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#5332, 24 July 2017

Dateline Colombo

The Forgotten Professions: The Plight of a Nation
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Director General, Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), Sri Lanka & Columnist, IPCS

The Sri Lankan public has become the unfortunate victim of the nation’s health and sanitation crisis. The policymakers are questioned by both the public and the media of their inability to manage the ongoing situation. 

One of the world’s most iconic cities, New York, was turned into a garbage dump in February 1968 due to the sanitation workers’ refusal to collect garbage. After 9 days, 100,000 tons of garbage had piled up and a state of emergency was declared. In Sri Lanka, garbage collection in Colombo and the surrounding areas has become a serious problem over the past few weeks. Sabotage by sanitation workers and relocation of the garbage dump, with an ongoing blame game, has aggravated the situation. A record high of 100,000 dengue patients is an indirect consequence. Hospitals have run out of beds compounding the health crisis. 

An increasing number of people do jobs that we can do just fine without, and even if they stop work, it would have a minimal impact. This, however, is not the case with garbage collectors. Sanitation of any city is an essential service. According to the New Economic Foundation, a British think tank, for every pound earned by advertising executives, they destroy an equivalent of 7 pounds in the form of pollution, stress, over-consumption, and debt; conversely, each pound paid to a trash collector creates an equivalent of 12 pounds in terms of health and sustainability. 

While the public sector’s essential services have much hidden benefits to the society, it is unfortunately not recognised and compensated enough. The agents of prosperity: teachers, law enforcement officers, nurses, and research scholars are paid poorly while unimportant and superfluous jobs are paid well. Rutger Bergman, one of Europe’s prominent young thinkers, describes the situation best as jobs of “shifters.” Instead of creating wealth, these jobs mostly just shift wealth around within the economy. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, calls this “Phenomenon for bullshit jobs.” Innumerable people spend their entire life doing these jobs, which pays them well but does not create anything for the society. A researcher in Sri Lanka only gets an average salary of US$200-250 a month while the marketing executive gets ten times more. 

A hefty pay check and a comfortable life, however, do not mean one is producing something of great value. One could revisit Friedrich Engels, who explained in his “false consciousness” to which the proletariat had fallen victim. For example, luxury vehicles imported by politicians with further supplementary budgets was passed a few days ago. It allows for the purchase of a few more vehicles and maintenance of residences, but does not add any value to the society. It only increases the debt and public dissatisfaction. The proletariat is misled by a segment of the society. 

Sri Lanka's president recently pointed out that “Anyone watching TV feels there is no government in the country” because the development is not reported by the media. The president’s development work tends to get overshadowed by certain public agitation especially due to the multiple political voices of the government, which confuse the polity. The government should focus its energy to resolve and manage the ongoing crisis and strengthen the more productive sectors of the economy. 

Sri Lanka will import 200,000 metric tons of rice from foreign nations such as Myanmar in July. The country could become self-sufficient and export rice if it properly manages this important area. As an island nation, Sri Lanka imports fish and coconut. Israel is one of the best examples of creating a technological revolution in their agricultural and dairy farming sector. For example, a cow produces 4 litres of milk a day in Sri Lanka on an average while the corresponding quantity in Israel is 22 litres. Annually 10.5 tonnes of milk is produced in Israel, much more than the milk production in the US, Australia, and Germany. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel this month focused on technology transfer between Israel and India. This indicates a correct strategic direction taken by him. Israel’s research and development expenditure is four per cent of its Gross Domestic Product, a high amount giving it the desired results. Certain countries, however, are uninterested in innovation and research; and all they focus is on quantity, profit and short-term election goals. 

The way things are in Sri Lanka right now should change; its political culture, economy and universities can all be reinvented to generate real innovation and creativity. It is not necessary to wait patiently for a cultural change. The Sri Lankan government should introduce dramatic changes to all sectors taking even from small nations such as Bhutan that have introduced laws for parliament candidates to have a formal degree. First, and foremost, policymakers should be in a position to understand the priorities and recognise the necessities of the society. 

Views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the Government of Sri Lanka or the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS). 

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