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Roadblock to the new normal

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Time to Break the Boundaries – Part III

BY Shivanthi Ranasinghe

ranasingheshivanthi@gmail.com 

(Part II was published last Saturday)

The Education Ministry is trying its best to reopen schools amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave. The Ministry announced its decision to reopen schools throughout the Island except in those areas under lockdown. This was met enthusiastically by neither the teachers’ trade unions nor parents. They are worried that schools functioning amidst the pandemic would pave the path to a “school cluster”. At the same time, the trade unions acknowledge that keeping schools closed indefinitely is also not the solution.

To emphasis the need to reopen schools, a trade unionist observed that online education had failed. This is debatable. Segments that have ready access to necessary devices and uninterrupted connection and with the familiarity of using these tools have had their lessons uninterrupted. They even had online exams. Most unfortunately, this situation is not true for all Sri Lankan children. 

Children in lower income brackets could not connect with the online classes. Even for those with devices, inadequate Internet coverage proved to be the issue.

The issue had been accessibility. However, this is only part of the problem. The fact that we could not reach out to all the children means that the status of our education on Information Technology (IT) related subjects does not even warrant a discussion. This thus exposes the extent our education had become outmoded even before the pandemic.

 

Our archaic education system

We are in the midst of the IT Revolution, which is rapidly evolving into the knowledge era. Electronic commerce (e-commerce) and online communications are some of the key components in the world today. It is increasing connectivity, generating real time businesses and reducing the time gaps as never before. Countries, irrespective of their economic policies, are now part of a global village.

The importance of IT and IT based systems has jumped since the pandemic. Work from home, distant education, banking services and even home deliveries became possible because of IT. Many governments have resorted to e-governance to serve the people more efficiently.

Yet most of our budding future generation is completely disconnected from this revolution. Therefore, our online education has failed not so much due to inaccessibility, but because of the lack of will to transform our education to be relevant to the economy.

Our education system is still stuck in the bygone industrial revolution. The fact that needs to be urgently acknowledged is that industries are increasingly becoming automated. As machines replace humans, the remuneration from these tasks is getting exponentially devalued. 

For four generations, free education has been made compulsory for every child in Sri Lanka. Yet, we are struggling to move on at the global pace. Our main foreign earnings are from the tea and garment exports and worker remittances from the Middle East. The tea leaf plucker, garment factory worker and domestic aid that slave away in the deserts are engaged in very mechanical tasks.

Each year we note that our tea exports are fetching fewer dollars. It is an industry that balks at paying their laborers a daily wage of Rs 1,000. We need to rebrand and aggressively market our tea. However, marketing is no longer confined to commercials or billboards. The best and most effective marketing now is on social media as product endorsements. 

Most of our garment factories are still labor intensive. This makes our production costs high in comparison to our neighbours with lower labour rates, giving them a competitive edge over us. To be competitive, we need to adapt technologies such as those that promote “Just In Time” production. This helps designers respond to fashion timely and allows buyers to reduce commitments on bulk orders by placing quantities to reflect actual demand.

Our workers in the Middle East are in hostile environments, without even the protection of the law. The contempt with which their services, considered menial, are treated is an affront to our entire nation. We export our prime workforce only to be re-exported broken souls, who had suffered horrific experiences. They often return to find their families torn apart. As extra baggage, we are now burdened with incompatible ideologies that threaten our way of life and even paved way to atrocities as the Easter Attack. Hence, the ensuring social costs far outweigh the actual monetary remittances we get.

Without a healthy foreign exchange flow, our capacity to invest in new technologies or industries becomes limited. This in turn reduces our opportunities to generate new employment. Without return on investments, we are forced to borrow just to meet day-to-day expenses. As our Gross Domestic Production (GDP) growth rate fails to keep up with the increasing National Debt, our interest rates also rises whilst our debt repayment schedules get shorter. This in turn devalues the currency, further adding to our debt repayment commitments. As the end result, we as a country get poorer.

