Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
It is somewhat amusing (to put the matter mildly) that there is confusion as to whether Rs 200 million or Rs 1 billion has been allocated for repairs of Sri Lanka’s august parliament complex, deemed as ‘urgent’ for its maintenance.
Misery for some, luxuries for others
Regardless of the amusing aspects thereof, this is a queer state of affairs. A Minister has castigated the allocation of Rs 1 billion for the same as amounting to a ‘national crime’, pointing out that the colossal sum will suffice to build 2,000 houses for the poor (Daily News, April 24,2018). Hot on the heels of that report, the sum has been downgraded to a measly Rs 200 million according to a statement issued by the Parliament.
The grand indifference shown by the public as to whether the House and its environs deserves repair or not notwithstanding, what is a few hundred million in our greatly devalued currency between ‘friends’, one might wryly question. But there are inequities in question. Earlier, super luxury cars were approved for parliamentarians with nary the pretense of protest by the Opposition. Of course, at least where the Mahinda Rajapaksa led self-styled Joint Opposition is concerned, there would be no reason to protest by those who were onetime shameless robbers of the nation’s public purse.
But the point is that public funds are allocated with panache to afford luxuries for those engaging in the solemn task of legislating (or not as the case may be). Scores of citizens are forced to stomach taxes being thrust down their throats with little rhyme or reason by this Government, including the retired dependent on their pensions. Shrill voices in ruling ranks plead that the new tax regime will result in the increase in direct taxes and decrease in indirect taxes. These assurances however need to be taken with far more than the proverbial pinch of salt.
The CCD, the law and the Minister
Meanwhile, a tug of words has occurred between another Minister and the Coast Conservation Department which had announced its intention to remove illegal structures on Sri Lanka’s beaches in the wake of attacks by beach touts and operators of unauthorised bars and restaurants on tourists in Mirissa and Midigama. Commendably, the CCD had refused to change its decision in the face of the Minister’s injunction, reported in several news media, that such action should not be arbitrary and should not impact negatively on the livelihoods of small entrepreneurs. In response, the CCD had pointed out that it had already informed the occupants of these structures that they were operating unauthorized places a few years ago, to no effect.
The very fact that such an argument can be made in respect of unregulated joints allowed to operate with impunity on the coast or indeed elsewhere in this country on the spurious argument that ‘small entrepreneurs’ may be affected is peculiar in its very essence. These mushrooming illegal joints offer ‘entrepreneurship’ of a kind vastly different to what is normally envisaged by that term. In any event, to justify an illegality by urging ‘non-arbitrariness’ must surely set fundamental principles of administrative law metaphorically on their heads. The Minister concerned may be advised to return to his law books to re-educate himself regarding, (at the minimum), the definition of what constitutes ‘arbitrary’ action.
In this melee, it is to be hoped that the Coast Conversation Department will stand firm and be given public support in terms of insisting on adherence to the law. As stated last week in these column spaces, the savagery rampant on the past of those running unregulated beach outlets (small entrepreneurs by the Minister’s definition perhaps), often with political backing is a matter of the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka. It is not a matter limited to tourism promotion as some may seek to project.
A larger issue of integrity
In fact, the Coast Conservation Department’s response is a refreshing contrast to the routine dithering by public servants when politicians see fit to issue misguided directions. There is a larger issue here. An oft-heard and loudly bitter complaint by Sri Lankans from time immemorial is that politicians have ruined this country. There is much truth in this lamentation.
But as is the case with other similarly sweeping generalizations, it is not entirely the whole truth. Certainly the olden breed of statesmen and stateswomen who spent their own money in the national cause and for the public interest has disappeared. Now we are left with unprepossessing, ill-educated politicians crowding the national, provincial and local stage. Indeed, even the few who have some educational qualifications to their names are characterized by a singular stupidity coupled with political cunningness that belies those qualifications.
Others have criminal records to their names and are surrounded by a ghastly caboodle of relatives and acolytes clawing their way to riches which they could only have dreamt of and salivated about earlier. It is not a pretty picture by any means, leading to dismay and to despair as to the fate of this once beloved land.
The rot of politicization must stop
That being said, public servants, professionals, civil society and indeed ordinary citizens cannot wash their hands of responsibility either. Currently the subject of intensely jaundiced public critique in social media spaces, Sri Lanka’s legal and judicial institutions is an excellent illustration of the reasons why. As has been constantly reminded in this column, the decline of the country’s judicial institution did not happen overnight or indeed, over a decade (of the Rajapaksa Presidency or otherwise). This is a sobering reality that those generally unacquainted with our tortuous history tend to miss.
Indeed, the diminishing of public respect for the judiciary in this country was not solely owing to politicians. Lawyers and judges themselves were very much a party to this unconscionable crime as they looked on in silence while the judicial institution withered and atrophied. In other instances, there was open collaboration in attacks on the constitutional process. When the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was thrown to the dustbin and the Rajapaksa Presidency took political control of constitutional commissions on human rights, the police, the public service and so on, judges and lawyers accepted appointments to those compromised bodies without demur.
These are inconvenient truths that must be acknowledged. And this is the reason why a decently operationalized system of governance or even a new Constitution drafted with the very best of intentions will not survive very long without its democratic essence being extracted. A dry mockery of a shell will be left behind to sustain an illusion that there is some functionality left.
This is what has happened in large part, to Sri Lanka’s public sector as well as its legal and judicial institutions. That rot must be stemmed with all possible determination.