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Gamini Dissanayake – the Visionary

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In Retrospect

By Nanda Abeywickrama

That fateful mid-night of 24th of October 1994 was one of unbelievable shock and deep sadness. Sri Lanka lost a promising presidential candidate, erudite and dependable political leader and above all a wonderful human being, at the hands of the dreaded LTTE. Srima Dissanayake lost her beloved soulmate and the young family an endearing father and guide. It was the end of a saga and a turning point in national politics. As we commemorate this unfortunate event and going back four decades and more in time brings me to September 1976 when after nearly seven years in the then Ministry of Agricultures and Lands under the leadership of Minister Kobbekaduwa and Secretary Mahinda Silva I left for Cambridge University to pursue postgraduate studies in Land Policy my chosen field as an SLAS Officer. My immediate boss, K H J Wijayadasa, said, “Nanda, you are very lucky to be away at this unpredictable juncture”.

His words proved prophetic; the next few months had been chaotic, characterized by internal dissension in the government ranks, severe shortages of essentials, trade union strikes, agitations and demonstrations.

By the time I returned to the country, in September 1977, Sri Lanka had witnessed a sea change: a change of government, some communal riots and plans for a shift from the parliamentary system of government to an executive presidency and blue prints for an unprecedented development thrust. Gamini Dissanayake, at age 35, was a leading driver in this team. Paradoxically, although my specialization was in Land Policy, I was sucked in to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs under the leadership of Minister Montague Jayawickrema and Secretary D B I Siriwardana. When I expressed my preference to be back in my Agriculture and Lands Ministry DBI gave a strong warning that SLAS officers had to be fitted in where their services are needed and I was ‘fitted in’ as Senior Assistant Secretary-in-charge of District Administration. I settled down to my task the bulk of which was transferring Assistant Government Agents at the whim and fancy of new local politicians.

My first encounter with Minister Gamini Dissanayake was around March 1978 when Engineer Douglas Ladduwahetty then Chairman of the Mahaweli Development Board introduced me at the makeshift Ministry office at Darley Road. My first impression of the Minister was positive; very positive. He had a charming and calm disposition and a cultured and charismatic personality. He inquired about my background but seemed to know a lot more! the Minister invited me immediately to join his Ministry but there were processes to go through.

As a Member of the Accelerated Mahaweli Project (AMP) Task Force, which met every week and reported progress to the President at an evening meeting every fortnight, I had a ringside view of how the AMP was evolving and the leadership provided by Minister Dissanayake. Although the government had made a formal decision the AMP was not as yet fully accepted by the public or by the financiers. It required a lot of convincing –of opposition parliamentarians and their supporters and equally or more important, the donor community. The then Finance Minister Ronnie De Mel has recounted the massive efforts taken to lobby heads of state and mufti – national donors to garner funds for the AMP.

At this juncture, the AMP had many detractors on grounds of high costs, doability and the risks of heavy foreign borrowing. The task of convincing fell squarely on Minister Dissanayake’s shoulders. Based on professional advice he was able to use his persuasive skills to convince the head of state that the AMP was doable and having got it, to take on the detractors of the calibre of Dr Colvin R De Silva and of Dr. N. M Perera and convince them using his communication and inter-personal skills. He was equally comfortable with testy international and multi-national donors as with local and international NGOs and civil society representatives to get them on board in his fund-raising drive.

Between March and September1978 a massive effort was in operation behind the scenes to reach consensus on the scope of the project, initiate feasibility studies and to engage with international and multi-lateral donors to identify funding. Practically every week at dinner meetings with donors Minister Gamini was in his elements marketing the project with a range of donors who had been evading Sri Lanka in previous years. He was so effective that by the latter part of the year donors were scrambling for a piece of the cake. The legal framework for the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka (MASL) too was formulated during this period.

