Sri Lanka News in Brief FEB 2017 - Compiled by Victor Melder

Approximately 27,873 new cancer patients had registered with the main cancer treatment centres affiliated to nine hospitals in the country last year, to the National Cancer Control Programme. Addressing the media at the Health Education Bureau (HEB) to announce the ‘World Cancer Day’, commemorated the world over on Saturday (04), Consultant Community Physician of the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) Dr. Suraj Perera said however that that the figures that had been taken from the nine centres treating patients with cancer could be flawed. Some of those patients were suspect cases as well as those who had registered themselves in two or three hospitals. Dr Perera responding to a question regarding the incidence of cancer in the country said that according to the National Cancer Register in 1995 the number of cases detected had been 5012 while they had increased to 16,963 by 2010. This may be due to several reasons which include the fact that Sri Lanka had an aging population, the increase in the number of patients being screened and the increasing number of cancer patients seeking treatment. He said that breast cancers comprised 26.8 per cent of all female cancers in the country while oral, lip and pharynx cancers comprised 24 per cent of all male cancers. Director NCCP, Dr Sudath Samaraweera said the Epidemiology unit had initiated a Human Papiloma Virus (HPV) vaccination programme for school girls this year. The HPV vaccine was administered to prevent cervical cancer – another cancer common among Sri Lankan women. (Daily Island 2.1.2017)

The tourism industry appears to have gotten off to a good start in 2017 with January arrivals topping the 200,000 mark.According to the latest data, tourist arrivals in January amounted to a record 219,360, up by 13% from 194,280 in the corresponding month of last year. The Government has targeted 2.5 million tourist arrivals this year, up from 2.05 million in 2016. January 2017 marked the second consecutive month of over 200,000 tourist arrivals. (Daily Financial Times 3.2.2017)

Sri Lanka’s overall record of poverty reduction has been encouraging but living standards remain low and pockets of severe poverty persist, according to a recently-released World Bank report on the analysis of poverty reduction programs and their progress.
According to the authors of the report, ‘Sri Lanka Poverty and Welfare: Recent Progress and Remaining Challenges,’ analysis of Sri Lanka’s recent progress in reducing poverty and inequality is directly relevant to the new Government’s development agenda.
The report, which draws on data between 2002 and 2012, notes that trends in poverty have shifted, and better wages have transformed lives. Post-war domestic economic growth and fluctuations in global markets have reduced poverty and driven substantial changes in Sri Lanka’s economic environment. Sri Lanka’s poverty is low by international standards and extreme poverty rate, which is defined as the percentage with income of $ 1.25 per person per day, at 2.8% in 2012/13 is low relative to comparable countries. “We’ve seen major progress since 2002. In this new era, we wanted to see how the economy and welfare of Sri Lankan citizens was being affected and improved,” David Newhouse, a Senior Economist with the World Bank and one of the authors of the report says. “Sri Lanka’s gradual transition out of agriculture, and the increase in urbanisation and agglomeration around the Colombo-Kandy-Galle corridor have brought workers greater access to more profitable opportunities. These parallel processes are a sustainable source of better livelihoods,” the report explains. “We find that increase in labour earnings and higher returns to work is what drove the poverty reduction,” says Newhouse. The wages increased as the demand for labour rose across a broad range of sectors, the report says highlighting how sizeable increases in minimum agricultural wages led to higher earnings for agricultural workers. According to the study, excluding the war-affected Northern and Eastern Provinces, the poverty headcount rate fell from about 22.7% in 2002 to 6.1% in 2012/13. However, the authors say challenges still remain as despite the fall in poverty, living standards generally remain low and pockets of severe poverty persist. “However, pockets of severe poverty remain,” cautions Newhouse. “What’s striking is that there are such regional disparities, even among areas that are geographically close to each other.”

The report identifies high levels of poverty in key districts in the north and east of the country, including Mullaitivu (28.8%), Mannar (20.1%) and Batticaloa District (19.4%). At 20.8%, the data from Moneragala District in Uva Province also offers cause for concern. Within Batticaloa, estimated poverty rates run as high as 45% in Manmunai West and 38% in Karalai Pattu South.

