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Singing national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil languages

28 December 2019 12:01 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



 Ill-advised comments by Minister Tennakoon display woeful ignorance and irrational reasoning 

History repeats itself, first (time) as tragedy, second (time) as farce 

Knowledge is vital to combat agents of disinformation and purveyors of misinformation 


D.B.S. Jeyaraj 

The news item appearing in Dailymirror last week was like a bolt out of the blue. It said the national anthem would be sung in Sinhala language only at the forthcoming celebratory event of Sri  Lanka or Ceylon gaining full independence from the United  Kingdom in 1948. The practice adopted since 2016 of singing the anthem in Tamil too would not be followed. This is what the news item penned by Sandun A. Jayasekera said:  

“The 72nd Independence Day celebrations will be held on February 4 at Independence Square in Colombo on a grand scale, the Public Administration Ministry said, adding that the national anthem would be sung only in Sinhala. These decisions were taken at a meeting held yesterday at the Disaster Management, Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry.” 

“Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon who chaired the meeting said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa intended holding this year’s celebrations under full police and military honours and with the participation of all State Ministries and the Colombo Municipal Council. He had instructed relevant officials to ensure the general public was not inconvenienced when police, armed forces and other participants rehearsed for the celebration parade. President Rajapaksa wishes to launch a tree-planting campaign covering the entire country.” 

“Sri Lanka sung the national anthem for the first time in Tamil at the 68th Independence Day celebrations at Galle Face in 2016.” 

The news about the exclusion of Tamil, one of the two official languages in Sri  Lanka, at the forthcoming national freedom day celebrations began spreading. Several other newspapers and websites reported it too. In spite of the lull brought about by the advent of the festive season, the news about the national anthem going to be sung in Sinhala only became a controversial topic within social media circles. 


Janaka Bandara Tennakoon 
Subsequently, the BBC Tamil service now functioning as a news website contacted Janaka Bandara Tennakoon, the Cabinet Minister for Public Administration, Internal Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government. The minister confirmed the decision to BBC. The BBC report in Tamil quoted the minister saying it has been decided to ban the national anthem being sung in Tamil at the next Independence Day celebrations. Elaborating further, the minister said a national anthem was one and should not be split in two. If the national anthem were sung in two languages, it would imply there were two races in Sri  Lanka, said Mr. Tennakoon. He further said he had taken this decision on the basis that Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people constituted one single race in Sri Lanka. According to the BBC Tamil service report, Minister Tennakoon had said singing the national anthem twice would affect reconciliation and that in India, the national anthem was sung in only one language. 


 The recent presidential election voting pattern vividly illustrated the prevailing “divide” between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities  

As stated above, the viewpoint attributed to the Cabinet Minister was published in website in Tamil language. The Tamil words were translated and presented in the above form by this writer. I do have doubts whether the BBC correspondent has correctly differentiated between the terms race and nation in the report and also whether the Tamil word “Inam” has been used appropriately in the Tamil text. I also do not know whether the minister himself has been correctly quoted or not but so far there has been no disputing of the BBC news story. This gives the impression that the BBC Tamil service news report quoting Minister Tennakoon is indeed correct. Besides, the Daily Mirror news story has also not been contradicted. 

Against this backdrop, it does appear that the government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resolved to do away with the singing of the national anthem in Tamil at the freedom day event. The reasons given by Minister Tennakoon for this decision to BBC Tamil, if correctly quoted, reveals the flawed logic in governmental thinking. Moreover, it goes against the grain of President Rajapaksa’s pledge within Ruwanwelisaya precincts of creating an inclusive Sri Lanka. Excluding one of the country’s two official languages in the singing of national anthem at the 72nd Independence Day celebration is certainly not inclusion. It amounts to blatant discrimination. 

Although seventy-two years has passed since the country gained freedom from the British, the bitter truth is that post-independence Sri  Lanka remains a divided society. The recent presidential election voting pattern vividly illustrated the prevailing “divide” between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Sri  Lanka urgently needs national integration but integration is not assimilation. The ill-advised comments by Cabinet Minister Tennakoon about singing the national anthem in Sinhala only display woeful ignorance and irrational reasoning. Furthermore, Janaka Bandara’s views create suspicion and fear that the national anthem being sung in Tamil may be banned outright in the future. Forbidding the national anthem in Tamil would not only be against the Constitution but also perceived as being symbolic of majoritarian hegemonic triumphalism. 


