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Ministry of Industries: Working with Mr. Cyril Mathew



(Excerpted from the Memoirs of Chandra Wickremasinghe, Retd. Additional Secretary to the President)

In the National Housing Authority where I worked after returning from Canberra, I received the complete support of my friend Dunstan Jayawardena who was Chairman of the Authority, to effect an organizational restructuring of the Authority, recruit new technical personnel and revise the existing salary structure. The reorganization enabled officers who had come on secondment to the Authority from the Housing Dept., to exercise the option of staying on in the Authority as permanent employees of that organization. They benefited substantially by being placed at higher levels in the organizational hierarchy as well as receiving much higher salaries. With time, I was happy to note many of these officers, coming to occupy the highest management positions including those of Chairman, General Manager and Deputy General Manager.

The Authority was indeed a hive of activity with Minister Mr. Premadasa in his characteristic manner, pushing the implementation of the numerous housing projects he commenced throughout the island. He worked with incredible energy and commitment, virtually driving all officials to follow suit. However, following certain differences I had with the Secretary to the Ministry over the appointment of Managers to the Authority, I thought it best to leave the set up. Fortunately for me, Mr. Premadasa happened to be out of the island at the time which facilitated my exit without much fuss.

There were two positions available to me to move into viz. Deputy Commissioner of Food and Director /Corporations in the Ministry of Industries. I opted for the latter position where I had to work with Minister Mr. Cyril Mathew.

The Ministry of Industries, Science and Technology

The Ministry had at the time, 47 Corporations and Statutory Boards coming under its purview. These included, certain giant Corporations such as Petroleum, Steel, Ceramics, Paper, Salt, Fertilizer, Tyre etc. I got down to work straight away and got involved in the nitty gritty of things. Mr. Mathew who had a sharp mind, had the not too uncommon weakness of surrounding himself with party loyalists, the more qualified of whom were selected fortunately, as Chairmen of the many Corporations coming under the Ministry while the brawny types who had their own uses, were given the post conveniently designated ‘Working Director’. This latter category had confabulations with the Minister when certain disruptive activities had to be planned and carried out like breaking up rival party rallies, street marches etc.

I must however say that Mr. Mathew never interfered with the work assigned to me. Through the grape vine he may have learnt perhaps, that I was attending to my work conscientiously. Within one year he promoted me as Additional Secretary in the Ministry much to the chagrin of certain senior colleagues in the Service, some of whom, I learnt later, had even taken the matter up with Mr. DBIPS Siriwardhana, Secy. Public Aministration at the time. Mr. Siriwardhana, I was told, had made it clear to them that the appointment of Additional Secretaries was a matter for the Minister concerned.

Chairing Tender Boards

I found the work in the new Ministry quite challenging, having to Chair Tender Boards of about 15 Corporations on an on –going basis. Additionally, I was appointed to Chair the standing Tender Board in Agro-Chemicals of the Petroleum Corporation which work alone, was quite a handful. I must say that the Minister had complete faith and trust in my integrity and aptitude in handling all these Tender Boards. I must also reiterate here for the record that Minister Cyril Mathew never interfered with any of my ‘tender’ work. I must however, further state here with much regret, that certain friends of mine (outside the Ministry) did try to influence me on tender matters, going to the extent of asking me to remain silent during certain Tender Board meetings. This I vehemently declined to do, stating categorically that as Chairman of a Tender Board, it was clearly my duty to ensure that a poor country like ours, should get the best supplies on offer and also ensure that we get our money’s worth. Happily for me, word spread around quickly and I was never bothered thereafter with such unfortunate requests. What I would like to stress here is that once people realize that you cannot be bought over, you are seldom approached by these wheeler –dealer types with their sly requests.

As a Director of the Central Environmental Authority, I had the benefit of attending a Seminar at D.S.E. Berlin in June-July 1982, on Industrial Pollution and Abatement. The CEA also sponsored my participation at a seminar on the pollution of lakes and reservoirs in Tokyo, Japan in September 1984.

Most of the 47 Corporations and Statutory Bodies coming under the Ministry had professionals as their Chairmen who for the most part, discharged their duties with due diligence and competence. However, there were a few Heads of Corporations who abused their positions and tried to make a fast buck. The Minister who had his own unofficial grapevine in this regard, was kept well informed by his many informants, of any irregularities in the numerous Depts. and Corporations coming within his purview.

