Kishali Pinto -Jayawardene
Sri Lanka’s publicity hogging Chair of the Public Utilities Commission is distinguished (not positively) by twin evils of a ghastly sartorial choice in the wildly varied waistcoats that he sports and exhibiting great volubility in speech not accompanied by much precision or clarity of thought.
Extreme burdens imposed on the public
In recent weeks, he has chosen to adopt the improbable role of a knight on a white charger, riding into battle against the Government’s plan to increase electricity tariffs. This is the second proposed increase in recent months, closely following upon the heels of a previous tariff increase that has put small businesses in peril and brought the Sri Lankan consumer one step closer to being erased from existence as the country’s economic meltdown bites home with a vengeance.
This time around, the massive tariff hike will potentially hit the country’s poorest segments, the hardest. For all President Ranil Wickemesinghe’s blustering that we have only three options to avoid catastrophe, namely to print money, to increase Value Added Tax (VAT) and to increase electricity tariffs, there is more than a touch of profound inequity regarding the proposals that his Power Minister has been trying hard to justify. These measures will surely precipitate the middle class into poverty and the poor into starvation.
Just after the dawn of the New Year, a mother poisoned herself and her five year old infant in Thalahena, unable to cope with the debt burdens that she was struggling with. This was one reported tragedy, there are very many more such horror stories, the ‘silent’ killer that stalks Sri Lankan society as poor and low income families become the first victims of gross political corruption which has sent the economy into a tailspin.
Regardless, more and more burdens are being heaped on the public for the sake of recovering the minimum possible to continue essential services.
Control itself, the State must be told
This is after thieving political leaders and their acolytes robbed the country blind. Where is the justice in this, one may well ask? When the President and his Ministers pontificate as if the crisis is due to the actions of the public and gravely inform us that there is ‘no other way’, they do so quite shamelessly. In fact, the President cannily avoids mention of the fourth and most important option, effectively dealing with robbing of the state coffers by politicians and public servants alike.
A few days ago, his Media Division issued a statement that, ‘a report’ had been summoned by the President from the heads of two huge loss making entities, Sri Lankan Airlines and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation as to how bonuses had been paid to their staff to the tune of several millions despite a state directive to the contrary. Where will these ‘reports’ go, we wonder?
To the dustbin along with innumerable other like reports, to be forgotten in double quick time?
Then we have grumbling from the Power Minister regarding billions of payoffs to employees of the Ceylon Electricity Board including payback of interest on loans and the insistence of CEB trade unions on bonuses being paid to them. These are totally unwarranted perks at this time of acute hardships. The Government must take immediate steps to stop the haemorrhaging of public money and opt for restructuring of unmanageable state entities.
Enforce governance accountability
Most importantly, action must be taken against corrupt Ministers before the public is asked to ‘sacrifice’any more. Do that and then talk of electricity tariff increases. Essentially that should be the stern warning issued by the citizenry to their incorrigible political leaders. But to return to the equally incorrigible PUCSL Chair, no doubt he finds himself on a popular roll as he rants and raves against the proposed increases.
He has complained of ‘intimidation’ and threatened that legal action will follow if the Cabinet approves the Power Minister’s proposal. As popular momentum builds up against the move with monks joining the fray, the Cabinet has backtracked, postponing approval of electricity tariff increases. Interestingly, the PUCSL Chair’s interventions are framed in the backdrop of insisting that the PUCSL is an ‘independent’ institution and that it cannot be bullied into doing what politicians want.Admirable sentiments no doubt, said wholly tongue-in-cheek.
For such a boast is inestimably rich coming from an official who boldly announced his ‘political credentials’ to be appointed as head of the PUCSL when testifying before the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) mid last year. These ‘credentials’ were, as he explained with gusto, that he had provided support to former President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa during his Presidential campaign.
This is not a question of 19A versus 20A
That spat before COPE arose in the context of the PUCSL head declaring that fuel could be sold at a far lesser price at the time. This time around, the stakes are far higher with President Wickremesinghe accusing the PUCSL head of conflicts of interest in having business concerns that would be negatively impacted by the proposed tariff increases.
There is speculatation with intent that the tug-of-war between the PUCSL and the Government could be due to internal power games between competing political interests.
The supreme irony of witnessing a regulatory body of authoritative force such as the PUCSL caught up in one lurid controversy after the other is scarcely edifying. Even so, this problem cannot be simply reduced to a problem of political appointments made under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution by the former President as some have opined. That is to be far too simplistic.
It is also to elevate the Wickremesinghe spearheaded 19th Amendment to the heights of purity that it does not deserve.
The truth of the matter is that equally politicised appointments were also made under the 19th Amendment, marked by tragedy and folly as clearly exemplified in the case of former disgraced Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera. That appointment was effected with the full panoply of the Constitutional Council at the time as we may recall.
Nonetheless, it was a disastrous choice as later events indicated only too well, long before his imprisonment over lapses in regard to the 2019 Easter Sunday jihardist attacks in Sri Lanka.
‘System change’ is not confined to law
The lesson that this teaches us is that, Constitutions and statutes cannot, even if stretched to the maximum with legal protections against political ‘interference,’ preserve governance accountability when the system itself is corrupted beyond repair, which is the case in Sri Lanka.
In the case of the PUCSL, removal of a member is by a stringent process of parliamentary approval. Similarly, the Removal of Officers (Procedure), Act No 5 of 2002 enforced the same safeguard in regard to the removal of an IGP or an Attorney General. In each of these instances, the statutory intention was laudable.
The issue arises when a clearly unsuitable person is appointed to the post in question which makes his or her removal all the more difficult. That being the case, it makes little difference if the 19th Amendment or the 20th Amendment is in issue. And so we return to ‘system change, the rallying call of the youth led ‘Aragalaya’ in 2022. That heady protest movement unified the country against a corrupt and collusive political establishment before it was brought to its knees by a combination of party infiltration and unwise bravado.
Its singular truth is that ‘system change’ does not begin and end with the law.
Governance accountability starts with the individual, no more and no less. Recognising that fact is pivotal as we head into unprecedentedly turbulent times.