After having survived a near-death experience before being resuscitated with the Supreme Court’s kiss of life not even two months ago, the UNP needlessly imperilled whatever sympathy and goodwill it earned during those traumatic days of the abortive constitutional coup, by taking a reckless course of action two weeks ago that would have courted for [...]


How ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ found re-berth at Capital’s Port of Call

Finance Minister regrets folly and reinstates Customs Chief after questionable dismissal sparks public outrage

After having survived a near-death experience before being resuscitated with the Supreme Court’s kiss of life not even two months ago, the UNP needlessly imperilled whatever sympathy and goodwill it earned during those traumatic days of the abortive constitutional coup, by taking a reckless course of action two weeks ago that would have courted for the party the public’s kiss of death at any forthcoming elections.

All's not well that ends well: Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera addressing a news conference together with the reinstated Customs Director General, Sarojini Charles

It concerned the sacking of the Director General of Customs, Sarojini Charles who was a special grade officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service in the public sector for the past 26 years. And when she was appointed as Customs Chief in October 2017, her unblemished record of having served as the Government Agent of Vavuniya in the face of Tamil Tiger threats, preceded her appointment. Her integrity, her courage and her dedication to duty were never in doubt but served as the very reason why she was the very woman for the job to tackle port corruption.

She might well be called Checkpoint Charlie in the manner the crossing between Germany’s East and West border was known before the Berlin wall fell. For Mrs. Charles was the guarding centurion who stood sentinel of all goods that came and exited from Lanka’s premier port of the sea. She was the Sea Marshal at the dock of the bay, keeping hawk eye and an unyielding fist to smash down on attempts to smuggle in or smuggle out goods in various guises to beat tax penalties.

Her sudden dismissal from that high office did not portend good for the Government.

Though calling itself the Messiah of Good Governance, the crusading knight against corruption and the political friar of fair play and justice, the UNP leadership revealed its Achilles Heel — that it shared the same intrinsic weakness, the same common touch with the previous Rajapaksa regime it has for so long condemned for arbitrarily sacking public officials who seem to be too honest for their own good; who do not kowtow to the nudge and wink and even to the blatant order to look askance but stand their ground defiant in spirit and stare the face of fraud and corruption without blink.

Whether such an assumption is true or false, fair or not, the sudden sacking of the DG of Customs Mrs. Charles invited public odium to visit the office of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera when he inked his signature on the paper removing her from office without notice. And though he trotted out the lame duck excuse that she had not met the targets set by the Finance Ministry to achieve projected revenue, and held that as the reason for her summary dismissal, the question arose whether it was a justifiable reason?

It was not a reason that was acceptable to the general public who treated it with derision.

Aided by the nation’s culture of corruption and abetted by gossip’s thriving vinery, the natural impulse drove them to figure that the real reasons underlying Charles being sent packing home were because she had opened files into massive frauds taking place in the port, including billion buck undervaluation of luxury vehicles, export of areca nuts without any value addition and export of pepper; and that she had ordered a full-fledged investigation into all these cases against the powerful culprits behind it whose aim was to deny the Treasury of its expected due and be the buccaneers in the Colombo port.

And, after figuring thus, concluded that the fulsome Mrs. Charles was the Rock of Gibraltar stubbornly set in the Colombo Port — a major obstacle which had to be removed at all costs for their cargo laden ships to sail home and sail out unhindered and untaxed. And the excuse given that she had not achieved revenue targets was nothing but a sham.

And, exactly what are revenue targets to be achieved by any Director General of Customs?

In an interview with the Sunday Observer published in January last year, just three months after she was appointed as Director General of Customs, she spoke of the challenges that awaited her and of the revenue targets the Finance Ministry had optimistically set for her.

She said: ‘The revenue for 2017 is much more than that of 2016. For 2017 our target was Rs. 945 B. We achieved Rs. 917 B. which is 97% of the target given to us. The target for the current year is a Trillion and 60 Billion which is about 120 billion more than our target for last year.’

Sadly, in Finance Minister Mangala’s eyes, she had fallen short. And deserved the sack. But as he himself admitted at a press conference held this week although the Customs Tax collection in 2018 had increased to Rs. 921 billion in the face of the previous year’s tax collection of Rs. 831 billion it could not reach the 2018 target of Rs. 1,068 billion.

Every finance minister makes projections in his annual budget report of the amount they expect to receive, primarily to balance the books as far as possible. And wishful thinking is most often the order of the day. Optimism Rules Ok. Alas, in most instances, it remains nothing more than wishful thinking.

Even though Mrs. Charles had been able to increase the collection from Rs. 831 billion in 2017 to Rs. 921 billion last year after being only one year and two months in office, the increase of 90 billion was still not enough to sate the wolves at the Finance Ministry who had hungered for more; and was thus condemned as an utter failure not fit to hold the post of Director General of Customs. It was on this basis cabinet approval was sought and received to sack her from the post. Thus it was not merely Mangala’s decision but the collective decision of the entire UNP-dominated, Ranil-led cabinet. And the reward for failure? In the minister’s word, “to promote her to head the Administrative Services Committee soon to be set up to probe into the leakages in the customs that prevents a massive customs revenue collection.”

