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11th July 1999

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The degree of unemployment
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The degree of unemployment

Mangalika was thrilled to see the advertisement. At last, a ray of hope in her young life. The advertisement offered unemployed graduates government jobs. For the first time since she completed her degree two years ago, Mangalika was optimistic about the future. She would get a job.

Hailing from Kandy, Mangalika is the eldest of four children. Her father, a retired policeman had a difficult time as the sole breadwinner. It had been Mangalika's dream to get a job that would put to good use her knowledge of physics and mathematics.

When the letter bringing news of the job came on a very official Ministry letterhead, Mangalika was disappointed. She had been appointed as an assistant librarian to a distant school in Badulla. It was not the kind of job she had hoped for.

But, the worst news came when she visited the school. No one there, including the Principal knew of her appointment. The joke was on her. The school had no library.

Last January, the Treasury advertised for unemployed graduates hoping to slot them into government-paid jobs. It recruited 8000 in a drive that just brimmed over with stories like this.

The name Mangalika is fictitious, necessarily to protect her identity. But certainly her problem is not.

As is the case of the young man with a second upper in Criminal Law who was appointed to a school deep in the North Central province which only had 96 students and certainly no library.

And the student with a speciality in microbiology appointed to the Ministry of Culture. Another with an upper in Economics appointed to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The Department of Archaeology was sent youth armed with degrees in every other field while archaeology students were routed elsewhere.

What happened?

Well, for one, three months after these strange appointments were meted out, the state-owned media was wont to proclaim that the unemployment figure has reduced drastically. Sure, 8000 graduates were absorbed into the government service- at considerable cost to the state machinery.

But if the Treasury had taken a little more time with the appointments, just enough to route the correct specialities to the correct Departments, the employment drive could really have seen success.

Right now, it is no secret that many of the appointees have quit- especially those sent to distant schools where the promised wage of Rs. 4000 would not have sufficed to cover lodging and food.

Many graduates, the country's brains and future, have been left feeling more cheated than when they started out. Others simply languish in jobs hardly suited to their four years of higher study.

Although the overall unemployment figure has come down to 8.8 percent from a high of 14 per cent in 1992, the problem is still very prevalent among the youth of the country.

Unemployment is highest in the educated categories, those with O/Ls and A/Ls and higher education.

That is the tragedy. Sri Lanka with its much-vaunted free-education system is churning out graduates in many disciplines who cannot be absorbed into the system- and end up instead as a burden on the country's economy, in instances like the recent recruitment drive.

While the overall unemployment rate is down to a single digit figure now, unemployment among those with O/Ls, A/Ls and above stands out as 10.3 and 14.8 percent respectively. What's more, the danger is still ahead.

The country's labour force is increasing at a rapid rate and will continue to expand for the next two decades, before it settles at a comfortable level. So the difficult issue of youth unemployment will continue to exert a stranglehold on the economy for at least 20 years more.

The country's labour force is expected to increase from eight million in 1995 to 10 million in 2010 and peak at 11 million in 2031.

According to a report on Demographic Projection in Sri Lanka by Dr. A.T.P.L Abeykoon, Director of the Population Division of the Ministry of Health, the labour force participation will then slow down and reach an absolute figure of 10.7 million in 2045.

Youth, especially those with education, are worst off. Unemployment among qualified youth has remained very high despite the gradual decline of the total rate over the last decade. This shows a huge mismatch between educational qualifications and job opportunity.

The government has patted itself on the back for abolishing the educational system that churned out graduates who could not perform in a competitive corporate environment and changing the school curricula. But the problem will not solve itself automatically.

In a slow economy where very little foreign investment is trickling in, it is difficult to absorb more people into private and corporate sector jobs. Unfortunately due to the lack of English education and a backward curricula, graduates are little equipped to work in a corporate environment.

The public sector is shrinking and will soon be an insignificant employer compared to the private sector.

And the many graduates, most from rural areas and with little English, will be left home in the prime of their life, desperately seeking jobs that justify their educational level- and then settling for an insignificant career as an assistant librarian in a school without a library.

It is not a problem that will disappear by handing out 8000 jobs like candy just to gain political mileage of a reduced unemployment rate. It is a problem that will continue every year as more and more educated youth enter the job market. The government is duty bound to create suitable employment opportunities for these young people whose education is paid for by the rest of the country.

More women in the work force

The increase in the labour force has a lot to do with greater female participation. In 1953, a census showed only 18.9 percent female participation and by the nineties it had increased to 31 percent.

Projections show that there will be a dramatic increase in female participation in the work force, especially in the ages of 20-40. This trend will also have its effect on fertility and birth rate.

The average age for marriage for Sri Lankan women is 25 years- very high for the south Asian region. With more and more women joining in the work force, birth rate and fertility will decline further.

But ironically it is the women who are hardest hit by unemployment, the rates for females being much higher, almost double that of men. Last year's annual report by the Central Bank showed a 12.7 unemployment rate for women while it was only 7.1 percent for men.

Considered areawise, the south, especially the Matara District has shown the highest unemployment rate. Little wonder that the two youth rebellions in the country were born in the south.

Unemployment is lowest in the North Central Province, many being involved in agricultural activities. The North and East have not been considered due to the war.

