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School education in Sri Lanka at a crossroads?



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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Traffic in Colombo and suburbs: Is it unsolvable?



By Praying Mantis

People curse this phenomenon called traffic congestion in Colombo and the suburbs. However, it has to be unequivocally conceded that the populace has to get about on their daily chores and obligations. The result is traffic, with or without congestion, and we have to come to terms with the fact that it will be there, whether we like it or not. Many deem traffic congestion to be a spectacle that is an eyesore. But it can be solved and the current apparently impenetrable problem can be mitigated to a large extent. What is required is a little bit of intelligence, some meticulous planning, and strict implementation of the rule of law, irrespective of all other mundane considerations.

One important aspect of trying to sort out the problem is judicious timing and usage of traffic lights. These can be set to a computer-assisted or time-controlled operational mode. It needs careful study of the movement of traffic across these junctions where traffic lights are already installed. Steps also need to be taken to install these lights in areas where they are really required but are not installed as yet. All traffic lights should have digital clocks so that the drivers behind the wheels can get ready to move decisively once the colours change to green. All vehicles should move promptly when the traffic lights change from amber to green. At present there is a considerable delay in their starting off from the blocks. In the Western countries, you will be charged for unduly delaying your take off from the stationary position. At the same time, speed limits should be very strictly enforced. Road hogs, who block traffic on the outside fast lanes, should also be prosecuted.

We are quite sure that our excellent engineers, especially those in the Moratuwa University, can set up a system or some devices that would allow the green to come on at consecutive colour lights, suitably timed to enable the traffic to move steadily and reasonably fast right across all traffic lights on a main highway. We are quite sure that this would not be such a problem for our excellent engineers. We do not need to get down foreign experts for this.

A directive from the political hierarchy should go out immediately to the police that they SHOULD NOT switch off traffic lights under any circumstance. This will solve a lot of problems. ALL TRAFFIC LIGHT INTERSECTIONS should have yellow criss-crossed ‘no waiting’ areas. Those who wait on these lines, blocking the smooth flow of traffic, should be instantly fined or charged. The traffic policemen could intervene appropriately, even with the traffic lights functioning, to prevent grid blocks and unnecessary lawless blockages. The police are so trigger happy to switch on constantly blinking amber lights at the drop of a hat and take over directing traffic. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The policemen love to take ‘absolute power’ over the motorists into their own hands by switching off the traffic lights, and make a complete mess of it all by themselves. The computerised traffic lights would do a much better job than the brains of stupid traffic policemen with IQs about 10 below plant life. They seem to have one-track minds and most of the time they think that in the mornings, only the traffic going towards the centre of Colombo should be allowed and, in the evening, only the traffic going away from Colombo need to be given preference. The police patrol (four- and two-wheelers) should be used to apprehend road traffic rule violators. At present they are parked on our roads, sometimes blocking traffic, all by themselves, with all the officers engaged in chats, in person, or through mobile phones. Our traffic police should take examples from the Highway Patrol Vehicles of the Western countries, particularly the California Highway Patrol fleet. Catch the offenders and punish them, irrespective of their political connections. Our traffic policemen are “PAVEMENT POLICEMEN.” They should catch and deal with all the traffic rule violators, notwithstanding any of their powerful connections. These include motor bicycles that weave in and out of traffic, those on two-wheelers who go on the pavements, those that overtake on the left, three-wheelers and buses which are a law unto themselves, lane jumpers of all types who could not care less for the other road users, the speedsters that weave in and out of lines of traffic, those who wilfully cross centre double and single lines just to get a micro-second advantage in time, just to mention only a few.

All two-wheeler motor bicycles, three-wheeler tuk-tuks, and buses of all types, should be strictly reined in. The maniacs that ride and drive these contraptions need to be disciplined remorselessly. They cause more traffic jams and accidents than all other vehicles put together. When confronted for their mistakes by other road users they even turn aggressive or make lewd gestures, especially to female drivers of other vehicles. The currently prevalent lane allocation operative during the rush hours in Colombo is doing a little bit to ease the problem. Yet for all that, at all other times it becomes an even deadlier free-for-all, totally ignoring lane-discipline. It is also laughable that a certain controlling big-wig of the Private Bus Mafia has threatened to strike if the three-wheelers and two-wheelers are not taken out of the inside lane. The government should call his bluff and see how they will all come back with their tails between the two rear legs when their income drops down to zero. It has been said that the private buses are generally allowed the freedom of the ass by the police because most of such buses are owned by either policemen or politicians. We have of course not checked the veracity of this contention.

All container carriers, large lorries and other bulky vehicles, except passenger transport buses, should be allowed to get onto the roads only from 9.00 pm to 6.00 am. They should be banned from all our roads from 6.00 in the morning to 9.00 at night. They cause more traffic jams than all other vehicles on our roads.

