I  woke up on Thursday morning when the phone rang. It was a day after the new Cabinet and state ministers had been sworn in by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and I believed the call had to do with these events. It was ‘Koththamalli’ Fernando, the ‘Kokatath Thailaya’ (oil for many ailments) expert who has a [...]

Business Times

Odd assignments


I  woke up on Thursday morning when the phone rang. It was a day after the new Cabinet and state ministers had been sworn in by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and I believed the call had to do with these events.

It was ‘Koththamalli’ Fernando, the ‘Kokatath Thailaya’ (oil for many ailments) expert who has a remedy for any issue, on the line and true to form he wanted to discuss the Cabinet and other appointments.

“Some people seem to be laughing at the extensive, sometimes odd, subjects given to state ministers. But I don’t think it’s a laughing matter. I think there is a reason for this,” he said.

“Like what?” I asked. “Well I think the government wants to prop up local industry and build an ecosystem where raw materials for items produced for export are manufactured here in abundance,” he said.

“You may be right. If that is the case these ministers would have to deliver the goods,” I replied, adding: “The President is known to be a strict disciplinarian and he would want results and no shirking.”

“Yes…..yes, that seems to be the strategy,” ‘Koththamalli’ said.

We then discussed a range of issues including the composition of Parliament, the JVP’s positive move to bring in a respected academic to Parliament on their national list and the COVID-19 crisis, which due to the parliamentary elections and related developments seems to have gone off the radar, at least for the moment.

According to a government announcement, the composition of the Cabinet “has been formulated in a pragmatic and a realistic manner to implement the national programme”. Special attention was paid to the areas of national security, economic development, infrastructure facilities, education, health and sports in the process of the formulation of the ministerial structure, it was stated.

As I sat down to write about the state ministers and their subjects, I was momentarily distracted by laughter from the trio of friends under the margosa tree.

Den batik saha mati walata amathila innawa (There are now ministers for batik and clay),” laughed Kussi Amma Sera, while an amused Serapina added: “Aei, gammiris walatath amathi kenek innawa. Eya digatama kimbung ari, gammiris wathu wala inna wunoth (Why, what about the minister for pepper? He would be sneezing all the time if he has to spend time on pepper plantations).”

Meh, meh, hinawenna epa (Don’t laugh),” advised Mabel Rasthiyadu, adding: “Mekata yamkisi hethuwak thiyanawa ethi, me amuthu vishayan amathilata denna, eka amathi kenek yatathata genne nethuwa (There must be a reason why many ministers have been given these strange subjects instead of bringing them under one ministry.”)

Both ‘Koththamalli’ and Mabel Rasthiyadu appear to be correct on the government having a reason for expanding the role of the state ministers particularly in the industrial sector.

The assigned subjects are wide and varied and at times complex – from solar and wind power, batik, handloom fabrics, home economy (what does this mean, one may ask?), fishtail palm (an alien plant to many readers, I would imagine), rural paddy fields (aren’t paddy fields in rural areas?), cane, brass, clay furniture (a completely new topic), rural home construction, ornamental fish, freshwater fish, electric fences (to protect local communities against elephants encroaching into villages), eggs-related industries, organic food, vegetables, fruits, chillies, onions to cashew, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and betel production.

Never before has a Cabinet and its state ministers been vested with such a wide range of subjects. Usually – like in the case of agriculture – it would have all the subjects under one ministry. The same would apply to fisheries, for instance, where inland and ocean fisheries would come under the same ministry or minister.

There seems to be two reasons for the large number of subjects allocated to state ministers: (1) To ensure accountability and delivery of responsibilities to the task that these individuals have been assigned to and (2) the need to give portfolios to many MPs who contributed to the sweeping victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.

Discussing these issues with some experts and senior government officials, one gets the feeling that the President and the Prime Minister have decided on such a range of sometimes odd-topics for state ministers to handle in line with a strategy to boost industries, local production and manufacture – particularly raw materials required for the export sector – while at the same time ensuring these ministers will deliver the goods, since they have been given clear, specific tasks.

For example, the minister in charge of cane and brass has to ensure that this sector is well looked after and consider all their needs for growth. Then the minister in charge of electric fences would need to buckle down and work and show results since this is a growing problem which dominates news channels with eternal complaints by villages of elephants encroaching on their villages, destroying crops and killing people. The affected public needn’t for example approach the Wildlife Minister to deal with electric fences (meeting them or their officials itself is a hassle) or the Industries Minister to tackle a local problem pertaining to cane or brass. The state ministers would have to deal with these subjects, not neglect them and disappoint the public.

The subjects assigned to the Cabinet of Ministers are straight-forward and not as complicated as those assigned to state ministers. Cabinet Ministers have been put in charge of finance, urban development and housing, religious and cultural affairs, education, labour, health, foreign affairs, transport, trade, wildlife and forest conservation, public services, provincial councils and local government, fisheries, mass media, irrigation, power, highways, industries, environment, land, water supply, energy, plantation, tourism, port and shipping, youth and sports affairs, justice and agriculture.

With a large number of state ministers with wide-ranging responsibilities, public expectation will be high that these ministers will deliver rather than make these positions a channel to benefit friends and family, which has happened routinely in the past.

As I wound up my column, this time it was Serapina who brought a mug of steaming coffee which I had requested, saying: “Mahattaya…..ape balaporoththuwa, amathivaru minisunta weda karai kiyala, egollange yaluwantai mithurantai nemei (I hope these ministers will work for the people and not for their friends and family).”

“I hope so,” I said in response, hoping that this government with two brothers in charge will ensure these state ministers deliver, just like the government, which has been given a huge mandate by the people, is expected to do.

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