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Cabinet and State Ministers assume duties having us the people watching them

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Yes, local TV news channels have all shown daily clips of most of the newly appointed Cabinet Ministers and State Ministers set to develop our clay, batik, spices and what-have-you small industries assume official duties. Buddhist monks were escorted hither and thither to chant pirith. Family members in their finery stand close, admiringly watching the Successful One place his signature. VIPs of Cabinet rank visited other Ministers and State Minister on their respective ‘assume official duties’ ceremonies. Methought, says Cassandra, ceremonies and ceremonial decoration i. e. flippancies, were to be eliminated since with the Prez a workaholic, expectations were that his appointed Ministers would get down to grips with their allocated ministries/duties with no song and dance. Cass aches with boredom and annoyance when advertisements jut into teledramas she couch-potatoes herself to enjoy, but during this season of assuming duties, she even welcomed that absurdest of absurd ad of a man descending steps backwards, being drooled over by lovelies and then traveling backward in a fast car to shave himself with a razor, leering!

But seriously, though quips and jokes are making their rounds along the grapevine and through the ether about a State Minister for ‘meti’ works and another for batik dyeing, there is sense in this innovation. Most of the products and small industries receiving State Ministers are potential moneymakers so they are given authoritative Heads to money-spin by wringing the workers in the various sectors. People say it is going to be a sort of Disce Aut Discede – show results or be made to depart. Jolly good! No mere warming of comfortable seats in plush offices. One ex-Minister with many allegations pending had even a bed in a private section of his office in the ministry building. Was it a double bed by chance?

Tongue held firmly leashed

Cassandra’s week for comment runs from Wednesday to Tuesday, hence she did not comment on the selection of Cabinet and State Ministers in her previous ‘cry’. She dare not comment this week either except to say most of the choice seems to be that of the Prime Minister. Those who stayed loyal to him through thick and thin were again rewarded with ministries. Disappointingly, few bright new faces! Hence Cass’ comment when she saw the two group photographs splashed in the daily papers of C Ministers and S Ministers was: the same old tired faces. The world ‘tired’ refers to her sentiment. There sat the very old who would perhaps be more comfy in a rocking chair or cushioned setee and some faces who, she thought, would be out for past acts. For instance, with all the rumpus and unpleasant waves sent across internationally too via a made-up story (dare not say blatant lie) about match-fixing and casting a slur on our honourable ‘gentlemen in white flannels’, the rumour monger is back as a Cabinet Minister! Methought, again says Cass, malicious lies and fake news was punishable and not rewardable. Ah well! We are Sri Lankans, no? In a Land like No Other.

Talking as Cass has done so far about assuming duties very publicly, she was tickled pink and blue and loved the irony of the situ to see on page 1 of The Island of Wednesday 19 August, two sets of pictures. One was of (to quote) “Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, Shashi arriving at the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s court where a case was taken up yesterday against her for using forged documents to obtain a passport.” Now that is the legally wedded spouse of one of our most important Cabinet Ministers who not only assumed duties before media cameras but was even seen to deign visiting other ceremonial work-starting by cabinet colleagues and State Ministers. Shashi in the picture is in full white. Even attorneys-at–law attending court now wear pastel shaded saris. So is she mourning the death of a close relative? Not that we know of. Shoot! Must be for that friend of her son or daughter who died in their home of a heart condition, young as he was.

The other photograph that can be classed black humour was the faces of Premalal and Chandrakanthan with the caption: “Among those scheduled to take oaths as lawmakers tomorrow (20) are Premalal Jayasekera and S… Chandrakanthan a.k.a Pilliyan, currently held in Welikada and Batticaloa prisons respectively” for no less crimes than MURDER. So that is the state of our voters who voted supposed-to-be criminals to our august, almost sacred Parliament.

Cheerful news

Investigative journalism in this land is commendable and deserves praise. TV One of the Maharaja Organisation is one such TV Channel. Even before the power cut of more than seven hours on Monday 17 August was over, their report on the power situation/ CEB was compiled and we heard the detailed report on their 9.00 p m news. Great!

