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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

Artificial intelligence and reality of life

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by Dr D. Chandraratna

Ever since President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced his desire to use Artificial intelligence (AI) to develop all sectors, from banking to agriculture, in Sri Lanka several correspondents have enthusiastically endorsed those sentiments in the print media. There is no gainsaying that technology has already made huge inroads into our lives, the latest paradigm adopted and articulated by the developed countries is thrust upon all mankind as the harbinger of a beautiful new world. Just as in an earlier time when the liberative potential of science created an understandable anguish about its misuse, similar forebodings are felt about the future curated by the super machines. Though unlike in the earlier debates where the misuse was calculated in terms of unlikely human catastrophes the current anguish is more about its ever -present transformative potential of the human world.

Most of the developed countries in the Western world, and Australia have launched statutory guidelines in the ethical use of AI. The Chat GPT, it has been cautioned in some quarters, poses such a risk to humanity that it must be subject to stringent regulation as nuclear power. Open AI founder Sam Altman has said that within a decade AI system would be capable of exceeding human expert skill levels in every domain. Given its possibility to be powerful than all other technologies experts predict that AI poses an existential risk like nuclear energy and synthetic biology. Silicon Valley experts are talking the need for a global regulatory body like the international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In the field of education, it risks accuracy and reliability of knowledge, the sources of information, academic integrity, student learning capabilities ending up with a humanity’s self-perception. Six months after Open AI launched ChatGPT, Australian University teachers have stated that they are unable to prove students who cheat with AI because still there is no regulatory body. At a conference held in Sydney last week Senior academics have railed against AI as ‘a tool in education’ because of ethical concerns, built in biases, fake knowledge and hate speech. AI is also generating enormous wealth through education in the hands of a few white male billionaires who are living off surplus value created mostly by brown and black workers.

One Deakin University academic has said it is only a data exchange service and an academic from Macquarie University said that ChatGPT app could easily be used by weak students to obtain enough marks to pass examination. Teachers may have to use open assessments and other examination methods to evaluate students. Students may be tempted to undermine their own desire to acquire knowledge in preference to the attraction of credentials to further their career prospects. Given the fact there is in the developed world a phenomenon of ‘degree inflation’ the quality and value of higher education will diminish. If cheating with the help of AI increases one’s chances of gaining the credentials thereby reducing the lure of understanding many students will not scruple to do so.

It is also the case that AI has the potential to make many employment opportunities ‘surplus to requirements’ in the knowledge economy for AI is efficient and cost cutting. Data analytic employment in multiple industry sectors will vanish overnight. Because of the fears of ChatGPT share prices of many education organisations have plummeted overnight. With the announcement of the ChatGPT, US company Chegg, which produces homework study guides, lost heavily on the stock market with more than half its workforce facing retrenchment.

There are other dangers. The value of education as character building, knowing yourself, examining one’s life, becoming wise, which are the wider objectives of education lose their appeal. Education is reduced to a process of credentialising to make us employable. AI is driven by a few mega corporations whose commercial motives are not aligned with the wider purposes of education beyond the why and the how. Education in the AI era will be concentrating on skills for employability. It can change the current paradigm of education. AI has the potential to cultivate a narcissistic and misguided anti-intellectualism which can shut out reasoned debate on public issues.

This existential threat to our sense of personal autonomy and human agency cannot be ignored. We must legislate to protect those aspects of humanity that are exclusively human and vitally important to the functioning of democratic communities. We should be alert to the fact that AI cannot replace nuance. It is soulless, cannot feel pain or loss, has no heart and no intuition. AI like all replacements to the original will disappoint us at the crucial hour for it cannot replace years of experience, innate ability, and intuitive wisdom.

