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FeaturesStraining out ants but swallowing elephants

Straining out ants but swallowing elephants

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 ”Take some examples from the COPE report. They range from mega losses like Mihinair (Rs. 13,000 million in three years) to the chairman of Paranthan Chemical Company, a state enterprise, registering a lorry which belongs to the state under his name and then hiring it from him. It ranges from Sri Lanka Cricket spending Rs. 6,000 million when its entire asset base is only half of that; to a one-time Minister of Environment taking a luxury vehicle belonging to the State Timber Corporation and not returning it; the whereabouts of the vehicle are not known. Simply put, this is plunder of state property.”  
In our issue last week, we had separate stories. One was on a Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Municipal Council Public Health Inspector who lost his civic rights, on being found guilty of taking a bribe to refrain from filing action against owners of a garment factory for maintaining a hostel for their workers under unhygienic conditions.

The other was a picture story, showing a Provincial Minister in the Puttalam District ordering a group of public servants and police to release a man caught using banned fishing nets that damaged the fragile marine ecosystem along the Old Dutch Canal.

This is but a vignette of life in Sri Lanka. On the one hand, there is a public servant with no apparent political backing to save his skin. He faces the full force of the law. On the other, a rascal with political patronage is able to escape the long arm of the law. One might ask, should not the Provincial Minister also be stripped of his civic rights?

We, however, live in the real world, and it has increasingly been the practice for those on the wrong side of the law but the right side of the political fence, to get away scot free, while those without influence are thrown to ravenous wolves.
 

The recently released report of the parliamentary oversight committee – COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) is a textbook example. Here, the Government is turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and mismanagement at the people’s expense. No doubt the blame will fall on them for the poor selection of chairpersons and directors to these public institutions, but the even bigger concern is why no action is being taken against any of them. Financial discipline is something that has become an obsolete term.

Take some examples from the COPE report. They range from mega losses like Mihinair (Rs. 13,000 million in three years) to the chairman of Paranthan Chemical Company, a state enterprise, registering a lorry which belongs to the state under his name and then hiring it from him. It ranges from Sri Lanka Cricket spending Rs. 6,000 million when its entire asset base is only half of that; to a one-time Minister of Environment taking a luxury vehicle belonging to the State Timber Corporation and not returning it; the whereabouts of the vehicle are not known. Simply put, this is plunder of state property.

The independent media have highlighted these and many more scandalous happenings in the Government, over and again. The courts have unravelled rackets in the privatisation of state institutions in the past, and among those who were found guilty of financial malpractice are those in the saddle and in charge of enforcing financial discipline today. Oil hedging deals where the country lost millions of US dollars, and the draining of funds from even prominent sports bodies like Sri Lanka Cricket would in most countries be considered national crimes, with those responsible being put behind bars. But no; it’s the PHI who has his civic rights taken away.

The report by the former Auditor General after scrutinizing the accounts of the vast empire that is the state sector has come to some damning findings. Not only must heads of departmental bosses roll, but so too of their political leadership who must take the moral responsibility in any event. But, the report gathers dust in very high places of the Administration. What they don’t read, is not happening is their motto.

The answer to this insofar as the Government is concerned seems to be to have more of the same by trying to grab private sector enterprises and give ‘jobs for the boys’. There are reports that reshuffles and changes on the directorates and even the political leadership of ministries are on the way. We don’t, however, know the criteria that will be adopted for these changes. The selection process is not transparent, and going by the Government’s track record of appointing square pegs to round public institutions, and political favouritism being the order of the day, there is little to expect.

Recent events at the Colombo Stock Exchange where a principled public servant — and the number is fast dwindling — resigned over happenings inside beg an explanation from the Government. But what the people and the country get is what the Government clearly thinks they deserve – a stony silence. It is as clear as clear can be that investor confidence has eroded and the Stock Exchange is seen by many as a casino for cowboys to play their games. It is an open secret that these players are closely associated with the Government and throw caution to the winds with the established rules of the game that govern such places.

If the Government will not budge from its current policy of allowing things to drift merely because these public bodies are managed by its henchmen, and for the sake of political expediency they must remain in these positions, then there is little the people can do about it except to accept their fate in muttering resignation. One is easily reminded of the saying that ‘Dogs may bark but the caravan moves on’.

ST Editorial

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