Friday, June 11, 2010

Sri Lanka: Widespread malnutrition among women and children

By Sujeewa Amaranath and Kapila Fernando - Recently released surveys reveal that acute malnutrition is rife among Sri Lankan children and women, as a result of the country’s 30-year civil war and widespread poverty throughout the country.

Data from a Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) by Sri Lanka’s health ministry, published in the state-owned Daily News on May 29, revealed that child malnutrition is more than 50 percent in some areas of the East and North, with the national average at a record 29 percent.

In the Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara districts in the eastern province, child malnutrition is 53, 45 and 44 percent, respectively. In the northern districts of Vavuniya and Jaffna it is 51 percent and 43 percent. The highest numbers of underweight children in these areas were in the 12-35 month age group, with a slight reduction in those aged 36 to 59 months. Malnutrition among girls is 42 percent and 50 percent for boys.

The North and East were where bloody fighting took place between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the past five years. The Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi districts were excluded from the survey. In the final months before the LTTE’s defeat in May 2009, the Sri Lankan military bombarded these districts ruthlessly, killing thousands of Tamil civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands into ever smaller areas.

After the war about 280,000 Tamils were detained in military-controlled camps. While about 60,000 remain in these camps, others have been sent to Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu without proper housing or healthcare assistance programs. Food supplies in these areas were limited or completely halted during the war, paving the way for widespread poverty and hunger.

While the malnutrition figures are lower in other parts of Sri Lanka, the situation is nevertheless alarming. According to a recently released 2006-07 Demographic and Health Survey, which excluded the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, found the national average of underweight babies was 17 percent and the figure had not improved since the last survey.

The highest numbers of underweight babies were born to mothers in Sri Lanka’s plantation districts. Thirty-one percent of children from these areas were born underweight, a 10 percent increase on survey conducted in 2000, with the highest numbers recorded in Nuwara Eliya and Badulla districts. For Nuwara Eliya the figure was 33.8 percent, and in Badulla 21.9 percent.

These figures are not accidental. Estate workers are amongst the lowest paid workers in Sri Lanka. According to official statistics, poverty among plantation workers increased 56 percent between 1991 and 2006.

Diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, malaria and other illnesses causing fever are widespread among children under the age of five throughout Sri Lanka. The prevalence of fever among children between 6-11 months is 22.8 percent, and 21.5 percent among children 12-23 months.

A Nutrition and Food Security Assessment Survey issued by UNICEF and World Food Program (WFP) on June 8 confirmed the same general trends. The survey was carried out in nine districts—rural, estate and urban—and among those considered the most economically vulnerable.

The report reveals that households spent 37.9 percent of their monthly income on food and 43.6 percent on productive assets (i.e., for income-generating activities), with nearly a third of households forced to borrow money for their purchases. According to the survey, 32 percent of the households “did not have enough food” at least once during the previous 12 months. The figure was 55.9 percent in the estate sector.

The UNICEF-WFP report reveals that 39.1 percent of households had a monthly income less than 9,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($US79). Almost 60 percent of Jaffna district households were in the lowest income category, 55 percent in Badulla and 51.7 percent in Ratnapura. It found that 0.5 percent of the households were “severely food insecure”, 11.8 percent “moderately food insecure” and 87.6 percent “food secure”.

The prevalence of anaemia was 16.2 percent among pregnant women, 19.6 percent among lactating women and 21.7 among non-pregnant and non-lactating women. Almost 20 percent of Sri Lankan children in the 0-59 month age group were stunted, 11.7 wasted and 21.6 percent underweight. Stunting in the Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and Ratnapura districts was 40.9 percent, 23.9 percent and 21.6 percent respectively. The Colombo district figure was 17.4 percent.

The UNICEF-WFP report concluded that the high percentage of households living on “borrowed food and reduced meals as a coping strategy”, and prevalence of anaemia among women and malnutrition among the preschool children, were serious public health issues. The government, however, has no solutions to these acute problems.

The government, the UN and various corporations recently launched a fund-raising campaign focussing on “eradicating child malnutrition”. On June 6, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapakse, Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena, various UN agencies, and representatives from TNT Express and Unilever carried out a promotional train journey from Colombo to a suburban town.

This campaign is a fraud, however, designed to divert attention from preparations for severe austerity measures in the budget due at the end of this month. Faced with International Monetary Fund demands to halve the budget deficit, the government will slash social spending and increase taxes. As a result, poverty and the acute health problems facing the Sri Lankan masses will only worsen.

© World Socialist Web Site

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Sri Lanka moves to allow president to run again

The Sri Lankan government has approved lifting the two-term limit for presidents in a move that would allow incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa to run for office again, an official said on Friday.

Rajapaksa, 64, came to power in 2005 and has increased his firm grip on power since defeating the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May last year after nearly four decades of bloody ethnic conflict.

The president's family hold key positions on the island, with three brothers taking the roles of defence secretary, Speaker of parliament and economic development minister. His son was also elected to parliament in April.

