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School education in Sri Lanka at a crossroads?

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by Dr B. J. C. Perera
Specialist Consultant Paediatrician

It is indeed no secret that all stages of education for children, adolescents and young people in Sri Lanka are in quite a state of disorder and chaos, being completely unable to produce a totally worthwhile learning experience at the present time. Vast reams of factual material are presented to students as a composite of the curricula which have assumed an ‘essential to know’ type of exalted status. These goings-on have produced generations of children and young people who have been converted to by-hearting zombies who can recall and even blurt out things like the way parrots do. There is intense stress for the students, hardly any free-time, and a life further complicated by the necessity to attend ‘Tuition Classes’. As a result of all this, the general attitude, the mannerisms, the values and even the behaviour of our young people remain as a plethora of things which perhaps leave a lot to be desired.

We could justifiably be proud of the provision of free education as virtually a birth right to each and every child of this island nation. Free education was the brain-child of that great visionary and statesman Dr C. W. W. Kannangara. He fought a great and valiant battle to provide this facility to all the children of our country, irrespective of mundane consideration such as ethnicity, colour, caste, creed, religion or wealth. The writer of this article is ever so conscious of the fact that anything and everything that he has achieved so far is a tribute to our priceless free education system. In the present context, that system should stand out as the best of the very best to fulfil the lofty ideals of our populace. However, providing policy changes to facilitate and even make a great endeavour that much better is one thing but the actual provision and ensuring of the proper implementation of those are another. On paper and in the drawing boards, free education is a fantastic thing but in reality, is it such a fabulous thing in its implementation today in this pearl of the Indian ocean?

When one looks critically at education, one realises that there are some very important and specific goals of education. It should equip the students to be life-long learners. Education is not merely learning things in school. It should make students to be passionate about learning, be able to think critically and solve problems. They should develop the ability to think out of the box and be able to look at many things from different angles. A good education should provide them the ability to be able to work independently as well as with others. They should inculcate a sense of integrity, have self-respect, be creative, care for others and sustain an admirable desire to give something back to the community at large. They should have the moral courage to persevere and be able to use the world around them well. Each student should cultivate the abilities to speak well, write well, read well, and work well with numbers. The end result would be a population of young people who would truly enjoy their life and their work.

A pertinent question at this stage is whether the current portals of school education, the systems in place, the content of the school curricula and even the higher educational facilities promote the path to achieve these goals and produce a better set of people in this country. If one was to be quite honest, the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. The Executive President of this country during his recent walk-abouts and conversations with the general public was quite concerned to remark to some unemployed University Graduates that even their tertiary education did not empower them to secure gainful employment. The new Minister of Education has been reported to have remarked very recently that the entire system of education needs a very close examination followed perhaps by some degree of revamping of the entire system.

The school curricula of the current system are far too top-heavy with loads of information and stuff that is not going to be all that useful in later life. Just as an example, some of the higher grades of students are forced to learn the minutiae of genetics that even a medical doctor is perhaps not expected to know. When one looks at the academic content of these curricula, it is quite apparent that most of it is not tailor-made for the average student. Of course, some with high Intelligence Quotients (IQs) would lap them up but what is generally not appreciated is that the content should not be aimed at only the high-flyers. To compound the situation further, students, even little children, are forced to carry large numbers of books in very heavy school-bags, to and from school, every day. The deleterious health effects of carrying improperly loaded and very heavy school-bags are another associated problem.

All subjects taught in educational institutes from school levels to higher educational portals need to have a judiciously selected core content of a ‘must know’ category. Such content must be very carefully assembled to provide a generally well-rounded ‘essential to know’ set of information. Then surrounding this hub on each topic are the ones that are to be labelled as ‘nice to know’. As implied by the label, these would not fall into the mandatory category.

It is heart-breaking to see a very young child, with the outlook of just a glorified baby, being subjected to virtually an unbearable amount of pressure and stress right from the time the child enters the Kindergarten. This latter term is equated to synonyms like Pre-school, Play-school, Play Group and even Nursery. The painful reality is that these are far from what is implied in the terminology. Children and young people have no time for play or other extra-curricular activities. When examination time comes up, they become totally unbalanced psychological wrecks. The expectations of teachers, parents and the society in general are way up in the skies, through a medium of testing that does not examine the total holistic make-up of the child.

As an example, it is quite pertinent to point out that in Japan, little children from about 5 years of age, right up to about 10 years, are taught totally different things in school. Special curricula have been designed to enhance their cognitive abilities, life-skills, mannerisms and behaviour. Serious stuff is not taught during these times and loads of play time are provided. Some learning occurs through play through carefully constructed manoeuvres. Serious academic pursuits are started only after this initial period. Many would frown on such a system but it must be one of the best in the world as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its world renowned Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews, has listed Japan as the top country in the world. In addition over 50 per cent of Japanese students get on to tertiary education.

The Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians (SLCP), the ultimate academic institution of all Consultant Paediatricians of the country, have initiated discussions with the Ministry of Education regarding the need to review the current curricula of the schools. The Paediatricians are not experts in education but are acclaimed authorities on mental and physical development of children, cognitive behaviour of children, the psychological make-up of children and every possible health issues of children and young people. As a start, they have suggested providing more play time for all children in schools and to increase the interval duration. They have also suggested to take steps to carefully examine the content of the curricula and to weed out all the unnecessary stuff. Almost all Consultant Paediatricians in SLCP have children or grandchildren and they are well aware of all the problems of children as well as the trials and tribulations that they are subjected to in childhood and youth. It is hoped that the powers-that-be would take what the Paediatricians say with all the respect that is due to people who have the welfare of our children in their heart of hearts.

From a personal perspective, one laments the fact that the current generation of students and young people do not have either the education, or for that matter even the life, that people of my generation had. School then was an absolute delight. Everybody just loved to go to school. Our teachers took it upon themselves their profession of imparting knowledge as a God-given sacrosanct duty. We got on so well with our friends. There was plenty of time for play. ‘Tuition’ was the last resort for someone who was really bad at something. If one had difficulties with a subject or some topic, others who were good at it would rally round you to lift you up. Some of us rioted a bit as well in school, but in the most non-offensive way. The entire education process, right up to the tertiary level, was geared towards character-building and producing decent citizens for the future. The beauty of all this was that everything was provided free of charge or at a nominal rate in the Private Schools. Alas, what we have today is most lamentably a near-complete violation of everything listed above.

When a young person leaves school, we want him or her to have the basic life skills that will help the person to get along in the adult world. It is the basic stuff that too many schools forget about in their rush to cram in a plethora of sciences, several social studies, a number of maths, and so on. We also want that young one to be the kind of person who will keep building on what he or she got in school as well as one who will keep developing skills, keep learning and keep growing. Each of us, if we live to be 80 years old, spends only about 15 per cent of our lives in school. Considering that the other 85 per cent is spent “out there”, the only really substantial thing education can do is to help us to become continuous and lifelong learners. We will later learn without textbooks and tests, without certified teachers and standardized curricula. We will become learners who love to learn. To me, this is the ultimate goal of education. In that context, I can only echo the memorable words of W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature, who said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire”. That fire would be the burning desire to learn, learn, and learn even more and more, right throughout a productive and rewarding life.



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Features

Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing

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By Usvatte-aratchi

We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.

The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.

As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?

Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.

If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.

When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.

The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.

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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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