How it affects the small holders
by Dr Janaka Ratnasiri
The Cabinet of Ministers, at its meeting held on 26.01.2021, has decided to amend the Wages Board Regulations (WBR) by making it mandatory for tea plantation workers be paid a minimum of Rs. 1,000.00 a day. This is a follow up to the proposal made by the Finance Minister in his Budget Speech that “I also propose to increase the daily wage of plantation workers to Rs. 1,000 from January 2021”.
DEMAND BY THE PLANTATION WORKERS FOR A WAGE INCREASE
Since about 2016, tea plantation trade unions have been demanding that a daily wage of Rs. 1,000 be paid to their workers. However, the regional plantation companies (RPC) were resisting their demands, despite intervention by ministers from time to time. In order to ensure votes from the plantation workers, prior to the election, a pledge was given by those who are in office now, that the plantation worker salaries will be increased. The proposal in the budget speech, as well as the recent amendment to the WBR, were outcomes of this pledge.
Tea is grown in Sri Lanka by two groups, the large plantations managed by the Regional Plantation Companies including other public sector institutes, and the small holders of extent below 10 Acres each. According to the 2015 Annual Report of the Tea Small Holdings Development Authority (TSHDA), the small holders produced about 240 million kg of made tea in 2015, while the large estates produced 87 million kg, which are 73% and 27% of the total production, respectively. According to the TSHDA Report, the number of small holdings below 0.5 ha extent comprise 88% which are mostly managed by family members. The rest up to 10 Acres or 4 ha employ paid workers and they are subject to WBR.
The demand for wage increase came from plantation company workers where salaries paid to workers are decided by the collective agreement between the RPCs and worker trade unions negotiated once in two years. During the last agreement, RPCs have offered an increase of the basic to Rs. 600 a day and increases in some allowances making the total daily wage to Rs. 940.00 subject to good attendance (Daily FT, 26.10.2018). But this was not acceptable to the worker unions.
The RPCs have called for a new wage structure focusing on a revenue share model that could have sweeping productivity-focused reforms in the entire industry. An option favoured by the trade unions is the out-grower model where the workers are allocated small plots of land to grow their own tea to sell to the factories (Daily FT of 19.02.2019). In view of this deadlock, the COM decided to incorporate the LKR 1000 as minimum daily wage payable to tea industry workers which is applicable to both estate and small holding workers.
Despite this Cabinet decision, tea plantation workers across the up-country have launched a token strike demanding immediate payment of the agreed pay hike to them, as some RPCs were hesitant to implement the Government decision. With an annual export earning of LKR 240 billion in 2019, a single day production outage means a loss of over LKR 600 million a day to the country.
PRESENT EARNINGS OF PLANTATION WORKERS
Currently, WBR specifies that the tea plantation workers should be paid a minimum of LKR 680.00 a day, subject to satisfactory attendance during the month. In addition, they are paid EPF at 12% of basic salary of Rs. 545.00 and 3% for ETF, making the total wages Rs. 761.75. It should be remembered that plantation workers generally work only for about 6 hours from 0730 h to 1330 h including 30 min for a tea break. They have to stop plucking early so that the day’s collection could be handed over after weighing to the lorry which comes around 1400 h. A plucker works for a maximum of 22 days a month because it takes about a week for a new shoot to develop to be plucked again.
But, on an average, a plucker may work only for about 16-18 days and after deducting his own EFP contribution, may have a take-home pay of about Rs. 12,200 – 13,700 a month. If they pluck above the minimum quota, they may be paid extra at rates varying from employer to employer from Rs./kg 25 to 30, they can earn extra, provided the bushes in the worker’s lot have shoots. Both during dry months (no moisture) and wet months (no radiation), the shoot growth declines and the average yield drops and much extra revenue cannot be expected during these months.
Being daily paid workers, they are not entitled for any paid casual or sick leave unlike monthly paid workers elsewhere. No work means no pay. Unlike other workers in the mercantile sector, tea workers are not entitled for mercantile holidays, neither they have any annual leave. Whereas, in the case of all public sector and mercantile sector workers, the EPF contribution is computed based on the total salary received, in the case of plantation workers, it is computed based on the basic salary only.
The writer believes that this is a violation of the EPF Act. Though workers employed by RPCs may get free housing and free medical facilities, such benefits are not available to the large number of workers employed in the small-holder sector. Hence, there is a need to increase the wages paid to these workers to compensate for the loss of all these benefits.
