Lawyers assigned to check documents related to mega projects undertaken in recent years by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) have stumbled upon a curious detail. They have found that the interest rate on a Chinese loan to build the first phase of the Hambantota Port was significantly increased, seemingly at the instigation of the [...]


Govt. fights shy of transparency


Lawyers assigned to check documents related to mega projects undertaken in recent years by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) have stumbled upon a curious detail. They have found that the interest rate on a Chinese loan to build the first phase of the Hambantota Port was significantly increased, seemingly at the instigation of the previous Government.

Not only was the interest allegedly boosted from LIBOR (The London Interbank Offered Rate, which is a fluctuating index) plus 0.9 per cent to a fixed rate of 6.3 per cent a few months after the project started, but the loan capital was also raised while the quantity of equipment to be supplied under the contract was reduced. The reasons for all this are still unclear, officials say.

Xinhua, China’s news agency, has now reacted to these allegations on behalf of the Chinese Government. A report this week, which gives rise to still more questions, says the Sri Lanka Government chose a fixed interest rate because the LIBOR was on an upward trend in 2007.

On the one hand, emerging documentary evidence could confirm long-held suspicions that something stank about some of the former regime’s multitudinous closed-door deals. On the other hand, this tangle could have been avoided had there been transparency and openness in governance. Under the former regime, even senior SLPA bureaucrats were kept in the dark about financial decisions.

High-profile projects involving public funds and other assets must be open to inspection. There is no acceptable reason why the terms of such massive loans– Hambantota Port Phase I eventually cost US$ 500 million — should have been so closely guarded.

There is also no justification for why select individuals in the former administration were permitted to treat State property as their personal fiefdoms. When the SLPA’s new chairman walked into his office in January, he found his desktop computer wiped clean of crucial data and many files missing.

This situation is not confined to the SLPA. Managements in other key State institutions face similar dilemmas. Transparency took a severe beating during the past five years. What is worrying, however, is that, in the absence of sustained public demand for vital information, present and future administrations are likely to tread down the same murky path. The signs are already there.

There is no gainsaying that the outcome of the presidential election in January brought about a sea change in how the people expressed themselves. It suddenly became possible to criticise the Government and the incumbent President. Activists and civil society are no longer silent. The atmosphere of fear– the “white van” didn’t become a national symbol for nothing — has evaporated and social media, in particular, are awash with opinions.

But this does not detract from the woeful reality that authentic, substantive and relevant information about the administration’s workings is not freely available. Ministers often contradict each other or prevaricate; and officials would rather dance on hot coals than clarify the unsightly mess politicians have made of public information.

This Government’s attitude towards the citizenry’s right to know was discouraging from the start. One of the first steps it took (as early as January 29, 2015) was to issue a Public Administration circular warning all officials against speaking to mass media or the public. It drew their attention to the Establishments Code and warned that “disciplinary actions would be taken if a problematic situation arises due to an action taken deviating from the said provisions.”

This has had a chilling effect on the public sector. Even officials who had defied the previous regime’s unofficial censorship in order to leak information for the greater good now clamped up. Ministers soon monopolised the task of keeping the citizenry updated but there is one fundamental flaw in this method of dissemination, as is evident today — everything, but everything, is politically packaged and manipulated before being fed to the public. Within an environment of severe infighting, therefore, news has become a vessel to convey political convictions, to run campaigns and to malign opponents. The end result is confusion.

A case in point is the so-called “ban” on the use and import of glyphosate. President Maithripala Sirisena first announced that the herbicide would forthwith be prohibited. Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake then said the import of glyphosate would be permitted in limited quantities for use in tea plantations.

Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake maintained that this was all tosh. Glyphosate was totally banned, he insisted, and any stocks imported after the prohibition would be re-exported or destroyed. But Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the former Agriculture Minister, claimed that Mr. Karunanayake had pressurised the Customs Department into releasing 15 containers of glyphosate that had arrived after the ban. He also said the former Director General of Customs had resigned in protest.

Here was an ugly war of words with truth as the first casualty. The reality is that there is still no legal ban on glyphosate (see our story on page 10). But the issue was abused so roundly for political purposes that it became difficult to separate fact from fiction. It is becoming patently clear, therefore, that it is not public officials who are causing “problematic situations”!

Transparency has been weak in most other areas. For instance, there has been no Government statement on the resignation of the Customs chief. The Treasury bonds issue smacks of a cover-up giving credence to the belief that there was a scam. There is a glaring lack of interest in passing the Right to Information Act in Parliament. Apart from the Foreign Ministry, which has adopted an old practice in democracies of holding weekly briefings, ministries have shied away from opening themselves up to scrutiny.

But information cannot be optional. The Constitution unequivocally states that “sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. Governments are custodians of State institutions. Politicians at every level must be held accountable. This practice of affording blind publicity to the inanities they constantly spout in self-interest is eroding the public’s right and access to real information.

Let there be media releases containing substantive facts and figures; let there be research reports; let there be record taking and record keeping; let there be transparent policy-making and implementation. Let there be guidelines drawn up and published for tendering out projects and their subsequent implementation. Ensure that administrative and financial regulations are followed and are seen to be followed. Let there be truth and openness.

It is time to move forward from the initial euphoria of being able to express oneself. It is time to put in place mechanisms that give Sri Lanka’s citizens the information they need and deserve.

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