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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the Rotary South Asia Conference on Literacy, Kathmandu, March 2nd 2012

Mr Chairman, my distinguished fellow speakers Dr Shantha Sinha, Chair of the Indian National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and Mr Qamar Zaman, Secretary of the Pakistan Ministry of Training, Rotarians, I hope I will be excused a small anecdote on relations between our countries before I begin my presentation. It arises from the impressive use at yesterday’s opening ceremony, graced by His Excellency the President of Nepal, of Hindi and Urdu quotations which so many of you seemed to understand; and then from the announcement this morning of the approval by Pakistan of Most Favoured Nation status to India to promote commercial links. I hope this will be the precursor to even greater friendship between the countries of the region, and a greater role for SAARC in promoting common initiatives in fields such as education.

My anecdote dates back to 2009, when Sri Lanka faced hostility at the Human Rights Council in Geneva from some Western nations, and our ambassador there found tremendous support from Asian countries and in particular from both India and Pakistan. The ambassadors from those two countries were his advisers in negotiations, and once it seemed, when he was under some pressure, I think it was from the Germans, and was inclined to yield, the Indian and Pakistani started talking in a language that no one else understood. Then they turned to him together and told him to stand firm. They were talking in Urdu, the language of the heart, as we heard yesterday, but also useful in less romantic contexts.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha with Nepal’s Minister for Education Dinanath Sharma, RI President Kalyan Bannerjee, President of Nepal Dr Ram Baran Yadav, RI District Governor Basu Dev Golyan

To return to education, Sri Lanka has had an extremely good record as to literacy for well over half a century. Not only have we been consistently at over 90% during this time, but female literacy has also been commensurate with that of males. Coincidentally, the comparative excellence of Sri Lanka figured yesterday in some of the Indian newspapers that were discussing the UNICEF report released earlier in the week on the ‘State of the World’s Children’, and brought home to me again that we have much to be proud of, even though I have long argued that we can also do much better.

The reason for this exception – apart from the Maldives – as far as South Asia is concerned, as was noted in several speeches at your opening session last evening, is that we had a visionary Minister of Education from the time Sri Lankans were given executive responsibility through the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931. He built on the existing system which had begun with Christian missionary schools in the early to mid 19th century, and been expanded on when Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim societies realized the advantages education conferred. By 1931 there were excellent schools in almost all big towns in the country, often a Catholic and a Protestant school together with a Buddhist or Hindu one (and twice over, since these schools were segregated by sex). They were not segregated by religion, and it was indeed because many Buddhist and Hindu parents had had to send children to Christian schools that their religious organizations decided they had to develop their own initiatives.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2012
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