Spectre of Violence Hangs Over Sri Lanka Polls

Violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 8 presidential election in Sri Lanka has poll monitors on edge. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 8 presidential election in Sri Lanka has poll monitors on edge. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Jan 6 2015 (IPS)

As 14.5 million Sri Lankans prepare to select their next leader, there is growing fear that violence could mar the Jan. 8 elections, billed as the closest electoral contest in the island’s history.

Election monitors were worried that as incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his rival Maithripala Sirisena wound down their campaigns on Jan. 5, violence would scare off voters.

Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the national election monitoring body Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), observed that a worrying precedent has been set by police who have by and large remained inactive against violations of election laws, especially those perpetrated by government supporters including at least two parliamentarians.

“The last 48 hours before the election are crucial; ordinary voters will not want to risk being assaulted, or worse, if they feel that there is such a risk.” — Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE)
“The police always appear to be late on the uptake when decisive action by law enforcement can be the most effective deterrent [to violence],” he told IPS.

He pointed to recent clashes in Kahawatta, a town in the central Ratnapura District, as an example. In the early hours of the morning on Jan. 5, while a group of opposition supporters were busy setting up the stage for a rally by common opposition candidate Sirisena in the town’s public grounds, a band of government supporters arrived in eight vehicles and began attacking them.

Rather than running away, the opposition group retaliated. The situation escalated, and shots were fired. Three opposition supporters were injured, and one was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

Enraged, the opposition supporters launched a retaliatory attack on election offices set up by government followers. The main roads of the town were blocked for at least four hours while the mayhem unfolded.

“Police [did not] take any action until two hours after the initial incident,” CaFFE noted in an update. “They only reacted when the [opposition] United National Party (UNP) supporters started attacking [Deputy Minister Premalal] Jayasekara’s offices,” the monitoring body added.

A couple of hours earlier, another group of government supporters loyal to a deputy minister assaulted officials from the election commissioner’s department in the eastern town of Trincomalee after they had gone to investigate a digital screen in a public space relaying election propaganda.

The attack took place despite the officials being provided security by nine policemen.

“The last 48 hours before the election are crucial; ordinary voters will not want to risk being assaulted, or worse, if they feel that there is such a risk,” Tennakoon said.

Voting for equality?

The elections have been billed as one of closet in recent history. President Rajapaksa, who called elections two years before they were due, is facing a stiff challenge in the form of his one-time health minister Sirisena.

The run-up to the election has been dominated by personal attacks against the top contenders, and has remained largely empty of policy discussions.

Despite robust growth, Sri Lanka still faces vast economic disparities. The richest 20 percent of the population enjoys half of all national income, while the poorest 20 percent has access to just five percent of the country’s wealth.

According to the latest Household Income Survey by the government’s Department of Census and Statistics, the monthly income of the poorest 20 percent of the population was 10, 245 rupees (about 78 dollars), while the richest 20 percent earned a monthly income of 121,368 rupees (about 933 dollars).

Furthermore, the war-ravaged North is mired in poverty despite the civil war ending in May 2009.

Anushka Wijesinha, an economist and policy advisor, observed that the election manifestos are full of promises relating to public spending and low on strategic policies that would ensure long-term stability.

“Unsurprisingly, both manifestos are populist and full of public spending goodies – from welfare handouts to public sector salary hikes. These will boost short-term consumption, and are unlikely to be inflationary as recent inflation has been low. But the spending will hurt the fiscal consolidation efforts of the past few years and public finances may come under increased pressure,” he said.

The elections are likely to create economic uncertainty at least in the short term and will in all likelihood be followed by parliamentary elections. A day after elections were announced on Nov. 20, the Colombo Stock Market recorded its worst slide in over 15 months, and has remained sluggish ever since.

“Both [leading candidates] have a heavy emphasis on state-led initiatives and taxpayer-funded programmes, which in the past have been notoriously inefficient. Instead, focus of policies should be on making it easier for private sector entrepreneurship and innovation to thrive,” Wijesinha asserted.

The election has also seen a crumbling of the broad-based support President Rajapaksa enjoyed in Sri Lanka’s parliament since the war’s end.

Since late 2010, the President has had a two-thirds majority in the 225-member parliament. But a little over a month after elections were called on Nov. 20, 26 members from the government’s camp have crossed over to the opposition.

