All that glitters...

Those in the capital city of Colombo have seen the army of frenzied workmen toiling day and night; especially repairing uneven, pot-holed roads in preparation for this week's summit of South Asian nations' leaders.

As it may not be prudent to write about the summit when those leaders are not in the country, and it is not generally polite to criticise our own leaders in the presence of visitors, we will stick to domestic issues this week. The last-minute dash that we are witnessing in preparation for the summit, however, is a very clear indicator of how this government works.

And one must remember that it was way back in December last year that the Maldives offered their turn to another, and Sri Lanka was willing to host the summit arguing that it would be nice for it to coincide with the country's 60th anniversary of Independence.

This 'ad-hocism' is best illustrated by the paving of the roads that lead from the city hotels to the conference venue, roads that are then dug up 24 hours later to put up hoardings, and re-paved with callous disregard to public expenditure.

We are told no tenders have been called for the work, and road experts say that the quick-fix work is not meant to last three months - with no time for the asphalt to settle before usage. Everything is meant to temporarily hold till the first week of August during which period Colombo - or at least that part of Colombo which will be traversed by our South Asian visitors - will be made to look the Garden City of Asia it was once renowned to be.

Elsewhere in the city, the uncleared garbage dumps at Bloemendhal and the slums at Wanathamulla will continue to exist, while the rat fever spreading rodents, the rabies spreading stray dogs, and the Chikungunya carrying mosquitoes will continue to thrive.

The fact that Colombo stinks, and the corruption and inefficiency of the Colombo Municipal Council stinks just as much - barring a few exceptional officials - is a well-known fact to the city's residents.

From planning permission to unauthorised buildings, from the clearing of blocked sewage lines to parking to maintenance of city parks to street lights - it's the same old story. Nothing happens - or rarely happens - unless palms are greased. The biggest culprits are the councillors themselves -- again barring a few exceptional cases -- who facilitate this corruption and inefficiency. Colombo is now an unplanned ugly city. Suddenly, also because of this summit, the government machinery is swiftly put into place bulldozing unauthorised houses in selective areas; but alas, doing the right thing the wrong way - or for the wrong reasons.

Much of the blame is being passed down to the Urban Development Authority (UDA), an institution that was set-up originally for the purpose of planning the city. It has now been shown how the UDA has been used by even former Presidents to break the law. The CMC and the UDA are fond of passing the buck to each other and it is the city and the majority of city dwellers who suffer.

In a separate development this week, the Supreme Court has shown how the Government distributed state land to a private company completely outside the framework of the law. It has punished the Secretary of the Treasury, no less, always considered the head of the Public Service in the country, with a fine for his culpability in the exercise. (Please see our Business section today for details of this sordid affair).

This is what is rotten in the state of Sri Lanka. All the gloss over the capital city will not help rid it of the more deep-rooted problems of corruption and mismanagement the nation faces.

Coinciding with the Supreme Court judgment is the disturbing news that the Government has decided to appoint ruling coalition Ministers to chair the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), the two parliamentary watchdog committees that keep a tab on public expenditure - from the people's purse, so to say. Traditionally, it has been the practice that Opposition MPs were selected to head these committees so that even Government Ministers would be accountable, and there would be no accusations of cover-ups.

Both, the COPE and PAC reports of recent times have had scathing criticisms of the way public accounts have been handled, and pointedly blamed the Treasury Secretary for much of the defects in the way the people's money is being utilised. The then Auditor General had also made a separate and equally damning report on the Treasury Secretary.

It seems the Government is deaf, dumb and blind to these accusations but quick to cover things up - just the same way they are putting the gloss over the city or parts of the city - for the summit this coming week.

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