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Educational Experience in the COVID19 era : Challenges to Opportunities

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Senior Professor Chandrika N Wijeyaratne

MBBS (Colombo), MD (Colombo), DM (Colombo), FRCP (London),Vice-Chancellor, University of Colombo

I am deeply humbled and greatly privileged to deliver the 2021 memorial lecture to honour Professor J.E. Jayasuriya – a pioneer educationist, academic and a brilliant son of Sri Lanka.

Born on February 14, 1918, he received his education in three schools ending with Wesley College, Colombo. Having excelled at the Cambridge Senior Examination and being placed third in the British Empire he was awarded a scholarship to the University College Colombo from where he obtained a First Class in Mathematics.   

He was the first principal of Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya and forsook a career in the coveted civil administrative service due to his resolute stand on encouraging Buddhist schools. He was handpicked by the father of free education and then minister of education, Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, to lead the central school established in his own electorate of Matugama.   

Following Postgraduate studies at University of London he was placed in charge of Mathematics education at the Teachers’ College Maharagama until being appointed as a lecturer in the Department of Education of the University of Ceylon. In 1957, he succeeded Prof. T.L Green as Professor of Education, with the singular distinction of being the first Sri Lankan to hold this post.   

In his capacity as Professor and the Head of Department, Prof. Jayasuriya undertook the task of professionalizing education. He was a role model to the academia with his professionalism, erudite outlook, integrity and a deep commitment to his chosen field.. It was his vision that paved the way for the first undergraduate degree- Bachelor of Education awarded by University of Peradeniya in the nineteen sixties. The majority of the first generation of B.Ed. graduates achieved high professional status both locally and globally. The popularity of this course, which is now offered at the University of Colombo, testifies the foresight of Prof. Jayasuriya in developing this programme. While there are moves to expand today’s Bachelor of Education programmes, it is necessary to review these programmes in the light of Prof. Jayasuriya’s vision to maintain the quality of the very study course he designed.

I am captivated by Professor J. E Jaysuriya’s close association with medical education. He assisted Professor Senaka Bibile to establish the Medical Education Unit at Peradeniya. He delivered several guest lectures on measurement techniques and psychometry. He was elected as a Chartered Psychologist (U.K.) having the right to practice as a Psychologist. in the U, K. Later he was the UNESCO Regional Adviser on Population Education in Asia and the Pacific and one of his articles on the ‘Inclusion of Population Education in the Medical School Curriculum’ was ublished in the British Journal of Medical Education.

Educating the educators of Sri Lanka has now become a norm in Sri Lanka, about which Prof Jayasuriya would be extremely proud. The distinct features of Prof Jayasuriya’s approach to education, based on the information I gathered about him, include his distinctive approach to psychology and mathematics, intelligence testing and educational policy with a holistic, practical and pragmatic outlook; that I propose modern-day educationists should emulate. May his memory remain etched in the education landscape of mother Lanka!

 

Preamble

Sri Lanka has remained unique in its obligation to universal education over the past seven decades, well before more advanced countries gave due consideration to this aspect of social development. Despite multiple challenges faced, we have safeguarded education as a sacred and quintessential commodity.

The infrastructure, human resource and facilities for education have remained a priority in the eyes of the general public. Nevertheless, there are many unmet needs of tertiary education in Sri Lanka that caused concern for whole of society over the last two decades. It is noteworthy that University Grant Commission (UGC) statistics show that only six percent of young adults (between 18 and 24 years) are enrolled in state universities, while another five percent are enrolled in other state higher educational institutions. A further six percent are enrolled in non-state higher educational institutes with an additional three percent enrolling for external degree programmes. In total, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for tertiary education in Sri Lanka is only approximately 20%, being the lowest among all middle-income countries and below the average value of 24% for South Asia.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of brain drain in South Asia. The World Bank figure for migration stands at 27.5% among those who received tertiary education, with an average annual migration level of 6,000 professionals. I consider this to be an underestimate by not factoring in the youth migrating for tertiary education while draining our foreign exchange.

The vision statement of the incumbent head of state, His Excellency President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elucidated the need to introduce a reformed education policy and aim for no student who is suitably qualified to be deprived of higher education.

While discussion and deliberations were in progress on how this transformation must be addressed, the country faced the first wave of the COVID19 pandemic and a shutdown of all education institutions by mid-March 2020. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Sri Lanka’s Education Affairs was established through a gazette notification on March 31, 2020. The PTF which consisted of experts in the fields of education and higher education, was initially formed into three (03) Core Groups to propose suitable recommendations in the education sectors of General Education, Higher Education and Vocational Education. This was probably the first attempt to address education holistically under one umbrella and as a lifelong need. The TF was required to explore differences and variation of students, institutions and available resources.

