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Will CEB make an effort to comply?

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President’s target on renewable energy share in power generation:

by Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

IMPLEMENTING THE NEW POLICY DIRECTIVE OF PRESIDENT

As described in detail by the writer in an article published in The Island of 25 and 26 September, a press release issued by the President’s Media Division on 14.09.2020 said that the President had directed that plans should be made to generate 70% of the country’s overall electricity requirements from renewable energy (RE) sources by 2030. Apparently, this has been decided at a meeting that President had with the State Ministry of Solar, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development and the Power Minister at the Presidential Secretariat on the 14th September. The Press Release also said that The Government has made the promotion of renewable energy a top priority and President advised the Secretary to the President to issue a gazette calling for all the institutes to assist in this endeavor. See http://www.pmdnews.lk/70-of-electricity-demand-will-be-generated-using-renewable-energy-by-2030/.

However, as required by Section 5 of the Sri Lanka Electricity Act, No. 20 of 2009, to give effect to this policy decision, it has to be referred to the Cabinet to get its approval and incorporate it in the General Policy Guidelines in respect of the Electricity Industry. Thereafter, the PUCSL will be able to direct the CEB to comply with the new policy guidelines. Being a matter concerning RE share in power generation, the relevant cabinet paper will have to be presented to the Cabinet by the Power Minister. The general practice is for the Secretary to the Ministry to draft the paper in concurrence with the Minister. The question is how long the Power Ministry will take to attend to this.

 

CEB’S LONG-TERM GENERATION EXPANSION PLAN

According to the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Act No. 31 of 2013, any capacity addition to the country’s power system requires that the new plant shall comply with the provisions in the CEB’s Long-term Generation Expansion (LTGE) as well as the approval of the PUCSL and the Cabinet. The LTGE Plan for 2020-2039 prepared by the CEB in May 2019, when submitted to the PUCSL for approval, PUCSL returned it saying that it did not confirm to the Policy Guidelines of the Ministry on Electricity Industry as decided by the Cabinet in March 2019 which had specified a target of 50% as share of renewable energy (RE) sources to be achieved by 2030 and also saying that it did not include the externality costs.

In response, the CEB has revised its LTGE Plan and resubmitted it to the PUCSL in March 2020. (See https://www.pucsl.gov.lk/lcltgep-2020-2039/). However, the revised plan too has a RE share of only 35% as in the original draft and it has not been adjusted to achieve a target of 50% of RE by 2030, though requested by the PUCSL. By its letter dated 28.05.2020, the PUCSL has reiterated that the CEB Plan be revised to achieve the requisite target of 50% of RE share by 2030. However, with the President giving specific directions recently to generate 70% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030, there is an urgent need for the Policy Guideline document to be amended through a Cabinet decision to give effect to the President’s new directive. The CEB will then have to revise its LTGE Plan to comply with this policy.

 

BUILDING THE FIRST GAS POWER PLANT IN SRI LANKA

The Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) was reported in the weekly Sunday Morning of 18 October 2020 as having said that the power purchase agreement (PPA) for the 300 MW combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plant to be built at Kerawalapitiya selected after calling for tenders in 2016 would be signed once the Cabinet approval is received for it. (http://www.themorning.lk/300-mw-kerawalapitiya-lng-plant-ceb-awaits-cabinet-nod/). Though the CEB Chairman has said that approval of the Cabinet has been sought for the PPA to be entered into with the supplier of the CCGT power plant, according to the Sri Lanka Electricity Act No. 31 of 2013, once the project is approved by the Cabinet, the PPA needs the approval of the PUCSL only.

It may be noted that the CEB invited proposals through a 500-page Requests for Proposals (RFP) for this power plant in November 2016. However, the decision on the award of the tender took more than 3 years for reasons described in detail by the writer in several of his previous articles published in the Island including the one that appeared on 19.08.2019. The writer pointed out that the CEB should be held responsible for delaying this project.

The writer understands that the award of the tender to the local tenderer, Lakdhanavi Ltd, who had submitted the lowest tender was approved by the Cabinet last December. Further, soon after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office, he has instructed the award be made to this tenderer. It is therefore surprising that the CEB is seeking the approval of the Cabinet again for the project and in addition is seeking the approval of the AG’s Department for the PPA, which are not necessary according to the provisions in the Electricity Act.

