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The lunchtime fuel splurge - another record!

FUEL: As part of an energy-saving awareness campaign the Chinese Government has ordered civil servants to do without cars, elevators and air conditioning on one day, to serve as an example to others, because civil servants use so much energy.

China's seven million public servants reportedly consume about five percent of the country's total electricity a year, which is equal to the electricity consumed by 780 million farmers.

We too feel the energy crunch with regular price hikes as oil prices keep soaring above US $ 70 per barrel in the world market. There is a danger of brown-outs in electricity supply, as demand exceeds generation.

The government has thought of this problem in going ahead with the Norochcholai coal power plant, and the Upper Kotmale Hydro power plant, with other huge projects in the pipeline.

Those who today raise their voices against Norochcholai, have obviously forgotten the time when we had eight-hour power cuts in 1995/96 and all the damage that did to the economy, and disrupting the day-to-day lives of people totally dependant on electricity.

Our Consumer Affairs Authority realizing the importance of the energy or fuel crisis, has come out with recommendations on saving fuel. Among other things it has given a list of "avoids" to people, such as traffic congestion, waste and extravagance, using luxury vehicles, and many other short-term fixes for the problem, as well as long-term solutions such as better road infrastructure and connecting railways and buses.

All very good, but when one considers the Chinese example of getting civil servants to set the example in saving on energy, I think there is a great deal for Sri Lanka to learn.

In Sri Lanka, public servants, especially those in the higher rungs, can do much more to save on fuel and foreign exchange for the country, than most others, and lead by example too.

Sri Lankans lay claim to so many records. We had the world's first woman Prime minister, the world's first woman President whose father and mother were Prime Ministers.

We have Muttiah Muralitharan who held the world record for Test wickets for a brief spell, and many other firsts that we may not be proud about, such as the 1982 Referendum, by which we voted to lose our franchise for six years. under what was known as Five Star

Democracy, for which some still have nostalgic feelings. But are you aware that in the area of fuel and energy too, we possibly hold what is a world record?

Home for lunch

There is no other country in the world where there are so many senior officers in the public service - this includes officers directly employed by the government and in all State corporations, boards, authorities and other institutions - go home by car for lunch.

Do some calculations and you are bound to get a world record; a certainty for the Guinness Book.

Most of these people have a strange addiction, acquired very quickly.

The moment they get a car as part of their perks of employment they cannot do without being driven home for lunch. This lunch time drive home is a unique Sri Lankan trend, which only affects those in the higher ranks of public sector employment.

Of course there are some holding very high positions in the public service who have somehow avoided this temptation to get home by official car for lunch, with costs of fuel paid by the State.

But these are few and far between. Some of them make up for it by getting the official driver to take the car home and bring the still-warm, home cooked lunch to office, with the same use of fuel.

The country is burning up many million litres of fuel for this lunch time homeward trip by higher level or car allocated public sector employees.

This means it is losing a similar colossal sum in foreign exchange needed for the import of fuel. These cars certainly add to the traffic jams, as it is a peak hour when they drive homewards. All this is apart from the pollution that so many cars cause by their exhaust fumes.

Productivity, too

The losses to the country are not only in fuel and foreign exchange. The several hundreds, who have caught the "go-home-by-car-for- home cooked lunch" syndrome, hardly ever return to their desks in one hour. Most of them take anything from two to even three hours.

Which means that in all of the officers where these go-home-for-lunch people hold key positions, very little work gets done in their absence, possibly enjoying a small siesta too, before they return to their desks.

It is not difficult to assess the loss in productivity in these offices during this extended lunch-hour absence of the bosses. You now know why if you call a senior officer in many a State sector office from 1 to 3 pm on a regular working day, the secretary or more likely a peon says the boss has gone for lunch. It is not a business lunch with a client.

It is just going home for a meal of good, warm buth curry and a dessert, too.

Strangely, this urge to go home for lunch by official car strikes people who work in the midst of most of their subordinates who bring their home cooked buth packets to office, sometimes from as far back as Galle or Chilaw or even further.

What is it that prevents these public servants from bringing their lunch from home when they come to work by car, unlike their subordinates who come in overcrowded trains and buses? This can't be a problem when the market is full of food carriers in which one's lunch can be kept warm, and ready for enjoyable eating many hours later.

It's just that status and the "who cares for fuel costs when I don't pay it" feeling has got the better of them.

Lunch room savings

It will cost the government very much less than this regular cost of fuel, if it builds small "reserved for executives" lunch rooms, well tiled and with washbasin and other facilities in all State sector offices, for these "car allocated" senior offices.

The savings on fuel by insisting that these officers give up the go home for lunch practice and have their lunch in the office, could possibly spare us at least two fuel price hikes in the short-term, and contribute to much productivity in office in the longer term.

Over the centuries the world had much to learn from China. It is time we took another lesson from there, to make senior civil servants give the lead in saving fuel. Just get them to lunch at the office. We can move on to other savings after that.

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