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New Fortress deal conflicts with policy on renewables

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President speaking at the Glasgow summit

By Neville Ladduwahetty

A report in The Washington Post of 03 Nov. states: “More than 100 countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge, which requires a 30 percent cut in methane emissions by 2030, one of the Biden administration’s priorities for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. The pledge’s signatories now represent nearly half of human-caused methane emissions …. the Biden administration also unveiled a sweeping set of domestic policies to cut emissions of methane from oil and gas operations across the United States”. Furthermore, the announcement that the US and EU are global partners in this venture signifies the seriousness of the situation, as well as the pledge.

Conveying Sri Lanka’s contribution towards this global effort, a report in the Daily News (Sri Lanka) also of 03 Nov. 2021, citing the comments made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at COP26, states: “…the President added, Sri Lanka is deeply aware of the impacts of climate change. Our rich philosophical heritage, shaped by the Buddha’s teachings, places great value on environmental integrity. Therefore, the President said sustainability is at the heart of the national policy framework. ‘Sri Lanka’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions’ aims to reduce emissions towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050”. During his speech he referred to increasing Renewable Energy to 70% by 2030 and specifically “no new coal power”.

What is attempted herein is to ascertain the current status of power generation capacities in respect of renewable and non-renewable sources, in order to establish the scope of what needs to be done to achieve the goals stated at the COP26 in Glasgow. The information presented herein is based on a Report titled “SRI LANKA Energy Sector Assessment, Strategy and Road Map”, dated December 2019, of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and a Report of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).

POLICY vs. DEMAND

The conclusions are based on data presented in the reports referred to above in respect of what proportion of power is currently produced by Renewables, such as hydro, solar and wind, and by non-renewables, such as fossil fuels and products of Petroleum.

According to the Executive Summary of the above report, “The peak demand is forecasted to cross 3,000 MW by 2020 and 4,800 MW by 2030”.

According to the CEB report, titled “Least Cost Long Term Generation Expansion Plan 2018 – 2037, submitted in May 2017, “off-peak demand to grow from the 1,100 (current level) to about 1,700 MW by 2037…”. Furthermore, table 3.3 states that by 2030 the Peak Demand is projected to be 4726 MW; a projection that closely agrees with the projection of 4800 MW in the ADB Report.

Given below are capacities of renewables and non-renewables that currently exist and in stages of development.

RENEWABLES:

HYDRO:

Large plants 1390 MW; Small plants 350 MW; Stages of Development 250 MW; SOLAR- Roof top target by 2020 is 200 MW; WIND-Developed 130 MW and under Development 130 MW (ADB Report).

TOTAL FROM RENEWABLES AS OF 2020 = 2450 MW.

NON-RENEWABLES:

COAL – NOROCHCHOLAI 900 MW; FOSSIL FUELS – KELANITISSA- 120 MW installed in 1980 &1981, 115 MW installed in 1997 and 165 MW in 2000; and KERAWALAPITIYA 310 MW.

TOTAL FROM NON – RENEWABLES, AS OF 2020 =1610 MW.

IF 120 MW IS RETIRED, BALANCE NON-RENEWABLES IN 2020 =1490 MW

ACHIEVING 2030 GOALS

If the goal to be achieved in 2030 is 70% renewables, it must follow that non-tenewables would be 30% of the demand. Thus, the demand projected for 2030 is 4800 MW, and target for tenewables would be 70% of 4800 MW, which is 3360 MW and for Non-Renewables the target would be 30% of 4800 MW which is 1440 MW.

The information presented above makes it clear that Sri Lanka already has the capacity to produce a minimum of 1490 MW of electricity from non-renewable sources. Thus, there no reason to expand existing capabilities, at least up to 2030. This means that expanding capacities at Kerawalapitiya from its present level of 310 MW by a further 700 MW is in conflict with the 30 % goal intended for non-renewables.

Another factor that needs to be recognised and appreciated is that since the current capacity of non-renewables is a minimum of 1490 MW, and if its contribution is to be 30% of the existing capabilities, the non-renewables are currently in a position to meet a demand of 1490/30%, which is 4966 MW; a capacity of 196 MW in excess of the projected demand of 4800 MW.