The Face the Nation programme

on Monday 9.30 p m onwards is also highly commendable as it is spot on and the convenor/interviewer is totally unprejudiced and the journalists present acute in their questioning. This last Monday had the discussion focused on whether it would be a revision of the entire Constitution or only the introduction of the 20th Amendment. But the most time was spent on the issue of women.

The evening’s convenor, Nadim Majeed, showed himself to be a very competent substitute for the inimitably excellent Shameer Rasooldeen. Panelists were Attorney-at-Law Canishka Vithanage (SLPP), Lihini Fernando – Member of Moratuwa Municipal Council (SJB) and Mahesh Senanayake – defeated UNP candidate for Kandy in the recent elections.

Cass admits that she was so disinterested in appointment of the new Cabinet that it did not strike her there was no Ministry for Women and Child Welfare. Shocking, she realized as Lihini spoke during the programme. Vithanage manouevered this way and that in trying to say the State Ministry for Women was of equal status et al to a Cabinet Ministry; rather annoyingly. But this fact remains: women and children have been downgraded as issues of concern 52% + children of population. Another fact pinpointed was that there was only one woman Cabinet Minister among 28, so far appointed.

Heartening snippet from the UK

In the midst of turmoil in other countries and huge question marks in our own, the commitment of individuals sent in a ray of sunshine of hope. Cass listened to BBC HARDtalk on Monday 10 August when Chris Packham, naturalist and wildlife campaigner, one of UK’s best known naturalists spoke in his vast home garden pointing out the weeds and grasses as vegetation to be protected and said that the protection of animals and vegetation was of immense importance if we wanted the Earth to continue maintaining life on it. One do-away-with act was consumer consumption so gross in developed countries, contributing to poverty in others. He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism, a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, but is dedicated to selective issues such as the environment and protection of species, even weeds. We have our own naturalists fighting for our elephants, leopards and forests but we are still to see the Act to Animal Rights passed. It is hoped the new Parliament will pass this long awaited Act.

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Disturbing Sinharaja’s natural  balance: a layperson’s viewpoint

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by Gnana Moonesinghe

This is written as a tribute to my friend Dr Upen de Zylva who passed away a few days ago and who throughout his life had an abiding interest in nature – in all things related to flora and fauna. He was greatly disturbed by the human invasion into the natural habitat of heritage sites such as the Sinharaja forest reserve.

There have lately been several references to elephant attacks and those of other wild animals such as packs of wild fox on villagers as well as the unpredictable climate changes   making life difficult in the rural countryside. In long gone times, though within the recall of older people,  nature played out her course unhampered by human interference.  

The recent revival of interest  in  eco balance  in  Sri Lanka arose as a consequence of the government’s move to construct a  road through the Sinharaja  Forest Reserve. Back in 2013 the then Government began to construct a road inside the protected area. This was short lived consequent to legal action by the Centre for Environmental and Nature Protection.  However, in August 2020 the project was recommenced by the newly installed government and the construction assigned to the military.   Environmentalists and lay people  are greatly disturbed by this project which entails the movement of heavy machinery and the felling of trees within the Reserve for construction of the road which would both disturb the environment.  

The unique position of the Sinharaja is that UNESCO  has declared it to be the ‘last viable primary rain forest’ here while it is also referred to as the ‘icon of biodiversity conservation’ in Sri Lanka. The Sinharaja forest is located in the south west in the district of Sabaragamuwa and the Southern Province. Around 60% of the trees found here are endemic and many of them are considered rare. Many species of wildlife is endemic to this place. It gains its unique position among forest reserves as it is home to over half of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies and many kinds of insects, reptiles and amphibians. Many endangered and rare species are found here including leopard, Indian elephant, endemic purple faced langur, wood pigeon, green billed coucal, SL white headed starling, SL blue magpie, ash headed baller and SL’s broad  billed roller.

It is essential that encroachment of the forest for cultivation like tea plantations, settlements and disturbance to the environment due to road construction should not be permitted because it will affect its unique situation as a forest reserve. Does not this Reserve require protection from the authorities  in order to secure its bio diversity?

