Questions of "Governance"

Gamini Seneviratne
In Pursuit of Governance by M. D. D. Pieris. 838-pp+ vii. Stamford Lake Publications. 2002.

M. D. D. Pieris’s memoir of his career in the public service, interlaced though it is with relatively brief accounts of his family, is a lucid description of a journey through many years to many positions and to many places. We are told that he has drawn on a diary of events, meticulously kept through a period of some thirty-six years, the normal span of active service for a public servant. Dharmasiri Pieris gives us, as he has perceived them, the highlights in that journey,. Many of them are of some significance in their impact on inter-personal and inter-party relations and some touch on international relations in so far as our political leaders were able to participate in or influence them. In all such, his interventions have been positive.

The only other public servant of our generation who maintained such a record was Chula Unanboowa. Chula’s diaries were probably more detailed, but he functioned at lower levels — those of Assistant, Deputy, and Head of Department. He did not have Dharmasiri’s verve or sense of humour. A Trinity ‘Lion’ and a prominent member of the University ‘Dram Soc’, Chula was distinguished for his pervasive, occasionally nitpicking, sense of what was ‘right’.

There’s a limit to detail. As Voltaire had put it ‘the surest path to boredom is to tell all’. Pieris has not done that. He has made his selections. What he has told is entertaining, informative, and provides insights into events here at a time when Sri Lanka was more or less a sovereign nation. Some of what he’s left out is not material to that history. Some of it is. That’s a pity. His is nevertheless a selection that provides a detailed, though less than panoramic, view of what he had experienced through his years in the public service.

In a certain sense, my view of ‘governance’ and my approach to the business of public administration were the polar opposite to Dharmasiri’s. He had assiduously gone through the cadet’s training segment Among many other forms of ‘on-the-job’ training, it required one to sit on the bench with the presiding Magistrate three days in the week. In the first District I was posted to, on the third day, I was excused from this training on the grounds that I seemed to know the relevant codes and ordinances, — and, besides, had to familiarize myself with areas that I’d be later called on to administer: members of the Ceylon Civil Service, usually the younger ones, were no longer called upon to serve as Magistrate or District Judge. At my next station, my spell with the District Judge cum Magistrate was even shorter: he was recording or mis-recording the proceedings himself, the Court stenographer being absent. When I offered to excuse myself from such proceedings he was embarrassed but relieved. By way of supplementing the relief so acquired, I chose a short-cut through the detailed program, which the Government Agent had laid down for me, of working on a representative set of files in each branch in the Kachcheri. With the assistance of the Second Clerk, I went through the week’s program the previous Saturday afternoon, thus making it possible for me to join the staff officers in their field-work. When the G A came to know of it, he had my desk moved from the AGA’s office to his own, - but by then I had seen for myself how threateningly the tea plantations hovered over the Kandyan villages, how difficult it was deemed to find land for the expansion of those purana villages. Tea plantations continue to enjoy favoured treatment though they now produce less than 2/5ths of our tea; smallholders, mostly in the Galle, Matara, Ratnapura and Kalutara districts, produce the rest.

Outstanding product of the CCS

Our cadet’s training, like that of the previous batch, was hurried through. Within a couple of months I found myself gazetted as a Forest Officer (the felling of Rawanella had begun) then posted to Nuwara Eliya where several staff posts were vacant and an extra hand needed. Thereafter our entire batch was moved to the rapidly expanding Dept of Import and Export Control. My stay there was cut short when the S/T, Shirley Amerasinghe, moved me to the General Treasury. I met ‘Shirley’ only a couple of times and it was clear that he was the outstanding product of the CCS at that time. He moved into the Foreign Service as our man in Delhi where he distinguished himself in neutralizing the cream — or crust – of the Indian bureaucracy and drafting the Sirima-Shastri Pact on a problem on which senior officials in Colombo, especially W. T. Jayasinghe, had worked for several years.

It is astonishing, therefore, that Dharmasiri makes no mention of the farce enacted by the government (JRJ’s) in attacking Shirley Amerasinghe’s position as Chairman of the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. The Secretary General of the UN as well as other member nations took another view and Shirley was able to continue to give leadership at those negotiations. One does not need to possess a deep interest in History or to have read that much to consider it worth mentioning in a tome on ‘Governance’: it was common knowledge. More recently, Jayantha Dhanapala had a similar experience. By way of contrast, Mrs. Bandaranaike chose to act on Dr. N. M. Perera’s advice in supporting Dr. Gamani Corea for the top job in UNCTAD. Dharmasiri makes no mention of that either.