Unlike in the present day there was a rationale in the assignment of subjects, functions and agencies to the Ministry. Positioning pedigreed departments like the Surveyor General’s, Forests, Irrigation. Land Settlement and Land Commissioner along with related Boards and Corporations was conducive to developing an integrated strategy and work plans which we identified as natural resources management in line with contemporary scientific thinking. MLLD was also positioned to provide technical advice and support to the AMP. I got the Minister’s blessings both to procure the best national and international expertise for advice as well as to hand pick my professional team of senior technical officers and administrators together with reputed managers drawn from the private sector.

We immediately set about obtaining expert advice and assistance from Cambridge University in formulating our scope and from the Indian Institute of Management on implementation in partnership with ARTI, SLIDA and national Universities. Working closely with related ministries Of MMD, Agriculture, Home Affairs and of Planning we developed a mini six year plan and a strategy for endorsement by government in order that the administrative machinery that has to deliver is on all fours with the Ministry’s philosophy and strategy. We established a close rapport with the Government Agents (District Secretaries) who were a critical link in the implementation of our programmes. This worked out very effectively in delivering our programmes to the grass roots level where our target group the rural poor were struggling with the land and water in their immediate environment. Despite his preoccupation with the AMP and other interests as cricket, and trade unions, the Minister paid due attention to the programmes of MLLD to reach out to the rural poor in the rest of the country.

This strategy worked as the Agencies and the District administration adopted a collegial spirit to deliver the services. In a short period of time, we had taken corrective action to streamline the allocation of state land to the landless, to rationalize the management of village irrigation systems and to be very stringent in the use and management of forests that had been heavily over-exploited over a long time. This approach enabled us to raise concessional funds from international and multi-lateral donors to mount a medium term programme for the rehabilitation of practically all irrigation systems starting with the Gal Oya Rehabilitation Project all of which had suffered from years of under investment, introducing sound land management practices and titling culminating in the Swarnabhoomi programme, and above all scientific forest management and planning leading to the preparation of a 30-year Forestry Master Plan. In order to widen the field and bring them up to speed with global trends we were able to host the headquarters of the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI now IWMI) though an Agreement signed in September 1983 and the Regional office of the IUCN later in the decade.

Minister Gamini provided the leadership in all these endeavours without reservation and at a political level warded off any resistance or distraction keeping to a clearly identified path. He also maintained very cordial relations with our friendly donors and lobbied intensively in Cabinet which helped in no small measure to raise concessional funding for our long term programmes The MLLD annual budget which started in 1978 at below Rs200 Million grew exponentially to over Rs 2 Billion within a decade maintaining staff strength with only a marginal increase yet improving management effectiveness though through capacity building.

The relationship between a Minister and the (Permanent) Secretary is not clearly laid out anywhere since a lot depends on the personality of each except that the Secretary as Chief Accounting Officer for the Ministry and its Agencies is solely accountable for managing its finances. He left this responsibility entirely in my hands with minimum interference such that after 10 years of working together there were no financial probes, adverse reports or scandals in our operation. In regard to man management the situation was rather dodgy because the 1972 Constitution brought most staff under the control of the Minister and not the Public Service Commission that we were accustomed to.

Minister Dissanayake however in his first briefing after my appointment said “I want to do my politics; you run the Ministry” and thus gave me a blank cheque but it was a tall order. I had to reciprocate by contributing my best effort. The Minister allowed me to select my senior team like Additional Secretaries s and Divisional Directors and discretion in the selection of Heads of Departments, most of whom that I selected were the best available and happened to be my close colleagues from the SLAS and from my Agriculture Ministry days. My administrative tasks became easy because all selectees were self-motivated, highly competent and dependable qualified and experienced having held senior positions in government.

Minister Dissanayake’s achievements in designing Mahaweli as a dynamic and futuristic settlement model, and in getting Test status for Sri Lanka Cricket are well known. Beyond that what impressed me most was his eagerness and constant interest in working towards a modernized Sri Lankan society by the year 2000.He was always receptive to new and novel ideas that could march towards that vision. He knew the constraints in working through a slow-moving administrative system and was ever willing to support measures that could overcome them.

