May Day! Mayday!

Thursday, 7 May 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

[caption id="attachment_415271" align="alignnone" width="360"] May Day parade in Sri Lanka[/caption]   May Day in the first instance refers to the holiday – for some it perhaps was a quite a tiring day – that we have just had on 1 May. The latter Mayday I refer to the international distress signal in voice procedure radio communications which is usually stated three times (“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”) to ensure that the message does not get confused and receives the real attention that it cries out to receive. The English came out with the word from a French translation! It is interesting to contemplate the wide variety of interpretations possible in a language and its deployment. As society is increasingly becoming quite complex, staying alive and well in the modern world really is a test of endurance and understanding. I combined the two to communicate what I felt having witnessed the plethora of rallies and events to call out in distress – help them! May Day First I would like to take a look at May Day which usually falls on 1 May. Today the date 1 May is well known as International Workers’ Day and this means many countries will stop all other work, declare a holiday, and celebrate the concept, voice grievances and issue statements in support, etc. Many individuals will brave whatever the prevailing weather and march in unison in solidarity – workers of the world unite! The marching is adorned with colourful placards from a quite a vociferous human mass. I wonder at times whether if some of the feed in spirits are taken away, whether the same spirit will be visible. The issue surfaces because when many celebrate the day’s theme separately, it is always important to demonstrate numbers in your parade and the time taken to pass from one point to another. All these key performance parameters involve organisers trying out different tactics to swell their ranks. Real issues hardly get any attention The celebration of an ideal has become the showcase of strength in numbers. No wonder then the real issues hardly get any attention. It is almost funny to think that in the country of origin for this event a majority there today may not even remember the reason nor celebrate the event. It is true. Most people in North America and in United States in particular may not really remember nor understand this day which celebrates International Workers’ Day. Most certainly do not understand that the reason to celebrate May Day was provided by an incident between their own Police and their own labour force. For some Americans this is a day celebrated in countries with a different political ideology such as Russia or China. Dark history of May Day The dark history of May Day goes back to May 1886 and the country is United States. Industrial growth was in full swing and work force has started demanding better working conditions and fixed time periods and essentially were asking for better labour rights. The demands did not meet with any immediate approval and the movement for an eight-hour working day gained momentum. Those were the days when 10 to 16 hours in quite unsafe conditions were the norm. While the world was marching to the drums of industrial revolution, the foot soldiers were an exploited lot. It was the infamous Haymarket massacre in Chicago that is considered to be the event for International Workers’ Day. It was not a simple event in Chicago on that fateful day of 1 May 1886. The number protesting in Chicago had been around 40,000 while across United States 300,000 of workers from about 13,000 work places had walked out to protest. By 4 May the protests had escalated into a clash and Police fire had resulted in about eight deaths and a similar number of their own! The subsequent trial had resulted in four labour leaders being hanged. Another labour leader committed suicide the day before the execution with an explosive device in his mouth. If one is to contemplate the situation while standing in the middle of Chicago today, it is almost unimaginable. Today the skyscrapers in the windy city radiate a different story. Americans celebrate their Labour Day as a holiday in the first Monday of September. Institutionalising issues It is indeed interesting while in many countries, may be totalling 70, officially celebrate this day, while in the country of its origin it is just another date. Have we by celebrations institutionalised issues and then given them long leases of life rather than viewing issues with an analytical mind and then preparing to solve and move on? In Sri Lanka the first May Day rally had been held in 1933. The day became a public holiday in 1956. Once institutionalised, we should know how difficult to reduce holidays even though we may have some idea of the issue of productivity that we have due to the number of holidays in our country. Mayday Why the Mayday then? The country of origin for the labour celebration has moved on from the dark ages. We on the other hand year after year do the same thing, spend considerable amount of effort in boosting attendance as at the end of the day comparing attendance is a measure of success and utter perhaps the same statements. It is quite difficult to comprehend the contribution to progress by the parades and all the other peripheral activities. My Mayday call comes from the realisation that by pushing aside the most important element necessary to bring about change, we are unlike to make progress. Technically as an academic and a researcher I call out Mayday even though this is really reserved for mariners and aviators. Let me explain the reasons for my distress. Reasons for distress Consider the usual array of photographs that the media depicts on 1 May. The selection has not varied much over the years and has stayed fixed without much change. It is quite usual to see a person hauling quite a lot of material – usually foodstuff – packed into gunny or jute bags placed on a rickety two-wheel contraption. Another picture may be a worker lifting or loading bags of similar nature filled with food to a lorry or to another vehicle. The use of the hook is quite evident, but the damage it is doing much less so. These are typical pictures from a wholesale market area and the picture is not different from Dambulla, Meegoda or at Pettah. Another picture of choice is an elderly woman crushing stones in a quarry. Their wrinkled faces speak louder than words. Working against cold hard rock trying to reduce size to suit construction requirements, women of senior age endure a hard life for some small return. Perpetuating misery In the 21st century have we perpetuated misery simply because we have not invested in developments currently available. Aren’t we equally guilty of ignoring the need for transformation of techniques and procedures to enhance quality of life overall? Have we been simply blind to progress elsewhere and kept ourselves fixed on ensuring returns only? Are we also guilty of allowing slogans to be kept while keeping necessary changes at bay? We need to understand that if we continuously plan to run a subsidy-based economy and a society, then there is almost no chance of promoting the value of self-reliance. If we seek meaningful change with growth, we must understand that we must set deadlines for supporting subsidies. We must set roadmaps to transfer ourselves from an economy that relies on private remittances from hard labour. We must challenge ourselves to reap the benefit of a literate population. Instead of setting targets to eliminate what is not desirable, we continue to enshrine them with policy protection and institutional mechanisms. That is why my humble Mayday! Reduction of postharvest losses Consider one example. By next year if we decide to eliminate the way we handle food in the value chain, much good will accrue. Postharvest losses had been the story since independence. This loss certainly has prevented us gaining some economic independence as much of the effort is lost and significant waste created and consumers subjected to distress. Many a discussion including regulations have come in to move away from the current practices. All good intentions have failed to materialise in any significant manner. It is also unfortunate that sound practices have met with significant opposition too, which begs the question, why aren’t we displaying basic common sense? This is not rocket science as reduction of postharvest losses is a primary activity of any well-meaning economy. Imagine the amount of disposal income when the per cent spend of food changes from 57% to 13%? The latter is the figure for United States and the former is for Sri Lanka. Scientific thinking in short supply The distress stems from the fact that while we march on and on, we have forgotten the sciences. Across-the-board scientific thinking is in short supply. We appear to understand the strength of technology; at least our words say so. Well, the truly celebrated Labour Day would be when we can say with pride we have understood the issues and together have resolved them. Then we can have a holiday but with a real difference. The transformation requires science to be in action. Not, I must say, politics!  [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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