Targets can be set by the weasels at the Finance Ministry but how is any Director General of Customs to achieve set targets if there is a downturn in economic activity. Last year saw the dollar plummet, and with political instability due to the 54-day constitutional crisis placing siege on the economy as well as on every facet of the nation’s life, an increase of Rs. 90 billion from the previous year seem to be a bonus fruit from a Herculean effort. But not to those at the Finance ministry.

According to Mangala Samaraweera, the Sri Lankan rupee devalued by 15 percent during the last six months of last year and in turn, Custom’s revenue collection should increase since tax is collected in US dollars. However, Customs had not been able to garner this benefit at collection points. He said imports in 2018 had increased by 8.3 percent whereas the custom tax collection had not increased comparatively. He added that the custom tax revenue had only increased by 1.4 percent.

That may well be the case. But not all imports are taxed equally. The tax on some goods may be higher, the tax on others maybe smaller. And unless a breakdown is given to the public, a generalisation that imports had increased by 8.3 percent and that therefore there should have been a corresponding increase in the tax collected cannot be accepted. The parade of statistics only serve to hide the pathetic state of the country’s economy; and the attempt to glorify the rupee’s downfall against the dollar as being a boon to the nation’s economy is a tale best told to children at bedtime.

Mrs. Charles was appointed as Director General of Customs in October 2017. If within her first year in office, though she was able to increase the collection by Rs 90 billion from the previous year under  the head of another director general, and did so under adverse   economic conditions that did not meet Finance Ministry expectations, then pray, can the Finance Minister say of any instance of any Director General of Customs being given his or her marching orders, the sack, the boot, for failure to achieve the fanciful targets set by officials at the Finance Ministry devised in a sterile atmosphere?

If that was the criterion used to measure performance in the government sector, no head of any government institute will be in office today. Not to speak of any political party be in power today either, having repeatedly fallen miserably short of the people’s great expectations.

In the absence of a convincing answer to justify Sarojini Charles’ dismissal, inevitably left the field open for the Government’s opponents to wear the halo of sainthood and condemn the satanic ways of the UNP. And quite rightly so. For the Government had left itself naked, open to the charge of covering up corruption at the port.

Leading the charge was the new leader of the opposition, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who would have savoured the moment to hoist the engineer with his own petard.

He claimed the removal of the Director General of Sri Lanka Customs was a measure taken by the government to protect a businessman and pointed out that state officials cannot be unfairly transferred based on the whims of ministers. This was echoed by the new SLFP General Secretary who stated more or less the same. Rights activist Attorney-at-Law Nagananda Kodituwakku pointed out that the government had sacked Mrs. Charles soon after celebrating the International Customs Day in Colombo and said that the UNP proved again that honest and efficient public servants were at the mercy of powerful corrupt elements in the government and further said that Mrs. Charles earned the wrath of the government for not giving in to illegal directives.

If that were the views of the public at large, the political opponents and rights activists who viewed the exercise as being one of getting rid of a barrier to illegal business activity at the port of corruption, Customs officials who served thereat rejected the government’s contention that Sarojini Charles had been removed on grounds of incompetence with ire.

Perhaps for the first time in a government institution where the norm is for workers to go on strike demanding the removal of their boss, here was the spectacle of the staff striking against the removal of their chief and demanding her reinstatement. The Customs officers’ go-slow with threats to intensify it if their demand was not met, accompanied by the symbolic closure of of their shops by wholesale Pettah traders who put down their shutters in sympathy with the Customs unions’ strike action, made the government surrender in abject defeat. The UNP had not only put its foot in the mire but ended up with egg on its faces.

This Wednesday, the Finance Minister was forced to reinstate Sarojini, Lanka’s ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ to stand vigil again at the Colombo Port.

Whilst Sarojini was magnanimous in victory and refuted allegations of any influences on her from Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and said that she had been given the freedom to continue with her services in the Customs Department, the minister showed no signs of being humbled in defeat but took the loss of face in his stride damned her with faint praise stating that Charles who stood against Prabhakaran while he was alive seemed unable to face the arecanut and pepper mafia.

He said: “That is why I decided to appoint a retired Navy Officer after Charles is taken in the Ministry to appoint as the head of the Administration to be set up to probe into the leakages in the Customs that prevent a massive customs revenue collection.”

Minister Samaraweera — in the current fashion, a la mode Sirisena, who attacked Ranil’s idea of forming a national government whilst Ranil was on the same podium watching the Independence Day parade — with Sarojini seated next to him at the press conference, said: “But some trade unions and Podujana Peramuna MPs and the Opposition Leader attempted to create a political issue with the same decision.”  He added that though they shed crocodile tears for Charles, it was the government that stood for her. “Those who shed crocodile tears actually stand for corruption.”

