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Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light

Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!

It is the business of the wealthy man

To give employment to the artisan.

It was not only in Sri Lanka that, from the inception until very recently, Vocational Training was seen mainly in terms on Technical Education. This is understandable in that this constituted the bulk of what were seen as vocations in earlier days. This was to ignore the socially common use of the word ‘vocation’ as denoting an occupation to which one was committed. On the contrary, vocation when used in conjunction with education or training was seen as equivalent to the word job, such training being designed to find employment. And, to venture into social theory, those who needed to find employment were concerned about blue collar jobs – as opposed to those who, from the gilded halls of the 19th century British university, glided into an occupation, even if it was only smoking.

What might be termed class structures in education continued for a long time in Britain, the most class ridden of societies, at least until the last quarter of the last century, except possibly for Sri Lanka. I still recall the scorn for polytechnics, and the horror at Oxford when these became universities.

Sri Lanka, the last bastion of imperialism, has continued with the dichotomies that Britain has got rid of. We still think of degrees as a precious commodity, to be confined to a very few. Though finally, eight years ago, what was termed the National Institute of Technical Education became a university, it produced hardly any graduates until the last couple of years. And though things are now changing, there is still a tendency to work towards academic qualifications, without stress on practical applications.

We still think in terms of the dichotomy of working with hands and working with the mind. The assumptions of superiority that this dichotomy caused were regrettable. But the division was understandable when the bulk of real work was done in industry and agriculture, with those not engaged in active work functioning at a vast remove physically and conceptually. And it was they after all who decided, as Lewis Carroll might have put it, what words meant.

All that has now changed. The expansion of the middle class has been accompanied by an expansion of what might, to extend the class metaphor, be termed middle level occupations. In addition to work based on technical capacity that is more sophisticated than what was considered the preserve of the blue collar worker, a large proportion of the economy in many countries, and certainly in Sri Lanka, is now based on services. However, while traditional universities develop sophisticated technology skills, there is little training in government educational institutes in Sri Lanka to cater to the service sector. And the general education provided by schools and universities has proved unable to satisfy the needs of many employers. Read the rest of this entry »


downloadI have been quite critical of Basil Rajapaksa recently, which I gather has upset him. This led him to assume that I would vote against the government in the recent motion of No Confidence, which suggests how emotional he can be, with little comprehension of political principles. But I should be glad that he at least reads, because I was gradually coming to the conclusion that no one in government read anything, and that few listened to anything except adulation.

This is a pity, for there is much they could learn from constructive criticism. Unfortunately the general mindset is oppositional, and I suppose this is understandable given the incapacity of the opposition to do anything but criticize mindlessly. Thus it is natural to suppose that any criticism means unremitting opposition.

This is not the case with regard to my worries about Basil Rajapaksa. I am deeply impressed by his capacity to work, and the way in which he presided over fantastic infrastructural development in areas that had been ravaged by conflict. Indeed, having recently travelled to the North East of India where, despite evident goodwill and much expenditure, there are many deficiencies with regard to connectivity, roads and railways and communications, I am glad that I was unstinting in my praise of what government has achieved in our own North and East.

That could not have been accomplished without Basil Rajapaksa’s drive. But the problem was that he had not engaged in the conceptualization that should have accompanied such a programme, and he paid little attention to the development of human capacity, and the provision of productive employment. So nothing like enough has been done to improve teacher supply to schools, to fast forward skills development for youngsters, to promote small and medium industries through carefully targeted credit facilities and entrepreneurship training.

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I was asked last week to speak at the first national seminar arranged by the Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala. I have been familiar with the place for twenty years now, for it is situated in what used to be the Buttala Affiliated University College, in the days when I coordinated English programmes at all those Colleges. The site had been developed for the 1992 Gam Udawa, and my involvement with the place helped me to appreciate President Premadasa’s vision in having such events.

Though some elements in both national and international media mocked them as the world’s most expensive birthday parties, they provided a focus for development, with infrastructure that would be of lasting benefit to areas that had not had such concentrated attention before. The present Government is engaged in something similar through its Deyata Kirula celebrations, though this is only a supplement to the wider development in the regions which is its flagship.

I much welcome the establishment of the OCDC because its Mission and Objectives indicate a clearer understanding of our educational and training needs than I have seen in those formally responsible for education. It is true that glimpses of what is needed can be seen in the pronouncements and efforts at developing policy that the various agencies responsible for education have come out with, but given the chaos of our administrative structures and the difficulties of taking and implementing decisions, I am relieved that a more efficient and clearsighted body has also entered into the field.
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In considering the crisis that has hit our education system so comprehensively in the last few months, I have begun to wonder whether we have not been the victims of our own success. We were doing extremely well with regard to mass education when we got independence 64 years ago, in part because of Kannangara’s visionary reforms, but also because he had a high standard to aim at through the private and public schools that were flourishing at the time – thanks to Anglican missionaries, Catholic educationists, and determined Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim social visionaries led by Colonel Olcott.

So we rested on our laurels, and thought the percentages in the education system, and our literacy rates, fantastic, and particularly so with regard to girls. We were far ahead of not only other South Asian countries in this regard, but of most Asian countries too. And though many have overtaken us, and the others are catching up, we still feel complacent.

