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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

Reminiscences of Colombo University Arts Faculty and Library

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Whilst extending my felicitations to the University of Colombo on the centenary celebrations of the Faculty of Arts and the Library of the University, I would like to record my contribution towards these two units as the Registrar of the University.

It was during Prof. Stanley Wijesundera’s tenure as the Vice-Chancellor (VC) in 1980 that the proposals for the buildings in respect of the Chemistry Department, Physics Department, New Administration, Faculty of Law, Faculty of Arts and the Library were mooted and submitted to the Treasury. At that time it was the National Buildings Consortium that assigned the Consultants and the Contractors for the new buildings to be constructed. Within that year the Treasury allocated sufficient funds for the Chemistry, Physics, Faculty of Law and the New Administration buildings. However, no funds were allocated to the Faculty of Arts and only Rs. 7.5 million was allocated for the Library building.

With the funds allocated the Chemistry, Physics, Law Faculty and the new Administration buildings were able to get off the ground. The construction work in respect of the other two buildings could not commence due to non-allocation of sufficient funds, even though the consultants and the contractors and already been selected.

As the Minister of Finance at that time was from Matara, he was more interested in getting the required buildings for the newly established University of Ruhuna completed, which was in his electorate. This meant that the University of Colombo would not get any funds for new buildings other than those buildings where the construction work had already begun.

The university needed a building for the Faculty of Arts very badly as this Faculty had the largest number of students. The Vice-Chancellor requested me to draft a letter to the Minister of Finance. Accordingly, I drafted a letter and submitted to the VC for his signature. He told it was an excellent letter, and he signed without a single amendment and submitted same to the Minister. The Minister approved the releasing of the funds. Now the consultants to the building project studied the area required for the building and found that a small portion of land was necessary from the land of the Planetarium. My efforts to get the land from the person in charge of the Planetarium, the Senior Assistant Secretary and the Secretary himself were not fruitful. I told the VC of the position and that he would have to speak to the Minister in charge of the Planetarium, Mr. Lionel Jayathilaka. He got the Minister on line and addressing him by his first name and informed the Minister of the problem. The Minister immediately got it attended to. However, when the construction work started, they found that the additional land area was not necessary.

At that time, the payments to the consultants of building projects was 15% of the total value of the cost. So, in designing the building they tried to add various unnecessary items to jack up the cost. When the first phase was completed, the building looked monstrous and it was like a maze, as it was difficult to find your way out once you get in. I requested the architect to add some coloured tiles on the floors and the stairway and a few decorations on the walls. The university had a never ending tussle with the contractor as he was like Shylock asking for more, when everything had been paid. He tried various tactics but did not succeed in getting anything more as I was adamant not to give in.

When the second stage of the building project came up, I told the consultant to drop all the unnecessary items and have a straight forward building. This was done by the new contractor at much less cost to the university.

The Library building was the last of the buildings planned in 1980 that was awaiting construction. When Mr. Richard Pathirana became the Minister of Higher Education, I spoke to the two engineers who were assigned the task of supervising the building projects of the universities, and managed to get the funds passed by the Treasury for the construction of the Library building. When the Minister came on a visit to the university, he told me that the building that should have been done for Rs.7.5 million will cost Rs.253 million. I told him that the Treasury never gave any money after approving the initial funding of Rs.7.5 million. Anyway, I had achieved what I wanted to do and the building was successfully completed. Now the furniture for the Library had to be procured. When quotations were called the suucessful tenderer had brought a sample of the study tables. I rejected this as it was inferior to what I wanted and asked the officer concerned to get the design of the furniture from the library in the University of Peradeniya. This was done and the furniture was installed. The official opening of the new Library was arranged. By that time I had retired from the position of Registrar and was the Director of the Institute of Workers’ Education. Even though I was instrumental in getting the building done, I was not invited for the function. That is gratitude!!

 

H M Nissanka Warakaulle

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Opinion

Ali Sabry bashing

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Justice Minister Ali Sabry has appealed to his critics to spare him from the criticism that he was behind the calling of applications for the appointment of Quazis for Quazi Courts (The Island/23.01.2021). In my view, the allegations levelled against Justice Minister Ali Sabry are unfounded and uneducated. If you are an educated and unbiased citizen of this country, you’ll understand it better. The applications for Quazis for Quazi Courts have been called by the Judicial Service Commission, an independent Commission chaired by the Chief Justice of this country. If you aren’t happy with this decision, you have to take it up with the Chief Justice, not the Justice Minister. He has no control at all over the Judicial Service Commission. In a way, criticising that Justice Minister influenced the Judicial Service Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, tantamounts to contempt of the Supreme Court. Moreover, Quazi Courts have been in existence for well over 70 years, and it hasn’t affected the Sinhalese or the Tamils nor has it been incompatible with the common law of this country. If there is any serious discrepancy, it can be rectified. But I wonder why the calling of applications for Quazis has now become an issue. I also wonder if the removal of Quazi Courts was promised as a part of the subtle 69 mandate. This is not the first time similar allegations have been made. When Rauf Hakeem was Justice Minister, Member of Parliament Pattali Champika Ranawaka  made serious allegations that more Muslim students were admitted to the Law College and led many protests and ultimately a group of monks stormed the Law College in protest. He had charged that Law College entrance exam papers were leaked and criticised the then Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem for it. He  knew very well that Law College came under the Council of Legal Education chaired by the Chief Justice and  Attorney General and two other Supreme Court judges among others were  members of this Council, yet he had made these allegations with a different motive. Amidst international outcry, Muslim Covid victims have been denied burial. To make the situation worse, some vindictive, venomous elements are now trying to create another bad scenario that Muslims can’t marry either according to their faith, and tarnish the image of this country internationally and drive a wedge between communities. Therefore I earnestly ask the law abiding and peace loving citizens of this country to work against these vindictive, venomous elements.  

 

M. A. Kaleel 

Kalmunai. 

 

 

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Opinion

What do Northern political parties seek?

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Political parties, based in the North, are reported to be getting prepared to attend the UNHRC sessions next month. For several decades, the only thing they did for their constituents is to spread feelings of hate among them, against the government and the people living in the South. Today, we have two important issues where India is involved – re. the Colombo Harbour and the death of four fishermen. There is another perennial issue of Indians fishing in our waters. Have these parties uttered a single word on those matters? What do they expect to gain, or achieve for the Northerners, even if they could prove SL war crimes allegations at the UNHRC? Can they honestly say that they were not a party to the LTTE and other terrorist outfits which looted, tortured and killed hundred or thousands of civilians, both in the North and the South?

Other than shouting about the rights of their people, have they done anything for the wellbeing of the people in those areas? Whatever was given to the people were those given by the Government on a national basis. Excellent example is the conduct of C V Wigneswaran, who held the high position of Chief Minister of the Northern Province for five years – had he done any significant service for the people? Those parties never complain about India for the killings, torturing and raping done by the IPKF, or the damage and loss due to the activities of Indian fishermen.

India too overlooks all that, and to keep Tamil Nadu happy, forces the SL government to grant whatever the Northern Parties demand.

 

K SIRIWEERA

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