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Teachers’ struggle

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My parents were not teachers. My father was a Chief Jailer in the Prisons Department and mother a housewife, and a strict disciplinarian. In our childhood, she groomed us to do everything as per a schedule, and taught us to be punctual. She was a voluntary teacher in Sunday School. Father was a tough character, who used to control the incorrigibles and IRCs in prison, but a kind-hearted man. He taught English free of charge to children who lived in the quarters with us. The Buddha has said “Matha Pitharo Pubba Charya”, meaning, father and mother are the foremost teachers who lay the foundation for one’s education. Looking back, we see how true the meaning of those words is.

Once children leave home, they are in the hands of teachers who inspire and guide them to be responsible citizens. In addition to imparting knowledge, teachers also inculcate in their punctuality, manners, respect for the country’s laws, unity and above all love for their country.

If such is the role of the teacher, then obviously the teacher has to be paid reasonably well. He/ she should live well and dress well to inspire confidence in others. They should be treated differently from other state employees. That’s why they are allowed to work only 900 hours per year, when other government servants work for 1,900 hours. Although their working hours are at 1330, most teachers engage in work connected to the students after 1.30 pm, either in school or at home.

Now, there is a teachers’ struggle. The strike is somewhat over and now the trade unions say they only teach from 0730-1330hrs, and will not engage in any other associated work. They also say teachers are not responsible for the safety of children after 1330 hrs. Whether it is right or wrong, ethical or not, the strike of work is a prerogative of teachers. No one can object or interfere, unless there is violation of law/breach of peace.

For two years, children could not go to school. There were online lessons conducted by the teachers, but, initially, most of the teachers and students faced a lot of problems, and due to lack of phones/equipment, absence of signals, etc., online education was not even 50% successful. During the last five months the teachers have refrained from teaching even online. The plight of children was unimaginable. One boy committed suicide due to pressure from parents to study, and another boy was killed when the father assaulted him with a broomstick, as the child was playing games on his mobile phone. One can imagine the plight of the parents, too.

Who is responsible for such a situation in the country? The government or the striking teachers? No matter who is responsible, it was the students who suffered. They lost many months in their school career, which they will never be able to retrieve. Some children got addicted to drugs, and some parents complained to me about this problem. That’s why at a media conference I said the following:

“Whether the cause for terrorism is justifiable or not, terrorism per se cannot be justified, because the innocents are the ones who get killed. Likewise, whether the cause of the teacher’s strike is justifiable or not, the continuous refusal to work by teachers cannot be justified, because the innocent students are the ones who suffer for no fault of theirs”. My statement was misinterpreted by some, who claimed I had compared the striking teachers to terrorists!

I am not the Education Minister, and I don’t have any authority to get involved in teachers matters. But then why do the teachers’ union leaders blame me and charge that I ‘’threaten” the teachers? I always respect teachers. Everyone knows that when the majority of teachers were on strike, some teachers continued to teach in schools. They complained to the CID that they received “death threats’ from certain people, for teaching and not participating in the strike. Some teachers from popular schools met me and showed me the WhatsApp messages threatening to harm them if they continued to work. That’s why I got involved as the Public Security Minister, and gave very clear instructions to the Police to take strict legal action against such people. If the strikers have a democratic right to strike, the others too have a democratic right to work, and no one has the right to prevent it, much less threaten anyone.

Anyone can strike, but no one has the right to violate the law. The Police are duty bound to maintain law and order. We are facing a pandemic. The health authorities are struggling to prevent the spread of the disease. They are opposed to public gatherings which cause formation of infection clusters.

Unfortunately, 126,000 people participated in various protests during the last few months, disregarding the instructions of the health authorities. Ultimately, the Health Ministry gave written instructions to the Police to prevent such protests in the interest of the public. That’s how the Police got involved in arresting the people who violated the law. During the last government, the police used tear gas, water and baton attacks to disperse portesters. The Police, under this government, do not resort to such action; a Police officer lost two of his fingers, whilst trying to prevent protesters from toppling a steel road barrier during unruly protest, but the Police acted with restraint. Can anyone think of any way of arresting a group of people, without using power or injuring them, other than lifting and bundling them into a police vehicle? The Police and the Minister in charge of Police are getting unnecessarily blamed for carrying out legitimate orders of preventing public gatherings/protests during the pandemic. It should be mentioned that 15,200 policemen have been infected and 44 have died of Corona, whilst mingling with the people in carrying out their legitimate duties during the past few months.

