09 October 2012

And 6% is the new word for ‘No’…

Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri has already claimed victory.  The President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) says that the issue of education and especially allocations for the sector is now a matter of public concern and has been recognized as such by the people. This, he says, is a significant victory.  

It remains to be seen whether such ‘recognition’ is all that FUTA extracts after several months of agitation.  As things stand, it is likely that both FUTA and the Government will reach some kind of compromise.  In the very least the salary issue would be addressed in some way as to satisfy FUTA.   

It is unrealistic to expect that the Government will give in to the much talked of ‘6%’ demand, not least of all for its lack of logic.  However, for the impasse to be broken, the Government will have to give some form of assurance that a greater equivalent portion of the GDP will be allocated for education.  As of now, neither the Government nor FUTA seems interested in a comprehensive overhaul of education policy with a view to more rational resource allocation, so hopes on that account must be shelved for another day, another struggle. 

In these confrontations it is normal for all parties to step back claiming victory.  Humility and a sense of the larger tasks of nation building help, but cannot be counted on.  Politics is a weak, small-minded and insecure creature, after all.  All parties will draw lessons, including those who are not ‘sided’.   Even if there is no resolution, everyone will draw lessons, re-evaluate position and develop strategy to achieve stated or amended ends. 

So what of the ‘6%’?  It is a slogan of the finest order.  It captures some but not the all of the ‘struggle’, is made for multiple use (t-shirts, profile pictures on Facebook for example) and panders to that eminently human attribute of asking for more, or rather, the impossible.  It also served to expand what is a demand that smacks of greed (salary increase) into something that can legitimately be painted with public-interest color.  Brilliant. 

Naturally, even as there are hurrahs for being advertising savvy, there are allegations of irresponsibility and a compromising of the integrity expected of university teachers.  But that’s only one side of the 6% story. 

That number can be debated about, celebrated and reviled, bannered and leafleted.  It can be read as a convenient rallying point for internally displaced politicians. But the Government would be making a monumental blunder if it limited readings of ‘6%’ to this and nothing else.

That one-digit slogan, quite apart from its originality and creative finesse, must also be read as the new word for ‘no’, i.e. for dissent, for disenchantment, for anger, for fear and for hope.  No one, not even the most popular leader or a government that did the ‘impossible’ (defeating the LTTE, for example) is error-free.  Popularity ebbs.  Regime-fatigue gets heavier as the years go by.  In this instance, there are so many things ‘wrong’ about this Government and the way it handles certain issues that only a diehard loyalist or consciously blind individual would claim that it enjoys the support of a vast majority of people. 

In the very least, even those who may have voted for the ruling party would be hard pressed to say ‘everything is great’.  The slogan, ‘6%’, provided an opportunity and continues to be a platform for those who are unhappy to express objection.  It would be foolish if the Government chooses to think that those who took part in the FUTA March were gullible or that they walked for bucks (‘from NGOs’, as some have claimed).

There are many among those who marched (literally) and many among those who march still (figuratively) who while not being card carrying members of the UNP, JVP or any other political party, are certainly not ready to give this Government a blank check. 

The FUTA agitation may or may not end soon.  It may take a different form if resolution evades the parties or the parties evade resolution for whatever reason.  It may end.   With it, the placards and T-shirts carrying the ‘6%’ legend might disappear.  The number followed by the percentage sign, however, will continue to represent something more than what its authors intended, i.e. not just objection to education policy and budgetary allocation, but objection to the way things are and the way things are done (and not done). 

It is a sign.  An ominous sign.  It is a message that must be read and read accurately too.  It would be folly for the President and Government to refuse to do so.  Arrogance costs.  That’s a history lesson that one does not need to attend Dr. Devasiri’s  lectures to learn.