I recall the Minister summoning me to his room one day to say that he was not at all happy with some of the untoward goings on in the Ceramic Corporation as he had received many complaints from customers about commodes and bathroom fittings cracking up within an year or so of their purchase. He instructed me to visit the Ceramic Factory in Piliyandala with Deputy Chief Accountant Sivaguru and check on the procedures followed and report to him. Siva and I accordingly, decided to visit the factory the following day. Interestingly, on the morning of our scheduled visit to the factory, I received an anonymous telephone call enquiring from me whether I was going to inspect the factory that day. On my replying in the affirmative, the caller who refused to identify himself, said in a matter of fact tone ‘We are having the kiln ready for you and the Accountant when you visit us’.

I replied that we were coming in any case, as it was our duty to inspect the factory and report to the Minister. Siva and I had our suspicions as to who the anonymous caller was as we had been forewarned that there was a supervisor with political backing who was ruling the roost there. We were not going to be cowed down by any threats and just laughed the whole thing off saying that ‘we would face things as they come’! We were also told that this unsavoury character was in the habit of even assaulting employees who did not do his bidding and was virtually terrorizing the entire place. When we visited the Piliyandala Factory as scheduled, we were met by the General Manger who though a nice person, looked a rather docile individual. We were thereafter, taken round the factory and shown the different stages of the entire production process.

At this stage, I requested specifically that we be taken to the kiln and the supervisor concerned promptly led us there. Siva and I deliberately got close to the kiln and peered into it’s blazing interior. Siva, who was a qualified Chartered Accountant, questioned the supervisor closely on the duration of time assigned for each stage of the production process etc. Having collected all the required detailed information both from the GM and the Supervisor concerned ,we retired to the GM’S office and obtained whatever further information we deemed necessary for our investigation and left the factory.

On our return to the Ministry, Siva and I pored over the notes and the relevant information we had taken down on our visit. It became clear to us that the problem of breakages lay in the deliberate acceleration of the production process particularly at the stage of firing of the ceramic ware in the kiln. By such deliberate acceleration, the culprits had ensured an output higher than what was reflected in the production statistics, enabling them to divert the created excess clandestinely, out of the factory to be sold to shops outside.

The following day we gave our report to the Minister explaining in detail what we had discovered. The Minister told us that his suspicions about the people behind the racket, had been confirmed by our findings. Late that evening, the Minister telephoned me and said that he had shown our report to a certain gentleman who was he said, with him at the time. I was aware that this gentleman was an influential person in the political set up at the time. The Minister then said that the particular gentleman would like to speak to me regarding the concerned subject. I recall clearly overhearing certain audible protests made by the gentleman concerned at the other end. Eventually, this gentleman came on line and spoke to me apologetically saying that although he had had suspicions about this particular supervisor, he had not till the time the irregularities had been revealed by our inspection, been able to confirm his suspicions. He further assured me that he would initiate an inquiry against him and see that he was disciplinarily dealt with. He further said that he had assured the Minister that he would guarantee that no irregularities would be permitted to occur in the factory in the future. The Minister came on line again and thanked me and Siva for giving him the report while apologizing, in his characteristically gentlemanly manner, for having disturbed me at that late hour.

Poverty the biggest polluter in developing countries

This was also the time when developed countries were obsessed with the spectre of a rapidly depleting ozone layer and were frantically adopting sophisticated pollution prevention measures in their industrial production processes. This was the run up to the Kyoto Protocols. They were equally anxious to impose these high standards in the running of ‘struggling’ industries in developing countries which were trying desperately to break free of the poverty trap. While having a conversation with the Minister on the subject, I casually expressed the view that it was grossly unfair of developed countries to badger developing countries to conform to these high standards of pollution prevention, as these highly industrialized, affluent countries had built up their economic and material prosperity on decades of indiscriminate abuse of the environment and on the worst forms of exploitation of women and children.

Developing countries on the other hand, which suffered from widespread poverty and were struggling to industrialize, could not possibly think of maintaining pristine environments by investing in costly additional facilities to minimize environmental pollution, which meant burdening the end product by the additional cost that had to be incurred thereby, which clearly meant eroding the competitive edge our exports enjoyed. Furthermore, I said that China, was the least concerned, despite the pressures brought to bear on them by the West, about maintaining pollution standards, in their determined drive towards rapid industrialization, which was accorded the highest priority in their single minded endeavour to reduce mass poverty in that country. I also said that our major concern should be the alleviation of poverty through a sustained developmental thrust ,as poverty was our biggest polluter.