If the policy is for renewables to be 70% of the projected demand of 4800 MW by 2030, which is 3360 MW and the present capacity is only 2450 MW, there remains a need to meet the shortfall of 910 MW over a period of nine years. A significant portion of this shortfall could be met by doubling the hydro power capacity of Victoria, and the balance could be met by solar and wind over the next nine years.

In summary, a review of existing capacities for renewables is that there is a shortfall between projected demand and existing capacities. On the other hand, with regard to non-renewables, the current capacities of a minimum of 1490 MW are already in excess of the 30% of the projected demand of 4800 MW. Under the circumstances, expanding capacities at Kerawalapitiya by the addition of 700 MW to the existing 310 MW comes into conflict with the goals the President committed to in Glasgow at the COP26 summit on climate change.

EXPANDING NON-RENEWABLE CAPACITY

at KERAWALAPITIYA

In the context of the material presented above, there is absolutely no justification for the CEB to expand the capacities of non-renewables at Kerawalapitiya, and call for international bids to install a 350 MW plant, based on LNG. This is what prompted New Fortress Energy (NFE) to submit an unsolicited proposal to expand the existing capacity of 310 MW at Kerawalapitiya, by 700 MW, and convert all operations amounting to 1010 MW to LNG, together with a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU). Following the offer by NFE, a framework agreement was signed between NFE and the Government that has the backing of the US government. This Agreement requires Sri Lanka to sell 40% stake in the state owned West Coast Power as part of the deal.

The moment the news was out, there was a storm of protests. Petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court against the sale of the 40% stake in a national asset. Others, have objected to the deal, with NFE, on the grounds that the terms of sale of LNG binds Sri Lanka to commitments that are unacceptable. A report in The Morning of 04 Nov, quotes the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka Janaka Ratnayake as having said that the “Yugadanavi is deal beneficial despite shady signing”. The deal is shady because the terms of the agreement prevent it from being disclosed without the consent of both parties, according to the Chairman of the CEB. Furthermore, the CEB has conveyed that it does not have grounds for objecting to the terms and the manner in which the deal was executed (The Morning, 04 Nov. 2021).

The fundamental issue is not whether the deal with NFE is “shady”, or its terms conflict with Sri Lanka’s national interests. The fundamental issue is that the deal is in conflict with the Policy of the Government to convert power generation to 70% Renewables by 2030. This Policy cannot coexist with the attempt to expand Non-Renewable power generation.

Furthermore, existing capacities meet the projected demand for Non-Renewable until 2030. Therefore, the deal to expand capacities of Non-Renewables, by whatever means, comes at the cost to the Policy of conversion to 70% Renewables by 2030; a commitment announced at the COP26 in Glasgow by the President. What is evident from the foregoing is that the decision to expand the capacities of Non-Renewables was taken without first ascertaining whether Sri Lanka needs to expand Non-Renewables, before rushing to do so by those responsible for power generation. This is, indeed, disappointing, to say the least.

CONCLUSION

The Policy of the Sri Lankan Government, as stated by the President at the COP26 climate change summit, in Glasgow, was to increase Renewable energy production to 70% by 2030 and no more coal. It must then follow that the Policy in respect of Non-Renewables should be limited to 30% of demand by 2030. According to the ADB Report cited above “The peak demand is forecasted to cross 3,000 MW by 2020 and 4,800 MW by 2030”. At 70% Renewables this translates into 3360 MW and 1440 MW of Non-Renewables.

Per the material presented above, the present capacity of Renewables is 2450 MW. This is short of the goal by 910 MW that should be reached by 2030. On the other hand, the above facts demonstrate that existing capacities of Non-Renewable, 1440 MW, have already reached the threshold of 30% required by Policy, because even if 120 MW at Kelanitissa are retired due to age, Sri Lanka would still be left with 1490 MW of power from Norochchalai (900 MW), Kerawalapitiya (310 MW) and Kelanitissa (280 MW).

