It was intriguing. This was a story I read off the web under the above headline (I am borrowing it for today’s commentary), which said while the government was giving tablets to schoolchildren, there were still schools without latrines/toilets or proper drinking water facilities! I was drawn to these statistics by a comment from Kussi [...]

Business Times

“More tabs, no lats”


It was intriguing. This was a story I read off the web under the above headline (I am borrowing it for today’s commentary), which said while the government was giving tablets to schoolchildren, there were still schools without latrines/toilets or proper drinking water facilities!

I was drawn to these statistics by a comment from Kussi Amma Sera a few weeks back. Sitting with her friends – Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina in their usual spot under the Margosa tree on a bright and sunny morning, feeling the rays of the sun through the leaves on their skin – she said: “Ape gam paththe pasalvala vasikili pahasukam nehe (There are no proper toilet facilities in schools in our village area).”

Continuing, she said: “Niyangaya nisa me prashne thavath vedi wela (This has got worse because of the drought).”

“Me vesikili prashne samahara pasalvalata loku karadarayak (The lack of toilets is a huge problem for some schools),” interjected Mabel Rasthiyadu.

As I was reflecting on these comments, the phone rang. It was my new-found friend ‘Cardboard’ Sando on the line. ‘Cardboard’ is not your usual ‘all brawn and no brain’ personality. While being muscular, he is also intelligent and witty.

“Heloo ..,” he said, giving his usual greeting. “This heat wave is killing and sweaty,” he said. “Absolutely,” I replied.

“I wonder how villages without proper drinking water and schools without proper drinking water facilities and toilets are managing these days,” he said, getting into a long discussion about proper facilities in schools.

Getting back to the “no lats, more tabs” conversation, my argument is that the government should be examining the urgent needs of schools and then prioritise these needs, school by school or province by province. For example, in some schools the dire need for proper water and toilet facilities would be far greater than providing tablet computers to Advanced Level students.

Under the tablets-for-schools programme, some 175,000 AL students and 28,000 teachers were to receive tablet computers in 2017 for which Rs. 5 billion was allocated. The programme, however, stalled after complaints that there were more pressing needs in schools. In June this year, the Cabinet again approved this programme which is now underway.

To put it into some perspective and the need to prioritise, let’s look at some data of students, teachers and schools. According to the Ministry of Education’s latest statistics, there are four million students in 10,194 schools across Sri Lanka. There are 558 schools with Sinhala and English mediums and 47 schools with all three languages (including Tamil). Data shows that 14.6 per cent of schools have less than 50 students and half of the schools in the country have less than 200 students.

There are 5,643 schools with computer facilities and 4,551 schools (45 per cent) without computers (Shouldn’t the government equip these schools with computers before moving on to providing tablets?).

Data also indicate that 40 per cent of the schools have well water, while 35 per cent have pipe-borne water and 16 per cent don’t have any water supply, whatsoever (Again … tablets versus basic needs of schools). Without proper water, sanitation is also a problem.

The Uva Province has the highest percentage (26 per cent) of schools without water, followed by North Western (25 per cent) and Central (23 per cent). However, according to the Ministry of Education, a large percentage of schools have adequate water and sanitation but how accurate this information is remains to be seen or whether these facilities are adequate or not. Also there is no clear information as to how many separate latrines/toilets are there for girls and boys in mixed schools.

While according to a 2013 study, more than one million children (25 per cent of the total number of students) didn’t have access to basic sanitation, it appears that there is some improvement in this area under the current data. Yet it’s still hard to believe that Sri Lanka has reached a level where all schools have adequate water and sanitation facilities.

There is no argument that schools have to be equipped with the most modern facilities which will arm students with the tools of the 21st century and as the world progresses towards the fourth industrial revolution. Across the world, modern societies are equipping their citizens, starting with schoolchildren, with the knowledge, skills and expertise required to meet future economic and development needs.

Thus, despite a reasonable reach of schools with water and sanitation facilities, the coverage should be 100 per cent before we move to the next level – tablets and other modern equipment. Often rural schools get the short end of the stick in the provision of basic amenities (basic – in today’s context – means computers and other technological equipment, not forgetting sanitation).

Often the problem in Sri Lanka is that needs and aspirations of communities are governed by a Colombo-centric view – looking at a bigger picture by providing facilities to urban schools, while rural schools get them last.

Often when NGO and corporates walk into villages to assess needs for community development, they will decide what has to be done without allowing a village to decide on their urgent needs.

The same applies to school authorities where it’s a top-to-bottom approach. This means looking at equipment needs for 21st century development (technology labs, computers and other modern paraphernalia) without dealing with the basic needs particularly in rural schools. One of the reasons why everyone clamours to go to the ‘best’ schools in Colombo is because they are equipped with all the best facilities while others are not.

If you take the schools, villagers might ask for teachers – with urban-level standards – proper school buildings, desks and chairs and proper water and toilets, than tablets or other modern equipment, for instance. Some children don’t even have proper uniforms or shoes and socks or even slippers due to poverty.

This at a time when Sri Lanka has moved up the middle income bracket to be categorised by the World Bank as an upper middle income country with a per capita income of US$ 4,073 (Rs. 715,553). While per capita is said to be the best measurement of a country’s standard of living and how prosperous it is, it’s hard to believe that on average people earn more than $4000 per annum. Anyway, let’s leave that discussion for another day.

As I wind up my column, I could see Kussi Amma Sera waving goodbye to her ‘amba yahaluwo’ (mango friends) and saying, “Mama balaporoththu wenava apey gamwalata wessa ei kiyala (I hope we get some rain in our village).” On my part, my wish-list is about the authorities ensuring all schools have proper water and sanitation while at the same time providing tablets to them.

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