Ministry of Industries: Working with Mr. Cyril Mathew

(Excerpted from the Memoirs of Chandra Wickremasinghe, Retd. Additional Secretary to the President)

In the National Housing Authority where I worked after returning from Canberra, I received the complete support of my friend Dunstan Jayawardena who was Chairman of the Authority, to effect an organizational restructuring of the Authority, recruit new technical personnel and revise the existing salary structure. The reorganization enabled officers who had come on secondment to the Authority from the Housing Dept., to exercise the option of staying on in the Authority as permanent employees of that organization. They benefited substantially by being placed at higher levels in the organizational hierarchy as well as receiving much higher salaries. With time, I was happy to note many of these officers, coming to occupy the highest management positions including those of Chairman, General Manager and Deputy General Manager.

The Authority was indeed a hive of activity with Minister Mr. Premadasa in his characteristic manner, pushing the implementation of the numerous housing projects he commenced throughout the island. He worked with incredible energy and commitment, virtually driving all officials to follow suit. However, following certain differences I had with the Secretary to the Ministry over the appointment of Managers to the Authority, I thought it best to leave the set up. Fortunately for me, Mr. Premadasa happened to be out of the island at the time which facilitated my exit without much fuss.

There were two positions available to me to move into viz. Deputy Commissioner of Food and Director /Corporations in the Ministry of Industries. I opted for the latter position where I had to work with Minister Mr. Cyril Mathew.

The Ministry of Industries, Science and Technology

The Ministry had at the time, 47 Corporations and Statutory Boards coming under its purview. These included, certain giant Corporations such as Petroleum, Steel, Ceramics, Paper, Salt, Fertilizer, Tyre etc. I got down to work straight away and got involved in the nitty gritty of things. Mr. Mathew who had a sharp mind, had the not too uncommon weakness of surrounding himself with party loyalists, the more qualified of whom were selected fortunately, as Chairmen of the many Corporations coming under the Ministry while the brawny types who had their own uses, were given the post conveniently designated ‘Working Director’. This latter category had confabulations with the Minister when certain disruptive activities had to be planned and carried out like breaking up rival party rallies, street marches etc.

I must however say that Mr. Mathew never interfered with the work assigned to me. Through the grape vine he may have learnt perhaps, that I was attending to my work conscientiously. Within one year he promoted me as Additional Secretary in the Ministry much to the chagrin of certain senior colleagues in the Service, some of whom, I learnt later, had even taken the matter up with Mr. DBIPS Siriwardhana, Secy. Public Aministration at the time. Mr. Siriwardhana, I was told, had made it clear to them that the appointment of Additional Secretaries was a matter for the Minister concerned.

Chairing Tender Boards

I found the work in the new Ministry quite challenging, having to Chair Tender Boards of about 15 Corporations on an on –going basis. Additionally, I was appointed to Chair the standing Tender Board in Agro-Chemicals of the Petroleum Corporation which work alone, was quite a handful. I must say that the Minister had complete faith and trust in my integrity and aptitude in handling all these Tender Boards. I must also reiterate here for the record that Minister Cyril Mathew never interfered with any of my ‘tender’ work. I must however, further state here with much regret, that certain friends of mine (outside the Ministry) did try to influence me on tender matters, going to the extent of asking me to remain silent during certain Tender Board meetings. This I vehemently declined to do, stating categorically that as Chairman of a Tender Board, it was clearly my duty to ensure that a poor country like ours, should get the best supplies on offer and also ensure that we get our money’s worth. Happily for me, word spread around quickly and I was never bothered thereafter with such unfortunate requests. What I would like to stress here is that once people realize that you cannot be bought over, you are seldom approached by these wheeler –dealer types with their sly requests.

As a Director of the Central Environmental Authority, I had the benefit of attending a Seminar at D.S.E. Berlin in June-July 1982, on Industrial Pollution and Abatement. The CEA also sponsored my participation at a seminar on the pollution of lakes and reservoirs in Tokyo, Japan in September 1984.

Most of the 47 Corporations and Statutory Bodies coming under the Ministry had professionals as their Chairmen who for the most part, discharged their duties with due diligence and competence. However, there were a few Heads of Corporations who abused their positions and tried to make a fast buck. The Minister who had his own unofficial grapevine in this regard, was kept well informed by his many informants, of any irregularities in the numerous Depts. and Corporations coming within his purview.

I recall the Minister summoning me to his room one day to say that he was not at all happy with some of the untoward goings on in the Ceramic Corporation as he had received many complaints from customers about commodes and bathroom fittings cracking up within an year or so of their purchase. He instructed me to visit the Ceramic Factory in Piliyandala with Deputy Chief Accountant Sivaguru and check on the procedures followed and report to him. Siva and I accordingly, decided to visit the factory the following day. Interestingly, on the morning of our scheduled visit to the factory, I received an anonymous telephone call enquiring from me whether I was going to inspect the factory that day. On my replying in the affirmative, the caller who refused to identify himself, said in a matter of fact tone ‘We are having the kiln ready for you and the Accountant when you visit us’.

