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Those who really saved country from a power crisis

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I served in the Ministry for Power and Energy, including the Ministry for Mahaweli Development, for two decades or more, and a recent news item in your newspaper caught my eye. It reads: “Minister of Power Dullas Alahapperuma said yesterday, Sri Lanka would have faced a minimum of, 16-hour power cuts on a daily basis if not for the visionary initiatives of the late President J. R. Jayewardene and the late Gamini Dissanayake to implement the Mahaweli Development Project and Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bold decision to launch the coal power plant complex at Norochcholai. Irrespective of political differences, correct decisions taken with regard to the power sector should be praised.”

I would like to inform the present Minister for Power, Dullas Alahapperuma, and The Island readers of the real facts which the minister may not be aware of, and to give credit to those who deserve it.

It is true the Mahaweli Development Project commenced without any controversy, but the Norochcholai Coal Power Complex has a sad history; the then Bishop of Chilaw objected its construction as he felt it would affect the holy shrine of St Anne’s at Talawila – 13 Km away. This unfounded objection delayed the commissioning of this plant as scheduled in 2000, and went on to year 2004, after we faced a severe power cut of nearly six-hours a day. All this was due to lack of political will to carry out this work in the national interest.

The situation was so bad that The Island (20 May 2004), editorially lashed out at all governments prior to 2000: “The power crisis which is defying solutions, certainly needs the personal attention of the President herself. There are oil lobbies, coal lobbies or religions and multimillion-dollar commissions involved. In this process some people involved are bound to cry ‘foul’ as it always happens when such decisions are taken. A strong political leader has to take responsibility and make that decision. If they cannot, they are not national leaders”.

The engineers of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) carried out a very effective campaign to educate the masses; they organised seminars and panel discussions in the electronic media. The most effective and convincing seminar was conducted by the Electrical Division of the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka, organised by Eng. B. R. O. Fernando, where the Chief Guest was the then Minister of Power Karu Jayasuriya. This seminar was well attended by all sectors, Industrial, commercial, domestic consumers, where eminent electrical engineers addressed the gathering, Surprisingly and sad to say Karu Jayasuriya, went back and wrote to say that as a matter of policy this project is disallowed.

The policy as it would appear was not to displease the Catholic voter and not national interest. If the project commenced as scheduled, the CEB would have called for worldwide tenders and the best selected, but due to this delay the government had to depend on China who came up with a proposal to fund and construct. They funded, used the funds to employ their own men, materials, and machinery, virtually paid themselves the funds leaving the Sri Lanka government to pay back the loan with interest. Today, we are saddled with an ‘Always Break-down’ plant. This started the rot in the CEB, resorting to power purchase from the private sector with corrupt deals.

Soon after the defeat of the government, mainly on this ground, the new government, under Mahinda Rajapaksa, faced the same problem, and the then Minister of Power and Energy Susil Premaayantha, was pressurred or goaded by the CEB Engineers and consultants to a point that he had no alternative, and against party politics and wish, he threatened to resign unless the Cabinet approved his proposal. Hence it is seen the credit for the construction of Norochcholai Coal Power Complex should go to the engineers of the CEB, who pushed the Minister to a point of no return, and not any political party or individual.

Minister Alahapperuma has been quoted in The Island news items under discussion as having said that since 2013 after the Norochcholai power plants One and Two, no major or stable power plant have been added to the grid.” Here again is political interference delaying the construction of the LNG plant at Kerawalapitiya, which should have come into operation about four years ago. For the information of the present Minister for Power, tenders were called for this project and the lowest tenderer was awarded the tender, but the Ministry intervened, and wanted the tender to be awarded to a next higher Chinese bidder, and as several appeals from the lowest tenderer went unheeded, the lowest tenderer, a local company, had to seek legal remedy. Fortunately, with the change of government, under the present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, this has been sorted out by awarding the construction to the lowest tenderer as recommended by the Tender Board and work inaugurated a few weeks back, while the culprits who delayed this project for reasons left to be guessed are protected.

It is heartening to note the present Minister for Power, Alahapperuma, is taking meaningful steps to right the wrongs of former governments, and steer the CEB to an efficient financially viable state institution, as it was before 1990, where the CEB ran as a profitable venture. Towards this end, all concerned, CEB employees, PUCSL and the consumers should extend support and most importantly ward off foreign interventions in this vital sector.

