One of the key promises of the electoral campaigns of the then Opposition in 2015 was that a new administration under Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe would, not only eliminate corruption, but hold those suspected of it in the past to account. On both counts, this Government has failed. The promised transparency in procurement has [...]


SriLankan: Going down; not up


One of the key promises of the electoral campaigns of the then Opposition in 2015 was that a new administration under Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe would, not only eliminate corruption, but hold those suspected of it in the past to account. On both counts, this Government has failed.

The promised transparency in procurement has not come about. There are instances of tender guidelines being so specifically drafted that only favoured bidders qualify. At other times, tender invitations are unprofessional, weak, incomplete and non-specific. Unsolicited proposals are still entertained. Procurement processes are held hostage to bilateral offers, aid and financial packages. Swiss Challenge procurements are being manipulated to avoid transparent and competitive supply arrangements. It is corruption, as usual.

The Government promised to rectify obtaining and managing loans; to reassess mega projects and “punish those responsible for technical offences irrespective of the status of the offenders”. The Presidential manifesto also pledged a special programme to investigate big and small development activities throughout the country, procurements and transactions of institutions and fraudulent investment of Employees’ Provident Fund monies. None of this has come to bear.

This newspaper’s Political Editor last week wrote of damning things that have happened inside SriLankan Airlines, the national carrier that has taken the whole country for a ride for many years. When President J.R. Jayewardene wound up Air Ceylon and re-launched one of Asia’s oldest airlines as Air Lanka, one expected it to fly to the sky with SIA (Singapore Airlines) as its role model. It was not to be. A partnership with SIA, and later with Emirates came a cropper as we over-estimated ourselves, wanting to keep it within one’s control eventually running the airline not to the sky, but to the ground.

Sheer mismanagement and a chronically divided present Board, not keeping the Minister informed bad as they are, pale into insignificance when there is corruption – and nothing tangible done about it. The airline has responded this week to the Political Editor (See page 16), arguing that aircraft leased and purchased by the previous Board were unsuitable for the airline’s routes and this Board is only cutting losses. But the basic question remains – why were those involved in ensuring the people of this country lost millions of Dollars (not just Rupees) – and comparable to the Central Bank bond scam or worse, are not even questioned.

The incumbent Board brushed aside early findings saying the Attorney General is looking into the matter. That is not good enough, surely. The sum involved is phenomenal and worst of all is that this Board has agreed to a secrecy clause to the sum involved in the terms of settlement for breach of contract. Yes, it was the previous Board that was involved in the seemingly sordid deal-making, but why is this Board so cagey and hesitant in pursuing those behind the deals? Naturally, there are allegations of a cover-up of the misdemeanours of the previous Board and its chief executives by the present Board.

It is a damning indictment on this Government that is increasingly facing the wrath of its voters for protecting the rogues of the past who are well and truly ensconced with the present lot as well.

Practical policy on alcohol
The new Finance Minister is not averse to political controversy and making unconventional remarks on matters of public interest. While some of them are utterly abstract and controversial, to say the least, some are home-truths. You might say, he says as it is.
His most recent statement that liquor sales on the day before full moon Poya holidays are higher than on normal days is correct. The monthly Poya is a day for some to meditate, and for others to imbibe.

We have been imposing some haphazard policies on alcohol: One year the duty on beer is dropped to wean tipplers from hard liquor to soft liquor, whereupon breweries imported new machinery and then the duty is slapped back again in the next Budget; bars are even closed when a popular musician passes away.

Either people stock up or buy the booze freely in the dingy back lanes of the city on such days. Tourists are made to curse when they can’t get a glass of wine to go with their dinner at hotels. Even in strict Islamic countries they are getting relaxed about the consumption of alcohol and during the recent Ramadan fasting hours non-Muslims were permitted to eat in secluded areas in public places.

There is a crying need to get rid of various misconceptions on the current liquor policy. Chicago tried prohibition in the 1930s only to find it giving rise to boot-legging and crime. Morarji Desai introduced this in India in the late 1970s, and it didn’t work. Today, the Indian states of Gujarat and Bihar are ‘dry states’ because alcoholism is rife.

Whether one is a teetotaller as the former Finance Minister was, or a connoisseur of choice wines as the incumbent is, is immaterial. They must not be guided by those in the hooch business. Former President J.R. Jayewardene said that if the Buddha couldn’t stop people drinking alcohol, how could he? Former Finance Minister Dr. N.M. Perera started the State Distilleries Corporation to give the poor man a good arrack at an affordable price. Strangely, the profit-making corporation was privatised and began adulterating the arrack at its source – the distillery. Then, it got further adulterated at the taverns.

The profits are enormous from this business and some of the profit goes to fund local politicians. That is what must be stopped. The State then tries to milk revenue by way of periodically raising excise taxes altruistically claiming it is aimed at cutting consumption. The end result is that the ordinary man is forced to molasses and moonshine and an astronomical rise in the use of narcotics in the country. Narco dealers have even entered Parliament or fund MPs. That is what must be stopped.

Today’s excise taxes have encouraged top of the range brands of whiskeys to be cloned and sold here. People buy this putrid stuff as the genuine product is too expensive; the net result is that the State doesn’t receive excise revenue it expects and the consumer is drinking poison.
Let’s have a realistic and practical alcohol policy that is neither too rigid nor too liberal, mindful that there are far more lethal intoxicants in the market that are even more harmful and are being targeted at little children as well.

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