It is a ‘war of attrition’, this ongoing battle between the teachers’ unions and the Government, each trying to wear the other down. The unions have long campaigned for a salary raise with little success. They lacked the muscle, and more importantly, public sympathy for their cause. Like with the doctors, teachers going on strike [...]


Back to school, a strike and lessons to be learnt


It is a ‘war of attrition’, this ongoing battle between the teachers’ unions and the Government, each trying to wear the other down.

The unions have long campaigned for a salary raise with little success. They lacked the muscle, and more importantly, public sympathy for their cause. Like with the doctors, teachers going on strike is not particularly popular with the larger public. For one, they both use the public as the bait for their demands, and for another, the public know about their private practices (with exceptions), that cushions them from any pecuniary difficulties as such. When they stop work, especially for prolonged periods, they put the present and future generations respectively in peril.

However, the Government miscalculated the teachers’ agitation this time. It tried to push through a controversial bill giving the Defence University special status smack in the early days of the teachers’ strike campaign and that miscalculation drew the ire of other unions expanding the teachers’ support base exponentially. The Government rolled back the bill and is playing for time knowing that the longer they drag this protracted battle, the better the chances that the public will turn against the unions. The unions think otherwise. With schools reopening next week they plan to rope in the parents of the country’s four million students to their cause in November.

Not all teachers are so badly off, as the unions make it out to be. The private tuition culture has long prevailed and classes mushrooming throughout the country have turned into an industry, with some teachers advertising themselves on television and driving around in SUVs. The lockdowns and strikes have seen many teachers not only take their government salaries while on strike, but also make some pocket money by giving private classes, both in the big cities and in the provinces. They know parents or guardians will not only cough up the tuition fees, however difficult the cost of living is these days, but be forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their children’s teachers for good measure.

With schools to reopen tomorrow notwithstanding the union demands continuing, the other concern is the COVID-19 factor which some sections of the public unfortunately think is history. The evidence is clear; being out of education for long periods causes significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, mental and physical health.

Yet, unlike in some other countries that reopened schools earlier than Sri Lanka, has the Education Ministry put out an Operational Guidance Manual of what to do, and what not to do while the pandemic continues to linger? How students who use public or dedicated transport must wear masks even if they need not do so in the classrooms; about giving the principal the discretion to keep infected children away from school; about contingency plans or outbreak management plans in consultation with the Public Health Inspectors in the event of an outbreak of positive cases among staff and students; how to break the chain of transmission (as authorities still try to figure out the danger of children taking the virus to elders at home), among a host of such guidelines.

Instead, what seems on the cards is some kind of committee and a motivation plan by psychologists to uplift morale. That’s perfectly in order, but what happens in case of an emergency? The country enters a dangerous if unavoidable and inevitable phase with the reopening of the economy, public services, and now schools. The health sector is on pins that the gains from the recent lockdown will be defeated if the country does not remain on full alert.

A Referendum on PCs

Elections: The magic word to distract the country from burning issues like the skyrocketing cost of living, fertiliser crisis, dollar shortage — and COVID 19.

The Government has floated the idea of elections to the defunct provincial councils. Coincidentally or otherwise, word came from the Finance Minister and at the back of a visit by the Indian Foreign Secretary who pressed for the “complete implementation” of the Indian mantra for
Sri Lanka — the 13th Amendment on power sharing.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made it clear he does not go along with the Indian call in its entirety. In the controversial 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement, 13A was Sri Lanka’s part of the deal. India’s was to disarm the LTTE, which it failed to do. So, what is left for India to do in the agreement?

Sri Lanka’s provincial councils have been a ‘white elephant’ draining financial resources and duplicating administration. It has served neither man nor beast, only benefited the elected councillors and their henchmen. Political parties that so vociferously opposed to the agreement in 1987 now want elections because they see the system as a vehicle to peddle their ideologies and garner mass support with public funds.

The forthcoming Budget, according to reports, is preparing to allocate funds to former councillors so that they can do their electioneering with the money. This is the kind of decentralised political power that is in the making. This is probably what 13 Plus was meant to be when the then Government promised India it would go even further than 13A.

The creation of the Northern PC was the root cause for this Indian-brokered system so that it could have a foothold in the North of Sri Lanka through a puppet provincial administration — a quasi state of the Union. It never functioned for the benefit of its local population, but paid obeisance to India while serving the vested interests of the Diaspora — considering the number of resolutions it passed aimed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

This week, northern fishermen went in a flotilla of vessels protesting against Indian fishermen poaching in their waters blaming their representatives for being deaf, dumb and blind to their problems, which has forced some politicians to jump on the boats and show solidarity with their voters.

Mid-term elections are good for governments as litmus tests, but Sri Lanka now has four tiers of government viz., the Executive Presidency, Parliament, local government councils and provincial councils for a population of 22 million. The elected politician to ordinary citizen ratio is phenomenal. It can easily do without the provincial councils as proven this past two years with no one missing them.

If it is an election they want, it should be a Referendum whether the people want Provincial Councils.


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