 

COVID19 pandemic – the basis for the response of Higher Education Institutes

The single purpose required from us was to ensure there was no shutdown of education and to optimize the conversion of the process to online learning. Undoubtedly, adult education was the main sector deemed appropriate for an overnight transformation to the Online Distance Education (ODL) format.

With regard to long-term educational reforms beyond Covid-19 and the national expectations for broadening opportunities in tertiary education, far-reaching changes were required. The PTF recognized the need to transform the current tertiary education sector in Sri Lanka to become a globally recognized tri-partite system that consists of three key types of higher educational institutions (HEIs), namely,

 

1) State and Non-state Undergraduate HEIs

2) Postgraduate Research Universities, and

3) State and Non-state Vocational and Professional Institutions

 

This transformation was proposed with the explicit purpose to improve access to tertiary education, provide more flexibility and mobility within and among the three tiers and sectors, offer diverse opportunities for education, training and career paths, enhance standards, quality and relevance of training and promote postgraduate education, with particular emphasis on research, innovation and commercialization; all of which can upscale the economy and national development.

In terms of the required immediate change over to the digital mode, let us recollect the Sri Lankan State Sector experience with ODL by early 2020, immediately preceding the COVID19 pandemic. The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL), with a student population of 40,000, had the longest experience with ODL spanning 40 years. Online teaching commenced at the OUSL in 2003, with 50% of the courses made available online. This facility was provided as Supplementary, Blended and as an Online Plus. The open university included formative assessments as assignments, quizzes and discussion forums in the blended online courses. Limited summative assessments (final examinations) were conducted online, under a supervised environment in the computer laboratories of the Regional Centers of the OUSL.

An open-sourced support such as Moodle for the LMS, cloud based digital infra-structure and sustained interaction with LEARN, provided the necessary pathway to achieving the digital transformation.

Indeed, our IT experts provided speedy and unstinted support at the request of the UGC, with our own director of the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) being a great pillar of strength. Permit me to divert here and share with you how this very personality, Prof KP Hewagamage the incumbent director of UCSC, recalls with gratitude how Prof J E Jayasuriya’s book on ‘Veeja Ganithaya’ for schoolchildren captivated his attention and was a life changing experience to learn mathematics from grade six in school! Free access to internet connection via LEARN was negotiated with service providers by HE the President, that ensured that the economically disadvantaged segments of our university population were not left behind. Nevertheless, many of our students still do not own a device to access online and/or have adequate internet bandwidth in their homes to effectively use the LMS. Smart phones were the first best option to ensure a timely transition – and was our only choice.

The concept of a virtual campus through the OUSL system that provides free internet access to students via computer laboratories based in Regional and Study Centers situated in every district was re-visited. Ensuring the provision of a Tablet PC to every student was recognized as priority, so that the new entrants in 2020/2021 are to be provided with student loans for this purpose.

Student centered independent learning was propelled into action. Despite many challenges, this transformation of the educational process would be viewed by the late Professor Jayasuriya as a veritable liberation from a stifled system, that was the main reason for the broader vision to transform education. Without doubt, Sri Lanka was entrapped in a tuition-based examination-oriented rote learning ethos, from which we clearly require to disengage. The COVID19 related shift in demand of educational lifestyle was the ideal opportunity for the deliverance of a more fulfilling and productive educational process and outlook for 21st Century Sri Lanka.

 

Learning Resources for
Online Education

Quality learning resources are vital for the success of online learning. In this context, internationally recognized free and open educational resources are available in the cyberspace free of charge.

It is noteworthy that the Government of India supports the most disadvantaged through an indigenously developed IT platform. Highly ranked Indian universities provide courses on the distance mode through SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) and share quality teaching learning resources for Indian nationals anywhere, at any time.

 

Learner Support

A distance learner should have plenty of self-motivation. A web conferencing system through which the teachers make regular contacts, both synchronously and asynchronously, enables access for students located in remote locations. As per the OUSL experience, effective learner support is achieved by offering multi-device/ multi-mode learning opportunities to meet the learning needs of a mixed student population.

