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Opinion

Why project implementation sans planning?

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By I. P.C. MENDIS

Neighbouring big brother India has gone through many “five-year plans” very successfully since its Independence. Such planning has been and is being undertaken by experts, and not meddled with in mid-stream or otherwise, at the whims and fancies of politicians even on a change of government. Our worthies here in Sri Lanka have had nothing to learn from the Indian experience or that of similar successes elsewhere. Indeed, we have always had a Ministry for Planning, strengthened by a Department for Planning, replete with qualified personnel which had right along produced ‘long-term”, “mid-term” plans as well as “crash and Integrated programmes’, etc., but sadly no national plan.

There was a surfeit of propaganda in its place, idle talk proving to be damp squibs replacing concrete action and success in ideas. Foreign training and seminars, familiarisation courses and conferences, coupled with opportunities for personal advancement had come their way a dime a dozen, but the wheels of fortune for the country had got stuck in the mud. Instead of getting down to brass-tacks and embarking on what we could tackle fast and well, our thoughts went mega fortifying ourselves with foreign aid enough to revive the economy manifold, but instead squandered for everything else with megalomaniacal efficiency. Funds voted were not usefully spent, as the projects were destined to fail ‘ab initio’ sans the essential ingredient of proper planning and half-hearted efforts, but of course replete with ideas for empire building and foreign jaunts. First things first – we were taught in the kindergarten but all that jazz faded away with Colonial rule.

 

Nutrition Programme

 For instance, we had an ambitious programme for Nutrition when the Ministry was headed by a big name, politically powerful. It started with a bang with a distinct Division Report after report was being furnished and the programme was in full gear, the progress being reported faithfully and lauded at monthly meetings of the Secretaries Committee, chaired by the then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs cum Cabinet Secretary – a retired Civil Servant recalled by President JRJ. The said Nutrition Division was on the Agenda and the Secretary to the Ministry of Planning held forth proudly and embroidered it with impressive arguments on the essentiality of nutrition, and the need to educate the masses on the benefits of nutrition. What this worthy failed to realise in his world of the newly-found “playing field” was that the majority of people knew what to nourish themselves and their children with, but that the purse would not permit it.

 

Priorities must be right 

 There was a time when progress was being measured in terms of expenditure patterns studied within A/C offices, at the cost of on-the-spot examination of physical progress. Such methods did tend to mislead progress review with ground realities being different.

 

The Turmeric Tragedy

The campaign to grow turmeric locally and save quite a slice in foreign exchange was a step in the right direction. Turmeric is an essential commodity in local cooking, and the people had suffered over one-and-a half years in silence, hoping against hope that the day will dawn when we could reach the local variety. The people were told to be patient till the harvest, which was expected in around February 2021. The date has come and gone and we are in July. The silence of the authorities is deafening, as the commodity is still hard to come by or unreachable at around Rs. 310/= per 50 grams. 

When the raw variety should have been boiled, dried and diverted to machinery to obtain the final product, one found the raw variety on roadsides for sale at some places. What happened to the glorious plans, if there were such plans to begin with? It is to be hoped that the same fate will not befall the organic fertiliser issue, which many seem to think should have been undertaken in stages. It is indeed good to be bold and innovative, but any project must be preceded by proper planning accompanied by wise decisions, sans megalomaniacal ideas which are difficult of implementation at speeds beyond capacity. Is “Viyathmaga” destined to be a sad story? Hope not!



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Opinion

Disciplined society: Bridge too far?

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By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Discipline, by definition, is the practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not. But there is more to it. The government of the day can lay down the rules as well as the mechanisms for punishment if they are broken, but society has even a greater part to play, as disciplined behaviour is mutually beneficial. The behaviour of the majority of the public, rather the misbehaviour, contributing to the difficulty of controlling the present COVID-19 pandemic, is a case in point.

True, the Pohottuwa government has distinguished itself by scoring many own goals, but it has to be appreciated that the President and the government have done much to control the pandemic, under very difficult circumstances. For an under-resourced country, facing a severe foreign exchange crisis, due to the pandemic, to have vaccinated more than half of the adult population, in a relatively short period, is a remarkable achievement, as it surpasses some developed countries. True, mistakes were made but no country got things correct as this was an unprecedented situation. Had there been more cooperation from the public, including the Opposition, things could have been even better. Having seen how Britain, which was hit very much harder, controlled the pandemic, I wrote an article ‘Learning to live with Covid-19’ (The Island, 26 August) wherein I stated:

“Limitations in force in Sri Lanka, before the imposition of the curfew, were similar to the strictest lockdown measures in countries like the UK. Why is that Sri Lanka needs to go a step further and introduce a curfew? The simple answer is discipline; whereas in the UK the majority show disciplined behaviour, unfortunately, the opposite is true in Sri Lanka.”

