HEALTH, EDUCATION AND YAHAPALANA
Posted on July 26th, 2017

KAMALIKA  PIERIS

Sri Lanka has a literate, educated, strong minded public. That is because of its ‘free health  and education’. These two sectors therefore need to be weakened and the country’s spirit broken, if the West is to bring the island under control. In 2014  it was observed,’ If we have this same stability for the next five years then it will be difficult to achieve this, but a weaker Sri Lanka is easy to dominate.    Yahapalana was therefore instructed to hit these two services as fast as possible.

The budget allocation for education was reduced drastically from Rs. 185.98 billion in 2016 to Rs Rs.76.94 billion in 2017.  This was a 58% reduction compared to the previous year, said critics.  The budget has been reduced from 2.7% in 2016 to 2% in 2017. Western Province Council complained that its education allocation for 2017 was cut from Rs 1,092 million to Rs 183 million. Development projects for schools in Gampaha, Kalutara and Colombo have come to a halt. ‘We believe that this had been deliberately done. Finance ministry has not responded to our letters’. Ceylon Teachers Services Union  observed that  instead of strengthening public education, Yahapalana  is encouraging setting up of private institutions.

The Ceylon Teachers Services Union  observed that  Yahapalana  government was trying to scuttle free education.  Circular no 17 of 2016  amended  the previous circular of 2013  and allowed schools to solicit donations from parents when admitting their children to Grade  One. The Union objected to this. Yahapalana  government also issued a circular authorizing the collection of funds from parents. Parents were allowed to make payments for school projects. Parents  now had an additional burden,  finding money for various  school projects.

Over a hundred students studying at Kingwood College, Kandy were barred from sitting for the term test owing to their failure to pay the  full fees for  the school development committee. They were  ordered to stay away from the examination hall.  The  parents  complained and the Kandy Zonal Education Director ordered the principal to allow the affected  students to sit for the term test. The  Director had pointed out that there is no connection between the term test and the non-payment of school development committee fees.

Under President Mahinda  Rajapakse, the  government had    provided  free school uniform material. Yahapalana stopped this and  gave vouchers to purchase material from shops, instead. A press advertisement  showed children in ethnic symbols, pottu and scarf, praising the school uniform voucher system (Sunday Times 13.11.16 p 17).  A school principal who issued material instead of uniform vouchers was interdicted.

Parents, teachers and principals  had  many complaints about this voucher system. Parents complained that the cloth provided by the voucher was not sufficient even for one uniform,  also that  the quality of the material is poor. The better quality available for purchase in the shops is not covered by the  voucher, they  added.

To get this  400 rupee voucher we have to spend two day away from work,  we lose two days wages, they said. In addition the Principal and teacher must sign each voucher. The parent must also sign in the  presence of the class teacher. Then  lists have to be prepared.  Earlier it took just two teachers to bring  the uniform material into the school. Now parents need to lose two workdays and travel to and fro to get it done.

In 2006,  the ‘gray cloth’ used for the uniforms  was imported and local enterprises dyed it,  critics said. This created new jobs and saved us money.  In 2007 government imported thread and the  local textile industries produce the cloth. That year, 10% of the total requirement was  met. By 2013   the local industry met 100% of the requirements.  Only 40% of the cost went on imports. In 2014, 1100 million  of 1800 million worth of uniform material was  from Sri Lanka. This provided jobs for 3000 people, too.  The  Rajapaksa government called for offers from domestic textile producers every January. In  January  2015 however,  this exclusively domestic enterprise was opened to foreign participation.

Yahapalana government has made certain positive changes in the secondary school system. The government  made 13 years of school education compulsory. An E-learning class room programme, ‘Cloud Smart Classroom’, was initiated at Jayawardenapura Kotte Boys School, Pitakotte  as a pilot project.

But several  other changes were opposed. Ceylon Teachers Services Union opposed the creation of additional grade 1 classes in Colombo saying that village  schools will be further neglected. Ministry  decided that printed text books should   be replaced by tablets. These will help teaching. But critics observed that since the number of ‘A level’ students (250,000) exceed that given in the budget (175,000) all pupils will not get free tablets.

The Education Ministry issued plastic Geography text books for Grade Seven. The paper textbooks cannot be used for  more than one year, the plastic books could be used for five years, explained the Ministry.  This was a health hazard announced the GMOA. No, it was not, said the Ministry. The GMOA claims are false and baseless. No complaints have been received by the Ministry except for the GMOA. It was also pointed out  that  the curriculum would have changed  within the five years.

