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Opinion

Time to Break the Boundaries – Part I

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BY Shivanthi Ranasinghe

ranasingheshivanthi@gmail.com 

The COVID-19 virus is severely challenging the credibility of the Education Ministry. This was underscored when the Ministry, amidst the ongoing second wave, announced the re-opening of all schools, from grade six upwards, except those in the Western Province and other isolated areas from November 23 onwards. It has been since decided to reopen primary schools from January 11, 2021 onwards. 

Neither teachers’ trade unions nor parents responded well to this announcement to reopen schools in November. North Western Province Governor Raja Collure too decided that schools in high risk areas of his province would remain closed for a further week. A number of teachers’ unions warned that the worst-case scenario would be a “school cluster”.

The Education Ministry, however, has the support from the Health Ministry, which issued a clear-cut guideline to allow schools to function. All of these prescribed steps must be followed as strictly as possible, said Deputy Director of Health Services Dr Hemantha Herath. 

The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) too noted that schools cannot remain closed until the pandemic ended, which might last for two-three years. Acknowledging that the spread of the virus if it infects students would be wide, also noted that such a cluster can be consciously prevented. The GMOA assured that schools can both function and stay safe by following Health Ministry’s regulations. 

The GMOA has never been a government lackey. As a powerful trade union, the GMOA had locked horns with the Government (whichever in power) more often than supported it. Thus, their support on this matter was a tremendous boost for the Education Ministry. Yet, it still was not enough to convince parents. 

Attendance, when schools reopened on November 23, 2020, was very low. The Sabaragamuwa Province reported the best attendance with only 55 percent. Southern Province had the lowest attendance with 15 percent. Kandy had to close its schools the very week it reopened due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the district. Eastern Province too had to take a similar decision with the Kalmunai Education Zone. On December 14, the Kandy schools, except for few, were reopened. However, attendance was very poor.

Education Minister Professor GL Peiris appealed from parents to give unstinted support to reopen schools and not to make a political issue out of it. Yet, parents’ lack of conviction is not politically motivated. People understand that the pandemic-related challenges before the Government are enormous. They also understand that the Government’s efforts to meet these challenges are genuine. Therefore, despite the many difficulties and uncertainties people face, the prevailing situation in the country is calm and peaceful. Even the few agitations that precipitated from locked down apartment complexes due to prolonged quarantine periods were quickly resolved. It took only a few experienced police officers to reason out with the residents and send them back home.

The problem lies with the procedure that follows when one gets infected with the COVID-19 virus. If the health authorities deem necessary, the infected would be taken to a specially designated hospital, where visitors are not allowed. This means, at least for two-three weeks, the infected is separated from family. This would be a very traumatic experience for a child. Hence, it is only natural for parents to want to avoid such a situation.

Generally, children are thought to have better immunity against this virus. While this may be true for a healthy child, it is not clear the prognosis for a child with respiratory illnesses. Today, many young children living in urban areas suffer from such diseases as asthma. Parents of such children cannot be blamed for being cautious.

The Education Ministry cannot be faulted for wanting to fulfill its core responsibility. Therefore, the Ministry would feel the urgency to reopen the schools that had been closed for the better part of this year. It is most likely that they would try their level best in the coming New Year to somehow reopen schools.

Even if the schools functioned in the coming New Year, the Ministry must have alternate plans for areas that come under lockdown. Until the pandemic ends, authorities may have to isolate lanes or by-lanes whilst the general area functioned. Children in these isolated areas would not be able to physically attend school for at least a fortnight. 

The other complication they would have to factor into their decision making is the weather. The first quarter of the year is the country’s hottest, driest and the dustiest months. Children often fall sick with chest infections, flu, coughs and colds during this period. In this scenario, the authorities need to be very confident in assuring that children’s safety from the COVID-19 would not be compromised with the reopening of schools.

Despite the efforts to reopen schools, Education Minister had been forced to also postpone the GCE Ordinary Level exam to March, 2021. This decision was taken despite successfully conducting the Grade V Scholarship exam and the GCE Advanced Level exam, even with the ongoing pandemic’s second wave. It was the parents who pressed the Administration to hold the exams without postponing it any further. They overlooked the second wave to allow their children to sit for these exams. Yet, that confidence is absent to let children attend regular sessions amidst the same second wave. 

