If you go through the daily newspapers, the Sri Lankan government fancies appointing committees and committees for this problem and that problem. Like balm for the soul, it appears as if appointing committees to resolve a crisis or problem is the way out. Our attention was drawn to this when Kalabala Silva, the often agitated [...]

Business Times

Committees and committees


If you go through the daily newspapers, the Sri Lankan government fancies appointing committees and committees for this problem and that problem. Like balm for the soul, it appears as if appointing committees to resolve a crisis or problem is the way out.

Our attention was drawn to this when Kalabala Silva, the often agitated academic, called on Wednesday morning to discuss the usual political happenings.

“I say, they have gone and appointed another committee,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why, the committee to restructure SriLankan Airlines,” he said, adding: “This is another waste of time and money.”

On Monday, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a 12-member committee headed by State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne to make recommendations to restructure the national carrier. The other members of the committee are State Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs Dr. Harsha de Silva, Central Bank Senior Deputy Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, Dr. Dharmaratne Herath, Prof. D.B.G.H. Disa Bandara, V. Kanagasabapathy, L.S.I. Jayaratne, Viraj Dayaratne, Mahen Gopallawa, Vasantha Kumarasiri, Ajith Amarasekara and Thisuri Wanniarachchi. While there are few academics in the committee, it’s unclear whether its members have any experience in the airline industry – which would have helped in making recommendations.

Whether the committee will consider representations from airline experts on restructuring the airline, remains to be seen.

“Appointing committees it seems is the Kokatath Thailaya (medicinal oil for all ills) for every problem we have,” continued Kalabala Silva. “You’re right,” I said.

“The committee then makes recommendations and that’s it. End of story. Nothing happens after that,” he said, noting that: “This is a Koheda yanne malle pol-kind of situation.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Kalabala Silva continued: “The President has reportedly said that new heads of state organisations must be qualified and have degrees. Then he goes and appoints two former governors to head state institutions who do not have these qualifications.”

Like money that was poured into the national carrier over the past few years to keep it afloat, money is also poured into the many committees to come up with solutions to a problem and then these recommendations fade into oblivion.

While it is possible that this new committee may come up with doable recommendations and take the airline out of the mess that it is in, public frustration is growing over the state of governance. A Business Times-Second Curve poll on the Presidency and Parliament today reveals that the public is ‘fed up’ with the recent 52-day impasse when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sacked and the country descended into the current crisis of governance. The results of the poll are on Page 1.

Committees, committees and committees….….Sri Lankans will never see the end to these mechanisms which are intended to make things better in solving a problem or crisis. Another failed example: The President appoints a committee to examine the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (SLSFTA) which then makes recommendations that include a re-examination of some of its contents. In the first place, this report has not been made public (like many other reports of committees) which is another issue.

Having said that, when the government now needs to review the agreement, the Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawickrama goes on record saying that the agreement continues as it stands and is in force.

Back to the SriLankan Airlines scenario — consider the number of committees that have been appointed since 2015 pertaining to the affairs of the airline.

Since President Maithripala Sirisena was installed in office in January 2015, there have been at least five committees or structures to resuscitate the airline.

The first was the J.C. Weliamuna one-man committee appointed to examine the operations of the airline during the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.

This committee passed several strictures on the airline and blamed several personnel for its losses including airline chairman Nishantha Wickramasinghe. None of its recommendations has been followed and even if they were, the public is unaware.

Then there was an internal committee at the national carrier to examine and report on the Weliamuna probe. No one, apart from senior management officials at the airline, knows what happened to that.

Another committee under the ambit of Kabir Hashim, Minister-in-charge of state enterprises, was also appointed to restructure the airline. What happened to that is anybody’s guess.

Then came the Presidential Commission of Inquiry which is currently in session. The kind of revelations by witnesses before this body is mind-boggling – losses by the airline running into billions of rupees due to bad decisions, losses from improper leases of aircraft and other bad decisions. Every day, newspapers are reporting the proceedings with shocking details on how public money was squandered away.

And now the new committee, appointed on Monday, to restructure the airline. Wouldn’t it have been better to wait till the report of this commission of inquiry is ready before appointing such a committee?

When the Business Times ran a poll some years ago asking the public whether the airline should be sold or retained in state control, most respondents from the street survey said while they acknowledge that the airline has been run to the ground, they were insistent that ownership should lie in state hands. Its improper management that they were unhappy about.

While revelations at the ongoing Presidential Commission of Inquiry have shown losses totalling billions of rupees on bad decisions and other major flaws, the last annual report of the airline available on the airline website also paints a dismal picture.

According to the 2016-2017 annual report, the airline (including subsidiaries) suffered a net loss of Rs. 28.3 billion in 2017 against Rs. 12 billion in 2016. Operating expenditure during this period was Rs. 146 billion (2016 – Rs. 136 billion), while revenue rose to Rs. 138 billion from Rs. 132 billion. Randomly, taking a year when the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government was in power, net loss in 2009 was Rs. 9.9 billion against a profit of Rs.4.9 billion in 2008.

The daily revelations at the Presidential Commission hearing is often more demoralising news on how a bad decision was made or how a proper business plan was prepared only months after decisions were implemented on a particular route, than good news.

The government’s and President’s penchant for appointing a committee for everything needs to stop at some point. There is a need to take stock of the situation and implement whatever has already been recommended and proposed without throwing it out of the window or into limbo.

As Kussi Amma Sera brought in the morning tea, she smiled as if to say today’s discussion was too technical for her and her friends to make a judgement call. This also applies to the public at large whose main concern is that there is a breakdown in government and the absence of not only honest and trustworthy politicians but also honest and trustworthy officials whose interest for the public good must rise above anything else.

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