However, he does mention Chris Pinto, Milinda Moragoda’s father. I do not recall the particulars of the failure of the government to support him – perhaps it had to do with ‘relative merit’ — but I do remember C. W. Pinto in school and his great rivalry with L. R. Jayewardene. In my memory, it was as much a neck and neck thing as that between Lalith Athulathmudali and Lal’s brother, A.N.U., who followed their father into the Mercantile Credit group of companies. Chris Pinto won the Steward Prize, at Rs. 600 the fattest of them all, a few years before Lalith and I did so.

When access to Royal College was made a matter of the open competitive examination that Dhamasiri mentions I was among a third of the intake to Royal from other schools. Other boys from Royal Prep moved to the ‘Royal Post-Primary’ which became the Government Senior School and later the Thurstan College. ‘Promoting’ their lethargic class teacher along with the boys was tough luck for the students and it is to their credit that Dhamasiri and his classmates were able to struggle through to a flowering of their talents along other routes. Such mishaps were not unique: some of us had the problem in reverse in Form IV — five teachers in chemistry in one year, each of whom ‘began at the beginning’! We completed a third of the syllabus; only Harsha Wickremasinghe and I ‘scraped through’. (Psychologically, it meant goodbye to engineering as a profession for me). It is hardly necessary to add how incomparably worse is the lot of hundreds of thousands of children who have no roof above them, a bench to sit on or somebody to teach them. Among Dharmasiri’s contemporaries at Thurstan were Brindley Perera, reputedly the most promising school-boy batsman of the time; my brother, Upali, who was the first to pass the SSC from that school and later opened batting for the Police with ACM Lafir; Sarath Weerasooriya and Sri Nagendra, who went on to head the Finco Group and James Finlays, respectively; Susantha Samaranayake, the first Lankan Manager at IBM; George Rupesinghe, Deputy Editor of the ‘Reader’s Digest’, many others who pursued ‘good governance’ in their own spheres.

There are the occasional errors/omissions in the phase before he began recording the diary on which he’s drawn so effectively to support what, for most people, in whatever occupation, would be, if not quite a sequence, a collection of events impressed in memory to be repeated at family gatherings or among friends till the audience were bored out of their wits. The ultimate strategy in such a case would be that of the long-sufferers calling for a story: "Uncle/Seeya/Siri...please tell us about the time you..." — so they could get on with the rest of the evening. Such impressionistic accounts of their lives as they provide are inevitably selective and, even as such, often throw some light on larger problems in the narrator’s field of work and/or on society at large. They are rarely blessed, or handicapped, by the detailed record of a diary conscientiously kept through many years.

Among events, some of great significance (historically) that were evidently missing in his diary, are the decisions taken in 1970 by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Government to sever diplomatic relations with Israel, to support the beleaguered people of Palestine and Vietnam. Such decisions contained a moral dimension that seems to have escaped his consciousness as well. Later in the book, Dharmasiri describes at length the mechanics of hosting the Non Aligned Summit but his reliance on his diary perhaps has resulted in a kind of narration more proper from a Chief of Protocol.

Insurgency April 1971

Dharmasiri’s account of specific matters, large and small, may need amendment. For instance, his account ("Operation Rescue’) of the ‘Home Guard’ set up by Felix Dias Bandaranaike when the insurgency broke out in April 1971, is incomplete. There were antecedent incidents that need not be related here. Those units were set up by postal district, with a Permanent Secretary as ‘Captain’; my Perm. Sec being out of the country, I was asked to do his job. It is correct that, as Dharmasiri says, senior public servants were placed in some danger from the security services they were to assist. They were armed with an armband, a baton and an electric torch and sent out on (foot) patrol duty. While reconnoitering Bagatalle Road for the presence of armed men, ‘Jew’ Jayawardena, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Constitutional affairs, had been stopped by a (mobile) naval patrol – they dropped him back at the Tea Propaganda office on Galle road where the H-G headquarters for Kollupitiya was located. The ‘home guards’ later took on a task nearer ‘home’: keeping the food supply lines open via the cooperative stores that Dharmasiri and his officers were busy feeding throughout the country.

Similarly, it might be noted that the Thrift & Credit cooperatives have a long history, and in their initial phase, were indeed strong bodies, competently run, often by retired public servants or men of substance in the village. Some continue to flourish on their own. ‘Sanasa’ is a more recent development and is run much like a private limited liability company. The Multi-Purpose Cooperative Societies (MPCS) were creatures of the State, set up under an executive order of the Minister in charge of the subject, the late Philip Gunawardena. The story goes that Philip had declared that an MPCS would be set up in every village to serve the consumption and production needs of the people. Of about 17,000 in the Village List, [the latest count is some 38,000, a figure inflated by certain people re-naming villages after their own]. Philip’s officials were able to locate 11,000, some of them hamlets with a few households; 5000 MPCSs were set up in his time. Philip’s dream of establishing an infrastructure for rural development that included the Paddy Lands Act, the MPCSs, and a Cooperative Bank, (later developed as the People’s Bank), was fractured by his abrupt departure from the Government.

