Diverse Western Province: A tough fight between main contenders | Sunday Observer

Diverse Western Province: A tough fight between main contenders

From the densely populated high-rise apartments and conglomerates to the tin-sheet and cardboard covered huts beside the railway-lines to the farmer who hoes his paddy field using a bull; the multi ethnic, multicultural Western Province was toured by the Sunday Observer team to meet voters for their views on the Presidential election. Diversity being its main characteristic, the Western Province’s issues are as diverse as the province itself - ranging from garbage collection, spread of dengue, traffic congestion and the need for fixed prices for agricultural produce, be it tea, rubber, spices or fruit.

According to voters a ‘tough fight’ could be expected between the two main contenders. While Gampaha bent towards the blue-red side, Colombo took shades of green and Kalutara stayed in-between.

Red flags and streamers on either side announced the existence of the party office of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) contestant prominently placed on main roads. Streamlined design and giant displays of the contestant and the party stalwart ex-president were the order here. Another characteristic was the obstruction of the pavement, letting the construction cover half the space from the pavement wherever these party offices are established. In contrast, the New Democratic Front (NDF) party offices were thrifty, using the established offices in the

electorates, at central and easy to reach quiet spaces away from the hustle and bustle of main roads.

The National People’s Power Movement’s (NPPM) party offices were similar to that of the NDF displaying either one large poster or a flag in the party office premises.


Colombo

In contrast to Gampaha, Colombo had voted the blue side three times and three times the green. The last presidential election saw Sirisena leading by over a 12 percent votes than his opponent, winning an overall 55.93 percent. As the Sunday Observer travelled around the district, rallies were being held in many areas by all three major parties and house to house campaigning was taking place.

This mostly urban district has a multitude of frailties, traffic congestion, the inefficiency of the local government administration and maintenance structures being main issues. The drug menace and unemployment affecting the youth were very important issues. A possible dengue epidemic, environmental concerns including sea erosion and environment friendly garbage disposal with Colombo metropolitan being one of the first Ramsar wetland cities, vagaries of high-rise living, frequent flooding of low lying areas due to drainage systems being non-existent were some of the other issues.

The Sunday Observer, explored the area around Sucharithaya, home for presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa’s father and former president Ranasinghe Premadasa. There was no trace of the upcoming presidential elections other than three green flags displayed at the entrance. Adjoining the former president’s house are apartments that were given to strong UNP supporters in the early 1980s. Today, most of the original owners still remain and their affection to the former president lingers on.

“This is a UNP fortress. People here will not forget what Premadasa mahaththaya has done for them,” said 69-year-old Jayanthi Manarathna.

She remembers, back when the former president was in power and alive, he would visit the flats at 4.00 in the morning and collect written complaints regarding their issues. Manarathna also wrote a letter to get electricity to her house in Kalutara and the former president had taken the necessary action.However, his son Sajith does not visit the flats often enough, they said.

“He didn’t come here yet after announcing his candidacy. We expect him to come,” said 52-year-old A.B. Abdul Cader. Still he pledges his support to the younger Premadasa because “If he comes, young people will get jobs and people will have places to live”.

Around St. Sebastian Street, Colombo 12, where Suchirathaya is situated the same momentum resonates.

Several kilometres away in Colombo 06 (Wellawatte) people anticipate a change in the current political arena. Most of the people of Sinhala enthinicy, whom the Sunday Observer spoke to said that they would support the SLPP candidate. However, those of Tamil ethnicity were reluctant to voice their opinion fearing repercussions. Some voiced their frustration on their present political representatives.

Forty-three-year-old scrap metal seller M. Sundar said Tamil politicians have failed to voice the woes of the Tamil community. They are making promises to the estate workers to lure them to support that politician’s political affiliation, he said.

What greeted us at the Maligawatte National Housing Scheme is an unpleasant sight. A dead rat was rotting at the foot of the stairs. The Sunday Observer was told that when it rains the drainage system clogs, causing flooding. The housing scheme is one among several that were constructed by the former government as part of its attempt to transform Colombo to a South Asian financial hub.

Another community that fell victim to the past regime’s beautification programme are those now housed in the Dematagoda flats. Here the majority are Muslims. They were evicted from their former residences that were built illegally on state-owned land. The residents didn’t want to leave their original homes and even held protests against it, but were forced to move ultimately.

“It changed our lives. We had work there. The young men used to work at construction sites and make a living. Now they are loitering around. Most are addicted to drugs,” Mohammed Nazar Hameed who is a construction worker said. He said the best candidate is someone who understand the concern of the common man.

However, in Sedawatte, Wellampitiya, many want a leader who prioritizes infrastructure development. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, they say, the canals were fixed and maintained. Now the area floods about four times a year.

