Often we speak of rights with the rights discourse dominating the newspapers, day-in, day-out; that our rights cannot be denied by governments, dictatorships, etc. However, what about the other side of the coin: Responsibility of the citizen to society, government and the state? I was reminded of this when Kussi Amma Sera (now in full [...]

Business Times

Rights and Responsibilities


Often we speak of rights with the rights discourse dominating the newspapers, day-in, day-out; that our rights cannot be denied by governments, dictatorships, etc.

However, what about the other side of the coin: Responsibility of the citizen to society, government and the state?

I was reminded of this when Kussi Amma Sera (now in full swing after a few weeks of R&R in the village during the Avurudu holidays … I wish her ‘master’ had the same privilege of taking a few weeks of paid R&R leave!) was engaged in a heated debate in the garden with her ‘sweeper’ neighbour and comrade-in-arms Serapina.

Both domestic aides often discuss, debate and gossip on today’s issues while sweeping their respective gardens. These chitchats invariably happen in our front garden, to which I conveniently turn a blind eye (without asking KAS to get on with her work, saying “I pay you to work, not gossip”) for the simple reason that there is an agenda behind (don’t we all have agendas?): Picking up good column topics from their gossip and there are aplenty.

Like this bright and sunny Thursday morning where the first rays of the sun were drying up the leaves after a very wet and rainy Wednesday night and I was able to pick up some ‘nuggets’ from their garden-bench conversation. It went like this: “Aei bung, may campus kollo kello hemadama paare inne kolahala kara kara,” says Serapina. (“What men, why are these university boys and girls forever protesting or fighting on the streets.”)

“Eka egollanta deviyo dunnu wagakeemak ne, hari deta saha aithiwasikam walata satan karanna,” KAS responds tersely. (“So, isn’t that their God-given responsibility, to fight for what is right?”) I could sense from the tone that she was bracing for the usual verbal, no holds barred duel with her friend.

“Namuth egollo neda paradinne. Andu kattiya thadata kriya karanawa, egollo ekka katha karanne nethuwa. Ethakota me lamaita maasa gaanak, ne avurudu gaanak yanawa padam ivarakaranna. Eka egollanta loku paduvak, jathiyanthara vishva vidyalawala lamai samaga beluwama,” argued Serapina. (But aren’t they the losers? People running governments want to deal firmly with these protests than sitting down and discussing, and these students can lose months, nay years sometimes in completing their courses. This puts them at a huge disadvantage against students doing international university courses.)

“Oya kiyana kathawa aththa wenna athi. Eth, egollo negita hitiye nethnam hari deta, kawda karanne,” retorted KAS. (Maybe. However, if they don’t fight for what is right, who would?). Tensions are rising in the garden and no one is willing to give in.

Then came the stunning response from Serapina: “Ethakota anith ayage aithiwasikam ko, me kalabala nisa karadarayata pathvena ayage. Mage aithiwasikam, oyage aithiwasikam gena kathakarenna nethuwa, api balanna oney ape wagakeem saha yuthukam monawada kiyala. Eva thama vedagath.” (But what about the rights of others who are affected by these street protests? Rather than talk about ‘my’ rights or ‘your’ rights, what about the responsibility and duty of every citizen to society? Isn’t that also very important?)

KAS was, for once, floored and began to mutter incoherently.

Moving away from my ‘prime’ location (office room window where I eavesdrop on their conversations), I am again reminded of our role and responsibility in society after reading a news item this week where the government has said it planned to introduce the Right to Information (RTI) Act into the local education curriculum. Positive thinking, indeed.
The report quoted a Ministry of Finance and Mass Media official, speaking at an event in Colombo to commemorate the first anniversary of the promulgation of the RTI Act, as saying: “We will be incorporating the RTI Act into the school curriculum of Grade 10 and 11 as a part of the subject in Civics Education.”

The RTI has been a revelation – opening the doors to hitherto secret documents and files, which only officials and governing politicians were privy to, even though the public had a right to know. The road hasn’t been easy in the public seeking legitimate (through RTI) access to information that impacts on the people. Responding to a comment at the event that the process is slow in receiving information under the RTI Act, the official acknowledged that many officers in the Government were still under the impression that the public had no right to access such information. “However, this culture of secrecy within the Government cannot be changed overnight. It takes time for us to change this mindset among public officials,” she was quoted as saying.

That’s quite true and while it’s not working fast enough, the fact that the RTI Commission has been able to remove ‘transparency’ barriers on many cases or complaints proves the system is working.

More than the RTI Act, I was intrigued by the concept of civics education vis-à-vis rights and responsibilities. While the rights of individuals are ingrained in us – and reminded repeatedly by human rights champions, ubiquitous protestors on the streets and the once-a-year Geneva UN human rights annual discourse – missing is the citizen’s responsibility to society.


  •  For instance, while we complain of too high taxes, do we pay our taxes (the responsibility of every citizen) or seek refuge in various ‘concessions’ or grumble that governments and municipalities are wasting ‘our money’ when in reality, we are not paying a tax at all?
  •  We argue about garbage collection but do we follow guidelines on separating the garbage or dumping it in the right place? Haven’t we seen numerous instances of the rich and mighty throwing garbage-filled bags on the roadside from fast-moving cars with the excuse that there is no place to dump their garbage?
  •  We complain eternally about politicians and their ilk? But aren’t we also responsible for voting them into power and sending them to Parliament or local authorities?
  •  We complain about laws and traffic on the road. But do we observe the laws or do we argue with a traffic policeman even though we are in the wrong?
  •  We complain about water shortages but do we — as responsible citizens — take it upon ourselves to use water sparingly during a crisis? Or complain about corrupt governance and liberally wash our cars, sending water literally down the drain?
  •  We complain about governing politicians and are also prone to complain about them when on an overseas trip. But will we defend the country – not a corrupt government – when it’s our responsibility to do so and when the need arises? This was very evident in a Business Times poll in 2014 when Sri Lanka was facing a lot of flak during a UN Human Rights session. In that poll, the majority working class population (from the street survey) was of the view that even though they may not support the actions of the government, one must stand together in international fora and defend the country. The response from email respondents (intelligentsia and professional class): “Good to teach a lesson to the government.”
  •  We complain about services in the areas where we live but do we join the community and help uplift our area?


This boils down to whether or not students (the first step in civic consciousness and learning lessons) are taught about rights and responsibilities, about not only (our) rights, but also (our) obligations to society? Civics education has happened over the years in local schools and a new syllabus for Civics Education in Grade 9 is in force (or yet to be implemented) in 2018 by the National Institute of Education (NIE). In 2015 onwards, the NIE formulated a new Civics Education syllabus for Grades 6-11.

The objectives of this study seem noble; building future goals of life through the identification of one’s abilities, skills and potential; developing competencies to exist in society; learning to work in unity with social organisations and institutions that coordinate with the wellbeing of society; preparedness to face unexpected and confusing situations; building human qualities and social values to exist in a pluralistic society; conform to conventions on human rights and democratic principles; help in disaster management; understanding governance and economies; help build a society that values responsibilities and duties; and ensuring sustainable peace for Sri Lanka.

However, does this deal with day-to-day issues like protests that inconvenience people; using water sparingly; observing road rules and that everyone has a right on the road including pedestrians; proper garbage separation and dumping; and finally paying taxes … on time?

Going back to Serapina’s retort that rendered Kussi Amma speechless, it’s not only a case of rights AND responsibilities but rights WITH responsibilities, a good example being Singapore where everyone follows the law and want to (not being forced to) so that the entire community thrives.

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