”Minority in the country must be given some sort of power through the new Constitution” says Minister ”No” Says Mahinda

By Shaahidah Riza

The Tamil community in the country must be given some sort of power through the new Constitution, and their concerns must be addressed, lest another war may take place, said State Minister for City Planning and Water Supply, Sudarshini Fernandopulle. In an interview with Ceylon Today she emphasised that a draft constitution has not yet been released and that public misconception pertaining to an imminent Constitution is solely based on the reports published by various parties.
Excerpts follow:

The Prime Minister in his economic statement noted that the present situation in the private sector on maternity benefits and access to tertiary and vocational education facility will be improved in relation to women. In what capacity will this take place?

A. There is a discrepancy on maternity benefits between the government and the private sector. We have raised this issue and it is being addressed by the Ministry of Labour. The government sector has access to 84 working days, which when you total it up, is about five months. But when you look at the private sector they get 84 days which includes the public holidays. This discrepancy is being addressed. We have requested maternity benefits of 84 working days which is presently granted only if the mother has two living children.

If the first birth is twins the third child through a second birth is not eligible. We have asked them to make it eligible for all children. Government is also focusing in providing quality day care facilities. Although more women are entering universities there are only 36% engaged in economic productivity. The major hindrance is because childcare is the entire responsibility of the woman. But ideally while providing day care facilities, we also have to create an awareness among schoolchildren, parents, etc that it should be a shared responsibility.

Many people in the Bandarawela region experience a lack of clean drinking water due to the Uma Oya project. What steps have been taken to counter this?

A. Recently we inaugurated improved water schemes to cater to the needs of people who are affected by the Uma Oya project. Extra funds have also been allocated to the ministry, so we are in the process of providing drinking water to the people. Recently, such a scheme in Demodara was declared open by the President. Likewise, the government is taking necessary measures. People said to be affected by Uma Oya will definitely benefit. They will get extra connections free of charge, the existing water systems are being upgraded, and new water projects have been implemented. We must also take in to consideration the severe climate change we are experiencing. We have had a severe drought. Even areas not affected by the Uma Oya project, have been affected by the drought. With the rain, people are finally getting some water and wells are filling up.

There is a concern that water from the Kelani River is contaminated as it flows via an industrial zone. What has the government done to address this? How advanced is our technology to counter this?

A. The Water Board (WB) has a responsibility to provide safe water and our reservoirs are upstream, far beyond the industrial zone. Also we are adhering to the WHO standards. There is regular monitoring of water and the WB has taken responsibility to provide safe water. We have an issue, with regard to water. We are not responsible for certain aspects. When it comes to pollution of rivers, it does not come under the purview of the WB. It is the responsibility of the environmental authority. Rivers belong to the Ministry of Irrigation. I think there should be some authority for integrated water management, so that the protection of the rivers and reservoirs will be looked in to. There are so many actors in the protection of reservoirs. There should be some sort of authority which should coordinate all these bodies.

chinaThere are many people who lack proper sanitation facilities and toilets in the country. What kind of measures has the Ministry taken to address these issues?

A. We have been working on a project, which is presently in progress. The major selection criterion is the absence of a toilet. The selection is done by the respective development officers. At present, the Ministry, especially the Department of Community Water and also the WB has allocated funds to construct toilets. We give Rs. 30,000 to each family in three instalments. It is progressing quite well. Also seven districts are covered by the World Bank project.

They are also aiming to build toilets especially in the North and East and also in the estate sector. In addition,the Ministry has allocated funds for schools without adequate sanitary facilities. The Ministry of Health has allocated funds to provide water to their health centres and hospitals. The Ministry of Fisheries also provides sanitary facilities to the coastal areas through the Provincial Councils. So the project is progressing. But I know that the project initiated through my Ministry, is reaching the targeted beneficiaries. Through the Provincial Councils, squatting pans, cement, etc., are distributed via whoever supports the incumbent provincial council member. Nonetheless, we see that it is going to the real beneficiaries who necessitate these facilities. The selection, the monitoring, coordination is done by the AGAs. It is given in three stages, when the pit is cut they get Rs.10,000.

