Another string to your bow



By Usvatte-aratchi

Professor Anura Manatunga, the Director General of Archaeology, who would not take any more, resigned from that prestigious post soon after hectoring by a powerful but amateur historian. Why would he not take it anymore? He would not because he could not fire an arrow against the Teflon-clad armour of an executive president whilst retaining his dignity. Yet, the professor had another string to his bow, which most senior public servants lack. He was on secondment from a prestigious professorship at Kelaniya.

He went back to his well-guarded fortress, the University of Kelaniya. Here is in practice the value of autonomy in a university. (It is not without interest that universities sought and secured autonomy from lay and clerical authority, at the same time as rulers built fortresses [burg as in Hamburg] and castles to seek safety from invading enemies. Heavy canon put paid to that military technique.)

It is my contention that many a senior public servant is unarmed against predatory politicians because there is no alternative source of income or wealth to fall back on: that proverbial second string. I suspect that most public servants understand well their obligations to the public. They see clearly enough when a politician plunders the wealth of the public or breaks the law in other ways. But he himself rose out of poverty, only the other day. He married that pleasant girl, next to whom he sat in the history lectures and knew that she did not carry any wealth with her.

Their two bright children were both in Moratuwa and would graduate with degrees in electrical engineering. The reasonably comfortable quarters on Keppetipola Mawatha and the chauffeured car came with his promotion to the current position. To risk the wrath of the dim-witted minister now is to sail a boat on the high seas in the way of a 200-kilometre speed wind in a cyclone.

Sujatha was mad as hell when she heard about the plunder that the minister had planned. She shouted that they quit their jobs and joined the Aragalaya forthwith. They had six years to retire with a pension and their daughter would not graduate for another three years. They still did not have a place to live in, were Sarath to lose his current job. Were they to be devoured by Scylla of a minister or Charybdis of economic disaster, as Ganeya would have put it in the anthropology class?

Many greyheads nod with tales of senior public servants, when their hair was yet jet black, who stood up to corrupt politicians and served the public with much valour and acceptance. They decry the timidity of present-day equals. Those greyheads fail to realise that public servants of yore had more than one string to their bow. They were bright children of reasonably well-off parents who lived in Colombo, Jaffna or other towns and not in Kebitigollewa or Pitabaddera.

They still owned enough land on which their children could build a small house. Besides, Namal very wisely had married Swarna, whose parents had gifted her a house in Horton Place, Colombo together with 50 acres of VP tea in Galaha, with a pleasant and well-furnished little bungalow. Unlike Sarath (of the earlier story), Namal did not have to buy his own furniture. (Among snooty upper-class blokes in Britain, it was not uncommon to refer to the poverty of poorer colleagues by referring to their own inherited residences and those that new comers had to acquire.) Public servants in that regime were armed with more than one string to their bow.

The comparable second string now is to be seconded for service in the government from a university professorship. That was the second string that Professor Manatunga used. Of course, a minister, who dropped out of school before Grade 8, could send that string to smithereens. Among the splendid achievements of free education is widening opportunities to NEAR equality in our society.

More than 50 percent of those who enter universities are women; more than 50 percent of middle-level public servants are women; there is a huge mixing up of people from different parts of this country because education had introduced mobility. (However, one must keep in mind the ossification of settlements following conflicts among ethnic groups in the second half of the 20th century.) Among the ignominious outcome of free education, is the emergence of a dominant coterie of poorly educated politicians, who have plundered the wealth of this land and its people, to reduce them to mendicants on the international scale.

Who would expect that citizens who were reasonably well educated would have elected to authority, time after time, men who had demonstrated that they were incompetent, corrupt and otherwise criminal? Incompetence is demonstrated in the monumentally wasteful investments. Wasteful large-scale investments are partly a means to corruption: you cannot collect 10 billion (US) dollars by raising the wages of hospital nurses, but you can if you buy six wide-bodied Airbus planes or if you construct an international conference centre in the wilderness.

Those same well-educated public servants have not been either active enough or smart enough to bring to justice any of these uneducated politicians or any of their errant educated colleagues. We have brought these misfortunes on ourselves at the cost of trillions of rupees spent over a long period of time, teaching generations of people. There must be something wrong with the education we bought at such tremendous cost.

(Contrast that ignominy with the glories of education policies in India the output of which rules many large corporations both at home and the world over, head some of the best universities, university faculties and departments and run inter governmental organisations at the highest levels. This is besides a fast-growing economy in that huge economy. There was a long time, not too long ago, when many people here and even Nobel Prize winning economists and policy makers overseas sang hosannas to education policies in Sri Lanka and decried those in India. We keep enmeshed in trivialities.) There has been no worthwhile rage over the failures of our schools and universities, which have us to this piteous pass.