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Dr. Dharmawansa Senadhira: Rice breeder par Excellence




This is the 23rd anniversary of the shocking and tragic death of Dr. Dharmawansa Senadhira, Rice Breeder of excellence. The time was 5.15 p.m on that fateful day of 07th July, 1998. A group of around 40 scientists attending the Workshop on ” Evaluation and Dissemination of New Technologies for Increasing the production of Flood-prone Rice Lands of South of South and Southeast Asia”, on 8-9 July,1998, were returning to Dhaka in two buses, after a field trip to the research site at Kuliachan in Kishereganj district.

The two buses were swiftly plying on the Narsingdi-Dhaka Highway. Fatefully, one bus which was also carrying Dr. Dharmawansa Senadhira (Sena as we affectionately called him), who was the then leader of the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI’s) Flood-Prone Research Programme, was involved in an accident at Narsingdi about two hours from Dhaka. The bus driver had overtaken another vehicle, but had not completely returned to his lane, when he encountered a truck approaching from the opposite direction, reportedly driving on to the middle of the road. The bus driver tried to return to his lane, but did not completely clear out of the truck’s path.

The impact of the collision had loosened a long iron bar from the sidewall of the truck, which penetrated the bus at about the level of the headlight. It missed the driver but went in the path of the passengers seated behind him, near the window. The bar grazed past a scientist seated in the first row, slicing off flesh from his buttocks. The projectile then curved upwards and went past another scientist seated in the second row without hitting him directly. It bruised the shoulder of a third scientist, seated behind, but broke his legs as the seat in front of him collapsed. After doing all that damage and as fate would have its course, the projectile curved upward and hit Sena seated in the 4th row, just above his nose in between the eyes and crushed his forehead. After this deadly blow, the bar got deflected upward, sparing the other passengers seated behind.

Sena was pinned in between the seats and Dr. M.P. Dhanapala (Dhane – Sena’s colleague and Award-winning Rice Breeder) who was seated next to him had no injuries except the ensuing terrible shock, and he could not do much except feel Sena’s pulse and witness him pass away within a few minutes, seated next to him. Thus ended the life of a great human being and a world renowned scientist that shocked the whole rice world and the scientific community. Twenty three years have passed since this tragic event and memories about Sena linger on. I thought it is nothing but right to place on record an appreciation about Sena, who was a good friend of mine and many others, and had contributed so much toward rice research in Sri Lanka and the rice world.

Having entered the then University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, in 1963, Sena graduated in 1967 with a B.Sc (Agriculture), second upper degree. In 1968, he joined the Department of Agriculture for his chosen profession as a Research Officer and was attached to the then Central Rice Breeding Station (CRBS), Bathalagoda, as a Rice Breeder. Sena was a research scholar at IRRI in 1969 and during his stint there, the IRRI scientists reportedly had been impressed with his hard work, dedication and friendly personality, and had in fact identified him as a researcher with much potential, at that early stage in his career. In 1972, under a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship arranged by late Mr. William Golden, an alumnus from IRRI, he proceeded to the University of California, where he earned his in Genetics (1974) and Ph.D degree in Genetics (1976) in record time. In 1976, Sena returned to the Department of Agriculture and served as Senior Plant Breeder at CRBS (1976-79), before being appointed as Deputy Director of Agriculture for Research (1980-84).

Dr. Senadhira was one of the most successful Rice Breeders in Sri Lanka, and his initial mentor was Dr. Hector Weeraratne, Senior Plant Breeder at the CRBS, of “H4” fame; and Sena took over the leadership of the rice breeding programme in Sri Lanka in 1976. Since then, several new improved high yielding rice varieties such as Bg 34-8, Bg 90-2 and Bg 94-2 among others were developed under his leadership. He accomplished this task through utilising plant breeding technology, and his inherent knack for rice plant selection from among the progenies that he generated, in association with his team of scientists at Bathalagoda. The rice varieties thus developed were widely adopted in Sri Lanka, and some of them spread across to several countries in Asia and Africa. The wide scale adoption of the new improved rice varieties in Sri Lanka was a very significant factor that contributed to phenomenal increases in rice production in the country, pushing up production of rice from 0.8 million tons in 1966 to 3.2 million tons in 1985, a four fold increase over a 20-year period. In recognition of Dr. Senadhira’s invaluable contributions to rice production in Sri Lanka, he was honoured with the President’s Award for Scientific Achievement in 1982 and the CERES Medal from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1983.

