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What makes a ‘knowledge centre’?



By Usvatte-aratchi

A translation of an essay written by Professor Sirimal Abeyratne (Colombo) appeared in the Lankadeepa of 18 August, 2021. As I have difficulties obtaining typescripts in Sinhala, I will write in English. Abeyratne dwelt on two questions. First, who benefits from ‘free education’? Second, how do you engineer a knowledge centre?

Prior to answering the first question, he forays briefly into discussing ‘what is free education’. As we have developed the usage, free education is what is free to the student or her parents. But the community as a whole, that includes you and me, pays for ‘free education’. Education is provided by the state. The state, unless you are Hegelian, is the community organised for political purposes. In order to pay for my education, the state using its agent the government, collects taxes from my parents. Instead of paying fees to a private school to educate me, my parents pay taxes to the government which pays the public schools to educate me. No matter who organises the provision of education, my parents pay for my education. However, there is a difference of critical importance of who actually pays for my schooling. When it is necessary that students or their parents pay for a child’s education, whether a child goes to school depends on whether parents can afford to pay for the child’s education. When the community pays for children’s education, the child can go to school, no matter whether his parents have the wherewithal to pay for his education. The rest of the community takes on that burden. This is fairer, far more just and far more productive for social wellbeing. Education is free in school and in university in the same sense as it is in Sri Lanka in France, Germany and Finland and may be elsewhere. In the US, primary and secondary education is free in the same sense. We are in no sense unique.

US school education

In the US, school education (K-12) is organised by School Boards, elected by voters in the School Board area. School Boards pay for education with property taxes paid by owners in the area. The Board is accountable to those that elected them, by and large, the same persons who pay property taxes: an excellent example of the principle of subsidiarity at work. Parents are commonly closely associated with the school. One of them may volunteer to substitute for a teacher absent without expectation, another may help in the library and still another may accompany a class on a day-outing. That gives a clue to the differentiating in the quality of teaching in schools. The more educated and the better informed the parents are, the better their schools. Imagine a young couple who have come out of an elite university and together earn $100,000 to $200,000 a month. They can buy an expensive house in a School Board area (e.g. Montgomery County in Virginia), where public schools are of high quality. In New York City, Brooklyn High School, Bronx High School and Manhattan Science High School, all in the public sector, have excellent reputations. The high prices of houses will keep out those with low incomes. (The State of California introduced, a few years ago, a scheme to make equalisation grants to improve the quality of education in poorer counties.) The parents will take care to provide a home environment conducive to creative activity and the growth of the children’s minds. Besides, they can buy private tuition to supplement what is done in excellent schools. Parents will take the children to see the beauty of the country, to great museums, to enjoy a play and in summer perhaps to Italy, to China, to India or to Japan. The children will learn at least one foreign language (perhaps Greek or Latin, in addition), some music, to dance, play baseball and to debate. Their teachers, counsellors and parents will be aware of what elite college admission committees look for and send the children to volunteer work in a hospital or the local library. In these and many other ways children from educated and high earning families will ‘hoard the dreams’ of children of common families. Contrast that with the experience of poorly educated and low-income families whose children may never have been out of their hometowns, never seen a museum or even seen even the ocean, if in Iowa or Idaho. That pattern, on a lower scale, is quite common in our country. I had not been to Galle till I was 15 when I was hospitalised there for three nights. (I was shocked to hear from a ward doctor in a private hospital in Colombo, who normally worked in a government hospital, that he, although owning a car, had never been to Matara or to Nuwara- Eliya. He had gone to school in Veyangoda.) Given these wide disparities in income levels, educational levels and cultural practices among families, it is utopian to imagine that there are equal opportunities for all children to do well in school and in university. We can observe these differences played out in daily lives. How many physicians or surgeons have you met in this country, whose parents were tea pluckers in the hill country? Even as early as the 5th standard scholarship examination, you can see children whose parents earn regular incomes, commonly from government, end up in the top one or two percent of high scorers. Look at sharp differences of those who score high Z scores at A’Level in Mullaitivu and in Gampaha districts. There are odd instances when an extraordinarily intelligent student may break these barriers. But they are exceptional and prove the rule. In China, the same result is achieved with the hukou system and competition at gaokao, the entrance examination to universities. The $70 billion private tuition industry, now under attack there, is stark evidence of differences in the capacity between the rich and the poor to buy ‘good education’. In Colombo, you can see the same schemes at work through property prices. Borella, Maradana, Kurunduvatta, Bambalapitiya and Kollupitiya have nests of high-quality schools which feed into the more coveted faculties in selected universities. You can observe that even those who score high at Grade V scholarship examination are from families where parents have had more education in them than others. Given even the best intentions (e.g. China), there is no way that advantages enjoyed by children from families of well-educated parents, who almost invariably earn high and stable incomes, can be denied advantages in education.

