Jaipur - The Pink City


Text of a keynote address given at an Aide et Action Workshop, Jaipur, November 3rd 2009. 

 I am honoured to be with you here at this workshop in Jaipur, nearly forty years after I was first in this beautiful pink city. I was a schoolboy then, traveling around India on a shoestring budget, and my mind went back to the attitudes and approaches that seemed so natural then, seeing poverty and deprivation and also enjoying the marvelous hospitality of so many from all walks of life.


 I was full of egalitarian ideals then, and I remember being told by those older and wiser than I was that it would be unnatural not to be some sort of a Marxist in one’s youth, just as it would be quite unnatural to continue a Marxist twenty years later, when one had grown up. In actual fact, when the world had grown older, twenty years later, it seemed that Marxism had been proved conclusively wrong, and the thrust for equality was entirely wrong-headed, and could lead only to increasing deprivation for all. 

Twenty years after that however it seems that the prescription of growth alone will not work, that not only is the trickle down effect a chimaera, but also that the hidden hand does not always operate. Now the consensus is that there is need of at least some targeted state effort to prevent total chaos. This does not however mean that we should go back to the statist socialism that caused so many problems for your country and mine in the first few decades after independence. 

But it does suggest that, whereas equality is not something that we can achieve or which we can pursue with either justice or success, we should never cease from pursuing equality of opportunity. In that sense the past couple of years has been a healthy corrective to cynicism, and a signal that at least some element of our youthful ideals should never leave us. 

In that respect the area we should concentrate on most, and which is the subject of your workshop here, is education. That is the tool that states and individuals have, to relieve to at least some extent the inherent unfairness of the world in which we live. And in Sri Lanka certainly it is unfairness springing from deprivations suffered because of our education system that have perhaps created the greatest bitterness. When I talk therefore of children affected by conflict, I am not talking only of those adversely affected by restrictions caused by LTTE control of certain parts of our country until very recently, I am talking of deprivations imposed by attitudinal oppositions which allowed for neglect of the basic interests of the young. 

Let me begin with a simple statist decision made over sixty years ago, well before we got our independence, a decision that straitjacketed all our children in a restrictive monolingualism. This was perhaps the result of idealism, because when J R Jayewardene, later our President, moved that Sinhala be compulsorily the medium of instruction for all children, he was in fact reacting to English which he saw as an instrument of colonial oppression. When it was pointed out to him that this would be unjust to Tamils, he promptly accepted an amendment to make Tamil an alternative. 

 It did not occur to him that this would be unfair on those children who would then have no decent opportunities to learn an international language. That measure, restricted though it was then, in the early forties, to primary education, led to an extension to secondary education in the early fifties. And, though in theory English was to be learnt as a second language, it was not compulsory to pass in this at any public examination, so the result was that English was generally neglected. The children of the elite continued to have good English, and were thus able to compete in the world at large, but for the vast majority of our people opportunities for advancement were closed off. 

 For Tamil youngsters things were much worse, since they did not have equal access to the majority of jobs in government service. Since, in the statist approaches of the sixties and seventies, most jobs were state jobs, this was a serious problem indeed. And then, in the early seventies, we introduced another measure, again ostensibly egalitarian, that closed doors even more firmly in the faces of bright Tamil youngsters. 

 That was not the intention. When the government introduced a policy of standardization with regard to university entrance in the early seventies, it was intended to benefit those in areas where education was inferior, ie it was a system rather like your reservation system, designed to increase the chances of the worse off. In fact students from rural Tamil areas benefited from this, as did students from rural Sinhala areas. But, with the two areas worst hit being Colombo and Jaffna, whereas youngsters from Colombo had recourse to private sector jobs, those from Jaffna had no such outlet for their talents. Thus it is no coincidence that Velupillai Prabhakaran belongs to the first batch of students affected by standardization.   

