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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

When Susanthika did Lanka proud

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As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.

The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.

Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.

As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.

That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.

As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.

Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.

So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.

Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.

LALITH FERNANDO

Panadura

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Opinion

Give teachers and principals their due

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Why didn’t the Education Minister and the Secretary pay due attention to the fair voices of the most vulnerable and largest service sector of this country, at the initial stage, making the alliance of teacher-principal trade unions proceed to street protests, which started in the absence of any positive gesture from the Ministry of Education? That is how the present state of chaos originated.

The prolonged online teaching strike has kept the younger generation of all school-going children in darkness, and their right to learn has been deprived of. Blaming the teachers is not the solution. What is required is the right solution at the time of need. The unions are demanding the implementation of the Subodhini Committee report, plus the Cabinet subcommittee proposals, in a gazette notification. It is more sensible for the government to respond to this final flexible stance of the unions, rather than prolonging the issue with temporary solutions.

The strikers of the teacher-principal unions are not ready to give in to the temporary sugar candy sachet which is a pretty ridiculous joke, a consolation allowance to dodge the crux of the problem. Plastering or patching up the situation by offering an allowance of Rs. 5000 for three months is a shame to the teacher community. Such an allowance should be allocated for COVID-19 affected people of low-income or refugees in flood-affected regions.

What could have been broken with the nail was allowed to grow to the extent that it couldn’t be crushed even with an axe. Successive governments disregarded the demands of teachers and principals, treating them as nonentities; although the ungrateful present-day politicians rose to their present high positions because their bright lives were designed, brain powers sharpened and heads enlightened by teachers.

Although all teachers are not saints, the majority of our teachers are worthy of veneration. They are the architects of nation-building. They must have sufficient pay for a decent living, commensurate with the commitments and their toil. With an ungratified mentality, they may be unenthusiastic to discharge duties. Under such circumstances, the process of nation-building will collapse. So far, they have been doing yeoman’s service but they can’t continue to do so amidst the rising cost of living and unfavourable living conditions. When the salaries of all other employee categories have been brought to a satisfactory level, why does the government not heed to their demand?

In response to the mounting pressure from the teacher-principal trade union strike, the government appointed a cabinet subcommittee to produce another report to solve the problem; but it turned out to be a futile attempt, akin to changing the pillow as a treatment to the headache, wasting the valuable time of both parties. Such a committee should comprise experts from the education field, not from the lobby with the loquacious MPs who are in the habit of suspending and postponing everything until the next budget. On the other hand, what is the need for piling up further committee reports, when there is already a much-quoted and assumed fairly balanced Subodhini Committee report, which has been formulated by a panel of members comprising a former minister, four additional secretaries, and the accountant of the Ministry of Education.

True that the government is in dire straits with financial difficulties, but that is not a sound reason to postpone this issue. If so, why should the government introduce new megaprojects, such as 200 city beautification programmes, import of luxury vehicles for MPs and walking tracks, which are not critical requirements. The problem of teacher salary anomalies could be solved by holding such long term, not so urgent schemes.

The proposed four-phased payment of the salary increments is a nice way of circumventing serious demands of trade unions and yet another fairy tale. It is a way of escaping the main responsibility.

To illustrate this point, let us take the case of the state employees who retired between January 2016 and December 2020. All government employees including judges, ministry secretaries, directors, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces personnel, and mind you, a former director-general of the Pensions Department, was entitled to a revised salary increment system in five stages starting in 2016, and final amalgamation of all increments, due to be paid with effect from January 2020. The salary increment rates are clearly stated in the pension award letter issued by the Director-General of the Department of Pensions, which is a legal document to confirm the claim.

The present government unreasonably cancelled the (2016-2019) pensioners amalgamated salary increment of five stages, by the circular 35/2019(1) dated 20.01.2020 following a cabinet decision. More than 100,000 pensioners have been victimised and deprived of their fundamental right of the salary and sad to say, nearly 1819 pensioners have already died without getting their increments. But the government so adamantly refused to pay up and adopted a slippery policy with various cock and bull stories.

The basis for the development of a country is the education system, spearheaded by the formidable workforce of teachers hailing from Aristotle and Disapamok. All of the so-called thriving politicians; garrulous speakers who look down upon teacher communities; professionals, academics, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, inventors, artists, all of these are the intellectual outputs of the dedicated energies of humble teachers who never gave priority to building highrise palaces for their self-indulgence and luxurious lives. Not to let it happen again and again, they deserve to be freed from this muddle of salary anomalies at this critical moment.

Finally, a word about the mediation of the Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, who are urging the alliance of the teacher-principal trade unions to give the strike up , and restart online teaching. May I appeal to the venerable prelates to be fair to all. Could you, in your respected designations, kindly convey the same message to the government, asking why it is not taking an initiative to resolve this burning issue, by issuing a circular or gazette notification, without postponing it off further, for the sake of the innocent school children?

M.B. NAVARATHNE

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Opinion

Ivermectin for COVID-19 management

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Prof Saroj Jayasinghe’s candid view, published in The Island of September 17, 2021, on Ivermectin use, both in treatment and prevention of COVID-19, has been based on scientific analysis of multiple meta-analyses on the subject. Therefore, his educated opinion must be viewed with great positivity.

Quite correctly, a doctor has to make decisions in good faith in an emergency situation, where any delay in the commencement of treatment could be disastrous. In a life-threatening condition, the treating doctor has no time to wait and waste until the evidence is available scientifically. Instead, the doctor has to make a decision using his clinical acumen and experience in order to save the life of the patient under his or her care.

Another example is: In an instance where an unconscious patient is brought to the accident and emergency department with life-threatening bleeding after an accident, the treating surgeon has no time to obtain the patient’s informed consent (usually a requirement before any surgical procedure), but to attend to (perform surgery on) the patient in all-good faith, in order to save the life. It may require even the amputation of a leg or hand.

Hence, treating a critically ill patient with Ivermectin is more than justified, particularly in the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 as a public health emergency. Further, under this context, the usage of Ivermectin in the prevention of COVID-19 is quite justified. Since no antiviral drug is available hitherto, its usage is further warranted.

As mentioned, Ivermectin is a time-tested and safe drug with no known serious side effects. The call for its usage in the management of and prevention of COVID-19 is time appropriate.

A veterinary surgeon, Prof Asoka Dangolle of the University of Peradeniya, has also expressed his opinion based on his experience with Ivermectin in mammals. In the current context, the world’s attitude is much in favour of the ‘One Health’ concept.

Therefore, in a helpless situation or pandemic of this nature, the consideration of the use of Ivermectin in all good faith is justifiable.

Prof ANANDA JAYASINGHE

Professor in Community Medicine

University of Peradeniya.

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