But it was not a case of all’s well that ends well. The cabinet approved her reinstatement only for a period of three months on the basis that her services are needed elsewhere, to head the ‘Administration to be set up to probe into the leakages in the Customs that prevent a massive Customs revenue collection’. And the Customs Union spokesman warned that if she is removed in three months without justifiable cause, the custom unions will not hesitate to flex their strike muscle again in her cause’.

And that’s not the end of it either. Having ordered the orgy, there remains the delicate question: who is going to pay the bill? The 12 billion loss incurred as a result of the Customs Chief’s dismissal?

At the beginning of the Yahapalana journey in 2015, no government politician took the blame and resigned on account of the Central Bank’s five billion bond scam allegedly masterminded by Arjuna Mahindren  who was appointed the Bank’s Governor by the UNP government. Mahendren is presently absconding justice and is reportedly advising the benefits of family homes in Dubai even as a fellow fugitive from Lankan justice, Lankan drug lord Madush, is throwing lavish parties in top hotels in this Middle Eastern hot spot oasis of fun. But though the party ended for Makandure Madush on Tuesday night whilst celebrating the first-year birthday of his son, along with other important people’s sons, Mahendren is still feasting at the banquet. His son-in-law and fellow accomplice are currently on bail and free to wander, attend top social weddings, import high-prized shepherd dogs from Russia and gift live stock as wedding presents to happy couples to whom one wedding has not been enough to give expression to their innate joy.

But though it maybe three weddings to some, it’s one funeral for the rest of Lanka. But no politician has come to grieve and participate in the wake. And accept the blame and resign for the five billion and more caused to the Lankan people.

Now at the tail end of the Yahapalana journey, has come the attempted constitutional coup  — engineered by Sirisena with Rajapaksa as willing accomplice, for it takes two to tango — which, whilst ending in a fiasco, cost the nation untold billions in lost revenue, not to mention damage caused to its global image  as a democratic nation. But neither Sirisena nor Rajapaksa has come forward to claim responsibility for their failed putsch and for the billions it drained from the nation’s coffers. It seems that the political leaders can play their political games and place their chips on the roulette’s red or black with the people’s money and never breathe a word of their loss, for it’s not their money, but money from the taxpayers’ purse.

But if two can play the game, it seems, so can one play it twice. The precipitous and unwise decision of the UNP Government two weeks ago to dismiss the services of Sarojini Charles from her post as Custom’s Director General sparked a storm of protest and led the Customs’ staff to go on strike, albeit, a go-slow. In the face of stiff opposition, the Government threw in the towel and restored the status quo by reappointing her to her former position. The bill that the nation has to pay for this reckless, unwarranted exercise is estimated at approximately Rs. 12 billion bucks, similar to the loss the nation suffered in the great big bond scam.

Funny, isn’t it, that all the VIP politicos, after enjoying a hearty meal at the table, seem to make their excuses and leave to the lavatory for a leak when the waiter brings the bill, leaving the people to pick up the tab?

The Folly of Greed: Part 3By Don Manu

(Continued from last week)
Reprieved but unrepentant, his new ascent
Served now to make him feel omnipotent;
Briefly did cruel Fates fool him with pretense:
Then cast to the wolves sans any defence
The die was cast, denouement’s last dirge
Couldn’t the ignominy of exile purge;
’T was no foreign foe but Greed’s heady brew
That made Napoleon meet his Waterloo
They never did listen, they never heard
The trumpet call of the saints’ word;
Philosophy of Love revealed divine
Meant nothing to them: ‘twas pearls before swine
From dark ages past to these present times,
History littered with tyrants bloody crimes
Death ’lone would despots tragic states reveal:
They were butterfly wings crushed on Greed’s wheel
But Greed’s not the vice of tyrants alone
Both ruled and ruler its evils condone
All men equally prostrate ere its throne
In a lifetime of worship that good disown
From the womb to the tomb all mighty Greed
Prods them ecstatic, providing each need
In return for which they barter their souls
And, like Faustus, want more when the bell tolls
Sating want by want but still unsated
They wonder why they are yet frustrated
Truth will out, if they could their greed repent
That the richest man’s the one who’s content
Of all the damning seven deadly sins
Greed’s the deadliest for the ruin it wrings
Man’s disobedience, original sin
From inherent desire they both did spring
Jesus Christ’s sermon on the Sinai Mount
Exhorted the faithful to greed surmount
Cast ye riches to enter heaven’s door
Or fore’er be damned burning in hell’s woe
The Buddha’s profound Four Noble Truths expound
How desire’s deep well is Suffering’s fount
Life’s every grief, its contagion does breed
Desire run amok spawns sorrow’s seed
For ‘thanha’ binds man to samsara’s wheel
To that karmic law that’s beyond repeal:
Thus did the Buddha hold Sorrow’s anvil
To be that of Greed: the root of evil

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