The Western Provincial Council received Rs. 33 billion last year.
The question being asked is: Where has all this money gone?
By Leon Berenger
Of all the provinces in the country, the Western Province is the best off in terms of financial help from the state. Last year, the Western Provincial Council (WPC) received a handsome Rs. 33 billion for its 2008 budget.
However, Western Province citizens will certainly want to know how all this money is being spent when they look around and see only abandoned and neglected school buildings, run-down public buildings, poorly maintained roads, and mountains of garbage collecting outside their homes.
How much of that Rs. 33 billion is being used to improve conditions, raise standards and boost development, they ask. The Western Province used to be called the country’s “heartbeat”, because it is the province with the largest population and the highest revenue.
With the Western Provincial Council elections coming up next week, more than 2,300 candidates – of every political hue – are working round-the-clock to convince voters that they are the best people to represent the electorate.
Waste, corruption and bureaucratic bungling seem to be the rule in most Provincial Councils, but nowhere more so than in the Western Council, which serves a population of 5.4 million and enjoys the biggest share of state funds.
The Provincial Councils came into existence more than 20 years ago. Their stated aim was to serve the people in a more efficient manner. Many will say the PCs have failed to deliver, while others say the PCs are no better than “white elephants”.
Critics point to mismanagement at every level of the Western Provincial Council, and in all areas that come under the WPC, including the education and health sectors. Schools in the Western Province are closing down at an alarming rate for lack of basic facilities, while government hospitals cannot meet their patients’ most basic needs.
Over the past 10 years, some 129 schools in the WPC have closed for want of equipment and staff. The abandoned school buildings are falling apart, while construction work on new schools has come to a halt. A total of 52 schools have closed down in the Kalutara district, 42 in the Gampaha district, and 35 in Colombo.
According to Western Province chief secretary Victor Samaraweera, many schools have been forced to close down because students have migrated to “larger international-type institutions with better reputations”.
“The schools have closed down not because of a lack of facilities and funds but because there are only a handful of students. Parents are to be blamed for this situation, not the authorities,” Mr. Samaraweera said.
One of the WPC’s more prominent development projects was the Rs. 120-million Panadura bus-stand cum shopping complex. But even this apparent success is clouded by allegations of bribery and corruption. Investigations are under way.
On the health side, patients visiting government hospitals are often forced to buy their drugs and other medical requirements from outside at uncontrolled prices.
Of the council’s 2008 budget of Rs. 33 billion, 83 per cent was recurring expenditure, including the salaries of employees who come under the Provincial Council system. Only 17 per cent is for development activity.
The WPC has some 54,000 employees on its payroll, and says it has vacancies for 20,000 more staff. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) is one of the strongest critics of the Provincial Council system.
“The Provincial Council concept is rubbish,” says Kalutara District JVP group leader, Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa. “It has proved a den for crooked politicians and their associates who only want to milk the poor tax payer.”
JVP Gampaha District group leader Waruna Rajapakse said the council could have stepped in to prevent the closure of the schools.
“This is a national tragedy and the government must take the blame, rather than blame it on the parents. Gampaha District, which has the highest number of educational facilities in the country, also tops the list for the number of schools closed,” Mr. Rajapakse said.
Kithsiri Kahatapitiya, former UNP opposition leader for the Western Province, said the entire province had been allowed to deteriorate, while the councillors “lived it up in style with their hurrah boys.”
Nothing to suggest Rs. 10 million was spent
To mark the 20 years since the creation of the country’s Provincial Councils, the Western Provincial Council has allocated a sum of Rs. 30 million to be used to raise the living standards in three villages in the Gampaha, Colombo and Kalutara districts.
The Rs. 1 million project includes the building of schools, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
However, The Sunday Times visited one of the villages, in Udawila in the Dompe AGA division of the Gampaha district, and found little evidence of work that could have amounted to Rs. 10 million. Apart from a partially paved road, a wire fence around the local school and a tiny office for the village headman, no other development work had been carried out.
According to villagers, work came to an abrupt stop “because of a lack of funds”.
This village school with a long history could have been saved
The 150-year-old school at Pahalawadugoda, in Beruwala, in the Kalutara District, was closed four years ago, and the building is fast deteriorating. Past student Wasantha Kumara Nissanka, an engineer, looks on sadly at his alma mater.
“This was a village school that provided an education for those of us who could not afford to go to town schools,” Mr. Nissanka said. “This school has produced, judges, lawyers and engineers like myself. We did not have all those facilities the politicians are talking about.”
Mr. Nissanka’s brother, Dudley Dissanayake, a lawyer, is also an old boy of the school. “The school was forced to close down four years ago because there were not enough teachers. This could have been prevented if the authorities had shown more concern. They did not, and the school consequently suffered a slow death.