Trade unions say that their “salary problem” has been dragging for the last 24 years! If that is so, is this the best time to ask for a salary increase? Why didn’t they strike work and demanded a pay hike during the yahapalana government, when there were no pandemic, no loss of revenue from foreign employees, and no loss of revenue from tourism.

How fair is the teachers’ demand, and what are its repercussions? Mr. K.L.L. Wijerathne, who was the Secretary, Salaries and Cadre Commission from 2006 to 2009 and Chairman of the same from 2016 to 2019, in a well-argued article says that it is an “unjust call”.

Prior to the establishment of teacher’s service in 1994, their salary structure did not provide a grading system or promotional scheme. Hence, the then Minister of Education, Richard Pathirana, submitted a Cabinet paper seeking approval to establish the “teacher service” with effect from 1994, together with proposed salary scales. In the Cabinet, the then President and Minister of Finance, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, observed that the proposed salary scales for principals and teachers would create anomalies in the public service salary structure, and hence needed an in-depth study, and to refer it to the Salaries and Cadres Commission.

Anyway, in spite of these observations, when the above Cabinet paper was approved on 28 Sep. 1994, CBK in her note to Cabinet No BD/356/86/34(K), Oct 1994, sought Cabinet approval for amending the Cabinet decision item 40 of 2819194 by including the words “it was decided to refer the proposal to salaries and cadres committee for a comprehensive examination before implementing the proposal.”

However, it was the presidential election period, and when the UNP presidential candidate Srima Dissanayaka promised to implement the “proposed salary scale”, CBK issued a gazette notification 84314 of 31/10/1994 and gazetted the salary scale to muster the support of teachers.

Hence this was the only instance where a salary scale was gazetted before establishing a service or without a Cabinet approval. Thus, anomalies arose due to the arbitrary manner of fixing teacher’s salaries, without giving due consideration to other parallel services.

Since this has created serious anomalies in the principal’s service salaries, they initiated legal action in the Supreme Court, which ordered that the salary anomaly be rectified by increasing the salaries of principals.

This was followed by various other pay commissions, and in 2006 the government issued a new National Wage Policy, with a new salary structure and promotional scheme adapted across the entire public service. Hence, accommodating only the teachers’ demand for a pay hike would definitely create problems. In the said article Mr. K.L.L. Wijerathne says, “Any attempt to tamper with the present salary structure for all public servants, in favour of a particular group/ category of teachers, principals, will inevitably open a pandora’s box”. He even quotes Supreme Court decision FR No 362/99, which says that “it is not only legitimate, but sometimes essential to compare the salary scales of different services in order to determine salary scales of one sector”. It implies that if the salary increase of the teachers is granted, it will lead to similar demands from other “closed” services such as the health sector, postal services, railway, customs and inland revenue.

Whether the government could afford it, especially at this juncture, when all the revenues are very badly affected due to the pandemic is anybody’s guess.

Trade unions are adamant. They have got teachers to strike work for more than five months, but the teachers continue to draw their salaries. If a person does not work but receives the pay at the end of the month, that money doesn’t belong to him. Theft, in Buddhism, is defined as “taking something which does not belong to oneself”.

Rear Admiral (Dr.) SARATH WEERASEKERA

Public Security Minister



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Opinion

Send them back to school!

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We are not talking about our children going back to school but about the request made by the Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella to allow parliamentarians to enrol in the Sri Lankan Law College, or any other university, to further their studies. How about the basic qualification to enter university? Talking about the basic qualification we remember there was a talk some time ago about some members who have not got through even their GCE (O)Level, a bare minimum qualification, required even for a peon in a recognised organisation or in government services. We request the Chief Opposition Whip to request, on behalf of these members, to allow them to go back to school, no matter how old they are.

