Behind the invisibility cloak: Sri Lanka’s hidden state-owned enterprises

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

By Dilshani N. Ranawaka

Is the Government aware it has gazetted 527 SOEs?

Unveiling an invisibility cloak of the state was the first task I did as a fresh graduate. Behind 55 strategic State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) identified by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) lies another 450+ SOEs making their contribution to the “Coordination Problem”.

SOEs in Sri Lanka

Even at face value, it seems unlikely that a small country like Sri Lanka needs the government to run a pool of SOEs as large as this. Interestingly, the MoF doesn’t have a count of all its SOEs, with the Annual Report only mentioning that there are 400+ SOEs. However, there are at least 527 SOEs, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries gazetted. To be specific, the 527 SOEs can be broken down to 424 principals, 84 subsidiaries and 19 sub-subsidiaries.

Of the 400+ SOEs that the government is aware of, the Department of Public Enterprises tracks the profits and losses of only 55 SOEs, which they have identified as ‘strategic’.

This raises two questions.

  1. Why doesn’t the government know the number of enterprises it runs? Anyone running a business should at the very least know the number of organisations it is in charge of.

  2. Why does the MoF only track 55 SOEs? What are the losses that come from the remaining 450?

Let’s take the Ministry of Power and Energy and Business Development for example. The ministry’s losses add up to a cumulative net-loss of Rs. 363,945Mn during the past 11 years. The ministry governs 4 principal SOEs, 6 subsidiary SOEs and 12 sub-subsidiary SOEs adding upto a total of 22 bodies.

When one further explores these subsidiaries, it is quite logical to ponder the rationale for these categorizations. For instance; the Ceylon Electricity Board has two subsidiaries under it. The first subsidiary Lanka Electricity Company (LECO) has three sub-subsidiaries LTL Transformers, LTL Energy, and LTL Galvanizers. The second subsidiary LTL Holdings (Pvt.) has another sub-subsidiary LTL Energy (Pvt.). Is it any wonder that we have erratic power supply? A convenient way to track all these entities would be to establish all of them under one subsidiary; LTL Holdings.

It is time we question the logic of establishing so many SOEs, given that their profits and losses are not tracked, and a majority do not even publish annual reports. When the losses incurred by these entities are added to the equation, it is clear that there is large-scale mismanagement taking place.

The multiple layers of incorporation (principal, subsidiary and subsidiary bodies) enhances the divisibility of responsibilities. Furthermore, the problem with having too many entities makes it hard for them to be monitored. Since SOEs are governed by the state, the debt burden is weighed heavily on the government and then transferred to the taxpayer.

Moving beyond the profits and losses of these enterprises, an equally shocking fact is that out of the 527 SOEs that have been gazetted to date, information of their purpose (classification as commercial and non-commercial entities) of 284 SOEs is not freely available, and cannot be found from government sources.

Can these 527 enterprises be utilized or do a majority need to be shut down because of their losses? The government cannot afford to keep bailing out its mismanaged enterprises - the fiscal space simply does not exist.

The first step to addressing the problem of SOEs, is to figure out the number of entities the state governs. A bi-annual census of SOE conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, with detailed reports (a current requirement fulfilled only by 55 SOEs) on every SOE is a must.  It is only from here, when the government has an idea of the extent of the problem that we can move into questions of improving accountability and introducing better governance structures.

The question remains, when the government is unaware of the number of entities it is responsible for, why should citizens pay for their loss making, inefficient, institutional excess?  

Sri Lanka has a total of 527 State Owned Enterprises out of which regular information is available for only 55. The inefficiencies and mismanagement which riddle our SOEs are explored in the Advocata Institute's new report  “State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka- 2019". To read more on SOEs and download full report visit

Dilshani Ranawaka is a Research Executive at the Advocata Institute whose main research areas are public finance, behavioural economics and labour economics. She can be contacted at or @dilshani_n on Twitter.

Can the ECT buoy the Colombo Port?

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

Sri Lanka’s location at the midpoint of international trade routes, positioned at the centre of the Indian Ocean, is a fact that we probably know by heart. But what’s important is the question whether we are exploiting this position. Our ports and good policy decisions are the tools that allow us to change geography into tangible benefits. The performance of the Colombo Port has been exemplary. It recently handled its seven millionth container and was ranked the fastest-growing port in 2018. However, with the Colombo Port operating at approximately an 80% capacity, this growth and the benefits it brings have an expiration date.

