By Sandun Jayawardana
The arrest of a consumer rights advocate who pointed out alleged issues concerning the Rs 1000 “relief pack” distributed through Lanka Sathosa outlets is an attempt to silence those who raise questions on behalf of consumers, activists claim.
Asela Sampath, National Organizer of the Canteen Owners’ Association, was taken into custody on April 13 by the Police through a warrant issued for his arrest over an incident at the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) head office in April, 2019. CAA officials had lodged a police complaint that Mr Sampath had been abusive and had threatened them. The case is pending at the Fort Magistrate’s Court. Mr Sampath is currently in remand custody till April 19.
Fellow activists however, point out that the arrest came just days after Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardana publicly called for the arrest of those who had spread “lies” about the Rs 1000 relief pack that the Government was distributing through Lanka Sathosa outlets during April. The subsequent arrest of Mr Sampath was highly unusual and disturbing, his attorney Senaka Perera told the Sunday Times. “He was not hiding. He was living at his home and was openly giving press conferences. When we visited the police station to see him, we were also told that there had been several other complaints lodged against him over more recent comments he made to the media regarding the relief packs, and police were going to notify the court about them as well.”
Sathosa and the State Trading (General) Corporation had been among the institutions that had lodged complaints against Mr Sampath over his comments regarding the relief packs, Mr Perera stated. “He was kept in police custody for more than 24 hours before being produced in court. The Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the Slave Island Police personally appeared in court for the police in this case and made it sound as if the police launched an operation to arrest my client though he had never hid from the courts. The OIC repeated several times in court that he had not come under any political pressure regarding this case, which to us is an indication of the exact opposite.”
Mr Perera said it was only natural for someone to conclude that there was a link between the arrest of Mr Sampath over a warrant issued regarding an incident over two years ago and the public comments made by the Trade Minister about the need to arrest those who he claimed were spreading falsehoods regarding the relief packs.
The Rs 1000 relief packs sold through Sathosa outlets for the Avurudu season from April 1 contain 12 essential items including three kilograms of rice (one kilo each of Red Raw, White Raw and White Nadu), white sugar, lentils, a packet of tea, sprats, salt, chilli pieces and a face mask.
Mr Sampath made some serious allegations in the media over the relief packs, including claims of fraud concerning face masks contained in the packs. He also alleged that some food items in the packs were either contaminated or were substandard.
While some of his claims are hard to prove, there are others that raise serious concerns and should be looked into by authorities, stated Chirantha Amerasinghe, Media Director of the Foundation for Peoples’ Rights Protection, a coalition of activist groups of which Mr Sampath is also the national organiser. Mr Amerasinghe particularly cited concerns over the quality and price of face masks being distributed with the packs. “For starters, only one mask is being given per pack, though the Government claims a pack is for one family. We have also observed that the masks in the relief packs are different and of varying quality. Moreover, the single mask in the pack is priced at Rs 14. We purchased a pack of 50 such masks from Sathosa and found that the price of one mask is Rs 14, so, the price of the mask you get in the relief pack is the same as what you would pay when you purchase it normally.”
There were also questions surrounding the tea being given in the relief packs, he further said. The tea packet has no information on what type of tea it is and it does not have the SLS logo or markings. While the packet has details on the distributor and packer of the tea, it has no information on where the tea originated from,” he noted. “We filed a complaint with the CAA over these issues on April 10, three days before Sampath was arrested,” he stressed.
Mr Amerasinghe said consumer rights advocates were happy that the Government was providing relief packs to the people, but added that it should pay attention towards rectifying glaring shortcomings in the programme. “Instead, the Trade Minister has taken this personally, and the Government has decided to use prior issues as an excuse to go after an activist in a bid to silence him.”
Asela Sampath’s arrest signals that the Government will go to any lengths to silence activists who raise uncomfortable questions, opined Ranjith Withanage, President of the National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection. “I don’t endorse all the claims he made, but it is clear that there are some serious issues regarding the packs, such as regarding the face masks and tea packets. The manner of his arrest is also an issue. Police have a right to execute a warrant, even if it is over an incident from two years ago, but then they added several other complaints made regarding his comments over the relief packs as well. This all seems like a concerted attempt to silence those speaking up for the rights of the people, but it won’t work,” he insisted.
Despite criticism, the decision to distribute relief packs through Sathosa outlets had paid off, Lanka Sathosa Chairman Rear Admiral (Retd) Ananda Peiris told the Sunday Times. “The goal was never about us making profits, it was about creating an environment where consumers would benefit from reduced prices,” he said. The Sathosa Chairman claimed that since their outlets started selling the relief packs, private supermarket chains too had reduced the prices of essential items in the packs they sold. “For example, we sold a kilo of sugar for Rs 99 while the private supermarket chains were selling a kilo for as much as Rs 120. They too have come down to our price now.”
He however, accepted that there are limitations with the programme in that there were only some 420 Sathosa outlets throughout the country. As such, not everyone would be able to purchase them easily. “I can only work with what I have, but I still say we have achieved our aim in compelling the major supermarket chains and other retailers to lower prices of these items in their shops as well.”
Rear Admiral (Retd) Peiris dismissed allegations levelled over the quality of relief packs as baseless and acknowledged Sathosa too had lodged a police complaint against Mr Sampath over his claims over the packs.
The Sathosa Chairman added that in consultation with the Trade Minister, they were considering introducing a new relief pack with several additional essential items.
Attempts to reach Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardana for comment failed.