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Give teachers and principals their due

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Why didn’t the Education Minister and the Secretary pay due attention to the fair voices of the most vulnerable and largest service sector of this country, at the initial stage, making the alliance of teacher-principal trade unions proceed to street protests, which started in the absence of any positive gesture from the Ministry of Education? That is how the present state of chaos originated.

The prolonged online teaching strike has kept the younger generation of all school-going children in darkness, and their right to learn has been deprived of. Blaming the teachers is not the solution. What is required is the right solution at the time of need. The unions are demanding the implementation of the Subodhini Committee report, plus the Cabinet subcommittee proposals, in a gazette notification. It is more sensible for the government to respond to this final flexible stance of the unions, rather than prolonging the issue with temporary solutions.

The strikers of the teacher-principal unions are not ready to give in to the temporary sugar candy sachet which is a pretty ridiculous joke, a consolation allowance to dodge the crux of the problem. Plastering or patching up the situation by offering an allowance of Rs. 5000 for three months is a shame to the teacher community. Such an allowance should be allocated for COVID-19 affected people of low-income or refugees in flood-affected regions.

What could have been broken with the nail was allowed to grow to the extent that it couldn’t be crushed even with an axe. Successive governments disregarded the demands of teachers and principals, treating them as nonentities; although the ungrateful present-day politicians rose to their present high positions because their bright lives were designed, brain powers sharpened and heads enlightened by teachers.

Although all teachers are not saints, the majority of our teachers are worthy of veneration. They are the architects of nation-building. They must have sufficient pay for a decent living, commensurate with the commitments and their toil. With an ungratified mentality, they may be unenthusiastic to discharge duties. Under such circumstances, the process of nation-building will collapse. So far, they have been doing yeoman’s service but they can’t continue to do so amidst the rising cost of living and unfavourable living conditions. When the salaries of all other employee categories have been brought to a satisfactory level, why does the government not heed to their demand?

In response to the mounting pressure from the teacher-principal trade union strike, the government appointed a cabinet subcommittee to produce another report to solve the problem; but it turned out to be a futile attempt, akin to changing the pillow as a treatment to the headache, wasting the valuable time of both parties. Such a committee should comprise experts from the education field, not from the lobby with the loquacious MPs who are in the habit of suspending and postponing everything until the next budget. On the other hand, what is the need for piling up further committee reports, when there is already a much-quoted and assumed fairly balanced Subodhini Committee report, which has been formulated by a panel of members comprising a former minister, four additional secretaries, and the accountant of the Ministry of Education.

True that the government is in dire straits with financial difficulties, but that is not a sound reason to postpone this issue. If so, why should the government introduce new megaprojects, such as 200 city beautification programmes, import of luxury vehicles for MPs and walking tracks, which are not critical requirements. The problem of teacher salary anomalies could be solved by holding such long term, not so urgent schemes.

The proposed four-phased payment of the salary increments is a nice way of circumventing serious demands of trade unions and yet another fairy tale. It is a way of escaping the main responsibility.

To illustrate this point, let us take the case of the state employees who retired between January 2016 and December 2020. All government employees including judges, ministry secretaries, directors, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces personnel, and mind you, a former director-general of the Pensions Department, was entitled to a revised salary increment system in five stages starting in 2016, and final amalgamation of all increments, due to be paid with effect from January 2020. The salary increment rates are clearly stated in the pension award letter issued by the Director-General of the Department of Pensions, which is a legal document to confirm the claim.

The present government unreasonably cancelled the (2016-2019) pensioners amalgamated salary increment of five stages, by the circular 35/2019(1) dated 20.01.2020 following a cabinet decision. More than 100,000 pensioners have been victimised and deprived of their fundamental right of the salary and sad to say, nearly 1819 pensioners have already died without getting their increments. But the government so adamantly refused to pay up and adopted a slippery policy with various cock and bull stories.

