Rescue democracy from corruption

It would seem that the Government is looking to turn over a new leaf. While taking on board its major achievements like the victory over the LTTE, there seems a desire to right some of the wrongs of its first term of office.

Among them are several announcements that the Government is going to investigate at least some of the instances of corruption in the recent past. These range from the reported rackets in the petroleum sector; pharmaceutical purchases; and the issue of building permits by the Urban Development Authority on the one hand, to the appointment of a Reconciliation Commission to go into communal integration as well as the relaxation of Emergency Regulations and the pardoning of a journalist whose punishment far exceeded his purported crime.

This is a good beginning to a new innings by the Government; except that the scope of the investigations into the past misdeeds of ministers and bureaucrats must be widened rather than be selective - and the relaxation of the Emergency Regulations should be extended, at least in due course.

It was the Petroleum Minister who said that the transactions during his predecessor's period must be examined. The notorious hedge fund fiasco opened many eyes only when the Supreme Court went into its sordid details. The Court's recommendations that the then Minister be replaced was eventually heeded by the President but the whole episode showed how some were able to get away with squandering the people's money. They firmly believed they had the President's backing and that whatever they did, they were insured from reprimand.

Then came the damning statement by the Treasury Secretary to the effect that those at the helm of the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation had created artificial shortages of drugs and then made emergency purchases pocketing 30 percent in commissions and kick-backs in the process.

These are very serious allegations. For many years now, it has been an open secret in health circles that those at the helm were corrupt to the core. The poorest of the poor were not spared as they raked in kickbacks by recommending questionable dealers and inferior drugs.

Before the week was out we also had the news that the CID had been detailed to investigate the issue of building permits by the Urban Development Authority.

This is well and good; but the common practice here has been that precious little results from these investigations. Often they make headlines for a day only to be forgotten thereafter.

There have been heaps of investigations before. The reports of the two Parliamentary oversight committees, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Public Accounts Committee are replete with investigations into a host of public institutions funded by the people's money. They give detailed accounts of massive waste, mismanagement and corruption in the public sector. All these reports are gathering dust on the shelves of the Treasury Secretary's Office. Why has he singled out the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation?

Even before the COPE and Public Accounts Committee of the last Parliament came up with their findings, the State's then Auditor General made known the pathetic details of waste, mismanagement and corruption in several Government departments, but to no avail. There was a deafening silence from the Treasury which has now suddenly woken up. Nothing of the sort of comment the Treasury Secretary made this week on the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation was heard from him then.

While the Bribery and Corruption Commission was of little use to man or beast, at least it was a place where complaints could be made in the hope that they would be investigated and the guilty brought to book. Today, even this dead-duck Commission has been laid to rest and we reported only last week that as many as 500 complaints were made to it just last month - since its effective closure.

So, is the country to expect only sporadic remarks from some senior minister or official that a particular area is under investigation? There were plenty of misdeeds during the previous term of this very Government and they need to be investigated. We were once told that writing about questionable arms purchases was not in the national interest, only to have to bear witness to a string of allegations made now about the questionable conduct of the very Army Commander at the time in at least some of these purchases.

Credit must go to the Supreme Court for taking a pro-active role when the Government stood and stared doing nothing, whatever may have been the legal niceties, in probing several corrupt deals of the past. The Supreme Court even found an ex-President guilty of abuse of the public trust and fined her. But if the scourge of corruption in the public service is to be checked, piecemeal investigations are not good enough. These investigations must bear fruit and those culpable punished, however highly placed they may be, if they are to be a deterrent.

Insofar as the relaxation of the Emergency Regulations are concerned, any relaxation would be welcomed by the citizenry whether it is aimed at making life easier for the people, promoting good governance, human rights and individual liberties or fresh efforts at winning GSP+ duty free concessions from the European Union.

Following the victory over the LTTE, people were impatient to return to their old way of life. The Security Establishment surely had to ensure the remnants of the LTTE did not raise their ugly head once again, but a prolonged period of Emergency Regulations can give the unfortunate impression that the country is a 'Police State'. There is an onus on the Government not only to be democratic, but also appear to be democratic.

The GSP+ issue, it is clear, was bungled from the beginning. The need to take a fresh look at the country's foreign policy towards Europe and the West would obviously be the subject of a separate essay, but the need for now is to revert to a full-fledged democracy free of corruption, slowly but surely, in the greater national interests.

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