The presidential election campaign of December 2014 saw prominent members of the then opposition loudly voicing strident rhetoric on the rampant corruption of the Rajapaksa regime. The newspaper and evening television news were saturated with allegations of multibillion-rupee deals, hefty commissions being made by unscrupulous politicians, and vulture-like businessmen preying on the public purse. At the forefront of the campaign against corruption were many of today’s front-benchers, such as Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, ably backed by JVP’s charismatic firebrand, Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
Now, however, with the new government settling into its seats, people are voicing doubts as to the new administration’s zeal in dealing with its predecessors’ misdemeanours. The deadline of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into corruption, set for 5 February in the 100-day programme, came and went unnoticed. President Sirirsena pledged last Monday, however, that this would still happen. For his part, to be fair, the president has set a fine example. He has by his words and actions, to say nothing of a charming simplicity of style, done pretty much everything the people expected of the nation’s new chief executive, including ordering his ministers to travel on the roads like ordinary people, without bullying their way about town accompanied by convoys of armed militia.
While that is all to the good, however, almost nothing has happened with regard to probing the past government’s misdeeds short of a few glib exposures of waste, extravagance and misuse of government property. The Bribery Commission has been inundated with upwards of 600 allegations of corruption, but given its capacity, most of these will probably never so much as be cursorily investigated. Unknown to many members of the public (and apparently much of the government too), however, people with evidence of corruption have no need to go to the Bribery Commission: they can simply lodge a complaint in any police station. Bribery remains an office under the Penal Code (Section 169B, to be exact), and the regular police have all the powers necessary to investigate and prosecute offences. The advantage of the Bribery Commission is that it can investigate complaints in confidence and even entertain anonymous tip-offs; but there is hardly a need for that any more, is there, now that there is no one to fear?
"With the new government settling into its seats, people are voicing doubts as to the new administration’s zeal in dealing with its predecessors’ misdemeanours. "
An excellent place to start is the Declaration of Assets Act of 1975, which requires every MP (which includes all ministers) and senior officials to formally declare their assets and liabilities soon after they assume office. Failure to do so is an imprisonable offence. Investigating the myriad of allegations of bribery could take years. But to check whether or not baddies have made asset declarations is fast and easy, for this information is immediately available with the various secretaries of ministries. Anyone who has failed to make a declaration has committed a serious offence and should be arrested and charged. Yet, either through lethargy or hypocrisy, the government has failed to take even this elementary step and check whether at least the worst alleged offenders have declared their assets. And the people have a right to ask why.
Talk to any senior public servant, and he or she will relate to you chapter and verse instances of the most blatant acts of corruption that took place during the previous regime. Much of this is fresh in their memories because, ever since President Rajapaksa began mooting the idea of a 2015 election, there was a stampede to conclude corrupt deals before the party ended. Many of these scams, however, could not be concluded in time and are yet to be implemented. The businessmen behind them, meanwhile, have abandoned their former masters and begun cosying up to the new government.
With an April election looming, the Sirisena administration’s new ministers each naturally wants to shine. But to do so, they must not only distance themselves from the previous regime’s wrongdoings, but actively investigate and prosecute them. Amongst the worst excesses of the last government were the so-called ‘single source unsolicited bid’ deals that were routed by Treasury Secretary P. B. Jayasundera through just about every ministry. Every one of these secret deals is by its very nature, a swindle, for it denies the transparency that is the very essence of an honest procurement process. Many of these are even now in the early stages of progress, and the corrupt businessmen behind these deals have no doubt already begun making overtures to the new administration to continue with these scams. We will summarise just two, to illustrate the modi operandorum.
Anatomy of a Swindle
In 2014 Treasury Secretary P. B. Jayasundera, without any request from the Health Ministry, or even a feasibility study, mysteriously decided that what Sri Lanka needed most was 14 linear accelerators for cancer treatment. He then made a provision of Rs 900 million in the budget estimates for 2014 and 2,750 million the current year, for a project titled “Provision of High Quality Radiotherapy for Cancer Patients in Sri Lanka with High Energy Radiation”. A further Rs 2,640 million was allocated for the same project in the Estimates for 2016, plus Rs 800 million for 2017. In all, this entailed upwards of Rs 7 billion in public funds. Then, without any call for tenders or competitive bidding process, the Treasury went on to award this business to a UK company called Elekta and its affiliate, Philips (Israel). Rs 7 billion is more than two years’ allocation for medical equipment for all 600 government hospitals in Sri Lanka: and here, in an opaque deal that wreaks of corruption, in one fell swoop, the Treasury spent that entire sum on a single procurement! What is more, doctors allege that the prices being paid on this purchase are inflated by as much as 50-100% compared with prevailing market prices. The project itself is yet to get started. But the question now is, will Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne suspend it and initiate an inquiry, or will they brush it under the carpet and return to business as usual?
Another similar deal involves the Ministry of Higher Education. Here, a Netherlands trading company called Vamed made an unsolicited offer of “laboratory equipment” for the Rajarata, Eastern and Peradeniya Universities. The project entailed a cost of Rs 4.93 million Euro (Rs 750 million), given in its entirety as an interest-bearing loan by the Oestereichische Kontroll Bank AG of Vienna, which is by coincidence the same city in which former First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa’s brother served as Deputy Ambassador. The bank decreed that bids could be called only from two companies it nominated. On 21 July 2014 Minister S. B. Dissanayake signed a cabinet paper recommending the offer of Vamed. Again, the prices quoted by Vamed are 200-300% above those obtaining in the market. The Financial Regulations had been thrown in the dustbin. And again, the question is what are Ministers Karunanayake and Kabir Hashim going to do about it? Investigate, or turn a blind eye?
Mangala Rides High
Instances of such scams, perpetrated by the Treasury, no less, are commonplace in almost every government ministry. Yet, until now, no minister has asked whistle-blowers, or even government officials, to come forward with evidence of corruption. And people are beginning to ask why. Was the government’s promise to investigate bribery and corruption just hot air for the election campaign? If so, come the general election, its position is going to be vulnerable indeed.
Approaching the problem from the other end, to his credit Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has been much more pro-active. His taking Attorney-at-law J.C. Weliamuna, a former local head of Transparency International, to Washington to meet the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Unit, was both clever and transparent. So far, he is the only minister actually seen to be doing anything more than just talking about investigating corruption. As for the rest of the cabinet, unless they get moving right sprightly, they will have some awkward questions to answer come the general election, especially given that it is they who this time will be on the defensive.
Comments - 3
imran Wednesday, 11 February 2015 08:28 PM
This was a known factor.. 100 days mark and so many thieves to catch..catching is not an issue at all whilst there are enough evidence for it. But then again how can they betray friends who are on same line of politics. Rightly said if all politicians are better called as deshapaaluwos. I lost my interest in any government who comes to power.. It is as if a stage drama and we are the fools to watch it.
kumi Wednesday, 11 February 2015 12:49 PM
Foreign Minister is proactive .Wish him luck.
kumi Wednesday, 11 February 2015 12:49 PM
Foreign Minister is proactive .Wish him luck.
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