The COVID 19 pandemic impacted severely on our educational processes and systems. Permit me to share with you my experience in this transition as the administrative and academic lead of the University of Colombo, the pioneer institution of modern tertiary education in Sri Lanka. I consider this experience personifies how challenges imposed by the pandemic were transformed into opportunities.

The need for a flexible attitude to the learning and teaching process is of paramount importance to achieve any success with ODL. I am proud to say that a wider sector of our own staff encouraged their students to engage in home gardening; with a view to augmenting psycho-social adjustment to the sudden transition to home-based education, loss of peer group interaction and encouraged students to support their family economy through agriculture. Nevertheless, tilling the land fell far short of the dignity of university education! Acquisition of skills from hands-on laboratory and clinical settings in parallel with the development of leadership, teamwork, soft skills, sports and recreation were clearly not possible with ODL.

We received baseline information on the major issues faced by the students following relocation in their own homes. The impact had socio-economic and gender sensitive dimensions that required intensive support. Thus, the COVID19 threat of a pandemic brought into focus many unmet needs of the modern-day university student; ranging from the need for self-employment opportunities to sustain student education to their individual preferences for city-based versus. rural living. The wider community of the student groups suffered a major anxiety, with the haunting question – when can we graduate? Thereby, every faculty and institute along with the Sripalee campus and the school of computing, were able to effectively create and maintain channels of communication by linking the students with the central administrative process, in order to ensure a coordinated process for the provision of optimum support. I take pride in recounting this staff and alumni support for students that I believe made a meaningful impact on the personality development of our student population.

Our university, in parallel, was catalyzed into a new work norm – of a digital transformation in our educational activities. Online meetings became standard daily practice to manage the University administration. We took pride on becoming paperless, with the formalizing of an online document management system, with the official use of e-signatures and digital certification which resulted in improved efficiency, transparency and flexibility. The benefits of work from home, adopting healthy practices in the working environment, promotion of innovation to address social needs, with a fair share of the responsibility falling upon university systems were positive developments from the Covid-19 pandemic, that should be harnessed for future implementation.

I reiterate that our staff was very supportive to support the new model of ODL; often taking on re-orienting and re-learning while coping with the additional workload. Traditional wisdom and foresight enabled us to think positively and respond pragmatically. We had a few doubting Thomas’s, but such negative thoughts were considerably mitigated by an overwhelming ethos of resilience. Library information services were required to be digitalized.

Based on anecdotal evidence we have received from most sectors, many students became more aware of e-resources and started using the library journal databases at a greater speed that is supported by the recorded numbers of access or hits.

Online surveys were initiated for obtaining student feedback. We received feedback of the major impact on socio-economic and gender-based violence that soon followed student relocation in their own homes. COVID19 indeed brought into focus many unmet needs of the modern-day university student; ranging from self-employment opportunities in the city through tuition, Uber deliveries etc versus. rural living with no earning opportunity. The general anxiety among students was: When can we graduate? When can we stop being a burden to our parents?

As time progressed the digital engagement became apparent among diverse groups. Student centered community related e-activities, such as the Gavel Club, Societies related to social and cultural groups, leadership development through community service such as Rotaract and Leo clubs held their induction ceremonies on time through the digital mode. Addressing on-line, gender-based violence and psychological issues of COIVD 19, by the Golden Zs that comprises female and male medical students (supervised by a faculty representative of the Zonta Club of Colombo I) was an enriching and novel experience.

Online delivery of learning resources for students with disabilities and their special needs received special attention. The majority of students with special needs demonstrated a preference to attend a face-to-face teaching. The Faculty of Arts that accommodates the great majority of this special group that has developed a centre for disability research, education and practice (CEDREP) affiliated to the Department of Sociology. I am proud to state that CEDREP offers support to all students with disabilities irrespective of which faculty they belong to or which study stream they have chosen. They also individualize educational support and mitigate stigma and marginalization of the students with specific needs.

The digital transition was undertaken as a collective project to ensure a quality transition of Onsite Learning to Blended Learning at the University of Colombo. Blended learning is defined as an approach to education that effectively integrates classroom practices (teaching learning and assessment) with online learning (teaching learning and assessment) practices.

Soon after the COVID19 related shut down we had several inquiries made from highly rated universities in the USA. The foreign university looked to us as worthy partners to sustain their recruitment of Sri Lankan students at a discounted rate of 1/6 their original on campus fees with 10% for our university. Based on the discussion we did express an interest in partnership in the award of dual degrees through the “cyber campus” modality; which is a long process of planning. What brings into focus is that the format of blended learning provides opportunities for external partnerships to collaborate with foreign university in teaching and research.

