Municipal Councils and our public service

Thursday, 4 October 2018 00:58 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A friend, a retired accountant, owned a plot of land in the Dehiwala area with a long frontage to a major road. He had bought it 30 years ago as a residential property, but later, in view of the rapid transformation of the area, developed it into a shop/office complex. This was an investment he made with money saved during a lengthy assignment with an UN agency, overseas. Eventually, he intended to bequeath the property to his children.

However, sometime last year, my friend changed his mind and sold the land. In rupee terms, he made a substantial profit. Despite his protestation that in terms of US Dollars, the gain has been modest, compared to what was paid in rupees in the late 1980s, the appreciation was impressive. This margin was undoubtedly the principal incentive to sell. 

There were other reasons too. With the passing of time he found it increasingly difficult to manage the complex. His children had their own careers and took no interest in the running of the complex. Some of his tenants were routinely behind in their rental, defaulting on contractual payments, making it difficult for him to manage. With one tenant he had an ongoing case in the District Courts, for his dues.

In addition, issues with the Local Government authorities, the Dehiwala Urban Council and sometimes with the Urban Development Authority, compounded his difficulties.

Demoralising encounters with the public service

“Like the title of that famous American movie, this is ‘no country for old men’. Every few weeks these authorities raise one issue or the other which require attendance at their office. When you turn up, nothing happens. Invariably the officer attending to the matter is not available, is too busy or the file cannot be located.

“In more advanced countries there is a check list of requirements and if you are in compliance with this list there is nothing more to worry about. But here no one has a check list, as a result we don’t know where we stand. Different people turn up with different issues. The common view is that they want a bribe, like vultures preying on the people. 

“If you oil their palms the problem goes away for a while. I was not ready to do that. All my working days I tried to adhere to a basic standard in business matters. And of course, new taxes and levies keep appearing, the rate payer is left helpless. These things happen without any consultation or notice to the rate payer. It is unsettling to do business in this environment, you have to be ready to operate at that murky, uncertain level.

“I have already distributed the money I got from the sale of the land to my children. But what gives me the greatest happiness is the knowledge that I don’t have to go to the Dehiwala Urban Council anymore. Going to that place was a demeaning experience. It was as if an unprepossessing mob had taken over a public office, men with a low level of culture wielding power over the rate payers.”

My friend’s demoralising encounters with the public service are by no means isolated experiences. In the face of unpleasant circumstances, he chose to withdraw, remove himself from the reign of the Dehiwala Urban Council. Many do this, using different methods; instead of confronting the diminished public servant personally, they send accountants, clerks, peons and other agents to deal with the ‘official’, their personal dignity remaining unviolated. Not all can afford that comfortable option. 

Daily torments and denigrations of dealing with the Government

For those who have to deal with the Government, there are daily torments, denigrations to be endured. However much one may wish to, for the vast majority there is no avoiding the State; from the cradle to the grave, big brother is with them like a shadow; professing the common good, but in truth, reducing the public to a state of a pitiable recipient of munificence. If a State provides the services it ought to, in the spirit meant to, there is no better friend. But when a State is unintelligent, inefficient and corrupt there is no worse liability for a nation. 

In front of my house, right in the middle of Kirula Road, there is a manhole (there are many, including this!). About a month back, the metal cap covering the manhole came lose. As a result, when a vehicle goes over the manhole there is a loud noise, and thousands of vehicles go over it every day. If left unattended, sooner or later the loose cap could lead to a major road repair, if not a tragic accident. 

Public spirit moved me to look up the “complaints section” of the Colombo Municipality – Colombo East, the number given was 2514845. Several telephone calls, answered only after prolonged ringing, elicited the standard answer, “We will pass on your complaint to the relevant ‘Sir’.

The ‘complaints section’ of the Municipality is indifferent, aware of its own impotence, indulging in a meaningless exercise to no effect. Only another job has been created in the State sector, nothing more! Apparently, the “complaints” of the Colombo Municipality had no idea of either the location of Kirula Road or what a manhole is, demanding directions as well as an exposition of a manhole! I could well be reporting about something happening in another planet! 

After several days of inaction, the “complaints” phone was answered by a conspiratorial Municipal employee “I will give you the telephone number of the Supervisor in charge of your area. But don’t tell him that I gave the number!” After all, why should the public know the telephone number of the person in charge of maintenance in their area!?

The secret number given was 2513929.This Supervisor is a man of few words or was not comfortable explaining matters to a rate payer. His response was an excuse, mumbling that he has many things to attend to. Perhaps he is overwhelmed, or maybe he is overwhelmed easily. Several weeks have now passed, the manhole cap dances noisily, all day and all night! 

Lumbering public service has made the country a laughing stock

These are only minor examples of the workings of a lumbering public service which has become the very opposite of what a service ought to be. Their inefficiencies and corruption has made the country a laughing stock, something which ought to be studied for its failures; systems which have served other countries well, failing miserably in this country. 

Undoubtedly, there is the effect of the cultural DNA, a people who cannot rise to the requirements of an objective service standard; an outlook which can respond only to power or money. In other countries, a bribe can at least induce a kind of efficiency. But here, a bribe may stop something happening, or make a ‘file’ disappear, but cannot ensure a positive result. 

A road supervisor may take a bribe to locate a manhole in a favourable site; but can he make it properly, to modern standards, leak-proof, with a cap that will not wobble after a few weeks? The work standards he is used to, the culture in which he has grown up and now works, makes such a positive outcome, unlikely.

It is evident that after 70 years of self-rule, we have only managed to create a government which is less than competent. To telephone or write to a public servant is to be demanding, asking them to do something is not knowing your place, to criticise them is sheer effrontery. True, our taxes go to pay the remuneration package of the public servant, but that is the duty of the humble citizen. However, to demand service or expect any performance standards from the public service, is being excessively fussy.

From reading about the attitudes of public servant the reader may form a picture of an over-bearing, arrogant bureaucrat. This is furthest from the truth. In appearance most unimpressive; his, is not the proud bearing of a competent service provider, an able holder of office aware of the inherent worth of his service. The crassness of the public servant on the other hand comes, not from any sense of superiority, but from the realisation of his deep-seated inadequacies, insignificance, and inefficiency. 

Across the waters surrounding us, there is a large world, rational and competitive. There are countries with sharp and effective administrations, looking for every opportunity to push their nations forward. They build industries, develop infrastructure, improve their service standards, enter into trade agreements, and maintain a high quality education while also promoting their country in hundreds of other ways. To remain viable, we have to compete with such countries. This is a reality we cannot escape.

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