Gifts to School Teachers | Sunday Observer

Gifts to School Teachers

Is it Pandam or, Santhosam? Sri Lankan society is yet debating whether gifts to officials of various kinds – in the public as well as private sectors – are gifts of appreciation of an amicable relationship and service by the gift receiver or, whether such gifts are just plain bribery.

The Minister of Education has announced that gifts to school teachers by parents of students will be banned forthwith. Exactly how the ban will be enforced will, likely, be defined by the official Ministry circular that is expected to be issued in execution of this ban. It is such a definition that will help dispel the confusion that still exists in the cultural practice of gifting.

Sri Lankan society, whatever the ethnicity, is noted for its warmth, especially, between people in their deep sense of community and social togetherness. Thus, the exchange of gifts has been normal in social relations, virtually, throughout the period of our island civilization.

However, the current prevalence of the market as the prime mover in modern economic activity and the marketization of much of social life - including education - as we get increasingly caught up in a globalized system of ‘value chains’, means that much of human relationships has begun to be valued in ways over and above simple moral and emotional appreciation.

Gifting, especially, between people that have no personal or family relationship, is today one that increasingly implies a two-way exchange of favour rather than a one-way expression of moral appreciation. But, our yet neo-feudal society, has yet to shake off the definitions of social values of the past.

Thus, gifts, although clearly implying a value of exchange of favour, are still overtly described as ‘santhosam’ rather than ‘pandam’.

And our society is currently replete with this practice – in most spheres of life, from government and administration to business deals to industry, and in even such socially crucial sectors as, Education and Health.

School teachers – underpaid as they continue to be – are, nevertheless, highly valued by the parents of students. As education continues to evolve as a highly competitive process of skills and knowledge accumulation, as attainment of qualifications continues to be the basis of much social upward mobility, school teachers and their professional service to students have high value.

Ironically, this rising value of school teachers is yet to be recognized in terms of their salaries and professional standing. Teachers remain probably the most underpaid technical and professional workers in this country. Is it any surprise, therefore, that parents have resorted to gifting in order that the professional appreciation of school teachers is enhanced at least in this informal fashion?

The spectre of an intensely competitive future adult life for their children drives parents to resort to gifts of various kinds to teaching staff. The annual gift to class teachers has come to be a custom that is considered well within the generic Sri Lankan social custom of ‘santhosam’. Such gifting does not stop with teachers. It also extends to the school’s ‘extra-curricular activities’ ranging from aesthetics and arts training to sports.

It is not uncommon for trainers and coaches to favour some students over others in inclusion in school sports teams and arts troupes based on how much ‘support’ they receive from fawning parents. Whether a student remains merely in the ‘pool’ of a school sports team or actually gets to play in a match, often depends on parents’ gifting of various kinds, from bottles of whisky to even jobs for coaches’ own children or other favours.

Minister Kariyawasam’s initiative is indeed welcome, but the mere issue of circulars, even if they attempt to define ‘gifts’ precisely, is only the first step in an enormous task. After all, the mechanisms and regulations required to ‘police’ such gifting could become as expensive as a budgeted tiny salary hike for the country’s teachers.

The latest annual Government budget does not indicate any serious intent of expanded investment in Education (contrary to that election promise of “six per cent of Budget”). But, it is obvious to all that, without such increased investment, especially, in the financial gain to teachers, there will continue to be efforts by parents to make their own, informal and ‘private’ complementing of the school system budget allocation via gifts to their children’s teachers.

Cocaine again!

This time it was almost predicted! Last week, again, the Sri Lanka Customs and the Police Narcotics Bureau made a detection of a major smuggled consignment of cocaine.

News media first reported that the authorities were to further search freight shipping containers for possible new loads of smuggled cocaine. And, sure enough, they found hidden in the containers a large stock of this globally reviled narcotic substance – not just a few ounces of this expensive and potent narcotic, but 200 kgs of it.

This is the third detection, within months, of a large stock of illegal cocaine brought into the country in containers coming all the way from Brazil. And the containers seem to be part of the regular shipment of sugar exported from Brazil, a major sugar producer.

It is time that the authorities deepen their investigations and raise the veil of secrecy on what they are finding.

Sri Lanka is proudly touted as ‘the trans-shipment hub of South Asia’. But, the public needs to know how much this fame is being exploited by underworld elements in cahoots with unscrupulous business groups to trans-ship illegal narcotics on a massive scale to the rich consumer markets, both, east and west of Colombo port.