Although 95% of the population can now access electricity, more cost-effective power generation will be required to support further productivity growth. Also, several remaining knowledge gaps make it difficult to identify the best approach to speed up the structural transformation in the Sri Lankan context. (Daily Financial Times 5.2.2017)

In another unsolicited proposal, a Chinese company has been awarded the contract for the construction of the fourth phase of the Central Expressway project. Under the project, the Central Expressway between Kurunegala and Dambulla spanning 58.7 kilometres of four lanes is to be constructed at a cost of Rs. 161.61 billion, excluding Value Added Tax. Cabinet approval for the project has been granted to obtain a loan from the Exim Bank of China with the project to be carried out by the China Gezhouba Group of Companies. Sri Lanka will receive a six-year grace period for the repayment of the loan and it will have to be completed in 20 years.Project Director T.S.H. Abewickrema told the Sunday Times the agreement would be signed next week and word would be started at a ceremony presided over by President Maithripala Sirisena the following week. She said the project would be completed in three and a half years and would be part of the ‘Rajarata Navodaya’ – the President’s programme for the development of the Polonnaruwa district. Ms. Abeywickrema said the expressway would include five interchanges at Ridigama, Melsiripura, Galewela and two in Dambulla. There would be 21 bridges, 32 culverts, nine under passes and seven over passes. (Sunday Times 5.2.2017)

As dengue cases leap skywards in another full blown epidemic, health officials across the country are left struggling against heavy odds as they try to treat the torrent of patients showing symptoms of a disease that could become fatal if not detected and treated early. A survey found most hospitals treating dengue patients overloaded to the hilt. Beds in many wards were shared by at least two patients and sometimes three, while others slept under beds, or in long chains of bodies sleeping on available hospital corridors.Even the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH), the premier hospital for communicable diseases in the country, has not escaped the problems posed by the runaway disease. “We are coping with difficulty,” IDH Hospital Senior Consultant Physician Dr Ananda Wijewickrama confessed. “The lack of space and severe staff shortage poses a huge problem as we have to cater to patients with all sorts of infectious diseases, on a daily basis. Now, with the dengue epidemic, we have to cope with an additional surge of patients. In fact, from last month, the majority of our patients are those with suspected dengue symptoms”, he told the Sunday Observer. In 2014, the hospital’s Out Patients Department (OPD) was visited by 153,450 patients. Now, two years on, Dr Wijewickrama estimates the number could easily have reached the 200,000 mark, with the spike in communicable diseases which have now overtaken non communicable diseases in the country. “We set up a separate ward for dengue patients five years ago in anticipation of a future outbreak as the number of dengue cases were mounting every year. But, even that was not enough for so many patients. So we are grateful to the Army for constructing a new ward for dengue patients as an emergency measure, on the instructions of the President,” he said. Built in a record time of just eight days, the solidly fully furnished hospital with 40 beds opened Thursday, February 2.Yet, even this addition may not be enough if the epidemic progresses, Dr Wijewickrama thinks. “We have been promised another Dengue ward with sixty beds. It is already under construction and may take around six months to complete”. (Sunday Observer 5.2.2017)

One in every four motorists involved in road accidents did not possess a valid driver’s license, it was revealed in Parliament today. Some 23 per cent of motorists involved in road accidents did not possess a valid driver’s license, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa said. Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the Regulations under the Motor Traffic Act this afternoon, he further said that according to statistics provided by police 49 per cent of those motorists who were found not to be in possession of a driver’s license were motorcyclists while 14 per cent were lorry drivers and 11 per cent were van drivers. One person dies every three hours in Sri Lanka due to a road accident, Dr. Jayatissa informed. The MP criticised the State and the Police for being more interested in collecting fines from errant motorists rather than acting to prevent road accidents. He cited that police officers were routinely positioned out of sight of motorists so as to catch errant drivers and impose fines. This however, was not an effective method for reducing accidents, but merely an exercise to increase the coffers of the Treasury, he pointed out. MPs also debated the proposed increase on traffic fines today. (Sunday Times 5.2.2017)

