A video where a 79-year-old veteran engineer addresses a meeting chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, discussing how Sri Lankan engineers are able to handle development work at much lower the cost charged by foreign contractors, is doing the rounds on social media. Reading from a document (a copy of which was handed over to the [...]

Business Times

Relying on local expertise


A video where a 79-year-old veteran engineer addresses a meeting chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, discussing how Sri Lankan engineers are able to handle development work at much lower the cost charged by foreign contractors, is doing the rounds on social media.

Reading from a document (a copy of which was handed over to the President), he courageously refers to 11 projects of which five were done by Sri Lankans and the others by foreigners, pointing out that the projects done by foreigners cost four to six times of that executed by locals.

“One example is the Maduru Oya irrigation scheme under the Mahaweli Development project. The estimate provided by the late legendary engineer A.N.S. Kulasinghe, head of the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB), to undertake this work was Rs. 725 million. Canada gave a loan of Rs. 2,450 million for the project. When Kulasinghe asked the Treasury for this money, he was told they had no funds. However, the Treasury spent Rs. 850 million in counterpart funds for the Canadian-led project. A project that would have cost only Rs. 725 million eventually cost more than Rs. 3,000 million,” he said.

“We have spent 4 or 5 times on projects and Mr. President Sir we are continuing in the same fashion for most of the projects. When the RDA provided an estimate of Rs. 540 million to build the new Kelani bridge, the Japanese gave a Rs. 1,500 million grant-cum-loan while the government spent Rs. 540 million on counterpart funds. The RDA could have built four bridges with that money,” he said, adding these ‘costly’ decisions were by politicians, administrators and planners.

Another story was about the 1957 floods which damaged 1,500 tanks. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister. He asked Lands Minister C.P. de Silva whether to bring consultants and contractors from England. His reply: “No Sir, let’s ask Gunasekera (Director of Irrigation).” Gunasekera said, “You give me the rupees, I’ll do the job.” All the 1,500 tanks were repaired in 10 months in readiness for the next monsoon and that was the biggest engineering feat this country has ever seen.

Another costly mistake was handing over the Kalutara bridge construction to Swedish firm Skanska. The local estimate for this project was Rs. 110 million, while Skanska asked for Rs. 245 million and was given the job. “We could have built three bridges across the Kalu Ganga with that money,” he said, adding that the country spends a lot on free education to produce engineers who are skilled and competent but the country is not getting the best out of them.

As I watched the video, the phone rang. It was Kalabala Silva, the often agitated academic, on the line looking for a casual chat on this bright and sunny Thursday morning. But this time, I decided to ask the questions and pick Kalabala’s brain on the skillset of Sri Lankan engineers, architects and planners which we should be proud of but is  not using to the maximum to develop the country.

I related the comments by the veteran engineer and asked Kalabala, “Why are we relying on costly foreign expertise when we have equally or more competent Sri Lankan professionals who definitely cost less?” “That’s true. Unfortunately, we have this theory that foreign consultants are more qualified and also when seeking foreign assistance, such aid comes with strings attached in the form of foreign contractors and consultants,” he said.

“Yes, but isn’t it time we put a stop to this nonsense and marshalled all local resources and bring them under a local-first-foreigner-second policy in crafting the country’s development future,” I asked.  “True… but which government would resort to such a practice. We are still living under a colonial cloud where we think the foreigner knows best,” he added.

The Sirisena/Ranil (more like the Ranil factor in that government) regime, which had a fancy for foreign consultants, was enamoured with the Harvard University doctrine, hiring costly consultants from there to chart Sri Lanka’s economic future. While there seems to be many things going on in that sphere, much of it was not transparent to the public, for example, how much was spent on the Harvard exercise and what benefit was it to the country.

If Sri Lanka’s own economists and planners were given this task, no doubt it would have cost next-to-nothing by roping in university economists and agencies like the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) to create a development model suited for Sri Lanka. Speaking of IPS, it was unfortunate that the government asked Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, Executive Director of IPS and one of the country’s foremost economists to resign from the Central Bank’s Monetary Board, when she would have contributed immensely to decision-making at the banking regulator.

Over the years, Sri Lanka has relied on foreign specialists, consultants and contractors at a huge cost to the nation when, as pointed out by the veteran engineer who has worked in various capacities for over 50 years, we have enough and more expertise.

For example, combine the skills of the late Kulasinghe, the late Ray Wijewardene and the late Geoffrey Bawa, and you have in any given day, a group of eminent Sri Lankans – who given the chance – would have single-handedly crafted a development model for the country at literally no cost! Recent plans to gazette new regulations governing the Urban Development Authority without properly consulting engineers and architects is another disaster waiting to happen.

As I pondered on these thoughts, my attention was directed towards the margosa tree where Kussi Amma Sera, Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina were listening to a catchy Sinhala Baila on one of their Smartphones.

Doing the rounds on social media is the song titled ‘Sarama (Sarong)’ sung by veterans Desmond De Silva, Annesley Malawana and Sunil Perera, joined by Rajiv Sebastian with some wonderful lyrics.

The chorus goes like this: “Api kiwwama mehema, hithata ganna hamoma//Maninna epa andumen, kisi kenekuge tharama// Kenek andata sarama, kawuru hithuwath kohoma//Sarama andina kenai danne, sarame pahasuwe tharama.”

Translated into English it means: “When we say this, everybody should take it into their minds// Don’t measure anyone by the clothes they wear// Even though someone may wear a sarong, if someone thinks like that// It is the person who wears the sarong who knows how comfortable the sarong is.”

Lassana sinduwak (It’s a lovely song),” said Kussi Amma Sera, walking into the office room with a second mug of tea for me. I nodded in agreement, realising that not only do we have skilled engineers, architects and town planners but Sri Lanka also has a reservoir of talented musicians and lyricists.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.