Though many appreciated my article written in good faith, to offer scientific facts to convince the public that they have a greater part to play than the government, to overcome the epidemic and learn to live with it, most unexpectedly, the only rebuff I got was from a former colleague of mine. He lambasted:

“I was quite amazed and disappointed about your comments about the vaccination programme here. Every medical professional here, except the ever-diminishing number of those slavishly loyal to the Rajapksas, are extremely critical of the way it is done. This vaccination programme has totally ruined the reputation we had as a country with an exemplary immunisation programme for a long time. When the Army, politicians and other businessmen make decisions, overriding medical opinion, the outcome is obvious.

The vaccination queues are the latest super-spreaders. Many have got the infection few days after attending a mass vaccination site. The latter have become carnivals with the army band providing music and the President making a supervisory visit every now and then.

“You have suddenly found Sri Lankans to be very undisciplined. With such a set of power-wielding uneducated, undisciplined set of leaders, what did you expect the people to be? Living thousands of miles away, your extreme ignorance about the ground situation here, coloured by your unwavering loyalty to some politicians, is not surprising.”

I was shocked that a member of my profession sought to politicise a serious public health issue. Whilst pointing out that routine vaccination programmes are not comparable to a programme conducted during an extreme emergency and that many, including Dr. N.S. Jayasinghe, a much-respected physician, has written to newspapers praising the programme, I addressed the issue of indiscipline with the following response:

“I know from personal experience how undisciplined Sri Lankans are and it is not a new discovery! I left the GMOA because I was against strikes, a sign of lack of discipline among the members of the so-called noble profession. If you think Sri Lankans are disciplined, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land! Your statement that the vaccination programme acted as a spreader proves my point. If it did occur, it is because people do not know how to queue. They think if you push, things would be done quicker! If the Army had stood outside ordering people to queue properly, the Opposition would have claimed Gota was using the Army to tame the public!”

The last thing I wish to do is to criticize my brethren unfairly, from a distant land, but I am not left with much choice. It is pretty obvious that indiscipline has grown, as much as each successive government in Sri Lanka, since independence, becoming more corrupt than the previous.

We are supposed to be a Buddhist country and we expect the disciples of the Buddha to be the most disciplined. A Buddhist priest trying to assault a vaccinator, because the stock of vaccines runs out, may be interpreted as an isolated incident, but it is not. Utterances by some Buddhist priests in public are cringeworthy. A Buddhist priest leads a nurse’s trade union; much against the code of conduct laid down by the Buddha and adds insult to injury by getting them to take trade union action during a grave medical emergency, endangering lives. Buddhist priests are seen joining the teacher’s strike, too.

What about the noble profession of mine and my friend’s? Even before the pandemic, their trade union did not care two hoots about patients’ lives; going on strike being their first response to any problem! Unashamedly, they risked innocent patients’ lives during a pandemic to get their demands.

Not that there are no disciplined professionals. Much was made, in the media, of Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema’s resignation and a few others from the expert committee. One of their colleagues has written to this newspaper that they owe it to the public to declare why they resigned. The resignation itself says it all and that is the way decent professionals protest.

Now teachers have joined the strike bandwagon to settle a dispute that had been lingering on for over two decades. They do not care a tuppence about the future of our youth and in the process have lost all the esteem the public held them in. My friend, very conveniently, has failed to notice that the virus spread due to demonstrations held by teachers breaching COVID-19 regulations, despite it resulting in the unfortunate deaths of some teachers.

Leaving politicians aside, most of whom are undisciplined, irrespective of their complexions, when respected segments of the society, like the clergy, medical professionals and teachers, display gross indiscipline during an unprecedented period like this, can there be any hope? I wonder! I do hope the next generation ‘rebels’ against these, as generations do, so that a disciplined society may not be a bridge too far; I can only hope!

Coming back to the political accusations my colleague made, my reply was:

“I am not ashamed to admit that, any day, I would prefer Mahinda, Gota and Basil to Ranil or Sajith.”

Just a few days after my comment, Sajith made his declaration that there should be a snap-election. My assessment was confirmed by the leader of the JVP who responded by saying that Sajith should have his head examined!

Perhaps, there is more to it than that. Considering the number of protests and trade union actions that have taken place in spite of the continuing national emergency, one cannot be blamed for suspecting that there is a hidden hand behind all this. Maybe, Sajith let the cat out of the bag by his unguarded comment.

On top of the inherent tendency, it looks as if there is planned indiscipline too!

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Opinion

When Susanthika did Lanka proud

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As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.

The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.

Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.

As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.

That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.

As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.

Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.

So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.

Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.

LALITH FERNANDO

Panadura

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Opinion

Give teachers and principals their due

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Why didn’t the Education Minister and the Secretary pay due attention to the fair voices of the most vulnerable and largest service sector of this country, at the initial stage, making the alliance of teacher-principal trade unions proceed to street protests, which started in the absence of any positive gesture from the Ministry of Education? That is how the present state of chaos originated.

The prolonged online teaching strike has kept the younger generation of all school-going children in darkness, and their right to learn has been deprived of. Blaming the teachers is not the solution. What is required is the right solution at the time of need. The unions are demanding the implementation of the Subodhini Committee report, plus the Cabinet subcommittee proposals, in a gazette notification. It is more sensible for the government to respond to this final flexible stance of the unions, rather than prolonging the issue with temporary solutions.

The strikers of the teacher-principal unions are not ready to give in to the temporary sugar candy sachet which is a pretty ridiculous joke, a consolation allowance to dodge the crux of the problem. Plastering or patching up the situation by offering an allowance of Rs. 5000 for three months is a shame to the teacher community. Such an allowance should be allocated for COVID-19 affected people of low-income or refugees in flood-affected regions.

What could have been broken with the nail was allowed to grow to the extent that it couldn’t be crushed even with an axe. Successive governments disregarded the demands of teachers and principals, treating them as nonentities; although the ungrateful present-day politicians rose to their present high positions because their bright lives were designed, brain powers sharpened and heads enlightened by teachers.

Although all teachers are not saints, the majority of our teachers are worthy of veneration. They are the architects of nation-building. They must have sufficient pay for a decent living, commensurate with the commitments and their toil. With an ungratified mentality, they may be unenthusiastic to discharge duties. Under such circumstances, the process of nation-building will collapse. So far, they have been doing yeoman’s service but they can’t continue to do so amidst the rising cost of living and unfavourable living conditions. When the salaries of all other employee categories have been brought to a satisfactory level, why does the government not heed to their demand?

In response to the mounting pressure from the teacher-principal trade union strike, the government appointed a cabinet subcommittee to produce another report to solve the problem; but it turned out to be a futile attempt, akin to changing the pillow as a treatment to the headache, wasting the valuable time of both parties. Such a committee should comprise experts from the education field, not from the lobby with the loquacious MPs who are in the habit of suspending and postponing everything until the next budget. On the other hand, what is the need for piling up further committee reports, when there is already a much-quoted and assumed fairly balanced Subodhini Committee report, which has been formulated by a panel of members comprising a former minister, four additional secretaries, and the accountant of the Ministry of Education.

True that the government is in dire straits with financial difficulties, but that is not a sound reason to postpone this issue. If so, why should the government introduce new megaprojects, such as 200 city beautification programmes, import of luxury vehicles for MPs and walking tracks, which are not critical requirements. The problem of teacher salary anomalies could be solved by holding such long term, not so urgent schemes.

The proposed four-phased payment of the salary increments is a nice way of circumventing serious demands of trade unions and yet another fairy tale. It is a way of escaping the main responsibility.

To illustrate this point, let us take the case of the state employees who retired between January 2016 and December 2020. All government employees including judges, ministry secretaries, directors, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces personnel, and mind you, a former director-general of the Pensions Department, was entitled to a revised salary increment system in five stages starting in 2016, and final amalgamation of all increments, due to be paid with effect from January 2020. The salary increment rates are clearly stated in the pension award letter issued by the Director-General of the Department of Pensions, which is a legal document to confirm the claim.

The present government unreasonably cancelled the (2016-2019) pensioners amalgamated salary increment of five stages, by the circular 35/2019(1) dated 20.01.2020 following a cabinet decision. More than 100,000 pensioners have been victimised and deprived of their fundamental right of the salary and sad to say, nearly 1819 pensioners have already died without getting their increments. But the government so adamantly refused to pay up and adopted a slippery policy with various cock and bull stories.

The basis for the development of a country is the education system, spearheaded by the formidable workforce of teachers hailing from Aristotle and Disapamok. All of the so-called thriving politicians; garrulous speakers who look down upon teacher communities; professionals, academics, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, inventors, artists, all of these are the intellectual outputs of the dedicated energies of humble teachers who never gave priority to building highrise palaces for their self-indulgence and luxurious lives. Not to let it happen again and again, they deserve to be freed from this muddle of salary anomalies at this critical moment.

Finally, a word about the mediation of the Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, who are urging the alliance of the teacher-principal trade unions to give the strike up , and restart online teaching. May I appeal to the venerable prelates to be fair to all. Could you, in your respected designations, kindly convey the same message to the government, asking why it is not taking an initiative to resolve this burning issue, by issuing a circular or gazette notification, without postponing it off further, for the sake of the innocent school children?

M.B. NAVARATHNE

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