Unemployment fuels social unrest. This is a widely acknowledged fact. Denial of equal opportunities for employment can lead to even worse situations like socio-political upheavals. Political leaders in many countries have learnt this bitter truth through experience. As for the political leaders in our country this fact should be a home truth even in a literary sense.
It is an irony that when the country was ruled by a Constitution designed by a Commission headed by a representative of our colonial master, Lord Soulbury, we had a Public Service untainted by political influence and manned by competent personnel of integrity
The unpleasant memories of the insurgencies in 1971 and 1989-1990 are, no doubt, still fresh in the minds of the older generations in our country for most our people in their fifties and above can vividly recall the horrors of these bloodbaths and some of them may have suffered by way of personal injury, loss of some worldly possession or even a family member. Meanwhile, the damage caused to the country’s economy and the social fabric was enormous.
According to the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Youth Unrest (PCYU) appointed by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, one of the major factors that led to the youth unrest was the widespread anger over the discriminatory system and practices that denied equal opportunities for employment.
Even the more recent National Action Plan for Youth Employment in Sri Lanka, adopted in 2006 too has echoed the finding of the PCYU 1990 with regard to the feeling of injustice caused to the youth in the country due to a highly politicized system of recruitment of personnel to the public sector.
Meanwhile, some political analysts and academics have pointed out that certain discriminatory practices that were in the way of the Tamil youth entering the public service contributed in a large measure to the youth unrest in the North-East.
Yet to learn
It appears that our political leaders and politicians in general have yet to learn a lesson from our bitter experiences of the past. For it was only the other day we read a report that said that some government MPs had made a request to high authorities to reserve for them a quota of job opportunities in the public sector which, of course have now become an unofficial privilege being enjoyed by the Ministers.
In the past
There was a time in our country when our public service was almost entirely free from political influence and interference. There was an independent Public Service Commission. The sole criterion for recruitment to public service was merit, not political influence.
Selection of personnel for recruitment to various services was done through competitive examinations. Even secretaries to the Ministries were selected through a highly competitive examination and an interview by a panel of highly competent senior officials. So were the recruits to the Foreign Service and other services. In those good old days, high posts in the state services were held by highly qualified and competent men and women of integrity. All other services at the lower rungs were also manned by personnel recruited on merit. The sole criterion for promotions within a service was merit and seniority. And there was no room for political influence and patronage.
In those good old days, those seeking employment in the public sector, sat for a competitive examination after submitting an application in conformity with guidelines stipulated in the Gazette notification and awaited results to be published in the government Gazette. Those selected on their showing at the examinations were duly recruited to the related service. Receiving the letter of appointment by registered post was a matter of course!
In the latter times, this transparent recruitment procedure got so much politicized, that the candidates after sitting a competitive examination had to meet the government MP in the area to ascertain whether they had been selected or not! It was an open secret that the lists of results were tampered with by the political authorities leading to numerous instances of injustice.
The practice of sending appointment letters to the selected candidates was eventually scrapped. And instead, successful candidates were required to attend a ceremony held with much fanfare at which they had to receive their letters of appointment from a political authority as if receiving some gift from the government!
It is a pity that this practice of ceremonially presenting the letters of appointment following a pep talk by some political authority seems to continue in certain instances even today.
It is an irony that when the country was ruled by a Constitution designed by a Commission headed by a representative of our colonial master, Lord Soulbury, we had a Public Service untainted by political influence and manned by competent personnel of integrity.
Contortion of public service
Following the adoption of the 1972 Republican Constitution designed by the representatives of our own sovereign people, not by those of the Colonial Master, politicization of the public service began with the vesting of the powers relating to appointment of public officers, among other things, with individual Ministers and the Cabinet of Ministers and the Public Service Commission re-designated as the State Services Advisory Board becoming virtually a toothless body.
The politicization of the public service took a turn for the worse with the adoption of the 1978 Constitution which produced an all-powerful Executive President vested with power to make appointments to all high posts in the public service and judicial service at his sole will and pleasure.
I think one can say with a clear conscience that the period when the civil servants were functioning as permanent secretaries to the Ministries and the lower rungs in the state services were manned by personnel recruited on the results of competitive examinations could be considered the golden era of the public service.
Permanent secretaries at that time were not cronies of powerful politicians. They could function without the fear of being politically victimized because the recruitment procedure and the service minutes provided adequate safeguards for job security. They could boldly say ‘no’ to irregular and illegal orders coming from their Ministers or even higher authorities. There was hardly any instance gone on record at that time where a permanent secretary had aided and abetted a Minister or a higher authority in the commission of a financial crime or any other serious offence.
But what is the position today? A former or incumbent high official of the public service appearing before the recently set up FCID, or the Presidential Commission of Inquiry or even the CID has now become almost a daily occurrence.
Some politicians of the previous regime brag that they protected and strengthened the public service. But did they really strengthen the public service? They only packed the state services with cronies to such an extent that many departments are creaking under the weight of a redundant staff. In fact, government politicians in successive governments in the past too committed this sin.
Worse hit by a preponderance of redundant workers today are state-owned business undertakings and statutory bodies like state corporations. Powerful politicians in successive administrations have used them as convenient avenues for providing jobs to their henchmen and voters. They have ruined these public undertakings in the process. The SLTB is a typical example.
It is an open secret, that when a new government comes into power, the politicians who spearheaded the winning political party, would seek a Ministerial portfolio which could provide a considerable number of job opportunities.
Repercussions of politicizing the public sector are too many to be enumerated. However, let us consider a few grotesque consequences we have harvested over the years:
• Social unrest, the youth unrest in particular
• Massive losses incurred by public undertakings like SriLankan airline and the need to pump massive public funds to keep these undertakings afloat
• Decline in the productivity of the public service
• Decline in the general discipline in the public sector
• Rampant corruption in the public sector.
If we had a clean and efficient public service unsullied by political meddling and bungling, the necessity for setting up an FCID or a Presidential Commission of Inquiry would not have arisen today. The Commission for Investigation of Bribery or Corruption would not have had occasion to serve notice on politicians to appear before it either.
Let us hope that the Yahapalanaya government will enshrine all provisions necessary to ensure a depoliticized efficient public service in the proposed new Constitution.