The question of accountability


There are presidential and parliamentary commissions and committees set up to find out who was responsible for the security lapses that led to the barbaric Easter Sunday terror attack in Sri Lanka. Will there be anyone to take the responsibility of the grave security lapse? Once again, the extent of the systemic failures was exposed to the fullest, but remedial actions are conveniently forgotten. All dramas are staged to find scapegoats.

Lack of originality, clear thinking and collective efforts on the part of the present political leadership to find creative solutions for vexed socio-economic problems are the main constraints to taking Sri Lanka forward. We have had to contend with leadership deficiencies inherited from an unpleasant colonial heritage.

Many are still enamoured of the colonial legacy in spite of the shortcomings and damage inflicted on different cultures in the name of civilization. Purpose of this write-up is to initiate a social dialogue to mobilize thoughts and ideas to force the principle of taking responsiblity for actions, and end all wasteful parallel administration structures of extractive nature in Sri Lanka. Reports suggest there are 160 politicians per district.

The British introduced an efficient and effective administration system to facilitate trade and commerce, through which the colonial masters made surplus returns to continue to rule the entire empire. The railroads, colonial mansions, trunk roads were built by the colonial rulers. But, what is essential to understand is that for all such structures, the subjects under the Victorian regime were made to pay by way of taxes. The viability of such projects sustained through setting up of extractive political and administrative institutions. The common thread that linked the institutions with the administrative machinery was founded on the divide-and-rule principle.

This writer would not want to pass the entire blame to the colonial administrations for the current challenges, but the political leadership - post-Independence - under the representative democratic system failed to recognize the incompatibilities of the political and administrative institutions set up by the British. Sri Lanka is not the unique case; wherever the British Empire operated these gaps continued.

The divisions among the subjects, regions, administrative districts, provinces, countries and continents possess a distinctive identity with historical socio-economic and political connotations. Lines that divide Palestine and Israel, India and Pakistan, and blurred boundaries between then Burma and India have opened up new ownership challenges. Therefore, the divide-and-rule method was not limited to manage people alone, but to establish an administration suitable for the Victorian Empire. Colonial administration deployed only 200 British Officers to rule over 200 million people in India.

The plight of the Indian Plantation workers who were left as stateless citizens in Ceylon on the eve of Independence speaks volumes for the humanitarian concerns of the colonial administration. The foresighted leadership of Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Prime Minister of Sirimavo Bandaranaike resolved the contextual issues of stateless citizens under the Sirima-Shastri pact in the early sixties and entirely resolved under President J R Jayewardene in the early eighties.

Extractive nature of the colonial administration can be seen in the mercantilist behaviour of the British East India Company, which was the agency used by Her Majesty’s government in Britain to further the imperial interests. East India Company was a private enterprise that levied taxes on the subjects, had monopolies of all commercial activities, earning for all the luxuries at the expense of the weak, divided citizens of the United Kingdom. In 1858, British East India Company was abolished after 274 years of existence and rescued by Her Majesty’s government. The plantation economies established throughout the empire, were only growing crops that were highly addictive such as coffee, tea, tobacco, opium and sugar cane. Thereafter, they started planting cotton and rubber, to source raw materials for British Industries to reap the benefits of the first Industrial Revolution. British Raj ended when the colonial masters wanted to impose a tax on one other addictive commodity salt, in India. Mahatma Gandhi rubbed salt on the colonial wound. The rest is history.

These historical facts were presented to support the argument that the colonial administration set up consisted of extractive institutions sans any form of accountability, be it for political or general administration across the empire. In Ceylon, post-Independence, our governments inherited the same administration system and started to impose authority with a nationalistic agenda on a structure, which was set up purely for the extraction of taxes without any accountability. It is high time Sri Lankans made a concerted effort to remove the undesirable elements from the political and administrative system. A cost-effective, inclusive organizational system, compatible with the ICT driven era of acceleration of the 4th Industrial Revolution, needs to be put in place without further delay. Else, inclusive growth yielding shared prosperity for all Sri Lankans, irrespective of their communal identities, will remain distant dream and social unrest will occur reversing all the gains what the nation has achieved thus far.

The classic example is the recent resignation of some ministers belonging to one ethnic group, misleading the public and the most revered Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. They are neither accountable to taxpayers nor their electorate but pretend that they are saviours. They want to enjoy the perks of power, privileges of those extractive political institutions, deceiving the public for short-term political gains. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, the so-called elites from an affluent background now control the extractive institutions and exploit the opportunities to the hilt. Sooner or later, many of them will realize that it is hard to fool all the people at all the time. Should we allow them to ruin the nation?

Jayasiri Priyalal

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