Jan 04

From the early 1970s, the highly-committed senior engineer Carlo Fernando lobbied sincerely, knowledgeably and forcefully to press the governments of the time to build one or two medium-sized coal-based power stations and not to go in for gas turbine or diesel engine-powered electricity generation.  The thrust of his logic was that (1) Sri Lanka’s hydropower potential was limited and would soon be fully exploited, (2) the volume and timing of rainfall could not be accurately predicted, (3) the “base load” electricity demand would be best met by resorting to thermal power which is ideally suited for that purpose but hydropower, on account of its limited availability, should be employed only to meet peak loads over and above the “base load”, (4) coal power stations from reputed sources are robust and have a long life, with relatively simple maintenance requirements, as compared to petroleum-fuelled engines and gas turbines, (5) nuclear power was far too complex for Sri Lanka to handle, quite apart from its radiation dangers in the event of an accident, (6) wind power was highly variable and too expensive, (7) solar power could be effective during daylight hours but was expensive and inflexible because the electricity generated could not be stored economically for night-time use, and (8) coal was plentifully available and relatively cheap whereas liquified natural gas (LNG) was far more costly at that time.  Wave power, tidal power, ocean thermal energy conversion, hot dry rock heat extraction etc were still far from reaching industrial application status.  As things stood then, from a practical point of view, coal power was the choice that could be considered to have been the most suited for Sri Lanka.

During that time, there was relatively little strength in the hands of the environmental lobby and consequently the proponents of coal power wielded greater influence, although not so much as the petroleum lobby, in which greedy politicians had a “quick-return” interest, and still do.  Meanwhile, coal power boiler manufacturers were working hard in a genuine effort to make coal more acceptable by finding ways and means of limiting the volumes of dust, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that would emerge from the power station chimneys.  Dealing with heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury was not considered to be economically feasible and was, therefore, not given much attention.  The population of Sri Lanka then was very much less than it is now and, hence, it was possible to identify a few sites in sparsely populated, protected, coastal locations where coal could be unloaded and stored conveniently, where a good cooling water supply was available, and the spreading of coal dust from the point of unloading from ships to the releasing of the treated flue gases into the atmosphere could be expected to affect only a limited area with a small population.  In this scenario, the “raw” cost of coal power generation was shown to be much lower than the costs associated with the alternatives then available, including LNG.  However, the ground situation has greatly altered over the past 30-40 years and we need to examine this issue afresh.

One very important change that has taken place since the 1970s and 1980s is that the population has grown substantially and spread into areas that were sparsely populated three or four decades ago.  A second significant factor is that there are now several individuals and organisations that are much more knowledgeable and vocal about the types and scale of the damage caused to our environment by power projects.  Most of the recent newspaper articles inveighing against the promotion of “clean coal” have been written by scientists, engineers and environmentalists who have taken the trouble to study the physical and chemical analyses of the products of coal combustion to underpin their case, which is a strong one, against those who advocate the use of “clean coal”.  The third matter that one cannot ignore is the unwelcome spread of coal dust during transport, handling, storage and combustion, against which nuisance there are currently several petitions filed by the public at Norochcholai, which make it clear that this is an issue that cannot be glossed over.  We are not aware whether any detailed analyses and costings have been done on the environmental damage caused by coal dust and the removal of such dust to whatever extent may be practical.  If even an approximate cost of the environmental degradation and public annoyance caused by coal during the various stages of transferring it from ships to boilers could be worked out and added to the “raw” cost of coal power, a fairer economic comparison may be made with sources of power that have fewer negative features, particularly LNG.

In the case of LNG, its shipping, unloading, transport, handling and combustion do not spread unwelcome oily black particulate matter over the surrounding countryside although the amount of carbon dioxide that is released would be of the same order as in the case of coal.  Furthermore, burning LNG does not produce unwanted sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and heavy metal combustion products.

