Eighteen months of yahapalanaya: In retrospect
Posted on June 24th, 2016

By Prof. G. L. Peiris Courtesy The Island

As the yahapalanaya government reaches the significant milestone of a year and a half, it is, perhaps, a worthwhile exercise to look back on the performance of an administration which held out abundant promise to the public on multi-faceted “Change”, and to assess the degree of fulfilment of that promise. Daily events involving almost every identifiable group across the country’s social spectrum now provide ample testimony to a deep sense of disillusionment; and it is timely at this point to examine the root causes of this disenchantment and to ask why this feeling is so pervasive.

I. Perceived Lack of Consistency and Direction

This is a fundamental factor, especially in respect of investment which is, of course, dependent on well-founded and sustained confidence. Constant shifts in direction, reflected in statements at the highest levels of government, lurching this way and that, in ad hoc response to pressures of the moment, are clearly destructive of that confidence.

About 70% of the Budget proposals presented to Parliament by the Minister of Finance in November last year have been superseded by subsequent proposals and other developments, even though these departures have so far not secured Parliamentary endorsement. There are, at this moment, serious issues as to not just the morality but the legality of taxes which the public are currently paying without the approval of Parliament, vested as it is by the Constitution with the control of public finance.

The Prime Minister has announced that the Capital Account will be liberalized, and all exchange control restrictions removed, before the end of this year, only to have an inconsistent statement made soon afterwards by the Finance Minister. For several months the Prime Minister has been speaking of a Capital Gains Tax, the mention of which – without any indication of the mechanics of it, including rates and time-frames – has gravely deterred investors, in the absence of a precise and ascertainable statutory text. For months this will remain in the realm of speculation. On 1st April, VAT began to be levied, until the relevant circular was withdrawn later on the very same day. For two months VAT was levied on the private health sector, but it has now been announced informally that this will in part be withdrawn, and the resulting loss of revenue recouped from other sources. Emphatic assertions that there will be no VAT on water, have been honoured in the breach. The resulting picture is one of total confusion.

II. Expediency: The Basis for Allocation of Functions

One of the reasons for this state of affairs, although by no means the sole cause, is the assignment of Ministerial functions with no regard for principle or sound policy. How does one begin to justify the logical aberration of a Finance Minister denied control of the Central Bank and the State Banks? The former institution, contrary to explicit provision in the Finance Act, has been taken over by the Prime Minister, while the latter function has become the responsibility of another Minister. Coherence, then, is a distant dream.

Internecine warfare destroys whatever effectiveness would otherwise have remained. An extreme instance is the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, of which the Minister is the General Secretary of the ruling Alliance. His power base in Tangalle is exactly the same as that of his Deputy Minister; and they represent different political parties vying with each other for conferment of jobs, welfare benefits and other forms of largesse on their respective supporters prior to the holding of local government and other elections. The public were treated to the spectacle of the Deputy Minister bitterly complaining in public, before television cameras, that no worthwhile functions are assigned to him, eliciting from the Cabinet Minister a spirited response threatening to withdraw even the few functions which he had delegated to his Deputy.

Another Deputy Minister, in two interviews recently published in the print media, declared that he had no work to do in his Ministry, while the Cabinet Minister (according to the Deputy) has no interest in the work of the Ministry other than in foreign travel.

The lines of demarcation of functions among Cabinet Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers are grotesquely blurred. Many have threatened to resign unless their problems are resolved immediately. Amidst all this conflict and confusion, the inevitable casualty is, of course, the public, in whose service all these functionaries are supposed to be appointed and supported out of Treasury funds.

III. Pressure the Only Means of Getting the Right Thing done

This is all too evident in many sectors of the government. The most obvious instance is that of the upcoming reappointment of the Governor of the Central Bank. There has been widespread criticism of this appointment from the very outset, with increased momentum on account of the highly controversial issue of Treasury Bonds on two occasions. The point hardly needs emphasis that, like Caesar’s wife, the Governor of the Central Bank must be unreservedly above reproach, with his integrity unimpugned from any quarter, given the crucial nature of his functions vis-a-vis monetary policy and even the country’s currency notes. And yet, every sinew is strained with no semblance of embarrassment until literally the last moment to keep this official in office. The Central Committee of the SLFP, the Opposition, a large swath of the business community, academics, professionals and civil society organizations have all united in vehement protest against reappointment. It is the sheer intensity and continuity of this pressure which, hopefully, will prevail in the end.

IV Growing Recourse  to Self-Help

In view of the visible breakdown of government machinery, the public have felt the need on many occasions, in a spirit of despair, to rely on their own strength, without depending on resources and facilities which ought to be provided by the State. In the immediate aftermath of the Salawa blast, the electronic media carried harrowing images of the people affected, and their shrill complaint that no government assistance was forthcoming, even (in their own words) to give them a drink of water. The government’s dominant concern, on the very next day, was to open the Colombo-Avissawella road, to create the illusion that normalcy had been restored, and all was well. The sequel to this was that the affected residents themselves, without a roof over their heads, had to take to the streets to forcibly close the road and to demand that someone in authority should address their plight.

Similarly, victims of the recent flood waters are still lamenting that government intervention has been tardy and haphazard, with grossly inadequate co-ordination, and that their woes would have been considerably worse, had it not been for the voluntary assistance made available to them on an extensive scale by temples and churches, media institutions, a host of civil society activists and a caring public.