Dharmasiri is very informative on the structures of the organizations he had served in and the management tasks entrusted to them, the temperament of ministers, their style of work and, at least by implication, their relative competence to occupy the seats they did. He speaks highly, as he does of others like S. B. Herath, of our Minister of Agriculture & Food, M. D. Banda. He was indeed a decent and honourable man. When I called on him at his official bungalow soon after the elections of 1970, I found him packing his suitcase — there was nobody around; Chandi Chanmugam dropped in while I was there. Others would have called on him at other times. Minister Banda worked hard and was more familiar than most of his officials with the nature of our agricultural economy. He had his blind spots too. A relatively trivial decision made by him saw me listed, virtually as a witness against him, by an agent who had been encouraged in his action by a corporation under the ministry.

That Board had retained Lakshman Kadirgamar but he saw through the matter in double-quick time. In later years, when he was with WIPO and on ‘the other side of the table’, he had the graciousness to brief me on the options available to us. Perhaps it was his foresight that made him hedge on my suggestion that he enters Parliament via Manipay.

Dharmasiri refers to a negative reaction he had encountered from the Ministry of State regarding the salary payable to him as Director-General of the SLBC. A little later, in 1978, I experienced a similar response when the late Esmond Wickremasinghe asked me to set up "Lanka Puvath": the Ministry succeeded in virtually scuppering that project for some two years.

His in-depth experience would seem to have been in food procurement and distribution, a complex and demanding task that calls for a high degree of foresight, hard work, devotion to duty, and managerial skills across organizational boundaries. Such skills are hard to come by, and the need for them will become more acute as ‘globalization’ develops in yet more distorted and distorting ways.

Dhamasiri has chosen to deal with events and procedures at particular points in time. One does wish that he had addressed himself to the implications for national food security in a scenario that had begun to emerge while he was yet involved in activities that are the subject of his memoir. (I have not seen his Conference Paper on food policy through the 1980s).

A mastery of the nuts and bolts operations, important as it is, would be an inadequate tool of ‘governance’, the vital sinews of which have to do with policies that support the people in their efforts to protect their ways of life and livelihood. Improving their life chances matter as much to them (!) as it does to politicians or to bureaucrats who presume to speak for hoi polloi. An essay on ‘governance’ must necessarily tend towards an examination of the genesis, the content, and the outcome of what passes for "public policy". Appearances to the contrary, though, he’s sold himself short on introspection.

He is askew when he says that some ‘desultory’ attempts had been made to systematize the Administrative and Financial Regulations (the AR and the FR), documents that sought to regulate ‘governance’. That was done, quite comprehensively, by our senior in service, Francis Pietersz, in the Establishments Code in which he updated the AR and the relevant section of the FR by incorporating all the government Circulars on the subject. We have had, for that matter, a successor in that office, now re-appointed as a Secretary, who was unaware that the Ministry of Public Administration, other than in the management of the offices directly under it, was not a ‘line’ Ministry.

His accounts of his travels are of a quality one does not readily associate with most public servants; they address the detail of the moment and the interior view of a perceptive mind. Whether fleeting or not his encounters with foreign Heads of State or their Ministers were, he’s taken the trouble to document them, occasionally in a manner that historians would regard as ‘a primary source’.

I myself (though I was once taken for the Minister of Agriculture at an FAO conference!) have had few such encounters and those, mostly with ministers and other officials in the area of industrial, agricultural or trade policy, were limited in range to little more than half a dozen countries and to officials in bi-lateral and multi-lateral financing agencies. Apart from some substantive bi-lateral matters, they gave me the privilege of discussing with such officials the options available to people in what has become a pretty desperate world all round. I have never met a Head of Sate other than our own.

The notion that in ‘developed countries’ policy flows from ‘committed research’ at a ‘high level’, or by Think Tanks and Institutes of Policy Studies with ‘strong in-house capacities permanently staffed’... would probably apply to military and economic strategy vis a vis the outside world. As the common consumer of AP, Reuters, BBC, CNN reports knows, most such ‘think tanks’ are rather ‘think-alike sloughs’ in which elements of ‘the kitchen cabinet’ figure. Here, we have had only one serious (domestic) attempt at developing a plan for managing the economy at macro-level: the Ten Year Plan drafted by a Committee chaired by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike with Gamani Corea as Director of the Planning Secretariat. (The Five Year Plan of 1972 was little more than a collation? collection? of annual implementation programs).