The Sirisena campaign has also gained the support of parties representing Muslim and Tamil minorities, who together comprise some 15 percent of the country’s population of 21 million.

There has been some attention paid to issues of importance to the minorities, especially development in the Northern Province.

President Rajapaksa campaigned in the North twice and pledged to revitalise the economy and create jobs.

Still, the unemployment rate in the Northern Province is stubbornly high at 5.2 percent, well above the national rate of 4.4 percent and the third highest in the country.

The island’s highest unemployment rate of 7.9 percent was recorded in the Kilinochchi District last year, according to government statistics. Poverty is also rampant in the North, with four of the five districts that make up the province registering rates higher than the national poverty rate of 6.7 percent.

But Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development based in northern Jaffna, told IPS that if the Northern economy is to regain momentum, more private investment needed to be channeled in.

“I would argue that more private capital investment that could generate a large number of [jobs] is the critical need, rather than foreign aid,” he said, pointing out that policies needed to be formulated with long-term stability in mind.

He also feels that decentralising power could help address political as well as economic grievances. “Fiscal devolution to the provinces should be undertaken immediately to provide the necessary financial resources for the provinces (including the Eastern and Northern Provinces) to operate independently and effectively without interference from the national government,” he stated.

Power devolution has been a critical demand of minority Tamil groups throughout the island’s post-independence history. In fact, the lack of political power was a major catalyst for the growth of separatism and the rise of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which waged a protracted battle for an independent ‘homeland’ for the Tamil people from 1983 until 2009.

However, Ponnadurai Balasundarampillai, former Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University, told IPS that power devolution would be a tricky subject for any administration.

“If it is a new president, he will have to take stock of the situation. The incumbent presidency has already shown that it favours a more centralised form of governance and administration,” he said.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

India’s ‘Manual Scavengers’ Rise Up Against Caste Discrimination

A Dalit woman stands outside a dry toilet located in an upper caste villager’s home in Mainpuri, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The village has witnessed major violence against those who have tried to leave the profession of ‘manual scavenging’. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

A Dalit woman stands outside a dry toilet located in an upper caste villager’s home in Mainpuri, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The village has witnessed major violence against those who have tried to leave the profession of ‘manual scavenging’. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Jan 6 2015 (IPS)

Watching Bittal Devi deftly weave threads of different colours into a vibrant patchwork quilt, it’s hard to imagine that this 46-year-old’s hands have spent the better part of their life cleaning toilets.

Born in Sava, a village in the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, Devi is from a community that, down the centuries, has worked as ‘manual scavengers’.

A caste-based profession, it condemns mostly women, but also men, to clean human excreta out of dry latrines with their hands, and carry it on their heads to disposal dumps. Many also clean sewers, septic tanks and open drains with no protective gear.

“One human being carrying the shit of another on their head is not the problem of that woman or that community alone. It’s the struggle of the people of this country and together we can abolish this.” — Aashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, an NGO working to end the practice of ‘manual scavenging’.
They are derogatorily referred to as bhangis, which translates into ‘broken identity’. Most of those employed are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy and are condemned to tasks that are regarded as beneath the dignity of the upper castes.

“I started doing this job when I was 12 years old,” Devi recalls. “I would accompany my mother when she went to the homes of the thakurs (upper castes) in our village everyday to clean their toilets.

“We would go to every home to pick up their faeces. We would gather it with a broom and plate into a cane basket. Later we would take the basket to the outskirts of the village and dispose [of] it.”

They cleaned 15 toilets each day, which earned them 375 rupees (a little over six dollars) per month, plus a set of old clothes from the homes they worked in, gifted once a year during the Diwali festival.

Devi remembers that she was unable to eat during the first week. “I would throw up every time my mother placed food in front of me”. Harder still to bear, were the taunts of her upper caste classmates.

“They would cover their noses and tell me that I smelled. I, along with the other children from my caste, was made to sit away from the rest of the students.” She eventually dropped out of school.

There was no question of refusing to do the work. “From birth I, like the other children from my community, was told that this was our history and our destiny,” says Devi. “This was the custom followed by our forefathers which we had to continue with.”

Caste-based discrimination or untouchability was banned in India in 1955 and several legislative and policy measures have been announced over the decades to end the cruel and inhumane custom of manual scavenging.

