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Sunday, 19 May 2013

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Vulnerable communities identified in Colombo city:

Slum dwellers yearn to be free from suffering



Niluka and her children

Taking her seven-month-old malnourished baby in one hand and balancing the weight of nearly six month pregnant body she walks through the busy Bambalapitiya junction near Majestic City along with her husband. Her five and half feet tall, thin, dark and skeleton like figure reminds of an alien to the people who looks at her when she pass them.

The officials attached to the Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat, under the Regional Child Operation Committee of the Probation and Childcare Department were following her to her hideout. Giving the flimsy excuse that she is getting late to prepare lunch for her children who have gone to school, she evades the officers.

Though the Women Police officers were ready to catch her with her child the civil officials were sympathising with Fareeda and allow her to proceed.

Fareeda, along with her husband and the baby have already vanished into the slums in the narrow strip of land with a width of nearly ten yards hemmed between the sea side walls of the Bambalapitiya railway station and the roaring sea as the officials try to reach them.

"How can we take her when she says that she had to prepare the lunch for her children", a female officials queried when they realise that it was an excuse Fareeda has given to escape from them.

Though they reach where Fareeda was living she was no longer there. She has already escaped with her husband. But there was no clue to say how she was living with the children even without a shelter over their heads. Therefore, the way she was spending money for alcohol is a big question.

Despite Fareeda's absence, there were a lot of men, women, children and women looking like men with same body structure like Fareeda either due to malnourished or decayed due to the excessive intoxication of heroin or canabis appears from their slums as we pass them.

People daily passing the Bambalapitiya railway station may not be aware that this tiny plot of land creates a habitat for 21 families who leads the most underprivileged, uneducated and crime-prone communities in the Colombo city with least facilities.


Police officers and the officers engaged in the survey

But the most alarming issue is that women like Fareeda addicted to alcohol and drugs are giving birth to children. Now living with her second husband she is already a mother of six children and she is heavy with the seventh child while having a seven month old babe in her hand whilst leading her life in the streets.

"These people do not know what family planning is and proper health care about their children. What they need to have is drugs. What we are planning is to take the details of these families and to channel them for appropriate programs", Thushara Wickremasinghe, Child Rights Promoting Officer attached to the Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat who is also the Secretary of the Divisional Child Rights Monitoring Committee said.

The Women Development Officer P.A.C. Shiromi, Zonal Samurdhi Development Manager Kusum Perera, Kumari Agalawatta attached to the Dangerous Drug Control Board, Officer in Charge of the Womens and Children Bureau of the Colombo South Division, IP Inoka Muhandiram and seven WPCs attached to Women's Bureau of Bambalapitiya, Wellawatta, Kirulapona, Narahenpita, Borella, Cinamon Garden and Kollupitiya Police stations were also participated in this survey to get details of these people under the guidance of Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretary Geethamani Karunaratne.

A layer of wooden planks and some polythene sheets creates the houses of 21 families living behind the Bambalapitiya railway station.

The tiny houses only provide a cover for them from the sea breeze and to cover their privacy from the visitors but not provide the required basic facility of a house. But each of them have a similar story to tell.

One common story of each child living there is either their mother or father is under Police custody for selling drugs or for consuming drugs.

When their parents are under Police custody the education of the children gets affected automatically and they are prone to various malpractices in the society.

Eight year old Danushka and the 16 year old Rumesha Thathsaranee have faced the same fate and have not attended school. The mother of Dhanushka has been taken into Police custody as a packet of heroin has been found inside Dhanushka's shirt which she put in the sunlight for drying up while Rumesha's mother has been caught when she was taking drugs.

These incidents have become normal for the people and their grandmothers have to look after the children when their parents are taken into custody by the Police.

This situation has pushed them to the depths of poverty day by day as they lose whatever the belongings in their houses once they come back from Police cell or remand prison. Children also lose their school books, clothes compelling them to be absent from schools for weeks once their parents get their stuff.

Absolute poverty and drug addiction of Mohamed Farook also has put the future of his four children in darkness. Niluka Nilmini the mother takes care of the four children. Thirteen year old Arunda, eight year old Kalpa, six year old Sachini are in the schooling age but there is no way of them to attend school as they do not have books and other material. Two and half year old Pavan in his mother's hand is also awaiting his turn of schooling. The future of these children are uncertain as education is the key factor for a bright future and good habits.

"I went to school upto grade three. But I have to stop my education as my mother and father do not have money to send me to school. I stay with my mother at home now", 13 year old Arunda said.

Sixteen year old Sachini is at a vulnerable age to live in an environment like this. But she has adapted to the environment and looks forward to sit for the O/L examination. Her mother has already left them and is living with another man. Police has arrested them when they were taking drugs. Her father also has been taken to the Police station for questioning.