According to a report appearing in the Sunday Times of 25.10.2020, the matter has run into a controversy as the AG’s Dept. has not granted its approval for the PPA. Apparently, some changes have been proposed by the tenderer whereas the RFP has not made provisions to make such changes after the bids are closed. Nevertheless, the CEB as well as the Ministry are in agreement to the changes and want to proceed with the signing of the PPA.

The report says that the Minister will submit a Cabinet Paper seeking its approval to authorize the CEB to sign the PPA with Lakdhanavi at the agreed levelized tariff and issue a letter of intent to build the power plant. (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/201025/news/power-plant-ministry-ignores-ags-advice-seeks-go-ahead-from-cabinet-421184.html). If the RFP did not have provision to make any changes after the bids are closed, it is a lapse on the part of the person who drafted the RFP and should have been rectified at the beginning and not brought up nearly 4 years later and cause further delay.

 

CEB’S IMMEDIATE PLANS FOR POWER SECTOR DEVELOPMENT

In the CEB Chairman’s statement given to the press, he has also given the following list of additional major thermal power plants planned to be built within the decade.

A 300 MW CCGT power plant operating with gas to be built by a local contractor

A 300 MW CCGT power plant operating with gas to be built jointly with India and Japan with financial support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as a joint venture with CEB.

A 600 MW coal power plant as an extension to the existing coal power plant at Puttalam.

According to a report appearing in the Island of 26.10.2020, the CEB Chairman has stated that “the government would go ahead with the fourth power plant at the Norochcholai, as soon as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was completed. He has further said that the Cabinet had already endorsed the plant’s fourth unit although the AG’s Department and the PUCSL were still studying the proposal. (https://island.lk/govt-to-go-ahead-with-fourth-coal-plant-at-norochcholai-once-eia-is-ready/).

In the writer’s above article, he pointed out that in order to achieve a target of high RE share in the energy mix for power generation, all the existing and proposed coal power plants and diesel operated generators will have to be removed and correspondingly increase the share of RE sources such as solar, wind and biomass power plants. In the President’s vision for clean energy, coal has no place, which unfortunately the utility has still not understood.

The meeting that the President had with the Power Ministry and Renewable Energy Ministry on the 14th October would have been attended by the CEB Chairman. Hence, he would have been aware of the President’s directive when he made his statement to the press last week proposing to build new coal power plants. In any case, the President announced his policy to give high priority for RE sources in his manifesto. It appears that the CEB is not keen in meeting the President’s target of achieving 70% share of power generation from renewable resources since it is planning to build more coal power plants which will make it impossible to achieve the President’s target.

 

BRINGING LIQUEFIED NATURAL GAS (LNG) FOR THE NEW POWER PLANTS

The new CCGT power plant is required to operate with natural gas once it is available and until such time, it is permitted to operate with petroleum oil – fuel oil or diesel oil. In order to realize the President’s vision to have the existing CCGT plants converted to gas and to operate new CCGT plants to be built soon, it is necessary to have LNG available in the country by the time these power plants are built. However, the importing of LNG for operating the power plant has been a problem because there are no suitable locations to build a land terminal on the West coast close to Colombo and even mooring a floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU) off the West coast has been a problem.

 

But acquiring and operating a land terminal or a FSRU are complex affairs and under the current situation, the country lacks the necessary expertise to venture into such an exercise. Realizing this, India, Japan and South Korea offered assistance in this regard, but authorities here are somewhat reluctant to accept such assistance. As described previously, even the selection of a CCGT power plant on BOOT basis and signing its PPA could not be accomplished by our professionals even after a lapse of nearly four years despite the fact that several CCGT power plants are in operation in the country and CEB has entered into PPAs with hundreds of independent power producers in the past. Therefore, one cannot imagine how long our professionals would take to finalize a PPA for a hitherto unknown operation of a FSRU or an LNG land terminal.

