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Viva la Simoundou!

Feb 8, 2012 1:30:46 PM - www.ft.lk

Indeed with some Spanish and Ptolemy’s nomenclature, it is our sincere wish ‘long live Sri Lanka’ on passing its 64th year of independence from the British. Our period of independence is not greater than the period we were under, but that is not something we should use as an excuse for slow progress since independence.

Scanning published discussions and comments, it is evident we are not quite clear on whether we have true independence or not. If the erudite and the people in high places have divergent opinions, the common man will only have confusion to rely on.
We do have a long history and even when Ptolemy refers to Simoundou, he states the name as another older name for his island of Taprobane. This is a demonstration of our long history and perhaps a larger than real size presence in the Indian Ocean in those times – this may be the reason Ptolemy the Roman geographer drew us much larger than our real size when he sketched Taprobane in his now famous map.
There is no question that we are faced with multiple challenges today, but they certainly are not insurmountable of course with collective hard work with smartness and inventiveness thrown in at times.

‘Exotics’ going to waste
The reality of long life for the nation will be on how we understand and resolve current and emerging issues. While we proudly listen and perhaps intone the national anthem which contains ‘mal palathuru piri’ [full of flowers and fruits], we must confess that the word exotic fruits which the British coined for the range of fruits they observed is no way adequate in meeting our requirements.
It is not because they cannot but because we are not paying attention to utilise proper ways of achieving such an end. As such a significant percentage of ‘exotics’ are simply wasted. Exchanges and counter exchanges on plastic crates is a sad demonstration of this lack of understanding. Potentially good quality products go waste while the import bill for food products escalates.

Energy crisis
With sun and water in abundance we also have an energy crisis today. With US sanctions on Iran taking some effect our unholy reliance on oil or to use President Bush’s terminology – addiction to oil – is causing us political as well as dollar headaches. When will we wake up to use and mobilise bio-energy systems?
The era of dependence witnessed the emergence of three major crops as plantation crops with an intricate transport system developed to move the products overseas.
The late ’90s saw our scientists stubbornly working to position an energy crop as the fourth national plantation crop – gliricidia. However, much more needs to happen to realise the benefits of this move.
The emphasis on the fourth crop from the establishment is not satisfactory at all. Bio energy should not just be confined to land as algal systems can exploit water as well. Our vision only will set these limits. It is apparent with some understanding both food and energy issues can be addressed from within.

Health and wellbeing
In this day it is also important to understand the nation’s health and wellbeing; both the physical and the mental. What we eat today may be what enables us to perform tomorrow and in this regard one must consider what the next generation eats and drinks.
A recent news item indicating that our workforce is dying young is a serious call for action in this regard. Our market culture of purchase or perish may in turn coax us to accept products available and with ease and may indicate all that what you have only to do before consumption is either rip, twist, flip, tear or boil, one must be aware that the respective stomachs at the end of that convenience ordeal may be in turmoil.
While processing is required to extend availability, it is important that the nutritional indicators are kept in mind while stocking supermarket shelves and enticing customers to purchase. At one time the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration, USA) stated with respect to some processed food items that there is more nutrition in the packaging that in contents. With our younger age group shrinking, one just cannot be productive with a sick workforce.

It is also important that we address important issues upfront. We do consider realising world class status for our educational institutes and in this regard universities are high on the agenda. Certainly this intention is laudable and we do need to work towards such goals. The best way is to benchmark what you have and are doing with a select group of world class institutes.
The simple exercise of identifying salient organisational features will create and fulfil a gap analysis after which of course the step is addressing the findings. A comment or two from visiting scientists act as eye-openers.
Consider what a Nepali scientist recently mentioned about a strong material science research facility in Japan. Her comments were flexible working hours, international environment, world class facilities and expertise, free discussion times, supportive technical and administrative staff. Expressed in a simple way, her comments give us enough to carry out a reality check.
Just pouring some extra money into an existing framework of restrictive practices will not be sufficient should be easy to understand – may be not to those who think money can do anything!

Elevating organisations
Important are the following three in elevating organisations: Organisations should have ideas and goals that seek surpassing the ordinary. Presence of excellent tools and techniques comes next. Not only one should be acquiring and implementing state-of-the-art tools and techniques one should aspire to add to the collection by oneself.
The population – it is not the organisation that performs but the people within – should have a positive and an innovative mindset.
It is obvious that moving from simple marketing terms to realistic action is not easy but that is the challenge of becoming world class.
You need to bring in changes to change existing culture. Collaborations have to come in and meaningful ones at that. Not collaborations to extend someone’s ego or to enable external TOR requirements of an international organisation. That would simply tie up your valuable time with them with no benefit to your system.

Local industry
It is important that the local industry picks up and this is a national imperative. Sixty four years before, on 4 February 1948, a document titled ‘It can be done’ on the subject of industrialisation was released to the public by the Department of Commerce and Industries. This was a bold write-up perhaps on the eve of independence but indicated the need. Today still we may be awaiting that meaningful industrialisation.
Ad-hoc industries planned in isolation and with the focus on realising some FDI and local employment opportunities is not exactly a meaningful industrialisation strategy. Of course times have changed and times will change again.
Coming through the Stone Age, from bronze to steel, we may be at the threshold of another material age – nano material age. We have earlier shown that Sri Lanka is well positioned to reap benefits if we plan well in this emerging nano material age.
Another committee established in the ’70s again listed around 10 priority industries for Sri Lanka to embark on.
Top on that list was the mineral sand-based titanium dioxide industry, which hopefully may see the light of day soon, also important in the emerging nano age.
This is many years later and sadly the economy has suffered as a result and delays also means additional extra costs and multiple issues – not all of them financial – in realising strong manufacturing complexes in this more connected world.

Economic perspective
Sixty four years of independence is a long time indeed and we should not be happy about our position from an economic perspective. We have faltered in many ways and have not delivered on our abilities and strengths. We indeed have squandered many an opportunity.
We must not believe just because we are in a position of authority and that we know everything and use power of position only to drive policy. Serious, purposeful and quality thinking from all quarters is important. Networks, though useful, will not always provide one with answers, especially ones that rely on connections, old school tie-ups and friendships only.
The most important element the establishment needs to bring in on this 64th year of independence is the mandatory deployment of science and technology to the process of economic planning and decision making.
While Sri Lanka enjoys calmness and sense of freedom – an aspect identified as the second gaining of independence or real independence by some – which all citizens gratefully accept, it is now the responsibility on those who enjoy to give back to ensure growth and progress by way of hard work and commitment.
The younger generation too should understand their own responsibilities in concert with Sri Lanka’s needs, which was best expressed by a term Dr. Kalam used in addressing a group of students – do not go after synthetic happiness! It is important to translate this concept to the Facebook generation.

Sound science and technology deployment
Going beyond our borders, however, looking around we also view a world which looks as if it is searching for an opportune time to crash. The climate’s own turbulent conspiracy has already enveloped all of us and the way out suggested – consuming sensibly – is still not an acceptable solution to most of us.
Note the resistance in Greece when the word austerity measures are spoken and this is to save the country only from an economic disaster. Moving forward, some of these necessities will not be choices, but what we will have to practice by default. The need is to build stability and resilience and resolve basic issues with sound science and technology deployment in our society in this period of respite we have.
(Professor Ajith de Alwis 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 also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)