Under the circumstances, the question arises as to how the CEB together with all the others associated with it, justified a call for international bids to set up a 350 MW LNG plant, at Kerawalapitiya, when absolutely no grounds existed, and at the cost of defeating the Policy Government Policy for 70% Renewables and ipso-facto 30% Non-Renewables by 2030. This action tempted New Fortress Energy to step in with an unsolicited offer to increase Non-Renewable production, at Kerawalapitiya, by an additional 700 MW to operate on LNG and to sweeten the pot, convert the existing 310 MW plant also into LNG along with a Floating Storage Regasification Unit to transfer the LNG all for a 40% stake in West Coast Power for $250 million.

This offer has precipitated serious objections from various quarters that range from Supreme Court petitions to dissent within the Cabinet and others threatening trade union action – all for nothing because under no circumstances could the New Fortress deal be justified since existing capacities in respect of Non-Renewables do not warrant expansion particularly because such an expansion would be in conflict with the objectives of the current Policy of 70% Renewables. The entire fiasco associated with the New Fortress deal could have been avoided had those responsible for power generation critically examined the fundamental question as to whether or not Sri Lanka should expand Non-Renewables at this time.

Since the fundamental question has not yet been posed, it is imperative even at this late stage for the President to ask this fundamental question – IF SRI LANKA’S COMMITMENT AT THE COP26 IS TO BE HONOURED, SHOULD SRI LANKA EXPAND NON-RENEWABLE CAPACITIES OR RENEWABLE CAPACITIES BETWEEN NOW AND 2030? If the answer to the question is that expansion should ONLY be limited to Renewables, it follows that the New Fortress deal is clearly NOT in Sri Lanka’s interest.



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Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe presenting the government’s policy statement in Parliament on 07 Feb.

In his policy statement during the inauguration of the 5th session of the 9th parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that the solution to the economic crisis lies in economic and scientific measures, not political ones. However, he draws inspiration from Confucius and urges citizens to introspect and cleanse their hearts, which can be seen as a political measure beyond being framed as moral or ethical. In the meantime, he has asserted that his government has achieved a significant transformation and provided a concise progress report, highlighting the remarkable recovery of the economy. President Wickremesinghe has emphasised that the economy, once in dire straits and requiring intensive care, has successfully emerged from its critical condition, exhibiting a robust V-shaped recovery. (See Table 1)

President Wickremesinghe claimed that this record-breaking breakthrough achievement in a brief span is truly a world record; he compared similar situations such as Greece, which took almost a decade to recover. Refuting allegations that he is engaging in secret agreements to conceal the true situation from the public, he has emphasised that every step taken was transparent, offering opportunities for discussion and debate both within and outside Parliament, with nothing hidden. The accuracy of this statement has to be verified by the concerned parties.

Going by confidence that people will eventually recognise and appreciate his decision-making, driven by the country’s growth rather than political gain, the President does not seem to have learnt from the defeat he experienced in the past including the last presidential election. Despite implementing relatively better governance with initiatives like increasing tax revenue and anti-corruption measures, the electorate prioritised different concerns, such as the “inna ratak” outcry. Consequently, they not only failed to acknowledge or appreciate these efforts but rejected the regime altogether, leading to the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2019.

The President appears aware of the risk of truth manipulation, deceiving both the nation and its people, yet he seems to take insufficient action to effectively prevent such occurrences.

Facing opposition from major media institutions, the President should proactively direct his media unit to implement a robust awareness program. Relying solely on the passage of time for people to become aware of his administration’s achievements is not sufficient. To effectively communicate the positive initiatives, the President and his government must engage in proactive efforts to counter the negative narrative. Failing to take assertive action may lead to a repetition of mistakes, as people are less likely to recognise and appreciate the purported “good” work without an active and strategic communication strategy.

Accomplishments:

·  Recognition from international institutions.

·  “Urumaya” program for land rights to over two million people.

·  “Asvasuma” program improving living standards for 2.4 million poor individuals.

·  130% increase in tax network (from 437,547 to 1,000,029 registered taxpayers).

·  Successful debt restructuring.

·  Establishment of an economic commission.

Future Initiatives:

·  Eradication of corruption.

·  Simplification of the investment process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and corruption risks.

·  Social modernization.

·  Target of attracting 5 million tourists annually.

·  Emphasis on technological advancement, renewable energy, and establishing the International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka.

·  Increase productivity of agricultural land in the dry zone (double or triple).

·  Restructuring of foreign relations with non-aligned policies.

