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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

“This Speaks A Lot About You” An Open Letter To H.E. The President

Kusal PereraAt the same time it is pointless and unrealistic to deny that the Tamil people have grievances. (emphasis added) The articulation of grievances by the Tamil people continues to remain at the centre of the Sinhala – Tamil relationship and need to be recognized and addressed directly and fairly as the first step in the post conflict process of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence…….” (8.153 / page – 292 of the LLRC Final Report)

 President, who appointed the “Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC) with the mandate to learn and report back on how to avoid another catastrophe, like the one the whole country was through, for 30 years, in armed conflict. But your Commission has, after almost an year of listening to people and reading their submissions, learnt that Tamil people have grievances and most importantly, they are not just 30 years old. They go back at least to the day of independence in 1948 February and there was no LTTE then.

“The Commission takes the view that the root cause of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka lies in the failure of successive Governments to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil people. The country may not have been confronted with a violent separatist agenda, if the political consensus at the time of independence had been sustained (emphasis added) and if policies had been implemented to build up and strengthen the confidence of the minorities around the system which had gained a reasonable measure of acceptance.” (8.150 / page – 292 of the LLRC Final Report)

 The “political consensus at the time” was clearly not sustained and that was precisely the reason for a “violent separatist agenda” to emerge in Tamil politics. If, you wish to peruse some of the letters written by late C. Suntheralingam who resigned his seat in parliament, after the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956 was passed in parliament, to then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake in early 1957 accusing him of trying to shift the proposed construction of a port in Kankesanthurai (KKS) to a location in the South, you would know that the four State corporations KKS Cement, Paranthan Chemicals, Pulmuddai Mineral Sands and Valaichchennai Paper, that went to North – East did not go that way, by virtue of political plurality and clean governance.

 Thus the importance of the “Eastern Paper Mills Corporation” in Valaichchennai that had its beginning in 1957. This was later named “National Paper Corporation” during the tenure of Madam B., but was never treated as a national asset. Was finally turned into a government owned business under the name “National Paper Company Ltd.” Apart from economics of running a State corporation efficiently and profitably, what makes Valaichchennai paper corporation important is politics of present day reconciliation, as recommended by your own LLRC.

 This is a public business venture that by 1970 had around 3,000 employees and running at a profit. With its raw material – straw – collecting and delivery centres, distribution and sales networks, indirect employment added another 2,00 plus. During that period, Valaichchennai mills was producing exercise books, duplicating and typing paper, ledger paper and different gauges of cardboard. With Embilipitiya Mills that was established with funds pumped from Valaichchennai, the two State corporations met 70 per cent of the paper need of the country.

 It was one among the few State ventures that survived the open economy from 1978, till a drastic reduction in duty in 1997 from 35 percent to 10 percent with no turnover tax imposed on imported paper, made production in  Valaichchennai, almost impossible. Even the Government Printer then found importing paper, more cheaper. It was then that  Valaichchennai turned largely into recycling waste paper and established a new network of collecting centres. They were then running into difficulties with their old German machines. Worn out by then after almost 40 years running, they had to go, replaced by new machinery with new technology. That was not what the Chandrika government was looking into. It was obvious they had other interests.

 In the 70s running through 80, Valaichchennai mills was preferred by youth for employment, even over bank jobs, say former employees. There was some payment received almost every week. The over time pay, the incentive allowance, then the salary, paid each week. The salary itself was a little more than at banks, which were State owned then.

 What was important is that, until it was ditched by the Colombo regimes and left to die, it generated employment for youth in Valaichchennai, in Batticoloa district and in the East. It created a cash flow around, that helped the local economy. It gave a degree of dignity for that society and it helped social mobility for most who would otherwise had to end up, may be toiling the land. Valaichchennai paper mills therefore, seriously meant much more to those people in Batticoloa district, in the East, than the “Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium”, or the “Magampura Port” would ever mean to your people of Hambantota and the people of the South. That is, its political importance in the East, beyond pure economics.

