Corruption and Impunity – twin destroyers of good governance

| by Shanie

"In the final analysis, slow growth means slow growth of employment. Slow growth of employment means growing unrest and one of two things will happen. The representatives of the classes who have a stake in the economic system will perceive the danger that is coming and change. But if that doesn’t happen , or doesn’t happen fast enough, you will get either a revolution or, more likely, a general collapse into anarchy. Long before that happens, the oppressive machinery of the government will have to be strengthened, and strengthened, and strengthened."

(September 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) That was Indian journalist and economist Prem Shankar Jha writing many years ago in the respect of the Indian economy. Jha was writing in the context of the push for economic liberalisation in India at that time. It was in a similar context (about giving executive powers to Members of Parliament) that Sam Wijesinha is reported to have told J R Jayewardene, the architect of economic liberalisation in Sri Lanka: ‘If you remember, when you came into power you said, about opening up the economy, that you saw no harm in letting the robber barons come. Now you are trying to make barons out of robbers.’ But Jha’s warning about a slide into anarchy, whether in a protected and controlled economy or in a free and liberalised system, is something rulers and people have to be mindful of. Otherwise, the oppressive machinery of government will have to be strengthened and strengthened.

The trouble with an oppressive machinery is that, in the short term, the more it is strengthened, the citizenry also falls into silence and apathy. Except for a few public -spirited individuals and groups like the Citizen’s Movement for Good Governance, Transparency International, Centre for Policy Alternatives and Friday Forum, the majority, the vast majority, prefer to be non-confrontational, even if they silently applaud the public-spirited taking a public stance for good governance. But that is not good enough. As Romesh de Silva wrote in his introduction to CIMOGG’s recent publication of its statements issued over the years: ‘Sri Lankan society is full of sycophants and opportunists. People even in the highest positions prostitute themselves and sell their souls not even for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver but for a mere half piece of enamel.’

It is worthwhile to quote at length from the objectives of CIMOGG. It will remain a benchmark for all public-spirited citizens to concern themselves with good governance: ‘To mobilise the citizens of Sri Lanka for the purpose of building a truly democratic society in which the sovereign will of the People is respected and all citizens live in peace and harmony with each other, united in their diversity, under the Rule of Law, and in which all public office is held in trust for the People; act as a pressure group on all political parties and those holding public office to make them comply with the requirements of good governance; to work towards ensuring the Right to Information on matters affecting good governance and to disseminate such information.’

One of the inveterate activists for corruption- free and transparent governance has been Nihal Sri Amarasekera, who must have spent a fortune in initiating public-interest litigation. Some years ago, he, and separately Vasudeva Nanayakkara, now a cabinet minister, successfully filed a public-interest case against the privatisation of Lanka Marine Services and the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation. They claimed that there was corruption by the then UNP government in the two transactions. The Supreme Court held with the petitioners and the CID were pursuing investigations for prosecutions. Then the usual in Sri Lankan politics happened. The then UNP Minister for Economic Reforms who was held responsible for the two transactions, switched sides, joined the UPFA government and became the UPFA Minister of Justice! That was the end of all investigations. In a report, the Government Accountability Project (GAP – US-based whistle-blowers) states: ‘Civil society organizations and the ethical public servants who brought the lawsuits that resulted in the Supreme Court decisions have advocated for transparency and accountability in government. In Sri Lanka however, it seems that only the issue of accountability is still relevant as the corruption itself is perfectly transparent. (The cabinet minister responsible), for example, has moved seamlessly from one ministry to another, stopping off in court and at the World Bank on his way. For apparent criminal conduct there are no investigations and no penalties.’ Mercifully, this Minister lost his parliamentary seat at the next election and does not now hold public office. But seamlessly moving from one public office to another seems to be no big effort for him and other politicians.

Return of the Ugly American?

