Much is being said about the delays in bringing to book those who had put their hands in the nation’s till during the last administration and made a fortune for themselves through devious and ill-gotten means. So brazen are some of them, that they have already started demonstrating against the new Government’s indiscretions — such [...]


Corruption: The coconut is on the lap, crack it


Much is being said about the delays in bringing to book those who had put their hands in the nation’s till during the last administration and made a fortune for themselves through devious and ill-gotten means. So brazen are some of them, that they have already started demonstrating against the new Government’s indiscretions — such as the case in front of the Central Bank this week.


It is no mean task to rope in these white-collar rogues, given the fact that there is no permanent anti-graft machinery in place to tackle the wheeling and dealing that went on behind mega projects. Neither has the new Government tried to put such a machinery in place – for future reference.


Instead, various ad-hoc commissions and committees are being set up by different parties of the ‘rainbow coalition’ each frustrated with the other for the slowness in showing results, but showing no real progress themselves. At least if some progress report is released to the public, it would help ease the uneasiness.


Corruption is endemic in this country. While successive governments paid mere lip-service to arresting this menace, the previous Government is culpable of sending bribery and corruption on holiday. It made graft a way of life from the very top of the political apparatus to the traffic policeman on the street, and a whole lot in-between. One of the key areas of corruption is the multi-billion rupee highway projects of the previous Government — the flagship of its development projects. The major inter-city road network system was actually initiated by President R. Premadasa and followed up by President D.B. Wijetunge. After a period of non-activity thereafter, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government took the subject to a new level, but it was riddled with ex-facie corruption.


In answer to an occasional question in Parliament, the costs for these highways were given sparingly and reluctantly; yet the figures were mind-boggling. So much so, that it was common to ask if these roads were paved with gold. It all ended there and that Government carried on regardless.


In an article in this newspaper last week titled “The attempted Great Highway Robbery”, a Moratuwa University don in its Department of Transport and Logistics, and one well acquainted with the issues gives ample testimony to the amount of money that has been siphoned off.


He refers specifically to the then Ports and Highways Secretary bypassing internal processes and systems of the Road Development Authority (RDA) by appointing “handpicked units” for the formulation of the country’s most expensive — and expansive — infrastructure projects. He asks whether local and international companies which undertook feasibility studies at record fees are being investigated for failing to exercise due diligence — with the local contractors who were attracted by greed saying they had “no choice” but to agree to partnering questionable contracts.


The 197-kilometre Northern Expressway Project is estimated to have a cost over-run of nearly 100 percent from Rs. 217 billion to Rs. 504 billion. The plunder from the extension of the Southern Highway and Outer Circular Phase III is estimated at a phenomenal Rs. 400 billion. “We could have built all our highways for the price of one,” he points out.


And so, where is the Government investigation on this heading? When this newspaper made some gentle inquiries this week from the Ministry of Highways if a full-fledged investigation was underway, we were aghast to learn of the lack of progress made. Two months have gone by since the new Government took office and investigations have gone nowhere. Those in the know are waiting to be called – the Government is waiting for them to come forward. RDA engineers seem to opt to ‘forget the past’, convenient as it is, and to move forward. But the questions are simple – how did these massively expensive projects double in cost? Someone will have to answer. The people of this country will otherwise never know what went wrong – and who the culprits were.


The Rajapaksa Government suffered a significant defeat, largely due to being tainted with corruption. The fact that the then Economic Development Minister, under whose charge much of these projects were implemented, fled the country is prima facie evidence that there was much to hide. This Government promised to bring the culprits to court. Now, it is fighting allegations against itself. One of the drawbacks has been its inability to know where to start the investigations.
In the case of the mega highway projects, the information is available. The coconut is on their lap. They just don’t know how to crack it.

Friend in need, but not in bad deeds
President Maithripala Sirisena is going to China next week on an official visit. The red carpet will, no doubt, be rolled out for him as is customary for a visiting Head of State, but whether he will get a ‘warm’ welcome or a ‘hot’ one remains to be seen.


Given the perception that the January 8 presidential election was a rejection of China’s omnipresence in Sri Lanka, as it was of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s over-dominance, the Chinese are clearly not happy with the post January 8 decisions taken by the new Government.


The message is also clear from Colombo; it is saying that the Chinese investments in Sri Lanka are suspect – that they were ‘unsolicited projects’ thrust upon the political leadership of this country with ulterior motives of gaining a foothold in this land and that in the process they bribed that leadership into agreeing to whatever they proposed.


Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera fired the first salvo when he visited the Chinese capital soon after the election. From Beijing no less, he said that all Chinese projects in Sri Lanka would be reviewed. This must have infuriated the Chinese. The innuendo was clear as clear can be. The Colombo Port City project is the stand-out investment and this is what the Chinese Government has formally chosen to clarify.


The Chinese have taken up the position that it was the Sri Lankan Government that was responsible to ensure that these projects adhered to the laws of the land. But they did nothing themselves to making these projects transparent. They collaborated in the secrecy of these projects. Now, under fire, they have drawn in Sri Lankan media-persons to explain matters and advertise heavily in the local press clarifying issues that are being raised. Why all this was not done earlier begs the question; who did not want transparency in these matters – and why.


China has been Sri Lanka’s long-standing friend. Its military support to help combat and end the northern separatist insurgency can never, ever, be forgotten.

President Sirisena will have to reassure China, that Sri Lanka remains its friend irrespective of the aberration of the “unsolicited projects” that were thrust down its throat during the past five years – and that Sri Lanka wishes to do business with China in the future too, albeit in a transparent manner. And while he is at it, he may tell the Chinese that Sri Lanka would like to invite His Holiness the Dalai Lama to its shores as well.

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