Professor Carlo Fonseka
At the first death anniversary of Professor Carlo Fonseka, I would like to bring the focus of the reader to the legacy of our beloved professor through his services to learning and research in the field of Physiology and Medicine, to university education, and more generally to the Sri Lankan nation. His contribution was made in a wide variety of fields, but also in the exemplary life he led which, in my understanding, epitomised the qualities of mettā, karunā, mudithā and upēkkha, the teachings of the Buddha. It is a well-known fact that in the early stages of his university career Carlo Fonseka was a committed socialist, and a prominent activist of the ‘Lanka Sama Samaja Party’. He also proclaimed that he is a ‘Rationalist’.
‘Rationalism’ has many definitions and interpretations. Quite often, it is misunderstood as an ideology that rejects all religious beliefs and devotional practices. But if one were to read Professor Fonseka’s compositions in the volume titled ‘Essays of a Lifetime’, it becomes clear that ‘Rationalism’, as professed by him, represented the basic principle in scientific endeavours according to which, in generating knowledge, ‘Reason’ is superior to emotion and to objectively unverifiable perception.
As most of us are aware that there is no dearth of writings on Professor Fonseka published both before as well as after his passing away. In view of that, there is hardly any need to repeat the glittering details documented on his academic achievements. However, I shall briefly outline that Professor Carlo Fonseka obtained MBBS with first class honours at the University of Ceylon in 1960; and was awarded the Andrew Caldecott Gold medal for the greatest competence in that examination, Maneckbai Dadabhoy Gold medal (for the greatest competence in Obstetrics and Gynaecology), Perry Exhibition “for the greatest competence in a 3 -year period, Distinctions in Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Pharmacology and Forensic medicine. His studies leading to the MBBS degree were embellished with many such distinctions and prestigious awards which, I think, only a very few in the entire history of the Medical School in Colombo could have matched. He obtained his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral thesis work has been quoted in textbooks of Physiology.
He joined the academic staff of the Department of Physiology of the University of Colombo in 1962 and rose steadily in rank, gaining recognition here and abroad as a brilliant researcher and an inspiring teacher, to be elevated to a professorship in Physiology. Later he moved to the newly established Faculty of Medicine, Ragama, as its founder Dean, and the person who was instrumental in developing the Faculty to take wing.
He authored many widely acclaimed publications in his field, focusing on specialties such as neuroendocrinology, pain and memory.
The Master’s degree in Medical Education was obtained much later in life (1999) underscoring his positive attitude towards learning throughout his life.
He was a great teacher in Physiology and had a passion to instill knowledge in his students. His students at Colombo and later at Kelaniya had almost worshipful admiration and affection for him. One of his pupil admirers has stated that his name ‘Carlo’ should be regarded as an abridgement of the Sinhala term ‘Kālōchitha’ – an interesting statement!
Outside the confines of teaching, research and academic administration, he continued to maintain a refined level of interest and involvement throughout his career in a wide variety of issues. For instance, a book authored by him has a focus on the vital necessity of promoting peace and inter-group harmony in order to alleviate poverty, and achieve equity and social justice in Sri Lanka.
He was an ardent campaigner for eliminating narcotic and tobacco consumption, and provided his fullest cooperation and leadership to the related government efforts, regardless of the political party affiliations of those who required his services.
When entrusted responsibilities in academic administration, he never became a ‘yes’ man of political bosses. He was guided entirely by his own convictions, even when his steadfast stand caused displeasure among the powers that be.
We have often seen that he was associated with the glitterati of our performing arts in theatre, cinema and music, but not with the objective of pursuing the limelight. That association was due entirely to the elite performers in those fields pursuing him, because he had the competence to contribute to their interests and aspirations.
I find it difficult to think of any other person in our university community whose record could match his versatility and competence in such a broad spectrum of fields. Yet, he interacted in perfect ease with those at all levels of our society, including rural youth, not as a ‘pundit’ distributing wisdom or a political bigwig harvesting votes, but as a friend expecting to engage in a dialogue.
