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Menace of university violence

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By Dr Anula Wijesundere 

Consultant Physician

I wish to draw your attention to a subject that is very close to my heart and a subject that causes much concern to most civic minded people. This problem has also caused untold misery to all families affected . The title of my presentation today is “Violence in the universities of Sri Lanka”.

I will begin with the saga of Pasindu, an undergraduate of the Faculty of Management of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. The young boy, at the threshold of a bright future, was wilfully hit by a massive tractor tyre which was rolled down the staircase when he was climbing down, as part of the sadistic joy of ragging associated violence. We are all aware of the terrible consequences.

Pasindu lay unconscious in the Intensive Care unit of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka for many months, during which time he had several brain surgeries to correct the massive brain damage he sustained following intense brain haemorrhage. He survived largely due to the competence of the neuro surgeons and the excellent nursing care he received. However, he was left with residual weakness of limbs and an unsteady gait. We all fervently hope that Pasindu will be able to complete his education and will improve further from the residual neurological deficits he has at present.

Pasindu was certainly not the first and obviously will not be the last to be subjected to ragging as long as this culture of violence is allowed in our universities. The drastic consequences that this terrible malady has had on the university system must be emphasised to realise the stark consequences.

Pasindu was indeed unlucky to be ragged in such a ghastly manner by his immediate seniors. Possibly they were envious of Pasindu as he came from an upper middleclass family, had good knowledge of English and I T and was an excellent sportsman from St Peter’s College and a popular all-rounder. In fact, Pasindu was brimming with all the features that most ragging seniors detest in freshers.

Consequences of ragging in universities –

1. Over 2000 students selected for universities have abandoned their careers

2. At least 18 students have committed suicide.

3. Many students have become partly or totally paralysed, attempting to escape from aggressors.

4. Hundreds suffer from depression, anxiety and stress syndromes.

5. Current victims of violence invariably become the aggressors the following year.

The following list indicates the names of the unfortunate students who committed suicide as a consequence of ragging. This is the available list. The actual list may be much longer.

1. 1974 – Torture of mathematics teacher at Vidyalankara University.

2. 1975 – Rupa Ratnaseeli. She jumped from the top floor of a building in the University of Peradeniya to escape the raggers. She was permanently disabled, suffered for 27 years and finally committed suicide in 2002.

3. 1993 – Chaminda Punchihewa.

4. 1993 – Prasanna Niroshan

5. 1997. – Kelum Thushara

6. 1997. – Selvarajah Varapragash was a student of the University of Peradeniya. He was subjected to strenuous exercise and died of acute kidney failure.

7. 2002 – Samantha Vithanage of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. He led a group of students against ragging and was killed by a pro-ragging mob.

8. 2010 – Shanthamali Dilhara Wijesinghe

9. 2014 -D. K Nishantha. He was sexually abused by senior undergraduates. The perpetrators had the audacity to collect Mahapola and other allowances from junior students to pay their legal fees.

10. 2015 – Amali Chathurika, an applied science student of the University of Sabaragamuwa

What is ragging?

Ragging is a criminal act, according to the law. Ragging is a deliberate act which causes physical, psychological or sexual stress or trauma. This invariably leads to humiliation, harassment and intimidation. Ragging also leads to psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety and stress situations,

From – Prohibition of Ragging and other forms of violence in Educational Institutes Act No 20 of 1998.

As ragging in universities continued unabated, Prof Mohan de Silva, during his tenure as Chairman, University Grants Commission, appointed Prof Uma Coomaraswamy as the Chairperson of the Centre for Gender Equity/Equality for Prevention of Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Ragging, of the University Grants Commission.

The findings of the committee are indicated below:

1. Sex and gender-based violence is mainly perpetrated against female students, especially against under privileged students from remote areas.

2. Includes physical, sexual, verbal and psychological harassment.

3. Results – physical violence 12 %, verbal violence 13% and sexual violence 13%.

 As a result of the establishment of this centre, the following help lines have been provided to students (who have been ragged or wish to prevent ragging,) to lodge complaints:

1. Director of UGC Centre for Gender Equality/Equity: on + 94 11 305 6885./

2 . Vice Chancellor/Registrar of University, in writing or in person.

3. UGC Call Centre on. +94 11 212 3700

4. UGC Ragging Complaints portal on www.ugc.ac.lk/rag

5. Use of “Emergency Safety app”, to make immediate call for help.

6. The Police

Consequences of ragging

It is well known that ragging causes hatred, crushes self-esteem, instigates negative attitude and leads to mental and physical trauma. Unfortunately, the victims of ragging, during the current year often become the aggressors the next year. Thus, ragging or violence in Sri Lankan universities is a vicious cycle, which needs to be stopped as early as possible. to promote healthy learning and prevent the drastic consequences.

