ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 10
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Peanut farce can't feed people

In the face of recent back-to-back price increases in petrol, diesel and kerosene in the wake of gas price hikes and then, a crippling jump in milk foods, the Cabinet of Ministers has finally felt some heat, judging by their decision to slash their monthly salary of Rs. 54,285 by 60 per cent.

The sacrifice is no doubt, well-meaning and shows their solidarity with the people they represent, even though it is for six months only. It would have been better still if they focused on their Rs. 150,000 monthly allowances or on the thousands of rupees each of the 52 (51 this week), squanders on the upkeep of their staff, security, vehicles and travel.

Which Cabinet Minister today depends on his wages for his rice and curry?
The Minister of Information this week conceded at a news briefing that coalition governments had come to stay and that no longer were small Cabinets possible.
Whatever the newly formed Opposition National Congress (the amalgamated UNP and SLFP (M)) may have to say about the incumbent Government, they have also accepted large Cabinets, though limiting the number to 32.

One wonders then, how neighbouring India, with a population fifty times bigger than Sri Lanka, a land mass so huge, and a much more complex political system with a galaxy of regional political parties to accommodate in the formation of coalition Governments at the Centre, can manage to limit its Cabinet to 31 ministers.

Without belittling the Cabinet decision, it must be pointed out that the total saving by slashing their monthly salary amounts to about. Rs. 320,000 a month - i.e. Rs. 2 million for the six months.

True, Cabinet Ministers pay cuts is more symbolic, but this must be weighed against the manner in which public funds are just thrown down the drain by wasteful expenditure.

The media have come out strongly on recent reports of the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee, all to a deaf, dumb and blind Government. What is the example the Cabinet is showing in other areas -- for instance, in foreign travel which is bringing little benefit to the country. Even when it comes to domestic travel -- each trip by a Cabinet Minister to any province is costly, given his limousine, his back-up vehicles and for the bata for the security officials.

Take the amount pumped into providing perks for Provincial Councillors and the utterly ineffective Provincial Councils. The abuse of the vehicle permit given to MPs -- the most recent example being that of the Venerable Monk-MPs, who have done damage to the Sangha, their supporters, and to themselves by flogging their permits for hard cash.

Whatever the parochial politics in this country, when the time comes for serving themselves with perks and privileges at the expense of the State purse, there is absolute unanimity from both sides of the House.

There is a pithy local idiom that says that if the spoon is in your hand, why wait for compliments to serve yourself. That is what is happening today, and to hell with good governance.

Today, the upkeep of the Government and its running costs have become a burden to the masses. The Treasury Secretary is quoted in our issue today as saying that the people will have to live with the rising cost of living. One wonders why Governments are there in that case.

The Head of the Treasury does not think that the Auditor General's report is worth following up on -- partly maybe because it reflects very poorly on the management capabilities of the Treasury itself. The VAT scam involving billions and the Inland Revenue Department, now chasing behind taxes, is a story by itself.

There is a deafening silence on the losses mounting at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, not only due to the Government withholding an electricity price hike (as the Treasury Head argues), but also because it is pumping fuel into Government-sponsored projects like Mihin Lanka, and not getting paid for it.

These are some of the major factors behind the price increases that have hit the ordinary citizen hard. To say that these acts of corruption, wastage and mismanagement are new kinds of crimes against humanity is not to understate the enormity of the issue.

All this wastage, makes the pay cut of Cabinet Ministers look farcical. And this when the country is facing the threat of an implacable enemy trying to split it in two and funds are required to meet that threat, only compounds the problem of good governance that is required from those in high office.

What is needed is much more than token gestures starting from the very apex of this Government.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.