Let me end by reiterating that consciously or unconsciously our inherent Lankan Culture encouraged us to counter threats imposed on higher education from the COVID19 pandemic by responding to the trendy management acronym VUCA through facing “Volatility with Vision, Uncertainty with Understanding, Complexity with Clarity and Ambiguity with Agility”.

Our fundamental values encouraged us to prioritize, risk manage, make pragmatic decisions, foster a change and seek sustainable solutions, while encouraging quick responses and a holistic outlook.



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Features

Ranjan loses the People’s Crown

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Last week it was Avurudu Thel Keliya. Now we have come to Ranjan Keliya. 

SJB MP Ranjan Ramanayake has been removed from Parliament, in what is said to be in keeping with the decision of the Court of Appeal, to reject his application against the Supreme Court order sentencing him to four years of imprisonment for Contempt of court.

A parliament, of which Ranjan was a most active and spoken member, has shown its overall failure to deal with an issue that affects the rights of all citizens. The mockery of it all is to have a parliament where a person found guilty of murder and imprisoned by a court order is allowed to be a member of the House, but a person guilty of contempt of Court, who has not injured or killed anyone, is removed from it.

With all due respect and honour to the judiciary, one must begin to look at the entire thinking and process of charging people for and punishing them for contempt of Court. 

In the present parliamentary situation, with all the power that the President and the government have with a two-thirds plus majority, the future Independence of the Judiciary is certainly in question.

If Ramanayake has committed contempt of Court, he is now the player in calling for a change of our legislation on Contempt of Court. Is it truly wrong to criticise a member/or members of the judiciary; are they above the law; what is the practice and trend on this in other democracies?

It is time our Members of Parliament, the Bar Association and organizations of Civil Society made deep study of this entire issue, and moved to prevent the right of free speech being incorrectly restricted. We must look at how Contempt of Court is considered legally in the UK, from where we got this.

How is Contempt of court handled by the Courts of India, our closest neighbour and next to us in years of democracy? How is this issue handled in other democracies too such as France and Germany, and even the US? 

The Ranjan  Keliya  has certainly brought us to realising the Contempt for Democracy that prevails, and is being expanded in Sri Lanka. This contempt is the reality of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and the prevailing show of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘Saubhagye Dekma”.    Changing our laws on Contempt of Court to make them modern and democratic will be the real crowning of Ramanayake.

 

Beauty Queen crowns

We have now come to the Ru Rajina Otunu Keliya too. The story of the crown being grabbed from the new Mrs Sri Lanka has spread in the international media. 

There was a lovely piece of social media, where Queen Elizabeth II of the UK is showing her joy at getting rid of Sri Lanka from the royalty domain as far back as 1948, as otherwise there would have been moves to grab her crown, too.

Mrs Sri Lanka or Mr. World is certainly not of much interest to us who are facing much bigger problems than the ownership of beauty crowns. Yet, the issue of a Mrs Sri Lanka or Mrs World having to be married does raise many issues today. Are the organizers of the global event thinking of temporary or shaky marriages, or those that last through decades and more, with a commitment to each other?

Can a person, who is undergoing the process of a divorce in a court of law, one who wants to leave a marriage through the law, be one who is really married? The very concept of marriage has undergone many changes in recent decades. Should these realities not be accepted by the organisers of these events? 

Why not have a rule that a contestant for Mrs (Country) or Mrs World, should be married several times – as is fast becoming a reality in the west, and countries that are following such traditions.

We will certainly have candidates seeking the crown if a few or many marriages are a condition. It will also show a genuine interest in the promotion of marriages, without confining it to just a single marriage, even with a pending divorce.   

We can then have a Mrs World, with a show of strength to those with achievements of more than one, or several marriages. 

The “Vivahaka Ru Rajina” will then be a “Boho Vivahaka Ru Rajina”.

The current Mrs World, Caroline Jurie, who was the key crown remover in this show of crooked farce, and a model who helped her, are now facing action in the courts.

Marriage or not is certainly an issue for Miss or Mrs Sri Lanka. A winner of the very early Mrs Sri Lanka events had earlier contested a Miss Sri Lanka, while being married. If she had not lost the contest, we would have seen loud calls for her crown to be removed. The senior ladies who played a big role in this Mrs. Sri Lanka event, certainly reminded us of such past records.

Let the crown be with the people, whether married or not. The rising call is for the Janatha Kirula, against a Pol Thel or Seeni Vancha Kirula of the Abhagye  Dekma.