There are several other options available for bringing LNG into the country. One is to use a mini-terminal at Dikkowita adjoining its fisheries harbour for which the Cabinet approval has already been granted. LNG is brought to the terminal in small shallow carriers which could be accommodated in Dikkowita terminal. After re-gasification, the gas could be taken to the power plant site using pipelines. The writer understands that Its commencement is awaiting the approval of the relevant regulatory authorities. It appears that there is no one in authority willing to take a decision on this matter.

Another option available is to make use of insulated standard containers conforming to specifications of International Standard Organization (ISO). These containers could be used both for transport and storage until the gas is used in the power plant. Once a container is brought to the Port in a standard container carrier, it is unloaded on to a trailer drawn by a prime mover and taken to a yard close to the power plant site. As and when required, a container is moved to a platform built close to the power plant and LNG is fed to a re-gasifier with storage from which the gas is fed to the power plant. There is no additional infrastructure required to import these containers other than what is already available within the Port. The only requirement is that it needs the clearance from the Ministry of Energy, Ports Authority, Motor Traffic Dept. and the Central Environmental Authority.

A third option is to negotiate with China who is building an LNG terminal within Hambantota Harbour to feed its 400 MW CCGT gas power plant currently being built there to supply power to industries in the Chinese Industrial Estate planned in Hambantota. If the capacity of this terminal is increased, the additional gas could be brought to the city in a pipeline laid along the highway reservation for operating the gas power plants planned near the city. In addition, the government should be able to provide a bunkering service to LNG operated vessels passing Hambantota for which Singapore is already building the necessary infrastructure.

A fourth option is to develop Trincomalee Harbour as a hub for natural gas distribution. LNG could be brought in large carriers to Trincomalee Harbour which has the ideal depth and area to build a large land terminal. Once re-gasified, gas could be stored and brought to the city and other load centres through pipe lines. Surplus gas could be supplied to South India who has been negotiating for decades to bring gas from suppliers in the region including Myanmar, Turkmenistan and Iran. Sri Lanka need not spend any capital on the project other than providing the land and regulatory mechanism while building the actual facility could be assigned to an investor with good track record.

 

CONCLUSION

With the President announcing his new policy on incorporation of 70% of power generation from renewable resources, the Ministry Policy Guidelines on Electricity Industry needs amendment through a Cabinet decision to give effect to this policy decision. Further, the CEB will have to revise its long-term generation expansion plan to align with this policy as its current plans only yield a RE share of only 35%.

Achieving a 70% target of renewable energy share in power generation by 2030 is feasible both technically and financially as pointed out by the writer in his recent articles which appeared in the Island of 25th and 26th September. However, the question is whether the CEB is willing to give up coal enabling it to meet the President’s target.

There are several options available for bringing LNG to the country to make achieving this target feasible. However, a suitable regulatory mechanism needs to be put in place before such mechanisms are implemented along with necessary facilities for monitoring of operations and ensuring safety protocols are adhered to following acceptable international procedure including guidelines laid down in international classified societies.

With the President giving the leadership for adopting cleaner technologies for power generation, it is essential that the relevant organizations, particularly the CEB, do their utmost to achieve his targets without giving lame excuses or its engineering staff threatening trade union action to get the President to change his policy as they have done in the past.

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A year into Rajapaksa presidency amidst Covid-19 pandemic

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by Harim Peiris

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

 

 

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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How rot set in

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Rubber:

By Dhamsiri Dasanayaka,

Ex-Advisory Officer, Rubber Research Board

Rubber could be considered bread and butter of bona fide smallholders. They have cultivated their lands with rubber plants and manufacture Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) out of their harvest by using traditional knowledge. The government in order to help them initiated an extension service for cultivating rubber. This article attempts to show how this extension mechanism came about.

In 1972, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) established two extension departments, namely Smallholdings Department (SHD) for rubber smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, both were amalgamated into a separate scientific extension department called Advisory Services Department (ASD). From 1953, under the Rubber Control Act, non-scientific Rubber Control Department (RCD) provided subsidies to rubber farmers. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting and new planting. Copies of these permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out this extension service successfully. They guided the small holders in multiple ways, such as planting, processing, marketting, bark exploitation, and other agricultural activities. This was the rubber extension system that took place during the decade of 1970.