Dr. M.P. Dhanapala, another Award winning Rice Breeder, was there to take his place, when in 1985, IRRI, which had identified Sena’s potential when he was a research scholar there, way back in 1969, and followed up on his achievements in Sri Lanka, invited him to join (IRRI) as an Associate Plant Breeder in the Plant Breeding Department. In recognition of his work at IRRI, Sena was promoted as Plant Breeder in 1990 and was also appointed as Programme Leader of the Flood-Prone Rice Research Ecosystem in 1995, and he concurrently served as Liaison Scientist for Thailand. Sena also served as research adviser to 10 MS and 7 Ph.D scholars from various countries in Asia.

Dr. Senadhira’s achievements over the 13 years he served IRRI were remarkable. He spearheaded the institute’s rice breeding programme for less favourable lands with soil problems, flood prone environments, as well as for areas subject to low temperature conditions. He initiated a major effort to develop high yielding varieties for saline, acid sulphate and peaty soils. It is reported that using molecular marker aided selection, Sena combined different genes together and developed a germplasm with high level of salinity tolerance. He was also developing improved germplasm with flooding tolerance and had conceptualized a new plant type for deepwater conditions, and developed numerous breeding lines with this ideotype, by which time death snatched him away. In addition to breeding rice for unfavourable environments, another area of interest to Sena, which should be taken note of by researchers, was to increase the nutritive value of rice; as rice is the staple food of the major part of the population in Asia, contributing immensely to the nutrition requirements, especially those of the low income categories in the Asian region. In this endeavour, Dr. Senadhira had noted that many poor people who obtain most of their energy requirements from rice, suffer from micronutrient deficiencies such as those of iron and zinc, and in his quest for research he found that some primitive rice varieties have double the amount of iron and zinc. Accordingly, breeding programmes had been initiated using these varieties, and the breeding materials thus developed were being evaluated as varietal possibilities.

On a personal level, Sena was known to me from 1965 onwards as a senior colleague at the Faculty of Agriculture, of the then University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. He was a very simple and an unassuming person with humane qualities, and was a popular figure at the Faculty of Agriculture, as well as at Marrs Hall where we resided. He was kind hearted, very helpful and never in a mighty hurry, and always calm and quiet. Sena was also a man of a few words, which were made to the point and very specific, and he lent a quiet efficiency to whatever he did. He carried these inherent desirable qualities on to his working life as a great scientist.

It is hard to replace a man like Sena, who was humane to the core and his untimely and premature demise during the peak of his career as a truly international scientist was a big loss, not only to Sri Lanka, but also to all rice producing countries and the rice research community worldwide. He was known to all as a friend who was humane and down to earth, who were in constant touch with him, and his surviving brothers and sister.

Dear Sena, May God Bless you., and May you attain whatever eternal peace that you would have sought as a true Buddhist.




Retd. Director/Agricultural Development

Ministry of Agriculture


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KNDU: MBBS for the rich, crumbs for the poor




A regular day at work. A medical student, Niluka (not her real name), comes to my office to discuss the presentation she is due to make at a research symposium. In the middle of our meeting she is in tears. Her mother, a single mother, who works as a security guard in remote Polonnaruwa, cannot afford her boarding fees as she has to cover her sister’s A/L tuition classes, as well as her brother’s medicines for a recent health issue. Niluka is unable to focus on her presentation because she is worried about her financial situation. She has a year and half to go.

This is the picture of Free Education that many do not see, of students struggling to make ends meet. Such stories are commonplace at our non-fee levying state universities; as Sumathy Sivamohan wrote recently, “free education does not serve everybody equally, but over the years and across decades, it has come to represent the hope of a vast majority for a better place in society.” However, this aspect of Free Education is obscured by images of protesting students “wasting tax-payers’ money,” constructed by the media in the service of the state. While Colombo-based elites (and others) may be duped into seeing the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill and military repression as solutions to the problems in higher education, this article explores what the Bill really means, especially its implications for medical education.

No vision, no imagination

Free Education, despite its marginalisations and exclusions, is etched in our nation’s consciousness, so much so that governments have been reluctant to overtly dismantle the public education system. Instead, they have stealthily underfunded the system, while incentivising expansion of private education. With inadequate public investment, the state universities under the UGC are floundering to service demand, while the fee-levying Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) and non-state fee-levying higher educational institutions, such as SLIIT, receive state subsidies to finance infrastructure as well as student loans.

