NO-ONE knows better than the people of the slum Gardens that their problems are rooted in the questions of productive employment and a regular living wage. In the city, food cannot be grown. It has to be bought. And in the slums, it claims about three-quarters of the average family income.
Regularly, the question of employment comes up at Community Development Councils. Regularly, Health Wardens bring the issue back to meetings at the Town Hall. Occasionally, groups such as the Youth Training Council and the Women’s Bureau try to address the problem by attempting training programmes and job creation schemes.
LAKE House is the building from which many of Sri Lanka’s major newspapers are published. Here the Ceylon Daily News and the Sunday Observer as well as several Sinhala newspapers are put together in dingy offices by some of the best journalists in Asia.
If you cross the road from Lake House, on any weekday, and continue walking for about a hundred metres, you will find Mr. M. M. Nihal Aberatne standing on the pavement under the shade of a concrete staircase. He is a licensed street hawker — selling only single cigarettes, plastic biros, postage stamps and 50 cent plastic bags — and this is his pitch.
His home is the slum Garden at 192 Samagipura and he is here because his Community Development Council recommended him to the National Youth Training Service Council for training in ‘business studies’. The CDC knew about the scheme because the Health Warden told them about it.
Once accepted, Nihal was sent on a 21-day residential course, bed and breakfast provided, to learn public relations, buying, accounting, and ‘the importance of honesty’.
On completing the course, he was provided with a stall — a green painted wooden box, made portable by pram wheels and half-shafts, surrounded by a three sided wire grill to protect the stock. He also took advantage of a $25 interest-free loan. Then he was on his own.
The most important business decision of his career, by far, was where to set up shop. "I used my business sense," he explains, "but the other street hawkers near hear have business sense too and they didn’t like it I was harrassed a lot. But I showed my Youth Training Services certificate to the police and I’ve been OK since."
That was over a year ago. Today, Nihal has paid back the 500 rupee loan and no longer has any debts. But he does have a wife, an 18-month old son, a six-month old daughter and an ailing mother.
5.30 am, sees Nihal leaving the slum Garden at Samagipura. He will not return until 7pm. The valuable items of stock — the cigarettes, the stamps, and of course, the cash — he takes home with him on the bus. Overnight, his stall is garaged for a small fee at the tourist office across the road.
His accounting is not complicated. He usually makes a profit of 25 rupees to 30 rupees a day of which 16 rupees goes on bus fares, tea and lunch. Ten or 12 rupees, he says, is what he usually takes home each day. It isn’t enough — not even for just the food.
Nihal breaks open the cellophane on a packet of ten Gold Leaf and begin putting the cigarettes, individually, into a red plastic tub countersunk into a hole in the wooden counter of his stall. The blue, white and pink plastic tubs next to it each contain single cigarettes of different brands. A smouldering rope hangs at the side of the cart.
There doesn’t seem to be very much else that Nihal can do. He is now 26 years old and he has almost forgotten what little education he received. What he does remember about school is that he liked it and that he was doing well. But then his father fell ill and died and he had to leave school and go out to work full time to look after his mother and younger sisters. He got a job in the general market. He was eight years old at the time.
To try to earn more he became a vegetable trader, then a sweepstake ticket-seller at four per cent commission, then a waiter in an eating house. When the eating place closed down, he was unemployed and did ‘no fixed thing’ while he looked for a job. Then the street-hawking opportunity came up.
"I can’t manage," he says. "I can’t even buy the right foods for the baby. I can’t even buy the extra cooking pot my wife needs at home, rye applied for a passport. I don’t want to leave my family, but I’ve got to find greener pastures."
Greener pastures is not to be taken too literally. It is Colombo parlance for a job in the Middle East.
DURING International Women’s Year in 1975, the government of Sri Lanka set up the Women’s Bureau under the leadership of Mrs Vinitha Jayasinghe. It, too, is concerned to increase income opportunities in the slums.
On the wall of the Director’s office hangs a chart showing how many women have so far been trained to do what jobs and with what resulting incomes. Under urban activities, for example, it lists 30 women trained in coir rope-making and now earning 150 rupees a month each. A little further down, the chart records another 20 women trained in book binding and now earning 450 rupees a month each.
Much of the training was paid for by UNICEF at the request of the Women’s Bureau following a four-month assignment by a consultant, also paid for by UNICEF, to look into the income-earning possibilities for the women of the slums and shanties.
"The women doing the book binding at Henemulla," says the Women’s Bureau Director, "are a co-operative. They are at the point of taking off."
Henemulla Camp is one of the few legally occupied shanty towns in Colombo — and one of the largest. The book binding shed, a brick building with a terracotta tiled roof, stands at the very far end of the camp. It is a Saturday. Four girls are working. In the corner stands the wooden-framed book binding machine. At the moment it is broken down.
"There were ten of us trained from here," says one of the girls, stacking a pile of three quire exercise books in one corner. "One dropped out before we actually started here. Then another two got jobs in the Middle East. Two more just stopped coming. They could earn more money tea-packing. Another one left the Garden to live somewhere else. One of the ones who was left decided it was better to do dress-making at home. So after a while, just three of us worked here. Then another one began staying at home. So there are just the two of us here now who are trained. Four others are helping us to make the books, and then are learning the job."
Earnings are 212 rupees a month in fixed wages for the four helpers and about 300 rupees a month, depending on output, for the two trained women. The paper, card, glue and twine for the book-binding is bought by a foreman, a retired printer from the government press. He is given the money by the Women’s Bureau to whom he sends the receipts for the materials. The book-binding machine itself was acquired free by the Women’s Bureau and given free to this centre. The two trained girls don’t know whether it is on loan or whether they are eventually expected to buy it by repayments. They do know, however, what is needed to make the project more viable than it is now — a cutting machine so that they can control the process right from raw materials to finished products and so collect more of the value added.
In this same shanty town live the thirty women who were trained for six months at coir rope-making. One of them is Mrs. M.H. Sithie Zanooba, who says that only five of the thirty women are left "Even those five will probably drop out soon," she says, "you just can’t earn enough at coir rope-making, not even 100 rupees a month. You can earn more than double that at the tea-binding place, sifting or cleaning for ten rupees a day, or more if you work overtime. I carry on here because I suppose I am used to it now. I work from 8 am to 5pm. Only we’re not making rope any more at all. We got an order for brooms from Katunayaka. So the five of us now get about 150 rupees a month."