By Gotabaya Rajapaksa –
It gives me great pleasure to deliver the keynote address at the inaugural National Engineering Conference, organised by the Institution of Engineers in Sri Lanka. The theme chosen for this conference-“Engineering Sri Lanka’s Future”-is a very timely and appropriate one. The present era will in many ways be a decisive one for the future of this country. Having emerged from a three decades long terrorist conflict less than five years ago, Sri Lanka today is one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the world. It is also a country in the midst of a widespread and far reaching economic development thrust. What is required at this time is for all stakeholders to work together with vision, dedication and commitment to drive the nation’s development. In this context, the role of Engineers assumes particular importance.
Engineering combines science and mathematics to find solutions to real world problems, thereby improving the quality of life of countless people. Engineers from various disciplines play a critical role in on-going development initiatives, whether it is in the development of infrastructure, utilities, industry or services. Their contribution is essential in the research and development, planning, and execution of most projects.
Engineers also have an important role to play in the formulation of broader development strategies and even in matters concerning public policy. As a result of this great responsibility, engineers must work hard and carry out work of the highest quality so that our society will benefit.
Furthermore, since engineers are often opinion leaders in their circles and in many sectors, they also need to contribute to the change in public attitudes that Sri Lanka needs if it is to become a developed nation in a short span of time. It is of vital importance that we as a people develop our mentality to go beyond that of a developing nation, and to look towards the future with confidence and positive intentions. Moving out of a “business as usual” approach and adopting new ways of thinking is essential if we are to progress rapidly. We must start to think and act as if Sri Lanka has already reached the status it aspires to. It is only then that we will be able to change established patterns of behaviour to inspire the development we seek.
In this context, high calibre professionals such as engineers and professional organisations such as this Institution have an important leadership role to play in our society. Leadership is essential at all levels and in all sectors of the country.
It should not be expected only from the politicians or the Government officials, nor confined to the highest ranks of any organisation. During the Humanitarian Operation from 2006 to 2009, our Armed Forces personnel fought with great bravery and made countless sacrifices to liberate Sri Lanka from terrorism. They were committed to this cause because its importance was communicated to them strongly by the entire leadership, from His Excellency the President down through the entire chain of command. This created a cohesive mission that all the Armed Forces personnel were motivated to accomplish, and as a result, the war was won.
Having a positive outlook and taking bold decisions are some of the key qualities of outstanding leadership. When His Excellency the President was elected to office in 2005, very few people thought that the war would be won and that peace would come to Sri Lanka in the foreseeable future. Terrorism had been a part of day-to-day life in Sri Lanka for so long that there was a widely held perception that the LTTE could never be defeated. Many people thought that peace could never be achieved without accommodating the LTTE’s demands. Despite the prevailing negativity, however, the President had a very clear vision to bring lasting peace to Sri Lanka.
When all options for a peaceful settlement had been exhausted, he had the foresight, courage and confidence to launch the Humanitarian Operation. As a result of His Excellency’s bold decision, peace and stability was restored to Sri Lanka within just three and a half years. This is the impact that positive thinking and bold decisions can have.
With the dawn of peace, the Government is working hard to develop Sri Lanka so that it can achieve its full potential. A key part of this effort is the uplifting of Colombo into a clean, green, people friendly, world-class city. During this process, there have been a number of issues that the Government has had to face. These include
- Flood control
- Solid waste management and disposal
- Providing proper housing for low income, underserved settlements
- Developing parks and more open spaces for public recreation
- Improving the road network and improving pavements for pedestrians
- Enhancing public facilities such as toilets, bus halts and markets
- Restoring old heritage buildings, and
- Creating walking paths and public areas for people to exercise in and improve their health.
Uplifting Colombo to a world-class city by solving these issues requires the input of engineers in various disciplines. Any innovative and practical solutions that can be proposed for such issues would be most welcome.
