By Roel Raymond
Lion G. Kandasamy is a portly old man of 67 years. He sits stolidly behind his massive wooden desk and quips, with a smile on his face, about being too old to be of use anymore. He then goes on to explain in detail the many functions of his organisation established in 2004, which is essentially to work for the benefit of the Tamil speaking community of the area.
The Thamilath Maha Sabey, of which Kandasamy is president, is located in Wattala, just off the traffic congested Negombo-Colombo Highway that leads to and from Sri Lanka’s only international airport, and focuses its attention on the poorer Tamil speaking citizens of the area, acting as a both a voice and a mediator to those without.
Kandasamy said that his initiative had begun around the time of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Many people in Colombo had at the time focused on sending aid towards the more devastated South, forgetting that a number of poor families in the Hendala, Wattala areas were also affected by the tsunami, albeit comparatively mildly.
It was then that Kandasamy had decided to form the Thamilath Maha Sabey, in order to reach out to his very own community. ‘We appealed to a number of NGOs and obtained the simplest of items for these families,’ he said. ‘Uniforms for school children, shoes and socks, kitchen utensils, and other such basics were what we focused on.’
During this time of personal interaction Kandasamy was suddenly made aware of the day-to-day difficulties faced by these people as a result of their poor socio-economic standing and also largely because of a strong language barrier.
Although multi-ethnic and multi-religious, Sri Lanka is made up of a majority of Sinhalese and a minority of Tamils and even though both the Sinhalese and Tamil languages are officially recognised as national languages, Sinhalese is by far the most commonly spoken, especially in government institutions and other institutions of power.
‘If you go to a police station, you won’t find a Tamil speaking policeman; if you go to meet the grama sevaka (government agent) he speaks in Sinhalese, and as a result the poor Tamil speaking ‘watte’ people of this area have no way of getting what they need done without hassle’.
Kandasamy decided then to use whatever influence and resources in his possession to extend the services of the Thamilath Maha Sabey from tsunami relief to becoming a helping hand and a mediating voice for the people. Having been a member of the Lions Club of Colombo — an organisation that in itself aims to meet the needs of local and global communities — for over a decade, and also a member of the United Nations Friendship Organisation, Kandasamy uses all of his influential contacts to facilitate and coordinate on behalf of the Tamil speaking community in the Gampaha District.
‘We have estimated that there are over 15, 000 Tamil speaking people in the Wattala area, and there is just one Tamil school. What happens to these Tamil speaking children?’ he queries. ‘These children are often overcrowded into the school or have to simply stay at home.’
Kandasamy said that the Thamilath Maha Sabey attempts to help out in these situations by helping families get into other schools in the area. ‘If there is a problem with admission, we try to speak to the principal and ask them to help. Sometimes we are successful, sometimes not, but whichever way, we try’. He said the Sabey doesn’t deal with money nor does it engage in large scale donations or renovations as it lacks the funds and means for it, but they do try to facilitate or act as a go-between for these largely defenceless families. ‘Sometimes they have trouble with obtaining a National ID or a police report because of the language difficulty and if the problem is made known to us, then we act as a mediator’.
‘There are many other issues that these people face’, he said, ‘but I can only help here and there, the bigger change must come from the government. It is those that are in authority that must work towards a change for the better’.
The Thamilath Maha Sabey, since 2004, has increased its membership to close to 500 persons, most of whom are based in the watte, or poorer areas of the Gampaha District. These life members that only have to make a one-time payment of a minimum of Rs. 300, serve as leaders in the areas often dealing with the more minor issues themselves. Once a month a meeting is held by Kandasamy, together with his 19 Board members, where the more pressing issues are discussed and ways and means to solve them brought forward and agreed upon.
Whichever way, Kandasamy’s task is not easy. He is one man , together with his team, that is fighting a number of odds on behalf of a section of society he sees as ‘his people’; the people that form the community of the area he lives in, the people that do not have the ways and means to fight their issues themselves. Kandasamy is old, and tired, he says, but one step at a time, in whatever way he can, he facilitates, nurtures and lends a helping hand.