Another key consideration is that Sri Lanka has no coal of its own and will forever be dependent on whichever sources are identified as producing the particular type of coal that is required for the particular design of the steam boiler that is selected.  In contrast, over the past three or four decades, LNG has become more readily available from several sources and the design of the burners and boilers is not sensitive to the source of the LNG.  Of the greatest relevance is the fact that Sri Lanka’s marine resources are known to include substantial natural gas reserves which, if developed with reasonable expedition, would be a fuel source that cannot be monopolised by cartels of foreign suppliers working in concert in the international markets to keep raising their prices as and when they please.

We need also to recognise that working out a cost for environmental degradation and public annoyance caused by the transporting, handling and burning of coal does not remove these undesirable effects.  Avoiding these negative impacts altogether, ab initio, even at a higher cost by going for a cleaner fuel would be far better than creating these adverse impacts in the first place.  In other words, minimising pollution from the outset is better than polluting first and trying to clean up the mess later.

Even the “solution” offered by planting trees to compensate for carbon dioxide emissions suffers from the same flaws whether the fuel be coal or LNG, namely, the large area of land required and the many years it would take for the trees to reach a size at which they would be effective, during which the power plants would have spewed out colossal amounts of carbon dioxide.  Needless to say, renewable sources of power would be better but, as things stand at the moment, they cannot be relied upon to provide solid “base load” power any time soon.

It should be remembered that the government committed itself, as recently as in April 2016, to the international community by undertaking to base her development on a fossil-free agenda.  We also understand that the Cabinet has already approved a Long Term Generation Plan for electrical power, covering the period 2017-2038.  It was not many months ago that the public were informed that a firm decision had been taken to work with LNG and not coal.  That decision must have been taken after a careful study and it is, therefore, surprising to learn that the government is being pressurised to go back to the plan to build two “clean coal” power plants.  Whilst there are honest engineers who believe that coal power should be selected over LNG because they give a different weighting to the relative advantages and disadvantage of these two sources of heat energy, there may be some crooked political heavyweights who favour coal because it could prove to be a long-term godsend that would keep on yielding golden eggs for many years without leaving room to exploit our natural gas resources for power-production purposes.  Taking all factors into account, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) is of the view that LNG should prevail over “clean coal” until we get our renewable sources of energy fully mobilised, which, however, will take more than a decade or two of sustained effort.

Dec 07

Early humans formed themselves into small groups so as to make it easier to hunt animals and secure other food more effectively.  Such groups, by virtue of their necessity-enforced unity, were also usually strong enough to resist intrusions into their territories by rival groups.  For more effective cooperative action, it became necessary for the members of a group to agree on simple rules of conduct to help avoid friction among themselves.  The more experienced and skilled hunters led their hunting expeditions, whilst those possessing less physical endurance attended to less onerous tasks closer to their settlements.  Similar arrangements and understandings, covering most of their interactions with one another, although not written down, were undoubtedly the earliest forerunners of the increasingly sophisticated, written Constitutions that have been developed over many millennia by every kind of society.

The key feature of early Constitution-making exercises would almost certainly have been to empower each member of the group concerned, probably after they reach a certain level of maturity, with an equal say in the decision-making process – until, perhaps, witch-doctors and priests appeared on the scene, like present-day politicians, and began to distort the genuinely democratic way in which the early rules were agreed.

Today, a good Constitution must, above all, maintain the equality of each citizen’s right to have his say in what should be included or excluded from their Constitution.  There should be no room for individual citizens to be coerced into surrendering passively their sovereign power to any self-appointed, highly-vocal group with its own avaricious agenda.  However, on account of the sheer impracticability of getting every citizen to convey their views to every other citizen, societies have learnt to delegate most of their rights and responsibilities to elected people’s representatives, but generally with some safeguards to ensure that these representatives do not take the people for a ride by robbing the community for their own benefit, and those of their kith and kin, friends and supporters.

