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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Only Thing ‘Thriving’ Is Corruption

By Romesh Abeywickrema

An international survey on global wellbeing in 2010 carried out by influential polling firm, Gallup has found that only 5% of Sri Lankans are “thriving.” And there are no prizes for guessing exactly who makes up this privileged 5% in Sri Lanka. The poll was published by Gallup on April 19.
The Gallup findings fly in the face of government boasts all is well and good in this miracle in the making, except of course the UN Advisory Panel Report – the one and only ‘problem’ at present.

Meanwhile the government has been going to great lengths to highlight Central Bank Chief Nivard Cabraal’s favourite piece of data, that per capita income has doubled since Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the top job and GDP growth according to Cabraal’s data was a high 8% last year. This year is going to be even better, we have been told.

The Gallup survey also threw up the fact every man on the street knew but would not dare to contest, that 75% of Sri Lankans are “struggling” and 20% are downright “suffering.” To make matters worse Sri Lanka is listed as better off only ahead of Chad, Haiti, Cambodia, Niger, Tajikistan and Tanzania, among a list of 124 countries.

According to the Gallup survey, even Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is ahead of Sri Lanka when it comes to the well being of people along with Iraqis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Sudanese, Ugandans, Tunisians and the people of Sierra Leone. Certainly not the best piece of news for the Government of Sri Lanka which seems to be living in a ‘miraculous’ world of its own.

Gallup classifies respondents’ wellbeing as “thriving,” “struggling,” or “suffering,” according to how they rate their current and future lives on a ladder scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10 based on the “Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale.”

People are considered ‘thriving’ if they rate their current lives 7 or higher and their lives in five years 8 or higher. According to Gallup a median of 21% across 124 countries were “thriving” last year. This is unchanged from the year before.  With a “thriving” figure of 72% Denmark topped the list while Sweden (69%) and Canada (69%) made up the next two slots.

The fact that 95% of Sri Lankans are nowhere near thriving with 75% ‘struggling’ and 20% ‘suffering’ has much to do with non-monetary reasons.

For instance the conviction rate of crimes committed stands at a dismal 5 percent according to research conducted some time back. This means in 95 percent of criminal cases there is no conviction. It must also be remembered that only a fraction of cases actually get investigated in the first place. Those who seek the assistance of the law soon find out that the efficiency of an investigation is directly connected to the status of the person making the complaint and the power and authority he/she wields.
There is no way a country and its people can thrive when there is a breakdown in law and order and if one were to look ahead to the next five years as required/reflected in the Gallup poll then the horizon, at least on this score, looks gloomy as ever as a result of the unprecedented level of politicization of the law enforcement arm.

That Sri Lankans, despite the economic renewal post war are unhappy with the status quo is clear by the long lines seen opposite foreign embassies despite some countries tightening their entry requirements. It seems that if the average Sri Lankan is offered the opportunity to migrate to a Western country, nine out of ten are unlikely to refuse the offer.

The application of the rule of law is today clearly at the whim and fancy of the politicians in power. Although on paper independent institutions are supposed to be entrusted with the duty to oversee law and order these institutions have been castrated and their power taken over by the ruling politicians. The selective application of the law is highlighted by the withdrawal of charges against former government MP Katriarachchi who was the accused in a murder case and serving government MP Duminda Silva who was facing charges of rape of a minor. The Attorney General, citing lack of evidence, withdrew the cases in both instances. This blatant act of the AG attracted the condemnation of the Chief Justice, Asoka De Silva who in an interview with the BBC’s Sandeshaya said it was wrong for the AG to have withdrawn the charges.

However this same AG the very next week after he withdrew charges against Silva said he would be indicting four opposition members from the DNA for ‘unlawful assembly.’ This crime is supposed to have been committed during the election campaign last year in Galle.

There is also a familiar trend with regard to cases filed by the government pointing to the fact that the independence of the judiciary has also been compromised. While this systemic politicization en bloc may benefit politicians in the short term the country as a whole will have to pay a heavy price in the long term. The consequences are far reaching and one that is already apparent is the poor investor confidence despite many millions being busted on promotional campaigns.

When it comes to attracting foreign investment the government seems to be doing everything possible to drive potential investors away despite the Central Bank doing the job of the Board of Investment and producing books on ‘setting up business’ in Sri Lanka.