In this context, one can wonder why ragging has not yet been eliminated from the Sri Lankan university system. This unfortunate state has happened due to the following reasons:

1. Lack of concern, or awareness, among the public

2. Apathy among the professionals, even university lecturers

3. Inactivity by Vice Chancellors, especially politically-appointed VCs, fearing strikes and closure of universities

4. Deans, lecturers and administrators of universities

– neglect or ignore ragging despite knowledge

– accept ragging as a normal occurrence

So far, the only silver lining, in the tragedy of ragging has been the action taken by the Vice Chancellor of the Ruhuna University, Professor Sujeewa Amarasena. Seventeen students, who engaged in ragging, were charged, remanded and subsequently expelled from the university. It was subsequently found that the Peratugami organisation, a breakaway extreme leftwing group of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, were mainly responsible for the strikes in the universities. However, it is gratifying to note that, despite the stern action taken against the aggressors, the University of Ruhuna functioned normally. This debunks the myth that action against raggers would lead to strikes by university students.

The Peratugami Organisation

This is a highly organised breakaway group of the Janatha Vimukthi Party, that controls students, often holding them to ransom. They select mostly students from financially deprived families, in remote areas. In certain instances, ragging starts even before the university academic year begins. The freshers are programmed to obey orders of seniors and prevented from attending classes in English and IT. This will certainly deprive them of good employment opportunities in later life.

Role of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) in prevention of ragging in universities –

 An expert committee, on prevention of ragging, in universities, was formed in 2019, with Dr Tara de Mel, former Secretary of Education as the Chairperson and 10 highly motivated members. The terms of reference for this committee were formulated by Dr. Tara De Mel.

1. Identify accurately the nature of violence in the universities.

2. Assess accurately the toll it has taken on the entire higher education system.

3. Identify the measures that the authorities have taken to stem the tide.

4. Identify the reasons why the universities have failed to eradicate this problem.

5. Identify impediments to implementing action against the perpetrators.

6. Identify measures to be taken to prevent violence the following year.

7. Need to delegate responsibility of eliminating violence to all university academics.

In the run up to the Presidential elections of 2019, the SLMA wrote to the three main presidential candidates to voice publicly their opposition to ragging and condemn all forms of violence in the universities. We released the letters to the press on the 22nd of October, 2019, hoping the candidates would express their opposition to ragging vociferously at the political rallies

This letter hit the headlines in the very next edition of The Sunday Island on the 27 October in very bold print. The entire editorial of the very next edition of The Sunday Island of 03 November 2019 was devoted to ragging, under the topic ‘Ending university ragging’. A senior academic of the university responded to these articles with a full-page reply, titled “Ragging in universities: An urgent National question”. This was published in The Island newspaper on the 04 November 2019.

Thereafter, a follow up letter was also sent to the presidential aspirants indicating the modus operandi of ending violence in universities. This letter, too, was released to the press. The contents of the second letter are given below:

1. Publicly condemn all forms of ragging and violence in universities.

2. Genuinely pledge to eliminate violence in universities.

3. Invite all Vice Chancellors and Deans to discuss atrocities in universities.

4. Develop a scheme of rewards for academics who actively denounce violence.

5. Ensure educational authorities are fully empowered to inquire, take action, and work with Police without interference.

6. Enable the development of a robust victim protection system and witness protection system.

This letter appeared in The Island of 17 November 2019 under the title…

“SLMA Expert Committee submits recommendations to end ragging”

 Unfortunately, none of these letters received any response. Subsequently, the letter of congratulations to President Rajapaksa on his appointment as the President and several requests to meet him to discuss controlling ragging, road deaths and drug dependence were of no avail. Subsequently, with the emergence of Covid-19, the country-wide lockdown, in March 2020, and the continued closure of universities, the momentum decreased and the activities of the expert committee ceased.

Recently, a new organisation, “Coalition against ragging”, was founded by Dr. Tara de Mel and Prof Harendra de Silva. Recently, we met the former Minister of Education, Prof G. L. Peiris, who had openly voiced his opposition to ragging. He agreed to our proposals, but the never-ending burden of Covid-19 has hampered all discussions with the relevant authorities to control ragging.

In conclusion, our contention is that all universities should be centers of learning, creativity, innovation and dissemination of knowledge. These hallowed institutions should certainly be free of violence, intimidation and harassment.

