This country has earned notoriety for enjoying champagne on a toddy income. Roads are chock-a-block with luxury vehicles and the latest edition of an SUV launched in the West today will find its way here next week. Nearly one half of Sri Lankans are proud owners of mobile phones, though most of them can easily do without those gadgets. They may grumble about rising coconut prices but bust millions of rupees on SMS voting collectively every night. Even the poor girls and boys slaving away in factories for a pittance show off mobile phones perhaps by way of escapism, dissipating as they do their hard-earned money on reloads and so on. People utter expletives and curse powers that be to their heart`s content when they receive dreadful electricity bills but never do they give their TV sets a rest. They lap up trashy soap operas for hours on end late into the night with several lights on in their houses.
A few weeks ago the government announced an austerity drive. President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged his Cabinet to cut down on government expenses. But, there doesn`t seem be any reduction in wasteful expenditure. No sooner had the government publicised some measures it proposed to curtail expenditure including restrictions on ruling party politicians` junkets abroad than Leader of the House Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva sought to justify, in Parliament in response to a query from the Opposition, ministerial foreign travel!
The government is lamenting soaring oil prices and the rapid depletion of foreign reserves. The CPC wants the national fuel consumption slashed by at least 25 per cent urgently, if the country is to manage the oil crisis. These measures are long overdue. But, the government has, in its wisdom, issued duty free vehicle permits to public officers already in possession of vehicles in good condition. This populist move has cost the state a great deal of foreign exchange in addition to the tax revenue the Treasury has been deprived of.
Most of the vehicles bought with those permits are guzzlers powered by subsidised diesel. Having allowed the importation of such huge private vehicles which rarely convey more than one or two persons, the government is said to be contemplating restrictions on vehicle imports.
What characterises the public sector is an unhealthy obsession with pay hikes, concessions and privileges. If only they evinced the same interest in their work!
Public officers are like crows, it is said. Whenever someone gets something, others appear from nowhere and make a raucous din. Then there are protests. Never are they happy and content. After the issuance of duty free vehicle permits to some categories of government servants, others let out a howl of protest. They, too, demand that concession.
The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) engineers were quick to kick up a row demanding duty free vehicle permits which they claimed they were entitled to. When the government ignored their demand, they launched a work-to-rule campaign promising shock therapy. However, they, to their credit, agreed to drop that demand at a meeting with the President, who explained to them the dire economic situation of the country. They agreed to settle for the removal of the CEB Chairman whom they had locked horns with.
The much maligned CEB engineers, whatever their flaws may be, deserve praise for having put the country before cars. It is hoped that others will follow the example set by those engineers to help the country overcome the present economic crisis.
Promises and protests will take the country nowhere. What is needed is tangible action to obviate wasteful expenditure and reduce the country`s burgeoning fuel bill. We have a government that makes all sorts of promises without honouring them and an Opposition that specialises in protests of all sorts without practising what it preaches. Both of them don`t make any sacrifices and when it comes to the feathering of their nests, they are as thick as thieves pun intended! They may be at daggers drawn over many other issues but never is there a division among them where their pay hikes and the enhancement of perks are concerned.
A few weeks ago, the Opposition staged an interesting protest in Colombo against fuel prices hikes. They had bullock cart rides shouting slogans. A few days later, they could be heard grumbling that their fuel allowance was not enough. Thus, they have made a mockery of their protests, as an increase in their fuel allowance means an additional burden on the very people whom they are weeping buckets for.
What Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh wrote to his parliamentary group recently is worth recalling in this regard. He suggested that austere measures be adopted immediately by ministers and senior bureaucrats working under them, given the economic woes of the Indian public. `As we ask the people to bear some of the financial burden of our oil imports` he said, `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.`
That is proper leadership!
As Dr. Singh has pointed out, charity begins at home. Before asking electors to practise austerity, it is the duty of the elected and their top bureaucrats to set an example. Then only can the people be motivated to make sacrifices.