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Can’t see the wood for the trees?

30 March 2015 02:51 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe presented the 19th amendment to the 1978 constitution in parliament on March 24th and the Bill, if approved by parliament will make the Prime Minister the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers with powers to appoint its ministers. Article 42 says that the Prime Minister shall be the Head of the Cabinet, charged with the direction and control of the government. So Prime Minister would be the Head of the Government.
On the other hand, there shall be a President of the Republic of Sri Lanka who is the Head of the State as well as the Head of the Government and the Executive (view amended article 30).
According to the relevant gazette published recently, the President would be the Head of the Government. The Cabinet spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senaratne now says the Head of the Government has not been specified in the final draft approved by the Cabinet. There is no point in having a Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka if it is not specifically mentioned who the Head of the Government is. It is a waste of time, money and energy of the general public. 
It is like a student candidate sitting for the exam and having answered most of the questions correctly at the university entrance exam, handing over the answer script to the examination invigilator without marking his Index number. He will get zero marks as the identity of the candidate cannot be established by the examination authorities.

Missing wood for trees
One of the most important developments in the “economic growth literature” in the recent past is the enhanced appreciation (concern) of the role that the misallocation of resources plays in helping us understand as to why such income differences and productivity issues persist across countries. 
Misallocation at the micro level reduces overall productivity of that particular enterprise leading to a drastic drop in the overall economic growth of the country at the macro level. Whilst, the role of the government is to create an enabling environment by having a consistent policy framework for doing business, the enterprises in turn need to focus more on “integrated productivity and quality” issues at factory and farm-gate level. 
The writers’ own view is that most of the enterprises in Sri Lanka do not aggressively implement appropriate strategies to optimize use of the available resources. As a result, the companies are unable to improve productivity and reduce production costs to be competitive in the global market place. At the same time, the governments were also not focusing enough at the big picture of the economy with a view to arresting any misallocation of resources. The impression of the general public is that the Cabinet of Ministers of the present government concentrates more on the smaller specifics and in the process losing out on the larger perspective. Trees are part of the forest. While one may be enjoying the beauty of the trees individually, at the same time he is losing out the beauty of nature as is evident in the complete forest.

Eighty days gone 
80:20 also known as the “Pareto principle” is a rule of thumb that states that 80 percent of outcomes can be attributed to 20 percent of the causes for a given event. 
In business, the 80-20 rule is used to help managers identify problems and determine which operating factors are most important and should receive the most attention based on an efficient use of resources. 
If we are to take examples from different enterprises, for example, in tea plantation companies, it is evident that 80 percent of the tea production of a particular estate is bought by approximately 20 reputed tea buyers out of say, 210 tea exporting companies operating at the Colombo auction. 
Similarly, if you ask the academic staff of leading schools in Sri Lanka, they would say that only 20 percent of the students of the class room obtain less than 80 percent of the marks at the tests conducted at each semester. That means the standard of education has improved and present day children are more intelligent and have the capacity to develop themselves further. Of course, in the good old days when we were in school, may be only 20 percent of the students have obtained more than 80 percent marks out of 100 marks in the year- end exams.
After the Presidential Election on 8th January, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe have been running the country with more or less a “UNP Cabinet of Ministers”. This is despite having less than 50 seats in parliament for UNP whereas SLFP membership alone has more than 120 seats, leave alone the seats occupied by other parties of UPFA. 
The government at the very inception has effectively put in place a mechanism to implement the “100-day programme” as promised by President Sirisena in his manifesto presented at the elections. However, when the new government presented their maiden budget, there were many ill-conceived budget proposals as reported in the media. 
Further, there has been some curtailment or slow-down of development projects throughout the country. There has been an allegation on Central Bank Governor on the recent Treasury bond issue. The guaranteed price scheme for tea and rubber smallholders as promised in the budget is practically not in operation and benefits are not filtered down to the growers. Nevertheless, RW has been able to work with the President Sirisena and keep the SLFP contenders as far away as possible from the PM post.
During the 80-day period ending 31st March, the entire government machinery has been concentrating more on alleged corruption and malpractices supposed to have been committed by some politicians and officials of the previous regime. Instead they should have concentrated more on 20 most important factors that would drive the economy in addition to put in place an overall governance system through some constitutional amendments, i.e. setting up a constitutional assembly to address few critical issues such as, electoral reforms doing away with the preferential voting system and possible solutions to the national (North-East) question, in addition to the abolition of the presidential system itself and setting up of Independent commissions. The budget presented in February 20th in parliament has not given any positive hopes to the business community by way of presenting the road map of the new government’s economic policy framework and the way forward. The net result is that the majority of the business community was disappointed by these developments. All share price indices at the Colombo stock exchange have also plummeted. The majority of the people are beginning to feel a sense of insecurity and political instability. The political stability of the country is a necessary pre-requisite for sustainable economic development.