·  Pursuit of free trade agreements with China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (Singapore agreement already in full operation).

·  Intent to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

·  Diversification of economic activities away from the Western Province to cities like Jaffna, Trincomalee, Bingiriya, Hambantota, and Kandy.

·  Plan to complete over 50,000 houses for low-income urban residents.

·  Positioning the country as a service center and economic hub in the Indian Ocean by developing three new ports.

·  Collaboration with India to develop Trincomalee as an economic hub.

Some of these objectives appear contradictory and need clarification. For instance, the goal of constructing 50,000 houses in urban areas, mainly in Colombo, seems to contradict the broader plan of expanding activities away from the Western Province. Additionally, there is a seeming contradiction in developing Trincomalee as an economic hub while simultaneously positioning the entire country as a service centre and an economic hub in the Indian Ocean.


The President has said that merely condemning and blaming the crisis without delving into its root causes is ineffective. However, this stance apparently runs counter to his plans for eradicating corruption and promoting social modernisation. The question is how he can conclude that addressing the economic crisis is solely dependent on economic solutions, and dismiss the relevance of political remedies. Many analysts argue that a political solution is primary, with economic solutions being secondary. Historical observations indicate that political changes, such as a regime change, precede the implementation of economic solutions by new political leaders. Without political change, the emergence of these economic solutions is challenging, if not impossible. These statements raise concerns about the possibility of individuals responsible for the crisis being absolved, despite the Supreme Court’s determination and punishment of those accountable and identification of root causes.

He has acknowledged the importance of addressing these issues but has not explicitly deemed them necessary. Perhaps, his emphasis on these matters is an attempt to garner support from the SLPP for his presidential campaign. However, it is crucial to note that he repeatedly emphasises the need to address root causes and hold those responsible accountable.

Finally, the President poses a series of questions: Why is it challenging to embrace an open perspective? Despite our diverse ideas, ethnic backgrounds, languages, provincial residencies, faiths, beliefs, and political affiliations, why can’t we unite in a shared vision for the country’s well-being and the future? Why can’t we collectively understand the benefits for our nation’s youth and join hands to reach great heights? The answers, for many, are not ambiguous. The rise to power by ultra-nationalists and corrupt politicians is often facilitated by divisive tactics. Many politicians faced imminent convictions, and without regime change, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several could have ended up in jail. We clearly witnessed manipulation of emotions to set different communities against each other as a route to political power. To counter such tactics, he should advocate for the implementation of strong laws and systems to prevent the propagation of manipulation through mass media.

In conclusion, vital statistics illustrate a remarkable turnaround in key economic indicators, signaling progress under his administration. However, certain contradictions and concerns arise, particularly regarding the alignment of various objectives and the perceived emphasis on economic solutions over political remedies.

The President’s call for heart cleansing and unity, inspired by Confucian principles, highlights the importance of fostering a shared vision for the nation’s well-being. Despite the accomplishments outlined, challenges remain in navigating political complexities, addressing root causes, and maintaining transparency to win public trust.

The proposed initiatives, including eradicating corruption, social modernization, and economic diversification, reflect the administration’s ambitious agenda. However, the potential contradictions warrant clarification.

The assertion that the economic crisis resolution lies predominantly in economic and scientific solutions contradicts the notion that political remedies are secondary. Analysts argue for a holistic approach where political and economic solutions complement each other, emphasizing the need for effective governance and accountability.

The President’s reluctance to name the people, who are responsible for the crisis, raises concerns. This ambiguity may stem from political considerations or an attempt to garner support from the SLPP.

The reference to manipulation of emotions for political gain highlights the need for strong laws and systems to counter divisive tactics through mass media.

Hence, the President should address the underlying political forces that contribute to the root causes of the crisis. Cleansing hearts is not an economic solution; it is fundamentally a political issue.

(The writer, a senior Chartered Accountant and professional banker, is Professor at SLIIT University, Malabe. He is also the author of the “Doing Social Research and Publishing Results”, a Springer publication (Singapore), and “Samaja Gaveshakaya (in Sinhala). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institution he works for. He can be contacted at saliya.a@slit.lk and www.researcher.com)

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President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy

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President Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

Even as the date for the presidential elections approaches, there are increased speculations regarding those elections, not only who might win but also whether those elections will be held at all.  There is also a debate being generated whether the presidential elections ought to be held at all.  There are many who feel that President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be given more time to take the country to development. United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, might be one such. He has described Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as one of the greatest comeback stories in the part of the world he deals with. On the other hand, there are others who argue in favour of abolishing the presidency as soon as possible.  This would also do away with the need for a presidential election to be held.

