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Impact of pandemic on right to education

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Dr Laksiri Fernando

The World University Service (WUS) initially planned to celebrate its 100th anniversary in Vienna on 14-16 May 2020. The theme of the world conference was ‘Human Right to Quality Education for All,’ promoting the sustainable development goals on education, SDG 4.

Due to the pandemic, however, it had to be postponed and it is now scheduled to be held on 21-23 September 2021. Because of the pandemic, not only the conference but its theme is also affected. There are new challenges to the right to education because of the pandemic and new thinking also might be necessary to carry forward the intended primary goals of the WUS’ attempts on the subject.

Basic Facts

Nearly 875 million school population, and over 200 million university population are affected by the pandemic. Students, school teachers, and academics, are included in these figures. This is nearly 15% of the world population and in terms of education, career opportunities, and knowledge production and research this is devastating. Of course, the whole of the world population is affected by the Covid pandemic. But the above facts and figures are highlighted, given we are here focusing on education and the impact of Covid pandemic on the right to quality education.

When a right is normally violated or even infringed, there are culprits, or violators who are responsible. But in this case, it is difficult to pinpoint a violator, except in terms of who have aggravated or neglected the situation. Therefore, the Covid impact on education appears a common predicament, nevertheless exposing many underlying defects in the world education system or systems that this article would focus on.

Underlying Defects

What are these underlying defects? Inequality, lack of opportunity and discrimination are the most important causes even before the eruption of the pandemic. These three causes are interlinked although for the sake of simplicity or even otherwise they can be separated.

Inequality (1) between rich and poor countries, (2) between urban and rural (or remote) areas within countries, and (3) between rich and poor students/families are some of the features. In terms of schooling, 850 million children, equal to those who are in school, are always out of school for these and other reasons. This is even before the pandemic, and the situation has now worsened because the poor countries, poor areas and poor people have newly faced enormous difficulties. A new distinction is between ‘rich online’ and ‘poor online’ or ‘absence of online’

When parents are poor and also uneducated (or less-educated) for the same reason, the motivation to send children to school is low.UNICEF estimates roughly 160 million children are in child-labour or illicit employment due to various reasons. This is about neglect and exploitation. Even if some parents are motivated to send children to school, and even if school education is free and fair, there are certain amenities that the parents might not be in a position to afford. These are lack of opportunities from the demand side; no opportunity to claim even the right to education.

The lack of opportunities also come from the supply side, or the side of the governments or States. Some States might not give priority to education. (1) In conflict ridden countries, higher amounts of money, double or treble, are spent on defence or on military. This is unfortunate to say the least. (2) The neglect of public education also come from other sources of public policy. Privatisation of education is one. When it is done, the rich people might benefit, but not the poor or the marginalised. (3) The poverty of supply side of education also can be a vicious cycle. When inadequate money is spent on public education, the quality of education is inevitably poor. When the teachers are recruited from the same system, their inputs into the learning processes are also poor.

Most regrettable is discrimination in education. Discrimination in education (even if you are in school or university) can come from ethnic, racial, religious, indigenous, class or gender basis. Most widespread discrimination in some regions is based on gender. Women are discriminated either on religious interpretations or cultural basis. All these religious or cultural interpretations are given by men! All these are difficult to unravel because of political reasons. Men dominate politics. During the pandemic, these interpretations have become strengthened on easy excuses.

Different Effects of the Pandemic

One of the most direct effects of the pandemic on education is the closure of schools and universities. It is a disaster. On school closures, UNESCO has collected data and UNICEF has compiled a substantial report.i On university closures, the International Association of Universities (IAU) has collected information through a survey. ii

What are the key findings on school closures? (1) During one year between March 2020 and February 2021, schools in the whole world have been fully closed for 95 days and this means half the time intended for teaching and learning. (2) Countries in South America were the most affected with 158 days of full school closures, followed by countries in South Asia with 146 days. Countries in the Eastern and Southern Africa region were the third most affected with an average of 101 days. All these means the poor and developing countries. (3) Worldwide, 214 million students have lost three fourths of school hours in 23 countries. Among these students, 168 million had missed all classroom hours in 14 countries due to school closures.