In my experience the only time a ‘think-tank’ actually worked was during the administration of J. R. Jayewardene. It was personified by G. V. P. Samarasinghe, Secretary to the Cabinet, who chaired the Development Secretaries Committee. Matters of policy, as of capital expenditure, were brought before it every week. GVP had a team of professionals who examined them and briefed him, and he came equipped to discuss them. He had in his head, besides, the principal questions that had to be considered and it did not take long for the Secretaries to begin to do their homework. Matters of strategy, that often pass for ‘policy’ or vice versa, were a kind of no-man’s land. Whether those who had chosen politics as their career or life’s work, or public servants who had chosen to go about it the other way, were ever able to sort such niceties out I do not know.

Dharmasiri has mentioned such things as "bribing the electorate" in relation to the Third World. Such are not merely recognized in the US, it is as American as apple-pie, and that process has contributed a vocabulary of its own to the English language — including ‘pork-barrel politics’. It has quite an ancestry too as, e.g., Gore Vidal’s "Empire" shows. One could go up and down a few centuries to see its provenance – if one were not too queasy about arriving at Maggie Thatcher or Tony Blair.

Like Colvin and Banda before him, Lalith engaged in open discussions with his officials on policy matters. I last met him at a wedding, (it was one at which Mrs. Bandaranaike was one of the attesting witnesses), shortly before he was assassinated. Gamini Dissanaike, who was at the same table, contented himself with cracking a joke with me while Lalith drew me aside to discuss current issues in agricultural policy – they were much the same then as they are now.

Regarding Land Reform, I shall note only that the government failed to follow Upali Wijewardena’s example of acquiring ownership of plantations by buying up sterling companies through the share market in London. Indeed, it obstructed both Upali and Haris Hulugalle (who had the opportunity of carrying out such ‘take-overs’ in SL rupees)

Dharmasiri asserts that he had set out "to scrutinize varied areas relatively to the broad issues of governance and to illustrate certain realities drawn from international study experience, and practice"... "and discussions with colleagues in many parts of the world". He declares that "the material available could form the subject of several separate books". So it probably would, — perhaps by other hands as well. Let us hope he does so himself.

He refers to a belief that "anybody who worked with the previous administration must be tainted" – and proceeds to rebut that view. It is known that, on the contrary, such officials are recognized by a new administration as the most pliable. Not being ‘foolhardy’ is but part of that. Being cautious in providing the required advice, leads to a kind of longevity of preferment by successive governments. Being politically neutral, on the other hand, is a liability, a cause for concern, and brings with it the certainty of mistrust.

A handicap he had was that Dharmasiri was based in Colombo through his entire career, 27 years as a Secretary, 7 of them as Secretary to Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike. Bradman Weerakoon who has returned to that office, which he had occupied earlier, under four Prime Ministers of varying persuasions, for some twenty years, had the good fortune to be hoofed out to Ampara and Galle where he learnt a great deal of how the system actually does or does not work: "District Administration", after all, is where the buck stops.

The rat race

On the whole, this book seems to have been written for some of his immediate family, for fellow-workers in the business of ‘management’ including those of managing a career. Dhamasiri is most certainly not a flag-bearer in the rat race, the winner of which, as they say, remains a rat. A danger that could arise from a book of this kind, though, as, say, from Dale Carnegie’s cynical expositions on ‘How to make friends’ etc., is that those among young public servants who read English might misread the lessons he has given such a clear blue-print of, — and wish to travel by air or overland in "......" from "....." to "...".

If the substance of Dharmasiri Pieris’s account of his career were to be turned into a monograph of instruction on the homework required and the methodical application to a given task, it would contribute much to training manuals for recruits to the public service. "On the job training" ensures that, for most public servants, especially those under the age of 50, the business of interacting with politicians becomes second nature; the nature of the practice of that skill varies with the level at which one works, but not much.

If everyone were not guilty, in some measure, of transcribing their history in terms that are of credit to them, we’d be a world of arahats. Self-applause on the scale that radiates from this book tends to have the opposite effect: to portray insecurity, whatever its source, and the processes adopted to achieve ‘acceptance’. As I trundled through this autobiography, with its excrescences of bio-data, it seemed as if the author had from time to time missed the wood for the trees. In that respect, as in some others, this book underlines a lack in our publishing industry: it does not provide an editorial service. "In Pursuit of Governance" would have read better at a third its length.

Dhamasiri Pieris deserves our thanks as much for what he has done in this massive book of some 800 + pages as for what he has not attempted to do. The latter are, too often, marked by a glossing over, or occasionally an apparent unawareness of their import for the matter of ‘governance’. In the latter, negative, sense too, his memoir is material for a case study.