I replied that we were coming in any case, as it was our duty to inspect the factory and report to the Minister. Siva and I had our suspicions as to who the anonymous caller was as we had been forewarned that there was a supervisor with political backing who was ruling the roost there. We were not going to be cowed down by any threats and just laughed the whole thing off saying that ‘we would face things as they come’! We were also told that this unsavoury character was in the habit of even assaulting employees who did not do his bidding and was virtually terrorizing the entire place. When we visited the Piliyandala Factory as scheduled, we were met by the General Manger who though a nice person, looked a rather docile individual. We were thereafter, taken round the factory and shown the different stages of the entire production process.

At this stage, I requested specifically that we be taken to the kiln and the supervisor concerned promptly led us there. Siva and I deliberately got close to the kiln and peered into it’s blazing interior. Siva, who was a qualified Chartered Accountant, questioned the supervisor closely on the duration of time assigned for each stage of the production process etc. Having collected all the required detailed information both from the GM and the Supervisor concerned ,we retired to the GM’S office and obtained whatever further information we deemed necessary for our investigation and left the factory.

On our return to the Ministry, Siva and I pored over the notes and the relevant information we had taken down on our visit. It became clear to us that the problem of breakages lay in the deliberate acceleration of the production process particularly at the stage of firing of the ceramic ware in the kiln. By such deliberate acceleration, the culprits had ensured an output higher than what was reflected in the production statistics, enabling them to divert the created excess clandestinely, out of the factory to be sold to shops outside.

The following day we gave our report to the Minister explaining in detail what we had discovered. The Minister told us that his suspicions about the people behind the racket, had been confirmed by our findings. Late that evening, the Minister telephoned me and said that he had shown our report to a certain gentleman who was he said, with him at the time. I was aware that this gentleman was an influential person in the political set up at the time. The Minister then said that the particular gentleman would like to speak to me regarding the concerned subject. I recall clearly overhearing certain audible protests made by the gentleman concerned at the other end. Eventually, this gentleman came on line and spoke to me apologetically saying that although he had had suspicions about this particular supervisor, he had not till the time the irregularities had been revealed by our inspection, been able to confirm his suspicions. He further assured me that he would initiate an inquiry against him and see that he was disciplinarily dealt with. He further said that he had assured the Minister that he would guarantee that no irregularities would be permitted to occur in the factory in the future. The Minister came on line again and thanked me and Siva for giving him the report while apologizing, in his characteristically gentlemanly manner, for having disturbed me at that late hour.

Poverty the biggest polluter in developing countries

This was also the time when developed countries were obsessed with the spectre of a rapidly depleting ozone layer and were frantically adopting sophisticated pollution prevention measures in their industrial production processes. This was the run up to the Kyoto Protocols. They were equally anxious to impose these high standards in the running of ‘struggling’ industries in developing countries which were trying desperately to break free of the poverty trap. While having a conversation with the Minister on the subject, I casually expressed the view that it was grossly unfair of developed countries to badger developing countries to conform to these high standards of pollution prevention, as these highly industrialized, affluent countries had built up their economic and material prosperity on decades of indiscriminate abuse of the environment and on the worst forms of exploitation of women and children.

Developing countries on the other hand, which suffered from widespread poverty and were struggling to industrialize, could not possibly think of maintaining pristine environments by investing in costly additional facilities to minimize environmental pollution, which meant burdening the end product by the additional cost that had to be incurred thereby, which clearly meant eroding the competitive edge our exports enjoyed. Furthermore, I said that China, was the least concerned, despite the pressures brought to bear on them by the West, about maintaining pollution standards, in their determined drive towards rapid industrialization, which was accorded the highest priority in their single minded endeavour to reduce mass poverty in that country. I also said that our major concern should be the alleviation of poverty through a sustained developmental thrust ,as poverty was our biggest polluter.

The Minister who had listened carefully to what I said, wanted me to prepare a brief note incorporating these points and hand it over to Sarath Perera who was the Additional Secretary handling the subject. This was accordingly done by me. To my surprise a major headline carried in the following day’s newspapers read – ” The Ministry of Industries takes the view that the strict industrial pollution standards followed in the developed Western countries need not be adopted here.” It should be remembered that these decisions were taken more than 30 years ago when more than 60% of the population of this country was living at subsistence level, occupying substandard housing with no proper facilities for sewage and waste disposal.