In 1984, Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project 01 (SRRP1) was implemented with World Bank assistance. The Advisory Services Department (ASD), with its flexible financial management system, the well-set theoretical, and practical links with the RRI, functioned effectively to improve the smallholdings sector. Both RRI and ASD were under the Rubber Research Board (RRB) highlighting the “Research- Extension- Farmer” academically recognized agricultural development model, and the SRRP planners decided to entrust this project to the ASD, which consequently became a well-organised active Extension Department like the RRI structure under the (RRB). Chairman of the RRB was a rubber industry professional. RRI and ASD were headed by two PhD qualified Directors. The think tank of the ASD was a scientifically qualified active group competent enough to implement the SRRP project successfully. During this project period, the role of the RCD was to issue permits to rubber farmers.

The Rubber Control Department (RCD), which essentially consisted of administrators, appointed a field staff of rubber Inspectors to handle the extension programme on field. They were too involved in subsidy administration in the field thus duplicating field work of rubber which caused confusion among rubber smallholders according to administrators. To eliminate this farmer confusion from the field, the ASD, which constituted experienced scientific think tank was removed from the RRB in 1994 and attached to RCD think tank, which was mainly an administration body and formed Rubber Development Department (RDD), which was also an administration body. This non-scientific administration think tank (RDD) was not conducive to effective agricultural extension.

By 2002, there were too many irregular segments causing duplication and, hence, excess staff in the RDD were transferred to RRI without having a clear mandate. As a result, 35 extension officers of the RDD who came back to the RRI were entrusted to handle extension programme under the RRI Director. This again led to creation of a dual extension officer situation in the field as in 1994.

At present there are six more institutions formed by the MPI and the relevant authorities to supply services to rubber sector as mentioned below.

As a result, there are four officers from the institutions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the field handling extension and related functions. Now, the rubber farmers are again in a dilemma, unable to figure out which officer should be contacted to get advice on multiple services such as cultivation and processing, etc. Hence, it is questionable why the MPI and relevant authorities have ignored this multiple officer situation. This is in spite of a number of institutions dealing with rubber cultivation and wasting rubber growers cess fund meaninglessly.

 

Source: Rubber Development Department

Table 1 and articles authored by Mr. J. A. A. S. Ranasingha, Dr. L. M. K Tilakaratna and Professor. C. S. Weeraratna, in The Isalnd during the last few weeks indicate that the rubber production in the country has decreased substantially. Table 2 shows the production and imports of RSS in the year 2017. This implies that RSS manufacture should be increased which has a direct link with the smallholder production of RSS. RSS is an input to rubber industry. To improve the productivity of the rubber sector, which is on its way to extinction, there is a pressing need for an effective scientific rubber extension organisation to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. This will enable agronomically qualified think tank to assist rubber farmers to carry out agronomical activities such as outdoor farmer training , indoor training at Nivthigala Kelle, adaptive research activities, planting practices, soil conservation measures, establishing cover crops, fertilizer application, exploitation methodologies, manufacture of better quality rubber sheets, nursery management, smoke houses management, fixing rain guards and marketing, etc., more effectively like in 1994 and before.

One crucial factor which can be attributed to this calamitous situation in the rubber sector was the extremely unsatisfactory situation in the scientific extension, created by the amalgamation of the ASD and the RCD in 1994, removing the extension-oriented ASD think tank from RRB and forming the RDD administration think tank for the sake of development of the rubber sector. This action led to a breakdown of the well-established “Research – Extension – Farmer” inter faced academic development model. This model is a must in agricultural development and it must never be converted to a “Research – Administration – Farmer” model even though the extension label is affixed to the administrators. As a whole it was counter-productive as evident from the decreased production of rubber and increased imports of RSS due to the extension mechanism.

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Quadriplegic doctor aspires to walk again

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Dr. Dinesh Palipana Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021

By Sajitha Prematunge

Dr. Dinesh Palipana does not have the full command of his fingers and his usual offer of a handshake took the form of an awkwardly extended fist. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like a good sport, fist bumped the quadriplegic doctor, gangster-like, an act of empathy Palipana appreciates to this day. Such are the trials and tribulations Sri Lankan-born Australian doctor, lawyer and disability advocate, Dinesh Palipana is faced with, on a daily basis. But such technicalities didn’t prevent him from recently being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021.

