A path from poverty

Empowering Sri Lanka’s poorest communities through education

Sri Lanka’s tea estate communities are home to the nation’s most impoverished people.

Dr Sinniah K Navaratnarajah – who grew up in the Nuwara Eliya District, his parents working long, back-breaking hours in the tea fields – is living proof that education is the way out, and has made it his life’s work to lift the next generation to a better tomorrow.

“Education is the only tool to bring communities like mine to the next level,” Dr Navaratnarajah explains.

“Our people are struggling and our political system has long failed them, so it’s up to us. My mother only studied up to Grade Three and my father to Grade Five. They told me if I wanted to get out of the estate background and have a better life, I had to study.”

Educated in an underprivileged estate school aided by passionate teachers, Dr Navaratnarajah earned a place at the University of Peradeniya and became the first in his community to graduate with First Class Honours in a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. He subsequently completed a Master of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma in the Unites States and a PhD in Engineering at the University of Wollongong, acquiring knowledge, ideas, and networks to help him transform his home country’s future.

Returning to the University of Peradeniya as a senior lecturer and researcher, he secured a 40-million-rupee World Bank-funded AHEAD grant and embarked on a three-year research collaboration to improve the performance of higher-speed rail and utilise waste materials to reduce maintenance costs. The project has already produced more than 40 publications, and Dr Navaratnarajah has received numerous awards including the prestigious Sri Lankan President’s Award for Scientific Research and an Institution of Civil Engineers (United Kingdom) award for best paper published by overseas researchers.

“As train speeds increase, tracks can quickly become damaged. We have developed a novel rubber cushioning material, now in the process of patenting, that can be placed under concrete sleepers to significantly reduce damage and maintenance. We also developed on-site rail track testing facilities and trained many young researchers, including one MPhil and two PhD students, ready to help build Sri Lanka’s rail network of the future.”

But Dr Navaratnarajah’s role in advancing his nation’s potential through education begins much earlier in the pipeline. Determined to help children in his community escape the cycle of poverty, he volunteered as coordinator of the e-Kalvi Program for Sri Lanka upcountry schools.

“When COVID-19 forced everything online, students in our community couldn’t access education due to lack of internet or mobile phones. So we compiled all the teaching materials onto pen drives and distributed them to around 70 schools in the area, enabling students to learn together in a local home with a television.”

The project was transformative; far from slipping backwards, the district achieved Sri Lanka’s highest improvement rate in the 2020 GCE (O/L) general Government examinations. Spurred to scaffold these gains, Dr Navaratnarajah and his e-Kalvi colleagues gathered support from international NGOs to provide more than 60 smart classrooms nationally for digital and online learning.

The lack of education and qualified teachers in tea estate communities has bred fear of STEM subjects. As Founder and President of STEM Team Hatton, Dr Navaratnarajah is determined to dismantle those barriers and inspire a love of STEM in students from Grade 6 up, working alongside undergraduate students and graduates in STEM fields from his district to show the next generation what can be achieved with the right foundation.

“We run workshops, seminars, and classes each year in schools to introduce STEM education, show how important it is now and in the future, and help them choose the right degree. We’re now seeing a growing number of students interested in learning science, engineering, medicine, technology, and other fields.”

Additionally, Dr Navaratnarajah has provided scholarships to more than 70 disadvantaged students with the assistance of friends and NGO partners from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Dubai, with another 10 soon to be awarded, and provided educational materials and stationery to countless more. In a truly iconic project, the group has also built a library for the tea estate community, who had not seen or heard of such a facility previously.

“The students are so happy; instead of wasting time after school, they are in the library until 8pm focusing on their education. And it’s not just the students – their parents and the entire community are embracing the opportunity to use the library and learn new things, and to support their children to learn and access a better future.”

Despite the heavy load of this volunteer work alongside his academic career – Dr Navaratnarajah was eligible to apply for professorial promotion two years ago but has yet to find the time – he is advancing plans for the next stage of his education equity revolution.

“Every year I become involved in more projects; people hear about my work and ask me to help with their initiatives, and I don’t want to say no, so I help,” he says.

“With the growing influence of artificial intelligence in education, one of the major projects of our new organisation STEM-Kalvi, in which I am on the board of directors, is looking at how we can help students make use of these tools to enhance their studies.”

Dr Navaratnarajah is a finalist in the Social Impact category of the UOW Alumni Awards. The winner will be announced at a special gala event at the University of Wollongong on 12 October.

“This award is an honour not only for me but also for my community. I want to inspire young students coming out of that community to give back in whatever way they can, because if they don’t help, who will?

I also want to bring the world’s attention to the situation in our communities and the need for support.”