By Ravi Perera –
Our endless queues are possibly the most visible representation of Sri Lanka’s uncontrolled downward spiral. Round the clock, long lines of vehicles waiting for fuel wind along the narrow roads, confounding further the urban disarray which is Colombo. The vehicles are separated; motor cars in one line, heavy diesel vehicles in another, while the three wheelers and motor cycles form a third. These parked vehicles clog the roads completely. It is routine to be waiting for more than twelve hours. Sometimes, after spending many hours, the drivers are told the petrol is over.
On the pavements we have the human queues for cooking gas; tired, despondent people carrying their gas cylinders heavily, it is no genteel labour. For this very basic requirement of cooking gas, they are made to queue in the open; unkempt, some in their home clothes, dejection written all over them. How fleeting are assumptions of human dignity, how rapidly they could vanish!
Movies often use the technique of parallel scenes or flash backs to explain to the audience the immediate scene before them. They help to cut a long story short, to give background to the story or explain its history. While our petrol and gas queues wend their way forward, yard by yard, there is a parallel drama happening at the parliament in the form of the Committee on Public Enterprise, commonly referred to as the “COPE”. To a nation agonizing in their man made hell, although of no help in their misery, to hear of all the misdeeds and misadventures of their government institutions, is a kind of catharsis. Perhaps here in the form of public officials are the culprits, unearthed by the clever questioning of their elected representatives!
There is an atmosphere of a court room drama about the sittings. Always in such proceedings, the questioner, has the air of a person who knows better, knowledge wise as well as ethically. As befits a solemn enquiry, the MPs assume a magisterial air, their probing questions eliciting greater details of the blanket incompetence or the pervasive corruption; a humiliating admission offering a metaphor for our State sector.
The officials look so unlikely, wrong for the positions they are said to be holding. If not for the introduction, one would be hard pressed to believe that these sheepish, wan looking personalities are high public servants, managing billions of worth State assets, making decisions that affect us the entire country. In their demeanour, there is no suggestion of authority or ability. On the contrary, plainly evident is a sense of frivolity, a lack of commitment; perhaps they let things drift, scheming and jockeying for opportunities to extract personal benefits.
In this country, a public servant is employed not because he is capable of providing a particular service; the sole qualification is that he is a voter, and the politician needs jobs for his voters. Thereafter, he becomes not only a tax burden, but even a drag on the workings of that department. The costs of his employment does not end there. Sri Lanka, as well as tax payers of other countries, spend on him by way of innumerable scholarships and training programs. He is provided with many facilities, cars, drivers and even bungalows. The object of his employment appears to be the building up his self-image (and finances), not the quality of his service.
As the pathetic state of the various government institutions are revealed, the MPs look satisfied; the voter please note their good work! Then, were our elected representatives unaware of the true situation of the State sector, before these hearings? The appalling reality of our public sector is no secret to any citizen, they deal with it every day. Our parliamentarians are the final trustees of the country’s money. To fulfil that duty, need they await a COPE meeting? Were these matters raised prior to this, in or out of parliament? Did these representatives inform the public, alert the ministers, or warn the officials of the parlous situation in public institutions? Several of the COPE members have been Cabinet ministers before, some even carrying responsibilities for the very departments they now question.
At any reference to the COPE, we are reminded of their two lengthy hearings on the infamous sovereign bond scam. As it transpired, the son in law of the then Governor of the Central Bank was a major beneficiary in the issue of sovereign bonds under his purview. There were many suggestions of orchestration of the devious scheme by the highest political authority. At these COPE hearings, it was evident that the members were divided on party lines, often resorting to filibustering. Some claimed that manipulation of sovereign bonds had happened before too, and that earlier swindle somehow mitigated this swindle. This is their standard in public accounts! Those two lengthy COPE hearings were followed by a Presidential Commission inquiry. The matter is yet before court.
We are reminded here of the American fraudster Bernie Madoff who in effect ran a Ponzi scheme, camouflaged as a complex investment vehicle. To unravel the tangled web, the investigators needed fine financial acumen, combined with a capacity for prodigious work. Within about a year after the investigations began, the matter was concluded, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison. He died in prison in 2021.
Recently I was reading about the Nuremberg and other trials which followed World War 2. The war ended in Europe early May 1945. When the Germans realized the end was near they set about with their usual thoroughness to destroy all evidence of their war crimes including the genocide at concentration camps. The war had devastated Europe; millions were displaced from their homes, records were destroyed, the infrastructure was reduced to primitive levels. Nevertheless, the offenders were found, witnesses gathered, evidence collected and by mid-1946 justice was being meted out to the perpetrators.
Had these offences being committed in Sri Lanka, the end result is left to your imagination!
Our power dispensation is concentrated; a small coterie of unprincipled politicians, unscrupulous businessmen and degraded bureaucrats run the country. They all claim various virtues and abilities. There is one truth. The governments may change, but their hidden links, strengthened by common interests, do not.
We have had parliaments for seven decades now. Some members of parliament of bygone years are spoken of as being better than others, there are stories of their personal kindness or it is said that they did not take bribes. An elected representative being praised for not taking bribes is a worrisome reflection of a society! Overall however, the country has performed below average from the beginning, a somewhat hopeful country in 1948 ending up as an utterly hopeless country in 2022. A leadership simply not up to task.
When the COPE sits, the citizen is hopeful, something is happening, the corrupt are exposed, perhaps they will be punished, systems overhauled. But it is a false expectation. The COPE is not a court of justice, its function is to fact find, recommend curative steps, refer the matter to a Ministry Secretary or report to parliament. These are things that have meaning only in a meaningful society.
In a way, the COPE sittings are a very Sri Lankan exercise, there is a serious demeanour, a show of purpose, but there is no finality. One may wonder whether the whole purpose of the sitting is the sitting; the process of inquiry, not the outcome. Working resolutely towards obtaining clear evidence, finding a definitive perpetrator and administering decisive punishment may be something too difficult for our culture to cope with!