2nd June 1996

Case of highlighting the darkness

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Sri Lanka has a political culture of its own. Everyone knows that. It was a previous President, a strong exponent of this exquisite real politik, who said 'thama thamang ge arakshava thama thamang ma sapayanna ona.' (Individuals will be responsible for their own individual security.)

So it wasn't quite a political shock when the President said at a press conference that foreign correspondents are only highlighting the darkness "they never said anything about the gains we made."

In Sri Lanka, organised society screeched to a halt, and what remained of ethics went out like a torch.

Asked to define civilisation, anthropologist Margaret Mead is once supposed to have given a laconic answer. 'Its when I turn on the tap,' she said, 'and find that there is running water in it.'

But Mead was a genius. She through all her erudition said it bluntly, but said it politely. Not so Bo Derek, a lovely busty American actress of no particular eloquence. She was shooting a movie here, in the deep South, when she observed "Sri Lanka is a place with no running water but running lizards." Incidentally, her figure, then was draped in a diyaredda, a recommended attire these days.

Madam, Then, you should have been here last week!

The genesis of this strike is anybody's guess, but one thing is clear, when it struck, it struck like thunder. Organised systematic civilisation, ye people, hangs by a thread. In this instance, it hangs by the troth of the comrades of the Ceylon Electricity Board.

There are cushy jobs, and cushy jobs. Among these, there are cushy jobs that pay, and there are just plain sinecures. From the time of Wimalasurendra and the old electricity pioneers of Sri Lanka (who now surely must be turning in their graves) the CEB has been a place for the relatively new era. What more than the omnipresent god of electricity to typify the new times which literally electrified the land.

There were several such relatively privileged positions in the government service. These included positions in the Telecommunications Department, the Ceylon Electricity Board, and a few such plum essential elements that made up the national services.

Small wonder then that the mollycoddled sections of the Sri Lankan national services have to take it personally when there is any hint of privatisation or divestment of such national services.

But for all of the privileged, the under-privileged and the caught-in-between who experienced the paralysis of civic life last week resulting from the domino effect of the CEB strike nothing seemed to be more apparent than the fact that civilisation in these third world countries is a tenous thing. Previously, the island has not experienced an islandwide powercut (there have been regional ones galore) for more than three hours.

So all records were broken last week, which meant that the srike hit at the very fundamentals of Sri Lankan civic, social and political life. For instance, though there was common agreement that a relatively small body of workers could not hold the entire country to a ransom, there was also a desperate national soul searching exercise that took place.

What had gone wrong with the pet poodles and the darlings of the public services, which had insulated and buffered the system from all manner of threats aimed at the state including JVP terrorism and the collective poverty of the 70's?

There is a way every nation deals with a strike. In the 1990's, the US government made an essential service order when air traffic controllers decided to take off from their jobs. Chicago may have been where workers day began, but there are very few places like America where managements can be more ruthless with a strike. There is of course no second guessing how Lee Kwan would have dealt with a strike like this. (Not that these things happen in those parts.)

You can't have the cake and eat it too. It is a lesson for cakemakers as well as politicians. When a government rides to power on the back of dissent and grievance, especially among workers, and then proceeds to breed and spawn strikes, the good that such men do is bound to catch up with them.

If Mahinda Rajapakse is told that he is the single most prominent person responsible for the collapse of civic life in Sri Lanka last week, he will probably have my head for it. But, the point does not have to be laboured. The constituency has to be pleased, and when your constitutency is comprised of strikers, either you become a strikemaker and be that way, and forget about the economic constituency and the rest of the caboodle.

Of coruse the CEB chartered new depths in the concept of irresponsibility, taking the strike culture a step further than the doctors. Even the CEB unions would not have bargained for the repercussions. Though it can be argued that there are strikes in the best of places, such as Paris France which recently experienced a paralysing transport strike, it is difficult to think of a strike like last week's in which the basic building blocks of the system were systematically taken out.

Plainly put, such strikes are unconcionable. Their stupidity will be measured by the enormity of the economic repercussions that will soon be reaped. You cannot step back to the dark age and get back to real civilisation in a hurry.

The strike can be analysed until the cows come home. It is certainly due to the insensitivity of worker unions which do not know their limits and in part due to the sterility of government which does not have the ideas to prevent or alleviate such an eventuality.

But, maybe, just maybe, questions at a more philosophical level are more interesting, if you are not withering in the heat to ponder these.

In Sinhala, a pithy saying has it 'vandurata deli pihiya dunna wage.' Give the monkey a razor and see what happens. A taste of freedom without responsibility and a taste of government without a sense of the gravity of the moment are both spectacles we witnessed last week.

We want to be NIC. The most beautiful girl in the beach. Then the nation goes on strike. Because, strikes, in the final analysis, work. By gad, the government said that. You can't turn off a state of mind, like a tap. Or a bulb. Or the national grid.

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