Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.

The ability to deal on equal terms with the world at large demands better English, which is an area we have neglected appallingly in the last few decades. In the old days I fear we had a very superior attitude to Indian English, and indeed we still find people in Sri Lanka who believe that only Colombo, apart from one or two denizens of Mayfair, now uses correctly the language of Shakespeare. Such people also look down on the Indian education system in comparison with ours, and talk loftily of our high literacy rates in comparison with the rest of the sub-continent.

Certainly we have much to be proud of with regard to basic education, but we seem since independence to have lagged further and further behind you with regard to promoting excellence. We killed diversity, we killed initiative. Contrariwise, you developed not only institutions such as the IITs, but also world class universities as well as research centres of accomplished professionalism, on a par with the best in the rest of the world.

We have begun now to understand this, and I am pleased that we are relying on India for support for the new Spoken English initiative. Ten years ago the Ministry of Education wanted to promote cooperation with the Centre in Hyderabad, but this died away with the advent of Ranil Wickremesinghe to power, and it was not revived until a couple of years ago.

But in addition to that, we should learn too from you about the promotion of English medium education for not just the privileged, about the programmes you are developing for public-private partnerships in education, about the development of educational materials suitable for and accessible by the majority of our youngsters. When your Foreign Secretary was High Commissioner in Sri Lanka we tried to work together to promote cooperation in educational publishing, but the traditionalists in our Ministry of Education killed that project, and indeed ensured that the wonderful primary English readers that alone we obtained for distribution to students were not used effectively. I have recently come across them locked up in cupboards in rural primary schools, killed stone dead.

You have built up a wonderful tradition in your country of book production and distribution, and I must confess to having benefited from it tremendously since yours are the only publishers who pay me royalties, unlike their Sri Lankan counterparts. But because book distributors in Sri Lanka still continue to privilege Western publishers, we do not find enough of your highly suitable and highly affordable books in our markets. I would suggest then concerted action to develop joint publishing ventures so that Indian firms with the right expertise work together with Sri Lankans to adapt books for our market. Such partnerships could also set up distribution mechanisms that will penetrate the rural and regional markets that are now so sadly neglected. Regrettably, instead of looking on our annual highly successful book fair as a spur to provide similar access to books year round throughout the country, we rather rest on our laurels and wait another twelve months to offer children in the regions access again to these invaluable resources.

In similar vein I would hope that, when you set up consulates in two more cities, you also inaugurate cultural centres on the lines of the immensely successful centre you have developed over the last decade in Colombo. Twenty years ago it was only the British Council that offered regular small scale cultural programmes, with some supplementation by a couple of the Europeans, so it is heartening now that India and the United States have developed even more active centres. But no one has really thought about the rest of the country, though I gather the Americans are moving now in that direction, in partnership with the university sector. It would therefore be wonderful if India, perhaps in collaboration with some of the others, took the initiative to develop mechanisms whereby our population at large could share, through weekly videos, in the art and culture of other nations.

Another area in which innovations might serve to develop lasting links is that of student exchanges. Europe has managed to develop greater mutual understanding through encouraging students to spend time in other countries to follow courses for which credits can be transferred. We should encourage twinning between at least some universities to develop such programmes. At another level we should promote school visits, sports fixtures being an obvious rationale for such, but there could be others, including cultural performances which would include training and familiarization elements.

I should note that, in addition to such exchanges serving to build up links, they would also be immensely productive from an educational standpoint. Having to interact in a common language, and share ideas and experiences, would benefit students from both countries – and we should also, I think, plan exchanges that involve other countries in the SAARC region.

At higher levels, I must admit, we would need more concerted guidance from India. As indicated earlier, we have failed signally in developing research outfits. I hope then for instance that at least now the collaboration the late Lakshman Kadirgamar instituted between the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and think-tanks in Delhi can lead to productive research and writing. In a different dimension, we need too to write up – for I believe this could also be useful for other countries floundering in their efforts to contain terrorism, in part because they are not taking the care we did with regard to the civilians in the midst of whom terrorists necessarily function – our successes against the Tigers in the last few years. I used in the past to bewail the fact that we had not learned from our mistakes, that we had not written about the debacles we suffered in the nineties, whereas Indian military men had produced several books from which future generations could benefit about their dealings with the Tigers following the Indo-Lankan Accord. Now, since we have been successful, we have no excuse not to write up what happened, but I think we will benefit from collaboration since our writing skills may need support, in addition to analysis in terms of wider perspectives.

But there are other areas too in which we must do better if our decision makers are to have at hand the guidance they need with regard to social and economic and political issues. I have raised in the relevant Parliamentary Consultative Committee the lack of research organizations devoted to the social sciences – always excepting the good work done in one particular area by the Institute of Policy Studies – and I hope we will get your support to develop our own expertise in these areas.

In that sense I hope this seminar, which the Asian Institute of Transport Development has organized at such an appropriate time, will be the precursor to more and better collaboration between India and Sri Lanka, to develop better mutual understanding as well as personal relations. The development of a proper model in this regard will also I hope help us in our efforts to improve and build on cooperation between all the countries in the SAARC region.

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