In a Bankrupt Sri Lanka, Corruption is the Root of All Evil
Photo courtesy Transparency International
Today is International Anti Corruption Day
When I joined the public service 50 years ago, we spoke of governance. When I left the service, the talk was of good governance. That was what Sri Lanka achieved during the 75 years after independence. The Asian Development Bank defines corruption as the abuse of public or private office for personal gain. This means any behavior in which people in the public or private sectors improperly and unlawfully enrich themselves or those close to them, or induce others to do so, by misusing their position. The ADB approved an anti corruption policy in July 1998 to reduce the burden corruption exacts from the governments and economies of the region, which includes Sri Lanka. The IMF in its end of mission press release included a novel condition for reducing corruption vulnerabilities in addition to its customary conditions. The UN Human Rights Council brought about the notion of economic crimes into its agenda for the first time for Sri Lanka in its September 2022 report. The World Bank has placed Sri Lanka behind India, Nepal and Bhutan in its Ease of Doing Business Index. The reason is bureaucratic lethargy and lengthy procedures leading to inordinate delays and corruption. Fingers are pointing in all directions at political leaders and bureaucrats. A few have been convicted on corruption charges but more are let loose.
When the word corruption is heard one think of bribery, commissions and oiling someone’s palm. But corruption covers a wide range of actions starting from making a bad decision to taking a sizable commission. Sri Lanka started its journey after independence as a flourishing, peaceful, model economy. It took six decades to jump from low income status to middle income status. It was pushed back to lower middle income status before long. Strangely, the regime voluntarily declared that Sri Lanka was bankrupt in order to go back to being a low income country and become eligible for begging status.
Citizens irrespective of cast, creed, class, religion and the age joined forces and launched protests until the most popularly elected leader left his palace through backdoor. The main allegation was corruption; squandering public funds. Successive governments invested millions of dollars to create, improve, upgrade and maintain varying types of assets but today half of the population is below poverty line and according to latest UNICEF report a quarter of population is starving. A widening deficit is evident between the investment and the outcome. The difference is pilfered through corruption.
Taking delayed, ill timed, injurious, unfair, unjust, harmful, wrong, immoral and unethical decisions as well as not taking decisions have led to waste and corruption. Many decisions have been taken with modernization in mind rather than the impact. Let us take a single example – the Southern expressway. It is does not generate returns adequate for maintenance or recovering the cost. It has not made any impact upon development at either ends of the road or in between. It has deprived a host of informal employment opportunities down the old Southern road. We should not forget that 60% of employment is in the informal sector. Deprivation of opportunities, massive social and environmental cost highlighted in social, print and electronic media can be explained only through misuse of public funds. Massive projects of that nature across the country stand tall as eyesores and staring symbols of corruption and pilferage.
Since independence, every successive government has added to the existing legal arrangements and institutional structure to combat corruption. In addition to the establishment of several state agencies, parliamentary committees, presidential commissions, committees, legislations and amendments to existing legislations were passed. There are a host of agencies, opinion makers, whistle blowers, political parties, INGOs, national movements, civil social organizations and chambers talk and work on combating corruption. Sri Lanka may be the only country which even elected a government of good governance. These highlight rampant corruption present in all endeavors, institutions and in operations. Most of these interventions are post mortems aimed at penalizing the errant individuals who are caught but hardly any arrangement is made to prevent corruption and close the holes for resorting to corruption. Prevention of corruption has taken the back seat.
There are obvious breeding grounds where corruption is looming large. The procurement process, school admission and obtaining documents such as an identity card, passport or driving license are some to mention. There are well documented procurement procedures and guidelines. A procurement authority has been established. Procurement committees are in place. There is a Procurement Appeal Board. These are in addition to the judiciary, police and other legal entities. There are training programs on procurement. But the corruption and fraudulent activities take place in procurement. One wonders whether these arrangements educate the actors on the loopholes rather than the norms and standard practices in procurement.
There are circulars issued on school admission. Proof of residence within close proximity for admission to national schools is well known. In fact it is so well known that parents start preparing forged documents since the day a child is conceived. The result is passing bribes in cash, kind and sexual favors, depriving admission to genuine children within the approved limits and adding more to traffic congestion during school starting and closing times.
The issuing of important documents in a single place has compelled people of all walks to come to Colombo, adding to congestion, pollution and wastage of fuel. The public who travel miles and hours and undergo much inconvenience and hardship are keen to get back home as soon as possible. The easiest way out is corruption. With facilities available and over staffed public service, there is no difficulty to decentralize these services to the districts.
Politicians and officers hide behind archaic laws such as the Forest Conservation Ordinance (1908), Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (1937) and University Grants Commission Act (1978) to cover their misdeeds. In this blessed island documents are lengthy, complicated and filled with cages calling for unnecessary information dating back to generations.
The politician and the officer would not pay attention as bottlenecks are welcome to supplement their regular endowments. Simplification of documents, decentralization of essential services and minimizing duplication and overlapping can be done within a shortest possible time, perhaps with a single pen stroke but the politician and the implementation agency are not convinced, leaving grounds for misappropriation and corruption.
Since early 1980s, a massive quantum of foreign aid has been coming to Sri Lanka. In order to facilitate efficient disposal of aid received some of the financial regulations were relaxed, opening avenues for misappropriation. We have misused foreign aid. We implemented some projects without looking at the feasibility, cost efficiency, waste and corruption.
On poya day liquor shops are closed and the sale of meat is banned. On the day before poya, one would not miss long winding queues in front of meat shops and liquor shops.
Today is International Anti Corruption Day. It is the day for us to write articles, carry slogans, make oaths and display our oratory skills. And tomorrow we will forget all that; we will wake up on the anti corruption day next year. Until then corruption will keep oiling the corroded machine and quickening the delivery; omissions and commissions will continue.
Chandrasena Maliyadde is a former Ministry Secretary and is currently a Vice President of Sri Lanka Economic Association.