G .A. D. SIRIMAL

Boralesgamuwa



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Opinion

Today’s call for ‘Health Promotion’

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As a nation, we have reached a really critical stage with the corona pandemic. This is what The Hindustan Times reported on the 2nd of May, 2021: “Sri Lanka’s health authorities have issued new tough guidelines, including banning wedding receptions and gatherings at religious sites, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as the Island nation continued to record a spike in daily infections”. The time has come for all citizens of the country to understand the gravity of the disaster. Anyway, we have witnessed a section of Sri Lankans enjoying, despite many restrictions. It can be seen that people travel here and there without face masks, and organising events and parties amidst this situation. There is a problem with discipline. Also, I have observed that there is a segment of people who violate health guidelines and post messages on social media criticising the authorities. This “duplicity” must be interesting social research for investigators to read people in a different microscope.

Ownership and Empowerment:

At the moment we could not see any “ownership” of this disaster among Sri Lankans. Still, we can see only “health education” in the country, and we need to change this to “health promotion”. The country needs to consider this as top urgent, under these circumstances. The government should carefully use some stakeholders in this mission of “Health Promotion”. Refer to the following diagram for some selected sectors to take the initiative.

The role of the Health Promotion Bureau should be redefined. And the role of the Ministry of Education should not be underestimated in this context, to communicate messages to relevant parties — including schoolchildren and parents. In this task force, there can be community leaders, experts in the industry, representatives of the media, and some researchers as well. All members should have a Clear Plan (short-term strategy and long-term objectives) to address this pandemic situation. We have seen many times the media reporting how people violate health guidelines. But rather than concentrating on the ‘negative’ side, there can be ‘positive’, reporting as well. (As an example, a worker in the Colombo Municipal Council adhering to all guidelines by showcasing an example for the community). This is the time we need to have positive news. ((http://www.ft.lk/columns/Negative-and-positive-news-Rare-corpse-flower-set-to-bloom-at-Royal-Botanical-Gardens-Peradeniya/4-658936) for better immunity of people!

Also, there are many success stories that need to be followed by a task force of “health promotion”. In this context, we can discuss the success story of Vietnam. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, on 10th March 2021, “Swift introduction of containment measures, combined with aggressive contact tracing, targeted testing, and isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases helped keep recorded infections and death rates notably low on a per capita basis (IMF,2021). “Also, as per fitchratings.com “Vietnam’s economy has been more resilient than most other markets in the Asia-Pacific, as the local authorities have had greater success in containing Covid-19. It was one of the few economies in the region to report GDP growth in 2020 (fitchratings.com, Thu 22 Apr, 2021). More importantly, like in Vietnam, we also should have a successful communication strategy. Refer below:

“Vietnam’s successful communication strategy catalyzes the active participation of both governmental and private sectors as well as communities. The government centers its people in an active role with the slogan translated as “every citizen is a soldier”. In addition, non government-led initiatives, including the donation of funds and personal protection equipment by entrepreneurs and individuals, have contributed positively to social stability. For example, “the rice ATM” – a free rice dispenser reserved for the most vulnerable people, including those who lost income due to the pandemic, the elderly, students and disabled people. Students have been mobilized to assist in epidemic control by engaging them in various roles, such as data entry, sample collection or provision of phone counselling for COVID-19 suspected people. However, the number of students who joined the COVID-19 taskforce was very small (124 volunteer medical students) compared to its capacity. At the central level, a relief bill of approximately 80,600 VND billion was signed by the government to address the financial burden resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 62,000 VND billion of these funds were allocated to individuals who were poor, near poor, with meritorious services or under social protection schemes. The remaining funds were allocated to support small to medium production and business establishments.” The COVID-19 global pandemic: a review of the Vietnamese Government response – https://www.joghr.org/article/21951-the-covid-19-global-pandemic-a-review-of-the-vietnamese-government-response)

 

The time has come for Sri Lanka to think differently, learn, and work with responsibility. This is a disaster in which we need to stop the “blame game” and understand the situation with more responsibility. If we can use “health promotion” in an effective way, it would be one of the success stories for the world, always helping for long term sustainable development of the nation.