At present, the consternation is over the road  construction from Lankagama to Neluwa, expected to be completed in 90 days without ‘harming the environment.’ Is this a realistic expectation? Experts claim that there is no way that this road can be constructed  without disturbing much of the environment in the reserve. That it is necessary to preserve the biodiversity in the reserve for healthy development and for dealing with climate change is a given and beyond question.  The government should consider alternatives  to help those living on the fringe of the reserve without affecting its balance which benefits the entire region as well as the rest of the world. Is it possible or feasible to seek alternatives to support the villages already in the Reserve?

These issues are raised not on a confrontational note but to elicit information on what is considered a matter of great concern to the mass of people living in this country (and planet) for reasons I hope have been convincingly presented above. May the Right to Information Act be invoked to the maximum to elicit information on this invasive action that is popularly considered  a disturbance to the peace of the Reserve.  

We expect no less than a frank response from this popularly elected government which will clear the air between the UNESCO authorities and the Lankan government as well as respond to the numerous  rumors that are circulating at the moment.  An urgent response from the Presidential Secretariat is in order.

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National Skills Passport spurs long term skills planning

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– A gateway to find suitable jobs, the newly launched National Skills Passport facilitates easier matching of skills for future employment while promoting Sri Lanka as a skills destination.

By Randima Attygalle

A project between the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) and the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Colombo Office, the ‘National Skills Passport’ (NSP) was launched recently. It is a new and a progressive concept introduced locally by means of a smart card (similar to a passport) issued to a skilled person having NVQ (The National Vocational Qualifications) along with at least one year of confirmed related employment experience.

The card is connected to a dedicated online portal (www.nsp.gov.lk ) which links up multiple stakeholders including employees, employers, qualification body and labour market intermediaries by collating the passport holder’s skills, expertise and experience. The NSP is expected to serve a long standing issue of recognition of skilled workmanship with certified experience through a central web-based online database.  The NSP smart card carries a QR code for convenient search online.

Essentially a ‘gateway’ to find suitable jobs, accessing reskilling and upskilling opportunities locally and internationally, NSP is an extension of the NVQ qualification awarded by NAITA, (National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority) says the Director General (Actg.), TVEC, Ministry of Skills Development, Employment and Labour Relations, Janaka Jayalath.

“Those who are already holding NVQ, returning migrants and those who have been serving various industries with no formal paper qualifications can reap benefits of the NSP. Those seeking what is known as the ‘mature candidate route’ (people with ten or more years of work/industry experience without formal qualification) can also access NSP,” explains Jayalath.

While candidates who are already equipped with NVQ, irrespective of the level of NVQ can directly apply for NSP, other categories are required to first obtain NVQ through Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) pathway.

“A candidate can apply to obtain relevant NVQ from a basket of around 500 National Competency Standards (NCS) packages listed in the TVEC website (www.tvec.gov.lk) and we are currently working towards introducing NCS for traditional Sri Lankan industries which do not fall within this basket as means of giving more muscle to the rural economy by recognizing the traditional Sri Lankan skills,” he notes.

A ‘virtual document’ which records the knowledge, skills and attitudes of a worker through the TVEC’s online portal (www.nsp.gov.lk) , the system enables the job seekers to create a comprehensive portfolio of skills and qualifications, along with their references and experience, ensuring compatibility with various skills assessment frameworks. It also serves the purpose of creating an online standard CV which is a more detailed synopsis than a normal resume giving clear, concise and up-to-date information with current employment and educational information.  The CV system in the NSP is benchmarked with the ‘Euro Pass’, an online CV tool for EU countries. The local initiative of the NSP is a trendsetter in the region which we can take pride in.

Recognizing the informally acquired knowledge, skills and competencies, the NSP also becomes a catalyst in helping the retuning migrants to reintegrate themselves to the local work force. The returning migrants, as Jayalath explains, can seek recognition of their prior learning and obtain NVQ through NAITA which is the prerequisite for NSP.

“The NSP is a vehicle to serve the needs of migrant returnee jobseekers such as construction workers, auto-mechanics, beauticians, cooks etc. This initiative will also help attract migrant returnee workers to industries such as construction, which are currently facing a high demand, with inadequate local workers to bridge the gap.”

