donated. Canals were dredged.

On May 19, 2018, the first programme was launched from Layards Broadway in Grandpas and the second from Leslie Ranagala Mawatha in Wanathamulla, Boreal. The third was at Kew Road in Slave Island, and then later Muttiah Park. In July 2018, the Rotaract Club of the University of Moratuwa together with the Interact Club of D.S. Senanayake College and Rotary Club of Colombo West volunteered, and a whole spate of corporates that were spread around the lake were mobilized to clean the three-kilometre Beira Lake Walkway on D R Wijewardena Mawatha. The project continued downstream on the Wellawatte Canal, right down to Horton Place and on and on.

Taking inspiration from the 2018 Football World Cup and the Japanese, who despite defeat cleaned up their locker rooms to zero trash, Sumi commandeered the 140-year-old Royal Thomian Cricket Match, a bastion of male entitlement of “doing it their way” to “do it her way”! I recall trudging around talking to the organising committee, setting in place a vendor guideline and a system for the junior school to follow a zero trash policy on ground. Sumi had managed to get the organizers to rope in the primary school young ones in a ‘catch them young’ strategy to build a future generation of waste-conscious leaders. However, we realized the old Mustangs were possibly beyond the pale of reform and their inebriation would not allow for rational civic behaviour!

Sumi said it best in a newspaper interview in the Daily FT: “Eventually one city at a time, we will move from city to village, to beach, to forest and farm, from house to house, shop to shop and company to company. We will teach everyone how to separate their garbage. We will mobilize company workforces to help clean our country. We will co-opt 1,500 business leaders to pledge to be guardians of our cities and mobilize their resources and workforces to help demonstrate, clean-up, reiterate, resource and monitor a programme to keep Colombo Clean first. Then every city, river, beach and forest and wherever possible to convert ‘kunu’ into a valuable resource.”

Sumi’s energy and attempts to muster her power and wealth to help the country and the less privileged is worth a record as a study in moral leadership and the evolution of a corporate leader to one of a philanthropist. ‘No Kunu,’ while gaining traction and momentum, took a back seat as the Easter bombings and later the pandemic put the brakes on mobilizing civil society for common good. However, Sumi has soldiered on relentlessly with other social impacts.

Her Atoka foundation began feeding the poor in the plantations. Hatton station was a kick-off point partly because her driver Kumar, her factotum and Chief of Staff, was from a Hatton plantation. She had enabled, trusted and empowered Kumar, who, over time, turned out to be a multi-talented and incredible implementer and organizer, fit to sit on any crisis team or 100-day task force. The moulding of Kumar and unleashing his potential is in itself a study of how trust and gratitude coupled with empowerment, can bring out hidden potential in the most unexpected persons.

Meanwhile, the Atoka charity looked at building interfaith and inter community harmony and environment healing. Mainly using her personal funds, Sumi looked at how systemic change could be brought to the plantation worker. In tandem, she began another ambitious programme – to plant 25 million trees all over the country. Talk about thinking big!

For symbolic reasons, the ‘No Kunu’ and Aloka citizens’ initiatives were launched at the Gangarama Temple by Ven. Assaji on July 1, 2019. Barely three weeks on, the first major event was conceived and rolled out, planting jak trees from Hatton to Nallathanni along the Maskeliya-Mousakelle Road beginning at Hatton Railway Station. Maskeliya Plantations took the lead, while the Station Master and staff of Hatton CGR, head priests of the Buddhist temples, mosque, kovil and the church were all present.

In hindsight, it is such a pity for Sri Lanka that Sumi did not go into active politics, bar the support she gave her husband Susil in his ambitions as a politician.

As I reminisce about Sumi and see her from the spectrum of my association, first as an employee, later as a friend, a mentor and a co-conspirator of civic engagement, I have seen a mother, wife, stepmother, political animal, social activist and a true friend. I have seen a hard nosed and self-made business woman who took the knocks of life, rode the crest of success and moved with the richest of the rich moguls of commerce, yet never forgot her beginnings or who she met on her way. Yet, above all, she learned to forget and forgive the pain of the past, over which she had no control.

Sumi has taught me much. Mostly that no matter how heavy the challenges we face in life, we must act with tenacity and courage; that we must never lose hope. She understood that we are all accountable and MUST give back to each other.

If one believes in `samsara’ – the journey of life – as I know Sumi does, we live in but a glitch in time. The good we do always outlives us, it plays to the rhythm of a timeless, selfless love. This is Sumi’s heartbeat. The love of a citizen for her nation and her community.

Shehara de Silva is a Non-Executive Director of Keells Food and the former Marketing Director at New Zealand Milk Products (Sri Lanka).

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7



It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

Continue Reading


Queen of Hearts



She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

Continue Reading


Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue



KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

Continue Reading