- No damage to Sinharaja whatsoever
- UNESCO advocates Indian way of English language teaching in SL
- Public servants not trained to work with dedication
- There are two types of heritage sites; natural and cultural. We have six cultural heritage sites and two natural sites
- Both the president and the minister firmed up their position that the world heritage site should not be damaged
Dr. Punchinilame Meegaswatte, Secretary General of Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO (SLNCU), in an interview with Daily Mirror spoke about the alleged damage being done to the Sinharaja forest which is a natural world heritage site in Sri Lanka. He also spearheaded the ‘Viyath Maga’ movement, the front of professionals and academics who backed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He answered questions regarding its activities.
"We have to cover-education, science, culture and media. We are a part and parcel of the United Nations. We are the intellectual arm of the UN. We prepare for the benefit of all these people. We get the expertise from all the other countries and make use of it for the growth of all these areas"
Q We find a whole lot of allegations about damage being done to the Sinharaja forest. What is the actual situation?
Actually, there is no damage. The allegation was triggered by remarks made by irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa. Irrigation engineers wanted to divert water from Gin Ganga (the name of the river) to the southern region of Hambantota. The engineers planned it out and found that the best place to construct a reservoir across Gin Ganga is Madugete. If they construct a reservoir at that location five hectares of Sinharaja would be damaged. The engineers had a discussion with me in this regard. I pointed out that this could not be done. I asked for the reason to choose an area from Sinharaja to do it. The answer was that it was the best place to collect water.
They can collect the maximum amount of water there. I said it was very difficult because it would damage the forest area. These are all world heritage sites. There are two types of heritage sites; natural and cultural. We have six cultural heritage sites and two natural sites. These conventions are made after gathering all the countries in the world. They formed operational guidelines for world heritage sites. If you are going to make a new construction in this area, you have to obtain permission from the World Heritage Committee. During the meeting attended by the Irrigation Minister I rule out the possibility to do it in Sinharaja and asked for other options. They came up with three options.
Of course I have sent a letter to the UNESCO headquarters. It isn’t sufficient. If it is a request to the World Heritage Committee you have to submit a dossier containing other details including environmental details. It didn’t happen because the engineers realised that this project couldn’t be implemented. I pointed out to the Minister that the World Heritage Committee would not allow it. So, there is no point even in asking. The minister accepted it. He instructed the engineers to look for alternative ways and means to divert water.
"We are getting experts from India. The Indian way of teaching English is much better than ours. We are going to obtain that methodology. Our student population is extremely intelligent. They can grab it if the correct methodology is there"
Q Does it mean that the matter is now settled once and for all?
Yes, definitely. Both the president and the minister firmed up their position that the world heritage site should not be damaged. Nothing has happened.
Q But there are reports about damage being done to the reserves of the Sinharaja forest. Did you examine them?
There was one girl raising her concerns about it. That is a private property. Another thing is that there are ten government bodies assigned to protect the heritage sites. They include the Environment Ministry, the police, the forest conservation authorities, Grama Sevakas etc. We have a close rapport with all these bodies.
Q What are the UNESCO activities in Sri Lanka these days?
Actually, there are four areas. We have to cover-education, science, culture and media. We are a part and parcel of the United Nations. We are the intellectual arm of the UN. We prepare for the benefit of all these people. We get the expertise from all the other countries and make use of it for the growth of all these areas. There are 17 sustainable development goals. We focus on these lines.
Q What are the changes being planned or made to the education sector?
I was the chairman of Viyath Maga. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed me as the chairman of the education sector. He appointed 23 people to 23 areas during the past five years. I brought together professors in the education sector. We formulated education reforms and assigned work to the relevant ministries. They are working on that.
I started the project ‘empathy’. I wanted to reach 3000 schools. If people think of the country it would develop faster. The basis for that is empathy. Already, I invited fifty school principals and 100 students. We had a workshop. I invited 50 in-service advisors for workshops. They are the ones who teach teachers. I got a team from the Peradeniya University. These in-service advisors pass the message to the teachers. That is how I am going to proceed to the schools.
I am extremely sad about the way English is taught at schools. We must do something about it. The Indian High Commission offered to help us regarding such a project. We are in the planning process. That is empowering in-service advisors in English language teaching.
There are about 450 of them. They are the ones who teach the teachers. There are about 25,000 English teachers in Sri Lanka. We have planned that project. We will go ahead with it.
We are getting experts from India. The Indian way of teaching English is much better than ours. We are going to obtain that methodology. Our student population is extremely intelligent. They can grab it if the correct methodology is there.
Q You said you headed ‘Viyath Maga’ that played a key role in bringing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power. Now, the president is into the second year in office. How do you see the progress of implementing what you planned at that time?
If you plant a vegetable seed it would take time to sprout and grow. We have done it in all the areas-industries, agriculture, economy, education etc. The president is fully confident that he is going to develop this country. We have this plan. I personally know what is going on.
Q How soon will people be able to see the results on the ground?
In one year’s time, it will be seen. COVID-19 is the problem.
Q Apart from the pandemic what are the other challenges standing in your way?
I feel that the Government officials have not been trained to work with dedication. I see some lacking it. They always come up with circulars. They are bogged down in circulars. They are not ready to think outside the box. Thinking is very very low. That is the sad situation. If we show them the correct way the Government servants would definitely help. We have to show them the vision and the path.
Q But there is an allegation that the system is a failure. The cost of living is very high. Why is it?
The allegation that the system has failed is a big lie. How can you make the system succeed within one year? If somebody talks about system failure his brain should be examined.