4th July, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 51


















A biography of poverty

By Risidra Mendis

Poverty Measurement, Meanings, Methods And Requirements by Dileni Gunewardena was launched at a ceremony held recently. The book that is expected to be of use to a wide section of people is presently one of its kind in the country.  

Poverty Measurement, Meanings, Methods And Requirements dedicated to Gunewardena's baby daughter, Lavanya Maureen De Mel focuses on three main questions namely; "Where do we need to be? Where are we, and How do we get to where we need to be? 

In the first part of the book, Gunewardena concentrates on "Where do we need to be and attempts to provide an overview of the consensus (and where there is no consensus an outline of the areas and nature of disagreement) on international best practices in relation to poverty measurement methodology."

"The international literature on poverty measurement is a vast area and somewhat like the proverbial elephant. Typically, social scientists of different disciplines and practitioners of different approaches, like the blind men in the fable are familiar with their own methodology and only marginally aware of developments in other approaches to measuring poverty (and consequently apt to dismiss them out of hand)," says Gunewardena.

According to Gunewardena, a new empirical debate has arisen as to whether poverty has increased or decreased in the developing world in this era of globalisation.

"Additionally, the area of poverty measurement is experiencing a new phase in conceptual advances evident in the last few years/months. This study is a combination of a non technical review and manual," explains  Gunewardena.

The study comprises three sections, a review of conceptual approaches to poverty measurement, a review of international best practice in relation to poverty measurement and a review of data requirements (and typical sources) for poverty measurement.

The second part of the book deals with improving poverty measurement in Sri Lanka and focuses on improving the country's poverty measurement methodology in the light of the best practices identified in part one. "This part of the book identifies areas in which Sri Lanka is lagging behind and outlines a plan of action that identifies priority areas for improvement, key players in the improvement process and steps that need to be taken by the key players," added Gunewardena.

Dileni Gunewardena's interest in poverty measurement began in 1993 when she was involved in producing a poverty profile for the World Bank's Poverty Assessment of Sri Lanka. Gunewardena made use of the raw data from the household income and expenditure surveys conducted by Sri Lanka's Department of Census and Statistics (SLDCS).

Gunewardena has conducted lectures at the World Bank Institute South Asia Region workshops on economic growth and poverty reduction and participated in the South Asia Regional Consultation on the World Development Report 2000/2001. Gunewardena has also won the Award for Best Research on 'Escaping Poverty' together with Dominique van de Walle, at the first Annual Awards Competition Global Development Network in December 2000 for a paper on 'Sources of Ethnic Inequality in Veitnam.'

Gunewardena has a Ph.D in Economics from an American University (Washinton DC) and her BA (Honours) in Economics from the University of Peradeniya. At present the author works as a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics and Statistics, University of Peradeniya. 

This technical study was commissioned by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) with financial sponsorship by the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) to facilitate the setting up of a study programme on improving Sri Lanka's poverty measurement methodology and the poverty information system.

Little hands on canvas 

Come and see the little hands that create  magic, guided and moulded by veteran teacher Swineetha de Alwis. The touch of this magic hand of Swineetha's has been displayed in the creative work of the little ones in their canvas frames.

Beauty, charm and elegance are all imbibed in the artistic creativity of the little ones. Students within the age group of six to 18 have displayed their talents, which have been geared and sharpened by their Guru, Swineetha.

Art is not just drawing. It is an expression of thought and feelings with creativity and patience. There is a life in their drawings. A bird on child's canvas is not just a bird we see in a magazine but there is something more in it. The child's expression of his/her feelings - serene, calm and life like, with a refined touch.

The exhibition commences on July 9 - 11. It will be opened by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.

'Country Roads' proceeds presented to UNICEF 

A needy school in the deep south of Sri Lanka will receive a library from the proceeds of a country music concert held earlier this year with sponsorship from Emirates, Airlines and Cargill.

The funds raised from the concert, 'Country Roads XII' will be used to build an 800 square foot library at the Veriyagama Maha Vidyalaya at Suriyawewa in the Hambantota District. The school accommodates 631 students and has 29 teachers.

Accepting the proceeds on behalf of the school, UNICEF Resident Representative in Sri Lanka, Ted Chaiban thanked the sponsors, Emirates Airlines and Cargills for their support. "The southern region of Sri Lanka is an area that tends to get forgotten in the development process," he said. "This project will be a start to building the capacity of a needy school and is hence a very worthy cause."

Emirates Sales Manager Colombo, Devika Ellepola who represented the airline at the presentation said: "Corporate Social Responsibility is an important focus areas for Emirates. Emirates has established the Emirates Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports children's' welfare around the world. The Emirates office in Sri Lanka also supports a large orphanage in Colombo."

Cargills (Ceylon) Ltd., Deputy Chairman/Managing Director, Ranjit Page said his company was privileged to be part of the project and would continued to support such community welfare initiatives.

