By Mohamed Harees –
Democratic elections alone do not remedy the crisis of confidence in government. Moreover, there is no viable justification for a democratic system in which public participation is limited to voting. ~ Beth Simone Noveck
What is happening around in political circles seems disastrous to Sri Lanka’s well-being and progress. With unbridled public Tamashas, corruption deals and extravaganzas around, causing severe drain on the tax payers’ money without any consideration for public good or morality, Sri Lanka appears to be sliding down towards a point of no return. Public feelings and views about their representatives are not charitable to say the least of social media is anything to go by; however not much public activism is visible to stem the rot.
The previous government was accused of many wrongs- unwanted airport, harbour, stadium etc mortgaging the country on a deadly debt trap, virtually making it a client state of China! There were many Tamashas then, which were common place and took place without any fear or sanctions. However, despite a change of government, these public money wasting antics continue regardless at all levels in many forms – super expensive vehicles, extravagant overseas travel, unwanted office spaces, an oversized Cabinet/overextended political structures ,an unproductive public administration and even the craze to purchase ultra-comfortable furniture items and toilet modernization, when the average Citizen Silva and his family are forced to live below the poverty line and follow extreme austerity measures. Even the PET scan machine for the Cancer hospital was funded by public contributions. To add insult to injury, it has been height of haughtiness that even some Councillors have lost track of who they are- by asking the staff to ‘Sir’ them or asking the schools in their area to hang their photographs or even racially abusing a Muslim constituent as it happened recently for example. This make us wonder whether Sri Lanka is losing the plot and time has come to rethink of the rationale behind the very public democratic institutions which we have created to take it forward. The country is crying out for an Imran Khan or a Mahathir (not pseudo Yahapalanists) to kick-start the process of driving some sense into the system of governance which is corrupt to the core and regularly abused for reasons of political expediency.
Whether Parliament, provincial councils or local government bodies, the system is today reeked of corruption, mismanagement and lack of efficiency and focus, bureaucratic red tape and uncertainty over who is responsible for what — a dispute between the central government and the provincial councils with regard to devolved or un-devolved powers. The unbelievable disclosures for example about the Western Provincial Council administration allegedly blowing a whopping sum to purchase super luxury chairs at the rate of Rs. 650,000 each (Well! The CM corrected the figure; it was 640,000!) would have sent shocking waves across the nation while the Colombo Mayor allocated a crazy amount of money to modernize the bathroom in her official residence. When public conveniences and public amenities within the city were in extremely unhygienic conditions and when more than one half of Colombo’s population are in slums and shanties, a waste of taxpayer’s money for such purposes is a crime as every right-thinking person would agree. In 2009, The Council has, reportedly allocated Rs. 30 mn for a mega junket a tour of China. If this is the situation in Colombo, the capital city, it is needless to talk of other provinces.
It was in February this year that local government elections were concluded and councillors were elected in unwieldy numbers adding yet an unbearable burden on the State coffers, raising vital questions about the wisdom behind the new system of election. Then again, a further round of elections is coming soon to elect councillors to another public representative body below Parliament- the Provincial Council (PC) – described as a white elephant by opponents of the system from the very inception. Many an academic has expressed the view that the PC system has not served the purpose for which it was established, for a number of reasons. They were initially intended to devolve power to the North and East, but ironically, the system was extended to the South as well. The Provincial Councils, which the people never asked for, have nevertheless become part and parcel of the country’s Constitution today. It is pertinent to talk of PCs in more length as the PC elections are drawing near to be conducted based on a new system of election adding more burden.
As S L Gunasekera once said, ‘The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (forced down our throats by the Indian Government] was an unmitigated disaster which resulted in the creation of `White Elephants’ called `Provincial Councils’ and a proliferation of political functionaries in the form of Provincial Ministers, Members of Provincial Councils and their hangers on’ which drained the public purse of colossal amounts of funds which ought to have been used for the benefit of the People and not for the benefit of such functionaries’.
