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Devi Balika Vidyalaya: a remarkable story heading for a catastrophic end?

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by Jayanthi Edirisinghe

(nee Witanachchi), Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya

The current developments about the future of Devi Balika Vidyalaya, Borella, are heartbreaking to any student who passed through its portals. The Colombo Telegraph of May 2, 2021 reports of “alleged efforts to shift a reputed all–girls’ school situated in Colombo-8 to a new location outside Colombo city limits”.

This no doubt refers to Devi Balika Vidyalaya in Borella. The underlying story is that it stands on prime land coveted commercially in the present context of rocketing land value. A multi-millionaire has proposed to donate 100 million LKR to the school to develop a new facility for the A/L science stream by shifting it to a new location elsewhere.

Devi Balika Vidyalaya, founded in 1953, is a government school with Dr. (Mrs.) Wimala de Silva appointed as the founder principal. The school at its inception was named Government Girl’s College, Castle Street and later as Devi Balika Vidyalaya, the first school in Sri Lanka to emulate the noble Vihara Maha Devi concept.  In establishing Devi Balika, the vision was to produce such brave females whom the country would be proud of. Such was the foresight of the founders of Devi Balika that had a humble beginning with classes conducted from Grade 9-12 for a student body of 53 girls with five teachers.

The school presently stands on a land area of 2.5 hectares. Right in front of the school is the Borella cemetery or Kanatta, that gave rise to its popular name– ‘Kanatta Central’ by students in boys schools. At the inception of the school, it had classes from Grade nine to 12, and in later years, more grades were added on up to Grade six to accommodate students who have successfully passed the Grade 5 Scholarship Examination. A hostel was established in 1997 with the help of alumni to house scholarship students who entered the school from distant places. Their presence added a new dimension to the school, giving a new life to bright children from remote schools.

I was fortunate to be admitted to Devi Balika in 1962 on passing the entrance test to the school. I had to leave my former school, a leading Buddhist school in the outskirts of Colombo that did not teach especially zoology as it involved dissection of animals. Hence, students intending to do medicine and allied sciences left for either Visakha or Devi Balika.

Going to Devi Balika was a whole new experience for me and a turning point in my life. There I met girls of different ethnic backgrounds; Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, of different religions; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Catholic and students from different social backgrounds, all of whom are friends to date. The strong friendship bonds made at a very tender age with girls of similar ages but of different backgrounds was what is unique about Devi Balika Vidyalaya, not seen in any other leading government girls school in Sri Lanka even today.

Even the teachers at Devi were multi-ethnic and multi-religious. I vividly remember our English teacher, whom we all loved then and even now, who taught us not only English but many lessons in life. She was a newly graduated young, pretty Muslim lady, well known in society today. The chemistry teacher, yet another young fair lady who wore a black ‘pottu’ on her forehead was admired by us for her beauty, colourful sarees and the way she taught the subject.

Our zoology teacher wore a huge red ‘pottu’on her forehead but spoke flawless Sinhala. These teachers along with many other Sinhala teachers who taught other subjects moved in harmony. The teacher’s room was full of chatter and a variety of sweet meats of several ethnic origins during the tea interval. Such was the setup at Devi Balika Vidyalaya where a truly cosmopolitan society existed.

Of the extra-curricular activities, Girl Guiding needs special mention. Late Mrs. Venetia Gamage who was our very first class teacher at Devi was our biology teacher and the teacher in charge of Guiding. Training under her as a Girl Guide added a new dimension to us then and even now. She inspired me to be what I am today- a biologist by profession. The school thus gave us the opportunity and confidence to trust, befriend and help all communities in Sri Lanka. That friendship, which we are proud of was carried through life, passed on to our children and even to grandchildren, a feature unique to Devians. 

The discipline and the good qualities that Dr. Wimala de Siva inculcated in us made us balanced citizens and professionals. In my working life at the university, I have taught undergraduates of all ethnic, religious and social backgrounds. I guided many of them through research to earn their postgraduate degrees and they later joined universities and research institutes here and abroad. They carry the spirit that was kindled in me at Devi Balika. The school may not have produced leading politicians, but certainly professions and mothers that society can be proud of.   

 

The current scene

The world now is a different place compared to what my generation experienced as school children. We are at a stage in human history where people, degrees and many other things in life can be bought for money. Tragically, we see that even schools can be bought. A well-structured school on the lines of equality and equanimity geared to produce many generations of responsible girls, who later become mothers and professionals cannot be compared to a commercial venture that may even be a gamble under the prevailing Covid-19 context.