The effect our initial success may have had came home to me when, in Islamabad recently, I was given a presentation on the system they have developed by the Pakistan Army Public Schools & Colleges Secretariat. They started by telling me that the army had decided to set up schools way back in the seventies because, in may areas in which they had stations, there were no good schools. Indeed in some areas there were no schools at all.
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I plan to conclude this series on March 25th, since by then I would have written over a hundred columns on the subject. Besides, I see March 25th as a special day, because it is the birthday of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement in the seventies.

I will write about him for that date, but meanwhile I would like to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the achievements of those who have made some sort of a difference to the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I don’t think people like me who engage in advocacy, such as through this column, have achieved very much. When they do so, it is by engaging the attention of those who have responsibilities for executive action and who take their responsibilities seriously.

That responsibility does not necessarily have to lie with government. There are several agencies that have formal responsibilities that can also take initiatives. Chief amongst them in Sri Lanka is the Human Rights Commission, which has certainly shown itself willing, but which at present does not have enough capacity to push through the reforms it understands are needed. Unfortunately it is not moving swiftly enough on proposing the reforms to its own powers and structures, as envisaged by the National Human Rights Action Plan, which the Cabinet has approved.

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I make no apologies for returning yet again to the question of language rights. As I noted after my last visit to the North, for a series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, this remains one of the principal bones of contention in the Jaffna District. But it need not be, because the principles we should all be acting on are now clear, following the inclusion of Tamil as an official language in the constitutional reforms of 1987, and the fleshing out of those principles in the last couple of decades.

First, under President Kumaratunga, there were more inclusive language learning policies in schools in the nineties and then, most importantly, under this government, Minister D E W Gunasekara introduced language norms for public servants. I was not sure how well this was working so, at the previous meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on National Languages, I asked for a report on pass rates. We got this at the February meeting – or rather I did, and I had to point out that questions I raised were asked for the general benefit, not my own, so information should be shared with all my colleagues on the Committee.

I can see this might seem a waste of paper, since almost never do more than a quarter of the 31 members meant to be on the Committee attend, and many of those who do are concerned only with individual problems; but the principle was affirmed, and the Minister will now ensure that information is shared with at least all those who do attend. This is important, for this is something we should all be concerned with, as legislators and contributors to national policy.

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Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

On the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs

In the Committee Stage of the Budget, December 9th 2013


I am honoured to speak on the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, which deals with perhaps the most important subject we need to consider. I say this because, while the development programme government has put in place with regard to infrastructure is vital, it will serve no purpose unless we also concentrate on human development. In this regard we need to ensure that our children are in full enjoyment of all their rights, and that we also empower them so that any violations are minimized.

It is equally important, Mr Speaker, to ensure that women are not only protected, but also empowered. For this purpose we must put in place coherent mechanisms that can identify shortcomings and address them promptly and systematically. Above all we must move from simply reacting to problems, but rather anticipate potential problems and avoid them – a strategy, I should add, that would hold us in good stead with regard also to international relations as well as domestic politics.

With regard to Women and Children, I am happy to say that we have an active Ministry that is able to conceptualize and initiate new measures. Chief amongst these is the establishment of Women and Children’s Units in every Divisional Secretariat. If I might say so, this Ministry has been the first to recognize the importance of the Division, which is the first active interface between government and people. Indeed this Ministry has also recognized the importance of the Grama Niladhari Division, which is the first actual interface, though it is for the raising of issues rather than solving them. I should add that it would make sense to set in place, even in GN Divisions, consultative mechanisms to resolve simple problems. However it the Division that is the first level at which more important decisions can be taken, and where the front line officers of various government institutions can meet to discuss problems and plan responses – and where they can discuss trends that will help them to anticipate problems and avoid them.

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After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.

Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.

I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.

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The last series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the North brought out even more clearly than before the failure of the various institutions of government to work with each other. At a previous consultation, which the UNDP had funded as part of an ongoing initiative to improve coordination, I had realized what might be termed the political problem in the areas in which development is most essential, namely the Divisions in which local government bodies are controlled by the Tamil National Alliance.

Some of their members, and in particular the community leaders they had appointed to lead their lists in many places, thus avoiding the general unpopularity of those who had been engaged on either side in the confrontational politics of the previous decades, were willing to engage. But they were not sure if this would be acceptable to their more political leaders, given that it is much easier to complain that to try to work. Conversely, government representatives were not sure whether active cooperation with elected leaders from an opposition party would lead to criticism from those who thought government should belong only to them.

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Some of the issues I have raised in recent columns in this series came up in a different form in a presentation made by Indrajith Coomaraswamy during one of the discussions the Liberal Party has been conducting on Reform. Though initially we had thought of concentrating on Constitutional Reform, it soon became clear that that alone was not enough, and questions of change had to be looked at holistically.

Given Sri Lanka’s current status, as a Developing Country that has got over the hump of under-development (the only Under-developing country that was still under-developing, as the Economist I think once sharply put it), it is obvious that economic issues are of particular concern. We were fortunate therefore to get four speakers who dealt, in short and succinct presentations that were amongst the best I have heard, on political economics, and the issues we now face.

All of them should be widely disseminated, but in particular what Indrajith Coomaraswamy said should be studied by all decision makers. Pointing out that we were now in a better position than ever in the last half century to go forward, he pointed out the severe institutional constraints we face.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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