In announcing the proposed wage hike for plantation workers, both the Government and the RPCs are deceiving them by adding the employers’ contribution to EPF and ETF as a part of the daily wage of Rs. 1,000. This is not done anywhere else either in the public or in the mercantile sector. When they announce a salary scale, only the basic salary along with allowances are shown, but not the EPF and ETF contributions. The workers themselves may not have understood the difference, but their unions should have seen the unfairness of this computation.
IMPACT OF THE WAGE INCREASE ON THE SMALL HOLDER SECTOR
Small holders get paid for the green leaf supplied to factories at a rate determined by the auction price paid to factories the previous month. Currently, the rate is about Rs. 90 per kilo after deducting for transport and sack weight. In the writer’s experience, a small holding of four acres with an average yield of 1,500 kg of green leaf a month, brings a monthly revenue of Rs. 135,000. The salary bill for four pluckers and a Kankanama will come to an average of Rs. 80,000 a month. This comprises Rs. 30,000 paid to the Kankanama and LKR 12,500 paid to each plucker on an average, including their EPF and ETF contributions. This works out to Rs. 781 a month per plucker, a little over Rs. 762, the minimum specified in the WBR.
The cost of weeding which is done manually, maintenance of drains and retaining walls on an average comes to about Rs. 25,000 a month. The cost of fertilizers and dolomite and their application costs another Rs. 6,000 a month on an average. In addition, there are other costs of infilling, pruning and replanting of unproductive sections which works out to about Rs. 14,000 a month. This leaves only Rs. 10,000 a month as income from the small holding, which is even less than what a worker earnes a month.
Once the WBR is amended to increase the daily wages to Rs. 1000, the Labour Officers will spare no time in visiting the small holdings and insisting the new wages be implemented. If this is done, it will be an added financial burden of Rs. 15,360 a month. This exceeds the amount left in hand after attending to its management properly. Since the small holdings depend entirely on the money paid by the factories, the obvious solution is to increase this amount at least by Rs. 20 a kilo which leaves behind a decent balance in hand. It is obvious that the COM was not concerned about the small holdings when it decided to amend the WBR, but had only the concerns about the RPC workers in mind.
INCREASING THE PAYMENT TO SMALL HOLDINGS BY FACTORIES
Tea samples offered at the auctions are purchased mostly by exporters for supplying to overseas buyers. About 3% is purchased for sale locally. According to the Tea Board Directory, there are about 325 exporters. Originally, only the dedicated companies exported tea but lately the factories as well as RPCs have got involved in export of tea considering the high profit margin. According to the Central Bank 2019 Annual Report, the average auction price of tea was Rs./kg 546.67, while the average export price was LKR/kg 822.25, leaving a margin of Rs./kg 275.58. The total tea (made tea) production in 2019 was 300.13 Mkg, while the quantity exported was 292.65 Mkg. Thus, the exporters had made a gross profit of Rs. 80.65 Billion in 2019.
Export of tea is subject to a CESS levied at Rs./kg 10, which works out to LKR. 2.9 Billion. Further, Rs.one billion is collected as Tea Promotion Levy by SLTB from the exporters. Another 1% or Rs. 2.4 Billion has to be paid to Brokers for conducting the auctions and carrying out quality control checks and certifying on samples received. These brokers comprising 8 companies deserve it because they ensure that quality tea is exported. After paying these taxes, the exporters are still left with a profit margin of about Rs. 65 Billion annually after paying Rs. 10 billion as income tax (assumed).
The export companies presently enjoy the benefit of this revenue shared among its staff. Assuming each company has 50 staff members, the total staff strength is about 16,250, and each of them could earn a salary of about Rs. 400,000 monthly. This is while a plucker earns below 1/25 th of this amount after trudging up and down the hills carrying kilos of leaf on their back in sun and rain. It would be in the interest of the exporters to share their profits among the plantation workers also, because if the industry collapses, there is nothing for them to export.
SHARING OF EXPORT PROFITS AMONG WORKERS
The number of workers employed in tea plantations are estimated to be about 174,000 in 2017 (ILO Publication on Tea Small Holdings, 2018). If each of them is to be paid an additional Rs. 238 monthly for raising the daily rate from Rs. 762 to LKR 1,000, the annual burden will be Rs. 414 Million. The total production in the small holdings in 2019 was 240 Mkg of made tea according to TSHDA, which is equivalent to 960 Mkg of Greenleaf. If the small holder is to be paid Rs./kg 20 more for Greenleaf, the added burden will be Rs. 19.2 Billion.