Minister Gamini was a champion of parliamentary democracy; he believed in the value of open and intense debate and dialogue to reach consensus as his parliamentary and public speeches would demonstrate; he accepted the role of intellectuals and professionals in the governance and development processes, the criticality of consistency and continuity in administrative and management structures for governance and the imperatives of keeping pace with emerging global trends through the medium of information technology that was beginning to sweep across the world. Armed with his wide knowledge base acquired through constant reading and combined with his remarkable communication skills as a public speaker Sri Lanka would have reached out to a very wide global audience and benefitted from their contributions the scale of which it is difficult to visualize in retrospect.

Going by my 10-year experience with him in the 1980s, had Gamini survived and led Sri Lanka, the country would have been in the upper middle income category, with its economy growing at around 8%; about 50% of the Sri Lankan population would have been enjoying urban lifestyles and moving towards a sustainable development paradigm deeply conscious of the need to handle the challenges of unfolding climate change scenarios and a sound natural resources management regime. Sri Lanka has lost a leader with a vision to transform its economy and society through a smooth transition from a war ravaged, ethnically estranged nation heavily dependent on worker remittances to a tech savvy, modern, dynamic and sustainable society that could match the best of the emerging economies not merely in the Asian Region but anywhere in the world. That was the dream he did not live to realize.

Frequent references to Gamini in the media in different contexts confirm that he still enjoys wide acceptance as a committed political leader who could realize Sri Lanka’s potential in the medium term. As of today, though, we do not see a leader of that calibre in the making. The best tribute to Gamini would be for emerging political leaders to take the cue from him and pursue his political philosophy and strategies for the welfare of our citizens and inspire a new generation of young politicians and professionals to pursue those goals.

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A year into Rajapaksa presidency amidst Covid-19 pandemic

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by Harim Peiris

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

 

 

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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How rot set in

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Rubber:

By Dhamsiri Dasanayaka,

Ex-Advisory Officer, Rubber Research Board

Rubber could be considered bread and butter of bona fide smallholders. They have cultivated their lands with rubber plants and manufacture Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) out of their harvest by using traditional knowledge. The government in order to help them initiated an extension service for cultivating rubber. This article attempts to show how this extension mechanism came about.

In 1972, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) established two extension departments, namely Smallholdings Department (SHD) for rubber smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, both were amalgamated into a separate scientific extension department called Advisory Services Department (ASD). From 1953, under the Rubber Control Act, non-scientific Rubber Control Department (RCD) provided subsidies to rubber farmers. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting and new planting. Copies of these permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out this extension service successfully. They guided the small holders in multiple ways, such as planting, processing, marketting, bark exploitation, and other agricultural activities. This was the rubber extension system that took place during the decade of 1970.

In 1984, Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project 01 (SRRP1) was implemented with World Bank assistance. The Advisory Services Department (ASD), with its flexible financial management system, the well-set theoretical, and practical links with the RRI, functioned effectively to improve the smallholdings sector. Both RRI and ASD were under the Rubber Research Board (RRB) highlighting the “Research- Extension- Farmer” academically recognized agricultural development model, and the SRRP planners decided to entrust this project to the ASD, which consequently became a well-organised active Extension Department like the RRI structure under the (RRB). Chairman of the RRB was a rubber industry professional. RRI and ASD were headed by two PhD qualified Directors. The think tank of the ASD was a scientifically qualified active group competent enough to implement the SRRP project successfully. During this project period, the role of the RCD was to issue permits to rubber farmers.