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Bio-Piracy:

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A Pervasive Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security

By Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
Continued from yesterday

According to Prof. Wijesundara, in 1994, a multinational company, W.R. Grace and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were granted a patent by the European Patent Office (EPO) “Covering a (special) method for controlling fungi on plants by the aid of a hydrophobic extracted neem oil” that is diluted with a certain percentage of water was withdrawn in 2000. Lot of concern after 10-year battle, some patents on neem were squashed some still prevail. There are 65 patents so far only for neem. According to Prof. Kotagama, a US company wanted to produce insecticide from neem. They came with Azadariktin as a product. They obtain the patenting required to use and own neem. There is a law that if you are contesting patenting right it has to be in the country it is registered at. So the neem battle has to be fought in the US. With lot of money and help from the NGOs and help along with the Indian government they fought against this patenting. The company contested that they did not bring neem from Asia or India, they brought it from Africa because it grows in Africa. But it was identified that the seeds that had gone to Kenya had been coming from Sri Lanka according to the Registers of the forest department records from Sri Lank. Based on that evidence the patent was revoked. The neem campaign was consisting of a group of NGOs and individuals was initiated in 1993 in India. This was done to mobilize worldwide support to protect indigenous knowledge systems and resources of the Third World from piracy by the west particularly in light of emerging threats from intellectual property rights regimes under WTO and TRIPS. Neem patent became the first case to challenge European and US patents on the grounds of biopiracy.

Basmati Rice patent case is another instance bio-piracy was reversed. Prof. Kotagama remarked that it is known as the India – US Basmati Rice Dispute (Case number 493, Case Menemonic – Basmati; Patent number – US 5663484A, publication). A US company registered a new hybrid variety of Basmati. India and Pakistan got together and they fought using media, using negative advertisement and they squashed American variety of Basmati) proving ‘Texmati’ was not Basmati.

According to Prof. Sarath Kotagama, an Indian Ecologist, Vandana Shiva has said ‘bio-piracy deprives us in three ways: It creates a false claim to novelty and invention, even though the knowledge has evolved since ancient times as part of the collective and intellectual heritage of India”. Secondly “it divests scarce biological resources to monopoly control of corporations thus depriving local communities the benefits of its use” and thirdly “it creates market monopolies and excludes the original innovators (farmers) from their rightful share to local, national and global markets”. She fought a lot for the biodiversity conservation in India and a well-respected ecologist in India who also had to do much with the fight against Neem, Basmati and Turmeric.

There are similar cases where patents were revoked: Kava Kava from Fiji and Vanuatu; Quinoa from Andes; Banaba and other medical plantys from Philippines; Bitter gourd from Sri Lanka and Thailan; Ilang-Ilang from Philippines and Periwinkle from Madagascar, highlighted Prof. Wijesundara.

In 1989 bioprospecting started with the Institute of Biology established in Costa Rica purely for this purpose. It was the idea to do research on rainforests, animals and plants in Costa Rica and give the ownership to the country if something was discovered. However, this institute was dissolved in 2015 in Costa Rica. According to Prof. Kotagama, the institute still exists with the idea surveys on the resources of rainforests and commercialization of the products will be done for the benefit of Costs Rica. Prof. Kotagama highlighted why bio-piracy needs to be also understood in legal jargon. In the research paper “Bio piracy and its impact on Biodiversity: A Special review on Sri Lankan context” (Kusal Kavinda Amarasinghe), it has mentioned that 34 plants and animals have been taken out of Sri Lanka and Indian subcontinent and patent obtained for biological constituents already. According to Prof. Kotagama, Naja naja naja (Cobra) is an endemic spices in Sri Lanka and still it has lost the control from the country and others are using the species to derive benefits. Prof. Kotagama also highlighted that while there is so much indifference, there is so much consorted efforts to prevent bio-piracy and bio-theft in the countries like the Philippine, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Nepal who have strengthen the situation and have increased regulations and continue strict border control measures.

Illegal Trafficking and Bio-Piracy

According to Prof. Siril Wijesundara, illegal trafficking is also directly linked to bio-piracy and theft. One of the ways that can prevent bio-piracy is through detecting illegal trafficking of various types of endemic and endangered plants and animals. Most common plant species affected by illegal trafficking in Sri Lanka at present are Gyrinops Walla Walla patta, Salacia reticulate Kothala Himbutiand Santalum album naturalized sandhun. Sri Lanka Customs have detected many instances of illegal trafficking. Target destination varies from India, Dubai, Pakistan, Australia, and China. The most popular destination for Kothala Himbotu today is China.