More than half a century has elapsed since the school was founded. Sri Lanka is gifted with thousands of patriotic, talented and skilled daughters dedicated to duty and service to their motherland, who have brought fame to their school in return. If the school is shifted to a new location (even in part) it will no longer be the same. The children that pass through the new gates will not be the same. The teachers would no more be the same and would not have the same enthusiasm.

It will be a slow death to the‘ Kanatta Central’ if it has to leave the Kanatta area. The saying goes that the location of Devi Balika is testimony to our journey in life, starting near the Castle Street Maternity Hospital in Borella and ending near the Borella Kanatta. What is going to happen to the school under the present circumstances is unclear. As the Buddhist saying goes, aniccavata sankara – all things are impermanent,

As the Devi motto goes –

“Manasa Sanvutha Dheera – They who are restrained in mind are wise”, I appeal to all Devians to be restrained and cautious at this hour of need. We need to save our school from this great calamity by peaceful means.

On behalf of all Devians, I appeal to the First Lady of this country to save this unique leading all Girls school in Colombo from impending catastrophe.



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New Trend of Defeated Democracy

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One does not know whether Minister Udaya Gammanpila is enjoying his time of special prominence with the SLPP Secretary calling for his resignation and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya moving a vote of No Confidence in him.

The cause for his delight must be that the price of oil remains at the new high levels that were announced by him. He will certainly go down in history as one who replaced the Rajapaksas in leadership on a national issue of importance. Gotabaya, Mahinda, Chamal and Namal are all in the background on the fuel price hike – this is the Gammanpila Gift to the people, not the Rajapaksa curse, when they are trapped in burdens of the Covid pandemic.

The price of fuel is the stuff of governance. Gammanpila has shown how well he can burden the people with a huge fuel price hike. A new trend in fuel price politics was seen in the statement by the smaller parties of the SLPP government that opposed the SLPP Secretary’s call for Gammanpila to resign. Among them were members of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the Communist Party and the Democratic Left Front. Three left parties that were definitely not against the rise in fuel prices, and the hardships it will cause the people.

Just try to keep alive in your memories how the old left parties – LSSP and CP – with Vasudeva aligned with them, being strongly opposed to burdens imposed on the people. That is the fading history of the Left. What we now have is the Saubhagyaye Thel Mila, the Prosperity and Splendour of a Fuel Price Hike.

The new Thel Mila is the garnish on the dish of the people cooked with the banning of chemical fertilizer imports. There will soon be more of such painful decorations for the people of this not so pearly island.

While the Thel Mila will keep making its inroads into the lives of people with a Gas price hike, the rise in prices of vegetables, rice, flour and all other food, and essential clothes too, Gammanpila will dance, seeing how much he has progressed in crooked politics, forgetful of his past records in law and order.

There is a different joy that we are entitled to enjoy with the Court of Appeal allowing the application for bail by Shani Abeysekera, former head of the CID, and another police officer held in detention for nearly ten months. This has certainly strengthened our faith in the higher judiciary just as the Supreme Court saw to it that 25 clauses of the Port City Bill that were in violation of the Constitution were removed.

The details of that judgment by the Court of Appeal, not fully reported in the media, shows a very dangerous trend in the activities of the police and the authorities on governance, with complete disregard for the rights of the people, or Human Rights, that is an increasing topic of political manoeuvre.

The release of Abeysekera and the other police officer brings into focus the other issue that is the burden of governance in Sri Lanka today. It is the passage of a resolution by the European Parliament, with a huge majority, that consideration be given to the withdrawal of the GSP-plus facility for imports from Sri Lanka if important changes are not carried out to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and this country acts in compliance with international agreements it has signed of the principles of the Rule of Law.

Let’s just bring back to our knowledge the full name of this Act. It is the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1976. Why are we hanging on to all the temporary provisions of this law, passed at a time when the temporary provisions were necessary?

In a fast changing world on issues of the rights of the people, whether it is the Black Lives Matter in the US and Europe too, and the rights of women and children that require constant updating, as well as the rights of workers that are moving away from the days of colonial dominance, should we not update our legislation on matters that relate to humans, as well as animals too.

If we have as a democratic country – that we keep boasting about despite the 20th Amendment to the Constitution – signed so many international agreements relating to Human Rights and principles of justice by several governments, should we keep talking about issues of sovereignty, when the call is to fall in line with recognized international norms of Justice, Law and Order, and Human Values?

