Tender benders

The difference between 0.01 per cent and 1 per cent will cost the citizens of this country hundreds of millions of rupees in losses in a coal import contract. As this newspaper reports in columns on this page and elsewhere, that was the almost un-noticeable alteration that has apparently been surreptitiously made by some scheming individuals to a coal supplies import contract to service the country's struggling thermal power sector.

Fraud is a typical instrument of plunder and plunder is something that is familiar to this nation's citizenry. Indeed, plunder, along with brutish authoritarianism and militaristic rule, are the principal hallmarks of the previous Rajapaksa regime that this National Unity coalition government is mandated to investigate and redress.

If human deaths and injury in the tens of thousands and livelihood disruption for hundreds of thousands, was the outcome of two terms of Rajapaksa authoritarianism and racism, plunder to the tune of literally billions of rupees has been the other major dimension of that regime.

Both dimensions, however, are nothing new to generations of Sri Lankans, given their experience of previous regimes also known for authoritarianism and plunder although nowhere near in scale to the last.

But what future generations will have to bear is the continuing burden of the recovery of a battered humanity - especially the ethnic minorities - on the one side and, the repayment of a huge accumulated debt and financial loss on the other.

Even though a year has gone by since the full change of regime, the country is yet uncovering new and greater acts of plunder. And since many actors of the previous regime yet remain in the public service, there could be some who may not be able to resist continuing opportunities for further plunder.

The fraud and manipulation of supply procedures in the import of coal for our thermal power stations that has been revealed in recent months may be the tip of the iceberg. Many more such plunder operations may be uncovered.

It is not surprising that some of the key leaders of on-going political agitation against the Government - the Paada Yaathra being the most recent - are those who are among the main 'suspects' named by the authorities probing the plunder and mis-governance.

With the spotlight of criminal investigations focussed on them, these suspects need to distract public attention on the one hand and, if possible, subvert the political legitimacy of the current government leadership, on the other. Agitate and divide seems to be their formula for survival.

The Government, as well as many civic action groups of concerned citizens, have been able to impress upon the populace the sheer enormity and critical nature of the vast heap of dirt and blood left by the former rulers. Matters are so serious that antics such as last week's political Paada Yaathra have failed to distract public attention from the huge challenges of economy and polity left behind by the departing former rulers.

After all, the VAT initiative, for example, does result in higher prices, but not to the degree that the poor will starve or even suffer malnutrition.

Neither have other recent governmental actions resulted in huge dislocations to economy, polity or society - certainly not to the scale of the dislocations experienced under the previous regime.

And even the poor knows that much of economic difficulties arising today are the fall-out of the previous era of fantasy military 'victory' and 'beautification' under the cover of which the biggest frauds ever in this country long history have been perpetrated.

But economic challenges have arisen and more will arise as the Government and the experts know full well. This is the inevitable result of the plunders and blunders of the past and also the volatile global economic and geo-political conditions. While many Sri Lankans, embarrassed as they are about their hoodwinking by the previous regime, are willing to be patient with any clumsiness and fumbling by the new government. They will certainly not excuse any deliberate misdemeanour or mis-governance.

These are clear parameters which the Government needs to bear in mind. The current rulers should not attempt to further hoodwink the masses. Neither should anyone in the current regime think that even minor acts of transgression will escape detection - certainly not by a competitive news media and newly freed up good governance lobbies.

The final enactment of the Right to Information law last week can be a harbinger for more transparent government in the future in which it becomes far more difficult to hoodwink the masses and rip-off the country.

Even as the official investigation agencies continue to dig up the dirt on plunder, the new law will enable both the media and civic action groups to seek, on their own, information and evidence pertaining to the plunder of public resources, past and present.

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