A word of advice to govt.
By N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA
This Government was elected to office with a huge majority, considered impossible in a PR electoral system. There were two important factors that contributed to this victory; one was the immense popularity of the nationalist leaders of the SLPP, and two was the anti-national policies followed by the ‘yahapalana’ government and its dichotomous leadership, that bungled in every aspect of governance. Voters came, even from abroad, in large numbers, in a surge of nationalist feelings that seemed to proclaim “let us get together to save the country”. The Government, however, must not forget that such strong sentiment, like a tide, can turn against it if it does not get its act together.
It should not take for granted that just because it has the support of a large number of people, who have nationalist feelings, it could get away with major blunders, forever. Already the signs are visible that people are not very happy about what is going on, and all that disillusion is not due to Opposition propaganda alone. There seems to be a vibrant Opposition, as it should be, that grabs every opportunity to badly embarrass the Government. Instead of lambasting the Opposition, though there is enough ammunition to do so on account of their miserable failure during ‘yahapalana’ days, the Government must take stock of the situation and take remedial measures as soon as possible.
Issues seem to crop up almost on a daily basis, which, very often, take the form of a comedy of errors, with Government high-ups becoming the target of lampoons. There were several issues that impacted on the daily life of people, which were mismanaged and allowed to grow into disastrous situations; with growing suspicion that there could be corrupt practices also. Price of rice, the irregularity in relation to Customs duty on sugar, and import of contaminated coconut oil, were three such issues that caused a lot of damage to the reputation of the Government, recently. What made it worse for the Government was the unprofessional manner the Government explained matters to the public, and the appearance that an attempt was made to cover up. The various spokesmen for the Government could not, at least, speak in one voice. One would say contaminated coconut oil has not been released to the market and another would say coconut oil in the market is being tested for aflatoxin . The Opposition would latch on to this and shout from the tree tops that the coconut oil will bring cancer to the people in the New Year. With regard to price control of rice, one minister would say they will raid the stores of mill owners and take over the hoarded rice, while another would say they will import rice. The Opposition would shout that there will be no rice for the New Year “kiribath”.
Anyway, the issues regarding rice, sugar and coconut oil should have been more efficiently managed, without appearing to be bumbling along. If there had been any corruption, related to these matters, the Government must get to the bottom of it, find the culprits and punish them, irrespective of whether they are top ministers, government politicians or supporters. Else the canker will grow, resulting in the downfall of the government.
70% of those who voted for this Government are poor people. If the Government makes a genuine effort to improve their lot, mainly their income, health, education and housing, the effort of the Opposition to exaggerate the issues, which it must be said could occur under any government, would have less success. At present the Opposition seems to be having a field day with people tending to rally around it. The President’s visits to the villages would give a lot of confidence to the poor people, but whether what he promises are being implemented by the officials is something that needs to be looked into. The President must also focus on a comprehensive plan to take the people out from their abject poverty. He has said that is his intention and seems to be genuinely concerned about this matter. He had changed the strategy to combat Covid and avoided large scale lockdowns, keeping in mind the need for the economy to recover and things would have not been bad. Covid seems to be under control and the economy also seems to be recovering, according to the World Bank. The World Bank goes by economic parameters, like GDP, but whether the apparent growth reaches the people is not certain. Whether enough is being done to improve the poor people’s living standards is the question.
The President has said he would concentrate on developing an agro-economy. This indeed is laudable as 30% of the workforce, in Sri Lanka, is engaged in agriculture and related activities. Land is of short supply in a small island, and there is a tendency for encroachment, into forest reservation, for expansion of agricultural and other economic activity. This is like the stomach invading lung space and could be equally disastrous. Several such instances have been detected, and the Opposition may have exaggerated all this and attempted to show that the President is Eco-unfriendly. Some of his own MPs have added fuel to fire by taking on the forest conservation officers who are trying to do their job.
How could this problem be solved? An agro-economy would need to contribute at least 25% to the GDP. Now its contribution is only 8%. How could agricultural produce be increased without damaging the environment? What experts like Prof. C.S.Weeraratne have proposed is to employ scientific farming methods, like the use of high yielding varieties, better seeds and fertilizer, improved irrigation, greater mechanization, better storage and transportation facilities. Funding for this work must be found and there cannot be any excuses because people can see that the Government has enough money to spend on the comfort of their politicians. Further, if corruption is curbed, money would be available for these projects. The President is known as a big achiever and a ‘no-nonsense’ person, and his track record in this regard is excellent. It is disappointing and sad to see a Government, headed by such a person, bungling along, due to the activities of incompetent ministers.
