With November 26, marking the 80th birth anniversary of Lalith Athulathmudali, trustees of the Lalith Athulathmudali Foundation talk to Hiranthi Fernando
When he was tragically gunned down on April 23, 1993, Sri Lanka lost one of her greatest leaders. An able and erudite politician, brilliant orator and promising national leader, memories of his charisma and vibrant personality live on. The Mahapola Scholarship scheme he set up has over the years enabled thousands of promising underprivileged students to continue their higher education.
After his death, his widow Srimani entered politics, serving as Minister of Transport, Environment and Women’s Affairs in the People’s Alliance government.
The Lalith Athulathmudali Foundation was established with Srimani as Chairperson. Sadly, Srimani too passed away in December 2004, after a brief illness. The Foundation continued its programmes and Lakshman de Mel, a founder trustee took over as Chairman.
Family portrait: Lalith Athulathmudali with his wife Srimani and daughter Serala
“LalithAthulathmudali was a visionary. He thought far ahead and had a mature worldview on education. He understood that education was the key to economic progress and he referred to it as ‘the vehicle that carries the antidote to poverty’. He also stressed that at the core of education development should be pluralism, which embraced a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural character. This, he said was essential, to a country like ours,” said Dr. Tara de Mel, former Secretary, Ministry of Education and daughter-in-law of Lakshman de Mel, delivering the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Oration on November 26, 2007. Dr. de Mel focused on some of the lesser known achievements of Lalith Athulathmudali, initiated while he briefly held the portfolio of Minister of Education and Higher Education during 1990 – 91.
“Mr. Athulathmudali, known widely as a rare star in our political history, shone in the eyes of many. The iconic status he enjoyed during his brief but stellar career was primarily due to three reasons.
· He was a politician with his brilliant academic and professional track record -an uncommon feature then. It is non-existent now.
· His achievements in the two key portfolios held, i.e. Trade and Shipping and National Security contributed significantly to national development.
· The bravery he displayed, to stand up fearlessly against an autocratic administration and to give leadership to dissent, was admired by many.”
Minister of Finance Ravi Karunanayake, the current Chairman of the LA Foundation has revitalised the Foundation with his enthusiasm. Speaking of their future plans, he said, “We are trying to ensure that we tie up with a foreign university in the name of Mahapola. The intention is to have a graduate university with disciplines such as Management and IT. An allocation of Rs. three billion was made in the budget last year. It is up to us to find a suitable university for the tie-up.”
Well known architect Dr. Surath Wickramasinghe, former Chairman and a Founder Trustee of the LA Foundation remembered Mr. Athulathmudali as a resourceful leader who excelled as a professional, and as an academic. “He subsequently entered National Politics in 1977, and served the country for 16 years up to his premature death at the age of 57. Even during this short period in politics, he initiated several successful ventures with his foresight and pragmatism which are still contributing to the nation’s economic growth, even 23 years after his death.
“Lalith’s astute judgment in many of the policies he introduced during his term of office, in the different Ministries, or the speeches he made in and out of Parliament, the uniqueness of what he said was a reflection of the intellectual depth he possessed. He could relate to any age group or at any International Forum and spoke with authority and eloquence.
“Sri Lanka lost the services of this great future leader, at a time when the country needed him most.Wishing him the eternal bliss of Nirvana!” Dr. Wickramasinghe added.
“The Mahapola Scholarship Scheme inaugurated by Lalith is the greatest legacy he left,” said Siri Fernando, also a founder trustee of the LA Foundation. “Since 1981 to date, 255,969 promising students have benefited by the scholarships awarded, enabling them to continue their university education. The value of the fund accumulated over the years, stands at approximately ten billion rupees.
“Lalith played a significant role in the war effort particularly during the Vadamarachchi operation and was totally frustrated when the operation was called off,” Mr. Fernando recalled.“Thereafter, during the ceasefire, he did not allow the 17 hardcore terrorists captured while violating the ceasefire to be released. With his intelligence and timely action, Lalith checkmated moves to release them. They ultimately committed suicide. If these terrorists had been released, they would have caused much destruction to Sri Lanka. This perhaps is the reason for them to hold a grudge of that extremity against Lalith.”
S. V. D. Kesarralal Gunasekara, a trustee of the LA Foundation had been associated with LalithAthulathmudali for many years in his political career. Speaking on governance, Mr. Gunasekera said that his approach was “more democracy and less bureaucracy”.
“He always believed that ‘Governance’ was extremely difficult , and hence you needed to have experience and maturity in your camp to be successful. His vision for the country encompassed providing the primary services such as water, electricity and transport at lower cost to households and business establishments, in order to improve productivity in the country. At a time when electricity and water charges are not that low, we need to ask the question why?? The reason is very simple Electricity Board & NWSDB have been employment ‘CREATION’ ventures of successive governments and there is untold damage that it is doing to the economy.
“Lalith Athulathmudali always believed that jobs needed to be generated and he always stuck to this policy, the primary example being the Sri Lanka Ports Authority,” Mr. Gunasekera said.
“To him, development of the agricultural sector was crucial, so too the protection of the farmer. Agriculture policy changes if any, should invariably be long term and not short term, the use of chemical fertilizer, if you need to move away, yes you can, but very slowly, and always listen to the experts and professionals in the field of agriculture, that is cardinal. The infrastructure development of the Rail is lagging around 30 years behind. You cannot even think of economic development, without rapid development of rail and rail transportation of goods .
“Coherent policies for national development are becoming absolutely paramount, as a result, formulating national policies is a growing need. It is therefore essential to set up a national think tank comprising a wide range of academics, professional and intellectuals. This think tank shall evaluate all proposals, views and ideas submitted by any interested party and advise the government of their recommendation.
“He would have been the one to steer that think tank and the country. If only this country was fortunate enough to have a statesman such as Lalith Athulathmudali at a time like this,” he said.