A sound step | Daily News

A sound step

Treasury Secretary K. M. Siriwardena has issued a circular to all Heads of Public Sector institutions and Government Ministries to drastically restrict their expenditure in view of the dire state of the economy.

Henceforth, all Capital Expenditure exceeding Rs.500 million in Ministries will require Treasury approval, according to the circular. Recruitment to Government Departments and the Public Service too had been stopped. In fact, such cost- cutting measures were introduced by Basil Rajapaksa as Finance Minister in his Budget speech two years ago including the suspension of all fresh hiring. There is no information to suggest if the orders were followed to the letter. Obviously not.

A similar circular was issued at the beginning of last year too when the economic devastation was yet to have its full impact on the public. However, from the way things are, strict monitoring of all capital expenditure in Public Sector bodies has become inevitable, according to the Treasury Secretary circular. Again, all Public Sector recruitments have been frozen and steps are underway to downsize the workforce. The move to enforce the 60-year age rule for the retirement of Public Servants in the strictest terms is one such example of the move to trim the fat, though the move has had its negative fallout.

Doctors too are protesting the age rule saying that the move will see the mass-scale departure of Specialist doctors. Hence, the Government will have to reconsider the strict application of the 60-year retirement rule at least in special instances.

The move to enforce strict limitations on Government spending albeit through force of circumstances, is to be appreciated. However care should also be taken to ensure that such drastic cut downs do not affect people-centred programmes already underway. We often hear in television reports of projects centred on public welfare suddenly being suspended due to the lack of funds.

For example, Capital Expenditure set apart for renovating schools or erecting school buildings or hospitals should be used without restrictions for obvious reasons. Besides, with the costs of goods and materials now extremely high it is arguable if the budgetary allocations already made to Ministries are sufficient to meet costs, with the already drawn estimates going haywire. Given such a scenario the ceiling placed on Capital Expenditure will not permit moving things forward with the public becoming losers in the end.

While appreciating the Government's move to cut down on costs wherever possible, a stand has to be taken with regard to wasteful expenditure by Ministries such as throwing tamashas and self-aggrandizement projects of Ministers and Government politicians. According to the Circular all Ministry Secretaries - who are the Accounting Officers of the particular Ministries and top officials in State bodies will be held accountable if they exceed the budgetary allocations earmarked for such Ministries and Public Sector institutions.

The same admonishment was contained in the circular issued last year as well but there was no hold-back on partying and merriment even in Five-Star Hotels by certain Ministry officials. With the economic crisis biting into the public much attention is bound to be paid in restricting spending by Ministries and State Sector bodies.

All foreign travel by Ministers and Government MPs too should be stopped at a time the Government is badly in need of dollars, unless the presence of Ministers abroad is really essential. We have competent ambassadors and envoys who could accomplish the same tasks without the need for Ministerial travel, no doubt accompanied by a delegation adding to the cost.

While the limits imposed on spending by Ministries and Government Departments is a positive development this will be a futile exercise if money is to be squandered in other ways. We are referring to the costly exercise of maintaining Ministers and politicians in general. We still see Ministers travelling about in super luxury vehicles with pilot cars and Police escorts. Why this practice exists when there is no longer a war or physical threat beggars belief.

An Indian Judge recently told a Government politician who petitioned for extra protection that if the said politician was scared to go about in public he should give up politics and stay at home. It is reported that of the 85,000 strong Police Force in our country, 44,000 Police personnel are being deployed for the protection of politicians and VIPs. Is it any wonder that crime here has assumed such frightening proportions?

When speaking of limiting Government expenditure why not begin with the politicians. Today when most employees in the private sector have to make do with drastically slashed salaries and emoluments, we have MPs being paid an allowance even for attending Parliament- never mind it is exactly for this that they were elected by the public in the first place.

It is time for a change of attitude. Ministers, MPs and politicians of all hues should themselves start making sacrifices. It is only then that the people will willingly start doing so themselves.

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