A Cash-Strapped Nation on a Splurging Spree
Apr 18 2016 (The Sunday Times – Sri Lanka) – In our student days there was a commonly used Sinhala phrase – “clean suit empty pocket”. That succinctly conveyed the image of a well-clad individual without a cent on his person.
If this pithy Sinhala phrase came to mind last week it is on reading three news reports that suggest that empty pockets do not stop our politicians and officials who cling to them like blood-sucking leaches, conducting themselves as though this country is so richly endowed that we can spend at will without the qualms of a disturbed conscience.
What is so disgusting and regrettable about this approach of the big spender is that those responsible for doing so are the very people who promised before the January 2015 presidential election and the parliamentary elections of August the same year that they would act prudently, that they would eliminate waste, that they would prune the cabinet and other ministerial positions and transparency would underlie all their public actions.
Now, 15 months after a president was installed and eight months after a National Unity Government (NUG) took office those promises and pledges are nothing but tattered remnants and the public increasingly the victims of what they perceive as political chicanery.
It is disturbing how the political climate has changed. The public enthusiasm that manifested itself after the presidential election during which I was in Colombo had waned when I returned to Colombo last September. With a new government in power there still seemed to be public hope that at least some of the promises would be fulfilled and not discarded within a few months.
When I returned to Colombo a month ago public faith had dissipated. Those who had enthusiastically canvassed, supported and voted for a new President because they wanted a change and believed that the common candidate would engage in radical reform as his platform demeanour and commitment seemed to indicate, were very vocal in their denunciation of the political let down. The seeming sincerity that won votes had vanished like a discarded face mask.
Since my early secondary school days I have followed the vicissitudes of Sri Lanka politics. In that time I have yet to see such a change in public mood and sentiment – from hope to despair.
If the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera who led the movement that called for the establishment of clean and responsible government, is said to have passed away disillusioned and possibly embittered at the turn of events as some claim, it is surely a sign that his vision of a new Sri Lanka ruled by honest and dedicated men and women had been quickly discarded by those who had faithfully promised so much.
The more the public that pinned their faith on the creation of a new environment in governance and Sri Lanka’s political culture follows the daily occurrences in the country the more they feel the essential truth of that French saying “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more it changes the more it remains the same.
In recent months the public have been told by the Prime Minister and other knowledgeable members of the government that financial profligacy by the previous government has not only created a balance of payments crisis but also that the country faces a fiscal deficit.
Hence new taxes, direct and indirect have been imposed on a public already burdened by a cost of living that is making life virtually unbearable for a wide section of the populace.
The fact that little was left standing of Finance Minister Karunanayake’s 2016 budget and an interim budget had to be introduced in March to try and offset this fiscal deficit is proof of the crisis.
This newspaper’s economic analyst Dr. Nimal Sanderatne wrote a couple of months back: “The tough question facing the government is whether collectively it is ready to take the necessary steps to increase revenue and to cut back on government spending by a process of rationalisation that could call for curtailment of public enterprises that are soaking in government revenue.”
But instead of cutting back on government spending, the government seems more determined to go on spending sprees as though money is plucked from trees that presidential sibling now heading Sri Lanka Telecom, was looking after when he was managing the Timber Corporation.
The three news reports referred to above relate to uncontrolled or uncontrollable government spending. • The Rs.15 million a month office space rented by the Ministry of Agriculture costing Rs.958 m for five years.
An estimated Rs.30 million allocated for a one-day conference for farmers organized by the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management.
• Three more appointments of State and Deputy Ministers now approaching the century mark.
Does the Agriculture Ministry require such expensive office space in seemingly luxurious buildings in Colombo when some of that money could be more profitably spent on improving facilities in the rural areas that actually produce the food the country needs.
It is the farming areas that need attention and resources. In mid 1960s and early 70s the Daily News devoted much space to reporting and writing on agriculture which came in for quite some praise from then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake.
I often visited agricultural research stations in the country such as Maha Illuppallama, Batalagoda, the two research centres in Gannoruwa highlighting their work and spending some days with farming communities reporting on the difficulties faced by farmers thus focusing public and official attention.
Some of those reports were even raised in parliament and corrective measures swiftly taken.
The point here is that the ministry was located in a rather dilapidated building at the bottom of Union Place almost opposite the YWCA. The then ministers M.D.Banda and Felix Dias Bandaranaike backed by highly dedicated officials – one of whom was Gamini Seneviratne of the former civil service one of few still around – will recall those early days.
Those ministers and officials did not sit on ceremony. They sat not in air conditioned offices but in offices that today senior public officials would shun for their comfort seems the priority.
Would it not be more sensible to spend those millions on developing agriculture in the rural areas and helping those struggling farmers than renting out premises at rates which the Auditor General points out exceeds the government valuation for a square foot of space by Rs.17.50 each.
A government that promised transparency before it took office should go public and announce who owns this building so that an interested public might look into how it came to pass that this expensive property with conditions that benefit the owner/s was rented and whether tenders were called as is the normal practice. Let the promised transparency prevail.
Besides two badly written statements including a brief speech to the F.A.O conference in Rome, Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake’s ministry website announces what it called the Wadduwa Declaration on a national agricultural policy.
The first undertaking given in this declaration promises the “doing away with the shortage of officers by filling vacancies.”
Does one really need a declaration announced as though it sounded like the ten commandments to do what is routinely expected of a state institution – filling vacancies. Why should it take a major conference held in a Wadduwa Hotel to come up with the obvious?
Surely the necessary officers could be appointed if the ministry diverted some of the massive monthly rent it has agreed to pay over five years to the filling of vacancies by persons committed to helping farmers and not political stooges with little knowledge of the undertaking.
Not to be outdone by an allied state institution, the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management organised a one-day conference for farmers which was initially estimated to cost Rs.31 m but appears to have been reduced by Rs.10 million after this charade was exposed.
For an institution whose task includes water resource management it seems somewhat hazy on managing allocating Rs 480,000 for what it calls “water bottles” which I suppose were not empty as implied by the said item.
“We prepared the basic estimate draft to keep the event within a budget framework,” the Director General of the Irrigation Department is quoted as saying, whatever that means
With the power shortage and intermittent power cuts still possible and consumers asked to save on electricity using it only when and where necessary this one-day conference was to cost rupees eight million for lighting etc. This is how state institutions ignore the warnings that the public are asked to abide by.
Unfortunately space does not permit further elucidation but one cannot end without commenting on the recent additions to ministerial ranks. This country was promised a cabinet of 25 which then increased to 38 with signs of more to come.
Today we are nearing the stratosphere. One of the charges made against the Rajapaksa clan and its acolytes was the abuse of state finances and how this will be corrected through good governance and transparent conduct in the interests of the nation.
How does the utterly unprincipled expansion of ministerial posts serve the national interest? Surely the perks and privileges attached to such appointments only increase the cost to state and not a reduction.
Is it the national interest that is being served or the personal desire of leaders trying to consolidate their tenuous hold on power by distributing state assets to kith, kin and unprincipled politicians ignoring their own preachings on thanha.
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka