Lack of finances curtails so much


Whatever the Central Bank says; however satisfying the figures put out by its Statistical Department on GDP et al; and however rosy the picture of the country is as painted in a recent video titled "Sri Lanka: reconciliation and rebuilding" produced at great cost we are sure and aired over NBC TV; the real picture is not bright, rather is it bleak if not frightening as manifested in various ways.

We need not talk of the cost of living. People who are middle class wage earners, pensioners and three wheeler drivers and such like say that they barely manage to exist. A 1000-rupee note disappears in no time with hardly anything bought. I mean when you pay almost Rs 2,500 for a cylinder of gas which may last a month on less cooking than ever before, and your telephone bill and electricity bill are double what they were in December 2013, there is desperation. Compounded is the fact there have been no remedial salary and pension increases. So you have to manage doubled bills and expenses on your usual income. Thus life is a struggle and a burden. What compounds the frustration is that it is felt strongly that prices of essentials like groceries, fruits and vegetables could be brought down considerably.

I wish to move out of the daily struggle to other matters where lack of money released by the government has curtailed so much. In a country that boasts 95% literacy, it is sad to witness the poverty of nourishment for the intellect, whether it be of children or adults. Also the lack of the ability to read and understand English in most people, which skill so enlarges a person’s mind and perspective.

One very unfortunate cutback

The National Library and Documentation Services Board at one time helped writers to publish their books in various genres and in any of the three languages. This was a boon to would-be authors who could not afford commercial publishing on their own. The NL&DSB paid a certain amount of publishing costs and also bought a certain number of books which it distributed to public libraries around the country. This assistance was stopped about five years ago. Then last year I heard it was restarted for books in English, the volume of publication being much smaller in this medium than in the two vernacular languages. I submitted a book for likely publication early in 2013. Books are severely vetted and only the best selected for being aided. In October I remembered my submission. Went to the office at the National Library which deals with this sort of matter and was told no books were being selected for part funding. We cannot blame the National Library. The government cannot afford to release money for helping would-be authors. What a pity! This assistance would really cost a pittance in comparison to the major expenses undertaken by the government, often wasteful.

A young donor from New York

My teenage grandson recognizing the great desire for reading material across the board in Sri Lanka and also seeing the dearth of material in a couple of libraries visited, wished to help. Inspired by John Wood’s Room to Read transformative initiative in Nepal and later in other parts of the world including Sri Lanka, this grandson’s initial target library was the Jaffna Public Library which he knew had been burnt. He went around making known the project he was embarking on: collection of books to be sent to Sri Lanka and to the Jaffna Public Library. The response and generosity was overwhelming. His local library alone provided him with over 200 books free-of-charge. He was able to amass much more from friends and acquaintances to which he added many from his own collection and some from his father’s. They ranged from children’s fiction to expert tomes on economics, sociology, and biographies. Included were dictionaries and encyclopedias; all new and nearly new but in excellent condition. I told him when we discussed the matter that the Jaffna Public Library received much aid in both books and cash. I saw how well the shelves were filled when I visited the library in 2012.

Phoning the Librarian I was told that he had no way of collecting the books from my home in Kollupitiya. A letter sent by me earlier to him got me no reply. I had known some of the librarians in the University of Jaffna. The woman librarian I contacted was very interested in getting the books over but what she said was that they were not, like previously, afforded transport - a van - to travel to Colombo for meetings and to attend to university matters. They had to use public transport or a flight. She was more than willing to get the books across, but … The Public Librarian said there were transport agents but they had no money to spend on such. Thus I would have to bear that expense too.

I had no way of sending six fairly huge boxes of books which weigh heavy to Jaffna. So I suggested to my grandson that I send the books to Kandy. His emailed reply was: "That is absolutely fine! I’m happy they are going to a worthy cause, never mind if it isn’t the Jaffna Library. I’m glad they are going to a place where they are wanted, as that is the beauty of a book. It provides so much joy for those who want them, yet so little joy for those who view them as mere decoration rather than books themselves." These are the exact words of my 18 year old grandson poised to enter university this year.

Glad recipients

Thus with the donor’s permission I contacted the Librarian of the D S Senanayake Public Library Kandy and the Vice Principal of Girls’ High School Kandy. They were both very happy to receive donated books, though donations are often dicey. Why? People sometimes get rid of unwanted books by donating them to libraries and as you can guess their condition and content matter and type of publication may be unsuited to the collection in the library. Often donations are more a nuisance than a help. But the two persons I contacted trusted me and the overseas donor. The only hitch was that I would have to hold onto the books till they could arrange to collect them. Here is where good fortune came my way. I contacted the President of the Old Girls’ Association of Kandy High School, Colombo Branch. She said a committee member often traveled to Kandy and would help with transport.

"Oh certainly, I will take the books to Kandy and give them over to KHS. Three vehicles are traveling up since we have a family wedding and I can very easily take the boxes," is what the committee member said, when she phoned me initiating the discussion of the matter. I camel-like mentioned the three boxes for the D S Senanayake Public Library. She was readily willing to transport those books too and hand them over. She had a relative who had been Chief Librarian of the Kandy Public Library, she said, to emphasize the fact I was not asking too much of her. So the books have reached their destination. The young man in New York spent much time and effort collecting the books; getting them packed and sent for shipping. I at this end spent an entire morning at the shipping agents in Dematagoda taking over the boxes. I will not speak of expenses since sending packages from overseas costs a lot and taking them over in Colombo also costs much. But now the books are in libraries that welcomed them. Donating collections such as that sent from New York to poorer libraries is not feasible due to the books being in English.

The entire point of this anecdote is to highlight the lack of funds in government and semi government institutions at present. The two libraries in Jaffna had no way of collecting the books not being given transport facilities – given earlier now cut back. That seems to be the policy of the government: cut back on monies allocated and thus curtail services given the clients of the institutions – in this case the public of Jaffna and university students over there.

I need not mention the health and education sectors in the country with imposed severe cutbacks in expenditure and increasing steadily, since all this is so well known. The allocation is so meager that hospitals are without medicines and schools without facilities. I was told recently that a patient admitted to a government hospital has to buy from outside pharmacies all the medicines prescribed. Schools are poverty stricken and collection of monies from parents for necessary repairs or refurbishment frowned on, if not banned.

And Sri Lanka boasts free health services and free education from the nursery class to degrees, medicine included. That is the foresight of far seeing planners of long ago. Now it is cutbacks all round. This could be tolerated if direly necessary and restricted spending was enforced in every sphere and a promise made it was only temporary. Is that how it is? Certainly not! There is so much extravagance and waste by the government and in areas where the rich benefit. One instance – glorious parks in towns against logs being used in rural areas for crossing streams. (I heard that a roundabout in Rajagiriya decorated with hideous creatures cost two million!) Another instance: a second national airline that is forever losing billions. How many Sri Lankans travel by ‘plane?

The generosity of individuals and the dedication of some school principals and librarians

saved the day for me and satisfied the young donor from the United States of America.

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