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Wage increase makes mockery of collective bargaining



by J. A. A. S. Ranasinghe

Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant.

This addendum to the topic is based on the incisive analysis of the plantation wages: Collective Bargaining or otherwise by Gotabaya Dasanayaka (GD) in The Island of 01st March 2021. The eminent labour legislation specialist, former Director General of the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) has most undoubtedly hit the nail on the head drawing the attention of the readers to more sensitive aspects revolving round the importance of the time-tested collective bargaining systems prevailed in the determination of wages of the plantation workers for over three decades in particular as well as to the possible economic consequences, the new wage structure gives rise to the survival of the plantation industry in general.


Industrial Dispute Act No 43 of 1950 (ID Act)

The ID Act quite explicitly deals with the functions of the Commissioner of Labour (CL) under part 11 of the Act which says when an industrial dispute arose, it shall be the duty of the CL to refer such disputes for settlement by conciliation or by arbitration or by an Industrial Court including that of a District Court. It should be noted here that neither the Minister in charge of Labour nor the Commissioner of Labour (CL) nor the Deputy Commissioner of Labour (Industrial Relations) nor any other authorized person seems to have the gumption to abide by aforesaid conciliatory methods as envisaged in the ID Act, when the collective bargaining process of the plantation workers came to a deadlock a few weeks ago.

The most sensible course of action what the Minister or the CL should have done was to have recourse the dispute in question to a compulsory arbitration as per the provisions of the ID Act for a just and equitable award as articulated by GD. The reluctance on the part of the Minister to refer this sensitive issue to the compulsory arbitration is a moot point. Probably, he may have thought that the decision of the arbitration would not be favourable to the trade union demands. On the other hand, he may have thought that the reference to the arbitration is a time-consuming affair and the trade unions agitation is too severe to be ignored. However, it is crystal clear that the Minister had totally condemned the gist of the ID Act in toto by referring it to the Wages Board by circumventing all the bottlenecks in the pipeline for the first time in the history by creating a new precedent. It must be stated here that nowhere in the ID Act that an unfettered latitude is granted for the Minister to refer this labour dispute to the Wages Board. It is highly questionable as to why the Regional Plantation Companies did not challenge the Labour Minister’s arbitrary decision by way of a writ before the court and finally bore the brunt of the unconscious increase of the wages, which has far-reaching ramifications over the plantation industry and the smallholder sector.


Wages Board Ordinance (WBO)

Under section 8 of the WBO, the minister is empowered to establish Wages Board (WB) for any trade. It is a tripartite constituency representing the officials of the Labour Department, employers and employees of a particular trade. At present, there are 45 wages boards for different trades including that of plantation, agriculture and manufacturing industries and they receive minimum wages protection under this WBO. As regards the plantation sector, employees of rubber plantations 25 acres and above, coconut plantations 10 acres and above and tea plantations-no limit on acreage, are protected by the WBO. Though WB has been in existence for the last seven decades, the collective bargaining process initiated by the ID Act and the WBO functioned in tandem without interfering in each other’s territory.

As a matter of fact, collective bargaining process is more instrumental among the more organized sector where collective agreements are in force. By and large, the wage structure in the organized sector where collective bargaining operate is far superior to that of the establishments covered by the Wages Board. The minimum wages paid to employees covered by the WBO are conspicuously lower than the wages paid under the collective agreements. The Wages Boards are considered to be subsistence level wages as referred to above and in sectors where the trade unions are virtually non-existent. Hence, it is unprecedented that a matter which is subject to collective agreement was referred to wages board by the Minister of Labour in the annals of the labour movement of this country without realizing the repercussions that could arise. It is true that the plantation workers were covered by a Collective Agreement and periodically it has been renewed after collective bargaining. In a matter covered by Collective Agreement, if any dispute arose, the matter should have been referred to compulsory arbitration under the ID Act. However, in this instance, it is surprising that the issue was referred to the relevant wages board at the instance of the Minister of Labour.

Wage Impact on the industry

Mr. GD in his well-articulated article made a comparison between the wage structure of the different Wages Board in selected trades and the proposed daily minimum wage for the Tea and Rubber Growing and Manufacturing Trades and pointed out the huge disparity, if the proposed daily minimum wage of Rs. 1,000/= is paid across the board. Both the tea and rubber sectors are owned 70% by the smallholders, definitely the proposed increase will have a deleterious impact on the productivity of the tea and rubber sectors and the smallholders can ill-afford to bear the increased wage at this juncture. Right at the moment, a large number of rubber small holders in Kegalle, Kalutara and Ratnapura districts have abandoned their plots in the face of the exsisting wages and the dearth of labour. Right at the moment, Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) make a desperate attempt to contain the high cost of production and there will be an inevitable impact-detrimental to the well-being of the industry, in the face of the enhanced wages approved by the Wages Board.

GD in his article had incorporated the minimum wages applicable to selected eight trades to pinpoint the irrational disparity of wages and I would go further to highlight the inadvisability of enhancing wages through the wages board mechanism.

The Collective Bargaining process stipulated in the ID Act provided a reasonable effective mechanism to maintain healthy industrial relations and a healthy industrial peace and harmony for the last 30 years. Moreover, the sustainability of the industry and the commercial viability on the basis of labour productivity, profitability and the efficiency of operations were some of the key prime-movers at the collective bargaining table, which both parties took cognizance of seriously. Every Dick, Tom and Harry knew quite well that the government made a solemn pledge at the Presidential Election as well as the last Parliamentary election that the daily wage of the estate workers would be enhanced to Rs. 1,000/= as per the election manifesto (Chapter 10 of the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour). It is this pledge that the government had to initiate at the last Annual Budget at the instigation of the labour trade unions in the estate sector.

