Power of people is greater than that of people in power


The free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wings

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with fearful trill

of the things unknown

but longed for still

and its tune is heard

on the distant hill for the caged bird

sings of freedom

- Mary Angelou (1928-)

A young 13-year-old schoolgirl from Horana has recently created newspaper headlines when the local Police produced her in a Magistrate’s Court and charged her with having stolen eight coconuts from a neighbour’s garden. The newspaper story stated that she stole the coconuts in order to sell them and raise a sum of Rs 800 which all students in her school were asked to contribute towards the cost of repainting the school. As a follow-up to the story which created a public uproar, there were reports that President Rajapakse had requested the Ministers of Education and Justice to investigate and report on the case. Nothing has been heard of such reports. Subsequently, another twist to the story has emerged. A local politician, apparently at odds with the Principal of the school, was instrumental in getting the young girl to come up with this explanation for stealing coconuts and the Police had seemingly gone along with bringing this up in the Magistrate’s Court. We will not know the actual truth unless there is an impartial investigation which is unlikely to happen.

Irrespective of the reasons for the Police charging this young school girl, barely into her teens, in a Magistrate’s Court, the case has raised two fundamental issues that should concern us. One is the need for schools to raise money for basic school maintenance. The second is the question of the Police not having a consistent policy on law enforcement. They go overboard in some cases and turn a blind eye to others, usually as a result of political pressure. In the case of the first, we pride ourselves on having provided free education from primary, through secondary upto tertiary levels. This certainly has been a creditable achievement for the country. Over the years, from even before independence, hundreds of thousands have benefitted from this. But this policy has received a setback in recent years. And it affects mainly the children mainly from the impoverished or the less affluent homes. There are many reasons for this but the more obvious one is that ‘free’ education has over the years become less free, directly as a result of inadequate expenditure by the state on public education.

How free is education?

One of the demands of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) last year was that the government should accept a goal of reaching the level of 6% of GDP as public expenditure on education, in keeping with the Millennium Development Goals. There were years in the past that public expenditure on education in Sri Lanka was close to that figure. But today, at around 2%, our public expenditure on education is among the lowest in the world. The state has neglected its duty to provide adequate funding for education. Economic development cannot succeed unless it hand-in-hand with educational development. The government must set their priorities right and allocate more resources for education. The FUTA demand was not a political demand and the government surely knew that. The Ministers responsible for education must acknowledge the validity of that demand; and must now begin to work towards achieving the 6% goal in the longer term. it will be in the interests of the country if that remains the goal of our educational policy.

We trust the head of that Horana school which that schoolgirl attended is not penalised in any way over this incident. It is true that making financial demands on parents towards maintenance of a school makes a mockery of free education. This is where it should be the duty of the government to provide adequate resources to every school. We know that most schools, particularly those in rural areas, suffer from under-funding and under-staffing. All state schools are compelled to call on students to raise funds by various means. Schools in urban centres enjoy the luxury of being able to hold Fairs, Concerts and similar public events to raise funds. The rural schools do not have the resources to do that. Even when students are selected to represent their schools in competitive events (sports, literary, arts, etc), almost always the selected students have to self-finance their participation. In non-urban centres, this is an impossible burden on the student. So poverty stifles their development; free education was meant to release and develop the youth who were born to blush unseen and unknown and waste their talents in the desert air.