What are the key findings on university closures? IAU survey was conducted during March and April 2020 covering 109 countries. Almost all countries reported that they have been impacted by the pandemic and 59 percent of them replied that all campuses were closed at that time. In the case of Africa, closures reported were high as 77 percent. The main concern of 80 percent of responding institutions was on the impact on student enrollment in the new academic year. 46 percent believed impact would be on both local and international students. Private universities were more concerned about the impact on financial consequences.

In terms of research, 80 percent of higher educational institutions have been directly impacted. The most common impact has been the cancellation of international travel (83 percent) and the cancellation or postponement of scientific conferences (81 percent). This is what happened even to the WUS conference although it is not directly a higher education institute or a research forum. Even at present, scientific projects are at risk of not being able to complete on time at various institutes and by individuals.

It is true that the pandemic, as a positive challenge, has opened up new research on Covid-19 and other diseases. However, without being limited to medical and pharmaceutical research, social impacts of the pandemic also should be investigated and researched. Apart from valid restrictions on travel that has affected international cooperation and research travel, there has emerged unnecessary bureaucratic barriers in some countries.

For example, to participate at the WUS conference in Vienna, over a dozen of Sri Lankan academics have received funding from the Austrian ministries/universities. But for nearly two months now their leave, approvals and exist permits have been delayed unnecessarily. This appears infringing on academic freedom and educational benefits to the country. This is unfortunate.

Expansion of eLearning

Of course everything is not hopeless. Facing the Covid challenge the world has positively shifted to more and more eLearning. This trend has been there even before but not in this scale. This is easy in the university sector, but not so much in the school sector. This is easy in rich countries, but not in poor or developing countries.

According to the UNICEF report, schoolchildren in the countries with the longest duration of school closures are the ones who have had the lowest opportunity for fixed online connections. Although the radio or TV must have been used in these countries, these are not that effective as internet or zoom teaching. Interactive learning is something lost in these media.

The repercussions of school closures can be diverse and long standing. Through eLearning alone these cannot be rectified. Schools are important not only for children’s learning, but also for health, safety and well-being. Most vulnerable children in some countries have lost their single most nutritional meal a day. For children coming from dysfunctional (or violent) families, schools are also a safe and a pleasing place. In many countries schools also play a major role in immunisation and health support.

Even in the university sector, the (quick) adoption of eLearning has not been easy. Although two-thirds of them had reported that they have replaced classroom teaching with distance teaching and learning, they reported that it has not come without challenges. The main challenges being access to technical infrastructure, competencies of both teachers and students to adopt them, and pedagogical impact on some specific fields of study. However in the medium term or in the long-run, eLearning can be an escape route from future pandemics, lockdowns or travel restrictions.

Facing the Challenge

The challenge for the university sector and academics is not limited to the pandemic or themselves alone. Without uplifting the school sector, the university sector cannot thrive or survive. Without addressing the education problems in poor countries, education in rich countries cannot prosper. This is also a moral obligation. This was a main message of the UNDP initiated sustainable goals, SDG 4. Now there is a clear setback for these goals because of the pandemic, initially to be achieved by 2030.

In answering the pandemic question, university academics or the World University Service should stand for full vaccination of all sections and particularly the school students, children of that age, university students and teachers and administrators in schools and universities. Vaccine hesitancy should be overcome and a booster might be necessary.

Universities in all countries should reach the broader communities and extend education, assistance and relief. They should have the academic freedom to do so. There can be risks involved. But this is a duty. If the vaccination programmes are expedited and covered all countries, rich and poor, schools can be reopened fully soon or by 2022. There can be many mitigating and catchup measures that needs to be implemented in terms of learning and other ways. There can also be a necessity to develop and introduce new modalities in education. Blended or hybrid methods might be more appropriate. This is applicable to both schools and universities. University academics and academic cooperation between countries might be able to play a major role in this sphere.

