Thinkers and think tanks


It is essential that funds be made available to writers and their publications. Again no government control, please. Similarly, when foreign funds come they must come as foundation money so donors are in no position to determine areas in which people write and what writers write about.

I want to think aloud a little about ‘Think Tanks’ which Professor Ranjith Senaratne of Ruhunu University wrote about on 22 and 23 of April. I have seen these tanks fill and empty and read some of their writings. I have also read and benefited from what ‘intellectuals’ write to newspapers. However, my two questions are not about these papers.

My first question is where a writer can publish his or her work. A newspaper is not fit to carry a full length paper with proper documentation, where a person can write with all the doubts and reservations he has in mind. (I am not thinking of academic papers.) Notes written to newspapers are poor substitutes. Journals in English here have had very short lives and English newspapers have a narrow circulation. In Sinhala, there is Samskrti begun in 1953 still struggling barely to survive. Many others have died in infancy or childhood. The University of Ceylon had several publications and the Ceylon Studies Seminar propelled mainly by young scholars at that time was also short lived.In any case, they carried mostly academic papers. Books and collected papers are published by writers at cost to them. On rare occasions when publishers pay the cost of printing, a first print of 500 copies is not sold out for ten years and you dare not go out to ask a publisher to do it again. Some publications carrying contributions to newspapers on popular subjects have a market. Publishers tell me that if one writes banapoth or children’s books they will find it worthwhile to publish them. The cost of typesetting, copy editing, page layout and attendant costs are as high as Rs.50,000 for a book of 200 pages. And this does not include the writer’s own labour.

And why are such publications so rare? Because there are no consumers. A public intellectual is expected to address the public not only his academic colleagues or a select few. Our politicians are notoriously illiterate and I have had many a laugh when university professors presented books they published to VVIPs.Even short papers (2 pages) briefing them on an important question attract more dust than politician’s attention.Then the first step is to look for a journal where writers can publish their material. In Sinhala, there is Samskrti which can have a new life. (I no longer have nor do I expect to have any official position at Samskrti.) We at Samskrti during five years ending in 2013 tried very hard to enlist the support of young university teachers to write but with little success. Perhaps, an initiative by senior academics may have better success. I do not know the situation in Tamil. I am doubtful that a publication of that nature in English would be viable. It is vitally important that that outlet must not be under government control in any manner.

All that is a preliminary to the central question: how will an intellectual sustain himself while thinking and writing. Almost all people who might be identified as intellectuals in our society (without offending them) work at expense to themselves. Take them (in no particular order): Gunadasa Amarasekere, Carlo Fonseka, Kumar David, R. M. B. Senanayake, Savitri Gooneseke, G. H. Peiris, K. N. O.Dhamdasa, N.A. de .S Amaratunge, Nalin de Silva, Tilak Siyambalapitiya, Jayadeva Uyangoda, W. A. Abeysinghe, Amaradasa Virasinha, Susil Sirivardane, Deepika Udagama, Victor Ivan, Manik de Silva, Prabath Sahabandu and many others. They are sustained with mostly pensions. At their age they are not capable of sustained intellectual effort over a considerable length of time to produce except the simplest propositions.

There is no staff to assist them with research. In their place we need young people who with sustained intellectual labour over substantial lengths of time can look at problems with fresh eyes and produce astonishing new perspectives.They, of course, need research assistance. There is no money here for such endeavour. That is what Foundations in India and more markedly in rich countries provide. Some universities with rich endowments are well known for the succor they give to scholars to undertake research and write up their material. It is not that there is no money here to spare. Look at the tons of concrete that build stupa all over the country and kilos of gold that cover ranveta. Look at the huge sums of money collected daily at main devala and bo-trees in the country. (Contrast those uses of money here with what is done at Tirupathy [There is a whole big university paid for out of those funds] and at Saibaba’s place.) But our philanthropists would rather make advance payments for luxury apartments (divyamandira) in some place other than here.

Professor Senaratne mentions a few institutions as think tanks. Look at their balance sheets and statements of receipts and payments, which, contrary to common allegations, are all in the public domain. You will find that they are funded from overseas and would not survive a year without that life line. There are particular purposes for which these donors give money. One of the most successful is PAFFREL which has survived almost entirely on donor funds to make a vital contribution to strengthen the democratic framework of this country. Who can blame the aims of donors? If you do not approve their agenda don’t take their money. I find those who complain about NGOo accepting foreign funds entirely phony. Close access to foreign donor funds and close all NGOo in the country.

It is essential that funds be made available to writers and their publications. Again no government control, please. Similarly, when foreign funds come they must come as foundation money so donors are in no position to determine areas in which people write and what writers write about.

It is heartening that a senior academic took the trouble to raise awareness about the need for intellectuals to lead society in its search forchnage. Academics are by training and habit of life intellectuals par excellence. We,outsiders, look up to them for wise and vigorous leadership in these matters.


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