Professor Murugesu Sivapalan and Professor Nishan Canagarajah at JUICE
Sept. 27, 2018 saw the start of JUICE (Jaffna University International Conference), a Biennial Conference going on since the war. It is intended to revive science in Jaffna. Professor Murugesu Sivapalan the most eminent water expert today and Prof. Nishan Canagarajah, Pro Vice-Chancellor at Bristol University are products of Hartley and St. John’s, respectively, who are internationally renowned and came as Guests of Honour to share their thoughts and help as they are able.
Graduating from Peradeniya in 1975, Sivapalan has risen to be one of the foremost engineer-scientists in the world. His PhD is from Princeton. He is Helen Siess Endowed Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign – ranked No. 1 in Civil Engineering. He is the recipient of the European Geosciences Union’s Alfred Wegener Medal, the International Hydrology Prize of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences and the Robert Horton Medal of the American Geophysical Union. In 2018 he was named a recipient of the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water (Creativity Prize) for his role in developing the new field of Socio-hydrology. This prize he will share with Sir Andre Konstantin Geim, Nobel Laureate in Physics.
Water Problem of Jaffna
In Jaffna we are facing a drought. At home I switch on my water pump and stand by the well to ensure that the water level does not fall below the foot valve. In amelioration, the government has a huge scheme to transport water from Kilinochchi. But an MP there is objecting legitimately, saying his people would be without water, and to appease him we are going to use expensive reverse osmosis to clean up salt water at great cost. The Water Board assures us that the cost will be borne by all Water Board customers and Jaffna customers will not be charged more.
Sivapalan Identifies the Problem
Sivapalan says engineers have big engineering schemes as solutions. Irrigation engineers are trained to lay pipes and channels and pump water across. And they can do it well he says. The costs are no issue for the government which will spend the money and ask for our votes. Sivapalan cited Peter Gleick, an eminent American water scientist as saying there is about a 15% kickback in these projects to make engineers and politicians push for the most expensive solutions.
The Mahaweli does not have enough water for the North as was promised in the late 1970s. Lying is endemic to our leaders, both political and technical. The people in the South will not tolerate – at least not for long – their being charged for water to supply Jaffna. Nor will they tolerate the extra cost of electricity to clean up water for Jaffna.
My own experience is that the Water Board is already lying. Neighbours – two elderly ladies in particular – whom I convinced to allow the Water Board to lay pipes after they promised me that they would leave everything the way it was, find that the Board has reneged on that promise. The ladies have had to repair their interior pavement which was ripped part by the Water Board Deputy General Manager and his team.
Do we have electricity to clean up our water when the south is already having electricity shortages? Will our water rates be kept the same as the rest of Sri Lanka? If we put up generators to clean up our salt water, will we encounter the same corruption that brought the Northern Provincial Council to a standstill over dumping oil in the groundwater?
I no longer trust anything our politicians and engineers say, especially after they decided on pipe-borne water for Jaffna without the required social impact assessment. Who is approving all the sewerage and water works for our new multi-storey buildings? Are there approved plans? It turns out that when they promise water for Jaffna, they mean water for Jaffna town and the islands. We have been played for suckers. The solutions often espoused by our big spenders are not sustainable.
Sivapalan’s Solution: Restructuring the Economy
A startling feature of the water problem as described by Sivapalan is that the water need per person per year is 1 m3 for drinking; 1×10 = 10 m3 for domestic water use (cooking+bathing+sanitation); 10×10 = 100 m3 for industrial water use, e.g., water for energy; and 100 x 10 = 1000 m3 for agricultural water; for a total of 1111 m3/year/person. His conclusion is that the problem is not our lack of drinking water needs, a mere 1 m3 per year per person, but the water for our agriculture and perhaps for energy.
Sivapalan suggests just two solutions that he can, impromptu: shifting Jaffna’s agriculture to the Vanni and doing some kind of industrialization in Jaffna freeing up all the agriculture water used in Jaffna. The 1 m3 per person per year for drinking is no issue. He says this is not for him to say or for professional engineers or politicians to advance their self-serving solutions. He argues for multidisciplinary teams to be set to work. Going bottom-up: University of Jaffna must involve young people (High Schools), Community (at all levels), NGOs, etc. Going top-down, we must involve Central, Provincial and Local Governments, offering major infrastructure solutions and make data available, putting in place social infrastructure, institutional arrangements (e.g., rules and regulations to guide water extraction and use).
His take home message: it is going to be a protracted, complex mix of solutions. This is too serious a problem to be left to the experts. Everybody should get involved at all levels. Focus on the process, not just the product!
Professor Nishan Canagarajah
Canagarajah went straight to Cambridge from St. John’s earning his degrees there, and rose to be one of the Pro Vice-Chancellors at Bristol. His father, Walter Canagarajah Hitchcock, was my English- and class-teacher in Grade 8. He confessed to our class that he changed his name to W.H. Canagarajah because his initials were used to taunt him as Water Closet as toilets at railway stations were signed as WC in his time. But the Hitchcock heritage made Nishan and his two brothers reach great heights in their university and World Bank positions.
