I began my official life as District Land Officer, SLAS and ended up 30 years later as National Coordinator for English, UGC and I also worked at Rajangane and in the Mahaweli Authority, apart from Polonnaruwa and Ratnapura, and visited Thambuttegama with N.G.P. Panditharatne, Chair, Mahaveli Authority, at the beginning stages.
He drove the jeep all the way from Colombo and back and we met the people because we were at the initial stages of the project, to explain the situation. We met them in the school hall. Communication was easy.
We now hear, from the TV that the recent riot at Rajangane was caused by an agent provocateur, who had stimulated the highly politicised audience of colonists and dependants by telling them the half-truth about a water processing project.
We all know and the people of Rajarata know the immense damage done to the health of the farmers in the NCP dry zone by use of a weedicide.
This has been the subject of much bitter debate for years and since this kind of problem is well known internationally a scientific process called “reverse osmosis” has been employed to process water for drinking in similar situations in other countries.
I was in an audience at the Independent Medical Practitioners Association (IMPA) Colombo, where a person from Singapore demonstrated it on stage. That was for an English educated middle-class audience of professionals. The procedure is well described in books and on the internet.
In Colombo very, very few wanted to buy the gadget for home use, because Colombo water is okay. However, it is a well known and used process for water purification worldwide. An audience which knows only Sinhala or Tamil will not catch on to it easily, as laymen.
Apparently, the protagonists of the project had not communicated its meaning to the colonist beneficiaries and it was easy to distort its significance. That is how the Bandaranaikes and the SLFP presented Sinhala only for the entire population, except the family which was sent abroad for study.
As recently as 1987, when at the insistence of Rajiv Gandhi, English was brought in as a language to establish commonality, Dr Colvin R de Silva, was alleged to have persuaded President J.R.
"Clearly, it was so easy to persuade the Rajangane farmers about the evil intentions of the “reverse osmosis” process because accessing that kind of knowledge from an available, public source is not possible in Sinhala. "
Jayewardene, to change the description of English from “national language” to “link language” thereby placing English in limbo with no status of its own, in the Constitutional Amendment of 1987.
It is only a link. English has immense intrinsic value, much more than Sinhala or Tamil and would have played a transforming role like in India if it had been included as a national language. But did Dr Colvin R de Silva, the famous author of “Ceylon under the British,” a text which we admired for its use of English in the doctoral thesis at the University of London want us to study in English?
I bring in this background to apply it to the Rajangane situation. Clearly, it was so easy to persuade the Rajangane farmers about the evil intentions of the “reverse osmosis” process because accessing that kind of knowledge from an available, public source is not possible in Sinhala.
I don’t know about Tamil. This event throws light on an unusual and very significant experience I had in 1988, as National Coordinator for English. In 1987, I ran an island-wide English course for students who had gained admission but had not yet stepped into the universities. We had 6,000 students, in 100 teaching centres (Government schools, after school hours) from KKS to Dondra, with 300 odd teachers from the neighbouring schools.
The target was the General English Paper for the A Level. It was superbly orchestrated by consultants and books donated from the West. There was an end of programme evaluation test and I inserted one personal question:
‘Will you sit for the A-Level General English Paper now that you have been prepared?
The answer was:
“No! We want to be educated in the English medium in the University.
I leave the reader to come to his own conclusions. Does this have any bearing on the Rajangane episode?
-The writer is an ex SLAS officer, PhD English (USA) PG Dip Econ (Oxford) BA (Ceylon)