Thus, for increasing the daily wage to workers in both the estates and small holdings, the total added financial burden will be about Rs. 20 Billion annually. If the tea exporters could part this amount from their profits of Rs. 65 billion, the problem could be solved. The Government may do away with the CESS levy on tea exports to assist this process. Concurrently, an effort should be made by the tea industry to increase the revenue from tea exports.
INCREASING THE REVENUE FROM
The writer published an article in The Island of 11th and 13th of November, 2015 describing the strategies to be adopted to increase the export revenue, and also to increase the wage increase. Though it was written more than five years ago and the data little outdated, the reasonings are still valid. The article which appeared in two parts may be accessed via the following links:
One strategy is to move away from the manufacture of traditional orthodox tea to CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) tea which is in high demand in the western countries like the USA and the UK. Both Kenya and India have overtaken Sri Lanka as major exporters because they supply CTC tea while Sri Lanka sticks to orthodox tea. According to Tea Exporters Association data, Sri Lanka has produced in 2019, out of a total of 300 kt of tea, 274 kt (91.3%) of orthodox tea, 23.6 kt (7.9%) of CTC tea and 2.6 kt (0.8%) of green tea. According to World Exporters Site http://www.worldstopexports.com/tea-imports-by-country/, Sri Lanka in 2019 has occupied only 10% of the tea market in the USA while only 4.1% in the UK. The major importers were Kenya, India and China. Today, most Western countries consume tea in the form of tea bags for which CTC tea is necessary. But to cater to these markets, Sri Lanka will have to increase the CTC output.
World’s highest tea importer is Pakistan, but most of the teas consumed in Pakistan are imported from Kenya, India, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Currently Sri Lanka’s market share in Pakistan is only 2-3% of total tea imports. A publication by Sri Lanka’s Consulate General of Sri Lanka in Karachi released in December, 2016 has recommended that “While capitalizing on the taste factor, Sri Lankan tea companies should produce quality strong black CTC teas comparable to East African countries focusing on leaf and liquor in large quantities and offer straight lines such as Garden Originals. Pakistan consumers are very particular about the appearance of tea and prefer to drink thick gold color tea”, if Sri Lanka wishes to increase its market share in Pakistan.
The other strategy is to move into producing more high value tea such as green tea and instant tea. According to Central Bank 2019 Annual Report, Sri Lanka has exported 285 Mkg of black tea at an average price of Rs./kg 797.00, 4.75 kt of green tea at an average price of Rs./kg 1,987.00 and 3.07 kt of instant tea at a price of Rs./kg 1.357.00. Hence, the logical step to increase the export revenue from tea is to offer high value tea instead of traditional black tea. But, instead of doing that the Sri Lanka Tea Board was spending billions of rupees on promoting black tea in existing markets. In 2014, the COM approved a budget of LKR 2.3 billion for promotional activities but the Tea Board could not finalize the project for several years because of disputes it ran into in selecting a suitable advertising company.
IMPLICATIONS OF WAGE INCREASE IN THE SMALL HOLDING SECTOR
If the proposed wage increase applies to the small tea holdings without any corresponding increase in the payments made for green leaf supplied to factories, the only option available to the small holder is to give up the tea plantation and consider other options. Among these are shifting to another crop such as cinnamon or pepper along with gliricidea or partition the land into several segments and hand over them to existing workers or others to manage them on their own with no liability to pay any wages to the workers by the land owner.
Gliricidea stems are in demand as a biofuel for use as a source of thermal energy in industries. With the Government giving high priority for renewable energy, industries will have to turn to biofuels as a substitute for oil or gas to generate thermal energy. One barrier they face is the lack of a proper supply chain ensuring continuous supply of biofuels. Already a project supported by UNDP and FAO is assisting the Government to set up fuelwood collecting centres across the country as part of the supply chain improvement. Hence, converting the tea plantation into a gliricidea plantation will help in this venture and provide a source of revenue possibly higher than what the tea plantation provides without any WBR controls.
In order to meet the demand made by tea plantation workers, the Government has decided to incorporate the proposed increase to the WBR rather than limiting it to the Collective Agreement between RPCs and Trade Unions. This affects the small holders as well who depend on payments made by factories for green leaf supplied to them. Unless there is a corresponding increase in this payment rate, the small holders have no option other than to give up planting tea.