So far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the 1972 and the 1978 Constitutions were, for all practical purposes, formulated by a few powerful people.  The general public had no say in the matter, in strong contrast to what happens in better democracies, where all matters of constitutional importance are presented to the people over months or even years through the media so that voters may themselves evaluate the merits and or drawbacks of every proposal put forward, and cast their ballot accordingly.  In particular, TV discussions concerning the pros and cons of important issues are programmed for peak viewing hours, leaving other programs to be broadcast before or later.  In stark contrast, most of our televised political programs are timed for the early morning hours when the vast majority of people are rushing through their morning chores so as to get to work on time, or at such a late hour that it is only those who do not have to rise early that can spend their late evening hours listening to political debates.  Self-evidently, the government is duty-bound to make acceptable arrangements to keep the public thoroughly informed on issues of national importance by allocating, say, 20-30 minutes a day during peak hours on all TV channels for the dissemination of diverse views on such issues.

For months, we have been inundated by an unending flow of ill-motivated statements by those who accuse the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government of having surreptitiously finalised an unwelcome Constitution that will be imposed on the people of Sri Lanka.  Whereas the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has been unremittingly critical of the current regime’s failure to honour several key promises made by it in its early days, it does not agree with the flood of blatant untruths against the government that are clearly designed to mislead the people in this regard by wrongfully attacking the efforts being made to replace the poor 1978 Constitution with a better one.

It is common knowledge that the Public Representations Committee for Constitutional Reform (PRCCR) collected the views of as many citizens and citizens’ groups as it could during the year or so that it was given to do so.  Thereafter, the PRCCR had dutifully summarised the views collected by it and the resulting report was passed on to six or so sub-committees in Parliament for review and elaboration.  The reports of these sub-committees were then studied and refined by the so-called Steering Committee, which then published its report for public comment.  Hence, at this moment, all we have is the report of the Steering Committee – without even an outline draft of a new Constitution – for the public to study and review critically.  Patently, there are several more stages of work left to be completed before a new Constitution could be developed to the point where it could effectively replace the 1978 Constitution – which, incidentally, has been reviled by so many over the years but is now being lovingly embraced by countless hypocrites making their voices hoarse shouting how perfect President J.R.Jayewardene’s opus is and that it does not need any change at all!

CIMOGG is of the firm view that the current Constitution lacks the structure and the features that would help Sri Lanka to become a united, progressive, prosperous and much less corrupt country than it is.  On the other hand, there are perfectly honest and independent citizens who consider that, with a few amendments, the present Constitution could be improved sufficiently to obviate the need for a significantly improved new version. For example, the abolition of the Executive Presidency alone would satisfy some citizens.  There are others who would like to change the electoral process to (a) make each people’s representative answerable to a particular constituency, (b) increase the proportion of women to reflect more accurately their numbers in the general population, (c) reduce the number of people’s representatives because there a far too many of them, (d) have a senate, and so on.

The question of whether Sri Lanka should be described as unitary, united or federal has become of paramount importance to constitutional experts and a number of citizens’ groups. Frankly, we are of the view that those parties which fear the word “unitary” should just cease to oppose its use after seeing what has happened in the UK, which is supposed to be a unitary entity, where this provision has not prevented a great measure of independence being extracted by Scotland and Northern Ireland by applying the right kind of peaceful pressure, short of a total parting of the ways.

CIMOGG has no doubt that the highly excessive emphasis on religion, race and language in writing our Constitution or legislative enactments is totally counter-productive when it comes to uniting all the peoples of Sri Lanka to think of themselves first as Sri Lankans.  We maintain that the Sri Lankan Constitution should be so formulated that, except in connection with use of the three principal languages for communication, education and administration, there should no references to specific races, religions or languages.

We may also usefully look at a few other criteria to which every provision of the Constitution should conform if it is to help produce a society where even a distinct group of only a few citizens could hope to enjoy equal freedom, equal opportunities and an equitable share of the nation’s resources.