V. Loss of Morale in the Public Service

It is understandable that an overwhelming sense of inhibition has gripped the public service, treated as they are to the spectacle of their peers being regularly hauled up before numerous tribunals, typically outside the country’s institutional framework, to defend themselves against allegations in respect of official action taken by them, consequent upon direction by political authority, to which they were subject at the time. Some have had to endure the anguish and humiliation of interrogation, arrest, imprisonment and other forms of harassment, necessitating time spent and expenditure incurred in court houses, commissions and lawyers’ chambers. The natural inclination, under these circumstances, has been to evade responsibility and pass the buck whenever possible.

This trend has been aggravated by another factor, especially regrettable. This consists of discrimination and invidious preference. The most telling instance relates to events subsequent to the recent order by the Attorney-General for the arrest of five former officials of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Authority. One of these is an officer working in a senior capacity in the Prime Minister’s Office. A statement was made by the Prime Minister on the floor of Parliament, in answer to an Opposition Member, that the government had directed the Attorney-General to reconsider his decision on this matter.

The clear implication is that, like the Chancellor’s foot, the rules applicable and the criteria applied will vary imaginatively, depending on the personalities involved and the attendant circumstances. The governing yardstick, it seemed apparent, was access to influence and proximity (or lack of it) to the centres of power. The message transmitted to the rank and file of the public service is a singularly unwholesome one: those bereft of this kind of privilege and having no option but to fend for themselves, are tempted to distance themselves as much as possible from assumption of responsibility, in the interest of a hassle-free retirement. No wonder, then, that atrophy and gridlock are the necessary outcome.

VI Absence of Problem  Solving Machinery

Recurring events in the past few weeks demonstrate distressingly the reasonableness of the lament that decision making and implementation on the ground are at an all time low. Many projects are on auto-pilot, with no one ostensibly in charge or effectively in control. When a grievance is articulated, success often depends on muscle.

Problems are left to fester, with the accretion of bitterness, and demands are forced on the authorities at the eleventh hour, when breakdown is imminent. Striking trade union officials on the roof of buildings in the Port of Colombo, owners of retail shops closing down their establishments in protest and producing the spectre of a ghost town, students resolutely facing Police tear gas and water cannon , as well as customs, the railways, the postal department, the Ceylon Electricity Board, the plumbago mines, private buses, the airport, even employees at railway crossings, and a miscellany of other services, have all had the experience that proper and systematic attention to grievances is an unattainable dream, in the absence of agitation and “direct action”, inimical to the public wellbeing.

VII Opacity of Decision Making and Policy Formulation

A great deal of disturbance interrupting the orderly life of the community is the result of secrecy enveloping the decision making process in vital sectors. This is well illustrated by the ongoing controversy about the proposed ETCA with India. There is now emerging a consensus among an impressively wide array of professional bodies in Sri Lanka – the like of which I have not seen during the last two decades – that a clear policy framework pertaining to international economic agreements must be formulated before individual treaties, giving rise to wide reaching consequences for our nation, are signed.

The root cause of distrust and suspicion is the lack of authentic information regarding what is proposed. In the case of ETCA, an eight page document has been replaced by a succinct, one-page note, again as the consequence of escalating agitation, but there remains a deplorable lack of clarity. The much vaunted right to information must be respected, and applied, not by precept alone but by example.

VIII Idealism and Ethical Aspiration

These values principally underpinned the impetus for Yahapalana in January last year. The inspirational mainsprings of the movement nurtured by the Late Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera laid stress on eradicating the ingrained sense of cynicism which permeated our political culture. Those who had invested their zeal, and indeed their reputations, in this endeavour found themselves aghast at the degree of self-indulgence which found expression in the desire of those occupying the seats of power to help themselves to more than 1.1 billion rupees of public funds for the purchase of brand new luxury vehicles.

The features that were strikingly insensitive about this exercise were, firstly, the context in which this was embarked upon, when the country was grappling with the twin calamities of the recent floods and the Salawa explosion and, secondly, the arrogant and unrepentantly self-serving tone of the purported justification which was offered to an enraged public. The harm inflicted on Yahapalanaya is incalculable.

IX Collapse of Vital Institutions

The eighteen month tenure of the current administration saw the collapse of institutions, pre-eminent among them, the Parliament of the country. The nation was appalled to witness violence in the Chamber, culminating in bloodshed. The result of a vote on a Supplementary Estimate, which entailed the appropriation of public funds under the rubric of Parliament’s inalienable responsibility to control public finance, was wrongly announced. It was declared that the Vote had been carried, although subsequent examination of CCTV footage, at the strident behest of the Opposition, revealed that there had in fact been a tie. A Vote of No-Confidence in the officer responsible in terms of the Standing Orders, the Secretary-General of Parliament, proposed by the Opposition, has been disallowed on the basis of a decision by a Parliamentary Committee in which the government, naturally, has a built-in majority.

X Contradictions Verging on Incoherence:

The Case of Foreign Policy

Government policy in core areas has been contradictory, to the point of incoherence. The case of foreign policy springs to mind.

The Government of Sri Lanka, on 1st October 2015, co-sponsored in the Human Rights Council in Geneva a Resolution which “noted with appreciation” the Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka. Contained in the Report was the explicit conclusion that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces carried out “unlawful killings in a widespread manner”, that there were “long standing patterns of arbitrary arrest and detention” by our security forces, that “brutal use of torture” had been resorted to by them and that they were also guilty of “rape and other forms of sexual violence”. Altogether beyond belief, this is the Report which the Government of Sri Lanka “noted with appreciation” and thereby commended to other national delegations for acceptance.

Furthermore, the Government committed formally and solemnly in Geneva to the establishment of a judicial mechanism for war crimes, which included participation by “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators”.

We now have the extraordinary situation that the Government feigns ignorance of its own Resolution and tries to persuade the people of our country that it is implacably opposed to key elements of its initiative. This is, surely, straining credibility beyond all acceptable limits.

(Concluded)

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