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Opinion

Palm oil growers await green light for sustainable production

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A young oil palm plantation having a thick legume cover crop

By Emeritus Prof. Asoka Nugawela

Palm oil is a versatile commodity. It is used in numerous products world over. The global usage in 2022/23 is estimated as 76 million metric tons. Accordingly, the average global per capita usage is in the range of 10 kg per annum. Sri Lanka too recorded similar usage during 2018/2019 period, prior to economic downturn in the country. Palm oil usage is very much higher than the usage of other vegetable oils such as coconut, soya, canola, sunflower, rape seed and olive. One major reason for the relatively high per capita usage of palm oil is the affordability to purchase and its availability. Per unit land area, the oil production is four times greater in oil palm when compared with coconut. When comparing with other crops grown for vegetable oil production it is about tenfold higher. Further, oil palm, coconut and olive are perennial crops whereas soya, sunflower, canola and rape seed are short term crops. With short term crops the capital cost component is relatively high with yearly land clearing, land preparation and planting activities to be undertaken. Oil palm with a high oil yield and having a 30-year economic life cycle has the ability to provide a relatively cheaper vegetable oil than from other crops. With perennial crops the disturbance to the soil properties and biodiversity is less than in annuals and is a positive attribute as far as sustainability is concerned.

One other reason for palm oil to be the preferred vegetable oil is because it contains both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids in almost equal proportions. Thus, it is different from coconut and other vegetable oils which contain a relatively high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids, around 90%. Palm oil with its 1:1 balance of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids is the preferred choice for many applications in the food industry.

Both the type and the number of fatty acids of fat in our diets are known to influence health and wellbeing. The present global advice is to increase the consumption of unsaturated fatty acids at the expense of saturated oils and fats. For optimal health we require a mixture of fatty acids to be present in our diet. In this context among the sources of dietary oils and fats palm oil could be viewed as a relatively better option for its ‘mixed’ fatty acid profile (saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids).

The relative advantage in the return on investment the oil palm crop is having over other plantations crops also drives the investments towards this crop. This is true for both plantation and smallholder sectors in major palm oil producing countries in the world. The profitability from different plantation crops grown in Sri Lanka under average management conditions and current agrochemical/material costs & trading conditions are summarised in Table 1. Accordingly, oil palm is by far the most profitable plantation crop in the country. (See table)

The country has a demand for palm oil as a cooking oil and also as a raw material for many other industries. The products made in these industries are essential and widely used. For vigorous growth and high yields oil palm crop should ideally be grown under tropical climatic conditions with more than 2,500 mm of rainfall per annum. The low country wet zone of the country is blessed with such climatic conditions. The return on investment is high with this crop. However, even under such a favorable business environment for this industry, the government of Sri Lanka has taken a decision to ban cultivating this crop in the country. All other palm oil producing countries in the world, i.e., more than 20, are surprised and view this as a wrong decision.

Some repercussions of this decision to ban oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka are a). dependency on other countries to fulfill our vegetable oil need, b). loss of foreign exchange to the country by importing palm oil, c). loss of income to the potential investors, d). loss of employment opportunities and e). depriving potential smallholders, the opportunity to enhance their livelihood. Prior to the economic crisis in this country, around 200,000 MT of crude palm oil (CPO) had been imported annually. The current global market price of a metric ton of crude palm oil is around 900 US$. Thus, the foreign exchange requirement to import national crude palm oil requirement will be more than 180 million US$ per annum without freight and insurance costs.

In the past, forests have been felled to cultivate oil palm in some major palm oil producing countries. The same approach was adopted for planting other plantation crops as well in the past. Deforestation will invariably lead to further shrinking of already depleted forest cover and loss of environmental services we accrue from natural forests. Natural forests significantly contribute to depleting of greenhouses gases, to the natural water cycle and protects biodiversity, soil, catchment areas, rivers and water bodies. Due to serious negative impacts of deforestation on the environment, a worldwide lobby demanding countries to grow oil palm in a more sustainable manner was initiated. With this lobby changes are now taking place in the manner in which land is selected to grow oil palm. For most crops including oil palm, systems to certify sustainable plantation management have evolved and such certification has become a requirement for marketing of produce from plantations. Basically, issues related to cultivating oil palm had been identified, awareness created amongst parties concerned and interventions for rectification have been put in place. In Sri Lanka however, to start with there was no issue of deforestation associated with oil palm cultivation. The land for cultivating oil palm in Sri Lanka was obtained through crop diversification, a scientifically accepted approach. Even then cultivating of oil palm in Sri Lanka was suddenly banned by the government incurring the investors a loss of more than Rs. 500 million on nursery plants alone. The global lobby was against felling forests to plant oil palm. The reasons for the anti-oil palm lobby in Sri Lanka according to some environmentalists, scientists and politicians are negative impacts to the environment, loss of biodiversity, depleting soil water and threat to the existence of other plantation crops. There is no scientific basis for such allegations. But those who lobby against planting oil palm do not want to understand the difference between ecological impacts when planting oil palm subsequent to felling natural forest cover and as a crop diversification program. Various attempts made had been futile and as the Sinhala saying goes it’s like trying to wake up a person who pretends to be sleeping.