It has been our tragic experience that poverty and associated social ills have nourished and even justified terrorism in Sri Lanka. Both Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Parabakaran were able to attract the youth afflicted by this unfair social platform for their macabre causes. Therefore, if we are to retain our hard-won peace, we must earnestly and urgently address the poverty in Sri Lanka. As such, our education system has a very important role to play.

 

The New Education Goals

We too can connect with the multi-billion-dollar e-commerce industry. It is important to understand that e-commerce is not confined to white collar jobs. Even our core industries on which a majority of our population survives on, such as agriculture, fisheries, construction and tourism can be vastly improved by employing IT-based tools as artificial intelligence, robotics and e-commerce.

To connect with this IT Revolution, our education system must transform itself to produce knowledge-based workers. Learning spellings or even a second language is no longer necessary. There are spell-checkers and translation applications to do that for us. At the same time, with search engines as Google and Siri, the need to cram information into memory has also got obsolete.

 

This means the Education Ministry has new goals. They must produce a workforce that is adaptable, analytical, innovative and creative in new environments. Test scores based on regurgitating facts are no longer the deciding factors in being gainfully employed.

These are not new thinking. In fact, the need to be part of this revolution has been on the discussion board for over 20 years. State Minister Ajith Cabraal’s Lak Mawata Muthu Potak (Pearl Necklace for Mother Lanka) discusses these issues at length. We are already onboard IT and Information System (IS) based platforms. Even the Sri Lanka tea auctions went online during the pandemic.

Today, IT is a promising one-billion-dollar industry in Sri Lanka. Other than a capital expenditure, the IT industry does not have a raw material cost as in the apparel sector. The garment industry, generating a USD 5.5 billion revenue, is the larger industry in Sri Lanka. Yet, it spends about USD 2.5 billion in importing its raw materials. As the IT industry generates its income from mostly skills and resources available at home, almost its net revenue is retained in the country.

However, it is obvious that only a certain segment of our society is engaged with this lucrative industry. Their wealth is naturally increasing and so is their social status. If adequate measures are not employed to include the other segments, the gap between the rich and the poor would also increase. This situation is too dangerous to be allowed to brew.

 

The New Normal – an Opportunity to Correct Abnormalities taken for Granted as ‘Normal’

The pandemic has offered the best possible opportunity for us to correct our course. Troubling or challenging these times maybe it is also a very unique period in our lives. The last time a situation as this arose was when the world was afflicted with the Spanish Flu. That happened in the last century and most probably the next pandemic might not be till the next century. It is with this frame of mind that we need to address the pandemic.

Authorities and experts talk of a ‘new normal’. However, what exactly is entailed in this ‘new normal’ is yet to be defined. It is not even clear if this ‘new normal’ is just to get through the pandemic or beyond it. Entities like Singapore’s famous Changi Airport are using the pandemic to revamp its Terminal 2. Likewise, many others are using this opportunity to renovate, re-engineer and remodel both their premises and business processes.

Instead of trying to bang the head on the wall, the Education Ministry too ought to consider this pandemic as an opportunity to resolve a long-standing issue – providing an equal education platform for all Sri Lankan children. Rather than trying to reopen schools in uncertain conditions and risk disastrous consequences, the Ministry must concentrate on removing the glitches in providing an online education to every single child. Without teachers to ‘spoon feed’ endless facts and measures to ensure rigid exam conditions, the syllabuses must focus on achievements based on analysis, creativity and innovation. This will serve the nation well past the pandemic.

This is truly a window of opportunity to correct many of the abnormalities as poverty that we had thus far taken for granted as ‘normal’. Once the pandemic ends and children return to school as regularly as before, we would lose the urgency to resort to online education. This presents the real danger of resuming a curriculum that is robbing our children of their childhood for very little return for their investment; and a curriculum that is not serving the national interests adequately.

Even before the pandemic, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was working to overcome these issues. He too noted that the cause for unemployed graduates is their degree courses that have little relevance to the economy. The country’s opportunity cost of deliberately making it hard to pass science subjects is significant, he observed. Therefore, he not only plans to increase the capacity of tertiary education, but also expand the courses to include vocational streams and other fields needed by the economy. The objective is to provide a tertiary education to all those who pass the Advanced Level exams.