Creating knowledge centers

Let us briefly, look at the idea of creating ‘knowledge centres’ that Abeyratne wrote abut. The presence of foreign students and teachers is not always a mark of a knowledge centre. There are a large number of foreign students in both China and India, although neither is yet known as a knowledge centre. A country may have a large number of foreigners as teachers, simply because it is short of competent teachers. In Peradeniya in the 1950s, the professor of Samskrt was German, four teachers in economics (Das Gupta, Sarkar, Oliver Henry and Eiteman) were from overseas, in history two and one each in Sociology, Geography and English.) Gradually local scholars replaced them. Abeyratne, in fact, was looking for students and teachers who are attracted by leading scholars in particular disciplines, who open up new lines of inquiry that may extend the width and depth of that discipline and well-functioning labs working on frontier problems in a particular discipline. In the University of Cambridge in 1989-90, out of 10,243 undergraduates, 568 or about 5% were overseas students and of 2,975 postgraduate students 1,022 or about a third from overseas. In the History Faculty in the same year, out of 60 postgraduate students admitted, 33 or more than a half were from overseas. The reputation of good scholars matters much.

Importance of libraries

The importance of libraries, especially for undergraduates has diminished somewhat with computer technology, but not entirely. For research students a great library is an essential asset. A reputation for good research is earned with publications in high quality journals and books that explore new areas or develop new insights into existing problems. That in turn implies that there are good publishing houses. University Presses are essential ingredients for ‘knowledge centres’. The Cambridge University Press comes from 1534 CE and Oxford UP from 1536. There is not a single good publishing house in our country. Good research comes out of universities with strong leaders in certain disciplines. This was most clearly evident in German universities from about 1850 to the disaster that was Hitler. This practice of powerful professors who assembled a number of researchers started in mid-nineteenth century Germany, soon spread to Britain and the US. In US, the outstanding example is Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The expulsion of Jewish university teachers and researchers in the 1930s from Germany by Hitler and their dispersal in Britain and the US helped greatly to promote research in many disciplines in those countries: mathematics, physics, linguistics and sociology. Amsterdam, Utrecht and London had had great publishing houses from the 17th century, when dissenters of various kinds fled their home cities in search of welcoming havens: e.g. Benedictus Spinoza from Madrid, John Locke and James Mill from London.

Instance of our failure

An instance where we failed to make use of strong leaders in anthropology to establish a centre for the study of societies in South Asia was in Peradeniya in the 1950s. The leaders were Ralph Peiris, Stanley Tambiah, Gananath Obeysekera, Kitsiri Malalgoda and H. L. Seneviratne, all distinguished anthropologists. A younger scholar Sarath Amunugama joined the Civil Service. In addition, there were Michael Roberts in History and K. N. O. Dharmadasa in Sinhala, both of whom had made contributions to anthropology. They all, except KNO, dispersed themselves to more welcome homes in the US, New Zealand and Australia. Some distinguished scientists dispersed to Britain, the US, Canada and Hong Kong. There is a centripetal force at work here, without destroying which, it is unlikely that we will develop a knowledge centre in our country.

