by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Sinhala and Tamil are Constitutionally recognized as Official languages in Sri Lanka but there are many miles to go before Tamil achieves parity of status with Sinhala in the Island.
While the necessary legislation for language equality exists on paper and has been accepted by all shades of political opinion in Sri Lanka implementation of language provisions on ground has been extremely slow and tardy leaving much to be desired.
Socio political realities of present day Sri Lanka are such that few expect this situation to change overnight where Tamil would be on par with Sinhala within a short period of time. Despite the Government’s professed Language policy the road to linguistic parity is a long ,long one.
It is an ardous journey that could only be completed in stages. Although one would like language equality to be achieved instantly the bitter reality is that such an outcome is feasible and possible only through an incremental process.
Against that backdrop two significant announcements in the recent past are positively encouraging to those who desire language equality. One relates to the printing of currency notes and the other to manufacture and distribution of pharmaceuticals.
A news item in the “Ceylon Today” of September 14th 2012 says that currency notes would have more words in Tamil in the future.
The news item written by JT de Silva states as follows –
Tamil text to be included on currency notes
“The Central Bank will include Tamil text in currency notes to be issued by the bank in the future, reflecting the country’s language policy.
Accordingly, the new currency notes will include the words ‘this currency note issued on behalf the Government of Sri Lanka is valid for any financial transaction within Sri Lanka’ in the Tamil language as well.
The decision was arrived at in response to a complaint by Lionel Guruge of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (HRC).
Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal has agreed to provide equal prominence to all three languages when issuing currency notes in future.
The CPA in its complaint has pointed out that even though Sinhala and Tamil languages have been constitutionally declared as official and National Languages, the Central Bank has acted in contravention to the guaranteed language right by the inclusion of Sinhala text only.
Superintendent in charge of issuance of currency notes has given a written undertaking to the HRC that necessary action would be taken to give equal prominence to both languages hereafter”.
The other development was in the sphere of pharmaceuticals where not only Tamil but even the Sinhala language is being discriminated against. Most pharmaceutical drugs, cosmetics and medicinal devices being distributed in Sri Lanka are packaged with only instructions and descriptions in English. This has resulted in many Sri Lankans who do not know English undergoing much difficulty in understanding and following instructions.
A news item in “The Island” of September 7th 2012 says that this situation would be remedied with effect from 2013.
The news item written by Don Asoka Wijewardena states as follows–
All three languages compulsory to market drugs from next year
“In a bid to implement the National Languages Policy, the Commissioners of Government Languages and the Human Rights have informed the Cosmetic Devises and Drug Regulatory Authority (CDDRA) that all instructions pertaining to medicinal drugs, cosmetics, pharmaceutical items and the medical devises should be published in all three languages with effect from January 2013, the Health Ministry said yesterday.
The Health Ministry spokesman said that currently all instructions pertaining to medicinal drugs, cosmetics and medical devises had been printed mostly in English. For want of relevant information in Tamil and Sinhala many patients were discriminated against. The Human Rights Commission and the Commissioner of Languages had held a series of discussions with the Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry to implement the Language Policy.
He said that as a result of the comprehensive discussions, the Health Ministry’s Technical Advisory Committee had decided to implement the Government’s Language Policy on all cosmetic devises, medicinal drugs and pharmaceutical products. Accordingly, it would be compulsory for all pharmacies to print labels, of all medicinal drugs, cosmetic devises and the pharmaceutical items marketed, in Tamil, Sinhala and English with effect from January 2013.
When contacted, CDDCA Director Dr. Hemantha Beneragma said that it was a long-felt necessity to print the labels of medicinal drugs in all three languages, because patients had been adversely affected under the status quo. When a container of drugs arrives in the country, a product information leaflet is attached to the container. But all the contents in the leaflets were not essential for the patients. It was essential for the prescriber only, he said.
Dr. Beneragama pointed out that he would take action to inform all drug importers, local drug manufacturers and the drug companies to print the labels in all three languages. “The information given in the product leaflet is not necessary for the patient only some of the information is important. The production date, expiry date, adverse effects of the drug, safety data and warnings should be printed on the labels of the drugs made available for sale,” Dr. Beneragama stressed”.
Meanwhile a press communiqué issued by the Centre for Policy Alternatives has welcomed the developments and drawn attention to its own role in this respect.
The CPA says that the progressive strides made in these matters are a result of complaints filed by Lionel Guruge of the CPA with the Human Rights Commission and Official Languages Commission of Sri Lanka.
In the intervention regarding currency notes the CPA states as follows–
“That the sentence “This currency note that has been issued on behalf of the government of Sri Lanka is valid for any transaction within Sri Lanka” is not included in Tamil, and that the information is not presented in an equal way, in the printing of currency notes of Sri Lanka, was the basis of another complaint filed by Lionel Guruge of the Centre for Policy Alternatives with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRC 2184-12).
According to a decision given on 16th July 2012, the Superintendent of Currency who represented the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka at the inquiry, promised that equal opportunity will be given to both Sinhala and Tamil, the Official Languages of Sri Lanka, in the printing of currency notes in future.“
On the question of Pharmaceuticals the CPA communiqué states as follows –
“In spite of Sinhala and Tamil being the Official Languages of Sri Lanka the packaging of pharmaceutical drugs contain descriptions and instructions mostly in English. CPA believes that it is in the public interest that the information on such products should be available without any language barrier, to all citizens of the county.
Therefore we have requested that dosages, compositions, side effects and other relevant information on all pharmaceuticals be included in Sinhala and Tamil.
Two hearings were held regarding the complaint HRC 2249-12 made to the HRC (SL.) Respondents in this case included the Chairman, State Pharmaceutical Corporation, Managing Director, State Pharmaceutical Corporation, Director, Cosmetics, Devices & Drugs Regulatory Authority, Sri Lanka, Dr. Ajith Mendis, Director General of Health Services, Dr. Kamal Jayasena, Director, Health Services Section, Dr. Salaka Athauda, Chairman, Indigenous Pharmaceutical Producers Association and the Chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority.
Accordingly the HRCSL informed in a hearing on August 7th 2012 that the respondents and complainants mentioned above should submit their recommendations by 30th September 2012.
As a National Health Policy is currently being formulated, CPA also suggests that a National Policy on Pharmaceuticals be included containing provisions outlined above”.
The role played in this worthwhile effort to secure Language equality by the CPA in general and Lionel Guruge in particular is commendable. These initiatives are part of a CPA programme promoting language rights in Sri Lanka.I do hope the CPA will engage in more acts of this type so that Language equality would be realized in Sri Lanka.
These two announcements pertaining to currency notes and pharmaceuticals are most welcome.Let us hope and more importantly monitor events to see whether they are implemented as promised.
It is also necessary to focus on other areas where the language laws are faultily implemented or in the breach.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org