R. Parameshwari smiles humbly as she walks into the premises of 150A, Vipulasena Mawatha, Colombo 10. Escorted by a female companion she approaches a small group gathered at the entrance to a hall that could comfortably accommodate at least 100 people.
Clad in a pink t-shirt and a long white skirt with pink coloured patterns and carrying a plastic bag, Parameshwari is tired, her greying hair in disarray after her long day. This is her visit to the place but she does not feel like an alien. As her companion spoke to an employee, Parameshwari slowly absorbed her surroundings.
In a corner of the open hall were chairs, tables and red table cloths stacked over each other. Towards the far end, are more tables along with a plastic basin, an aluminium jug and a tap with a sink.Fans and light bulbs hung from the metal roof. On another side of the hall were a line of more taps, adjoining an office room, and a toilet with running water.Most noticeable is the overall cleanliness of the place.
However, that day (June 25, a Tuesday) Parameshwari’s companion, 56-year-old S. S. Bagam from Grandpass, knew that there was something terribly amiss. Where there usually were at least 40-50 people enjoying a decent meal, on that day there were only about eight, gathered in a group in deep conversation. More came in and left on being told that the place was closed- indefinitely.
Janaposha Foundation has been feeding, (completely free of charge), the hungry, the needy or anyone who simply wanted a meal after spending exhausting hours at one or more of the three key state-run hospitals in central Colombo. Most who come to these state hospitals are poor and genuinely in need of the free meals.
The Janaposha’s main centre is near the National Hospital of Sri Lanka and was opened in 2012. Other centres, launched several years later, are near the Colombo South Teaching Hospital –Kalubowila, and the Apeksha Hospital, Maharagama (previously known as the cancer hospital).
Five days a week the Foundation gives away1,300- 1,400 plates of rice- with a dhal or vegetable curry, fish and papadam, for lunch. For breakfast, bread and dhal curry, and a cup of tea with milk.
But all of that welfare service was on hold that morning. The decision to suspend food services was made by the Foundation after a newspaper, which is already in hot water for spreading a rumour about the illegal sterilization of women, (published in an article quoting Opposition Parliamentarian Gamini Lokuge) allegedly calling on the authorities to probe a ‘Muslim foundation’ that provided free meals to people at hospitals.The newspaper article went on to question the motive behind the Janaposha program, and speculate whether the meals being served were given “to sterilize women”.
After the newspaper hit the stands, the Janaposha Foundation suspended its work and issued a statement explaining its decision.
“The foundation has continuously worked towards the well-being of the underprivileged it served and remains committed to ensure these poor caregivers are not marginalized. However, it has been brought to the notice of the foundation that their noble intention- of serving the poor and destitute – has been misconstrued.
“With a sense of responsibility and given the tenuous circumstances, the Foundation is left with no choice but with a heavy heart and a grave sense of despair, to suspend operations immediately..”
The General Manager of the Foundation M. A. Sahabdeen, told the Sunday Observer : “We had no intention of suspending the program, but we had to due to security reasons. We are not bankrupt. We have funds to continue our work, but under these circumstances we can’t,” he said.
Sahabdeen feared the future of the 40 odd employees who worked with them. “We don’t know when we will be able to recommence the program. Everyone praised our work but if something happens, they will not support us,” he adds “Those were just words. We serve people of all religions and ethnic identities. We even served religious leaders here. It’s sad that we had to stop all of that.”
Janaposha Foundation is licensed by the Registrar of Companies, and the place where the food is prepared (in Kolonnawa) was inspected by the Public Health Officer at Urban Council Kolonnawa, Wellampitiya, who has certified on February this year that the food was prepared in a ‘highly hygienic’ place and there were no issues with the food preparations. It was also recognized at the Western Province Social Services week in 2018. It was praised by many others for providing free meals to those who needed a meal the most- patients like Parameshwari, from all over the country, who have to attend the clinic early morning.
“When I was at the clinic Parameshwari spoke to me. She said she was hungry, and I brought her here,” Bagam who constantly ate at the Foundation said.
Parameshwari, who suffers from a back ache, has not eaten that morning. She usually has a cup of tea with milk before going to the clinic from her home in Narahenpita. That day she couldn’t even have that. Her ailing husband does not work anymore.
Fifty-year-old S. P. N. Dayadari, from Kolonnawa, who also came to the now closed foundation premises with her 17-year-old ailing son said she has had the meals there for the past two years.
“The food and the place are very clean. We don’t even have to wash the plates. There are workers here who do that for us. We are treated like human beings here even though the food is given for free,” she said. Dayadari will have to eat elsewhere that day, and it will cost at least Rs. 300.
The security official at the Foundation premises, Ajith Priyantha, who has been working there for the past three years said they have not heard a single complaint from the consumers. He even takes rice left-overs, to his children.
In an odd turn of events, MP Lokuge who is currently touring in Singapore said he had never made a statement regarding the Janaposha Foundation, in any context.
The MP’s Parliamentary Affair’s Secretary Sisira Jayawardena said they have written to the newspaper and demanded a clarification.
“I spoke to the editor of the paper and the journalist who wrote the article. The journalist had asked the Eastern Parliamentarian whether such a programme is being carried out under suspicious circumstances, and in answer he (MP Lokuge) has said that such Foundations have to be inspected. His (the journalist’s) question was framed,” Jayawardena said.
This was not the first time that this same paper and same journalist, wrote against the validity of the free-meals program. In a March 05, 2018 article it quoted the then Convener of the Sri Lanka Canteen Association, Asela Sampath, who alleged that the government was not probing the association that gives free meals to “Buddhist women” at state-run hospitals. The program continued as there were no threats then.
“Unless the government gives us complete assurance that we are safe to carry out the program we are not in a position to do so,” the officer in charge at Vipulasena Mawatha, Mohammed Nazar said.