The Supreme Court then held that public institutions were being privatised or sold to private companies at under-valued prices. Similar transactions are now being reported at the expense of the poor. A couple of weeks ago, there were reports of hundreds of acres of forest lands being given to a US-based multi-national corporation for banana cultivation. Several hundreds of acres of this fell within the Somawathiya National Park. Like the building of road through the Sinharaja Forest, the rape of our forest reserves does not seem to matter to our politicians as long as there is money to be made. The banana cultivation also affects the natural habitat of our elephant population. Once the area for their movement is shrunk, invariably there will be an escalation in the elephant-human conflict. According to government figures, in the first half of this year, this conflict had claimed the lives of 23 people and 149 wild elephants. In 2010, it is reported that 89 people 228 elephants died in similar circumstances. It is also reported that the military is being used to clear land and guard the banana cultivated area from being even inspected by the wild life and environmental officials. In the same area, in Wekandawewa, an ancient tank has been encroached on as a result of this banana cultivation and the villagers have been deprived of water.

Now comes reports of another sale of land to another US-based company. Ravindra Kariyawasam of the Centre for Eco-cultural Studies says that over 600 acres of agricultural land have been given to an investor to build a golf course and a resort hotel. According to Kariyawasam, the land was owned by the Department of Forest Conservation and the Kuda Kataragama Temple in Soragune. It is the catchment area of the Welioya Amuna Project which irrigates 8000 acres of paddy land. Some 6000 farmers spread over 35 villages who survive for their livelihood on paddy cultivation would be affected. If the figures quoted by Kariyawasam are correct, is a staggering cost to agriculture and the livelihood of farmers in our country so that a few individuals can make a fast buck. It is also reported that an elephant corridor runs through this land between Uda Walawe and Bogahapattiya. Closing of this corridor will intensify the elephant-human conflict in the area.

There are reports that another Hotel is being planned at Hambantota. The evaluation team that studied the two bids for the 2018 Commonwealth Games has commented on the superior facilities already available at Gold Coast, Queensland. If that venue is selected, it will save Sri Lanka from further destruction of parts of the Yala National Park, the disruption to the livelihoods of cultivators in the area, the threat to wild life and an escalation of the elephant-human conflict. It is only the patriots who will want the Sri Lankan bid not to succeed.

Land Grabs and Impunity

There are disturbing reports, this was raised in Parliament only this week, of agricultural and forest lands being given to big time investors in other parts of the country as well. Farmers who have been traditionally cultivating lands, with or without title, have had their lands handed over to investors who have turned these farmers into farm labourers. The reports may or may not be exaggerated but the disquiet will prevail so long as there is a lack of transparency, even surreptitiousness, in these transactions.

Those who make the decisions on these transactions seem to enjoy complete impunity, answerable to no one, not even to Parliament. Senior parliamentarians, who have been zealous watchdogs in the past, seem to have simply given up. Some environmentalists have gone to court to halt the illegal transfer of lands to the ‘robber barons’ but, going by past records, very little will come out of it. The robbing of state and private lands will continue until we have a strong civil society leadership, a la Anna Hazare, who will have the courage of their convictions.

The Island editorially commented this week on the changing times in our country. Corruption and impunity cannot lead to good governance. The Editor was endorsing what Sam Wijesinha said about making barons out of robbers. This week, we remembered C W W Kannangara who, as the Minister of Education in the State Council, initiated major educational reforms in the country – provision of free and compulsory education, the setting up of central schools throughout the country with all material and human resources to provide quality education, etc. Yet Kannangara found himself in very poor circumstances after retirement from politics. He was a baron who had refused be a robber.

Over a hundred years ago, Matthew Arnold delivered a lecture in New York which he opened by saying: "There is a characteristic saying of Dr Johnson: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ The saying is cynical, many will call it even brutal; yet it has in it something of plain, robust sense and truth. We do often see men passing themselves off as patriots, who are in truth scoundrels; we meet with talk and proceedings laying claims to patriotism, which are these gentlemen’s last refuge. We may all of us agree in praying to be delivered from patriots and patriotism of this sort."