Majority rules and minority protection
On the current political trends , the grass root level voters especially the SLFPers have been asking Mahinda Rajapaksa to come back to lead the opposition campaign at the next general election which is due in July this year. 
This movement represents a clear shift of people power from the SLFP led by President Maithipala Sirisena to that of Mahinda Rajapaksa. As a veteran journalist, H.L.D. Mahindapala wrote recently, quote; “The Nugegoda wave is now unstoppable.” On the other hand, the SLFP members in Parliament, whether they extend their support to the present Chairman President Sirisena or the previous leader Rajapaksa, have been vehemently opposing the constitutional amendments already gazetted by the government under the 19th amendment  on the basis it does not contain electoral reforms. 
Coming back to the election results, it took a combination of 47 diverse parties to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential elections. As one political analyst cleverly put it, if you throw in the Indian RAW, the American CIA and the Western NGOs it adds up to 50. What about Basil factor? Then it exceeds and gives 51 percent clear majority. And even then he lost only by a slender margin. It reminds me the concept of governance under the “Companies Act”.  That is “majority rules and minority protection.” Unfortunately, under the present governance structure, there exist a powerful “National Executive Council” which acts as an advisory capacity but indirectly takes important government decisions. This is in addition to the Cabinet of Ministers functioning under the Constitution of Sri Lanka. As a result, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers are unable to discharge their duties & responsibilities diligently. It is a threat to smooth functioning of the government machinery. 
The concept of “Executive Councils” was first created in Ceylon by the British colonial administration on the recommendations of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission along with the Legislative Council of Ceylon somewhere in March 1833. The Council exercised executive power and advised the governor. With enactment of the new constitution of the Dominion of Ceylon in 1947, the Executive Council was replaced by the Cabinet of Ministers. Now we have both, the Cabinet of Ministers as well as the National Executive Council. There seems to an incongruity and this may lead to confusion and political instability.
In fairness to the Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, having realised the lapses on the part of the government and immediate danger posed thereon, recently summoned and shared with editors and owners of media the list of immediate priorities for the country which includes genuine reconciliation and rebuilding national unity. In this connection, it is relevant to mention that Northern Province Chief Minister Wignaswaran was reported as saying that the 13th amendment can never be the final solution. In fact, the Indian Prime Minister, Modi himself has called for the need to go beyond 13th at the recently concluded state visit to Sri Lanka. 
As for the 13th amendment and the setting up of Provincial Councils, President J.R. Jayawardene was compelled to give into pressure from other countries to tamper with his own 1978 constitution by introducing this controversial amendment and the Provincial council system under Provincial council Act no 42 of 1987. It is interesting to note that just before PCs were installed, the “Pradesheeya Sabha Act” no 15 of 1987 was passed in parliament thus establishing over 300 Pradesheeya Sabhas in the country with a view to providing greater opportunities for the people to participate in decision making process. In addition, there is a parallel administrative system of having a number of divisional secretariats and offices of the GAs across the country as well. Most of the members of Provincial Councils/local government authorities are unsuitable and incapable to exercise their legitimate authority, leave alone police powers in order to maintain law and order for the benefit of the people.
The majority of the civil society leaders and a cross section of people are beginning to feel that the presence of the pro-west, pro-Indian government poses an existential threat to the future of Sri Lanka. Ven. Medagama Dhammananda of Asgiriya chapter, Kandy was quoted as saying at the National Joint Committee Meeting held recently that they are concerned about the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. Addressing the meeting, an eminent lawyer Monohara De Silva, PC, warned that the present government’s decision to fully implement the 13th amendment would be disastrous for the country. Therefore, any lasting solution has to be found by critically analyzing far reaching implications of establishing the local authority system through PCs and PSs as well as the Provincial system of governance itself. 
The writer’s own view is that this has nothing to do with obstructing to a process of devolving powers to North East Council thus preventing to find a solution to the “ethnic issue” in this country. It is a question of lack of skills & competencies of the Council members and government officials at regional level in order to exercise authority to serve the people without using undue power. It is also a question of the capacity to understand the role and functions of local government authorities perhaps, due to so many complications surrounding the formation of PCs, PSs and the Divisional Secretariats and the duplication of work among many local authorities and the central government. In addition, a lack of sufficient fund allocation from the centre to undertake development projects at grass root level would have aggravated the problem. 
It is therefore important to critically evaluate in order to address both, the  policy incongruence at macro level as well as how powers are being misused (especially police powers and powers vested in the Chairmen of the PSs and Chief Ministers of PCs viz: IGP and AGAs of the Divisions) at grass root level by unscrupulous elements. It is true that Sri Lanka has adopted decentralization of power which has resulted in devolving power to PCs and PSs across the country.