The pandemic however has shifted this frame of vision that we need A/L results to qualify for a tertiary education. The response from our youngsters since the outbreak of the COVID-19 has been both astonishing and marvelous. Many came up with various developments and inventions to help Sri Lanka face the pandemic-related health and economic challenges. Their effort ought to be acknowledged academically. When a 14-year old converts an ordinary mechanical water tap into a motion sensor auto-water faucet, it is rather ridiculous to make him sit for Ordinary Level exams. Instead, he should have the freedom to skip ahead to follow the relevant courses. The Ministry should thus not only focus on increasing capacity of tertiary education but also avenues for students to access higher education.

After all, education is not confined to school or classroom. Thus, if students cannot come to school, then the Ministry should consider ways to turn the living environment into an education base. A simple, temporary remedy might be to involve temples and other premises with hall capacities to allow neighborhood children to gather and continue with their online education. This will give children the much-needed break from the isolation caused by the pandemic as well. Any cluster of such a circle would be small and manageable. 

More imaginative changes would be to encourage children to take on investigative projects based on their environment. For instance, though nearly 50 percent of our population is engaged in agrarian industries, our education curriculum does not reflect it. This would be a very good opportunity to involve children in the many debates and developments revolving in the sector. 

For the past couple of years, a very strong nationalist sentiment has been building in the country. If we allow ourselves, then the pandemic can be made into the much-needed opportunity we need to turn around our country for the better. In this context, the education sector (Ministry and teachers), parents and students each have an important role to play. Over the past months, we saw many instances where our youngsters rose to the occasion. Hopefully our education sector and parents too will have the strength to meet this courage. 

(Concluded)



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Opinion

Mrs Paripooranam Rajasundaram- A Gracious Lady

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I first came to know Mrs Pariapooranam Rajasundaram, who was born in Singapore on October 25, 1935 while serving a short stint in Jaffna with police intelligence. Her late husband who called her “Pari” was my very close friend, Mr. Vaithilingam Rajasunderam, the former principal of Victoria College, Chullipuram who was introduced to me by my friend and police batch mate, late Tissa Satharasinghe, who was the Personal Security Officer, to the late Mr T.B. Ilangaratne in 1971.

Mrs Rajasundaram was blessed with three sons and a daughter and several grandchildren and can be truly described as a very faithful spouse and dedicated mother, mother-in-law, grandmother and a great grandmother to the family of which she was matriarch.

My short spell in Jaffna in 1973 brought me closer to the Rajasunderams who celebration their 25th wedding anniversary in 1974. Theirs was an open house and my wife and sisters too came to know them well.

Mrs Rajasundram and her husband were good hosts and his assassination was a shock to all of us. It was then she became part of our family as she lived with us briefly till she obtained a UK visa to join her daughter and son-in-law there.

Many years later when she was living in England, I had joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and my family used to spend vacations with them in Cockfosters in North London. Mrs Rajasundaram treated us to sumptuous meals lavishing attention on us. She was very fond of my wife and two children and had a heart of gold. A devout Hindu she never failed in her religious obligations, lived within her means and was never greedy for what she could not afford. She firmly believed in being patient and willingly gave to those in need.

She was a lady who was selfless, full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, very virtuous, and full of love and character. I can say of her: “People may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel!”

My prayer as a Christian is that God grants you eternal rest.

NIHAL DE ALWIS

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Independence celebrations for whose benefit?

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Celebrating what? Bankruptcy, corruption and nepotism to name a few. Surely isn’t there one MP among 225 who feel we have nothing to celebrate. We say we cannot pay govt. servants’ salaries in time, the pensioners’ their entitlements. A thousand more failures confront us.

In our whole post-independence history such a situation has never arisen. We should be mourning our lost prestige, our lost prosperity our depleting manpower. Our youth in vast numbers are leaving the country for greener pastures. We should be conserving every cent to live, not to celebrate a non-existent independence. We should be mourning, walking the streets in sack cloth and ashes in protest at this wanton waste of money by an irresponsible government.