The Minister who had listened carefully to what I said, wanted me to prepare a brief note incorporating these points and hand it over to Sarath Perera who was the Additional Secretary handling the subject. This was accordingly done by me. To my surprise a major headline carried in the following day’s newspapers read – ” The Ministry of Industries takes the view that the strict industrial pollution standards followed in the developed Western countries need not be adopted here.” It should be remembered that these decisions were taken more than 30 years ago when more than 60% of the population of this country was living at subsistence level, occupying substandard housing with no proper facilities for sewage and waste disposal.

Poverty alleviation was hence, a major policy imperative we had to pursue relentlessly. There was no gainsaying that there was widespread environmental pollution stemming from widespread poverty. But the hard logic that had to be underscored was that, poverty was indeed, irrefutably, the biggest polluter in poor developing countries. This was why they were according the highest priority to poverty alleviation and were trying frantically to break loose of what seemed an inexorable poverty cycle, through rapid industrilisation.

I also benefitted by attending a workshop on “Modern Management Techniques” at the D.S.E. Berlin in June – July 1983. I had to leave the Ministry of Industries under somewhat distressing circumstances. Mahinda Bandusena who was Senior Asst. Secy. of the Ministry at the time, and I were entrusted by the Minister the rather unenviable task of handling disciplinary inquiries against certain errant Heads of Corporations coming under the Ministry. It was a painful task given to us as some of the Corporation Heads were our close friends. But the Minister did not seem to be affected by these sensitivities and insisted that we carry on with these Inquiries.

I remember one particular case where I conducted an inquiry against a Chairman of a Corporation who had defalcated a substantial amount of money. There was enough evidence to conclude that the said Chairman had defrauded the Corporation and my report was submitted to the Minister along with my findings. The Minister summoned me the next morning and I found the Chairman seated before the Minister with his head bowed. The Minister at that stage gave me the file containing my report asking me to read the section on my findings. At the end of it, the Minister asked the Chairman what he had to say. As the Chairman remained silent, the Minister berated him saying that he was being badly let down by the Chairman and wanted the latter to pay back the full amount of money he had misappropriated immediately. The said Chairman I was told, had post haste paid back the full amount of money and had thereafter got himself warded, purportedly seeking treatment for high blood pressure. He had remained in hospital for a week and on his return to office, had been given another severe tongue lashing by the Minister who I was told, had felt sorry for him and accommodated him in another Statutory Board in the Ministry.

I still recall vividly an incident which happened when the Ministry Votes were being debated in Parliament with myself, Bandu and other Ministry official looking on from the Officials’

Box. We were embarrassed no end when Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who was at the time in the Opposition, pointed to us and said in Sinhala –”There you can see the Minister’s Supreme Court, Mr. Chandra Wickramasinghe and Mr. Mahinda Bandusena. They are the two who sit in judgment over Chairmen of Corporations”. (Recorded in Hansard.)

All this was in addition to the normal duties I was saddled with. Mahinda Bandusena too was similarly burdened with this additional workload. The Minister who was however, impatient to have these inquiries finalized in double quick time (which would have been most unfair by the accused persons most of whom happened to be our friends), summoned the two of us to his office at Flower Road and berated us for ‘delaying’ these inquiries. We both thought that the Minister was being unfair by us and tried to explain to him why we could not possibly accelerate these inquiries. However, the Minister was in no mood to hear us out. As we left the Minister’s office I told Bandu that I was leaving the Ministry and would look for a suitable place immediately.

I telephoned Mr. DBIPS Siriwardhana that afternoon and conveyed my intention of leaving the Ministry. I remember distinctly his cynical laugh while asking me “Do you take these characters seriously? They are just birds of passage and you should not get emotionally affected by what they say”. However, as I was insistent on leaving, he asked for two days for him to try and do something. However, within half an hour, he rang back and asked me whether I was interested in the post of Additional Secy. in the new Ministry of National Security where he had just been appointed Secretary. I promptly said that I would be privileged to serve under him but at the same time expressed certain doubts about my being able to secure my release from the Industries Ministry. Mr. Siriwardhana laughed and said that Minister Mathew should be happy to see me leave, having given me a blackguarding!