The terms “Sinhala”, “Tamil” and “English” should refer solely to their function as means of communication and not have any associated privileges or disadvantages.  Every child should be educated in its mother tongue and English, and be given a good grounding in Information Technology (IT) so that it could communicate freely with other citizens elsewhere in the country or those in the outside world.  Sinhala and Tamil children and adults could, and will, communicate with each other once they get familiar with the basics of English and IT.

Religions should be left to be followed and fostered by their respective adherents just as much as each social or other group should look after it own interests without violating the rights of citizens belonging to other groups.

It is of paramount importance that there should be maximum separation of powers with well defined rules governing the interaction between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.  Without this, corruption cannot be contained nor justice delivered.

If the above basics are addressed, the rest of Constitution-making would become much easier.

Aug 31

Sri Lanka collects direct taxes from the well-to-do but also far more in the form of indirect taxes that both the rich and the poor have to pay.  Waste and corruption, as estimated by independent sources, fritter away 20-40 percent of the total collectable, leaving only the balance to go into the state’s coffers.  Usually the losses attributable to these two factors can be traced to the greed of our political leaders and acquiescent administrators who unconscionably collaborate with and protect thieving party members, relatives and supporters from being investigated, charged, prosecuted and punished in accordance with the laws of the land.  However, politicians and conniving public servants are not alone in misusing the wealth that the people contribute to the nation’s exchequer.

Let us take the case of a university student.  He has already benefitted from 12-13 years of free education financed by the country’s taxpayers.  When he joins the ranks of the undergraduate world, it is by having done academically better than those who have did not have the advantages enjoyed by him by way of genetically-acquired inborn talents and the good fortune of having been able to get into a superior secondary school.  On admission to a university, he becomes the beneficiary of the huge expenditures incurred by the state in building and running the university.  The vast sums released by the treasury are invested on infrastructure, laboratories, equipment, libraries, lecture halls, common rooms, sports facilities and hostels for our universities, as well as remuneration for teaching and supporting staff, together with the provision of security, maintenance and other services. Non-competitive scholarships and other forms of financial assistance, too, are generously given to undergraduates to help them to work constructively to attain their goal of acquiring such knowledge and skills as they have committed themselves to do.

Given the high level of financial allocations required to support their studies and extra-curricular development, undergraduates may be reasonably expected by taxpayers to do their academic work in a disciplined and dedicated manner, without neglecting sports, social activities and all those things which form an essential part of university education.  If our undergraduates act accordingly, our fellow citizens would undoubtedly feel a sense of satisfaction that the taxes paid by them to the state are not being squandered at least by those who may be classified as intelligent young persons.  On the other hand, taxpayers feel badly cheated and greatly frustrated when these fortunate youngsters do not work diligently and fail to show any appreciation of their good fortune and the sacrifices made on their behalf by the people.

It would not be wrong to say that undergraduates are contractually bound to the state to make proper use of the funds spent on their behalf.  Those who do not fulfil their part of the contract entered into with the state are in gross breach of their lawful obligations. Just so that there is no misunderstanding regarding the legal position, it may be noted that the university is an institution that acts as an agent of the state to offer educational and ancillary facilities to those who are able to establish their suitability to utilise such facilities in accordance with the conditions laid down by the university.  By accepting the university’s offer, the undergraduate enters voluntarily into a legally binding contract with the university and is constrained by law to conform to the conditions stipulated in the university’s offer.

As the basic minimum, undergraduates are obligated to attend all lectures, workshops, laboratory sessions, library reference work, tutorial periods and also complete whatever other assignments are set for them by their teachers.  Subject to undergraduates meeting these fundamental expectations, the average citizen would not begrudge them their right to clamour and struggle to change those things that they believe are wrong with the universities and society in general provided, however, that these expressions of dissatisfaction are indulged in without causing a nuisance to the public or inflicting injury, damage and loss to persons and property.  However, participation in dissenting action cannot be allowed at the expense of wasting the substantial resources deployed by the state to give free university education to those who have been considered to be deserving of this privilege.  No citizen would want anyone who is paid or supported by the State, whether as a government employee or an undergraduate, to misapply tax moneys wastefully or destructively.  But is this what prevails now?

Hundreds of students from our state universities have been wantonly throwing away the precious resources that members of the public, including their own parents, have contributed, to state funds to provide every kind of facility and support for their education.  Instead of attending lectures, they have been spending their time marching, shouting, causing damage to public and private property, physically attacking law-enforcement personnel and, not least of all, disrupting the lives of thousands of members of the public by selfishly and recklessly hindering them from going to work, to schools, to hospitals and to wherever else that citizens have a right and need to go.

We have also come learn that the more prominent of these defaulting undergraduates are a few incorrigible individuals who have been on the rolls of their universities for up to six or seven years without finishing their 3-4 year courses of study.  They have neglected to honour the obligations cast upon them as members of the university.  Instead, these ne’er-do-wells spend most of their time coercing and/or threatening their more law-abiding younger fellow students to join them in frequent violent rallies and demonstrations.  It is also credibly alleged that these nihilists and their close collaborators are hyper-active members of an extremist organisation that has infiltrated and taken control of all university student unions by terrorising the undergraduate population.  Why the university authorities do not enforce their contractual rights against these delinquents is a serious shortcoming that needs to be probed, preferably by a Presidential Commission with appropriately wide terms of reference, particularly as there are allegations that the ultimate goal of these agitators is to make the country ungovernable by lawfully elected governments.

Their campaign of subjugating the student community has, for long, been deliberately started off by subjecting fresh entrants to demeaning, offensive, sadistic, sexually perverted and other forms of vicious ragging until all newcomers are made so fearful of their tormentors that the victims are driven to participate in whatever ruinous activities are organised by these terrorists.  One needs to realise that the problem is made more complex by the fact that far too many of the teaching staff have been leaders of the ragging mafia in their senior undergraduate days and are in a morally weak position to restrain those who are following their bad example – but with a far more deadly agenda.

Taxpayers are entitled to ask the government why it is spending their hard-earned money on wastrels who are not doing what they should be doing their universities.  It is, therefore, high time to decide that admission to university be made subject to unequivocally strict written conditions, rigorously enforced. The parents of a student who obtains the necessary qualifications to enter university should be informed in writing that he would have to sign a contract that sets out explicitly his responsibilities and duties to the university, the state and the public.  Failure to sign the written undertaking and significant violations of the terms agreed to would be dealt with respectively by denying entrance to the university or expulsion from the rolls of the university.  If a student has not attended the minimum stipulated number of lectures during any academic term, and has not completed his tutorial and course work assignments, he should be given a written warning that he will be barred from continuing further with his studies unless he conforms forthwith to the university’s rules regarding attendance, studies and completion of assignments.  The undergraduate’s parents, too, should be informed directly that their offspring is acting in such an irresponsible manner that he will not be allowed to continue at the university unless he begins to comply immediately with the university’s rules. The contract should specifically leave no room for the student to indulge in any form of activity that would be prejudicial to the university or the public.

What the contract document should contain is a comprehensive and explicit legal formulation of the current rules, regulations and laws, as well as new constraints on participating in anti-social or criminal activities.  Until such time as the new paperwork is completed, the university authorities must employ the powers that they are already endowed with, to ensure that public money is not wasted on non-performing undergraduates.

