Commemorating the 72nd birth anniversary of Late
Minister Lalith Athulathmudali:
Time to revisit Athulathmudali approach
November 26 marked the birth anniversary of Late Minister Lalith
Athulathmudali, a great personality whose absence is greatly felt on a
day like today.
Today Sri Lanka is grappling with a ‘war against terrorism’ which
demands much of our human and financial resources not forgetting the
trauma of all this. Fluctuating oil prices in the world market has made
local prices sky rocketing with little or no hope of coming down. The
world economy is going through a major crisis which will have effects on
our economy as well. Global climate change is already showing its
effects as the number of natural disasters have risen. We can be certain
that the weather cycles will be most unpredictable for the next fifteen
The most alarming crisis in all this is the shortage of food. Global
production levels have reduced and population at risk of starvation is
quite worrying. Immediate steps have to be taken for all these steps at
all local levels. A practical person like Late Athulathmudali would by
now have appointed committees to study the trends in the global arena
and investigate the current local systems with a view to come up with
sustainable solutions before any of these crises hit our shores.
We have reached a phase where political parties have to come to a
common platform to find lasting solutions to the dire problems faced by
the people as well as the country. You may wonder whether it is a
workable solution given the diverse political parties in operation right
now and their different interests. If all the leaders of political
parties place the people and the country at the centre of their politics
and truly want to work towards a common goal, it is very much workable.
Then the golden question is whether it will happen? It is a difficult
question to answer with either a simple yes or no. The emergence of
political parties on ethnic lines was very unfortunate, but these very
same parties which were created on ethnic lines are themselves divided
and are facing further divisions. These division will only take the
country backward, and if we have not realised it by now, we will have to
face dire consequences as a country. I see the worth of Athulathmudali
at a time like this as he always saw the bigger picture when others saw
to their own political interests.
One remarkable quality of Athulathmudali was that he never hesitated
to heed advice from the experts. Not only that, he was ready and willing
to seek their guidance. He was humble to listen to them and used his own
intelligence to make wise decisions and take the proper course of
action, he was never complacent with what he achieved, he sought ways to
do more and to improve.
He sought the best advice from the best people because he was a
pragmatic trouble shooter. We all have to understand, the trick in
heading advice is filtering and taking in what is most appropriate, the
lesson for us all is that Athulathmudali had the ability to decide on
the correct course of action, after listening to many experts.
Everyone was aware that Athulathmudali was a brilliant academic and a
great orator, he had exceptional ability in many fields, and for people
like me, his intellectual arrogance and linguistic wit was both a lesson
as well as a pleasure. He did not take a decision without wide
consultation if the future of the country depended on it, that much he
cared about the future of the country.
His aim was always to see the country prosper. The Exporters’ Forum
which was set up under his guidance provided exporters of Sri Lanka an
arena to bring their problems to, discuss and receive solutions, an
exporter whom I met recently confessed that they received ‘immediate
relief’ either from Athulathmudali who was the Minister for Trade or the
Secretary of the Ministry.
Athulathmudali was someone whom the businessmen took to their
confidence, they were certain that this forum was not a political
gimmick. Therefore, to the businessmen this forum gave them a sense of
protection that they had the support and encouragement from the State. I
wonder whether such fora take place now or whether there is such State
patronage to protect the local entrepreneurs whose revenue is so
valuable to the country’s economy. If we do not, it is high time we had
able people attending to such activities especially at a time when
world’s largest economies are crashing. Today we see the business sector
being attacked in many ways without any due consideration, the
employment opportunities they provide.
The world is also facing a food crisis and it is time for us to
fortify and expedite our food production. In the next 25 years we are
bound to face famine if we do not act now. We need leaders like
Athulathmudali at a time like this who will see the potential of our
nation and build on it.
We require a strategy to encourage more people to get into the
agriculture sector and provide them with the support to engage more and
more in growing food items. Quick fixes like migrating for work abroad
will not save us in the long run because countries which take in such
labour will focus more and more on getting cheap labour.
The State has to see that the society is increasingly heading towards
white collar jobs, hence we need to identify ways to change attitudes
and thinking patterns and hail the farmer along with sufficient support
and provisions so that younger generations will see how profitable the
agriculture sector is. Such strategy is born in the heads of people such
as Athulathmudali who did things for the country. At the time when he
was the Minister for Agriculture he insisted that more benefits be given
to the farmer such as fertiliser, financial assistance, technical know
how etc, therefore it is time we revisit and perhaps even revise some of
his strategies in order to prepare for the future.
While we are still proud of the high literacy levels we have received
putting other nations in the region to shame, we have to be ashamed of
the crisis which is brewing in our education sector especially with the
unprecedented uprising of teacher trade unions. If Athulathmudali was
alive today he will tell you that one of the reasons for this crisis is
that the present day teachers have not gone through the proper process
to become teachers. The State made a cardinal error when they decided to
absorb Degree holders to the Teaching profession. I do not for a moment
say that they are not suitable, but the question is did they want to get
into “ teaching” or agreed to accept such teaching appointments because
it was a job.
Hence it is very clear that we cannot expect them to uphold the
‘nobility’ in this profession? They have been deprived of being trained
as suitable to mould young minds, therefore they take no pride in being
part of an excellent breed, how unfortunate for our younger generations.
Even after repeated pleas from the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, these
‘teachers’ continue to take students into hostage to make their demands.
We all remember the time when Athulathmudali was the Minister for
Education, he was once asked by a journalist ‘As the Minister for
education what is your priority?’ promptly came the answer ‘Students’,
not stopping at that the journalist went on to ask ‘what is the second
priority?’ for which he answered ‘Students’.
When asked what the third priority was, his emphatic reply was back
again ‘students’; thus driving a very strong message home. Today,
unfortunately the priorities of schools are different. Politics have
entered schools and there are Principals without principles managing
them. It is appalling to hear that Principals have been arrested over
allegations of bribery and corruption. If we are to change all this, we
have to bring back Athulathmudali’s priorities on education. Schools
should be child focused and child friendly not exam oriented and popular
for the wrong reasons. There should be opportunities for students and
parents to select schools which are best for children and not merely
‘best known’ for facilities.
This is written at a time when the LTTE has taken a severe beating
financially as well as militarily, it is apparent that even the
international community has accepted the war against terror. To
Athulathmudali who was the then Minister for National Security people
were the most important, he always said ‘We do not have to lose lives to
gain territory”. He insisted that civilians must be protected and that
they should not be pushed towards the LTTE. What is most relevant at
this juncture as the Sri Lankan Forces advance towards the LTTE
stronghold, is a strategy and a genuine effort to win over the people. I
do not endorse bowing down to pressures from other nations. However, we
need to manage the international community while dealing with the war,
what Athulathmudali knew best was diplomacy; using acceptable language,
encouraging dialogue and using the media to convey the status.
Eventually a healing process is essential to ensure that armed
conflict will not re-emerge in this country. Reconciliation is paramount
in the aftermath of a war to bring all communities together, a lot of
blood has been shed and children of both Sinhala and Tamil parents have
died, we need a mechanism to heal those hearts and put all that behind
Having worked closely with this great human being, I know that if he
was alive, he would tell us that real peace is born in the minds and
hearts of the people, and the greatest honour we have to bestow upon him
is building bridges to create lasting peace among the peoples of Sri