It is time to bear in mind that the denial of GSP-plus to Sri Lanka, will hardly affect the business sector that owns the garment industries – who can always go to other countries; but the several thousand workers in our garment factories. Why are we making so many adjustments to the ‘lockdown’ rules to keep these factories working? Is it not because of the foreign exchange they bring to the national treasury, coffers being emptied each day. We cannot afford to lose the benefits of GSP-plus, which will drive thousands out of employment and the country to much worse than it is today.

It is time to bear in mind that Udaya Gammanpila would bring no solution at all to the GSP-plus issue. It is time to go much beyond Gammanpila politics of today!

Come next week, Gammanpila will be largely replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe. That is the new emerging politics. What a fine democracy we have, when a party leader whose party of political history was wholly defeated at the last general election, without even a single elected member – including himself, is appointed to the National List and crept back into Parliament.

Are we moving to the new trend of Defeated Democracy, whether fuel prices, Gammanpila or Wickremesinghe?

 

 

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Prominent Persons in society

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I saw a letter in the newspapers the other day purported to be from “prominent persons” in society. Now every single person in that collective had appended their signature and it was virtually a directive to the President to follow certain instructions issued by these people. Firstly, there was no detailed plan just instructions to do as “we say”. Secondly, I was left wondering as to how one becomes a “PROMINENT PERSON”? If you have held down a government job, not achieving anything of any consequence for your entire working life, or wormed and slimed your way through the mercantile sector to the detriment of countless dozens of your fellow workers, does that make you prominent? Furthermore, can you appoint yourself as a prominent person? Should you not be recognised by an established and more importantly a credible body, preferably with international credentials? What happens in a failed state? Are prominent people prominent failures? Heartfelt apologies to our Dear Mr. Haniffa, purveyor of all knowledge logical to the Royalists of my era!

Now, I am not saying all those prominent persons who had signed that letter fitted the above description. No doubt there are people who have been of great service to the Pearl and even the world. My point of contention is why have they got to call themselves prominent people? Of course (in my opinion) it is a clear indication of their ineffectuality, the fact that they have not included any plan how to get a hold of the number of vaccines required not to mention how to administer them and circumnavigate the inherent, corrupt system that is in place. Maybe their prominence would be better established if they could use their “prominence” and in some cases, international credibility, to get some doses of the vaccine by ensuring fair distribution of same? Rather than simply issue directives (probably in a feeble attempt to assuage their consciences’ and maintain their prominence in their own estimation), they should offer to get involved or better still abandon their refuge in academia and put forward some practical ideas on how to ensure fair distribution. These are undoubtedly (in some cases) some of the best minds left in our country, surely, they can come up with a plan? If they can’t can a bunch of barely O’-level-qualified parliamentarians and army officers do better? To venture into the ridiculous, if the aforementioned members of parliament (read as the scum of the earth) do come up with a plan does that make them “PROMINENT”!

On the subject of what is published in the newspapers and featured on the web of the Pearl, it seems like the discarded leader of the Yahapalanaya regime, and I say this because even if he wasn’t on paper (or prominence) the leader, he was and certainly should have been, Ranil Wickremesinghe is beginning to worry “the powers that be”, again. Virulent descriptions of him and his supposed perversions in the form of a crudely worded obituary is doing the rounds. Surely, all those who condemned him in all possible ways CANNOT be thinking “could we have been wrong”? The two-thirds of the oh so “literate” voter base who gave a clear majority to an established cohort of robber barons to take over and continue to decimate their country, couldn’t be wrong? The “prominent citizens” who either stayed silent or actively promoted this electoral result with nothing but selfish ulterior motives couldn’t be admitting to the fallibility of their “judgment”? BTW another petrol price increase, the super cars that are being imported for the MP’s will help finish the petrol and thereby leave less petrol for the people to waste their money on! Another referral to the convoluted logic of today that also decrees that printing money will have no effect on inflation.

I see a typically innocuous statement from the Covid reprieved leader of the opposition, saying that he would donate his shots of the vaccine to the people of the country. One wonders if this statement has had input from his advisor on foreign affairs! Is there any use of vaccines for someone who has already had the disease? The answer is pretty obvious even to this “unprominent” person. Therefore, the grandiose and dramatic statement that this doubtful specimen of humanity, will not be vaccinated until every last citizen of his beloved country is vaccinated falls into the category of unadulterated excreta of a bullock, as does most of the other things he says.

When the prominent citizens of this country survey the aforesaid alternatives for leaders in their motherland. The selection between robber barons, retired army officers, and moronic parliamentarians, leaves the purportedly sexually deviant well in the lead, doesn’t it? I must admit that I never ever thought that this line of reasoning would ever be activated!

