Development – Needs a Change of Perspective
By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
Whenever there is a development project before Sri Lanka, the discourse would almost always be dominated with negative connotations. We as a Nation tend to see more problems than positives. More often than not, the arguments against the project are more hypothetical than real.
When the Kandalama Hotel was to be built the protests against it were intense. The environmentalists feared the Hotel would pollute the Kandalama tank and with it the surrounding area. This concern was coupled with worries over the corrupting influences tourism would bring on the people of the area.
These concerns quickly built in momentum. Despite the treated water we as urban dwellers drink or the very indulgences we enjoy as tourists or the environmental damage we incur as we build our comfortable abodes, many failed to see any merit in the hotel project. Unable to move forward the project was soon in jeopardy.
The investors however took serious note of these concerns and closely studied the issues. They thus devised a recycling plant that would not pollute even a drop of water in the tank.
The green policies the Hotel adapted soon won them numerous international awards year after year. In their studies they found the villagers were not living idealistic lives as envisioned by the protestors but one steeped in utter poverty. Due to the lack of infrastructure, like roads these villagers did not even have easy access to the free healthcare system in the country. Consequently their average lifespan was around 47 years - almost half of those living in urban areas.
This gave rise to what the Hotel termed as responsible tourism. The Hotel thus got directly involved with the matters concerning the villagers and besides helping with the much needed infrastructural support also educated them on better hygiene and living conditions. Furthermore, as a policy when employing the first preference was always given to the residents of the area.
This uplifted their economic power and today the villagers and the Hotel has a healthy, symbiotic relationship. From a Nation’s point of view, the Kandalama Hotel became one of the most successful ventures in the tourism industry. Even at the height of terrorism when tourism was collapsing Kandalama thrived. It became the must visit place to both local and foreign tourists. Location was half the attraction. It was the food - especially the local cuisine that became the magnet.
The Controversy over SAITM
The story of the private medical college SAITM is similar. The possible problems that might arise by allowing a private medical college preceded the actual issues that are already prevailing. Instead of proposing a single viable solution to the existing problems, the entire focus was to prevent issues that has not even taken place.
Therefore the only solution to the hypothetical problems was to nuke the project altogether. Allowing a private medical college would have redressed many of the already existing issues that prevent our own students from pursuing a medical degree. Often they are being denied the privilege for the want of point zero five in their aggregate. It is easy enough to expect the Government in power to expand the resources to accommodate a greater capacity.
However, increasing the capacity alone is insufficient. An education institute too must be governed with a vision. The knowledge in any field is a growing entity and the education we provide must support this growth. The founder of SAITM, Dr Neville Fernando had the background of both a medical practitioner and a successful entrepreneur.
As such, he envisioned a private medical college that could not be rivaled by any other in the region. The SAITM mortuary thus employed a special technique that preserves the suppleness of limbs long after rigor mortis sets into the body. This allows the medical student to understand the movements and workings of limbs better.
At the time, apart from SAITM only one other college in the entire region had such a facility. To study with such facilities would interest not only the Sri Lankan students but also foreign students. This fact was not lost on universities as far away as Scotland. These colleges too began to explore the possibility of partnering with SAITM.
This would have opened up degree courses from high-end universities that are not possible to many due to the exorbitant costs involved in terms of tuition fees and living expenditure in a foreign country as UK and Europe. Therefore, we lost more than a medical college as we could not see past all the problems that could possibly arise.
The Unique Role of Entrepreneurs
Perhaps the most contentious part surrounding the SAITM controversy was the one played by the politicians. It was their express view that a vital education sector as the medical field should not fall into the hands of entrepreneurs. The reasoning was that a business would do anything for a profit. Hence, they would qualify even the unqualified as medical practitioners and put innocent lives in danger. Yet, almost all politicians are being supported - financially and otherwise - by the profits of entrepreneurs.
It is otherwise simply impossible for politicians to afford an office with a staff, travel expenditure, organising of events or even a simple media gathering on the stipends they receive as members of parliament or provincial councils. In fact, some politicians are so well looked after by the business community that they can even refuse the salary and other perks due to them as an MP without a second thought. In such a context for a politician to denounce an entrepreneur as a scoundrel without scruples is a bad reflection on themselves. If, as they argue, a businessman would do anything for profit, then the support the business community extend to politicians would also be for profit.
