Friday, 23 November 2007


This feature was written in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami when I visited the Southern Indian state of Kerala and found it peaceful & relatively unaffected.

As the dreadful events of Boxing Day unfolded on television I was growing increasingly anxious about going to India. I was also deeply concerned that people and places that I knew in neighbouring parts of Asia had been wiped out. I was experiencing nightmares that threw me towards a dark depression yet I knew that by going what little money I would spend might directly help the region’s already depleted tourism industry.


There is something very mystical about watching forty or so Asian elephants moving almost majestically in procession, trunks and tails swaying, towards a river where they will take a communal bath. It is a sight I had waited a long time for and this alone would have been worth venturing several thousand miles to witness even had the tropical island had nothing else to recommend it. The elephants, as it transpired, were the icing on the cake because I fell in love with the beauty and the people of this wonderful island that sits, like a glistening pearl, in the Indian Ocean just at the foot of the Tamil region of the Sub Continent.

At the time the island was at war, but then it has been at war for much of its history only this time the fighting was not against an invading force but between the Tamil people and the Government. That makes things all that harder to accept given the otherwise inner tranquillity of the people. Now there is a kind of uneasy peace. Discussions between the warring factions are under way but how long this will last is anybody’s guess. Mostly the fighting has been restricted to the Jaffna region in the north of the island but every so often a bomb will explode elsewhere, on a crowded train or on a Colombo street killing unsuspecting citizens and reminding tourists that the regime is still unstable.

Countless lives have been lost fighting to gain independence for a tiny strip of land. They haven’t all been human lives either. Many casualties have been from the wild animal population. The elephants have frequently been casualties and their existence remains on a tightrope in Sri Lanka as in other parts of South East Asia. Sometimes an elephant has been caught in cross-fire, on other occasions a single animal may have torn up a farmer’s crops causing him to hunt the animal down to kill it. Worse, some have trodden on mines and have lost a foot or an entire limb but have continued to live, usually in extreme agony until secondary disease from the wound spreads and eventually causes an awful prolonged death. The ultimate only comes after the elephant loses its’ mind with the pain that can turn it into a very dangerous and unpredictable animal in the process.

It is believed that 12,000 elephants once roamed wild on Sri Lanka. This was around 1900 when the natural resources that the animals would feed on were plentiful and the population smaller. Now almost 20 million people inhabit the island and much of the habitat where elephants lived and thrived peaceably within their environment has gone cutting their numbers to just a few thousand wild animals. Those elephants that get maimed frequently become separated from their herd. Many of the victims have been females with young that have not yet been fully weaned. The baby elephants, left to their own devices, fall over cliffs or simply starve to death. The few lucky ones are captured by caring villagers and are taken to the Orphanage where they will be fed and cared for.

In 1975 the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife set up the Elephant Orphanage to care for the offspring of dead or injured mothers that had been found in the jungles. Twenty five acres of coconut grove were taken up at Rambukkana on the Maha River. The orphanage moved locations on several occasions, at one time being housed at the tourist area of Bentota before moving to the Dehiwala Zoo. It eventually ended up at Pinnawela and had just five baby elephants in its care. The intention was for visitors to be attracted to the orphanage and the money raised from entrance fees etc. would support the cause. In 1978 the National Zoological Gardens took over the running of the centre and a captive breeding programme was launched in 1982. At that time there were five mahouts caring for twelve elephants. By 1997 the adult elephant population had increased to 42 and there were 10 babies, all under three years old. Although adult female elephants could successfully be introduced into the orphanage, the situation tended to be the opposite with the males because of their naturally aggressive behaviour.

The Orphanage tries to maintain a natural wild environment for its charges. The babies are fed by hand on milk before being allowed to roam freely over 12 acres of grassland. There are signs of what elephants tend to do naturally, break down trees and the compound is littered with torn off branches. Twice a day the animals are walked to the Maha Oya River, just 400 metres away where they enjoy a two hour bath. This is the spectacle that the majority of visitors come to see and this can be done from the terrace of a restaurant that overlooks the bathing area. The frolicking is great fun to watch even though the occasional elephant may attempt to wander off across the river. The mahouts soon spot a troublesome one and ensure that it is kept with the others.