What is the ideal role of the government in the shipping industry?
The government should most definitely not be both a player and a regulator. Right now, the Government plays both roles, and the potential for a conflict of interest is enormous. It also means that it is increasingly difficult for competitive neutrality to be maintained. However, the government should not be completely removed from the industry. The role of the government lies solely in being a landlord and regulator, for if the Colombo Port is to grow while remaining efficient and profitable, regulation is required to address anti-competitive practices, monitor performance, and enforce standards. Of course, when advocating for government regulation, one wants to steer clear of the miles of red tape that the government is fond of. A caveat of this argument is that a balance be struck, so that regulation does not stifle innovation or investment.

What makes economic sense?
Establishing the hard and soft infrastructure a port requires is a capital and time-intensive task. There also needs to be strong commitment, which the Government lacks. Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT), which is a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd. and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), signed a BOT agreement in 2011. The terminal was operational by 2013. In comparison, the construction of the breakwater for the Jaya Container Terminal (JCT) run by the SLPA took four years, from 2008 to 2012. CICT developed an entire terminal in less time than it took the SLPA to construct the breakwater for its existing terminal.

Lack of direction and consensus from decision makers in government have resulted in the East Container Terminal (ECT) – a strategically important terminal remaining unused and idle. It is clear that the Government needs to step aside and allow the private sector to come in. This is evidenced by the performance of the South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT), which is operated on a BOT basis with the Government of Sri Lanka and a consortium of local and international establishments, which was awarded the “Best Terminal in the Indian Subcontinent Region” for the third consecutive year in 2019 and won the “Best Transhipment Hub Port Terminal of the year” at the Global Ports Forum.

Percentage change in TEU handling from 2016 to 2017 (Source:  Ministry of Ports and Shipping, Performance Report (2017), compiled by the Advocata Institute)

Percentage change in TEU handling from 2016 to 2017 (Source: Ministry of Ports and Shipping, Performance Report (2017), compiled by the Advocata Institute)

When comparing the success of the different terminals, the same conclusion can be drawn. Looking at the comparison of the number of Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) handled by the terminals from 2016 to 2017, the CICT is the best performer. Interestingly, while both SAGT and CICT have enjoyed an increase of 10.9% and 19.3% in TEU for 2017, JCT has witnessed a 4.3% drop. The privately-operated terminals outperforming the SLPA Jaya Terminal speaks volumes.

Seaports are interfaces between several modes of transport, and thus they are centers for combined transport … they are multi-functional markets and industrial areas where goods are not only in transit, but they are also sorted, manufactured and distributed. As a matter of fact, seaports are multi-dimensional systems, which must be integrated within logistic chains to fulfill properly their functions.
— United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

Ripple effects of private ownership

This definition by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development succinctly describes the importance of ports and port infrastructure, and accurately shows how ports cannot work in silos. They are an integral component in a wider network of business, infrastructure, supply chains and employment. If we want profitable and efficient ports, we need similarly performing ancillary services.

Ancillary services and ports enjoy a symbiotic relationship. On one hand, ancillary services are series of economic activities which provide services and create employment; which are dependent on the port. On the other hand, the port benefits from efficient ancillary services as they make the port and its terminals more attractive to clients and boosts its own performance.

Ancillary Services Colombo Port

Ancillary services include logistics, bunkering, marine lubricants, freshwater supply, off shore supplies and ship chandelling, warehousing and many more. These services, and their ability to grow is affected by the general functioning of the port, and therefore is affected by the ownership of the terminals.

For a port to survive, ancillary services need to constantly innovate and remain productive. There is no need for this article to expound on how the government is not the place to go to when in search of innovation. This is clearly the forte of the private sector. This is backed up by the fact that so far, private ownership of terminals and profitability go hand in hand. In short, if profitable and productive terminal creates a well-functioning port, allowing ancillary services to grow; then we should be looking to the private sector for investment and not the government.

What is happening with the ECT?

As mentioned above, the Colombo Port is fast growing. However, if you were to look at the Colombo Port from one of the many high rises in the Fort area, spotting the East Container Terminal would not be difficult – it’s the only terminal with nothing happening. No cranes, no ships, no activity.

