While Wimal Weerawansa is being hauled over the coals, rampant vehicle abuse continues unchecked by those in political and official authority. It would be no exaggeration to say that many highways and even another Hambantota port could have been built with the price that the taxpayer have paid over the years on abused official transport.
by Manik De Silva
( January 15, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is not for us to judge whether former Minister Wimal Weerawansa is guilty or not of flagrant abuse of public property, as alleged in charges filed against him by investigatory authorities of the State in ongoing court proceedings. He has been remanded on these charges and will probably be bailed out as the long drawn legal procedure drags on as they always do in this country. The business of determining guilt or otherwise is not the task of the media or of public opinion. That is the job of the courts. But everybody in this country knows all too well that politicians of all hues, from the dawn of Independence up to the present day, have abused public property. This was not a problem that had assumed today’s gigantic proportions in the early post-Independence years when most politicians had a sense of right and wrong and public servants did their jobs without fear or favour. We need hardly labour the fact that this is no longer the case. Abuse of State-owned vehicles, particularly, by politicians as well as officials has grown unbelievably with each administration outdoing its predecessor.
It has been alleged that Weerawansa had caused a loss of Rs. 90 million to the State by hiring and releasing about 40 vehicles to various persons including his close relatives during the tenure of the previous regime. In its editorial yesterday, The Island commented that if the very serious charges preferred against the former minister are proved at a fair trial, deterrent punishment should certainly be imposed. Ninety million rupees is certainly not peanuts and the vast majority of Lankans will not see that kind of money in their lifetimes even though the rupee is no longer what it was and anybody who owns a motorbike is a laxapathiya. But compared to the alleged bond scam that ran into billions of rupees and profited a company controlled by the son-in-law of the then Governor of the Central Bank on a scale unseen in the commercial history of this country, the former minister’s vehicle abuse cost would be a mere bagatelle. While statements have been recorded over the bond matter, there have been no high profile arrests as in the case of Weerawansa. His party had last week tossed out the names two other vehicle beneficiaries serving as deputy minister in his ministry and the chairman of a corporation under it and dared the powers that are to probe them as well. Those worthies have now switched allegiance, like many others we might add, with one even securing admission to Parliament on the UNP National List! They now belong to the protected species.
While Wimal Weerawansa is being hauled over the coals, rampant vehicle abuse continues unchecked by those in political and official authority. It would be no exaggeration to say that many highways and even another Hambantota port could have been built with the price that the taxpayer have paid over the years on abused official transport. Instead of doing something about that, we are treated to hearing our leaders both in government and opposition justifying the duty free vehicle permits worth millions being issued to MPs. These are often flogged at mind-boggling prices no sooner they are issued and such brazen actions defended on the basis that the present system of elections require massive expenditure and costs incurred must be recouped. This implies, as we have said before in this space, that the taxpayers owe their lawmakers a living – not an ordinary living but lavish one with all the trimmings. When no less than the prime minister says that MPs must be paid a monthly allowance of Rs. 100,000 as they would otherwise have to find ‘sponsors’ to run their electoral offices, we can only resort to the pithy Sinhala idiom to ask karta kiyanneda?
It was reported that in the course of the investigation of the Weerawansa case it has been stated that officials must know their jobs. That suggests that political functionaries held to account for wrongdoing are taking recourse in the age old strategy of passing the buck. They may have ordered the release of a vehicle to so and so appears to have been the excuse, but the allocation is made by an official on whom it is incumbent to do only what is proper and legitimate. So the buck must lie at the official’s door. Given that one Ministry Secretary who recently held back on doing what he believed was illegal was told to “sign or resign,” what are hapless officials expected to do? Unfortunately the fact is that many bureaucrats are anointed in high office by political patronage. Meritocracy has long flown out of the window and seniority too is not always respected. Patronage appointees bend over backwards to please their patrons and there are few with the backbone of the late IGP Cyril Herath to tender their resignation rather that fall in line with improper political demands. To his credit, Herath also declined a compensatory diplomatic appointment sop thrown in his direction. But most officials are compliant and do as bidden with a supplicatory ehei hamaduruwaney.
It is a long time since the late President J.R. Jayewardene pledged a dharmishta government. Yahapalanaya today is attracting as much derision as dharmishta did then. The present government was elected to office to change everything that was wrong in the way the previous administration conducted business. Progress of bringing the guilty to book is painfully slow and the foreign minister has spoken in London about special courts in the offing. There must be no selectivity between sheep and goats on who is being held to account. It was recently reported that a minister’s son without a Sri Lankan driving licence met with an accident and the matter was settled on a payment. That may be well and good if normal process regarding speeding or reckless driving is followed. But importantly, the minister also must be held to account for his son driving an official vehicle. That is what is expected of real yahaplanaya than the spurious product on offer today.
( Manik De Silva is the editor in chief of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly, where this piece was first appeared)