Doctors, engineers and govt. executives stoop to strikes over car permits
The former Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa of the Colombo University Law Faculty delivering a lecture on Tuesday (01) at a symposium for journalists on transitional justice at the Sri Lanka Press Institute spoke about one of his personal experiences in Geneva a couple of years ago.
“During the height of activities and negotiations, we received a text message saying; ‘Wanathe Sunil is missing in Sri Lanka’. Everyone panicked not over what has happened, but who this Wanathe Sunil was. Almost everyone participating in the sessions received this message and even some African and Asian ambassadors approached us inquiring after the person. But, we did not know [who it was]. It took us several hours to determine the story behind the message.”
Wanathe Sunil was the guy who mobilised people to protest against the allocation of sub-standard houses for those who were evicted from shanties in Colombo. He took the initiative to fight a powerful regime – especially against a powerful official at the Defence and Urban Development Ministry –on an issue of concern of his own community. But he was ‘abducted’ and went missing – the message went to Geneva within minutes when in session.
“Wanathe Sunil became a world famous name within minutes. And I think he was ‘released’ within hours and he became a talking point in Geneva,” said Dr. Prathiba.
That was the nature of ‘democracy’ we experienced over the past ten years. No dissent was tolerated and fighting for rights was a crime – or was totally unpatriotic. As far as I can remember the only fight that sustained to some extent without a major hindrance was the protest by university teachers that predominantly demanded a six per cent allocation for education. But it ended with no results,apart from the fact that it became an eye-opener to those concerns that culminated in this year’s budget.
But in contrast today, we see a wave of trade union actions and protests that are taking place in several sectors of society. What does it mean? Trade union action or protesting for rights is a sign of a healthy democracy. Tolerating them, providing them with necessary space, listening to them are cardinal components of good governance. But both sides - the protestors and the government - have their own limitations.
Look at what happened during the HNDA student protest. The brutal response was a mere continuation of the policies of the previous regime, as publicly claimed. Neither the protesting students nor the police could exceed their own limitations when exercising democratic rights.
The railway protest last week raised many concerns. The first was the violent act by the passengers of the Rambukkana train who attacked a sick engine driver who could not move the train. They assumed he was drunk. What was the ultimate result? An island wide train strike. Who was at fault? To my mind it was the responsibility of the Railway Department. Who assigned a sick train driver for the job? Who monitored the train that was not moving for a long time? Did anybody make a serious effort to look into this matter? The most interesting part that was reported in the media was the act of another engine driver who decided to join the ongoing strike by his colleagues. He was driving the Badulla – Colombo bound train and at Gampola station he was informed about the strike. If the media reports were correct, he decided to join his protesting colleagues and informed them about the issue with the help of police and then moved the empty train to Colombo.
“One pertinent issue that comes up with trade union actions is morality. Do these protesting sectors follow basic ethics and basic moral values? Especially in the fields like medicine, this could be an argument of immense public interest.
If one were to seriously analyse the on-going trade union actions, who are in the forefront? The professionals and administrative executives of the state sector.They include doctors, engineers and other executives of the public service. What is the main issue? The cancellation of their privileges such as vehicle permits by the Budget. Salary anomalies, EPF and ETF were added to that.
Pic by pradeep pathirana
Cancellation of vehicle permits was a blanket policy decision for every segment that included even MPs. But the government made a mess of this issue with a reversal of the decision with regard to parliamentarians. Thus, it provided a valid and justifiable argument and a better stand for a struggle by these professional bodies for their share of the privileges as well. The government would have maintained its blanket policy stand at least for an year, mainly with regard to MPs.
If trade unions and their gatherings are to protect the rights of the profession and its practitioners – what about its recipients? For example, should the poor sick patients in this country suffer (or even die) merely because his or her doctor is not getting a duty free car this year? What about the rights of this poor patient? Have we ever seen doctors getting on to the streets demanding better medical conditions for their patients? Have they ever protested against the lack of medicine at hospitals. Did they enjoy it by writing prescriptions to the nearby pharmacy that brings direct
benefits to them?
However, this government should expect more of such trade union activities in the near future due to many reasons. The working class would feel comfortable to get on to the street for their demands as compared to the previous regime. That would certainly be another litmus test for the Yahapalana government in handling this wave of strikes and protests. The UNP got a black mark some 35 years ago when it brutally responded to the 1980 July strikes. But now the world is different; socio-political and market trends are different; leadership is different; perception, too.
Should a poor sick patient suffer (or even die) because his doctor is not getting a duty free car this year? What about the rights of this patient? Have we ever seen doctors getting on to the streets demanding better medical conditions for their patients, or against the lack of medicine at hospitals? Did they enjoy writing prescriptions to the nearby pharmacy that brings direct benefits to them?