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Prof. Indraratne - he made Economics Sinhala-friendly

This week Reminiscences features a much loved and appreciated figure in the field of education - Professor A.D.V. De S. Indraratna. He is an authority on a large chunk of the history of university education in Sri Lanka.

“When I joined the university, it was the University of Ceylon. At that time I was working at the University of Peradeniya which was part of the University of Ceylon that started in 1952. In 1965 I came to Colombo when the second Arts Faculty was established there. However, it was still under Peradeniya. I became the founder Professor of Economics and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. So the Faculty of Social Sciences in the University of Colombo really started with me as its founder Dean,” stated Professor Indraratna.


Professor A. D. V. De S. Indraratne

At that time the Head of the Department of Economics at Peradeniya wanted him to come to Colombo to organize the department here. “Ever since that, I was here, but I was teaching at both places from 1963 to 1965. But in 1965 I decided to come to Colombo for good, and give up teaching at Peradeniya, because I had a lot of work to do in organizing the department and all,” said Professor Indraratna.

Sinahala medium instruction

Professor Indraratna was one of the pioneers who worked hard to help the switch over to Swabasha - introducing Sinahala medium instruction. “The government decided as a lateral policy to switch over to Swabasha as the medium of instruction in 1945. So the stream of Swabasha students came into the university in 1960. We had no option but to teach them in Sinhala because they were educated in the vernacular medium - Sinhala and Tamil. There were many people in the university including the then Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings who thought that it would not be possible to teach Economics in Sinhala.”

However, people like F.R. Jayasuriya took up the challenge alongside Professor Indraratna. They were determined to overcome this obstacle, teaching Economics in Sinhala. Then Professor Indraratna started teaching economic principles in Sinhala, and with experience of one year of teaching, he introduced this book called ‘Mila Nyaya,’ which began to serve as a textbook, for the first year G.C.E Advanced Level, and the first year students at the university. Even today it is considered a competent textbook on economic theory at the university.

Professor Indraratna asserted that before the introduction of free education and subsequently to switch over to Swabasha as the medium of instruction, the education in English was limited to the elite. But the introduction of free education left the door wide open for education to everybody. Professor Indraratna also added that people think better or begin to think originally in their own mother tongue.

Therefore he felt that switching over to the mother tongue as the medium of instruction was a good thing. “But that doesn’t mean we should give up a world language, like English. We probably made a mistake by not making English compulsory from Grade 3 onwards. In fact, this was the recommendation of the National Education Commission of 1960 of which I was a member.”

Asked what his recollections were of former Vice Chancellors, Professor Indraratna said that he began to serve at Peradeniya University under Sir Ivor Jennings from 1952, almost 60 years ago. Sir Ivor was the man who was responsible for building up the University of Peradeniya. He tried to build it up on the model of Cambridge University because he came here from Cambridge University. In fact the site was selected also by him and he designed the whole university: the halls of residence and the faculty, library all of which were done under his direction. At the end of 1952, it became a fully fledged university, with all the facilities that could be had in a university.

“The university under Jennings was not second to any other university in the world,” maintained Professor Indraratna.

Currently the Colombo University has a fully fledged department called ‘Demography’ and it is interesting to note that Professor Indraratna played a crucial role in the development of this new discipline even though he was the Professor of Economics.

First, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Demographic Unit at the Colombo University. “I was the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at that time, and there was a rapidly growing population because in the late 40s and early 50s the population was growing at a very rapid rate of between 2 percent and 3 percent. This kind of growing population is something our country couldn’t cope with given the limited resources.

“This rapidly growing population was a hindrance to development. At that time the population studies were not popular here. Knowing the relevance of this subject, I initiated negotiations for foreign funding from the United Nations Fund for Population Activity and got a grant of 250,000 US Dollars, which in 1974 was a very big amount. So with that money I built a unit with all the equipment and a library and I also got two foreign experts on the project to come and formulate the programme for population studies. An international seminar on population studies was held and its proceedings were published. I introduced a programme in 1975 called Diploma in Population Studies”, elaborated Professor Indraratna.

University education

He was also instrumental in creating a Demographic Map of Sri Lanka for the first time and these were some of the pioneering work that he did. He was the founder director of that unit from 1974-1978.

Professor Indraratna recalled a time when he was invited by Dr. Stanley Kalpage, the then chairman of the University Grants Commission, to join the UGC. He was appointed Director of Planning and Research in 1982. He worked there for 12 long years during which time, he introduced the statistical handbook - Statistics of University Education. He also brought out a corporate plan on university education for the first time, followed by annual implementation plans.

“I had no political affiliations, whichever government needed my services I made my services available. So during various governments I served various committees in an advisory capacity.”

Admired by many, Professor Indraratna received two felicitations. One at the end of 1994 when his students published a felicitation volume. More recently ont his 80th birthday they had a rather big felicitation, with a book containing 29 papers written by him over the years. This was attended by a large gathering of students, colleagues and well wishers at the BMICH, and the Chief Guest at the ceremony was then Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.

“I was overwhelmed with joy in the sense that I saw what sort of gratitude people still had for me.”

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