The necessity for a country to produce its own needs is more than evident now with the economic crisis the country is facing currently. With a huge disparity in outflow and inflow of foreign exchange to the country the need to produce our own requirements are very much obvious. As explained earlier in this article Sri Lanka has a conducive business environment for a successful palm oil industry. What is lacking to drive the industry forward in the country is the political will. Politicians may be fearing that a decision to lift the ban on oil palm cultivation will not be a popular decision affecting their vote base. Countries economy is currently shrinking leading significant losses in employment, falling income levels, increased inequality and government borrowings. To recover from such an economic crisis the country should not ignore viable industries that could enhance national production. A reversal to the decision to ban oil palm cultivation will lead to producing national requirement preventing the outflow of millions of dollars each year. Revenue moving out will circulate among all stakeholders of the industry helping to enhance their livelihood and strengthening the economy of the country.

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Opinion

‘Modabhimanaya’ everywhere

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The events relating to the recent arrest of a ‘stand-up comedian’ who is allegedly to have insulted the Buddha and Buddhism can be taken as a true reflection of how confused the Sri Lankan society is when it comes to the adoption of religion and law-and-order in their true meaning.

There is absolutely no argument about the sheer folly and callousness on the part of this person in picking such sensitive material as part of her comedy gig. There can be arguments as to whether it was intended to be as derogatory to the Buddha as it seemed on the face of it when the context and the content of that gig are considered in total. But that is completely beside the point. Even if the intention wasn’t malicious, it was a grossly stupid (moda) and improper choice for which proportionate consequences must be expected.

However, have we done any better as a society in the manner we have chosen to react to this event from either a Buddhist or a law-and-order perspective? Apart from a few sane words by a minority, what we could mostly see is an equal measure of idiocy, laced with confusion, hypocrisy, inconsistency, and hatred. The immediate reaction of some of the so-called protectors of the Buddha Sasana seems the complete opposite of the fundamental teachings expounded by the Buddha in his great wisdom. Reacting in this manner begs the question as to what exactly they’re trying to protect and from whom.

Whenever the Buddha was challenged or insulted, which seemed to have happened occasionally during his lifetime, he never encouraged his followers to lose their minds or to seek revenge. The Buddha didn’t rush to enter any defamation complaint at the royal courts either. He only did his best to make his accusers understand and see the truth for themselves. That was done with complete kindness – not with a revengeful heart.

Buddha’s teachings are so profound that his followers are supposed to become wise, stable, and strong enough to be able to handle any praise or contempt that come their way without losing their own minds. It’s therefore very unfortunate (and amusing) to see some of the “followers and protectors” of the Buddha’s teachings, including some Monks, grossly deviate from the teachings they themselves claim to follow and protect!

The law-and-order perspective in this regard also seems to lack clarity and consistency like in many other similar areas. While the provisions of ICCPR Convention were extremely progressive and well-intended, the way our local ICCPR Act is being used leaves a lot of questions than answers.

There appears to be some confusion or misunderstanding about the true intentions of this Act and under what circumstances its provisions should be used. To prevent any misinterpretation or misuse, the ICCPR Convention had clearly emphasised the need for considering the factors like the context, content, intention, potential for violent reaction, etc. before making a call. In the absence of such consistent guidelines, our ICCPR Act could easily become putty in the hands of our scheming politicians and their lackeys in the law enforcement machinery.

Haven’t we already witnessed a lack of consistency in this regard in recent times?

Upul P, Auckland

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