Point of view - Cecil D. Dharmasena

Take banana project away from the wilds

Your correspondent Frederica Jansz's special assignment report "Going Bananas, Growing Bananas" in The Sunday Times of June 27, was most revealing. It highlights not only the woeful lack of a national plan of development (inclusive of agriculture, irrigation, land use, planning, wildlife conservation, not to mention every other subject) but also emphasizes the total ignorance and inadequacy of some public servants and academics alike.

Consider the facts as stated in the report itself. The Lunugamvehera scheme was ill-conceived in the first instance and executed in a hurry in a by-gone era. Later it was found that water shortages in the command area were a regular feature principally because the two main rivers feeding the reservoir (Kirindi Oya and Kuda Oya) do not have adequate dry-weather flow. Therefore, planned agricultural production had to be curtailed and large numbers who were allocated land found it difficult to survive the annual dry-season. Today, they are trying to identify the constraints and make amends by rationalizing water use. It also appears that more land is being brought under the scheme inspite of the shortage of water.

The Weligatta (Bundala National Park turn-off) area falls into the arid zone of Sri Lanka (designated DL-5 under the Agro-ecological region classification). This means that it is the driest region of the country. Judging from the poor soils, the scrub-type low-profile vegetation, the very high temperatures and the extremely high winds in the Yala season, it is not an area suitable for agriculture in general, leave alone for banana growing. One is at a loss to comprehend why a suitable block of land could not have been chosen from the more suitable areas such as Wirawila, Tissamaharama, Badagiriya, Lunugamvehera or Tanamalwila. There is ample land available in the district for such a project where there will be no conflict with elephants or wildlife and which will be agriculturally far more suitable.

This brings up another issue, that of formulating and launching such projects without consulting or co-ordinating with relevant authorities such as the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Faculty of Agriculture/Ruhuna Campus (FA/RC). It is not clear whether Prof. Hirimburegama (Professor of Botany, Colombo Campus) and The Project Director / Irrigation Ministry (PD/IM) who are said to have planned this project, have studied the volumes of information already available on banana and fruit cultivation, drip-irrigation and tissue-culture in relation to agricultural production etc. Extensive studies have already been done by the DOA and the Mahaweli Authority where similar projects have not shown much success. In fact small scale fruit processing has been a failure. There are extensive problems with marketing and diseases when one or two types of crops are grown in one area on a large scale.

The money spent by the Mahaweli Authority on food-processing centres and equipment did not bear fruit. These are now white-elephants. Today, we are faced with banana diseases which are difficult to control due to the widespread growing of banana. Also banana prices have dropped drastically and growers find that they cannot sell their produce at reasonable prices. Crops such as lime (citrus) were recently promoted on a large scale and today, prices have hit rock-bottom with disastrous results to lime growers. Papaya and grapes on a large scale in one area can lead to serious viral and fungal disease outbreaks.

Thus, the whole question of fruit growing on a large scale in Lunugamvehera must be approached scientifically with an extensive knowledge of the issues and constraints involved.

To all intents and purposes, this banana tissue culture project appears to have been a by-product of availability of foreign funding for the Lunugamvehera scheme and the consequent last-minute scramble to allocate such funds for various programmes. Ad-hoc planning usually occurs in government departments when projects are formulated hurriedly to accommodate funds pledged equally hurriedly by donor agencies. It should really happen the other way around, where long term plans are drawn up first by the local agency and foreign funds are sought subsequently for execution of such genuine, well planned programmes. It also appears that the banana project at Bundala is a typical 'personal' level programme - where two known parties get together and discuss how some available funding can be utilized which may or may not fit into an overall plan. Here, the EDB and Worldvision are pledging funds.

Another, quite alarming aspect is the scant regard apparently shown by the project agencies (public servant and academic) to the law of the land and important basic environmental issues. As we all know through years of experience in agriculture, the long term viability of such agriculture schemes is totally dependent on respect for the attendant environmental issues. Opinions expressed (as given in The Sunday Times) such as:-

"It is a myth that elephants love bananas".

". . . this project was only a continuation of the Lunugamvehera project, she said that was why they didn't think it was necessary to have an Environmental Impact Assessment report done by the CEA."

Such statements and opinions are very unbecoming of qualified government officials.

The opinion expressed - "What is more important, human or wildlife", is naive to say the least. Such a statement should never have come from a scientist, especially a botanist. Also, the contention that "…demarcating one-twelveth of the land for wildlife was ridiculous" illustrates the total lack of knowledge amongst some government planners who are entrusted with the onerous task of developing this nation. It appears very important that such officers should undergo training in the basics of planning and environmental impact.

Damage by elephants to the banana project is dismissed as of no consequence. But in the same breath, Rs.1.0 million has been allocated for an electric fence to keep elephants out. If no damage is expected, why spend such a colossal sum of tax-payers' money? if this project was sited in a more suitable location, there won't be elephant damage and no earthly reason to spend one million rupees on fencing.

Taking all this into consideration, the government should move this project to a better and more suitable location. The project itself needs to be reviewed and technically modified, taking into account the experience of such schemes in the past by the DOA and Mahaweli Authority.

The donor agencies should seriously review this project, as it is going to be their funds that would be finally wasted.

(The writer is a Retired Regional Dy. Director (Research), Dept. of Agriculture and former Director, Forestry & Environment, Mahaweli Authority)

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