Dismal sense of “Déjà vu”
What is most dismal about this situation is the sad sense of ‘déjà vu’ it evokes. The question of singing the national anthem in Sinhala alone is one which we have experienced before. The issue came to the fore during the first Rajapaksa regime under Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was somewhat satisfactorily resolved by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government. It is resurfacing in the second Rajapaksa regime under Gotabaya. Karl Marx in his much quoted statement about Napoleon and nephew Louis Napoleon said, “History repeats itself, first (time) as tragedy, second (time) as farce.” Likewise, singing the national anthem is repeating itself under both phases of Rajapaksa rule. Already, Colombo District MP and Tamil People’s Front (TPF) leader Mano Ganesan has written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on this matter. 

Notwithstanding the festive season, this writer has been receiving many messages over the past few days about the national anthem issue. Most of them were from Tamil friends and readers but a few were from Muslim and Sinhala friends too. The common thread in these messages was concern over the banning of the national anthem in Tamil at the scheduled 72nd Independence Day event. Many were worried about this proposed action being the harbinger of a total ban on the national anthem in Tamil. All Sri Lankans who want ethnic amity and equality are perturbed over this decision. 

Interestingly, neither the Sinhala nor Tamil hardliners are upset over this decision. In fact, they are both delighted. It is indeed tragicomic to see how the hawks on either side of the ethnic divide are of the same mind on certain issues for different reasons. The people who are agitated are those moderate Sri Lankans who want to usher in ethnic amity and harmony on the basis of equality and plurality in the land of their birth. The proposed ban is a huge symbolic blow to those Tamil people who want to live peacefully with their Sinhala brothers and sisters as equals in a united Sri  Lanka. 

This writer too is saddened and angered by this unnecessary turn of events. The singing of the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil languages is a cause most dear to my heart. I have written several articles in the past on this issue in 2010 when the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government ‘unofficially’ prevented singing the national anthem in Tamil and in 2015 when the ‘good governance’ restored the Tamil national anthem to its rightful status besides enabling the singing of it in Tamil at the official Independence Day celebrations. Currently, those positive gains are being reversed and the tragic past is being revived. This sad state of affairs brings to mind what Nobel laureate in literature Eugene O’Neill wrote in his play ‘A moon for the misbegotten’ - “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” 


National anthem issue
Under these circumstances, this writer intends to revisit the entire issue of Sri Lanka’s national anthem being sung in both Sinhala and Tamil languages. Earlier, I wanted to write the continuation of last week’s article on the dawn of independence and birth of the Tamil Federal Party, but the national anthem issue compels me to write about it. It is something I feel strongly about. Also, as an observer of Sri Lankan politics, I recognise in this matter the seeds of further estrangement and hostility between the new government and Tamil-speaking people. As such, it is imperative that this issue is addressed as early as possible and remedial action taken. Therefore, I shall postpone the article continuation with due apologies to the readers who I am sure will understand why I do so and instead focus on this national anthem issue in great detail with the aid of my earlier writings. 

In order to fully comprehend the current national anthem crisis with its ramifications, it is very necessary to delve into the past. Only a brief historical outline of the issue would help one to analyse the past, fathom the present and anticipate the future. Besides, it would be most desirable for Sri Lankan readers to know about the evolution of their national anthem and realise how it was sung in Sinhala and Tamil from the dawn of independence. One also needs to be aware of how this national anthem in Tamil controversy was created under Mahinda Rajapaksa and how it is being resurrected now under Gotabaya. Knowledge is very necessary to combat the agents of disinformation and purveyors of misinformation on this issue. There is also the case of the shabby treatment meted out to the writer of the national anthem and the tragic end to his life. 


Forbidding the national anthem in Tamil would not only be against the Constitution but also perceived as being symbolic of majoritarian hegemonic triumphalism

A national anthem is a song of patriotic sentiment affirming loyalty to one’s country or nation adopted officially by that country or nation. An anthem becomes a national anthem through constitutional provision, specific legislation or longstanding tradition. The concept of a national anthem was introduced by the British to Sri Lanka then called Ceylon. The modern Ceylon nation itself was a colonial construct. It was the British that integrated different territories under its control into a single entity and set up a unified administration for the country. 

“God save the King/Queen” had become the British national anthem by 1745. This was through usage and custom and not by parliamentary decree. With the British  empire expanding gradually, “God save the King/Queen” was sung as the national anthem in all countries and territories ruled by the British. Ceylon was no exception and under Queen Victoria’s rule, “God save the Queen” became in practice the national anthem for Ceylon too. This continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century. 