The next morning Mr. Mathew called me to the Ministry and was very sweet to me. I was with him for a good two hours and in between consultations he had with officials, he asked me what I thought about some new projects that came up for discussion and also sought my opinion about certain officers who visited him that morning. I however, was discreetly reticent particularly in expressing my personal views on certain officers most of whom were known to me well. When he was about to leave office I thought it was time for me to inform him that I would be leaving the Ministry. From the manner he reacted, it was clear that it came as a shock to him.

He asked me where I was going and the Minister in charge of the Ministry concerned. When I informed him that it was the new Ministry of National Security which had been created by the President, he realized that he would not be able to block my release. He then asked me who would succeed me and when I suggested a few names he did not seem happy with them and said that he would find a suitable successor. I liked Mr. Mathew despite the reputation he had for using strong arm tactics. Apart from the last episode which he obviously regretted, going by the manner he treated me the following day, I must say that he was extremely good to me during my stay of four years in that Ministry.

However, when I was leaving the Ministry to take up the appointment as Additional Secy. in the newly created Ministry of National Security, I was somewhat amused when a member who regularly served on these Tender Boards, told me that he was happy to see me leave, as I did not make money for myself nor did I allow others to do so! Although I was momentarily taken aback by what the person said, I knew again that it was indeed, a grudging compliment paid to me.





by Jehan Perera

A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.

The government has addressed the immediate causes that brought the people out on to the streets. The crippling shortages of vehicle fuel and cooking gas that caused long lines stretching for kilometers are not to be seen. There is enough to go around now as the demand for these basic commodities has dropped considerably following the tripling of their prices. There is an outward appearance of normalcy that belies the economic difficulties that the masses of people are facing. The three-wheel driver lamented that his monthly electricity bill of Rs 700 was now Rs 3200 which made keeping his refrigerator unaffordable. Government officers on fixed incomes are struggling to survive having pawned their jewellery and mortgaged their lands for survival. Those who can leave the country seem to be leaving.

The government has also shown it is prepared to use the security system to its maximum. This has won some supporters especially among the upper social classes and ethnic minorities who are always worried whether mobs of the under classes will invade their neighborhoods and subject them to looting and violence. After becoming president, President Wickremesinghe showed his resolve in bringing the protest movement to heel by sending the police to break it up and arrest the leaders. Protestors have been warned that their protests should not inconvenience the general public.

Those who do not heed the police guidelines have found themselves being tear-gassed, baton-charged and arrested. In contrast to the heyday of the protest movement a year ago, any voice of public dissent is liable to be quickly suppressed. A case in point would be that of the unfortunate hooter. As reported extensively in the media, a government minister who was laying a foundation stone for a religious shrine was hooted by a businessman who was travelling in his vehicle. The media reported that “the police acted swiftly, pursuing and apprehending the suspect. He will now be produced before the court for obstructing a religious ceremony.”


The contrast with what happened a year ago could not be more stark. The main slogans of the Aragalaya protests was to arrest the rogues who had bankrupted the country and compel them to bring back to the country their ill-gotten gains. The draft Anti-Terrorist law that has been approved by the Cabinet to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is, in many ways, a more repressive law that will encompass a much wider swathe of social and political life. Clause 105 in it defines a “person” who can be taken into custody under this law to mean an individual, an association, organisation or body of persons.” Readers of George Orwell’s classic novel of authoritarian government, “1984” would feel a chill if that new law is passed when they think of protesting against the government.

A key demand of the protest movement last year was the demand for “system change.” At its core this was a desperate call for a change of government that had bankrupted the country and accountability and punishment for those who had impoverished the people by their mis-governance, corruption and indifference to the people’s plight. Another terminology for “systems change” would be to say that the people called for a new “social contract.” The notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled was developed over four centuries ago in Europe by Enlightenment era thinkers such as by John Locke in England and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France who gave the name “The Social Contract” to his 1762 book.

The social contract theorists argued that people left the state of nature where without government life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (as described by their predecessor Thomas Hobbes). People entered into a social contract with those who would govern them. In terms of the social contract, the people would give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection and order by the government. In modern democracies, people elect their representatives who form the government of the day and look after the best interests of the people. But in March 2022, the people of Sri Lanka felt hat their government had not lived up to the social contract and demanded they leave office and return their ill-gotten gains.