As recently as September 2013, the government outlawed employing anyone to clean human faeces.

On the ground, however, these measures have proved ineffective, the main reasons being that policies are not properly implemented, people are unaware that they can refuse to work as manual scavengers, and those who do resist face violence and the threat of eviction.

Women unite for change

According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, which works towards the elimination of caste-based discrimination, there are an estimated 1.3 million ‘manual scavengers’ in India, most of them women.

Civil rights groups say that often women are victims twice over. Not only are they are looked down upon by the upper castes, they are also forced to do the work by their husbands who find it degrading, but expect the wives to continue with the custom.

Bittal Devi’s neighbour, Rani Devi Dhela, also started working as a manual scavenger at the age of 12, an occupation she continued with in her marital home, as her husband was unemployed.

She enrolled her four children in the village school, hopeful that education would change their future. Reality dawned when her 11- year-old daughter came back home in the middle of the day, sobbing.

“She had worn a new set of clothes to school and the upper caste children and teachers taunted her for showing off,” Dhela tells IPS.

Her daughter was told to clean up another child’s vomit and the school toilets. “When she refused they told her that this was her future as she was a bhangi’s daughter and that by attending school she should not entertain any illusions about herself.

“A teacher even threatened to pour acid into her mouth. That was the day I realised nothing would change unless I challenged these people. I put the cane basket down for good and decided that I would rather starve to death,” she adds.

At a rally in New Delhi, Dalit women burn baskets used to collect human waste as a sign of protest against the caste-based practice of ‘manual scavenging’. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

At a rally in New Delhi, Dalit women burn baskets used to collect human waste as a sign of protest against the caste-based practice of ‘manual scavenging’. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

It was a battle that Dhela found herself all alone in. The upper castes ganged up on her and her community failed to extend support. Worse still was the reaction from her husband and in-laws, who beat her up.

“The thakurs burned down our hut and told my husband they would throw us out. But my children supported me,” says Dhela.

Eventually so did a few other women, including Bittal Devi. Together, they travelled to a nearby town, to the office of the NGO Jan Sahas, which has been campaigning against manual scavenging for over 17 years.

“We had been trying to get the community in this village to stop manual scavenging but they were too scared to resist,” Sanjay Dumane, associate convenor of Jan Sahas, tells IPS. “After what happened to Rani Devi [Dhela], some of them decided to fight back.”

But there was fierce resistance from the village police who not only refused to register a complaint, but also advised the women to accept their place in society.

It was only after they approached police authorities at the district level that action was taken.

“A platoon of police vans came into the village with senior officers who warned the upper castes that they would be jailed if they were found violating the law on manual scavengers,” says Dumane.

An uphill battle

As of early February 2014, manual scavenging is no longer practiced in Sava village. “Some of the upper castes have chosen to boycott us,” says Dhela. “They don’t invite us to their weddings or for festivals. But my children and husband are proud of me and that makes me happy.”

“A lot of people tell me ‘You had no right to leave the profession’,” adds Archana Balnik, 28, who campaigned to put an end to manual scavenging in her village of Digambar in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. “But I want to change my future and that of the children in my village.”

Most of the women who have quit have found work in road and bridge construction projects. A few have enrolled in Dignity and Design, a low-cost, community based initiative launched by Jan Sahas in the states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh for the rehabilitation of women liberated from manual scavenging.

“We provide training in basic skills like tailoring and embroidery and have set up units for manufacturing bags, purses and other products,” Aashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, tells IPS.

“We hope to set this up across India with the support of the government and private sector.”

Women like Bittal Devi and Rani Devi Dhela are the ambassadors of Jan Sahas, which claims to have liberated over 17,000 women from manual scavenging across different parts of India.

Changing attitudes across the country, however, is an uphill battle. The recent India Human Development Survey report highlighted how deeply entrenched notions of caste purity are in contemporary Indian society, with a fourth of Indians practicing untouchability.

“There are signs of change especially in the younger generation, which is more educated,” says Shaikh, whose NGO conducts awareness campaigns in colleges and schools.

“One human being carrying the shit of another on their head is not the problem of that woman or that community alone. It’s the struggle of the people of this country and together we can abolish this.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida