Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
For my enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead,.
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.”
from Reconciliation, Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
“Less passionate the long war throws
its burning thorn about all men.
caught in our grief, we share one wound,
and cry one dialect of pain.
We have who fired the house,
whose easy mischief spilt first blood,
under one raging roof we lie
the fault no longer understood.
But as our twisted arms embrace
the desert where our cities stood,
death’s family likeness in each face
must show, at last, our brotherhood.”
- from The Long War, Laurie Lee (1914-97)eaneHeany)
Over the week-end before our National New Year, Christians celebrated the Festival of Easter. It was preceded by Maundy Thursday when Jesus, on the day before he was crucified and in an act of humility, washed the feet of his disciples. It is a tradition that Christians have maintained over the years. On that Thursday this year, Pope Francis visited the Casa del Marmo, a youth detention centre just outside Rome, and washed the feet of twelve inmates including two women. Similarly, in Canterbury, Archbishop Justin Welby washed the feet of twelve lay persons of both genders, of all ages and all faiths. It was no doubt a symbolic gesture but full of meaning for humility, healing and reconciliation in the secular world. It is in that same spirit that Walt Whitman wrote the above poem at the conclusion of the American Civil War. A soldier laments that war, in the final analysis, clashes with the natural order of life. He grieves over the death of a soldier on the ‘other’ side, and as an act of reconciliations, kisses that dead body as it lies in the coffin. Laurie Lee’s poem was also written after another civil war – the Spanish Civil War in which Lee reportedly participated and found disenchantment in the end. .
Margaret Thatcher who died last week was the Prime Minister when the British forces inflicted a crushing defeat on Argentina in the Falklands War. At the conclusion of the war, a thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. The then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcee preached the sermon at what was expected to be a triumphalist moment. But Archbishop Runcee reportedly disappointed and even infuriated Thatcher and the leading figures in the Conservative establishment. Instead of triumphalism , the Archbishop, who in the Second World War had won the Military Cross as a Tank Commander, spoke of reconciliation, and of the need to see our neighbours in the world as brothers and sisters. We should not be just mouthing opinions and thanksgivings that the fashion of the moment judges acceptable. We need to deepen and enlarge our compassion and to purify our thanksgiving He added, ‘The parent who comes here mourning the loss of a son may find here consolation, but also a spirit that enlarges our compassion to include all those Argentinian parents who have lost sons.’ As the good Archbishop pointed out, triumphalism is a dangerous attitude to possess. Peace and reconciliation will be mere empty words if we are not able to show understanding, respect and compassion to the ‘other’. Life will be fraught with danger and uncertainty for all of us if confrontation and polarisation continues as now, four years after the LTTE has been decisively crushed. We need to take a hard look at ourselves, at the priorities we have set ourselves in our development plans and to change course where necessary if the country is to move forward. We need to move away from confrontational politics to diverting our resources to genuine development.
Last week’s newspaper reports quoted the Chairman of the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation as saying that there was an acute shortage of essential drugs in our Hospitals. Some of the drugs in short supply were for treating life-threatening illnesses like cancer but there was no budgetary allocation available to purchase them. We have no reason to believe that the Chairman was exaggerating the actual position. Surely, this is a scandalous state of affairs. Is it therefore any wonder that seriously ill patients are advised to take treatment in private hospitals. Sadly the majority of our people cannot afford the treatment that is available in private hospitals even if such hospitals are located near their homes. It also happens that expensive drugs are often not available in state hospitals and patients are advised to purchase those drugs in the open market and bring it to the hospital for the treatment to be given. Patients with limited financial resources just cannot afford to buy drugs and injections in the open market at prices which can run into several hundreds of thousand rupees.
One cannot fault the Ministry of Health for this state of affairs. They have to work within the amount allocated to them which obviously is far too little to meet the needs of our population. Just as for the education sector, the budgetary allocation is unrealistic. We do not think it is government policy to run down the state health services but that is what is happening as a result of the allocation of the limited resources to sectors other than for health and education which should receive priority. Last month, the Island quoted a report from Verite Research, an independent think tank and research organization: “The 2012 budget had allocated 1.31% of GDP for the health sector. The 2013 budget allocates about the same: 1.33%. However, the actual disbursement in 2012 was cut down to 1.26%. The direct expenditure on education, represented by the allocations made to the Ministry of Education, Higher Education and to the Provincial councils on education amounted to only 131 billion accounting for 1.51% of GDP (5.21% of government expenditure). A clear downward trend is evident in the allocations made to the education sector as a percentage of GDP in four successive budgets from 1.81% in 2010 to 1.51% in 2013. This is driven by sharp decreases in current expenditure on education.” Verite Research further stated that Sri Lanka’s huge defence budget which refused to shrink post war has continued to grow, and at almost 19% in Budget 2013. Capital expenditure has been growing faster than recurrent expenditure in the post-war period, and in Budget 2013. Urban development now comes under the Ministry of Defence. But it will be a mistake to think that the huge increase in the allocation fort defence is because of urban development. Verite Research have analysed the Defence budget and found that less than 5% of it is for urban development.
Like health, education is another sector that is being run down. It may not be deliberate but it is happening. When FUTA launched their strike last year, one of their main demands was that the budgetary allocation for education should be 6% of GDP, at least in the longer term. In negotiating a settlement of the strike, the Ministry of Higher Education pledged to work towards that. But they have reneged on that promise, as they seem to have on all other issues as well. The allocation for 2013 is a mere 1.51% of GDP, continuing the trend over the past few years. It is not so much the academic staff but it should be the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors and the University Grants Commission which should be agitating for increased allocations. Some months ago, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare, a former Vice Chancellor and Chairman of the UGC, in a newspaper interview, when asked what the problem was with the UGC and CVCD was, stated that there were a lot of good people in them but they were too far removed from the university dons and the Senates and too close to the government in power. Aluwihare hit the problem right on the head. In all sectors, the authorities should be in constant consultation with the professionals in that field and be able to pick their brains and act taking their advice into consideration. That is what happened when we became independent and that is why our health and education services were the pride not just of Asia but of the world. In higher education, our students had no difficulty in gaining admission to the best universities in the world and our academics and medical professionals could have obtained plum positions anywhere. In fact, some of them did, though sadly to our detriment. But most of them opted to remain and work here under conditions which allowed them academic and professional freedom. Because of their integrity and professional stature, the civil servants and other professionals in the years immediately after independence, were able to deny requests from politicians and Cabinet Ministers that were unjust or that violated the establishment code.
An apolitical public service
Today, we have got our priorities wrong. Those holding high offices in administration, in the university system, among the security forces and the Police and even among those upholding the law and dispensing justice see the need to bow down to the politically powerful. It is outrageous that politically powerful persons are openly associating themselves with groups that not only preach hatred against minority groups but actually use violence against them. While the law is being openly flouted, the Police are mere onlookers seemingly safeguarding the violators. There is not even a semblance of trying to appear impartial. We have succumbed to a culture where public servants deem it more important to please their political masters by taking sides rather than by holding the scales of justice evenly.
The Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha has launched a movement where he has identified the Executive Presidency as the root cause for our problems of injustice and conflicts. Most thinking people would agree with him on that. Indeed, our last two Executive Presidents, including Mahinda Rajapakse, were elected on the basis of a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency. Chandirika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge at least presented constitutional proposals in 2000 to abolish the Executive Presidency. It is now time to support, without any party political stance, this demand of Ven Sobitha’s movement. The other major demand of his movement that deserves our support is the need to restore the principles of the 17th Amendment and have Commissions for the public services where its members, once appointed, will have the independence and security of tenure for a fixed period, so that they do not have to be subservient to politicians.
The two major political parties are publicly committed to abolishing the Executive Presidency. Many of the other parties have expressed their support for such a step. Civil Society organizations must urge the senior leaders of the SLFP and UNP to bring in constitutional proposals on those lines. Only then can the country move forward. Only then can we prevent obscurantist forces from derailing democracy, pluralism, justice and communal harmony in our country.