Fee-levying universities are simply not affordable for the vast majority in this country. To flourish, they require public-financing, both for their establishment and for student loans, to make them accessible to the masses. While escalating investment in KDU and private fee-levying universities through public funds, the government has adopted a zero-investment policy for state universities under the UGC and increased admissions by a third, this year. The fallout of increasing admissions without budgetary allocations is most felt by universities in peripheral districts, already running on meagre resources.

A government’s vision for education is inextricably linked with its economic policy. While lacking a credible vision for education, successive governments have been equally unimaginative in attempts to improve the economy. Sri Lanka relies on imports for day-to-day essentials, such as lentils, pulses, and milk, with little investment in agriculture or agro-industries for value addition. Meanwhile, billions of rupees are lost in tax incentives to attract (elusive) foreign direct investment, including in education. The Board of Investment expanded its purview to include the social sector in the 1990s, essentially opening education to the global market. The latter has changed the landscape of education in the country with international schools, private colleges and other higher education institutions proliferating in the decades since, and creating parallel systems of education for students from rich and poor families.

Enter KNDU

Faced by mounting debt, the government is desperately looking for avenues to build up its foreign reserves. In 2019, the incumbent government proposed a “free education investment zone” to attract investment from “top international universities,” with accompanying tax exemptions, yet another scheme to subsidise the private sector through public funding. With COVID-19, the plans for the investment zone fell by the wayside. However, just a few years after the SAITM debacle, the government is once again looking to expand private medical education, this time through the KDU.

In 2019, the incumbent President’s manifesto, which is the government’s policy framework, stated that “steps will be taken to expand the Kotelawala Defence University” (p.22). Why KDU? Because the majority of its students are enrolled on a fee-levying basis through mechanisms outside the UGC’s Z score-based system. Although seemingly catering to the military, a closer look at the statistics presented on the website of KDU’s Faculty of Medicine, indicate that the number of medical students recruited doubled, and then tripled, once the faculty began to enroll “non-military foreign students.” As recruitment was limited to foreign students, albeit loosely defined, KDU did not encounter too much controversy.

The KNDU Bill proposes to build a parallel militarised university system, and alternatively, a change to the Universities Act of 1978 aims to bring KDU under the purview of the UGC, as a university for a “specific purpose.” Clearly, the appeal of KDU and other “specific purpose” universities is not their potential to strengthen Free Education. That these reforms will increase the military’s involvement in higher education has been the focus of debate in recent weeks, but less attention has been paid to their implications for education opportunities for students like Niluka, and their potential impact on medical education.

‘MBBS Kada’

Both the proposed KNDU Bill and the amendment to the Universities Act can be viewed as attempts to create the conditions for the expansion of fee-levying MBBS degree programmes, which have been resisted since the days of NCMC. The KNDU Bill will give legal authority for KNDU to recognise and affiliate other institutions to KNDU, bypassing the UGC as well as the Sri Lanka Medical Council’s minimum standards. The Bill will ultimately result in the proliferation of poorly regulated ‘MBBS kada,’ and a decline in the overall standards of medical education.

Even the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS), a body not averse to private education, has made the following statement regarding the KNDU Bill: “On principle, the AMS is not against quality fee levying medical education…if it is regulated and monitored by the UGC and the Sri Lanka Medical Council. However, lack of proper process and transparency will prevent the establishment of such fee levying institutions in Sri Lanka.”

Could expanding medical education in this manner present opportunities to address problems in the health sector, such as the regional maldistribution of physicians?

First, if KNDU and its affiliates aim to attract international medical students, it is unlikely that these graduates would serve in Sri Lanka.

Second, as the Bill will enable KNDU to admit local students, if we assume the current fee structure of upwards of Rs. 1 million per year for the MBBS programme, the KNDU medical students would represent the elite who are more likely to immigrate to greener pastures.

Third, if the government intends to broad-base MBBS degree programmes, they would need to offer hefty student loans to our students. Evidence from other countries suggests that medical graduates with student loans are more likely to opt for higher paying specialties rather than work in primary care, and less likely to serve in rural areas.

It is therefore unlikely that the KNDU Bill would contribute towards advancing the health sector, except perhaps through its military cadets, who would most likely work for the Ministry of Defence and not the Ministry of Health.

Student loans may have other unintended consequences. Despite private practice being widespread, many doctors, especially women non-specialist doctors, do not engage in private practice. In fact, general doctors from peripheral districts often do return to their districts, although they may remain in urban centres owing to the poor education facilities available to children in remote rural areas. These doctors make up the physician workforce in base hospitals and above, as well as in the preventive sector, in all parts of the country. Having to repay a student loan may drive such doctors to remain in districts, where private practice is more available and lucrative, intensifying the regional maldistribution of physicians.

Crumbs for the poor

What of students like Niluka in the non-fee levying state university system? A quick perusal of the website of KDU’s Faculty of Medicine indicates that brain drain may have already commenced. Imagine the fate of our non-fee levying state medical faculties with the mushrooming of ‘MBBS kada’ across the country? They will inevitably offer higher salaries, as does KDU, attracting without any outlay teachers whose training was subsidised by state universities. Furthermore, as reported in the media, KDU has already seen massive state investment, much of it in its teaching hospital, far beyond investments in any single university or faculty of medicine under the UGC. The fate of medical education at non-fee levying state universities does not need to be spelled out here. With their weakening, the demographics of students who enter medicine are sure to change, with fewer and fewer opportunities for students like Niluka, not to mention the broader implications for medical education and the healthcare system.

Let’s stand together to protect Free Education and Free Medical Education!


(The writer is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna).

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The Prophet discouraged employing domestic servants



After reading in the newspapers that according to Police Media Spokesperson SDIG Ajith Rohana, 11 women have previously served as domestic servants at ex- Minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence, I thought of sharing the following authentic hadith (tradition) of our Prophet (pbuh) with regard to employing domestic servants. Given below is the gist of it.

When the Prophet’s beloved daughter Fathima complained about the unpleasant traces that making dough and kneading it had left on her hands and requested for a servant, his response was  “Shall I not direct you to what is more beneficial for you than having a servant?”

Every night when you go to bed recite 33 times the phrase -‘Subhanallah’ (i.e. ‘Allah is Exalted and clear of imperfection’), 33 times – ‘Al-Hamdu lillah’ ( ‘All praise is due to Allah) and 34 times – ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Allah is the Greatest). —- Source – Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and Bayhaqi

According to Islamic scholars, a servant is a worldly benefit, but to praise and glorify God in the manner described above will bring the person a greater and everlasting benefit in the Hereafter, and moreover, that by constant recitation one will experience a physical power that will enable him or her to fulfill the household chores more efficiently than a domestic aide.

Now that we have so many “electrical aides” – electric kitchen appliances: blenders/grinders/mixers, fryers, toasters, dish-washers, washing machines, microwave ovens and the list is endless, and with the barrage of allegations (which is now sub judice ) against the ex-Minister, wife and his in laws, isn’t it better that we follow the above prophetic tradition of not employing domestic aides?



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Benefits of rhythmic gymnastics for girls



To master this sport, a gymnast needs to master the skills and the artistry necessary to win at competitions and attain recognition, even fame.  But why do parents in some countries enthusiastically support this activity, but others, for example Sri Lanka, do not? The exponents of this art are mostly girls, who, when dressed up in costume and make up, can look really fabulous, having photogenic artistry, posture and style. Such photos make wonderful family heirlooms, recalling memories of a youth well spent!

To be successful at competitions, great agility and flexibility of the limbs is required. Therefore, it helps greatly if exercises are started from an early age, perhaps when a girl is four or five. However, she should be warned in advance that stretching leg muscles is painful, because this stretching is essential to move fully and easily and perform well. Training coaches will do this gently, in stages until complete.

Older gymnasts need to master a programme of moves, including pirouettes, rolls and backward flip and so on, usually working with hoops, ribbons, hand clubs and balls, all according to age and progress. If she takes part in circus gymnastics, this also can be a lot of fun.

What are the benefits arising from all this effort in training? The first and most obvious benefit is that the person gains a high level of fitness, which she may keep for years and it will help her keep a youthful shape into middle age. But the one unspoken benefit, and perhaps the greatest of all, is that she will develop an ability to concentrate. This is absolutely needed to enable her to perform the various routines to a high standard.  Then, with improved concentration, she has a very valuable asset which renders her a capable, competent human being, which is of great benefit to the society she lives in.                                                


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