By Oliver A. Ileperuma –
The rupee is crumbling and ordinary citizens are taxed to the hilt in consumer goods, fuel and services. At the same time, what is squeezed from the common man is supporting expenses for the kith and kin of powerful politicians for sojourns abroad. The presidential entourage to New York last year is a case in point where 63 people joined the bandwagon for merry making in New York. By contrast, the husband of the New Zealand prime minister personally paid for his air travel since he had to take care of a new born baby. Prime minister too, not to be outdone, has ordered 2 luxury bullet proof vehicles for Rs.590 million rupees according to the JVP leader Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Is this where the hard earned money of the common man go as taxes? In my own case, after serving the University for 44 years, the provident fund savings I got is now taxed. I can understand if these taxes go to repair the dangerous suspension bridges or provide clean water to people suffering from the chronic kidney disease in the Anuradhapura district but not support the extravaganzas of ministers and other members of the parliament.
Corruption was rampant during the previous regime where massive amounts of money went into politicians on useless grandiose projects such as the Hambantota harbour, Mattala airport and Suriyawewa cricket grounds. In addition, there are other wasteful projects like the massive conference centre at Hamabantota larger than BMICH which is now gathering dust and a university hostel without any university. People voted for the yahapalana government hoping that such colossal wastages will not happen with the new government. However, people have been duped again with a worse den of thieves hell bent to rob the people of this country. There was even a proposal to build a railway line from Kurunegala to Habarana, a distance of 88 km, at a massive cost of 151,000 million rupees although it appears to have been withdrawn after heavy criticism. There is already a railway line to Habarana via Maho covering a distance of 113 km and the proposed line represents only a saving of 25 km. Only two passenger trains ply along this route per day due to low demand and there are no signs of any export processing zones coming to Habarana which has only a population of around 10,000. Politicians do not care for the needs of the country but only interested in the kickbacks when embarking on such unnecessary grandiose projects. Even a modest commission of 10% for the rulers means that those who decide on this project would have been able to reap a whopping 15000 million rupees. Eventually, it is ordinary people who have to pay thorough their noses in increased taxes and no wonder why Sri Lanka has the highest suicide rate in the world.
We have a democratic government where the people elect their representatives to the parliament. Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “a form of government of the people, by the people and for the people”. This expression has to be changed for Sri Lanka as “a form of government of some people, by some people for some people”. Let us consider the pathetic situation of our present Government. In 2016, parliament approved Rs. 1.6 billion to import luxury vehicles for ministers and deputy ministers, some costing over Rs. 70 million. One media spokesman had the audacity to say that they need better vehicles to travel to their electorates while they were still using luxury benzes, BMWs for such travel. Is this what the people expect out of the parliament? A single day’s parliamentary sittings cost the Sri Lanka’s tax payer around Rs. 4.6 million and yet, when important policy decisions are taken only a handful of members are present. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya lamented on this pathetic situation when a supplementary vote was debated in parliament where only 62 members out of 225 members were present. Most of the members had gone to the inaugural screening of the film Paththni! It is the curse for the people who elected such parliamentarians who are helpless to stop this shocking and disgusting behaviour of our politicians. As a general rule less than 50% of the members attend parliamentary sessions even after the government increased the daily sitting allowance from Rs. 500 to Rs. 2500 last year.
What is the solution for this dismal failure of our parliament? Personally, I feel that the parliament along with its rogue jumbo cabinet should be abolished. Only a few countries have progressed through parliamentary democracy. There were strong men like Lee Kwan Yew and Mahathir Mohammed who transformed their economies from the ashes. Other countries like Thailand and most of Europe have monarchs who have an overall responsibility for the well-being of their countries. Even England became prosperous after the authoritarianism of its kings. Democracy can only be exercised if the population is intelligent enough and the country is substantially economically developed, to elect their own representatives to the parliament. Are our voters intelligent enough to select whom to send to the parliament? The answer is an affirmative no. They will select drug lords, actors and actresses who have no feelings to the sufferings of the common man. The preferential voting system has made it worse where only the rich who can spend a lot of money throughout the district can win a seat under this system. The greatest disservice JR Jayewardene did to this country was enacting a new constitution with preferential voting and the creation of an almighty president.
