Sri Lanka’s floods, dam breaks and senior ministers

Jan 24, 2011 (LBO) – On one side the big story is about the floods. On the other side is the political debate around “Senior Ministers.” Are they connected?

The rainfall was excessive. Floods were unavoidable. But we had more than just floods. The most serious damage was caused by breached reservoirs and by the opening of sluice gates to avoid further breaches.
More than 200 reservoirs were damaged as a result of bund breaks (bund is the common term for the smaller dams that failed in the past few days, but the generic term “dam” will be used here for simplicity). Many people would say they were caused by floods, a natural disaster.

In this column I hope to show they were unnatural disasters; one manifestation of a deeper problem of government; the same problem that is manifested also in “Senior Ministers” without tasks, officials and offices. Unless this underlying problem is remedied, the political and physical disasters will continue.

Unnatural disasters

First, perspective from a recent news report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12198143):

Ahmed Lebbe, a 50-year-old farmer, faces ruin. “There was no rain for months,” he says. “Then it started raining and it’s gone on for a month and a half without stopping. Then the reservoir burst and everything was destroyed. We can’t salvage any crops.”

Dams are built by humans. They must be designed for peak loads. They must be properly maintained. They must be monitored. There must be fail/safe mechanisms. In the worst case of a dam failing even after all this, there must be effective warning and orderly evacuation procedures to save the lives of those living downstream and to minimize the damage to their livelihoods. There is nothing natural about dam disasters; they are unnatural disasters.
Sri Lanka has 350 large and medium dams and 12,000 small dams. They lack proper maintenance. The fact that two hundred failed in January 2011 is evidence. The multiple breaches of tanks in the Mannar district in 2009 and 2010 are evidence. The fact that the government took a USD 71 million soft loan from the World Bank in 2008 to repair 32 large dams and to establish sustainable mechanisms for maintenance and safety (http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca200808/20080815dam_safety_water_resources_planning.htm) is evidence.

The Central Bank’s 2004 proposal about including a surcharge on electricity bills for dam maintenance is evidence. The 2006 report that LIRNEasia complied based on expert and citizen input (http://lirneasia.net/2006/01/dam-safety-concept-paper-released/) is a compilation of evidence.

In the aftermath of the tsunami and the highlighting of the problem in the 2004 Central Bank Report, the conditions were right for a major initiative to repair the most dangerous dams. Despite the Dam Safety Project preparation being well advanced in 2005, it took until 2008 for the project to start.

The principal reason was that the responsibility for the 350 large and medium dams was split between two Ministries, at that time headed by the President’s elder brother and another Minister. Navigating that delicate relationship was the biggest challenge. It is to the credit of the then Minister of Mahaveli that the navigation was successful.

The Dam Safety Project only covers 32 of the 350 large and medium dams; the 12,000 small dams that were the causes of most of the damage in 2011 are outside its scope. They are under the authority of the Department of Agrarian Services, under a different ministry.

There is no systematic effort to assess their safety and to remedy the problems, if any, even as of today. One hopes attention will be paid as a result of the most recent disaster.

Why are all the human-made reservoirs that dot this country not under a single Ministry? What is the rationale for a Mahaveli Ministry, decades after the accelerated construction program was completed? Why is the Department of Agrarian Services, a creature of Philip Gunawardene’s reforms of 1958, still alive and kicking five decades after those forgotten socialist experiments? Why is it in charge of the neglect of village irrigation?

There are two possible explanations. One is bureaucratic inertia. Once a government organization is created, it refuses to die. It may not serve any public purpose; but it serves its employees and therefore perpetuates itself.

The other is the tremendous pressure to give all ruling-party MPs executive functions. Dividing irrigation works among three ministers is silly, but not as silly as having one Minister in charge of the zoological garden and another in charge of the botanical gardens, as was the case a few years back. When government after government engages in silliness, it must be conceded that the cause is systemic.

When lives and livelihoods are threatened, as is the case with ill-maintained dams, it is time to remedy the root cause.

Ministerial malfunctions

The most powerful President since President Jayewardene finds himself unable to constitute a rational Cabinet despite prior promises. He is driven to appoint a Minister of Public Coordination and Public Affairs, whatever that means. He is compelled to create a new category of “Senior Ministers” without form or function so that he can make room for more Ministers from the swollen ranks of the government benches. In the mother of Parliaments, Robin Cook disagreed with Britain’s entry into the Iraq War. He went from Leader of the House and member of Cabinet to the back benches gracefully. In Sri Lanka’s runt Parliament, no one has gone to the back benches since Gamani Jayasuriya; they become Senior Ministers. The creation of mega ministries under the President and his younger brother are evidence that the President and his younger siblings (at least) understand that the proliferation of Ministries is dysfunctional. But they can only do workarounds.

The cause is not the Constitution; it is not the politicians; it is the people.

It is the people who do not understand the value of the legislative function. It is they who believe that their elected representatives are worthless unless they perform executive functions. They may disagree with bloated cabinets in principle, but when it comes to their own representative they want nothing less than a Minister.

This is consistent with the feudal mindset that I have written about in the past. As the Ven. Maduluvave Sobitha Thero said a few years back, in a cogent expression of that thinking, Parliament is superfluous. We should elect a President; he should appoint a Cabinet of Ministers of his choice; and we should get on with life.

The Sinhala term for an MP, Mantri, traditionally meant Minister or Counsellor to the King. Within the feudal frame, separation of powers makes no sense; checks and balances are alien concepts. The 1978 Constitution even after massive distortion remains a poor fit with our feudal mindsets.

Give the people what they want

Now that the 18th Amendment has been passed and a two-thirds majority exists, the government is well positioned to get itself a Constitution that better fits our feudal mindsets without having to engage in convoluted workarounds.

The solution does not have to be invented afresh. The Donoughmore Constitution that was in effect in Sri Lanka from 1931 to 1947 was based on executive committees. All the representatives elected through the universal franchise introduced by the Donoughmore reforms had executive responsibilities, in addition to legislative.

The number of committees was fixed, as are the Ministries in the Provincial Councils today. Every elected representative, government and non-government alike, served on committees, blunting the alien concept of opposition. Each committee elects its Chair who has to maintain the confidence of the committee members. The Chairs of the committees constitute the Cabinet.

If this solution is implemented, we might get less dysfunctional government. Among other things, we might get our dams properly maintained. And fewer of our people will run the risk of having their livelihoods wiped out by unnatural disasters.