How idiotic can a government get? While it is in knots over its inability to introduce reforms to its troubled business undertakings like the Ceylon Electricity Board, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, the Cabinet has recently approved a decision to reacquire the management of the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment from the private sector.
A management accounting guru in the previous UNP administration with his eyes unashamedly on the Presidency, even though he was more or less a junior in the party hierarchy, tried every trick in the book to make it work and deliver to the ordinary public goods at a reasonable price. Gimmicks he tried, included keeping CWE outlets open 24 hours a day and introduction of pharmacies at these outlets to attract more and more customers.
But it soon became obvious he was no Sam Walton. Though he failed the fault was not his, for it had grown to be an unwieldy colossus with far too many workers- all thanks to political management of the establishment over the years and he must be commended for giving everything he had.
Fortunately he and the state was bailed out of the problem, when the last UNP regime sold 40 percent of the CWE along with its management to a consortium known as the International Grocery Alliance.
Whether it was the correct party that bought it, we may never know. However there were other bidders, including a well-known name in the supermarket business in Sri Lanka.
Whatever it is, the private buyers have now failed to make it work. Again the primary reason for failure may have been that it had far too many employees.
All indications now point to the private sector consortium putting up shutters this month as it is selling off what ever goods remaining on shelves at big discounts and there being no sign of any of the stocks being replenished.
True the public in general look back nostalgically on days gone by, when state institutions like the CWE and the CTB rendered a yeoman service, but that was a time many of the top politicians came with a zeal to serve the public, often spending their own wealth to serve the people. Now what we have are self-serving leaders who take to politics to rob the country and its people and to amass wealth for their future generations.
In recent years most if not all state owned business undertakings were like bottomless pits gobbling up state resources and many loans extended to them by state banks at the behest of whatever governments in power have almost always been written off.
Besides such socialist ideals have now long proven to be impractical, for the simple reason that man by nature is a selfish creature. When he works for the state it will be on fixed rules, but when he works for himself he may work any length of time to reap the maximum rewards.
Capitalism scores because it rewards those who work and take initiative, unlike the socialist set-up which does not offer such ready rewards to nurture human talent. In a war situation the state set-up may function far better by appealing to the patriotic fervor of the workers as happened in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. May be what the state can do is to obtain donor assistance to help make the CWE a success in the private sector and show the country what a success it can be.
In America and many other leading countries the Wal-Mart chain has shown how selling cheap can attract buyers and make it the most powerful business, even ahead of such giants as Microsoft or IBM. To start with why not get the donors to fund a voluntary retirement scheme in the CWE to shed its excess workforce.
Otherwise if the state gets involved in its management, it will be back to the familiar circus of the recent past, where the politician at its helm will certainly use it as a job bank to nurse his electorate.
And they might also sell things cheap after buying products at a higher price, but it is the poor taxpayers money that will be utilized to run these circuses to help please the politicians and their cronies who will run them.