Prof. NALIN ABEYSEKERA

(Professor of Management Studies, Faculty of Management, Management Studies, The Open University of Sri Lanka

– nalinabeysekera@gmail.com )

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Opinion

Political interference aggravating Deadly Pandemic

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Humankind is in the middle of the deadly COVID pandemic, the worst ever seen in our lifetime. The virus, with all its ongoing mutations, is causing havoc all over the world, leading to untold misery and death. In the absence of any effective curative medication, and inadequate vaccine cover, prevention, with strict public health measures, based on sound scientific evidence, remains the fundamental way out of this impending catastrophe.

Larger countries, where politicians ignored professional advice, based on science, and took politically popular decisions, saw the inexorable spread of the disease causing much preventable deaths. Brazil, the USA (during the Trump presidency), and India, at present, are classic examples of this unfortunate situation. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Israel and South Korea, taking decisions based purely on scientific advice, despite causing temporary hardship and restrictions on the people, have managed to return to near normal pre-COVID status.

Sri Lanka has a literate population.It also has a well-established public health service responsible for prevention and even eradication of many diseases, which are still ravaging many South Asian countries. The country is held out as an example of a success story in this regard by even the World Health Organization (WHO). As such, we should have succeeded in controlling the epidemic by now.

What went wrong in Sri Lanka, still causing the epidemic to escalate on a daily basis with ever increasing morbidity and mortality? The associations of doctors, other healthcare professionals, and even the laboratory technologists have been giving well considered advice and issuing guidelines to curtail the epidemic. But mostly, such advice appears to have been ignored by the political authorities, taking their own decisions instead. The COVID Control Task Force, being headed by the Army Commander, and the Vaccine Task Force, being under an elderly non-medical administrator, are classic examples of this ignorance. It is obvious that both these positions, as well as a majority of the membership of the task forces, should be held by medical professionals. The initial apparent success was hailed by politicians taking full credit, leading to them doing well at the elections. Most such decisions were directed at increasing the popularity of those in power or financial gain for people close to them. This has led to much bungling in decision-making, summarily listed below.

1. Health regulations were not strictly enforced . There was an escalation of the number of cases soon afterwards.

Health regulations were not strictly enforced during the general election last year.

2. The controversy on disposal of dead bodies; the scientifically correct decision to allow burial was taken by the politicians only after much heartburn of the community and even humiliation in the international scene.

3. Allowing and openly promoting unproven native medication, making the people ignore public health guidelines.

4. Conducting the Lanka Premier League (LPL) cricket tournament in Hambantota, bringing in players from countries with a roaring epidemic. One of the players found to be PCR positive then is alleged, though without proof, to have brought in the UK variant of the virus.

5. Entertaining tourists from Ukraine, where authorities had no control over the fast spreading disease. It is an open question whether the quarantine procedures were properly implemented. Same mistake is being made now, with Indians being allowed to come in for so called quarantining purposes. It is well known that the financial interests of acolytes took precedence over the health of the people.

6. Messing up the vaccination process. Notwithstanding the somewhat unforeseen situation in India, timely action should have been taken to obtain adequate supplies of approved vaccines. The authorities appeared to depend on the donation of an unapproved vaccine from a friendly country. The priority list for vaccination was disrupted, thus exhausting the supplies of the vaccine. As a result, only an insignificant proportion of the people have received the first dose, with no guarantee of the second.

7. Allowing free movement of people during the festivals, largely ignoring recommended preventive guidelines. These were openly patronised by the kith and kin of the political leaders.

8. In many meetings and other gatherings organised and attended by the politicians at the highest level, scant regard is given for public health precautions.

9. Claiming success until a few weeks ago, and reducing the PCR testing and other measures until caught unawares with a rapidly rising case load.

10. Restriction of movement and isolation of areas is hampered by political interference. This was well illustrated by what happened recently in Piliyandala, where the isolation of the area, on medical advice, was reversed within a few hours at the behest of a political bigwig.

11. All social gatherings were banned a few days ago. However, it was comical how largely attended weddings were allowed for a few days more, obviously to accommodate someone close to the centers of power. Though rumours abound, the beneficiary of this anomaly is still not known for certain.

To what extent the hierarchy in the medical administrators of the Health Ministry contributed to this dismal situation is open to question. The general impression is that they are succumbing to political pressure, without standing their ground. It is widely suspected that even the correct statistics are not divulged to avoid embarrassing the politicians. However, knowing how overpowering the politicians could be, it may be unreasonable to blame the hapless officials doing a thankless job under trying circumstances.