One way of weakening education is by removing good teachers from the good   schools. Teachers serving ten years in the same national school will be transferred, announced Yahapalana . Teachers in leading schools in Kandy and Colombo were  among the first to be transferred.  There  was a mass transfer of teachers from schools in Kandy. The best teachers of Dharmaraja and Mahamaya were transferred out. Dharmaraja and Mahamaya are the two leading Buddhist  schools in Kandy.

Royal College, Colombo was also affected. Royal is the premier government boys school in the country. There was a  major ‘purge’ of senior masters at Royal. Eight members of the senior staff, including two Deputy Principals, two senior Games Masters/Assistant Principals, a Section Head and a senior most teacher at the Primary section  were either transferred or interdicted.

Royal College  principal , who had held office for eleven years was unceremoniously removed,  and various allegations leveled against him. Most of the longstanding teachers have been transferred out for flimsy reasons, said the media. Good teachers who remain are being harassed by a few non-performers, while the authorities look the other way. Teachers are frustrated and de-motivated.

Many of those transferred were teachers  appointed to sit on the admissions panels or assist in finalizing the 2017 Grade 1 entrants. They were reportedly held accountable for being unable to detect the fraudulent documents (i.e. registered deeds, extracts from the Land Registry, lease agreements drawn up by lawyers and voters lists certified by the Elections Commissioner) submitted by some applicants. Other   reasons given for the transfers or removal from important posts were that these teachers had done ten years of service,   that they were obstructing school administration, among other charges.

This purge of senior teachers at Royal raises concerns as to the real reason for the unplanned terminations. These teachers have played a major role in managing this institution and  contributed to the outstanding success of Royal students in the last many years in studies, sports, community projects and other extra-curricular activities, said the media. Changes like this are ‘the catalyst for the slow death of the school.’

It is  a remarkable coincidence that these varied number of reasons all happened in a very short period of time, said the media. The real and eminent danger to Royal College now is that all these vacancies will be filled by powerful people in the ministry with obvious animosity and malice towards Royal, sending unsuitable people to the school for their own purposes and agendas.

The Grade One admission interview panel at Royal,   included a representative of the Royal College Old Boys Union. But  In 2016, the Education Ministry amended the circular  and past pupils were left out of the panel. The Ministry soon reversed the decision due to the public outcry against it. However, Old boys are now opting out of entering their children to Royal due to the prevailing atmosphere and the admissions for 2017 saw a 25 percent drop in the Old Boys category applications from the previous year, noted the media.

School teachers and Principals play an important role in the delivery of education . One way of weakening  the education sector was by harassing them. Yahapalana  is doing this very well. Teachers can no longer have their children admitted to schools close to where they are teaching. Teachers recruited in 2015  were given their letters of appointment  in 2017  with the word ‘pensionable’  missing.

Ceylon Teachers Union threatened to strike if the government did not grant promotions to the   7000  (or    5000 , figure varies) principals in national and provincial schools in keeping with the Principals Service Minute. Principals have not been given their promotions in the last two years. The promotions were due in 2015.

Education Ministry had awarded 3856 appointment letters for those who had passed the competitive exam of recruitment to  Class 3 of the  Principals service. But they have not been given appointments.  Instead Yahapalana appear to be ready to grant appointment to the acting principals instead,  complained  teachers in 2016. These persons  did not even sit the exams.  They are political appointees. The teacher trade unions supporting the government were silent.   A cabinet committee is  studying the issue, but they need more information said Yahapalana. Cabinet had wanted information on the acting principals in schools  from the Provincial directors.

Yahapalana explained the matter in this way. In  2016, the government had, granted promotions to 4,000 Principals following exams, but only 500 of them have been able to assume duties. The rest have not been able to assume duties. There is a dispute with the Provincial Chief Ministers over the acceptance of the  remaining newly promoted 3,500 Principals. The Chief Ministers have refused to accept the promotions and continue to allow Acting Principals to perform the duties. The appointments have already been made and these Principals now cannot return to teaching and therefore, their  time is wasted. We will resort to trade union action if the problem is not resolved,”  said the teachers in July 2017.

Yahapalana government is delaying to pay the salary arrears of principals and teachers. 35,000 teachers working in 350 national schools have not received their salary arrears  due to them on promotion.  Under the  service minute of 2014, national school teachers were due for arrears from July 2008, but government is only going to pay from 2011. This too is being delayed, teachers complained in 2016. The  authorities said that they were still awaiting funds from the Ministry. Payments  are now  done by zonal offices, causing further confusion and delay in payments.  Repeated request are unheeded and  teachers threatened to strike.

Yahapalana has also hit Higher Education. Earlier all students who passed the  ‘A level’ were able to apply for an  external degree without restrictions. Yahapalana government  issued circular  no 13 of 2016 which said  that the number of external students enrolled must not exceed twice   the number enrolled as internal students.  Yahapalana gave the flimsy excuse that all those who pass will then demand jobs. This is incorrect. Most are already employed.   Also only a small proportion of those who register actually complete the degree.