The basis for the development of a country is the education system, spearheaded by the formidable workforce of teachers hailing from Aristotle and Disapamok. All of the so-called thriving politicians; garrulous speakers who look down upon teacher communities; professionals, academics, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, inventors, artists, all of these are the intellectual outputs of the dedicated energies of humble teachers who never gave priority to building highrise palaces for their self-indulgence and luxurious lives. Not to let it happen again and again, they deserve to be freed from this muddle of salary anomalies at this critical moment.

Finally, a word about the mediation of the Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, who are urging the alliance of the teacher-principal trade unions to give the strike up , and restart online teaching. May I appeal to the venerable prelates to be fair to all. Could you, in your respected designations, kindly convey the same message to the government, asking why it is not taking an initiative to resolve this burning issue, by issuing a circular or gazette notification, without postponing it off further, for the sake of the innocent school children?

M.B. NAVARATHNE



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Opinion

Prof. Anthony Joseph Weeramunda

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An Appreciation

An online commemoration event was held last week, organised by the Sociology Alumni Association of the Colombo University, in association with the Department of Sociology there, to appreciate the contribution that Professor A.J. Weeramunda, who passed away three months ago, made to the Department, training of undergraduate and graduate students and sociological and anthropological research over three decades, since the early 1980s. The well attended event showed the wide ranging impact that his presence and work at the University of Colombo has had on his students and colleagues there, over several decades. What I attempt in this short narrative is to highlight a few significant contributions he made to promote critical social science research in Sri Lanka, based on my own observations, over three decades, when I had the opportunity of closely interacting with him as one of his colleagues in the Department.

Professor Weeramunda became a regular staff member in the Department of Sociology, in the early 1980s, and was already the Head of Department when I moved in there, in 1985 as a young lecturer. Though he was much senior to me, at the time, I immediately felt that he did not worry about his seniority in dealing with his colleagues. He began to address me affectionately as Siri, giving me the tacit understanding that I should reciprocate by addressing him by his first name, Joe. No doubt our graduate studies for several years, in two broadly similar western countries, made the above interpersonal adjustment that much easier. But, then it did not take long for me to realise that he was a kind, unassuming, friendly, informal, humorous and down to earth  person who did not worry about hierarchical values.

Joe Weeramunda was not just another academic. While his commitment to serious academic research and dissemination of knowledge was quite clear throughout, his personality has been multifaceted from his undergraduate days. Though his main area of study at Peradeniya was English, he also had an interest in the Sinhala language, performing arts, drama, and even religious activities in the area of his own faith. Exposed to the work of such well established, eminent academics, like Edmond Leach, S.J. Thambiah, Gananath Obeyesekere and Ralph Peiris, already as an undergraduate, his interest in Anthropology and Sociology no doubt grew rapidly. His decision to pursue his post graduate studies in Anthropology at Washington University, in the United States, was no doubt a reflection of the above interest. On the other hand, his subsequent research interests that he pursued after his post-graduate studies indicated an influence of even a wider spectrum of scholars.

Several years prior to joining the Colombo Sociology Department, as a permanent staff member, in 1985, I was a visiting lecturer there for several years. It was during this period, in 1984, Joe worked with several Sri Lankan and foreign academics, notably James Brow, Mick Moore and Gananath Obeyesekere, to organise a landmark conference at Anuradhapura on Symbolic and Material Dimensions of Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka. ‘This conference brought together many Sri Lankan and overseas scholars with diverse theoretical orientations. This was necessary given the longstanding theoretical controversy over symbolic versus materialist orientations among anthropologists and sociologists at the time. In the Colombo Department of Sociology itself, this division was evident. While Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, another well known academic there at the time represented the Materialist school, as was evident from his research and writings on agrarian relations in Sri Lanka, while Joe was more tilted towards the symbolic. When a good selection of papers presented at the above conference was published by Sage India in 1992 as a collection of essays edited by James Brow and Joe Weeramunda under the title: Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, it immediately attracted the attention of many  scholars and students alike, in both Sri Lanka and overseas. I was fortunate enough as a younger academic to have had the opportunity of contributing to both the conference  and the publication.

