Thursday, 24 June 2004  
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Dealing judiciously with "cash cows"

Finance Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama pulled no punches when he said recently that five public sector institutions - the Ceylon Electricity Board, Sri Lanka Central Transport Board, Government Railways, the CWE and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation - had been managed very irresponsibly and needed to be reformed very badly.

It could be said that, going by the degree to which these organisations had ben abused, they have certainly been a drain on the country's Exchequer.

Those which have proved to be "cash cows" among sections of the unemployed, have been mainly instrumental in milking the country dry. This is mainly because most of these institutions have been severely overstaffed over the years and have become easy targets of patronage - dispensing politicians.

Accordingly, the problems affecting them could not be discussed in isolation from the wider issue of the thorough - going politicization of the body politic and its institutions.

The latter could be transformed into financially - viable, efficiently - run public sector organisations in degree to which they are free of the process of politicization.

This is the challenge before the Government. The "floating staff" syndrome in these organisations should be exorcised by appointing the right woman or man to the right job in these public sector bodies.

In other words, the Government needs to take politically unpopular but correct decisions if it is to stem the rot in the public sector. It is our hope that sooner rather than later, sound management principles would be brought to bear in the running of the public sector.

It doesn't necessarily follow from the foregoing that these organisations ought to be privatized. Privatization - as we have pointed out before - is no panacea for all the ills which have been dogging these bodies at their heels over the decades.

While the private sector should be given every encouragement to contribute to the growth process, privatization of public sector organisations should be carried out with the utmost discretion.

For, the public sector is expected to be people and service-oriented. For instance, the provision and price - determination of food cannot be left at the mercy of market forces. Nor can public transport be provided adequately on the basis of market realities.

Nevertheless, it doesn't follow that the public sector would invariably descend into the doldrums because the privatization option has not been considered. The truth is that the public sector has been badly administered in the past and this defect ought to be eliminated.

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Airport security

Aviation security has become a hot topic globally after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. We in Sri Lanka too have experienced the horrors of an attack on a civilian aviation facility. Aviation security basically consists of two inter-linked parts: the security of airports and airliners.

Regular travellers have seen a drastic increase in tight security measures in airports and aircraft over the last few years. Some countries have extended these steps to immigration, adopting fingerprinting and facial scanning.

Although the toughest security measures are being deployed in the US and some parts of Europe, Asia cannot ignore global security developments and the emergence of terrorist groups with cross-border connections.

This topic was discussed at length at two-day seminar on 'Key Concern Areas for Asian Airports' in Colombo this week. As Ports and Aviation Minister Mangala Samaraweera pointed out, it is essential to improve airport security as airliners and airports have become extremely vulnerable to attacks by various militant and terrorist organisations.

It is easy to see why terrorists aim for airports and aircraft. They are high-profile targets that guarantee instant international exposure.

Herein lies a great challenge for security experts, because airports are public facilities that accommodate thousands of passengers at any given time. They have to strike a balance between minimising the inconvenience caused to passengers and bolstering security.

Some of the security measures have turned out to be rather controversial. Among them is deploying armed sky marshals on board passenger airliners. They sit among the passengers without identifying themselves and spring into action in case of a hijack attempt or similar disturbance.

But some analysts have raised the spectre of a gunfight on board and the possibility of marshals being overpowered by terrorists, which are terrifying prospects. Fingerprinting has also become a vexed issue.

Airport and airline security assessors must take the future into account. With more airlines and aircraft taking to the skies, a greater strain will be placed on the security infrastructure.

More sophisticated equipment will have to be introduced to detect advanced explosives now favoured by terrorists. Moreover, airports and airlines will have to re-adjust their security parameters when the Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger airliner, enters service in 2006.

The very nature of the airline business demands international cooperation in all of its aspects, including security. The International Civil Aviation Organisation must take the lead in galvanising the international community to evolve stronger, well-coordinated measures for aviation security.

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