By Lynn Ockersz
‘A bilingual capability, or a knowledge of Sinhala and Tamil, will be a prerequisite for those aspiring for recruitment to the country’s public sector in the future. Right now, however, emphasis will be placed on public servants acquiring proficiency in Sinhala and Tamil and incentives, such as salary increments, will be granted those officials who acquire this bilingual capability’, Minister of National Languages and Social Integration Vasudeva Nanayakkara said.
Explaining that the government was placing strong emphasis on the capability of the country’s citizenry to communicate with each other with ease, in the national languages, the Minister told this journalist in an exclusive interview that the full implementation of the state’s language policy was ‘a crying need’ which can no longer be put off. Spelling out the state’s priorities in the area of language capability among the people, Nanayakkara said that proficiency in Sinhala and Tamil will be stressed, firstly, and, secondly, a trilingual capability, involving an inculcation by each citizen of a knowledge of Sinhala, Tamil and English, will be stressed. At present, it is compulsory that a public servant acquires a knowledge of Sinhala or Tamil, as the case may be, within five years, it was pointed out.
A programme will be worked out in collaboration with the Ministry of Education to cultivate a trilingual capability in the country’s student population. Eventually this programme will be extended to cover even Sri Lanka’s adult population, the Minister said. However, the first priority in this context will be a knowledge of Sinhala and Tamil among students. The language proficiency project will be ‘superimposed on the social integration programme’, it was pointed out.
Nanayakkara said that the aim of his ministry is to not only integrate the country’s communities with each other but to lay the basis for the empowerment of all sections which are backward and lacking in skills, knowledge and capabilities which are essential for effective living. Thus, what will be aimed at is not only inter-communal integration but also intra-communal integration. All sections which are ‘backward’ and disadvantaged will be sought to be empowered, to enable them to integrate with the national mainstream and thereby play meaningful roles in public life.
‘It is assumed that all citizens must be knowledgeable, confident and better informed, so that they could claim and demand their rights from the administration. To that level we must develop those sections of our citizenry which are not yet effective. They must be enabled to press their demands and satisfy their legitimate needs, Nanayakkara explained.
When asked for his views on the impression in some quarters that the government is downplaying the need for a political solution to the country’s ethnic conflict, now that a military victory has been scored by the state against the LTTE, the Minister said that the matter ‘does not come under my ministry.’ He, however, explained that the ‘government’s present policy has given us all the necessary resources to carry out the basic step of endowing the Tamil people with the right to use their language in relation to matters which are relevant to them. This has been denied them even now, not by any design, but due to the lack of facilities and arrangements. So, we will provide these requirements or ask the relevant authorities to practise a bilingual policy. We will thus enable the Tamil people to feel that their language and the right to use their language is available to them. This will lay the groundwork for a solution to the political aspirations of the Tamil people. We have to do this quickly. We can’t take years to do this.’
‘We could not do this thus far because the Tamil areas were inaccessible because of the conflict. Now that we have gained access to these areas, we must go pell-mell into them to work out our programmes, the Minister said.
Asked whether the basis of his work was the principle that equality should prevail among the country’s communities, Nanayakkara answered in the affirmative and said that this principle was the basis of Sri Lanka’s constitution. He said that equality was a fundamental right and was justiciable. He agreed that the work carried out by his ministry would lay the basis for Tamil public servants to rise to the top in their respective institutions. ‘The senior Tamil public servants should give us their experiences and recommendations on what we should be doing in the Tamil-speaking areas of the country’, the Minister said.