Aug 17
The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has always been against the concept of having an Executive Presidency because the concentration of state power in a single person is a sure formula for destroying good governance.  An Executive President is invariably a politician with partisan views and would place his own and his party’s interests before those of the country.  The deeds of J.R.Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunge, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena provide ample evidence to support this assertion.
It is no secret that two of these Presidents appointed certain persons to high judicial positions despite well-publicised evidence of behaviour that would have been totally unacceptable at any level in the judiciary in the early years of Sri Lanka’s independence.  The damage done to Sri Lanka by these appointments is incalculable. The disgraceful packing of the Courts with compliant judges would have been much less likely if there had been a sufficient separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, allowing the latter to develop its own rules for the appointment, promotion, transfer and dismissal of judicial officers without being dictated to by the executive.
Politically-motivated interference with the judiciary is only one of the grounds why, from the mid-1990s, there has been increasing pressure from the public for a new Constitution to replace the current one.  There is no doubt that a new Constitution is desperately needed and that, inter alia, it must have the elimination of the Executive Presidency as one of its mandatory objectives, together with a clearer and stronger separation of powers than we now have.
We must be alert to the danger that, during the exercise of forging multiple compromises in writing a Constitution from among the conflicting demands of all stakeholders, we could find ourselves being unwittingly dropped from the frying pan into the fire.  Most specifically, there is the ever-present danger that the Constitution would create a Prime Minister endowed with all the powers of an Executive President minus only “presidential immunity”.  We must not let this happen or we shall be no better off than we are at present.
A glaring instance of the immense power of an (executive) Prime Minister was that of Tony Blair of the UK, who badgered the members of his cabinet to support a declaration of war against Iraq based on a fabricated story about that country possessing “weapons of mass destruction”.  The colossal suffering and damage caused to the people and economy of Iraq, the Middle East, Libya and many other countries by this crime cannot be quantified.  The lesson for us here is that the dominance of the Prime Minister’s office must be limited.
The foolhardiness of having a too-powerful Prime Minister would be compounded if we were also to allow Parliament to be anointed with the “supreme” label.  J.R.Jayewardene implicitly fashioned this concept through the wording of Article 4 of the 1978 Constitution.  Anura Bandaranaike, when he was Speaker, went one step further and declared explicitly that Parliament was “supreme” and, in particular, was not obliged to respect the views or decisions of the Courts.
Whereas Article 4 of the Constitution made the judiciary totally subservient to Parliament, Articles 30-41, in their turn, gave the President almost unlimited powers.  How shamefully Presidents and Parliament have exercised judicial power can be gauged from just two incidents, namely, (a) the cruel manner in which a newspaper editor was forced to grovel before the House because some minor employee in his organisation had inadvertently switched two unrelated photographs and their respective headings, and (b) the thoroughly demeaning and crude language, and unjust procedures, that were employed during the “trial” of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, who had declared correctly that a proposed piece of legislation was not constitutionally acceptable.
It is nauseating to recall that many of those who had signed the impeachment motion against Ranasinghe Premadasa later claimed that they had not read what they had signed!  In the case of the 18th Amendment, the text of it was not seen by most MPs until just before they were dragooned into voting for it.  Most of the 117 MPs who signed the impeachment motion against Shirani Bandaranaike were not given the opportunity or time to examine critically what they were being asked to sign and its implications.  These three cases demonstrate how little the MPs concerned would have reflected upon their obligations in respect of the doctrine of public trust.  With MPs of this calibre comprising the majority in Parliament, should the people consent to this body being classified as “supreme”?  Assuredly not.
CIMOGG stresses that the people are supreme.  Article 3 of the Constitution asseverates that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable.  Sovereignty includes fundamental rights, the franchise and the powers of government.  The people never surrender their sovereignty to anyone or any body but, from time to time, for practical reasons, they delegate the exercise of their powers of government to the legislature, the executive and the judiciary whilst retaining their fundamental rights and the franchise.  Parliament, being a subordinate body to which the people delegate some of their powers for a fixed period of time, cannot logically, morally or lawfully claim “supremacy” over the very people who have granted it such powers.
The standard picture of a pyramid with Parliament at the apex and the people at the bottom, with the Grama Niladhari Divisions, Pradeshiya Sabhas, District Council and Provincial Councils in between, is an affront to the sovereignty of the people.  If the pyramid analogy is to be used at all, it should be inverted so that the people are located at the broad top face and power flows down to the point at the bottom, where Parliament may be considered to be situated.  Indeed, it would be far more sensible to regard all these institutions as being located in concentric circles at one level with the people at the periphery, the Grama Niladhari Divisions in the next inner circle, and so on, to Parliament at the centre.
The Constitution has given Parliament, which should be concerned largely with legislative matters, unlimited authority over the executive and the judiciary.  Those who have been brought up to think of the UK’s unwritten Constitution and established conventions as being the “gold standard” that is being followed in Sri Lanka fail to appreciate the fact that the historical processes that Sri Lanka has experienced over the past two millennia are unlike those which apply to the UK and that this “gold standard” cannot be adopted blindly.  By virtue of conventions built up over hundreds of years in the UK, the executive and the judiciary cannot be bulldozed by their Parliament.  There are numerous independent mechanisms in all three arms of government to ensure that the government acts with the benefit of the informed advice of highly professional technocratic and other specialists.   Transparency and full accountability are the features that ensure that there is little room for corruption or gross inefficiency.
Our constitution-writers have given Ministers both legislative and executive powers but without the strong financial and other controls that members of the UK public service and the judiciary exercise strictly.    In contrast, our public servants have been stripped of all independent authority and have to function at the unfettered will and pleasure of our Presidents and Ministers.   Another important differentiating factor is that UK voters are far more issue-oriented and less personality-oriented than their Sri Lankan counterparts.  Hence, the separation of powers cannot be left at the mercy of long-established UK conventions but must be spelled out unambiguously.
The four “subjects” mentioned in the title above are critically important and should be dealt with circumspectly and comprehensively in a new Constitution.  To these must be added the burning need to include features that would help forge a truly Sri Lankan identity, without emphasising differences of race, caste, religion, class, gender, colour, occupation and other divisive classifications.  It would also be salutary for MPs to be reminded firmly and constantly by the public that the people will continue to exist whether there is a Parliament or not; but Parliament cannot exist without the people.
Jun 09

