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Teacher Protests and Distortion of Free Education

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Ceylon Teachers’ Union President Joseph Stalin being packed off to a quarantine centre recently

 

By Dr LAKSIRI FERNANDO

The current ‘crisis’ in Sri Lanka appears to have two salient features. First, is the ongoing corona epidemic and the resulting economic consequences. Second, is the teacher protests and political mobilizations by the opposition utilizing the economic uncertainties. The two are linked, but the second does not appear to be justified by the first.

On the contrary, it appears that the street protests, whether peaceful or not, are unethical given the pandemic conditions. The pandemic undoubtedly is the most important ‘single issue’ at present in the country. Citizens and activists have every right to ask for transparency, and criticize whatever weaknesses the government and the health authorities show, in implementing preventive and vaccination policies. It is incorrect to say that there are no discussions or criticisms on these matters, but most of the debates have been limited and oblique.

For example, when compulsory and forceful cremations were conducted, the people had every right to protest and campaign. The compulsory cremations were an extreme and unnecessary measure. Religious biases and prejudices were involved or at least religious sensitivities were neglected. Constructive criticisms and non-street protests are the way forward for the country. In the foreseeable future, it would be difficult to expect spot-on policies or governments in the country, from any side of the political divide.

Street Protests?

The recent street protests this month are totally different. Pure political motives took the center stage. The main opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, declared that he would launch ‘street struggles to oust the government.’ Whether he meant a revolution or a coup; no one was very clear. Perhaps an advisor must explain! Elections are far away. The criticisms, however, are on ‘family rule, cost of living, militarization, and free education.’ The ‘single issue’ this time has become multiple, on advice or not. These are undoubtedly important and debatable issues.

The political opposition mainly started over the Kotelawala National Defense University (KNDU) bill. This should be undoubtedly discussed in the country, even under the pandemic conditions, and the opposition parties have every right and possibility to debate and bring necessary amendments in Parliament. The opposition also has the duty to very clearly explain to the people why they oppose the bill. Has this come forth? I doubt it.

Then came the more militant street protests. Free education was the main slogan. It was completely unnecessary and arbitrary to quarantine Joseph Stalin and other teacher union leaders after their street protests against the proposed bill. The day before, some leaders of the Front Line Socialist Party also were quarantined. Now they are all released, but the government undoubtedly got its image tarnished to an extent, because of these actions.

Those who violate health orders could/should be punished (fines or jail), but not necessarily quarantined unless they are contaminated with evidence. Even in Australia, these rules and punishments are severe. The demonstrations can be stopped and/or dissolved. As I write, the news reports say that over 300 persons have been punished by the police yesterday (19 July) in Sydney for violating health orders. I have seen again and again the police breaking up demonstrations and protests.

After the arbitrary quarantine measures, there were further demonstrations and street protests mainly led by teachers and teacher unions. Notable leftists also were involved. Some were on motorcycles and vehicles. Perhaps they were keeping social distances and wearing masks! They undoubtedly have grievances. In a country like Sri Lanka who does not have grievances? The question is not about expressing dissent, grievances or demanding concessions, but the methods which are being used under the Covid and present circumstances.

 

Ethical Questions

I have been a supporter and a researcher of trade unions. I have addressed at least one annual conference of the Ceylon Teachers Union in the late 1980s. Although I finally supported the July 1980 strike, I had occasion to warn about its premature and adventurous character. The present government perhaps might not crush the trade unions as the UNP did in 1980. Because some of the leaders appear to believe that the working class (govi-kamkaru) is one of their support bases. This must have changed today and no one knows for sure.

My concern today, however, is about the ethical character of the several protest actions conducted by the teacher unions under the Covid conditions. Let us just forget or ignore the motorcycle demonstrations. In addition, the teacher unions had resorted to boycotting ‘online teaching’ for students as a protest against the quarantine measures. Even after the release of their leaders, this boycott is still continuing, quite harming the student education under the present extremely difficult circumstances. The new claim is that they protest against their salary anomalies!

The salary anomalies must be a genuine grievance. But this must be negotiated with the relevant authorities in a constructive manner. The students should not be prey to teacher grievances. Education also should not be a political game. It appears that the quality of teachers, or perhaps their leaders, have degenerated a lot over the years. Is this not a blow to free education?

 

Questions on Free Education?

There are nearly 250,00 teachers in public schools. Perhaps all teachers are not the culprits. But without the support of each other, the teachers who do not agree with the boycott might not be able to conduct online classes. There are over 4 million students in public schools. Particularly in rural areas these students have to undertake online studies with enormous difficulties. Al Jazeera ran a sensational story on 13 July outlining their difficulties, at the same time explaining their commitment and enthusiasm.

In some remote areas, students collectively have to climb mountains to access online signals. The attached picture is about some students climbing down after such lessons in Bohitiyawa village. Joseph Stalin, however, has been cynical about online teaching in that Al Jazeera interview.

