s is well known, corruption has become a pervasive social issue in the country in recent years, cutting across all segments of the country’s elite: political, business, professional, bureaucratic, military, judicial, civil society, intellectual, media, etc. While liberally minded politicians and civil society activists continue to emphasize the need to enforce the law as the only remedy to deal with this problem, in this article, I argue that law enforcement alone is not going to stamp out corruption because it does not address its root causes. In other words, there are many other measures that need to be taken, in addition to taking all measures necessary to enforce the
Many people engage in corrupt activities because, on the one hand, there is often a compelling reason for them to do so and, on the other, there are possibilities and opportunities to engage in corrupt practices. In this article, I wish to deal with these aspects in some detail in order to provide a broader framework for analysis and intervention.
Economic and social pressure in general pushes people to live beyond their means. It is widely assumed that many poor may be compelled to steal other people’s belongings including agricultural crops when they cannot meet their day to day needs and those of their families. Yet, the usual response of many people in modern societies when the regular income of a person or a family is not sufficient is to borrow money from either formal or informal sources. But, in consumer societies, many people borrow money to meet growing consumer wants such as eating out, buying modern gadgets, taking a holiday, etc.
"The people with money naturally demanded “better quality private services in health and education"
Introduction of credit cards in the recent past has continued to facilitate this behaviourto this day. So, today, we talk a great deal about consumer credit. There are many companies whose only business is supplying consumer credit. On the other hand, borrowing money for long term investment purposes helps people to cope with unexpected economic and social pressures in the future. For instance, getting a life insurance policy or buying a house on mortgage is usually a sound investment as it helps a family in many ways in the long run. This is done within their means because mortgage amount is determined taking the regular income of the person into account. But, many people are also compelled to borrow money for various other investments due to diverse circumstances. In Sri Lanka, the lack of an efficient and comfortable public transport service has persuaded most people to buy all sorts of transport equipment, often on credit. Proliferation of leasing and finance companies has made such borrowings easier, leading to widespread indebtedness across society. Look at the numbers of all kinds of vehicles registered at the RMV. In recent years, many people have also begun to invest in commercial properties such as land and apartments hoping that their assets will grow in value over time. This has contributed to skyrocketing of land and property prices in recent years, making it virtually impossible to buy housing property in urban areas.
As is well known, post-1977 economic reforms prepared the ground for many social and economic changes in the country. The rise of an unprecedentedly privileged political class is one of these changes. They began to lead a lifestyle that often sets them apart from their predecessors whose lifestyles were not very different to those of other citizens. For instance, it was common for politicians, even ministers to travel in public transport and live in common accommodation in Colombo provided by the government. Today, not even local government politicians would step into public buses or travel by train. Moreover, when politicians contested elections under the old electoral system where campaigning involved did not cost very much. But, all these changed for the worse after 1978 with the introduction of proportional electoral system. The consequences of this are well known.
"In recent years, many people have also begun to invest in commercial properties such as land and apartments hoping that their assets will grow in value over time. This has contributed to skyrocketing of land and property prices in recent years, making it virtually impossible to buy housing property in urban areas"
On the economic front, liberal reforms created opportunities for making money, either through private businesses, government contracts, overseas employment, etc. Liberalization of imports made consumer goods including luxury items like cars and household appliances freely available in the market, persuading people to find money to have access to these items. Traffic jams in Colombo and other cities soon became common place and public transport became the last resort, even for ordinary people. It is widely assumed that many politicians and others had resorted to rent seeking as a way of getting the money needed to support their new lifestyles.
The people with money naturally demanded “better quality private services in health and education. The result was the proliferation of private hospitals, private colleges and international schools. The upwardly mobile people wanted to use such services rather than government hospitals and public schools. Many began to send their children overseas for higher education. They had to find the money, if they did not already have it. This was easier for people who had moved into private businesses, modern professions like medicine and law, consulting or in overseas employment but not for politicians, public servants and those who were connected to them. The wealth the former accumulated allowed them to spend money lavishly, to build modern houses, buy luxury cars, go for expensive holidays, etc. The latter groups had the same consumer aspirations but did not have the means to do so, so, they had to find the money in some in other way. This is the genesis of widespread corruption among politicians and state sector employees. They could resort to corruption because they pulled the strings within the state sector, be it awarding contracts, setting and changing rules, issuing permits, imposing sanctions, etc. etc.
"All of the above point to a colossal failure of the state in the hand of corrupt and mediocre politicians to effectively respond to diverse issues that arise out of economic and social change"
The post 1977 government decided to register international schools under the Companies Act, and did not bring them under the supervision of public educational authorities; private health institutions were allowed to run without any government supervision and the Health ministry had little or nothing to do with them; full time government doctors were allowed to engage in private clinical practice, though the these same doctors were given all kinds of incentives at public expense to keep them as state employees such as duty free cars, professional allowances, government scholarships to go for overseas training, etc. There are many other examples that can be cited but I cannot do so for want of space.
There are two key issues arising out of the discussion so far. Firstly, the elected people’s representatives, and public officials who are expected to enforce state policies, rules and regulations themselves have become their violators for their own personal benefit. Secondly, when public policies are inadequate to deal with emerging issues, political leaders are expected to bring in new policies to address or contain them. But, the legislators as well as the executives themselves have succumbed to the same pressures that others have come under and sought to find private solutions for their personal problems instead of devising public responses to emerging social and economic issues. Transport sector is a clear case in point.
All of the above point to a colossal failure of the state in the hand of corrupt and mediocre politicians to effectively respond to diverse issues that arise out of economic and social change. There is no simple legal remedy to this situation. In other words, we need to address a whole range of problems that have contributed to widespread corruption in the country. Given the fact that corruption has many negative social and economic consequences, we have no choice but adopt effective policies and other interventions to address its root causes and enforce the law to arrest the persisting trends. Space does not permit me to elaborate on these diverse interventions.