The Ceylon National Congress (CNC), set up in 1919 on the lines of the Indian National Congress, received new impetus in the second quarter of the 20th century when Dudley Shelton Senanayake and Junius Richard Jayewardene became its joint secretaries. The CNC resolved to adopt a national song for Ceylon. Accordingly, a lyric was composed by D.S. Moonesinghe and set to music by the legendary Devar Suryasena, son of Sir James Pieris. This was sung in 1943 at CNC sessions. But “God save the King” continued to reign supreme under the rule of King George the sixth. 


Lanka Gandharva Sabha
Thus, when Ceylon gained parliamentary self-rule and later full independence status, there was no approved indigenous national anthem. The Lanka Gandharva Sabha was assigned the task of formulating a national anthem. A competition was organised and a panel formed by the Sabha was entrusted the duty of selecting an appropriate anthem. This panel comprised S.L.B. Kapukotuwa, Dr. O.H.D. Wijesekera, Lionel Edirisinghe, Mudliyar E.A. Abeysekera, L.L.K. Gunatunga and P.B. Illangasinghe. In a controversial decision, two of the panellists were declared winners. A song written by P.B. Illangasinghe and set to music by Lionel Edirisinghe was announced to be the new national anthem. It began as – “Sri Lanka Matha/Pala Yasa Mahima/Jaya Jaya” and ended as “Jaya Jaya Dada Nanga/Sri Lanka Matha.” 

The fact that a song submitted by two members of the selection panel had “won” the national song competition evoked widespread resentment and protests. It was seen as blatantly unfair. Although the song by the Illangasinghe-Edirisinghe duo was broadcast over “Radio Ceylon” on the morning of Independence Day as the national song, it was not sung at the official freedom day ceremony due to protests. While the song itself was flawless and above reproach, it was the perception of favouritism in the decision to adopt it that fuelled criticism and protests. Thus, the song which won the national song competition was unacceptable as far as the people were concerned and began losing credibility. 

Meanwhile, another song was slowly beginning to capture the popular imagination of the people as a potential national anthem. This was the famous “Namo Namo Matha” written by Ananda Samarakoon who was a well-known painter as well as poet. Ananda Samarakoon was born on January 13, 1911 at a small village, Liyanwela, near Watareka in Padukka. His parents Samuel Samarakoon and Dominga Pieris were Christians. The son was christened George Wilfred. His full name was Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon. There was no Ananda in his name then and he was known as George Wilfred during childhood and early twenties. 

Young George Wilfred studied at ChristianCollege, Kotte (now Sri Jayewardenepura MMV). In 1934, he joined the staff of Christian  College as a teacher of art and music. Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, George Wilfred joined Shantinekathan, Tagore’s School of Fine  Arts in Bengal. He joined Shantinekathan in 1936 and studied art under the famous Bengali artist Nanda Lal Bose and music and singing under Shanti Devi Gosh. He came back in 1937 without completing his course and started teaching again. Upon his return, George Wilfred became known as Ananda Samarakoon. In 1940, he joined the staff of MahindaCollege, Galle. 


“Namo Namo Matha”
“Namo Namo Matha” was not written originally for the purpose of being a national anthem. Its genesis is interesting. Samarakoon used to pay frequent trips to India even after his academic pursuit at Shantinekathan had ended. On one occasion, he returned from India by air on his first-ever plane trip. Samarakoon, looking down, was enthralled and excited at the sight of his native land. He jotted down a few words and lines that came to mind immediately after landing. 

On October 20, 1940, he was at his ancestral residence in Padukka. Unable to sleep, he tossed and turned in his bed. Suddenly he got up at about 10:00 p.m. and began writing a tribute to his motherland relying on the short notes penned after his air trip from India. Samarakoon wrote late into the night and the immortal “Namo Namo Matha” was born. He then took it to Mahinda College where he was teaching and taught it to students after setting it to music. 

Some experts have opined that the words and melody of the song were influenced to some extent by Tagore’s poems and Rabindra Sangeeth. The song became popular and was included in a musical record in 1946. Being a fine singer himself, Samarakoon recorded the song with his partner Swarna de Silva, the sister of famous flautist Dunstan de Silva. The song was also included in a book of poems published by him. It was called “Geetha Kumudini.” Sadly, Samarakoon was unable to reimburse the printing cost incurred to the printer, R.K.W. Siriwardena, and handed over copyright to him. Samarakoon was to regret this later when his creation was acknowledged as the national anthem. 


Neither the Sinhala nor Tamil hardliners are upset over this decision. In fact, they are both delighted. It is indeed tragicomic to see how the hawks on either side of the ethnic divide are of the same mind on certain issues for different reasons

When Gandharva Sabha conducted the competition to select a national song, Samarakoon was away from the island in India but his wife and brother had submitted “Namo Namo Matha” for the competition. Although fully-deserving, it was overlooked and “Sri Lanka Matha, Yasa Mahima” by Illangasinghe-Edirisinghe duo was selected. 