Democracy, if it is a form of Government for the people has to ensure that all people should be treated equally. Here again, only some people, particularly those belonging to the ruling party are recruited to lucrative and not so lucrative jobs in the Government sector. The University system where I have personal experience can recruit a professor but even a labourer appointment has to be made from the list provided by the Minister of Higher Education. Once recruited, it is difficult to control these henchmen since they are the “minister’s men” This is most likely true for appointments made at most of the ministries. This is the most despicable way in which democracy works in Sri Lanka. As result of a recommendation of the Youth Commission appointed by the Premadasa government after the second JVP insurrection, all appointments to the Government sector were based on a competitive examination after open advertisement. Successive governments have conveniently forgotten about this procedure and instead appoint only party loyalists and friends to all jobs in the public sector.
Maintaining a minister in this cabinet cost at least Rs 1 million monthly considering their vehicle expenses, coordinating and private secretaries and media personnel. What is needed is to elect a non-partisan and an impeccably honest person as the President and get him to suspend the parliament for at least five years and draft a people friendly constitution. This is a fanciful suggestion which may be a distant dream. However, we should remember that “there should be a dream: otherwise people perish (proverbs: 29.18)”. The president once elected can dissolve the parliament and appoint a caretaker cabinet comprised of a few professionals, both from the public and private sectors to run the ministries but with no politicians. If the country can be run without a parliament for at least five years then a number of the present day problems can be solved.In Belgium, after the 2010 election, the two major parties failed to arrive at a consensus and the country ran without a government for a world record of 589 days! Government bureaucracy ran the country with a caretaker prime minister and 11 cabinet ministers and the annual growth rate increased from 2.5 to 3.3%. In other countries such as Finland, there are only 11 ministers and Holland has only 14 ministers. Yet their economies are booming and the citizens are happy. In Sri Lanka taxpayers support this jumbo cabinet of 30 ministers along with state ministers, deputy ministers and draining our meagre financial resources.
Another big drain on the national economy is the system of provincial councils which serves no useful purpose but only helps to a ballooning bureaucracy creating administrative burdens on people. This system arose from the Indo-Sri Lanka accord which JR Jayewardene (JRJ) signed without any consideration to our national interests. One may say that India forced this system down our throats. However, If JRJ had acted wisely this white elephant could have been avoided. He made enemies with India insulting the Gandhi family and this resulted in India establishing LTTE training camps in India. His son Rajiv Gandhi carried on this antagonism and forced JRJ to accept this useless system of provincial councils. While it was meant to help devolve power to the North and East provinces, eventually it engulfed the entire country.
People gave a mandate to the present Government to abolish the presidential system and reconstitute the constitution, in particular the curse of the preferential voting system. To achieve this a committee was proposed comprising of 3 members from the parliament and 7 outside members. However, our parliamentarians who think they are the smartest decided to include 7 members from the parliament and 3 outside members. This was nearly two years ago and the committee has not succeeded in producing any tangible outcome. They seem to work on the principle, “if you can do it tomorrow, why do it today” and tomorrow never comes.
For a country to prosper, law and order should be engrained in the administrative system. Enforcement of laws is left to the judiciary and if a simple civil case takes six years to solve, there must be something wrong somewhere. Land dispute cases can drag on for over 20 years by which time the original litigants are dead. Even for murder charges, the convicts are released on bail after a few hearings and the cases drag on for years. Does this kind of system operate anywhere else in this world? “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a popular legal maxim in the west. People have to suffer waiting for the dispensation of justice paying hefty amounts to lawyers. The present system only makes lawyers richer and the parliament which has many lawyers in its ranks will never enact laws for a speedier justice. Recently six people were convicted in Tangalle courts after a lapse of 22 years after committing the crime! Even Justice minister Thalatha Atukorale recently admitted that there are 750,000 cases pending judgment and the main reason is the postponement of cases. It is doubtful whether the Government will do anything to alleviate this pathetic situation. It is dangerous for an individual like me or even a newspaper to highlight the long delays on cases pending in courts to highlight the long drag on cases for the fear of prosecution by courts as what happened earlier to S.B. Dissanayake and now to Deputy minister Ranjan Ramanayake.