Distant Learning is a Distant Success

It is not an easy decision for most parents to keep their children home from school. School, extracurricular activities and daycare centres provide an essential support for those families where both parents work. The pandemic has effectively shut down these services and facilities. This has hence disrupted the fine balance between career and family. Even for families that are not affected thus, the question remains as what to do with the children – especially regarding their education. 

Online classes have been successful mostly among segments that have ready access to the required devices and uninterrupted Internet connection. Others are severely constrained.  The recent footage of some children atop a 60-foot-plus water tank to “attend class” is not a laughing matter. 

Providing a device and a connection to each student will still not resolve the issue to those who live in extremely cramped quarters. In some homes, family members must take turns to sleep. These environments with its associated disturbances are not conducive surroundings for studying.

Even when facilities from device to connection to space and environment are available for online studies, the problem is not fully resolved. Keeping students, especially in lower grades, focused on lessons have its own difficulties and often need active supervision. Often, it is an elder who ends up ‘attending’ class and doing the work. A teachers’ trade union noted most parents are not equipped with the special teaching techniques needed by young students.

At the same time, it must be noted that online classes have not been a total failure. Some students, especially in higher grades, prefer online classes that allow them the space to learn at their own pace. They appreciate the accessibility to recorded lessons, teachers’ notes and other study materials. 

Yet, the problem is not rested on just ensuring an uninterrupted education for children. With each passing day without schools, we deny children an important part of their childhood. The psychological and health impact by keeping children indoors and in isolation from one another is a very grave concern. 

(Part II will be published tomorrow)



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Opinion

Use existing resources for agri-food sector in Mahaweli areas

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By MAHINDA PANAPITIYA

Irrigation Engineer who has worked for Mahaweli Project since 80s

As originally planned, the present phase of the Mahaweli Project should be focused on social and economic development of the families settled in Mahaweli areas. It could be done by promoting food production in a sustainable way, to gain the return on investment of capital cost incurred on the infrastructure constructed for delivering water to fertile lands in the dry zone. The potential available in lands under Mahaweli Project, which cover about 1/3 of farming areas of the Dry Zone, could easily help the country to become self-sufficient in healthy foods, deviating from monotonous rice cultivation, provided it is managed with a right vision.

Concept

According to the concept explained below, there is a need to change the present management approach to a role focusing food production using limited water resources in the Dry Zone. For example, the term “Block Manager” in the Mahaweli Management System was used during the construction phase in the 70s, because areas were blocked for the purpose of managing construction and settlement activities. There are five such blocks, each of about 3,000 Hectares, under Kalawewa Reservoir. Now the project is in the production phase. Therefore, the Block Managers appointed earlier should now be named as Regional Production Managers, because the very word BLOCK implies negative at the production phase.

The role of a Production Manager replacing Block Manage is a completely different discipline from what was adapted during the construction phase. In the current production phase, Irrigation projects should be perceived as a Food Producing “Factory” – where water is the main raw material. A Production Manager’s focus should be to maximize food production, deviating from Rice Only Mode, to cater the market needs earning profits for farmers who are the owners of the “factory”. Canal systems within the project area are just “Belts” conveying raw materials (water) in a Typical Factory. Farm labor, fertilisers etc. are other inputs.

Required Management Shift

In order to implement the above management concept, there is a need for a paradigm shift at national level in managing large scale irrigation projects. In the new management paradigm, the farmers would be treated as clients, not the servants at the mercy of receiving water, according to rigid schedules decided by irrigation management staff. In this approach, the main purpose of managing irrigation systems is to deliver water to the farm gate at the right time in the right quantity.

It is also very pathetic to observe that main clients of irrigation projects (farmers) are now dying of various diseases caused by indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals. Therefore, there is a need to minimize the damages caused to the ecosystems where these food production factories are located. Therefore, the management objectives should also be focused on producing multiple types of organically grown crops, profitably without polluting the soil and groundwater aquifers.