The Rubber Control Department (RCD), which essentially consisted of administrators, appointed a field staff of rubber Inspectors to handle the extension programme on field. They were too involved in subsidy administration in the field thus duplicating field work of rubber which caused confusion among rubber smallholders according to administrators. To eliminate this farmer confusion from the field, the ASD, which constituted experienced scientific think tank was removed from the RRB in 1994 and attached to RCD think tank, which was mainly an administration body and formed Rubber Development Department (RDD), which was also an administration body. This non-scientific administration think tank (RDD) was not conducive to effective agricultural extension.

By 2002, there were too many irregular segments causing duplication and, hence, excess staff in the RDD were transferred to RRI without having a clear mandate. As a result, 35 extension officers of the RDD who came back to the RRI were entrusted to handle extension programme under the RRI Director. This again led to creation of a dual extension officer situation in the field as in 1994.

At present there are six more institutions formed by the MPI and the relevant authorities to supply services to rubber sector as mentioned below.

As a result, there are four officers from the institutions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the field handling extension and related functions. Now, the rubber farmers are again in a dilemma, unable to figure out which officer should be contacted to get advice on multiple services such as cultivation and processing, etc. Hence, it is questionable why the MPI and relevant authorities have ignored this multiple officer situation. This is in spite of a number of institutions dealing with rubber cultivation and wasting rubber growers cess fund meaninglessly.

 

Source: Rubber Development Department

Table 1 and articles authored by Mr. J. A. A. S. Ranasingha, Dr. L. M. K Tilakaratna and Professor. C. S. Weeraratna, in The Isalnd during the last few weeks indicate that the rubber production in the country has decreased substantially. Table 2 shows the production and imports of RSS in the year 2017. This implies that RSS manufacture should be increased which has a direct link with the smallholder production of RSS. RSS is an input to rubber industry. To improve the productivity of the rubber sector, which is on its way to extinction, there is a pressing need for an effective scientific rubber extension organisation to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. This will enable agronomically qualified think tank to assist rubber farmers to carry out agronomical activities such as outdoor farmer training , indoor training at Nivthigala Kelle, adaptive research activities, planting practices, soil conservation measures, establishing cover crops, fertilizer application, exploitation methodologies, manufacture of better quality rubber sheets, nursery management, smoke houses management, fixing rain guards and marketing, etc., more effectively like in 1994 and before.

One crucial factor which can be attributed to this calamitous situation in the rubber sector was the extremely unsatisfactory situation in the scientific extension, created by the amalgamation of the ASD and the RCD in 1994, removing the extension-oriented ASD think tank from RRB and forming the RDD administration think tank for the sake of development of the rubber sector. This action led to a breakdown of the well-established “Research – Extension – Farmer” inter faced academic development model. This model is a must in agricultural development and it must never be converted to a “Research – Administration – Farmer” model even though the extension label is affixed to the administrators. As a whole it was counter-productive as evident from the decreased production of rubber and increased imports of RSS due to the extension mechanism.

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Quadriplegic doctor aspires to walk again

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Dr. Dinesh Palipana Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021

By Sajitha Prematunge

Dr. Dinesh Palipana does not have the full command of his fingers and his usual offer of a handshake took the form of an awkwardly extended fist. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like a good sport, fist bumped the quadriplegic doctor, gangster-like, an act of empathy Palipana appreciates to this day. Such are the trials and tribulations Sri Lankan-born Australian doctor, lawyer and disability advocate, Dinesh Palipana is faced with, on a daily basis. But such technicalities didn’t prevent him from recently being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021.

The quadriplegic doctor, the first of its kind in Queensland, and the second in Australia, is currently a lecturer at the School of Medicine, Griffith University; Adjunct Research Fellow at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Senior House Officer (Emergency Department) at Gold Coast University Hospital. “Eleven years ago I was lying on an intensive care bed, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, I couldn’t eat or breathe. My life was falling apart all around me. But to be here after all that trauma seams surreal. But I am grateful for life, for my community, friends and family that supported me,” said Dr. Palipana.

