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Elephants and academics: Extinction in Paradise

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 9 August 2012 01:10


This may sound startling and an unwarranted call, but as extinction is forever, it is better to take heed before it is too late. Waiting for the reality to sink in and to derive some satisfaction by uttering didn’t I say so is not what one wants.

People’s report on Sustainable Development written as a submission from Sri Lanka to Rio+20 is one worth reading. One particular topic that caught my attention was the write-up on HEC (Human Elephant Conflict).

The Human Elephant Conflict

The magnificent Sri Lankan elephant is our majestic symbol, be it for environment or wildlife. We have today carried out both a census on elephants as well as on ourselves and the results are out!

As per the elephants their number estimated is 5,879. It appears that we are quite happy with the number considering the rapidly decreasing habitat which of course is the cause of HEC. We are quite happy to note that their gathering at Minneriya had become one of the 10 greatest wildlife spectacles on earth!

The table presented however is quite worrisome. It appears that most are not destined to die of old age which is sad considering how much they add to our national image and to our coffers as well. In 2010 of the 227 that had passed away only two had passed away due to age. Their early demise appears to be from being shot, hakka patas, electrocution, poisoning, and train accidents. Quite a number of deaths are attributed to unknown causes too.

Man on one side invites others to our paradise isle to show case our nature and its residents. The same man on the other hand appears to use multiple ways to get rid of the same. It is indeed sad to contemplate that most of the elephants that you will witness and upload to Facebook, etc. with great interest will not be able to live their lives to the full.

A matter of survival

For a small island nation, we have kept this big animal on our land in significant numbers over a long period. Gone are the days when colonial masters shot elephants for their tusks and for the sheer pleasure. Today the conflict has become one of survival – you or I in one plot of land.

This needs to be addressed differently, creatively and in a more sensitive manner. How many national awards have been given for scientific discoveries and developments that are supposed to help in resolving this conflict? Sometimes the conflict is made use of and the elephant becomes the scapegoat.

Poverty and greed appears to play a major role. You may use your sugarcane differently and blame the disappearance of the crop on the footsteps of the elephant. The story then will be on repairing the electric fence and all that whereas the truth may be that the sugarcane is directly getting fermented via a different route! If the issues are not understood there is going to be a double whammy for the poor animal.

One has to admit that with multiple choices at our disposal the long-term future is bleak for the local pachyderm. Over a long period we have shown the ability to live in some harmony but the changing times are rapidly bringing about serious depletion of numbers. Graze in peace certainly is not a choice available. This is a conflict leading to an extinction of sorts and should be handled early rather than late.

Conflict in higher education

Interestingly we have another HEC and an important one at that. It is the conflict in higher education and this too is as serious as universities are supposed to mould one’s character while contributing to the nation’s destiny too.

One may note that the number of academics in the Sri Lankan public sector universities is less than the number of elephants! You check the annual report of UGC and the most updated till 2010 and the number of teachers in our system of 17 universities totalled up to 4,341.

While the elephants are held in high esteem by part of the economy for its dollar earning capacity, the same cannot be true for the academic system though the most recent Government publication on scholarships to foreign students to enter the public university system with some excellent photo shoots may be with some inner meaning.

The academic community is also seeking understanding by the wider public over issues of relevance. Are we also facing extinction? The question is if we are unable to fill the entry ranks of the academic community with solid academics with potential and with correct attitudes indeed it is slow attrition.

We now know that we are not good with statistics. Otherwise you do not need judicial interpretations and advice. Law perhaps is immune to the concept of statistical significance. We just do not have quality information to demonstrate scenarios unfolding.

Within universities as elsewhere we witness data poor environments. If we are to count the number of academic staff who had taken a two way ticket and avail them the sabbatical but only completed the onward journey may reveal an interesting story. The question is why? It is the equivalent of reducing academic cadre at stages below the age of retirement.

There is also the impact of migration with PR and with differently coloured cards, etc. I am not sure what the exact equivalent to a hakka patas but this is haemorrhage from the service and numbers that are difficult to replace. There are also people living within the system but moving away in spirit and body. Today we are unable to fill even at the entry point.

Competitive salary needed

If the academic post is the job as the last resort, there are many candidates but all that is coming will not augur well for the future of the system. That is why a competitive salary must exist. Some say that you give peanuts and you will get monkeys.

Of course we know that as our ancestors, chimps and orang-utans have feelings i.e. species to have more self awareness and some do settle for a lower salary within universities because lively university system give that extra special feeling.

The public must understand that opting for a career within a university is not because of the salary and also not because you need not sign in and out! As true academics and especially with research you will never switch off and that is the difference in work ethic within a university.

However, this understanding will be there and that type of ethos will prevail when we have the right people and that is by understanding that there is a basic level that should prevail for sustenance and one cannot compromise on this.

The argument today is this basic requirement does not exist and hence the inability to recruit a quality academic. Even one with a special interest will join in, but he or she will have many struggles to solve, thus lowering the ability to contribute as an academic.

Prof. Senaka Banadaranayake writing in the preface for his book on ‘The University of the Future’ and the culture of learning states: “To the researcher and the academic in the developing world the eagerness to contribute to institution and nation building, in whatever modest way, often becomes almost as exciting and challenging as the dedication to study, investigation, experiment and discovery.”

The good Professor was writing with honesty on the purpose of an enthused academic. To derive that academic, even to extract that modest effort one needs a certain basic structure in place. When we speak to the young, just having witnessed two departures of my own staff, the feelings are different.

Salary levels

The two important salary levels existing from this July (yes we do have allowances placed on top but what matters in overall calculations are the salary step) of Lecturer (Probationary) and Senior Lecturer Grade II (entering level with Post Graduate degrees) are Rs. 27,337.50 and Rs. 38,702.50 respectively.

With allowances these become Rs. 54,989.16 and Rs. 84,803.10. Remember the latter salary for Senior Lecturer GII means after three to five years of postgraduate (PG) work. We need to attract people with PG degrees and from abroad and these are the entry levels of pay.

You can argue a lot but to make a qualitative difference and to enhance internal value, we need to understand the difference we need to create. I leave the reader of this paper who is perhaps well versed with expense accounts and bonus schemes to contemplate these values and think beyond the figures and understand. Hope the dialogue ensues.

If we can get the universities to contribute to some percentage of GDP (another calculation that is missing in Sri Lanka), then sectoral understanding can be developed. Today we act across different sectors and worry about who will ask for more, the moment one sees a raise elsewhere and that is stifling correct action. One must understand the meaning of ‘pay related to purpose,’ after of course meeting the qualitative minimum across the employed.

Sustaining the bloom

Paradise is in bloom post conflict but one must be interested in the sustenance of the bloom. However two conflicts are with us and they appear to be chronic issues having prevailed for some time. Both have the potential to deliver extinction.

One in our iconic symbol, the other of the public university and the academic nexus. IUCN has identified the cause with our elephants. In case of the academics, the declaration rests with the State! The way we respond and act will determine how we cohabit a piece of land creatively as well as nurture institutions for collective economic gain.

(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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