The mote and the beam
Friday 19th May, 2023
The Committee of Public Enterprises (COPE) has striven over the years to meet the people’s expectations as a parliamentary watchdog outfit. Together with the Auditor General and others, it has exposed numerous state institutions for their shortcomings, accounting irregularities, avoidable losses, waste, and corruption. In some cases, it has even prompted corrective action to be taken. Thankfully, the COPE continues its efforts to enforce accountability in the public sector and rationalise government expenditure, deserving praise for its good work.
Recently, the COPE held a meeting with a group of representatives from vocational training institutions to discuss the Auditor General’s findings on their performance and shortcomings. The proceedings of the meeting are now public. During the discussion, a committee member criticised the officials present for not having basic information about their institutions; he said they should be ashamed. This remark must have resonated with the public.
Our opinion of the state bureaucracy is not very favourable, as it is plagued by corruption and inefficiency, much like the political authority. Decades of politicisation and the lowering of public professional standards under successive governments are to blame. There are still some upright public officials who do not enter into a Faustian pact with politicians and other crooks, but they are unfortunately the exception that proves the rule. Consequently, the public is elated when COPE, the Committee on Public Accounts, etc., take on state officials. However, these parliamentary watchdog committees should uphold natural justice and allow the officials under scrutiny to express their views and defend themselves; the MPs should adhere to the principle of audi alteram partem or hearing the other side. Regrettably, a very senior health official faced the wrath of an MP, who effectively frustrated his attempts to defend his position, during a parliamentary committee meeting. This incident has left a negative impression on many.
There are instances where parliamentary committee members take moral high ground and lash out at public officials for their failures, just as the COPE did when it reprimanded decision-makers in vocational training institutions for their lack of familiarity with their institutions’ affairs, particularly the courses they offer. One cannot help but agree with COPE’s standpoint that public officials should remain informed about the happenings within the institutions under their purview and have necessary information readily available. After all, we live in an information-driven world. However, the question remains: Do the legislators practise what they preach to others?
Last year, when the government declared that the country was bankrupt and had no choice but to default on its debt, many MPs from both the ruling coalition and the opposition claimed that they had been unaware of the dire state of the economy until that time. They sought to shift the blame to the officials of the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry, accusing them of having withheld vital information about the economy and the possibility of a debt default. These same individuals portray themselves as all-knowing when they criticise their political rivals and even ‘disclose’ the amounts of funds allegedly stolen by the latter. Yet, when faced with accountability, they readily profess ignorance!
Article 148 of the Constitution grants Parliament total control over public finance. The MPs therefore have a duty to fulfil their fiduciary responsibilities diligently to the satisfaction of their constituents. Failing to do so would be a neglect of their raison d’être. It is disturbing that most MPs are absent even when crucial financial bills are put to the vote. Although the government claims to have the support of over 120 MPs, only 79 voted in favour of the Inland Revenue (Amendment) Bill in December, with a mere 36 voting against it, in the 225-member House. The annual budget debate reveals the legislators’ lack of comprehension of the Appropriation Bill; they present weak and unfounded arguments. Parliament has become one of the most underperforming state institutions. Shouldn’t MPs put their own House in order before asking others to get their act together?
Fish or cut bait!
Saturday 3rd June, 2023
Long lines of vehicles were seen near filling stations yesterday as well, and it may be a couple of days before the situation is brought under control. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera has threatened tough action against the fuel stations that did not maintain adequate stocks due to speculation about fuel price reductions. But the government’s bark is worse than its bite.
Worryingly, the country is experiencing a crippling fuel shortage while the GCE O/L examination is on. About 472,500 candidates are sitting it at 3,568 centres. More than 35,000 persons, mostly teachers, are reportedly on examination duty. The government apparently has no concern for these students.
Ruling party politicians bellow rhetoric, but fuel station owners always have the last laugh, for most of them have political connections. They do not place orders for fuel if they get wind of possible downward price revisions in a bid to avoid losses but make a killing when fuel prices are increased. Thus, they have the best of both worlds at the expense of their customers, who have to grin and bear it.
The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd., would continue fuel distribution over the weekend as well, Minister Wijesekera said on Friday. The need for such measures would not have arisen if the government had acted wisely. An increase in the petroleum sector overtime bill will cost the state coffers dear, and its losses will be passed on to the public.
The government should have known better than to increase the fuel quota on the eve of price revisions, without taking steps to ensure that fuel would be freely available for a steep increase in the demand to be met. It couldn’t have been unaware that the easing of fuel rationing, and price reductions would lead to a huge increase in the demand for petrol and diesel and there would be a shortage thereof unless action was taken to meet the shortfall in the fuel supply. One can only hope that it will learn from its mistakes in dealing with the filling station owners, who are manically focussed on furthering their interests and maximising profits with no heed for the public or the economy.
It is a mistake for the government to effect fuel price revisions on a specific day every month since it cannot ensure that all filling stations maintain adequate stocks in case of price reductions. At present, fuel station owners do not have supplies replenished for days on end if they fear price decreases, and there is no one to regulate them. They are apparently guided by Rafferty’s rules or no rules at all. The cantankerous government politicians should be asked to exercise control over their restless tongues, and refrain from announcing fuel price reduction in advance.
The government ought to do everything in its power to ensure that all filling stations maintain sufficient stocks regularly, price revisions or no price revisions. It has to get tough with those who fail to do so and muster the courage to revoke their licences. It should fish or cut bait.
Friday 2nd June, 2023
Long lines of vehicles suddenly appeared near filling stations yesterday, evoking dreadful memories of a dark era and causing public panic. Pumps had run dry at most fuel depots, and people had to wait for hours to obtain petrol and diesel. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera hurriedly issued a media statement denying rumours of a fuel shortage.
