By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
The earnestness of the government’s claims to power—transparency, media freedom and good governance—was sorely tested yesterday, when the Finance Ministry’s National Public Private Partnership Agency’s Chairman & Acting CEO Thilan Wijesinghe had members of the media thrown out of an event to restrict the public release of information.
This was despite the media being told that the forum was open to them by the parent body of the organizers.
According to the event organizers, any ‘business leader’, who had registered for the event by paying a certain registration fee, was able to participate in discussions with Wijesinghe, who is a public official. Thus, over 50 privileged businessmen and professionals were enlightened by Wijesinghe on public private partnerships (PPP) at the event organized by the Sri Lanka-Italy Business Council of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, clearly indicating that there is a massive gap between the information available to the elite and the public.
The role of the government in an economy is to make the market equitable, so that any individual or firm has the equal opportunity to prosper and realize their dreams.
The lack of symmetry in information available to all economic actors violates this principle, and contributes to inequality—which both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have warned is rising in Sri Lanka.
Such asymmetry may occur naturally in the market, in which case an ideal government would correct such anomalies. However, in Wijesinghe’s case, questions should be asked as to why the government is actively promoting asymmetry, which could foster market malpractices.
The gravity of the situation is further intensified due to the subject matter—public private partnerships— more or less an elaborate euphemism for privatization in Sri Lanka’s context— which has drawn strong public opposition. The current government has said that it opposes privatization—an anathema in the mind of the public—but promotes PPPs.
Recently, one of the biggest PPPs to date—doling out of the Hambantota Port to China—took place without an international tender process, and the deal was delayed by over seven months due to massive public protests, concerns over sovereignty and national security, and profitability for Sri Lanka—with concerns over the deal still lingering in the minds of the public. Both China and Sri Lanka had publicly accused that the other party was dictating terms on the deal, taking the public for a ride.
While Sri Lanka’s elite obtain sensitive information at closed door meetings, the general public, in that case, sometimes the country’s president—as he had said in a number of times— have to depend on the media to know what’s really going on in the country.
Also, the average Sri Lankan, in theory, has to wait for at least two to four weeks to gain access to information, which has gone through proper government procedure, under the Right to Information Act.
However, in practice, a limited number of information requests under this procedure are provided in the stipulated time frame due to a lack of commitment in the government to implement the law.
Several Right to Information requests submitted by Mirror Business have not even been acknowledged by certain state agencies even after several months have lapsed since such requests were made.