A timely proposal | Sunday Observer

A timely proposal

8 January, 2023

We have often observed Government ministries and departments working at cross purposes, without any coordination and planning. This should not happen in the New Year, especially at a time when we are yet to resolve the economic crisis. Funds cannot be squandered willy nilly by Government entities that work in isolation.

It is in this context that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has stressed the need for all sections of the Government to act as one machinery to take the nation towards stability by the end of the year.

“There cannot be competition and confrontation among various sections of the Government. Everyone should follow one policy. All sections of the Government should work as one machinery,” President Wickremesinghe said at a New Year oath taking ceremony at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo.

The President said the Government has managed to find funds for fertiliser, LP Gas, fuel and foods and make those essential items available to the public during the last five months. “However, we have still not been able to resolve the economic crisis to the fullest. We need to achieve this in 2023 and we need the entire State machinery to be galvanised towards achieving this task,” he said.

This is a valuable piece of advice from the President, who has vast experience in the State sector as a six-time Prime Minister who also held many ministerial portfolios. If the entire State sector is not geared towards achieving the set targets for economic rejuvenation, there could be a delay in reviving the country’s fortunes.

There are very simple examples for the lack of coordination among various Government agencies. No sooner a stretch of a given road is carpeted at an enormous cost by the Road Development Authority (RDA) or the Local Government (LG) body in the respective area, the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB) digs it up to lay water pipelines. Once that is done and the road is filled up, Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) moves in to lay telecom cables. If that is not enough, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) also installs power masts and pylons.

The simple question is, why cannot these agencies (and also the Urban Development Authority) coordinate their plans beforehand? It is a simple matter of the RDA reaching out to the NWSDB, CEB and the SLT to check whether they have any development plans in the given area and vice versa. By doing their projects separately, the taxpayer incurs an additional cost, not to mention the inconvenience caused to the public as some roads seem to be excavated perpetually.

A lot of money and also manpower can be saved if these agencies work in unison. For example, the pipelines and telecom cables can be laid before the road is repaired. Then digging the road is required only once. This is indeed how things are done in most other countries, where the State mechanism is computerised and centralised. Thus the system will flag any instance where the work of two State agencies would overlap.

This system was in fact proposed for implementation in Sri Lanka sometime back. We do not know whether this concept was taken forward. If not, it is time that it is revived. Some countries also have an infrastructure “czar” (an administrator, not a politician) who vets all development and infrastructure projects in the entire country. He or she can instantly pinpoint any instance(s) where Government agencies work at cross purposes and advise them to plan and coordinate their projects together. The leading private sector contractors too should be roped into such mechanisms, as Government contracts are often delivered by them.

This should also tie in with the President’s advice to all Government agencies to drastically cut down on their expenses this year. Costs can be slashed by combining several projects at once. In this country, we also have a penchant for holding ceremonies even for the slightest event, such as the opening of a new bridge or a road. This often spans several speeches, songs and dances (sometimes a full-blown musical show) and refreshments for thousands of attendees.

But given the perilous state of our economy, we can no longer afford such tamashas at public expense. In fact, we rarely see such events in developed countries, where priority is given to work and not to “boru shows”. Where even a simple ceremony is held, politicians are rarely, if ever, invited. It is time we followed that lead.

It is also high time that politicians give up their luxury lifestyles which are essentially funded by the public. Do politicians really need to travel in luxurious gas-guzzling eight-cylinder (V8) cars and SUVs to serve the public? Ministers and MPs in other countries use ordinary cars or even public transport for their official work. Even if the car permit system for public servants is re-started in due course, the MPs’ car permits must be scrapped permanently, along with their pensions.

This country can no longer afford to purchase V8 SUVs worth over US$ 55,000 each for the 225 MPs and other functionaries. Moreover, there is simply no need for backup security vehicles for any politician given the lack of any security threats, with the exception of the President and the Prime Minister. These ‘squads’ are a nuisance to other vehicle users as they break every known road rule. Besides, it is the taxpayer who funds the fuel for backup vehicles at a time when fuel is being rationed for ordinary motorists. We have to forego this ‘VIP’ mentality if this country is to be developed at least by 2048, the Centenary of Independence.