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Holding up a heavy Cabinet

No other system in Sri Lanka has come under fire for incompetence, egoism, and dishonesty as much as the country’s political system. Changing this situation is an overused election promise that remains valid even today, and the people are ready to take the initiative to change it.

Last week, for the first time in Sri Lanka, a citizen challenged the constitutionality of the Cabinet of Ministers. The petitioner, engineer Kapila Renuka Perera of the Professionals’ National Front, had filed a fundamental rights (FR) petition claiming that the number of incumbent Ministers is not in accordance with the number allowed by the Constitution.

Perera also claimed that the appointment of the present Cabinet is a violation of Articles 47(1)(a) and 47(1)(b) of the Constitution, which reads that the number of Cabinet Ministers should not exceed 30 and that the number of non-Cabinet Ministers or Deputy Ministers should not exceed 40. He alleged that two Cabinet Ministers and four State Ministers have been appointed above the stipulated numbers.

In addition to the concerns raised by Perera, the other major issue is the large amount of public funds spent to maintain these Ministers and their Ministries including staff. The truth is, Constitutional or not, Sri Lanka has too many Ministers. In fact, some of the Ministerial portfolios the Government said were scientifically determined are actually ridiculous, and having several Ministers for the work that should come under one Ministry is not just a waste of money, it is also a hindrance to countless other necessary work that could have been done with that money.

Due to these unscientific appointments of Ministers, recently, the country saw Ministers clashing, especially when it comes to power and energy, agriculture and fertiliser, and health and medicines-related matters. There were also times when Ministers questioned the rationale behind their own Ministerial portfolios, as their subject area was merely a small part of another Ministry.

The Guinness World Records identifies Sri Lanka as the country that has had the largest Cabinet, and that was the 52-member Cabinet established in 2005. 

This petition comes in a context where the Sri Lankan Government has proposed to slash funds allocated for Parliamentarians, including Ministers, as part of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s attempts to reduce expenditure on the part of the Government. Also, the Budget paid greater attention to reducing the expenses of the public sector, compared to those of the MPs. During this process, he made a statement that the public sector has become a burden to the country, and failed to recognise how the public representatives, who consume a greater amount of funds, have become a burden to the country.

It leaves a question as to whether the Government is incapable of realising, or not willing to realise, the burden the political system has become.

The said petition is also a reminder that not only those who have political power, but also those who give that power, i.e. the citizens, can play an active role in guiding the Government, or making sure that the power they have is being used for the intended purpose. In fact, one opinion most people considering leaving the country share is that migration is the better option than trying to change the country or how the country is being governed, and that what they can do by exercising their franchise is very limited. Even though not everyone has the resources and knowledge to leave aside their personal lives and protection to change the so-called system, this petition is a message that changing and challenging an unsuitable rule does not have to wait for an election.

The solution is, having a proper mechanism to make the process of appointing Ministers and establishing Ministries truly a scientific process. However, expecting the political system to make such changes voluntarily is impractical, and the people too should take a stance.

The bottom line is, these are all realities the citizens have had to live with, and politicians promise to change before every election. In fact, the reasons behind the appointments of a lot of Ministers boil down to political motives and favouritism, and there is hardly any science behind them. Almost every government is ready to forget the gravity of their responsibilities, but the citizens who assigned those responsibilities should keep pushing for change.