I would rather emphasise the development of good undergraduate schools from which may grow graduate schools, as was emanant in the late 1950s in the University of Ceylon but was aborted by ill-informed judgement on the development of higher education. The present ill-founded emphasis on ‘discipline’ in universities would welcome a worse disaster. The memory of Hitler destroying German universities 1930s has not been erased from our memories.

(This is the last of three notes I wrote on university matters in August, during the worst days of the epidemic in our country. It helped me to keep my mind off impending horrors. Then, our son came home spreading sunshine for a brief two weeks.)


Dangerous rail travel by tourists: Why not create an opportunity?



Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

Before the Covid Pandemic hit Sri Lanka, there was some debate and concern voiced about tourists standing at the door ways of trains and even hanging out, while the train is moving. Some pictures of a young couple hanging out of an upcountry train, while clutching on to the side rails, went viral, on social media, with debates of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ reaching fever pitch. While certainly this is a dangerous practice, not to be condoned, If we ‘think out of the box’ could there be a way to make this seemingly popular, though dangerous pastime among some tourists, into an opportunity to be exploited. This paper aims to explore these options pragmatically.

By Srilal Miththapala

Social media, and even some of the more conventional media, were all a-buzz before the CoVid crisis, when some pictures of a young tourist couple appeared, hanging out of a Sri Lankan upcountry train in gay abandon, savouring the exciting moment. There were hot debates about this form of ‘promotion of Sri Lanka’, with many people talking about the dangers of such a practice, and that it would bring negative publicity for Sri Lanka if something dangerous were to happen. This part of the train ride, along the upcountry route, is arguably one of the most scenic train routes in the world.

And quite rightly so, I guess. I myself was one who joined the chorus who vehemently spoke against this.

However thinking out of the box, I got thinking – Can we create an opportunity here ?

The ‘new’, experience and thrill seeking tourist of today

There is no doubt that there is a new segment of discerning, younger, experience and adventure seeking tourists, emerging and travelling all over the world. They are very internet and social media savvy, seeking more adventurous and exciting experiences, and are usually very environmentally conscious. They are most often seen exploring ‘off-the-beaten-track’ holidays, planned out individually according to their needs and wants.

Through the ages, mankind has been pushing the limits of exploration: We have conquered land, sea and space. We have discovered many hitherto unknown wonders of our planet with our unabated thirst for knowledge.

Tourists are no different. To get away from their daily stressful life, they seek something different, even venturing into hostile or dangerous places to experience the excitement of discovery and the feeling of adventure. No longer is a clean hotel room with a range of facilities, good food and some sunshine good enough to a tourist.

According to, the yearning for experiences, over material possessions, continues to drive travellers’ desire for more incredible and memorable trips: 45% of travellers have a bucket list in mind. Most likely to appear on a bucket list are thrill seekers wanting to visit a world famous theme park, travellers looking to go on an epic rail journey or visiting a remote or challenging location. ()

Drive-reduction theory in psychology postulates that one is never in a state of complete fulfilment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied. Humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their unknown environments, self-inducing stress and moving out of their comfort zones. This gives them a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. ()

Therefore, unknown thrills, adventures and the ‘adrenaline rush’ does attract travellers.

What have other countries done ?

As mentioned many countries are developing unique , memorable and thrilling experiences into their product offering.

A few are described below

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Small groups are taken on a walk along the massive, arched steel structured Sydney Harbour Bridge . The dramatic 360 deg. view from the bridge, 135 meters above ground, of the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera house, while being completely exposed to the elements, is, indeed, a rare and thrilling experience.

Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

In the northwest of China’s Hunan province, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along the walkway attached to Tianmen Mountain — 4,700 feet above the ground.

The glass-bottomed walkway is more than 300 feet long and only about five feet wide, providing an experience that is said to be exhilarating and frightening .

