Democracy in Sri Lanka is an auction -Lee Kuan Yew, Late Singapore PM

Doing the needful (Original Title Island Editorial)

Late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a great admirer of Ceylon (as we were then) during our early post-Independence years, later described democracy in Sri Lanka as an auction of non-existent resources. With a presidential election November now before us, the big auction is about to start and the major candidates will make promises galore to persuade voters to back them. Despite the non-delivery track record both of the UNP and the SLFP, that have alternately governed this country post-Indeependence, the voters are either taken in or shall we say live in hope.

While people may have forgotten Mrs. Bandarnaike’s promise of even bringing rice from the moon (if necessary) they would surely remember the yahapalana promise of the incumbent government. It is not necessary to labour the point that we have had anything but yahapalana (nice word that) in the years since 2015 just like we had no dharmista government that President J.R. Jayewardene promised us in the middle seventies. The lady who promised rice from the moon, during the period she led the United Front government of her SLFP and the old left between 1970 and 1975, gave the people the hardest time they have known in our contemporary history. No wonder there was the refrain Sirima Mathini seedevi, seeni nethuwa the devi.

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In a recent book author Andrew Fidel Fernando vividly described his experience in a government sub-office when he tried, for the second time, to get his National ID card. A contributor to our issue last Sunday, in an article about Sri Lanka’s bureaucracy quoted fairly extensively from Fernando’s book, Upon a Sleepless Isle, about his experience in a government office in Dehiwala. We won’t burden the reader with the writer’s travail but would wager that most if not all Lankans would have suffered similarly in their interactions with the government bureaucracy. The author had aptly titled his chapter on the experience as “Little Lords of a Little Street.”

We have long known that our public sector is bloated; exactly how bloated we may not know. A recently published figure said that there are 1.5 million employees in our public sector when an estimated 800,000 would suffice. In some offices there are four people to do a job when one would do. All this means that the public sector salary and pension bill will top a trillion rupees for the first time next year. Despite these grim figures, do we have any of our politicians strutting the national stage and seeking election say how they would bring the situation under control?

On the contrary, we hear them say that they will increase employment. Reports of various ministers giving letters of appointment to people anointed with public service jobs, duly illustrated with photos of these tamashas which also cost the taxpayer another pretty penny, regularly fill our various newspapers with painful monotony. The smug expressions on the faces of those doing the honours imply that they are personally conferring this benefit – almost as though they will pay the salaries of the recruits out of their own pockets. Time was when a recruit public servant would get his/her letter of appointment by registered post. The letters would tell them when, where and at what time they should report to the head of department (or whoever) where they would work and that was that.

There is a commonly held belief that public sector employees are underpaid. This is true of many but not of all. Railway engine drivers and guards take home fat monthly pay cheques with figures published during the recent railway strike that imposed unbelievable hardship on train commuters. It was reported that a railway engine driver took home a monthly Rs. 200,000. A CEB meter reader also does very well with a monthly pay packet of over a lakh of rupees. The present government which promised substantial public service salary increases in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election implemented these measures in phases. In that ‘auction,’ to borrow Prime Minister Lee’s words, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also offered a pay hike but not as big as his rival. In fact bigwigs of his party kept attributing the country’s subsequent economic woes to the unaffordable impact of that salary increase.

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has been boasting about a second round of public service pay increases due from Jan. 1 next year. That would give a minimum increase of Rs. 3,000 a month and a maximum of Rs. 24,000 at a cost of Rs. 120 billion. This will obviously impose more pressure on already galloping inflation not to mention the balance of payments. That in turn would lead to further depreciation of the rupee which has been tumbling this year. Former Minister Milinda Moragoda, who has been talking a lot of sense through his recent public statements said the negative effects can be only contained if the salary increases are funded by curtailing other recurrent expenditure, raising revenue or a combination of both. He saw cutting capital expenditure, often resorted to by a cash-strapped Treasury, as “a less good option.” Given our present debt levels and the cost of servicing them, additional borrowings from Peter to pay Paul would be fatal.

Last week’s Premadasa rally at Galle Face caused huge traffic jams all over the Colombo city focusing attention of what the dime-a-dozen protests on most working days (never on holidays!) costs the country in unaffordable traffice jams entailing wasteful burning of fuel apart from the loss of hundreds of thousands of man-hours. Nobody seeking election has uttered a word about doing anything to tackle this running sore. Nor have we heard about the number of universities being held in check as the number of unemployed (unemployable?) graduates seeking public sector sinecures mounts. Cabinet size evaded by a ‘national government’ ruse last time round is also not a favourite platform topic.

We dare the main contenders to go on public record that MP’s will not get duty free vehicle import permits before the parliamentary election which will follow the presidential poll. These are a ready means of politicians raising campaign funds. There are other less savoury means of filling war chests too.