“Authorities say they make every effort to provide all children with access to education, but Joseph Stalin, who heads the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, says at most 40 percent of Sri Lanka’s 4.3 million students can participate in online classes. The majority lack access to devices or connectivity.”

Would the students who have difficulties in online access or devices oppose online classes? Their natural inclination would be to ask for proper online access or devices, but not sabotage by their teachers.

Do we have here over 4 million students going against 250,000 teachers? If we count their parents, over or around 8 million, what would be their opinion? I may be exaggerating, because some of the parents also might be teachers of Stalin type.

We talk about free education. Free school education is conducted by over 10,000 public schools. What about online teaching in private or pay schools? They jolly well conduct their online education. There are over 150,000 private school students in nearly 100 schools taught by around 7,500 teachers.

Of course, the present online education is not a permanent or a long term measure. It can be supplementary in the future. Therefore, the opportunity is also to prepare the students for the future. This is what the teachers or the leaders are sabotaging under the influence of some pathetic political advocates. The teachers should be given the jab and brought into the duty of teaching soon.



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Opinion

Support move to generate electricity from garbage

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There had been several letters in the press where the Minister for Power, Dallas Alahapperuma, has enthusiastically declared to achieve 70% of power from Renewable Sources by the year 2030, without knowing the capability and the resources available with the CEB, and the time taken to provide transmission lines to connect the national grid, if international tender procedure is adopted or even otherwise.

I recall a letter sent to the press earlier, wherein I have stated, the garbage problem in Colombo is talked of as an urgent matter, but no action taken for over four decades, and the situation is getting worse day-by-day. The Colombo Municipal Council had once initiated action to set up an incinerator and there had been proposals from interested parties willing to undertake it, but for some unknown reason, these have been shelved by CMC or any other authority concerned.

A report submitted by an internationally famous foreign firm of consultants, Lahmeyer International of Germany, which produced a Master Plan for the Ministry for Power and Energy, touched on the possibility of setting up of an incinerator plant to serve a dual purpose – to eradicate the garbage problem and generate electricity.

What action the Ministry for Power or the CEB has taken is not known. It may be that the CEB has taken action to implement other recommendations and but did not pursue this matter with the CMC. The plant could also produce compost manure and reduce the foreign exchange spent on importing fertilisers. In this well compiled, meaningful and workable report, it is stated: “The incinerator plants use garbage to produce electricity. They are similar to conventional coal fired steam plants, but require elaborate refuse feeder, grate, firing and air quality control system. Also, the required land area is greater.

“Some two million people live in the Greater Colombo area, and the amount of garbage collected annually could be about 600 tons. About 65% is made up of organic substances. The garbage is at present dumped on marshy lands in the vicinity of Colombo for the purpose of land reclamation, that practice caused environmental problems [i.e., smells and ground and surface water pollution.]

“The average heat content of the garbage is not exactly known, but based on the few tests done, it may be in the region of 8 Joule per ton, compared with 40 to 45 Joule per ton of oil. Hence, the fuel saving potentially achievable with an incinerator plant could be 100,000 tons of oil per year [under 1988 conditions] . This would be sufficient for generation of some 400Mw of power, and at the same time would contribute to the solution of Greater Colombo’s waste disposal problem. “

The aforesaid estimates were prepared in 1988 almost 33 years back, and the present amounts will be very much more, perhaps thrice, due to increase of population. The report also states that without exact analysis of the moisture content and composition of the collected garbage, it is difficult to make an exact estimate but the investment may be around USD160 to 240 million at 1988 estimates.

If at today’s estimation at thrice the increase, then the production every day may be around 1200 Mw, which is far more than the 300×3 = 900 Mw. produced by the Norochcholai coal-fired project.

It is therefore suggested that either the Minister for Energy or the Minister for Agriculture, as Fertiliser Corporation comes under him, take up this matter with the Urban Development Authority or the Colombo Municipal Council to expedite it.

It should also be said that undertaking this project will also satisfy those who object to filling marshy land.

The government should give top priority to this project of producing electricity and fertilizer from garbage.

G.A.D. SIRIMAL [SLAS]
Retd. Former Asst. Secretary
Ministry for Power & Energy

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Opinion

A ‘painless shot’ from Army

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When I was told that the Army was administering Sinopharm Covid vaccinations at Viharamaha Devi Park with special provisions for individuals with disabilities, I decided to take my wife, herself a Rehabilitation Medicine Physician, but now afflicted with Alzheimers disease, for her Covid shot, not knowing quite what to expect.

At the driveway into the park an Officer in smart uniform stopped me and inquired politely if there was anyone with a disability. When I answered in the affirmative, indicating my wife, I was asked to drive in and given instructions where to park my vehicle. In the parking area, another army officer kindly directed me to park under the shade of a “Nuga” tree for my wife’s comfort and asked me to proceed to the Registration desk and obtain my vaccination card.