 However, being realistic, in the present context, unless the university authorities take the bull by the horns, it may take a generation or two to bridge the gap between the well-off and not so well-off, competency/incompetency in English, and the disparity between the urban and rural students.

 My parting words for the students are…

 1. Give a “Firm NO” to ragging.

 2. Agree that ragging should be eliminated completely.

 3. Do not be a silent victim of ragging.

4. Do not be a silent witness to ragging of others.

Remember that each one of us has the responsibility to ensure that universities are safe and comfortable for all those who work and study in them.

When I was invited to deliver the commencement lecture to the new medical entrants in the 150th year of the Colombo Medical School, and at the foundation sessions of the Sri Lanka Medical Association in 2020, I based my talk at both events on “Ending violence in Sri Lankan universities”.



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Opinion

Do they know what Parliament is there for?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The behaviour of our elected representatives, at times, is so reprehensible that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate them from village thugs. In a way, it is not surprising because thugs are elected to positions of power. In fact, many others are waiting to be elected to the Provincial Councils, but I am sure many voters are hoping that these elections would never be held as they do not want more thugs to harass them. It is hoped that the second rung of government would be scrapped whatever our ‘big brother’ may say. However, we cannot do without the Parliament, and the behaviour of the members of the hallowed chamber has left us aghast. They simply do not seem to understand what the Parliament is there for. Maybe, the younger generations are not that concerned but we, ‘oldies’, are worried as this was not the way the ‘honourable members’ behaved in the past.

It is a great shame that the MP do not seem to understand that the Parliament is a place for discussion and debate, not cheap protests. If they have to be held, they should be within the confines of parliamentary norms. Though the Opposition uses this tactic more often, the governing party, too, indulges in this kind of gesture politics. Perhaps, it is the telecast of parliamentary proceedings that has resulted in these theatricals aimed at impressing the public.

What we are witnessing today, in addition to an inept government, is an Opposition engaged in gesture politics which, it seems to think, would propel them to power. Instead of contributing to nation building, in a constructive manner, with debate and discussion based on facts, members of the Opposition seem keen to hold protests inside the Parliament and spreading misinformation. Worse still, they engage in street protests, in spite of the fact that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that is far from being controlled, as well alluded to in The Island editorial “Enemies of people” (The Island, 17 November).

Even if all this can be excused, the despicable behaviour of some ‘honourable members’ can never be condoned. They seem to relish using unparliamentary language, even raw filth! Quite often, exchanges between the government and the Opposition descends into a slang match, not infrequently leading to fisticuffs. too. Instead of being punished, they are rewarded for their misdeeds. One ‘honourable member’ who tampered with the private parts of a man-in-robes was rewarded with a ministry during the previous Rajapaksa administration! By the way, I have stopped referring to those who act against the teachings and the Vinaya rules of the Buddha as Bhikkhus, as they are nothing but men-in-robes seeking personal glory and power. They are more selfish than laymen and fight for seats in the Parliament. I am waiting for a government bold enough to stop Bhikkhus being elected to Parliament!

Obviously, disgraceful behaviour does not seem to be limited to uneducated MPs. Whilst there is a justifiable clamour for the introducing of minimal educational qualifications for MPs, lack of educational qualifications does not seem to be the only problem. What we need is an attitudinal change. I was shocked to watch a recent news item, where only a part of a speech made by MP Sarath Fonseka, former Army Commander, was broadcast. More than half of his speech was ‘bleeped-out’, making me wonder whether he was using unparliamentary language. What would have happened if schoolchildren had been present in the public gallery to watch democracy in action!

The Speaker of the House is supposed to be the guardian of the dignity of the chamber and it is his bounden duty to stop MPs from using unparliamentary language and behaving like thugs, but our modern-day speakers seem to be behaving like puppets! In the British House of Commons, the word that often rings loud is “Order”, sometimes repeated in a terse manner. Recently, the British Speaker reprimanded the PM when he was out-of-order! When will that happen in Sri Lanka? By electing a former Army man as President, voters expected discipline at all levels of government and public administration but, unfortunately, we seem to be having indiscipline from Parliament downwards.

MP Tissa Kuttiarachci opened a new low in the Parliament by making a speech full of double meanings in referring to some female MPs. It was so offensive that even a female minister raised objections. When the Speaker reprimanded him, he had the audacity to demand to know what wrong words he had used! Any decent individual would not hesitate to apologise to anyone upon being told that their feelings were hurt, but he refused to do so! Do these MPs lack even common decency? Or, are they deluded by grandiosity?