Despite “winning” the competition, Yasa Mahima was spurned by most people because of the manner in which it was declared winner. Namo Namo Matha without any official status was enjoying wide exposure and popular acclaim. Its popularity among ordinary people was so great that public opinion favoured Namo Namo Matha over Yasa Mahima. The song became famous after a 50-member choir from MusaeusCollege, Colombo sang it on a public occasion. It was also broadcast on radio frequently. Namo Namo Matha, though without official recognition, was now becoming popular as a “de facto” national anthem. 


Acknowledged as national anthem 
In 1950, the then Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene presented a Cabinet memorandum that widely-popular Namo Namo Matha be formally acknowledged as the official anthem. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake set up a select committee under Home Affairs and Rural Development Minister Sir E.A.P. Wijeratne (father of Dr. Nissanka Wijeratne) to finalise the issue. The committee headed by Wijeratne considered Namo Namo Matha and some other lyrics and decided that Samarakoon’s song be the national anthem. 

There was however a minor hitch. The committee wanted a slight change in the words. Samarakoon was then in India and returned home in mid-1951 after being summoned by Sir Edwin A.P. Wijeratne. The song had originally been composed when the country was under the British. Now, it was independent. It was therefore felt that the 10th line in the song was inappropriate and had to be changed. Samarakoon agreed to change the line. So the line “Nawa jeewana damine” was altered to “Nawa jeewana demine nithina apa pupudu karan matha” with the wholehearted consent and approval of Ananda Samarakoon. Sir E.A.P. Wijeratne then presented a Cabinet paper in August 1951 recommending Namo Namo Matha as the national anthem. It was unanimously approved by Cabinet and formally adopted on November 22, 1951. 

There were two Tamil ministers in the D.S. Senanayake Cabinet then. They were G.G. Ponnambalam and C. Sittambalam. It is said that even before they could make a request, Premier D.S. Senanayake stated that a suitable Tamil translation be formally adopted. The select committee headed by Sir E.A.P. Wijeratne had accepted in principle that there be a Tamil version of the national anthem. Tamil scholar “Pundit” M. Nallathamby, a teacher at ZahiraCollege, Colombo, was entrusted this task and a neat, precise translation was done. The Tamil version came into use and was extensively used in official functions in the predominantly Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern  Provinces. 

The remarkable attribute of Sri Lanka’s national anthem is that it sings paeans of patriotic praise to the country alone and not to any race, religion, caste, creed or community. It is not parochial or partisan and appeals to the patriotic sentiments of all children of the Lankan mother. Hence, the Tamil people found no reason to reject or protest against the national anthem. Once the meaning of the Sinhala words was known, no Tamil found it objectionable. With an appropriate translation available, the Tamils of Sri Lanka found themselves singing the national anthem with emotion, gusto and fervour in their mother tongue. 


“Namo Namo Thaaye” 
Four years after freedom on February  4, 1952, Namo Namo Matha was sung at Independence Day ceremonies as the official national anthem. The Tamil version “Namo Namo Thaaye” was sung in related Independence Day functions at the Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Kachcheries. When Sir John Kotelawala visited Jaffna in 1954, the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung at functions felicitating the premier. 

On March 12, 1952, the government published huge advertisements in Sinhala, Tamil and English newspapers announcing Namo Namo Matha as the national anthem. While words in Sinhala and Tamil were published in Sinhala and Tamil newspapers respectively, English newspapers had Sinhala words written in English. 

Namo Namo Matha was now being sung as the official anthem but there was no uniformity in the melody or manner of singing. Different choirs and singers were rendering it in different ways. This was causing much confusion. So the government decided to appoint a committee to ensure uniformity was ensured in rendering the national anthem. An eleven-member committee was appointed in 1953. Among its members were Ananda Samarakoon himself, Devar Suryasena and J.D.A. Perera. 

This committee set out guidelines as to how the anthem should be sung and also defined the exact tune for it. The melody was a refined version of the original tune composed by Samarakoon. Reputed firm Cargills, then agents for HMV records, was given the order to make records of the national anthem. A disc was also cut for the Tamil version of the national anthem. While melody and music were the same as that of the Sinhala version by Ananda Samarakoon, Tamil words written by Pundit Nallathamby were sung by two women, Sangari and Meena. The Tamil version was first broadcast officially on Radio Ceylon on February 4, 1955. 