Proposed Strategy

Existing Engineering staff should either be trained or new recruitments having Production Engineering background, should be made. Water should be perceived as the most limited input, which needs to be managed profitably with the farming community – jointly. Each Production Manager could be allocated a Fixed Volume of water annually, and their performance could be measured in terms of Rupees earned for the country per Unit Volume of water, while economically upgrading a healthy lifestyle of farmers. Staff of agencies such as Central Engineering Consultancy Burro (CECB), established in 80s at construction phase of the Mahaweli Project, can be trained to play the role of Production Engineering. CECB could be renamed as Central Food Production Burro (CFPB).

In addition to the government salary, the staff should also be compensated in the form of incentives, calculated in proportion to income generated by them from their management areas. It should be a Win-Win situation for both farmers as well as officers responsible for managing the food production factory. In other countries, the term used to measure their performance is $ earned per gallon of water to the country, without damaging the ecosystem. Another advantage of this approach is that the young generation of the farmers automatically get attracted to commercial agriculture because of high income generation.

Recent Efforts

We were able to introduce some of the concepts explained in this note during 2000 to 2004, under a program called Mahaweli Restructuring and Rehabilitation Project (MRRP) funded by the World Bank. It was done by operating the Distributary canals feeding each block as elongated Village Tanks. Recently we tried to modernize the same concept at Pilot Scale in System B, by independently arranging funds from ICTA. In that project, called Easy Water, we introduced an SMS communication system to the farmers, so that they can order water from the Maduru Oya Main Reservoir by sending a SMS, when they need rather; than depend on time tables decided by authorities as normally practiced.

Conclusion

The World Bank also recognised the above concept in 2003, as the best water management approach suitable for South Asian countries. Due to the lack of vision of existing managers in the irrigation sector focusing on food production, the above approach has not yet reaped the full benefits. What we need in Sri Lanka, is a political leadership to create challenges for irrigation officials to play a role of educated profit-oriented farmers, deviating them from Rice only mode, by promoting concepts similar to above. Also note that while I worked for a project in Azerbaijan funded by the International Fund for Agriculture Development, I was able to introduce the same concept and they are now using it successfully. I do not see any reason why we could not practice here.

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Opinion

Would anyone in power and sure to lose an election call for an election?

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If she/he would, why don’t tyrants seek election periodically?

(no kerena deege hevnallath adai! Even the shadows of a failing marriage are misaligned.)

by Usvatte-aratchi

I was mightily amused by the demands of several astute political leaders in and outside parliament that president Wickremasinghe uses his constitutional discretionary power and dissolve the parliament, after February 2023. Consider for a moment reasons why he simply cannot.

Wickremasinghe ignominiously lost an election to parliament from his district, after 45 years and after perhaps ten elections, all of which he had won handsomely. Not one member of the party he led, the oldest in the country and which unconventionally had made a president in 2015, won election to parliament in 2020. The party, as a whole, collected enough votes from the entire country to entitle it to nominate one person to sit in parliament. Bhikkhu Ratana’s hurriedly put-together party did equally well! Bhikkhu Ratana was as well entitled to be installed as president as Wickremasinghe. He had distinguished himself by advocating the production of crops without chemical fertilisers and pesticides (vasa visa nati kema). After 12 months of prevarication, Wickremasinghe decided to sit in parliament. He pleased himself in the House with some occasional clever witticisms. After more than two years, a vastly popular Prime Minister was forced out of office. Suddenly, this lone pine in the wilderness grew so tall that Wickremasinghe was appointed Prime Minister. Two months later he was President of the Republic, all constitutionally proper. But the framers of the constitution had made fools of the people, in whose name the constitution was made. In the constitution, there is no office of a vice-president who would be elected to the office along with the president and who would assume office as president for the rest of the period of five years, in the event the office of president felt vacant for any reason Nor was there a provision that in the event that a person not expressly elected by the people as president of the republic were to come to hold that office within the constitution, that he/she would hold the office of the president no longer than it was necessary to elect a new president, to wit, four calendar months. The great republic to the north of us has a vice-president and so has the oldest republic in the world, the United States of America. In our country, the lack of that provision paved the way for a politician who failed to win a seat in parliament in 2020 to decide the fate of that same parliament in 2022. How bizarre? Is that ironic or tragic? Do we laugh or do we cry?

