For Sri Lankan politicians a passage to India is a mandatory pilgrimage. Their penchant for meeting Indian leaders (as well as astrologers) is monumental. But, it is doubtful whether they draw any inspiration from their Indian counterparts as to what sacrifices should be made to tackle crises.
The soaring oil prices in the world market have sent even strong economies like India reeling. Sri Lanka has almost fallen into a dead faint. There is no end in sight for the oil crisis and the worst is yet to come. A global food shortage with the potential to develop into a famine is staring us in the face. The immediate response of India has been to curtail government expenditure and opt for an austerity drive. Among the measures adopted by the Indian government are restrictions on politicians' foreign travel and other expenses.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, in a letter to his team, said, "As we ask the people to bear some of the financial burden of our oil imports, it is not only necessary from the resource conservation point of view but also as a moral duty to cut out all wasteful expenditure in our own establishment." He has suggested that austere measures be adopted immediately by ministers and senior bureaucrats working under them.
What did the Sri Lankan government do? It immediately changed the fuel allowance given to parliamentarians' secretaries to a fixed amount of petrol or diesel so as to ensure that the quantity of free fuel they get won't be affected, however high prices may rise!
The Opposition is in full cry over the high fuel prices and soaring cost of living. It is taking bullock cart rides and tooting horns purportedly in a bid to jolt the government into heeding the public woes. But, none of the Opposition worthies have so far volunteered to take a pay cut or a fuel cut as a gesture of empathy with the masses. They must give up using fuel guzzling massive vehicles purchased on duty free permits, take public transport and urge the government politicians to follow suit, if they are genuinely interested in mitigating the suffering of the public.
It is the moral duty of the elected to share the plight of their electors, isn't it? Street protests by potbellied men sporting gold wristwatches and bracelets and coiffed women bedecked with jewellery may serve some purpose as a form of public entertainment but the people cannot be fooled by such gimmicks.
At any given time, there are more ministers abroad than here. The foreign minister is more in the air than on the ground, as though he were competing with himself to break his own record of foreign travel! He might even set a world record as the most travelled earthling. Of late, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, has been more airborne than 'chairborne'. Worse, we have a train of lackeys trailing him whenever he takes wing to a faraway land.
President Rajapaksa proposed to the Cabinet the other day that 25 per cent of government expenditure be curtailed. But, between saying and doing, it is said, many a pair of shoes is worn out. His words must translate into deeds, if his directive is to be taken seriously.
On Monday, we reported that Minister of Labour Athauda Seneviratne was in Geneva with a delegation of over 20 people! Needless to say the public struggling to make ends meet will have to foot the bill. The ordinary people who can hardly afford a decent meal or a bus ride will be made to sponsor the ministerial tour of Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world! Other ministers are no better. All of them seem to have turned out to be 'foreign ministers'. It is high time the government slapped a ban on politicians' junkets at the public expense. Let a cost-benefit analysis be done before approval is granted for their foreign travel.
While the government continues its spending spree, it is reported that the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) has stopped supplying drugs to the Navy due to unpaid bills. What a way to treat a navy that has sunk almost all the ships of the enemy and is fighting daring sea battles to keep terrorists at bay! It is not the SPC that should be blamed. Instead, it is the government indulging in profligacy that must take the full responsibility for this sad state of affairs. The unsettled bills of the Navy at issue may amount to only a fraction of what the government squanders on useless things. How can sailors and officers risking their life and limb in battling terrorism be expected to protect the very State that doesn't even care to pay for their medicine?
The dissolution of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa PCs will trigger another spending spree by the government. Fuel worth millions of rupees will be wasted and hundreds of State vehicles abused. Besides, the people will be made to bear the cost of elections at this juncture. While opposing PC polls, the UNP is demanding a general election!
It is not snap elections that the country needs at this hour of crisis but an austerity drive. Now that President Rajapaksa has undertaken to slash government expenditure, he will have to honour his promise.
Let him be pressured to do so!