India should leave SL alone– Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle
By Shaahidah Riza
India should not interfere in Sri Lanka's internal affairs, said State Minister for Urban Development and Water Supply, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle. She made this remark in relation to the recent cancellation of Indian celebrity Rajinikanth's visit to Sri Lanka's North.
According to the Indian media, the latter was compelled to cancel his visit due to opposition from certain Indian political parties. Commenting on this development, Fernandopulle noted that certain individuals with vested interests do not want the popular actor to be in Sri Lanka.
In an interview with Ceylon Today she added that Tamil Nadu was attempting to influence Sri Lankan politics, and that it should not be so, and that we in Sri Lanka should be left to sort out our problems on our own.
Excerpts of the interview:
?. On 6 March, you attended a UNICEF event and spoke on Children's Rights. What were your key concerns?
A. UNICEF facilitated a meeting for parliamentarians in South Asia to talk on the Rights of Children. We spoke on so many aspects including child marriage. We have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Children. Present legal age of marriage is 18; I think it should be applied uniformly across the country to all children. When children get married at the young age of 12 or when they are less than 18 years, their right to education and the opportunities they would get as children to be productive later on as adults, is hampered. What I feel is that the law should be common to all, irrespective of ethnicity, cast or religion. When the MMDA is applied to some children their education is hampered. Even for a girl, to be a good wife and a mother, she has to have a sound education. This has been proven by research, indicating that when girls are empowered by education, the economic return and the benefit to society is much greater than educating only boys, all of which is lost when these children get married young.
?. Compared to other South Asian countries, statistically, how does Sri Lanka fare in child marriages?
A. Actually it is very low in Sri Lanka, compared to other countries in the region. What we feel is, even if one such marriage is taking place, then it has to be stopped. It is discrimination against any child, because the rights of the child are being hampered by it. However, the child marriage rate in Sri Lanka is not very high, we must accept that. But we have to bring it down to zero. What we are told is that in certain pockets of areas these marriages are taking place. This has been brought to our attention and the attention of the women's caucus for children.
?. Certain parts of Colombo still do not have pipe borne water. What has been done to address that?
A. On Monday, the Greater Colombo Water and Sanitation Project was officially launched. With this project it is expected to increase coverage and also increase the quality of the water supply and also increase the water pressure. Colombo is a city where the population is constantly on the rise with the rapid development of high rise buildings, water needs are also increasing daily. Now the Greater Colombo Water Project is being implemented to provide 24hr water supply to increase the pressure and to minimize water loss. In certain areas in Colombo the pipes are those that were laid over 100 years ago, so we have issues regarding these as well. Now we are gradually replacing these pipes with new ones. We officially launched the project on Monday, but we have already started the activities pertaining to it.
?. When Ceylon Today interviewed you, previously, you said that 1.7 per cent of the population do not have toilet facilities. What have you done to address this issue?
A. Of course, yes. Under a World Bank Project we are covering about seven districts. The Ministry and the Water Supply and Sanitation Board are also looking at expanding the central drainage system to increase coverage to above 2 per cent. In the meantime the Ministry has allocated funds to construct toilets. So that is also in progress.
We also want to lobby the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Fisheries, to provide funds to construct toilets in the coastal belt, and also the Ministry for Local Government and Provincial Councils, as they also allocate funds to construct toilets, and sometimes these are just distributed among people. However, our Ministry clearly monitors the construction and the money is given out, in a phase by phase, basis. We have also allocated funds to the Department of National Community Water Supply. In 2030, under the Sustainable Development Goals we have to eliminate open defecation. In Sri Lanka open defecation is not a major problem, but still people are sharing toilets and there are people who also use unsanitary toilets. We want to replace those with sanitary toilets.
?. There is a major dengue crisis in the North. Recently the Prime Minister also made a statement indicating that it was due to external factors that the epidemic was spreading. You have been active in the health sector due to your profession as a medical doctor. How do you view this?
A. The main cause is that we don't have a proper waste management system in Sri Lanka. As a result the breeding sites are increasing. People are also not being responsible. They know the conditions in which the dengue mosquito breeds but they do nothing to remedy the situation. They don't take steps to clean the garbage and dispose of it properly. People are not taking a strong and active role to eradicate the dengue epidemic. They expect the State and the Local Government authorities to do everything. It is true that we don't have a proper waste management system, but the people also have to be responsible and dispose of garbage in a proper manner. If the garbage can be segregated at home into plastics, paper and so on, it will be very easy to recycle and dispose. We need the cooperation of the people and also of the Local Government authorities.
?. Irrespective of the public's inertia with regard to systematic garbage disposal, the government has an enormous garbage crisis on hand as made evident in the case of Meethotamulla and Badulla. However, why isn't there a long lasting solution for this?
