By Sandun Jayawardana
The arrest of a prominent ‘aragalaya’ activist and a contentious debate on malnutrition among the country’s mothers and children saw sparks fly between the government and opposition benches in Parliament this week.
The arrest of award-winning actress Damitha Abeyratne, who had been at the forefront of the ‘aragalaya’ (struggle), saw opposition MPs raise vociferous protests on Thursday (8). Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, who had been to see Ms Abeyratne at the Fort police station after her arrest the previous evening, raised the matter just as Parliament sessions commenced.
He told the House that the actress had not been involved in any violence. She had not taken part in any illegal activity or caused damage to state or private property. “She was simply exercising her rights and I urge the government to release her,” Mr Premadasa said.
Chief Opposition Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga was unmoved, stating that the activist could go to court and the Human Rights Commission if her human rights had been violated as the opposition claims. “How can one liken efforts to restore law and order with state terrorism?”
If someone had committed a crime, they should be punished by law, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Namal Rajapaksa stated. “An MP was killed during this period and so much property was damaged. Neither the opposition leader nor anyone else should come forward to defend someone if they have committed wrong,” he insisted.
“Whether I come forward or not does not depend on the Rajapaksa family. But people in the Hambantota district know who has ownership on violence,” Mr Premadasa shot back.
Meanwhile, the opposition also moved a two-day adjournment debate on “Malnutrition of Children and Mothers in Sri Lanka” on Tuesday and Wednesday.
A UNICEF report has ranked Sri Lanka sixth in the world and second in South Asia in a global malnutrition index, said SJB MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna, moving the debate. According to the report, the most affected are children aged below five years. More than 40, 000 children in the country are currently severely undernourished and 27, 000 of them are suffering from severe malnutrition.
Food inflation in July was 90.9%. It climbed to 93.7% in August. Food inflation is likely to rise to 100% in September due to the rise in consumer goods and services as a result of the increase in VAT through the interim budget. The situation is putting the health of future generations at risk, Ms Wijerathna warned.
To compound matters, the state’s programme to distribute free lunches to 1.1 million primary school students has been severely affected as only Rs. 60 has been approved for each student’s lunch, she further revealed.
She called for an increase in funding for meals for school students and underlined the importance of drafting a national nutrition policy. Ms Wijerathna also called for the establishment of a separate Ministry for Children.
Both the president and the government have all but ignored the dire warnings about the health of the country’s children issued by the UNICEF in their report, SJB MP Thalatha Athukorala charged.
She said that the chemical fertiliser ban imposed by the Rajapaksa government had resulted in a loss of foreign exchange and the collapse of the country’s food security.
While the opposition is citing a UNICEF report, Health Ministry data shows that authorities have actually been able to reduce the percentage of stunting, wasting and being underweight among children over the past few years, SLPP MP Gayashan Nawanandana claimed. “It is unfair to blame any particular party or government over what has happened. In fact, statistics from the Health Ministry shows that malnutrition in the country has gradually declined.”
Former Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who had come under severe criticism over the fertiliser issue, acknowledged that the government’s agriculture policy contributed to the loss of food security. However, he insisted that this only affected one cultivation season. “The problem was corrected. When this decision was taken in April last year, we had already imported fertiliser for the Yala Season. The problem came in the Maha Season. There was a huge decrease in production as a result. There is no debating that.”
Even this decrease would not have occurred if the programme had been properly implemented, Mr Aluthgamage stressed. “I don’t think the policy was wrong. What was wrong is deciding to implement it suddenly throughout the whole country. We should have implemented it in stages.”
With Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella being abroad, Minister of Plantation Industries Dr Ramesh Pathirana, who is serving as Acting Health Minister, told the House that the government does not accept the report compiled by UNICEF.
The UNICEF report had placed Sri Lanka sixth on the list using malnutrition data from 2016, Dr Pathirana said. “The controversy is that they have taken data from different countries referring to different years. They have taken data from India from 2017, whereas the data from Eritrea is from 1995. As such, there is a significant difference in the year they are referring to when coming to the final results. So, we can’t take this report as a complete report,” he argued.
A notable feature when the debate was wrapping up on Wednesday was that there was no minister or MP from the government to deliver closing remarks. SJB MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna, who had opened the debate, pointed the matter out. “We were speaking about the health of the 4.3 million children in this country. A responsible minister must answer as to how they are going to address this problem of malnutrition. It is deeply regrettable that Parliament has fallen to this situation now.”
SLPP MP Weerasumana Weerasinghe, who was in the Chair at the time, said he will bring the matter to the notice of the Speaker.
Parliament will reconvene on September 20.
Courtesy: Sunday Times