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Enigma of Basil’s importance

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All of a sudden there has been a chorus of approvals by some MPs of the ruling party calling for Basil Rajapaksa, currently Special Representative of the President and Head of the Presidential Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication, to become a Member of Parliament on the National List. Some of his loyalists are willing to give up their seats in Parliament for this great welcome back to Basil. It is widely reported that he is to be given the nerve centre portfolios of Economic Development and Finance of Sri Lanka, once he is allowed to enter Parliament and become a Member of the Cabinet.

His supporters in Parliament declare that once Basil Rajapaksa takes over the Economic Development of Sri Lanka, all the problems, that beset this island besieged by mounting debt traps, foreign exchange crisis, balance of payments and budget deficits, rising unemployment and poverty, pandemic growth and spread, trade deficits, human/elephant conflict, fertiliser/agricultural sector woes, environment devastation, destruction of marine life, pollution and fisheries livelihoods, spiraling costs of living, energy crisis and, etc., would be all sorted out by his Midas Touch of expertise and efficiency.

Considering the Great Expectations in store and the enormity of the task, the public would do well to examine the background, qualifications and performance of this worthy, lest we either overestimate or undermine his supposed capacity and acumen for this vital task of Mr. Fix It. Whatever it is!

It may be reasonable for the people to examine the facts of the case relating to this prospective VIP appointment and selectivity in respect of Basil Rajapaksa. He is the younger brother of the President and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. In the absence of any specific academic or professional credentials for the post, it is presumably due to family ties that he took over the Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication last year. The question is whether with so much of leadership authority given to him already by his two brothers, there has been any appreciable improvement in the socio-economic sphere due to his leadership to date?

On the contrary, despite his prominent role as advisor to the President and Head of the Presidential Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication nearly a year ago, the country seems to have gone into a vortex of cataclysmic blunders and plunders too numerous to relate. These range from the rape of the forest cover in Sinharaja, the wetlands, the systematic appropriation of state lands circumventing legislation to be distributed at will to business groups via the District Secretaries, the Fertiliser fiasco, the mounting Covid-19 pandemic that allowed the deaths to grow from a mere 10 to 3000 owing to bungling of Covid Prevention and Protection policies, etc.

In this context, even his previous track record and experience as National List Minister, Advisor, and elected Minister, holding Cabinet Portfolio as Minister of Economic Development in the Rajapaksa government during 2007 – 2014, shows a pendulum shift of the People rejecting the Mahinda Chinthanaya government for a subsequent yahapalanaya, that subsequently betrayed their trust as well! In this instance, too, history may have a record of repeating itself at the next election, considering the widespread discontent and indignation of the masses at the present mayhem in governance and civil life.

The people should be wary of bold declarations and assumptions made by a few acolytes, who claim the strategic coordinating and organisational abilities of their Master Basil Rajapaksa; who is supposedly the mastermind behind the unification of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the formation of political alliances with other parties to form a stable government. Power Politics is for politicians and their stooges. What the people of this country want is a wise, honest and professional leadership, to address the myriad problems of this country and deliver result-oriented solutions and deliverables across the urban and rural divide, in an equitable manner. Certainly, skills and strategies of political machinations towards wresting power from its opponents’ is of the least interest to the people.

In that case, we should consider whether the prospective return of Basil Rajapaksa to the arena of finance and economic development, is chiefly to celebrate the fact it was only very recently that he and three others working under him when he was Minister of Economic Development in the last decade, were acquitted and released by the Colombo High Court in the case filed over the misappropriation of public funds to distribute roofing sheets during the run up to the 2015 Presidential Election. The Divineguma case was filed by the Attorney General against Former Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, and a number of officials working under him, including his former Ministry Secretary, ex-Director-General and Deputy DG of the Divineguma Development Department Kithsiri Ranawaka. for committing offences punishable under the Offences against Public Property Act, under five separate indictments for the criminal misappropriation of funds from the Divineguma Development Department. An overseas travel ban that was imposed concurrently to the case in hand was also lifted by the High Court. Another salutary move on the part of the government contributing to the rising star of Basil Rajapaksa, was the notable exception in retaining the controversial dual citizenship clause of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which amended the other three Public Interest issues. Dual citizens such as Basil Rajapaksa, who owe allegiance as citizens of both Sri Lanka and USA therefore can now hold public office.

Basil Rajapaksa was under investigation for corruption and abuse of state assets until last year. In 2016, the court ordered authorities to auction a luxury villa and 6.5 ha (16 acres) of land in Malwana. His hasty departure to his other home in the USA upon the defeat of his brother at the presidential election is inscribed indelibly in the minds of those who have long memories. Setting the context is another revelation in Parliament in April this year when JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, has highlighted the highly suspect conduct and performance of the Presidential Commission on Political Victimisation, and the highly arbitrary and manner in which it exonerated certain persons associated with the President and his family.

The enigma of the importance of popular political personalities like Basil Rajapaksa must after all be subject to the dictates of our Socialist Democratic Republic and its vibrant relatively free media, that we must continue to uphold as our liberty and defence, against all odds and abuses.

According to John Adams, founding father and 2nd President of the USA, we the people of this country “have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge — I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers.” Therefore, the ultimate ascendancy of personalities must rest on the knowledge of their character and conduct acquired by the people of this country, whatever be the magical or meteorite properties assigned to them by their sycophant followers.

 

SONALI WIJERATNE

Kotte

 

 



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Opinion

KNDU: MBBS for the rich, crumbs for the poor

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By RAMYA KUMAR

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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Opinion

The Prophet discouraged employing domestic servants

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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?

MOHAMED ZAHRAN

Colombo

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Opinion

Benefits of rhythmic gymnastics for girls

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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.                                                

P. HETTIGE

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