Sri Lanka has almost certainly the largest number of public holidays of any country. From an individual and personal point of view, most of our citizens are very happy that this is so. In contrast, those persons and organisations that have tight deadlines of any kind to meet can hardly be expected to be pleased that their employees are statutorily required to work only a little over one-half of the days in the year, taking into account weekends, public holidays and personal leave of various types. The country’s productivity and its competitiveness in international markets are severely affected by how little work Sri Lankans do in comparison with those in many other countries that have a much better national work ethic and, consequently, a higher standard of living. Even more worrying is the fact that Sri Lanka has accumulated huge debts that need to be serviced to very demanding schedules, which cannot now be adhered to without incurring yet more debts, or having the repayment of the existing debts re-scheduled to enable them to be settled over a longer period of time. On their part, our creditors are not going to agree to such accommodations without fresh conditions, which are unlikely to be very palatable.
Adding to our concerns about our dwindling foreign reserves, our imports have swollen alarmingly whereas our exports have grown at less than one-quarter of the rate at which, say, Vietnam has succeeded in doing.
While the country is in such dire straits, our public-funded governmental figures and institutions think nothing of wasting the people’s hard-earned resources and valuable time by organising – almost on a daily basis – vast assemblages and processions of government employees, members of the public and schoolchildren to act as captive audiences for political propaganda. There are also countless meetings with religious dignitaries to demonstrate to the public the unflagging “piety” of our leaders.
Apart from the damage done by the self-promoting exercises organised by our elected representatives, costly strikes are called, for the most trivial or selfish reasons, by State employees, not only with scant regard for the convenience of the public but with heartless indifference to the sufferings of the poor and the sick. There is also an unending succession of highly disruptive ‘ad hoc’ protests on public highways, roads, rail tracks and elsewhere.
There are protests against the transfer of school principals, failure to maintain roads and bridges, doctors and nurses fighting over who should have the only rest-room in a hospital, alleged water pollution by industries or others, and so on. The most serious are the acts of violence that take place to prevent the police going about their legitimate business of guarding public and private property, and keeping the roads open.
Arbitrary public agitation not only deprives the country of the work inputs that the agitators themselves should be making but also the vast contribution of the great numbers of the public whose attendance at offices, schools, hospitals, factories, plantations etc is disrupted.
Many citizens think that the answer to these and other ills would be to conjure up a “benevolent dictator” to take over the country for a few years and put it on right path. However, when one considers that a dictator would necessarily have to enforce strict discipline, any compassion on his part would be mistaken for weakness, and we would be forced back to square one. In short, a dictator, by the very nature of his powers and duties, cannot possibly act indulgently towards those who transgress laws and engage themselves in activities that are against the interests of the public. After tasting power for some time, he may even feel so pressurised as to be tempted to resurrect the despicable 18th Amendment in a more virulent form than the original and becoming something other than benevolent!
A significant factor is that most protests take place because those who have long-standing grievances are fobbed off day after day by Heads of Department, Secretaries and Ministers who do not give them a proper hearing through days, weeks, months and even years.
Here, we must fault both the President and the Prime Minister for insisting on having sizeable gatherings of Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Secretaries in their respective audiences to listen to what they have to say to grama niladharis, teachers, nurses, school children, farmers etc. Surely the gist of the thinking done by the President or the Prime Minister on any subject could be condensed within one or two A4 pages that could be sent to these functionaries any time after the gathering disperses. Legislators and senior administrators, would thereby be able to save the time wasted in having to record their superfluous presence at the such gatherings and, instead, make sure to be present in their offices without giving the public the run-around.
There is no short cut to putting things right in this country. What we need first are laws that allow reasonable freedom of assembly but not the “freedom of the wild ass”. The relevant laws should set out a clearly defined procedure for negotiations, with time periods specified, to be carried out under the supervision of a Court-appointed, independent body before the aggrieved party embarks on a destructive protest.
Under the proposed new laws, the periods given for the various stages of negotiation between complainants and the authorities should be specified and limited. If the clearly defined procedure for negotiation fails, it should be obligatory to seek relief from special Courts set up for this purpose so as to minimise delays. The decision of the Courts will, of course, depend on their interpretation of the applicable laws. If the Courts are compelled to give a judgment that is not palatable to the complainants because the relevant laws are not flexible enough, the only democratic way forward thereafter would be for the complainants to work to get public opinion created in a peaceful manner to put pressure on our legislators to change the laws.
Protest meetings should be permitted to be held only at venues which will not affect the public’s rights. Those who feel the need to protest must be made to understand that in trying to get justice for themselves, they are not entitled to perpetrate a multitude of injustices on the public – for example, preventing people from getting to work, children from going to school, patients from getting to hospital, and so on.
Political processions and meetings, too, which bring life to a standstill over public roads and substantial extents of the populated areas should be banned altogether. There are enough widely-read newspapers and popular TV stations in Sri Lanka to carry the core messages of political parties and their leaders to the public. Short political messages on TV should be broadcast during peak viewing hours in the early evening. All major newspapers and TV stations must provide this national service free of cost or at a highly discounted rate. The paper coverage and TV times allowed must be fairly distributed between the parties, perhaps in proportion to the total votes polled by each claimant in the last three Parliamentary elections.
There is a general public perception that the JVP is behind most of the traffic-distrurbing university and public protests. Its past history of two violent uprisings are held against it by the vast majority of our citizens other than the impressionable young in the higher classes in schools and the first couple of years at university. It is for this reason that, on its own, the JVP has not succeeded in getting more than about 5% of the votes at general elections. The tight secrecy that envelopes the decision-making processes in the higher echelons of the JVP rouses suspicions as to what its real agenda contains. Most thinking people have great regard for the honesty, self-discipline and altruism of JVP leaders and their rank and file, but all these positives are effectively cancelled out by the negatives that we have referred in the first few lines of this paragraph. A recent threat by one of the more fiery members of the JVP to cause a blockage of the four main entrances/exits to the City of Colombo only reinforces these fears. Few citizens would want to vote for a party that utters such threats. Hence, it is time that the JVP ditches the burdensome baggage of the past, becomes more open in respect of its inner workings, and offers itself as a party that thinks of the country first and their own party next, unlike the other political parties, which clearly and incorrigibly place their parties ahead of Sri Lanka and its people.