Though a lesser man may have caved in under such grave responsibilities, the young minister thrived on the job. In fact, many still consider him to have been the best minister of education of the country. During his tenure, he initiated radical educational reforms aimed at the qualitative improvement of school education so as to harness the talents of children from an early age. There was a special focus on improving the teaching of English and Science. Fast realizing the significance of information technology, Ranil commenced educational TV and introduced computers to schools. A School’s Sports Division was introduced to encourage sports and this, no doubt, has contributed to the high standing that Sri Lanka has been enjoying in cricket and athletics during the two decades. The education of the handicapped and disabled also received special attention.
Ranil activated major improvements in the teaching service by including the criteria of an Education Administrative Service and a Principals’ Service. The recruitment of teachers by examination professionalized the service. Salaries in the sector were also realistically revised.
During his tenure, the country saw the establishment of several Colleges of Education at Hapitigama, Nittambuwa, Passduwa, Mahaweli, Nilwala, Bandarawela, and Sripadha; he also negotiated for the Vavuniya College of Education, and established the National Institute of Education to provide leadership for quality education. A system of giving annual grants to local Pirivena schools was also initiated by him.
As the first Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment, Ranil had to institute a national mechanism to reach the young people of the country. He reorganised, strengthened and expanded the Youth Services Council (which had deteriorated for seven years) and launched it as the National Youth Services Authority with a broader mandate. The main objective of the first comprehensive all-island Youth Development Programme was to give young people a place in society – given the JVP youth insurrection of 1971. This was done through the promotion of youth clubs – Yowun Samaja – throughout the country, as well as through regular Youth Camps – Yowunpura – in different parts of the island such as Pollonnaruwa, Kuliyapitiya, Matale, Anuradhapura and Bandarawela. Participants for these youth camps came from all over the country (including the north and east), and still recount of the camaraderie, leadership, team spirit, sense of adventure, readiness for challenge, and appreciation of nature inspired during those times. Ranil also launched the National Youth Award Scheme to reward youth initiatives and talents in many fields. In 1988, after several months of negotiation with the Japanese government, he was able to construct the largest Youth Centre in Asia (at the time) in Maharagama.
In order to prepare and empower young people for employment, Ranil re-organised the Industrial Apprentice Training Scheme, and rapidly expanded the number of trainees in the island. He also promoted technical training in temples, with one of the first institutes being the Sri Jinaratana Technical Training Institute of the Gangaramaya. His graduate placement scheme was one hundred per cent successful; leading to the employment of all graduates associated with it.
One event that Ranil holds dear to his heart during this period was a visit to Jaffna in 1979, with the then Minister of Fisheries, Mr. Festus Perera. Unlike in today’s political climate, when politicians zoom around in tinted cars, surrounded by security, the two ministers were able to cycle in and around Jaffna on bicycles – to meet up with people and discuss their day to day needs.
After the 1983 racial riots, Ranil’s two ministries were in charge of the camps (set up in schools) for the displaced people in the Western Province. Following the upheaval, Ranil ensured that both his ministries continued their interaction with Tamil youth, teachers, and students in the North and East with the support extended by the police and then Vanni commander, Major General Denzil Kobbakaduwa.
“Interestingly, more and more young people participated in the youth programs during this time, and on one occasion, while Charitha Ratwatte and I conducted a youth seminar in Kilinochchi, we got to know that Tamil Chelvam of the LTTE had watched us from across the road”.
Due to the confidence that Ranil evoked in President Jayawardena, he was also appointed the Deputy Minister of Manpower Mobilization, a ministry under the President’s purview. As the Deputy Minister he enacted the Manpower Mobilization Act and trained the Police platoons to guard Police Stations crisscrossing the country. He also helped to train members of the Army Volunteer Force and established the National Cadet Core. President Jayawardena selected him as a Special Envoy to visit Pakistan and meet with President Zia Ul Haq to arrange for increased training for the Sri Lankan armed forces.