There is indeed a strong case for the abolishing of the presidency which is generally believed in the country to be an institution that is over-powerful and prone to abuse by those who are elected to it.  This argument has been made into an election campaign theme by some of the past presidential candidates at past presidential elections.  But after they won the elections those who promised to abolish the presidency failed to do so, and instead made strenuous efforts to stay on as long as they could, which explains why the presidency continues to this day. There being little faith that those who win the presidency will wish to abolish it, there is an opinion being formed that the presidency should be abolished before the presidential elections. The fact that the presidential form of government led the country to economic disaster is another reason for the hurry. There is, however, a question as to the practicability of this proposition.

The present system of government is called the executive presidential system on account of the central role in the constitution given to the presidency.  It can be imagined that cutting out this central institution will be like a fatal wound caused to the prevailing structure of governance. It may be argued that through skillful constitutional engineering that the hole caused by the excision of the presidency can be filled.  But the speed at which these reforms can be enacted is questionable in the absence of a political consensus that includes both government and opposition on the issue which is presently not to be seen. If there is to be an abolition of the executive presidency, it is very necessary for there to be consultation with the population and political parties about the new system that will replace the executive presidency. It must be one that meets the expectations and aspirations of the ethnic and religious minorities as well. There is no such consensus at the present time.

UNPOPULAR GOVERNMENT

There have been deliberations on a new constitution and on constitutional reform on many occasions. However, constitutional schemes from the past cannot substitute for the need to consult people and political parties at this time, when circumstances have changed so drastically, having experienced the Aragayala protests and economic bankruptcy. There is also need for recognition that where there is no consensus, as on the solution to the ethnic conflict and the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities into governance, change proceeds painfully slowly.  This can be seen in the change of the electoral system to the provincial councils that commenced in 2017 and has still not been completed with the result that provincial council elections are overdue five years. It is also noteworthy that 36 years after being made part of the constitution, the provincial councils are in abeyance and there is a proposal pending to eliminate their police powers which, in any event, was never implemented. Fast tracking constitutional change does not seem to be an option especially when all eyes are focused on elections.

 Public opinion polls are repeatedly showing that the opposition candidates are ahead in the presidential race by significant margins. If these poll results are anywhere close to reality it can be surmised that the vast majority of people are looking for an election.  They would see that it is an election more than anything else that could dislodge the government which is entrenched in power under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe.  Two years ago the weakness of the government was such that its leading members dared not come into the public as they feared the wrath of the mob.  Some even faced heckling at weddings where people who had come for the happy occasion started hooting those whom they accused of bankrupting the country.  Now they are able to attend public functions without fear and with reasonable confidence that their security personnel can handle any eventuality.

The prospect of losing power is never a pleasing one to political leaders with their sights on power.  Even advanced countries such as the United States have faced this situation.  At the presidential election held in 2020, incumbent president Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and claimed the election was rigged.  The desire of those in power in developing countries would be as strong, perhaps even stronger, as losing power could make the incumbent vulnerable to revenge in which the system of checks and balances fails to protect them.  The prospect of facing an unknown future in the aftermath of electoral defeat would also be unnerving to those in government, especially if the new government is composed of those with a very different political ideology.

MOST INTRACTABLE

The present government is for the most part a continuation of the government that had to face down the protest movement in which tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country participated.  During those halcyon days, protestors young and old from far and near came on foot, on motorcycles, tractor trailers and improvised lorries to be part of a historic revolution they thought was near.  The vision of a “system change” that motivated them to make big sacrifices to come to the various protest sites still lives within them, as indeed it must within all who want to see Sri Lanka politically awaken and rise to its full economic potential which is still a distance away.  The main beneficiaries of the elections to come will be those who best hold out the hope of system change that will eradicate corruption and ensure a fairer distribution of the costs of getting out of bankruptcy.