He is a founding member of Doctors with Disabilities Australia, an advocacy group for physicians with disabilities and the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia. Palipana is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. In 2019 Palipana was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine; Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital; Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, a global award in recognition for his work in disability advocacy; and ‘Change Making’ in National Awards for Disability Leadership. All these accolades and achievements would have been impossible without the love and support of his mother, Chithrani Palipana. “My mother taught me what love, strength, commitment and perseverance are.”

 

Tragedy

Born in 1984, Palipana and his family migrated to Australia in 1994, when he was 10. Not only physical disability, Palipana knows only too well how debilitating mental health disorders are as well. He battled with depression, anxiety and panic disorder while studying law. “It took some time. I had to readjust my life and thinking. Finding my purpose really helped.” He realized that law was not his calling. He commenced his Doctor of Medicine at the Griffith University in 2008. When he was 25 and half way through his medical degree, he lost control of his car while driving home on a wet night. The car aquaplaned and rolled. When it finally stopped, he realized that he could not move or feel his legs. Palipana was far enough in his medical education to self diagnose it as a spinal cord injury. It left him quadriplegic.

He lost all sensory and motor function below his chest due to the injury. “I can’t move my fingers,” said Palipana. He has had to make a lot of adjustments to life. “Initially, going from a normal life to being paralysed, was very challenging.” Palipana pointed out that even day-to-day activities can be difficult with impaired movement. Despite a life-changing disability, Palipana decided to go back to medical school. Against all odds he graduated in 2016, with quite a few awards, as the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the state of Queensland, the second in Australia. He also completed a medical clerkship at Harvard Medical School.

Prof Harry McConnell of Griffith University was instrumental in getting Dinesh back on his feet, no pun intended. “He is a passionate believer in inclusivity and has always fought for the rights of those with different abilities. He did a lot of work to facilitate me coming back to medical school. He also helped me a lot with getting my life back together.” Palipana was inspired by Dr Harry Eeman, Australia’s first doctor with tetraplegia, who sustained a severe form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that left him paralysed, halfway through medical school. “Dr. Eeman spent time with me to figure out solutions to some of the physical challenges. His experience really laid the foundation for my journey.”

 

Medical school

Palipana adapted new methods to train as a quadriplegic doctor, in partnership with Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital. Quadriplegia can turn everyday activities into obstacles, but he learned his way around them. “Before coming back to medical school I spent a lot of time finding solutions to challenges. I had a great team helping me.” And with persistence, he learned how to hold a stethoscope making use of the natural grip of his fingers. He learned how to examine patients. “I even learned how to insert a cannula with some assistance.”

When asked how inclusive Australian professional culture is, in terms of employment opportunities for the differently-abled, as opposed to a country like Sri Lanka, Palipana admitted that it initially proved difficult to secure an internship in medicine in Australia. Despite two years in clinical training as a medical student at the Gold Coast University Hospital, Palipana had trouble securing an internship. In 2016, he was the only Queensland medical graduate without an employment offer. “I worked really hard in medical school and got good grades. It was very frustrating that non of those things mattered.”

Palipana admitted that medicine is not the most inclusive profession, but said it has improved much in the past five years. Although he explored the possibility of pursuing a medical degree in a Sri Lankan University, Palipana said that most university administrations were reluctant to accommodate him, “Except for Kelaniya University. Other universities have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.” As a quadriplegic doctor working in Australian, Palipana said that shortcomings of accessibility are not restricted to Sri Lanka. “Accessibility needs a lot of work globally.”

His perseverance paid off. He was eventually employed by the Gold Coast University Hospital as Queensland’s first quadriplegic intern. His disability makes him no less capable as a doctor compared to an able-bodies person. Gold Coast Health, Emergency Medicine Director, Associate Professor David Green, speaking to the Today Show Australia, vouched for Palipana’s ability to pull his weight, albeit on a wheelchair. “In a big, busy emergency with a lot of staff, his value is enormous…After a while you just forget about his disability,” said Green on the Today Show. Dinesh said that the team spirit gets him through. “Besides, there are plenty of patients, I can examine, who do not require me to perform any procedure.”

