By Ameer Ali –
Corruption is defined as the “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. The yet unresolved bond scam saga in which too many notables, including the prime minister, are alleged to have involved highlights the extent to which this abuse has taken place at high levels. There is an old saying in Tamil, “Arasan evvali kudikalum avvalip” meaning, the monarch’s way is the subjects’ way. In the case of Sri Lanka, it is not the ordinary subjects but the state functionaries that adopt their leaders’ way. If the allegation against the prime minister is proved then from the prime minister, ministers and their deputies to public executives and right down to the petty clerk corruption has become a way of life in the blessed country. Nothing moves upwards or downwards through public administration without bribing someone to get something done. The private sector on the other hand cannot survive without transacting with the public sector at some point and at that point corruption has its corrosive impact on the private sector too. Ultimately corruption becomes pandemic.
There may be a few honest politicians and officials but they are fast becoming an endangered species. If this state of things is called good governance or Yahapalanaya one shudders to think what would be the shape of bad governance.
Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index lists 167 countries with their index ranging from 0 (utterly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Sri Lanka has an index of 37 in 2015 deteriorating from 40 in 2012 and holding 83rd position. One does not know how exactly this index is computed. Yet, it is not a pleasant rank. It is the greed of the have lots and poverty of the have nots that feed corruption. As Professor Ali Mazrui wrote in his Cultural Forces in World Politics, not only power but even powerlessness corrupts and “absolute powerlessness can corrupt absolutely”. Economically, the greed for unceasing accumulation of the have lots naturally leads to an equally unceasing decumulation of the have nots, and beyond a point when honest means of accumulation exhausts itself dishonesty takes over. Even the have lots have to resort to dishonest means to prevent decumulation. This is what corruption has done to the Sri Lankan polity.
The question is how to stop this cancer. In the current political climate changing governments is not going to solve the problem because the so called alternative government has been proved at least equally if not more than corrupt as the present one. Corruption, in a sense, has become systemic and it is tolerated even by the international managers of globalization and free markets. The major political parties have committed themselves to operate within the parameters of this dominant global paradigm. As long as the ruling regime agrees to abide by the dictates of the IMF and World Bank corruption will be frowned upon by the managers but will be tolerated as a price to pay for the durability of the system. In an indirect way their toleration encourages corruption.
It has become customary in the Western world to rank, publish and glorify a list of the richest people without bothering to tell the public how these individuals made their wealth. The publications do not even tell us whether these individuals are also the top tax paying citizens. Only when an investigative journalist exposes the corrupt manner in which the ill-gotten wealth was accumulated there will be some noise made by the economic managers and that will be the end of the story. This is why I call corruption as systemic. If the managers are serious about ending corruption in Sri Lanka all they have to do is to stop lending to the government until serious action is taken to minimise if not totally eradicate corruption and corrupters are brought to books. Neither the IMF nor the World Bank is prepared to do this.
In my recent visit to Sri Lanka I revisited Bandarawela to see what action has been taken to stop the disaster from the Uma Oya project. I went back to see some of the properties that have been structurally damaged by this project. The cracks have widened further and walls are about to crumble. I was told that some owners have been offered a few lacks of rupees by Yahapalanaya to repair the damage to their buildings. One heritage house in particular has been offered eight lacks of rupees, but to save that old building from destruction the cost will certainly be more than triple that amount. What is required is not simple masonry work but a structural engineering job. There are about 8,000 buildings in that beautiful town that have been affected by this shoddy project and the compensation offered has been extremely paltry. President Maithripala Sirisena who was a party to this project in the former government cannot run away from taking full responsibility. The Uma Oya project and the manner in which its victims are being treated reflects another dimension of corruption. How long are the Sri Lankans going to put up with this rotten system? Systemic corruption needs systemic solution and the time has come to look for an alternative politico-economic paradigm.
In the meantime, ordinary Sri Lankans are destined to suffer under the system. In the meantime, none of the parties in the country are presenting any comprehensive plan to tackle the sky-rocketing cost of living, spiralling inflation, increasing unemployment, mounting national debt, looming environmental disasters and other day to day issues affecting ordinary citizens. Published statistics by government agencies do not reveal the whole truth and figures are massaged to fit political agendas. Yet, there is one issue on which all parties have common grounds to contest elections and that is ethnic nationalism. The opposition in order to capture the Buddhist vote bank is rekindling interethnic animosity and the rulers are reluctant to take action against the culprits because they too are eying on the same vote bank. On the other hand, one is yet to see an election manifesto from the Tamil National Alliance and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress about their solution to the problems mentioned above. Even when the last budget was presented by the Finance Minister none of the Tamil and Muslim MPs had anything constructive or otherwise to say about the budget. Such is the pathetic situation about politics in Sri Lanka. I do not deny that there are specific ethnic issues to be resolved but it is in the interest of these politicians to keep them unresolved because without those issues they will have nothing to offer to the electorates to capture their votes.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia