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Sunday, 15 February 2015

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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 corruption-free future.

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 account.

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.

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