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Felix Dias undertook series of measures to modernise public service performance - Dr. Amunugama

FORMER senior Minister of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike undertook a series of measures to modernise the performance of the public service, said Finance Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama.

"Felix Dias Bandaranaike was the first Minister to make good use of the computer. In those days we had to send the data to the Central Bank which alone was the proud owner of a large computer," Dr. Amunugama said delivering the Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike Memorial lecture at the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Memorial Hall, Colombo on Sunday.

Ms. Laxmi Dias Bandaranaike and former senior public servant Baku Mahadeva were at the head table.

The Finance Minister speaking on Felix Dias Bandaranaike and the modernisation of the Sri Lankan economy, before a distinguished gathering said the results were startling.

"We were able to establish the job bank for clerical and allied grades. Instead of the system of recruitment, which depended on cumbersome and time consuming examination procedures, a new system based on the allocation of marks on the candidates' GCE examination results was introduced," he said.

There are many anecdotes about his scepticism followed by cutting repartee when authority was thrust on him. While he could be very gentle and even deferential with a humble Dompe constituent, he could be an awesome opponent in the face of pomposity and privilege, Amunugama said.

As the Minister of Public Administration, Felix Dias Bandaranaike pragmatism helped him to innovate, break traditions and rationalise so that his contributions endure to this day. For instance he found that Finance and Administrative Regulations were not codified, the Finance Minister said.

"At a time when the public service was the leash pin in our economy there were much needed innovations. Unfortunately the public sector has become the achilles' heel of the Sri Lanka growth process.

Though Felix Dias Bandaranaike was out of power by then, the Socialist world was overtaken by events which were the logical consequences of the difficulties he had so clearly identified while in the SLFP camp.

The Perestroika of Michael Gorbachev attempted to remedy these flaws of Socialist enterprises, the Finance Minister added.

Dr. Amunugama said: "I consider it a great honour to be invited to deliver this year's Felix Dias Bandaranaike commemoration lecture. It is also a great pleasure to see so many of FDB's relations and friends who admired him in his lifetime and now cherish his memory.

If I may be permitted to briefly go back in line, I recall with great affection and nostalgia the happy days when we served as his officers in the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs.

Felix, in fact, was the first to hold the Office of Minister of Public Administration when it was hived off from the Ministry of Finance when Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike formed her Cabinet after the victory of 1970.

He then had the pick of the Public Service at his command as well as experts from the private sector. Among these officials were Baku Mahadeva, D. B. S. Siriwardene, P. H. Siriwardena, Gamini Wickramanayake, Francis Pieterz, R. M. B. Senanayake and H. S. Wanasinghe.

Though the press was prove to describe our Minister as a storm disciplinarian and a hard task-master, we officials found him to be extremely considerate and friendly though he expected the highest standards of performance and probity.

I still recall his decisions on our minutes which had to properly use legal verbiage. In his hardly visible minutes handwriting we would read I agree with Siriwardene C.J. or I agree with Amunugama.

Many of us here will also recall those lovely birthday and Christmas parties at Mahanuga Gardens or Gamini Wickramanayake's Farm in Navinna where FDB went out of his way to make us all feel at home.

Those are memories we share of a colossus of the politics of his time whose life was tragically cut short.

I have chosen as my theme FDB's contribution to the modernisation of the Sri Lankan economy not only because he handled key economic ministries such as Finance, Planning and Agricultural Development but also because he stood out in his time as a practical and original decision-maker who was hampered by the dominant political dogmas that prevailed then.

His highly rational approach to development quickly led him to the conclusion that whatever theories were peddled at that time and however pervasive they were, such theories did not provide a roadmap to investment and growth which was badly needed at that time.

FDB proposed an adjustment of the subsidy and had to face the wrath of the government parliamentary group. He then resigned his Finance portfolio vowing never to return to 'growing grass.'

As Finance Minister, he was confronted with a very difficult economic situation. The pro-population growth policies that all governments had been following since the days of the State Council were leading to high population increases in the late sixties and seventies. This growing population demanded more and more allocation of public funds for social welfare.

National Budgets showed growing financial commitments for food subsidies, free education, free health, welfare payments etc., which drew away resources, which were badly needed for investment in development.

They were postponing the inevitable. The day would come when without growth unemployment, poverty and an uneven distribution of wealth would lead to a political and social crisis.

In fact, this day of reckoning came in April 1971 with the first JVP insurrection. It is perhaps not well known that unlike many members of the political elite at that time FDB took a very understanding view of this revolt.

The manner in which Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and FDB handled the insurrectionary youth of that time is in stark contrast to the mass laughter that took place on both sides in the 87 and 89 period in our country.

We have to remember that the dominant idealogies of that time were Statist and Socialist. All the developing countries in the immediate post - independence period chose to follow a socialist model of centrally planned economics, state enterprises in almost all sectors of the economy and a bureaucratic control system which has been described as the "license Raj".

There were of course different models of socialism that were part of the ideological mosaic of those newly emergent nations. They ranged from the Fabian and Dirigiste socialism of Nehru, Bandaranaike, Nasser, Nknsot and Sukarno to hard Marzist formulations of Stataxists and Trobkyites who played on important role both inside and outside parliament.

In such mixture of so-called progressive and socialist policies in Sri Lanka it was Felix Dias Bandaranaike who attempted to clarify the SLFP approach.

He became, perhaps at the cost of becoming the most, if I may coin a term, 'unfavourite' SLFPer vis a vis the hard left, the best articulator of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regimes concept of economic and social policy.

He did not hesitate to distance his parties policies from those of the hard left. I would like to quote from one of his parliamentary speeches. It was part of his contribution to the 62/63 Budget.

Naturally such sentiments were not received with favour by some leaders of the Marxist parties. This conflict finally led to the exist of the LSSP from the ruling coalition. It must be mentioned here that these differences were regarding economic issues. They do not pertain to racial and religious issues which have unfortunately come to dominate the political debate today.

Looking back now, it would not be wrong to describe FDB as the most modern person in the Cabinet of his day. At a time when the ideological temper in developing countries was decidedly collectivist and socialist he had the intellectual acumen and social background not to be overawed by these bookist theories.

His training as a lawyer made his question the validity of theories which he was not willing to accept until his own thought processes and practical experience had subjected them to scrutiny. It may have been a psychological predisposition but FDB would take great delight in questioning received wisdom.

The Central Planning System was replaced by a market economy. Loss making state enterprises which pulled funds away from investment were either reformed or shut down. Subsidies were either eliminated or better targeted. Economics were made open for foreign investment. Given the earlier mentioned pragmatism of FDB it is no surprise that he shared that attribute with the modernisation of socialist economics.

In his 1976 Budget he proposed to introduce a new Foreign Investment Law to encourage foreign investment. Together with Mrs. Bandaranaike he laid the foundation of Tourist Development in Sri Lanka. If any meaning serves are light even the idea of a Free Trade Zone was being pursued when the government fell in 1977.

Many of these things have now come to pass. Economic concepts and strategies have changed. It is fitting therefore that we celebrate the life and chinoh memories of a man who could sense such a need for he sought above all to help in improving the lives of the poor and defenceless people of his country".

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