We remember one SAARC member country brought in a regulation saying that all those who come forward to contest a seat in the parliament should possess a university degree and at the submission of nomination the officials detected that nearly 20% of the certificates were fake. Anyway, we are proud that such things are extremely rare in our country.

Finally, I urge Kiriella to include schools, too, for MPs, who need the basic qualifications for university admission.

S. H. MOULANA

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Opinion

Compensate victims of gas explosions

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There is no shortage of hot topics for the media these days, the latest being the unusual occurrence of gas related accidents. Any ordinary person would understand that the present series of accidents are certainly due to the release of newly arrived consignment of gas cylinders whose composition ratio of propane and butane has been altered to maximise profits.

The responsible institutions and authorities as well as some ambidextrous politicians are defending the culprits who deny any change in the gas composition. The special committee appointed by the President to investigate into the matter, seem biased. The other day the public saw (through the TV news footages) that these so-called experts were trying to bully the innocent victims of these accidents, accusing them of the use of worn out hoses and regulators as the main reason for the incidents. Why the hell can’t they figure out the fact that these accidents are all due to the use of the newly bought wrongly filled cylinders. A committee of this nature is useless if its aim is to serve the vested interests. Instead of blaming the victims, one compulsory question they should ask is if the cylinder is newly bought or an old one. It is sad that this Kekille committee of experts is also trying to put the blame on the innocent consumer and defend the businessman.

All that the government should do at this critical hour is to introduce a mechanism to collect the data of the victims of these explosions and pay due compensation to them forthwith at the expense of the concerned gas company. The ministry in charge should also issue an urgent order to the company to recall the return of all these defective gas cylinders distributed to all districts and take immediate action for refilling them with the correct prescription of the chemical composition and issue with a new label giving all required instructions. In the meantime, the Consumer Protection Authority must ensure that accessories like the hoses and regulators, conforming to the SLS standards, are available in the market at least from now on for the safety of the consumers.

M. B. Navarathne

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Opinion

Banks make a killing at depositors’ expense

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The motive of the government decision to lower the interest rates of deposits was predominantly to engross the banks to lend at lower interest rates for entrepreneurs to boost the economy of the country which is in dire straits. However, would this proposal prove productive?

Owing to this absurd stunt senior citizens and pensioners have been left high and dry high and dry, resulting in unprecedented agony and anguish. Many victims have highlighted their grievances on behalf of the distraught senior citizens and pensioners. This much spoken of government’s harsh decision to lower interest rates has made the lives of senior citizen’s and pensioners miserable with the escalating high cost of living, skyrocketing cost of medical expenses, etc. It is pertinent to mention that monthly interest rates on fixed deposits, which they mostly rely upon, have been reduced to alarmingly low 4% and 5 % which has added to the woes already the senior citizens face.

All senior citizens who are not receiving or entitled for a pension, depend solely on monthly fixed deposit interest as the regular source of income for their living. As a result of lowering interest rates of deposits, their plans have all been shattered causing them to be wondering how to make ends meet.At this dire juncture, the intervention of the President is needed to revoke this unreasonable decision of lowering the interest rates of deposits.

The only redress the senior folk benefits is by the Central Bank’s special scheme of 15% interest for senior citizens. However, in this too the senior citizens have been slapped and battered with a Rs 1.5 million ceiling.

In comparison to the reduction of interest rates of deposits, if one takes into account the number of loans granted to entrepreneurs at lower interest rates the answer would be very negligible, particularly as the bank’s do not take risks to lend to entrepreneurs whom they believe to have projects not viable. The banks of course, would show enhanced profits at the end of the year as they have paid the depositors lower interest rates which reflects as plus mark for their balance sheets. This is a blessing in disguise for the management of banks at the receiving end of impoverished pensioners and senior citizens.

In the above contest the intervention of the President Gotabaya Rajapakse is most needed to bring about redress to ‘distressed” senior citizens and pensioners

Sunil Thenabadu

Brisbane, Australia

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