Those who continue to come out on the streets in protest demand elections and also demand to know why the government has not made efforts to bring back the money that was stolen. What is visible at the present time is that most of the government members who were responsible leaders of the previous government continue to remain in positions of power, either frontally or behind the scenes. There continue to be allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In one appalling instance, two government ministers resigned from a watchdog committee they were appointed to. They complained that they were not getting the information they required to play their assigned roles.

Sri Lanka has yet to address the monumental failure of government that took place in the early part of 2022 that plunged the country from a middle income level to a low income level. When the people went out on to the streets to protest and call for a “systems change” they were demanding that the government should step down and go. But it did not go and instead re-arranged itself and continues to be in power. Much to the chagrin of the protest movement, the government they wanted to go has grown stronger under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and is ignoring the demand for “system change” and those who call for local government elections which are overdue.

Speaking to students at Harvard University last week through the internet, President Wickremesinghe made it known that the government would abide by the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the elections. A confrontation involving the three branches of government would signify a “systems breakdown” in place of the “systems change” that people fought for a year ago. The president has also taken pride in announcing that the government will soon be passing into law the best anti-corruption legislation in South Asia in parliament soon. If the president’s vision of sustainable political stability and economic recovery is not to be a re-enactment of the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, there needs to indeed be a “systems change”, a plan for the future prepared in consultation with the opposition and civil society and a new “social contract” in which elections would be the first step.

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Free Education, Social Welfare and the IMF Programme



by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Sri Lanka’s seventeenth IMF agreement sealed last week may well prove to be the most devastating one of them all. The reason is that the agreement comes along with Sri Lanka having defaulted on its external debt for the first time in its history. The IMF amounts to being the arbiter of the debt restructuring process with Sri Lanka’s external creditors, which will provide considerable leverage for Sri Lanka to be held accountable to IMF conditionalities.

The fallout of the IMF package will be wide and deep, greater than the Structural Adjustment Programm e with the IMF in the late 1970s, when our cherished social welfare system came under attack. In this Kuppi column, I address some of the dangers facing our education system. Education is inextricably linked to welfare and democracy, and in the years ahead the nexus of the IMF and the current avatar of the neoliberal state are likely to impose an authoritarian regime of dispossession. The future of Free Education in our country now depends on tremendous resistance by our students and teachers along with solidarity from all quarters of the working people.

Welfare and democracy

Social welfare in Sri Lanka reaches back to the 1940s. It included food subsides, free education and free healthcare, which were all universal schemes. The IMF packages and the World Bank programmes since the neoliberal turn in the late 1970s have consistently attempted to weaken such universal social welfare programs in the interest of creating a market economy, including through the commercialisation of education and healthcare. Neoliberal ideology privileges the individual, and by the same token places the entire burden of wellbeing on the individual. As the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who, along with US President Ronald Reagan, initiated the neoliberal age on a global scale—famously said, “there is no such thing as society”.

This rejection of society is at the heart of the attack on social welfare, as the IMF and World Bank are now in the process of changing the very idea of social welfare itself into a narrow concept of targeted cash transfer programmes. This attack on the social aspect of welfare entails both granting enormous discretionary power to those in power to determine which individuals can obtain minimal support, in addition to the monetisation of such entitlements, which over time would likely be reduced or inflated away.

Historically, universal social welfare came after the policy of universal adult franchise in 1931. Furthermore, universal free education policies, as they emerged in the mid-1940s, were framed in terms of strengthening the ability of Sri Lanka’s citizens to exercise power through their democracy. In this context, today’s attack on universal social welfare is a key part of the agenda of an illegitimate and undemocratic regime in power. Moreover, the regime’s vision of the education system derives from the IMF’s technocratic assumption that the goal should be to create subservient employees for a market economy, rather than democratic-minded people who can become agents of social, economic and political change.

Austerity, dispossession, and resistance

The attack on education is not only ideological, in terms of the neoliberal emphasis on individualism. The austerity measures that are inherent to the current IMF programme are also material. They are bound to reduce the allocations for education. The Government is being forced to find avenues to create a primary budget surplus by next year. This will further lead to initiatives for the commercialisation of education; for example, the expansion of fee-levying programs in the state university system, loan schemes for education, and the initiation of private educational institutions, including private universities.

