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Minister of Education, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam speaks concerning the situation that has arisen in relation to the issuance of vouchers for the provision of official school uniforms, the budgetary allocation for education, the future of education and the present state of affairs with regard to politics.

Q: Did any issue arise with regard to the issuance of vouchers concerning the provision of official school uniforms?
No problem at all. Certain persons stated that this time around we would not allow the vouchers system to be implemented. They shouted. Yet we did. We printed the vouchers. No parents are required to come. This will be implemented through the schools. The amount too has been increased. Everything is going very well.

Q : Are the issues that were there last time, not there any longer?
Not at all. We have rectified all that was lacking. This time we received Rs. 2,700 million for the vouchers. Even after increasing the amount, the cost was only Rs 2,450 million. These are new methods. Unlike earlier, we are not prepared to get them printed for free and have the ministers show their colours. Today, parents appreciate being given voucher slips. When 4.5 million children take the vouchers and go to the market, the shops and the market too gets developed. Their income is in the range of millions. Previously, this was an oligopoly, the reigns of which were held by two or three persons. Today, this has been distributed to the entire society. This time, they can get it from any bank. Circulars have been issued to principals with regard to how the process should take place and be done.

Q : The opportunity of providing official school uniforms has also been given to the Ministry’s shop – Salu Sala. Aren’t there serious issues in it?
Actually, when the official school uniform voucher slips were being provided trade unions and many others shouted against it stating that those receiving education in rural schools would have to come from afar to the cities to collect the official school uniforms and that this, therefore constituted a major hassle. The Salu Sala said that school children from rural areas and areas off the beaten path would have to come to the city. So the Salu Sala in the Ministry said that they would go to the schools in the rural areas and in areas far off the beaten track and would provide the official school uniforms. They continuously requested thus. When they made a written request, we granted it. In actuality, as a State institution the Salu Sala had hit rock bottom. We hoped that by giving this they would develop. We gave this with that intention. Yet, they themselves violated the conditions. Instead of providing the official school uniforms only to students in schools in rural areas and in areas far off, they started giving to other schools too.

Q : What happened there?
What actually happened was that there was a mafia. We did not catch the said mafia. We immediately cancelled the permission granted to Salu Sala with regard to providing official school uniforms. No one can get together with principals and collect vouchers and give the children cloths. It is imperative that the children get the vouchers.

Q : In the list containing the names of schools in extremely rural areas, names of schools in Colombo too were found.
That is the mafia. We will not in any way allow for a mafia to operate. They have caused confusion. One has to go to rural areas and distribute. Yet, what they tried to do was operate this as a business. We stopped it.

Q : This  time around the monies allocated from the budget for education was less. Is this not a barrier with regard to developing education?
Not at all. We will develop all the schools based on the ‘the closest school is the best school’ concept. We have the required funds. Rs 15 billion capital expenditure was allocated by the previous Government. Last year, we allocated Rs. 82 billion. We are now constructing buildings. This will cost Rs. 40 billion. For the balance, we have called for tenders. Unlike before, we have not called up friends and given tenders. We afford these via tenders. There are new constructions taking place in the country. At present we have finished giving 95% of all the schools electricity. During the past, the schools were at a very low level. We have now completed the construction of toilets. Under the new system, we are attempting to provide a toilet per every 50 students. We gave 3,000 scientific equipment kits to rural schools. In addition, we instituted dental clinics. We constructed buildings. We constructed laboratories. Today, many things are taking place. This is all from the Rs 82 billion we received last time. When the monies we allocated are tied up in projects, we cannot wait without releasing the funds. We have to give out the monies.

Q : However, last time the Ministry received Rs. 250 billion. This time around it came down to Rs 175 billion.
It is the recurrent expenditure that has come down. In certain aspects, recurrent expenditure has lessened. In certain cases, the monies had not been utilized. However, it is in the capital expenditure that a difference takes place. From the capital expenditure, this time 40,000 was given from the appropriation bill. In addition, through the proposals 20 more was given. Furthermore, Rs 17,500 million was provided. Aside to this, the last Government had purchased 60,000 computers at a high price and taken commissions from the deal. The computers broke down since the day they were bought. It is the companies that get rich. This time around, I said that I don’t want to buy computers paying money.

Q : Then, how do you plan to fulfill the requirement?
We obtain them for hire, on a rental basis. We received monies to buy 3,500 computers for 50 schools. If one takes 50 computers, we will pay the monthly rental fee/costs. Those who rent the computers for hire will do the repairs and look after everything else. This is convenient for the school administrations too.
Discussion conducted by Sujith Konara (sujithkona@gmail.com)