It is also proposed that the Government should intervene to get the enormous profits earned by exporters to share their profits with the workers enabling the RPCs and small holders to implement the proposed wage rise. Concurrently, the factories should endeavour to produce high-value tea products to increase the export revenue.
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2019 Easter Sunday Carnage: An Intelligence Perspective
By Merril Gunaratne
Retired Senior DIG
The predicament of those in the highest echelons of defence and police bring to my mind past serious failures, not entirely dissimilar to the massacre on “Easter Sunday” in 2019. Somewhere in the mid 1980s, an LTTE group, led by their Mannar leader Victor Fulgencius ,entered the Anuradhapura sacred city and brutally mowed down a large number of Buddhist pilgrims in broad daylight. The Coordinating Officer of Anuradhapura, SSP of the area and those below them, must have been “deaf and blind”, for they could not have been oblivious to the bursts of gunfire, and the plea of countless witnesses who naturally would have looked upto them for intervention. No positive efforts were made even to stall the retreat of the terrorists after the carnage to Mannar. Nor were inquiries instituted to hold senior army and police officers accountable for their shocking inertia. Likewise in broad daylight, a terror group, the TELO, stormed Chavakachcheri police station and razed it to the ground, killing all police officers in the station. The Coordinating Officer of Palaly, when questioned by the President at the National Security Council meeting following the disaster, stated that in such situations, “each service should look after itself”. The question raised was whether the Army should have engaged in an immediate and timely intervention. Here too no inquiry was initiated to identify accountability for the shocking failures. The “PLOTE” group of Uma Maheswaran came untrammelled up to the Nikaweratiya police station, in the Kurunegala district, attacked it and caused mayhem. No inquiries were held: none were held accountable. In the 1990s, the Katunayake Air Force base was attacked by the LTTE and the JVP, separately, causing death and destruction. None were called upon to shoulder the blame. Again, in the early 90’s, the LTTE ruthlessly killed over 600 police officers in the Ampara sector, because the IGP at the time ordered the fighting officers to surrender on an assurance from political leaders that the LTTE would release them. No Commissions nor inquiries were held in this regard.
There is however an essential difference between these instances and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. Ample intelligence from India, backed by a plethora of evidence and reports of dangers from the National Thowheed Jamath [NTJ] stored with the State Intelligence Services [SIS], the CID, and the Terrorist investigation Division [TID], had been in the possession of SIS, well before the disaster took place. Therefore the credibility of intelligence received from India was not in doubt, as also time and space available to adopt schemes to plan arrests and flood the country with optimum security. In such a context, the failure of defence and police officers to evolve plans to nip terror in the bud, differ sharply with previous instances. In previous cases, the security forces were taken by surprise. In the case of the “Easter Sunday” carnage, intelligence was available well in advance, so that ample opportunity was available to forestall terror plans.
THE STATUS OF THE STATE INTELLIGENCE SERVICE (SIS) IN DEFENCE
An aspect that came under scrutiny was whether the Director of the SIS had informed the President about the information received from the Indian counterparts. It may not be inappropriate to deal with two matters which find relevance in seeking to understand what ideally should have been done.
First, the SIS is the premier “Intelligence” service in the country, since it is expected to collect and collate intelligence of the police special branch, the CID and the TID, in addition to their own efforts. It is also responsible to monitor political targets, in addition to those connected with subversion, terrorism and espionage. It also enjoys wiretapping apparatus to enhance its capability.
Second, the Director of the SIS is virtually “primus inter pares” amongst members of the national security council [NSC], when it comes to access to the head of state, and in relation to his vital role of leading deliberations at meetings of the NSC with suitable briefs. Each and every director of the national intelligence service in its long history, will vouch for the veracity of this arrangement. From as far back as 1950’s, even superintendents of police in- charge of national intelligence had far more access to the head of state than the IGP; and the IGP did not often know what the Intelligence head had discussed with the President. The authority of the Director of the SIS therefore at times exceeded that of not only the IGP, but many others in the NSC as well. At the time I was Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, President Jayewardene would see only me before 8.00 am, prior to leaving for Cabinet meetings.
Though in pecking order, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) is superior to the Director of the SIS, in actual fact, the latter wields far more authority since all agents and informers are controlled by the SIS. In addition, CNI only plays a supervisory role, while the Director of the SIS is the actual operational head of the intelligence agency.
