By Sonali Wijeratne –
Once in a while, albeit even a State Minister of the Government (Dr. Nalaka Godakahewa quoted in the Press during August 2021) utters an explicit truth viz. The State Minister said: “There are over 1.4 mn public sector workers. There are a large number of pensioners. Annually, we need about Rs 1.2 trillion to pay salaries and pensions. In 2020, our annual income was Rs 1.4 trillion. We are left with Rs 200 bn to provide health services, education, transport et al.” It is a fact that the annual public service wage and pension bill has surpassed the One Trillion Rupee mark for the first time in history with the budgetary outlay for both Public Sector Salaries and Pensions showing a significant rise from 2019 to date.
It is ironic that these extraordinary revelations are made in the context of the current Government continuing to upload an already over-staffed top heavy Public Service of over 1 Million with yet more massive injections of 150,000 public servants! This programme to give jobs for 50,000 unemployed graduates and another 100,000 so-called “poor” applicants with less than GCE Ordinary Level qualifications was first mooted as a pre-election promise in 2019.However, the Chairman of the Elections Commission directed its postponement due to the declaration of the General Election in 2019.The expectation of employment opportunity would no doubt have supported the poll in favour of the incumbent Government which has now commenced the said programme without work study, or needs assessment, but presumably purely on the basis of amassing electoral support for future victory at the Elections! But where will such short term maneuverings by Politicians to keep themselves in Power at the expense of the country’s steadily depleting resources lead us the citizens of Sri Lanka?
The increasing ingestion of unemployed graduates and other grades into the Public Service outside the required cadre cannot be healthy or useful when most of them find themselves in an overstaffed environment with little substantive work to do. The relative lack of challenging work occupations and inadequate training to go around leads to a gross misallocation of resources with superfluous workforce engaged in repetitive replication of task. Sooner or later this huge multitude Public Servants in a Job Bank finds itself with no real opportunity, ideal or goal to make a worthwhile contribution. Their only recourse then is to latch on to the privileges’ of the Public Service as Security of employment, shorter working hours and extensive leave entitlement, Pension, less work, etc.
Many castigate the bloated Public Sector in Sri Lanka as generally lethargic, corrupt and parasitic. What else could one expect when politicians of every hue continuously use what was once an Elite Meritocracy as a job bank to get more votes for themselves to win in the short run to the next Elections! Even the most enthusiastic, qualified youth selected to the Public Sector is bound to encounter demoralization, and dissipation of his or her talents when faced with such self-defeating and destructive manner of recruitment often imbued with politicization and nepotism to boot. We no longer have Permanent Secretaries heading Ministries which was the hall mark of the previous era of the Ceylon Civil Service. Even the Constitution has been changed in the 1970s to facilitate all Secretaries of the Ministries to be hand-picked for appointment and changed at will by the political authorities sans their ability, seniority or official experience and qualifications! Therefore in order to safeguard their prized privileges’, position and perks of office, most Secretaries of Ministries are apt take the easy way out of appeasing the political authority and not taking a stand against irregularities.
Moreover It is no surprise that in recent times, the Government seems quick to placate a group of vociferous Public Servants in the Education sector who take to the streets, howling vengeance on the State if their so called demands for wage increases are not met without ascertaining whether there is a genuine justification or need for such pay hike! It is a fact that these teachers willfully neglect their helpless students in a crisis situation virtually, holding the people and government of this country to ransom and taking undue advantage of the Pandemic situation by denying online education to innocent school children already bereft of a normal education. At the same time they have become super spreaders of Covid-19 in public demonstrations dis-regarding all norms of curtailing the Pandemic which is at its highest. All the while, it is a fact that after bringing formal online education to a standstill, they are engaging in the lucrative practice of private tuition on line and earning a mint owing to increased demand for such services.
Since placating the Teachers at any cost seems to be the intention of our Politicians, even the simple fact of whether there is any truth in the so called allegations of anomalous salary in the Education Sector is not the focus of the Government or that giving undue salary rise to teachers, will upset the delicate balanced equilibrium of the salary structure across the entire Public Sector and result in further anomalies and require an all round increase of salaries to the entire Public Sector.
