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COPE's call on the deaf

| by Ceylon Today Editorial 

( July 25, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The latest report released by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) is revealing. The changes that it recommends are sweeping and could be game-changing, yet the question whether the government would take this 'report' with the kind of seriousness it deserves, remains redundant given the scant attention paid to its predecessors.

The ills of today's public enterprises are many, but the cardinal sin from which all ills flow remains the twin issues of nepotism and cronyism – packing government-run institutions with relatives and other favourites, whose main qualifying traits include, blood-relationships to the ministers and other higher-ups, massive cash donations to election funds, remarkable degree of sycophancy and the ability to say the right thing at the right time in the presence of the governing hierarchy and general hobnobbing with the powers that be. This more than anything has been the contributory factor to the once lucrative enterprises becoming white elephants that are now a heavy financial burden on the country's coffers.

This inconvenient truth was once again confirmed by the Chairman of COPE, who also pointed out that 98% of the losses so made by the 16 public enterprises, are directly attributable to four institutions, namely the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the twin killers –Mihin Lanka and SriLankan Airlines, the country's main airline ventures. The most compounding factor, as far as the CPC is concerned is that it is continuing to make losses, due to the non-settlement of dues by SriLankan and Mihin Airlines, and power utility and the Railways Department for fuel supplied on credit. The results, coupled with what is now inherent mismanagement and corruption, have materialized in the form of huge losses, almost as a routine. Neither the Treasury nor the political leadership is forthcoming to stem this grave and real trend towards total collapse of the once revenue making entity.

The losses made by the CEB are no less significant. From the failure of the coal power plant to deliver on the promises to the habitual purchasing of power from private suppliers, to the lack of financial viability of the ill-advised but socially-attractive venture Semata Viduliya (electricity for all), all sever to warp the financial feasibility of the power utility, strangling its coffers to an extent that the only way out seems to be a complete overhaul of the management. Wherever one looks, there does not seem to be any promising scenario.

What can COPE say about the nation's two airlines? At the helm of both are individuals who are closely identified with the ruling family and the financial quagmire both these business ventures have been mired in, does not speak well for the management skills or lack thereof, not to mention the corruption and waste that is pervasive in these institutions.

Add to this the other public enterprises such as Ceylon Fisheries Corporation, Janatha Fertilizer Enterprise Ltd., Elkaduwa Plantations Ltd., Sri Lanka Ceramics Corporation, Janatha Estate Development Board, Kantale Sugar Industries Ltd., Lanka Salu Sala Ltd., National Paper Corporation Ltd., Sri Lanka Transport Board, Sri Lanka Rubber Manufacturing Export Corporation, State Trading Corporation and Co-operative Wholesale Establishment, which were once lucrative businesses , but have now turned into business wastelands eating into the country's precious cash cushions, and you have the complete pathetic story of the public enterprises.

Reams have been written about the pervading corruption, nepotism and the utter incompetence of those who are charged with the responsibility of running these enterprises, but the misdemeanours continue, amply aided by a lack of 'transparency' and 'accountability' and disregard for good governance, which has become an increasingly alien concept.

The Chairman of COPE, who is also a minister in this government, may cry foul from the treetop, but if his calls fall on the deaf, the misfortune is not of his own or the regime's; the misfortune is truly the country's. When realities set in, those who have dragged the country's economy and the country with it, may not be there to answer. But it is the people and the generations to come, who will be asked to pay for these financial sins of the masters.