The East Container Terminal is not significant simply for its disuse. Compared to the West Terminal, it is situated in the middle of the new port and the old port of Colombo. This gives it an advantage as it is closer to all other terminals and moves inter-terminal cargo a smaller distance. This gives it an important edge as inter-terminal cargo is an important component of transshipment. The depth of the ECT, at 18m allows it to handle container shipments, adding to its value. In short, the ECT has a clear operational advantage.

It is evident that the country has lost out in this scenario. In a port that is as fast growing as the Colombo port, the decision makers of this country have, for a variety of reasons, not developed the ECT. The Sri Lankan government has taken many stances over the years. It both invited expressions of interest and business proposals for the development of the ECT and cancelled tenders, insistent that the ECT will be run by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority – sending mixed signals to interested parties, and effectively ensuring that investors are reticent, and development of the port has stalled.

Politics have dictated the government’s decisions on the ECT, and the result is that the country has lost out. In shipping the government has an important role to play in regulation and ensuring standards are adhered to, but it cannot be both a player and a regulator. The performance of the JCT in comparison to the private terminals makes it clear that government is not as effective as the private sector, it should limit itself to the task of regulation. In conclusion, the ECT should be opened for private ownership as soon as possible, following the precedent set by the BOT models of the CICT and SAGT.

Aneetha Warusavitarana is a Research Analyst at the Advocata Institute. Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. They conduct research, provide commentary, and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka. She can be contacted at or @AneethaW on twitter .

Colombo's traffic: can solving the problem of schools help?

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Children hit the books; adults hit the brakes. Back to school for them, back to the gridlock for everyone.

Travelling in Colombo is now a test of patience, traffic having reached an impossible level.

For motorists, disorderly flows of vehicles, people and animals make the roads a nightmare to navigate. Toxic fumes poison pedestrians and residents alike, leaving an unsightly haze visible from the city’s high-rise buildings. Travel forums for tourists include discussions on ‘rush hour in Colombo’ and ‘the best time to miss traffic’.

Even if one gets through the traffic, parking is almost as big a hassle. School vans permanently occupy some streets, while rows of trishaws hog other parking spaces. Traffic congestion imposes a variety of costs, some obvious, some hidden, on businesses and individuals. At the most basic level, increasing congestion means longer travel times for passengers and higher operating costs for vehicle operators.

University of Moratuwa civil engineering and transport expert Professor Amal S. Kumarage estimates that Sri Lanka incurs an economic loss of around Rs. 40 billion annually due to road traffic congestion and air pollution.

Solving the larger traffic problem requires a proper public transport system, but one of the most peculiar aspects of Colombo’s problem is school traffic. The world over, school traffic creates some problems, but for policymakers elsewhere school-related traffic congestion is confined to the overcrowding and blocking of streets on or near school property. The problem with Colombo is that school traffic extends from one end of the city to the other. During peak school hours, some areas of the city are impassable. The reasons peculiar to Colombo include a clustering of popular schools in central Colombo and adjacent areas, growth in student numbers over the years, and an increasing tendency for students to commute daily from outside the city to schools within the city.

Growth in school rolls within the city has far outgrown the capacity it was designed for, and excessive centralisation of economic activity around the Western province in general and the city in particular, which draws in large numbers of commuters. In 2001, the floating population was estimated to be 400,000; today, it is thought to be 1.5 million.

Traffic congestion imposes a variety of costs, on businesses and individuals

A century ago, colonial rulers encountered a similar problem with congestion in the city. The Housing and Town Improvement Ordinance No. 19 of 1915 was introduced to check “the uncontrolled and irregular building spread” in the city. “These regulations attempted to control the size, orientation, spacing, height and spatial arrangement of buildings to permit sufficient direct sunlight to the buildings and maximise ventilation. The chief features of the bill were its preventive and remedial measures. These were four-fold:

  1. No building was to be erected unless roads existed to serve them.

  2. No building was to exceed in height the width of the street on which it was situated.

  3. Rooms were to be provided with sufficient space, ventilation and light.

  4. Open spaces were to be provided in the rear of the buildings as a common channel of ventilation behind continuous rows of houses.