SUBMISSION OF “SPECIAL”OR “SERIAL” REPORTS BY DIRECTOR SIS TO THE PRESIDENT
Being in a position of such privilege, whenever credible intelligence is received, the Director of the SIS has to take two immediate steps. First, he should immediately, through the shortest possible route, despatch a written, classified report to the President, with copies to the Secretary of Defence and Chief of National Intelligence [CNI]. Traditionally, a special ‘Box’ has been used for such despatch to the President, keys available at both ends to unlock and retrieve reports. The ‘Box’ would impress the president that the document inside was of an urgent nature. Depending on the gravity, nature and the urgency of such intelligence, as with the NTJ of Zahran, the Director may even decide to despatch copies to Secretary to President, IGP and Service Commanders as well. He has to concurrently speak on the telephone to each of the recipients of his report, emphasise the credibility and the grave nature of such intelligence, and also propose that the NSC be convened for discussion without delay. Such a standard arrangement of despatch of reports and telephone calls wherever the intelligence is of a grave and urgent nature, is a precedent in vogue from as far back as 1950s. The role of the SIS is to help the NSC to proact, rather than react. The prototypes of the SIS in the service and the police will play a supportive, rather than a leading role. The Director of SIS therefore can galvanise the National Security Council to act, or “put it to sleep”. There has been no indication from the Easter Sunday Commission findings reported in the media that the Director of SIS had despatched a written, classified report to the President.
FLAWED “INFORMATION” REPORT SENT TO IGP.
The ‘Information report” which the IGP received from the CNI, enclosed a note from the Director of SIS. It referred to the plans of Zahran and the NTJ to commit terror attacks, and suggested that further inquiries should be carried out. This report is “flawed” because it is not an Intelligence report. If the Intelligence received was credible (in this instance it obviously was), the report should have been in two parts. In the first part, the piece of information should have been reflected. The second part titled “Assessment or Analysis” is the far more important one, where the Director , harnessing his knowledge of the reliability of the source of information, along with his acquaintance of the background and history of the NTJ available in the subject and personal files stored in the SIS registry, should have stated with conviction that the information was not only reliable, but should be discussed as early as possible, and plans evolved to nip the threat in the bud without delay. A question that arises is whether the report of the Director sans an assessment was adequate to galvanise his superiors to ponder about the gravity of the piece of intelligence received. Even though flawed, the recipients yet had material in the report to discuss and plan on an urgent basis. Of course, a proper intelligence report may possibly have woken them up from slumber. In short, the report or note of the director of the SIS was not exactly an Intelligence report in the classic context. Adrian Weale in his book, “The Army of Evil” said, “Broadly speaking, intelligence is information that is gathered and analysed before informing decisions. Without the crucial analysis step …it is of no-value”
DEFENCE AND POLICE OFFICIALS TREATING THE INFORMATION WITH LEVITY
It had been unfortunate that senior officials such as the Defence Secretary, Chief of National Intelligence, Director of the SIS, the IGP and his deputies had acted in an amateurish fashion. They were not minions who should have been inactive, amidst such serious information, simply because the President was out of the country. If Defence Secretary , goaded and galvanised by Director of National Intelligence, summoned members of the NSC for discussion, many salutary proposals leading to an effective security plan may have emerged. The Defence Secretary was empowered on his own to summon members of the N.S.C. for discussion at any time. His “inertia” baffles imagination. In an overall context, none of those who received the somewhat “flawed” information in their enclaves considered it prudent to at least ‘put their heads together’ and discuss what should have been done.
ACCESS TO SENSITIVE RECORDS IN THE REGISTRY OF THE SIS.
The SIS, by virtue of being the national intelligence agency, is responsible, apart from ferreting intelligence through it’s own network of agents and informers, to collect and collate all overt and covert information from the CID, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), and even from intelligence channels in the armed forces. The comprehensive records that they thereby accumulate, are stored in “subject” and “personal” files in respect of each subversive or terrorist target they monitor. These records are suitably classified ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ so that only those authorised to see them can have access to such records.
The Director of the SIS, apart from the submission of ‘single piece’ intelligence reports to the Head of State, the Defence Secretary and possibly some other members of the National Security Council, also had to periodically compile periodic reports, based on the comprehensive records stored in respect of a particular target in the registry. Each such report will make a mature analysis of the activities and growth of the target, alert the government to their ramifications and sinister designs, and offer salutary proposals to nip or stall their activities. Such periodic reports are described as ‘special’ or ‘basic’ reports, and are invariably classified secret. This discipline too has been in vogue for a very long time. Such reports help the government to monitor, review and proact against terror threats periodically.
