17th March 2002

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Signing up for peace

SriLankaFirst, the premier business peace group, launched a signature campaign for peace, aiming to collect one million signatures and present it to the Prime Minister and the LTTE leader. The campaign, which began on Friday, coincided with a Sarvodaya peace meditation event by 500,000 people at the historic Sri Mahabodhi in Anuradhapura. Picture shows SriLankaFirst organisers and Ceylon chamber officials. Left to right - Neela Marikkar, Managing Director, Grant McCann Erickson, Jagath Fernando, Deputy Chairman, John Keells Holdings, Deva Rodrigo, Deputy Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Chandra Jayaratne, Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Tilak de Zoysa, Vice Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (signing the campaign document) and R. Ravindran, Managing Director, Print Pack. Pic by Gemunu Wellage.

Super bureaucrats cut red tape

Senior civil servants of the previous United National Party regime have quietly re-emerged as key behind-the-scenes players in the new government, working unobtrusively to make the state machinery function in a system that some observers have likened to a "parallel government".

Most private sector business leaders welcome the return of the triumvirate of top bureaucrats, namely R. Paskaralingam, K.H.J. Wijedasa and Bradman Weerakoon, saying they bring a wealth of experience that helps to cut through red tape and ensures decisions are implemented.

But others warn that the roles of officials like former secretary to the Treasury, Paskaralingam and former secretary to the president, Wijedasa, who operate in an advisory capacity but wield far more clout than ordinary public servants, could overlap and clash with the work of ministries and create some sort of "super-bureaucracy" that runs a parallel administration.

Paskaralingam has been keeping a low profile since his return from self-exile following the victory of the UNP-led coalition, and is constantly on the move, going from meeting to meeting. He lives at the Galadari Hotel under a different name and hotel staff is under orders not to put through telephone calls or allow unannounced visitors such as nosey reporters.

He has come back as advisor to the ministry of policy development and implementation which is headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Paskaralingam left the island with the defeat of the UNP government following allegations of corruption and was subsequently found guilty of abuse of power by a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry into malpractice in public bodies. That decision was overturned by the Supreme Court on technical grounds.

Macky Hashim, president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Sri Lanka (FCCISL), said the return of the former bureaucrats could help speed up decision making which he said did not happen fast enough under the previous regime.

"We welcome their re-appearance," he said. "But we would like them to be as pragmatic and 'project-implementative' as they were under the late president Premadasa. "Then, if the private sector brought up a good idea it was immediately accepted and implemented," Hashim said. "We used to have monthly meetings with Paskaralingam, with all heads of departments present, at which bold decisions were taken. That type of decision making and implementation is necessary at this present moment because in the last few years the practice was for decisions to be taken but not implemented."

Wijedasa himself described his job as that of a catalyst and co-ordinator functioning directly under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He is the advisor on sustainable development and the chairman of the inter-ministerial committee on food security.

"All my work is done through the ministries," he told the Sunday Times. "I work as a catalyst and co-ordinator rather than trying to supervise or boss others. There are no conflict areas. I have two clear-cut areas of responsibility."

But his committee can also over-rule decisions of line ministries.

Wijedasa said he ensures that environmental concerns are looked after in development projects and that development work is not stifled by the activities of "so-called conservationists".

As head of the committee on food security, Wijedasa said his job was to "ensure adequate quantities of food are available throughout the island at affordable prices at any given time."

He said it was a "very complex job" having to take into account local production, imports, seasonality, prices and introduction of tariffs to protect local farmers.

"It is a balancing feat. While protecting local farmers we must give a fair deal to the 19 million consumers. Producers may be just one-third that number. So the consumer comes first but at the same time you don't discard producers," Wijedasa said.

He gave the example of the recent decision by the Consumer Affairs Ministry to import raw coconuts to meet the local shortfall in the crop. 

The food security committee over-ruled this decision on advice from experts that raw nut imports increased the threat of disease being brought into the island.

The committee was also instrumental in preventing an attempt by a private sector firm to import rice under a deal with the Rehabilitation Ministry which, if allowed, could have caused paddy prices to fall, Wijedasa said.

A government economist said the danger in giving so much power to the former civil servants and allowing them to virtually function like a "parallel administration" was that it could duplicate the work of others.

"They may be able to take quick decisions but at the same time there may be conflicts with ministries," he said. 

"There could be times when they encroach on the territory of ministers."

Hashim said the business chambers had begun to have meetings with Paskaralingam who has been able to get rapid government responses to issues raised by them. One issue was the government decision on buying electricity from companies with excess generating capacity.

Asoka de Z. Gunasekera, chairman of the Ceylon National Chamber of Industries and head of the joint forum of chambers, said the return of the likes of Paskaralingam was a "great asset to the government's forward march".

Their work would help to streamline the bureaucracy and ensure faster decision making, he said.

"Overnight decision making - that's how it should be," he said. "We functioned like that before." 

Another FCCISL member, Nawaz Rajabdeen, said the former civil servants had the advantage of knowing the shortcomings of the bureaucracy.

"They know it is the bureaucrats who run the state machinery," he said. "Sometimes even ministers do not know what is happening."

He dismissed the idea of their work duplicating that of the line ministries saying: "Each one has a role to play."

New head for Coke in SL

Ruchi Gunawardane, the chief executive officer of Coca-Cola Beverages Sri Lanka Ltd (CCBSL), formerly known as Pure Beverages, will hand over the reins of the company to a new country head in July this year.

An Indian expatriate, P.K. Chatterjee, now with Coca Cola in Bangladesh, is expected to replace Gunawardane as head of the bottler of Coca-Cola in Sri Lanka.

Gunawardane, who has been with the company for ten years, told the Sunday Times Business his decision to leave was based on personal grounds with the intention of venturing out on his own. 

He had told the company management of his decision in December last year and is now in the middle of a transition phase to hand over duties to Chatterjee.

Gunawardane is learnt to be planning to set up his own management consultancy which will do trouble-shooting for firms with marketing problems.

Coca-Cola Beverages Sri Lanka, which recently got de-listed from the Colombo bourse, has been embroiled in a dispute with a group of minority shareholders who are refusing to sell out.

At its last annual general meeting last year shareholders complained the company had not paid a dividend since 1994 and that they feared Coke planned to pull out of the island. 

They also complained to market watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

The company denied the allegation, saying Coke was here to stay.

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