Procedures? Bungawewa! The Santa Claus Approach to Salawa Rehabilitation


Jolly Somasundram

“ Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The front page of the “Island” of 13th July carried a media statement of His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, on delays of rehabilitation by government, of those who suffered from the explosion of ordnance at Salawa. The statement “urged Government to waive red tape”, to get the job done. In the divide of spiritual God- secular Caesar, there is no secular power higher than the power of the People. By rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, elected politicians and selected public servants implement secularism- as trustees- on behalf of the People.

Physical rehabilitation is a subject devolved on Caesar. If there is failure by the trustees, it is the politician and the public servant who will pay, none can usurp that role. Physical rehabilitation is a secular activity which does not fall within the spiritual remit of God or that of His job description. Civilians are free to advice, encourage and review secular performance.

The Catholic Church and Public Administration (Caesar’s minions) are the oldest formal organisations known to man. Both bring together a large number of dedicated workers- priests and public servants-working in structures based on hierarchy. The organisational structure of a Divisional Secretariat and that of a monastery are not much different, though their clienteles, vision, missions- and, consequently, their work methods and expected outputs- are different. Both are bound by sets of rules laid down elsewhere, to which, those who work within them, have to adhere.

If a catholic child, in a distant parish, suffers a major accident, for which remedial measures are available only in Colombo, the parish priest cannot rent out an ambulance-helicopter, on his own volition, without getting approvals at higher levels. During these negotiations, the child may have died. Rules cover both Right decisions, (right vs wrong) and correct decisions (correct vs incorrect). Right decisions are based on the heart and values: correct decisions are based on the brain and logic. Rules covering decisions based on the brain, are called Red Tape. The existential despair of public servants arises when they attempt to transit the correct decision, to taking the right one. The parish priest would have despaired.

It is generally assumed that government is the embodiment of Red Tape. Any institution, whether government, religious organization, NGOs etc. has rules by which the institution is conducted. The rules become Red Tape only when they are heartlessly applied. This week’s downloading, (17/9), of a checked- in passenger by the largest airline in the world, which is also privately owned,- Emirates-, is an example. This passenger- who is also the Speaker- was on an Emirates flight to Singapore for urgent medical attention. He was travelling first class accompanied by his daughter, who is a qualified medical officer, working with WHO for over 20 years. When he was in the departure lounge after check in, for imminent entry to the aircraft, a medical certificate from the latest hospital from which he was discharged was demanded by Emirates. It was wanted immediately, a faxed copy was not sufficient. The medical report of the airport medical officer was not sufficient, it had to be from the discharging hospital. Since it could not be delivered in time for departure, he and all his accompanying personnel were downloaded. Hours later, he took the next flight, which was by Singapore Airlines, the third largest in the world. No discharge certificate was demanded by this airline.

His Eminence has two responsibilities, to be the highest spiritual guide to his flock and, to manage and safeguard the Catholic Church. It is in his second role- as a manager- that His Eminence has shared his views on Red Tape. I- a humdrum, dull ordinal, who had Red Tape for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dreams- am responding to His Eminence, for, I am troubled: my employment justification has been exposed as a hoax and a fraud, substantially reducing my self-worth. What worthwhile work had I been doing all these years, as a philosopher of Red Tape? My employment-I thought- lay in reciting poetry: now, according to the downgrades offered by His Eminence, it lay only in murmuring doggerel. I am a ranter not a philosopher.

Salawa suffered a heartrending disaster, the subject of His Eminence’s media statement. It required immediate responses by governmental institutions and their personnel (Caesar’s minions), to offer immediate alternative accommodation, food, clothing, giving attention to medical needs- specially of children- and providing other humanitarian assistance- the first stage. As Hamlet would say, “the readiness is all”. They, Caesar’s minions, were immediately on-sign and worked unbelievable hours with their heart, in an environment of uncertainty, where guidance from their superiors was not available.

