Just when one has to condemn doctors going on strike holding the general public hostage, the railway men decide to act – like doctors. The fact that railway men struck work only days after a rail ‘accident’ due to their negligence causing grievous hurt to passengers is an irony. That irate commuters were prepared to [...]


Regular strikes causing chaos: Lessons from Iron Lady


Just when one has to condemn doctors going on strike holding the general public hostage, the railway men decide to act – like doctors.

The fact that railway men struck work only days after a rail ‘accident’ due to their negligence causing grievous hurt to passengers is an irony. That irate commuters were prepared to assault the train drivers and hurt them during the strike is not an irony; it is a very real trend that might lead to civil commotion in time to come. Police paramilitary units were brought in to maintain the peace this week.

These frequent strikes can easily snowball into complete chaos. The Government seems unable to stem rising labour unrest. Backroom negotiations seem non-existent. Where on earth is the Minister of Labour in a Government of 92 Cabinet, State and Deputy Ministers?

There is a creepy feeling in the country that the Government is weak and with elections looming, that this is the time – to strike. The trend can extend to other sectors of the public service. That is why trade unionists resist privatisation; their strength is in the numbers within the essential services of the country.

Government leaders might want to take a leaf from the way one-time British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dealt with a year-long, left-wing strike which she said undermined her electoral victory of 1985. That strike crippled the British economy with dock workers, lorry drivers, miners and railwaymen, all on strike. British cities were stinking with uncollected garbage. There was violence at the picket lines during clashes with the police.

In her autobiography, Mrs. Thatcher writes of “Mr. Arthur Scargill’s Insurrection”, referring to the President of the National Union of Mine Workers and the strikes that also included British Rail. She wrote: “So much was at stake that no responsible Government could take a ‘hands-off’ attitude… I tried to combine respect for their freedom with clear signals as to what would, or would not be financially and politically acceptable”. Her tough action earned her the moniker ‘The Iron Lady’, thereafter. Even earlier, in Sri Lanka, President J.R. Jayewardene dealt a severe blow to trade unions, later known as the ‘July ’80 strikers’. Very often these strikes have political undercurrents far beyond the economic sphere.

The Government is clearly facing a financial crunch. In such circumstances, calls for higher wages seem unreasonable. The foreign reserves of the country are dwindling by the day, merely to prop up the rupee vis-a-vis the US dollar. The Prime Minister has warned that oil prices in the world market could rise once US sanctions against Iran kick in. The Central Bank has turned to the Chinese People’s Bank for ‘Panda bonds’ raising USD 250 million and negotiating for a further USD one billion syndicated loan from the Chinese Development Bank for its massive debt servicing, part of it to repay for the Hambantota port. It seems like borrowing from Ching to pay Chang.

And yet, the demands of the trade unionists sound justifiable on the other hand when the Government is on an expenditure binge. With all sorts of infrastructure projects called developments projects under the banners ‘Gamperaliya’ (UNP) and ‘Grama Shakthi’ (SLFP) with elections looming. With MPs to be given some extra ‘spending money’ euphemistically for ‘development work in their electorates’, for their political survival, it is difficult for the Government to argue it has no money to pay the workers. Also not to be forgotten by the public is the fact that MPs were allowed to make millions by selling their duty-free car permits.

The wrath of the people on the striking workers can easily rebound on the Government.

Lanka and the Karunanidhi legacy

The bereaved supporters of the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in Tamil Nadu carried their recently deceased beloved leader, Muthuvel Karunanidhi on their shoulders last Wednesday to perform the final rites in an emotional farewell.

“De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” in Latin means “nothing but the good is to be said about the dead”. The 94-year-old former Chief Minister of the state, however, was no friend of Sri Lanka. In a scramble to compete with his arch rival M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) for the top job of the state, he threw caution to the winds where good neighbourliness with Sri Lanka was concerned.

Both of them played to the emotive sentiments of the populace by exploiting the Sri Lankan ethno-political mix since the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka, and what was worse – they gave state patronage to separatism and terrorism in Sri Lanka. They provided finances, and their turf for hit-and-run operations across the Palk Strait, also succour, and lodging to those ‘boys’ to wreak mayhem in this country.

The Karunanidhi-Ramachandran duo took turns to outdo the other and changed the matrix of India’s national politics taking advantage of the shaky coalition politics in New Delhi. They forced the Central Government to adopt a hostile stance against the Government in Colombo.

What did they achieve other than high political office for themselves? They achieved misery for the people of Sri Lanka both in the North and the South by encouraging the cycle of violence that this country witnessed in the post-1983 years until 2009. Their state inherited a refugee problem and intra-guerrilla group rivalry saw shootouts on the streets of Tamil Nadu. Bombs destined for the Colombo international airport exploded at their own Meenambakam airport in a botched act of terrorism targeting Sri Lanka.  All this climaxed with the murder of their own Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on Tamil Nadu soil. And yet, what was arguably the worst thing they did for their country was to pit the majority of Sri Lankans against India.

India was once referred to as ‘Mother Country’ by all Sri Lankans. The two countries’ freedom struggles were intertwined. India was regarded with great fondness as the land of the Buddha. All this goodwill evaporated and in its place, China gained a foothold in the country by providing the weapons to battle the separatist movement. The Karunanidhi-MGR combine dreaming the impossible dream of a Pan-Tamil Federation that included Northern Sri Lanka, which was frowned by New Delhi even then, has now to undo the damage caused to Indo-Lanka relations by the incumbents in office.

The fear of India’s hegemony, real or imagined, was fuelled by the politics of Tamil Nadu of that era, closed for now with the departure of the DMK leader. The politics of the state in the future will need to take a different turn, and a broader view adopted of its relations with Sri Lanka – and vice versa, if a new era of commercial and social engagement is to take off leaving the unfortunate past behind.




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