Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Reality is, Sri Lanka has got talent

The New Delhi Metro was designed and built by Indians with an Indian engineer E. Sreedharan in charge. The Sri Lankan Government now mandates that all software procurements have to give priority to Sri Lankan companies. The same applies to the construction and furniture sector.

Will Sri Lankan engineers be able to build something akin to the Delhi Metro one day? Perhaps. The new laws on procurement are a good start. There was a time Sri Lanka had engineering talent wizardry, such as the well-known B.D. Rampala of Sri Lanka Railways (SLR), for instance.

But this is the era that countries haplessly worship at the foreign godhead. The pandemic however has accelerated the need to utilize local talent, but the new laws on procurement are in line with the President’s election pledge that came before the pandemic.

Lalithasiri Gunaruwan in his now well-known chat with the President – the video was all over social media – says there are happy local engineers and unhappy ones. The happy chaps are smug over the contracts they gave over to the foreigners; the unhappy ones are those that seek local innovation at every turn, and don’t get foreign favours.

But can we do the ‘Delhi Metro’ equivalent with local talent? What’s meant is not a Sri Lankan metro. There is no such metro construction that’s envisaged, at least not yet. But it’s the mindset. Can we re-imagine the way we do major projects, in the vital sectors – transport, infrastructure, road building, etc?

It’s worth remembering Rampala who launched the Ruhunu Kumari and the Yal Devi and introduced the concept of express long-distance rail travel. It is said that he drove the train himself on Ruhunu Kamari’s first introductory run to its destination in Matara.

When Rampala first introduced diesel engines from the Ratmalana railway workshop, these British imported machines soon began developing faults. He improvised, and revamped the ailing engines using his own methods. British engineers who came to know were dumbstruck and they incorporated Rampala’s innovations into their own engine repair technology. Rampala was later awarded a MBE in the Queen’s Honours List.

But that was a different era. Over time, the railways gradually went to seed. People wouldn’t trust a rail system that ran packed, dirty trains that broke down at the drop of a hat, and never worked to schedule.


If there are any Rampalas in any tech and industry sector today, would they put their hands up? That’s what is effectively being asked by the Government which has made into law the new procurement regulations giving priority to domestic bidders – nay, basically compelling the use of domestic bidders – in software, construction, furniture procurements, etc.

The Delhi Metro was first conceived with JICA funding and apparently the Japanese mandated that a Chief Executive be appointed to the DMRC that oversaw the Metro project. It’s how Delhi’s famous Metro Man E. Sreedharan came to be appointed. He has since contributed to similar underground rail projects in other key Indian cities as well.

The Indian Metro venture took in tech input by placing Hong Kong Metro officials etc. in an advisory capacity, but essentially the Delhi Metro was built at home. There were enormous obstacles, as Delhi is a city of 18.9 million people which is almost the entire population of this country, and had an enormous network of underground systems for sewerage disposal, water supply, etc.

The Metro ran through some areas that had such underground systems and when the DMRC asked the relevant departments to move these underground systems to make way for the Metro, the response was lethargic.

Sreedharan’s answer was to get his own crews to do it. So, moving a sewerage disposal system elsewhere that would have normally taken three to four years, was done by Sreedharan and his men in three months. The entire Delhi Metro system was constructed and delivered ahead of schedule.

The Metro was not used for political point scoring, and Sreedharan demanded that. In Sri Lanka, implementing a project of this magnitude would have the JVP rapidly picking holes as they do with any venture that’s done quickly and efficiently for the public good.

That’s how the JVP tries to score political points – by demolishing what others do. Let’s consider that later, but how is Sri Lanka supposed to get anything underway, leave alone a Metro project, when the new economic realities, post-pandemic, have made debt repayment difficult as well?

This doesn’t seem to be the time for major projects unless the Government is exceptionally resourceful in finding the money, but whatever the regular projects that could be tackled should be done as much as possible pooling local talent and resources, and the Government’s new stipulations on tech procurement, etc, is a first step.


Money is another matter altogether. If we look for Chinese input, there are a million dissenting voices. The country needs to build its own resource base, and the export and revenue sector has to be innovative.

But what’s the ‘ease of doing business’ perspective in the country? Sri Lanka is still lagging at 99 out of 190 economies in the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business Index. That’s not surprising. Registering a business is still a nightmare, even though supposedly the Registrar of Companies is online, and offers an online facility, etc.

Those who use the online systems know what a nightmare it is to opt for those devices and obtain a completed registration. The roadblocks, harassment and corruption mount at each stumbling block that a SME faces in the course of establishing any type of enterprise.

These things have to change radically in tandem with the Government’s policy transformations on other matters such as procurements. But, also talking of procurements, anyone who has had any experience dealing with State tenders knows that there are certain Government entities that go out of their way to keep local business from securing a tender award.

This is due primarily to the fact that they do shady deals with certain foreign bidders. They get bribes and other inducements to give awards to foreigners and are therefore eager to find any loophole to award the tender to foreign suppliers despite the domestic preference guidelines.


In India the Metro project worked partly due to the fact that there were folk such as Sreedharan who resolved to go through with it no matter what the obstacles were. Sri Lankans are only too aware of the nattering nabobs in the JVP for instance who would create obstacles if there are none.

They have lost whatever political capital they had due to this negativism and yet their mindsets have not changed. Tilvyn Silva has the audacity to say they protected the Army with a supply of masks, but the JVP got in the way and criticized, and is doing that once more by saying they saved the Army while the President endangered the Army by deploying the forces in Welisara.

That’s hilarious after the JVP hadn’t lifted a finger to assist the Forces that did all the work. The new procurement guidelines that are geared at tapping local potential are bound to come in for flak from the JVP, and more.

The JVP’s recruitment of new faces hasn’t changed its core character and these new brooms sweep as badly as the old ones. The criticism has been mindless – and the old threadbare attacks about corruption and plunder have been re-launched.

The potential for change to a great extent is with the SMEs, and the Government is giving the SME sector or at least sections of it a leg up with the new procurement policy. But the bureaucracy has by and large been anti-SME due to the foreign baksheesh that comes their way through contracts.

Changed procurement policies necessarily have to be augmented by cleaning the Augean stables of the bureaucracy, the way Sreedharan did by taking matters into his own hands by getting the DMRC to do the work when Government departments refused to move sewerage and other systems out of the way of the Metro. Somebody like Sreedharan needs to put his hand up here too, and it’s hoped somebody will.


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