By Kusal Perera –
Much is talked of in the media about economic growth in Sri Lanka during the past decade or so. Finance Ministry and Treasury Secretary Dr. Jayasundera whose been there from around 1990, first as Advisor to the Ministry of Finance is still hopeful of economic growth he had not achieved during the last 02 decades (In between he was for a short spell, Consultant and then Chairman PERC and absent for 02 years when Charitha Ratwatte held the position during RW’s government) of his powerful and dominating presence in the treasury.
Nivad Cabraal, the other kingpin in this regime who talks business was quoted saying, FDI would reach a high of 20 per cent of GDP by next year (hardly 02 months away in 2015). Explaining the indicators of an emerging economy, he had said, advertisements on restaurants, dining, tours and travels, vehicles, etc are growing exponentially. “When going through the weekend newspapers we can see this,” he was quoted, attributing this as one indicator of a growing economy which is growing by 7.5 per cent.(Good Time To Mull Consolidating The Insurance Sector – CB Governor / ST Business Times – 09 Nov.2014)
That may be their total understanding of budgeting and business. But for sure, those three hundred thousand plus who voted against this regime at the Uva PC elections last September, wouldn’t know or feel this economic growth through advertisements that Cabral is proud of. I have not been in such business to feel that growth either. Therefore, despite what the two big guns in this regime say, this is small thinking on what big corporate entities and individual business men and women should be doing in Sri Lanka, apart from making profits. Making profits is what businesses are meant for is not disputed though.
Compared to pre-Jayawardne era, this unbridled and fenceless open economy since 1978 has provided enormous space and freedom for the business and trader community in Sri Lanka to stockpile profits. This segment in the Sri Lankan economy commonly called the “private sector” is accepted as the “engine of growth”. Wickramesinghe government in 2002 called it so, in “Regaining Sri Lanka”, their economic plan. No present day political leader in government or in the opposition (even the JVP?) would dispute that status of the private sector. Few would say, “Yes, but with much less corruption”. None would disagree. “Controlled” corruption is the norm. Even in developed first world countries where social awareness and civil responsibility is high and democratic structures for good governance are in place, corruption and fraud are part of their life.
Popular belief is, if governance can be organised without politicians, there will be no corruption in society. I totally disagree. Corruption is only possible if two other partners move into share the “big deal” where politicians can only decide. One, the conniving Ministry Secretary who plays proxy to the politician. The other, the businessman who is prepared to pay for the “deal” in return for big business. Often in present day Sri Lanka, it is the businessman who takes the project to the politician. And corruption needs loopholes or bending of the law or both, worked out by ministry Secretaries or a powerful administrator.
That holds the private sector business equally responsible as any corrupt politician and no less. It was proved so in the LMS privatisation and Insurance Corporation sell out. Can I therefore ask the private sector leaders, “Can the private sector be the engine of growth on wheeler dealing?” Can legitimate businesses thrive in a “Zimbabwian Syndrome”? I firmly believe most entrepreneurs, most corporate entities would not want to invest and do business in an uncertain, wholly unpredictable and a heavily corrupt society. Most entrepreneurs would want to minimise risk and that to a great extent depend on how stable, how level the playing field is and predictable the future is. How do corporate bosses therefore see this Sri Lankan society and its future ?
This society is an ugly ailing society although businesses still make profits. It’s not only mega plunder and looting that no more can be called “corruption” that makes this society sick and ugly. Every arm of the State is putrefying. The whole public administration has turned into a meek collective of spineless political stooges at every level. It is inefficient and without dignity. Powerful officials like Jayasundera who live on unconditional political power can therefore insult high officials in public and walkout proud (“Public Lashing of State Officials by PBJ” / ST Business Times / 09 Nov.2014). An administration that’s spineless is not one that can deliver efficiently and with independent authority.