The whole PC system in addition to the legislature and the extended LG assemblies have lost most credibility and Public feel that only politicians are benefitting from the system, enjoying luxury perks and privileges while the whole exercise being a drain on public resources. Recent editorial in the ‘Island’ screamed; ‘creation of this monster that has only benefitted the political class with very little evidence of the devolution that was the raison d’etre for setting them up to be seen. Instead we have seen the multiplication of elected, paid political offices, replete with lavish perquisites, providing a new avenue for politicians to do very nicely for themselves and also aspire for Parliament as the next step up the ladder. The Editorial ended thus; ‘The politicians burdened the country in February with twice as many local councilors as we did before; at what cost and to what purpose? Now the debate is whether the PC elections will be under the new law or the old one. The people do not care just as much as they don’t care whether we have PCs or not’.
According to our Constitution there are specific responsibilities and duties allocated to Municipal Councillors, Provincial Councillors and Pradaysheeya Sabha Members. The Councillors from the day they are appointed, however wait for the monies from the central government to start spending it. Most of it is misappropriated. All that the PC system has achieved is to further politicise our society and give to political parties and their ‘leaders’ more opportunities of advancing the fortunes of their otherwise unemployable kith and kin, supporters, hangers on, sycophants at the expense of the long suffering public.
Thus, as SL Gunasekera stated in an article in December 2012, ‘however self evident that neither the present Government nor any other would have the political will to do so because the abolition of Provincial Councils will deny to any government [and even parties in opposition], vast vistas of opportunity to grant political patronage to all kinds of good for nothing sycophants so loved by politicians of all hues’. The situation is no different now if not worse off.
CDN Editorial of 24th June 2013, also effectively underlined the futility of the PC system; ‘Provincial Councils have been created artificially, superfluously and insidiously not to accommodate more work, but to satisfy king sized egos of people that thought they should decide this country’s destinies from overseas…. There is no clamour for Provincial Councils after all among the Tamil people of any region and they do know that the government agents that were part of the existing structure of administration before Provincial Councils were superimposed on the existing administrative mechanism can do a very good job of serving as a conduit between them and the relevant agencies of state’.
In the Post War era, when Sri Lanka has been crying out for an overhaul of the entire ,’so called’ ‘democratic’ process and ‘good’ governance, unfortunately despite change of governments, nothing significant has happened in this regard. The hopes of the millions remain specially the youth unreachable with ever widening inequality levels in society, and jobs for better quality of life; access to education, health, environment for happiness and peace being beyond ordinary man’s reach while the corrupt political class collects the fruits of progress and public debt soars to sky limits. As things presently stand, there are no visible signs in the horizon of any political will to abolish PCs or reform or revamp any present political administrative systems. PCs at best will remain necessary evils. It is therefore vital to promote more public activism to ensure that regulatory mechanisms prescribed in law work as they should and also take necessary measures to punish those administrators who fall out of line. Imran Khan and Mahathir type drastic measures are necessary and more human rights activists and champions are called for to keep the government and its’ agencies on their toes and hold them to account.
When referring to democracy, as author Andréas Schedler says: ‘Political accountability, we stipulated, represents a broad, two-dimensional concept that denotes both answerability – the obligation of public officials to inform about their activities and to justify them – and enforcement – the capacity to impose negative sanctions on officeholders who violate certain rules of conduct. In experiences of political accountability, both aspects are usually present’. To make this happen, public spirited intellectuals and bodies should demand for effective public participation in public decision making, beyond placing their votes on the ballot paper.
Public participation, is imperative and requires continuous interaction and communication between government and citizens, interest of the citizens in participation and interest of the government in citizen‘s participation, manifested through transparency, creation of several mechanisms of participation other than the vote, and responsiveness. Responsiveness means that when deciding, government must take into consideration what citizens said through participatory mechanisms.
The International Association for Public Participation developed the ―IAP2 Core Values for Public Participation, for use in the development and implementation of public participation processes. They condense the issues presented above:
1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
2. Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
3. Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
4. Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
5. Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
6. Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
7. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.
Thus, unless there is meaningful public participation in public decision making, politicians of all sorts whether in Parliament, PCs or LG, will continue to play around with public mandate given to them in ways which are beneficial to them personally and eat into the public purse at will, in concert with the rogue sections of the public administration. Even at the risk of repetition, it must be stressed that politics is a too serious matter to be left in the hands of politicians; that too the type of sycophants in our houses of decision making.