Procedures, bungawewa!
Posted on July 18th, 2016

Jolly Somasundram Courtesy The Island

The front page of The Island of July 13 carried a media statement of His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, on delays in the rehabilitation of those who suffered from the explosion of ordnance at Salawa. The statement “urged government to waive red tape”, to get the job done. In the God-Caesar divide, rehabilitation is clearly Caesar’s responsibility, overseen by People’s elected representatives, the politicians from the Pradeshiya Sabha, Western Provincial Council and Parliament. If there is a failure, it is the politician who will pay. Physical rehabilitation does not fall within the remit of God.

Both the Catholic Church and Public Administration (Caesar’s minions) are the oldest formal organisations known to man. Both bring together a large number of workers, priests and public servants, in structures based on hierarchy. The organisational structure of a Divisional Secretariat and that of a monastery is the same, though their clienteles, vision, missions and, consequently, their work methodologies and expected outputs are different. Both are bound by sets of rules, laid down elsewhere, to which those who work within them have to adhere. If a catholic child, in a distant parish, suffers a major accident for which, remedial measures are available only in Colombo, the parish priest cannot rent out an ambulance-helicopter, on his own volition, without getting approval at higher levels. During these negotiations, the child may even die. Rules restrain the taking of the Right decisions and constrain the decision maker to taking correct decisions. Rules, covering both eventualities are called Red Tape. The existential despair of public servants arises when he has to transit from the correct decision to the right one.
Salawa after the disaster

His Eminence has two responsibilities, to be the highest spiritual guide to his flock and, to manage and safeguard the Catholic Church. It is in his second capacity, as a manager, that His Eminence has shared his views on Red Tape. I, a humdrum and dull ordinal, who had Red Tape for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dreams, am responding to His Eminence, for, I am troubled: my employment justification has been exposed as a hoax. What worthwhile work had I been doing all these years? My employment, I thought, lay in reciting poetry, now, according to His Eminence, it lay only in murmuring doggerel.

Salawa suffered a heart-rending disaster, the subject of His Eminence’s media statement. It required an immediate response by governmental institutions and their personnel to offer immediate alternative accommodation, food, clothing, give attention to medical needs – especially of children- and provide other humanitarian assistance- the first stage. They, Caesar’s minions, were immediately on-sign and worked unbelievable hours, in an environment of uncertainty. There would have been small road blocks: these were overcome. Caesars minions did not issue media statements or draw attention to themselves. His Eminence’s cryptic statement admitted that, “urgent assistance, in the form of food and drink were supplied to them (those affected)”. While Caesar’s minions do not expect bouquets, it would not have gone amiss, if His Eminence had referred more expansively to their committed efforts.

The body of the statement of His Eminence, deals with failures of the second stage- i.e. after immediate relief was provided in the first stage, that of an alleged non-taking of necessary actions, to speedily ensure resettlement, rehabilitation and placing the affected population back to positions they enjoyed prior to the disaster. The public servants accused of this tardiness, were the very ones who did such an excellent job at the first stage. Therefore, individual public servants cannot be faulted: it is the system riddled with Red Tape, “official procedures like filling forms, sending them to different offices for approvals procedures, perhaps outlined in rule books”, which are the culprits. His Eminence recommends a bonfire of these rules, “appealing to the President, the Prime Minister, the relevant ministers and officials to waive off procedural snags to urgently help the people to get back to their normal lives”. “Procedures Bungawewa!” is the resounding implication. This seems a populist war cry, verging on anarchy.

His Eminence, with many others in the parallel government of civil society, have been strong advocates of Good Governance. The significant components of Good Governance are accountability, transparency and non-corruption. Accountability is in enumerating and justifying to questioners with documentary evidence of actions which had been taken. It is difficult to imagine how this could be done, if all procedures were to be waived. According to the newspapers, the total cost of “helping the people (of Salawa) to get back to their normal way of life” would be Rs. 1.2 Billion.

If funds of this magnitude are to be splurged, willy-nilly, without documents being kept, justifying expenditure or recording it, would not there be rampant corruption?

The lessons of the tsunami should be learnt; funds were obtained from trusting donors for housing schemes: there are no housing schemes visible. The same goes for the recipients of funds. To get rehabilitation funds, the affected of Salawa need identity: all NICs have been destroyed. To receive funds for the restoration of stock-in-trade, documents are required: all such documents have been destroyed. To receive house restoration funds, deeds are required to prove ownership: all such deeds have been destroyed. It would take time to reconstruct these documents. These documents give certainty: uncertainty, which provides extensive discretion, is the prowling grounds for the corrupt.

The solution is not to indulge in stump approaches, but undertaking painful, systematic searches, to enable accountable, transparent and non-corrupt decision making to take place. Public servants have shown themselves to be imbued with social concern, as seen in their response to disaster at the first stage. There can be little doubt about theirs, for the second stage. If His Eminence’s recommendations about abolishing procedures were accepted, public servants could look forward to attentions by CIABOC and FCID, and having a tryst with State remand houses.

His Eminence concludes the media statement with a request “a top level discussion be held with the representatives of the affected people”. He has not offered a suggested list of participants for this discussion, an agenda, possible objectives for the meeting, nor has he appended a list of expected outputs on which the discussion could focus. The suggested discussion, while detracting from the current work of rehabilitation, could only add another circle of confusion.

Jolly Somasundram

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