Parliament need not be a dry place. Debates can be, and should be, interesting. Good natured humour would be tolerated, enjoyed even though remarks may carry hidden meanings. After all, it was the great democrat and parliamentary debater Dudley Senanayake, on an interruption by Maithripala Senanayake, turned to the Speaker and said “Sir, he has reasonable use of Tamil at night”, alluding to the ethnicity of his wife Ranjini. The house roared with laughter, Maithripala Senanayake was amused! That is the finesse the politicians of the modern day lack. Crudeness seem to be their forte!

We had amazing speakers in the Parliament, one of them being the late Anura Bandaranaike. Though I did not have the fortune to listen to him, my good friend Nihal Seneviratne, former Secretary General of Parliament, confided in me that Anura was one of those rare MPs who frequented the library in the Parliament to gather fact for his speeches.

When the new Parliament was constructed, there was widespread criticism which was silenced by Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis with a wonderful speech at the opening session of the Parliament. What has happened to Sri Lanka?

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Opinion

Don’t deride Sri Lankan scientists

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I have been watching with interest the exchange of views among several parties that commenced with the Article written by Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana to which Mr. Chris Dharmakeerti responded. My name and some of my research publications have been quoted in these exchanges. I myself responded to Prof. Dharmawardena stating that I don’t belong to the ‘Natha Deviyo Group’ and he has kindly said that he never did so. I’m sorry for my mistake. Yes, Prof. Dharmawardhana, Dr. Waidyanatha and myself have known each other for over 50 years. Both of them were a couple years senior to me and were serving as junior temporary staff members at the University of Ceylon, Colombo (at that time) when I was a final year undergrad student following a special degree. Immediately after my graduation I was appointed to the academic staff of the University of Ceylon

Peradeniya (later University of Peradeniya) and continued to serve the University for 40 years until my retirement in 2006. During this period, I was the Head of the Dept of Botany (five times), Dean, Graduate Studies, Dean Faculty of Science and acting Vice Chancellor during the most difficult period of 1989/90. While attached to the UoP, I made use of sabbatical and vacation leave to work at the International Rice Research Institute Philippines, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, and at the Washington State University and the San Jose State University in the USA. I’m not trying to brag, but writing all this to educate people like Bodhi Dhanapala who write derogatory, baseless insinuations in his emails as if we are petty thieves.

I share the patent on Prof Gamini Seneviratne’s innovation Biofilm Biofertiliser (BFBF) on invitation because I was the supervisor for his PhD research studies during which he learnt a lot on soil microbiology and also gave him useful advice at the time he was venturing to study rhizosphere microorganisms and develop multi-microbial inoculants. I have not participated in the large-scale field trials he conducted with BFBFs. I think he has effectively replied to his critics, subsequently supported by Prof. Ben Basnayake.

Now I will focus on my own work which also has come under scrutiny. Prof. Dhamawardana quotes some of my publications of 2012 and 2016 where he claims that I have written only of ‘a potential or encouraging results’ but not for large scale application by farmers. I fully agree. Those are publications on cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and Azolla. Even today my position is they only have a potential which has yet to be realised and not yet ready to be recommended for the farmers. What I wrote about applying N2-fixing biofertilisers refer to Rhizobial inoculants which form symbiotic root nodules with leguminous crops. Please read my write up carefully and you will find a statement that ‘out of all N2-fixing organisms and systems application of rhizobial inoculants was the most successful. This technology is nothing new. In fact, it is more than 125 years old! The first rhizobial inoculant with the commercial name Nitragin was patented in the USA in 1896 by Nobbe and Hiltner. Afterwards, this technology was adopted worldwide. Howeison and Herridge (2005) reported that Australia is annually saving 3 billion dollars by the judicious use of rhizobial inoculants. Sri Lanka imports 40% of our mung bean requirements from Australia.

We adopted the technology of using rhizobia native to Sri Lanka and embedding them in a local carrier material (modified coir dust) which enabled us to field test and eventually recommend it for large scale application. In adopting this technology for Sri Lanka, we have gone through several years of study. Commencing with basic studies of isolation, purification, characterisation and identification of rhizobia from local legumes (crop and wild) we have built up a germplasm of rhizobial isolates.

These have been authenticated and screened under greenhouse conditions to select the best strains for different crops, field tested in small plots in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture at HORDI and other research stations. In the final stages of transfer of technology, the most promising strains were used in large-scale field trials, some of which were conducted with the participation of farmers under our strict supervision and those of the field officers of the Plenty Foods company. It is after more than 20 years of painstaking research studies that we were able to get a breakthrough and transfer rhizobial inoculant technology to Sri Lankan farmers.

