By Emil van der Poorten –
A reader would certainly be justified in asking what is particularly “rural” about the title of this column.
Let me try to explain, even if the preamble proves a tad tedious!
The recent kerfuffle over the accountability/responsibility of the Prime Minister, D. M. Jayaratne, in the matter of one of his immediate minions being directly involved in the smuggling of heroin in truly historic proportions, brings a couple of things to public attention (again!)
The first of these is the prevailing “shape” culture that enables anyone to do anything they please as long as they don’t displease any member of the Rajapaksa family. Does one have to quote chapter and verse with regard to the obscenities parading as decisions by an oligarchy parading as a “socialist, democratic goverment” in this country or would simply referring to the most recent event under cover of this very larger-than-life heroin bust suffice? That event was the dropping of charges of a capital crime against Cabinet Minister Punchinilame. In any country with pretensions to being a democracy with media uncontrolled by the government, this event would have provoked screaming front page headlines. Not in Sri Lanka, I’m afraid where it appeared tucked away in a corner of a web edition of one English language newspaper!
But, as significant as the timing of the Punchinilame exoneration was, the shenanigans around the heroin bust exposed the complete disappearance of the very concepts of accountability and responsibility in so-called “democratic governance” in The Debacle of Asia! In any country with even pretensions to democratic practice, the fact that a senior functionary in the office of the Prime Minister had issued instructions for a waiver of duty and immunity from inspection of a shipment of almost half a metric tonne of heroin would not simply have made the headlines of all the media but would have resulted in not only the immediate resignation of said Prime Minister but a criminal investigation of his conduct and that of all those responsible for this train of events.
Instead, what we have had is a bunch of apologists, inclusive of Opposition spokespersons muttering soothing platitudes about how totally unlikely it was that said Prime Minister would be within a million miles of any such wrong-doing!
To describe this as “theatre of the absurd” would be understating the case quite dramatically except that the current state of affairs is further “absurdized” by the contention that any comment about all of this is “Sub Judice” by virtue of this whole sorry mess being potentially the subject of some sort of judicial investigation! As the those less given to polite expression would ask, “Where the hell does all of this lead?”
I don’t know “Where the hell it all of it leads,” but I see that all of it certainly should lead to a realization, even at this late date, that these cornerstones of democratic practice have disappeared from the public discourse practiced in Sri Lanka.
While this code of conduct is described in quite dramatic terms by the punditocracy serving the middle-class intelligentsia of urban Sri Lanka where all the real decisions are made and the course of this country is set, its impact on the great unwashed of rural Sri Lanka is nothing short of devastating given their total lack of input into what is happening, leave alone even the tiniest bit of influence, in our Land Like No Other.
Already, no one in authority or in a decision-making position in our neck of the woods seems to accept responsibility or accountability for anything even vaguely resembling a shortcoming, leave alone admit to a major screw-up in the provision of service to those of us living in the boondocks.
Stage one is a lame excuse. If it is a power outage – and there are several each day where I live requiring that one carries a flashlight/torch in one’s pocket after sunset to stave off the perils of being stranded in some part of the house or garden in unexpected pitch blackness. The conversation proceeds as follows: Initially, one can’t get through to the “complaints desk” because the phone rings “busy” because it has been taken off the hook. Then, when one finally gets through by dint of exceptional persistence, your report is met with incredulity! “That is not possible.” If you are able to surmount that initial hurdle, you are asked for your address, name, rank and serial number and then informed that inclement weather is the cause of this interruption if there is even a light drizzle. Interestingly, we look down upon two CEB jurisdictions from where we live and, consistently, when this happens, that serving us is in total darkness and the adjacent one seems to have every light in every house switched on (and operating!) If one continues complaining, the sequence of explanations (lies, really) slides into the realm of events completely outside the control of the Ceylon Electricity Board. If one goes up the ladder of authority the next day, during “working” hours, the chances are that the head honcho is “away” somewhere and his cellphone number cannot be released to one of those their institution claims to serve. If the second-in-command can be corralled at this point, he/she slides very soon into the response that the boss is not available and the person answering the phone, even though the second-in-command, cannot accept responsibility for whatever’s gone wrong. If one has the temerity to insist that the complaint is not directed, personally, at the person being spoken to but about the institution and the (lack of) service it is (supposed to be) providing, the response invariably is that “I have been here only a day/week/month/year and therefore cannot accept any responsibility for this failure.” The business of passing the buck to a departed or deceased predecessor is SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in this and every other government office, with only the details varying. Should one be surprised at what rural Sri Lankans endure in this regard when that standard of evasion of responsibility and accountability is set by the highest in the land who are paid immeasurably more in cash and kind?
When the ambulatory cadaver that has been passing as our Prime Minister for the last little while refuses to accept responsibility for the highest and most important functionaries under his command who are there only because they were his “chosen,” should it be any surprise that the lower ranks of government “servants” selected to their positions at the whim (or worse) of some two-bit local politician follow the example set by their “betters?”
The one example I have quoted in the matter of electrical supply barely breaks the surface of this sea of incompetence and I would need something as extensive as the Oxford English Dictionary or the Bible to document a small selection of what we put up with out here. The implications of this kind of disarray are nothing less than massive and it is transparently evident that rural Sri Lankans bear the brunt of it to a significantly greater extent than their generic “Colombian” brethren living in urban Sri Lanka.