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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

Though we had achieved much with regard to structural reforms, I began to realize towards the end of 2016 that ensuring they were entrenched was another question. There was much resistance to change, and it became clear that the various institutions in the Ministry which had to implement the reforms were either unwilling, or unable, to take things forward.

This was most obvious with regard to the problem of English. As noted, I had found when I started work that the Department of Technical Education and Training had fewer than 50 permanent staff for the 39 colleges, in all of which English was supposed to be taught to most if not all students. I was assured that 18 more had been recruited, and would be in place in January, and that there would be 14 more in July. The 18 did turn up and were generally good, but the 14 did not appear and various excuses were offered as to why they could not be recruited. Instead the DTET managed with Visiting Instructors, some of whom were not at all willing to use the new books or the new methods prescribed. Instead they were quite happy to continue to inculcate the different tenses in all their forms, the traditional method of teaching grammar and thus destroying any interest in the language. Encouraging speech was quite beyond them.

The Vocational Training Authority was worse. To begin with they had only about 20 permanent staff, in their 245 centres, and half of these knew very little English, having earlier taught stenography, which does not really require a command of the language (incidentally, other stenographers, when that course was stopped, had been turned into cookery instructors, it obviously being assumed that, since they cooked at home, they would be able to train youngsters to work in the hospitality industry).We did manage to ensure that Visiting Instructors were recruited to most Centres, but the commitment to make some of them permanent was completely ignored. I found my old friend, Gamini Hettiarachchi, who had been an innovative commandant at the Military Academy at Diyatalawa and an efficient Director General of the Disaster Management Centre when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, far too decent to cope with disruptive bureaucrats. They confused him totally about recruitment procedures, and he kept confusing the different alternatives I had suggested. One was to ask for a cadre of English instructors, which had been done, but of course the dilatory Management Services Department had not responded. Then we needed to ensure that, since obviously we could not appoint permanent instructors to every centre, that we had funding for visiting staff in 2017 too. This too was requested, and again Management Services failed to respond.

But I had from the start pressed for a third option, which was to use existing cadre provision to appoint English instructors. This the VTA Director Administration was unwilling to do, and he kept telling Gamini that the other options were out and skated over this one. When finally he had to have interviews for staff who had applied, at the insistence of the very efficient lady the VTA had put in charge of English, he combined them with interviews for other positions and then told Gamini that they could not give any appointments to English staff since other trade courses should have priority. The fact that there were still large numbers of cadre vacancies was suppressed.

Indeed when I asked the lady in the Treasury who managed funding for VTA why they refused to release more funds for Visitors, she pointed out that that was unreasonable when so many cadre positions remained unfulfilled. The same was indeed true of the DTET, which also made do with Visitors for trade courses too – which I realized was a way of giving employment to friends including retired staff, while keeping out bright youngsters.

The Director Administration indeed made a fetish of not recruiting permanent staff, on the grounds that some qualified people could not teach, so it was safer to advertise for contract positions and then get rid of them if they proved incapable. The Minister exploded at a meeting I had insisted on so he could see the subterfuges that were employed and pointed out that able people would not apply for temporary positions, which is what a contract was in essence. The fact that permanent positions came with a probationary period, so that the incapable could be discontinued, was not something that this particular Director Administration would acknowledge, it being easier to only give contracts – which also left the whip hand with the administration.

Other areas in which innovations were belittled was with regard to the new short courses we had introduced, with curricula developed by industry in accordance with their needs. Staff preferred to teach what they were used to, and claimed that these were more popular even though recruitment figures belied this contention. Students had told us, as had the more thoughtful centre administrators, that students wanted shorter courses which would enable them to enter into productive employment soon, but this was not a priority for staff who stretched out their work over many months – which enabled them to come late and leave early, some centres indeed officially stopping work at 1 or 2 pm.

The courses the Minister had wanted developed to provide career paths for those who had qualified in the Technological Stream at Advanced Levels, while also increasing the pool of potential teachers, were delayed, and even though finally, with support from our German consultant we got them adopted, DTET did not advertise them until a couple of months had passed. Whether any will begin before the New Year is anyone’s guess, though I am pleased that the English and Education course we also developed is going on well in several centres.

Meanwhile nothing effective has been done about one principal requirement of the Sector Development programme the World Bank and ADB are funding, namely changing of the schemes of recruitment. There is much opposition to this, largely based on those who have failed to keep up with current industry requirements and who therefore fear that more innovative youngsters will show them up. Establishing a system that will not threaten them, ensuring continuity for them but providing them with training to update their own skills, seems beyond the capacity of those who should be spearheading innovation.

At the beginning of last year I was asked to chair the Committee on Social Marketing and Career Guidance, which had achieved little despite spending massive amounts, and had also failed to check on the effect of their work. I tried to set in place better systems, and saw some improvement, but when my staff produced a plan for this year, I was told that that should be entrusted to the new Career Guidance Specialist the project intended to hire. It is now March, but no one has turned up and no one is likely to. So nothing has been done, not even about the quarterly newsletter which the last Specialist – one of the few capable managers on the Project who has now moved on to higher things but continued to help the Committee – initiated, leading to a very colourful production by my staff. But they were stopped in midstream with regard to the March issue, which will now be forgotten.

