By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
The Sri Lankan government has too great a stake in the economy, which is preventing the proper implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, according to Finance State Minister Eran Wickramaratne.
“When you ask for some information, I’d rather not give it to you because it is commercially sensitive information.
Unlike in other countries, which you are monitoring, in Sri Lanka, the state is so big in the economy, that if I give you that information, it will affect the state institutions’ competitiveness, vis-a-vis those in the private sector who are competing,” he said.
Many state institutions have chosen not to respond to requests made under the RTI Act, by making excuses that they are still trying to train employees to comply with the legislation, despite the law being delayed by one and a half years prior to implementation this February.
The actual piece of legislation had been hailed as one of the best right to information laws in the world.
Speaking at the Advocata Economic Freedom Summit in Colombo last week, Wickramaratne noted that the lack of information disclosure under the law shows the government’s stake in the economy is much bigger than people realize.
This appears to be a big blow to the current government’s attempts to create a knowledge-based, highly competitive export-oriented social market economy, since the bureaucrats and politicians are more concerned about job security in state institutions by hoarding information and stifling private sector competitiveness.
Numerous economists have also noted that the government’s attempts to create greater market access to India, China, Singapore and so on through trade agreements while spending precious political capital won’t matter much, unless the local bureaucracy improves.
According to the Census and Statistics Department, Sri Lanka had 1.22 million public servants at the end of March 2017.
Fraser Institute Resident Fellow Fred McMahon, who was in Sri Lanka to attend the Economic Freedom Summit, noted that Sri Lanka can manage its public affairs with just half as much, or even third of the existing bureaucrats.
By Wickramaratne and his colleague National Policies and Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva’s own admissions in the past, most Sri Lankans seek employment in the public sector due to the ability to lay idle and socialize during most work hours, and take home a guaranteed minimum salary and pension.
However, just like Dr. de Silva who last week provided excuses for not enacting economic reforms promised while he was in opposition, Wickramaratne too steered clear of a commitment to bulldoze the existing bureaucracy and provide citizens with their constitutionally ensured right to information.
“Now sitting on the other side and trying to implement the right to information—still strongly believing in the principles of right to information—I also realise some of the practical issues that have arisen,” Wickramaratne said.
He said that the size of the government in the economy, its competition with the private sector and harm to state enterprises by disclosing information “is something we have never really thought about”.
Wickramaratne advocated for a smaller share in economy for the government.
“I don’t think the state actually can run things. It’s making a mess by running things. I’m all for management transferring. I’m going even beyond that and saying the state doesn’t need to own things,” he said.
He added that the public has been misled in the past about the need for the state to own and run enterprises.