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Can we ever rely on official data?

27 August 2015 07:38 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Ex-World Bank official had accused the former Govt. of lying with regard to official statistics
 
It was sometime in mid last year I was having dinner with a former World Bank senior official where he started humiliating me and my journalist colleagues in a friendly tone saying that we were not performing our duty as demanded by society. 

The government was lying even in its official statistics but the fourth pillar of democracy that should highlight these misdoings of the regime in the larger interest of the public was keeping silent, he accused.

I had to be a patient listener, nothing else I could do. But at the end of his thundering argument, I educated him on a basic principle of what we normally taught our journalism students when we trained them on safety – ‘No Story Worth Your Life.’ This is the norm we are adhering to now, I told my friend. I think he was satisfied with my response. 

But his argument had a strong basis. “The Central Bank is lying with its official data. Do you know Sri Lanka lost half-a-million people in 2012, according to the Central Bank Report?” I was shocked to hear this claim. Even the highest disaster tsunami killed only 45,000 people.  How come half a million people got disappeared in one year? “Check and see, this is how your Central Bank raises the GDP through manipulated data,” he argued. “They (the government) can lie to the people, but not to us. We carefully observe and analyze every single move of governance,” he further said. 

On the very next day, along with some students of journalism at Sri Jayawardenepura University, we went through the Central Bank Reports of five consecutive years and this was what we found out (please refer to the graphic). We discussed investigative journalism based on this finding but I strongly advised them not to perform it in public at that particular period of time, as I feared for their lives. Again the same principle – No Story Worth Your Life.

I have to admit the fact that this argument is still open to any clarification and explanation from the Central Bank. The public of this country deserves a clear understanding as to how Sri Lanka lost more than 500,000 of its people in a single year, contrary to the usual trend of annual increase of population, or have we read it wrong? As it clarified the details of the recent bond issue utilizing all possible technical details, also we need to know what happened to our population in 2012? One could claim that this could have happened following the National Population Survey in 2011, but still it requires a better explanation. However,we would be happy to learn. 





Also I am pretty sure that my World Bank friend would be having his biggest laugh when reading this piece saying “Ah! Now you are talking, but you were silent those days.” But that is the bitter truth and reality my friend. I am alive today to tell this story, at least. If one dared to unearth such corruption, he or she may not be ‘killed’ but would have faced a ‘road accident’ and the body would be found inside a totally burnt car. 

The police will vouch for the ‘road accident’ and close the case within 24 hours. And I doubt whether the succeeding regime of good governance would take any action against those corrupt police officials who would ‘close’ the case within a few hours. 

The focus will be on the politicians involved in the incident, but not those errant police officials as well who came in front of media and justified the ‘lie.’ 
I still remember how a top cop of Colombo behaved at the Dehiwala police station when our friend and colleague Keith Noyahr, the Defence Correspondent of ‘The Nation’ was abducted in May 2008. The top cop was repeatedly telling us, “Don’t worry, he will come back” and he was perfectly correct at the end of the day. Keith walked home like a dead body after several hours of severe beatings and intimidation. Such was the conduct of the guardians of law and order. 
These isolated but significant events should be read carefully in the context of the upcoming Geneva UNHRC report and the developments that followed the recent visit of Nisha Bishwal, the US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia. Trust, credibility, accountability and transparency are the key words of this entire game.

How come a government that loses its own credibility in the eyes of the international community could fight for its own legitimacy and acceptance? And how could one mislead the international community assuming they are fools or being deaf or blind? And if the practice of lying went up to the level of independent institutions such as the Central Bank, then where should we stand in the global credibility index?

We lost credibility in all four main sectors of governance for the past ten years. Powers of the Executive were extensively misused, entertained high level corruption and nepotism; legislator and its affiliated institutions were extensively politicized and mismanaged, and Parliament was totally neglected while using it for the sole benefit and survival of the Executive; judicial independence was curtailed to the maximum and interferences were sky high (it went up to the level where a former Chief Justice made a public apology for one of his own judgments); and the media was silenced either through attacks and intimidation or through buying over the ownership. 

Who did all these undemocratic practices? Nisha Bishwal, Tony Blair or Banki Moon (remember, one senior minister staged a fast-unto-death in front of UN Colombo office?) or US government or UNHRC in Geneva? Sorry, none of them, by ourselves; our own elected government. 

The Buddha provides perfect advice in this context. Na paresam vilomaani - Na paresam kataakatam; Attanova avekkheiya - Kataani akataani ca (pupha vagga-dhammapada). One should not have regard for the bad deeds of others, nor the things done and left undone by others, but only for the things done and left undone by oneself.

The acts of the international community would always be the responses to our own conduct.What we have done so far for the past ten years have been reacting to such responses, but without looking at our own selves and correcting ourselves. 

Such reactionary responses are both a waste of time and resources in every sense. That is why we spent millions of dollars from the public coffers to international PR agencies to build the damaged image of Sri Lanka at international theatre with zero results. 

When reading the response by Hon. Lakshman Kiriella of the UNP to the Daily Mirror editorial of Tuesday (25), he had a similar argument on this point.  Of course, the international community would start sharpening its swords against us, but why should they do so, if we get our own house cleared and cleaned.  We should not leave our destiny in the hands of others, as stated by Kiriella. It should be in our own hands. In the year of 2012, there was a significant drop of population. One could claim that this would have happened following the National Population Survey in 2011, but still it requires a better explanation. 
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