As a well trained liberal arts scholar and an Anthropologist, Joe displayed a keen interest throughout in conducting field research on diverse themes over several decades. He was convinced that undergraduate students should not only be exposed to theoretical discourses within the subject but also undergo practical training in conducting ethnographic research in the field. This would have been been at least partly due to his own exposure to field  research conducted by senior scholars there with the involvement of undergraduate students at Peradeniya. So, he naturally tended to encourage students to spend time in the field, both in rural and urban areas. For instance, even the academic curriculum was modified to some extent to accommodate this aspect of undergraduate education in sociology in Colombo.

The Department of Sociology in Colombo was fortunate to establish an academic exchange programme with Leiden University in the Netherlands, in 1985, when Joe was still the Head of Department. This programme opened up many possibilities for promoting sociological and anthropological research on a range of themes, including the growing phenomenon of labour migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East. Many academic visitors from the Netherlands actively took part in research activities for a number of years in collaboration with members of the academic staff and students in the Department. These research activities no doubt pleased Joe as he could see his students playing an active role in field research as part of their studies.

Joe Weeramunda served the University of Colombo for about three decades. He made a highly significant contribution to the development of the academic and research programmes in the University’s Department of Sociology. He took an active interest in the development of research and other skills of the students. His very friendly and informal ways of dealing with his students helped him to develop a good rapport with students. As many of his former students attested at the commemoration event, he was not just another university professor for them. It is no doubt his multifaceted personality that appealed to them, turning their experiences as undergraduate and postgraduate students into lifelong memories.

I, as one of his colleagues in the Department for three decades, would remember him not only as a brilliant scholar but also as a  good friend and a humble, down-to-earth person.

Siri Hettige,

Emeritus Professor of Sociology,

University of Colombo

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Opinion

What to do with political ‘dishonourables’?

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Everybody, it seems, is appalled by the attraction of politics as a haven for the Intellectually challenged. It is revealed that some 60 % or something, in Parliament (Our Head Office for Democracy), do not boast of six passes at the “O-Level”. The actual numbers are unimportant, because even one (in 225) is excess. (Please ask the peons who scuttle around the chamber, keeping the water bottles of MPs recharged. Their percentage will surely be higher). For their contributions to State performance, even tapeworms would probably be more generous in the returns to their hosts.

But give it to the Honourables and their ingenuity, they use a very fine method. This is to bestow, as many as possible, Doctorates – thereby raising the average – assuming that credits are transferable! Suits me, as my conscience does not permit the use of “honourable”, I feel more comfortable with Dr. – at least I would be right 50% of the time, and still rising!

It has often been stated that members of the Singapore Legislature are among the highest paid in the World, but as the Chinese itinerant cloth seller of yore would say to the bargaining housewife, “Yes, m’am, but good things no cheap, cheap things no good”. It has to be noted that in the Singapore comparison, the much-envied numbers are “absolutely all-inclusive”. No housing allowances, cars, petrol, attendance fees, subsidised meals, light bills, telephones, medicals or any other. I believe that the legendary Lee Kwan Yew, generously conceded that ‘any of his cabinet’ was at perfect liberty to dwell in the swankiest neighbourhood, or own the poshest vehicle – but at his cost.” The recently retired German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was asked, “Why are you always clad in the same overcoat? Do you not own another?” Retorted she, “I am a public servant and not a fashion model!” What modesty, what class!

It would be unrealistic to expect the electoral process to operate on the basis of an objective assessment of the merits of contending candidates. Equally, it cannot be denied that the performance and contributions of the successful are demonstrably unequal.

However uncomfortable it may be, some means of recognising and giving effect to the indisputable principle that “Performance must match emoluments” or “Service must match reward”. There is no simple method of achieving this manifestly fair goal. May one suggestion be useful as a working proposition? Every member should draw as emolument, their last drawn salary or fee, (supported by the latest Income Tax declaration), multiplied by a pre-agreed factor of five, 10 or even 20 (or whatever), as all-inclusive remuneration. Beyond that, no other payments or perks, hidden or otherwise whatsoever. It would be a great index of sincerity, if such a proposal were to be seriously considered (or voted upon, by a secret ballot if desired). This might help us to separate the grain from the chaff, and go some way in raising the public esteem of Parliament, from its unhealthily low present position.

One other compelling benefit will be that the indefensible crime of hawked vehicle permits would cease. We cannot afford to have criminals in our Hallowed (or Hollowed?) Parliament, can we? If this suggestion secures approval, a great improvement in quality of debate, behaviour, decorum and usefulness will soon manifest.

The vehicle permit issue deserves a further mention, because one justification is laughable and serious at the same time. One person close to the political centre and thus reliable, argued that contesting an election was very costly, and beyond the reach of the capable and the untainted. Only drug kingpins, smugglers, cheats, procurers and similar criminal types could afford such an outlay. All agree that an improved composition of Parliament membership is urgently needed. Therefore, the honest ones selected, deserve some means of recovering their costs. So, what could be wrong in their selling a privilege – vehicle permit, petrol coupons, fake medical claims, etc.? And if I may add, “Take-away packs” of the heavily subsidised restaurant grub?

But some problems arise with such a cozy attempt to justify this clearly improper practice. The major problem is, why did not this principle of “The end justifies the means” apply in the case of that poor woman who attempted to pinch two packets of milk powder to feed her starving kids, or that girl arraigned for picking a few fallen coconuts to help pay for her class books?

One may well be tempted to ask “Why should not those who make the Law (Legislators) be also permitted to break them?”. Or, in the case of politicised appointees, “Why should not the person who appoints, be denied the right to “disappoint”? Neat but not logical nor moral enough. Two wrongs do not make a right. Or, do they?

Dr UPATISSA PETHIYAGODA

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Opinion

In defence of teachers’ struggle

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by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva

I am a consultant physician, now retired after 35-years of government service. Both my parents were trained teachers and I made the most of what my teachers at Richmond College, Galle, and later those affiliated to the Colombo Medical School taught me. I am ever so indebted to them for all that I achieved in life. Hence, I fully understand the value of the service provided by my parents and teachers. I have been teaching medical students for 25-years and enjoyed teaching and training them to be good and honest doctors to serve the motherland. I value very much this aspect of my service, without any extra emoluments, even more than looking after the patients in the ward. Preparing the children and the youth to take over the future is the vital function performed by a teacher in whatever field.

I was a very active member of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) in its heyday. It was a respected apolitical trade union concerned only with ensuring the basic rights of the doctors and maintaining a good service for our people. Unlike today, leaders of the Association, at that time did not harbour any political ambitions and were not deeply involved in issues beyond our field of knowledge, or service. I remember ignorant politicians were arguing then that as doctors were the recipients of free education, provided by the tax payer, they should be prepared to serve the people without taking trade union action for achieving their rights and better conditions of service. Our argument then was simple. Doctors and others who had a higher education are the ones who made the best use of what was offered free while the majority had wasted that opportunity. If we were to provide an honest service to the people the doctors should have peace of mind without any interference, political or otherwise. They also deserve an adequate remuneration not having to depend on private practice taking up a significant part of their day. We insisted that if what the doctors performed was considered a vital function, then the authorities should act to solve the problems that arose within the health service without delay as matters of urgency. During trade union action taken as a last resort after much deliberation, we did not hesitate to stop teaching medical students for a few days while providing an essential service in the hospitals. However, thinking back, I agree anyone seeking treatment should not have been denied relief. We were acutely conscious of the fact that less educated, unscrupulous politicians and their henchmen were making colossal amounts of money fleecing the public purse.

I mentioned the facts above as they are very relevant to the crisis in education services today. Teachers who are supposed to mould the life of the future generation of Sri Lankans are being shabbily treated. They are being humiliated by politicians. Some threaten to impale them; others are known to have made lady teachers kneel down as punishment. Many make very disparaging remarks about the teachers in various public forums and even in Parliament. Most of these petty-minded politicians appear to be worried that their very survival is being threatened. The situation is made worse by the poorly educated politicians shedding crocodile tears about the education of children and preaching how the teachers should function. Intimidating the teachers that way can only aggravate the situation.

