Condemend class

The din is unbearable, the drumming in the ears continuous. The sound of shrill voices rises from the ground, hits the takarang (tin) roof and echoes back. Add to that the rising heat, even at 9 in the morning, making rivulets of perspiration run down the face and body, soaking the clothes.
This is a dilapidated and decrepit tea warehouse. No, not among the beautiful teascapes of the hill country, but right here in Colombo, in bustling Dematagoda to be more precise, adjoining Wanathamulla. There is also no tea stored there.

Now it is packed with boys of different sizes and ages suffering through the day, for five days a week, in a slum- school under the very noses of not only the education authorities but also rights activists who have woken up to the fact that most schools in the north and east lack facilities but ignore the pathetic reality faced by students all over the country including the metropolis of Colombo.

The warehouse turned school is part of Veluwana Maha Vidyalaya, an important 1AB school in Colombo with about 2,800 students on the roll. After the main National Schools, importance-wise, come the 1AB schools of which there are only 500 in the whole country, among the 10,000 schools.

The jarring ring of the bell announces the end of one period and the beginning of another. But do these boys learn or retain anything, amidst the crumbling walls? In despair, some teachers have taken one or two classes out of the building, but there isn't a single large tree to provide shade from the scorching sun. Neither can the wall stop the stench of the mucky and clogged canal running just beyond the boundary or the smell of "burning blood" from the much-maligned abattoir across the canal.

Eighteen classes with about 800 boys ranging from eight to 13 years, struggle through the day in the warehouse, which becomes like a furnace by mid-morning. Walking through, one wonders about sound pollution, because there isn't a moment when the drumming in the ears stops.

"Everyday I leave school with a headache," laments a boy of eight who comes from Wellampitiya, adding, "api thembennawa." (We boil.)

Another complains that as they sit through their lessons, large blobs of rust fall on their heads and books, from the girders holding up the roof. There are no proper windows, only large openings with mesh over them. The building does not have electricity, for according to some parents it had been condemned a while ago. But there is also no place to accommodate all these students.

The children cannot keep anything of value, even simple stuff like posters and paintings because the warehouse becomes the haunt of drug addicts and loiterers as the evening shadows lengthen.

A 10-year-old adds that the crows are inveterate pests. "They fly in at random, grab our food and sometimes even settle on our heads. Their raucous cries disturb us most of the time and their droppings land on our heads and bodies."

The rains bring more woes to these students. "Peela dige wature ekathuwela, ethulata galanawa gagak wage," (The water collects in the gutter which runs across the length of the building, and causes massive leaks, leaving the floor like a river) says another boy, while a small one adds that the roof too has holes and water leaks through.

All the desks are rotting or warped because they get wet and then dry up in the heat, says an 11-year-old, while his peers nod their heads vigorously, in agreement.

There is also a dark pall inside the building on rainy days, as there are no lights, making it impossible for the children to read or write anything.

The roof sheeting is often blown away and has to be replaced. Even measures to take away the heat, such as placing cadjans over the roof have not worked, said a mother who was at the gate of the school.

A father chips in that most probably the building was constructed to retain heat and prevent the tea being affected by fungus. "Now the children have to suffer the consequences, because the education authorities are oblivious to their suffering."

Most of the primary school buildings are also in condemnable shape. All the Grade 1 and 2 children are housed in former cattle sheds, which had been the last resting place of the animals brought to be slaughtered at the nearby abattoir.

The teachers seem to have tried to make the most of what they have by brightening up the walls with colourful posters and handwork. But a glance at the outside and one sees the state of the classrooms.

The admission demand for Veluwana Maha Vidyalaya, opened way back in June 1951, can be judged by the fact that each grade has six classes. It has classes from Grade 1 going up to the Advanced Level. To meet the demand, the warehouse had been taken over for the school in 1971. It has served its purpose and the time has now come for the building to be replaced and the children given all opportunity to enjoy their right to education.

With much lip service being paid to the rights of children and how Sri Lanka was one of the first to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is time for the education authorities to wake up from their slumber. The need is to create an environment conducive to study and play, for these hapless children of Veluwana Maha Vidyalaya.

Otherwise their rights will only be on paper and child-friendly schools just an impossible dream for them.

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