Ranawaka calls on engineers to inspire, engage and grow

Tuesday, 10 September 2013 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Nigel Ward and Prakash Nayek, Co-Chairs of the IET South Asia Volunteers Conference 2013, Shekhar Sanyal, Country Head, IET, India, Ranjith Pulleperuma, Chairman, IET Sri Lanka Network, Roshan Senevirathne, Sri Lankan Representative, IET South Asia Region, resource persons from IET Office, UK, chairmen and members representing the networks of the South Asia Region, ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a matter of honour and privilege for me to be here this morning, addressing you at this prestigious regional gathering of Engineers – the 2nd IET South Asian Community Volunteers Conference. I am particularly impressed to see the presence of a large number of delegates from across the South Asian region, as well as the representatives, from IET, UK. You are warmly welcome to our beautiful island. I am sure you will have many a memory to take back with you on your return; from the serenity of the beaches, to the warmth of traditional hospitality of a nation, which indeed is in a cohesive phase of nation building, after successfully defeating a separatist terrorist movement that plagued the country for 30 long years. This conference, I understand, is all about networking, and sharing of knowledge, best practices and success stories. Such an initiative by a pioneering professional organisation with global presence, such as IET, will certainly go a long way in empowering its membership as well as the broader community that it ultimately serves. Regional focus This meeting has a regional focus – on South Asia – the home to 23% of the inhabitants of our planet. We, as a region, share as much in common in our development challenges as we do in our historical and cultural heritage. Let me begin with an idea expressed about ‘our region’ by a leading contemporary American scholar on global geo politics. The book is titled ‘The Monsoon,’ and the author is Robert D. Kaplan. Making an interesting symbolical analogy, in introducing his argument, Kaplan refers to the world map in the form it is commonly used in America. In the common world map used in America, the Western hemisphere lies right in the front, while the Indian Ocean region is relegated to the edges, split up along the outer reaches of the map, almost disappearing. Fair enough! However, Kaplan observes that this world map, in this form, belonged to the 20th century, and that the world map of the 21st Century will have the Indian Ocean Region in the centre. Yes. It was in the Atlantic and Pacific theatres of action that the great wars of the 20th century, both political and economic, were lost and won. The world was geo politically Euro-centric for nearly two centuries, before it became America-centric during the last century. For many centuries before that, the balance in global geo-political power was decided by the Indian Ocean Region – or by the ‘Monsoon Asia,’ as Kaplan chooses to call it. In ‘The Monsoon,’ Kaplan makes a multi-faceted, in-depth analysis, and a vivid presentation on how the world stage is set for re-emergence of the ‘Monsoon Asia,’ as the theatre of action that would determine the future geo-political balance of the world. Of course, Kaplan being an American, the book is intended to awaken the Americans, particularly those responsible for influencing and deciding upon the American Foreign Policy, to this impending geo-political reality. Kaplan is right. Asia emerging It is no secret that Asia is bound to emerge as the economic powerhouse of the world, if the current trends of development continue for the next couple of decades. It is now incumbent upon us, the present inhabitants of this great historic region – its governments, its industries, and its professionals – to ensure that the strategic positioning necessary for its eventual realisation is effectively managed. It is in this larger backdrop that our countries in the South Asian region, which are faced with similar development challenges, are also presented with similar opportunities to prosper. The Indian Ocean accounts for the major proportion of all of the world’s sea routes. And maritime transportation continues to grow as a prime force in International trade. When it comes to the global scenario of energy – its production, transportation and consumption – Indian Ocean occupies a highly strategic position. A major proportion of total crude oil and gas transportation in the world takes place across the Indian Ocean. The production hubs in the Middle East and Indonesia are long established, and it is now believed that the Gulf of Mannar, situated off the North Western coast of Sri Lanka, could potentially emerge as another production-hub. In the meantime, in the inevitable global quest for renewable energy options, South Asian region holds much promise: hitherto untapped potential for hydroelectricity in Bhutan and Nepal, wind energy in South India and Sri Lanka, and solar energy in Afghanistan and Pakistan are important facts to consider here. Development