Following this, the Geddes plan of 1921 set the boundaries of the city and designed it to make it “The Garden City of the East”. The tree-lined streets (Bauddhaloka Mawatha) and the grid system of roads in Cinnamon Gardens are legacies of that plan. The Abercrombie Plan of 1948 noted the high concentration of economic, trade and port-related activities in the city and emphasised the decentralisation of the city’s activities to the suburban areas of Ragama, Homagama and Ratmalana as satellite towns. The plan included a ring road to link these towns and the shifting of central administrative functions to Ratmalana. This plan was not implemented and neither was anything else. Despite subsequent plans in 1978, 1985 and later, nothing was enforced. The city grew organically, in an increasingly unruly manner that paid no heed to infrastructure, land or even safety constraints. The most recent spate of building apartment complexes and hotels threatens to overwhelm the water, sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure, what some now term a ‘cancerous’ development. Development, but of a malignant kind, that can eventually choke and poison the city.

Can schools be one place to start fixing things?

It is absurd that people should have to send their children halfway across the country to attend school. To the author’s knowledge, school vans routinely travel from as far as Embiliptiya and Hikkaduwa. This is a colossal waste of fuel and bad for children who are giving up family time or extracurricular activities in exchange for commute time. Parents are lured into these insane commutes by another insane system: the perception that job, marriage and all future prospects are tied to the school one attends, regardless of the actual quality of education. Previously, parents aspired to send children to central colleges within their district that provided excellent facilities, education and the opportunity to enter university.

One of the aims of expanding the system of central colleges in 1943 (when 11 were established) was to check the shift of the rural population to urban areas. The colleges, modelled after Royal College with properly equipped with science labs, libraries, playgrounds, etc, catered to students within a six-mile radius. The number was expanded to 23, and by 1944, there were a total of 54, on the basis of one per electorate.

The schools had good teachers and the principals were selected on merit (by the Public Service Commission), making them immune to political pressure and enabling them to discharge their duties without fear or favour.

“The selection of teaching and other staff was done according to a pre-designed specific cadre. The all-round educational needs of the children were reckoned as the all-important factor, and more than not, the principal was consulted in the matter of appointments. Sometimes he was invited to serve on the selection board. There was also the assumption that teachers selected to central colleges had to be necessarily proficient in some extracurricular activity and be willing to assist in the afternoons at no extra remuneration” – CTM Fernando

The purpose of the Grade 5 scholarship exam was not to send even more children to schools in Colombo, but to gain admission to the closest central college. In its heyday, the quality of the products of the central colleges was not questioned, and that “all central colleges without exception served the purpose for which they were established is borne out by the fact that a vast majority of our professionals and other governmental and non-governmental executives are the products of these central colleges” (Fernando).

The decline of colleges was due to short-sighted politics. People were clamouring for more central colleges and the MPs responded by simply renaming small schools as “central colleges,” lacking the facilities and teaching staff. The politicisation of teacher selection meant appointments of central college principals were taken over by the ministry. “This new breed of politically appointed principals were often accommodated to ‘look after the duties of the principal’, as they lacked the requisite qualification and the experience, not to mention personality, to be one. When some of them lacked any competence in English, it was argued that English was not needed in the “Swabhasha system”.

Their knowledge of education and educational administration was woefully pathetic; but none dared to comment” (Fernando).

The recent spate of building complexities can be termed a ‘cancerous’ development

Can this system be recreated? Central colleges lack ‘cachet’, so we can never return to that and, depending on the politicians who destroyed an existing system, to recreate one is far too optimistic; but could affordable private schools, teaching in English, restore the system of education in the provinces?

If the government has no money to spend building schools, the logical step would be to allow the popular Colombo schools to build branches outstation. Several smaller ‘international’ schools such as Lyceum already have branches outstation. Initial funding could come from investors, either local or foreign, but on the basis that fees would be charged, which is the case at international schools. That parents pay heavily in ‘donations’ to get into popular schools is well known. Paying for extra tuition is widespread. Add to this the cost of paying for long distance school transport. If the right model can be found, paying proper fees for a decent education, close to home, would be an attractive option for parents and ease some of the chronic congestion in the city.

The government would need to implement proper planning regulations to check the growth of schools in congested areas while encouraging them to set up in key locations elsewhere. Perhaps the buildings and facilities of the old central colleges could be upgraded and rebranded to attract students from the area. Instead of the proposed purchase of Mi17 helicopters (apparently for use in UN missions), the government should spend this money on school infrastructure. Volunteer teachers from overseas and teacher training programmes could help fill in the gaps for teaching staff.

These are only suggestions, but policymakers need to start thinking outside the box; even dusting off colonial era plans would be an improvement.