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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

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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Opinion

Need in New Year is to heal the divides

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By Jehan Perera

One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future.  The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future.  According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness.  Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest.  There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.

Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police.  They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity.  Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets.  According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit. 

 

JAFFNA VISIT

Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades.  Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere.  Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities.   He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment. 

The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past.  At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do.  When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.

At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living.  An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities.  He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families.  He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.

 

UNIFYING THEME

The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together.  Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such.  It was much like the rest of the country.  At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government.  The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government.  At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest. 

The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north.  There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner.  If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate.  It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring.  As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with.  As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.

The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood.  The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.  The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis.  However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda.  The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE.  Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.

 

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