Until such time as the Elections Commission is empowered and obliged to demand more strict academic, professional and other relevant performance criteria to be met by those aspiring get on voting lists to contest for seats in Parliament and lesser elected bodies, we are going to be burdened with people’s representatives of whom the majority are unqualified to hold public office.  It is embarrassing for Sri Lankans to have to admit to the world at large that 94 of our MPs do not even have the General Certificate of Education at O-level, only about 68 MPs have passed the GCE O-level examination, about another 38 MPs have obtained GCE A-level passes, and there are barely 25 MPs who have a university degree.  Consequently, other than being blessed with an excessive capacity to indulge in trivial debating exercises – too often personal or crude or both – the majority of our MPs have not had the benefit of the basic mental training required to comprehend and contribute usefully to proceedings which deal with the countless complex issues that have to be evaluated and voted on by the Parliament.

Getting back to basics, it is no secret that advertisements that call for applications to fill vacancies of every imaginable kind insist upon some kind of academic qualification from Year 7 or so to PhD-plus, depending on the nature of vacancy to be filled.  It is only in the case of manual workers and Parliamentarians that there is no stipulation regarding the minimum academic or professional qualifications required.  Considering that Parliament is responsible for the collection of taxes of every kind from the people and the efficient disbursement of the funds so collected, both running into trillions of rupees, could there any excuse for allowing citizens without a good academic, professional and administrative background to decide on what and how this hard-earned wealth of the people is to be spent? Whether the proposed new Constitution is going to address this deficiency is still in doubt.  It is obvious that something positive should be done in the short term while we wait for the new Constitution.  In other words, it would be prudent for the present to find a way of dealing with the problem of making do with MPs that we have, especially those without O-level or A-level passes?

