ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 45

Vasu and the CMC

Veteran leftist Vasudeva Nanayakkara waging a relentless war against corruption as the Leader of the Opposition in the Colombo Municipal Council is frustrated by the ruling administration there too crossing over to the SLFP and the apparent lack of interest of powers that be in helping him to put things right. He speaks to the Sunday Times about his intention to fight on against all odds.

Q: Don’t you think that yours is more like a voice in the wilderness trying to correct what has become institutionalized corruption in the premier local authority in the country?

A: Yes. I am making my best effort, putting my best foot forward. In my long years of maturity I feel qualified and very much in it to raise these issues about corruption and structural inefficiencies and mechanisms that are in place for large amounts of public funds to be siphoned away even with the cover of legality. What I mean are the tenders, payment of bills, which are obviously inflated and never checked by any independent authority.

Q: Rhetoric apart, can you actually correct this situation?

A: It is a struggle. I do not know how far we can succeed, but the important thing is if you keep raising it and bring it to light and also convey and communicate it to the people and if there is some response from the public as well, some reduction is possible.

Q: You threatened to take CMC corruption to the streets. The first step was promised last month. What happened?

A: We have printed a poster and a leaflet for distribution among the activists of the city. The campaign got delayed by about two weeks as I was out of the country. Now it will happen this weekend. The first meeting in the city will be held in the Kirulapone area in Colombo East, where the activists will be called for awareness and interactive sessions, which will thereafter take the form of action in the streets like pickets and agitations. We will spread this from area to area and finally combine all together to highlight the matters.

Q: You have already complained that no one that matters was taking any action-the President, Governor, Chief Minister, Mayor… So where are we heading?

A: Yes, it is unfortunate that no one is taking prompt action. They are working at their own pace in looking into matters. It is a long way. I would have expected the Chief Minister, the Governor and the President to take immediate steps in order to correct the situation by putting in place a firm steering committee and vest it with such powers, jointly with the Mayor, to ensure that all things that happen in the Council should be by way of decisions made at the steering committee. Though this has no legal status, the steering committee is a tradition that the mayors have entertained throughout. In consultation with such committees the mayors have acted in the past. The steering committee in this case could be a more powerful instrument, particularly with the Mayor being quite fresh and inexperienced; it could be asked to take all the important decisions regarding the Council. The Commissioner is a great stumbling block in this matter. The steering committee was set up after eight months with difficulty, after much urging and pleading with the Mayor. It is scheduled to meet once a month, but last month’s meeting was postponed. So the Chief Minister, the Governor or the President should step in.

Q: Do you mean to say the Commissioner is no better than the politicians?

A: He is very political. He answers the questions I raised in the Council in writing preemptively prior to the Council meeting. I raised a question about some unauthorized structures. I raised some question about some expenditure incurred and how it was authorized. The Commissioner had already answered it in the press prior to even the Council ever meeting to consider the question. I queried what the etiquette of his behaviour was and more than the etiquette what legality, what propriety, when the Commissioner, who is supposed to be a non political executive under the Council answers questions, which are placed in the agenda to be answered by the Mayor, prior to the Mayor through the press. You can imagine the kind of arbitrary power he exercises. He exercises lot of arbitrary power for which reason he likes a Council without a steering committee to guide the way.

Q: How can you expect action against an alleged power abusing Municipal Commissioner when two Ministers of the Western Provincial Council, who were found guilty by an SLFP disciplinary committee of people smuggling, including a wanted fugitive out of the country; are still carrying on as Ministers?

A: I wouldn’t like to answer this question for the SLFP, because I don’t belong to it. You will have to ask that from the SLFP. But commenting in general as a citizen and as a political activist, these are outrageous. This is not the first instance. There have been so many.

Q: We are not pointing the finger only at the SLFP.

A: Still the credit remains with the left parties for not indulging in anything corrupt At least we don’t know of any instances.

Q: Why should the Left be any different?

A: I am referring to corruption, underhand deals or patronizing with corrupt elements or encouraging the plunder of public funds. In those instances the Left is above board. I don’t mean to include JVP in this Left.

Q: In this country, as earlier happened in places like Pakistan, politicians have made a mockery of democratic principles. Most are getting into politics to make money for generations to come and now there is an excess of politicians at all levels. Therefore why not at least privatise most of the local authority functions to beat the institutionalised corruption? For example whereever local authorities are collecting garbage it is highly corrupt.

A: That is not true. I examined this matter and I found Care Clean and Abans collect garbage only in areas where prominent society resides. In areas like the Colombo North and the back yards are absolutely unclean and the garbage is never regularly collected and the people keep complaining all the time.

Q: If you are not satisfied with their work you can always cancel their contracts.

A: But you are going to replace them with similar types because their primary concern is profit making. That attitude only makes them do less investment and hire less labour and therefore the problems like services to the people are in absolute chaos when ever it is in private hands as it was in California when electricity was privatized.