The logic of the IMF programme and the unfolding developments will dispossess people of one of their most important social welfare entitlements: education. There is already evidence of rising school dropouts, of children not being sent regularly to school, children fainting at school due to the lack of food, and children having to labour for their existence. University students are finding transport costs unaffordable and even lunch packets are becoming out of their reach. These are the consequences of a contracting economy due to the austerity measures that have been imposed. Indeed, our economy has contracted by as much as a fifth over the last few years. The critical gains of social welfare made after the Great Depression of the 1930s in our country are now in danger of being completely rolled back because of the ongoing economic depression along with the IMF programme making it worse.

The dismal prospects for our country can only be addressed by solidarity and resistance. We need to regain our sense of social belonging, which was undone through the very attack by neoliberalism on the idea of society, while taking forward the struggle for democracy. The great struggles last year that dislodged an authoritarian populist president provide hope that despite decades of neoliberal policies, working people’s capacity to envision society, solidarity, and resistance are very much alive.

We are going through the most painful period of our postcolonial history. It is a moment in which, even as our economy is collapsing, our elite are working in cahoots with the IMF and global finance capital, which have achieved a stranglehold on us by leveraging the default and the bankrupt state of our country. In the context of this existential danger, for those of us concerned about safeguarding free education and, for that matter, any meaningful system of education, this time around that struggle must begin from a broader defence of social welfare and democracy.

The author is attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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The Box of Delights – II



Seeing through testing times and future

Text of the keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences,

University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.

Sadly, too, the GELT materials we produced are now forgotten, though in the end they were taken up by Cambridge University Press in India and prescribed too at some Indian universities. But in this country producing materials is a way of making money and so, though three years ago the UGC asked about using our materials again, they were prevented from making use of these, and individual universities demanded autonomy and nothing went forward as swiftly as our poor youngsters needed.

Delay also affected the curriculum reform I initiated when I chaired the NIE AAB [Academic Affairs Board]. I had told the then Education Secretary Tara de Mel that we should move immediately, but for once that normally efficient lady was diffident, and said we should wait. Six months later she told me to go ahead, and we did, swiftly, but then Chandrika Kumaratunga lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness and the new President and his Minister simply did not understand the need for continuity, and the vital changes we had embarked on were forgotten.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa and Susil Premjayanth did continue with perhaps the most important initiative begun under Tara—the English medium in secondary schools in the government system. That had begun in 2001, but was sabotaged by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister at the end of that year. But his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, a former Vice-Chancellor of this University, was more enlightened, and ignored Ranil’s instructions that he halt the programme, and it continued. He was lucky not to be tear-gassed, but, in those days, there were some restraints on unbridled authority with the forces then more supportive of alternatives.

But the teacher training programme I had started with support from Paru and Oranee, had to stop. The NIE then took that over and completely destroyed the learner friendly approach we had initiated, with its hierarchy promoting formulas, such as three Ts and then five Es and seven Ks, gloriously asserted in lengthy sentences such as ‘Also the teacher should closely observe the children learning, identifying students’ activities, disabilities, providing feedback, developing the learning capacities of the students and making implements to extend the learning and teaching outside the classroom are some other tasks expected from the teacher.

As I commented on this in English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence?, ‘It might seem churlish to cavil about the two main verbs in this sentence, were this not an instructional guide to English teachers, with three language editors who have doubtless been well paid for their pains, or the lack of them.

Training then was in the hands of the NIE, and the programme began to flounder. But, fortunately, the contract to produce books had been for two years, and Nirmali continued in charge of this, so at least a good foundation was laid, though after that the Ministry and the NIE took over and the usual tedious stuff was reintroduced. Our efforts to introduce wider knowledge, and creative thinking, were abandoned totally, unsurprising given the ignorance I had found in those entrusted with producing textbooks at the NIE (which managed once to produce a history syllabus which left out the French and the Industrial Revolutions in the whole secondary school curriculum). Let me, to prove my point, give you an extract from what the NIE managed to produce

‘Red the story …

Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway have a nice time” bye.

So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys

She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted.

“He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail it’s marvellous”

“Monkey usually do that’

And, so it seems does the NIE, was my comment. Unfortunately, I cannot in a speech make clear the carelessness with regard to punctuation and spelling, but a printed version will show just how appalling the NIE usage of English is and the callousness of inflicting half-baked stuff on our children.

Despite all this English medium has survived, but that it could have done so much better is obvious from the continuing proliferation of private English medium schools. Interestingly, the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I met after many years, reminded me that in the early nineties he had wanted me to work at the Ministry to remedy the situation, but he had abandoned the effort when officials at the Ministry opposed this, understandably so given that I do not tolerate nonsense. And though Tara was made of sterner stuff, and did make use of my services, two changes of regime before things could be consolidated meant that our children still get short shrift as far as English Language Learning is concerned.

