Gammanpila’s take on school uniform material vouchers
Posted on December 19th, 2015

by Shivanthi Ranasinghe Courtesy Island

Giving vouchers in place of school uniform material has stirred a hornet’s nest! Parents, teachers and principals are all protesting. Their main grouse is this hassles and harasses everyone. Some even allege that this a sinister plot to slowly phase out free uniforms altogether.

Some others rightly point out that not everyone needs this assistance. Thus, this will help the government to identify the exact numbers needing the assistance and provide accordingly.

Opposition MP Udaya Gammanpila traces the sequence of events that led the government to decide on vouchers instead of cloth and highlights a very big question mark.

Opposition MP Udaya Gammanpila

“President Premadasa, in 1991, introduced free uniforms for schoolchildren,” he explains, “to stop children giving up schooling because they did not have proper clothes to wear. But for the 2002 UNP government it was a cumbersome exercise – from calling for quotations to distribution. Then also, they introduced a money voucher that reflected market prices to buy uniform material.

“This created many problems for parents. Vouchers can be cashed only in a State bank on a working day. So parents, especially from rural areas, had to sacrifice a half or full day to get the money. This especially affected daily-wage earners and the self-employed. For a Rs. 225/* voucher, they had to sacrifice a whole day’s earnings. So, the very people who needed this most were the ones who couldn’t use it.”

This same complaint is heard this time as well. A parent speaking to a Sinhala newspaper was quoted saying, “to get this Rs. 400/* voucher and then the material we have to spend two days away from work. To get this we lose Rs. 2,000 – two day’s wages!”

“Government had learnt from their previous experience,” says Gammanpila. “Last time, when parents received money, some mothers remembered urgent household expenses and some fathers felt the urge for a drink or a bet.”

This time, parents take vouchers directly to the merchant, who then takes it to the bank to cash it. They too, as the news reports have it, had few teething problems. Different banks accept different schools’ vouchers. Thus he must have an account with the right bank to complete his business.

“Quality,” continues Gammanpila, “was the other problem last time. Some merchants, targeting these voucher value, even raised the price of low quality material that’s uncomfortable to wear, easily discolors or tears.”

This time also, as widely reported, parents are unhappy about the quality of the material on offer. They insist on better quality material that costs more, and feel cheated when asked to pay the price difference.

Comparing previous and current governments’ systems, parents say the previous system’s distribution method was much friendlier, but the quality of material provided was low.

“There’s a reason,” explains Gammanpila. “Within a year, Ranil Wickremesinghe had to revert to distributing cloth. This continued until Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR).

“In 2006, instead of uniform material, gray cloth was imported and local enterprises dyed it in colors needed for uniforms. This was the first step to domestic production. This created new jobs, and also saved us nearly a billion rupees in foreign currency.

“In 2007, the government imported thread and local textile industries produced the cloth. That year 10% of the total requirement was thus met and the balance 90% was met by importing gray cloth.

“By 2013 our manufacturers met 100% of the requirement. From the cost, 60% was retained in Sri Lanka (SL) and only 40% went on imported inputs. In 2014, of Rs. 1,800 million worth of uniform material, Rs. 1,100 million was retained in SL. This also created jobs for over 3,000 people.”

By reverting to the voucher system, the government has antagonized teachers and parents while destroying an emerging local industry, Gammanpila said.

For principals and teachers, this has become a Herculean task. The principal and a teacher must sign each and every voucher. These in turn must be signed by the parent in the presence of the class teacher. Then the school must prepare a number of summary reports. One news feature pointed out that of 10,000 odd schools in SL, 2,300 have over 500 students. With the end of term activities, preparation for O/L exams and other holiday programs, schools are not amused with this major task of attending to each and every student’s uniform material voucher.

What upsets parents more than the time it costs them is making do with poor quality cloth when better quality material is available in the shops they go to exchange their vouchers for the cloth. The better quality material is not covered by the voucher. When the material was sent home under the old order, they may have been unhappy with the quality, but were not tantalized by the sight of better material. Now, when they visit the merchant, better quality material not covered by the voucher taunts them.

Sri Lankans, taking the expression, ‘children of Mother Lanka’ literally, expect the government to provide them with better quality right to their doorstep. The fact that they still can opt for the better material by forking Rs. 80 – 100 is lost on them. One reason this government got voted in was because the previous government was alleged to be spending too much, drowning the country in debt.

SL’s plight is the voter having cast his/her vote considers duty done. Having given the mandate to govern, he expects the government to balance its accounts without disturbing his comforts or privileges. The government is however unable to do so as the IMF refused to grant the same facilities to this government it did MR’s government in 2009. In fact, two IMF delegations visited SL this year and recommended some belt tightening. That is exactly what this government is trying to do. After all, their mandate from the people is to reduce the national debt.

However, earlier it took about two teachers in one vehicle to collect the material, bring it to school and distribute. Now parents who need these vouchers must not only often lose two workdays, but also travel to and fro to get it done. From both an economic and an political front, this is not a smart move.

The government could have saved a lot of trouble by directly asking parents whether they need the material or not. Accordingly, material could have been distributed among only those who requested it via the old system – saving everyone’s time, the domestic textile industry and the country’s money.

The reason for the voucher system is to curb the alleged corruption associated with the material distribution states the Education Minister. A news report alleged that from 1992 to 2002, 500,000 meters of material received free from China each year had gone unaccounted for; and in 2002 as many as 575,872 cloth parcels have disappeared from the Education Ministry. In addition, numerous misappropriations have allegedly occurred when procuring the material, including a Rs. 20/* per meter commission.

Having also received a mandate to eradicate corruption from a country where parents misappropriate their own child’s uniform money, should the government be lambasted as much for the voucher system?

Tracing the sequence of events that led the government to reintroduce the voucher system, Gammanpila questions the real motive for the government to revert to a failed system.

“During MR’s administration, every January the government called for prices from domestic textile producers,” he says. “Each would advice the government their prices and quantity they can supply. Then a government inspector checks if the quality is acceptable and if the organization has the capacity to deliver as promised. Then a committee would place orders accordingly.

“This January, calling for prices was postponed to May 25. Also, what was exclusively a domestic enterprise was opened for foreign participation as well. This was totally against MR administration’s policy of purchasing only domestic products, even though it was 20% more expensive than the imported material.

“But on June 15, to make this more competitive, that 20% margin for local producers was removed. Accordingly, 24 companies forwarded tenders. Salu Sala, representing a Chinese mill, offered the cheapest price of Rs. 120/* per meter – Rs. 20/* less than local manufacturers’ price. The tender was awarded to the Chinese. However, the technical committee rejected the Chinese fabric as the quality was unacceptable. Then the tender should be awarded to the local producers – the next lowest in line, but the Education Ministry was reluctant.

“On November 3, the local producers brought this to the PM’s attention. There they were told that the Education Ministry’s decision was against the government’s policy of encouraging local manufacturers. It was finalized then to procure 60% of the total requirement, that’s 60 million meters, at Rs. 135/* per meter from local producers and import the balance.

“But on November 11, media reported that instead of material, students are to be given a voucher!”

Gammanpila questions what happened between November 3 and 11. Did the PM deliberately mislead the local producers or was he compelled to do so? Was it the same entity that influenced the Education Minister to include foreign participation and destroy a local enterprise with over 3,000 jobs that saved the country a billion rupees in foreign exchange?

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