The DIGs, SSPs, SPs, ASPs, CIs and IPs of traffic police should come out of their air-conditioned cocoons, called offices, and get on to the roads to supervise the way traffic is controlled by the lesser ranked policemen. At present these worthies generally come out only when the so-called top politicians move around in Colombo. Then they crawl back into their own holes, so to speak. Some years ago, a Senior DIG of Traffic with the initials of RML, used to get on to the roads to see how things were. He did a fantastic job and was responsible for creating some of the one-way streets in Colombo. Definitely an officer to be emulated.

NO PREFERENCE WHATSOEVER SHOULD BE GIVEN AT ANY COST TO VVIPs, VIPs AND OTHER ASSORTED POLITICAL ELEMENTS ON OUR ROADS. The violation of all traffic rules by large platoons of support vehicles just to enable one political nincompoop to travel a distance of a couple of kilometres at break-neck speed is a real crime and a crying shame. This is a particular menace down Parliament Road. After all, they are supposed to be servants of the people. If they need to get somewhere in time, they should start off early enough. In other countries, even Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers, do not enjoy preferential treatment on their roads. Their vehicles obey their own rules and laws.

The flashing red and blue lights on the windscreens of vehicles should be completely banned. The donkeys behind the steering wheels of vehicles with these rapidly flashing lights seem to think that they have carte blanche to do as they wish. They will have those blinking lights on and come at you even on the wrong side of the road. The ONLY vehicles allowed to use these flashing red and blue lights should be ambulances and police patrol vehicles. Incidentally, ALL police officers should be instructed to intervene and provide right of way and a clean fast run to all ambulances with lights flashing and sirens blaring. The really valid reason for this is the fact that it may mean life or death for a patient. As is done in the United Kingdom, that should be the only overriding concession made to vehicles on our roads.

You might say that all this is wishful thinking!!! The powers that be have turned a Nelsonian blind eye to this problem so far. They have certainly acted as if they could not care less. The politicians would not want to give up their exalted positions on our roads. Why should they worry? Their steamrolling juggernauts would get them there in time. Even if they get a bit late, the stupid organisers will wait for them to start the proceedings. The unimportant masses can spend all their time on our roads for all they care.

We hope these suggestions catch the attention of the powers that be in government, the police, people in positions of forward planning and traffic control. More than anything, we hope that the Executive President of our country would read this and act on at least some of these suggestions. He is perhaps the only one who can control this menace on our roads. If he so decides, like many other things he has done so far, this problem could be solved virtually overnight. It can only be done by reading the riot act to the police which would then percolate down to all the miscreants on our roads.

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How to transform conflict into co-existence



Humans and elephants killing one another

Eng. Mahinda Panapitiya

M Sc, (Department of Irrigation Engineering) Utah State University, Utah, USA – 1982 , B Sc (Civil Engineering), University of Peradeniya, Sri lanka – 1974


I thought of writing the following note after reading a recent news item about the interest of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to solve the human-elephant conflict. By the way I am an Irrigation engineer who has worked for Mahaweli Projects since the 1970s while developing the dry zone forests areas for irrigated agriculture. The main purpose of this note is to put forth a proposal to solve this conflict, from a different perspective based on my field experience.


Sri Lanka has been truly blessed with the presence of the largest mammal on earth; it has contributed tremendously to our culture, economy, environment, leisure industry and natural beauty. Elephants are quite closer to humans than to other mammals. According to the article (referred to in the end note) for most of the mammals, brain mass is already developed at more than 90% when they are born. But elephants and humans are different, because brain mass development at birth is 35% for elephants and 28% for humansi. Therefore, unlike other animals they can’t survive during their infant age without the support of their parents. For an example if a human baby grew up in a jungle among the animals from child stage, he or she could not learn the normal human behaviour. This holds true for elephants.

Elephants are also intelligent like humans and have the ability to make rational choices and judgements. They don’t attack people without a good reason. When people increase their aggression towards them, they also increase their aggression. They also remember well, and therefore they can be increasingly aggressive and violent with the passage of time. As a result the ‘human-elephant conflict’ would transform to a never ending battle until elephants are driven to extinction in this country.


Human-Elephant conflict based on

my living experience

As an engineer who closely watched behavioural patterns of elephants while working on the Mahaweli Project since the 1970s, (before the forests were cleared for “development”), I still remember how they were freely roaming in harmony with the farming communities dependent on village irrigation tanks. For an example, elephants used to drink from a domestic tank built behind our Mahaweli quarters to meet our daily water needs before we chased them away to lay the modern canal network. Villagers also never considered elephants as threat to their lives unlike leopards because there were no elephant attacks. Grass growing in the village tank beds in valleys and secondary growths in chenas in the highland areas after their harvesting periods were their favourite food items. Even for birds, an area was allocated under village tanks known as kurulu panguwa. In addition, the villagers had also built forest tanks (kulu wewa) exclusively for wildlife and also to replenish ground water aquifer with rains. However, according to modern commercial-oriented western-based farming methods, we have destroyed thousands of those storage tanks and pitted ourselves against nature. We have been fighting a losing battle. An article published in the Economic Review magazine in 2010 explained in detail how this happened under irrigation projects developed during the last 2 centuryii.


