The country’s indigenous population, the Veddahs, approximately 0.1 million in number, residing in 62 villages scattered over six districts, is presently facing major crises in relation to their survival, livelihood and the protection of the language of their spoken tongue.
The Veddahs recently requested that the Government establish a separate Ministry to be assigned the task of looking into matters concerning the indigenous community. The said proposed Ministry would be responsible for matters pertaining to the Veddahs and would be answerable to the Veddahs, as a requirement for such existed.
Leader of the indigenous people, Veddah Chieftain, Vishva Keerthi Vanaspathi Uruvarigay/Uruvarigey/Uru Varige Vanniala/Vannila/Vannile Aththo and his translator, Uruvarigay/Uruvarigey/Uru Varige Wimalaratne informed that what they were requesting did not involve a pack of goods given free by the Government but only for the creation of a conducive environment in which they could engage in agricultural practices including farming. At present entry into forests has been banned and since allowing entry to forests can be problematic, the latter as noted by Wimalaratne, the Veddahs who are growing in number, have been unable to engage in their traditional way of life.
Instead, the Veddahs require demarcated lands with irrigation tanks replete with farming equipment and methods, he added. He explained that there were major issues pertaining to the food they consumed and illnesses that resulted, and problems such as houses sans toilet facilities and Veddahs who did not have a roof over their heads.
Elsewhere, he noted that although the spoken dialect was in use in villages in Kotabakiniya, Dambana and Mahiyangana (Badulla District) and Morabedda in the Central Province and Henanigala (Ampara District), in other villages elsewhere in Wakarai (Batticaloa District), Pollebedda (also in the Ampara District) and Rathugala (Monaragala District) due to the interactions of the Veddhas with the main society, they are gradually forgetting how to speak in their mother tongue. Veddahs is also found in the Districts of Polonnaruwa (in Dalukana) and Anuradhapura.
On the question of the protection of their language which is strictly oral and therefore lacks letters and thereby a written language, although there is a radio programme conducted by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation with the participation of the Veddah Chieftain, at the pradeshiya (regional, rural) level, at present, residents in certain villages owing to the lack of transmission towers do not get to hear the messages relayed by their Leader. Therefore, the indigenous community has requested for a nationally broadcaste slot, at least once a week or month to be given to them to be conducted by their Chieftain to make awareness among the Veddah community. Wimalaratne also highlighted that although in certain schools within the school system, from grade and year three to six, the Veddahs’ spoken language was taught, certain things contained in the relevant textbooks were incorrect and could have quite easily been rectified had the Veddahs themselves (particularly, author and graduate Tennakoon Mudiyanselage Gunawardena popularly known as Dambane Gunawardena) been consulted beforehand.
“For the indigenous people and their culture to survive, first they must be able to live and secondly, their language must be protected (this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Official Languages and Minister Mano Ganesan has stated that his Ministry is bound to look into such) and thus must be afforded a position of honour and value, nationally, which would in turn evoke pride in and among the members of the Veddah community,” Wimalaratne pointed out while the Chieftain had on a different forum lamented that he could not fathom as to why only the nation’s Veddah community was being unfairly and unjustly treated.