Towards stronger bilateral relations despite pandemic – Dr. Jagath Wellawatte | Sunday Observer

Towards stronger bilateral relations despite pandemic – Dr. Jagath Wellawatte

26 September, 2021

Well-known academic and administrator Dr. Jagath Wellawatte has been appointed as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, and will leave the country shortly to assume duties. He spoke about the priorities in his new role with the Sunday Observer, as well as many aspects in academia and administration which need improvement.

Dr. Wellawatte said changes can be made through sound policies and smooth implementation and the present Government has begun this process despite the pandemic.

Following are excerpts of the interview

Q: Tell us about your previous positions in academia and Government administration?

A: I started my career as an academic - a university lecturer in Sociology at the University of Colombo, and my service is 26 years. Thereafter, I entered practical politics, coordination and policymaking during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s period. I chaired in the Mahinda Chinthana and Saubagyaye Dekma policymaking committees. Later, I held senior administrative positions such as Chairman of the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau, National Child Protection Authority, State Mortgage Bank and Sri Lanka Insurance.

Q. How do you view university education and what changes should it undergo?

A: The university should not be a vocational training institute. Many argue that our graduates should be trained for the job market. But the university is not a place for that. Rather it should enable students to expand their thinking and creativity, and promote wisdom. Some areas such as the Medical Faculty, Law Faculty, and Management Faculty are job oriented. But in the philosophical side, especially the Arts degrees should not focus the job market. In all fields, universities should aim to strengthen the thinking capacity. However, in Sri Lanka, students’ aim is to find a good job by entering university. This is the colonial mindset.

The Government employment concept was introduced during the British colonial period. The Government job was a symbol of social change. Our society was based on the caste system without opportunity for upward mobility in the social ladder. For the first time, the British Government opened job opportunities which enabled those stuck in the lower strata of society to become a prestige group, as they started using the English language and change their attire. Education became a vehicle for the powerless to become affluent.

But even now, parents and students think that they are entitled to a Government job and pension by default when they enter university. Some students, especially in the Arts Faculty, have this mindset. In my experience, a majority of the Arts Faculty students are not hard workers. I know some students who do not hand in a single assignment during their 3-4 year academic period. Even some lecturers do not have the commitment. Sometimes their notes are 10 or 15 years old. Therefore, it is easy for students to pass exams as the questions are the same almost every year.

In order to reduce the rate of unemployed graduates, the Government recruits them to Government jobs. But these positions do not contribute much to the economy or administration. A majority of the jobs are insignificant and they are actually a burden to the Government. I saw many such things during my career and wanted to change the system. But it was not possible to do so while still being an academic.

Q.How do you think the system can be changed?

A: I realised that the only way to change the system is to contribute in making Government policy changes. I proposed bottom up approaches on many urgent aspects in the country. Our committee made revolutionary changes especially to the education and higher education systems from 2005 till the Saubagyaye Dekma policy. At present, the changes have begun implementation through the latter. I took some responsibilities in the implementation level too by serving in several administrative positions throughout these periods.

Q. We see many inconsistencies in policies and implementation. Why is this?

A: There needs to be improvement on policymaking and implementation. Some argue that the country needs national policies. However, policies need to adapt to new world trends also. Therefore, what we need are sustainable policies.

Sometimes, there is a mismatch between policy and implementation. Administrations become reluctant to change. Some policies have failed as they do not address grassroots realities or taken the legal framework into account. Some Government circulars have not adopted to the policies. Circulars need to be revised to efficiently implement policies.

Also, serving as head of many institutes, I believed in team work and involving all administrative officers and other employees. I firmly believe that we need to strengthen the officers so that the system can run smoothly and continue to implement policies even though the head changes.

Q. How were these inconsistencies addressed in policies you contributed to make?

A: For the first time in history, a policy document was prepared for an election campaign in 2005. Usually, candidates have election manifestos rather than a policy document. Mahinda Chinthana policy was an answer to ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ of the previous Government which was 100 percent based on a new liberal economic strategy in the global platform that does not suit Sri Lanka. The policy we prepared targeted the implementation stage too. An action plan was drawn up for all ministries so that they had clear guidelines and targets. Therefore, for the first time, mismatch between policy and implementation was reduced.

The policy document gained trust from all quarters as administrators and officers worked on one platform for the development of infrastructure, economy, livelihoods, and so on. All these came to a grinding halt after the election of the 2015 Government. Administrative officers faced a lot of harassment. Some officers I know went to the FCID, CID and Bribery Commission more than 50 times and they were asked to do just one thing - disrupt the activities in their ministries. The officers were fed up with the process and they feared to implement the policies.

The Saubagyagye Dekma policy of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Chinthana were both based on community concerns and their knowledge. Therefore, there is less room for mismatch between policy and implementation.

