I read defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s keynote address at the inaugural National Engineering Conference, organized by the Institution of Engineers in Sri Lanka (IESL), with great interest. He had given a number of good advices to the members of IESL about positive thinking, initiative, professional conduct, and leadership. The specific examples of success in the infrastructure development projects in Colombo were impressive. His observation – “We need engineers to come up with innovative methods to help mitigate problems such as water, land and air pollution. Even with regard to public security, it is very clear that traditional policing methods are no longer adequate to deal with the increasing sophistication of criminals and terrorists.” – is commendable.
He identifies migration of engineers abroad as a problem while the foreign ministry applauds the foreign currency remittances by Sri Lankan workers abroad. Not only Gotabaya, but also all other politicians including the president keep on re-iterating the importance of professionals in this kind of forums and election rallies, without seeing what they can do to get professionals engaged in the development process of Sri Lanka. I thought of writing this note because some flaws of attitude are clearly evident in the statement by Gotabaya – “Unfortunately, one of the problems we face as a nation is that many of our talented professionals leave the country in pursuit of higher paying jobs abroad”.
There is a mythical belief that “talent leaves Sri Lanka”. This is not true. Talent is there among most professionals already living in Sri Lanka. I can quote not only professionals but also many innovative village youth who would be National assets elsewhere, unseen and unrecognized in Sri Lanka. The issue is that their talent is not visible in the corrupt system till they leave Sri Lanka. Recognition of talent abroad gives the illusion that “talent leaves” Sri Lanka, when in fact those who are already in Sri Lanka are not any less talented. Most professionals who migrate, do so without a job offer abroad. Even if they have an offer, it is not necessarily an attractive one as he implies. With first hand experience, I know that most professionals migrate to expose their children to a fair system where their talent will be recognized. They usually sacrifice their own prospects while doing so. Nowhere in the World, I have heard that a mother has to sleep with a Government officer to get her child admitted to a reasonable school. The increasing level of corruption in examinations too frustrates professionals. Some others migrate in fear of persecution by their own Government for expressing their views. I am sure Gotabaya can take his own example of leaving Sri Lanka to be a US citizen some time back to honestly check if what he said was true.
Taking my own example, I returned to Sri Lanka in 2003 planning to join the academic staff of the University of Moratuwa to set up a laboratory for field robotics with potential applications in landmine detection. I was hoping that the Government expected local professionals to contribute towards such National needs. Visiting the demining sites of the engineers’ brigade of the Sri Lanka Army and NGOs, we noticed that most of them use metal detectors, while others use dogs and rakes to detect landmines. We identified a number of technical areas that could be improved. For instance, the imported dogs cost around Rs. 4.5 million per dog. They fall ill very frequently due to the tropical field weather in the North. Back in Colombo, we conducted experiments to see how far the local animal – mongoose (Mugatiya) – could be used to detect explosives. The results were very promising. The best the academics can do is to publish our findings so that user communities could follow up. We presented the results in the ministry of defense and elsewhere to attract local attention in vain. Nothing moved beyond that point citing financial reasons, though we pointed out that training mongoose locally will be several folds less costly than importing dogs at Rs. 4.5 million per dog.
My laboratory also conducted experiments to develop new design approaches to field robots that maybe used in demining. Due to limited funding, we could not develop complicated robots like in the developed countries. However, our machines developed using material found in junkyards, but with clearly new ideas faced various resistances. Again the ideas could not be developed to advanced stages due to financial constraints cited by the Government. However, later I heard that the Government had the money to import several flails at a cost of Rs. 270 million per unit. Looked carefully, these machines were nothing but modified excavators with a fast rotating drum holding hammers on chains. A used excavator can be bought for a cost of less than Rs. 50 million. The motorized drum with chained hammers can be designed and fabricated in Sri Lanka at a cost less than Rs. 30 million. With other fabrication costs, the same or a better system could be fabricated in Sri Lanka within a budget of Rs. 100 million with full participation of local engineers if the users gave the right specifications. Field robots we tested were developed locally; within a budget of Rs. 1 million including the cost of training three masters students. After four years of struggling, I left Sri Lanka again in 2007 looking for opportunities to continue what I was doing with less resistance. To do so, I had to sacrifice the senior lecturer position at the University of Moratuwa, to accept a postdoctoral researcher position (a lower grade) at Harvard University. Landing on a dream job without delay was purely due to the fair and empowering system I was in. The prospects down the stream was not apparent at the point of leaving Sri Lanka as defense secretary implied in his speech.
Somehow, the final snap shot of the Government’s oversight of local efforts is the status quo that Sri Lanka, after a 30 year war, has not produced enough Globally used technologies, when it imports equipment produced by countries who have not had a such a local opportunity to test various technologies. This includes tiny Singapore that exports many sophisticated systems to Sri Lanka. Now, how fair is it for the defense secretary to turn round and put the blame on those who leave then?
I take this opportunity to highlight another flaw in using local professionals in various purchasing decisions at the ministry of defense too. Myself and a lot of other fellow academics at the University of Moratuwa were frequently called to sit in technical evaluation committees (TECs) of the ministry of defense chaired by Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself. Very often the documents to be reviewed were delivered on the same day the TEC meeting was held depriving us of enough time to do a credible review. Very often, I had only the time during the ride from Moratuwa to ministry of defense to review the documents. Due to the urgency of many such purchasing decisions, we signed those documents based on complete trust in Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the chair of the committee. However, it was very unfortunate to see the ministry of defense itself exposing the names of professionals and the recommendations of those TECs when things went wrong. It seemed to us that the professionals who were kept in the darkness whole throughout the TEC process were just used as a cleansing shield in the event things go wrong. I am not alone in this concern. One can check with any academic in the University system in Sri Lanka on this.
Therefore, while commending the remarks made in the above speech by the secretary of defense, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, I kindly request him to be more honest with local professionals. Otherwise, these speeches become empty political speeches aimed at gaining political mileage out of patriotism of professionals.