The opportunity to effect governmental change will come in October when the constitutionally mandated presidential election falls due. Those in the government would prefer if those elections do not take place or are postponed for as long as possible.  In March 2022, the government ensured that local government elections were not held by denying the Election Commission the money to hold them.  The government’s determination not to hold those elections was high. It even disregarded the Supreme Court order to make the money available to the Election Commission to conduct the elections. This was a highhanded act that undermines the principles of democracy itself. There is concern that the presidential election will similarly be postponed on some ground or the other.

However, on this occasion, the President’s media unit has stated that the presidential election will be held within the mandated period and according to the current timeline. It added that the general election will be held next year and financial provisions will be provided for in the 2025 budget.  The government has also stated that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting the elections and the government will be communicating with the Commission as and when required. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also reiterated to a group of MPs who met him recently that the presidential election would be held on time and there would be no abolition of the presidency. Speaking in a statesmanlike mode, the president said, “I have clearly stated several times that I have no intention to put off the presidential elections. Funds for that purpose are there. The talks about attempts to abolish the executive presidency were circulated by the main opposition.”

The president is also reported to have said that “People of this country know better than the opposition that the abolition of the executive presidency cannot be done in a hurry. There is a procedure to do that. We should not fall into their trap. Do not waste your time on this. You speak of the economic revival programme that we are carrying out.” Likewise, President Wickremesinghe can also seek to address the country’s most intractable problem, the ethnic conflict by ordering the full implementation of the 13th Amendment which would make it easier for the victor at the next election to find a mutually acceptable solution. Whether he succeeds or not he could feel contentment that he did what he had agreed and undertaken to do.

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Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’

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by Ruth Surenthiraraj

I remember, with unusually vivid clarity, the first time I really noticed the presence of silence in the classroom. One of the lecturers, who was taking our undergraduate class, had assigned us reading to be done ahead of time, parts of which were quite tedious and had to be read twice/thrice over to be grasped. In true happy-go-lucky undergrad spirit, my classmates and I turned up having ‘skimmed’ the articles and nurturing the fervent hope that someone else would pick up the discussion in the event that any questions were raised. As you would imagine, it went horribly wrong. The lecturer posed a question that required some thinking, and we suddenly and silently went into panic-mode in a bid to offer something akin to an answer. A few of us tried to start things off by giving noncommittal responses in the general direction of the question and were kindly asked to explain ourselves further – at which point we fell silent once more because we felt that we hadn’t thought things through. The lecturer, instead of berating us for not reading adequately or making us feel like we were bad students, simply invited us to embrace the silence so that we could get our thoughts in order.

In recalling this incident, I remember the strong sense of discomfort that we felt as learners. It wasn’t, however, something that stemmed from the lecturer or their handling of what must have been a frustrating situation. Instead, I now read that feeling as the acute discomfort of learners who had been trained to view silence in the classroom as something negative. That incident – apart from giving me impetus to never turn up to my classes without completing my assigned reading – also invited me to begin exploring the role of silence and its presence (or absence) in our undergraduate classrooms.

Although silence in teaching and learning is still fairly under-researched and is rarely a nuanced consideration in mainstream conversations around the dynamics of a classroom, there are still broad arguments that have attempted to imbue silence with meaning. For one, our multiple religious traditions seem to have strong tendencies towards silence as a form of retreat to assist deeper reflection even though these traditions often sit in direct contrast with current trends to be constantly producing and documenting aspects of life. Conversely, there is often a ‘culture of silence’ (much bemoaned by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire) that surrounds those who are socially, economically, and culturally vulnerable – a way in which socialisation teaches people to not interrogate their realities. Linguistically speaking, silence often assists us in distinguishing speech units (i.e., the silence that marks a pause in or completion of an idea/thought), but it can be further categorised as playing various functions in establishing relationships between participants in conversations. The possibilities of interpreting silence are myriad.

In the classroom, however, I think we are often limited to viewing silence as a negative indicator. As educators working with undergraduates, we assume that learners’ silence signals a disinterestedness or a disengagement from the critical approaches that should ideally frame undergraduate classroom discussions. At an even more basic level, we often consider silence to signify a lack of knowledge and we then attempt to fill that assumed void with speech that appears to address this lack of knowledge. As a result, we educators often view silence as a thing to be disliked at best and dreaded at worst. But what could silence really mean in a classroom of learners attempting to engage with new knowledge?

