Can Sri Lanka afford to feed 225 mouths?
By Dilshani N. Ranawaka
According to a recent news headline, the costs of parliamentary meals add up to Rs. 120 million annually. In addition, the total amount spent on electricity, telephone facilities, and drinking water is approximately Rs. 103 million per year. This brings the total to Rs. 220 million just to keep the Parliament functioning for a year, a place where poor policies and proper decorum are not taken seriously. However, there’s more to this story.
The story of meals
The parliament has 12 food and beverages outlets including five exclusive restaurants and VVIP dining suites. The resultant cost associated with this is Rs. 10 million per month to feed 225 people or roughly Rs. 45,000 per month per person. To put the cost in context, the aggregate amount is also equivalent to nearly one-fifth of the CESS revenue  (Rs. 542 million) collected through tea exports in 2018. Running a parliament is obviously vital, and given its size and functions, there are bound to be high costs associated with it. These costs however should be reasonable and justifiable.
The Parliament convenes only eight days a month
Parliament convenes on the first and the third week of the month on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. The only exception for this is when the Appropriation Bill is considered. However, even the process for the Appropriation Bill is restricted to a maximum of 26 days.
The official poverty line (OPL) is Rs. 4,856 
The OPL calculated by the Department of Census and Statistics is the minimum amount a person requires for basic needs per month. Expenditure of Rs. 45,000 per month per person just for food is comparatively a large amount. By looking at these numbers, it is evident that food expenditure can be reduced drastically. Has the present Government taken any measures to act on this?
While expenditure on food is high, attendance in Parliament is low. The attendance at the last session held at the Parliament for this month was nearly 41%. There are numerous days where the Parliament does not convene because the quorum of 20 MPs is not met.
It is now evident that parliamentarians lead a highly luxurious life at the expense of the general public. Who is affected? Everyone except for these parliamentarians. Isn’t it obvious why people spend so much on election campaigns to secure their seat in the next election?
In their defence, the Finance Department of the Parliament claims 75% of this cost is incurred because of the parliament staff. However, the Budget allocates around Rs. 10,000 just for eight meals per parliamentarian. This fact is even more unacceptable because of the lack of commitment we see in them in solving issues of the country and standing for the people and for democracy.
The missing seats
It is known that MPs boycott the Parliament when there’s a crucial debate at hand. Statistics collated from Manthri.lk reveal that nearly 20% of the MPs were not seated for four out of eight sessions in the last three months (April, May, June). At the final session of this month, 92 MPs were absent. When representing their electorate, MPs are representing people. They are essentially the mouthpiece of their electorate in Parliament, and have committed to this role. It is important that the MPs know their significance in shaping governance and policies. Such absence in the Parliament is recorded even though they receive an allowance of Rs. 2,500 for each parliamentary sitting. If such positive incentives do not work, would a deduction for absence be a more useful nudge? In general, out of a 20-day monthly-cycle, an individual would try their best to report to work because of their responsibilities and piling-up of assigned workload. With all these facilities given to them to do a better job, are all these excessive expenses borne through tax money fairly treated by the MPs? The amount of wastage of resources created by Sri Lanka’s Parliament is unthinkable.
This further delves us to an important question that we further need to think on. The allocated amount for recurrent expenditure for the Parliament for 2019 is around Rs. 2.8 billion. Even though costs are indispensable in any process, it is evident that the Government spends an excessive amount of limited financial resources in this scenario. It is also evident that the Government does have the capacity to reduce such excessive costs which are indirectly borne by taxpayers. Even in spite of such privileges given to MPs, they have a low tendency to attend to the needs of people. The question to think about is are their services worth the money we spend on them? Don’t they have a responsibility to handle hard-earned public money responsibly? We are the financiers and they are our voice. The question is, do they do their job properly for us to bear all this cost? Is it worth it?
Dilshani N. Ranawaka is a Research Executive at the Advocata Institute and her research areas are labour economics, behavioural economics, and public finance. She can be contacted at email@example.com or @dilshani_n on twitter.
Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. They conduct research, provide commentary, and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka. In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.