The quadriplegic doctor, the first of its kind in Queensland, and the second in Australia, is currently a lecturer at the School of Medicine, Griffith University; Adjunct Research Fellow at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Senior House Officer (Emergency Department) at Gold Coast University Hospital. “Eleven years ago I was lying on an intensive care bed, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, I couldn’t eat or breathe. My life was falling apart all around me. But to be here after all that trauma seams surreal. But I am grateful for life, for my community, friends and family that supported me,” said Dr. Palipana.

He is a founding member of Doctors with Disabilities Australia, an advocacy group for physicians with disabilities and the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia. Palipana is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. In 2019 Palipana was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine; Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital; Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, a global award in recognition for his work in disability advocacy; and ‘Change Making’ in National Awards for Disability Leadership. All these accolades and achievements would have been impossible without the love and support of his mother, Chithrani Palipana. “My mother taught me what love, strength, commitment and perseverance are.”

 

Tragedy

Born in 1984, Palipana and his family migrated to Australia in 1994, when he was 10. Not only physical disability, Palipana knows only too well how debilitating mental health disorders are as well. He battled with depression, anxiety and panic disorder while studying law. “It took some time. I had to readjust my life and thinking. Finding my purpose really helped.” He realized that law was not his calling. He commenced his Doctor of Medicine at the Griffith University in 2008. When he was 25 and half way through his medical degree, he lost control of his car while driving home on a wet night. The car aquaplaned and rolled. When it finally stopped, he realized that he could not move or feel his legs. Palipana was far enough in his medical education to self diagnose it as a spinal cord injury. It left him quadriplegic.

He lost all sensory and motor function below his chest due to the injury. “I can’t move my fingers,” said Palipana. He has had to make a lot of adjustments to life. “Initially, going from a normal life to being paralysed, was very challenging.” Palipana pointed out that even day-to-day activities can be difficult with impaired movement. Despite a life-changing disability, Palipana decided to go back to medical school. Against all odds he graduated in 2016, with quite a few awards, as the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the state of Queensland, the second in Australia. He also completed a medical clerkship at Harvard Medical School.

Prof Harry McConnell of Griffith University was instrumental in getting Dinesh back on his feet, no pun intended. “He is a passionate believer in inclusivity and has always fought for the rights of those with different abilities. He did a lot of work to facilitate me coming back to medical school. He also helped me a lot with getting my life back together.” Palipana was inspired by Dr Harry Eeman, Australia’s first doctor with tetraplegia, who sustained a severe form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that left him paralysed, halfway through medical school. “Dr. Eeman spent time with me to figure out solutions to some of the physical challenges. His experience really laid the foundation for my journey.”

 

Medical school

Palipana adapted new methods to train as a quadriplegic doctor, in partnership with Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital. Quadriplegia can turn everyday activities into obstacles, but he learned his way around them. “Before coming back to medical school I spent a lot of time finding solutions to challenges. I had a great team helping me.” And with persistence, he learned how to hold a stethoscope making use of the natural grip of his fingers. He learned how to examine patients. “I even learned how to insert a cannula with some assistance.”

When asked how inclusive Australian professional culture is, in terms of employment opportunities for the differently-abled, as opposed to a country like Sri Lanka, Palipana admitted that it initially proved difficult to secure an internship in medicine in Australia. Despite two years in clinical training as a medical student at the Gold Coast University Hospital, Palipana had trouble securing an internship. In 2016, he was the only Queensland medical graduate without an employment offer. “I worked really hard in medical school and got good grades. It was very frustrating that non of those things mattered.”

Palipana admitted that medicine is not the most inclusive profession, but said it has improved much in the past five years. Although he explored the possibility of pursuing a medical degree in a Sri Lankan University, Palipana said that most university administrations were reluctant to accommodate him, “Except for Kelaniya University. Other universities have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.” As a quadriplegic doctor working in Australian, Palipana said that shortcomings of accessibility are not restricted to Sri Lanka. “Accessibility needs a lot of work globally.”