In view of the fact that omissions and lapses of the SIS leading to the massacre of innocents were under scrutiny by the presidential Commission the records in the Registry of the SIS could have been made available to the Commission to assist the probe. Terror groups like the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ) are extremely clandestine when they plant their underground network in the silent, ‘preparatory’ phase. This is a phase where terrorists are extremely elusive because of their obsession with stealth and secrecy. The activities of this preparatory phase can be discerned only through agents and informers, so that the SIS alone will have records which police, the CID and TID would not possess. The latter are predominantly investigators’ of acts after their occurrence. It is the SIS which should have good intelligence about external and internal links of the NTJ, their financiers, safe houses, military or weapons training etc. This is the kind of intelligence which helps the SIS to submit comprehensive, periodic “special” reports to the government.
Perhaps, the Commission could have been authorised access to the periodic reports and files of the SIS in respect of the NTJ. Such classified material would have been valuable in the quest for the roots and ramifications of the NTJ. Most of the witnesses who appeared before the Commission for evidence may not have possessed the type knowledge of the NTJ and its ramifications which only SIS officers would have possessed.
The SIS usually seeks to protect the identity of their officers as well as their records, for risk of exposure. Such safeguards may be necessary in normal circumstances. However, the carnage and massacre on Easter Sunday in 2019 due mainly to inadequacies of those in Defence and Police echelons, had led to a high level probe by a Presidential Commission, and evoked considerable public concern and interest. The entire tragedy has been in the public domain. It may therefore have been unreasonable if the records of the SIS had been withheld from the probe.
Steeped in realism, rich in poignant themes and metaphors
By Sajitha Prematunge
Asexual relationships are getting considerable limelight in the Sri Lankan cinema, what with Gehan Cooray’s The Billionaire and the recently released film, Ayu portraying such relationships, albeit in the vantage of different sexual orientation. Ayu was screened to a limited audience in celebration of the 74th anniversary of Sri Lankan cinema at Savoy Cinema, Wellawatta, on January 22. It is the maiden movie production of General (retired) Daya Rathnayake and the second film directed by Chathra Weeraman after Aloko Udapadi.
Presented by Weeraman Brothers, based on a story by Saman Weeraman, Ayu stars Sandra Mack, Jagath Manuwarna, Malani Fonseka, Ashan Dias, Kenara Wiratunga, Samanalee Fonseka, Sampath Jayaweera, Priyantha Sirikumara, Thumindu Dodantenna, Nalin Lusena, Udara Abeysundara, Kasuni Kavindi Fernando, Akalanka Prabashwara, Dinushika Senevirathne, Thiwanka Ranasinghe, Prasanna Dekumpitiya and Dasun Pathirana in a guest appearance. The crew includes cinematographer Kalinga Deshapriya, Chamara Selara as Assistant Director, Bimal Dushmantha in production designing, Saman Alvitigala in film editing, Milinda Tennakone in music, Harsha Manjula and Haroon Shaideen in makeup department, Sasika Marasinghe in sound department, Dinindu Jagoda and Lahiru Madhushanka in editorial department, Kumara Karawdeniya in costume designing, Shehan Obeysekara in production photography, Iresh Karunarathne, Primal Ranasinghe and Sashika Ganegodage in Production Management and Anuradha Weeraman as the Associate Producer.
The psychoanalytical film wastes no time documenting stressful therapy sessions or treatment. It is a journey towards the healing of the mind. Nishmi, a female pediatrician, didn’t only lose her baby in the almost fatal car accident that required the blood transfusion that sealed her fate, she’s maimed for life, with no hope of ever having a family of her own. Ravi, her husband’s elated revelation, “It’s negative,” comes as a surprise not to only Nish, but also the audience who was thus far convinced that the sole cause of her predicament was Ravi’s promiscuity.
Much is insinuated and less said in the film. Hardly anywhere is the acronym AIDS mentioned and only in one instance is HIV mentioned. This in itself is symbolic of the stigma HIV AIDS entails. We are given a first hand account of the kind of stigmatization AIDS patients undergo when Nishmi’s coworkers shun her as if they could contract the disease by brushing against her. A mother pulls her child away from Nish with an uneasy smile, while nurses and attendants avoid her. The stigma is so ingrained that Nish cannot expect to be accepted by her family. For example, Nish’s mother, played by Malini Fonseka, profusely washes her hands after dressing Nish’s wound. This is the last straw for Nish, who contemplates suicide.
