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Sunday, October 01, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 18
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Lessons from the Mayor

It was Robert Knox, who famously said that if you wash the mud off the Sri Lankan farmer, he is fit to be a king.

In contemporary times, one might be inclined to paraphrase that to say that "if you wash the grease off a three-wheel driver, he is fit to be His Worship the Mayor of Colombo".

This week, the new Mayor of Colombo, nabbed nearly two hundred employees of the Colombo Municipal Council claiming 'OT' (over-time) payments while being 'MIA'(missing in action). He proceeded to cut their OT for that day when they were found missing from their workplaces despite having signed as present.

Many of these employees were habitually claiming OT while doing other things in other places. Then, they had the impudence to 'strike' over the cut.

This is the kind of workforce that is common in many Government and statutory institutions, and the charade that takes place in a country where trade union rights have sometimes been misconstrued to mean a licence to flout the rules.

The errant employees made it sound as if it was the Mayor's fault for catching them cheating and that they have a right to OT even if they are not at work.

For too long now we have seen CMC employees busiest on Sundays, Poya days and other public holidays. It is on these holidays that they work hardest - because they get paid OT. On the days they are supposed to work - they are on holiday. The Colombo Municipality is not alone in such dishonest practices. They seep down to the lowest Pradeshiya Sabha in the country.

Even to pass a routine Certificate of Conformity for a boundary wall, a Chairman of a Pradeshiya Sabha could brazenly solicit a bribe.

In Colombo especially, it is an open secret that some officials of the CMC and the Urban Development Authority (UDA) accept gratification to pass building plans or in some cases, to block them. Oiling their palms makes a mockery of the laws and by-laws that have been enacted to ensure the country's capital is a clean and well-planned city, but in most cases citizens will argue that they have no option but to comply or be left in limbo for months on end.

The ugly truth is that all the great visions and grand pontifications of city planners, city fathers and politicians come to naught in the face of a bundle of green notes and other inducements.

The Bribery and Corruption Commission is unable to keep pace with the sleaze going on. In fact, we see it spiralling completely out of proportion. At the very highest levels of Government, bribery is rampant.

The Auditor General recently brought out the fact that millions, if not billions of rupees have not been properly accounted for, yet the Government's response is so lukewarm that it arouses further suspicion as to why it is so. There are rumblings about the new Auditor General who is to be appointed, and accusing fingers are being pointed at the Ministry of Finance as to why this kind of shilly-shallying is taking place. The recent VAT scam shocked the President himself initially, but even that has gone onto the back-burner for some reason.

It was left to a JHU monk-MP, to ask, just this week, what has happened? There was a deafening silence from the Government in reply.

Other Customs and Excise investigations are not given the priority they deserve, and again, questions will naturally surface why the Treasury is so disinterested. Scandals keep surfacing; A major scam involving the purchase of urea (fertilizer); A Cabinet Minister accused of a visa scam, but nothing moved on that; even the South Asian Games held in August rife with accusations of graft -- all pointing quite clearly to the fact that bribery and corruption has now become endemic under this Government. At every turn, nothing moves without a bribe here and a commission there.

This week, in China, the powerful Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the newly rich international trading city of Shanghai was sacked by the party leadership on charges of corruption under the country's tough anti-graft laws. It is because countries like China consider corruption as 'acts against the people', that powerful ruling party members could get axed. Closer home, in Thailand, less than a fortnight ago, public wrath against the otherwise popular Prime Minister saw him ditched in a military coup while attending the UN sessions in New York.

There could, therefore, be dangerous ramifications from the fallout of 'open season' corruption in any country.

But in Sri Lanka it seems, there is a feeling that since corruption is tolerated at the very top, it is permissible down the line: a police constable openly takes a hundred rupee note to let a traffic offender go; the Municipality's dengue programmes are non-starters; a superintendent of a coconut plantation sells estate fertilizer to the 'black market'; and CMC iron rods are found in a 'bottle-shop'.

We, therefore, commend the Colombo Mayor, at least for making a start somewhere and the CMC Opposition for lending their support to him to clean up the city.

Let us only hope this is not simply soda-bottle fizz and that the small start at Town Hall would spread to other institutions, especially the Ministry of Finance.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.