Our national trait for throwing the baby out with the bath-water is truly remarkable. At times, we even throw out the baby and retain the bath-water. Then, we throw up our hands in horror and desperately look for the baby down the drain.
When the UNP opened up the economy in 1977, it threw caution to the winds. Instead of discarding the outdated economic policies selectively and adopting new ones to keep pace with the changing world, it debilitated the state enterprises post-haste and drove most of them to an economic mass grave. Then, in 1994, the SLFP the very party, responsible for running a closed economy from 1970 to 1977, began from where the UNP had stopped to make sure that the existing state ventures were done away with.
Today, we have an SLFP-led government striving to make a vital industry rise from its grave. Minister of Petroleum Resources A. H. M. Fowzie, who was a Cabinet Minister of the Kumaratunga government that divested the state of the Colombo Gas thus placing the people at the mercy of Shell, is promising cheap gas to be produced by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). At present it is Laugfs Company that gets the CPC s gas, which meets about 35 per cent of its production requirement.
When Laugfs entered the market dominated by Shell, the people heaved a sigh of relief thinking that the monopolistic exploitation would end. But, the consumer s lot hardly improved. The prices of the Shell and Laugf products have remained tweedledum and tweedledee. Minister Fowzie s gas, we are told, will cost us ten per cent less than Laugfs product and the CPC will gradually expand operations. He has already placed the order for 50,000 cylinders.
In other words, since the sale of Colombo Gas in 1995, the people have been paying ten per cent more for gas for want of a government venture to market it! The SLFP which has led both the PA and the UPFA coalitions must take the full responsibility for the exploitation of the public for over thirteen years. It is unfortunate that Fowzie and others have taken so long to realise their blunder.
One is reminded of a pithy local saying which roughly put into English means that one remembers the heath only when one s bowels are about to move . (In the good old days, when the rural folk were without toilet facilities, they were dependent on nearby heaths. Some of them however were no respecters of environment and ruined their respective heaths with no heed for the useful purpose they served, only to regret their blunder when they felt the need for it.) The tradition continues. Having ruined the state owned gas company, the government has suddenly woken up to the need for state intervention to regulate gas prices.
We only hope that Minister Fowzie won t join forces with Shell and Laugfs and increase prices citing bogus reasons. Shell, as is our experience, always has the last Laugf . Multinationals and patriotic local businesses are united in one thing: Exploiting the people.
Public transport is another area where we have thrown the baby out. The private sector participation is necessary for economic development in the modern world. So, there is nothing wrong with its involvement in public transport. But, instead of creating a healthy competition between the public and the private sector, the UNP destroyed the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB). Immediately after its electoral victory in 1977, the sale of state-owned buses began. Many state-owned buses were fraudulently condemned, auctioned, pushed out of depots, started and taken away.
The private bus trade thrived like a canker at the expense of the CTB, which continued to be burdened with the ruling party stooges. Well equipped CTB workshops, which once did the country proud, were sold for a song to cronies of political leaders. They robbed their assets and bolted leaving empty shells behind. Numerous experiments were done with it at the behest of the international lending agencies until it fell flat on its face. Today, frantic efforts are being made to resuscitate it. It has shown signs of revival and some depots are earning profits. Minister of Transport Dallas Alahapperuma may claim the credit for it. But, he must not rest on oars. The CTB has a long way to go before it regains its former self and sinister forces that ruined it are capable of working in mysterious ways to achieve their objective of destroying the CTB. They haven t given up.
The government has suddenly realised the importance of the Co-operative system, especially the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment or Sathosa. Why? The political potentates have been rendered too impotent by the mudalali Mafia to regulate the prices of essential commodities. Had the Pettah importers and the rice mill owners Mafia not thrown a monkey wrench in the works, the government would not have bothered to revive Sathosa or the cooperative outlets. It would have continued to eat out of the hand of the mudalali fraternity. The SLFP may try to wash its hands of the crime of running Sathosa and place the blame for that at the door of its rivals. But, it made no serious attempt to revive it earlier, did it?
There are numerous such political blunders which have cost us dearly in terms of loss of state assets and high cost of living. But, we as a country don t seem to learn from our mistakes. Now that rice prices are coming down due to the new harvest finding its way into the market, the government is likely to be lulled into a false sense of complacency and put its programme to revive Sathosa on a slow burn. If gas prices plummet by any chance, the grandiose project to produce CPC gas is likely to be shelved and the imported cylinders abandoned in a warehouse to gather rust, provided a crony of a government politician has no hand in the project. There is a possibility of the Transport Minister giving up his project if someone puts a spoke in his wheel just like the Health Minister who capitulated to the diktats of pharmaceutical Mafia and their medical hit men.
Politicians attempts to strengthen the state sector have always been ad hoc and short-lived. Whether there will be a difference at least this time round, remains to be seen.