There can be gaps that might emerge compared to the past. Truly estimating them and innovating devices to optimise the existing resources, while seeking necessary resources to bridge those gaps through international cooperation between governments, ministries of education and universities can be some tasks. Academics can take a lead. The main public policy advocacy of this article is for the universities and academics to get involved in school education more than before, and bring benefits to the society.



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Opinion

‘Nitro Raja’: Magic Fertiliser arrives!

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By Dr PARAKRAMA WAIDYANATHA

The consignment of nano urea, much spoken about produced by Indian Farmer Fertiliser Corporation (IFFCO}, had just arrived! Locally it is named “Nitro Raja!” Can the imported Raja settle our fertiliser woes, where the ‘local Raja’ has hitherto failed?

What is nano urea, many people ask! For the layman it may best be described as something akin to “Seeni- polkohu” or “Bombai-motai”, where sugar particles are attached to a fibrous material. Similarly, in nano urea, the urea molecules are attached to oligosaccharide (examples, starch and sugar) molecules. This greatly enhances the efficacy of the applied urea to crops.

The advantage is that, whereas urea when applied to the soil, often much of it is wasted through leaching, run-off in rain water and vaporisation, losses are very small with the nano formulation. Even normal urea if applied to plants as a leaf spray in good weather, the losses are far less than application to the soil. Up to a maximum of 5% of chemical nutrients can be applied as foliar spray, and in fact urea is, for example, routinely applied in tea plantations usually mixed with zinc sulphate, which research has reported, to boost crop yields substantially.

Regrettably the imported consignment apparently is exclusively for rice cultivation. Is it because the tea growers were not as vociferous and violent as the rice farmers in their demonstrations and ministerial effigy-burning? Ideally, for the tea growers, too, urea is critically important. As most would have applied all nutrients over the years, the soil reserves of nutrients should suffice to tide over an year or more except for nitrogen, the most yield determining nutrient; and the current huge tea crop losses could have been saved, if at least urea in whichever form were supplied to the tea industry.

The critical issue is, however, whether at the recommended rate, the imported nano urea could effectively meet the crop nitrogen demand. It is imported in 500 ml bottles and each bottle content, the advertisement says, is equivalent to a 50 kilo bag of normal fertiliser urea. Nevertheless, it is further stated in the advertisement that the contents has a nitrogen(N) concentration of only 4%, whereas normal urea has 46%.

Meeting Demand?

Let us see whether the supplied nano urea can meet the crop nitrogen demand at the prescribed application rate. The national average yield of rice is now 5 tons /hectare. Therefore, an average rice crop by way of grain and straw removes about 80 kg/ha, and the normal rate of application of nitrogen for a good rice crop is 100kg/ha . So, in whatever way the crop is fertilised (with nano urea or normal urea) a 5 ton rice crop/ha should remove a minimum of 80 kg of nitrogen. Theoretically, however, the recommended nano-urea formulation imported can only provide 20 grams of nitrogen per 500 ml bottle, and to provide the requisite nitrogen of 80kg/ha to the crop, therefore, 4000 such bottles should be applied! The cost of a 500 ml bottle is reported to be Indian Rs 240, which is about local Rs 500. Theoretically then, the nano fertiliser per crop to provide the entire crop nitrogen requirement should cost two million rupees! Can this nano urea then practically meet the total crop nitrogen demand ?

The crux of the matter is that, in India, where nano urea is used, usually a basal application of conventional urea is made to the crop, and nano urea is only sprayed at mid- maturity as a foliar spray for boosting the crop.

The other serious concern is that when nano urea is spayed as the crop is growing, the emerging weed growth in the absence, now, of the two standard herbicides used in rice, one before crop emergence (usually Propanil) and the other ( MCPA )when the crop is in early growth(post emergent), could be substantial. Nearly 95% of the rice growers broadcast seed, and hand weeding is difficult in such crops. Row seeding is highly labour demanding and row seeders are costly. Much of these weeds are highly competitive C4 grasses and sedges, which too will benefit from the foliar nano urea spray and increase the competitiveness, reducing the crop yield!