His perseverance paid off. He was eventually employed by the Gold Coast University Hospital as Queensland’s first quadriplegic intern. His disability makes him no less capable as a doctor compared to an able-bodies person. Gold Coast Health, Emergency Medicine Director, Associate Professor David Green, speaking to the Today Show Australia, vouched for Palipana’s ability to pull his weight, albeit on a wheelchair. “In a big, busy emergency with a lot of staff, his value is enormous…After a while you just forget about his disability,” said Green on the Today Show. Dinesh said that the team spirit gets him through. “Besides, there are plenty of patients, I can examine, who do not require me to perform any procedure.”

When asked whether his disability has made him more empathetic towards his patients and whether the accident and subsequent hospitalization made him more able to relate to his patients, Palipana said he remembers what it felt like to be a patient. “It can be disempowering and terrifying. Anchoring myself in my own experiences helps me to remember what it’s like being a patient.” On the other hand Dinesh said that he has never had a patient react negatively to him. “Every single patient has been amazing. I am privileged to be a part of their journey towards recovery.”

Cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injuries has a major research appeal for Palipana, who is determined to walk again. As Griffith University’s Biospine Project co-lead, Palipana explained that thought-controlled rehabilitation involves translating thought patterns into movement. “For example, if someone’s thinking of walking, we can translate that thought to movement by electrically stimulating the leg.” Promising results suggest that it can re-programme the spinal cord to restore some function in people with paralysis. “Therapies such as thought-controlled rehabilitation, drug therapy and digital twins have separately shown to restore some function in people with chronic paralysis. It is our hope that people like me will be able to stand on their own power again.” His ultimate goal is to come up with a therapy for spinal cord injury.

 

Advocacy

After recuperating at hospital for eight months, Palipana came back to Sri Lanka, where he spent another year, recovering in the company of family and friends. While in Sri Lanka he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury victims. In fact, his disability was a catalyst to his advocacy for training medical students with disabilities in Australia. “I’m lucky to be in a position to advocate for people with different abilities,” said Palipana.

Palipana obtained his law degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007 and was admitted as a lawyer in 2020. His background in law gave new impetus for his advocacy work on inclusivity in medical profession and education in Australia. “Law is a great tool that can be used to do a lot of good. It allows us to navigate legal and social structures.” His advocacy work with the Australian Medical Association has paved the way for national policies on inclusivity in medical education and employment. He used his story to demonstrate how the community can work with disability, to overturn a set of guidelines issued by the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand in 2015, vesting Australian medical schools with the power to exclude students with a range of disabilities. “Another major obstacle faced by students with disabilities was the attitudes of education establishments such as universities and academics.” Palipana said that Griffith University was an exception.

Palipana is also vocal about disability rights in the times of COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the inequities that differently-abled people face. Everything from healthcare access to employment has been an issue,” said Palipana. When health resources are scarce, some would argue that they are better utilized on those with a higher chance of survival. When governments of the developed world are forced to consider how to ration ventilators between people with disabilities and those without, how has COVID-19 affected those with disabilities?

If one with lungs as compromised as those of Palipana’s, were to contract COVID-19, the prognosis would indeed be bleak. Palipana explained that people with disabilities, depending on the disability, can be at high risk of increased complications due to COVID-19. “Many disabilities affect lung function. My lungs for example, don’t function as well, because of the spinal cord injury. It’s 30 percent of what it should be. If I were to get COVID-19 or even the flu, the chances of an adverse outcome is relatively high. Similarly, people with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims are susceptible,” pointed out Palipana. That should not justify sidelining people with disabilities. Palipana maintained that it is all the more reason to safeguard such vulnerable groups. “Through different forums and organisations, I am fortunate to be able to make a contribution in this important area.”

His message to people with debilitating disabilities and illnesses, who may be contemplating giving up on life is, “As a good friend once said, life is about ups and downs. Whenever there is an up, just know that there will be a down. Things can get challenging, but anyone can overcome them and live their dream, if they have the will. If I can become a doctor and lawyer others can too. Just find your passion and chase it.”

Going from being unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator, to advocating for disabled people and developing medical aid, real life success stories such as that of Robin Cavendish, never cease to inspire. Dinesh Palipana who proved his mettle by doggedly pursuing a career in medicine, while advocating for disability rights is, without a doubt, of that same calibre and hopefully will inspire multitudes more to achieve similarly extraordinary aspirations.

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