| by Pearl Thevanayagam
“Kodithu kodithu varumai kodithu athilum kodithu ilamayil varumai”
Poverty is cruel but it is even more cruel to be poor when young.
(June 06, 2014, Bradford UK, Sri Lanka Guardian) According to Dr Pujitha Wickremasinghe, senior lecturer in paediatrics at The Faculty of Medicine, Colombo University over 1.2 mn children attend school without breakfast as The Island reported two days ago. This is a sad indictment on the collective national psyche that 30 percent of our children are attending school without breakfast.
Although a cliché, children are our future. Unless and until we turn our focus towards their well-being we have failed as a nation. Children in Colombo suburbs get up at 5.00am to be ready for the school van saddled with bags of books as though they are climbing Everest with perhaps a kimbula bunis or a bite of sandwich to say the least.
These children have to sit through hours at school until they reach home. Unlike during our childhood, their mothers are compelled to work full-time to meet the mortgage on their homes and it is not easy to make sure their children are provided with the necessary balanced meals. Parents try their best and if they resort to fast food to feed them one cannot call them ignorant. They have no choice.
So it is incumbent on the school authorities and on the government to make sure our future leaders are provided with basic nutrients to develop themselves in their formative years at least up to the age of 12.
When one looks back on the insurgencies so far, it gathered momentum in the seventies onwards when politics and privatisation in the island veered towards strengthening those in power both in politics and commerce to the detriment of the ordinary masses. The causes were clearly unemployment, poverty and hunger and not national pride as our politicians would have us believe..
Perhaps the mostly affected are the upcountry Tamil children. Their plight sealed by the colonial powers was worsened by the Sri Lankan politicians who are still keeping them in bondage; they work along with their parents in tea and rubber plantations, their diet would place their counterparts in Africa as well-fed.
Then we hear of the startling news milk imports are levied 25 percent tax which would raise the price of powdered milk. The government which subsidises meals for politicians in parliament canteens and staff in government institutions is unable to give a free glass of milk and some bunis to all children in state schools.
It is a crying shame the government and school authorities fail to realise a child’s development begins in its formative years. It is not without this realisation that our parents poured the horribly tasting Seven Seas oil (there were no tablets in our days) down our throat every night after dinner and gave us Virol on top of the simple balanced meals consisting of various pulses, meat, fish and vegetables which varied from day to day.
Even after a hearty breakfast this writer was forever hungry since our first lesson at school was PT. So I asked my mother she could give me a chit to enable me to have the delicious bunis provided free. She would not hear of it and I thought this was child cruelty. I had to wait another two hours before lunch. Once a month Nestle would give us iced Nestomalt drink as part of its advertising campaign together with a deck of playing cards. I would stand in the queue at least twice and get a second helping.
UK is bringing in legislation that by September all the children would be provided with free school meals. The UK government is furiously debating this issue as of national importance and priority over and above other bills being debated. This is a country which provides child benefit and tax credit so children do not go without food, clothing and shelter already.
What do we have in Sri Lanka? Parents begging with their children, children breaking stones instead of attending schools, children cleaning gardens to earn a few bucks to help their parents.
The next time you see politicians with their convoys following to plush restaurants gather your children and pelt them with stones en masse. With hungry children in their thousands they cannot apprehend only a few. Form a children’s brigade on par with trade unions and storm Diyawanna and proceed to UNICEF. Do a sit in and do not move until the weasels inside see pot bellies and emaciated children holding placards to demand their due from the national coffers which is being plundered by the fat cats as they emerge with their bloated bellies burping and guffawing.
There is always a first time.
(The writer has been a journalist for 25 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)