Confrontation Vs Negotiation

Since the introduction of the so-called modern development strategies increase food production, we have been chasing out elephants and putting up electrified fences to ward them off. However, according to my first-hand experience, we could transform this conflict and co-exist with elephants if we handle the eco system for food production in an environment friendly manner. According to the recent observations on brain development behaviour of elephants, if we adopt what is dubbed the negotiation mode, I am sure, elephants will treat humans not as enemies to attack but as another species they have to coexist with. Instead of electrified fencing, live fence using plants such as lemon, palmyra and bamboo could be introduced.

Also, in some countries, bee keepingiv is also used to prevent elephants from roaming in residential areas.


New Proposal

Against this background, it is possible to test out the ancient development model at least at pilot scale in a selected area which has not yet been “developed” under the Mahaweli Master Plan. In the proposed approach, there are no artificial fences separating eco systems according to conventional EIAs recommended by various international funding sources. This is a very low cost method which could be implemented with local private sector involved in Organic Agriculture and Eco Tourism. The best pilot area I can recommend to test that negotiation approach is the Right Bank area of Maduru Oya. I also recommend that the Project be managed by a multidisciplinary team comprising wildlife and agriculture experts, irrigation engineers and archaeologists.


Confrontation verses Negotiation


According to my past experience no innovative ideas could be implemented on ground without political involvement. The main purpose of this note is to interest the political authority in this project. I hope my effort is a success. It should be implemented immediately because the Mahaweli Authority has already planned to follow the conventional confrontation approach for developing the Right Bank area of Maduru Oya.



Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) in Sri Lanka

Beehive fences can help mitigate human-elephant conflict

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Lane discipline then and now



By Eng. Anton Nanayakkara

Chartered Civil Engineer

At a time a valiant top heavy effort ( police plus army ++) is being made to enforce lane discipline , it is relevant to recall how a similar attempt was made by a small group of professionals, with foreign driving experience, to introduce the concept of lane discipline as practised in the countries like Singapore, the UK, the US, etc.. It was during 2000 and 2003 that two exhibitions were organised at the OPA for the first time, under the theme, ‘Introduction to the Basics of Lane Discipline’.

It took the form of a seminar- cum- exhibition with a 16’x 8″ physical model to explain all details of correct lane markings, their meanings, etc., to help a person drive any type of vehicle in a disciplined manner without any external assistance or excessive police presence.

At the first exhibition (2000), the Chief Guest was the Minister of Health and the Guest of Honour the Resident Representative WHO, at that time one Dr Peter Hybsier. Dr Hybsier said it was ‘exactly the way to set about solving the existing traffic problem’. In the second case, too, the same model was used with improvements, such as operating traffic lights using led bulbs. The Chief Guests were the Minister of Health and the Minister of Transport. Yet another special feature of the second exhibition was the inclusion of a pilot project on Parliament Road from the parliament roundabout to the Devi Balika roundabout with minimum police presence and no traffic fines so as to secure motorists’ fullest cooperation; only advice and warnings were given.

The most important feature of the pilot project was the prior training of all categories of road users. Specially prepared leaflets were to be distributed to all drivers two weeks ahead of the implementation of the pilot project. For this purpose five different categories of drivers were identified and the leaflets contained material applicable to each type of vehicle he/she will be driving at the time. (See below)

At the second exhibition immediate orders were given by the Minister of Transport to the only RDA engineer present at that time to take action to implement the pilot project without delay. So as usual everything ended there! The following pictures give some idea of the model.



While all the efforts being made under the present conditions are to be appreciated, it must be said that the use of public roads for training instead of a scaled down model dilutes all the good efforts, not to mention the need for a massive manpower input (police and army). It is difficult to believe that all drivers from one end of the road to the other end of the road and drivers in different lanes get the same message. It is also not fair to delegate any lane to one particular type of vehicle. All vehicle owners pay ‘road taxes’ that are used to build and maintain roads. So, the roads belong to all road users.

In Singapore, many more vehicles move much faster and much safer than in Sri Lanka. Where driver training is imparted is called the Singapore Safe Driving Centre, which is run by the private sector in Singapore and Honda Company of Japan.

The method proposed in the years 2000 and 2003 here applied to all roads, at all times, irrespective of weather conditions. Fines were the last resort. It is a pity that the present effort is being made 13 years after year 2003, and during that period thousands of lives have been lost on our roads not to mention many thousands of new vehicles getting smashed up, causing millions of damage to public and private property.

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