of industrial capacity From a socio political perspective, the South Asian region consists of mature democracies and, at the same time, consists of highly literate populations. However, ironically, the region has not yet been able to optimally leverage the benefit of its rich base of human capital and, for many decades, has been a supplier of trained human resources to the other techno-economically more advanced regions of the world. One of the main reasons for this situation is the fact that the industrial capacity of the nations in the region is yet to develop to the desired optimum level. This is quite in contrast to the position in East Asia, mainly Japan, China and Korea. Therefore, obviously, one of the key priorities in the desired process of transformation of our region would be ‘development of industrial capacity’. From a techno-economic perspective, this calls for a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, it is necessary to develop the advanced technology capabilities in the industry, since the high-tech products based on state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technological capabilities will be the only way to be competitive in the global market. On the other hand, there should be a strong layer of Small and Medium Enterprises catering to the bulk of the domestic needs, at the same time acting as the prime mechanism to ensure distribution of income – in other words social capital development. Industrial capacity development using modern technologies such as nano-technology, bio-technology, ICT, and neuro-technologies, etc., targeting value addition of locally available resources, will be a pivotal need, particularly for large industries. It is equally essential that the development on each of those two fronts happen within an integrated framework of an ‘innovation economy’. Role of engineers Ladies and gentlemen, the role of engineers in this process, as we are well aware, would be quintessentially crucial and decisive, and hardly needs any added emphasis. For the same reason, I should not speak at length about it. Nevertheless, I do wish to highlight another important role that the engineers need to play in this overall development process. It is a role that is much needed of them, beyond their traditional domain of technology, or technocracy. Let me call it the role of engineers in the domain of ‘bureaucracy’. Perhaps, I should mention that I use the term ‘bureaucracy’ here to mean what it literally denotes, rather than the somewhat negative meaning that it often connotes! There are many examples from within as well as outside the Asian region, where engineers have delivered exceptional performance as top bureaucrats, top executives, and legislators of the regime. In China, for example, for quite some time, majority of the topmost positions in the government hierarchy have been held by engineers and, at a certain time, ‘eight out of nine’ topmost positions in the Chinese Government were held by engineers or scientists. We can see this trend in some parts of the region. In the meantime, in India, as we know, there is a serious ongoing dialogue on the subject of absorbing a greater proportion of professionals to the realm of country’s Legislature and the Executive. I believe, this is an obvious, logical response, that has arisen out of the sheer need to map the complex needs of national development and governance of the day to the intellectual and professional capacity needed of the country’s Executive and Legislature. I hope the people in the region are fast realising this need. Incidentally, perhaps one of the worries could be that the engineers and other professionals are called upon to this accept this role, at a time the realm of electoral politics in our region has admittedly gone lumpen to a significant extent. Nevertheless, the encouraging sign is that there is a growing public debate, and a public resolve to reverse the trend. It is also pertinent to note here yet another popular misconception on the role of professionals, particularly in relation to the legislature. That is the notion that the legislative process is best handled predominantly by the lawyers. While giving due regard to the due extent of legal input needed in the process, one would observe that this is an assumption which is both invalid, and, at the same time, has probably been depriving not only the legislature, but also the executive branch of the governments, in this region, the due intellectual and professional inputs, from other professionals, particularly in today’s context of development and governance. In conclusion, let me call upon this esteemed gathering of engineers from across the region to ‘Inspire, Engage, and Grow’ – as the theme of this conference goes – and to excel in both domains of action: namely ‘technocracy’ and ‘bureaucracy,’ in serving the broader community. I thank the IET Sri Lanka Network for inviting me to deliver the keynote speech in this morning. And, I wish a fruitful conference to all of you and a memorable stay in Sri Lanka to our colleagues from abroad. I thank you.