During the evening the babies are again fed on milk while the older animals receive leaves. The usual diet consists of jackfruit, coconut, tamarind and grass. Each elephant is fed 76kg of green food a day which is supplemented with 2kg of mixed maize, rice, bran, powdered gingelly seed and minerals. Although penned for the night, boredom can set in quite easily so some of the older elephants are encouraged to work by using their trunks to carry tree branches and food stuffs.

Sama is an adult female elephant, now aged about twelve, who had her right forefoot blown away by a landmine when she was only two years old. She had learnt to walk on three legs although as she grows the imbalance is putting stress on her spine. Reports from the Orphanage state that one of the zoological specialists is hoping to train the Sama this year to wear a prosthesis that they hope will solve the elephant’s imbalanced stance. Only time will tell whether the experiment is a success or not.

The good work of the orphanage specialists and staff, aided by others from around the world, continues to save the lives of many of these unfortunate creatures. The Orphanage attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year which helps to create a continued awareness of the problems faced by the Asian elephant that can only help the species’ fight for survival. If you get the opportunity to visit this picturesque island be sure to take the road from the capital Colombo towards the ancient city of Kandy. Set in the hills approximately half way between the two cities you will reach Pinnawela village. It is easy to miss but the yellow signs at the roadside showing an elephant crossing will provide a clue. You will be richly rewarded by the experience of walking amongst these delightful animals.


I have been following the progress of the issues relating to unfair overdraft penalty charges that are being imposed by banks closely ever since the subject first started to receive media attention. Like many readers I have a vested interest. It has been well publicised that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) are bringing a case against the banks because they agree with consumer views that bank overdraft fees are unfair. Whether this action will be in the public’s interest will remain to be seen but the decision to litigate has put paid to any further individual cases being brought to court by individuals who feel the need to sue their banks.

The banking industry could have accepted the OFT’s claims of profiteering by overcharging their customers instead of adopting a largely intransigent attitude that has resulted in legal proceedings being instigated. The eight banks involved are challenging the OFT’s right to interfere in their affairs and claim that it has no jurisdiction. However, the BBC has reported (11 September 2007) that the OFT could drop this highly controversial test case if the banks offered to cut their charges so much, that it would be in the interests of consumers to drop the case. However the fairness of charges isn’t the issue the judge must consider. Instead the Court must rule on whether the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations apply to overdraft charges. The OFT believes that they do apply and that is in their power to order the banks to reduce unfair charges. The banks, as expected, disagree claiming their charges to be a ‘core feature of their current account business’ an area that is beyond the jurisdiction of existing regulations. The banks are also adamant that overdraft ‘penalties’ are legitimate service charges that are fair and justifiable. The OFT also argues that the charges are still excessive even if they could be viewed as legitimate service charges.

Since it was known that the OFT were intending to bring this issue to the High Court, some might be forgiven for thinking there has been an impasse. This is not the case. Most financial experts agree that consumers should still formerly place their claims before their banks prior to the court date; although they believe that the banks will no longer entertain paying any settlements. Despite this view some banks are continuing to offer refunds based on prior claims that were sent to them before the OFT announcement was made. Whether these settlements seem fair or not is for the individual to decide. It appears that the situation has now become a gamble split between whether a customer is willing to accept what the bank is offering them now, or wait for the outcome of the court action. If you back waiting for the court’s decision there is the chance that the banks might win the litigation and you will end up getting nothing at all. Even if the banks should lose the first battle, any settlement is likely to be protracted because they are almost certain to Appeal. Should they lose that too then they might even consider appealing to the House of Lords. This will all take a considerable amount of time. The action is due to commence in January but nobody is expecting a result until at least 2010 so even if the case goes against the banks you’ll still be waiting more than two years before your disputed charges are returned. In many cases it simply isn’t worth the gamble. If your bank is still prepared to discuss a refund you might well consider it now rather than risk losing out totally. The worst part about this is that there is no clear cut favourite to win the action so it’s not an easy call to make.