There is no doubt that excellent casting choices contributed to the success of the film. The anguish of a mother in Fonseka’s words “I am your mother, I am your mother…” uttered to assuage her HIV positive daughter after she slighted by washing her hands, does not fail to evoke empathy in the audience. The film also marks screen queen Malini Fonseka’s 150th performance in an acting career spanning four decades.
Weeraman has commendably captured the anguish of the characters. Specially noteworthy is the performance by Sandra Mack as Nishmi, whether it is to her own credit or Weeraman’s ability to get a novitiate to strike the right emotional chords is irrelevant, because the end product is realistic. The fresh face of Mack helps to heighten the realism. We have never previously seen her acting and this makes it that much easier to identify with her role. Although her dialogue seems a bit contrived at the onset, which could be attributed to a shortcoming in dubbing, she grows on you.
Manuwarna’s ruggedness contrasts sharply with the seeming fragility of Mack’s Nishmi and the repelling magnate-like chemistry between the lead actors adds a novel flavour to the film. Make no mistake, it’s not your typical rich woman falls for poor guy kind of soppy. The film is abound with underlying deep socio-political and economic themes presented in the dichotomy of the upper middle class represented by Nishi and lower class by beach boy Sachin. It is certainly a thought-provoking movie peppered with allusions to Buddhist teachings, from the metaphoric boat that is life, to allusions of rituals such Bodhi Pooja conducted in hopes of being impregnated. Though Nishmi contemplated suicide earlier in the film, at the end, she just wants to row the boat. True to the Buddhist doctrine Nishmi comes to realise that we are but mere cogs in the samsaric machinery and that there is no other way out but to ‘row your boat’.
Inspired by true events, from plot, dialogue, acting to cinematography, Ayu religiously sticks to realism. The fight scenes are commendably choreographed with excellent cinematography helping to enhance realism. Even the songs are well placed, sans the melodrama, typical of Sinhala films.
However the tempo of the 116 minute film is somewhat slow, unnecessarily stretched to create the movie-length feature. The audience does not know where in time a certain scene is set. It is somewhat akin to memento or arrival, in that fragmented scenes are scattered throughout the film going back and forth in time. For example, images of passing lights from the vantage of a trolley being pushed through a hospital corridor, at the beginning of the movie, foreshadows a catastrophe waiting to strike. Although the trope makes it difficult to establish a footing, it adds to the arthouse flavour of the film. Things eventually fall into place when the film comes full circle, reconciling the past and present.
The genre, and by extension the target audience of the movie is ill-defined. Whether it a commercial or art house movie would depend on audience interpretation. The character of ‘Ayu’ is a case in point. Does the kid really exist? After all nothing is revealed about her. Her grandmother is MIA, the audience is in the dark about where she lives and when she is uprooted from her life in the village, whisked away by two strangers no one bats an eyelid. Uncannily similar to the character of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe in ‘Sixth Sense’, who turns out to be a ghost oblivious to his own ghostly existence, Ayu, who’s name literally means ‘life’, has little interaction with the characters other than Nishmi and Sachin, who are both, ironically dying. This life/death juxtaposition forms the crux of the film. Ayu may very well be a figment of one’s imagination, a metaphor for ‘life’. Is she a mere symbol for life or ‘ayu’ in Sinhala? If so, what better symbol for life than a child. If not, then the script is fatally flawed, in that it failed to develop an essential character. It is unrealistic that as a doctor Nish would have no qualms about exposing the child to a life threatening illness.
All things considered, Ayu is welcome respite from the mundane Sinhala movie that only offers unrealistic love stories that involve a lot of running around bushes, obviously phony fight scenes and ill-timed sorry excuses for songs. It is to be released in theatres soon and is not to me missed.
St. Antony feast Katchatheevu
The Jaffna Divisional Secretary informed the public, well in advance, that St. Anthony’s Feast in the Kachchativu island had been cancelled this year due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. The decision was well understood by devotees of both Sri Lanka and India.
This annual feast on a tiny island closer to the India-Sri Lanka International boundary line (IMBL) was an annual meeting place, especially for fishermen of both countries. Last year (2020) the feast was attended by more than 10,000 devotees. For the first time, Sri Lankan devotees out-numbered the Indians. Anticipating such a situation, the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Justin Bernard Ganapragasam had invited Bishop of Diocese of Galle, Rt. Rev Raymond Wickramasinghe as well. The mass last year was conducted in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.