If it is so, then the politician who is maintained by these profits could be no better than the businessmen they denounce. This kind of short sighted, illogical and baseless accusations have more than one negative connotation. It is wrong to look at our entrepreneurs as if they were all made out the same mould as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
It breeds contempt for a community in our society. This community are the risk-takers, willing to work beyond normal hours and conditions towards the success of their enterprise. An entrepreneur is one with leadership and skill to command. In the process they provide livelihoods to many others.
They share their profits for the betterment of the society. One may question or be skeptical of the motive for sharing profits. Nevertheless, it is without argument that profits move many circles. These qualities need to be acknowledged positively. In fact, our youth should be encouraged to emulate these entrepreneurs than be mere followers and job seekers.
The courage to forge ahead and take responsibility for your team or followers is not a mean feat. Instead, we equate a businessman to a selfserving scoundrel. Then the suspicion we entertain over development projects before us is not surprising. Without development we need to realise the deprivation we suffer due to lack of economic opportunities.
Poverty is Not to be Romanticised
The poetry we see in the narrow dirt tracks framed between green paddy fields deprives our rural communities from basic facilities. When we choose to live in comfort, we have no right to romanticise poverty but every moral duty to pull those trapped in penury out of it. Poverty, as the wise Chinese idiom states, should be put out as a fire on rampage. Our lack of empathy towards our economically challenged is all too clear when we protest over not only mega projects but even minute ones.
The commotion over the repair of the debilitated road connecting a remote village bordering the Sinharaja Rainforests with the rest of the country is a case in point. Immediately, environmentalists feared that the widening of the road would lead to illegal logging of the Sinharaja Rainforest. These villages had existed for a long time and are increasingly getting cut off from the rest of the society for the want of a mere road.
Instead of exploring ways to make the preservation of the Sinharaja Rainforest a strategic importance for the villagers’ survival or economic empowerment, the only outcome these environmentalists saw was the possibility of illegal logging. While many raised their voice in the name of Sinharaja Rainforest, almost none spoke on behalf of the deprived fellow human being.
Even a Conqueror Needs a Step-by-Step Plan
Today, before us is the biggest development project of our times - the Colombo Port City. Instead of the excitement it deserved, we worry incessantly that it would become a Chinese colony. It is not only the Chinese who may want to colonise us but also the Europeans, Americans, Indians and the Japanese. The threat from external agents would also exist. The answer then is not to turn our backs on development projects but to embrace it and become economically strong. All the above-noted countries can easily subdue us militarily - provided that these countries do indeed wish to colonize Sri Lanka. Yet, none of these countries have opted for a military intervention.
Either approach any of these countries opt to take – military intervention or act as a economic hitman – they would need a stepby-step plan. The events vis a vis Sri Lanka at the UNHRC over the past decade is a case in point. A crucial step in the final objective of those who brought resolutions against Sri Lanka was to establish that the Island nation had committed war crimes. They first needed to have these allegations as documented. This was the purpose of the Darusman’s Report.
After the three member panel duly documented the allegations the next step was to establish that the documented allegations were credible. Hence the purpose of the OISL, which liberally copy-pasted from the Darusman’s Report, conveniently ignoring the contents of the report generated by the UN Colombo based office. Now, armed with what they term as credible, documented allegations resolutions is bright against Sri Lanka - a member State.
It is important to understand that the passing of these resolutions is not the final objective either but mere steps of the process. Having passed these resolutions it is now easy to justify the harassment against Sri Lanka.
Those who find comfort in the fact that these resolutions are legally non binding ought to study closer the consequences of the travel bans imposed on our top military leaders, denying them the opportunity to attend important world seminars and training courses. If colonising a country - militarily or economically - is a step-by-step process, then so is safeguarding it.
This is the reality we must understand with regard to the Colombo Port City and in fact any development project. Instead of our current pessimism we must learn to appreciate the importance of development - whether it is a mere repair and widening of a dirt track to provide greater accessibility to those in remote villages or mega projects like reclamation the sea to create brand new cities with the latest technology and investment projects.
Identifying the dangers and pitfalls ahead of time is certainly a good practice. We must however also have the courage and confidence to have counter plans for it instead of letting fear freeze us into thinking that the only solution is to stop the project altogether. ([email protected])