Life in Dahampura, Meethotamulla, is picking up after the government terminated garbage disposal in the massive dump that collapsed and killed over 30 in 2017. Now the remaining residents are combating diseases spread by pests. Most residents are reluctant to speak about their political affiliations fearing marginalization by local political representatives in the area.

But Dahampura resident K. B. Nandawathi, 65, said she will vote for Rajapaksa because it was they who ended the war. “We were able to live in peace but it has changed now,” she said.

Eranda Sapumal Kumara a labourer and a father of two from Dehiwala was voting for Sajith Premadasa for the same reason. He believes that his children will be able to live in a peaceful country if Premadasa wins. “We like to live in peace, Tamils and Muslims are our brothers and sisters. Our children have to be able to live in peace without going back to another ethnic war,” he said. He is also concerned about the drug menace victimising his community. “About 75 percent of the young people in this area are addicted to drugs,” he points out. What are the qualities of the future president he wishes to see? “Podi minihata udavu karana manussayek,” he said in Sinhala. (the future president must be able to feel the pain and support the common man).

Way back in Moratuwa, beautician Melanie Perera opined that she would vote either for Dr. Ajantha Perera or Gen. Mahesh Senanayake. She and her friends have decided to vote in protest as they are disgusted with the political system in the country where corruption thrives and impunity shields perpetrators. “Dr. Ajantha Perera and Gen. Mahesh Senanayake are educated and have reached the pinnacle of their professions. They are the people who should be involved in government administration,” said Perera.


Gampaha

Though outwardly calm, political tension is boiling within the district, say Gampaha voters. It makes people shy away from the press, wanting to keep to themselves or be anonymous in expressing their views.

The district is an SLFP stronghold voting five out of the seven times for the SLFP candidate. However, tough competition was seen in the 2015 presidential election between the two contestants Maithripala Sirisena with 49.83 percent votes and Mahinda Rajapaksa with 49.49% votes. Voter sentiment has changed from the coastal areas to inland, from the city to the village.

While coastal and city dwellers preferred contestant Sajith Premadasa, on the merit of equality; inland and village dwellers were strong on racial and religious sentiment, claiming that they need to have a leader to ‘save this Sinhala Buddhist country’ from perceived racial and religious attacks.

Agriculture and fisheries fuelling the economy of many electorates, not having a fixed price and a conducive environment for agriculture, development of fisheries, tourism and business sectors were main concerns.

While education and health facilities had developed, access was limited as the district still needs to upgrade its roadways, say residents.

Janaka an Executive in a Construction Company from Gampaha town said that he had not decided on a candidate to vote as yet. However, he wants to vote someone who can develop the country into presidency. As he sees, Gampaha has many problems at the moment. “The district has to be developed. We need highways.

The city needs good waste water management and commercial crop plantation needs to be identified and promoted if this district is to be developed,” he said.

Very concerned about pepper cultivation, he said that there is no proper policy for the development of commercial crops. Importing instead of exporting had resulted in a downward spiral of local agriculture.

He wants the next President, whoever it is, to have and implement a national plan and policy for the country which couldn’t be changed at the whim and fancy of the elected government and appointed ministers or other authorities from time to time.

“There is too much political tension in the country, keeping investors away. There is no unity among these politicians, selfish whims have made them to put themselves before the country’s development,” he said. In Ja-ela, residents are expecting a comeback for the previous regime, said Meryl Nonis, a 49-year-old lecturer. According to Nonis, “The biggest issue in this area is the traffic congestion, and people suffer from ‘traffic-phobia’,” he said. During rush hours it takes about two and a half hours to reach Colombo, when in non-traffic times it only takes 45 minutes. “Having the highway has not eased the traffic. It is very hard to travel,” he said.

Nonis added that garbage disposal, an area the former regime was praised for handling efficiently, has become problematic because the area’s Urban Council fails to collect it regularly. The case is especially bad for town-dwellers, he explained.

Chaminda Perera (22) from Katuneriya, an Executive in an IT company said that he would vote for Premadasa. His relatives and neighbours being victimized by the 21/4 bombings, he follows the proceedings of varied commissions closely, watches many news bulletins on you-tube and tries to catch up with newspapers at office as well. “Not one party, all political parties neglected the common man,” he said. It was an obligation of the ruling party as well as the opposition party to eliminate such threat. What the opposition does instead is to create more threats to the lives of the Sinhalese, by way of instigating racial hatred. “The existence of the man at the top depends on war and violence in the country, they created violence and sent their leader as a ‘saviour’”, he explained. He prefers a leader who would allow unity in diversity.

It is essential that the leader be young. He is fed up with the political hierarchy in the country being senior citizens. “If the common man has to retire from a paid job at 60, why not the parliamentarians? Theirs is no longer an honourary position. It’s a paid job,” he argued.