In those days there were no alternatives. So we had youngsters growing up without being able to communicate with one another, developing deep resentments. And, just to compound the problem, instead of fitting children into just two compartments, based only on language, we devised three, sending children either to Sinhala medium schools, or to what were termed Tamil Tamil medium schools, or to Muslim schools which were also in the Tamil medium. Incidentally for about twenty years after we first straitjacketed children into monolingualism, Muslim children were permitted to study in the English medium, for which there is no rational explanation save that the then Minister of Education was Muslim, and an intelligent educationist at that. But I should mention that this concession was taken advantage of only in a few urban areas, and the vast majority of deprived Muslim students suffered the straitjacket just as did their Sinhala and Tamil peers. 

Another aspect of there being no alternatives to the statist system was that we had very few universities, so that the vast majority of those who qualified for higher education received none. We were also, in accordance with the traditional British system, very grudging about higher qualifications, so that these could be obtained only for academic courses, not for vocational training. The regular expansions of opportunities for higher education that the British engaged in, as with for instance the upgrading of polytechnics some years back, was not something our restrictive decision makers could conceive of. 

Sadly they were encouraged in this approach, as when for instance a visionary Chairman of the University Grants Commission started Affiliated University Colleges for vocation oriented training, by a student body that unashamedly insisted on a very narrow framework for the qualifications that gave them such an advantage over their peers who had no access to university. Such niggardliness continues in the resentment over degree level courses for paramedics for instance, which means that a field in which lucrative employment would be available internationally is closed to our youngsters, who will therefore find it difficult to compete against their peers from other countries. 

 I should note however some changes on the positive side recently, and I hope very much that the determination of the government to fast forward remedial measures for the children now most obviously affected by conflict will lead to radical change. A decade ago the government took measures to teach Sinhala and Tamil effectively to those who studied in the medium of the other language. It also allowed the option of English medium education, and this is now available in several state schools all over the country. Earlier it had been restricted to what were termed international schools outside the national system, and the proliferation of these indicated that many parents would make the necessary sacrifices to provide better opportunities for their children. The State however ignored this clear indication of widespread demand for a couple of decades, before finally taking steps to make this more generally available for those not in a position to make the necessary financial sacrifices to benefit their children. 

Greater attention has also been paid to vocational training, with measures to enable incremental qualifications leading to degrees and diplomas as well as basic certification. One aim of this programme was to promote soft skills too, IT and English for instance, which would enhance employability, in particular for migrant workers. These skills will certainly form an essential component of training for youngsters affected by conflict, especially those who had been forced into fighting for the LTTE. We must make sure that a choice of lucrative employment is available to them if they are not to be tempted back into terrorism through resentment at what they see as inequality of opportunity. 

 Incidentally, emphasis on soft skills was a focus of a recent project grandiloquently titled ‘Improving the Relevance and Quality of University Education’, but this was not particularly successful, except in those universities which had already been addressing related problems. In many universities academics without soft skills themselves were unable or perhaps even unwilling to introduce changes that would make their students more employable than themselves. 

 Though this was disappointing, it should, on creative analysis, lead to programmes to ensure productive soft skills through the general education system as well. After all what are now requirements for gainful employment should be provided to all students, not just the tiny elite that manages to get to university. And we should be thinking not just of knowledge, but also of attitudes, of problem solving and decision making skills, of socialization in terms of sensitivity and win-win approaches. Our education system should be geared to change rather than inculcate the zero-sum defensiveness in which so many are now mired because of the relentless competitiveness the current system entrenches. 

 What would seem a threat then, the potential animosities of youngsters brutalized by conflict, can be turned to opportunity, in that catch up education in the North must be practical in terms of content, productive in terms of skills and positive in terms of attitudes. The systems that are developed, expeditiously and without the opposition of vested interests, can be transferred then to the country as a whole, to promote better employment prospects for all our youngsters. There is therefore a selfish motive as well for decision makers to get things right, in giving children affected by conflict remedial education that will make up for what they have suffered. 

 We can already see some innovative thinking, for instance in the plans for streamlined catch up education formulated now by the Ministry of Education, in the technical and vocational education that is steaming ahead in the North, in the enthusiasm of teachers and students for English and IT through formal as well as non-formal education. We need to build on this coherently, and ensure that, while infrastructural development goes on apace to make up to these our fellow citizens for years of neglect, we also promote the development of human resources that are also essential to ensure a prosperous future.