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

The tallest attraction in Toronto lets people stand right at the edge of the CN tower and lean over. It is the world’s highest full circle, hands-free walk on a 1.5 m wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod, 356m , 116 storeys above the ground. EdgeWalk is a Canadian Signature Experience and an Ontario Signature Experience.

A variety of unique trekking opportunities, in Rwanda and Uganda, allow you trek into the jungle to gaze into the eyes of the Gorillas in their natural habitat. It’s a completely unique African safari experience. This moment leaves a lasting and unforgettable impression, coming so close to this majestic wild animal.

These are just a few. So there are already a range of unique, visitor attractions that thrill tourists the world over.

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

Safety – the one overriding condition

All these thrill seeking, and seemingly dangerous tourist attractions have one common denominator that is never ever compromised – Safety.

Safety is of paramount importance in all these activities and are subject to stringent checks and review, periodically. All personnel who guide and instruct these thrill seeking tourists are well trained and disciplined.

Any equipment that is used for safety, such as harnesses and safety belts, are designed to the highest standards and are periodically tested. Nothing is left to chance and if there is the slightest semblance of danger, due to any unforeseen environmental conditions, the attraction is closed down temporarily. ( e.g when there are strong winds the Sydney Harbour bridge walk is suspended).

Such safety measures are an imperative necessity, because any unforeseen accident can lead to serious and grave consequences of litigation and even closing down of the attraction.

Suggested railings

So what about our train ride ?

The attraction of the Sri Lankan upcountry train ride (most often between Nanu Oya and Ella – the most scenic section) is the fact that a tourist can stand ‘on the footboard’ of the open train carriageway door, and feel the cool breeze against their faces while absorbing the beautiful hill country and tea plantations. This is something most western tourists cannot do back home, where all train carriageway doors are automatically shut when the train starts moving.

In fact I am told that some Tour Agents in Australia are specifically asked by tourists to arrange this ‘experience’ for them, when booking their tour.

So why not be creative and make a proper attraction out of this ?

Cannot we modify one carriage to have an open ‘balcony’ along the side where a person can stand ‘outside’ and ‘feel the open environment’? It could be fitted with proper safety rails and each person can be anchored to the carriage with a harness (like what is used in other attractions where the interaction is open to the elements). A special charge can be levied for this experience.

One factor that favours the safety aspect is that during traversing this stretch, due to the steep gradient, the train travels at a ‘snail’s pace’, unlike in foreign countries where speeds could reach 80-100 kms per hour.

This attraction could be used as an income generator for the Railway Department as tourists wanting to experience this ‘thrill’ can be charged a fee, for a specific time period that they could use the facility.


Although this may seem simplistic, in reality there may be several logistical issues that need to be addressed.

But, if there is a will, and the different departments involved can all see the opportunity, and get on to the same ‘wavelength’, cutting through the inordinate bureaucracy that usually prevails, then surely it would not be at all difficult.

But the overall point in this entire treatise, is that we have to ‘think out of the box’ and grasp at all possible opportunities that are available, especially as we gradually open up for tourists after the pandemic. We are quite used to ranting and raving about all the shortfalls that prevail.. But there’s so much that still can be done if there are a few motivated and dedicated people who can get together.

Tourism after all is really ‘show businesses’ and without creativity, panache, actors and showmanship, what is show business?

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Remebering Prophet Muhammad’s legacy – ECOLOGICAL WELFARE



By Dr M Haris Deen

COVID-19 came and as yet remains, at the same time the world is plagued with another serious issue, that of global warming and other ecological disturbances. While remembering the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) let us recall the contributions he made towards the applying Islamic principles of Islamic welfare towards protection of the environment.

