Does the government know whether it is coming or going? Or is it following the old adage, ‘those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make them mad’?

That is the question on the minds of many after the latest debacle over the government’s- or more specifically, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s- policy of ‘no chemical fertiliser’ and resorting instead to organic fertiliser as a substitute.

This has been one of the President’s pet peeves during his Presidency. From the outset, he had a bee in his bonnet about converting to organic fertiliser and doing it in double quick time. As recently as a few weeks ago, addressing the United Nations sponsored summit on climate change, ‘COP 26’, he made it a point to emphasise that Sri Lanka is leading the way in converting to environmental friendly practices.

There is of course, nothing wrong with this and it is indeed a laudable concept. What is lacking though is the wisdom and foresight to implement this policy in a practical manner.

No nation on the planet has converted to organic fertiliser overnight. Countries that have accepted this concept in principle have initiated phased programmes where chemical fertilisers are gradually withdrawn and organic substitutes are slowly introduced.

The scientific evidence is that this is the most feasible option, protecting crops and making the process economically viable at the same time.

Yet, Rajapaksa wanted to undertake the conversion instantly. In decreeing that this should happen, he caused immense hardship to farmers throughout the country. Most of them would have voted for Rajapaksa two years ago because they hail from Rajarata and the Deep South of the country, regions which endorsed Rajapaksa with massive mandates. Now, they are taking to the streets protesting against him. Perhaps scared to burn effigies of Rajapaksa, they turned to burning effigies of Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage instead!

This week, in a signal that the government was feeling the heat, it decided to partially lift the ban on chemical fertilizers and permit the private sector to import it to allow the country’s farmers to purchase it from the open market. A gazette notification was issued to this effect.

Again, it was left to Aluthgamage to defend this about turn. The government’s policy to promote green agriculture would remain unchanged, Aluthgamage said, even though that did not make much sense in the wake of the revocation of the ban which was introduced six months ago.

This led to renewed claims that this government was ‘governing by gazette’. The joke on the grapevine is that this government has issued more gazettes than the number of cassettes released by Nihal Nelson during his heyday- and that they both contain ‘baila’!

The government is certainly acquiring a reputation not only for ‘governing by gazette’ but in so doing, displaying a muddled thinking which leads them to announce a decision via a gazette initially only to revoke that decision by yet another gazette a  few weeks later. The debacle over the fertiliser ban is the latest example of this.

It was only a few weeks ago that the government appointed the notorious nationalist monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara to head a Presidential Task Force to examine the concept of ‘One Country, One Law’ and make recommendations. Apart from the obvious unsuitability of Gnanasara- who has no legal training- to head such a Task Force, the terms of reference of the Task Force indicated that it should study proposals already made by the Ministry of Justice and make recommendations about them.

Understandably, Justice Minister Ali Sabry, Rajapaksa’s personal lawyer and the man he handpicked and parachuted to Parliament through the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna National List, was furious. He threatened to resign.

What followed was a series of negotiations between the President and his Justice Minister. In the end, it was the President that blinked first. Gnanasara remained head of the Task Force but he was asked to submit his recommendations to the Ministry of Justice instead. His wings were clipped and Sabry remains in the Cabinet. Of course, yet another gazette was issued with the revised terms of reference of the Task Force.

Prior to this, the allocation of government institutions under each Cabinet Minister had become the subject of many gazette notifications and revised notifications. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was Minister of Finance and there were a multitude of institutions under his purview.

When Basil Rajapaksa ended his political hibernation, returned to Parliament and was appointed Minister of Finance on July 8, these institutions were transferred en masse to the new Finance Minister. No one expected any drastic changes thereafter because, after all, it was all being managed within the family circle.

Yet, lo and behold, a day later someone had second thoughts. Some subjects allocated to Basil Rajapaksa in his capacity as Finance Minister were re-allocated to Prime Minister Rajapaksa. This was in his capacity as the ‘Minister of Economic Policies and Plan Implementation’ a newly created portfolio. And, yes, yet another gazette notification followed notifying the public of these changes.

These are just three examples- and there many more- of how dysfunctional the government is. We are not suggesting that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is combing through the fine print of gazette notifications and making these changes or that he should be doing so, but the constantly shifting decision making is reflected in the general chaos that ensues and the collapse of efficient government. That, this government has displayed in abundance thus far.

The president comes with the added handicap of not being a seasoned politician. He has spent most of his life in a military command structure. There is evidence that he has tried to replicate that in his government- with poor results.

In such a scenario, he needs efficient, capable and honest senior bureaucrats who can guide him through the labyrinth of government processes. We have had leaders with little or no previous political experience before- Sirima Bandaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunga among them- and they have navigated those uncharted seas reasonably well.

It is sad that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is unable to do so, despite having the backing of the entire Rajapaksa clan behind him. It is sadder still for the country because it is careering aimlessly from one policy to another with no hope of a course correction and staring at the precipice of a nation in chaos.


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