By Rajiva Wijesinha –
There is some surprise at the Divisional Secretariats I have been visiting regularly over the last couple of years, when I turn up in a rather shabby vehicle, with only a couple of others with me. How shabby it was I discovered when one of the tyres, which were near to bald, went flat between Gomerankadawala and Padaviya Sripura. Fortunately my driver and security dealt with the matter swiftly, despite a jack designed for a motorbike having been given to us instead of the original, and we were less than 15 minutes late. The vehicle, which is generally trustworthy despite its appearance, got me safely back to Colombo without a spare. It is certainly much better than the posh Montero I was once given, which guzzled petrol, whereas this does 10 kilometres to a litre of diesel when travelling long distance.
Even in the days, long gone now, when I had three security personnel, I did not use a back up vehicle. It would simply have cost too much for fuel. Thankfully, in addition to providing me with a vehicle, government provides diesel for long distance official journeys, so I am not out of pocket. But the rate at which I ask for diesel is apparently considered very modest, and held up as an example to other drivers who require much more for similar journeys.
One can hardly blame drivers though, since vehicles are perhaps the most productive of the cows which are milked by politicians as perks of office. Recently in COPE we have tried to deal with the question of departments having handed over vehicles to Ministries – usually for the use of Ministers – and then not getting them back. Sometimes there are no records available to help recover them, sometimes there is simply no will given the primacy of Ministers. And of course when one Minister enjoys such perks, it is difficult to restrict others.
Following yet another lame rejoinder to instructions we had issued, I wrote to the Chairman of COPE that ‘I have been struck by the number of vehicles given to Ministries that belong to agencies we are supposed to monitor. This is in the context of burgeoning supplementary estimates to provide yet more vehicles to Ministries. Should not the Cabinet have an audit of the number of vehicles assigned to individual staff at Ministries, including Ministers, their Coordinating Secretaries, their Media Units etc? It would also be useful to note the amount of fuel consumed by these vehicles, with perhaps an assessment of how much is claimed by different agencies for travel to the same destinations.’
The problem with regard to media units is one I know well, for as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights I often had to approve fuel allocations for the media unit to cover the work of the Minister in the District he represented. What use this was I could not fathom, since though what they wrote up appeared on our own website, it did not have much impact elsewhere. The Secretary to the President agreed with me that having such media units for each Ministry was quite unnecessary, and an efficient central unit would actually be more productive as far as government was concerned.
But I suppose, given our preposterous electoral system, it is not productivity for government that is sought, but support for individuals. And of course media units can come in useful for this in other ways, as I discovered at the time of the election – when thankfully I was no longer Secretary – when the Media Unit had a fracas with an opposition candidate, who was then jailed, which indubitably contributed to his election to Parliament as against more senior and well known candidates in his party.
My suggestion regarding comparisons of fuel claimed was not primarily designed as a check on honesty, since obviously different vehicles need different amounts of fuel, and some dignitaries need to stay in more comfortable accommodation than some towns possess, which would involve additional travelling. But such an audit would also make clear which vehicles are uneconomical, and might help government to develop a policy of using eco-friendly vehicles, unlike the Montero and others of that ilk.
The letter itself was prompted, not only by the responses that showed how little COPE can do if not backed up by administrative action, but also by a recent set of supplementary estimates, requiring Rs 360 million for the purchase of vehicles. In fairness to the politicians, almost Rs 200 million of this was for 23 vehicles for judges of the Supreme and Appeal Courts, and I suppose anything that enhances their dignity, assuming vehicles can do this, is to be welcomed. But all of this worries me in a context in which Grama Niladharis who cover large areas often do not have even motorbikes to facilitate their work.
The UN has begun providing motorbikes to some government officials, and this is welcome. But it is sad that it should have taken the UN to realize that those responsible for welfare need transport if they are to fulfil their duties properly. And I should note that this applies above all to the police, who are perhaps the worst off, given their range of duties, with regard to transport.
Some of this could be eased by ensuring better public transport in rural areas. But we have signally failed to develop a policy about this. Neither Central nor Provincial Transport Boards see themselves as having a mandate to ensure basic services, and the suggestion of the President, that for vital matters transport should be entrusted to Divisions, has been ignored. As we see with the Ministry of Education, unwillingness to allow alternative modes of delivery increases with the incapacity to provide that service on the part of any large institution entrusted with the responsibility. But the result is an increase in the disfunctionality of those who actually have functions to perform.