Firstly, it is very likely that the learners in our classrooms are expressing a deep-seated, culturally taught fear: the fear of giving the ‘wrong’ response. Sad as it is, it is still common to find educators who berate students for giving unacceptable answers. Instead of engaging with why the answer might not best reflect the desired response, we often shut students down when they don’t meet our (sometimes undefined) expectations. We rarely realise in the moment, though, that learning is a process in which ‘mistakes’ are as important as so-called successes. In fact, mistakes and errors often pave the way for deeper understanding of how what works and why. When learners begin to internalise the message that they don’t know enough to answer, they will simply opt to remain silent despite having a working knowledge of a subject. On the contrary, our classrooms should be safe spaces for ‘stupid’ or partial answers that encourage the students to reflect on why those responses require more thought.

In a constructivist view, learners are not blank slates which we fill with information: rather, they are intellects with existing knowledge structures (schemas) which are formed based on their experiences in life. When these existing schemas meet new knowledge in the classroom, the learner is required to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the new knowledge. This accommodation requires time and the capacity to be reflective, which in turn enables a more integrated worldview. Indeed, if education is meant to be transformative, repeated opportunities to integrate new and existing knowledge structures must be offered to learners within our classrooms. In short, I believe silence could also indicate an unspoken request for space and time to contemplate the significance of new knowledge. Sometimes, we give our students too little time to fully turn ideas around in their heads before requiring them to respond to us. I’ve observed many good educators allowing their frustration at silence to compel answers from students – resulting in responses that might be superficial rather than actual reflections of learning. A better way to undercut our impatience with silence would be to invite learners to hash out their fledgling ideas among themselves before attempting to articulate a holistic and/or individual response. This preliminary discussion often assists in integrating new and existing knowledge in the relatively safer space of peer groups.

Over centuries, educators have also played directly into the problem of sanitising education – separating theories and practices from the contexts in which they originated or detaching them from the sociocultural impacts they may cause. In turn, learners gain an ‘education’ that is removed from its everyday consequences. This also makes it difficult for learners to assimilate such unrelatable concepts, leading to more awkward silences in our classrooms as they attempt to collect seemingly detached pieces of knowledge.

Finally, silence is further compounded in classrooms where students are expected to respond in their second languages. With increasingly more undergraduate study programmes opting to shift wholesale (and almost overnight, in some cases) to the English medium instruction, many more undergraduates are going to be struggling to articulate their thoughts in a language that is not part of their repertoire. Educators (especially those other than language teachers) must be doubly attentive to these unspoken difficulties when interpreting silence. There are a heartbreakingly large number of stories where perfectly articulate and knowledgeable students are deprived of their classes (not to mention jobs) simply because they have not mastered the art of the second language yet. In wrongly categorising such students as ‘below par’ or not having the requisite ‘skills’, we relegate them as incompetent rather than critique our own skewed standards. I have often admired a student in my class for her comfort with awkward pauses as she attempts to construct a sentence that accurately reflects her thoughts as well as ‘acceptable’ language structures. But this is also possible only because I have now taught myself to never rush learners as they navigate new knowledge in a language that they are not fully familiar with. As a teacher of English as a second language, the tendency is to jump in with the necessary vocabulary so that the silences/pauses cause minimal discomfort to the learner. Yet, how will our learners ever be comfortable with the pauses that are inherent to language use and language learning if we do not (want to) confront our own discomfort with silence?

Learner silence, therefore, could act as a signifier of multiple underlying processes and problems. I am not in any way suggesting that silence cannot be associated with a lack of knowledge or with disinterest. However, to boil nuances in learner silence down to either a lack of knowledge or a sense of apathy regarding their discipline is to view learners reductively; we rob them of their right to be considered and accommodated as complex intellects in our classrooms. In rephrasing our questions (to better shape the silences in our classes) or in simply limiting our impatience at the lack of sound/response, we begin to create an atmosphere that is supportive of deeper engagement with our disciplines.

(Ruth is a teacher of English as a second language at a state university.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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