When the state’s chief lawyer, the AG, is made the political tool of the government of the day what justice can investors expect especially in light of the government’s new strategy of controversially bulldozing its nominees on to the boards of private companies where government entities have a stake?
In addition ad hoc tax adjustments like the recent hike in vehicle taxes will not go down well with the business sector that plans ahead for the year. It does not help either when no less than the Treasury Secretary gives an assurance that vehicle taxes will not change for some time but goes back on his word just a few months later. The grapevine has it that the taxes were slashed to enable some of the ‘favoured’ to import vehicles and when this was done taxes were hiked again. There are whispers that even Stock Exchange rules are amended from time to time to suit certain parties and when the intended objectives are achieved the rules are reversed.

Which probably explains why there has been a net outflow of foreign funds from the Colombo bourse over the last year despite the government propping up the market using employee funds such as the EPF and ETF. The new proposed pension fund, it is being alleged, will also to be put to the same use. Foreign investors have so far sold a net Rs 7.83 billion in 2011, on top of a record 26.4 billion in 2010.
With investment just a fraction of what it should be in a post war scenario, the leisure sector being the only exception, it certainly seems like the alarm bells are ringing which explains why the Central Bank, of all institutions, has arrogated itself the role of promoting investment in the country by producing a book on doing business in Sri Lanka.

What the book surely does not say is the rampant corruption that exists at every level a project needs to go through before it is given the green light. It is not for nothing that the tag “ten percent” has stuck on better than with any glue when it comes to the subject of approval of projects.
The Gallup poll shows that the government needs to bear in mind that corruption more than any other factor influences the well being of society, and when society is not functioning properly, primarily due to the breakdown of the law, individuals are unlikely to thrive except a chosen few like the 5% that Sri Lanka boasts of.

Which then is why, across the Palk Strait our big brother, India, now an economic powerhouse in the region is going all out to send the world a message that corruption in India will soon be a thing of the past as evidenced by the arrests of the former IPL chief Lalith Modi and the Commonwealth Games chief, both on corruption charges.

It is also noteworthy that unlike here the law clearly does not discriminate between the powerful and the not so powerful as the imminent arrest of Tamil Nadu political heavyweight, Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimohzi shows over corruption charges connected to the 2G scam. And the investors have surely got the message and are coming in to the country in droves, probably at the expense of Sri Lanka as well.
The action on the ground indicates that India is dead serious in this regard and is actually walking the talk. Just the other day Indian Premier Manmohan Singh made an impassioned plea to the Indian bureaucracy to clean up its act and all indications are that this indeed is happening.
“There is little public tolerance now for the prevailing state of affairs on the issue of corruption,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on April 21, adding that his government was committed to face this challenge boldly as “people expect swift and exemplary action.”

That Sri Lanka is nowhere close to what India is doing is highlighted by the fact that the country’s Police Commission and the Bribery Commission, two of the most critical institutions that are tasked with the duty of arresting corruption are not functioning.

Corruption, it could be said, especially in the case of Sri Lanka, is the biggest single impediment to faster growth and it hurts the poor, the most.

Across the Palk Strait the issue of ethics and transparency in governance is a subject which has attracted a great deal of attention in recent days. Singh in his speech on April 21 said, the government’s aim was to strengthen the legislative framework, revamp administrative practices and procedures, and fast track a systemic response to fight corruption, the very opposite of what is happening in Sri Lanka.
Observing that two bills relating to judicial accountability and protection of whistle blowers have already been introduced in Parliament, Singh said that his government would soon ratify the United Nations Convention on Corruption. “We are committed to bringing more transparency in public procurement and to ensuring that disinvestment of public utilities and allocation of public resources are done in a manner that best safeguards the interests of the asset-owning public.”

Here in Sri Lanka the assets of the ‘asset-owning public’ are being sold overnight to foreign companies on an outright basis with zero transparency and the government that is doing this thinks nothing of it! Todate no one in the country except of course those who conducted the transaction know under what terms the army headquarters at Galle Face was sold to the Shangri-la hotel chain. All  we have been told is the price, which also differs from one government version to the other.

The point we are trying to make in all this is that corruption and well being do not go together. For well being to set in and for the people to thrive, corruption at all levels must end. This is proven in no uncertain terms in the Indian state of Bihar which just six years ago had acquired a reputation as a crime-hub during then Chief Minister Lalu Prasad’s regime, and had gained a reputation for scams and middlemen as Bihar led the list of corrupt states between 2000 and 2005.

However the advent of new Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who has fearlessly re-established law and order and weeded out corruption, has brought new hope to Biharis. Now there is a clear buzz of a blooming consumer economy. It seems the people of Bihar thanks to the efforts of one man is a ‘thriving’ lot today, and for all the right reasons.

Unfortunately, across the Palk Strait to the south, the only thing thriving seems to be corruption and the most corrupt, apparently thrive the most.


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