Poverty alleviation was hence, a major policy imperative we had to pursue relentlessly. There was no gainsaying that there was widespread environmental pollution stemming from widespread poverty. But the hard logic that had to be underscored was that, poverty was indeed, irrefutably, the biggest polluter in poor developing countries. This was why they were according the highest priority to poverty alleviation and were trying frantically to break loose of what seemed an inexorable poverty cycle, through rapid industrilisation.

I also benefitted by attending a workshop on “Modern Management Techniques” at the D.S.E. Berlin in June – July 1983. I had to leave the Ministry of Industries under somewhat distressing circumstances. Mahinda Bandusena who was Senior Asst. Secy. of the Ministry at the time, and I were entrusted by the Minister the rather unenviable task of handling disciplinary inquiries against certain errant Heads of Corporations coming under the Ministry. It was a painful task given to us as some of the Corporation Heads were our close friends. But the Minister did not seem to be affected by these sensitivities and insisted that we carry on with these Inquiries.

I remember one particular case where I conducted an inquiry against a Chairman of a Corporation who had defalcated a substantial amount of money. There was enough evidence to conclude that the said Chairman had defrauded the Corporation and my report was submitted to the Minister along with my findings. The Minister summoned me the next morning and I found the Chairman seated before the Minister with his head bowed. The Minister at that stage gave me the file containing my report asking me to read the section on my findings. At the end of it, the Minister asked the Chairman what he had to say. As the Chairman remained silent, the Minister berated him saying that he was being badly let down by the Chairman and wanted the latter to pay back the full amount of money he had misappropriated immediately. The said Chairman I was told, had post haste paid back the full amount of money and had thereafter got himself warded, purportedly seeking treatment for high blood pressure. He had remained in hospital for a week and on his return to office, had been given another severe tongue lashing by the Minister who I was told, had felt sorry for him and accommodated him in another Statutory Board in the Ministry.

I still recall vividly an incident which happened when the Ministry Votes were being debated in Parliament with myself, Bandu and other Ministry official looking on from the Officials’

Box. We were embarrassed no end when Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who was at the time in the Opposition, pointed to us and said in Sinhala –”There you can see the Minister’s Supreme Court, Mr. Chandra Wickramasinghe and Mr. Mahinda Bandusena. They are the two who sit in judgment over Chairmen of Corporations”. (Recorded in Hansard.)

All this was in addition to the normal duties I was saddled with. Mahinda Bandusena too was similarly burdened with this additional workload. The Minister who was however, impatient to have these inquiries finalized in double quick time (which would have been most unfair by the accused persons most of whom happened to be our friends), summoned the two of us to his office at Flower Road and berated us for ‘delaying’ these inquiries. We both thought that the Minister was being unfair by us and tried to explain to him why we could not possibly accelerate these inquiries. However, the Minister was in no mood to hear us out. As we left the Minister’s office I told Bandu that I was leaving the Ministry and would look for a suitable place immediately.

I telephoned Mr. DBIPS Siriwardhana that afternoon and conveyed my intention of leaving the Ministry. I remember distinctly his cynical laugh while asking me “Do you take these characters seriously? They are just birds of passage and you should not get emotionally affected by what they say”. However, as I was insistent on leaving, he asked for two days for him to try and do something. However, within half an hour, he rang back and asked me whether I was interested in the post of Additional Secy. in the new Ministry of National Security where he had just been appointed Secretary. I promptly said that I would be privileged to serve under him but at the same time expressed certain doubts about my being able to secure my release from the Industries Ministry. Mr. Siriwardhana laughed and said that Minister Mathew should be happy to see me leave, having given me a blackguarding!

The next morning Mr. Mathew called me to the Ministry and was very sweet to me. I was with him for a good two hours and in between consultations he had with officials, he asked me what I thought about some new projects that came up for discussion and also sought my opinion about certain officers who visited him that morning. I however, was discreetly reticent particularly in expressing my personal views on certain officers most of whom were known to me well. When he was about to leave office I thought it was time for me to inform him that I would be leaving the Ministry. From the manner he reacted, it was clear that it came as a shock to him.

He asked me where I was going and the Minister in charge of the Ministry concerned. When I informed him that it was the new Ministry of National Security which had been created by the President, he realized that he would not be able to block my release. He then asked me who would succeed me and when I suggested a few names he did not seem happy with them and said that he would find a suitable successor. I liked Mr. Mathew despite the reputation he had for using strong arm tactics. Apart from the last episode which he obviously regretted, going by the manner he treated me the following day, I must say that he was extremely good to me during my stay of four years in that Ministry.

However, when I was leaving the Ministry to take up the appointment as Additional Secy. in the newly created Ministry of National Security, I was somewhat amused when a member who regularly served on these Tender Boards, told me that he was happy to see me leave, as I did not make money for myself nor did I allow others to do so! Although I was momentarily taken aback by what the person said, I knew again that it was indeed, a grudging compliment paid to me.

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