There would have been small road blocks: these were speedily overcome. True power is where, when there was every justification and means to turn down a request, one did not do so. These public servants did not issue media statements or draw attention to themselves. His Eminence’s economical statement, admitted (methinks, rather reluctantly) that, “urgent assistance, in the form of food and drink, was supplied to them”. While public servants do not expect bouquets, it would not have gone amiss, if His Eminence had referred more fulsomely to their committed efforts.

The body of the statement of His Eminence, deals with issues of the second stage- ie after immediate relief was provided in the short-term first stage. In public service, every success is the start of a new crisis. Speaking in the speculative tense, the statement dealt with an alleged non-taking of necessary actions to ensure speedy resettlement, rehabilitation and not placing the affected population back in positions they enjoyed prior to the disaster, in the long-term second stage. The public servants accused of this tardiness were the very public servants who performed excellently at the first stage. Therefore, individual public servants cannot be faulted: it is the system- riddled with Red Tape, “official procedures like filling forms, sending them to different offices for approvals, procedures- perhaps- outlined in rule books”- which are the culprits. His Eminence recommends a bonfire of these rules, “appealing to the President, the Prime Minister, the relevant ministers and officials to waive off procedural snags to urgently help the people to get back to their normal lives”. Procedures? Bungawewa! was the populist slogan, an anarchist dogma.

His Eminence, with others in the parallel government of civil society, exercising power without accountability (they are all self-appointed), have been strong advocates of Good Governance. The significant components of Good Governance are accountability, transparency and non-corruption. Accountability is in enumerating and justifying to questioners- with documentary support- on actions which had been taken. It is difficult to imagine how accountability could be ensured, if procedures were to be waived. According to the newspapers, the total cost of “helping the people (of Salawa) to get back to their normal way of life” would be Rs 1.2 Billion. If funds of this magnitude were to be splurged, like Santa Claus, without documents being kept justifying expenditure or recording it, accountability would not be possible. Would not there be rampant corruption? The lessons of the Tsunami should be learnt, where funds were obtained from trusting donors for housing schemes: there are no housing schemes visible now, nor, of the recipients of funds: they were forgeries of rehabilitation. What is required is not the abolishing of procedures but their responsive, organic strengthening, if Good Government with its corollary attributes of accountability, transparency and non-corruption were to be ensured. Procedures help in winnowing those who are creative with the truth when justifying their demands. Civil society has been unenergetic in helping to update procedures- plenty of words but an absence of deeds.

To receive rehabilitation funds, the affected of Salawa need identity: NICs have been destroyed. To receive funds for the restoration of stock-in-trade, documents are required: all such documents have been destroyed. To receive house restoration funds, deeds are required to prove ownership: all such deeds have been destroyed. It would take time to reconstruct these documents. These documents give certainty about the recipients: uncertainty, which enables the exercise of extensive discretion, is the prowling grounds for the corrupt, since discretion is the mother’s milk of corruption.

The solution is not to indulge in stump approaches but undertaking painful, systematic searches, to enable accountable, transparent and non-corrupt decision making to take place. Public servants have shown themselves to be imbued with social concern, as seen in their response to disaster at the first stage. There can be little doubt about their’s, for the second stage. If His Eminence’s recommendations, on abolishing procedures were accepted, (Santa Claus has no accountability but has transparency as to whom he distributes the goodies, though, those who do not get goodies do not have recourse), public servants can look to close attention by CIABOC and FCID and having a tryst in remand houses.

His Eminence concludes the media statement with a request: “a top level discussion be held with the representatives of the affected people”. He has not offered a suggested list of participants to attend this discussion, an agenda, possible objectives for the meeting or, has he appended a list of expected outputs on which the discussion could focus. The suggested discussion is not going to generate the necessary documents for decision making. It will only detract from the current work of rehabilitation, adding one more level of confusion.

(Jolly Somasundram is a retired public servant)