To digress for a moment, in the early days of learning to use table-top personal computers, one had recourse to a series of books titled “PCs for Dummies”, “Microsoft Word for Dummies”, “Lotus 1-2-3 for Dummies” and so on.  For those who could not find the time to go for computer classes, these books were a source of immense help to improve their computer skills.  However, as well-known computer programs were progressively made more and more comprehensive by software writers, their “Help” features began to be expanded and integrated into the main programs.  Thus, the need for books for “Dummies” diminished rapidly as most tasks could now be handled without recourse to external instructional media.

In current circumstances, it is surely a great pity that no book has been written at any time with the title “Governance for Dummies”, with Sri Lankan parliamentarians in mind, to enable them to understand the fundamentals of the more frequent subjects that come up for discussion or debate in the House.  Such a book could have been made recommended reading for our MPs with some incentive offered to encourage them to study and understand the contents.  This is not an exercise in sarcasm, which is generally considered to be the lowest form of humour, but a desperate effort to find a way out of the current mess.

Defenders of our insufficiently schooled politicians are known to argue that Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake had only completed Year 7 of his studies.  However, they do so without making any allowance for the superior quality of the Year 7 schooling of DSS’s era as compared to its present equivalent as well as the fact that he had the support of a high-powered cabinet of well-qualified and experienced men.  The aforesaid defenders also neglect to take into account the enormous changes that have occurred between the time Senanayake became Prime Minister and today – namely, the vast expansion in the scope and complexity of the issues that our governments have to deal with as compared to the much simpler national concerns of 60-70 years ago.

By now, Sri Lanka has almost completely run out of uncultivated but cultivable land to enable the authorities to allocate a few hectares each to landless farmers, as was usually done in the old days, to help increase food production to cater to its growing population.  Our cheap hydroelectric power sources have been almost fully exploited and we now rely hugely on coal and oil imports to help bridge the gap between power production and power consumption.  Alternative energy sources have, therefore, to be exploited wherever conditions are favourable.  The high rate of population growth has put unprecedented and unrelenting pressure on the housing, education, health and transport sectors.  There are previously un-encountered issues relating to nuclear power, global warming, space exploitation, terrorism, violent religious extremism, telecommunications, genetic engineering, computerisation, environmental pollution, solid waste disposal, gender discrimination and a hundred others that would clearly tax the intellectual and professional capabilities of even the best-qualified MPs.  It is self-evident that national problems that have to be faced currently are immeasurably more difficult to resolve than those that the Parliaments of six or seven decades ago had to face.  Hence, it is imperative that Sri Lanka should work out a methodology to ensure that, at least in the years to come, candidates for election as MPs would be sufficiently intelligent and academically disciplined so as to be in a position to contribute discriminating, scientific and pragmatic inputs to discussions and debates.

Patently, every MP cannot be well-informed on every subject that is discussed in Parliament.  Therefore, the major political parties should ideally divide their total strength in Parliament in such a way that, on any matter that comes up before the House, there will be at least four MPs from each of the major parties who would have enough knowledge to contribute in depth to the debate.  Taking all the parties in Parliament, there would then be a fair chance that there would be at least ten MPs who would be capable of grasping the import of whatever reports are received by Parliament from experts in the Ministries and outside, and who would be able to talk discriminatingly and constructively about whatever bill or other document is under discussion.

In addition to the above proposal being adopted, steps should be taken well before any important issue is to be debated in Parliament to get a reputed, independent research institution to prepare, say, a 10 to 20-page “executive summary” explaining, in simple language, the pros and cons pertaining to that issue.  Such a measure would go a long way to help all our MPs – especially the less mentally tutored ones – to grasp at least the basics  of the matters on which they would be required to vote on behalf of the people.  Such executive summaries would be almost certainly be greatly appreciated by the general public as well, if our newspapers could be strongly persuaded by the authorities to contribute sufficient space to publish them.

Dr A.C.Visvalingam
President, CIMOGG
email:  acvisva@gmail.com