"How can I go to school when both of my mother and father are in Police", Sachini queries. However 68 year old K. Chandra, grandmother of Sachini is taking care of her at home from the money she earns from working at a residence in Bambalapitiya flats.

Kusuma Fernando, is yet another grandmother who looks after a one and half year child as the father of this child has been arrested by the Police. The mother has escaped from the Police and gone somewhere leaving the child with Kusuma. The five children there also suffer due to the acts of their parents.

Not only at Bambalapitiya railway station, but there are many other places along the beach front of Colombo city where underprivileged communities are living.

Nirosha Perera is yet another mother who is severely addicted to drugs, living in the slums near Beach Vadiya, Wellawatta. Like Fareeda, Nirosha also tried to escape when she saw the Police officers, but agreed to talk with officers since it was not meant for legal purposes.

Only five days have passed from the day she had delivered her new born child. She looks after that yet unnamed baby keeping him in a cot made out of a piece of cloth. But she demands a packet of heroin from her husband to look after the child. "He is a three wheel driver and he agrees to give me a packet of heroin spending Rs.500 when I say that I won't look after the child", she says.

Her former husband and her 19 year old daughter has left her due to her bad habit. Even her present husband is also not a drug addict. "To feed my child I need a packet of heroin. Only after taking that, can I feed the child. But I also want get rid of this habit, therefore I agree to visit the centre to have treatment ", she says. Like Nirosha, Kapila Nalaka and Subramaniam Sarada living in slums close to the Beach Vadiya, Wellawatta are also ready to undergo treatment as they have realised the way they live is not good.

According to Indra Kumari Agalawatta, from the National Dangerous Drug Control Board, the environment these people are living is the basic reason for the addiction to heroin and other forms of drugs. "Many of the women engaging in prostitution also need drugs. To sleep with few men a day they need to have drugs. Otherwise they cannot exist.

Since they are earning a lot of money per day they spend lavishly on drugs.

We should free them from these addictions. We must get then away from this environment to get them free from these habits", Agalawatta says.

According to her, the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board is having two centres to provide treatment for drug addicts.

One centre is at Sri Bodhiraja Viharaya, Slave Island and on Thursdays there are clinics to treat drug addicted men. "We conduct clinics and channel them for rehabilitation and conduct medical clinics to get them free from this drug addiction", she said.

The other centre for women is located at Thalangama which is open daily from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm. Not only the women addicted to heroin but also cigerettes or any other form of drugs also can visit this centre at Thalangama for treatment. They also can stay for a few days there or can have their treatment during day hours, she said.

"After visiting these places we can identify the people and channel them for treatment and medical treatment", she said.

Like her the Samurdhi Officer and women Development Officer were also collecting data to identify vulnerable people living there who needs help.

According to the Zonal Samurdhi Manager Kusum Perera, these people need to be assisted under Samurdhi program. "These are the people who should be benefited from the program. But they should change their life style if they want to get benefit from that program", she said. The Women Development Officer P.A.C. Shiromi said that many of the women living in these places are not aware of family planning methods and also how to solve their family problems. "Through this program we can channel these women for vocational training and other programs to develop their life skills. That will ensure a better life for their children too", she said.

According to IP Inoka Muhandiram, many of the people are addicted to drugs due to absolute poverty. "They cannot live without those drugs as they need that to engage in prostitution and other illegal forms of professions", she said.

However, Inoka says that although these places look dirty even the men clad in formal attire, coat and tie also visit these places in the night seeking prostitutes and drugs. Even young boys visit these places, she said.

Thushara Wickremasinghe who headed the team said the Probation and Child Care Department is concentrating more on the vulnerable children living in these places. "We are trying to identify them and solve their family problems and send then to schools. We are providing them exercise books, bags, shoes and other material they need to pursue their education. We also discuss with the principals and teachers of the schools these children are attending to give them more attention and make sure that they pursue their education", she said. "We are also sending the children who do not have a parent or guardian to children's homes after producing them before courts", she said.

"After this survey we are conducting an awareness program for all the people living in these risky areas at the Bambalapitiya Police station on May 20 and we will take action to provide the material needed for the school children for them to attend school and the women to have vocational training to ensure their livelihood", she said.

The society may disregard them for what they do for their living. But the society is also responsible for the plight of this community and look sympathetically towards them and help them overcome that hell and lead a life like any other citizen of the country. Ignoring them for ever or just evicting them from that place will create many more problems in the society. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the authorities to take decisions carefully and reintegrate them to the society as better and responsible citizen after freeing them from their absolute poverty.

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