Saturday Magazine
Sri Lanka’s Safe Bottle Lamp Project

lamp.jpg (12018 bytes)Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura
Over the past couple of decades, there had been great advances in the treatment of burns, but not much had been done on the prevention of burns. This is what the editorial of the journal BURNS, says in its August 2000 issue. "The vast majority of burns can be prevented. However, there are very few reports of successful prevention campaigns". Fortunately, there is a lot of interest on this subject lately, and I have spoken about our project in five international conferences, on invitation to do so. We are justified in saying that our project is one of those rare successful prevention campaigns, because we feel we have prevented ten bottle lamp deaths and 1000 bottle lamp burn injuries during the last 12 months.

Every two years, the Rolex Watch Company of Switzerland selects the best fifteen projects in the world, and honour the fifteen persons who carried out that work by giving awards. They also give grants to help the award winners complete their work. Earlier, the five first prizewinners were given US$ 50,000 each, and now, the grant is US$ 100,000 (Rs. 9.4 million).

In 1998, a Sri Lankan project called the Safe Bottle Lamp Project won one of the five first prizes. Now, the company has selected it along with four other award winning projects for inclusion in a special category entitled ‘ Inventions that change lives’ in their new web page,

Earlier, a sub committee of the Sri Lanka Medical Association carried out this project. With the expansion of the project activities, there was a need to establish a separate organization with its own office. This was done five years ago, and it is known as The Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation, with several doctors and nurses in the committee and its office situated at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, Colombo.

There are about 4 million unsafe bottle lamps in use in Sri Lanka, causing many burn injuries and about 90 deaths per year. Because of the power cut, there are more bottle lamp burn injuries now. Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura, a consultant surgeon of the National Hospital and president of the foundation has designed a simple safe lamp, which has been approved by the Sri Lanka Medical Association, the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka, the National Committee for Prevention of Injuries, and the International Society for Burn Injuries. Lamps are made at the Hari Glass Works at Ja-Ela, out of recycled glass to keep production costs down. "With the help of the media and certain organizations, we have replaced 450,000 of the 4 million unsafe lamps now in use with our safe lamps, says Dr. Godakumbura. "We sell them below cost as they are meant for the poor people. We could have doubled or trebled this number, had certain organizations that we approached helped us".

There is a sadder part to the story too. At the start, he had carried out the work in partnership with two branches of a well-known NGO. They had failed to account for Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 80,000 respectively. "Can you believe it? This money was meant to help the poorest of the poor, and these people who are supposed to be serving the community, don’t even reply our letters", charges Dr. Godakumbura. "I have proof of their misdemeanour, and I have reported them to their principals". He is hoping that they would take some action against them, and compel them to return the money they misappropriated.

The Safe Bottle Lamp Project has received unprecedented international acclaim. The CNN telecast a short film on the project worldwide a few months ago, and over 60 international magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Science & Nature, National Geographic, Asiaweek, Science and Geographic etc. have featured it. Dr. Godakumbura also won a Presidential Award and a Sarvodaya Award for the work he did in this regard. He has presented papers on the project at international medical conferences held in India, Taiwan, Turkey, France and USA, on invitation to do so.

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise are open to all, and are given under 5 categories viz. Science and Medicine; Technology and Innovation; Exploration and Discovery; The Environment; and Cultural Heritage. An international jury judges the applications based on the criteria of originality, feasibility, and potential impact. Above all, it looks for exceptional spirit of enterprise on the part of the applicant. The deadline for applications to the 2002 awards has now expired. Applications for the 2004 awards will be invited when the new series opens in June 2002.

Another Sri Lankan, Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda had received an award two years ago, for a project aimed at protecting Sri Lanka’s threatened biodiversity. "I hope those Sri Lankans who are engaged in outstanding community work would apply for these prestigious awards, and good luck to them", added Dr. Godakumbura. The web page referred to, contains all the necessary information on the awards.