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Monday, June 20, 2011

Making manageable issues unmanageable

The Island 20/06/2011

During past one year or so, we have witnessed that the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been going through a series of problems in conflict management. The termination of the 30-year-long armed conflict in May 2009 in itself was definitely a success story. Nonetheless, it appears that the government has underestimated the gravity of the problems and issues that are directly and indirectly associated with the protracted social conflict that was reported as one of the dirtiest wars in the modern world. Of course, some issues are extremely difficult to be resolved as they surfaced as an outcome as well as the root causes of the armed conflict and are essentially of long term nature. It seems that this failure is primarily due to the non-acceptance of the national dimension of the issue and the reduction of the issue to a simple formula of development. However, this article does not intend to deal with this important issue that would be addressed in a separate note, but to focus on problems that are relatively simple and manageable. The three issues that I am concerned with in this note are, namely, (1) the proposed pension scheme to the private sector; (2) the salary issue of the university teachers; and (3) the issue of ‘war crime’ raised by the Western countries and Tamil diaspora. My submission is that the government has failed to deal with these three issues due to multiple reasons that are to a great extent its own creations.

Let me begin with the first two since these two issues are not confined to Sri Lanka. The issue of pension has now become a major controversial issue even in developed countries that have had reasonably good universal social security system. Many tend to argue that capitalism in the recent past was able to resolve its systemic problems so that an issue of an alternative system or a major revision in the present system will not arise. Nonetheless, especially since the financial crisis of 2008 on the world capitalistic system, it was clear that the governments in many Western countries have shown its failure to maintain, not to speak to expand, their existing social welfare system. Conservative-Liberal coalition government in the UK has announced its proposal to ‘reform’ pension scheme of the public sector. As The Guardian has reported, Dave Prentis, the leader of the largest public sector union in the UK- Unison, "promises to mount the most sustained campaign of industrial action the country has seen since the general strike of 1926. He even proposed non-conventional mode of industrial actions like ‘rolling’ stoppage of work. The proposed pension bill for the private sector in Sri Lanka, we have witnessed, generated street protests by the workers in the private sector that finally resulted in a death of a young worker in the Katunaike FTZ. It was at the last moment that the government came to understand the flaws in the way in which it operated. No one would object to introduce a pension scheme for private sector workers. However, if the new scheme creeps into the EPF contributions that the workers have already made and makes it also mandatory, it is imperative to consult the workers before the bill was tabled in Parliament. The issues are: why did the government act in a hurry? Why the proposed system was made mandatory instead of voluntary? I would suggest that the government would have begun the process by issuing a white paper entailing its proposal and invited the workers and their organisations to engage in a discourse as to how such a system be devised. The government prefers to establish funds for its own reasons. International financial institutions would suggest the same. The events have shown unequivocally that people power is strong and it can even defeat the plans of the government that has two-third majority in Parliament. As the private sector pension scheme is a new proposal, the government could have made it voluntary allowing others to join the scheme if it is really attractive. When we look at the record of the government, one may expect that although the government retreated in the first round, it may reintroduce the same bill with some cosmetic changes in the aftermath of the second round of elections to local government bodies.

The second clear example is trade union action by the university teachers, which has reached its seventh week without any sign of settlement. The Federation of University Teachers Association asked nothing new since its request is limited to the implementation of the 2008 proposals of the UGC. Implementing 2008 proposals in 2011? Moreover, the FUTA has shown its flexibility asking the government not to implement those proposals in one go but in a phased out manner. If the government allows the trade union actions to be continued, its impact on higher education would be disastrous. One can make just a back of the envelope calculation and show that the first step of correcting the salary anomaly of the university teachers would be less than 1000 mn rupees a year and is almost equivalent to what has been spent by the Ministry of Higher Education for so-called leadership training programme for university students. The total cost of the salary increase may be equal to the cost of training of 10 to 15 PhDs in the field of science or engineering. According to the figures given by the Ministry of Higher Education, the country has already lost 550 academics with Ph Ds. Can the country afford to lose another 500 academics well trained in foreign universities? The government has got all its priorities wrong. Was there a budget allocation for the leadership programme? Does the issue of budget allocation arise only the initiative comes from the academia? Why does the government plan to change the Higher Education Act in a hurry as an urgent matter while putting the biggest issue in the sphere of higher education in the back burner? Instead of coming to an acceptable solution to the university teachers’ salary issue, the government continues to go on a confrontational path by degrading university teachers, manipulating the judiciary and finally planning to destroy the state university system.

Thirdly, the government has failed to deal with the international campaign against Sri Lanka on alleged war crimes. Any sensible person knows that a war is a crime against humanity whoever, wherever and whenever it is waged. Zero civilian casualties may be a good slogan and a normative principle, but a totally unrealistic one. Is there an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka? I would say yes. However, my submission is that this conspiracy theory does not provide the framework within which the problem has to be located and addressed. The reason why this international campaign against Sri Lanka remains active even after two years of the event is that the government has failed to find internal solutions to the issues associated with the last days of the war. As I argued couple of weeks ago in this column, the government’s foreign policy is based not only on tested principles but on manipulative politics (let’s deceive them in order to kill time). The attack on the TNA party meeting in Jaffna has demonstrated clearly that the government has no serious concern in dealing and managing the issue at hand.

How could we explicate this failure to manage manageable issues? I may focus on the psyche of the government. It seems that it still in the psyche of the war time with the feeling of insecurity and anxiety. Hence, the government is trying to resolve small problems by using multi barrel rockets. The situation is somewhat similar to the words expressed by one of the characters of Tariq Alis’s second volume of his Islam Quintet. Let me quote: "There are times when our lives are in danger every minute of the day. We are surrounded by the enemy. We have no time to think of anything but survival. Only when peace prevails, one can afford the luxury of being left alone with one’s own thoughts." It seems that the government is still in the same mind of thoughts even after the war came to an end two long years ago. It tends to see the LTTE in every protest. A crocodile in every tea cup.

The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.

E-mail: sumane_l@yahoo.com