By Rajiva Wijesinha –
A Presidency Under Threat – Part 3
Amongst the many complaints against government made by its own Ministers and Members of Parliament who attended the Consultative Committee on Resettlement was one relating to something that has been a constant theme of the opposition. This is that the armed forces are engaging in business at the expense of civilians.
The specific case cited related to entry into joint partnership with a foreign national for the generation of bio-fuels. This seems to me in itself a good idea, and I can understand why the forces have got involved. Over a year ago I urged the Minister of Environment and Renewable Energy to start such activity on a large scale, and he agreed that this was essential. Having served previously as Minister of Petroleum, he was scathing about what he described as the oil mafia, which inhibits such activities. Certainly in COPE we have found ample evidence of what would be culpable carelessness, if not dishonesty, with regard to the import of oil. And the rapid turnover of Chairmen of the Petroleum Corporation, including most recently one of the most able and honest of Civil Servants, Tilak Collure, suggests the enormous power of this mafia.
But despite understanding of the situation, the Minister has done little to take forward activities in the field of Renewable Energy. This is sad since he could have taken advantage of the authority he derived from that being added, strangely but suitably, to the Environment portfolio. I had put him in touch with the Gandhi Centre, which had done much work on a small scale with regard to Gliricidia production in the North. He encouraged them to meet with the Sustainable Energy Authority, which had been very positive. But pushing projects in this field requires the active involvement of the Minister, and I fear this has not been forthcoming.
Hence perhaps the need for the military to take the lead. But the Minister might well object that he cannot really do anything, because he will get no support. Thus it is not that the military is particularly efficient, rather it becomes so because no one else – save only the other Ministry that swallows up so much of the National Budget – gets either resources or encouragement that enables them to act.
I think there is some element of truth in both these positions, viz that the military is comparatively efficient and that other Ministries receive little support. But sadly there is no effort at all to bridge the gap, which could be done by encouraging partnerships. Such arrangements would allow those who can to do the work initially, whilst also developing capacity in the Line Ministries.
The President has taken the line of least resistance in multiplying Ministries with few resources to act (though plenty of resources to provide incentives to Ministers), while entrusting much work to the Ministries headed by his siblings. This is generally attributed to superb cynicism, the bestowal of bread and circuses on his Parliamentarians, whilst the meat goes elsewhere. But I can also accept that he feels genuinely that there is a capacity problem, so he has to rely on those of proven capacity.
But not only does this breed resentment – because some Ministers at least would like to do some work – it also leads to colossal inefficiency and waste. And in the absence of proper planning mechanisms, there is no possibility of the remedial action that would restore some sense to our systems. This could have been done by one mechanism which was suggested by the former Secretary to the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation. She and I sent a detailed recommendation to the Secretary to the President about strengthening the role of that Ministry, but I fear this was in the heady days of 2010 when populism was preferred to planning. So in fact the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation was abolished, and monitoring of implementation was left to the Treasury.
The absurdity was compounded by the Secretary to the Treasury also being Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development, an absurdity that I realized no one else was drawing attention to. The idea that one man should be responsible for allocating funds, for using the bulk of those funds (given the great reach of the Ministry of Economic Development) and also monitoring usage, is quite preposterous.
Thankfully that has been changed now, and though I would like to think it is because I have been hammering away at the absurdity (and it seems the Minister of Economic Development at least reads my criticisms, even if no one else in authority does), I fear I must accept that I had no responsibility for this salutary change. It seems to have been caused either because the egregious Wimal Weerawansa attacked P B Jayasundara, or else because Dr Nihal Jayatilleke became a problem at the Ministry of Health. But I trust his problems there will not prevent him from being a responsible Secretary to what is the second most important Ministry in government.
To return to the problem of coordination, it seemed early in the life of the government that there was a stab at improving this through what seemed a good idea, the creation of Senior Ministers. But the proposal put forward at the meeting of the Consultative Committee on Public Administration Reforms, which was enthusiastically accepted by the Minister to draw up a schedule of activities that should be planned and implemented in clusters, was shot down.
The impression created then was that these Ministries were meant to be useless. Even though D E W Gunasekara did his best, through formulation of a Human Resources Development Policy, that Policy is observed in the breach, and the coordinating mechanism he tried to set in place has not taken off. It is no wonder then that the other Senior Ministers have done virtually nothing – though they too may justifiably say they knew from the start that they were not meant to.
All this confusion means that the people are not getting the services they need and deserve. In the North it means that the facilities for education and training are appalling, and there is no mechanism for those who can supply them to know what is going on and improve matters. Thus in the five divisions in Mullaitivu I checked on during my recent visit to the North, and two in Mannar, there are two Divisions without Vocational Training Centres, two with Centres that do not function, two where the figures of those receiving training are less than 20, and one where there are 92 students though the Centre has extensive new buildings with a capacity for much more. There are virtually no courses in subjects the people said they needed, motor mechanics and welding and plumbing and electronics.
Two years ago I prepared a paper for the Secretary of Defence, in which I suggested how the forces could be used through civilian structures to help in the North. I had prepared the paper after consultation with bright young officers nominated by the Ministry to attend consultations at the Reconciliation Unit. But there was no interest in working positively, the Secretary laconically telling me he did not want to do more and incur more blame – instead of which, because of a failure to plan coherently, he is getting much more blame.
I cannot understand why he does not recognize that continuing on this path will let down his forces completely. I continue to have faith in the decency of most senior officers in the forces, and indeed junior ones as was apparent from the positive approach of those who attended our consultations. But if they have to dance to a tune of exclusivity set by politicians who have no national popularity except what they derive from the coat-tails from the President, they will soon be objects of exclusion themselves in the world at large.
What happened to General Jagath Dias with regard to admission to Australia is a case in point. He is one of the most able and civilized of our officers, and is as well liked in Mullaitivu as was General Mark before him. But if he has to preside over policies that he must, given his knowledge of the ground situation, deplore, he will not be able to fulfil his own potential. And if Australia, which has been very sympathetic towards us, refuses to let him in, one can imagine what will happen elsewhere.
The solutions are so simple, if only the President will work out how he can put into action his generally decent and inclusive concepts. But if he allows those who think planning holistically is a bad idea to dominate government policy, he may well win the election they are pushing him to hold early – but then, as one Government Minister graphically put it, everything will be over.