One of the growing concerns today, globally, in the fertiliser scenario is, not whether it is organic or chemical, but with the grain production anticipated to increase by at least 40% in the next decade and 60% of the nitrogenous fertiliser used for it, the devastating environmental AND pollution issue . Many argue the answer is in cutting down meat consumption as bulk of the grain in the developed world is used as animal feed!

However, there is already technology generated for improving N management practices at the farm level, and nitrogen uptake efficiency (NUE) increases of 36% and 32% have been achieved in the U.S and Japan respectively in the last few decades; one of them being nano fertilisers. With novel plant breeding and fertisier technologies many scientists envision reaching 90-100% NUE in the near future.

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Opinion

Distorting Buddhism

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Two recent glaring distortions of the life of the Buddha, in Sinhala newspapers, has compelled me to pen these thoughts. Contrary to the high standards maintained by most of the English language newspapers, I have been appalled by the journalistic standards of some of their Sinhala counterparts. True, Sinhala is a difficult language but if it is to be simplified, it should be done with the consensus of experts than by gross disregard of typography at the whims and fancies of editors. In spite of this, we love to watch programmes surveying Sinhala newspapers for a multitude of reasons and it has become a daily routine in our lives though, unfortunately, some of these programmes have of late become crude political tools and means for the glorification of some presenters. Headlines in Sinhala newspapers are a better indicator of ‘how the wind is blowing’ and, more importantly, the sharpest ‘weapon’ attacking politicians, sarcasm, is at its best in the poems and cartoons. Indian Prime Minister Modi honoured Sri Lanka and recognised the importance of Sri Lanka in Buddhism, by inviting a delegation from Sri Lanka to be the first to land officially at the newly developed Kushinagar International airport. A delegation consisting of 100 high-ranking Buddhist monks and some Ministers, led by Minister Namal Rajapaksa, arrived there on the inaugural SriLankan Airlines flight for the opening ceremony on Wednesday 20th, the Vap full moon Poya day.

A headline in one of the Sinhala newspapers, on 20th, stated that an airport in Prince Siddhartha’s place of birth was to be opened that day! How could the reporter confuse the place of Buddha’s Parinibbana with the place of birth Lumbini, which is in Nepal? The following day, another Sinhala newspaper, reporting on the opening ceremony with a beautiful photograph of our Monks walking in procession, had a poem as the headline. Unfortunately, the poem stated that Sangha with “Nava Arahadi Guna” were in procession. Even a child knows that the correct term is “Nava Arahadi Budu Guna” which refers to the Nine Noble Qualities of the Buddha! Considering that on many an occasion our editor has saved me from embarrassment by correcting inadvertent mistakes I have made; I find it puzzling that these glaring mistakes were not picked up by the respective editors. In many recent ‘Quiz shows’, Muslim children have shown surprising depth of knowledge about Buddhism and the life of the Buddha. Considering this, is it not appalling that reporters and headline writers make such inexcusable mistakes? To add insult to injury, not even the newspaper reviewers picked up on these howlers. Perhaps, they do not understand what a review means! I am beginning to wonder whether there are deliberate attempts at distortion as, for quite some time, there have been spurious claims made on the life of the Buddha, often by the members of the Sangha itself.

Instead of following the path the Great Teacher showed, some of them want to bolster their argument that Sri Lanka is the birthplace of the Buddha, in spite of confirmed archaeological evidence to the contrary. Recently, a friend of mine forwarded what appeared to be a clip of a news item, titled “The lawsuit uncovering the world’s biggest colonial scandal – Rediscovery of Bhudha’s true home land”. It stated that a lawsuit had been filed in the UK courts, by a Buddhist monk living in Norway, requesting that Sri Lanka be declared the place of birth of the Buddha and compensation be paid for British archaeologists distorting facts. This took me completely by surprise as I had not heard of any such action and my suspicions were aroused because there was no indication what the news channel was. I sent the following message to my friend:

