Indi from the Weekly Show interviews Deputy Minister Eran Wickramaratne about the public sector, SOBs, Sri Lankan Airlines, and also offers him an unsolicited tender.
Indi: Hi, I’m here with Eran Wickramaratne, Deputy Minister of some really long sentence that changes everywhere I look it up.
He was elected to Parliament with a lot of high hopes. The first thing I’m going to ask him is what have you done to fulfill our wildly unrealistic expectations. We thought everything would be fixed by now.
E: These things can't be fixed overnight, this takes a long time because these problems are old problems. They have a lot of history, lots of stakeholders, and it takes time. But we have started.
I: OK, fine, so I don’t mean to be rude, but do we need a Deputy Minister of anything? Have you considered reforming your own Ministry?
E: It doesn’t matter what you call yourself. You need people who understand the subject to be working on the project. So I hope I meet that expectation.
I: You’re good. I must say you’re good. Ok, so your job at this Ministry is to reform State Owned Businesses, or SOBs. But my question is do these SOBs want to be reformed? For example, you have these powerful interests against reform. If-- you try to do anything I think there’s almost 1.3 million working there, they’ll protest; politicians like to staff these enterprises with their own people; and honestly, voters aren’t for privatization in a lot of cases. So what are the forces that are on your side towards change.
E: Yes, that’s true. People who are working in these enterprises naturally want to safeguard their interests and they’re an important stakeholder. But they’re not the only stakeholder. The public are the stakeholder, the consumer is the stakeholder. There are 22 million people out there who are stakeholders. They need to get the best service at the most competitive price. That should be the objective. So how do we balance these interests? That’s the challenge that I have. That’s the journey on which we are going. Everything need not be owned by government. But every institution should be competitive, that’s the only way it will improve. Competition means public sector competing with the private sector, and if for some reason you have to have public ownership, better make sure that you’ve got many public enterprises competing with each other. Competition is the key.
I: So you come from the private sector. What can you realistically do from this Ministry? For example, can you change the boards of these companies, because there are already some political appointees in there.
E: Yes there are political appointees. This has been Sri Lanka’s history, unfortunate history, and I’m hoping in the future that we can change this. But we can make some changes, if the public are aware of the true facts, that’s the first thing. I’m keen on making sure that the public are aware. When they see an aircraft flying in the sky and they see the Sri Lankan flag on it.
I: I feel very proud.
E: They feel very proud about that. But very few know that the value of that aircraft is less than the debt against that aircraft. So the public think they own something which is actually of negative net worth. Now if the public know that then the public reaction will be different as to what we should be doing. That’s just one example. There are many examples like that.
But there are also very crucial services for the public, like electricity, water, utilities and so forth. For strategic reasons we may want to keep ownership of those things. But, even if we keep ownership, we have to ensure that they’re competitive and that management is accountable to the public.
I: So accountability means, in a lot of private businesses, it means that people get fired. Are you able to actually fire anyone from the public sector without major protests or paperwork or getting sued?
E: You ask a very good question and it’s quite difficult to do that. But this is in the interests of the public, it’s in the interests of the government. People need to understand that. They actually own these things. If they’re happy keeping inefficient people doing all these things, then that’s their call. It’s up to us to make people know that they’re the stakeholders, they are the owners. We’re only trustees for a while.
I: So let’s talk about the big pile of elephant dung in the room which is Sri Lankan Airlines. I think it has debts of about 128 billion, there’s about 1.5 billion USD in planes we have to pay for over time - tell me if those numbers are wrong - would it have been cheaper if Mahinda had just got a private jet for himself, he could have got a very nice one.
And, given the history of this airline, if we tried to privatize it, would anyone want to buy it?
E: I advocated what you said in the last Parliament. I said Presidents of this country have official residences, official offices, official cars. Why not an official aircraft? It would have been actually cheaper rather than trying to get the state airline to do your work. But that was not heeded to. That made economic and financial sense too, but it was not heeded to. So that problem is there.
That’s not the only problem. We have contracted, as you said, aircraft that we don’t really need. These aircraft that we have recently contracted fly 17.5 hours non-stop. Sri Lankan Airlines just basically flies into the Middle East and into Asia. Our longest flight is probably to London or Australia, 10 hours or 11 hours. So we really don’t need this. We really couldn’t afford these. For some unknown reason or maybe known reason these were actually bought. That’s really bad management, poor management, maybe it’s corruption, it needs to be investigated.
You’re right, the debts are very big. Who will buy this airline? Nobody is going to buy this airline in its present state. It has to be restructured which means government, on behalf of the public, will have to take responsibility for that debt. It’s the public who are going to pay for it when government takes responsibility because every time you go to the market or the supermarket to buy something you’re paying taxes. Those taxes are going to go if you’re going to write off this debt.
I: I did some basic math and we owe about - just on the debt outstanding - we each owe about 6,000 Rupees. That’s every man, woman and child.
Are you going to privatize Sri Lankan Airlines?
E: I have already offered it to Mahinda Rajapaksa for one dollar.
I: He didn’t take you up?
E: He hasn’t taken it up. Take all the aircrafts, all the debt, the whole balance sheet - one dollar.
I: Can I buy it?
E: Anyone. For one dollar.
I: All right, we’ll make that deal afterwards. So, given all the problems in the public sector, if you look at the current budget which I’m calling the panic budget that’s like for the IMF or whatever it’s all about the private sector and raising money from the private sector. Why are we putting more burden on the private sector when the public sector seems to have a lot of the problems.
E: I think we need both sectors for sure. We need the public sector we are talking about enterprises and reforming enterprises here. There’s a lot more work to be done here than just reforming enterprises. The public sector itself, the bureaucracy, they all need to be re-engineered for the future of this country. Often when we have a debate we are thinking about my generation, the older generation. Because in most countries it’s my generation who is voting. The older you get the keener you are on your vote, you go to the polls you vote. The youth have different aspirations. The youth are interested in political issues but they distrust political parties. Therefore often they keep off the vote. Which is a mistake. Which is a mistake. If they were to go and vote with their hands and their feet they will change this country. Whatever debate you take, often the discussion is about the generation that’s my generation not about the future generation. That must change. Whether it’s a debate on trade agreements let’s say, it’s about protecting ourselves now. But how about the youth? How about the next generations? What about their opportunities?
I: So if you’re talking about the youth having faith in the political process, how long are you guys going to keep saying ‘Oh, the Rajapaksas were worse.’ Is it too much for us to ask for a government that’s actually good, rather than just better than before.
E: We can’t continue to say that about just the Rajapaksas. We all came together to make a change and we were able to make that change because of the youth in this country. Because they came and voted we made the change. We were all agreed on one thing. What we agreed on that time was that what was there in governance was unacceptable and therefore you need a new way of governing. That’s what we agreed on. To some extent we have achieved that in a short period of time. What we haven’t achieved is the rest of it. On the economy for example, we came on, if you want, political parties, civil society, religious leaders, all these groups came together on one-line agenda. But now, what about the rest? We were not agreed on it. Now we have to agree on the economy. What’s the way forward? How should we go forward. I think that’s now where the debate is.
I: OK fine, but a lot of people are expecting you to get stuff done and get it done fast. While I’m here, I don’t sit with Deputy Ministers often. I just wanted to give you an unsolicited tender. Please read it. We don’t need to actually build anything, I think we can both make some money. If you agree to it, just blink. Once.
E: I don’t blink.
I: All right. That’s our interview with Mr. Eran. I thought I was going to make some money out of this it didn’t seem to work out. Let’s hope he can help our public sector make some money and save the youth of this country.
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