I wrote last week of the corruption that this government has engaged in, quite contrary to the President’s commitment to stop mega corruption and wastage. This week I would like to look at how the manner in which this government is working on that commitment has stopped the development activity the President hoped to increase.

They have done this by terrifying public servants out of their wits, in penalizing them for the excesses that occurred. Some weeks back Dr Nalaka Godahewa, in writing convincingly about problems in the government’s development strategy, noted how a particular tender was not awarded because the person responsible wanted someone more senior also to sign. That person in turn wanted to pass the buck higher up, and of course in each of these stages files sit for ages on a desk without being attended to. The upshot is that no work has been done.

I thought he exaggerated, but the story did remind me of the mess Ranil caused in education during his last stint as Prime Minister, when he appointed a hopeless Secretary to the Ministry. In fact the committee he had entrusted with the task of proposing names had recommended Lalith Weeratunge who had been an excellent deputy to Tara de Mel (and though I could understand Charitha Ratwatte gibbering when I suggested they reappoint Tara, because she was associated too closely with Chandrika Kumaratunga, even Chari had agreed that Lalith would be a good choice).

But Ranil had a personal problem with Lalith, and instead sent a character called V K Nanayakkara. Lalith promptly moved on to other things. I asked him to stay on, but he said working with Nanayakkara was impossible, for if you went to him with four signatures recommending a course of action, he would ask for a fifth.

K H J Wijeyadasa, doyen of public servants, said the same, when I upbraided him for sitting on the committee that had finally produced Nanayakkara. ‘I was not on that committee,’ he said. ‘But I know the man you speak of. He came to work in President Premadasa’s office when I was his Secretary, and every morning I would tell him what to do, and he would then spend the day looking up FR and AR, and in the evening he would explain to me why he could not do what I asked.’

In a few months, Wijeyadasa added, Premadasa had got rid of him. This was the individual Ranil brought back, from retirement I believe, to look after education, and naturally it suffered. By the time Tara came back as Secretary, the Ministry was beyond repair, and has remained in that state ever since – as can be seen by the number of secretaries who have occupied the post after Tara left.

The lack of competence has been true of many ministries, but under President Rajapaksa there was at least some progress in several areas. One of these was Foreign Employment, where though the corruption with regard to visas continued – leading for instance to the dismissal and subsequent death of our ambassador in Rome who tried to stop it, but became a victim of the mafia in the Foreign Ministry who were selling visas to Italy – there were very positive developments with regard to the support offered to the more helpless of our migrant workers.

In the last few months I have been impressed by one of the more efficient and caring of the officials there, who has been working with the Vocational Education Commission to provide better training for those going abroad for work. In addition to putting in place appropriate curricula, we have been helping with language training, which the Bureau has realized is essential, for efficiency as well as to limit exploitation.

I was startled then to discover, at a workshop organized for us by the ILO – who had also registered his dedication and ability – that he had had to face much questioning by the FCID, and been penalized, all because of a donation given by the Bureau to a hospital fund set up by Shiranthi Rajapaksa. Perhaps the donation was unnecessary, but there was no question of fraud, and the money was still in the account – but could not be returned, which the FCID seemed to want, since the account had been frozen.

There were also irregularities in the way in which the money had been given, since it seems it had been transferred to an account run by the Minister, who had then presented the cheque himself to the First Lady, doubtless to get personal credit for the donation. Ironically – or perhaps naturally – that Minister is now firmly with the current government, and engages in the occasional foray against those he served so faithfully in the past. That I suppose is the nature of successful politicians, but again there was no question of theft, and the contribution, and the manner in which it was made, had been approved by the Board.

But in the end it was the able public servant who was victimized, as has happened also to Mr Ranawaka, one of the most able Permanent Secretaries I came across in those days. Politicians who are jailed attract attention and get out swiftly enough, but the public servants who followed orders suffer. Perhaps they should have resisted those orders, but it is appalling that it is those against whom there are no allegations of corruption who suffer, while those public servants whose assets increased immeasurably during their period of authority remain largely untouched. And almost entirely immune are the hosts of shady individuals  brought in by individual minsters to the massive private offices they have, which interfere egregiously with public business.

Those offices are replete with vehicles and equipment. But for actual operations, one has to go through procedures through which action is held up at every turn. This has reached now painful proportions for all concerned with regard to the Sector Skills Councils, which were set up with great hopes that they would lead to demand driven training rather than the continuation of old courses through old methodologies that have produced what is termed a massive skills gap.

The Councils were told last year that they would have large amounts of project funds to do their work. Suddenly that was cut, with no explanation of the change. The funds for them to exist continue the same, which reminds me of the year in which Ranil Wickremesinghe set up ministries which had no operational funds at all. They evidently existed simply to provide his lackeys with ministerial posts. But I suppose it could be argued that, if they managed to raise funds, they could then do some work instead of just providing offices for a Minister and public servants and sundry hangers on to fill up time with all the equipment they could order at will.

Meanwhile our Sector Councils were told initially that they could be paid for meetings as is the case with so many government boards. Then we were told that that was not on. But since it is difficult to stop an established practice that exists elsewhere, it was decided, in the new game of cover one’s back whether necessary or not, that we should write to the Treasury to ask whether payment is possible. Needless to say, the Treasury has not responded, and we were in danger of the Councils not meeting, and no work at all being done. Fortunately, since the practice had been established through business plans that were accepted by the funding authority, we could decide to continue, and thus to modernize more curricula and at least try to train instructors in its delivery. But administrative staff continue fearful that they will be hauled before the FCID, and they need constant encouragement to act rather than sit back and allow the world to pass them by.

In the light of all this, it is horrifying that money continues to be passed to provide Ministers with perks. Unfortunately we are not making sufficient use of the Freedom of Information Act, to find out how much was spent in redecorating each Ministry (and indeed finding new premises), how much in buying new vehicles, how much is the petrol allowance for the private office of each Minister, how much their private staff cost and who they are and what their qualifications. We only realize how much is being squandered when we read about a request for something exceptional, new vehicles usually.

And, conversely, there is no mechanism whatsoever to measure the productivity of any Minister. We only hear about Ministers when they make political pronouncements of accomplished fatuity, apparently thinking rarely on matters within their purview. So Vijithamuni Zoysa lauds the idea of Sarath Fonseka stopping strikes, while the country languishes in a state of drought with no plans to improve irrigation; Duminda Dissanayake fulminates against the Joint Opposition with no efforts to improve agricultural productivity or develop systems of value addition. And from others in charge of areas of vital concern, education or industries, we hear nothing of new policies, new plans.

The idea of development ten times that of the last six years has evidently been forgotten. But what can one expect when, instead of the public service being strengthened, it has been terrified into lethargy; and when, instead of a leaner executive subject to public scrutiny, we have a more bloated Cabinet than previously with no compulsion to think or plan or perform?

Ceylon Today 9 May 2017 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=20659

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