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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Friday, April 22, 2005

The 100-metres Rule

Island: "22/04/2005 by Dr. K. N. K. Wijayawardana

Probably no other issue in Sri Lanka has generated so much of divergent views , confused thinking, hesitancy, political expediency and plain and simple timidity in decision making. Also in typical Sri Lankan style the cost of such procrastination is entirely forgotten.

Basically this buffer zone is a very good thing essential for the development of the country. As was revealed in a recent TV talk show, India had adopted a buffer zone of 300 metres several years ago. In fact India has adopted so many development oriented measures long before us and although she is our closest neighbour and culturally our elder brother we have failed to follow in her footsteps. Far instance India began electrifying her railways in the nineteen thirties and although we had excess electricity in the seventies and even drew up plans to export electricity to South India, we never thought of electrifying our railways.

I was travelling by train in June 1975 to assume duties as M.S. A’pura hospital when I met a most interesting gentleman. He was a former General Manager Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) a top electrical engineer and a product of Kings College, London. He told me that one reason why this was not done was professional jealousy between mechanical engineers and electrical engineers in the railway with the former being the dominant faction. He said that if this was done the travelling time form Colombo to A’pura could be cut down to two hours.

I do not know how far this story is true but this again is an example of our missing the bus.

Anyway in the seventies the train service to A’pura was excellent and in four hours flat one could complete the journey. I doubt whether it is the same today. In the U.K. recently when there was a TV discussion on train accidents and when somebody asked whether there were slower trains elsewhere one person immediately said "in Sri Lanka"! Getting back to the 100 metres rule the people who laid down this law chose to ignore a fundamental principle of community planning - that is in any type of community planning such planning must be done not only in consultation with the people but also taking into account their cultural patterns.

I was talking to a respected former GA of the Eastern province and who told me that in Kalmunai the farmer could not sleep unless he heard the water flowing in the Wakkada (sluice). Similarly the fisherman has a love hate relationship with the sea and he wants to see it and be close to it.

However consulting the people does not mean total agreement with what they say especially in this country as various groups are selfish and have vested interests. Generally various sectors of society and trade union organisations like the GMOA, CEB unions, private bus owners’ associations etc. are chiefly concerned with their own interests and rarely will put the consumer or the country first.

Incidentally from media reports the CEB is now in dire financial-straits and again although our neighbour India restructured their electricity boards several years ago, the CEB trade unions are vehemently opposed to this and are insisting that the consumer be made to pay again for the mess.

This is while the lowest paid CEB employee draws more than Rs. 12,500 per month and the CEB has over 2000 vehicles. Compare this with the full statistics. Twenty five percent of our population have an income of Rs. 791 per month and thirty nine per cent of the population have an income of Rs. 950 per month. (Source-Department of Census and Statistics). These figures may also be "educating" to our "top" bureaucrats who only talk of GDP growth. The trickle down theory does not always operate and what is more important are the percentages. Nearly forty per cent of children under five suffer from under nutrition.

In the seventies Britain was called the "sick man of Europe" with most of the state sector organisations like coal, gas and electricity going on frequent strikes. However Britain was fortunate to find a strong leader in Margaret Thatcher (dubbed the Iron Lady by Moscow) and it was she who broke the power of the unions. Today Tony Blair’s policies are more rightist than leftist although with my socialistic outlook I became a card carrying member of the British Labour party.

Getting back again to the buffer zone this buffer zone became law in the eighties under the Coast Conservation Act of 1981. However like so many other good things, it was hardly or never implemented again highlighting the lack of strong leadership in the country. Incidentally if this Act was strictly implemented, when the Tsunami struck so many lives would have been saved as thousands of people would not have been allowed to remain in vulnerable areas.

Today implementation of this good piece of legislation has run into problems with various contending forces emerging. Even a senior govt. minister who was conspicously absent from the country during the tsunami, has called this rule "stupid". What is required is strong political will but at the same time consultation and communication with the people are essential.

In fact as someone said the top organisations for reconstruction and rehabilitation should have been established not in Colombo but in places like Galle or Ampara. In the eighties a seminar on Poverty Alleviation was held in a five star hotel in Colombo whereas it should have been really held in a rural area. Also incentives should be given to the people to be relocated and with the millions of dollars coming in, high quality houses for such people would be an attraction to move out. In essence the problem calls for communication, diplomacy, transparency and also flexibility. Indecision and procrastination is also costing millions of rupees in suspended planning, building and aid.

The indecisive nature of the govt. is also reflected in the peace process and interim measures for relief distribution in LTTE areas. This is undoubtedly a most tricky and delicate matter and it is very sad that politicians of both major parties have put-their selfish petty personal interests before the larger interests of this country.

The Tsunami was Nature’s way of teaching us a lesson to be united for the sake of the country but sadly our politicians have not learnt the lesson. It has been said that the Tsunami took away the wrong people. Perhaps the next lesson which may also be the final one, will be by Mother Earth perhaps swallowing the house by the Diyawanna in its entirety.

This little country has today become a mere pawn in the power plays, interests and agendas of international players. Last year I was shocked to see on TV the former U.S. ambassador saying that the existence of a LTTE navy is a reality and as such a part of the sea may have to be used by them. India has persistently postponed the signing of a Defence Pact with Sri Lanka.

In the forties C. Rajagopalachari, Governor General of Madras proposed that Ceylon integrate with India to which SWRD Bandaranaike gave his famous four word reply -

"Neither desirable nor necessary".

Today the LTTE has clearly got so many Western sympathisers and supporters a fact which may not be realised. The UNICEF an arm of the UN has repeatedly made threatening noises about child concription but the LTTE carries on regardless as they are confident of tacit support by Western powers. Although the British govt. banned the LTTE the European headquarters continues to remain in "Eelam House" north London. Canada is obliged to the LTTE for votes for parliamentary power. Therefore it is indeed a very tricky situation fraught with danger. This situation calls for the emergence of a strong leader who is able to rise above party politics, unite the people of this country and is diplomatically able to deal with the selfish interests of the so called "international community".

In the past although the situation was not so tricky and dangerous as now, the only leader who stood up to the West was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who had the backing of the Non Aligned nations. In fact when I was studying in the U.S. in 1967 Ceylon was completely unknown there but Mrs. B. was very well known for nationalising the American oil companies. The West only respects strength.

Anyway the present situation is such that it calls for unity not only among politicians but also civil society organisations to put aside their egos and agendas and realise the gravity of what may happen. Let us hope that a strong sincere leader emerges who can rise up to the expectations of the people.

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