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Health Regulations and Ground Realities

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Time to Break the Boundaries – Part II

 

BY Shivanthi Ranasinghe
ranasingheshivanthi@gmail.com 

(Part I was published last Thursday)

Notwithstanding the deep worries and many difficulties in keeping children home, parents have not responded well to the reopening of schools during the second pandemic. This may be because of the gap between the issued health regulations and the practicality of implementing it.

‘Do not share’, for instance, is one such regulation. In an exam, this is understood. Every child must have his/her own stationery and are disallowed from borrowing even an eraser. Candidates understand that during an exam to breach these regulations would be grounds for disqualification. They would also be given their own desk and chair at least a foot away from the other and once seated, are discouraged from any interaction with each other.

While even the least studious would comply with this strict discipline during an exam period, it is highly doubtful this would be the case on a regular school day. Unlike in an exam hall, desks are often crammed together for lack of space in overcrowded classes. In this environment, it would be very difficult to stop students from sharing not only stationary, but other personal items such as water bottles. 

Most children enjoy school not so much for the lessons but for the company of their peers. Even without a pandemic, school authorities thus have a hard time controlling children from huddling and chatting. 

It was recently revealed that people reporting to work comply with all the prescribed regulations at the work place’s entry point. However, it has been found that especially during the lunch break people resort to old habits such as sitting together, thereby putting each other at great risk. If this is the situation in the adult world, then to expect a different scenario from children is surely being overoptimistic.

In this context, ensuring the one-metre radius from each other at all times would be most challenging. Furthermore, students once out of school gates are no longer the school’s responsibility. Children who use public transport especially act on their own discretion. How religiously they will then follow the health regulations or even remember these over time is questionable. 

At the same time the situation in schools without water for drinking or basic sanitation cannot be overlooked. It is doubtful if these schools could provide the extra facilities to wash and sanitize hands regularly or monitor body temperature. Especially when it rains, it is also doubtful if all children would be able to comply with the Ministry’s regulation to wear a freshly laundered uniform daily to school when all some children possess is one set of uniforms. 

 

The Pre-Pandemic Era 

 Clearly, the ‘new normal’ needs more than a face mask, social distancing and regular hand sanitizing. This redefining is further complicated by the many lacunae in our education system.

 

Uneven Educational Platform 

Many schools are without facilities as running water, sufficient teaching staff and equipment for a library, computer or science lab or even grounds to play or for sports activities. There are schools with sheds for classrooms and trees for roofs. Recently, a news report highlighted the plight of a school in Badulla so deprived that the students learn their music lessons on a keyboard drawn on a piece of paper. These schools over time close down permanently. 

It is these ground realities that make the Grade V Scholarship exam so important. Earning the opportunity to a better facilitated and a ‘recognized’ school is theoretically sound. Practically, it is mired with problems. To be separated from family from age 12 onwards is a mean feat and discounts the importance of a family bond and security in a child’s development. This is further aggravated by unwarranted problems many face in boarding houses. Naturally some students lose their momentum and do not perform as well in higher grades and exams. 

The braindrain suffered as a nation when our graduates migrate to better economies is a matter of concern. The Grade V Scholarship exam too promotes children with potential to leave their villages. Thus, these villages do not see a return on the investment made on its future generation. Without knowledge or the power of the educated, these areas remain poor and underdeveloped. 

Ironically, students from these rural areas may gain university entrants with a lower aggregate than those studying in better facilitated schools. As a result, those who won the Grade V Scholarship studying in ‘better’ schools have to work harder and gain a higher score than their friends who were left behind in the village. This is just one example of the chicken wire and chewing gum solutions applied to keep a flagging education system propped up. 

This anomaly that forces some students to perform better was even twisted to justify a separatist war in the country. It was after great sacrifice that the war was ended. Yet its ghosts continue to haunt the nation. Therefore, this situation should not be allowed to continue any longer. 

 

Limited Capacities in Universities 

While over 150,000 qualify annually for university entrance, due to lack of capacity only about 30,000 can be accommodated. Over the decades, millions are thus denied their right for a higher education.

Despite the overemphasis on mathematics and science subjects in our syllabus, only 10 percent of our schools can allow students to follow the science stream. Due to lack of foundation in secondary education a larger percentage are forced to follow the Art stream than science, computer or mathematics fields that offer greater employability. Therefore, many of the graduates have followed the Arts stream.

 

Unemployed Graduates

The consequence of producing more Art graduates than needed is tragic. They often end up in the streets, agitating governments to absorb them into the State sector. After receiving an education at State expense, their expectation from the Government to provide them with a job as well is looked upon with contempt. Their reluctance to join the private sector adds to this scorn. This is interpreted as being lazy and desiring a job only to ‘heat the seat’. 

 

In Pursuit of Paper Qualifications 

Children are naturally inquisitive. Yet, special techniques are needed by primary educators to hold young students’ attention. This curious situation has arisen because our education system is exam oriented on regurgitating facts than geared for actual learning. The system expects children to keep up with the curriculum. There is neither the provision for different learning curves, nor interests or talents. Our education system is without proper stimuli to arouse curiosity in a child, promote creativity or encourage problem solving. Children are expected to follow instructions than take initiative.

Increasingly the curriculum is narrowing on mathematics and science subjects with other important interests as language, music and aesthetics falling on the wayside. The emphasis is more on spellings and grammar than reading and storytelling. The whole learning process has become so clerical, that it is like a diet of vitamin and mineral pills than actual food. 

Until Ordinary Levels, students are annually pushed up a grade regardless of their grasp or interest on subject matter. Afterwards, subjects are selected not on interest but on the ability to pass exams. Obtaining this paper qualification, even if it does not guarantee a job, has become the overriding factor.

The free education that is compulsory for every child in Sri Lanka has been obviously lagging behind in many ways. COVID-19 that is demanding a ‘new normal’ might be just the equalizer needed to provide equal opportunities for all children.

 

(Part III will be published on Monday)



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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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Opinion

Need in New Year is to heal the divides

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By Jehan Perera

One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future.  The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future.  According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness.  Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest.  There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.

Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police.  They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity.  Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets.  According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit. 

 

JAFFNA VISIT

Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades.  Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere.  Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities.   He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment. 

The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past.  At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do.  When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.

At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living.  An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities.  He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families.  He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.

 

UNIFYING THEME

The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together.  Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such.  It was much like the rest of the country.  At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government.  The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government.  At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest. 

The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north.  There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner.  If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate.  It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring.  As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with.  As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.

The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood.  The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.  The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis.  However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda.  The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE.  Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.

 

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