Potholed public service

Friday, 19 April 2013 00:04 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

FROM fasting unto death inside a mine to cutting down one million eucalyptus trees to make EPF and ETF payments, it is clear that the Sri Lankan Government is struggling to maintain its massive public service sector. Newspaper reports on the same day detailing these two developments highlight the struggle the public coffers are undergoing to maintain a massive, and most would say unnecessary, public service.

A group of workers attached to the State-owned Kahatagaha Mine in Dodangaslanda have begun a death fast at a shaft which is located some 1,132 feet under the ground, making several demands. This shaft is said to be the deepest location inside the mine.

It was reported that 70 workers were engaged in the death fast. They are said to have entered the mine at 7:15 a.m. and have not come out since then. Workers supporting the death fast from outside said they have lost communication with their colleagues who were inside. Journalists who rushed to the scene were prevented from entering the premises as the main gate was locked.

The workers alleged that the employers had given festival allowances to only a handpicked group and those who have worked for nearly 10 years in the mines had not been made permanent. They are demanding that all workers be paid the festival allowance and for those who have worked for a long period of time to be made permanent.

Another newspaper carried the disturbing report of the State Resources and Enterprise Ministry planning to cut one million eucalyptus trees to make EPF and ETF payments that have been backlogged for over 20 years to three State-owned enterprises. These 3,000 employees are attached to the Janatha Estate Development Board, Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation and Alkaduwa Plantations – none of which have made any profits for years.

At this point one has to argue that depleting the forest cover with no study on how it will affect soil erosion, wildlife and rainfall is unwise to say the least. Moreover, depleting environmental resources to maintain chronic loss making companies is not doing any service to the nation, despite what politicians would say. In addition, there is no guarantee that this payment will suddenly galvanise these companies to be profitable ones free of corruption and mismanagement. There are also plenty of other State-owned companies that are making billions of losses, burdening taxpayers.

Since the Rajapaksa regime came into power, the numbers in public service have more than doubled, reaching 1.3 million as of December 2012. In other words, one in every 15 of the total population is now on the Government payroll. Most of the increases have been reported in security forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Police and Civil Defence), education and health services.

As the Pathfinder Institute pointed out in a recent report, there are no scientific studies to evaluate the need for and productivity of these public servants. Almost all Sri Lankan governments have tended to be proud to proclaim that they have increased public services and employment therein, despite the fact that this was contributing to a fundamentally-flawed fiscal framework, which is now becoming increasingly unaffordable.

The report argues that when successive governments were unwilling or unable to introduce economic reforms that would increase private sector job creation, they found the public sector to be a convenient employment creation agency. However, the macroeconomic instability arising from the current fiscal framework calls for a radical rethink of the traditional approach to the Government being the employer of first resort. No program of public service restructuring will be sustainable in this country unless it is supplemented by a package of other reforms that generates rapid expansion of private sector activity.