This latter feature of Professor Fonseka’s personality is reflected in a story of a visit by him to a village in Puttalam District, invited for a speech by an association of youth, mainly school drop-outs and students of upper-secondary level at a Central College. That was in the gloomy aftermath of the youth insurrection of 1971. As previously arranged, on arrival at the railway station that morning, he was respectfully greeted and escorted to the venue of the meeting in a procession of bicycles, with the illustrious ‘doctor’ himself garlanded, and seated on the crossbar of the lead bicycle, motor vehicles in that era being far less abundant compared to the present. The social setting was one of mixed ethnicity. His audience, overwhelmingly young men and women, consisted of Buddhists, Roman Catholics and Muslims, including members of the clergy. According to this tale, they listened to the speech with rapt attention, and participated in a lively discussion that lasted until mid-day. What impressed the narrator of this story more than all else was the calm, respectful and persuasive manner in which the eminent ‘doctor’ responded to even those who disagreed with some of his ideas. He had lunch with his hosts, further informal chats, and was escorted back to the Railway station, demonstrating to a small segment of our society that the barriers of the ‘Ivory Tower’ are not entirely insurmountable.
That was a rare and exemplary dimension of Professor Fonseka’s personality, the ability to “walk with kings, but not lose the common touch”, a character trait of the ideal ‘Man’ as portrayed by the famous poet Rudyard Kipling.
On a personal note, he was a very dear senior colleague to me. The guidance, inspiration and the benevolence he bestowed on us Physiologists will remain among us for many years to come.
Dr. INDUMATHIE NANAYAKKARA
(MBBS, MPhil, PhD)
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, Peradeniya
President, Physiology Association of Sri Lanka for 2019
Road accident killer:
One every three hours
There is a spike of serious traffic accidents and the number of fatalities reported from all parts of the country during the last few weeks. They have snatched many precious and valuable human lives. Media reports, quoting Traffic Police sources indicate, despite the country being in lockdown for three months due to COVID–19, that this year from January to the end of August, 1,418 persons have been killed in traffic accidents
A person is killed every three hours on our roads due to road accidents, and annually 3000 persons die in road accidents. Nearly 8000 serious accidents take place annually, and in many instances the victims end up never to lead a normal life again. In the last four years – in 2016 there were 3017 fatal accidents, while in 2017 it was 3147. In 2018 according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, Road Traffic Accident Deaths in Sri Lanka was 3590, and has been identified as the 10thcause of death in Sri Lanka’s top 50 causes of death, beating other serious diseases causing death in the country. In 2019 there were 2851 fatal accidents.
On September 2nd, a serious accident occurred in the Colombo city at Mattakkuliya. As reported in the media, in that accident three people died instantly when two three-wheelers were hit by a speeding lorry. Apparently, speeding, and driving the lorry without a valid license to drive, is sheer negligence and lack of responsibility of the lorry driver. Lack of care and responsibility for the life of others who share the road is a serious problem. Instilling road discipline in our drivers is paramount for the safety of all road users.
Drivers of motor vehicles need to be responsible and realise, the moment he/she sits at the driver’s seat and holds the steering wheel you are in control of a piece of heavy equipment, at high speed is mere seconds from a potential innocent victim. Furthermore, speed, while greatly increasing the risk of serious crash, increases the odds of an accident and increases its severity.
A driver under the influence of alcohol is as deadly, and similarly at risk of serious accidents. The harmful influence alcohol has on the crucial decision to drive is great. Drinker’s self assessment about whether he/she can drive safely is critical. The deadly influence alcohol has on the driver is great. Alcohol impairs the drinker’s ability of self-assessment. Reduces the driver’s ability to react to things that happen suddenly. The alcohol also blurs vision, impairs attention and reflexes are slowed.
The road accidents having reached such a horrendous proportion, random measures to instil road discipline in errant drivers are not effective. Speeding, reckless driving, and driving under the influence of alcohol are the major causes of serious traffic accidents. The Police launching limited enforcement and special operations during festive seasons, and operations targeting certain Police areas or specific Traffic Rule violations, are not enough to address this tragedy. Police must implement comprehensive long term programmes, employing technology and modern devices to detect traffic rule violations and make roads safe for all road users.