Future political trends
After the fall of Dudley Senanayake’s short parliament in March 1960 that lasted only for 33 days (Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake had recommended dissolution and Sir. Oliver Goonetilleke, the Governor-General called for a new election) in July elections, Sirima Bandaranaike became the first women Prime Minister of the world. 
With his experience of winning the election on the emotional wave of his father’s death in the fifties, Dudley Senanayake was concerned that a similar emotional wave would happen where Mrs. Bandaranaike could ride high on the election campaign. He was, however banking on the report of the commission on corruption which had named leading SLFPers like C. A. S.Marikkar and Moonekulame among others. He hammered the theme of corruption exhaustively in his campaign in the “July 60” but it didn’t cut any ice. The mood of the nation was preoccupied with the magic of the Bandaranaike legacy. He lost in July and Mrs. Bandaranaike came to power.
The parallel between 1960 July election and the coming election this July couldn’t be ruled out completely. The mood and the issues of the forthcoming election will be entirely different from that of the presidential election. Both Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa are committed SLFPers capable of rising over their personal rivalries and sink their differences for the sake of the party. Their rivalry will only ensure the victory of UNP, their traditional opponent. However, it is very likely that President Sirisena would want Ranil Wickrasmsinghe as the Prime Minister thus preventing Mahinda Rajapaksa to come back as the leader after the next parliamentary elections. It is in that context, only the recent formation of the national government on 22nd March should be viewed. 
The national government formed with 26 SLFPers joining the coalition government is not intended to put any other elected leader with a legitimate majority in parliament as the Prime Minister. Ranil Wickramasinghe would continue as the Prime Minister unless he himself decides to quit and sit on the opposite side in parliament, so that he could avoid any further public criticism against the government and go for elections as the main opposition party. 

As for national unity and genuine reconciliation efforts, what is required now is to devise a legal and administrative system for proper devolution of authority to be exercised at “grass root level”, the power is then truly vested in the ordinary citizens of this country to manage their own affairs. 
This is the spirit of effective devolution as universally accepted. There seems to be a general consensus on this matter. The present units of devolution, PCs and PSs, are too large administrative establishments thus negating the very purpose of the principle of devolution with the objective of getting closer to the people. 
My own view is that power could be devolved to twenty four “District Councils” as stipulated in the constitution and to the proposed “Gam Sabhas” instead of having larger units of devolution, namely the Pcs and PSs, some of which have become white elephants and /or corrupt establishments. 
However, a legal provision could be made to permit any two or more district councils within the same Province to amalgamate and operate as a provincial administration. This is to accommodate any request that may come from Northern Provincial Council to manage their own affairs as people  living in the entire province is predominantly Tamil speaking population. Therefore any proposal to devolve more power to District Councils instead of Provincial Councils cannot be construed as a true dilution of the powers vested under 13th amendment.  As for the parliamentary and local authority elections are concerned, it is important to have a hybrid system combining “first past the post” and some percentage of proportional representation method, thus totally eliminating the preferential system (Manape). The proposed amendment to the Local Authorities Elections (amendment) reverting back to ward system is a step in the right direction.
It is also important to put in place a mechanism to have (a) a properly structured District coordinating committee meetings to be held regularly, and (b) a more positive dialogue on social integration for village level activities including physical & social infrastructure development programmes.  This mechanism will lead to greater participation by truly “people’s organizations” both at Gam Sabha level and District level. This would create an enabling environment thus providing opportunities for the people to participate in decision making process.

(The writer is Director/CEO of Bogawantalawa Tea Estates PLC. He is a Fellow Member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted via
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