In a true democracy, freedom of expression is taken for granted. In the USA, President Richard Nixon had to resign from Presidency after two investigative journalists uncovered the Watergate scandal. Previous Rajapaksa regime controlled the media through financial rewards to journalists, offering them foreign junkets and helping them to send their children abroad for education. Journalists who could not be bought were brutally assaulted, intimidated or even killed like in the case of Ekneligoda. The present government is no better with 13 journalists included in the presidential entourage to the United Nations in New York last year and it is not surprising that none of the printed media or even most websites had the courage to highlight this colossal wastage of funds. Such is the freedom of expression practiced in our country and can we ever claim that we have democracy in this land? Similarly, no mainstream news media reported on the extravagant spending of Rs. 590 million for two luxury cars to the Prime minister. What is even more surprising is the deafening silence of the Government on this reported abuse public funds.
Many educated people I meet regularly complain about the present situation where there appears to be no hope. They openly criticise the two main parties for failing to serve the aspirations of the general population. I used to advise my students that they can go abroad after graduation but return back to serve the motherland. Now I give exactly the opposite advice to never return to this country ruined by the politicians beyond repair. What is happening in Sri Lanka is that power keeps on shifting from one set of crooks to another worse bunch and it is the future generations who will have to bear the consequences of hefty loans taken solely for the financial comfort of politicians rather than that of the common man.
The main reason for the falling rupee is our low national productivity. We import a lot of our food requirements like onions, dhal, potatoes, mung beans and gingelly. There is no plan to increase cultivation of these essential commodities in our own country. We are not making use of our natural mineral resources to strengthen exports. Abundantly found mineral resources such as mineral sands, rock phosphate, iron ores, throium minerals and graphite are either underutilized or not used at all. This writer has been agitating for over four decades to develop a chemical industry and manufacture value added products from our minerals and these pleas have fallen on the deaf ears of our politicians. Our rare earth minerals from Beruwela were processed and exported in the 1970s but after the free economy, this completely stopped and JRJ gave the equipment and buildings located at Katukurunda to the Police training school. Rare earths fetch high prices in the international market because they are extensively used to make sensors in electronics. Similarly, we export minerals such as ilmenite without any value addition and import its processed products at 1000 times or more. We have excellent quality graphite and we do not even make pencils locally out of graphite. Manufacturing phosphate fertiliser from Eppawela apatite will enable the country to save Rs 5 billion annually on the fertilizer subsidy alone and a complete factory to produce fertiliser costs only around Rs. 3 billion. Politicians think that this valuable phosphate reserve is their personal property meant to earn a few bucks by selling it to a foreign investor. Many previous attempts on building a phosphate manufacturing plant failed due to such political interference. Our financial planning is carried out by economists who cannot understand the difference between river sand and beach sands. Our main planation crops like tea and rubber are getting affected by a foolish ban on the popular weedicide, glyphosate based on the unscientific facts presented to the President by a Buddhist monk. Also, corrupt practices such as blending our tea with imported cheap quality tea has ruined the “Ceylon tea” trademark. Similarly our spices such as black pepper and cinnamon are adulterated by imported inferior quality products. According to newspaper reports, when the chief executive of DSI complained at the Economic council that they have to now import shoes from China our Prime Minister was annoyed and barked at this executive. He can clobber down such local businessmen using his power but what has his trio of friends in his economic planning division done for the economic upliftment of the country? His appointments to the Central bank and Sri Lankan airways were based only on old school ties and both failed miserably and even put these institutions in the back track.
These economic failures can only be corrected through the involvement of people, particularly the intelligentsia of the country. Mainstream political parties such as the UNP nor the SLFP (or even the SLPP) are well established failures to carry the country forward. A totally non-partisan President is the only way forward and people in this country should awaken from their deep slumber and think of a better country for their children and grandchildren.