Q: New York Mayor Giuliani got rid of the mob that was controlling garbage collection business?

A: In New York, the City Council handles the police. The police and the NYC Council worked together to tackle the problem. Here the CMC and the police are not linked up that way. But that is a different matter. Here it is a question of being an unfriendly city to the public. We need to improve on many areas in being a friendly city to the public, rather than external superficial appearances. Some are interested in keeping superficial appearances. I think more than that you need to drain the water, see that the sewage is properly cleaned and see that gully bowsers are in order, to clean up the cesspits. But all those things are lagging behind and the investment going into it has not been commensurate with the needs. There is a structural change needed in the expenditure pattern and the income that we are entitled to is collected only by 50 per cent. The government itself has to pay us arrears in rates for its buildings of about Rs.500 million, which is not being collected. It is taken for granted by institutions like the Ports Authority that they can go on without paying our rates.

Q: Why not take legal action?

A: We do not need to take legal action. The point is the Commissioner and the Council’s executive powers are not in the matter. In fact all the roads in the city are maintained by us, but some of them belong to the Road Development Authority, but we are pocketing out. So I went and asked the RDA to pay us money for maintenance, they willingly agreed. So an income of about Rs50 million is coming. Likewise there are a large number of places from where we are entitled to income.

Q: We are talking and talking, but nothing seems to get corrected. There are prominent posters inside local authorities advising public that they need not bribe anyone to get their work done, but without a bribe nothing will get done. Even the files go missing when bribes are not given.

A: Yes. You have the same problem in the courts, the Registrar of Lands or any Department. This cancer has gone very deep into the system, which is a matter for the whole country and the administration as a whole. How you can overcome this is through putting systems in place like at the Castle Street Maternity Hospital, where the system put into practice works without intervention and interference from anybody. But an ordinary politician does not want this to happen. He wants to bring his client and show that things were got done by him. Probably he also collects something in the process. I have been suggesting a system. Now, like the plan approvals go through a system. Partially it has been achieved through the computerization. There is no need of interference, intervention or pleadings. Things are there as a matter of right like in the Castle Street Hospital. Unfortunately putting in such systems, the Councillors themselves are not in much favour because then their importance is lost and the officials are not keen about it as then their income is lost. If I were in an executive position I would carry out this task.

Q: In virtually all local authorities there are two types of employees divided as Army and Navy. The army ones are those who report for duty and work. The Navy ones are only on the pay roll. This is also financially bleeding local bodies.

A: This is the case in any field situation, similar things happen in the estate muster. This kind of cheating is very rampant in the CMC and therefore I took the step as the Chairperson of Avoidance of Waste and Conservation of Resources to raid some of these places through the internal audit. In the first raid itself we found about 18 persons absent, but after the internal audit went there they were marked absent. Until then they left it blank so that in the afternoon they can mark them present and take the money. As the Chairperson I could only start an inquiry. I found that the Council’s upper administrations were not giving me the strength in the internal audit section. You need personnel for this. One other problem is that we do not have enough personnel at the points where we need them—internal audit, security and the flying squad. The principal fault in this matter is in the particular head of department. The engineer or the overseer in charge of that field area should be held responsible for it. If no action is being taken against them there is no point in hunting down the worker who didn’t come. The inquiry that I initiated is still pending.

Q: We are not advocating the selling of family silver, but in order to overcome this problem why not bring in more of the private sector?

A: The private sector cannot do better in services. The private sector can do better in investment. Then of course you are selling the family silver and forfeiting the public property. What I say is bring them in jointly for management. I am for management involvement of the private sector, but don’t give up our proprietary right to public property. The services you cannot hand over to the private sector. It has been found everywhere in the world, the moment the public services are given to private hands, they in their quest for profits, would not do the reinvestment as required to keep the services at a particular level and therefore the services ultimately decline and cause a very dangerous situation. The whole purpose of a government is to provide public services, but now the public service appears not at all for the public. It is for everybody but the public. Therefore it has to have better management through zero corruption, reduced inefficiency, greater productivity and more responsive to citizenas.

Q: What have you to say about Deputy Minister of Labour Mervyn Silva muscling into affairs of the city administration like being involved in opening a controversial parking lot at Bauddhaloka Mawatha?

A: Obviously the Mayor and the Commissioner are collaborating with him. I am not in power to arrest such situations. Regarding the Council what must be done is to either put it under a steering committee with a unanimous commitment to it and to put the Commissioner in his place or have a better Commissioner to carry out the work decided by the steering committee to administer the council or in the alternative put a Competent Authority to manage the Council, which is an undemocratic measure that denies the right of the citizens to choose their administrators. Citizens have the right to choose even wrong administrators, that is the essence of democracy.

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