Buddhism teaches us that lesser the greed greater the happiness. We act in a manner just opposite to that. People as individuals as well as a society crave and have a craze for collection/creation, possession and further showing off assets. This may be due to the fact that an asset is treated as a symbol of [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Creation of assets and maintenance of assets


Buddhism teaches us that lesser the greed greater the happiness. We act in a manner just opposite to that. People as individuals as well as a society crave and have a craze for collection/creation, possession and further showing off assets. This may be due to the fact that an asset is treated as a symbol of wealth, prestige, status and credibility.

The worth of a person as well as a society is adjudged on asset base. A visitor who was in Colombo some 20 years ago would say today that the city is completely changed and vastly improved. What is his measurement? Infrastructure at the airport, paved roads, illuminated streets, skyscrapers, bridges, flyovers, underpasses and so on.

They are so eye-catching to skip the cracks on the walls, seepages and leakages, half blown rooftops, potholes (sorry craters), non-paved pavements and dust and cobweb filled public buildings (needless mentioning such heads). What leads to this contrasting position? Created assets are not maintained.

The late President Premadasa used to visit districts frequently. In fact, he boasted that he was the only Head of State visiting people after being elected. Once on his visit to a southern district, he was welcomed by the Mayor. Dancing troops with drummers, garlands and red carpets were all ready at the Town Hall. Speakers ran short of words to praise the President’s leadership, wisdom, vision and many other qualities a normal human being would not bear.

The President himself was nonplussed as to whether he possessed all that qualities. This was more than 20 years ago and the present generation might be shocked to learn that there is hardly any change then and now. During his speech, President profusely thanked the Mayor and his team for the excellent welcome arrangements. Then he went on to say that he noticed a huge cobweb over the city flag as he was entering the Town hall. He conveyed a strong message emphasizing the importance of maintenance of assets.

The President invited the Mayor to visit Sethsiripaya, one of his pet projects, to observe and to collect a copy of “Maintenance Manual” prepared on his advice. It is true that, availability of infrastructure is a pre-requisite for development. It is normal to place heavy emphasis on creation of assets especially in a middle income category country like ours.

But, assets are not god given or free. A heavy bill is attached to every asset created. It requires heavy investments, technology, machinery and expertise. Some are available locally while the rest has to come from outside draining foreign exchange out. With the constraints on revenue the Government has no option but resorting to donor assistance the bulk of which comes in the form of loans.
In addition to the repayment burden the country has to oblige many conditions attached to donor assistance. On the other hand being a small island with limited space, the country has to be extremely careful in land use among competing needs. It is not prudent to cover the entire land with infrastructure alone.

Professor Joseph E. Stieglitz, the eminent American economist, once stated that “Development is about transforming the lives of people, not just transforming economies”. In the creation of assets we have to bear this message. In addition to the national interest, politicians, public servants and the general public would like to see a new asset created. Politicians would like to have his name permanently left on a plaque.

The asset disappears much before the plaque. For us public servants, a new asset meant another project. For the public it is a new broom which sweeps better. Lesser the maintenance, quicker the creation of a new asset. I would like to draw some experience we had. While in the Ministry of Plan Implementation we launched the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) in 1978 under a World Bank-funded project in Kurunegala.

The main intervention was rehabilitation of a few selected irrigation schemes. Twenty years later we concluded the IRDP Programme with a similar Project in Kurunegala. It was funded by IFAD and the same irrigation schemes were chosen for rehabilitation.

The reason was that the irrigation schemes rehabilitated under the first project have become no one’s’ baby. No one was pinned with the responsibility for maintenance and operations. Most of our infrastructure development projects are funded by donors.

They contribute funds for creation of assets. The staff, equipment, operations and maintenance is expected from the recipients. That includes the government and people. We oblige but hardly keep it. Under the same IRDP Programme a considerable number of Primary Health Care Centres (buildings) was constructed across the country.

But we were unable to continue to provide drugs, staff, and funds for maintenance and operations. After a lapse of time, the Health Centre has become a cattle shed or an illicit brewery or a betting centre. Assets sans maintenance will fail to deliver the intended purpose. It will be an added burden. It will become an eye-sore. Finally the asset created will end up as an archeological monument. Such monuments are not rare in the country today.

There are many reasons leading to negligence of maintenance of assets. Lack of consultation and participation of the relevant agencies and the community in identifying assets for creation is foremost. There are no adequate economic and technical feasibility studies and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies carried on. They have become a part of the process of conducting post mortems.

Take the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant for example. There was a lot of fan fare and publicity but a thorough feasibility and an EIA was not thought about. When the power plant runs into problems discussions start on such studies. Maintenance is considered as an additional element and outside to creation of an asset.

The Treasury should insist upon a maintenance plan before the approval of a project. It must be made an essential condition. Some donors insist upon maintenance of assets created with their funds.

The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) was one of the donors provided assistance for IRDP Programme. Once, during a negotiation session, SIDA was insistent upon an assurance for maintenance of assets created under the project funded by them. I explained the difficulties but not to avail.

In addition to the absence of maintenance programmes, there are no funds, technology, equipment, tools, staff identified for maintenance. In brief there is no maintenance culture in the country. Attraction is in the creation of the asset not in its maintenance. This is the very reason you and I see many happy faces on the screen at an opening ceremony of an infrastructure project and never seeing them thereafter.

When I was a young boy we formed a “Praja Mandalaya” (Community Council) in our village. The community meets discusses and identifies urgent needs such as a drinking water well, a footpath, a culvert, a rural electricity scheme, etc.

The community seeks part funding from local bodies and contributes in cash, material and labor. Assets were created in consultation with and participation of beneficiaries. The protection and upkeep of such assets were for their advantage. They, therefore, attended to maintenance, repairs and upkeep.

We can learn a strong lesson from this experience. Consultation and participation of the beneficiary in assets creation is missing today. The beneficiary does not feel the ownership.

The assets are neglected and left for decaying. We wanted to hand over some assets created in the rural sector to the respective local authority. They promptly declined the offer. They stated that what we created are not assets but liabilities. We go on creating assets on the principle of ‘more the merrier’. We might even beat the greatest creator- God in creating assets at this pace. Maybe we can think of one justification for going on creation of assets.

Wild elephants are on the extinct due to the failure of Wild Life authorities to understand human-elephant conflict. People have taken charge of elimination of damages caused by wild elephants along with animals. On the other hand absence of elephant corridors had induced elephants to move across railways and highways getting killed themselves. With the rapid replacement of human and animal power with machinery, the tamed elephants are also on the disappearance. Infighting and attraction to carrots dangled before them, green elephants are also weaning off faster.

The gap created by wild, tamed and green elephants has to be filled with white elephants. It is time for us to do some soul searching on continuation of creation of assets. (The writer is a former Secretary, Ministry of Plan Implementation. He can be reached at c_maliyadde@yahoo.com).

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