Self-sufficiency in essential food items should be a priority. If this is the policy of the Government why is it importing coconut oil. If we are not producing enough coconut, why do we export coconut products. About 7% of our exports, in 2020, were coconut products, and 50% of this was kernel. Is it a better trade policy to export local products and import the same products in a different form from abroad? Is there any logic in this? We must export essential items only if we are producing in excess of local requirements. One hopes there is no corruption involved in the practice of exporting coconut kernel, and then importing it back in the form of oil.
Government must not forget that its sustaining force is its nationalist orientation. Its nationalism should be based on the national consciousness of the people, and it must be defensive and protective, but not oppressive or chauvinistic. It must protect all communities and treat them equally. It must look at every issue from the national point of view, and look for solutions within that framework. Nationalism of this government has been castigated as racial by some commentators who support separatism. Government must avoid doing anything that would be ammunition for such commentators.
Its decision not to enter into the MCC agreement is in keeping with its nationalist policies. The way it handled the UNHRC Resolution was also good, but more could have been done in this regard. It could have made use of the seemingly unsolicited helping hand that Lord Naseby extended. By unwittingly spurning it, the Government appears to be accepting the view of separatists and their supporters that Lord Naseby is a “backbencher”, and, therefore, his view does not carry weight. However, it could be said en passe that the viewpoints of people like Siobhan McDonagh, Labour MP who supports separatists, are being made use of by separatists, despite the fact that she is a “backbencher”.
Some say there is no unity in the Government and there are “ginger groups” and disgruntled members. There is reason to believe that this may be true. Disagreements and disputes came out into the open and there was washing of dirty linen in public. This could be very damaging to the future of the government and the SLPP. Such things should not be allowed to happen. Differences must be settled by engaging in cordial discussions in a spirit of give and take. A nationalist government in Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, could have many powerful external enemies. If it develops internal animosity and strife its days would be numbered. Let it learn a lesson from what happened in 2014, which resulted in the ‘yahapalana’ regime and the ensuing huge damage to the economy and the independence of the country.
But more importantly, if the Government does not improve the poor man’s lot, which could be done only by developing a national economy, based on agriculture that contributes about 25% to the GDP, the Government would be doomed. It is not the time for mega projects, like elevated railroads and highways. Such activity will not reach the poor people sufficiently to alleviate their poverty, as shown in the past where nationalist governments were defeated, despite achieving much with such big projects.
Daring siege of the Cultural Ministry
The University of Colombo, Sri Lanka was established in 1979 in accordance with the provisions of the Universities Act No. 18 of 1978. The university was given all the land from the road joining Bauddhaloka Mawatha and Reid Avenue (later named Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha) right up to the Thummulla junction.
There were the court premises set up to try the insurgents of 1971, the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), the Queen’s Club, an unauthorized temple which had everything else like car wash, canteen, night life, etc, except what should be found in a temple.
Of these the university was able to get rid of the bogus temple. The request to get the CDC premises did not materialize as the then Secretary of Education turned it down. Later these buildings were taken over to house the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
One day in the early 1990s just prior to closing time the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of Student Affairs came into my office and told me that the Students Union is planning to take over the Buildings of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Their plan was to wait till dusk and get in surreptitiously two by two. I told the Senior Assistant Registrar not to divulge this to anybody else and to wait till the following morning to see the outcome.
When we reported for work the following morning, I asked the Senior Assistant Registrar as to what had happened. He said the mission had been successfully accomplished and now the students were occupying the buildings. It seemed that what the university had been trying to get for a long time, the students had successfully achieved in one night!
On the second day the students who were occupying the buildings were a little agitated, telephoned me and asked whether the Special Task Force (STF) was planning to surround the building with a view to oust them as the STF personnel were occupying vantage points on buildings in the vicinity . I telephoned and inquired from the OIC of Cinnamon Gardens Police station, and he told me that there was no such plan and that they were only watching the situation. I conveyed this to the students and allayed their fears.
A meeting was convened at the Ministry of Higher Education to see how the problem could be sorted out. At the meeting a student showed a copy of a Cabinet decision where agreement had been reached to hand over the CDC buildings to the University of Colombo. The Minister of Cultural Affairs at that time, Mr. Lakshman Jayakody, was surprised and asked the student as to how he got the copy of the decision as even he had not seen it. The student stated that he did not want to divulge the source.
The Minister stated that his immediate need was to get the pay sheet and cheque book as the employees had to be paid their salaries. The students were adamant not to surrender, and they stated that this was done as they needed hostels. Hence the decision to lay siege to the buildings. Mr. Jayakody agreed to vacate the buildings so that the university could make use of them.
That ended the saga of the famous siege of a Ministry building by a few daring undergraduates. The buildings were used to house the newly established Faculty of Management and Finance. The undergraduates were accommodated in other buildings in Muttiah Road and Thelawala, which were handed over to the university to be used as hostels.
HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera who passed away a few days ago was a dynamic personality who headed not one but two national universities in Sri Lanka. It was as the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) that I first encountered him, an encounter that highlighted Professor Wijeyesekera’s powers of perseverance and persuasion. During the late 1980s, I was happily ensconced at the University of Colombo when I started receiving messages from Professor Wijeyesekera to ask me to consider moving over to the OUSL. The proposition did not seem very viable to me at the time and I ignored his calls But for almost two years, he persisted until I finally gave in and shifted my academic career to Nawala- a move never regretted.
OUSL at that time was in the throes of changes and innovation, most of which were spearheaded by Professor Wijeyesekera who had taken over the leadership of OUSL in 1985 at a most controversial time. Perceptions of the OUSL were negative and the authorities were even considering closing it down. With his characteristic vigour, Dayantha Wijeyesekera set about putting things right bringing in changes, some of which were most controversial and even considered detrimental to OUSL.
In spite of opposition, he stuck to his vision and it is testimony to his persistence that a number of changes have lasted to this day – Faculties headed by Deans instead of Boards of Study headed by Directors, Departments of Study and not Units, a two-tier administrative system akin to the conventional university system of Council and Senate. To help support students who needed to come to Nawala for workshops and laboratory classes, he established student hostels-another move deemed by his critics as undermining the concept of Distance Education. The hostels still stand and have even been expanded.
Other changes were welcomed such as his indefatigable pursuit of state –of the art technology for OUSL. The OUSL’s centre for Educational Technology was a gift from Japan due to Professor Wijeyesekera’s efforts. And it was in his period of stewardship at OUSL that the first ever language laboratory to be established in a Sri Lankan university was set up in the Department of Language Studies – a gift from KOICA, the South Korean aid agency.
During Professor Wijeyesekera’s tenure as Vice Chancellor, the OUSL experienced growth and expansion in academic sectors too. During the 1980s, the university had only a handful of centres but under Dayantha Wijeyesekera the number rapidly grew- there were Regional Centres in major cities such as Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Study centres were set up in towns throughout the island and he was more than supportive when requested permission to establish teaching centres for English in smaller urban conglomerations such as Akkaraipattu .
Academic programmes blossomed. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences for example had just one Bachelor’s degree, the LLB, during the 1980s. In Professor Wijeyesekera’s time this grew to include a Bachelor of Management Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and the first ever Bachelor’s degree in English and English Language Teaching. The first degree programme for nurses in Sri Lanka, the BSc. In Nursing, was established at the Faculty of Science with support from Athabasca University in Canada. In addition there also sprang up a whole cohort of Certificate and Diploma programmes catering to the diverse needs of professionals all over the island.
The growth of the university was reflected in the expansion of facilities. New buildings sprang up on reclaimed land bordering the Narahenpita-Nawala Road – a new Senate House which offered space to all the administrative sections and had a spacious facility for Council and Senate meetings. A three-storey building was provided for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a new Library building took shape near the Media Centre.
In addition Professor Wijeyesekera reached out to international centres of Distance Education and Open Universities across the world. In the early 1990s, he hosted with aplomb the Conference of the Association of Asian Open Universities (AAOU) and OUSL became a respected member of the AAOU as well as of the Commonwealth of Learning.
Dayantha Wijeyesekera began his career at OUSL in 1985 when the fate of the OUSL hung in the balance. Under his stewardship, the university burgeoned into a national university, a leader in Distance Education which others sought to emulate.. When he joined the OU, the student enrolment stood at 8,000. When he left, nine years later, there 20,000 students registered at the university. It was his hard work, his dedication, his commitment to academic progress that helped transform the OUSL.
May his soul rest in peace.
Open University of Sri Lanka
X-Press Pearl disaster
It will be a crying shame if we fail to get the much wanted and much spoken about compensation due to us for the monumental maritime disaster caused in around our shores when the X-Press went down.
Our government and all those departments and ministries responsible had ample time to make a water tight claim to make the compensation 1claim to the right place. The best available brains and talent to deal with this complex problem involving a host of subjects including the ecology, marine biology, shipwrecks, the law of the sea, maritime laws and whatever else should have been organized to fight our case.
The moment the disaster occurred, all concerned should have acted with single minded dedication to make a strong claim for compensation. Much video and other evidence of the damage done is available. All of us are aware of the shoals of fish, turtles and other sea creatures that died and were washed ashore and the plastic and oil pollution of our beaches. Some of those creatures that died live for over 100 years.
What we saw on our shore post-disaster was a heartbreaking sight. I don’t think it’s possible to assess the ecological damage done in monetary terms. The plastic nurdles the ship has been washed as far as Matara and it is said the acid pollution caused will be with us for a century. Fishermen have suffered great hardship by the loss of catch.
The case filed is being heard in Singapore. I hope the verdict will temper justice with mercy. The damage and misery suffered through no fault of ours is untold.
Padmini Nanayakkara, Colombo-3.
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