Organised by the Country Music Foundation, 'Country Roads XII' held in January this year featured the German country music band Mavericks and Texan Bob Livingston, an accomplished country artiste who has performed with Willie Nelson and other American country music greats. 'Country Roads' is the country's longest running concert series, and supports programmes undertaken by UNICEF in Sri Lanka.

First the writer, then the story, or vice versa - it's value-added 

I think it was America that started the trend with its squat pocketbooks, two books in one, and I asked Punyakanti, do I begin with the frontside or backside? She was her charming self in reply. Her publisher hit the right spot (or side) too, for more taking this double offering apart would have given us two very slim books that would have undoubtedly cost us than this 'couplet' with its distinctively different covers. Also, you can place them on your bookshelf right way up or right way down.

Sunset Years and Missing In Action are both deeply poignant. They both swim in seas of longing and love and bitter-sweet memories, seas where dolphins weep and loneliness is like an undertow that belies the sunfreaked waters of age and the sun-smoked waters of young sorrow rising in the dismal thunder of war.

Whatever you read first, there is that unmistakable stamp of the great artiste that Punyakanti is, Sunset Years gives us so much - her own story and it is told with a sweet simplicity (no psychoanalytical puff pastry) that brings us close to her: the  wife, mother, grandmother, her fears and fantasies, her serene moments, her joys, her human need for warmth and companionship.

Should a writer reveal so much? That, too is a matter for a better thinker than I. Does one's humanity and all its sadness and happiness allow for public scrutiny? Many tell me that this carries its own risks. It can be as a mind-plea for understanding that could be taken for weakness. I don't think so. I look at it, instead, as a life message and told in so stately, yet so humbly a manner that it draws us to her, tells us that we are one with her and have also felt to greater or lesser degree as she did, faced life's trials as she did, knowing triumph and disaster. We share her humanity and truly, we are all aathma-companions on our lifetime journeys.

In a little introductory poem, she wonders why she could not have been born a tree:

If I were born, A tree I could stand up, To wind and rain, Thunder and lightning, Unmoved.

So true, but then the wind, rain, thunder and lightning are the ills that buffet us. Her point is that the tree can stand unmoved. We humans are of different stuff. So many of us crumble under the hammer blows;

I could watch my leaves fade, And fall back to, Earth, Without a moan.

It is so hard for us to lose a leaf. A son dies and we are desolate. Every leaf falling from the parent branch is a wringing of the spirit. Does she prefer that unfeeling state, preyed on upon by misfortune, death's reminders, heartbreak?

Why was I born a human, When I could have been, Closer to Nirvana, Born a tree?

We find this same question, or one very like it in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. To live to die.... we recall no pain at birth, yet dread the pain of death. Pain, in any form, is part of the human lot and yet, life's keyboard has its tinkling treble to counter that dismal bass. Punyakanti is now 71 and knows, more certainly than ever, that she has begun the last chapter of her life. Don't you see? She had to put that life on paper. Her 1987 book A Way Of Life gave us sketches of her own childhood. But like us all, the yesterdays live in little mindcorners - our mental sunsets. What matters is whether tomorrow will dawn - our sought-after sunrise, and all we have is this day in which we can tell of past and hopes of future and, in bringing them together, make reality of dreams and dreams of reality.

To offer a distillation, we have Punyakanti, widowed at 42; living for her children; seeking new friends; forming a new social life yet never thinking of re-marriage. "Our home was sacred ground. I could not bring another to spoil its memories." Then the grandchildren: "I was lucky. Being a grandmother was better than being a mother. Joy without responsibility." Then her writing; "The problem is: Do I want Nirvana? Do I want heaven? The day will come when I cannot stand on my own feet anymore. What then?"

Her autobiography is a search for life. She sees around her a rampant world, a rat race, noise, confusion, a decay of values and her thoughts are rapier-cuts. "Our troubles began when we turned our backs on the soil, on the waiting earth and reached for other things." And she asks: "In day-to-day living, can I turn mere existence into life. Am I a person or just an instrument of writing?"

Naturally, a lot of her story concerns the birth of her books as well. "I have published 14 books, I have six grandchildren. And yet today I ask myself 'what is the meaning of life? I am kind of living from day to day, expecting to die at any moment. I want to finish this story before that happens.'" And she quotes Wordsworth:

We in our youth begin with gladness, But hereof comes in the end, Despondency and madness.

But she reminds: "Writing is like childbirth. Both are creative."

Punyakanti does reflect herself in her writing. Turn the book over and we have Missing In Action - stories of people who face life's many conflicts. Every one is a portrayal of those monstrous slings and arrows that bruise the mind-flesh with an unearthly vindictiveness. Loves, abortions, mother-hatred, father-love, marriages stripped of veils and bouquets and triumphals that peal. "There goes the bride", uprootings and replantings, loss that shouts the sky and crimsoms it with shame.

These are stories that must be read slowly. They recount with heart-strokes, life as we think it isn't, but which turns to face us every way we look. What is so emphatic is the way Punyakanti portrays human need and greed, horror that harrows, wanting so haunting, reactions that the infractions of a pot-bellied social order neatly whitewashes.

- Carl Muller 

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