There is some evidence that some banks are still prepared to consider settling despite the OFT action. If your bank has offered to negotiate it might be wise to be flexible. What they are offering is likely to be considerably less than the amount you are demanding but you can always try ‘pushing’ the bank to increase their offer to something more acceptable. Although this will be a compromise you are guaranteed at least some form of settlement immediately but you won’t be able to pursue any balance. The banks are clearly defining such settlements as ‘goodwill’ gestures and they are refusing to accept any liability of overcharging or wrongdoing. This to me seems rather dishonest. My argument to this is based on my belief that no banking organisation would be prepared to offer a substantial settlement if they didn’t believe that they were in the wrong. Banks simply aren’t in business to make goodwill payments out of a feeling of generosity so this has to be dismissed as poppycock! If a bank offers to settle a claim this is tantamount to accepting full liability and pay up rather than risk the possibility of being taken to court. If they believe they are in the right and that their charges can be justified, then why would they offer a refund? The reason could be that they are growing nervous about losing the case with the OFT in the same way that they’ve already lost the majority of cases brought against them by individuals. This has already cost them dearly. The banking industry’s own interim figures reveals that no less than £399million had already been refunded to customers during the first half of this year. The contributions towards this substantial amount of ‘goodwill’ have been met by Barclays (£87m), HSBC (£116m), HBOS (£79m), Lloyds TSB (£36m) and RBS (£81m).

The whole issue seems to have become a bit like Katch-22 and it is a shame that the OFT doesn’t already have sufficient clout to enforce the banks to refund unreasonable penalty charges under existing laws without having the need to resort to the High Court. The banks, no doubt, will view any government agency intervention in their business as being grossly unfair. Isn’t this a travesty when they have acted unfairly towards their clients for donkey’s years? The banks seem to believe they have the absolute right to help themselves to their customers’ funds. As a result their profits have soared to all time highs and their wealthy shareholders have got fatter by screwing their customers. Their greed has no parallel, they have no scruples and they appear to revel in the ruthlessness of their actions. By compounding the debts of customers by adding unfair overdraft charges and subsequently placing default notices on the credit register they are guilty of creating misery and ruin for thousands. Quite frequently default notices are issued because customers have been unable to pay the unreasonable charges that their bank has imposed such action effectively blocks an individual from obtaining credit for a minimum period of six years. This cannot be fair. No other business is allowed to default a customer in this way so why are the banks allowed to do this without first proving their case in court? There can be no justification for charging a customer £35 for ‘bouncing’ a £3 payment when the banking experts have estimated that it costs the bank less than £2 to process the refused item? More often than not it is a case of the banks extorting money from those that are the most vulnerable; those on low incomes or businesses owners that are facing financial difficulties. When anyone is already suffering financially distress, I believe it is totally unreasonable and devastating to impose further monetary penalties on top of debts they already cannot meet. It is easy to understand why personal and business debts are soaring to record highs. The banks blame their customers, charging them with being irresponsible, but in a vast number of cases people fall into financial difficulties for reasons beyond their control. The banks are merely making matters worse. In any case the banks are not in a position to preach considering their record of poor lending to Third World countries and the recent activities of Northern Rock.

Nobody could ever deny that the banks need to make healthy profits but their methods can readily be viewed as scandalous and their profits excessive. They were once regarded as upright, responsible, honest organisations that could be trusted. Mostly they could be relied upon for their integrity and upright behaviour. But, the public perception has widely changed and most would conclude that as an industry the banks no longer enjoy a respectable reputation or meet the needs of the consumer. Their obsession with the ‘bottom line’ has led to justifiable accusations of greed and they have also come in for criticism over their methods of selling a range of associated products that aren’t always in the interests of their unsuspecting clients. If you were to conduct a poll I wonder how many consumers would consider the banks to be honest and trustworthy? When things are going well they are quick to lend money but, at the first signs of danger, they are equally as quick to ‘pull the plug’ in ways that can cause misery and total ruin. The outcome of all of this is that when a customer complains the banks are likely to retaliate by calling in their overdraft and by closing their account. As a consumer, I can only hope that justice will be seen to be done and that customers will ultimately gain from the process.