The Prophet of Islam (May peace be upon him) advocated during his lifetime the stringent application of Islamic principles in respect of ecological welfare. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) taught his followers to live on less, neither to be extravagant nor to be miserly and to protect animal and plant life and to worship the Creator by being merciful to His creations. He forbade the killing of any animal unless out of necessity to feed the people. Al Albani reports that the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “If the Hou r (meaning the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it”. Imam Bukhari reported the Prophet (Peace be on him) as having said that “if a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him”. It is also reported in Ibn Majah that once the Prophet (peace be upon him) happened to pass by his companion Sa’ad (May God be pleased with him) and found him performing ablution (wudu) next to a river and questioned him “Sa;ad what is this squandering? And when Sa’ad asked in return “can there be an idea if squandering (israf) in ablution?’ the Prophet replied “yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”.

In another Hadith narrated by Ibn Majah, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Beware of the three acts that cause you to be cursed: (1) relieving yourself in shaded places (that people utilise), in a walkway or in a watering place”.

The Qur’an in chapter 56 verses 68 to 70 states “consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter”.

Prophet’s companion Abu Dhar Al Ghaffari (May Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Removing harmful things from the road is an act of charity” and in another Hadith authenticated by Albani, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “the believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. The Prophet further cautioned as reported by Tirmadhi and Ibn Majah that “Nothing is worst than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be : one third for his food, one third for his liquids and one third for his breath”.

Imam Bukhari reported an amazing story narrated by the Prophet (on whom be peace) that “A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile, he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself. “This dog is suffering from thirst as I did, “So, he went down the well again, filled his shoe with water, held it in his mouth and watered the dog. Allah appreciated him for that deed and forgave him”. The companions inquired, “O Allah’s Messenger, is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for saving any living being”.

Animals have a huge role in the ecological welfare system. The tenets of the Shariah Law towards animal rights make it obligatory for any individual to take care of crippled animals, to rescue strays and to guard birds’ nests of eggs’.

Sal Allahu Ala Muhammad Sal Allahu Alaihi wa Sallam. May Allah Shower His Choicest Blessings on the Soul of Prophet Muhammad.


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Gypsies…to continue



The original Gypsies, with Sunil (centre)

Of course, I know for sure fans of the Gypsies, and music lovers, in general, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world, as well, would be thrilled to know that this awesome outfit hasn’t called it a day.

After the demise of the legendary Sunil Perera, everyone thought that the Gypsies would disband.

Perhaps that would have been in the minds of even the members, themselves, as Sunil was not only their leader, and frontline vocalist, but also an icon in the music scene – he was special in every way.

Many, if not all, thought that the Gypsies, without Sunil, would find the going tough and that is because they all associated the Gypsies with Sunil Perera.

Sunil receiving The Island Music Award for ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ 1990

It generally happens, with certain outfits, where the rest of the members go unnoticed and the spotlight is only on one particular member – the leader of the group.

Some of the names that come to mind are Gabo and The Breakaways (Gabo) Misty (Rajitha), Darktan (Alston Koch), Upekkha (Manilal), Jetliners (Mignonne), Sohan & The X-Periments (Sohan), and the list is quite lengthy….

Yes, the Gypsies will continue, says Piyal Perera, and he mapped out to us what he has in mind.

They will take on a new look, he said, adding that in no way would they try to recreate the era of the Gypsies with Sunil Perera..

“That era is completely gone and we will never ever look to bringing that era into our scene again.

“My brother was a very special individual and his place in the band can never ever be replaced.”

Will Sunil join this scene…at Madame Tussauds!

Piyal went to say that the Gypsies will return to the showbiz scene, in a different setting.

“In all probability, we may have a female vocalist, in the vocal spotlight, and our repertoire will not be the songs generally associated with Sunil and the Gypsies.

“It will be a totally new approach by the new look Gypsies,” said Piyal.

In the meanwhile, Piyal also mentioned that they are working on the possibility of having an image of the late Sunil Perera at the Madame Tussauds wax museum, in London.

He says they have been asked, by the authorities concerned, to submit a PowerPoint presentation of Sunil’s achievements, and that they are working on it.

It’s, indeed, a wonderful way to keep Sunil’s image alive.

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