Who Judges The FUTA?
In the days prior to India’s independence Sardul Singh Kaveshwar was nominated to the Congress Party Working Committee. Mahatma Gandhi put a question mark against his name. When Singh later inquired from Gandhi the reason for this Gandhi showed him a post cart which referred to a complaint that Singh had failed to honour a Rs. 500 loan. Singh argued that the matter was very old and was time-barred. Gandhi promptly replied that it was a moral issue and not a legal one and refused to sanction Singh’s nomination to the Working Committee.”
We should count ourselves lucky that those Gandhian standards are not taken seriously in this country. Had we adopted even a watered down version of such an ethical approach our entire State machinery would have come to a grinding halt for want of personnel to man the structure. We won’t have any one in the cabinet: no ministers, no MPs, no senior bureaucrats, no diplomats and looks like not even cricketers in the national team!
Surely, the demands made by the members of the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) must be looked at in the context of the reality of public life in Sri Lanka. In a society everything is relative after all.
The demands of the FUTA are categorized broadly in to two segments. The first is concerning the terms of their employment while the second category deals with issues concerning policy matters, more or less.
In the employment category, some of the demands put forward by FUTA are the recognition of university teachers as a distinct profession, salary revisions, housing allowances, and an education allowance for the children of the academics etc. Among the general demands are, that the amount of money allocated towards education in the national budget be substantially increased and a curtailing of scholarships given to foreign students by the government.
In this essay we are not endeavouring to argue the rights and wrongs of the demands put forward by the FUTA. In a country gone bad so fundamentally such efforts are meaningless. However we are reminded here of the pithy aphorism which goes “Those who can, do it. Those who cannot, teach!” A teachers union is not necessarily the best judge of how a country should organize its budget. Not only is Sri Lanka a politics weary country, we also abhor unionism. All such institutions have been so subverted, politicized and made vulgar that not all the perfumes of Arabia can hide their bad smell.
But what we want to do here is to point out that both parties, the FUTA representatives as well as the government delegation led by Minister Basil Rajapaksa are arguing how best to spend our money. All the public money in this country belongs to us, the people. FUTA argues that about 6% of that should be allocated for education while the government seems to think the budget allocation should not be that high.
But who is to decide the justness of the various demands of the FUTA? In this society who can claim the moral authority to say to a person that whatever he is demanding is not a fair way to invest public money? Can we leave it in the hands of a politician like Mr. Basil Rajapaksa who would have arrived for that meeting with the FUTA representatives in a convoy of vehicles bursting with armed bodyguards and other political operatives? On the other hand, the FUTA representatives probably cadged rides with the few who had vehicles among them.
In a country where the politicians go about in the most luxurious and modern vehicles, where they maintain the most elitist lifestyles (yet apparently are of such meager financial status that only a handful among them are tax payers) how can they tell any other group of persons that they should not get more than a certain amount in financial benefits from the public kitty?
Do our Ministers and their operatives have the moral right to demand restrain and discipline from others when they do not deny any luxuries to themselves?
A friend of mine now domiciled in Australia observed that in such societies no government politician will even dream of going about in huge cars bought with public funds in this manner. They respect the people of their country too much and also are sensitive enough to the fact that public funds are a sacred trust to be applied only under acceptable terms. But in Sri Lanka it is the opposite. Leave alone the hypocritical politician but even his wife and children buzz about in expensive vehicles like Benzes, Volvos or BMWs sometimes with a number of back up vehicles with them, making way for the worthy to travel undisturbed.
Although they are yet another group of persons clamoring to benefit from public finds, the members of the FUTA seem to have the moral high ground compared to the politicians in this matter. Firstly, unlike the majority of our politicians they have undergone a period of intellectual training. They have to regularly submit to supervision by their seniors as well as peers. A large amount of reading and research is expected of them. None of the members of the FUTA can maneuver their children to professorships. At the end of their long careers most members of the FUTA would probably be struggling financially while almost every politician would have become quite rich. It is such a morally and financially corrupt lot who are now judging the merits of the FUTA demands.
The strongest argument for the right of the political decision makers to determine such issues is that they were elected by the people. But any text book will tell you that in public affairs no discretion is absolute. Even where there are no legal restrains as Gandhi pointed out there always are moral restrains. A political establishment which allocates for its comforts all the money required and then argues various budgetary issues for other sectors surely has no moral leg to stand on.
If the FUTA representatives were to challenge the Ministers to come clean before the public with all the expenditure incurred on their behalf, houses, cars, travel, staff, bodyguards and then add to that the estimates of financial loss to the country from bad decisions, loss to the public road users due to closure of roads on account of their motorcades etc the cost would amount to astronomical figures. Many of the politicians have their children studying overseas. Today even their pets are imported. While holding public office, while deciding how to invest public funds, our politicians have really made a good life for themselves. In that context the demands of the humble members of the FUTA will look moderate indeed.
Who among our politicians can honestly say that the FUTA demands are an unreasonable charge on public funds?