By Chanuka Wattegama
Sometime ago, while working for government, I received perhaps the most bizarre query I have encountered: Is there a formula that predicts ‘poya days’ (a holiday in Sri Lanka) for the next ten years?
It was from an international software firm that planned introducing a global desktop calendar for the coming ten years. It might have looked a great idea till they found out about this strange, unpredictable and uniquely Lankan holiday.
A complex formula exists, but I didn’t know then. The lunar month is approximately 29.53 days, so the time between two full moons can be either 29 or 30 days. There is no straightforward manner deciding which. Without a Sri Lankan calendar, an outsider is helpless in finding out whether a certain weekday is a holiday or not.
With due respect to religious beliefs let’s admit it. Poya holidays are a pain in the business world. The exceptionally high number of holidays will come surely within the top ten factors that make Sri Lanka unproductive and less attractive to investors. Above is just one way how they make our lives complex. The sheer unpredictability makes it impossible to plan a future event without looking at the calendar. Just avoiding a poya day too, is not enough. If it falls on a Thursday better not plan your event on Friday too. If it falls on a Wednesday you just can’t schedule a three day training course in the entire week.
The issue is not just loss of productive time. A poya day on a Tuesday/Thursday is a nightmare for managers, especially if they handle operations. Which employee wants to miss such opportunity? Take a leave for a day to enjoy a nice four day long weekend. Now, think about the poor manager who struggles with a skeleton staff. The ultimate sufferer is the customer: Sorry we haven’t repaired your TV yet. Is early next week too late?
Is this what Gautama Buddha expected from us? Aren’t we insulting the enlightened one who worked on 20 hours every day (reportedly he slept less than 4 hours a day) by wasting a day each month on his name, that too on top of four weekends and minimum two paid holidays?
I fully endorse the religious/ideological freedom. Everyone should be allowed to follow the religion/ideology of his/her choice. Still religion is a private matter. Individuals should bear the cost of taking a day off for religious observances. Paid leave doesn’t make any sense.
Then, who truly needs such a holiday? Do we see millions of Buddhists in the workforce flock to temples for full day programs? No. Those who observe ata-sil on poya days mostly are retirees. For most it is just another rest day.
A world without a monthly mandatory poya holiday, perhaps with the exception of Vesak and Poson, will surely make the businesses more productive and the country more developed. It reduces the number of annual public holidays; makes planning easier and does not frustrate a tourist who suddenly finds the shops are closed. Alcohol and meats are the only commodities officially not available on poya days, but practically most businesses come to a standstill.
Theoretically, just one amendment to an act can change this, but that’s something that will not come easily. No sane politician will bell the cat. Taking away the poya holidays will be seen anti-religious. Religion is literally the sacred cow the politicians dare not touch. It would be too naïve to expect any change in the official stance. Certainly not in the foreseeable future.
There is only one way out. The solution should come from the private sector. I do not advocate adopting strict measures. A flexible policy is the best. Some private enterprises already keep their businesses open on poya days (eg super markets, some shops). Let others follow. Do not let down your customers. Make it a working day in offices and factories. Don’t insist on anybody’s presence. Incentivize the voluntary workers. If that can be done, it will be a matter of time the government has to follow. Let’s not make the country unproductive in the name of the religion.