The previous so called Yahapalanaya regime too had in turn feted the entire Public Service with more than 100% pensionable and salary increase during 2016 – 2020. It is now the turn of the present Government already saddled with a huge economic crisis replete with debt burden, intractable budget deficit and balance of payments woes to promise another round of public sector salary increases with the next Budget in November this year. Anything and everything to survive in power on the horns of the Populist vote.
Such cynical callous disregard for economic imperatives seem designed to win the confidence of the bovine masses in the short term in time for the next General and Presidential Elections.
No matter that it may dictate galloping inflation when you feed a more than 1 Million big monster of the Public Service with paper money soon to reduce its purchasing power due to a myriad of problems facing one of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis’s. The nature of government related services in public sector salary and pension expansions leading to rising recurrent expenditures is bound to increase aggregate demand without a commensurate increase in manufacture/supply. This will in turn result in inflationary spiral owing to increase in prices eroding the purchasing value of increased salaries and pensions. Once the aggrieved workers and unions start demonstrating for higher pay hikes on the streets, the Government will no doubt start printing money amidst other short-term un-economic maneuvers and accede to their various demands for yet another salary rise. The One Million Public Sector is an all-important voter base for any prospective government. So to hell with rational responsible governance and sound economic management for sustainable development since the deciding factor for Politicians appears to be to stay in power at all costs.
The negative effects arising from unbridled increases in excessive public sector employment expenditure have not been met by reducing recurrent Government expenditure by way of rationalizing or downsizing the swollen Public Sector Employment sector or increasing revenue. Instead we have nonsense solutions as non-sustainable recourse to additional borrowings, reliance on futuristic outputs from Capital expenditure on a profusion of urban beautification projects, construction of gymnasiums and non-tradable flyovers, acceptance of unsolicited tenders sans competitive bidding processes etc. etc.
The Case for Public Service Reform to tame the Monster of a Hugely Rotund and Moribund Public Service devouring the Nation’s resources sans a worthy contribution has been ably argued by veteran Public Servant Desmanya K.H.J. Wijayadasa, (former Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka) as well as a host of Management Gurus in the media, journals and other forums. First on the list is the need for de-politicization, downsizing, closure of non-profit making State Owned Enterprises, ridding the State of over-institutionalization, duplication of tasks, that has resulted in the lack of coherence and fragmentation, the sheer scale of lack of professional integrity, discipline, accountability and resultant corruption, nepotism, etc.
But it is questionable whether such rationalization is of any value to the Politicians in Government or those awaiting to form Government, whose appeasement at any cost of the valuable voter base of over 1 Million Public Servants is vital to their victory at periodic Elections.
Irrespective of party divides, in general one of the first requirements of a Politician in charge of a Ministry is to find out how much recruitment whether necessary or not could be made. Often, the Politician in charge of a Ministry will single out compliant officers who will do his bidding even those instructions that flout regulations and go against the best interests of the country. He will then call these officers and give instructions directly ignoring the Head of Department under whom they are serving. There are instances where even officers against whom there are well evidenced serious disciplinary matters pending will be treated with kid gloves by their political masters and senior officers as Secretaries of Ministries and allowed to continue in privileged status without any inquiry.
The sad truth is that in a land of Lotus Eaters, there are significant numbers of ordinary people as well as the Businessmen and Academia who will lick the feet of politicians to get whatever benefits, privileges’, opportunities for themselves and their kith and kin. The so called Advisors, Consultants, and the hierarchy of senior officialdom surrounding the political authority will rarely utter a word against the dictates of their political masters even in matters of professional subject matter since they wish to hold on to their comfortable posts and enjoy the perks and privileges’ of office. Despite the fact that the State has given them free education and training both locally and abroad, these so called professionals are seen to be flocking like veritable Servant Boys in their droves, round the political authorities often aiding and abetting in deal making and commissions or leading them down the garden path of policy blunders and national catastrophes’. This is apparent, where some have diverted from their own field of qualifications and training and become pseudo authorities on every other conceivable subject!
Some recent examples bear the truth to this parlous state of affairs. For instance the drastic decision to stop import of chemical fertilizers and replace it overnight with organic fertilizer when the country does not have immediate capacity and supply to service the same. The purported reason of chemical fertilizer being a causation agent for Chronic Kidney Disease and Cancer remains unproven in the international scientific community. Nor have our local pundits’ adduced scientific evidence in proof of the supposed correlation between ingestion of chemical fertilizer through food leading to carcinoma. The decision has been supported by some sections of the medical fraternity not the agricultural scientists and growers! Now the farmers are up in alms predicting a poor harvest with Food Security gone to the whims of unprofessional decision making and implementation.