A multi-million dollar project for the establishment of a Solar Power Plant in Sri Lanka is underway with investment from three prestigious Japanese companies through a Japanese consortium. The companies which are Shibatasyoji Co., Ltd., SAWADACo. Ltd., and WQ Inc are renowned for their extensive expertise in establishing solar power plants in Japan and this pioneering scheme in venturing out to Sri Lanka will provide the country with the optimum knowledge in this area of competence. Shibatasyoji Co., Ltd., and SAWADACo. Ltd are the main investors while WQ Inc. will be providing the main components to the project. The Japanese experts conducted a series of extensive research in this field, concluding that Sri Lanka is one of the most viable countries for solar power. In addition, the Sri Lankan government’s announcement in 2015 vesting its interest to establish a series of solar power plants in the country gave it the needed boost in laying the groundwork for this project. The project is in partnership with TAD Lanka Investments, the local facilitating partner for the Project, and Sierra Technology Holdings (a subsidiary company of Sierra Holdings), the local EPC partner for the project. The official signing ceremony took place last Friday 03 February between the Japanese Consortium and the two local entities with the initial commitment of establishing a 10 Mw solar power plant and an added pledge to invest in 100Mw solar power plant in future. The decision for the pledge will depend on the success on this primary effort, which will be monitored closely. The target is to establish the project within a maximum time frame of eighteen months, which depends entirely on the Sri Lankan government’s willingness to issue Standard Power Purchase Agreements (SPPA) to potential Investors. The Government’s efficiency in processing the SPPA with expedite the establishment of the solar power plants by the investors. “This project will set the benchmark for future projects of this calibre in Sri Lanka paving the way to meet the impending power crisis and we are willing to give our unstinted support towards reaching success in this field”, remarked a representative of the Japanese Consortium. This project is a welcome effort as experts predict the power crisis which Sri Lanka is due to face in 2018 due to the inability to cope with the high demand for power. Such projects are of vital importance to improving the stability and Infrastructure of the country. With the government focusing on securing more FDIs to the country, encouraging such projects will benefit Sri Lanka in the long term and encourage more investors to follow suit. Therefore, the importance of this project and the pledge to invest more solely depends on the success of this premier project. (Daily Island 8.2.2017)
Despite being buffeted by rising inflation, dwindling reserves and stubbornly high private sector credit growth, which ended 2016 at 21.9%, the Central Bank yesterday decided to keep policy rates unchanged but acknowledged that it would closely monitor macroeconomic developments. Contributed by both food and non-food inflation, headline inflation, as measured by the year-on-year change in the Colombo Consumers’ Price Index (CCPI, 2013=100), increased to 5.5% in January 2017 from 4.5% in December 2016. Core inflation, based on CCPI, also accelerated to 7% in January 2017 from 5.8% in December 2016, the Central Bank said in its first monetary report for 2017. Headline inflation and core inflation, based on the National Consumer Price Index (NCPI, 2013=100), which is available with a time lag, also reflected an upward trend in December 2016, recording 4.2% and 6.7% respectively on a year-on-year basis. “In spite of the increase in inflation in recent times, which is mainly attributed to the impact of tax adjustments and the adverse weather conditions, inflation is projected to remain at mid-single-digit levels on average during the year supported by appropriate supply side and demand management policies,” it said. “Meanwhile, the year-on-year growth of credit extended to the private sector by commercial banks remained high at 21.9% by end 2016. (Daily Financial Times 8.2.207)

The Giritale Wildlife Department nursed to health an elephant that was found to have consumed vast amounts of polythene. The elephant was found lying in a swamp at Manampitiya, Nelumwila on January 29. The Giritale Wildlife Department said the elephant was moved out of the swamp with a backhoe and treated with 30 bottles of saline. Giritale Wildlife Department veterinary surgeon said the elephant had discharged 40 kilogrammes of polythene, after being given 40 litres of water and 3 litres of coconut oil. (Daily News 8.2.2017)
President Maithripala Sirisena this week instructed officials to provide an allowance of Rs. 10,000 per month to all agricultural families affected by the prevailing drought conditions, starting next month. The President further instructed to appoint a Committee comprising District Secretaries, Grama Niladharis and Samurdhi Officials to collect comprehensive information on affected families to disburse money to beneficiaries from the beginning of the Yala season. Highlighting that a large number of complaints have been received from the public regarding the land reclamation, the President said officials should take prompt action in this regard and emphasised that those who cannot fulfill their duties should resign from their respective posts. Preparations have been made to provide rice subsidy to the drought affected families in the near future, the President said, requesting government officials to carry out their duties to distribute this rice subsidy equally and in a systematic manner paying attention to detail and accurate statistics.

