Governance Wrapped in Scented Rubbish

Jul 30 2017 - The world might not think much of the inventive genius of Sri Lankans. But where else would you find politicians that can inflate their egos (besides other things) into unbelievable proportions with nothing more than hot air which can generate enough power to meet a temporary energy crisis caused by striking workers.

Certainly there are other countries in which politicians and officials have been caught with their hands in the till or demanding that the till be filled before a job is done. Many have had to pay the price for it just as their ‘clients’ have had to pay for services rendered. The problem however is that with each passing day as it were, bribery and corruption in this country spreads wider and deeper to the point that it has turned endemic like dengue or the still unresolved garbage crisis which the government recently promised will be solved soon.

But how soon is soon. As an ancient philosopher once said truth is this to me and that to thee. To the people of Meethotamulla and elsewhere piled up garbage brought death and destruction more than three months ago. To them and others facing similar plights in other areas “soon” would be in a relatively short time like a few months or so until a more settled solution is found.

But to promising politicians who pile hopes on top of the rubbish “soon” could mean when they find the time to get round to it, busy as they are trying to break up some strikes by a club-carrying “public” or trying to cover up dubious bond deals by hook or by crook (mainly crook). Fantasies are cynically concocted by leaders who only look to appease the people when the time comes to seek their vote, as would surely happen when the continuously-delayed local government elections are eventually held and politicians go round offering more counterfeit promises as bait.

No amount of preaching by the likes of Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva the other day at what is touted as the Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2017 is going to cure this malaise unless politicians like Dr de Silva examine their own conscience wherever that might be located.

Harsha de Silva lambasted not merely the private sector but the public too for pointing their fingers at others for failing to deal with bribery and corruption. Dr de Silva would do better to turn the spotlight inward at the political class of which he is unfortunately now a member. It was just the other day that I read in our sister morning daily of a prominent school near Borella which has solved its garbage problem while our elected and non-elected geniuses are still promising solutions to what has turned out to be a toxic national issue.

True, the school’s solution might be just one small step for the rubbish problem but it is a giant step for the school and one that our failing politicians should give a thought to if their thinking processes are in some form of working order. It appears that this school has worked out a novel scheme to get rid of its waste. The school staff has prepared a roster of students who are then assigned to collect the rubbish in the classroom when their turn comes. What do they do with it? Why take the rubbish home at the end of the day, listening to the nasty comments of bus crews and others who loathe to travel in the same vehicle with passengers and rubbish or passengers with rubbish.

One never knows of course where the carriers of this rubbish end up. But we do know of a school in a more affluent part of Colombo which dumps some of its rubbish on the community. They end up holding political office or important public positions usually messing up both. However novel and clever this latest rubbish clearing exercise appears to be, it represents a long followed cultural tradition that has been finely honed and crafted over the years by politicians and officialdom alike.

That is the practice of passing the buck like the school referred to has now done. It has passed on the problem to the students. A classic example of buck passing was witnessed after the Meethotamulla tragedy when no one seemed to take responsibility wholly or partly for what happened and each seemed to blame somebody else-from the previous government to the present lot.

When it comes to passing the buck it seems that not even the President is safe. Maybe we have misunderstood the functions of the Ministry of Disaster Management. Since it is to manage disaster it has little to do until a disaster happens and the world and half the garbage dump comes crashing down.

But Deputy Minister de Silva was not only talking of passing the buck but also the backsheesh though in most cases it is backsheesh plus like the GSP+ that is supposed to bring us continental largesse to turbo-boost out economy.

In language and tone that seemed unusually overcharged Harsha de Silva was to accuse the private sector of succumbing to the practice of oiling the palms of officials to get their jobs done. That might please his new boss and party chief who has just celebrated 40 years of parliamentary life but it surely tells only part of the story. The Harvard-educated de Silva is beginning to sound like Trump, lashing out with feckless arguments.

The deputy minister surely knows that it takes two to tango. Bribery, graft, santhosam or whatever you call it is not one-sided. Bribery involves both giver and taker. Sometimes it is given and taken and sometimes it is asked for/demanded and given. Castigating the private sector for giving bribes to get jobs done de Silva urged businesspeople and others to stop corrupting themselves.

Good advice if they themselves as politicians and others as high-ranking officials looked closely at the mirror each morning and said a prayer as a reminder to desist from bribery and corruption. What de Silva failed to do – judging by reports of his speech – is to ask himself where all this really started. Let him go back into the history of his own party and say truthfully whether in the early years of our independence there was public agitation against bribery and corruption. No, because there was little to speak of unlike today when it is rampant.

All this started with politicians taking bribes often through their wives as their private secretaries or family or friends given jobs under them. Have not some politicians been referred to as Mr 10% and later by an increased percentage as inflation began to eat into their assets. Why is it that today one has to pass the backsheesh to minor officials to get something done? It is because those lower down the pecking order have seen and heard that those at the top of the order not only engaged in high-scale graft and corruption but that this government has heaped more and more perks and privileges on the political class and the law makers.

If those at the top of the political ladder and wielders of power can fatten themselves at the expense of the public making money out of state tenders and projects, why should those at the bottom be left out of this equation?

That surely is the logic that drives those to whom money is given to get a job done. If the high and mighty can fleece the nation why cannot we who need it much more take a few rupees more is their argument. This is not to condone bribery and corruption. It is merely asking those in power to look reality in the face. When the crackdown on bribery-taking comes it falls on some policemen taking five hundred rupees or some gramasevaka niladhari pocketing thousand rupees.

But despite all the bribery and corruption that the present rulers spoke vehemently against at election time and threatened to cull the bribe takers and throw them in some hell hole remains empty rhetoric. They are unfulfilled promises like so many other pledges and unlikely to be fulfilled because the political class protects itself and only those from lower down who have managed to creep into it are likely to be sacrificed.

They cannot act against political opponents without exposing your own who are as tainted morally as your enemies. At the same conference Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy, the Central Bank Governor asked why Sri Lankan entrepreneurs are not investing in their own country while foreigners are doing so.

For all his economic erudition if Dr. Coomaraswamy fails to see why, then he is not likely to see at all. It is because they had so much faith in the promises and pledges of this yahapalanaya government.

But 2 ½ years have shown that this faith has rapidly dissipated. There is no consistency in policies, there is ambivalence and the need to burn incense at the feet of politicians and their henchmen. The claim it will eradicate nepotism and cronyism and replace it with a meritocracy is already hollow. What has happened at SriLankan Airlines and other institutions is proof that cronyism is very much alive. Transparency and accountability are as dead as a dodo.

Instead hate crimes and hate speech are on the increase with the saffronisation of politics and the loud mouthed Justice Minister who is also Minister of Buddha sasana unable to manage either with conviction.

In short Dr. Coomaraswamy, Sri Lankans seem to have a better grasp of the climate than foreigners. Even Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard seems fuller than this yahapalanaya government of fulfilled promises.

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

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