When import duty for sugar was slashed last year, the benefit was passed neither to the Consumer, nor the Government which lost revenue to the tune of Rs.15.9 Billion. But insider information on the proposed reduction of commodity levy duty from Rs.50/- per kg to 0.25 cents per kg. enabled one specially favored M/s. Pyramid Wilmar Pvt. Ltd. to sells more than 2000 Mt. of sugar imported under the Rs. 0.25 levy to State owned Sathosa for an exorbitant price above Rs. 125/-, per kilogram. The State owned, Sathosa then sold the sugar to the consumers at a reduced approx Rs. 85/- per kilogram. Therefore, Sathosa purchased sugar at a higher price and sold it for a lesser price. It is apparent that this is either due to negligence, or official blundering for purpose of defrauding the State for enrichment of certain vested interests .It was pitiful to see the Mandarins of the Finance Ministry making feeble apologies over the media for such blatant debacles.
The heat seems to have died down on Sri Lanka’s most destructive environment disaster of the X–Press Pearl disaster and the previous New Diamond ships affecting the marine life, livelihood of fisher folk, and most importantly the coastal and oceanic environment of a small island state. Questions remain as to why the Sri Lanka Ports Authority allowed an already compromised leaking ship to enter the port of Colombo with tons of toxic substances. Investigations have revealed deleted email communications, and a general delay, inaction, malaise, on the part of a number of state regulatory organizations responsible for this sector. The removal of the politically appointed Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority does not seem to absolve the responsibility for this great National Disaster which also rests on several marine environment, merchant shipping regulatory organizations in the Public Sector as well as its political leadership.
As for the performance of the Public Health Sector we are in the Fourth Wave engulfing approx. 200 official deaths per day,(many hundreds under wraps or undocumented) dire warning from World Health Organization of a holocaust of deaths to come! The “Bubble Tourism” and great Economic Resurgence expected to be ushered in by the New Normal of carrying on ”Business As Usual” with all Public Servants requested to report to work on a daily basis now seems to have evaporated into nothingness! thanks to the mayhem policy prescriptions of blowing hot and cold on regulating movement, the Paniya (decoction) which received a temporary approval without adequate plan on bona fide data of Covid Spread, the relative absence of consistent implementation of restricting large crowd gatherings, inter district travel, Sinhala & New Year travel etc. Except for the still small voice of Truth of the Sri Lanka Medical Council and a few upright Academics, the pitch seems to be full of the blame game, some professionals casting cheap accusations of sabotage against other professionals for lack of data when all the while the truth is plain to see. Over 75% of approx. 8,000 deaths recorded due to Covid-19 are those above the age of 60 years with co-morbidities as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney dysfunction. Why was not this group given priority in Vaccination since the beginning of this year? Who is responsible for such manslaughter and criminal negligence? When the Sri Lanka Medical Council recommended a lockdown during April New Year period, and subsequently, why was such informed recommendation rejected by the Government? When the admirable performance of the former Health Ministry Secretary Dr. Jasinghe showed a controlled management of the Covid-19 last year, why was a “push up and kick out” strategy followed when he was moved as Secretary to an entirely different sector foreign to his medical training and experience as Environment?
The sad truth seems to be that behind every Public Servant stands the shadow and spectre of the Politician. His is the desire for continued Electoral victory, by hook or by crook, Power and desire for personal Wealth creation during term of office. The 1972 Constitution has ensured that the Public Service is at his disposal and command to achieve such objectives.
There are exceptions no doubt, but the brave and the honorable few who take a principled stand and try to work for the good of the country are invariably sidelined, undermined, ignored. These are the faceless public servants, quiet heroes and heroins who still serve and give of their best, striving to make a difference for the better: They are those who Trust in God and do their best for their fellow citizens despite all odds and being wearied and harried in the extreme! It is they who experience the ultimate bliss of certainty and quiet joy of knowing that come what may, their exertions have not been in vain and even in extremely limited and circumscribed circumstances and terrain, they have been able to deliver for the common good.
*The writer is a retired Public Servant with 34 years in service at Executive level in varying capacities in the State Sector and Diplomatic Service