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Saturday May 25th, 2024

Major impact on education by Covid on South Asian kids

ECONOMYNEXT – Neighbours India and Pakistan are experiencing the impact Covid 19 has had on their education systems very differently.

While the closure of schools and the introduction of e-learning has been the norm this past year in most countries, including Sri Lanka, India sees the gains she has made in the field of education these past decades lost, while in Pakistan the disparities between the various economic classes in accessing education, has now become a conversation of national importance.

Both India and Pakistan have a two-tiered system; the government-run schools and the fee levying private schools, some of which are high end and cater to the elite of society.

There are also less expensive privately run schools as well. Budget Private Schools as they are known in India for children of Blue-collar workers, or Low-Cost Private schools in Pakistan. These are schools that attract low-income earners who yearn to see their children receive more qualitative education and thereby, a step up in life for their progeny, which they believe government schools do not deliver.

Says a leading advocate for girls education in Pakistan, social entrepreneur, activist and Influencer Fajer Rabia Pasha, that in a country where equal access to education for all levels of society has been far from acceptable, it took the coronavirus pandemic for that reality to strike home.

According to UNICEF, ‘22.8 million children aged 5-16 are out-of-school’ in Pakistan, making it the world’s second-highest after Nigeria.

Pasha was one of the panellists on ‘ Reimagining Education in South Asia Post COVID 19,’ hosted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), South Asia, held on January 24, to mark International Education Day.

A vast number of children residing in rural areas, says Pasha, have little or no access to education, leave alone the technological devices now used for e-learning, and the closure of schools owing to the pandemic has struck a chord amongst all. ‘When children with access to education were left out, people realised what it must be like for those with no access at all.’ The government used broadcast media to reach students, she says, adding that except for students attending high-end private schools, all others were affected in some way or another. “Today, there is civic engagement on the matter.’

Educator and politician, Atishi Marlena, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, Delhi one of the other panellists meanwhile says that in the past two to three decades, India had made vast strides in having education accessible to all. While in the early ‘90’s around 60% of students had access to education, it had reached nearly 95%, when the pandemic hit.

“India was now concentrating on improving the quality of education, but this has put the country back to the ‘1990’s’ she says. The gap has widened again she points out because even though technology could help some students who have uninterrupted access to the internet and multiple devises with which to continue their studies, nothing compares to face-to-face learning. Some children may not have access to phones or computers, other’s must wait to share the phone with their parents, and invariably miss on-line classes, she says adding that on-line learning is best for those students preparing for their Grade 10 or 12 public exams.

Initiatives such as delivering worksheets via phone or arranging for parents to pick those up from school for students in higher grades have been put in place, says Marlena, who adds that the government had for some time been focussing on improving the foundational learning skills of students. This initiative has continued through SMS’s, where stories, questions etc. being sent to students.

But, says Vikas Jhunjhunwala, the Founder and CEO of Sunshine Schools, also a panellist in the discussion, the worst affected are students of Budget Private Schools. Children of blue-collar workers, the low-income earners, he explains have opted to put aside 20 to 30% of their monthly wages to pay for schooling they believe delivers a better system than do government-run schools.

Such schools are affordable as the fees are usually less than Rs 2,000 a month, and offer a market-based solution to those who prefer not to send their children to government schools, but cannot afford high fees. However, says Jhunjhunwala, these schools are of use to such parents only if face to face teaching is available. Even if they have access to technological devices that could help their children study on-line, being first-generation students, they have no one at home to help with their studies. “For such parents, they see no value in paying fees when they get no return. Nor are budget schools designed to deliver online learning,’ says Jhunjhunwala who, like others who run such schools is struggling to pay salaries and other costs, without the income brought in by the fees paid by their students.

Explains Marlena, it will be necessary to try a hybrid scheme or rostering of classes when schools are expected to re-open around April. There is the possibility she points out that without such a scheme, there will be a clamour for students to be admitted to government schools, or that they may simply drop out.

Even so, she adds that the government’s main focus in the midst of the coronavirus is getting the basic needs to the people; education is currently on the back-burner.

‘In the case of education, the role of government is only as a regulator, and the virtual collapse of the education system several decades ago saw the rise of private schools over time.’ The government was working on bringing the quality of education in government schools on par with private schools, these past five years She acknowledges that though the government has neither unlimited bandwidth nor the resources, the government must improve the quality of education available in State-run schools and ensure better access for all. But post-Covid, it will be more about making up the academic losses, which means working on the foundational learning skills of students. Teachers will also require training to act as counsellors, for students who may have faced traumatic situations these past months, Marlena explains.

Pasha meanwhile says the Pakistani government must look at short, mid and long-term post-Covid solutions. Online-education, she points out is not a solution for Pakistan, and expresses fear that without quality and accessible education, post-Covid, there will be more drop-outs, and that would mostly be girls. While illiterate parents cannot help with the studies, they must both work to support families, ‘this means the girls would have to drop out to manage the home.’

There are larger civil society organisations that have stepped in, taken over a few government schools to improve the quality of education. Community-based schools, around 128 across the country, remain engaged with their students who come from extremely deprived communities, even going door-to-door with the work-sheets for the students, explains Pasha. As well, education through radio and TV has benefitted those with no access to online education

Pakistan is set to re-open schools on February 1st.

Agreeing with Marlena, she says mental health programmes will be necessary for children who may have faced traumatic situations, living in close quarters with family for many months. As well, a system that caters to the different segments of society will have to be identified. “Government took the lead in guiding schools when the pandemic began, and it must continue in that role.’

Says Jhunjhunwala, school closures impacted the teacher-student relationship and that must be restored.
The discussion was moderated by the CEO of City Montessori School, Lucknow, Roshan Gandhi. (Colombo, January 28, 2021)

Edited by Arjuna Ranawana

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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.


Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.


“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.


From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.


In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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