Getting down to work

After swearing in 26 cabinet ministers and 39 state ministers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a very simple message for them: Get to work. He insisted that “assuming work” ceremonies planned for the week ahead was too long to wait and those appointed must assume their duties and responsibilities within the week itself. To make life easy for them, the subjects allocated to each ministry and minister were swiftly gazetted along with the designated office building, vehicles, and staff.

This is the first time that such elaborate arrangements have been made and obviously points to a lot of pre-preparation on the part of the President’s Office to get going with the new Government as soon as possible. The gazette notification was quickly followed by a directive from the Presidential Secretariat that the chairmen and boards of directors already appointed by the President and the interim Government should not be changed and that they should continue the work already begun. The chairmen and directors were also informed by the Presidential Secretariat that they should “brief” the new ministers of the work in progress and carry on their tasks. This is a complete reversal of past practice where the minister concerned had the prerogative to appoint heads of institutions coming under the purview of his or her respective ministry and they were the ones setting out the agenda. It now seems the roles have been reversed since the agenda is already in place and the new ministers will have no option but to play ball.

Considering that a newly appointed minister usually reverses everything done by his or her predecessor, this is a step in the right direction in order to establish continuity of the development agenda and supremacy of the bureaucracy, which at the end of the day is the entity that delivers the goods while politicians come and go.

The President’s sweeping moves coming within 48 hours of the swearing-in ceremony, which itself was advanced from the originally planned 14 August to 12 August, shows the kind of urgency the President has attached to getting down to work. He has also wasted no time in summoning the new Parliament for its inaugural sitting on 20 August. The President, who is known for his work ethic, has now set the tone for what is to follow over the next four to five years. The fact that the majority of cabinet members are somewhat advanced in age and therefore may not be able to keep pace with the President is an interesting prospect to follow and may be the reason for entrusting the bureaucracy to lead the way.

Governments in the past have spent weeks, if not months, in doing what Gotabaya Rajapaksa has done in a matter of days with regard to finding office space for all those appointed, as well as the allocation of resources to begin work. The message is clear: The people have given what the President wanted and now it is up to him to deliver the goods to the people. After all, he knows only too well that given the kind of sweeping mandate he has received, not once but twice within the past year, there is no room for complacency or failure, and recent history has shown how unforgiving voters can be when it comes to the non-delivery of promises.

So the work is cut out for the new Government consisting of 65 ministers. The range of subjects allocated to state ministers is extreme to the extent that they have become the butt end of jokes going viral on social media. The ministers allocated the subjects of pottery, batik, vegetables, eggs, etc. have been singled out for special attention.

Be that as it may, the President has the unenviable task of pleasing those who supported him; that being the case, some of the key ministries have been split in two and as a result, co-ordination of projects could be problematic and pose unwanted problems in expediting work. For instance, power and energy have been split into two separate ministries as well as irrigation and agriculture, transport and highways, etc. On top of this, state ministers have also been appointed for overlapping subjects and one can only hope that no deputy ministers will be appointed for the same subjects, adding to the layers of officialdom.

Even though so many subjects have been allocated, some trivial in nature, one glaring omission has been the allocation of subjects with regard to the all-important subject of e-commerce and digitalisation. In the post-Covid era, this is an area that has assumed critical importance, and the absence of a dedicated minister for the subject even among 65 others is one glaring omission.

Today, the world is witnessing the wholesale migration of essential services to electronic platforms and it is hoped that this area of vital importance will be brought under the purview of a responsible minister familiar with the subject.

Be that as it may, what is of utmost importance in order to get the economy ticking is to wipe out the threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic which has already caused a huge headache for the country. To take for granted that Covid is under control just because the hospitals are empty of such patients will be a mistake of monumental proportions, given the already shaky foundations of the economy and the resurgence of the virus in countries that were believed to have controlled it completely, such as New Zealand and much of Europe including the UK, Germany, and Spain.

As of last week, there was a worrying uptick in cases in these countries, highlighting the fact that complacency will come with a very heavy price tag. Sri Lanka needs to be extra cautious, given the current dangerous situation in neighbour India where, as of last Friday, there were nearly 2.5 million cases and nearly 50,000 deaths due to Covid-19. The cancellation of SriLankan Airlines’ Colombo-Shanghai flight by the Chinese authorities, citing the arrival of Covid patients on the flights should be cause for concern among local health authorities on the testing capabilities at the country’s main airport.

Given the evolving global situation, indications are that tourism and other export industries will take longer than first anticipated to recover. As a result, the Government will have to find alternate employment or means of income generation for those who have lost their jobs due the impact of the pandemic. Friday’s announcement that the Government will resume its programme to offer employment to 50,000 graduates and 100,000 low-income earners will help to somewhat mitigate the situation at least for the time being.

However, the key to economic revival in the mid to long term will be political stability. It can be assumed that the electorate understood this reality and voted en-bloc to establish that after five years of instability caused by a president and prime minister at loggerheads.

Therefore, it is of utmost importance that this stability is not compromised in any way by a new constitution that is reportedly in the making. A country that has lost so much owing to ill-thought-out legislation simply cannot afford to make that same mistake. Let’s hope the immediate priorities are correctly identified and addressed before venturing into more adventurous territory that has the potential to undo all that has been gained in the last two elections. Priority should be given to the people, not power.