Need of the hour | Daily News

Need of the hour

One of the main drawbacks of having a Unity Government was the need to satisfy a lot of MPs from both sides who were together in a governing coalition. Almost everyone had to be offered a ministerial post, which swelled the number of ministers to more than half of the 225 Members in Parliament. This meant that billions of rupees had to be allocated yearly for maintaining the Ministers alone, inclusive of salaries, allowances, housing, vehicles, fuel and telephones. This is an unbearable cost for an emerging country like ours, saddled with a myriad of economic problems.

With the dissolution of the National Unity Government and the appointment of new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country has received a fresh opportunity to appoint a new Cabinet mainly from a single party. Indeed, this union of the Executive and the Legislature was a dire need in our political landscape. The problem of giving ministerial portfolios to MPs from two political parties does not arise as both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Rajapaksa represent a single political party.

While details of the incoming Cabinet are still not clear at this stage, there have been several statements to the effect that it will not exceed 30 Members. This is more than enough for a country of 21 million. India, which has a population of more than one billion and is at least sixty times bigger than Sri Lanka, has less than 40 Union Ministers. Britain has only 21 Cabinet Ministers, for 66 million people. The USA has only 16 Members in the (Federal) Cabinet, despite having 325 million people. Malaysia too has less than 30 Members in the Cabinet for a population of 31 million. It should indeed be possible for a country like ours to manage with a 30 Member Cabinet.

There is a need to abolish meaningless ministries that are given just to satisfy MPs. Reading through the previous Cabinet List, it is clear that some ministries have no meaning and function at all. Thus there is a need to identify the most essential ministries that can take the country forward. Among them are Defence (normally vested with the President himself), Finance and Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture, Education and Higher Education, Lands, Health, Transport and Aviation, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Power and Energy, Youth and Sports, Media and Communications, Industries and Exports, Home Affairs and Local Government, Labour, Women’s and Children’s Affairs, Tourism, Culture and Arts, Housing, Rural Development, Plan Implementation and Science and Technology. One has to remember that deputy ministers are also appointed for these ministries, which takes the total to well over 60. The Prime Minister is also traditionally entrusted with a number of ministries.

Keeping government expenditure down should be a major challenge for the Government. There has been a tendency in recent times for Government expenses to spiral out of control, with some ministers ordering super luxury cars worth over Rs.60 million. Many politicians also develop a penchant for selecting first or business class when they go overseas, which makes quite a dent in the national coffers. They should be told to fly economy whenever they can at least on short haul flights. Government Ministries, Provincial Councils and Local Bodies must always bear in mind that they spend people’s funds – the Western Provincial Council recently got a lot of flak for trying to order super luxury chairs and air freshener machines. One Ministry was spending Rs.20 million per month to rent a luxury building in Rajagiriya, while plenty of space was available in Government offices rent-free. If serving the people is the aim, such luxuries are not necessary.

Our Ministers and politicians must also give up the habit of going in convoys. Only the President and the Prime Minister should use motorcades for security reasons. All other ministers should be allocated only one vehicle and they should obey all road rules, just like other motorists. There is no need for them to use several backup vehicles in peace time. People are fed up having to give way to politicians in a hurry, whose security details shove the other motorists aside as they “fly” on the road. Stern action should be taken against any politician caught breaking road rules.

We have stated in these columns before the importance of MPs attending Parliament on session days. It is somewhat distressing to see row upon row of empty benches even when Parliament is debating an issue of national importance. Millions of rupees in public funds are used to maintain the MPs and the Parliament – they should make use of that opportunity to raise their voice on behalf of the public.

There are many other challenges before the incoming Government, but these are some of the people-friendly measures it could adopt without much trouble. Accountability and transparency should be the keywords as it seeks to shape the future of Sri Lanka. 


 

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