hose who continue to agitate against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) in the name of free education do not seem to see the hundreds if not thousands of school buildings about to collapse on poor students because of poor maintenance or substandard construction.
The latest reminder of the pathetic condition of many of the school buildings in the country was the incident where eighteen grade-five students of Sririmalwatta Navodya School in Wattegama, Kandy had been admitted to the Kandy Teaching Hospital on March 30 when a part of the classroom roof of their classroom collapsed due to the heavy rains experienced in the area. Roofs, especially those of schools where small children are housed are supposed to withstand not only heavy rains, but also gale force wind, but alas, the situation here has been the other way around.
The media which carry hundreds of news and feature articles on SAITM on a daily basis seem to have thought it fit to stop at breaking the story, while the so-called champions of free education, the GMOA, JVP, FSP and the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) totally ignored the incident. It would have been in the public domain sometimes for a few more days had there been fatalities. However, the incident points to the situation of free education in the country.
Education Minister AkilaViraj Kariyawasam had said his ministry was not responsible for the collapse of the roof of the school in Kandy. He had said it was the result of the provincial councils not adhering to the criteria set by the ministry. “There cannot be buildings with thatched roofs or in a dilapidated state. This has happened due to the bad practice adopted by some of the provincial councils,” he said.
However, the minister said his ministry had called for a report from the relevant provincial council on this matter. He also had stated that his ministry had decided to develop 7,000 schools out of the 10,161 schools under the concept of “nearest is the best school” on the recommendations of responsible authorities, but the stipulated criteria in selecting schools under this concept is reported to have been changed by some of the provincial councils.
It is not clear as to what the minister meant by responsibility. Is it just to say “I am sorry” or “I (or we) take the responsibility”? Or does it mean the persons responsible being penalized or the victims compensated? Even if he had thought officials concerned must be held responsible in a practical sense, in countries like Sri Lanka there seems to be no administrative mechanism in the public sector to make the people responsible for this kind of negligence to be penalized or to compensate the victims.At the same time the minister’s claim that the central government could not be held responsible for the incident runs counter to his calling for a report. That indicates his acceptance of his ministry’s moral responsibility for the incident, though he did not do so publicly.
On the other hand, the public school system especially those attended by the children of the poor as well as the lower middle class people lack many facilities, including buildings, toilets and drinking water. The disparity between the urban and rural schools is incredibly vast, despite the country being called Socialist Democratic (and Democratic Socialist) Republic of Sri Lanka for the past 45 years, since 1972. The Yahapalanaya government and the civil society groups that helped this government in toppling the previous regime insisted during the presidential and general elections that six percent of GDP be allocated to education, but the same civil society groups now lament that the funds for education have been further slashed this year. The Central Government and the Provincial Councils cannot pass the buck in this matter as it involves the future and the very lives of the students -- the future leaders.