There are two forces contributing to an equilibrium where it is in the interests of the president and a large group of members of parliament to avoid dissolving parliament. The first force is exerted by Wickremesinghe who is abundantly aware that he would lose in an election for president. Recall that two years ago, he could not win a seat in parliament. The other force comes from a majority of members of parliament who are sure to lose their seats in an election, any time soon. Among them, there is a large number of MPs who entered parliament for the first time and would lose the right to a lifetime pension which they would not earn if they did not complete five years in parliament. To most of them, this is a valuable asset which they loth to lose. I am advised that according to the Constitution, the president has the discretion to dissolve the parliament after a minimum of two and half years from the date of their election to office. Parliament itself has the power to request the president to dissolve parliament, provided more than two-thirds of all members of parliament adopt a resolution asking the president to do so. The second force discussed earlier prevents such motion. These two forces ensure that no matter the commotion created by those that seek the president to resign and parliament to dissolve itself, there is sufficient inertia to make the status quo stable. They are each perfectly dependent on the other for survival and they dearly crave survival. The president cannot dissolve parliament and survive. Nor can members of parliament survive without Wickremasinghe a president who, on his own, would not dissolve parliament. This hysteresis can last for about another 3 years legally and longer illegally. I would not rule out the latter probability.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa and President Rajapaksa were both thrown off their perches by forces outside parliament.

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Opinion

Science vs religion – II

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Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method. Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical.

By GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE

(The first part of this article reproduced from our Asia News Network partner in India, The Statesman, appeared on 25 Nov.)

“The known is finite, the unknown infinite”, the British biologist Thomas Huxley wrote in 1887, “Intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.”

Before the last century, the vast unknown territory of inexplicability was ruled by religion.But the last century has seen a tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge, and ever since, science has been reclaiming more and more territory from religion so that scholars started predicting a diminishing relevance and eventual disappearance of religion from human society.

While it is true that religion’s stranglehold has been remarkably weakened in most countries during the last half-century, except in the diehard Islamic states which stubbornly refuse to reform Islam, the resurgence of religion in our contemporary socio-political life negates the prediction of religion’s demise.

There is too much religion on the streets now that is increasingly intruding unto our lives. It is not the spirituality that Sagan had talked about, it is religion in its crudest original form – bloodthirsty, demanding total and unquestioning allegiance from its followers who would not shy away from spilling the blood of non-believers. While science continues to conquer ever newer frontiers and invents technologies that are revolutionising our society, a full transition to a scientific society is not possible without the complete displacement of religion.

From medicine to biotech, from electronics to telecommunication, from AI to nanoscience, the progress of science during the last 50 years has completely transformed the way we organize society, conduct business, and connect with people for ideation.

The paradox is that while we are exploring the frontiers of science and technology driven by limitless human yearning and thirst for knowledge, we are also reinforcing the prejudices, bigotry, and intolerance of contrary ideas and beliefs in our social and public life with renewed vigour and pride. Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method.Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued against recurrent tendencies of applying the methods of natural science in the research of human affairs, which are essentially outside empirical scientific approaches.

The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics, etc. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical. This is always an epistemological problem in social sciences, and this is where religion is supposed to supplement the techno-scientific worldview of science to understand how Nature works her laws in the universe and in human society.

But Nature also includes her children and us humans, and her well-being depends on their activities. No one knows that better than us, especially at this juncture of time when the world is precariously poised between sustainability and irreversible devastation from uncontrolled human greed.

Religion was supposed to impart and promote morality, ethics, love, and compassion among humans to make them understand their symbiotic relationships with nature, with fellow beings, and with animals. Religion was supposed to teach humans to limit their greed, increase empathy towards others, and strike a harmonious balance with nature to make the world a better place for all to live. What it has done and the moral blindness it has promoted instead is for all to see and judge.

Religion today is relentlessly marching to colonize every aspect of our socio-economic and political life with increasing aggressiveness. Suffering has been trivialised by it, the pain has been glorified by it, killing has been sanctified by it and the tattered social fabric that has resulted is being flaunted with egotistical pleasure and pride.

