Sri Lanka has a peculiar way of handling crises. Being a land of lotus eaters, it doesn’t give two hoots about portents of trouble. It tries to wish away any sign of tribulations and lets the grass grow under its feet. It swings into action only after it is beset with a full-blown and unmanageable crisis.
At present, the country is in the throes of a fuel crisis and the government has woken up from its slumber. All of a sudden, it has realised the need for curtailing its expenditure. The steep rise in oil prices with no let up in sight seems to have jolted it into adopting some measures to prevent the present crisis giving way to a future disaster, which is said to be on the horizon.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is reported to have presented a Cabinet proposal seeking to reduce government expenditure by 25 per cent. We give him only one and a half cheers! For, as is evident, given the blatant profligacy that the government worthies disport themselves in at the public expense, the government must be able to halve its expenditure with ease.
The jumbo cabinet is a huge drain on the national economy. (What if a country like China followed the Sri Lankan example in appointing ministers? It would have more ministers than Sri Lanka’s population!) The whole caboodle of ministers has also become a public nuisance where their armed escorts are concerned. Each and every one of them has a fleet of vehicles, an army of security personnel, a fully equipped office with a personal staff and, worst of all, unlimited access to public funds with which he or she lines his or her pocket.
If the President can get rid of one half of those hoity-toity potentates, the country will be able to save a great deal of public funds. He runs the risk of losing his parliamentary majority overnight in such an eventuality. For, those who lose their portfolios will pole-vault to the Opposition. However, the funds squandered on their maintenance and perks need to be slashed drastically, despite political risks involved.
Government politicians are more abroad than here. They seem to be taking part in a competition to travel abroad. Millions of rupees which would otherwise have gone for some useful projects are dissipated on these junkets.
When new sessions of Parliament begin in a few days, the Opposition ought to ask the government how much it spent on the recent UNHRC election. Droves of government politicians and their functionaries made that event an excuse for a foreign jaunt on the pretext of lobbying.
Corruption is another area that the President should concentrate on. It is said that, as the US Ambassador pointed out a few months ago at a seminar, corruption has taken a heavy toll on the economy. It would have expanded by another percentage point or two but for corruption, which has debilitated the government sector. State ventures have been sold for a song due to corrupt deals. Behind all mega privatisation projects, there has been corruption. It has also stood in the way of tax collection. The country is being flooded by imports that come through illegal channels sans any taxes. The infamous VAT fraud cost the state coffers about Rs. 3.9 billion! Similarly, the failure of some key state institutions including the Customs, the Inland Revenue and the RMV resulted in the non-collection of Rs. 380 billion, as a report by the Auditor General has pointed out. Loss of revenue is as bad as wasteful expenditure.
There has been a cockamamie proposal that the number of school days be reduced by one per week so as to cut down on fuel. We thought schools had to be saved only from terrorists. Political crackpots seem to have become a bigger threat to them!
School education is already in crisis, if the failure rate in subjects like mathematics and science at the GCE (O/L) examination is any indication. Some leading schools have apparently outsourced education to private tuition centres, on which students are dependent to prepare themselves for public examinations. What is needed is not any reduction in school days but making schools impart a better education. Let no one fool around with schools!
Instead, the government may seriously consider curtailing parliamentary sittings. Millions of rupees could be saved that way on air conditioning, lighting and food. In any case, the House more often than not lacks a quorum and there is more fighting than debating when it is in session. Food sufficient for thousands of people is thrown away from the Parliament canteen, as we have revealed. This kind of criminal waste of food is happening while millions of the poor hit the sack on empty stomachs. People are tightening their belts while politicians’ waistlines—a better term may be ‘waste-lines’—are expanding at a rate.
Fuel crisis or no fuel crisis, the government expenditure must be reduced. Unless wasteful expenditure is contained, if not eliminated, this country cannot have any hope of a better future. Austerity is the key to development.
President’s proposal to the Cabinet is sensible and salutary. But, the proof of the pudding, it is said, is in the eating. Whether his intentions will translate into tangible action remains to be seen.
We only hope that his proposal is not a gimmick to distract the public from the burning issues they are beset with.