Do not cry for us, Sri Lanka

Thursday, 25 September 2014 00:07 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Apologies to Evita, Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, etc., but you did really make Argentina famous through the line which I have paraphrased. Even though the initial view of placing Argentina to be a damper in the lyrics, this really did not happen and the song did its rounds and still does! Why ‘us’ instead of ‘me’ and what is the difference here? I am looking at the broader human resource issue in Sri Lanka, looking at it personally as well as collectively. Education, both formal and informal, is well connected to human resource development and consequently the nation. One can almost say that we do not have a strong education system today as sports and functions have taken over the time available for formal education and tuition has taken over the time available for informal education. Yet, we do still generate some competitive human resources, so perhaps all is not lost.   Human Development, Innovation Indexes In the recently-released Human Development Index, Sri Lanka has climbed up several places to the 73rd spot and the positioning is not bad as first in South Asia. We have always prided ourselves on our human development indicators. Yet, on the other hand, in the similarly recently released Global Innovation Index, we have dropped significantly to the 105th position from the previous 98th position. One should remind the reader that in 2011 we were at the 82nd position and we have continued to decline in our position through the years. While in one assessment we have climbed up the ladder, in another where one measures the output, we have slid down dangerously. We have also been quite vociferously discussing the middle income trap after having managed to get positioned closer to the lower cut-off in the middle income country scale. Having looked at the HDI and GII as well as listening to the middle income trap discussions, one of my colleagues from COSTI (Pulendran) stated what we really have is a human development trap. That statement really did set my mind exploring the scenario from that angle. Is that the real trap that we have been caught in? This is a question worth seeking an answer to.   Human development trap? One can visualise a scenario. A boat packed with people silently leaving the shores of Sri Lanka. Some actually have skills and abilities that if invested properly should bear returns but they believe that it is fruitless. They have invested hard-earned money in securing passage to distant Australia. The mind may be that there are quite keen to leave the shores of paradise. To counter such escapades which inconvenience the potential hosts, the Australians graciously donated patrol crafts to us recently and we ceremonially accepted them. They are not research vessels to explore the sea bed and our ocean resources but vessels to patrol our boundaries in trying to nip in the bud any attempts of human smuggling. The cost of preventing at source probably is far less than the case would be if the boats reached Down Under. Many have succeeded under extremely challenging conditions and who can say that we lack navigating skills? We may have not been able to catch sufficient fish from the ocean but an uncanny ability to cross into distant waters has been amply demonstrated. The question arises whether we have been unable to harness the talent that is abundantly available for our own national benefit. In another way, the question came to haunt me recently. My mother passed away week before last. When I was writing the column on bug power to our economy, she was really sick and was under 24 hour care. She was a pensioner, having diligently serve the State, and I am absolutely sure of it, quite honestly too. Her pension at the time of passing away, having served the State since 1956, was around Rs. 17,000. As she was not well for the last three years it was primarily our responsibility in meeting her medical expenses. I must admit I tried Western, Ayurveda and traditional as well as Unani schemes in trying to ease her condition. I must also admit even a few nanotechnology-related ways were tried to ease the knee pain, to no avail. The Western medical system is quite clear that there is no cure for an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. When the issue gets aggravated, they have even less answers. The drugs and various mandatory tests do not come cheap and I can visualise the potential returns to pharma investments. With Ayurveda and the indigenous systems, while the recipe may indicate promise, it is quite hard to achieve consistency. I must admit I understood some potential of these methods in the latter stages, but strongly believe that some of the modern science methodologies should be embedded if the true potential is to be realised. India has embarked on this blending of the modern and the traditional along with modern tools of analysis and visualisations and we should be quick to understand the benefit of this process.   Multiplier effect I suppose it is easy to understand such an income as received by my mother would not permit expensive investigations and costs of medicine and travel. It is the multiplier effect of education on children that can help once you are aged. Many parents today work so hard and undertake great risks and challenges to ensure decent education for their children. One can state that many sacrifices are made to ensure achieving this objective and mine was not an exception either. However, such behaviours also mean that systems may not develop as your minds are more occupied with solving a different problem. As the education system becomes much more competitive and constricted due to poor investments overall, it means that the problem is getting much more exacerbated. When we lose on education, we have to watch ignorance in action. It is through the efforts of the children having benefitted through education but committed enough to put back into one’s own system that the economy improves to support everyone at every stage. Interrupt this sequence and you disrupt it totally. Free education up to graduation with a first degree is still with us. We should be proud of the system and I too am proud as a product of the system that enabled my parents to achieve perhaps what they wanted to achieve. I am not sure whether they truly benefitted from the sacrifices they made.   Greener pastures Today, with graduation, one looks at greener pastures. It is quite common to see entire graduating batches disappearing from our shores within a short time span. In most of these situations, parents have to stay behind and enjoy seeing their investments serving other economies. However, one could realise better returns at times. As opportunities abound outside along with a much more level playing field, one can prosper using the foundation that you had back home. Much of the circulars that you have at home and the persistent queries, some audit and some not, on the purpose of doing such and such, are literally absent and you really work hard, perhaps enjoying every moment. Placing a rover on Mars is not a major issue under such conditions as we know our graduates have talent. If the parents cannot join you or are not in a position to support it, one may satisfy oneself with extended medicare. The spirit of presence is lost but an ability to purchase may be present. For those who stay back and try to apply knowledge and interest to bring in some development, the road ahead isn’t properly carpeted. It is fortunate that the infrastructure is now improving as otherwise that side of the equation too was a problem.   Innovation the last word Circulars can tie you down. Our circulars are literally circular as sometimes you may find yourself back at the origin after working away for a few months. The documents are quite uncanny as you really do not realise that you are essentially going in a circle while following recommended steps diligently. Innovation is the last word in the vocabulary of the establishment. Long-drawn-out meetings may mean we literally think in terms of services and all that we want has to be manufactured elsewhere. As human resources is key in innovation, when the system leaks from multiple sides, growth is stifled. Under such conditions, it is inconceivable for a simple pensioner to fend for herself or himself when systems within oneself are ailing.   Keeping pathways open Today, even within the Western system for arthritis, you may find stem cell treatment being developed and biologicals applied, but those treatment systems are simply way too costly for local deployment. When certain parameters are too advanced, Ayurvedic treatment is too slow to act. As there is no research and development by ourselves, we are at the mercy of external pricing and supply chain vagaries and patients do have a higher price to pay. Those who can are rather limited as we individually seek different ways of salvation and the system as a whole will not develop. The issue is not to see who will cry for me, but ensuring that pathways to apply oneself are kept open. [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 the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on]

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