Other categories of migrant workers such as automobile mechanics who wish to start their own small/micro enterprises can also benefit by NSP as valid proof of their competencies and thereby help obtain bank loans and build credibility among the customers. Self-employed persons in different skill related occupations can prove their qualifications and experience by producing this smart card and employers or the service recipients could verify those competencies through this system.

The NSP also spares the employers of the hassle of searching for a talent pool with certified skills and authenticated experience which in turn saves the time and cost spent on recruitment. Moreover, it unlocks access to workers with international exposure as well. “Employers could eventually identify the up-skilling and re-skilling requirements of an employee which will help career progression and also labour mobility,” says Jayalath who notes that TVEC takes the full responsibility for the candidates registered with them via the NSP.

The initiative also supports the Government’s long-term skills planning for the economy and facilitates easier matching of skills base for future employment creation.  The system also supports to track the employability of the NVQ holders with up-to-date database.   In a move to create awareness at community level on the new initiative, TVEC has galvanized its network of Skills Development Assistants, regional industrial forums and District Coordinating Committees (DCC) at District Secretariats.

The ‘skills passport’ which is a concept proposed by the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC), is an important means to empower all Lankans irrespective of whether they work locally or overseas says the EFC’s Director General, Kanishka Weerasinghe. “The EFC will firmly support state policies implemented through the Ministries of Education and Skills Development and the relevant institutions that function thereunder in order to establish and sustain the National Skills Database. This will finally enable us to promote our country as a skills destination, doing justice to our people and their status as being highly literate and educated. In fact, the ultimate common objective is to ensure that every citizen entering the workforce, at least by 2035, to be certified in their skills and be registered in the database.”

Aside from establishing a reliable means of understanding and addressing the relentless issues relating to dearth of skills, the country could focus on aligning the domestic education policies to create more opportunities in ‘growth industries’ to spur the economy including those which are nationally important such as agriculture, Weerasinghe further says. “It is hoped that certification of skills including the recognition of prior learning will be a boon to workers of all ages, particularly to young job seekers. Similarly, we hope that the ‘mutual recognition’ aspect of the ‘skills passport’ will also enable our people to be recognized in their skills when they seek overseas employment and ensure that they are placed to obtain better status and terms by their overseas employers.”

The EFC’s DG goes on to note that as responsible employers they are mindful of the schemes that link skills to wages, which will also lead to sustainable outcomes for employers such as availability of skilled employees locally and be a solution to issues such as those associated with low productivity. Moreover, standardization of education in terms of NVQ will be a win-win to those aspiring to enter the workforce as well as educational institutions, maintains Weerasinghe.

Remarking that developing people’s skills is a core area of ILOs work, the ILO Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Simrin Singh notes, “Skills Passport is an innovative endeavour to not only develop but to recognize people’s skills. The ILO is delighted to have supported the development of the Skills Passport from the very onset; now fully owned and driven by local employers and government constituents”.

The first-ever National Skills Passport (NSP) programme in the plantations industry was initiated by the Hayleys Plantations Sector, setting a new benchmark for human resource development. Hundred field officers representing Talawakelle Tea Estates (TTEL), Kelani Valley Plantations (KVPL) and Horana Plantations (HPL) were selected for the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) which is the gateway to the NSP.

“When skills development is combined with technology, we are able to create powerful new opportunities. As an organization that has won global acclaim for our efforts to raise the quality of living for our employees, Hayleys Plantations is proud to have been the first to support our employees in joining a digitally empowered workforce and helping innovate new solutions to resolve long-standing challenges in our industry and the national economy as a whole,” Managing Director of Hayleys Plantations, Dr. Roshan Rajadurai says.

Field officers selected for the scheme possess a minimum of one year of experience in the field and are evaluated by NAITA for both theoretical and practical aspects in preliminary and final evaluation rounds. Once the evaluation process is complete, the respective staff member is issued a digital Skills Passport, which is a smart card with a QR code facilitating the convenient search of their skills online. 