I can’t understand this mentality. The forces are also our young men who feel for their fellow men and women. Maybe their lot is a little better than the rest of us. But how can you order them to go parade? They cannot refuse. It is an unwritten or written code that they have to obey orders without question. I feel sorry for them. All that spit and polish – for whose benefit? Definitely not ours. We will be mourning in silence in our homes.

Padmini Nanayakkara.

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Aftermath Of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne’s Assassination

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It was on Saturday March 2, 1991 when that fateful LTTE bomb blast shattered the life out of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne, Minister of Plantations and Deputy Minister of Defence, in front of the Havelock Road University Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha.

Mr. Wijeratne used to take the same route from home to office every day. The LTTE had monitored his movements and found that it would be easy to target him on his way to office from a strategic point after receiving the information of his departure from home.

The LTTE targeted his vehicle right in front of the University of Colombo Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha. The suicide bomber crashed into the Deputy Minister’s vehicle and killed the Minister instantaneously.

I had dropped our elder son at Royal College for scouting and then went to the public library to return some books and borrow new ones. After having done that, I was returning home when I saw a large cloud of black smoke going up from somewhere on Havelock Road. As I neared Thummulla junction, a university vehicle (I was Registrar of the Colombo University) was going in the opposite direction.

I stopped it and asked the driver what had happened. He said the Shanthi Vihar restaurant at the Thummulla had been set on fire. The police did not allow vehicles into Havelock Road from Thummulla. I parked the car on Reid Avenue between Thummulla and Lauries Road and walked down the Havleock Road to see what exactly had happened.

As I got onto Havelock Road, a policeman accosted me and told me that I cannot be allowed to proceed. Fortunately, at that moment the OIC of the Bamabalapitiya Police station, Mr. Angunawela, came to that spot and recognizing me told the police constable to allow me to proceed.

As I walked down I saw the damage caused. But there were no signs of any vehicle or any dead bodies as the police had got everything removed. There was a large gaping hole on the road where the blast had occurred. But immediately this was filled up and that section of the road carpeted.

I do not know who had ordered it and why it was done in such a hurry. There were pieces of human flesh hanging from the overhead telephone wires. The blast had also affected the house in front where there was a P& S outlet and a lady who had come to buy something had got her eyes blinded by the shrapnel thrown by the blast.

The parapet wall and the Temple flower (araliya) trees that had been grown just behind the wall were all gone. As I went into the hostel, I saw that the front wall of the hostel building badly damaged. When I went in the girls in the hostel were looking terrified and shivering with fright.

Two of the undergraduates who had gone out of the hostel as they had to sit an examination in the university had got very badly injured and they been rushed to the national hospital. Later one girl who was from Kobeigane, a remote village in the Kurunegala area, succumbed to her injuries. The university paid for her funeral. The security guard who had been close to the gate was thrown up and landed back on the ground. Fortunately, he had no injuries other than feeling groggy.

The next job was to evacuate the hostelers from the building. I telephoned the university office and found the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of examinations was in office. I told her what had happened and to come to the hostel in a van. Thereafter both she and I packed all the hostelers in the van and sent them to the Bullers Lane Women’s hostel. This was done in three trips.

On inspecting the damage done to the hostel I thought the building would have to be demolished and a new building constructed to replace it. However, I contacted an Engineer, Mr. Upasena, at the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB,) who came, inspected the damage to the building and stated that he will get it repaired to be stronger than what it was.

He stated that it might cost around Rs, 20,000/- to get the repair done. I contacted NORAD and they agreed to give the funds required for the repair and renovation. Mr. Manickam from NORAD came and inspected the building and agreed to get much more done than what we wanted repaired and renovated. The repair and renovation were done very quickly and the hostelers were able to move in again.

The reopening ceremony was attended by the then Ambassador to Norway, Mr. Manickam and the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice- Chancellor thanked the Ambassador, Mr. Manickam and the CECB for getting the hostel repaired and renovated to be used again. He never mentioned what I had done to get this hostel repaired and habitable again. That is gratitude!

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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