Obviously, in such context, State services cannot deliver even the basics and the minimum. Small time but rampant corruption the Bribery Commission highlights as big achievements are in local level service delivery. From Grade I school admissions to traffic offences on the road, from motor vehicle registration to family certificates for migrant housemaid employment; the whole society is reeking with politicised inefficiency, selective treatment and corruption, accepted as necessary for daily living. Within such erosion of social life, formal education in urban poor and rural society reaching up to universities, have lost their purpose and dignity. Health is no better. Medical persons and their professional organisations are a disgrace to intellect and ethics required in a noble service treating human beings.
The judiciary from its pinnacle right down, is far worse. The top is heavily politicised and acts accordingly. Removal of the 43rd Chief Justice and appointment of the 44th proved how subverted the apex Court is. The rut set in from especially the time of Sarath N. Silva who paved the way for shameless crossovers in parliament. Parliamentary democracy is no more. He accepted he delivered a judgement for which he now begs a public pardon, again for his own selfish political reasons. Silva thus accepts intentional misuse of the highest position in the judiciary. A crime against society, against 20 million people, he should be punished for, but is applauded as a hero instead. This society has no values and no conscience.
Right down to the local level, the judiciary is corrupt and inefficient too. I’ve heard of suspects, some even without a trial fixed, kept in remand custody for unending years. I’ve heard of men with non bailable offences enlarged on bail. I’ve read in the media often times, Magistrates nodding approval of killings, when police officers claim it was in self defence. Custodial killings are never questioned and investigated. Yet carried through continuously with the same script and approved in Courts with no lawyer wanting to challenge such scripted killings.
Police have been often accused as one of the most corrupt government departments in this country. They are not only corrupt; they are into criminal acts too. From DIG Vas Gunawardne down to SPs, ASPs and OICs, there are numerous cases and allegations of contract killing, bribery, sexual abuse and political thuggery. At local level, it is common now to accept the police to heed the ruling politician before they make decisions. And by now, their behaviour on camera proves they don’t often stick to law and order, even when racist thugs take to the streets.
With the police seen and understood as a political appendage of the ruling regime, this society is seeing a heavy increase in crimes. Of extortions, abuse and sexual molestation of children, rape and murder of women, drug peddling and murder turning into common occurrences in daily life. All crimes, seeping into rural life with local government bodies stacked with village thugs. They are maintained through numerous State funded projects and wield State power. These local power wielders abuse their status and are responsible for most child abuse cases, rape of women and possibly drug peddling too.
This break down of social life can be easily gauged by the fact that this society is a fast decaying society. Ever heard of mothers killing their infants, dumping them at bus halts or jumping into rivers so often, ten years ago ? Ever heard of fathers sexually abusing their own children and brutally killing them? Ever seen a citizenry watching a policeman physically maul a woman in broad daylight and then go their way without a word? Can corporate leaders ignore all this and continue making profits?
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is beyond funds channelled for isolated community projects. I firmly believe, as a social segment that carves out profits from social life, corporate leaders cannot behave like the global corporate who ignored the outbreak of “Ebola”. (quote) In Africa, the infected population is continuing to grow. As many as 21,000 people are sick with the virus in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and that number could grow to up to 1.4 million people by January (2015), according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control (unquote – Laura Lorenzett in fortune.com on 02 October, 2014). The business logic in ignoring Ebola was, diseases that affect poor people in poor countries aren’t a research priority, for it is unlikely the poor will provide a market with a decent return. But, Ebola was considered an epidemic when the US was shocked to find a victim in Dallas who may infect about 80 individuals. That’s also when the Corporate pharma giants raced to develop a remedy.
Sri Lankan Corporate should not behave in such “Ebolitic” manner. It’s to their advantage too, in doing business in a civilised society. But why isn’t Corporate leaders reacting? Why aren’t they visible and audible in demanding respect for life and stability in society? Is it, they can still earn profits, whatever happens to the minions without a purse to buy what they dump in shelves and market for the growing urban rich? Corporate bosses would have to prove they are a responsible segment in Sri Lanka beyond stockpiling profits and unaccounted luxury. Prove they are a decent lot and want a civilised society, not just profits.