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The President’s problems



By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

The newspapers have been full recently of arguments regarding Provincial Councils. Unfortunately, most writers seem to approach the problem from their own long entrenched perspectives, both those in favour of Councils who have been plugging their necessity for ages, and those against them who have long argued for their being got rid of. Neither side in this debate seems to be concerned with practical realities.

Those against Councils cannot ignore the fact that India feels the system is their baby, and might be upset if they were just got rid of. Of course we should not follow something which is injurious to the country just to keep India happy, but if we believe – as I now do, being one of the few who has changed his mind about this – that Provincial Councils have served little purpose, then we should make this case to the Indians and also make it clear what we propose as an alternative.

Conversely those in favour of Councils cannot ignore the fact that their most concerned proponents have provided clear evidence that they themselves did not think Provincial Councils were a necessity. Not only did they support the former government to smuggle in an amendment that led to elections being delayed, they also treated with contumely the report of the Delimitation Commission which should have been the catalyst for the postponed elections to go ahead. So, we have not had a Provincial Council in the North for over two years. And there is no evidence at all that anyone has missed them.

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that anyone is thinking of a system that will satisfy what might be termed basic requirements as well as the principal players. By requirement I refer to the needs of people not politicians, and in this context there is little doubt that a unit with close cognizance of what people need can better work to supply such needs than a faraway centre of power, whether Colombo or Jaffna.

That is why indeed I had long argued, in terms of the principles on which I supported Devolution, that District Councils were a more suitable unit. But when the Indo-Lankan Accord was signed, and Provincial Councils were agreed on, I felt it would be impossible to turn back the clock and permitted the Liberal Party – which had not committed itself previously to the unit – to accept Provincial Councils. But I should add to this that we were totally against the proposed merger of North and East, which we felt took away from the basic purpose, which was close attention to the needs of the people.

In recent times, after much work with Divisional Secretariats, I now feel that even the District is too large a Unit, and for proper attention to the people the centre for service should be the Division. In fact, way back in 2011, when I was on the team to negotiate with the TNA, I proposed more power to these and they did not reject this though their most extreme representative said that should not take away from the power of Provincial Councils. However, between G L Peiris and Sajin Vas Gunawardena that initiative was scuttled. And since then, as the current debate shows, no one is looking at such alternatives. So, what would I think be a simple solution to the problem is not even thought of by the President.

That is par for the course for, with regard to devolution as also much else, there is no sense of priorities. And this is combined with a desire, which has become endemic in political activity over the last four and more decades, to score small advantages while losing sight of the bigger picture.

That is why the President, instead of moving swiftly on reforms, waited to get a two-thirds majority. Of course, he could not have predicted Covid, but the failure to act even after the general election suggests that he saw that majority as an end in itself. So, instead of concentrating on essentials, such as removing the anomalies of the 19th Amendment, he also tried to increase the role of the executive with stupid initiatives such as limiting the scope of auditing, which brought him and the 20th Amendment a bad name.

Fortunately, those absurdities were abandoned, and the Supreme Court also played its part in limiting excesses. But it is a pity that Gota has not understood the lesson of the 2015 debacle, that goodwill lasts only so long and it must not be squandered on absurdities.

With regard to Provincial Councils, surely, he must see, if only from the polite but very definite intervention of the Indian Foreign Minister, that he should move soon. To do this he ought, working with some sensible advisers if he has any, to set down in point form what is wrong with them. Off the top of my head I can suggest


They cost a lot of money


They develop yet another set of politicians who spend lots of money to get elected and then get it back by various damaging activities


They are as distant from the regions in need of greatest attention as the central government is


They have led to different sets of bureaucrats with overlapping functions


They have no mechanisms to liaise with decision making bodies that provide services to the people

All these issues can be addressed in one fell swoop if we stopped elections to Provincial Councils as they are conducted now. Given their symbolic importance they should not be got rid of, but much waste as well as conflict could be eliminated if they were elected indirectly, through an electoral college consisting of all members of local authorities in the Province.

Going hand in hand with that should be a clear demarcation of responsibilities. As it stands the Local Government Act is archaic and observed more often than not in the breach. The seven areas of responsibility allocated to local bodies are no longer all of them relevant, with utilities for instance being largely now the responsibility of central government.

The President and his troops should begin by laying down what can and should be done best by small units, with intimate knowledge of local problems. Their work should be functional, and go hand in hand with the Divisional Secretariats.

And once that is decided, the Provincial Council should be equipped with facilitatory powers to promote productive activity, while bearing in mind that policy on all matters belongs to the central government. That is the present situation, but given that we have not done enough to formulate national policy clearly, and have no mechanisms to monitor it, that crucial element in the 13th Amendment has not had the impact it should have. That statement in the 13th amendment makes it clear that this is one country and must work to common goals, in harmony, not with the oppositioning of other elements in the country that politicians on all sides practice. 

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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.



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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.



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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…”

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