Once the squatting pan is installed they get the second instalment, upon completion they get the third. It is reaching the target group, in addition to that, we also joined hands with Reckitt and Coleman, and they also support this sanitation programme. The pilot programme was done in my electorate and supported 33 families.

In a previous interview you mentioned that there is a crisis of public defecation in Sri Lanka. Is it as bad as India?

A. It is very much less than India. It is only about 1.7% of the population who do not have access to toilets. People also share toilets. Our non-communicable diseases are very low compared to other countries and our coverage is very good. Typhoid is very rare, Hepatitis is very low, so is Cholera and other water borne diseases. Of course, in certain pockets there will be some diseases, but that too is very uncommon. Nearly 90% of our population have access to water filled latrines. We are far ahead compared to our counterparts in the region. If you convert 1.7% in to a numerical figure it will come to about 400,000 people, which will come to about 40,000 to 50,000 families. They share toilets. Open defecation is very rare in Sri Lanka.

State Minister for Highways and SLFPer Dilan Perera has stated that the government will go ahead with the Constitution despite the opposition to it. Has this been discussed in the SLFP?

A. This was not discussed. The President’s electoral mandate where he pledged a new Constitution does not need a referendum. There are a lot of misconceptions about the new Constitution. We have to discuss with the relevant people convincingly, as there is no document released as the Constitution still. There isn’t even a draft. Of the six committees, there are various reports. People are interpreting various reports, but there is nothing that is called the draft Constitution. I think we will have to discuss with the relevant parties, without antagonising people unnecessarily, we need to have a dialogue with the people’s blessings. When a new Constitution is being drafted there is a lot of opposition from people and a lot of concerns. When there are a lot of misconceptions or misinterpretations, people become worried. Without the people’s blessings we cannot go ahead. It is a Constitution that does not require a referendum, that was the pledge of the President.

The Opposition insists that a referendum should take place to reflect the publics involvement in the Constitution-making.

A. The public representative committee published their reports, and various segments in the society gave their views. There were extreme groups who gave different views. That is not the Constitution. That is just public opinion collated and published as a draft. People are misguided to assume that this is the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that if the government is going for a new Constitution there should be a referendum for certain amendments.

Although the war is over and terrorism is defeated, we still have an issue with the Tamil population where they have to be given some sort of power. If we don’t address that, there will be another war in few years to come. People may rise up. There has to be some sort of compromise and power-sharing which is acceptable by all parties, not only the North, but even the South.

Earlier this month, reports indicated that the SLFP reached out to the Joint Opposition (JO) calling for negotiations in order to face the forthcoming polls as a united party. However JO Parliamentarian Vidura Wickremenayake stated that this was too late, and that they have exhausted all attempts to negotiate with the SLFP leadership. If the SLFP is fragmented, would it not be beneficial to the UNP, especially in SLFP strongholds like the South?

A. Yes, definitely. If the SLFP is fragmented and a new alliance is formed it will be the SLFPers who will join the alliance and not members from the UNP or other parties. Even if a small number joins the new party, the UNP will benefit. Even from the very beginning the President of the SLFP invited SLFPers who are with the JO to join the party, so that a strong SLFP can face the forthcoming elections. If you look at history, only two major parties have been governing the country; the UNP and the SLFP.

This is the first time the two major parties are ruling together. History also has shown that there is no room for a third party, if you look at the voting pattern. SLFP decided to join the government following consultation with the Central Committee and not based in individual interests. The President and the Central Committee of the SLFP decided that a portion of the SLFP should be with the government and that another portion should be with the Opposition. Some members have not abided by the Central committee decision. They are supporting the formation of a new party. We also humbly invite all the SLFPers to join hands. It is the party structure that we have to strengthen, not individuals.

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