During the Yahapalanaya governance, at a meeting of an NGO, a question was raised as to whether it was proper for trustees of that organisation (who were critical of the previous government) to serve on committees of the new regime and whether they would be independent in their thoughts and actions. These trustees shot back [...]

Business Times

Independence of committees


During the Yahapalanaya governance, at a meeting of an NGO, a question was raised as to whether it was proper for trustees of that organisation (who were critical of the previous government) to serve on committees of the new regime and whether they would be independent in their thoughts and actions. These trustees shot back saying that if that is the case, there won’t be any professionals, scientists and experienced people to serve on committees.

Both views are valid. While the country badly needs experienced and competent people to serve on national committees they should also serve with integrity and objectivity, and if that is not possible, they should step down from these positions. If their professional views are not accepted or ignored by these committees, they don’t serve any purpose in being on such committees. They shouldn’t be ‘yes-men’ on committees that require their professional advice.

I was drawn to these sentiments when considering the plight of Senior Prof. Buddhi Marambe of the Agriculture Faculty of the Peradeniya University, who has gone public with his objective views on the country’s transition to organic fertiliser and its pitfalls. Following his public pronouncements, he has been removed from committees that he served on under the Ministry of Agriculture.

In a recent newspaper interview, he said that he didn’t “criticise the government or its concept but only the path it has chosen and methods employed to achieve certain objectives in this effort to switch from chemical to organic fertilisers. As an academic, it’s not my job to be a ‘Yes-man’ when I’m convinced that something is wrong and impractical as in this case”.

He also said that experts and university professors are invited to be in committees in both the public and private sectors. “In this case, the said expert must possess technical knowledge at a comparatively higher level and he or she is expected to share that knowledge with other committee members, focusing particularly on the terms of reference of that committee,” he said.

University academics are often invited to such committees in an honorary capacity. They are not paid jobs and thus their role should be independent in nature.

As I pondered over these issues, the phone rang. It was Pedris Appo, short for Appuhamy – a retired agriculture expert who does farming – on the line. It was a call I welcomed as Pedris Appo had served on similar committees many decades back and it would be useful to seek his views.

“Hello……hello, good you called. What a coincidence because my subject today is the independence of national committees – as to whether they are independent at all,” I said.

“Well, I suppose you are writing about Prof. Buddhi Marambe’s case and his views on the agriculture policy and organic fertiliser imports,” he said.

“I think it’s a kind of dilemma that many members of committees face.  For example, if you serve on a committee, can you be critical publicly over issues that are part of that committee’s mandate? Isn’t there a question of ethics here?” I asked

“Well, you may be both right and wrong. For example, most committees, while setting out the objectives of their role, fail to provide a code of conduct. So, in a sense it doesn’t bar you from speaking outside on issues that come within that committee’s purview. However, there is a tacit understanding, moral obligation and unwritten rule not to discuss matters publicly that come up before committees,” he said.

We discussed Prof. Marambe’s case at length and came to the conclusion that eventually, the government would be the loser in not being able to use this scientist’s expertise in future. Not that it matters, since over the past few decades, national committees have been packed with ‘yes-men’ – professionals and darlings – of the serving regime so that the report is in favour of what the incumbent government wants to be told; not what it should be told.

There are exceptions to the rule. For example, a professional serving some years ago on a Central Bank-appointed committee said there was a strict code of conduct where a member was not supposed to discuss its proceedings outside and use it for their benefit.

This is the second instance where members of a national committee have spoken out in public over matters that were being dealt with in such committees. In the case of the Presidential Task Force on ‘Creating a Green Sri Lanka with Sustainable Solutions to Climate Change’, veteran tea industry experts on that committee spoke out publicly on the need for a gradual transition to organic fertiliser instead of a one-shot approach and, thus, fell out of favour with the authorities.

Often it’s the case that these members raise these issues in the committee but either no one listens or their voices and concerns are muted by the rest of the committee. In desperation and out of a need to prevent the country going down the wrong path, these professionals and scientists have no choice other than to express their views publicly.

The fact that national committees are filled with ‘yes-men’ and those close to the administration and, often, not the most suitable was clearly seen in some appointments to a task force dealing with law and order.

Sri Lanka has a problem: Whenever there is a national issue, the solution is to appoint a committee which ends up with a report being prepared. How many committees have submitted recommendations that have not been implemented? Many, one would argue.

Looking out of the window, there was no chatter or sounds under the margosa tree since the trio – Kussi Amma Sera, Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina – had gone to their respective villages on a week-long vacation after the countrywide lockdown was lifted.

As I walked into the kitchen to prepare a cup of tea, I was reminded that if only yes-men and -women are appointed to these committees and, furthermore if the views of professionals and scientists are not respected, then the public will lose faith in such committees. They already have.

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