When asked whether his disability has made him more empathetic towards his patients and whether the accident and subsequent hospitalization made him more able to relate to his patients, Palipana said he remembers what it felt like to be a patient. “It can be disempowering and terrifying. Anchoring myself in my own experiences helps me to remember what it’s like being a patient.” On the other hand Dinesh said that he has never had a patient react negatively to him. “Every single patient has been amazing. I am privileged to be a part of their journey towards recovery.”

Cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injuries has a major research appeal for Palipana, who is determined to walk again. As Griffith University’s Biospine Project co-lead, Palipana explained that thought-controlled rehabilitation involves translating thought patterns into movement. “For example, if someone’s thinking of walking, we can translate that thought to movement by electrically stimulating the leg.” Promising results suggest that it can re-programme the spinal cord to restore some function in people with paralysis. “Therapies such as thought-controlled rehabilitation, drug therapy and digital twins have separately shown to restore some function in people with chronic paralysis. It is our hope that people like me will be able to stand on their own power again.” His ultimate goal is to come up with a therapy for spinal cord injury.

 

Advocacy

After recuperating at hospital for eight months, Palipana came back to Sri Lanka, where he spent another year, recovering in the company of family and friends. While in Sri Lanka he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury victims. In fact, his disability was a catalyst to his advocacy for training medical students with disabilities in Australia. “I’m lucky to be in a position to advocate for people with different abilities,” said Palipana.

Palipana obtained his law degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007 and was admitted as a lawyer in 2020. His background in law gave new impetus for his advocacy work on inclusivity in medical profession and education in Australia. “Law is a great tool that can be used to do a lot of good. It allows us to navigate legal and social structures.” His advocacy work with the Australian Medical Association has paved the way for national policies on inclusivity in medical education and employment. He used his story to demonstrate how the community can work with disability, to overturn a set of guidelines issued by the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand in 2015, vesting Australian medical schools with the power to exclude students with a range of disabilities. “Another major obstacle faced by students with disabilities was the attitudes of education establishments such as universities and academics.” Palipana said that Griffith University was an exception.

Palipana is also vocal about disability rights in the times of COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the inequities that differently-abled people face. Everything from healthcare access to employment has been an issue,” said Palipana. When health resources are scarce, some would argue that they are better utilized on those with a higher chance of survival. When governments of the developed world are forced to consider how to ration ventilators between people with disabilities and those without, how has COVID-19 affected those with disabilities?

If one with lungs as compromised as those of Palipana’s, were to contract COVID-19, the prognosis would indeed be bleak. Palipana explained that people with disabilities, depending on the disability, can be at high risk of increased complications due to COVID-19. “Many disabilities affect lung function. My lungs for example, don’t function as well, because of the spinal cord injury. It’s 30 percent of what it should be. If I were to get COVID-19 or even the flu, the chances of an adverse outcome is relatively high. Similarly, people with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims are susceptible,” pointed out Palipana. That should not justify sidelining people with disabilities. Palipana maintained that it is all the more reason to safeguard such vulnerable groups. “Through different forums and organisations, I am fortunate to be able to make a contribution in this important area.”

His message to people with debilitating disabilities and illnesses, who may be contemplating giving up on life is, “As a good friend once said, life is about ups and downs. Whenever there is an up, just know that there will be a down. Things can get challenging, but anyone can overcome them and live their dream, if they have the will. If I can become a doctor and lawyer others can too. Just find your passion and chase it.”

Going from being unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator, to advocating for disabled people and developing medical aid, real life success stories such as that of Robin Cavendish, never cease to inspire. Dinesh Palipana who proved his mettle by doggedly pursuing a career in medicine, while advocating for disability rights is, without a doubt, of that same calibre and hopefully will inspire multitudes more to achieve similarly extraordinary aspirations.

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