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A tale of two countries

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 17 May 2012 01:53


It is important to understand that when your processes are efficient and effective, your system is on a growth curve. Equally, it should be understood that when you spend hours and hours discussing much but achieving very little, you are only pushing yourself into a deeper hole from which crawling out will be ever more difficult.

Finite amount of resources and money will go a long way when each litre of water and each rupee are consumed in productive endeavours. We have to understand that there are seven billion people today on planet earth and the average rate of population growth accounts for around 77 million, adding to the score every year.

Contradictions all around

Though our census data is yet to come out, we can safely state is that almost four times the population equal to what we now have is joining the world and joining us every year – four equivalents of Sri Lanka in terms of population!

Now this is calling for global food production to increase by 70% as we plan meeting the demand by 2050. However, today we see both obesity and hunger side by side and death both due to overconsumption as well as from starvation. We see stories of contradictions all round us.

Skyscrapers reach for the sky in Mumbai while the world’s largest slum exists right around them. Dickens’s London is different to what it is today. However, planetary roaming and collection of riches from elsewhere made this picture to change in London while exciting ideas were also spoken from simple lecterns by people like Humphrey Davy as Royal Society Lectures.

Good and the bad were happening at the same time and the net effects are usually visible after a while. Lessons from one’s own past as well as lessons from elsewhere can be very useful.

To derive benefits we should be good listeners with action orientation and interested in seeking growth creatively with equity. It is little differences in the way one does things that results in one city being a shining example while another has a doomsday outlook.

City by city, the story of a country can emerge and we have UN rankings describing existing societies from the most liveable to the other extreme. It is all about our practices and how we plan and execute our processes.

It appears that even the process of justice can be examined in this way though the word may conjure that there cannot be any two ways about that. Unfortunately the reality is different. The tale is about two practices, each serving justice but realising perhaps half of real justice in one instance when taking natural resources and the wrong doers together.

Sri Lanka and Sweden

The following depicts two situations captured from Sri Lanka and Sweden. The examples are all about taking value of resources as well as the importance of justice. Do we have the interest to understand this scenario in some depth and plan differently?

Manmade societies constitute the brown environment and this is slowly eating into the green environment. It is the classical man vs. elephant battle that we witness and some experience this firsthand.

It is instructive how one should manage the brown environment to be most effective. It is no wonder that Sweden is among the top countries for environmental performance whereas we seem to have got stuck in circulars, antiquated practices and audit trails.

I dare say that these are not totally unnecessary, but give each page some thought and think whether we are better off as a result or worse off due to the presence of the additional piece of paper and the directives contained within. It is that quality thinking and the ability to influence in an alternative way that puts one into a winners’ group.

Illegal liquor

One can find plenty of extracts from local newspaper showing the legal system destroying illegal liquor confiscated through raids in many locations. Pictures of law enforcement with barrels and barrels of illegal liquor can be seen and in some cases the event of destroying the prize catch is shown as dramatic conclusion to a job well done.

Yes, the contents have being illegally brewed and much duty that may have come in the way to State coffers will not happen with these illegal practices. The State indeed depends very much on Excise duties. However, the emphasis here is that while justice for the illegal act is delivered, the resources contained within should not get ‘punished’ for no fault of theirs!

The emphasis is on understanding well, at all stages of action, the importance of resources and the need to be utilised resources productively as much as possible. Here the illegal material is simply drained off or destroyed, preventing any use. One must remember that the act of draining off the liquid over land is going to cause serious pollution effects on soil and groundwater.

From the point of view of immediate justice, the action is acceptable as an unlawful act has been effectively stopped and offenders punished and the ‘products’ destroyed to the point of no economic value. However, consider the following recorded example taken from Sweden.

In today’s climate of growing energy problems, it appears real overall justice has been derived in this situation. The offender is punished but the resource is not penalised – it is made use of! In Sri Lanka we appear to punish the wrong doer and definitely the resource.


This Swedish example also touches on alcohol. One gets the feeling that attempts like ‘Mathata Thitha’ is an uphill task! It appears that the high price of alcohol prevailing in Swedish liquor stores results in a constant stream of day-trippers travelling to neighbouring Germany and Denmark to stock up on cheap beer, wine and spirits available in these countries.

There is allowance for some amount to be brought in for personal use but not in any excessive amounts so as to make a profit in resale in the black market. In accordance with an existing Swedish law – the “personal use” rule – Swedish Customs have seized 55,000 litres of spirits, 294,000 litres of strong beer and 39,000 litres of wine over a certain period. The story can be repeated here.

Peter Nielsen as Head of Intelligence at Tullverket (Swedish Customs) in Malmö, South Sweden, in that instance had stated that when he became a Customs officer in 1986, it had been standard procedure to just pour these drinks down the sink.

But now there is this new environmental awareness. No one gains from pouring it away, not financially or environmentally. So we have gone from washing it down the sink to using an advanced plant for generating biogas and environmentally friendly fertilisers.

The one million bottles and cans seized annually by Tullverket are trucked to a warehouse where they are dumped into a crushing machine. The beverages are separated from their containers and blended with water to make the largest and probably worst-tasting cocktail imaginable.

This is then taken by tanker to a plant in Linköping, about 200 km south of Stockholm, and turned into biofuel to power public buses, taxis, garbage trucks, private cars. Of this exercise the biogas train is the most exciting to read about. The biogas train, has been running between Linköping and Västervik on the southeast coast of Sweden, has generated international interest.


The courts in Sweden it appears have really linked up to serve justice in an innovative manner. It is this type of innovative processes that had propelled Sweden to the top when ranking all countries as per the environmental performance. For us to change similarly, what we need is the attitudinal change and then the relevant procedural changes will easily follow.

This type of more holistic approaches in developing practices is important in today’s context. Vital resources are always made to deliver. As economists state, with many who earn free rent, we have introduced many steps and procedures to succeed in only in one activity. We look at tasks with a narrow perspective and are happy if we realise one result. The reality has to be one task having multiple deliverables and significant interaction between activities so as to derive maximum synergy.

We work with manmade boundaries, artificially placed, hampering working together, and it is common to see intense action to realise only few advances. The concept of ‘sub optimisation’ has engulfed most of our activities. New roads are opened up not by many but by a dedicated few. However, once a change is shown, there will be many to join into the fun! These tales are just to stimulate such thinking and to draw out few doers of the ‘unorthodox’.

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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