Another classic example of trafficking of plants is by misleading the authorities. Prof. Wijesundara highlighted that a plant called Kekatiya (Aponogeton crispus) were exported in large quantities under the name Aponogeton ulvaceus, a plant native to Madagascar. However, Prof. Siril Wijesuriya mentioned that during his tenure at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, he managed to test this plant and discovered it is a different plant from the one in Madagascar. After this discovery, this Sri Lankan variety of the plant (Kekatiya) was prohibited from being exported and necessary action were taken to a point where the company went out of business.

 

Importance of Utilizing the Chemical Compounds in the Medicinal Plants

Prof. Veranja Karunarathne highlighted the popularity among the people now for medicinal plants. That is because the Medicinal properties and compounds that are useful found in the medicinal plants. Natural products are made out of these compounds. According to him, the use of medicinal plants go over for 5000 years ago. Probably we have used medicinal plants since existence.

According to Prof. Veranja Karunarathne, the medicinal plants are being used in traditional medicinal systems popular in Sri Lanka such as Ayurveda, Deishiya Chikithsa, Siddha and Unani. Siddha and Unani don’t use much of the plants necessarily and have much to do with involving plants. In different medicinal systems, over 2500 plants are being used in Sri Lanka. These are being used for disease curing and ailments in traditional medicine practices. In the Western medicine sense, it is one compound for one disease. In Ayurveda and indigenous system, it is many compounds for one disease many compounds curing one disease. Pollypahrmachology is accepted in the indigenous system. These aspects of pollypahrmachology in traditional medicine are becoming valuable. If we take asprin that cures heart disease, it is isolated from Villon plant. Quinine that is used in Malaria prevention is isolated from cinchona plant. That is the practice of the Western medicine. Prof. Veranja Karunarathne says that if we look at plant evolution, it is evident that the plants didn’t intend to cure diseases. This evolution of the plants happened by co-evolving with the insects. It never intended to cure diseases for humans. In 1915, the Western medicine avoided using plants due to various issues including intellectual property matters and since plants are very difficult thing to manage. However, they have come back discovering medicine from plants. That is why co-evolution is important. Diversity of functional group of plants is important. Diversity of use of plants cannot be matched with the evolution of the plants.

From Kothala Himbotu, an endemic plant in Sri Lanka, water soluble anti diabetic compounds were found by Japanese scientist. There are over 50 patents for Kothala Himbotu plant. Sri Lanka has only one patent which was a discovery of a Sri Lankan team. As a Chemist who worked on the kothala himbotu plant and tried to find the chemical compounds, Prof. Karunarathne felt humiliated when Japanese scientists found that water based compound in the kothala himbotu plant. He used a Sri Lankan source and worked on a zeroing from Sri Lankan lichen, patented at the US patent office the, lichen called ziorine that can be used on cancer patients. Sri Lankan government dealing legally with bio-piracy is when they intervened to stop exporting Kothala Himbotu plant in bulk that is being used for anti-diabetic drug. For anti-diabetic drug creation some sections of the plant are still being exported, but in small quantities.

In the meantime, there is also bogus bio-piracy. An undergraduate student of University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka found out that Clarins skin care product in France is using Hortinia floribanda that is endemic to Sri Lanka.

In their website it was mentioned that this plant is being used to improve the skin tone. When studied their website, closely, they found that they are using plants found in amazon and plant found in Europe during winter. After finding the endemic Sri Lankan plant do not contribute to any skin tone improvement and when the research was published in National Science Foundation journal, the skin care production company removed the name of the plant from their website. This is an instance where bogus bio-piracy is being taken place and that it too needs to fight and that even an average Chemist can make a difference, said Prof. Varanja Karunarathne.

According to Prof. Varanja Karunarathne, there are about 3000 odd plants endemic to Sri Lanka, out of the total flowering plants, 2000 are endemic. Because of this density and diversity, UNESCO named Sri Lanka as a biodiversity hotspot. 1300 of these plants are in the Red book of endangered plants of Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the value of the plant is only the timber value. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka value plants in Sri Lanka only for its timber value which is a drawback. The government needs to fund for projects that study the chemistry of these plants, government never have done such in that greater scale. The chemists would want be able to study the chemistry inside the plant, the knowledge inside the plant. It is important to lobby to find the chemicals of these plants that are endangered to Sri Lanka. This means conserving the knowledge inside the plant is much more than just evaluating its value for timber. There is a far greater use of the plant than just the timber value.