“Did you forward this because you believe in what is stated?” and I got a vague reply. Fortunately, another friend forwarded the same message with additional information in the form of an audio clip, addressed to a Nayaka Priest in Sri Lanka, by a Bhikkhu living in London wherein he states that there is no such action pending and the person referred to is a person connected to the LTTE, living in Norway, pretending to be a Buddhist priest! When I googled to get details of the organisation this Norwegian Bhikkhu represents, there was no information about the person concerned, but there was a page seeking contributions!Maybe, this is an imposter out to make a fast buck, but we have enough ‘robed-men’ demonstrating behaviour in total contrast to the teachings of the Buddha. During the teacher’s strike, one of these who leads a nurse’s trade union, though not having any nursing experience at all, took the leader of the teacher’s union, who has not done even a day’s teaching, to the Prime Minister for a settlement.

Then there is the dirty spectacle of two politicians in robes fighting for a parliamentary seat! One of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha is “Tanhaya Jayati Soko”—Greed begets sorrow—but their greed seems endless! Interestingly, one these distinguishes himself by being in all the major parties and is now prepared to go to courts to retain his seat.We have Sangha Nayakas, “Adhi Karana” Judicial Sangha Nayakas but nothing seems to be happening to these men in robes who are a disgrace, to say the least, to the Buddha. I am told that an ‘Adhi Karana’ Sangha Nayaka for the UK also has been appointed recently. I cannot understand why all these Bhikkhus are driven by greed for positions. Perhaps, it is excusable if they at least serve a purpose. Buddhist principles are distorted and destroyed whilst those in authority are in a slumber. I do tender my humble apologies to many Buddhist monks around the world who render a great service in the true spirit of the Dhamma, and do hope these comments, in no way, hurt them. In fact, we are very fortunate to have three Venerable Monks in our local Vihara whom we can worship without any hesitation. I often wonder, whether the future of Buddhism is in the West!

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Opinion

Running against the Wind: Remembering Engineer Lalith Vidanapathirana

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Phidias, the great sculptor was immersed in work. It was 447 BC, and Phidias was given the mission to sculpt a massive statue of the goddess of wisdom and war –Athena by a statesman of Athens – Pericles. He was working high above ground, behind the head of Athena for a long time. A passerby, who knew little about sculptures wanted to ridicule Phidias and shouted at him… ‘’O great sculptor Phidias..! Who will ever want to know what kind of fine works you are creating up there..? No one is going to climb this massive statue and have a look”. Phidias had a simple answer. “I will…” Men of this nature, who will put everything… heart and soul to a task, given to them when no one is looking are rare. Yet, we at Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) are fortunate to have many such men among us, at every level of the organisation. Men who will silently work under trying conditions to keep the country lit up and active, without craving for attention and glory. Leaving the master sculptor Phidias in the distant past, let me tell the story of one such man from the not so distant past.

I first encountered him at the Deputy General Manager’s office of CEB in Galle in 1987. He was an energetic Construction Engineer and we were a group of trainees from University of Moratuwa, two years into the degree programme. We were comfortably seated around a table, solving various problems. Suddenly we heard a strong voice, which appeared to carry a lot of authority. What are you trainees doing here? It was a command that was so direct and clear. We had no business indoors; we should be outdoors. Thus begun a spell of constant engagement in various projects in and around Galle. We learnt much about electricity distribution and about what to expect in a career as electrical engineers.

Time passed and we met again in 1997 now both of us working for the same organisation, CEB, at a training workshop on Power System Protection. He caught my attention as the most active participant shooting so many practical questions. He instantly recognised me and exclaimed that it is so very nice to have me in CEB. Then our paths crossed again in 2006, this time at a training workshop on wind energy where I was the coordinator. I remember his enthusiastic participation, posing practical questions at the foreign resource persons. Among the trainees, he benefited more than all the younger participants I reckoned, even at that early stage of wind power development in Sri Lanka. CEB then had only 3 MW of capacity from wind power and now, 103 MW capable of providing the annual electricity requirements of more than 400,000 Sri Lankan homes.