The inquiry into who was really responsible for the Easter massacre, the strong words of the Cardinal and any possible action by the Attorney General seem to have been swept under the carpet by the various diversions that have either been put into place or that have fallen into place, due to the “curse of Kuveni” that dogs the past present and future of our beloved ex-pearl of the Indian ocean. It is up to the people of the country to make up their own minds, based on the available evidence and at least now decide, not to allow people with even a semblance of doubt attached to them, anywhere near the seats of power. That is assuming they get another chance in the form of another democratic election. The possibility of which does not look too good at present!

Meanwhile the G7 countries have been enjoying a great beach party in Cornwall that extremely picturesque part of England and during the two days of summer that England enjoys, to boot! No Aotearoa NZ at the party, but we are having our own having thrashed England at test cricket and all the Aussie rugby franchises in the trans-Tasman super rugby tournament. I guess parties do happen and the games must go on, regardless of the situation?

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Journal mention is not fame but infamy; ‘reversed’ is not ‘cancelled’; public figures shown up

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In this time of natural disasters and government’s omissions and commissions; a leaky burning ship surreptitiously invited to seek haven just outside our Colombo Port for money considerations, destroying our wonderful sea and life in it for a hundred years, one hugs little bits of normalcy that intrude joyfully our woeful state. Such was my emotion when I opened my front door on Friday 11 June and saw The Island newspaper in crisp print lying there waiting to be read. I actually hugged it as I would a lost child. So many of us newspaper readers yearned for paper copy. You could read on-line but there’s nothing like holding a newspaper in hand.

 

Oo-la-la! Featured in The Economist

Yes, yes, Sri Lanka has got a column in the British Economist, one of the most prestigious of weeklies. It is not about our economy (sinking) or C19 spread (exponential) or being the first country to ban chemical fertilizers (disastrous in its overnight implementation). It’s mainly about a slip of a girl with strident voice and apparent clout with high ups, and other pluses we suppose which to us Ordinaries are deplorable minuses. I quote part of the article for you to enjoy or curl your noses in disgust at how low we are sinking as a nation. I must add I could not believe that the Economist would devote half a page to this but verifying, found it was The Brit weekly. Here below are excerpts with title intact.

 

Push the boat out: An influencer’s rant overshadows an ecological disaster in Sri Lanka “Influence” is, after all, part of the job description

The Economist 12 June 2021

“For two weeks an inferno blazed on the X-Press Pearl, a container ship off Sri Lanka’s western coast. Its cargo—everything from frozen fish to hazardous chemicals and tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles—burned up or spilled into the ocean. Eventually, on June 2nd, the ship sank. Nurdles and other debris are washing up on beaches. Hard questions have been asked about why the vessel, which was known to have a leaky container of acid, was allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters.

“But naturally all that many Sri Lankans have discussed for the past week is Piumi Hansamali, a 28-year-old model and actress. On the same day that the ship sank, police in the capital, Colombo, bundled Ms Hansamali and more than a dozen other people into an old bus and drove them to Passara, a distant village, for a compulsory two-week quarantine. Ms Hansamali had earlier been arrested and released on bail for attending a birthday party on May 30th for Chandimal Jayasinghe, a beautician and beauty-pageant impresario, in a five-star hotel, in violation of a lockdown that started in the middle of May.

“Ms Hansamali, an accomplished social-media influencer …. heaped wrath on a television journalist who had urged police to punish the revellers (he later complained to police of death threats). ….allegations later emerged that Sarath Weerasekera, the public-security minister, had ordered the bus to turn round so that its occupants could pick up clothes, the maritime disaster was all but forgotten. On June 5th a local news website wryly noted that searches on Google for Ms Hansamali and Mr Jayasinghe far exceeded those for the sunken ship. Ms Hansamali, for her part, made the best of a bad situation and took to posting pictures on Instagram of her quarantine digs”The episode reflects a deeper unhappiness with the government’s enforcement of lockdown rules. For days before the bus incident, police had cracked down on violators, in some cases physically carrying them off the streets. But the partygoers were detained only after pressure from the media. Nor was the hotel punished for allowing the bash. Three recent deaths in custody—including one on June 6th, in which a man seeking food for his family was detained for breaching travel restrictions and died after falling from a police vehicle—have sharpened the sense of double standards. Mr Weerasekera addressed Parliament two days later, to defend himself against allegations that he gave Ms Hansamali special treatment after she called him.