The same has happened to the training programme I had started, initially for English courses but also for the new curricula the Sector Councils had developed. There has been no response to the report one of them produced after a training session at which inadequacies in both staff and facilities became clear. Meanwhile the training programme my staff drew up was entrusted to the DTET training centre which had been set up but which, after having been finally prodded after two months to start planning, admitted that this was beyond them. They will continue with the training programmes they have been conducting, though I hope that they will at least start now to monitor the outcomes.

I did not initially object to others being entrusted with these tasks, because I did not want to create the impression that I was trying to take things over. Ken Balendra told me that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office, probably Charitha Ratwatte, had declared when I suggested swift implementation of some structural changes (which had in fact been suggested in a report that very office had commissioned) that I was trying to build up an empire, and that is not the type of stupid criticism, regardless of the merits of proposed reforms, that I wish to leave room for.

Besides which, I had realized that I was doing far more than I had anticipated when I agreed to take on this position. Mahinda Samarasinghe knew very well that I would work full time and more, and he it should be noted has continued appreciative of my commitment. But I do need more time for my own interests, and in particular for travel, because soon I know I will not be as energetic about seeing new places, as age takes its toll.

So, with the responsibilities I had taken on being redistributed, and banging one’s head on brick walls not being something to do on a daily business, I went ahead with travel plans for the first part of this year. I had received three invitations to various places in India in the first couple of months, and I decided to take a few days off at my own expense in each instance, and hit the road.

Two of these excursions happened after Lakmahal’s 80th birthday, which I had decided would be a good place to conclude this series, and indeed my history of Lakmahal, which is no longer the house my grandparents built and occupied way back in 1937. But in the week before that, after meetings in Delhi, I went off to Allahabad and Varanasi, to renew acquaintance with two places I had seen last in 1970.

In the letter I wrote home I had said that Varanasi was lovely. I stayed with an English missionary, arranged by my uncle though the chap he had known had moved on. Rev Bentley had taken me to Sarnath, as well as for a ride on the river, and though I could remember little of these, I found myself enchanted again by both excursions nearly half a century later. This time I also went to the Viswanath temple, teeming with devotees, and to the Alamgir Mosque high above the river, with its mix of Hindu and Muslim architecture. And I found another of the Jai Singh observatories (having seen those in Delhi and Jaipur and Ujjain) in an elegant building put up at the beginning of the 17th century by Raja Man Singh of Amber, in the days of Emperor Akbar.

My letter had stressed disappointments as far as Allahabad was concerned, which surprised me for I had fond memories of my day there. I had noted that I had not been able to enter the Fort, and indeed it is still in the hands of the army. But they allow entry now to some parts, and once again I got a glimpse of Asoka’s pillar (which had required some cajoling in 1970).

Last time I had described the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna as squalid, and so it must have been in May, when the waters are low, and in the afternoon, which the photograph I have suggests was the time I saw it. This time I went at dawn, and saw a Mela, a gathering of pilgrims in January to bathe in what must have been freezing waters. This was not the Kumbh Mela, which attracts massive crowds, but what I saw was large enough, and teeming with enthusiasm.

But the high point for me about Allahabad was what it had been last time, Khusro Bagh, with the tomb of Jehangir’s son who had revolted against his father. The garden in which it is set, along with the tomb of his mother who had died of grief when her husband and son fell out, had been deserted then. Now it is well looked after, with lots of youngsters enjoying the evening in that sylvan setting with its beautiful structures.

The site rouses thought when one contrasts it with the Taj Mahal.  Khusro having died, Jehangir was succeeded by Shah Jehan, whose monument to love is still perhaps India’s most attractive sight. But in Keatsian mood, relishing melancholia as he advocated, one felt that Khusro had his music too.

I had a car this time, unlike in 1970 when I suffered on crowded trains. The driver who had taken me to Kanpur when I came to Lucknow last year was ill and could not take me round, and the substitute he sent new no English and little about roads to take, which was a pain. But we saw both cities satisfactorily, and then I drove back to Lucknow on another route and I saw though in fading light a gem of a city called Jaunpur, with elegant mosques and a striking fort.

Driving through what seemed deserted forests, we finally found a hotel which rustled up a decent dinner, before a short sleep that allowed me to get to Ayodhya and visit the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid. I have never had to go through as many checkpoints to see a place as I did then, but it was interesting and instructive, especially my discussion with the charming priest at the new Hindu temple who seemed to have no idea that there had been a mosque there.

We had set off so early that, despite the qualms of my driver, I was able to have a quick look at two utterly charming mausoleums in Faizabad before getting my plane back from Lucknow to Delhi. The High Commission had while I was in India managed to get me visas for Mozambique, so the travel programme in March was also well in hand.

After a night with old friends in Delhi, I was back in Colombo on January 17th, to celebrate Lakmahal’s 80th birthday on the 18th. I was back at work too that day, and I felt I should continue to try to change things. But if one failed, the world in its infinite variety still remained open for exploration.

Ceylon Today 18 March 2017 – http://ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=17374

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