[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Official Languages Policy - mere rhetoric?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jul 5 19:11:31 UTC 2009

Official Languages Policy - mere rhetoric?
 *Even incentive payments , denial of increments have failed to stir them
from their slumber * *By Chandani Kirinde*

While opinion remains deeply divided in the country about the full
implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the
recognition of Tamil alongside Sinhala as an official language guaranteed by
the same constitutional amendment remains largely confined to paper with
several key areas in the government sector lagging behind in executing the
Official Language policy.

Lack of resources, finances, trained personnel and unawareness have
contributed to the slow pace of implementation of the language policy
despite attempts by the government to correct the deficiency. With the end
of hostilities and the opening of more public services in the north and
east, the comprehensive implementation of the language policy seems more
plausible as well as timely.

“The ethnic problem was largely due to the Tamil people feeling alienated
particularly over the language issue and lack of equal access to the public
service. It has become an urgent need to implement the language policy, says
Chairman of the Official Languages Commission Raja Collure. A recent study
done by the Commission covering a population of over 3.5 million of which
over 1.1 million were Tamil speaking people living outside the northern and
eastern provinces found that of the 6,626 public officials of all grades
working there, only 627 or 9.5 per cent were proficient in Tamil.

A similar study was conducted in the northern and eastern provinces to
ascertain the availability of public officials proficient in Sinhala. Of the
over 1.5 million population surveyed of which the Sinhala speaking
population was a little over 365,000, it was found that only 98 or 18.1 per
cent of the total of 540 public officials serving, were proficient in
Sinhala. “The language issues affect both communities but it is the Tamil
speaking people who are more affected as they live in large numbers outside
the north and east and this includes Muslims and up country Tamils who have
no proper knowledge of Sinhala, “Mr.Collure explained.

Under the terms of the Constitution, Sinhala is the language of
administration in all the provinces other than the Northern and Eastern
provinces where Tamil is used. The same policy is applicable as the language
of the courts in the country.  The Government issued two circulars in early
2007 pertaining to the implementation of the language policy, one offering
enhanced incentive payments for public servants acquiring proficiency in
both Official Languages and another making it necessary for all officers
recruited to the public/ provincial public service with effect from July 1,
2007 to acquire proficiency in the other Official Language within a period
of five years in addition to the Official Language through which they enter
the service.

Nevertheless the incentive payments ranging between Rs 15,000 to Rs 25, 000
as well as denial of increments to public officials who fail to obtain the
required proficiency within the stipulated period of time have not
encouraged many to take the language issue seriously with the numbers
sitting the proficiency tests conducted by the Official Languages Department
highly unsatisfactory. Since July 2007, the Police Department has recruited
nearly 12,000 personnel of all ranks while the Health sector and the Public
Administration sectors have recruited around 8,000 each but only around
2,100 sat the last Language Proficiency tests conducted in 2008.

The situation with regard to Translators too is dire with less than 130 in
the Translator Service of whom only 28 are proficient in Sinhala/Tamil, 82
in Sinhala/English and 21 in English /Tamil. Here too the number proficient
in the two Official Languages is extremely poor, he said.

“Our fear is that these circulars will become a dead letter unless they are
adhered to strictly. It is the obligation of the state to provide for the
functioning of the language policy,” the Chairman of the Commission said.

While the Commission and the Department of Official Languages are the main
government institutions empowered with monitoring supervising and training
to ensure compliance with the Official Languages policy, the lack of funding
particularly for the training programmes has restricted the services they
can render.

“The provincial councils too are expected to play a role in the
implementation of the Official Languages policy but their attitudes are very
unsatisfactory. The different departments too need to get money from the
government and implement the policy on their own as we have fewer funds,”
Mr.Collure said. With many new police stations opening up in the north after
the defeat of the LTTE, it has become an even more pressing need to train
police personnel who can work in both languages, the Chairman of the
Commission said.

While all recruitment to the public service is merit based and no language
based recruitment can be done, he recommends that an auxiliary service be
set up from where the necessary personnel can be drawn to serve in offices
where their services are needed until the levels of proficiency among the
majority of public officials reaches a satisfactory level and they are able
to discharge their duties in both Official Languages.

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