… Ms Hansamali and her friends may have meant to cause the government grief. In reality they did the opposite.” The imputations are important.

That is this resplendent Island of yesterday, now decadent. But the humour of social media keeps the people going and unintended jollification in Parliament where in apposition to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who earns respect, his argumentative co-Parliamentarian Sarath Weerasekera has earned a new sobriquet to precede his first name. It sticks in Cass’ throat as ribald but that is the way this land like no others goes. He earned it for being considerate to Hansamali’s need for fresh underwear!

Remember a film starlet garnered more manapes than Karu Jaysuriya and at her first press interview said she knew nothing of the legislature and its rules. When rioting MPs of the Opp took over Parliament when Sirisena turned traitorous and ousted PM Ranil W, Pavitradevi of peni and mutti fame was the loudest rioter beside Johnston and company. Aney, now Health Minister! That’s Sri Lanka for you.

 

The intelligent and knowledgeable write on current matters

The Sunday Island of 13 June also came out in favoured paper/print copy. And it contained excellent reading on present matters. The eminent group led by Prof Savitri Goonesekera dealt with the misappropriation of Covid A-Z vaccine from those who rightly deserved the second dose. Chandra Jayaratne went deeper into this matter in his article “‘Fraud on a Power’- exercised in Vaccinations Management?” listing methodically cases of mismanagement. Sarala Fernando brought to light the help given by USAID to us and further help like free A-Z vaccines to be send by the government under Biden’s order. The Editor succinctly dealt with the “Aftermath of X-Press Pearl.” What had Cass calculating and getting tied up in Rs and dollars and not knowing whether the ship compensation to come would be in USDs or Singapore. But one thing hit her so it knocked her off balance and sent her almost reeling: The compensation for a hundred years of disastrous damage to the seas around us, a fertile resource to this island nation, is 50 M while the luxury cars ordered by the Prime Minister and readily and greedily rubber stamped by the Cabinet would cost us (we tax paying Ordinaries) 3 B. I had a banker help me in my calculations but the 50 M converted to rupees from USD was still totally inadequate payment to us and actually disproportionate to what was to be spent on luxury cars for fat MPS: 225 MPs, 399 cars.

 

Gentlemen meet, ladies included

Cass turned away from the degradation that is over here and listened with delight to BBC World News and saw wonderful pictures of Farnmouth, Cornwall, and Biden and other G7 leaders. No one can accuse Nan of being Suud savvy. See how civilly they sat at a round table and discussed seriously Covid recovery/ stronger global health systems; climate change; and trade. They have committed to handing over millions of vaccines to poorer countries. Chair Boris Johnson, coined their slogan of ‘Build Better Back’ which Biden adroitly directed to countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Cass particularly liked seeing merciful, sane Biden and teacher-wife meet the Royal Family; so gracious on both sides and so very civilized as against our mess and bits of partying fluff that even the Economist comments on as symptomatic of what prevails in this now cursed and battered island. The girl will boast being featured in an international journal little realizing the connotation she is mentioned in. This is the brash new type of young woman we are burdened with against all the beautiful, intelligent young adults we have.

 

Bright spark of news

That brightest star of Sri Lanka has yet again brought fame to the country. Kumar Sangakkara has been inducted to the ICC Hall of Fame, joining the other deserved Sri Lankan star already there – Muthiah Muralitharan. These two are definitely the greatest and both from Kandy, if you please. The accompanying thought is of how despicably the sports minister of then, Aluthgamage, and many on SLC Board badgered and bullied Sangakkara particularly when he was lauded overseas, particularly in Britain. This is why Cass is willing even to be stoned for an idea expressed which is a TRUTH. Class, upbringing at home and school, breeding and even caste hold good to sieve grain from the gross; the decent from dross.

All balanced Sri Lankans congratulate Sangha. We love and admire him.

A PS about Aluthgamage. Cass was told over the phone that the Anniewatte residents were all geared up to receive first vaccination at Kandy High School premises, tented and all, when a call of cancellation came through. Supposedly Minister Aluthgamage had appropriated the vaccines and hijacked them to Nawalapitiya or some such. Don’t believe Cass; please verify, then vilify.

 

Flash news:

The decision to import luxury vehicles for MPs has been reversed said Rambukwella. That probably means postponed, as this Minister himself said earlier the order could not be cancelled. MPs and others are not going to give up so easily on yet another perk.

Flash Comment:

We Ordinaries will never forget this heinous crime which was planned to be executed while the country was in dire straits on several fronts.

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