I have spoken thus far of English at university level and in schools. I have also worked on English for vocational training, first thirty years ago when the World University Service of Canada commissioned a basic textbook for those starting on vocational training, then more comprehensively when I chaired the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.

Having discovered that what were termed NVQ Levels 1 and 2, supposed to prepare youngsters for vocational training, hardly existed, I started Career Skills courses at those levels, to develop other soft skills and in particular English capacity, and these rapidly became the most popular courses in the system. After all, I had done a trawl and found that parents wanted something for their children to do in the fallow period after the Ordinary Level examination. Uniquely, Sri Lanka wastes the time of its youngsters by delaying the resumption of school, a boon to the tuition industry which embarks on recruitment and hooks youngsters for the next few years.

Needless to say, when I was sacked, the English courses were abolished, and successive Ministers of Education, who now have charge also of vocational education, bleat about the need for more English but do nothing to promote this. Least of all do they think of learning from the past, and far from reinventing the wheel, they simply talk about movement while allowing all means of transport to be dismantled, with parents and children who have been left in the lurch turning if they can to private education, tuition in particular.

As your former Vice-Chancellor perceptively put it, when I was last here, the education system is abandoned by those who have the means to pursue alternatives, and it is only the most deprived who cling to it. And whereas any country with a conscience would do its best by the deprived, decision makers in Sri Lanka do not care about them – like the Mr Lokubandara, who ranted against English in the state system and sent his son to an international school, and then when I reprimanded him told me sanctimoniously that it was his wife who had insisted on that.

Is there then no hope? I fear not, and now I can understand the despair of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s brilliant analysis of the failure of the British in imperialism, and her lament that “I thought there might be some changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly as it was when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”’ I rather fear then that your Vice-Chancellor’s observation will prove even more apposite in the years to come. There was a brief moment three years ago, when covid first hit us, when I thought the system would bestir itself to provide alternatives, but I fear nothing of the sort happened.

But let me end now with what should have happened. Given that the onset of covid saw closure of schools and institutions, there should have been efforts to develop curricula appropriate for a time when face to face contact would not be easy. And this required, as I started by saying, thinking as learners do, and tailoring the content of curricula, as well as systems to convey it, to the abilities of learners, not teachers.

This was particularly important in the context of 2020 in which learners had limited access to teachers. But our decision makers could not think on these lines, nor understand that the key to this was simple materials, that are not just user friendly but that will allow learners to gain not only knowledge but also relevant thinking skills on their own. Provision could and should have been made for guidance, but this had to be minimal, and also provided through small group clusters, where students could learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance at a higher level as available. I recall vividly the brilliant initiative of Oranee Jansz, in insisting that all GELT students not only did a project, but that they dramatized this. This proved a wonderful motivating factor, and students in the remotest of areas worked hard together, and the synergy they developed, to use one of Oranee’s favourite words, led to rapid learning by even those who had been initially very weak.

Such a system was especially important for youngsters in rural communities, and could have been activated in 2020, at a time when communication was difficult, and where the panacea authorities developed, of online contact, was not easy, and in many instances not even possible. But as I have noted, those rural communities are of no concern to our decision makers, whose main motivation is to have their children advance through educational systems different from those the majority of our children have to undergo. They are not at all like Oranee, or one of the academics I remember most fondly from my time at this university, Prof Wickremaarachchi, who started an accountancy course in English medium only, and noted that one had failed as a teacher if one’s students did not end up better than oneself.

To continue, in the midst of a country in a desperate plight, with the positives this university could develop, I will revert to the last time I was here, in December, and highlight again the initiative I mentioned when I began, to work through the national library system to promote English through entertainment for early learners. The project which has been developed suggests at last, after two decades, an effective approach to extending opportunities and means of learning.

This can easily be taken further, at all levels – and work on this has begun – to fill gaps that the state has sedulously ignored for several decades. Costs would be minimal, if only innovators such as the personnel here responsible for the initiative were given a free hand. I can only hope that, with the support of the hierarchy here, and the other players who have combined to take this forward, from the Governor of the Northern Province to the Chairman of the National Library Services Board, that this initiative will lead to the proliferation of user friendly materials and personnel able to use them productively.

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