Activist state

The arrest of actress Damitha and the debate on the state of malnutrition in the country sparks | Print edition

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By Sandun Jayawardana

The arrest of a prominent ‘aragalaya’ activist and a contentious debate over malnutrition among mothers and children across the country have sparked sparks 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 strong protests on Thursday (8). Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, who had visited Ms Abeyratne at Fort police station after her arrest the previous evening, raised the issue at the start of parliamentary sessions. He told the House that the actress had not been involved in any violence. She had not participated in any illegal activity or caused damage to public or private property. “She was just exercising her rights and I urge the government to release her,” Mr Premadasa said.

Chief Opposition Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga remained indifferent, saying the activist could go to court and the Human Rights Commission if her human rights had been violated, as the opposition claims. “How does one compare efforts to restore law and order with state terrorism?”

If someone has committed a crime, he should be punished by law, said Sri Lankan MP Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Namal Rajapaksa. “One MP was killed during this time and so much property was damaged. Neither the Leader of the Opposition nor anyone else should come forward to defend someone if they have made a mistake,” he insisted.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa

“Whether I come forward or not does not depend on the Rajapaksa family. But the people of Hambantota district know who owns the violence,” retorted Mr. Premadasa.

Meanwhile, the opposition also proposed a two-day adjournment debate on “Child and Maternal Malnutrition in Sri Lanka” on Tuesday and Wednesday.

A UNICEF report ranked Sri Lanka sixth in the world and second in South Asia in an overall malnutrition index, SJB MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna said, pushing the debate forward. According to the report, the most affected are children under the age of five. More than 40,000 children in the country are currently severely malnourished and 27,000 of them suffer from severe malnutrition.

Food inflation in July was 90.9%. It climbed to 93.7% in August. Food inflation is expected to reach 100% in September due to the rise in consumer goods and services following the VAT increase via the interim budget. The situation puts the health of future generations at risk, Ms Wijerathna warned.

To make matters worse, the state’s scheme to distribute free meals to 1.1 million primary school students has been badly hit as only Rs. 60 has been approved for each student’s lunch, it said. she additionally revealed.

MP SJB Rohini Kumari Wijerathna

She called for increased funding for meals for schoolchildren and stressed the importance of developing a national nutrition policy. Ms Wijerathna also called for the creation of a separate ministry for children.

The president and government have all but ignored dire warnings about the health of the country’s children issued by UNICEF in their report, SJB MP Thalatha Athukorala has charged.

She said the ban on chemical fertilizers imposed by the Rajapaksa government had led to a loss of foreign exchange and the collapse of the country’s food security.

While the opposition cites a UNICEF report, data from the Ministry of Health shows that authorities have in fact succeeded in reducing the percentage of stunting, wasting and underweight among children over the past years,” said SLPP MP Gayashan Nawanandana. “It is unfair to blame a particular party or government for what happened. In fact, statistics from the Ministry of Health show that malnutrition in the country has gradually declined.

Former agriculture minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who had come under heavy criticism over the fertilizer issue, acknowledged that the government’s agricultural policy had contributed to the loss of food security. However, he insisted that this only affected one growing season. “The problem has been fixed. When this decision was made in April last year, we had already imported fertilizer for the Yala season. The problem came in the Maha season. There was a huge drop in production as a result. There is no debate on that.

Even this decrease would not have happened if the program had been properly implemented, Aluthgamage pointed out. “I don’t think the policy was bad. What was wrong was deciding to suddenly apply it nationwide. We should have implemented it in stages.

With Minister of Health Keheliya Rambukwella being abroad, Minister of Plantation Industries, Dr Ramesh Pathirana, who is Acting Minister of Health, told the House that the government does not accept the report written by UNICEF.

The UNICEF report placed Sri Lanka sixth on the list using malnutrition data from 2016, Dr Pathirana said. “The controversy is that they took data from different countries referring to different years. They took data from India from 2017, while data from Eritrea is from 1995. As such , there is a significant difference in the year they refer to when they arrive at the final results, so we cannot consider this report as a complete report,” he argued.

A notable feature when the debate ended on Wednesday was that there were no ministers or government MPs to deliver closing remarks. SJB MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna, who had opened the debate, highlighted the problem. “We were talking about the health of the 4.3 million children in this country. A responsible minister must answer for how he is going to tackle this problem of malnutrition. It is deeply regrettable that Parliament has fallen into this situation now.

SLPP MP Weerasumana Weerasinghe, who was in the chair at the time, said he would bring the matter to the attention of the president.

Parliament will meet again on September 20.

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