The Parliamentary Oversight Committees began their work this week, but alas, it was not a very auspicious start. Many Members of Parliament did not attend the inaugural meeting. Long advocated by the Prime Minister as what he calls turning the whole Parliament into a Government, the scheme is an extension to the National Government now [...]


Important role for oversight committees


The Parliamentary Oversight Committees began their work this week, but alas, it was not a very auspicious start. Many Members of Parliament did not attend the inaugural meeting.

Long advocated by the Prime Minister as what he calls turning the whole Parliament into a Government, the scheme is an extension to the National Government now in power and in place. It is not an entirely new or innovative project though. Back in the days of the State Council prior to Independence, Executive Committees of the Council were established for various subjects. Those were the early days of democracy and elected representatives were being groomed for self-rule that was to come.

The 1978 Constitution introduced the Consultative Committees with MPs from all parties in the House for each Ministry, but in a Parliament where almost the entire Government bench is packed with either Ministers or deputies as it is in recent times, the onus is on the Opposition MPs to give life to these Oversight Committees. That so far these Committees have played a negligible role in good governance is best seen by the amount of cases the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) is probing right now, most of which could have been avoided had these Parliamentary committees kept a more watchful eye over public affairs.

It shows that whatever Parliamentary committees existed in the past, and these include COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) have not done their job or, their reports have been gathering dust on someone’s table without the recommendations they make being implemented.

There was a time when the annual reports and audited accounts of state corporations were presented to Parliament for scrutiny. But by the time they were presented, they were so outdated that either the Minister had died or Governments changed. So much so, that the then Leader of the Opposition J.R. Jayewardene referred to the exercise in debating them as “a waste of time and a waste of tongue”.

In office, he allowed private audit firms to speed up these reports under the supervision of the Auditor General, but MPs (other than a very few) were preoccupied with other work and their personal agendas to worry about poring over these documents. It is in the United States mostly that Oversight Standing Committees are taken very seriously. These committees have ‘teeth’ and ‘clout’ by way of jurisdiction over the Executive branch — including the Presidency — and are an integral part of how government works. They also get involved in policy implementation.

One contentious issue in Sri Lanka might, however, be that the powers vested in the planned Oversight Committee include overseeing the work of the Provincial Councils. Government thinking on this is rather opaque for now and such oversight goes counter to devolution principles. On the other hand, it could well be argued that Provincial Councils ultimately are responsible to Parliament which votes them their funds.

In the backdrop of demands for greater devolution, largely to the Northern province, and the belief that ‘Federalism’ under some other name may be thrust upon the people and the country through a proposed new Constitution, the question does arise, on the other hand, if this overall supervision of the Provincial Councils by Parliament could be a mere smokescreen for such an exercise. How this will pan out only time will tell.

Eventually, the success of these Oversight Committees would depend on the commitment of the individual MP and the drive of the party leadership. After all, Parliament is where the sovereign people send their representatives to pass good laws, be the ultimate custodian of the public purse and ensure good governance all around, however utopian it may sound. So much more is expected from the MPs nowadays.

Reaching higher levels in sports
The success of the Sri Lankan contingent at the recently concluded South Asian Games is a noteworthy achievement. True enough it is only a regional meet and South Asia cannot boast of a proud record at world class athletic events, yet, it is still a creditable feat for Sri Lanka to come second only to India in the medals tally even though most of them were Bronze medals and the Golds were won by individual athletes, some of whom had trained overseas. In Volleyball, the national sport for instance, Sri Lanka could only get Silver medals in both Men’s and Women’s categories.

Sri Lanka has, in recent decades, given priority to cricket as the unofficial national sport, not least due to the interest it generated throughout the country after winning the World Cup in 1996. Big money flowed to the controlling board’s kitty thereafter only to be frittered away. Other sports were given the ‘kudaamma-ge salakilla’ or step-motherly treatment.

The respective sports bodies themselves were riddled with petty in-fighting among officials, corruption and political meddling. Amendments to the Sports Law aimed at reducing the influence of the Sport Ministry are yet to be passed in Parliament because no Sports Minister would like to shed his powers.

The fact is that most athletes are left to their own devices to succeed in whatever sport they engage. It is not that there are no programmes for talent scouting or training, but individual performances with high targets to achieve to compete and win at international competitions are precious few. From the South Asian Games, the focus now must be on reaching greater heights –success at the Asian Games and then the Commonwealth Games and so on.

Unfortunately, the winning of medals has been put down to the Sports Minister’s offer of cash rewards for medal winners. Any sportsman or sportswoman will know that it is not so easy as that to win a medal at an international meet even if monetary rewards could be the ‘wind beneath the wings’. A gruelling training regime, nutritious diet, stable mental temperament and physical stamina are the attributes required to succeed. Moreover, the Government must build better playgrounds and sports facilities in the provinces and offer sports scholarships to promising athletes at University level to enable talented sportsmen and women to shine.

In the bigger scheme of things, sports and its allied subject Physical Training (PT) are essential prerequisites for a healthy nation. The former administration gave an impetus for this as part of nation building by opening public walkways, open-air gyms and though it was overdone — getting undergrads to go through military style PT exercise — the idea was to programme the mind-set to a Mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy body in a healthy mind policy.

Uppermost must be the thinking that sports should teach sportsmanship not gamesmanship in life; a respect for fairness and respect for opponents rather than one-upmanship and looking to gain unfair advantage at every turn.

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