D.M. Chandrakanthi from Mirigama opposed. She had been living there since her marriage 27 years ago.

Though her community includes people of other ethnicities and faiths, she believes that the country belongs to Sinhala Buddhists. “I am sure they (other ethnicities) will someday rule Sri Lanka. We have to nip it in the bud. Put them in their place. Only ‘Pohottuwa’ can do that,” said Chandrakanthi. She believes that her leaders will uphold the Buddha Sasana and the Sinhalese people and would treat them with favour once they come to power. They are war heroes who saved the country so will not tolerate influences from other countries.


Kalutara

Home to a plantation based economy with tea and rubber as main crops Kalutara District is a staunch Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) constituency, winning six out of seven presidential elections,even though the candidate did not win. The last presidential election in 2015 saw 52.65%, voting for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It was Kalutara District that the Sunday Observer team visited first, covering many areas including Kalutara town, Matugama, Welipenna, Maha Uduwa and Horana. The district looked peaceful with election vibes not being very strong. Perhaps the citizenry was waiting to hear the policies and promises of the contenders.

Collapse of agriculture related businesses

The main issue here is the development of commercial crop plantations. Lack of incentives for agriculture and no fixed price for agricultural produce had resulted in the downfall of the plantation sector and related businesses, lamented Kalutara residents. Severely affected are the tea small growers, rubber planters and related businessmen. Due to this collapse, is

the lack of agricultural labour in the area and planters are left high and dry, resorting to selling their land to land sale companies with the aim of investing money in some other businesses. Floods and landslides due to heavy rainfall is another major issue. Many areas of Kalutara are prone to floods. Successive governments had not been able to provide a sustainable solution to this natural disaster the Kalutara citizenry face, sometimes twice a year.

Wimal Cooray the former President, Kalutara Trade Association (KTA) and owner of Helediv tea company said he was deeply disappointed with the present government due to the collapse of his business. A bulk distributor of tea for more than 30 years, he says he faced the “Worst time in terms of

business,” in the last four years. Comparing the VAT policy of the two successive governments, he said Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Finance Minister had discussions with the trade associations where he (Cooray) also participated representing the KTA. “As a result of that meeting, a 12.5% VAT was imposed on super markets to strengthen retail and wholesale businesses. But when Ravi Karunanayake became Finance Minister, he imposed a 15% VAT for all businesses. About 85 per cent of the wholesale and retail businesses closed down. This was the main reason for the drop in money transactions within the country,” he said. Worrying about his business which provides jobs for more than 25 workers, he welcomes a president with strong financial policies.

D.M. Kodituwakku a rubber planter and collector in Welipenna area and President, Organisation to Protect Pas Yodun Rata had similar views. “We do not ask for a subsidy from the government. We only want fair conditions to run our businesses,” he explained. An experienced planter and

rubber collecter for more than 40 years, Kodituwakku thinks that the Rubber Industry has dropped at least by 80 per cent. Even though the present government promised Rs. 350 as guaranteed price for rubber, currently the price of a rubber kilo is around Rs 230.

During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government they had received Rs 300 per kilo and in 2011, the price per kilo had been Rs. 550. “I have already sold eight acres of my rubber plantation to Dudley Sirisena’s land company,” said Kodituwakku who had started uprooting and selling rubber trees of another 10 acres hoping to diversify the cultivation. “But I cannot still think of a suitable crop to cultivate,” he lamented.

Aiming to achieve a better future for the industry, Kodituwakku has decided to back Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the election. He has also participated in a business community meeting of Gotabaya Rajapaksa where former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabral assured address to their grievances in a future SLPP Government.

Leelananda Katepearachchi, a carpenter by profession in Horana had been a strong supporter of the United National Party (UNP) in his youth. However, sick of political divisions within the country and especially in his village, he now thinks of an independent candidate who could bring prosperity to the country. “The only such person is former Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake,”Katepearachchi said. However, he understands the impossibility of getting him elected. “In these areas, people are still divided as UNP and SLFP and now SLPP. Even though our country has a high literacy rate our people lack political literacy. Therefore, nothing will change after this election too,”he said.

Umindu Thalagala, the owner of a small apparel factory in Maha Uduwa, Horana was of the firm decision of not casting his vote at the Presidential poll. “Mahinda is the best brand in the country and he has put forward his younger brother into the Presidential race. But who will come into power with Gotabaya? It will be the same flock of 40 thieves with Ali Baba.”

“Then what does Sajith say? He says that he will crawl towards Army soldiers. Is that a job for the President?,” he questioned. He also does not think that Anura Kumara Dissanayake is an alternative to people fed up with the two main political parties. “The JVP has good policies. They had bargaining power back then with a lot of parliamentary seats. They were attractive. But they have lost all that now,” he said.

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