During the discussion, Mr. Lakshman Gunasekara highlighted the importance of getting media involved along with the Scientists to intervene in promoting knowledge, education and awareness about bio-piracy and possible ways of counter-fighting it. He said that unlike in the past, mass communication can bring this issue to a different level. In this regard the scientific community needs to intervene in order for the media community to get activated. However, Prof. Siril Wijesundara made a remark that media is always working with political agendas, but Scientists are not and they cannot do so. Therefore, it is important, media step aside from political agendas and look at this issue apolitically.

Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri highlighted the colonial dimension of bio-piracy. With the involvement of government in bio-piracy and the inclusion of concept of government and empire –building bio-politics came into being. In empire building, establishing the political centre outside the location of the centre was important. Same is true to colonialism which was more than traditional Empire building exercise. It was new kind of administration, where there was capturing a grip on the land and space, fauna and flora. It was rather “governmentalization” which has multiple dimension. According to him, in that sense, colonialism is a multidimensional phenomenon. It is not more colonialism now; it is a new process. This is very much part of the enlightenment project at the time. It was governed by knowledge. Accumulation of information of social and natural environment became a new kind of project. The new political challenge is also this.

Prof. Nalani Hennayake highlighted the fact that how in terms of conservation and information sharing India came out with digital library registered with patent offices in the inventories library in the United States, while Sri Lanka has our own Red Book of inventory. She further highlighted the fact that countries like Sri Lanka having enough laws that needs immediate activation. Monopolizing the ownership needs to end and commercializing our plants needs to happen according to the Fauna and Flora Act in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka said no to digital register of plants in 1994 and we need to rethink such decisions mentioned the discussants.

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Veranja Karunarathne said that at present, other people are working on synthetic biology, combination of chemistry, biology and genomics, creating biosynthetic pathway of genes. Genes are mass produced in genomic mass factories which is controlled exploitation of bio wealth. That is where the world is heading and he says Sri Lanka needs to value the conserved knowledge inside the plant and explore the immense possibilities that the plants are presenting. Concluded

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Acknowledged (only?) Statesman speaks out; so do a few others

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The editor of The Sunday Island (April 4), mentions in his succinctly titled editorial – Down the pallang with no end in sight – this statesman. He speaks of Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha’s successful manouevre to curtail the power of the Rajapaksas and President Mahinda R’s attempt to go in for a third term of his presidency in 2014. Thus, the editor writes: “It is in this context that the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) that Ven Sobitha founded now led by respected elder statesman Karu Jayasuariya ….” The organisation is seeking to push the rulers on to a correction course. It seeks to project an apolitical stance and denies subversive interest. “The 20th Amendment that abolished the 19th has thrown the baby with the bathwater….” Cassandra adds – and we are drowning in the waters; floundering in fear and surrounded by sharks of the sugar and oil scams; also those who are still destroying our natural resources.

 

Karu wise plus experienced and apolitical

The same paper published on page 3 excerpts of what the Chairman NMSJ – Karu Jayasurirya – said at a press conference at Janaki Hotel Colombo, on April 2. His considered warning was ‘Don’t fiddle like Nero as the country plunges into a precipice.’ A due warning of rather mixed metaphors. Cass would have preferred … ‘as the country burns’, but plunging into a precipice is really more catastrophic and that, says many, is what is happening to this wonderful land of ours. We should all read and reread what Karu J had to say; we should analyse and see whether he was correct and then in our own small way try to obtain a change of course. The principle consideration is that Karu Jayasuriya speaks apolitically here as an elder statesman who has been both in politics and the private sector and knows full well what he is speaking about. If you want definite credentials on his ability and sincerity, recollect how he acted as Speaker of Parliament when the then Prez, Maitripala Sirisena stole the government from its elected members of Parliament and handed it over to his dire enemy of yesteryear, now befriended buddy – Mahinda Rajapaksa and his coyotes to govern the land. PM Ranil W with loyalists holed themselves at Temple Trees and bided their time. Karu J faced a battery of assaults: vulgarly vocal, totally injurious thrown bound volumes and deadly chilli powder mixed with water. He braved it all; took his rightful seat and gave judgment that restored order from utter chaos.

He is one politician whom Cass and so many others rooted for. Now he is out of party politics but fighting for the very survival of the nation of free Sri Lanka.