Obviously, there are many obstacles both statutory and bureaucratic in the implementation of this pledge. The Commissioner of Labour (CL) who was well versed in the sustainability of the estate sector and the procedural initiatives involved as per the ID Act and Collective Bargaining Process was seen as a stumbling block and he had to be booted out by installing a provincial bureaucratic who was absolutely unaware of the commercial viability of the plantation sector, which is associated with many operational and financial ills.

It must be stated here in fairness to the former Commissioners of Labour in the calibre of Mr. G.Weerakoon and Mr. Mahinda Madihahewa who had served the Labour Department with distinction adroitly and they did not succumb to the political pressure and had the capacity to appraise both sides when critical labour issues arose in fairness to both parties but they relied heavily on the sustainability of the industry on a more priority basis in solving labour disputes. The Government realized that the collective bargaining process outlined in the ID Act was an impediment to the smooth implementation of the proposed wage structure. So, the government insidiously shifted from the time-tested mechanism of collective bargaining process to Wages Board to expedite the process. According to the grapevine circulating in the Labour Secretariat that three strong party acolytes were brought in as nominated members of the Minister to the Wages Board in order to ensure the easy passage of wage increment of Rs. 1,000/=.

Future Trends of the Labour Movement.

From the pattern of the signals hitherto displayed by the government that came into power in 2019, it appears that every vibrant sector would be confronted with insurmountable labour agitations. Firstly, the industry has been agitating to do away with the obnoxious requirement of paying Rs, 200,000/= in case of terminations under the Employment of Termination Act. The employers pointed out over a decade of time that it was difficult to bring in foreign investment with such a legislation. The government did a U Turn by enhancing the payment of compensation to Rs. 400,000/= instead of scrapping this piece of legislation. Secondly, the amount of workmen compensation in the event of a death of an employee due to a fatal accident was increased almost double, placing more financial burden to the employers at the instigation of the trade unions. The third scenario was the manner in which it deviated from the time-tested collective bargaining mechanism and imposed unbearable financial constraints by way of enhanced wages to the employees of the plantation industry. The industry is unaware of any other ill-logical motives to be moved in the pipe-line against the well-being of the industry in the foreseeable future. What would happen if the rest of the Wages Boards request enhanced wages quoting the unprecedented mechanism adopted by the government and the resultant chaos would be inevitable. Unlike those days, the trade unions have become more aggressive with their political affiliations with the government and the civil society too have extended their support to trade unions to win over their demands, as can be seen from the Colombo Port ECT deal. There is obviously writing on the wall that the country would be inundated with heaps of labour unrest issues with the wrong signals given by the government.


Financial assistance to RPCs

It is factually correct that Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) and smallholders were resisting the wage increase proposal on the ground that the financial resources do not permit them to incur this heavy expenditure. If this is the truth, nothing but the truth and the whole truth, the government has an inalienable duty to provide some financial assistance to RPCs by resorting to unorthodox avenues to alleviate its financial suffering even on short time basis. In this regard, Dr.Janaka Ratnasiri, a regular writer to The Island newspaper has made a pragmatic proposal in his feature dated 16th February 2021. He contends that export of tea is subject to a CESS levied at Rs. 10/- per Kg which works out to LKR 2.9 billion. Out of this, Rs. One billion is collected as tea promotion levy by Sri Lanka Tea Board from the exporters. Another 1% or 2.4 billion has to be paid to Brokers for conducting the auctions and carrying out quality control checks and certifying on samples received. These brokers comprising 8 Companies deserve it because they ensure that quality tea is exported. After paying taxes, the exporters are still left with a profit marginof about 65 billion annually. Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri argues that would be more prudent to share this profit among this plantation workers. Otherwise, it could be proportionately be distributed among the RPCs so that heavy financial implications arising out of this wage commitment could be mitigated.


Crises in the plantation industry

Consequent to the announcement of the new wage increase given to the plantation employees, there has not been any knee-jerk reaction from the plantation companies for the last one week. Their studious silence will have to be observed with much circumspection. Both the tea and rubber industries are on the verge of collapse owing to heavy financial implications and it is not clear as to how they absorb this unforeseen expenditure. It is certain that the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) would continue to incur heavy losses with this wage commitment. It could be reasonably assumed that the production and its quality will be the immediate casualties and this trend, if any, does not auger well for the sustainability of the plantation industry.

It would have been the ideal opportunity for the Labour Ministry to harp on productivity-based wage model as a bargaining tool, which the ministry has pathetically failed to convince, given the sizable salary package. The word “productivity” is anathema to trade unions in Sri Lanka including that of the plantation trade unions. The ramifications arising out of this wage increase are far-reaching in character and it is advisable for the Employers Federation of Ceylon to educate the members of its broader ill effects by way of a public seminar and convey its dissatisfaction to the government.

The biggest casualty in the aforesaid wage episode is the gradual demise of the collective bargaining process that led to Collective Agreements and plantation companies will have to think twice whether there is any rationale in entering into Collective Agreements by giving enhanced wages and other perks, if ill-conceived mechanisms are adopted by the government to give enhanced wages through Wages Boards by ignoring time-tested collective bargaining mechanism.


(The views contained in this article are the professional views of the writer and he could be contacted on

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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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