Minister Wijesekera tweeted that the country had adequate fuel stocks, but filling stations had not placed orders for petrol and diesel due to speculation about a downward fuel price revision. This is not the first time fuel station owners have done so. They have apparently become a law unto themselves, and the government takes no action against them. How does Minister Wijesekera propose to deal with them and ensure a reliable fuel supply? He should explore the possibility of revoking their licences.
Besides, filling stations are notorious for various malpractices, and cheat their customers with impunity. Most of them remain closed at night much to the inconvenience of the public though fuel should be freely available anytime of the day. The situation has taken a turn for the worse since last year’s fuel crisis. It is doubtful whether filling stations are regulated at all. How can a country achieve its development goals unless there is a reliable fuel supply?
The incumbent dispensation is all out to neutralise threats to its rule on the political front. It allocates resources for riot control generously, and thousands of police and military personnel are deployed at the first sign of a protest. It may be able to keep the meek Opposition in check, but its failure to tame the mudalali Mafia is bound to be its undoing. It cannot even control egg traders, who are apparently running a parallel government, defying as they do consumer protection laws.
More worryingly, now that the recent disruptions to the fuel supply have exposed the impotence of the Ministry of Power and Energy vis-à-vis the filling stations including those under the state-owned CPC (Ceylon Petroleum Corporation), the question is whether the government will have any control over the fuel stations to be set up by foreign companies.
The SLPP-UNP government has embarked on a crusade to protect Buddhism. It has caused a comedienne and a social media activist to be arrested for allegedly insulting the Buddha. Sri Lankan leaders claim to be guided by the tenets of Buddhism, and never miss an opportunity to make a public display of their religiosity? If so, how come this country has earned notoriety for cruelty to animals besides blatant human rights violations?
The suffering of an elephant here has received international media attention, which has prompted Thailand, which gifted the animal to this country years ago, to step in to save it.
Those who are responsible for looking after the poor Thai jumbo must be called to account for serious lapses on their part. The government of Thailand deserves praise for its concern for the poor elephant languishing here. Its efforts to have the ailing jumbo flown back home for treatment are to be highly appreciated however embarrassing they may be to the Sri Lankan authorities. This, however, does not mean that animals do not undergo suffering at the hands of humans in Thailand, which also describes itself as a Buddhist country.
Let the government of Sri Lanka be urged to intervene to ensure that the ailing elephant in the news is looked after properly, and tender an unqualified apology to Thailand and animal lovers who have rightly taken up the cudgels on its behalf.
Animals must be allowed to live in their natural habitats, which should be protected. They are not exhibits to be kept in zoos or paraded for human entertainment, especially in a predominantly Buddhist country.
Lanka’s Augean Stables
Thursday 1st June, 2023
The Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) always makes the headlines for the wrong reasons. Reams have been written about various deficiencies in its service standards, and various rackets such as baggage pilferage, all these years, but no remedial action seems to have been taken. Stinking to high heaven, it has become Sri Lanka’s Augean Stables.
A local television channel has exposed a foreign currency racket at the BIA. According to hidden camera footage telecast on Hiru TV, on Tuesday, racketeers approach passengers in the arrivals area, where the counters of commercial banks and authorised money changers are located, and buy forex at black-market rates on the sly.
The BIA forex racket is not of recent origin, we are told. It is believed to have been there for a long time. The racketeers are so influential that they are seen moving about freely inside the airport. They would not have been able to do so without political backing. This blatant violation of foreign exchange control laws under the nose of the airport authorities belies the government’s claim that it is doing everything in its power to channel the forex inflow through the local banking system. Millions of dollars, pounds, etc., must be finding their way into the foreign exchange black market annually through the racketeers at the BIA.
It will be interesting to see the government reaction to the exposure of the BIA forex racket. The leaders of the SLPP and the UNP are adept at cover-ups. They have earned notoriety for trying to defend the indefensible and trotting out atrocious excuses which insult human intelligence.
One may recall that in 2014, Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando was caught on camera brandishing a small firearm and running behind a group of UNP MPs menacingly, in Hambantota. When journalists asked then President Mahinda Rajapaksa what action would be taken against the violent Mayor, he claimed that Fernando had been carrying a toy pistol! No sooner had the first Treasury bond scam come to light, in 2015, than the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had the audacity to claim, in Parliament, that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. He flayed the Opposition MPs who took up the issue. So, unsurprisingly, the current SLPP-UNP government refused to order an investigation into an allegation that Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva had asked for a bribe from a Japanese company. The complaint against him was made by a Japanese diplomat and then taken up by the Opposition in Parliament. The government appointed a committee to conduct an inquiry, had de Silva cleared of the charges, and reappointed him the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation! Now, it is requesting the Japanese to invest their hard-earned money here! If it is serious about attracting foreign investment, without which its efforts to straighten up the economy are bound to fail, it will have to have a Cabinet consisting of capable men and women of integrity. But the question is whether it will be able to find more than a handful of honest MPs in its ranks.
A country can never achieve progress unless it establishes the rule of law and battles corruption with might and main. The IMF is reportedly cranking up pressure on the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government to introduce tough anti-corruption laws. Even the bitterest critics of the IMF have welcomed this initiative. But it is one thing to make tough laws; it is quite another to enforce them properly.
The BIA is a microcosm of Sri Lanka. When the government in power reeks of corruption, and openly protects the corrupt, how can an airport be expected to remain clean. A fish is said to rot from the head down. Perhaps, one should stop worrying about its stinking tail. The entire putrid fish has to be discarded. Hence the need for elections.
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