Canagarajah spoke on how Jaffna can collaborate with Bristol and other universities through exchanges. He warned that the exchanges must be sustainable – that is, after him, his successor must see value in the exchange to continue it.
The discussion was exciting. As a young scientist complained about waiting for months for an order of chemicals to arrive, Canagarajah said that ordering protocols were necessary and I added that when a Rs. 300 million order for computers was abused as found by the Auditor General, such protocols were essential. In that case, the then medical dean had ordered computers exceeding her authority, authorized payments without any documents and then the price was halved when questions were raised.
In response to the impassioned plea for all to work together, I asked for the Sinhalese present to identify themselves. No one did. Not everyone is being included. It is on record in a letter from the UGC Chairman to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga quoting the last VC that Christians are not welcome in Senior positions. I pointed out that a professorial application takes 3 years and more to process. There is no academic of standing who will wait that long for an answer.
The University Challenged: Examining Theories for Consistency
As envisaged by both Sivapalan and Canagarajah, the University is called upon to train new graduates who can think; and not in just engineering but in the social sciences too. That involves looking for consistency in our ideas; and, where we see inconsistencies, revising our theories.
There are many Sinhalese students in Jaffna. As noted they were nowhere to be seen at the opening ceremony, or at the presentations of the key-note speakers, although more than half the papers were by Sinhalese.
Are we recruiting the best? The game of delaying processing of applications till two days before the expiry of an advertisement and then presenting a negative recommendation to the Council after the expiry that Council cannot reverse is a polished art at the university.
That game seems to be being played now for the post of Senior Lecturer in Sociology. The details are:
Approved cadre by Treasury informed by the UGC to the university on 17/03/2017. Advertisement placed by the university on 07/11/2017 although vacancies need to be advertised as soon as they are known of. Deadline for applications was 08/12/2017 so the deadline for a decision is 08/12/2018. Although Head/Sociology cleared the file on 08/05/2018 taking 5 months, the Registrar is sitting on the file. It seems a clear ploy to not recruit a brilliant sociologist who has applied.
What is the status of English at the University which is so essential to international scholarship? (Dr. (Miss.) Shivatharsiny Rasalingam who competently and smoothly made all English announcements at JUICE seems a rarity at Jaffna). An indication of the status of English is how Sivapalan was introduced by a Dean in terrible grammar in a written down speech, and in addition repeatedly pronounced Australia as Avusthralia. I fear that Jaffna’s engineers will pick up the grammar and the laziness in being unable to write down a speech correctly with months to do that. Worse, and rather surprisingly, the Guest of Honour, despite years on the Supreme Court pronounced pharmacist as “farmakist” – making an academic rather proud of Royal College where her brothers studied feel let down. A medical Dean speaking later first said farmasist and then said farmakist, showing how infectious bad English is.
Even worse, after years of abject suffering by the Council whose meetings were conducted by a rogue minister who took control of the university, politicians had pride of place given to MPs, a Deputy Minister and Provincial Council Ministers on the first row with liberal references to Honourble so and so. They did not know how to read the scripted speech that an assistant had written for them.
Politicians have become gods at the university. The academic guests of honour like Sivapalan were put behind them and not even referred to until the Vote of Thanks. This culture of begging uneducated politicians, gives little hope for the university through self-respecting academics generating ideas. The little respect that politicians have for universities is revealed by Wigneswaran asking for his speech to be moved up and vanishing straight after it. Some MPs came very late and left in a few minutes. Why did they even come if they were not interested in the proceedings? In the hundreds of conferences I have attended abroad, I have never seen a central role like this given to politicians.
A university must be critical of all ideas to refine them. In announcing a dance on Thirukkural, the claim was made that it is 2000 years old. Right or not, some eminent academics date it as late as 900 AD. Should a university worthy of its name make nationalist claims like this with certainty?
The worst is all attendees being offered holy ash at the entrance to the compound and again to the hall named after Professor Hoover. I asked the young lady offering it to me, “Is this a Saiva University for Saivites? If so, tell me and I will go away?” She merely smiled in embarrassment. I complained to the VC. I do not think he saw my point. When I went to the vegetarian line for my meal, a Dean asked me, “Oh are you Chaivam?” (Are you a Saivite?). I replied “No, I am Vetha Marak-curry” (I am a Christian vegetarian).
Anbini’s Perceptiveness Escaping Academics
My daughter Anbini seated next to me during the cultural show (6:30 pm 28th) was aghast at a dance. Lord Krishna was flirting with several girls as they ogled over him. She said, “Appah look! Krshna can flirt with and touch girls. But the actual dancers cannot touch a man so we have a girl acting for Krishna! What a hypocritical country you have brought us back to from America!” Why are academics unable to see our contradictions that a young woman can?
To solve Jaffna’s problems, we must first recover the university.