Copyright payment of Rs.2,500 
On June 24, 1954, the Cabinet of Sir John Kotelawala formally endorsed the tune and singing of the national anthem. The copyright ownership of Namo Namo Matha was formally acquired by the government after payment of Rs.2,500 on that day. The money however did not go to Ananda Samarakoon as he had already transferred copyright to Siriwardena, the printing press owner, who had first published the song in a book of poems. 

Having one’s composition officially recognised as the national anthem is indeed a great achievement. Having accomplished this feat, Ananda Samarakoon was entitled to bask in glory after reaching that milepost. Alas! That was not to be so. Instead of a dream existence, there commenced an ordeal that turned out to be a cruel nightmare. 

In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister, riding the crest of a Sinhala nationalist wave. The new government hailed as “Apey Aanduwa” ran into a series of problems and difficulties soon. There were political demonstrations against the government, strikes by workers, communal violence and natural disasters like floods, fires and landslides. In the search for scapegoats, certain elements (with vested interests perhaps) pounced upon the national anthem. In a burst of superstitious and/or irrational frenzy, Namo Namo Matha was singled out as the cause for all troubles afflicting the country under the Bandaranaike dispensation. 

A vicious campaign was launched against Namo Namo Matha. The charge was that the notations in Namo Namo Matha were unlucky and the cause for the country’s ills and misfortunes. The letter “Na” at the beginning was described as a malefic. The inauspicious “Ganaka” or “Gana” at the beginning of the national anthem had an ill-effect on the country, it was alleged. A ‘gana’ is the placing of the first three syllables – how the long and short syllables occur. The opening words of the anthem ‘na-mo-na’ short-long-short constituted an unlucky gana, it was stated. 

As criticism mounted, Ananda Samarakoon was constrained to defend himself against the charges. He engaged in many newspaper debates and also spoke at public meetings in defence of Namo Namo Matha. To make matters worse, Samarakoon underwent financial difficulties. Although he conducted a regular programme on the educational service run by Radio Ceylon, his creative compositions did not meet with much commercial success. He produced a song and dance pageant, Amaraneeya Lanka, in 1957 but it was a major flop. The onslaught against Namo Namo Matha destroyed Samarakoon’s peace of mind. 

In September 1959, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated. Elections to Parliament in March 1960 saw a hung Parliament emerge. Dudley Senanayake’s short-lived minority government fell. Fresh elections were called. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was swept to power in July 1960. Bandaranaike’s widow Sirimavo became Prime Minister. 


Changed to “Sri Lanka Matha”
The new SLFP Government took the campaign against Namo Namo Matha seriously. Home and Cultural Affairs Minister Maithripala Senanayake appointed a committee of “experts” to examine the issue and determine whether the national anthem was the cause of the country’s troubles. The committee recommended that the words “Namo Namo Matha” be changed to “Sri Lanka Matha.” Ananda Samarakoon protested vehemently and opposed the proposed change. The government however went ahead and unilaterally amended the national anthem from “Namo Namo Matha” to “Sri Lanka Matha” in February 1961. 

Ananda Samarakoon’s consent was not obtained. Since copyright was now vested with the government, there was no legal remedy available to the poet to prevent this arbitrary action. The act however had a distressing and debilitating effect on the poet. According to media reports, Ananda Samarakoon was found dead on April 5, 1962. His door was broken open as he was not answering knocks on his door. The inquest revealed that he had died of an overdose of sleeping tablets. There was a letter on his desk to the then opposition leader Dudley Senanayake complaining of how his anthem had been mutilated. There was also a serene painting on his easel of Lord Buddha meditating and a deer looking on. 
A few days before his death, Samarakoon wrote a letter to the ‘Timesman’ column on the “Times of Ceylon” newspaper. He wrote, “The anthem has been beheaded. It has not only destroyed the song, but also destroyed the life of the composer. I am frustrated and broken-hearted. It is a misfortune to live in a country where such things happen to a humble composer. Death would be preferable.” 


Tragic tale of Ananda Samarakoon 
This then is the tragic tale of Ananda Samarakoon, the writer and composer of Sri Lanka’s national anthem. Meanwhile, Namo Namo Matha in its new avatar of “Sri Lanka Matha” continued to stir the sentiments of patriotic citizens of the island nation irrespective of race or religion. The national anthem was sung in Tamil as “Sri Lanka Thaaye.” However, life in Sri  Lanka began transforming as the ethnic crisis began to escalate. This change had its effect on the national anthem too. These and other related matters will be discussed in detail in a forthcoming article. 

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at  


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