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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 years.

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 us.

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 Lanka.

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