Walking the short distance to the registration desk I observed those awaiting the vaccination seated comfortably in shaded and green surroundings. There was even a vending machine which was, I presume to provide refreshments for those waiting.

The several registration desks were manned by smart young male and female army personnel. The gentleman who attended to me took down my details and when my contact number was given information that the owner of this phone number had already had the vaccination appeared on the computer correctly, as I had been already vaccinated. Now, I expected a typical “public servant’ response that the “rule” is that a contact number could be registered only once. However, the officer used his brain, and after listening to my wife’s situation proceeded to complete the form. Then came the consent form that had to be signed. When I explained that my wife was unable to do so again I expected him to say, “Then get a letter from a doctor saying she cannot sign.” But this officer who did not behave like a robot used his judgement and allowed me to sign the form.

The paper work having been duly completed, I was asked to bring my wife to get her shot. When I explained that it would be very difficult, but not impossible, I was directed to the doctor at the site. I walked up to the young yet professional looking doctor attired in scrubs. When I explained my position, he promptly directed a staff member to go along with me to the vehicle and administer the injection while my wife was still seated there.

I then inquired if the young man who was helping my wife could also get his vaccination, and “no problem” was the answer. And before I could say “Sinopharm” the whole procedure was done and dusted!

What first class service!

To be at the receiving end of empathy and kindness was indeed a satisfying experience.

My thanks and appreciation to the organisers of the vaccination programme at Viharmahdevi Park on Wednesday (21 July)

Those who are critical of the army playing a lead role in Covid pandemic control, please take note.

Dr. N.Jayasinghe

Physician.

Colombo 7

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Opinion

On ‘misinformation’ against Minister of Health

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Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana (UW) is a regular contributor to this newspaper. His articles are almost always interesting and sometimes they provide valuable perspectives.

I find his criticism/castigation of the Minister of Health (MOH) in an ‘epidemic of misinformation’ (Island 19.07.2021) unfair and baseless. UW singles the MOH out as ‘the leader of the pack, undoubtedly is the Minister of Health who conveys wrong health messages’. This is erroneous and unwarranted

The main issues that UW quotes in support of his argument is that ‘she recently went to a shrine to thank a goddess for protecting her’ and ‘that she dropped pots in rivers to prevent the spread of the pandemic’.

From the onset of this pandemic a multitude of rituals have been conducted and they are still in force; all night Pirith, Bodhi Pooja, continuous chanting of the Ratana Suthraya, etc. The MOH releasing pots to the rivers that would wash down the ‘pandemic’ to the sea was one such ritual. A salient point to be appreciated is that while there is the possibility that the MOH herself believed in the effects of releasing these pots; this ritual was done primarily for the country/public rather than herself- hence the coverage on TV and news.

In contrast to this, her fulfilling a vow that she and/or her family made on her behalf when she was at death’s door, is based on a personal belief, and unlike the previous public action was done as an extremely private affair. If not for the fact that she is the MOH and her actions got reported in the press, none of us would have been even aware of this act. One would be hard pressed to find anyone in this country who has not fulfilled a vow; be it for himself or herself / siblings/ parents /children with regard to examinations, illnesses, promotions, etc…

None of these actions has any bearing on how the MOH has advised the public based on the counsel that she has received from her health officials and as such she is certainly not guilty of conveying any ‘wrong health messages’.

The MOH contracted Covid -19 because she was at the forefront of this epidemic and was constantly in touch with frontline workers. Not because she abandoned good health practices in favour of a cultural ritual! She had to be admitted to the IDH, was in the intensive care unit and according to medical sources was quite sick. We now see her on TV, the effects of the Covid-19 are apparent, a person who has had a near brush with death, fully cognizant of the danger of her current position. Certainly this would not have been something she signed up for when she took on the job as the MOH! This being the case, for UW, a doctor of medicine, to refer to ‘There are other idiotic politicians around the world who paid with their lives for the folly of not accepting the reality of a viral pandemic’ is not worthy of a healer.

Having recovered from her illness the MOH at a press conference publicly thanked her medical team for the effort they put into saving her life. I am sure that she would have thanked them personally as well. UW concludes his diatribe against her saying ‘Her life was saved not by goddesses, but by the excellent doctors, nurses and other health professionals Sri Lanka is blessed with. A person who is unable to even grasp that reality surely does not deserve to be the Minister of Health’. Is UW seriously suggesting to this readership that the MOH is unaware of the difference between science and culture? Is it his contention that anyone who engages in a religious /cultural ritual has no grasp of reality?

As a side note I am amused by the use of the term ‘Sri Lanka is blessed with ’. Based on UW’s logic ‘who are highly trained in Sri Lanka’ ought to have been a more appropriate term as blessings have nothing to do with a scientific reality!

 

Dr. Sumedha S. Amarasekara

 

 

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