According to Colombo Traffic Police, there are 106 CCTV cameras operating in Colombo and use 3 Mobile CCTV Surveillance Vans to monitor traffic. Surveillance of Colombo using the Road Safety Camera system alone is not sufficient. Road Safety Cameras; Red Light violation detecting cameras, and combined Red Light and Speed cameras can detect a host of Traffic Rule violations. Sri Lanka Police should seriously consider expanding this method of surveillance using the Road Safety Camera system countrywide.
Road Safety Cameras installed at intersections in all cities and major towns, at strategic locations and high risk roads along the country’s entire road network, would be a deterrent to speed maniacs, and other road rule violators who know they are being watched all day and night. These cameras can be used as both detective and preventive measures. It’s a 24/7 surveillance.
The camera captures a host of data including the vehicle number plate, date, time and location of the offence etc., sufficient to prove the offence committed by the driver. In addition, mobile cameras mounted on Police vehicles positioned at strategic locations, and hand held cameras, could be used to book speeding drivers and other road rule violations.
As for alcohol-impaired driving, the government can do more to reduce the number of drunk-driving instances. Couple of years ago the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) proposed to reduce the maximum Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level of drivers; at present it is 0.08 grams per 100 mm, to 0.03 grams per 100 mm. There is no indication thus far of any initiative of the government taken in this regard. Australia and most European countries have the BAC level of drivers at 0.05. Norway and Sweden in Europe, and China has this level at 0.02, while in Russia it is 0.03. Canada, USA and some countries have it at 0.08.
The government could look into lowering the legal BAC level to 0.03 as proposed by the NATA. This approach would better respond to discouraging drunk-drivers. The government could also consider making instances of driving while exceeding the legally permitted BAC limit, a criminal offence; initially applying it to drivers exceeding the legally permitted BAC level and meeting with accidents, and finally extending to exceeding the permitted BAC level under any circumstances, a criminal offence.
Clearly, the law can’t work on its own. The key factor in the reduction of Traffic Rule violations is enforcement and stiff penalties. Police should be provided with technology and modern devices used in other Police Forces around the world. Police should be given authority to stop and demand to undergo testing from any driver at the roadside more often, rather than testing after accidents occurred.
Cross-disciplinary learning to meet graduates’ skills shortages
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emphasized the importance of matching the skills acquired by University students with the demands of employers. Over the years, criticism has been directed at Humanities and Social Sciences programmes in local Universities, questioning their relevance to the needs of a developing economy. Besides, some of these graduates had problems finding jobs in the private sector. They have historically relied on public sector jobs, an expectation almost all recent governments have had to grapple with.
The employability of Humanities and Social Sciences graduates is not a puzzle unique to Sri Lanka. In Singapore, I encountered several contemporary students who feared their degrees were not well sought after by the industry. I have seen such students putting a lot of effort into studying a minor in fields of study that could give them an edge over their peers. A minor comprises a set of courses which helps a student to develop secondary expertise in addition to the degree requirements of one’s major field of study. Completing a minor is not compulsory in most cases, but it sends a positive signal to employers on the quality of their potential hire. Some of the most popular minors among my batch mates were Business, Computing, Economics, and Entrepreneurship.
Promoting such cross-disciplinary learning could be an immediate solution to the expectation set by the President. Local Universities already possess resources to implement such programmes. It eliminates the need for a hurried overhaul of the curricula in universities. Most importantly, a rapid increase in the output of graduates with qualifications demanded by the industry, could just be the solution to the critical skills shortage faced by sectors such as Information Technology.
Depositors and Stock Exchange
State Minister Nivard Cabraal recently requested Sri Lankans who have deposited money in banks and finance companies to use that money in shares on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Our ministers and officials who control state finances do not know that most of those depositors maintain those deposits not as investments. They live on the interest they receive monthly from those deposits.
Before 2015 too, Cabraal as Governor of CBSL and many others, encouraged those depositors to invest in shares, and many learnt the lesson as they were caught in the game of “pumping & dumping” by groups of some big fish. Cabraals are in a way hitting those depositors by ad-hoc reducing of interest rates, and now they ask them to follow the more easier path to think of committing suicide.
Have the higher-ups in the government ever investigated why people maintain those deposits and how many use the interest they receive to meet their daily needs, before playing around with interest rates in order to please the borrowers and lessees?
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