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Opinion

In defence of teachers’ struggle

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by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Opinion

Send them back to school!

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We are not talking about our children going back to school but about the request made by the Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella to allow parliamentarians to enrol in the Sri Lankan Law College, or any other university, to further their studies. How about the basic qualification to enter university? Talking about the basic qualification we remember there was a talk some time ago about some members who have not got through even their GCE (O)Level, a bare minimum qualification, required even for a peon in a recognised organisation or in government services. We request the Chief Opposition Whip to request, on behalf of these members, to allow them to go back to school, no matter how old they are.

We remember one SAARC member country brought in a regulation saying that all those who come forward to contest a seat in the parliament should possess a university degree and at the submission of nomination the officials detected that nearly 20% of the certificates were fake. Anyway, we are proud that such things are extremely rare in our country.

Finally, I urge Kiriella to include schools, too, for MPs, who need the basic qualifications for university admission.

S. H. MOULANA

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Opinion

Compensate victims of gas explosions

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There is no shortage of hot topics for the media these days, the latest being the unusual occurrence of gas related accidents. Any ordinary person would understand that the present series of accidents are certainly due to the release of newly arrived consignment of gas cylinders whose composition ratio of propane and butane has been altered to maximise profits.

The responsible institutions and authorities as well as some ambidextrous politicians are defending the culprits who deny any change in the gas composition. The special committee appointed by the President to investigate into the matter, seem biased. The other day the public saw (through the TV news footages) that these so-called experts were trying to bully the innocent victims of these accidents, accusing them of the use of worn out hoses and regulators as the main reason for the incidents. Why the hell can’t they figure out the fact that these accidents are all due to the use of the newly bought wrongly filled cylinders. A committee of this nature is useless if its aim is to serve the vested interests. Instead of blaming the victims, one compulsory question they should ask is if the cylinder is newly bought or an old one. It is sad that this Kekille committee of experts is also trying to put the blame on the innocent consumer and defend the businessman.

All that the government should do at this critical hour is to introduce a mechanism to collect the data of the victims of these explosions and pay due compensation to them forthwith at the expense of the concerned gas company. The ministry in charge should also issue an urgent order to the company to recall the return of all these defective gas cylinders distributed to all districts and take immediate action for refilling them with the correct prescription of the chemical composition and issue with a new label giving all required instructions. In the meantime, the Consumer Protection Authority must ensure that accessories like the hoses and regulators, conforming to the SLS standards, are available in the market at least from now on for the safety of the consumers.

M. B. Navarathne

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Opinion

Banks make a killing at depositors’ expense

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The motive of the government decision to lower the interest rates of deposits was predominantly to engross the banks to lend at lower interest rates for entrepreneurs to boost the economy of the country which is in dire straits. However, would this proposal prove productive?

Owing to this absurd stunt senior citizens and pensioners have been left high and dry high and dry, resulting in unprecedented agony and anguish. Many victims have highlighted their grievances on behalf of the distraught senior citizens and pensioners. This much spoken of government’s harsh decision to lower interest rates has made the lives of senior citizen’s and pensioners miserable with the escalating high cost of living, skyrocketing cost of medical expenses, etc. It is pertinent to mention that monthly interest rates on fixed deposits, which they mostly rely upon, have been reduced to alarmingly low 4% and 5 % which has added to the woes already the senior citizens face.

All senior citizens who are not receiving or entitled for a pension, depend solely on monthly fixed deposit interest as the regular source of income for their living. As a result of lowering interest rates of deposits, their plans have all been shattered causing them to be wondering how to make ends meet.At this dire juncture, the intervention of the President is needed to revoke this unreasonable decision of lowering the interest rates of deposits.

The only redress the senior folk benefits is by the Central Bank’s special scheme of 15% interest for senior citizens. However, in this too the senior citizens have been slapped and battered with a Rs 1.5 million ceiling.

In comparison to the reduction of interest rates of deposits, if one takes into account the number of loans granted to entrepreneurs at lower interest rates the answer would be very negligible, particularly as the bank’s do not take risks to lend to entrepreneurs whom they believe to have projects not viable. The banks of course, would show enhanced profits at the end of the year as they have paid the depositors lower interest rates which reflects as plus mark for their balance sheets. This is a blessing in disguise for the management of banks at the receiving end of impoverished pensioners and senior citizens.

In the above contest the intervention of the President Gotabaya Rajapakse is most needed to bring about redress to ‘distressed” senior citizens and pensioners

Sunil Thenabadu

Brisbane, Australia

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