 

SENIOR MEDICAL CONSULTANT

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Opinion

Making O/L English literature more accessible

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In his feature article, titled “Reduce O/Level STRESS”, appearing in The Island of 03 May, Anton Peiris makes a timely intervention to introduce an alternative mathematics course for O/L students, which will be tailored to suit the capacity of a considerable number of students who find the customary mathematics paper too challenging. This is surely a more pragmatic and student-friendly approach, because for the past few years we have been trapped in the split between two extremes: either in support of a pass in math to be made compulsory for all A/L students or the exemption of Arts students from this requirement. “Maths Studies” would be a happy compromise between the two extremes, which would stand in good stead for many O/L students. with a gift for Arts subjects to pursue their goals without math being an undue hindrance or, conversely, its total exemption turning out to be a free license for laxity.

O/L English literature seems to be another subject not available to many students due to at least two reasons: first, the want of qualified teachers and, second, the standards being set too high for the average student, as in the case of math. This deters many students who are not competent enough to meet the high-end demand for “appreciating literary texts” from gaining many other benefits literature would otherwise offer them, if provided as a more watered down package, as in “Maths Studies.” In short, the introduction of a less daunting variant such as “Literature Studies” for the average student, for whom the regular “English Literature” is virtually a taboo, can ensure the same gains “Maths Studies” intends to bring to those less proficient in math.

Such leniency would not be wholly out of tune with the learning outcomes of O/L English Literature, enunciated in the relevant syllabus issued by the NIE, which states:

The national goal of making an informed reader means a critical thinker as well. The learner must be able to appreciate any “well written” book and recognize a “good book” when he sees one. It is a training for life. But the whole enterprise of studying literature has been coloured by non-educational, even non-humanistic objectives. For most students and more for their parents, English literature has become a symbol of prestige, culminating in a fantasy of a distinction pass at the GC.E. (O/L) examination. (http://www.nie.lk/pdffiles/tg/e10tim130.pdf)

This goes to provide at least two good reasons for introducing a less demanding option like “Literature Studies” for the average student. As the latter part of the above paragraph admits, for many students, as well as their parents, studying English literature has become a “symbol of prestige.” This is sad because promoting such snobbery flies in the face of all the lofty ideals contained in the first three sentences, such as making the student well informed, critical and sensitized enough to appreciate good literature, etc. As such, it would not be undesirable, in the least, to aim at moulding a reasonably broadminded and sensitive person, by adjusting the syllabus to focus more on increasing their general awareness of the richness of world literature, without making the study of O/L literature a strenuous exercise of gaining a set of “skills,” which may be more suitable for the purpose of grooming critics rather than making students read for pleasure. Arguably, the emphasis on critical appreciation of the texts might be one reason why the students end up becoming stuck-up, as described in the above passage.

There is no doubt that the regular O/L literature course prepares the student to study literature at the A/Ls – hence the need for its continuation. However, a more student-friendly variant intended for encouraging the average student to read literature, without the unnerving prospect of having to write a critical essay on each of the prescribed texts she has to read, is sure to cultivate the reading habit among students. The performance evaluation defined in the NIE syllabus cited below proves the rigid test-oriented and technical nature of the process:

Appreciation of English literary texts is tested as a component of the G.C.E. (O/L) examination formatively as well as summatively at the end of a two-year course of study. At school level, it is assessed formally at term tests. It is also assessed informally in the classroom using a variety of techniques, both oral and written. Conventionally literature is tested by written examinations. The test items most frequently used are the context question and the critical essay. The context question is more effective since it directly tests the candidate’s familiarity with the texts.

Undoubtedly, a more student-friendly and less formulaic syllabus intended for coaxing the average student to read for pleasure, may ideally minimize the focus on critical writing aspect and the emphasis on a knowledge of the textual mechanics. Instead, such a syllabus may include a prudent selection of interesting biographical details of writers and their famous works, their dominant themes and the relevant social contexts, short samples of texts not intended for critical evaluation but for familiarizing them with various writing forms, etc. – anything that will stimulate the reading habit of the student who may even be encouraged to read the translations in their mother tongue, if time permits.

The most important outcome would be to make them keen readers. The essential fine-tuning with regard to the selection of teaching materials and testing can be done by the syllabus designers and teachers who know the terrain well. Thus, as in the case of math, the modified syllabus of literature would help students who are not adequately proficient to follow the standard literature course, to find a more manageable way of developing a liking for literature.

 

SUSANTHA HEWA

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