By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit”. – Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman)
Social mobility is a capitalist thing. During the much eulogised feudal past, men and women were prisoners of the geographical and social loci they were born into. Capitalism liberated them from that servitude, even though the break happened as a brutal wrench which created its own particular miseries and discontents.
In Sri Lanka, the Grade 5 Scholarship Exam has played a socially-progressive and politically-stabilising role as a key enabler of intergenerational social-mobility.
The Scholarship Exam was one of the few ways in which intelligent children from underprivileged/rural backgrounds could take the first critical step away – and up – from their natal-state. It enabled the cleverest children of each generation to gain admission to well-facilitated national schools. This gateway to a better education provided a much needed strand of equalisation of opportunities to an unequal land.
The Scholarship Exam imposed a measure of plurality on ‘top-grade’ national schools by preventing them from becoming the exclusive preserve of children from affluent backgrounds. De facto ethno-religious apartheid (the literal meaning of which is apart-hood) is one of the major unattended problems in our education system. The Scholarship exam marginally reduced class apart-hood in our top public educational establishments by making it compulsory for them to admit the brightest students from less-privileged schools every year.
Without that gateway, many a talented student may never have escaped the trap of lack of opportunity. And the country would have been poorer without the utilisation of their intelligence and capacities.
All that will change from 2016.
The Rajapaksa regime has taken one more step to mire Lankan society in a state of rut by abolishing the Grade 5 Scholarship Exam.
The Siblings seems to have an inborn genius in presenting something as its opposite. A war was turned into a ‘humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties’, open prison camps into ‘welfare villages’ and a witch-trial into a legal-impeachment. Similarly the abolishing of Grade 5 Scholarship Exam is being presented as a student-friendly measure. For several months, various government politicos and officials lamented about the pressure imposed on students by the exam[i]. The Human Rights Commission (which was reduced to a presidential-appendage with the 18th Amendment and is filled with handpicked Rajapaksa-appointees) joined the cacophony and dubbed the Exam as a violation of children’s rights[ii]. Gradually an artificial consent ‘on the need to abolish the Exam for the students’ own psychological good’ was manufactured.
Minister Bandula Gunawardana, who gave us such peerless gems as ‘Rs. 7500 is enough for a family of three’[iii], then came up with another marvel: the raison d’être of the Scholarship Exam will vanish by 2016. In just one year, the government will equip 1000 secondary schools with best facilities and best teachers and bring them abreast top national schools[iv]. After that not a single student from a rural/underprivileged background will apply to enter a national school.
One of the most socially regressive measures ever considered by a Lankan administration is being presented as an avuncular step motivated by loving kindness. It is the ‘Humanitarian Operation’ all over again.
Every year, with the results of the Scholarship Exam, the cut-off marks for all popular national schools are given. This year five popular schools were initially excluded from the list[v]. According to Dr. KN Wijethunga, Director, Schools Affairs Division of the Education Ministry, “a sufficient number of students could not be admitted to grade six of these schools as some other students had been admitted from outside to these classes due to various people using influence and hence these classes had already been filled up – with 50 to 60 students in each”[vi].
In other words, national schools are being stuffed to the brim with children from families with money, connections or both. After all, the Rajapaksas do need to reward their acolytes for a lifetime of subject-hood. Placements in top schools for their offspring would figure high in the list of rewards desired by the regime’s servitors.
The Scholarship Exam is the only remaining obstacle impeding the transformation of national schools into exclusive preserves for children of well-to-do/well-connected families. Once that is abolished, all placements in top national schools can be made available to the children of the new elite.
And the ‘law of accumulated privileges’ can rule supreme, adding rigid class-divide to other fault-lines.
Social Immobility and Familial Rule
Familial Rule cannot take root without society becoming infested with feudal ideas and values.
Does Familial Rule also require feudal/semi-feudal structures?
In the new state configuration which is coming into being, divides of every sort will be made more stark and impermeable. And for most Lankans, politics will become the only path of advancement available. One’s political affiliations will determine one’s economic prospects, social state and the future of one’s children.
Absolute monarchs do not want independent citizens; they need dependent subjects. Already recruitment to the state sector has been re-politicised. The informal sector is being undermined, in diverse ways. A key aim of the Jana Sabha system was to totally politicise the allocation of resources regionally; had it been implemented, unelected Rajapaksa-appointees, rather than elected parliamentarians or provincial/municipal/local councillors, would have decided which area should get what facility. That would have enabled the regime to legally punish those localities with a preponderance of opposition voters by starving them of resources.
With the abolition of the Scholarship Exam, the regime will be able to reward acolytes by admitting their children to popular schools and punish opponents by denying their children access to a better education.
In the consequent new order of totally politicised school admissions, underprivileged families will have to become suppliants of politicos to be able to send children to national schools. It will be one more way in which the Rajapaksas can control people. Children of parents who are unwilling to prostrate themselves at the feet of some politico will not be allowed into a national school, irrespective of how talented they are. Parents will be compelled to forego dignity and decency for the sake of their children’s education.
The societal sector most affected by this retrogressive step will be the middle/lower-middle classes, especially from rural areas. This is a natural Rajapaksa constituency, one of the mainstays of the Rajapaksa politico-electoral base. The Siblings are not only threatening the minorities and destroying the homes/livelihoods of the urban poor; they are also undermining the future prospects of a segment of society which believes in the myth that the Rajapaksas will usher in an era of plenty for all, just as they defeated the LTTE.
Noam Chomsky’s description of the modus operandi of anti-democratic elites is perfectly applicable for Rajapaksas: “first we violate the rules to climb to the top, then we kick away the ladder so that you cannot follow us….”[vii]
The unequal, unjust and divisive direction in which the Rajapaksas are taking the country is perfectly clear. Only two uncertainties remain. Will the Sinhala-middle classes understand that the Rajapaksas are their enemy? Will the Opposition fight this most dangerously retrogressive measure?
[vi] Daily Mirror 19.12.2013
[vii] Hopes and Prospects