By Rajiva Wijesinha –
A Presidency Under Threat – Political and Administrative Units
An opposition member noted that recently there had been much speculation in the corridors of Parliament about the manner in which funds were being allocated for development. I had realized something unusual was going on, because during Reconciliation meetings in the North I had been told about massive amounts being made available to individual Members of Parliament.
I had not received anything myself, and indeed had to ask for the Rs 5 million that has been given each year to all Members of Parliament. I was particularly keen to have this available, because it was only recently that I realized that no one else spent even a modicum of what I did in the less populated Divisions in the North. I had decided that this year then I would spend the bulk of my funds, not split between North and South as previously, but largely in the East, because I realized there were also Divisions there which received little. But I am not sure whether I might not be forgotten, given the rush to spend the much larger sums that have been given selectively.
What the rationale for selection is I am not clear about, though I know that DEW Gunasekara has not received any, and it seemed Rauff Hakeem had received nothing either. I was told though that, when he complained about this to the President, it transpired that the latter was not aware of this and urged him to write in and ask. I have followed suit, but as yet have received no reply.
At a recent Consultative Committee meeting however, since the Minutes referred to the allocations, we were able to ask, and received a very clear picture of the manner in which the development budget allocated to the Ministry of Economic Development is being spent. It seems that large amounts have been allocated to government Members of Parliament who chair particular Divisional Development Committees, and they are asked to decide on Projects. This is of course not meant to be spent arbitrarily, but is supposed to be after due consultation of the people.
These sums, which vary from individual to individual, are on top of the Decentralized Budget of Rs 5 million rupees which has usually been allocated to all Members of Parliament. But it seems there is also another allocation for development, a uniform sum of Rs 30 million each, though this has not gone to everybody but only to some (or rather most) government Members of Parliament, on the grounds that they need also to engage in development work in the Districts from which they are elected. Perhaps I should have said hope to be elected, because I gather that some National List Members of Parliament have been given such an allocation. And it is possible the reason DEW and I, and Rauff Hakeem too, have received none of this is because we are not electoral organizers for the government for any particular electorate.
Unfortunately the whole process seems to have been shrouded in secrecy, and the public do not know what funds are available to them and how these have been allocated. I should also note that in the areas in which I work, namely the North and East, there is no systematic process of consultation, and I am sure that the ad hoc systems that are adopted will add to the dissatisfaction currently felt with regard to government.
I should however note that some of the government Members at the Consultative Committee at which the matter came up explained the process of consultation they have put in place and this seems systematic. It was clear that this is an advance on what happened previously, since then it seems they had no say and everything was left to the Ministry of Economic Development. The broader consultations, we were told by one Member, perhaps the brightest of the new Members of Parliament from the SLFP, apart from Janaka Bandara, were primarily for the very much larger sums that had been allocated to individual Members, usually well over 100 million, depending on the population in the areas they covered, and the number of Samurdhi beneficiaries, and other variables.
But clearly it is obvious that questions can be raised about the efficacy and the equity of the allocations, as well as the systems that are put in place by different individuals in terms of their own sense of responsibility and accountability. In addition government is in danger of laying itself open to charges of neglect, and other criticisms, that could increase unpopularity in areas in which Members are not able to work for the community as a whole. This is particularly true of the North, where a very few members are able to make decisions about large areas, given that there are few members on the government side.
And dare I say it, many of these members are not able to conceptualize and engage in activity that would ensure sustainable development. I had written to a few to suggest that they spend their money on education, given the need for human resource development in the area, and one informed me that he did indeed do this: he had arranged for special classes in schools in the afternoon, for which payment was made from his decentralized budget. The fact that he was thus in effect paying for private tuition, to make up for inadequacies in the school system, had to be pointed out, though he did in the end appreciate that what he should have been doing was ensuring change in the system.
Leaving aside the inefficiencies the system will involve, and the abdication of the responsibility to plan holistically, the wildly varying manner in which allocations have been made makes clear the need for systemic reform with regard to both administrative and administrative units. It is quite absurd that government still functions in terms of electorates when these have no administrative status, and indeed mean nothing for political purposes either. The absurdity of allocating huge sums to all members elected from a particular District, obviously because it is assumed they need to win hearts and mind throughout the District – and in competition with each other – must surely bring home to anyone concerned with executive responsibilities the need to change our electoral system, as has been pledged at so many elections.
I have written accordingly to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Reform, to suggest that the Committee do something useful and issue an interim report which takes up matters such as this on which consensus could readily be achieved. I think too that bold reform on these lines will also do much more to win hearts and minds than spending vast sums of money without proper planning. If government explained how such a change would bring Members of Parliament closer to the people, and reduce the current massive expenditure on elections, and utterly destructive intra-party rivalry, I have no doubt the government will receive a much needed boost.
But the different ways in which allocations are made also indicates that we need to streamline our units of administration, which now see-saw between electorates and districts and divisions. In theory government Parliamentarians have received these large amounts of funding because they chair Divisional Development Committee meetings, but these bodies are not statutorily constituted. They should be, for in the current context it makes sense to work through Divisions, moving to smaller units just as some decades back the Province gave way to the District. Coordination of government services, and in particular results based budgeting, are best done now as Divisional level, given the number of services which are coordinated at that level.
I have written then to the Minister of Home Affairs too, to urge him to take action to ensure uniformity with regard to the units through which government works. He has the instruments at hand for this, for recently a consultation was undertaken in association with the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, and other concerned Secretaries, to examine the way in which services were delivered to the people at the grass roots. But whether it will be possible, in a year in which elections seem to be the only focus of attention, to engage in the structural reforms necessary to increase efficiency as well as transparency and accountability is another question.
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