By Rasika Jayakody –
It was heartbreaking to see an advertisement in a weekend newspaper begging for an office space for the Mahapola Scholarship Trust Fund — a brainchild of the late Lalith Athulathmudali. A visionary leader and a man with immense capacityt to serve the nation, Athulathmudali initiated the Mahapola Fund to support hundreds of thousands of university students undergoing difficulties due to financial constraints.
The advertisement and the recent media reports on the Mahapola Trust Fund bring into question the interests of those managing the initiative at present. It is apparent that they are not in sync with the former leader’s vision. What the advertisement asked for a generous donor to give them office space free of cost.
The advert says, “Lalith Athulathmudali launched the Mahapola Scholarship to enable the nation’s children to pursue higher studies without financial encumbrances. Approximately 300,000 students have received a total of around 15 billion rupees over the 39 years that have passed.” While this is a good thing, the advertisement itself makes the trust look like a hole in the corner venture, by stating “if a generous person was willing to gift an approximately 4,000 square foot house or building, old or new, in Colombo 2,3,4,5,6 or 8, Nawala, Rajagiriya, Battaramulla or Sri Jayawardenapura, it would be an immensely meritorious initiative for the children of the nation.”
Their use of the former Minister’s picture, was probably to give themselves some credibility, but the ad stating “The Lalith Athulathmudali Mahapola Higher Education Scholarship Fund looks for a generous heart…” is not at all in line with what the great leader intended for the fund. His vision and concept for the Mahapola Trust was for it to be self-sustaining and of service to the nation; not to become a charitable cause that required the help of the public, generous or otherwise.
It is interesting that the advertisement goes on to say that they need to own a building but did not wish to use money from the trust fund as it would be wrong — as it would be an injustice to all potential beneficiaries and in fact the entire student population. But, the fund itself faced a COPE investigation on allegedly misappropriated funds over the years. Be that as it may, the crux of the matter is that the initiative devised by Athulathmudali has gone through drastic changes over the years and requires course-correction.
The appeal for office space has been on a repeating groove for many years now. In a Sunday Observer article in 2018, there was a similar request from the Director of the Mahapola Trust Fund, Parakrama Bandara, who said “We are located in a small office space in Colombo 7. The Board of Trustees has approved to request a donation in order to put up a Head Office. Athulathmudali had a plan to put up a Head Office with a modern language lab, lecture halls and auditorium but due to some reasons, it was not a success. Anyone interested in donating us a piece of land in Colombo can do so…”
To say the fund has got into a pitiful state is to put it mildly, but for someone who has great respect for its founder, the current goings-on are painful to bear. When the former Minister of Trade and Shipping, Lalith Athulathmudali first set up the Mahapola Higher Education Scholarship Trust Fund, the objective was to provide financial aid to students seeking higher education. He originally raised funds through personal donations and later through a series of regional fairs known as Mahapola. The Trust is managed by a Board of Trustees and chaired by the Chief Justice. The late minister’s mission was to give a fighting chance to young men and women with high ideals who were being defeated by the system. The Trust was intended to give hope to young people who were frustrated with their hopeless circumstances — a means of gaining an education that would help them improve the quality of their lives and achieve their ideals.
It is obvious that the formula entrusted to the trustees of the fund through the years has not been nurtured or invested in. Great ideas cannot remain great if we do not make adjustments to revitalise them, considering the vision behind the idea, or taking into account the changes that are bound to occur with time. Whilst the original idea for the Mahapola Trust to fund scholarships for needy undergraduates may have been successful, today, the formula might need a fresh infusion of blood. It is possible that we might see this entire formula in a different light through the use of crowdsourcing, but what comes through clearly at this point in time is that the formula needs reexamining. If investigations prove the Trust is not working, it would be best to scrap it and look for a more workable alternative for the fund.
For one, if the fund is not really a fund anymore, but just a conduit to channel government resources or for that matter money from the presidential fund, it ceases to be of any use in terms of what the Trust was originally formed for. Since it is the University Grants Commission (UGC) that’s actually the body that manages the operations of channeling money to underprivileged university students, the role of Mahapola must be revisited and re-examined. The fund must stay above the board on the corruption front and should not be a burden on already overstretched government resources.
Another factor is the corruption allegations surrounding the Mahapola Trust. If the Trust has to be investigated by COPE, it should be done, to bring wrongdoers to book. But let’s not waste our time on creating unnecessary red tape and roadblocks that will prevent university students who need funds to achieve their goals. Apart from that what’s most disturbing is what all this is doing to the legacy left behind by a great leader. Lalith Athulathmudali was himself an Oxford graduate, who recognised the value of university education and the potential it offered the less privileged of this country. By lowering the status of a rich trust he established to help this segment, to the level of an entity that is holding out a begging bowl to society is nothing but dragging his name in the mud.