Q. How important is it to uplift the rural economy and how do policies support this?

A: Nearly 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population live in the rural areas. Our main livelihood is agriculture. Therefore, we need to strengthen the rural economy. After independence, we started on commercial agriculture for export. Changes occurred under President J. R. Jayewardene who introduced industrial-based development. But we did not have enough technology. Then we promoted investment promotional zones. Afterwards, we tried to develop the garment industry, and tourism without much attention on agricultural development.

For the first time in 2005, we proposed the ‘Gama Neguma’ program led by Minister Basil Rajapaksa who later introduced the ‘Divi Neguma’ program aimed at rural development that included not only infrastructure, but also livelihood, and social and cultural development.

Unfortunately, in 2015, that program stopped. Today, under the Saubagyaye Dekma, the Government envisions rural development. I believe in the next budget, funds will be allocated for rural development on livelihood, home-based small scale and medium scale enterprise, and so on. In addition, the Government needs to pay attention to the estate sector which is still backwards.

Agriculture and industries both contribute to the economy. So, the country needs to ensure that industrial development is integrated into our agricultural practices. Technology needs to be adopted in agriculture.

This time, the rural development program is termed ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ which is my concept. It aims to organise 25,000 village-level meetings and ask for their proposals. It is a participatory rural development approach to reach out to the grassroots and enable them to engage in economic activity.

Q. Now you are appointed as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia. What are the immediate priorities in your new role?

A: I aim to draw all my past experience to take on this task. We need to strengthen bilateral relations. But we do not need to align ourselves with foreign agendas. We should develop a good understanding with them. My first priority is to develop a good understanding and sound relationship with the Australian Government.

Also, we need to open new investment opportunities for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in the Australian market - from large scale to small scale in traditional products such as the clay industry, Batiks, spices and so on.

I also hope to welcome Australian large scale investment to the Sri Lankan economy in areas such as solar energy. We have some gaps where investment is required. Port City Colombo also provides opportunities. We need to promote the tourism industry as well since it is our major dollar income industry. The Tourist Board has prepared a major tourist attraction program and we hope to support them. Our expatriate community in Australia needs support with various issues and that is also a priority. The illegal migrants are an issue for Australia and we hope to work closely with the Australian Government in this regard.

Next year, Sri Lanka and Australia mark the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations and many programs are lined up for the inauguration.

Q. What are the challenges you see in the post-pandemic scenario in policy implementation and your diplomatic role?

A: We prepared the Saubagyaye Dekma policy for this Government without any idea of a pandemic. That was a bottom up approach to touch all areas. With the pandemic, our economic policy action plan collapsed as was the case in other countries. However, we can’t wait till the end of the pandemic to start work. The Government has not stopped the agricultural work, export sector or tourism.

Similarly, we have to engage with other countries. We can develop trade relationships despite the pandemic. Although borders are closed in some countries, import and exports have not stopped. Therefore, we need to strengthen trade, tourism and economic relationships even amid the pandemic.

Q. What are your views on the brain drain to countries such as Australia?

A: The brain drain concept is like self-sufficiency, especially related to the closed economic period. However, within the globalisation concept, some traditional concepts in some countries are impractical.

We are in the 21st century, it is the knowledge century. We no longer need to have knowledge products in the same country as new discoveries and technologies reach other parts of the world immediately. So brains do not need to be retained in one location.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka hardly contributes to new discoveries through our universities, as we do not have the resources, support and so on. Our graduates, therefore, need to take up opportunities in other countries. A lot of Sri Lankans work at NASA and they are contributing to make new discoveries.

A lot of graduates go abroad to pursue higher studies because we have limited opportunities here in some fields. Over 180,000 students pass the A/L exam each year and nearly 30,000 gain entrance to university. More than 150,000 students lose opportunities for higher education in the Government system.

Some political parties and groups resist the establishment of private and foreign universities here. Also, some areas of study have less scope here, such as psychiatry because of the social stigma. We could invite expatriates if we develop a good economic environment in our country by expanding the private sector and building an ethics code to give credit to the mother country in the event of new discoveries. Also, they need to be given space to contribute to their country with easy access.

Q. As much as you have contributed in policy formulation, you are also an artiste. Tell us about your role in establishing the Pahantemba Samuhikaya.

A: I have written and published several artistic work such as poetry, novels, and short stories. But I wanted to establish a forum where artistes could support each other. That is how Pahantemba Samuhikaya came about under my leadership.

With the open economy, changes were seen in the arts and culture too, introducing western type commercialised entertainment. This doesn’t show high artistic value or taste. But this is what the young generation follows. Even the reading culture is now diminishing due to digitalisation.

Therefore, we established the forum, registered under the Cultural Ministry, to guide and strengthen new artistes. We also support senior artistes who live with financial difficulties. We aim to establish 1,000 home-based libraries to promote the reading culture, especially in villages with the donation of books.

Also, the Pahantemba publication supports artistes to publish their work and a golden awards competition and ceremony is held every year to encourage artistes.