“By producing field officers with NVQ qualifications, which is strengthened by them being awarded the first-ever Skills Passports, our innovative training and development drive recognized by several global and HR platforms is given more muscle,” HR and Corporate Sustainability General Manager of Kelani Valley Plantations, Anuruddha Gamage remarks.

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Vesak Sirisara – Buddhist Annual 2564/2020

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The first article in this annual is by Ven Siri Vajiraramaye Nanasiha Thera on ‘Taming the Animal Within’. He cites the Buddha in a sermon directed at a misbehaving monk when he compares unrestrained behaviour in man to six untamed animals and very effectively and succinctly points out that man’s six senses, if allowed to run unchecked, will surely cause untold damage to the man himself and to society in general. One of the strongest senses in a human, akin to animal instincts, is the sexual urge. It is necessary to gratify it for procreation and judiciously, but not by any means in an unrestrained manner. Of the six senses, the most difficult to hold in check is the mental faculty, identified by the Buddha as the forerunner of all good and evil.

K H J Wijedasa’s

‘Buddha Dhamma and Human Health’ is particularly apt in this time of raging infection. The article starts thus: “Even though the fundamental objective of Buddha Dhamma is to proclaim to humanity the way to release from the woes of Samsara, Buddha’s teachings include a multitude of guidelines that enable them to lead their mundane lives….”

Buddha declared “Arogya Parama Labha” and in its context guidelines for the preservation of environmental, physical and mental health were laid down, which are effective even at present. He enunciated ways to good health to those living monastic lives and to lay persons. The writer deals in detail on advice in the Buddha Dhamma on environmental health and physical and mental health of man. He mentions the benefit and power of meditation and ends with Kisa Gotami and how Buddha was a kind and concerned psychiatrist to her.

The other erudite articles you can choose from are:

‘Nature of Arahath’ by Prof N A de S Amaratunge; ‘Living the Dhamma’ by Asoka Jayasinghe; W A S Perera’s exposition of the Dhammachakkappvattana Sutta including a short biography of Kondanna Thera. More pragmatic are: ‘The importance of practicing generosity’ by Ven Ayagama Suseela Thera; ‘Be your own guru’ by Dr Susunage Weerapperuma; ‘The social service concept in Buddhist texts’ by Dr Leel Gunasaekera; and ‘Living the Dhamma’ by Asoka Mahinda Jayasinha. ‘Material phenomena and the mind’ by Dr Mass R Usuf; and ‘Pattica Samuppaada’ by Palitha Manchanayake are more in-depth studies of profound subject areas. Dr Usuf also contributed the concluding poem, which begins and ends with the cryptic:

“I know not …who am I!”

Chandra Wickramasinghe poetically explains the passing away of earthly glory headed by a Latin dictum: ‘Transit Gloria Mundi’ in which he poetically describes a cremation with flowers strewn from above. The inherent message is that all is unsubstantial; all end in death. This poem is somewhat different to most of Chandra’s poems with their allusions to the ancient classics and encapsulation of much into single words and phrases. The language here is simple.

Claudia Weeraperuma deals with Samatha –Tranquility in her poem.

Thus is seen the range of topics dealt with; and the balance of philosophical or esoteric in thought provoking articles along with the practical: translating Buddha’s advice on good lives and living graciously, striving to shorten samsaric existence.

Vesak Sirisara/ Buddhist Annual 2020 is in its 64th year of publication and free distribution, by the Government Services Buddhist Association whose current Editor is Neville Piyadigama; Assistant editor P Weerahandi. It is very commendable that a prestigious journal such as the Vesak Sirisara has continued its publication through the years with invaluable articles on Buddhism, by well known persons. This edition is dedicated to the memory of late Ven Dr K Sri Dhammananda Nayake Maha Thera of Malaysia.

The tranquility inducing beautiful cover design in soft shades of beige against a darker background is by Deepal Jayawardena who writes that it is a Ghandara statue of the first century BC; where the head of the Buddha shows Greek influence. The back cover carries a clear picture of the Dewanagala Raja Maha Viharaya in Mawanella.

N P Wanasundera

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