The President added that it is essential to pay attention to quality standards when providing water for drinking purposes. He instructed the officials to use buses to transport people when they travel to distant locations for bathing purposes. The President also instructed the officials to set up emergency power generating machines in areas like Pallekele, Hambantota, Kurunegala and Galle as an alternative to the impending power crisis and pointed out the importance of educating the public through the media and the internet on economical electricity consumption. The President said that the Treasury will provide the necessary financing for the continuous supply of electricity. Attention has been drawn to repair tube wells in rural areas, development of the agricultural wells, and the growing of paddy seeds in abandoned paddy fields in the wet zone with the assistance of the local government authorities. (Daily Financial Times 19.2.2017)

With a significant decrease in the number of Sri Lankans going overseas for jobs, the Foreign Employment Ministry is to seek Cabinet approval to reverse a budget decision on minimum salary for skilled and unskilled Sri Lankan workers. Earlier this month, a circular was issued by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) to all licensed foreign employment agencies over the revision of the minimum salary of Sri Lankan migrant workers. Accordingly, the minimum salary of an unskilled worker should be US$350 a month and a skilled worker at US$450. Last year, Sri Lanka earned a revenue of US$7.2 billion (Rs 1.12 trillion) from the remittances of migrant workers, making it the biggest source of foreign revenue. (Sunday Times 19.2.2017)

A recent study on ancient Sri Lankan epigraphy dating back to the 5th and 7th centuries AD have uncovered a peculiar practice in vogue during that time of laymen offering their wives and family members as slaves to temples and then pay for their release to accrue merits. The study carried out on special type of inscriptions commonly known as Vaharala inscriptions found that kings, ministers, rich as well as those engaged in artisan professions offering various persons including their beloved family members as slaves to the temples and thereafter paying for their redemption. The monies given so are meant to be used for the expenses of those temples or for the maintenance of the slaves who could not be freed, said Mangalika Rajapakshe, Research Officer of Abahaygiriya Stupa Project of the Central Cultural Fund. “This specific type of inscriptions are known as Vaharala epigraphy among researchers but it is not established as a different genre scientifically. Those inscriptions are commonly known so because each of them have the word vaharala or its synonyms such as viharala, veherila, viharalaya, veheralaya along with another Brahmi term known as Chithavi. Several scholars starting from Dr Senarat Paranavitana to modern times have studied them and posited various opinions. According to Dr Paranavitana, those epigraphs had been meant to announce the donating of slaves to temples and thereafter freeing them by settling their dues,” Rajapkshe who carried out the study told The Island yesterday. “An analysis of this type of inscriptions indicates that all of them have five common information in each of them. They are the name of the donor who offers slaves to the temple, his village, his position or social status, what he offered, the amount he paid for the redemption of the slave and a blessing,” she said. “There are names of kings, ministers, generals, teachers as well as tile makers who donating slaves to the temples and thereafter buying their freedom. In most occasions 100 kahavanu (kahapana) had been paid to secure the freedom of one slave. There are cases of paying more than that amount,” Rajapskshe said. Senior Lecturer Chandima Ambanwala of the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Management of the University of Rajarata said that most of those inscriptions known as Vaharala epigraphy were found in the lowest rung of staircases or nearby the Sanadkadapahana (the moonstone) and it could be surmised as an indication of ascribing lower status for the slaves. “The slavery in practice during those times could in no way be compared to the slavery in ancient Rome or black slaves in the US in later times. The period of serving the temple by those slaves had been vary some have served only several hours before they were freed, according to literary sources. Offering slaves for temple service had been considered a meritorious act and setting them free had been considered more meritorious,” he said adding that the end of those inscriptions there is a dedication of merits. “Some of them ends with a prayer wishing that the merits acquired by freeing the slaves should help the donor to achieving nibbana or attain buddhahood. Such wishes show more of a mahayana tendency. (Daily Island 20.2.2017)

