Wednesday, December 23, 2015


We have had a proliferation of enforcement and regulatory agencies in the recent past. These are supposed to exercise autonomous authority over specific areas of human activity.  While the current political structure is in a state of relative flux, these agencies have been given greater policing powers than they have enjoyed in a long time. Yet, as citizens, one wonders how effective they are and how well connected they are to the people, their aspirations and their grievances. 

There is a popular mantra that states that if there is monopoly involvement of an entity in any sector of human activity, then a regular’s role escalates rapidly in importance such as is the case with say, the role of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) in overseeing electricity, petroleum and water which are all monopolies in Sri Lanka. By implication, the role of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRC) is minimal because strong competition in the sector creates the conditions for self-regulation.  Yet the situation is not that simple.

These days, sector players have a habit of banding together for mutual benefit, creating de-facto monopolies in specific activities such as easy-cash for example. 
The issue I want to highlight with the above example is that the public is certainly worried as to the level of internal awareness of a regulator on the activities of their sector. I would like to think they are fully cognizant but if so, then why is there no mention, no discussion, no action on those issues? More to the point, where do they talk to the public on such issues?

The tired mediums of leaflets, posters, “public gatherings”, “selective engagement with civil sector organizations” etc. have been flogged to death and their effectiveness is near zero at present. The issue is worsened by the complete lack of citizen responsibility on the part of Sri Lankans where they will only get serious about “responding” when their comfort zones are violated. 

The key problem I perceive is that regulators have to either deal with single individuals with unique problems who have somehow managed to cut through a mountain of red tape and barriers to obtained knowledge of where to go and what to do to find relief for their grievances or they work with a few specific interest groups. This is so because the average Sri Lankan is clueless about most things that have a direct impact on them and are generally wont to stick their heads in the sand. In most cases, critiquing the social order or the market reality is something alien. As mentioned in a previous post, they hide behind politicians and hope they come good. Not so but they have yet to be given a strong reason to believe otherwise.  Therefore, iIn many cases, problems are never brought to the surface and remain hidden from regulators.  This is tragic because some regulators such as the PUCSL and the CAA are doing excellent work in restrictive arenas while some others simply do not have a strong public engagement strategy that aligns with the type of social human being one has to deal with today. 

In today’s world, near instantaneous stimulus-response requirements have rendered most perennial methods largely ineffectual. They are not completely outdated by standing alone those engagement techniques will fail. No one is really interested in digging through pages and pages of enactments, regulations, rules, guidelines. Most believe that anything that is not in 16 point fonts on a single page is pretty useless. They also do not believe that they should be sent to halfway houses to get their problems addressed meaning that telling them to hit the local DS office or PS office is guaranteed to rise their heckles more than anything else. 

Farsighted thinkers, regulators and civil leaders met recently to thrash out why consumer movements have failed and to
attempt to chisel out a solution to the problem

NO! What the public needs is for the regulators to be able to respond to them very quickly. They do not always need a solution. They mostly need to know that a person in authority has heard them and will respond to them within a reasonable period of time. In short, they need to be active on social media like the Pakistani drug enforcement authority and many others. It requires a mindset shift in how they engage and that requires three things a) no fear b) desire to respond quickly and c) a strong citizen network to work with. Within the current set up of these commissions, authorities, boards and agencies, that is difficult. The reason is not legislative but rather recalcitrance, a complete lack of awareness on the fact that social media has taken the role of convener of masses and the lack of sufficiently enabled staff to respond to the citizen at a high level.
Some of the more farsighted regulators such as the CAA and the PUCSL have taken an active lead to create such groups but to engage them, it is not sufficient to have pocket meetings. Institutions such as the one’s mentioned need to get online – and quickly.  If they do so, then I suspect that there will be a domino effect with every other regulator also having a highly interactive online presence and not merely an information dissemination website. The people will certainly be happy, have more faith in grassroots action targeting enforcement and the enforcers themselves more enabled to execute their mandate. 

The key, as Kumi Nesiah, a moderator on the National Consumer Movement FB page says, is to “attract people to the ethos of criticism” and paraphrasing what he says, “the consumers are looking for faith and for the longest period of time, they have been worshipping  at the alters of megabrands, consuming advertisements and thinking they are living high quality lives when in fact, they are driven, like mindless automatons towards mega-acquisition and mega-greed that feeds them debt and feeds the brands money”. The people need to believe and they must be given reasons for a belief either beyond or separate from market-ideologies or economic-spiritualties. The regulators, along with civil groups, academics, media people and politicians have a mega role to play in that and their presence online is mandatory. 

(If you are interested in getting involved, obtaining knowledge, highlighting issues, resolving problems, please send us a membership request on Facebook – National Consumer Network of Sri Lanka.  

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