The University Grants Commission  complied with this circular. Now those who registered cannot continue and cannot  recover their money.  The  worst affected are outstation students, said the media.   Some 14,000 who had applied at Kelaniya were affected. Yahapalana excuse was that  Kelaniya was finding it difficult to cope with the numbers.  They should try to enter Open University, said Yahapalana . But  charges for Open University were more than for external degree. Some of those  whose applications for external degree was rejected on the basis of the UGC circular have gone to   Supreme Court  asking that this circular be squashed.

Catholic Bishops Conference has urged government not to reduce the student intake for external degrees.  It is a mistake to distribute the external degree progamme among all universities as  some universities do not  teach all the disciplines, the Bishops said.   Also restriction by district is ‘beyond comprehension.’ Limits placed on external degrees will mostly affect the poor students not the rich.

This circular is a gross harassment to students who aspire to higher studies, the Bishops continued. The government should open up more possibilities for youth to follow external degrees. The freedom for education is something precious that student in Sri Lanka have enjoyed from the time of independence,.  Any move to restrict that will be seen as a grave injustice toward the right to education, which determines the quality of life also the future of the nation. There is enormous wisdom in the long standing traditions of education in Sri Lanka which should not be changed.

Yahapalana has some sunny plans for the Health sector. Hospitals will be grouped into clusters, teaching hospital, general hospital,, provincial, base and peripheral unit. There will be a Family doctor for each     family. He will have data on the health of the family. Each doctor will serve 500 persons. The Health Ministry will make it compulsory for all patients seeking medical treatment at state hospitals to produce their medical reports issued by the Healthy Life Centers (HLC), at present there are 842 Healthy Life Centers countrywide for men and women and another 946 Suwanari centers for women. Sri Lanka will build the world’s first hospital for Thalassemia patients.

In reality Yahapalana  is  squeezing the Health services. Health Ministry  budget allocation was reduced from Rs 175 billion in 2016 to Rs 160 billion in 2017. Capital expenditure  was reduced from Rs 60 billion to Rs 40 billion. There is VAT on health services. This is quite unjustified and unconscionable specially when done to get a few million rupees, said  C.R. de Silva. GMOA   said that abrupt structure changes have been carried out in the health services since 2015 and these will totally destruct the system in five or ten years.

All Ceylon Nurses’ Union looked at  the 2017 budget proposals relating to the health sector and said that the government is gradually moving the health sector towards privatization.  There will be paying wards connected  to the private sector in the state  hospitals. Private medical laboratories  would be allowed to function within hospital premises. These will increase the presence of the private sector in the free health system.

The free health service is  to be phased out and an insurance based service put in place. The Education Ministry   has decided that all school children aged 5-19,     including international school children,   would  be provided with  a free health insurance policy worth Rs 2 lakhs per annum.  This sum will be divided between indoor and outpatient treatment and will be for specified illnesses and treatments only. Hospitalization payment will be one lakh per event per student.

The scheme will be sponsored by the Finance Ministry    and executed by Sri Lanka Insurance   starting 2018. The Ministry will also negotiate with insurance companies   for further benefits for identified surgeries, but parents will have to pay the insurance. Critics objected to paying billions to insurance companies on behalf of children. They angrily observed that this will affect the free health service   and will also help to increase insurance penetration in the country.

GMOA declared that the proposed health insurance scheme will  lead to  an insurance based health care system. This  system  has failed even in developed countries. Other countries are giving up the system.  Our country which has a highly acclaimed, time tested and cost effective health care system is doing the opposite, they said.

GMOA further said, this will enable insurance companies to make money while destroying the government health service of the country. The insurance companies will ask the children to get all sorts of tests done. Sri Lanka’s free health service has set an excellent example for the world by providing free healthcare for the children

Yahapalana  has introduced an Indian ambulance service, running parallel to the government ambulance service. GVK Emergency Management and Research Institute (GVK EMRI) , a private Indian  concern has been allowed to set up an ambulance service  for the western and southern provinces,  with plans to extend this to the rest of the country. GVK will have the power to recruit personnel and will work with the private sector as well as    government.

The project is funded by an  Indian government  grant of USD 7.55 million. Indian government will provide the capital  for ambulances and pay staff for the first year.  Yahapalana  government will help by letting GVK import their vehicles and  medical equipment  duty free and provide space to set up their rapid response centers and provide work visas for the Indian manager and trainers.

The proposal was  put to  the Cabinet  by Prime Minister Ranil  Wickremasinghe  it. It is very unusual for a  Prime Minister to put forward cabinet papers relating to a matter like an ambulance service said the Joint Opposition.    The proposal did not go through the Health Ministry  observed GMOA.

