‘Imagineering’ not just Engineering for Jaffna’s Problems | Sunday Observer

‘Imagineering’ not just Engineering for Jaffna’s Problems

Jaffna, once first in education, is today the ninth among the 9 provinces. It badly needs revival. The water problem which causes negative population growth and the shutting down of schools is central to this backwardness.

Sept. 27, 2018 saw the start of JUICE (Jaffna University International Conference), a biennial conference to revive research. Prof. Murugesu Sivapalan (the world’s No.1 expert on water), Prof. Nadarajah Sreeharan and Prof. Nishan Canagarajah (who went straight from St. John’s to Cambridge and has risen to be Pro Vice-Chancellor at Bristol) were Plenary Speakers.

Prof Murugesu Sivapalan :

From those cadjanned buildings at Hartley College, Sivapalan graduated from Peradeniya in 1975 and has risen to the top. His PhD is from Princeton. He is Helen Siess Endowed Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science, at the University of Illinois, Urbano-Champaign – ranked No.1 in Civil Engineering.

Sivapalan is a Fellow of lots of things and the recipient of the European Geo sciences Union’s Alfred Wegener Medal, International Hydrology Prize of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (partly by UNESCO) and the Robert Horton Medal of the American Geophysical Union. In 2018 he was named a recipient of the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International (Creativity) Prize for Water, for his role in developing the new field of Socio-hydrology. This prize he will share with Nobel laureate Sir Andre Konstantin Geim.

Jaffna’s water problem

Jaffna is facing a drought. At home, I switch on my water pump and stand by the well to ensure that the water level does not fall below the foot valve. The government has a huge scheme to transport water from Kilinochchi. But an MP there is rightly objecting that his people would be without water. To address that, we are going to use expensive reverse osmosis. The Water Board assures us that the cost will be borne by all Water Board customers and Jaffna customers will not be charged more.

Sivapalan identifies the problem

Sivapalan says engineers have proposed big engineering schemes as solutions. Irrigation engineers are trained to lay pipes and channels and pump water. Sivapalan cited Peter Gleick, an eminent American water scientist,as saying there is about a 15% kickback in these projects, hence the push for the most expensive solutions.

Today our youth go about with bottled water as a status symbol.

The Mahaweli does not have enough water for the North as was promised in the late 1970s.The people in the South will not tolerate –not for long anyway – being charged for water to supply Jaffna. Nor will they tolerate the environmental costs.

Neighbours, two elderly ladies whom I convinced, at the request of the Water Board to allow pipe-laying through their compound on the basis that there would be minimal disruption, found the promises broken.

Do we have electricity to clean up our water when the south is already having electricity shortages? Will our water rates be kept the same? Will we encounter the same corruption that brought the Northern Provincial Council to a standstill over dumping oil in our groundwater? Our politicians and engineers, decided on pipe-borne water for Jaffna without the required social impact assessment.It turns out that “Water for Jaffna” is mostly for Jaffna Town.

Prof. Sivapalan concludes that, often, the solutions espoused by our big spenders are not sustainable.

Sivapalan’s Solution: Restructuring the economy

A startling feature of the water problem as described by Sivapalan is that the water need per person per year is 1cubic metre for drinking, 10 for domestic use (cooking/bathing/sanitation), 100 for industrial use, and 1000 for agriculture – totaling to 1111 m/year/person.His conclusion is that the problem is not our lack of drinking water, but the water for agriculture.

Sivapalan suggests, just two impromptu solutions - shifting Jaffna’s agriculture to the Vanni, and doing some kind of industrialization in Jaffna freeing up the agriculture water. The water used for drinking is no issue.

He argues for multidisciplinary think-tanks to be set to work. He advocates a bottom-up strategy from the grassroots with University of Jaffna, young people, the community (at all levels), and NGOs – all joining forces and forecasting demand and estimating the resources, engaging in education and advocacy, and gauging societal preferences for solutions. This must be complemented, he says, with a top-down strategy - Central, Provincial and Local Governments offering major infrastructure solutions, operating and maintaining minor infrastructure, establishing monitoring networks and making data available,and setting up governance mechanisms such as rules and regulations to guide water extraction and use, including billing.

This is too serious a problem to be left to the experts. Everybody should be involved.

Rebuilding Jaffna University

As envisaged by Sivapalan and Canagarajah, the University is called upon to train new graduates who can think, and not in just engineering but in the social sciences too.

In my view, that involves looking for consistency in our ideas; and, where we see inconsistencies, revising our theories. Six issues needing rethinking are:

1. Multicultural secular university: It was recently that Sinhalese and Tamil students clashed and the No. 1 vote-getter at the election for the VC-Jaffna was not appointed, as a consequence of, for the way he handled the issue. At the JUICE opening ceremony, although more than half the papers were by Sinhalese, holy ash (thirunooru) was offered to guests. The university needs a vision for its Christians, Muslims and Buddhists or there will again be an explosion where most staff are Tamil while half the students are Sinhalese.

2. Recruiting the best: This is the norm at any good university but not at Jaffna. When I applied for Senior Lecturer and was turned down, Prof. Carlo Fonseka complained to Chandrika Kumaratunga who queried the UGC Chairman. The UGC Chairman’s job is to regulate the administration and uphold the Universities Act which prohibits tests of religious faith etc. But illegalities are never set on paper.

The game of delaying the processing of applications until just before the expiry of an advertisement, and then presenting a negative recommendation to the Council that it cannot reverse decisions after the advertisement expired, is a polished art at Jaffna. That game is currently being played for the post of Senior Lecturer in Sociology: The registrar is still sitting on the file. It seems a clear ploy to not recruit a brilliant sociologist who is better than those on the staff now.

3. The Rule of Law: The previous sections prove the absence of the rule of law in Jaffna. The Universities Act demands lawful recruitment and prohibits the tests of religious faith endorsed by the UGC Chairman. When I asked for the University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman’s letter under the Right To Information Act, I was told it was a personal letter.

4. The status of English: English is the language of research; to read, critique and create. But what is the status of English at the University? An indication is how Sivapalan was introduced by a Dean in terrible English, (both in grammar and pronunciation). Worse, and rather surprisingly, a guest of honour, referred to pharmaceutical as “farmackootical.”

5. Rule by university dons not Mafia-type dons: After years of abject suffering by the Council whose meetings were conducted by a person who took control of the University Council and instructed them how to vote on every issue, politicians continue to have pride of place despite the new freedoms.

At JUICE, MPs and Provincial Council Ministers and Members were in the first row with liberal references to “Honourble so and so”. Politicians are gods at the university.

The academic plenary speakers were placed behind them and not even referred to until the Vote of Thanks.

This culture of begging uneducated politicians, gives little hope for the university through new ideas. The scant respect that politicians have for universities was revealed by Wigneswaran vanishing straight after his speech, while some MPs came very late and left in ten minutes, after their (late) arrival in the midst of other people’s speeches.

6. An incubator for new ideas: When the best are not recruited, communal jingoism rules high, and monolingual deans exclude English speakers, a university cannot generate ideas. An example of how stultifying Tamil society is in the comments on web newspapers, shamelessly insulting Christians and claiming Christians are not Tamils and ridiculing names taken on by Christians from the 19th century in Jaffna. During JUICE’s cultural show, it was claimed that Thirukkural is 2000 years old – whereas scholars variously date it from the 3rd century to the 9th.

To solve Jaffna’s water problem, we must first recover the university and have real sociologists bringing their training to bear. Like the water problem having to be resolved by various groups of multi-skilled people, the university too must be managed by citizens with interests in the community rather than only by academics!

“We must imagineer”, says Sivapalan.