I would like to present some examples to illustrate the past issues and the ways in which they were addressed. The problem of poor garbage collection in the streets of Colombo had existed for many years without any solution being found. In tackling this problem, it was first of all necessary to clearly understand why it continued to exist in the first place. When the situation was carefully analysed, it was found that several private sector companies had been awarded contracts for this task, but their workers were not performing their jobs properly due to inadequate supervision. Once the problem was properly understood, the solution was simple: the relevant companies were asked to strictly fulfil the terms of their contracts. Additional oversight was also provided through the setting up of an Environmental Division within the Sri Lanka Police. With these two simple measures, the problem of uncollected garbage on the roads was solved very rapidly.
However, Colombo still requires a sound long-term solution for garbage disposal, and the Ministry of Defence & Urban Development is presently working on developing a large sanitary landfill in Puttalam. This is another project that will require considerable input from our engineers.
Once a problem is identified, it is important that those involved in resolving it think innovatively and come up with novel solutions. Take for example the Old Racecourse buildings in Colombo 7. For many years, this complex had been an eyesore to passers by because it was in very poor condition and even rather dangerous. As a result, the buildings had been scheduled for demolition. However, it was clear that the buildings had a lot of intrinsic architectural beauty. After much deliberation and reassessment of its potential, it was decided to rehabilitate the complex and turn it into a heritage site that with restaurant and shopping facilities. After a lot of work, the Racecourse was restored last year, and is now one of Colombo’s most beautiful attractions. This is a very good example of innovative thinking and coming up with a bold solution to an existing problem.
It is proper leadership, positive intention, and innovation that our nation needs from its engineers today. Sri Lankan engineers are highly educated, qualified and skilled.
They have a great deal of experience in complex projects, whether it is in the design & construction of highways, railways, bridges, power generation plants or buildings. Our engineers and professionals in related fields have tremendous capability. Sri Lankan engineers who work abroad have proven themselves time and again by reaching great heights in their organizations and by producing outstanding results. Unfortunately, because of entrenched practices that have remained unchanged for a long time, many professionals do not always achieve similar results in Sri Lanka. To some extent, this is a by-product of the state of paralysis that gripped Sri Lanka during the war. But now that peace and stability exist, it is of the utmost importance that we as a society overcome our prior complacency and strive towards achieving our full potential. For this to happen, there are several areas that we need to pay particular attention to.
In any work that is to be undertaken, visualising the nature of the final product is extremely important. Unfortunately, quite often there is insufficient visualisation by those who are responsible for delivering the outcome of the work at hand. This leads to a drop in the quality of the final product. Take for example the construction of a road. For a road to be properly functional, it is not enough only to have adequate space for vehicular traffic.
Attention needs to be paid to the pavements so that pedestrians will be safe and have ample space to walk on. Drainage must also be taken into account so that the roads to not get flooded after rainstorms. If the engineers do not visualise the final product properly at the design stage, sometimes these key design considerations can get overlooked. As a result, the final product simply will not live up to the required standard.
What is most important in this regard is going into details. Every single aspect of the final product or outcome needs to be examined well in advance, so that the highest possible quality can be obtained. To return to the example of roads: it is very noticeable in Sri Lanka that various agencies dig up the roads from time to time when they need to improve existing facilities or implement new projects. This sort of repeated work on the same road is not only a heavy burden on the taxpayers, but it also unnecessarily impedes the flow of traffic and degrades the quality of the road. If the engineers responsible for planning the road initially had taken the extra step of coordinating with other agencies, and anticipating other future requirements by designing a common conduit for services alongside the road, this could have been avoided.
This was precisely the approach adopted under the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project when improvements were made to several major streets in Colombo, including Vauxhall Street, Union Place, Darley Road, Chittampalam A Gardiner Mawatha and Kumaran Rutnam Road. All relevant institutions and agencies were requested to indicate their future requirements for these roads, which were then incorporated into the project. These included the laying of water pipes under the National Water Supply & Drainage Board’s Water Supply Services Improvement Project, and the laying of underground electricity cables of the Ceylon Electricity Board. Further ducting facilities were provided for future expansions to other services. This is an example of a simple measure taken to improve the long-term quality of our roads. This is a methodology that engineers in the Road Development Authority and Municipal and Urban Councils should advocate for and incorporate to their future road developments
Just as much as going into details is important during the design stage, engineers and project managers must also ensure that everyone involved in the construction, from the contractor to the supervisors and ultimately the workers, are fully aware of what needs to be done. Obtaining their commitment is essential. They must be made to understand the importance of the work at hand so that they approach it with motivation.
If they are unmotivated, the workers will not work hard to achieve the desired result. Instead, they will only do the bare minimum. This can have negative consequences on the final outcome. Therefore, it is important for the relevant professionals to clearly communicate to their subordinates specific objectives and goals to achieve, and inspire them to work hard through their own example.
The provision of proper supervision during construction is very important in this regard. Unless the engineers get involved and frequently monitor the progress of the work, mistakes will be made. Sometimes, however, this supervision is simply not there or is inadequate. That can lead to disastrous consequences. Higher officials and supervisors are sometimes reluctant to visit poorly maintained and unsafe construction sites. However, if they do not visit sites and supervise from time to time, the work most likely will not get done properly. Once the construction is completed, it is too late to change anything without incurring major costs or major delays. As such, it is very important to ensure that sites are properly maintained so that supervision can take place with the necessary frequency. At the same time, it is not enough for supervisors to just glance at the work being done.
They must go into details. Close observation is essential, and the progress of work needs to be frequently evaluated against the desired final outcome. This is true in virtually every single field.
By adopting these simple measures and by developing the very essential qualities of leadership, positive thinking, careful analysis, innovation and going into details, it will be possible for us to achieve great things. There are numerous fields in which we need our engineers to step forward and come up with innovative solutions to existing problems. After all, engineers are the ones most familiar with developing technological trends in the world at large. You need to evaluate current advances and apply them to solve our existing problems. The solution to the problem of traffic is not the construction of new roads or the widening of existing ones, but the use of innovative techniques of transport engineering. The solution to the power crisis is not only in the construction of new power generation facilities, but also in the improvement of transmission and utilisation efficiency. Adopting new alternative energy sources is also important.
We need engineers to get involved and devise new solutions for building functional, attractive, yet low cost public housing for underserved settlements.
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. We need engineers to get involved in these areas too, so that we may apply advances in modern technology to create a safer social and community environment. There are so many opportunities for engineers and those in allied professionals to truly make a difference to Sri Lanka today.
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. However, it is important to remember that though it is possible to earn more in certain other nations than in Sri Lanka, you will also spend much more than you do in Sri Lanka; you will effectively be a second-class citizen; you will lose touch with your close relatives and your friends; you will lose touch with your roots. Young professionals in particular must realise that as Sri Lanka develops, there will be many more opportunities for them to excel and succeed here. Whether employed in the Government sector or the private sector, professionals’ prospects today are much better than they have been in the last many decades.
Sri Lanka is a country at peace and it is enjoying the benefits of its stability. It is developing rapidly. A great deal of work is being done to improve the country’s infrastructure and the quality of its urban spaces. More and more facilities are being created for young people and families to enjoy. The environment here will soon be on par with those of more developed nations. Creating this change is partly in your hands.
The task ahead of us in terms of economic development is one that requires a collective effort from all Sri Lankans, and in particular our professionals. We must make maximum use of the opportunity afforded by our present peace and stability to achieve future prosperity. As Engineers, all of you have a critical role to play in this regard. You must provide the impetus necessary for our national transformation through the valuable work you do in your various disciplines and your various capacities. You must be creative and innovative. You must lead the charge in overcoming the third world mentality and inculcating a fresh perspective on our future. If you all take this mission to heart and commit yourselves to the task of improving our nation, I have every confidence that you will help engineer a better future for Sri Lanka.
*Full Text of the Speech delivered by Secretary to Ministry of Defence at the National Engineering Conference on 24th October 2013 at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo