Thursday, 1 July 2004  
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Keep the economy ticking

The 6.2 per cent growth rate registered by Sri Lanka in the first quarter of this year should expose as piffle, doomsday predictions in some quarters that this country is heading for severe economic dislocation. In fact, this is the highest growth rate recorded in the past seven quarters - we learn on the authority of the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, W. A. Wijewardane. Besides, it exceeds the 5.9 per cent growth rate achieved in 2003.

This is, therefore, evidence that the economy is not running aground and that prudent economic management is prevailing, contrary to the scare stories churned out in some circles - including some of those pertaining to big business - that the UPFA Government is severely lacking in economic management skills. The upturn in the economy proves just the contrary and exposes the destructive intent of the critics of the Government who seem to be blinded by malice and ill-will rather than be guided by objective truth.

Those sections of big business which have chosen to take the Government to task on the basis of concocted fears and morbid imaginings, ought to remember that they own the lion's share of the wealth of this country. Come what may, they luxuriate in the "best things in life" while the majority of the people, who are poor, wilter in want and poverty.

Rather than help in accelerating the growth process, these sections of the business world have preferred to throw in their lot with the opposition and this is most unfortunate. We call on them to change course and help the Government in the creation of wealth on an equitable basis. For, rampant poverty doesn't provide the ideal backdrop for the continuous flourishing of business. Only an economically empowered people could keep the wheels of business and commerce humming.

While the current growth rate is cause for satisfaction, it must not lead to a sense of complacency among those charged with piloting the country into the future. This growth process needs to be both accelerated and made to yield more substantial results. Only self-sacrificial, continuous exertions by rulers could help achieve these results. We hope this spirit of industriousness would manifest itself among our decision-makers and rulers.

Besides, the opposition needs to think in terms of eschewing destructive politics. Toppling the Government by hook or by crook should never be its policy. This approach could only breed more and more internal instability. It will result in everyone being losers.

However, constructive criticism of faulty policy would be a step in the correct direction.

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A worthy example

The Agriculture, Livestock, Lands and Irrigation Ministry has set an example to all by deciding to hand over 11 luxury Government vehicles worth over Rs.30 million to the Presidential Secretariat in order to raise funds for the rehabilitation of 10,000 tanks.

This is a case of getting one's priorities right in a developing country like Sri Lanka. Rupees 30 million is not an insignificant sum by any means. Such funds can be used in a more beneficial manner for development projects in impoverished parts of the country.

There is a perception that a luxury vehicle 'goes with the job' of being a minister or deputy minister. It is true that security implications have to be taken into account in allocating official vehicles for certain national leaders and Parliamentarians.

Thus, the President, the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, the Speaker and some senior ministers and MPs have to be granted a very high level of security, including armour-plated cars, backup vehicles and highly trained security personnel.

Apart from these figures, there is no justification for providing all ministers, deputy ministers and MPs with gas-guzzling luxury vehicles. Even if imported on a duty and tax free basis, European-made luxury cars such as Mercedes Benz, BMW and Volvo cost three million rupees upwards. That is just the capital expenditure. Petrol and running costs/repairs add millions of rupees more over several years.

An Agriculture Ministry official has pointed out that one particular luxury vehicle requires Rs.6,000 worth of petrol for a Colombo-Kurunegala round trip. Such wanton waste of public funds is simply unacceptable for a developing economy. Millions of rupees can be saved by opting for less luxurious and less expensive Japanese, Korean, Malaysian or Indian vehicles.

The Government should also explore the possibility of getting down more diesel vehicles for the official fleet - the latest diesel engines are highly fuel efficient, quiet and environmentally-friendly. And a litre of diesel costs only Rs.32, as opposed to Rs.57 for a litre of petrol.

The authorities should also look into the widespread misuse of official vehicles at all levels in the public sector. Many official vehicles are used for private journeys during working hours on weekdays - just glance at a parking lot of any school at opening or closing time and one can see a good number of official vehicles. Instead of providing an official car to each senior official in a given government institution, the government should consider the 'motor pool' system practised in some countries where several employees have to share a car.

More public and even private sector institutions must take a cue from the Agriculture Ministry and take similar measures in the public interest.

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