The system of education in the country is in crisis. The COVID pandemic has kept all the schools closed down for over a year. A small percentage of the school children who could afford it receive so called on-line education. This has not been properly organised or regulated by the education authorities and is done mainly as a voluntary effort of the teachers at their own expense. The cost of essential equipment like computers and the cost of getting data are borne by the teachers themselves and by the parents. No effort has been made by the education ministry to provide affordable basic computers and other material for this purpose. Even after nearly a year with the total collapse of education, the Ministry of Education does not seem to have thought of planning to have a system in place to face any future problems of this nature. Throughout the years there has been a wide discrepancy in the facilities at schools in different parts of the country. Many underdeveloped areas suffer from lack of basic facilities in their schools. The ignorant politicians seem to believe that education will be complete when some uniform material is given free every year. Unregulated tuition industry is thriving thanks to this negligence.

I have seen how the education system functions in a few developed countries. The teachers are treated with much respect there. They are a happy lot, receiving salaries comparable to many other professions. Being content on how well the society respects them, naturally they take a personal interest to see that their pupils get the best out of the school. They have no fears of being ill-treated by the authorities or being threatened with transfers to difficult areas and the like. Peace of mind is essential if one is to provide a proper service, whether it is a school teacher or a doctor. I do not propose that the teachers and others in my country should receive a salary and other facilities comparable to those in developed countries. We have a long way to go to achieve that. The way authorities are bungling in every sphere of activity it is unlikely that we will get anywhere near those standards in the foreseeable future.

Teachers are poorly paid. A significant proportion of teachers get a monthly salary less than a police constable, a soldier or those in the clerical service. They have no special provisions even to get their own children admitted to a school of value, unlike many others who get concessions within their own fields of service. With the rapidly rising cost of living they are on a war path to get a salary rise that was promised 25-years ago, but never granted. The present rulers, returned to power with the promise of correcting all shortcomings of the past, cannot find refuge in blaming the past governments for this unfortunate situation. When money is being doled out in billions of rupees to petty politicians mainly to win the next round of elections as well as rampant corruption well known in the public domain, the government cannot claim that there are no funds to meet the basic demands of the teachers. I feel when their justifiable demands are falling on deaf ears the trade union action of the teachers is fully justified. While accepting that this would affect the children adversely, the prolongation of the dispute should be blamed fully on the authorities who refuse to give a patient hearing and believe in suppressing the teachers using bullying tactics with arrogance.

The argument that a substantial salary increase for the teachers will upset the entire salary structure in the state sector is not tenable. Many professionals including doctors, certain categories of engineers and some others have had their emoluments increased from time to time without any such considerations. The police and armed forces too have been given pay hikes on several occasions. Anomalies caused by such ad hoc actions by those responsible could not be an excuse to keep the teachers underpaid forever. Just appealing to the teachers to forget their own problems and keep on teaching the children as an honourable service is hardly the solution.

It is unfortunate that some other trade unions aligned with the government keep insulting the teachers’ unions and their leaders. Such actions probably promoted by those in power will only make matters worse. Grievances of teachers cannot be handled the same way as the unions of harbour workers and the like are dealt with. It is high time other unions openly supported this trade union action of the teachers. The parents of affected children too should be sympathetic to the plight of the teachers without looking for short term solutions. They should collectively apply pressure upon the politicians and others concerned to consider the demands of the teachers favourably. Attempts by various elements to instigate them to protest against teachers should be resisted.

All concerned should be interested in the welfare of the teachers to whom we have entrusted the future of our own children or grandchildren by receiving a proper education. It appears that social justice will not be achieved without a total overhaul of the present system of governance headed by corrupt politicians and their henchmen. I wonder what options are available to the people when democracy has failed a once prosperous nation.

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