ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Accountability down the drain

The governing Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has -- under pressure from the International Community (IC) -- put forward its proposals for a political solution to the "ethnic problem" in Sri Lanka.

These proposals are, by and large, meant to be the Government's proposals for devolution, an exercise that the IC believes would end the LTTE's battle for independence in the North and East Provinces.

If the IC wishes to live in a make-believe world, it is entitled to it, but the purpose of this commentary is not to analyse any wishful thinking, but to discuss local government administration in general, given what has happened this week with half the country flooded, and 19 mostly preventable deaths caused by sheer negligence and maladministration on the part of these local bodies.

The SLFP proposals refer to the District as the unit of devolution, but parties like the UNP (which first introduced the District Councils) now want a larger unit -- the Province as the unit. The Tamil parties want a merged North and East Province as the unit of their choice, and the LTTE, well, they envisage an even bigger portion, i.e. if they will settle for anything other than their separate state.

There is also the proposal of introducing an Indian-style Grama Sabhas -- yet another tinkering with the grassroots level local governance. For a country that had Gam Sabhas long before we were even colonised 500 years ago, in recent times we have gone from Town Councils to Pradeshiya Sabhas and now to Grama Sabhas. But the ultimate test in any local administration is not the name, or the unit, but how effective it is in providing a service to the inhabitants within that council or sabha area.

Just take this week's example of the two women in the city of Colombo who met with tragic deaths following the torrential rains that lashed the capital -- one electrocuted by a live wire hanging from a street light, and the other sucked into an open sewage drain on the main road. The question is who takes responsibility for this? The Colombo Municipal Council? The Western Province Ministry of Local Government? Or the Central Government? Our bet is that nobody will.

This is a country that has one of the highest ratios of politicians-to-citizens. There are something like over 4,000 elected representatives of the people in Sri Lanka -- and that is without the local councillors in the north and east for whom there is no such luck! Multiply that by say, 50 and you get the number of people who try to get elected.

So, while on the one hand there is this surfeit of government, and nobody knowing where to go to get their everyday requirements, on the other hand, there is a total lack of accountability on the part of these numerous Councils and Sabhas -- each passing the buck and often sending the poor citizen on a wild goose chase.

In many economically advanced countries, you can pay all your bills and get all your documents in One Stop Centres dotted all over the countryside. As for accountability, some of these local bodies headed by none other than the country's biggest -- the Colombo Municipal Council -- are standing jokes. The irony is that you have to cry, not laugh. To say that the CMC has gone down the drain is an understatement. Politics has been its sole ruination.

And take what the Supreme Court said this week about the one-time all-powerful President and her puppet Cabinet of Ministers of yesteryear -- many of whom are now still in power. The Supreme Court has ruled that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was "an abuse of authority" and a "serious deception"; that she secured benefits for herself wrongfully and unlawfully, breaking tender procedures, misleading the Cabinet and flagrantly violating her own guidelines as Finance Minister.

The Court slammed the then Cabinet as well saying that some of the Ministers had misled the others, who seem to have simply put their hands up without asking any awkward questions merely to please their boss.

In any other country worthy of being called a democracy, there would have been a public outcry demanding that the persons involved, get out of politics and go home. What the Supreme Court has held against the former President Kumaratunga in any other case would have been a criminal breach of trust for which lesser mortals would have had to go to jail.
But no, not in Sri Lanka.

Madam Kumaratunga will get away with an order to pay some money to those lawyers who filed the action against her, and vacate her official residence, the same way the local council authorities responsible for open sewage drains and live electricity lines will not be held accountable for these unnecessary deaths. And one would suppose that everything will be simply forgotten and washed away with the rains, in the weeks to come.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.