Saturday, August 26, 2006

Prepare to pay for five more ministers!!

Two more ministries to the ever swelling number of ministries of the Sri Lankan Government. Arumugam Thondaman and Chandrasekeran and three of their followers have been given ministerial and deputy ministerial portfolios. It is very difficult to digest the public face the President wishes to portray by showing off that he is against unnecessary governmental expenditure (for example the restriction the president has placed on the number of foreign travels that a Govt minister can undertake) but the same smiling face giving oaths to at least two new ministers every month. All his hoo hah is negated when it comes to satisfying political parties who accept the offer to join the govt for strengthening the numerical strength of the Govt. He is no different to his predecessors in this and many other regards. There are number of negative repercussions of this approach that one can point out, other than the cost factor. I make mention of two of them here. One is the argument that the excessive number of ministers and deputy ministers would mean that a significant portion of the legislature is drawn within the executive system and that this affects the separation and balance of powers between the legislature and the executive. The already eroded status of the legislature in the 1978 constitutional system is further degraded. I will not elaborate on this here.

The second effect that I want to deal with more detail here is about how multiple ministries dealing with one subject of governance can undermine the effectiveness of policy formulation, programming and implementation. This is something that I have experienced first hand through my involvement with the National Task Force on Youth Employment as a member of the task force, representing youth interests. At these meetings I have seen how more than half a dozen number of ministries to do with Youth Employment make the task of cohesive policy formulation difficult. At one such meeting of this taskforce the secretary of a ministry proposed the need for taking entrepreneurship to the school curriculum. In response the ILO Director present there responded that such a proposal had already been given effect to and that ILO had supported a proposal of another ministry in this regard and trained the National Institute of Education staff on the same matter. The subject is being included as part of the revision to be effected to the National school curriculum next year. Such is the level of confusion and resulting duplication of work within our government ministries. A great deal of time and money is being spent and has to be spent on brain storming and working a coordinating mechanism between these ministries. What also is affected is uniformity in policy making and working on a common agenda on important issues such as youth employment.

The Ministries that have been given to Mr. Arumugam Thondaman has been titled Youth Empowerment and Socio-Economic Development. Chandrasekeran’s Ministry is the Socio-Development and Development of Socio-Equality. One wonders what these mean. What difference in work is there going to be between the Youth Affairs ministry and the Youth Empowerment Ministry. The youth affairs and sports ministry is more of a sports ministry than a youth affairs ministry and does very little on the youth affairs subject area. They have been working on a National Youth Policy for the past several years. What is this new ministry going to do then? One just feels that they just come up with random names when they induct new ministers. This is a country which has multiple ministries for railways with a separate ministry even for rail track development!! When will our political leaders take bold decisions for the sake of this country?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

On the All Party Conference and Panel of Experts appointed by the President

What this Panel of Experts will manage to produce, which would less likely to be endorsed by an ‘all’ party conference, will merely add to the existing 1997 and 2000 proposals: of value only to legal academics and political historians. Have the panel of experts been mandated to work on a policy document or on a new draft constitution? Will they be able to surpass and go beyond what has been stated in the Mahinda Chinthana, given that their mandate has been solemnized under the latter? Much will depend on the integrity and independence of the members of this panel. One also wonders whether this effort is initiated under the ‘Southern Consensus’ process? If so is it the Southern parties’ views that will be given prominence in the process? Can a government representing the state ever seek to produce a document that will be reflective of only one side of the divide? According to Minister Rambukkuella there is no time line for the panel of experts to finish their work. Again one is naturally inclined to ask the question what the strategy or the road map that the government has for the peace process?

One note about the debate on the label – federal or unitary? The argument to retain the unitary label is based on the theory that the majority community is afraid that any solution other than one based on a unitary Sri Lanka will lead to the division of the country. But we have heard the Mahinda camp say that the government is prepared for maximum devolution within a unitary form of government. Is this the people’s understanding of ‘unitary’, based on which Mahinda was voted into power? What is this maximum devolution? Can it go beyond what has been given through the 13th amendment within a unitary form of govt? The Hela Urumayas even cited the Banda Ache agreement as a successful example where power was shared within a unitary model of government. One constitutional expert actually said that if the Hela Urumayas had actually taken the time to read through the agreement then they would have found that the power sharing was extensive enough to compare it with a federal model of government or even more! I recollect CBK claiming that 70% of the country is prepared for a federal solution! Just that Mahinda won the elections on a ‘unitary position’ we are now told that the people are for a solution based on a unitary system. This leads us to certain fundamental questions about our democratic systems. What is the value that our politicians give to public opinions? Who makes these decisions on what the public opinion is on the question or for the matter on any question? How much does the common man give thought to questions of this nature? And how informed is he to make well informed decisions? Do we allow politicians who are victorious at elections to decide on what the public opinion on a matter is? Any average Sri Lankan will tell us that we cannot leave it to our democratic process to produce the ‘ideal’ leader. We have well witnessed after the 1970and 1977 elections. With a sweeping majority the parties in power interpreted the ‘mandate’ from the people to suit their own whims and fancies. What Neelan Thiruchelvan termed, using constitution making for ‘instrumental’ purposes. All these questions might sound like undergraduate political science exam questions but for me they are very valid ones to our discourse. This is the exact problem that we face in our democracies. Self-declared political pragmatists might suggest that this is a deficiency that comes with democracy and we cannot really do anything about it.

The only check and balances that can apply here is strong people based civil society based initiatives which will keep the people informed and the politicians on their toes. But the usual lamenting has to be recorded here one more time: How effective and people-based is our civil society to play this role?