The Department of Agriculture got confidence in our products in 2017. That year they used our inoculants for extensive field cultivation of soybean. Their trials were successful and we were presented with a CD containing 100 photos of their cultivations with our inoculants. Two such photos are reproduced with this article.

Today, the best customers for our inoculants are the Central and Provincial Departments of Agriculture. Our team at the NIFS, which produces and market these inoculants (with the approval of the NIFS Board of Management) was felicitated a few months back by the Governor of the Central Province for the services rendered to the bean farmers from Hanguranketha to Welimada for low cost, eco-friendly bean cultivation. It is not easy to get a new technology accepted by farmers. By August this year we have supplied inoculants for more than 15,000 acres and more orders are coming. All these results of our work with rhizobial inoculants were presented at the Post-`Covid international symposium of the NSF and eventually published in its Proceedings. This is the Kulasooriya et al (2021) publication I have quoted in my write up.

I believe I have provided enough evidence to show that our efforts are to provide as much as possible some technologies based upon local resources for low cost, eco-friendly crop production and not a scam as some expatriates seem to think. They must not make baseless insinuations against genuine local scientists.

Prof. S. A. Kulasooriya

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Opinion

More shipments of ‘organic manure’ from China

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It has been reported that the Minister of Agriculture is trying to resolve the dispute over the Chinese organic fertiliser shipment by paying 75 % of the claim amounting to USD 6.7 million in respect of the rejected shipment and buying fresh stocks from the same company.

Enough has been discussed about why organic fertiliser should not be imported to this country as it is against the law to do so, and the best way is to prepare organic fertiliser on farms as far as possible, since transport of the large quantities needed will be too expensive and also cumbersome and a hassle to the farmer.

It was surprising to hear about the decision to buy fresh stocks of fertilisers from the same Chinese company whose first shipment was not allowed entry by the Plant Quarantine officials of the Department of Agriculture on the grounds that the samples were found to be contaminated with harmful microorganisms.

In the first instance, as an officer who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for more than 23 years, I am pretty certain that organic materials cannot be imported on a commercial scale as per provisions and regulations under the Plant Protection Act of 1981 and also the subsequent Plant Protection Act no.35 of 1999. Only small samples of such materials can be allowed by the Director General of Agriculture who is the implementing authority for the Plant Protection Act, and such samples can be used only for laboratory research work and cannot be added to the land. I am also aware that no amendments have since been made to the Plant Protection Act to change the provisions referred to above and the regulations thereon. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether such amendments can ever be brought in since plant quarantine is an issue that cannot be compromised according to the whims and fancies of governments, and is subject to international covenants/agreements.

Hence, it is pretty certain that importation of tons and tons of this “organic fertilser” is illegal, the irony here being the direct involvement, as a facilitator or promoter in this instance, of the Ministry of Agriculture, which should actually be the guardian of issues pertaining to plant quarantine. Had it been a private company, one could understand.

Besides, if the government decides to buy fresh stocks from the same company, whose first shipment was rejected due to contamination, what guarantee is there that the so called ‘fresh stock’ will not be contaminated. On the other hand, if this imported material happens to be sterile by some chance, it ceases to be organic fertiliser any more, for organic manure must necessarily have microorganisms. If microbial activity is not there, it will be some inert matter only.

Specifications laid down regarding the material to be purchased when an agreement was entered into between the buyer and the seller in this case are not known. If the material is organic fertiliser as the authorities keep referring to, it should necessarily have microorganisms. Then it follows that the samples will fail the test this time, too, and the shipment will have the same fate as the earlier one. This is what I could foresee., what we are buying is not organic manure or ‘organic fertiliser’ but some inert matter.

I sincerely hope and pray that those in charge of Plant Quarantine will abide by the regulations, and stand their ground as one cannot afford to play around with microorganisms especially when they come in bulk from foreign lands to a totally new environment here and right now, the whole world has been brought to its knees by just a virus. Hence there cannot be any compromise especially in dealing with microorganisms. Let us hope for the best any way, as this importation remains an ill-advised and illegal venture, if it goes through and it will be the first time ever that Sri Lanka effected a bulk importation of organic manure or “organic fertiliser”, in contravention of its own Plant Protection Act.

A. Bedgar Perera

bedgarperera@gmail.com

Retired Director/Agricultural Development

Ministry of Agriculture

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