As a devotee of St. Anthony, the Saint who looks after seafarers, like me, even though I am a Buddhist, I was sad that I might miss this year’s feast.
However, some good news came from the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna a few days ago. He said Jaffna Bishop had requested to have a mass at Kachchativu island without the presence of the public and only with a few priests on 27 February 2021, and if I was keen, I could join them. I was delighted to go there.
Kachchativu is located half a nautical mile from the Indo-Sri Lanka IMBL which was ratified by UN Law of the Sea conference in 1976, when maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives were demarcated and agreed to by all three countries and ratified at the United Nations.
It is mistakenly thought both in India and in Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island to dry their nets. That was in the 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had the right to fish in “Wedge bank”, in the Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. When the 1976 agreement was ratified, those privileges were done away with and now Kachchativu is part of Sri Lanka’s territory and well within our waters. Please read the famous book on Kachchativu by late Mr WT Jayasinghe, who was our Defence and External Affairs Secretary in the 1970s (father of late Romesh Jayasinghe, our former Foreign Secretary in the 2000s) to learn more about how our beloved Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s diplomatic skills and close personal relationship with the then Indian PM Indira Gandhi won us the Kachchativu island back.
Those who championed in Tamilnadu and in the Indian Central government on taking back Kachchativu from Sri Lanka should refer to what Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohargi told a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on 26th August 2014: “Kachchativu was gone to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now act as a boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want Kachchativu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.”
I stayed at Fort Hammenniel, a beautiful fort built by the Dutch at the entrance of Karainagar channel, entrance to the old Jaffna port of Kayts, now part of our Naval Base, SLNS Karainagar. This tiny Dutch fort has its own history in our country, the place where the late JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was kept in captivity in 1971 with more than one hundred other JVPers. I could not imagine how it would be with 100 prisoners in this small fort.
I was not accommodated in any of these cells; I stayed in one of the four super Luxury rooms on the top deck of the fort.
My dear friend, Rear Admiral Senarath Wijesooriya, the Commander Northern Naval Area, joined me to travel to Kachchativu on the 26th evening (February). We travelled in an indigenously built Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), which can move at 38 knots (approx 50 mph). During the final stages of our conflict with the LTTE, under the guidance of then Commander of the Navy, today our Admiral of the Fleet, Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy Engineers built more than 100 IPCs which brought LTTE Sea Tigers to their knees on asymmetric naval warfare as per “Lanchester theory” and helped destroy all their “ultimate weapons at sea” – suicide boats. Visionary leader, Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda, always told us, “You cannot buy a Navy – you have to build one” ! How true ! We built it for you, Sir. Bravo Zulu to our Engineers !
IPC moved at 38 knots in the mirror-calm sea, and took only one hour and 40 minutes to reach Kachchativu from Karainagar. I was so impressed with Petty Officer in-charge of the IPC, for his boat handling, and beaching the boat at Kachchativu and professional competence. With such junior leaders, our Navy’s future is bright.
With the full moon, calm seas and light breeze from the North East direction, it was a beautiful night. Few scores of sailors were preparing the church and surroundings for next morning.
One thing missing this year was the crowd. Camping in small groups and singing hymns praising St Anthony was not heard this year. The small “street” in Kachchativu, which was full of makeshift Indian shops with sarees, clothes and sweetmeats and Sri Lankan shops with soap, coconut oil and cinnamon were not there this time around.
The new church built by the Navy five years ago on the request from the Bishop of Jaffna was looking beautiful. This was a hundred percent donation by officers and sailors of the Navy. It cost us Rs. 7.7 million, total contribution by the Navy personnel, majority of them were Buddhists like yours truly. This church is a symbol of reconciliation.
The following day (27) by at 9.30 a.m. mass was, led by Very Rev Father Pathinathar Joshopthas Jebarathnam, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna.
The Mass was attended by 50 officers and sailors following strict quarantine laws. Vicar General , Very Rev Father Jebarathnam blessed all those present and others who had not been able to get there due to the pandemic. I missed Sri Lankan and Indian fishers. Their request to St Anthony is always very simple; that is for them to have a good catch of fish next year so that they could look after their families and come back to St Anthony’s feast again.
I also kept my request simple. “Thank you St Anthony’s, for allowing me to come to Kachchativu this year and give me strength to come back next year as well !”
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