Though it will be unfair to blame religion alone, it has to take a large share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. It is propelling us energetically to forget our humanity and respect for those who do not share our faith and driving us towards an Orwellian world where intercultural understanding, the richness of culture and diversity, and the ideal of an inclusive and pluralistic society are strongly denounced in favour of a blind pursuance of faith as dictated by its self-proclaimed guardians and their bigoted followers.

The ideal of peace and harmony are receding at the speed of light as religion strives to regain the territory it has lost to science and is countering science with what can best be described as a pseudoscience that is carving out a niche for itself – and a wide one at that.To quote Huxley again, “The question of all questions for humanity is that of the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the Cosmos.”

Religion derived sustenance from the concept that humanity was positioned proudly at the centre of God’s magnificent creation, the Earth, around which revolved everything, and humanity – the crowning achievement of God’s creation in his own image, the pinnacle of his divine handiwork, occupied the centre-stage on this earth.Science would shatter the concept, but not before thousands of Giordano Brunos were burned at the stake for holding a contrary view.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn convincingly explained how paradigm shifts take place in the history of science when one dominant worldview is replaced by another. He showed that scientific progress is like Darwinian evolution – a process of selection of one amongst all the competing theories that have the most predictive power puzzle-solving ability, a concept that was later supported by Bas van Fraassen in The Scientific Image (1980).

But each such major paradigm shift has shaken the edifice of religion from which it could never recover. Thus, when the geocentric Ptolemaic worldview was replaced by the Copernican worldview, man lost his centrality in the scheme of things. Till then, heaven was in the sky, hell was underground and God in heaven ruled all three while religion regulated the entry to heaven or hell.

Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the Universe, and later Hubble displaced the entire Milky way from the centre of the universe, giving us instead an expanding universe of billions of galaxies in which neither is humanity at the centre of creation nor is the earth at the centre of the universe; in fact, the universe itself is one tiny dot in a multiverse of many universes.

Thus, God’s magnificent creation has been relegated to the position of a second-rate planet attached to a third-rate star, discarding religion’s medieval fancies. Today we are humbled by the immensity of the universe and mesmerized by the eternal silence of infinite space.

But for religion, the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the cosmos was not a question, it was an irrefutable truth questioning which meant inviting risk. Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelesticum on his deathbed in 1543, beyond the morbid reach of the Inquisition.

Galileo and Bruno were not that fortunate. Science established that neither does life enjoy any special privilege – countless worlds exist in deep space devoid of life, and countless species have become extinct in the course of evolution. We may be one someday, and going by our misdeeds on this planet, that day even may not be too far.

Darwin would finally dislodge humanity from the centre of the biological universe, giving it a lowly ancestor that was too humble compared to an almighty God to be a creator of such intelligence as possessed by man. Thankfully, the inquisition was dead, but prejudiced minds that shun logic were not. They are again back at the centre stage in force, flaunting scriptures, dictating how we should conduct ourselves, threatening to push us into a hell of ignominy and violence if we disobey.

Creationism is still being taught in many US public schools, despite the Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. Half the people in the USA still don’t believe in evolution, their share in India is unknown. But here, vigorous attempts are now on somehow bringing God inside the classroom in any guise, be it a hijab, or anything else.

Worship only makes you a slave. A slave forgets his reason, and his purpose for existence, and ultimately becomes an automaton to serve the master – Religion – and obey its commands without thinking.Religion is not the source of spirituality, peace, morality, virtue, and ethics any longer. Its principles may be eternal, but its methods are gross. It has now become the source of violence, hatred, unconcealed greed, corruption, and a road to power.

Instead of breaking barriers, it is building them afresh, destroying the very roots upon which mankind has built civilizations through the millennia. Don’t expect the State to control religion and the street will always celebrate it with ever-ostentatious pomp and splendour. It is therefore for us citizens to shield our children from the corrupting influences of religion. It has no place in the fabric of the mind of civilized men and women, just as God has no place in the fabric of the space-time that science tries to untangle. We don’t need the ancient wisdom of the spirit to guide us, because religion which was supposed to imbibe it has lost its divinity. It is now for science to redeem religion.

(Concluded)

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