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Friday, February 23, 2024

We are backtracking on democratic change – Vasu

Chandani Kirinde 
 On the eve of the 11th anniversary of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) led by Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the veteran left politician, who is also the Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, spoke to the Sunday Times on his growing concern about democracy and increasing militarisation of society under the present administration, in which his party is a constituent partner.
“We are not going to be bound hand and foot by being in the Government, regarding the important issues such as democratic practices,” he said. Following are excerpts.

One objective of the DLF is solace to the public servant. How has this government fared in this area?
We are not satisfied with the pay raise given to public servants, and the way it has been given, which is only as an allowance but, on the other hand, there are many other proposals within the Budget, which will indirectly benefit them. The Budget has proposals to improve transport services, medical facilities and health services, as well as the education sector, which will become a benefit for public servants as well. In the entirety of the circumstances and the totality of the available resources, the way in which allocations have been made is fair and reasonable by the general public.

Your party believes in power to the people and more people participation in decision making. Can this objective be achieved?
People say the public service is inefficient and that the public institutions are wasting and robbing a lot of funds and resources from the public. To avoid this, we have promoted the setting up of workers’ councils or employees’ councils within these institutions, whose main responsibility will be to find ways and means of improving the services of these institutions to the public, as well as on how to prevent waste and corruption, and promote productivity. These councils were experimented with once in the 1970s, and found to be very useful. They showed many ways in which the upper layer of bureaucracy, along with politicians and the main administrators, had been pilfering from the public institutions. But employees’ councils can only show the shortcomings and make proposals, but ultimately, if the Minister and the main administrators will not look at them, there is nothing that the others can do. Take COPE (Committee On Public Enterprises) for example. It highlights so many instances of corruption and waste. It is the responsibility of the relevant minister and the relevant secretary, who is the Chief Accounting Officer, to take action. If they turn a blind eye, then there is nothing anyone can do.

COPE has been making such reports for a long time, but it looks like
everyone is turning a blind eye to its disclosures. Your comments?
It’s not only the findings of COPE, but also the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) findings that are ignored. I was in the PAC, and we pointed out 101 places, including the Inland Revenue Department, where there were many instances of corruption, including the billion-rupee VAT fraud. When we highlighted the VAT case, not a single person was interdicted, nor was the matter reported to the CID. We don’t have the authority to take punitive action, but I have pointed out that we can take action against them on the basis of contempt of Parliament, which can be reported to the Supreme Court (SC) through the Attorney General (AG). Then the AG can file action in the Supreme Court on the grounds of contempt of Parliament. I have told this to the COPE Chairman as well, but it has to be done through Parliament. That is the way we have to proceed now. It looks like nothing will happen despite the disclosures. It was the same thing that happened in the Petition’s Committee, where we had to tell the Public Service Commission (PSC) that, if they don’t take action on certain issues, we have to take action against it on the basis of contempt of Parliament.

Other than this method, don’t you think there should be a bigger public drive against corruption?
If there is public mobility which will take up these issues and bring about public mobilisation to bear on the government, that is another way. It will be similar to the movements in India.

Why do you think it’s not it happening here?
Public consciousness has to be at that level, and there should be leadership.

Can’t your Party do something about it? You can take the initiative?
Yes, we can do that but, our initiative is more than for public mobilisation, it is for structural changes within the administration, like the introduction of the employees’ council. We are experimenting with that in this Ministry. Our party is too small to take an initiative for an anticorruption public movement. We cannot single-handedly do that, and there are problems. Some movements are antigovernment, so they want to make everything an instrument to throw accusations at the government, or bring the government into disrepute, or bring about circumstances in which the government will be subverted. That is not our purpose. We don’t want to subvert this government which we are a part of.

We think this government is doing its best under the circumstances, but it could do more. We shall do what we can do from within the government, and by mobilising other parties which support the government, in order to compel it to take concrete steps in certain directions. On issues such as the Cost of Living, we have often taken up issue with the government, along with people who have our perspective. Some of our efforts seem to be bearing results in government thinking, such as the allocation of additional funds for welfare.

Our call is continuous, for the giving of a ration of the essential food items every month, at a lower price than at market rates, as is done in India, to the poorer sections of the population. Similarly, we take up issues with regards to democracy and democratic practices that the government should adhere to. Those are the matters around which we work, but not about corruption. We may take up corruption issues also.

Is it more difficult to agitate from within the government than from the outside?
If you are within a government, your pressure will be felt more, because the leader will know the agitation is well meaning, and hence, they will listen better. We hope so, and we must not cease our agitation. We are not going to be bound hand and foot by being in the Government regarding the important issues such as democratic practices. I am already concerned by the number of disappearances of people, about 11 in the last month.

This cannot be tolerated, because this is implying that Parliament is subordinate to State apparatuses. Because, they think, the laws passed by Parliament are not sufficient, and hence, they have to take extra legal action. Some think that the laws are not sufficient to quell underworld activities, or the drug trade, or whatever. That is a claim to override the powers of Parliament. This cannot be tolerated. Anytime a person is arrested, or in the hands of officers of the defense apparatus, they should be produced in court. That is what the legal system demands. The secret operations of the armed forces or the defense forces, and overriding and challenging the power of Parliament and judiciary, are not tolerable anymore. This is contrary to the rule of law, contrary to democracy and contrary to civilisation. Therefore, we will be taking these matters very seriously. They will also be addressed at our anniversary meeting.

Are you concerned about the growing militarisation of society
as a whole?
There is a fear of militarisation because more and more military personnel are being used for civil administrative work. I can understand all the war heroes who are now not employed in war, be given employment, but the decision-making power of any institution being given over to military personnel is a dangerous trend, which we don’t approve of. Where there should be a civil officer at the top, you find military officers put in these places. That is unacceptable .I am saying this while being in Government.

Do you see an erosion of democracy in the postwar period?
If all these disappearances and abductions took place during the war, I will concern it as a part of the war, as war does not adhere to laws. War has its own laws of combat, for all sides, and I would not question anything that happened outside the law, during the war. Because, the war itself is not fought according to rules or laws, but after the war, we have to return quickly to civil society.

Do you feel we have been moving fast enough?
It is not moving. I am worried that we are even backtracking on this very important change that we should see within society, of it being civilian and democratic, and adhering to the rule of law


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