Why the burden on our people

This week witnessed the sharp and always painful increase in the price of fuel and of electricity. There will be the resultant knock-on effects on other areas, pushing up the cost of living once again.

This COL war, now relegated to being on the sidelines of the ongoing war with the separatist guerrillas, has thus not seen the attendant resentment and anger normally associated with such price increases.

To the Government's advantage, the main opposition party (the UNP) -- or a sizeable section of it -- is being seduced by tantalising offers of ministerial perks and privileges, while the vociferous party (the JVP) is torn between supporting the incumbent Government, (so that the UNP doesn't take political advantage of the situation) and maintaining its own identity by not associating itself with the misadventures of the ruling party.

Thus both are effectively neutralised and there is not a whimper as the COL war marches on, jackbooting over the poor and the powerless. What is grabbing the headlines -- and the attention of the public at present -- is the death toll in the North and East, the refugee crisis, and the territory re-taken by the security forces.

The fact that each round fired from a multi-barrel rocket-launcher or a bomb dropped by the Air Force costs a huge sum is immaterial when the sovereignty of the State is at stake. But, the stark fact is that somebody has to pay for it and that somebody is the direct and indirect tax-payer, which means almost everyone in this country.

Few would have heeded what The Economist wrote in The Sunday Times a fortnight ago about the impact the internal war was having on the Balance of Payment situation in the country, and how the Government was going to balance its Budget, come November. Though the cost factor must be taken into consideration at a time of war, one cannot be looking at the balance sheet while battling a ruthless and financially well-endowed guerrilla organisation.

There was a time in the early years of this insurgency when the then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel would say how badly the economy was being eroded due to the war, issuing dire warnings that "we cannot go on for another year like this". This was just the kind of oxygen a guerrilla organisation needs. The LTTE believed that if they kept the war on for another year, the Government would implode with the Economic Bomb.

Yet while the highest and the humblest -- the latter more than the former -- have to face the inescapable expenses incurred to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation, and world market prices cannot be subsidised especially at a time of war, there are other factors inherently available to a Government that could cushion the adverse impact on a people already suffering for too long now.

Take, for example, the massive financial scandals that have made headlines over the years, like the shocking report by the outgoing Auditor General that the State has not collected revenue to the tune of Rs. 389 billion (Rs. 389,000 Million ) from 2002-2005 casting serious aspersions on senior officials in the Treasury.

Last week, the JVP introduced an adjournment motion in Parliament to discuss this report. But what was the Government's attitude? That while they believed in the independence of the Auditor General, they felt that an inquiry was required to go into the veracity of what they felt were fanciful figures. The Government and the main opposition started a slanging match over whether the amnesty introduced during the UNP Government was a good thing or not, missing the woods for the trees as usual.

Treasury officials are running to the World Bank, but if this kind of revenue could be harnessed locally, would Sri Lanka have to mortgage its self-respect going around the world with a begging bowl?

Bribery and corruption today have spun out of control with the COL forcing many hard-pressed fixed income public servants in the Police, Customs, Inland Revenue Department, Municipalities, UDA and where-ever the law gives them a discretionary power, to grease their palms in right royal style. And this they do because they know that at the very highest levels of Government -- such is the practice.

In Parliament, the JVP referred to the appointment to the senior-most post in the Inland Revenue Department. Just the other day, the Public Trustee of this country was charged with fraud. The Public Service, once the pride of the nation, has turned into a haven for crooks, and the honest ones are treated with disdain by their colleagues who are 'on the take' and have the political backing to sustain themselves in their posts.

It was unfortunate, to say the least, that the Government adopted an almost cavalier approach and did not think of taking the Auditor General's report more seriously, so much so that one must even question whether Parliament is the appropriate forum for the discussion of public funds.

We have often said that the two biggest bribe-takers in the country are the two main political parties -- by way of so-called 'party funds'. As long as that is the status quo, one can say goodbye to fighting bribery and corruption -- and collecting the big bucks from the big guys -- at the expense of all others.


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