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Letters


Colombo’s roads – does anybody care?

The purpose of this letter is to bring to the notice of the authorities the appalling state of the road surfaces in Colombo and its suburbs, where it is easy to count on one’s fingers the number of good roads that provide a smooth ride for vehicles and their occupants.

Furthermore, the situation has gone from bad to worse due to the increased heavy vehicle loads which cause the roads to sink, dislodge manhole covers, etc., making it a misery for other vehicle users.
At present, there are so many authorities such as the CMC, RDA, and Provincial RDA heavily loaded with engineers who are supposed to maintain the road surfaces. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is trying to attract foreign investments in an expeditious manner. However, the present state of our city and suburban roads will be a deterrent to such efforts.

Therefore, it is high time that an overall and coordinated approach is made to restore these roads immediately.
Themiya Lokubandara Hurulle
Colombo 7

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COPE, Wijedasa Rajapakse and the Parliament

The first report from the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) to the second session of the sixth Parliament has become a subject of importance to many in the society. As a document critical of public institutions presented by a member of the government, it can be considered a pioneering step in the political history of this country. It deserves further scrutiny and public focus as a matter of national importance. The chairman and the members of the committee justly owe a meritorious reward for being bold and outspoken amidst all types of political pressure against exposures of this nature.

The report provided a great and unique opportunity for the parliamentarians to enter into a very healthy, productive, constructive and intellectual debate useful to the country in the context of improving the standards of our public enterprises. It was more pertinent when there are varied opinions about the sizing, performance and the usefulness of the public sector and the controversies related to the policy on privatisation of public enterprises.
With due respect to an eminent legal personality in the calibre of Wijedasa Rajapakse who served as the COPE Chairman, in order to elaborate the legal importance of the issue, I wish to quote a suggestion by the Law Lords that, “Assets of a bank about to be privatised belonged not to individual depositors but to the state.”

The importance of this dictum is not its mere reference to the ownership but the fact that the state referred to is a broader concept than the government! The assets belong to the state in a more general sense that they are ultimately at the disposition of Parliament (Ross v. Lord Advocate {1986}1 WLR 1077 HL).
It is very interesting to note that out of the 26 public institutions subject to scrutiny under the report, seven are leading state sector giants which are vulnerable as potential privatisation targets! Whether Parliament viewed this in such perspective is doubtful since no one focused on the aspect during the debate.

It is a well known that poor performance, loss making and poor administration are often quoted preludes to privatisation. All these ingredients are inherently associated in the enterprises included in this report and in particular those earmarked for restructuring and privatisation.
Let us have a look at the powers and functions of COPE.

In terms of Standing Order 126, COPE has to examine the accounts and performance of public enterprises and to report to Parliament on these. What is envisaged under the Standing Order cannot certainly be another audit function such as an examination of what has been done and whether things are done according to regulations. Performance is an area which has a very wide scope extending far beyond the accounts.
Operations without any deficiencies and irregularities in them will not itself bring a public enterprise within the boundaries of acceptable performance. Such an execution has to be assessed in a number of ways in a more practical sense. For example, if an enterprise merely performs limited activities falling short of the objectives and the purpose of its establishment, then, such a performance cannot be categorised as satisfactory or acceptable despite its operations within the regulatory framework.

On the other hand, the public satisfaction of the services rendered is another important – in fact the most important – aspect to be assessed in the case of a public enterprise. We are not aware whether COPE turned its search light in these directions. Can an examination limited to only the findings and observations by the auditor general and the director general of public enterprises serve the purpose to streamline the corporate sector and to keep the House informed of the correct position? Should it not be extended to cover a wider scope?
The role of the public cannot be disregarded in such an exercise. After all, Parliament is answerable to the people. If the general public is not getting a satisfactory service from a particular enterprise, what is its use? Corruption and bribery has reached heights unparalleled in history. It is the general public at the receiving end of this sorry state of affairs.

Regulatory and operational framework of some of the institutions are so manifestly designed to facilitate corrupt practices and subject the public to harassment under the cover of which the bribe takers manoeuvre. In the case of certain enterprises, the transparency of regulations and their application in a uniform manner are more often questionable. Some enterprises have not publicised the rules and regulations under which they enforce their regulatory functions. Approval and authorisation procedures are not available for public scrutiny even for the sake of information. If Parliament is to know and be appraised of the true situation, these matters have to be addressed in the public interest. Accordingly, the concept of examination has to be revised to cover these aspects.
The next important issue is, of what use is this report to Parliament? Is Parliament considering it with any finality to be reached or action to be taken against the wrong doers? There have been instances of repeated adverse remarks and observations about wrong practices and violation of regulations, etc., by public enterprises. Nothing has happened to those responsible. Some concrete corrective steps and deterrent impositions are necessary at an identified level if meaningful results are to be achieved. A mere report to the President appears to be another evasive bypass!

None of the debaters in Parliament focused on these matters. No doubt it points at the degraded standard of performance there. Wijedasa Rajapakse however, acting within limited scope, did his best in opening a big opportunity for those parliamentarians with a national interest to capitalise on, but in vain. Some of the MPs were more concerned with defining the periods under which the pointed deficiencies took place. Parochial passing the buck and mud slinging unfortunately has taken prominence over national priorities! It is a pity we do not have more Wijedasa Rajapakses in Parliament to support and strongly push forward a valuable concept directed towards correction of faults and raising the standards of public enterprises in this country.

As members of the public we are interested to know the responsibility of the line secretaries and ministers in charge of these enterprises for the omissions and commissions. Some ministers simply table and forward the auditor general’s report to Parliament. They should at least be held responsible for not taking action against the perpetrators.
We are aware that scrutiny by a Parliamentary select committee is an ex post facto affair. In addition, scrutiny by a Parliamentary committee faces the difficulty of obtaining implementation of any proposals directed against a government and furthermore governments have been able to rely on their majority in opposing the extension of the committee’s powers.

COPE examinations are, of course, retrospective and its force lies in creating a form of learning from experience so as to improve future decision making. However, one of the recurring themes with regard to such reports has been that lessons have not been learned from previous reports. Besides, the financial concerns such as profit formulae emphasis should be made on the failure of learning from the past experiences. With regard to audit comments and observations on which COPE mainly bases its search process, it has to be borne in mind that the audit office will not have access to books and records of outside parties such as contractors but only to information in departmental files. This lack of access can conceal misdeeds and corrupt practices and in such instances COPE will not be tackling the issue correctly. These are certain other areas that COPE will have to take into consideration in its examinations on doubtful and questionable transactions. The scope and functions of COPE have to be enlarged under these circumstances.
T. Rusiripala

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Songs that should be censored

The Censor Board has banned the controversial film by Asoka Handagam – Aksharaya, but it is disheartening to note that the songs composed by Dugganarala – ‘Sara Sadisi’ and ‘Sokari yunta epa’ are being broadcast over the Radio without any objections. These two songs are based on Ganja consuming women. In the Song ‘Sokari yunta epa’ he openly encourages the consumption of Ganja. I feel that these songs are much more dangerous to the children of this country than the film Aksharaya. If Dugganarala’s goal is cheap popularity, he could easily try something else, rather than making innocent youth the bait! Both these songs are very popular among present-day young crowd. There is no doubt that Duka is a talented artiste, but he should concentrate his talent on giving something decent to society, instead of writing vulgar songs. He should be punished by the Narcotic Bureau of Sri Lanka for popularising the consumption of ‘Ganja’.
P.P. Ellepola Pupuressa

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