This story is about the Engineer Lalith Vidanapathirana who made a massive contribution to make it happen on the ground.

Then he went on overseas leave to assist the newly formed Iraqi Government to rebuild Iraq’s electricity infrastructure. This was a UNDP assignment which benefited Iraq, as he was able to fully develop teams capable of shouldering the massive reconstruction burden, after years of conflict. The battered Iraqi engineers and technicians had great respect and love to Lalith. He rebuilt their skills from ground zero to re-establish and operate the electricity network in those conflict affected regions in Iraq. Most of the tasks he undertook were way out of the narrow scope of the UNDP consultants’ brief. With Lalith’s leadership. Iraqi men were ready to do it themselves.

When Lalith returned to Sri Lanka, I worked with him in a boundary metering project, and we had a lot of time together. This is when we attempted to scale up the success of the first wind power project in Hambantota under the guidance of Mr. Samarasinghe and Mr. Ayiradasa, as a 30MW wind project in Kalpitiya. We did everything in our capacity to implement this, but it wasn’t a success.

During these days I learnt about his early career at Samuel & Sons, the famed engineering outfit of colonial heritage, where he practiced his heavy engineering. I was told that he was a formidable force in many construction projects implemented by Samuel & Sons. With this knowhow, he was a much sought after person in CEB. He caught the attention of his superiors as one of those ‘doers’ who fronted difficult assignments. Actually, it was all Lalith was about – leading. Be it the transmission lines destroyed by insurgents or distribution systems torn apart, he was willing to lead from the front.

Then on a beautiful day in 2016, Lalith called me and asked whether I would join him to build the wind power plant in Mannar. By that time my colleagues Kumara and Thusitha has done a sizable job in Mannar, initiating all-important bird survey and other pre-project development work. I told Lalith, I will join if you agreed to lead the project and train young engineers. Lalith, without a hint of hesitation, agreed.

Here we were, once again in the same boat, but not in the calm seas as during the boundary metering project. Had nothing to start with, but Lalith being the doer, managed to amass all the resources required to initiate this task within a few months. He was very active, and barged into offices of his superiors with impunity and sometimes even to the Board room, to get things done. Not for him, but for the project, for public good.

He stood by his team through struggles and fought for what he believed in with the sincere motive to get things done. He gave all of us absolute freedom to work; in the way we liked, but at his pace. So, we accomplished all pre-project development tasks within a short period of time and more importantly was able to build and develop capacity within the team. We saved a few million Dollars and a whole year of project gestation period because he trusted our ability. He was truly an engineer. He never minced his words or give way to the opponents, standing firm for a public cause, taking a resolute stand on issues. We learnt many things from Lalith, engineering and otherwise, all of which cannot be enumerated here.

The 103 MW, the largest-ever wind power plant in Sri Lanka, was about to enter the construction phase. Then came the devastating news about a serious illness he had developed. The illness reduced his mobility, but he made it a point to attend all important events. He had a dream, just to see one turbine erected “before I go” he would tell us. He did not wait that long, he only lived to see the selection of a leading turbine manufacturer as the main contractor. However, he fulfilled his dream to see his son’s graduation ceremony, albeit his failing health. He left us on 22nd October 2018.

Mannar wind power project is now a reality. I stood diminutive under the massive wind turbines standing tall on the Mannar shoreline and running against the wind, which reminded me of the struggles made by many unsung heroes who genuinely contributed to it. As the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, painting the Western skies in crimson, the beautiful song by Bob Seger started playing deep within me…

We were running against the Wind…

We were young and strong, we were running against the Wind…

Well, I am older now but still running against the Wind…

against the Wind… against the Wind… against the Wind…

This by all means is a feeble attempt to share my memories of a man of integrity, dedication and practical approach. It is also an attempt to appreciate and recognise the lives of many other Sri Lankans, who are still running against the Wind. It is also to remind the young, not to get swept away by Winds. For his impressive run of life was always against the Wind.

May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.

Ajith Alwis

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