 

Voices should be listened to

At the recent meeting of people to solve their problems and bring succour to them, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa somewhat belittled protestors attempting to save our forest cover. Cass heard him on TV news on Saturday April 3 speaking about people accusing a previous government of running white vans, threatening journalists etc and now it is environmental groups that are out against the new government and him. No, they and we are against those who cut trees, deforest the land, sand mine ruthlessly and of course make money on horrible scams and seem to get away scot free, not even paying to government coffers billions garnered illegally.

He, government Ministers and MPs, and relevant administrators should all listen to the call of even a single concerned person, and know they are calling out completely altruistically with no political biases. One such is Padmini Nanayakkara of Colombo 3 who cries out (we imagine in horror) Reservoirs in Sinharaja? in the Sunday Island of April 4. She starts her letter to the editor with this: “Have we an enemy within or has a foreign force taken over Sri Lanka? I can’t imagine any Lankan contributing to an idea as bizarre as building reservoirs in Sinharaja.”

The editor referring to the pronouncement made loud and clear by Minister Chamal Rajapaksa about building two reservoirs in Sinharaja as if it were a foregone construction plan; writes thus: “A minister from the ruling family outrageously declares that two reservoirs will be built in the Sinharaja reserve to provide water for their pocket borough, He promises to plant 150 acres elsewhere to compensate saying that rubber will be planted to give people an income”. The editor dubs it a “madcap project” (cheers!!). Plenty water could be tapped downstream of rivers flowing near Hambantota; and this for people and not to keep watered vanity projects like cricket stadiums.

 

Semicentennial of a terrible uprising

I speak here of the JVP uprising of 1971 which has been written about with Jayantha Somasunderam from Canberra detailing it meticulously with copious references. Cass has been typically Sri Lankan in that she had forgotten about those days of fifty years ago which she refuses to term either jubilee or never golden anniversary. The Editor/The Island introduced a new word – quinquagenary – a tongue twister but pins down the number five. Whatever its now earned name, it was a brutal and absolutely purposeless shedding of young blood: blood of youth by the government and killing of police and causing utter chaos by the newly marshaled JVP under Rohana Wijeweera. They were disciplined and dedicated to a cause then. Incidentally, his grown son was shown on TV news a few days ago. A misunderstood message to attack police stations, conveyed via radio annonced obituary notices, saved the country because the attack was so deadly, power over the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike could have been gained. The second JVP uprising was deadlier as it was minus principles and all restraint. Again the rivers flowed with young Sinhala blood. The 1971 insurrection was short lived and we who cowered, emerged to usual routines fairly soon. Not the 1ate 1980s uprising. It created widespread fear psychoses; complete mayhem from hospitals, schools and offices to thé kadés. Universities were closed for two years and thus a considerable exodus of young students to universities overseas. We lost many of our teenaged children and the country – brains and ability.

May such never happen again is our earnest prayer. The young seem to have imbibed or decided to work through principles. Consider the recent protests against environmental degradation, particularly denudation of forests. They were all peaceful and intelligently carried out, and acknowledged as such, and the message they carried should certainly have been given an ear to by the President, PM and Ministers in charge of relevant subject areas. Perhaps it was peaceful marches and speeches and placards because the aim was altruistic – benefit for the entire country and not for self.

 

Beauty gone batty?

The public fracas of excessively groomed and dressed up beauties at the recent Mrs Sri Lanka finals was shockingly disgraceful. It confirmed to Cass that even the slightest mix-up or argument in this land of ours very soon escalates to a debacle, often accompanied by violence. But in this incident, there wasn’t even a whimper of argument. We witnessed how last year’s Mrs S L – Her Mightiness Caroline Jurie – crowned, de-crowned and re-crowned Pushpika de Silva. The latter’s hair was pulled, since the crown was rudely pulled off her by Her Mightiness and another, but unless it had long sharp spikes it could not have injured the stunned winner’s head. And all because of a heard rumour at the moment of crowning. Cass spits out: How dare Caroline Jurie take judgment to her tearing hands when a panel had discussed, gone into details and decided on the winner; the panel including herself! Cass comments the glass slipper gifted to Cinderella Caroline a year ago seems to be a misfit now; her feet swollen to match her head.

Back to the ordinary: Cassandra wishes all her readers a family oriented Aluth Avuruddha, with safety precautions vigilantly observed against infection given first priority. Much should be sacrificed to prevent the deadly third wave of Covid 19.

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