By Thilak S. Fernando

The Government decision to purchase buildings for Sri Lankan Overseas Diplomatic Missions and residences for diplomats as well as non-diplomatic ' home-based' staff is a move in the right direction towards cost effective economy in terms of foreign exchange drain.

Considering the number of Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry personnel working overseas and the vast amount of monies spent on leases or rent, over the past five decades, it clearly indicates that that after all these years the Foreign Ministry is now on the right course in forward planning in their policies. The Foreign Minister, Mr Lakshman Kadirgarmar in this regard needs to be congratulated for taking the initiative to utilise the Treasury allocation of Rs.100 million to the Foreign Ministry rather than paying it back to the Treasury as ' unused'. Purchases of new property in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Pretoria and Beijing and further attempts to buy more in Mumbai and Berlin indicate that the new concept is gaining ground fast.

For fifty years the amount of foreign exchange drain on rented or leased accommodation from the Foreign Ministry has run into multiples of billions. The concept of purchasing quarters for diplomats surfaced few moons ago with the experiment in New Delhi. Subsequent to the Indian experience several Administrations, of different hues, have been focussing on the issue and performed various exercises too, but finally all such studies have been confined only to a lip service to a greater extent.

Taking London as a typical example one could focus on the extensive research done during 1970s and 1980s to achieve this goal. Unfortunately due to various administrative and political factors dominating the issue, the idea was put back on the shelf. One thing accomplished during such operations was the purchase of an official residence for the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka at St. John's Wood in NW London, which incorporated a house keeper's three bed room bungalow in the same compound [which came as a blessing in disguise]. Due to the hind sight of a First Secretary at the High Commission during that time, the so-called house-keeper's bungalow was refurbished into a diplomatic officers' quarters, which is being used up-to-date by Diplomats with a substantial foreign exchange saving.

During President Premadasa's regime the huge basement area of No.13 Hyde Park Gardens [High Commission premises], which was gathering dust was converted to several flats by a special squad of builders flown from Sri Lanka. This has yet again reduced the London accommodation bill substantially. When the PA Administration came to power a feature article written from London, appearing in 'The Island' newspaper highlighted the London accommodation problem and quoted the housing allowances paid to diplomats at the time as 12,000 a month, and that was even after making several savings from the sources mentioned above.

Today renting of accommodation in London has become a nightmare. By the same token it needs to be said that house market in London is quite a depressed one too, which gives every reason to buy the Foreign Minister's idea of purchasing properties for foreign office use rather than having to pay rent allowances of varying degree to officials and leasing of property, which only contributes to make private landlords richer.

Government having their owned property for diplomatic staff abroad has its other advantages. The past history [London] which has been recorded in Sri Lankan parliamentary hansards will reveal how some who had the privilege of hob-knobing with previous Foreign Ministers of yesteryear were capitalising their camaraderie to rent their own properties to diplomatic staff posted to London. In such circumstances not only the whole act became misdemeanour (flat letting to diplomats in London becoming an issue in Sri Lanakn parliamentary discussions) but these private 'mudalalis' , who had nothing to do with the affairs of the State, were seen as becoming interfering and manipulating nuisances with their own kind of 'diplomatic' skulduggery.

The idea of purchasing property can also be successfully applied to other institutions in London, such as The Bank of Ceylon, Tea Centre, Air Lanka, Shipping Corporation etc., who represent the Government and are subsidised by the government one way or the other.

Foreign Minister Kadirgamer's idea to purchase property abroad for Sri Lankan overseas Missions not only save millions of Pound Sterling by having government owned quarters for officers who are already paying exorbitant rents in London but it will also make life much easier for the new appointees to London in the future to settle down with ease.