Before the plant was built, Norochcholai was touted as an ideal location perhaps second to Trincomalee. But a massive lobby mounted against building the plant there delayed its construction. Eventually the Catholic Church which was strongly opposed to the project at that particular location was won over and an award for the construction was made. It does not appear that the environmental degradation that was feared at the beginning had come to pass although it might yet be too early for a judgment on that score. The need for landing imported coal within easy reach of the plant was also a factor favoring a coastal location. There is a public perception, rightly or wrongly, that mega projects of this nature always entail corruption. This is true not only of Sri Lanka but also of most other Third World countries. Allegations and insinuation of corruption have abounded in the wake of the several breakdowns experienced since the plant was commissioned. However, the minister is on record saying that Swiss and Chinese consultants overlooked the construction and the CEB was guided by their advice during the construction stage when we heard no whistle blowing.
What has been commissioned is only Phase 1 of the project with subsequent phases yet to be built. There has been no authoritative word on whether there is a possibility of turning to alternative suppliers and builders when the plant is eventually expanded, if that is the best economic option, or whether we are locked in with those accused of delivering an allegedly inferior product. It is common practice for competitors and those representing them to criticize procurements when their own bids fail. While sour grapes are very much a part of the business scene and profit a powerful driving force, it is often true that allegations even from vested interests are sometimes not without substance. How well we cope with all these factors remains an open question. The CEB’s ability to effectively overlook the construction of mega-power projects will also come into focus if things have gone wrong at Norochcholai as is now widely suspected. But we cannot forget that it was the Ceylon Electricity Board and its predecessor, the Department of Government Electrical Undertakings, that were responsible for overlooking the construction of the various hydropower projects that have served the country well over a long period.
The ongoing debate and strike over academic salaries and the country’s reducing expenditure on education as a proportion of GDP necessarily evokes the question on whether the free education system that has undoubtedly served this country well, affording avenues of upward economic and social mobility to those not favored by birth, is producing too many university graduates at the expense of not investing sufficient numbers with desperately needed vocational skills. It is said, rightly or wrongly, that many of our university graduates are ``unemployable.’’ A writer in this issue argues that this is not strictly correct because most university graduates have held jobs at some time, obtained external degrees and then aspired to executive positions. However that be, it is a fact that graduate unemployment in the country is unacceptably high and the State for political and social reasons employ many such graduates to positions that do not exist. The end result is a bloated public sector for which all the people must pay.
In the immediate post-Independence period we had a single University of Ceylon later bifurcated to the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya. In those more spacious days, all those graduating from the University of Ceylon had no problem getting jobs in government service. Few opted for the private sector in the early days when a permanent, pensionable, government job offered iron clad security for life. Post 1956, the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas that had done yeoman service educating the Bhikku Sangha and offering courses in Oriental languages and philosophy etc. were accorded university status. New disciplines/subjects were included in their curricula and the numbers given access to university education increased significantly. In later years many more universities funded by the State were established and the number of graduates multiplied exponentially. However the economy did not grow sufficiently to accommodate all these graduates in jobs commensurate with their qualifications and aspirations.
The question that must now be addressed is whether the country should invest some of the resources poured into the universities in technical and vocational facilities imparting skills desperately needed in the country. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to close down universities that have already been established. But it may be necessary to grasp the nettle, redeploy students, academic staff and resources to other universities and tailor the number of graduates produced to suit the capacity of the economy and the available job opportunities. All this, of course, is easier said than done. No rocket science is needed to predict that the recent Z score fiasco and the two lists of those qualified for university admission will eventually be resolved by admitting students on both lists to the already over-crowded universities. They would thereby be further stretched in their ability to provide a quality education.