By Malinda Seneviratne –
There are rules forced on countries through covenants signed or arm-twisted into signing. There are rules forced on rulers through constitutions. There are rules forced on people by laws enacted by representative bodies. Then there are customs or sirith, those handed from generation to generation by way of cultural ethos that speak of propriety not necessarily right and wrong in the eyes of the law.
Laws, if they are to work, need to be comprehensive and clear with attendant mechanisms that obtain compliance. Sirith are less robust but given that they are the product of many centuries and are embedded in life practices, customs, belief systems, language and metaphor, must be counted as necessary and useful support systems for legal frameworks that are not out of tune with culture, heritage and relevant philosophical predilections of a given society.
In the first instance, then, we are hampered by a disjuncture between law and sirith. Be that as it may, one thing is clear, sirith tend to look after themselves and the relevant society, but greater diligence is required in the case of laws.
About ten years ago, Dr. Sasanka Perera, Sociologist, wrote about various Christian organizations with dubious agenda entering the country by using the Companies Act. Some even had BoI status at the time. If ‘god’ is business, then of course we are at ‘Anything Goes’. What is pertinent is the larger issue of loopholes. Put another way, we are talking about inadequacy and flaw leaving room for all manner of racketeers, local and multinational, to bypass screening mechanisms or worse purchasing of the approvers directly and indirectly.
We saw this in the controversy surrounding contaminated milk powder. Fonterra was deliberately dragging its feet in clearing the shelves and that’s bad. What’s worse is that the health authorities seemed intent on outdoing Fonterra in efforts to a) keep people in the dark, and b) taking prompt and precautionary action.
The protests over contaminated water in Rathupaswala and other places make people wonder if the relevant authorities have the will and the resources to make sure people are safe from industrial pollution.
Is the mad rush to woo investment making relevant authorities turn a blind eye to the environmental costs which, in the final instance, the people have to pay by way of disease and death?
We can safely say that diligence was at zero when policy makers of an earlier era placed bets on the Green Revolution and chemical inputs. The WHO report on arsenic was scandalously suppressed and when it did come out, results were found to have been averaged out so that permissible levels do not appear to have been exceeded, even though a distribution would probably show that certain communities are at severe risk. We know that Fonterra has indulged in unethical advertising and has ‘placed’ representatives in approving/disapproving bodies such as the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka, ‘purchasing’ support by way of sponsorships and other payments both to individuals and organization. We know that hundreds of doctors double up as drug-peddlers and product promoters. We know that policy makers, scientists, state authorities, academics, advertising agents and sections of the media have colluded time and again to cover up gross violations of environmental safety standards by fly-by-night multinationals and even established corporates.
We lack the laws, we lack the vigilance. And it is a problem that plagues all spheres. For example, we don’t screen those who seek our vote. We don’t demand that the elected stick to mandate. We don’t punish those who err. We don’t question the approvers, we don’t watch them and examine credentials. This goes for approving agencies as well as the self-appointed grandmasters of ‘civil society’.
Where is the diligence? There’s not much of that. Who is diligent? There’s not too many of those. The most alarming fact is that those who are required to be diligent also warrant exercising diligence over, media included.
It boils down to the citizen. If the citizen doesn’t make a person decision to be vigilant, to educate him/herself, raise questions, exercise caution and so on, then it is guaranteed that he/she will be the knowing or unknowing recipient of poisons, the unnecessary, bad policy and other kinds of violence.
An alert citizen will recognize other alert citizens. An alert citizenry will trump and arrest the errant official, pernicious corporate, unethical advertiser and greedy product endorser and brand ambassador. Our systems are flawed and our officials lacking in integrity. We have been negligent and therefore complicity in the debacle.
There’s no way around it though. We have just one option: diligence.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com