President, jails and schools

Island Editorial

President Maithripala Sirisena has said he turned down an invitation to declare open the Angunukolapalessa prison complex, as we reported yesterday. But, he is ready to attend the opening of a school anytime, he has said. His aversion to penal institutions is understandable. Nobody likes pens, the mere sight of which is depressing.

Luckily for President Sirisena, the Joint Opposition has already said the leaders of the previous government should be given the credit for building the Angunukolapaless prison. Else, he would have been accused of setting up a jail in Hambantota, the stronghold of the Rajapaksas, with an ulterior motive. Had he lost the last presidential election the new prison would have been opened with him as the first inmate!

President Sirisena’s refusal to open jails should be appreciated. Similarly, it does not make any sense for either him or the Prime Minister to expend their time and energy and, above all, public funds to attend most other opening ceremonies as well. There are many pressing national issues for them to contend with and it is baffling how on earth they find time to travel all over the country to grace so many functions. The same goes for ministers who chase their tails and waste colossal amounts of taxpayers’ money to be seen at inauguration ceremonies and other such events which serve no purpose. True, they may get some political mileage from such functions, but they will surely gain much more politically if they devote their time and energy to their work and make a serious effort to solve the burning problems such as the high cost of living, the deterioration of the law and order situation, the shocking depreciation of the rupee, lack of foreign investment, dwindling foreign reserves and the ever worsening balance of payment woes.

The opening of a school is tantamount to the closing down of a jail, as a local saying goes. One may ask whether it is the closure of so many schools during the last several decades which has led to the setting up of new prisons. The last ten years or so have seen the closure of as many as 220 underprivileged schools in all parts of the country, according to teachers’ trade unions. Interestingly, towards the tail end of the Rajapaksa government, the number of schools suddenly rose from 9,661 to 10,220. This was due to a sleight of hand rather than the construction of new schools. Primary sections were separated from many schools and this jilmaat (trick) was used to dupe the public. The Education Ministry website has since chosen to black out the data that can be used to find out the number of schools already closed or earmarked for closure, trade unionists say.

Jails are a necessary evil. Lawbreakers who are a threat to society have to be kept somewhere. (Police may be convinced otherwise as could be seen from the manner in which they eliminate criminals instead of crime!) The existing prisons are bursting at the seams and the need for new spacious ones with modern facilities cannot be overemphasised. There should be separate pens for young offenders. At present, a youth who serves a sentence for a minor offence in a prison graduates to serious crime upon being released thanks to his association with underworld figures behind bars.

Public schools are as overcrowded as prisons and concentrated in urban areas. Sadly, no government has cared to address this problem; the private sector has moved in to make a killing as evident from the mushrooming of the so-called international schools to cater to the increasing demand for schools. Let President Sirisena be urged to build more schools and develop the existing ones as a national priority so as to obviate the need for more prisons.