At least 11 people including a child and five women drowned when an overcrowded boat carrying Christian pilgrims capsized in rough seas off Sri Lanka’s southwest coast Sunday, police said. The victims had set off in a parade of fishing boats from the tourist resort of Beruwala but halfway into their journey their craft overturned in choppy seas, police said. “Other fishing boats and volunteers have been able to rescue 32 people, but we still do not have a count on the number of people on board,” a police officer in the area told AFP by telephone.He said searches by navy boats as well as aircraft were hampered by heavy winds and rain.Sunday’s boat parade came amid a warning to fishing communities from the meteorological department of winds up to 80 kilometres (50 miles) an hour. Sunday’s tragedy was the worst boat disaster since June 2013 when 54 fishermen were killed after several boats capsized during a freak storm in the same area. (Daily Financial Times 20.2.2017)

A gazette notification issued by Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripla de Silva on Friday has made it mandatory for all motorcyclists, including pillion riders, to wear a protective helmet which does not conceal any part of the wearer’s face. In terms of the new regulations, the helmet should fit the wearer’s head and secured with a chin strap and may be fitted with a visor not made of a tinted or colored material with the face exposed and unobstructed peripheral vision. The gazette notification says: “When a protective helmet is worn, no part, extension or attachment thereof, shall obscure, conceal, or distort any portion of the face of the wearer. The protective helmet and chin strap shall be one single unit without any sharp edges, sharp points, joints or bolts around it”. It added: “The colour of the protective helmet shall be 90 per cent of a single colour that is easily visible without any light reflecting from its outer surface. Every protective helmet worn by a person who rides motorcycle shall conform to Sri Lanka Standard 517 of 1994 or such standards that may be applicable for protective helmets from time to time”. According to the regulation, no person shall use or sell or offer for sale any helmet that does not conform to the provisions of these regulations for the purpose of riding a motorcycle on any road except for riding a motorcycle at a motorcycle race”. (Sunday Island 26.2.2017)

Sri Lanka is seeking US$3.9 billion from foreign borrowings for debt servicing (loan installments and interest) this year, more than double that of $1.82 billion in 2016. The country has no option other than to borrow externally for Balance of Payment (BoP) and fiscal support as it had been doing in the recent past, a top Finance ministry official told the Business Times. The Cabinet of Ministers has already given approval to limit the foreign borrowings to $3 billion for the year 2017. But the financial requirement for this year is $4 billion. The Ministry has to seek Cabinet approval again to increase the foreign borrowing limit, he said adding that this will be the highest debt repayment to be made by Sri Lanka within a year. Sri Lanka is entangled in a gigantic debt trap owing to loans obtained by the previous regime for infrastructure development which has not brought any returns on its investments, he disclosed. Further national revenue and export earnings constantly have come down since 2011 up to year 2014, he said. The Government is expected to raise 225 billion rupees ($1.5 billion) during 2017, through development bond issues within the total gross borrowing limit of 1,579 billion rupees approved by Parliament. Sri Lanka will raise up to $1.5 billion from a sovereign bond and another $1 billion from a syndicated loan this year, Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy revealed recently. It is also planning a $1.2 billion sale of Japanese Yen-denominated securities also known as ‘Samurai’ bonds, according to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Apart from this, plans are underway to get $3 billion in sovereign bonds as well as ‘Panda bonds’ or Renminbi-denominated bonds this year. The total of over $6.7 billion is earmarked for 2017 from bond sales this year while the borrowing ceiling was $3 billion. Therefore without the Cabinet approval these loans cannot be obtained by the government, official sources said. The country has to be prepared to either retire or roll-over as much as $5 billion worth of sovereign bond obligations that it has to fulfil every year for a period of three years, commencing from 2019. (Sunday Times 26.2.2017)

The Disaster Management Ministry yesterday said that 899,235 persons of 228,906 families in 16 districts had so far been affected by the prevailing drought. The victims are in the districts of Trincomalee, Kalutara, Gampaha, Hambantota, Moneragala, Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Mulaithivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Kandy and Matale. They are from 103 Grama Seva Divisions. The Finance Ministry has allocated Rs. 50 million to provide drinking water for the affected families. District Secretaries have been instructed to provide drinking water at the district secretariat level, to pay for water, hire bowsers and drivers for the purpose. In addition the government had deployed 2,370 water tanks, each with a capacity to store 1,000 litres of water, Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said. The government has planned to pay compensation to farmers who have suffered crop losses owing to the drought. Accordingly, the payments would be made for four months starting from March. Each paddy farmer would be paid Rs 10,000 per acre. (Daily Island 27.2.2017)