 Today it is lying in shambles, whilst the top management appointed under your executive power, lives off by selling cables, iron girders, old machinery and equipment to settle monthly wages of the remaining 170 plus workers and those who had opted to retire on the VRS offered. A Chairman appointed previously by you, an Amarasinghe, stands accused of heavy corruption by the workers. He is accused of importing an outdated Indian boiler for over 32 million rupees, that is now lying huge on an elevated platform, in a debris of a building. The present CEO/ General Manager is accused of total inefficiency and eating out of the remaining assets.

 Workers do have a strong case to present. The loss recorded by June 2011 as told by the 04 trade unions representing the Valaichchennai paper mill workers, runs to almost 700 billion rupees. Arrears due on electricity consumed, totals 140 million rupees. While the building that housed the head office in Union Place, Colombo 02, built on profits from the Valaichchennai mills, had been sold for 400 million rupees, neither the operations at Valaichchennai mills nor the workers, had stood to gain.

 Since 2008, which period is your period in office as President, workers have not been paid their due EPF and ETF monies, charge trade unions and workers. Now the workers living in their quarters, have no electricity and no water. There is no water source nearby, either. Salaries are not paid regularly. Nor are those who opted for retirement on the VRS offered, paid their promised half pay, till compensations are paid. When that would be, is not in any one’s calendar. This Your Excellency, can not be anything less than plain hell, for human living.

 So, let me ask, what has your much hyped “Eastern Awakening” programme, for the awakening of Valaichchennai paper mills ? May be, with your own select men in the board running it, Valaichchennai paper mills can not be listed under the “Revival of Under performing Enterprises and Under utilised Assets Act” as a company running at a massive loss and one that has to be revived. Yet, do you not accept this business venture, profitable as it was in the past, can still be revived and do not have to end up as debris, to be cleared ? That this is an essential economic activity that would also generate direct and indirect employment in thousands for the people in the East ? Is not it your politics, that you do not want it that way ?

 This was what, late C. Suntheralingam was stubbornly believing about Colombo Sinhala leadership. He accused, they do not in any way want to develop Tamil areas. As usual Suntheralingam wrote a letter the “Suntheralingam way”, to “Thanthai Chelva” (S.J.V. Chelvanayagam), two days after the B-C Pact was sealed on 26 July, 1957. He wrote to Chelvanayagam, “Into what a sorry pass have you led the Tamils ? … I repeat, while your party wanted federation, I wanted separation, because I am convinced since 1955, that no Tamil should trust a Sinhalese politician and certainly not Prime Minister Bandaranaike, to protect Tamil interests.”

Yet to the dismay of most moderates in Tamil society, PM Bandaranayake walked out to the lawn of his Rosemead Place residence on 09 April, 1958 and tore the signed B-C Pact in front of a group of protesting Buddhist monks, proving Suntheralingam right. “… I am worried whether Tamils in the future will have trust in the Sinhala leadership.” says Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, in his biography “Out of Bondage – The Thondaman Story” sketched by T Sabaratnam, referring to the incident of tearing the B-C Pact.
 Have we got out of this stupidity, at least after 53 years of bleeding blunders ? Do not we want the country to prosper ? Would not the reviving of the Valaichchennai paper mills add to our national economic growth, if we allow for efficient planning and management of the mills ?

 There is much neglected and jettisoned, qualified expertise there at the factory still. They do insist they could draw up a revival plan, that can easily be lobbied for investment, especially with the World Bank, the European Union and more with the Indian government. Why have not the government thought so ?

 This government that was worried “SL Cricket” the governing body was reeling in bankruptcy to the tune of 4.2 billion, decided to quickly credit the awfully corrupt organisation with 01 billion rupees from public money. But they don’t have that pain of mind, for the people in North – East. “They are anyway playing  ‘pandu’ with us” said an employee, when I met them in Valaichchennai, a few days ago.

 For all the continuing blunders, you will be held responsible as the head of this Rajapaksa government and rightly so. And, you would then go down in political history as another “Sevala Banda”, unless you turn around and prove you are not.

 I do wish, you would !
 (By Kusal Perera  – for Sunday Leader)


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