Access to Quality Education

The education reforms of the Kannangara Committee in the nineteen forties included not only providing free education but also having access to quality education available to the students in the non-urban areas. It was with this in view that well-equipped and well-staffed Central Schools were established throughout the country in non-urban areas. It is a pity that the Kannangara vision was not carried forward with the attempted reforms in subsequent years. What we need now is to develop our state schools with qualified and committed staff. There should be an equitable distribution of good schools to cater to the children in all area. For instance, the educational opportunities for children in the tea plantation areas are a disgrace. There should be schools within easy access to children in the rural and plantation areas providing education up to Advanced Level in the science streams, in addition to Arts and Commerce. Very few of the rural schools have a well-equipped science laboratory. We need to stop sloganeering and get on with providing our schools the facilities resources needed for well-rounded educational development. In the years immediately following the Kannangara reforms, our country was indeed the Miracle of Asia in education and many other areas. The people who now talk of Sri Lanka being the miracle of Asia seem to have got their priorities wrong. We should be spending more of our resources on developing education and health. Building international air and sea ports and sports stadiums and international conference centres in areas without any feasibility study both for establishing them and also for selecting the most suitable location for them is a sign of mixed-up priorities.

Carmen Wickramagamage, a Peradeniya academic, writing in The Island some months ago, summed up the situation regarding education well in these words: "Cuts in state expenditure on health and education threaten to arrest if not roll back the remarkable achievements that made Sri Lanka the ‘Miracle of Asia’ long before that slogan came to be adopted by the present government….It is therefore time for those of us, women and men, who take a justifiable pride in the near-miraculous gains in social indicators of well-being in this country to speak up in the face of the obvious withdrawal in commitment on the part of the present government to education as evidenced by the allocation of just 1.8% of the GDP in the 2012 Budget for both general and higher education. Education is a right, not a privilege. Now is the time for us to get together to save it for all citizens of this country!"

A plea for de-politicisation

We hope the young Horana schoolgirl has drawn the attention of the authorities and the public to the neglect by the state in providing adequate resources to our schools and universities. The second issue that the case of this girl raises is the action of the Police in taking a thirteen-year old girl to court. That the Police action and the resultant Press publicity were at the behest of a local politician may or may not be true. But politicisation of the law enforcement authorities is deep-rooted is a well accepted, as also the politicisation of education, of the UGC and the Vice Chancellors. This generalisation may not be true in all cases. There have been in the past as also among those currently serving Police Officers, as well as those serving in the UGC and the University system who have shown independence and resisted political pressure. But such exceptions have been all too rare.

Power of the People

We cannot expect the politicians, whether in the present government or the present opposition, to right this situation on their own. Public opinion, led by the clergy and civil society, must keep up pressure, as was done in the case of the flawed impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The agitation on the Chief Justice issue did not end in failure. It has resulted in awakening the public to the dangers of injustice and disregard for the rule of law. That pressure must be maintained and the clergy, the professionals and civil society must continue to educate the public on the dangers of authoritarianism. We are heartened by the principled and public stand taken by legal professionals like Romesh de Silva, Jayampathy Wickremaratne, Lal Wijenayake, S L Gunasekera, M A Sumanthiran, J C Weliamuna and others on the continuing need to preserve the independence and integrity of our superior courts. So also has been the courageous stand of religious leaders like the Mahanayakes, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, the past and present Anglican Bishops Duleep de Chickera and Dhiloraj Canagasabey, Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha and civil society organisations like the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka and Friday Forum. We must also acknowledge the increasingly bold and progressive stance of sections of the Press. The less said however of the state-owned Press the better. They have brought journalism and journalistic ethics down to the lowest gutter levels. It is individuals and organisations like those mentioned earlier who have to provide the leadership for the creation of public opinion towards safeguarding the democratic and civil rights of the people. Public awareness campaigns such as those launched by the Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera are not only needed but require to be pursued with greater vigour.

Wael Ghonim is an Egyptian activist and a Google executive who has written a book about the people’s revolution that toppled the then Egypt’s authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. He says that unlike revolutions in the past, the Egyptian Spring did not have a charismatic leader. It was a spontaneous movement led by nothing other than the wisdom of the crowd. One day, the revolution seemed utterly impossible, and there were just a few people dreaming of change. And then the next day it happened. Ghonim concludes by saying that the events in Egypt have reminded humanity of ‘a universal truth that many seemed to have forgotten: the power of the people will always be stronger than the people in power.’

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