A small group of mischievous boys were running down the road with one singing, “Avilla, avillaa … karadara kaley … avilla (The troubled period has come)”, to the tune of that popular Avuduru favourite, ‘Avilla… avillaa Sinhala Avurudda avilla’. There was a small commotion near the gate when Kussi Amma Sera along with Serapina and [...]

Business Times

Walking a tightrope


A small group of mischievous boys were running down the road with one singing, “Avilla, avillaa … karadara kaley … avilla (The troubled period has come)”, to the tune of that popular Avuduru favourite, ‘Avilla… avillaa Sinhala Avurudda avilla’.

There was a small commotion near the gate when Kussi Amma Sera along with Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu, shouted at the youngsters, “Oyalata pissuda (Are you crazy)?” making a feeble attempt to chase them away.

“Balanna ko, ratey kalabala kaley… mey lammai-ta jolly (See, when the country is in crisis, these fellows are poking fun)”, she said frowning. The three women then got into a conversation about the latest crisis facing the country – the railway strike and other protests this week which once again caused an element of chaos in the city, particularly for those returning home after work.

I could hear snatches of their conversation from my office window while sipping the morning cup of tea.

“Mangala mahattaya giya sumaane quewwa… Meka konda pana nethi durwala aanduwak (Mangala Sir said last week that this is a weak, backboneless government),” Serapina was saying. Irked by the remark, Kussi Amma Sera quickly responded: “Ehema kiyana-eka waredi, neda (It is unfair to say that).” “Mama hithanne Mangala mahattaya kiyana eka hari (But what he said was correct),” butted in Mabel Rasthiyadu, adding, “Chee ….Me vidiye Aaanduwak apita hambuwela nehe (We have never had a regime like this)”.

Before I could shut off from listening to their conversation, good-for-nothing Somay was on the line:

“I-say, fine man Mangala, how can he talk of a spineless government when he himself is part of it?”

“Well he was trying to express a personal opinion and in this regime, they can and still remain in government, unlike in the past,” I said. “But what about collective responsibility of cabinet?” he asked. “Well…the two parties are having a challenging time trying to cater to the needs of both sides and the need of the hour is to rise above party politics, think of the country and be firm in managing the country,” I said.

Changing the subject, Somay refers to a recent speech by President Maithripala Sirisena in Polonnaruwa and says: “The President says that the country needs 4,000 engineers for development projects and has appealed to Sri Lankan expatriate engineers to come and work for the country. How can they work here when the administration is in a mess?”

Good point. “You’re absolutely right,” I said and then we parted company as some visitors had walked into his home.

The President, speaking at one of the development projects inaugurated in Polonnaruwa (it was like déjà vu and Hambantota happening all over again), had urged Sri Lankan engineers who studied in local schools and universities making use of free education to come back to serve their motherland and return once the job is done.

Whether Sri Lankan expatriate engineers will respond to the call, one has to wait and see but no one is going to get sabbatical leave or any leave for several months to finish a job in Sri Lanka and return to their new homeland. They may need to be paid international salaries and if that happens, where does that leave local engineers who chose to remain in Sri Lanka?

Local engineers, it appears, are a very disgruntled lot, losing the recognition they deserve because Sri Lanka is swamped by foreign funded projects which come packaged with foreign contractors and engineers. In a June 24 article in the Business Times titled, ‘Plight of SL’s public sector engineers’, Chartered Civil EngineerM.G. Hemachandra has raised the question: “Why are local engineers ignored?”

He goes on to list the numerous achievements by the engineers in the 70 years since independence, building projects like the Galoya development scheme which encompasses some of the largest and the most iconic reservoirs in the country and the Senanayake Samudra, all at much lower cost than foreign funded projects.

Lamenting that the “golden era” of the public services’ engineers who were the backbone of the country’s modern day development history has come to an end, he pointed out: “We are now in an era where public service engineers are often sidelined from the country’s major development works and reduced to being just signing mechanisms for certifying completion of works for turnkey projects outsourced to third parties.” His valid argument was that local engineers were being sidelined for engineers brought in on expensive, foreign funded projects.

Going back to Maithripala’s plea for expatriate Sri Lankan engineers to return to the country for short stints, there is another way in which this could work. Many years ago in the North during a ceasefire between government troops and the LTTE, Tamil expatriate experts were brought in on short, voluntary stints to chart a development plan for the North. They came at their own expense on short holiday-cum-work stints, met at a temporary work-station in Kilinochchi and developed plans with their own team and returned to their homes in faraway lands to drive the initiative from there through their respective teams. With the end of the ceasefire, that plan collapsed.

Over the years, since the end of the war, many Sri Lankans abroad have expressed a desire to help their motherland. Given this desire to serve the country of their birth, the government should set about creating a work space and a list of development projects that need their expertise. This could be titled a ‘Holiday-cum-volunteer scheme’.

Once a work hub is created in Colombo, a list of development projects and the expertise required should be prepared. The work hub should ideally be created under a semi-government, apolitical body with a desire to continue this process under any government, under any ruling political party. The proposed organisation then sends out a call to Sri Lankans who would like to help the country with their expertise, asking them for their skill set and schedule of when they propose to take a holiday in Sri Lanka (there are many who come once or twice a year to visit family and/or relatives). Once their skills are processed, they are matched with the needs in the development projects underway or proposed to be started. After the skill set is matched with a project that needs this expertise, a local team is assembled at the time the Sri Lankan expert arrives for his planned holiday.

The team then meets with the expatriate Sri Lankan, who has by then agreed as to how many days or hours he can spend on the project during his holiday here.

The team then starts working on the project and after he leaves Sri Lanka at the end of his holiday-cum-work trip, he continues to drive the project or work under a team leader while he is abroad. While the local team is hired by the government, the expatriate Sri Lankan donates his effort and continues to do so while abroad – with advanced technology now available at our fingertips.

If there is a need to spend time in the field, that needs to be arranged while the expatriate Sri Lanka is visiting on holiday. At the end of each visit, the expatriate Sri Lankan gets a “well done and thank you” from the government for the volunteerism. I am sure many Sri Lankans would love to get involved in apolitical, community projects in building the country.

With so much of disharmony in government, administration and politics, Sri Lankans are looking for a window of calm and tranquility to overcome – even for a short time – the madness that is going around us. Maybe a development plan bringing together Sri Lankan experts here (like engineers who have been sidelined) and expatriate Sri Lankan experts may be just what the doctor ordered. It could even offer expertise to private sector-driven projects.

The challenge, however, is in ensuring this scheme is above politics, not owned by a single political party and is able to continue irrespective of who is in charge of governing the country.

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