By Rajpal Abeynayake
When there is a perception, rightly or wrongly that people’s buying power is on the decrease, many other factors that have a bearing on people’s quality of life, get forgotten.
The quality of life on the road seems to be ever diminishing. People spend unproductive and ennui filled hours in traffic.
But when the economy never really takes off or sputters on take off as it happens in Sri Lanka all the time, people’s quality-of-life deteriorates in somewhat sad ways that sometimes cannot be quantified, or even properly conveyed.
Take the ‘quality of life’ of people who brave the rigors of what is called the ‘government office’ to get things done.
In semi-privatized entities, at least, these office spaces are livable spaces, and people generally get things done, get new telephone connections or whatever, without really feeling that they have wasted a day, or spiraled into a state of comatose depression.
It’s not the case in most state run departments, from you name it — the Labour Secretariat, or the various Divisional Secretariats, to state run offices for commerce and trade, required for the most mundane of exchanges between state and citizen, all necessary for basic existence. From obtaining passport forms to National Identity Card verifications, ordinary folk are compelled to call over at the the Divisional Secretariats for better, or worse …
Most of these offices have come a long way from what state run facilities used to be a couple of decades back – slum lands basically, with broken concrete floors, and cat feces strewn around the dustbins.
That era may be over. Most state-run departments are now equipped with usable toilets, and almost all are complete with tiled floor and walls and the basic amenities, generally in working condition.
But the offices themselves are nothing better than sweatshops for hassled bureaucrats and even more hassled citizens, who approach these dinghy ill-lit office spaces, because they have to.
There is no sign that things are improving. In some key departments such as Immigration and Emigration for instance, the outside of the office looks swanky, but the insides are anything but. The walls and the partitioning have not seen a coat of paint for eons. The seating areas are reminiscent of cattle sheds at worst, and the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage at best.
There are no signs that things are improving. State banks have the money, and semi-privatized institutions manage because of various reasons that are too complicated to go in to here. But the average government office looks positively unhealthy for office workers, and are generally anathema to those who visit them for unavoidable reasons, because the latter are less used to such uninhabitable surroundings.
The basic facts of economics tell us that things are not going to get better any time soon, no matter who wields power, because the basic workings of a modern economy guarantees this kind of atrophy, when economies don’t grow at a healthy pace.
What could be done? Here is a bucket list of ideas that might be considered but are unlikely to be considered, if you know what I mean!
• Consider semi privatizing some of these organizations, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the working masses. But who is interested in running a Passport Office with an infusion of private sector funds? No, that option won’t do then. But at the very least, there could be a few offices that could benefit from a healthy dosage of private sector model dynamism. Who knows? A risk taken is better than chronic atrophy?
• Ask for a public shramadana by do gooders to clean up Govt offices, for their own good. Volunteer organizations could take the lead.
• Introduce mandatory standards for State run offices. If there are no airy spaces, air conditioning to be made mandatory. Yes, air condition technology has developed and with the Inverter type machines, cooling offices is not the nightmare it used to be years ago.
• Make it mandatory for all offices to regularly update their web pages, especially in social media spaces, so that the top Management feels embarrassed if their offices resemble slums, recently made into tenements for pukka sahibs.
• Usher in the Revolution ASAP.