Speaking for the administration in Sri Lanka

Dec 07, 2012 (LBO) – The middle page of the December 5th, 2012 Lankadeepa, the newspaper with the highest readership in Sri Lanka, carried a long interview with the Senior Minister for International Monetary Cooperation and the Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning Dr Sarath Amunugama, where, among many important statements, he said the following (my translation into English):

1.3 million people have been given government jobs. There are 5-6 lakhs of pensioners. One out of five persons is working for the government. This situation is not found anywhere in the world. This cannot be sustained. The only solution is to develop the private sector. Government cannot continue like this even if people stand on their heads and say so. All countries that have tried this path have gone bankrupt. Paying people a pittance to work in government will result in a collapse of the system. We can never progress in this manner.

Now, contrast this with what the President, in his capacity as Minister of Finance and Planning, stated just last month in what is perhaps the most authoritative statement of economic policy, the 2013 Budget Speech (at http://www.treasury.gov.lk/depts/fpd/budgetspeech/2013/budgetSpeech2013-eng.pdf):

“The freeze on recruitment to the public service was removed and recruitment commenced. Since 2006 nearly 91,000 unemployed graduates have been recruited to the public service and a new Services Minute to institutionalize the Development Officers Service was created to secure their career prospects.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

The Government now engages 1,300,000 public servants. This is twice the size in 2005.The engagement of such a large number of people is done by spending Rs. 366 billion for wages alone. This was Rs. 139 billion in 2005. In addition Rs.112 billion is spent for the payment of pension to retired public servants of around 500,000.”

The numbers match. But the tone is different. The Minister is bragging about what Deputy Minister considers a problem.

It would be good if the administration spoke in one voice. Is the administration planning to “continue like this”? Or is the Deputy Minister’s statement the beginning of change?

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.