A. We have to accept that we have a problem in this regard. We don't have a proper waste management system, people have been visiting various countries and studying and observing several recycling mechanisms, but implementation of any sort is not taking place. I suggest that garbage be segregated at the household level. Plastics, paper and glass can be reused, whereas the biodegradable material can be composted. It can be used as manure. If the Local Government authorities strictly adhere to this, I think garbage will not be an issue. The fact of the matter is that, the Local Government bodies are also not ready. But it has to work both ways, the people have to cooperate and the Local Government authorities have to be able to facilitate the disposal of the segregated garbage and provide adequate services.
?. There was talk about appointing a National Women's Commission. Has it been established yet?
A. it has not been appointed. The women's caucus will also request the Ministry of Child Affairs to push for it. We have to address issues pertaining to gender. The gender based issues. If the National Commission has been appointed we can certainly address these issues through the Commission. There are several problems faced by women, various forms of discrimination, violence targeting women and violence and harassment in public transport, all these could be taken up if the Women's Commission was in place. As the women's caucus, all of us will be have to push for it.
?. With regard to sustainable development what is the role of women, in your view, and in what aspects is State intervention needed to give them space?
A. Women also should be equal partners of development. They also should be involved in economic development. Right now only 34 per cent of women contribute to the economy. The country cannot develop if the women are shunned. We have to make sure that the women also contribute. We have to support the women, provide them child care facilities and introduce shift free hours and facilitate them to work from home, which will encourage women to work and contribute to the economy. We should make sure that women are not harassed; we have to prevent domestic violence so that the optimum potential of women can be used to develop their families and the society. We have to ensure equality and equity.
?. You are quite active at the SLFP grassroots in preparation for forthcoming elections. What kind of steps are you taking to get women involved?
A. We have a 25 per cent quota approved at the Local Government level. Through the women's caucus we are conducting awareness programmes and we have covered about three districts. We hope to cover other districts as well. We talk to women from all parties about the need to actively engage in politics and then talk about the 25 per cent quota and liaise with their organizations and get ready for the elections. We encourage them to contest and also to meet the quota requirements. Through the SLFP women's wing also we had a national workshop and several other workshops at district level. In my electorate also we had a women's empowerment programme, for the officers and women representing various organizations.
?. Don't you think there should be a separate National List quota for women to get into Parliament?
A. Actually the women's caucus put in a proposal to the Constitution Steering Committee and requested for a quota at the provincial level. With regard to national level, we asked to maintain a gender balance of 30-70 per cent on nomination lists in all party main structures. Also, all Provincial Authorities were advised to maintain gender balance of 30-70 per cent. We also stand for equal rights, not only in terms of the justice system but also in terms of exposure to all opportunities, such as equal pay for equal work and taking into account the reports prepared in the Fundamental Rights chapter ensuring Rights of Women.
?. Indian celebrity Rajinikanth's visit to Sri Lanka was cancelled due to opposition by certain Tamil Nadu parties. What is your view of Indian politics having such an impact on Sri Lankan affairs?
A. India is trying to either influence or interfere in Sri Lankan politics. Rajinikanth was invited to ceremonially declare open some houses constructed for the people in the North. People with vested interests would not have been happy to have him here. I think India should not interfere in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. Rajinikanth was invited because he is a celebrity and also because he is a popular actor in Tamil cinema and well known to the Tamil community. Tamil Nadu is trying to influence the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. But we should be allowed to sort out our own problems. Outside interference will make it difficult and unpleasant for the Sri Lankan Government to address the issues of our people. The present government is committed towards reconciliation and are taking a keen interest to address the issues of the Tamil people in the North and East. They are trying to work out some sort of power sharing which is acceptable to all parties. At such a time this sort of happenings will be an embarrassment to the Tamil people and the Government of Sri Lanka.
?. The IUSF has staged 65 protests island-wide, over the SAITM issue. What is the government going to do about it?
A. President has appointed a committee and they are meeting regularly to discuss issues. Successive governments have accepted private education. There is no going back on private education. But there are issues about the quality of private medical education in particular. We have to come to some sort of terms. The government can't go back on private education because it has accepted private education. But the policy has to be maintained. Also the basic criteria, with regard to enrolment, the quality of medical education, not only in private medical institutions but also at other State medical institutions should be maintained at the same level. There should be some kind of quality check, and quantitative litative exam, so that SLMC will be able to register them as doctors; after all they are responsible for human lives. Doctors should have quality education. Even though students graduate from a medical field in any university across the world they would have to come back and sit for the qualifying exam.
Even if you graduate in Sri Lanka and want to practise in another country you have to sit for their qualifying exam. The same is the case with Sri Lanka, be it SAITM or another institution. The standards have to be maintained.
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