The cabinet endorsed the statute change on Wednesday, a spokesman for the government information department said.

"These proposals are to be brought before parliament as an urgent bill," he said, adding that the Supreme Court would be asked to decide on their constitutionality.

Rajapaksa's second term ends in November 2016 and the existing laws prevent him from running for office again.

His United People's Freedom Alliance won 144 seats in the 225-member parliament at April elections, but has the support of opposition defectors to secure the two-thirds majority needed to approve the proposed amendments.

© Times of India

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Vice Premier of Chinese State Council arrives in Sri Lanka

A current Vice Premier and a prominent leader of government of China, Zhang Dejiang arrived in Sri Lanka Thursday night on a three-day official visit from the 10th to 12th June 2010.

Vice Premier Dejiang is here on an invitation extended to him by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne. The two countries are seeking to enhance bilateral economic ties.

During his visit Vice Premier Dejiang, is expected to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister D.M Jayaratne, and Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.

President Rajapaksa meanwhile is scheduled to arrive in the country on Friday after a successful tour in India.

China has offered financial assistance of US$ 200 million to build the second airport in Hambanthota of the deep South. Among the other major development projects underway with Chinese assistance are the Colombo-Katunayake expressway project, Norochcholai power plant, Hambantota port development project, tank farm project at Hambantota, and the road infrastructure project.

Since 2006, the Chinese government has provided Sri Lanka with US $ 3.06 billion financial assistance, Deputy Minister of Economic Development Ranjith Siyambalapitiya recently revealed. However, out of that only US $ 35.77 million were grants.

© Colombo Page

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Why India embraces Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa in first postwar visit

By Mian Ridge - India and Sri Lanka bolstered their friendship following a meeting between their leaders in New Delhi Wednesday, despite deep resentment among many Indians at the neighbor.

The state visit by President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka this week sparked protests from India’s Tamil community. Like Tamils around the world, they blame him for the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians during the last phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tigers, which ended last spring.

The United Nations estimates 7,000 Tamils were killed in the final stage of the fighting and hundreds of thousands were displaced by the military campaign in the former rebel strongholds in the island's north and east.

"Having massacred scores of Tamils, Rajapaksa had no moral right to enter India with his blood-stained hands," said Vaiko, a senior Tamil politician and staunch supporter of the rebel Tamil Tigers, according to wire reports.

India has a large Tamil population, with about 62 million Tamils in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

But there were little signs of tension between Rajapaksa and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday, as they met for the first time since Sri Lanka declared victory over the Tigers. The two nations signed a raft of deals, from the economic to diplomatic, including an agreement that India would open consulates in the Tamil city of Jaffna in the north of the island.

Their meeting, “provided a historic opportunity for the country’s leaders to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of reconciliation,” said a statement released after the meeting.

India’s interest in strengthening ties with the tiny island has much to do with its bigger neighbor, China. Sri Lanka’s geographical position in the Indian Ocean has made it a friend of China, which wants to secure naval bases in the area. China supported Sri Lanka in its final bloody phase of its war against the Tamil Tigers, and it has invested in road-building programs, power stations, and a new airport on the island.

It was reported that Singh had raised the issue of increased Tamil autonomy in Sri Lanka, which most observers believe is vital for lasting peace, and that he had been reassured by Rajapaksa’s commitment to resettle those northern Tamils displaced by fighting last year.

© The Christian Science Monitor

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Sri Lankan police arrest couples for kissing

By Andrew Buncombe - The beautiful island of Sri Lanka, for many years a choice destination for honeymooners and other seekers of romance, appears to have grown weary of affection, at least of the domestic variety.

In recent days, hundreds of young people have been rounded up by police for kissing in public. Apparently following-up on complaints that the amorous couples were causing an embarrassment to others, police stepped in and enforced the "no-smooching" rule. So far, around 200 couples have been detained by police in the districts of Matara and Kurunegala over the past two weeks.

"We have taken them into custody for indecent behaviour at a public place," police spokesman Prashantha Jayakody, told the Agence France-Presse. "Usually we free them after informing their parents. Charges are not pressed."

Compared to some parts of south Asia, Sri Lanka, which has a Buddhist majority, is not as strict about displays of affection between couples – except for the more rural and remote parts of the country.

With last year's conclusion of a long-running civil war, the authorities are also keen to build an image of Sri Lanka as an easy, relaxed place for visitors. But police said that many of those who were detained in the recent swoops were still of school age and they felt obliged to act.

Local residents in Matara, a south coast resort popular with tourists, said young couples often acted intimately on the beaches as they did not have their own homes and could not afford to go to a hotel. The town reportedly has a large student population.

While the couples in the central district of Kurunegala have been released, around 22 young people from Matara are due to appear in court later today, where they will be dealt with by a magistrate.

This is not the first time, however, that Sri Lankan police have stepped in to have words with the overly-affectionate. They have also been known to occasionally round up so-called "umbrella lovers" who shelter under parasols in the sun along the coastal promenade in the capital, Colombo.

© The Independent

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