Eliminating waste and corruption
Power corrupts, absolute power
corrupts absolutely. These words of Lord Acton still ring true today,
long after they were spoken. The best example of this truism in recent
times was the previous Government headed by former President Mahinda
Rajapaksa. Largely centered around and controlled by one family, the
previous government engaged in massive acts of corruption that are only
now coming to light. The litany of deceit and corruption that began with
the infamous Helping Hambantota saga is so vast that it will take some
time to unravel.
A drive against corruption was one of the main planks of the
presidential election campaign of then common candidate Maithripala
Sirisena and his team, who highlighted how the country's wealth had been
plundered by various figures of the previous regime. The Janatha
Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which campaigned separately to eradicate
dictatorship, also focused heavily on the need to eliminate corruption.
One hypothetical example, for instance is if the construction of one
kilometre of a road during the previous regime actually cost one million
rupees, the final approved amount was in the region of Rs. 10 million.
This left plenty of room for commissions, kickbacks and plain
embezzlement of public funds. In fact, when the new Government decided
to temporarily halt the Northern expressway project, the same bidders
had said that they could undertake the project for at least Rs.60
billion less. This alone illustrates the level of corruption that
prevailed during the previous regime.
Yet, there is a notion among the public that the wheels of the
machinery dealing with corruption are grinding slow. President
Maithripala Sirisena himself alluded to this delay in taking action
against the alleged perpetrators telling a public rally that he would
take steps to appoint a Presidential Commission to probe some of the
major allegations against the leading figures of the previous regime.
This, no doubt is a step in the right direction.
Even though there are pleas for more urgent action from some
quarters, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe have emphasised the need to follow the established
mechanisms and procedures in dealing with corrupt individuals and
entities associated with the former regime. This is in sharp contrast to
how the previous regime targeted its political opponents including
General Sarath Fonseka, who was dragged away to prison first and the
charges framed later. To its credit, the present Government has stuck
firmly to the principles of good governance in dealing with acts of
corruption of the previous regime.
However, in some cases the scale of corruption is so big that
existing mechanisms may not suffice to deal with the offenders, unless
the laws are strengthened and where deemed necessary, new mechanisms and
institutions established. One of the first steps is to depoliticise the
police and make it completely impartial. This process is already under
way and will receive a boost when the independent National Police
Commission is reactivated.
It is also vital to give more teeth to the Commission to investigate
allegations of Bribery or Corruption. A start has been made with the
recent appointment of Additional Solicitor General Dilrukshi Dias
Wickramasinghe as the Director General of the Commission, which has been
inundated with hundreds of complaints against corrupt politicians and
officials linked to the former regime. More steps should be taken to
empower the Commission to carry out its mandate without fear or favour.
Apart from the Presidential Commission, the Government has also
decided to set up a special Secretariat to investigate large scale
corruption and malpractices of the previous government. According to a
statement, a Cabinet paper submitted by Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe in this regard has been approved by the Cabinet. The
proposed Secretariat is also tasked with making recommendations to
prevent such corruption and malpractices in the future. Indeed, we
should learn lessons from the past and apply them to create a
The Cabinet has also approved a proposal to establish a Financial
Crimes Investigation Division under the supervision of the IGP to
investigate large scale financial transactions including money-
laundering activities. The regulations in this connection will be
gazetted by the IGP under Article 55 of the Police Ordinance. Several
people have already been questioned with regard to money laundering.
It is equally vital to get back every last cent swindled by the mega
fraudsters and stashed away in foreign offshore bank accounts. These
monies rightfully belong to the people of Sri Lanka, which will benefit
immensely if such assets can be re-deployed for development. The
Government has already initiated a chain of events that could lead to
the return of these ill-gotten gains.
The Government is seeking the assistance of the World Bank's Stolen
Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) to conduct investigations on mega scale
fraudsters in the country. The StAR Unit is an initiative of the World
Bank Group and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It
supports international efforts to end safe havens for corrupt funds.
StAR works with developing countries and financial centres to prevent
the laundering of the proceeds of corruption and to facilitate the
return of stolen assets. Sri Lanka may also get technical assistance
from countries such as India, which is itself hunting for assets
spirited away by corrupt politicians.
Quite apart from corruption, investigators need to look at the wanton
waste of public funds for underperforming enterprises such as the
Mattala Airport and Mihin Lanka, which have now been merged with
SriLankan to minimise losses. Millions of rupees have been wasted on the
opening ceremonies of buildings and facilities such as Arcade
Independence Square and Bellanwila jogging tracks.
A number of helicopters had been purchased after the war for VIP
travel. A so-called VIP kit ordered from Airbus, even if provided free,
would still have caused a massive loss to SriLankan as fitting it before
a VIP flight and disassembling it thereafter keeps the plane on the
ground for a couple of days and worse, hundreds of fee paying passengers
off their seats, which are removed to fit the VIP kit. There are
countless other examples for the squandering of public resources by the
former Government. Those responsible for these acts must be held to
It is commendable that the President and the Prime Minister have also
vowed to take action against anyone connected to the present Government
who engages in acts of corruption. This is the correct stand. On the
other hand, the previous administration did not take any action against
corrupt individuals. This was a factor which directly contributed to its
downfall one month ago.
The forthcoming General Election to be held at the end of the 100
day-program has presented a golden opportunity for all major political
forces to wipe the slate clean. For starters, they can stop giving polls
nominations to anyone even remotely accused of engaging in acts of
corruption and misuse of state resources. This cleansing exercise will
be much appreciated by the electorate. It will also hopefully enable
more honest individuals and qualified professionals to contest the
polls. If this noble task can be fulfilled, Sri Lanka will enter a new
era free of corruption and profligacy sooner than later.