This Indian ambulance service has started operations in Hambantota, Matara and Galle, with a command centre in Rajagiriya.  There  are 88 fully equipped ambulances.  20 more ambulances are expected, provided free of charge. This ambulance service  is a ‘high class emergency ambulance service’  with state of the art medical equipment. The ambulances contain the world’s most advanced equipment.

The emergency medical technicians have been trained at GVK EMRI in Hyderabad. 50 emergency response officers have been trained to run the command centre, to answer calls  and so on. The company is not under any compulsion to hire Sri Lankans said the Joint Opposition.  But Minister Harsha de Silva said that the 500  employees  are mainly Sri Lankan. There are three to four Indian specialists consultants helping the operation.

GMOA was  highly critical of this Indian funded pre-hospital care ambulance service. It could endanger lives not save them, said GMOA. In  the government health  service even junior doctors were not allowed to handle a cardiac monitor and defibrillator. Only qualified and expert doctors do this, but in this ambulance service, paramedicals were doing so. There is no information on who trained the staff and whether they are registered with the Health Ministry in India, observed GMOA. GVK   is an NGO.   ‘It is a serious thing to hand  an ambulance service to an NGO.’ This has led to structural changes in the government  health service as well.

Under Yahapalana the government health service is a mess.   Yahapalana has not shown any interest or readiness to combat the prevailing Dengue epidemic. In March 2017 it was reported that in  just 10 weeks dengue had rocketed past  19,400 cases in the Western Province.  The all island statistics for Dengue reported on 24. July 2017 was 103,144 cases and 292 deaths.

The service is failing in other areas too. The media reported in  August 2016 that heart surgery at  the National Hospital, Colombo had reduced since the two theatres and the ICU have been shut down for repairs. It was to be repaired within two weeks or so, but would be delayed till December. Only one theatre was working. Patients have been there for months, some from far flung areas. All beds were occupied and  patients were also  placed on the  floor.

Bandaragama government hospital  had no eye surgeon in February 2017.Eye surgeries were done there earlier. Oncologists refuse to use a new controversial Russian cancer drug imported by the Health Department . It was for the  aggravated stage of the illness  when patients will in any case die.  Health   authorities said this drug was a big saving compared to other drugs. Government Nursing officers Association complained  that  the tender for Specialist nurses Training Facility has not been awarded though the money had been allocated.

There were 44 Eye Care units in the country  but there was a severe shortage of the  phaco machines needed for cataract surgery. The hospitals had only 22 phaco- machines  62 more machines were needed.  The cataract operations in state hospitals had been done with the use of phaco machines loaned by the private sector. The private sector had provided this to strengthen and expedite the number of cataract operations the free health service was able to perform annually.

But due to a statement made by Minister of Health the private sector withdrew some of the machines it had lent. There was a severe shortage of phaco machines  in hospitals  and doctors had halted surgery.  This resulted in some hospitals with eye care units being unable to perform any cataract surgeries. the National Eye Hospital usually  performed 80 to 100 cataract surgeries per day. Now however, the number had dropped to 23.

There was another complication. The statement by the Minister of Health had been about taking legal action  against doctors and hospitals  if they  performed surgeries with lenses from the private sector. Government  eye doctors could  operate only on patients who get free lenses from  the Health Ministry Vision 2020 programme.. Doctors point out that even if the Health Ministry was able to supply the needed lenses for the cataract surgeries the 44 hospitals with eye care units would not be able to perform the operations without the Phaco machines. Steps should also be taken to analyze the circulars which had been issued regarding the provision of lenses in government hospitals, they said.

Yahapalana has angered the doctors. In 2016,  Yahapalana  cut their vehicle permit, and did not grant schools to  doctors’ children  when  doctors were transferred or returned from abroad. Their children were also denied admission to Grade One. Yahapalana said it had sent Report to Education Ministry in connection with Grade One school admission of doctors’ children, but doctors rejected this..Doctors said  all children had not got schools. Only     20 out of 138 children had got schools. GMOA threatened trade union action.

In January  2017, GMOA said  the Doctors Transfer List for 2017 was  still not ready. The list should have been published  last December. The Ministry  said the GMOA was preventing the transfers. GMOA said this was nonsense. The GMOA has  participated in the transfer process for years and it is only this year that GMOA had clashed like this with the Health ministry. By now the doctors would have been in their new stations. Directors who  implemented the orders of the Public Service Commission and Health Ministry and sent doctors on transfer are now in  difficulty  since they do not get the next set of doctors. Some state hospital face closure due to this. Ministry said the real reason is the shortage of new doctors.

 

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