What can you expect? The much-hyped, much-awaited bond debate in Parliament came and went like a whirlwind. Ending rather on a quiet note, more or less a damp squib. On the eve of the parliamentary debate, a Buddhist monk filed a fundamental rights petition challenging the contents of the bond report by the parliamentary Committee [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Snakes and ladders


What can you expect? The much-hyped, much-awaited bond debate in Parliament came and went like a whirlwind. Ending rather on a quiet note, more or less a damp squib. On the eve of the parliamentary debate, a Buddhist monk filed a fundamental rights petition challenging the contents of the bond report by the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE).

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna saw some ‘evil’ in this petition, accusing the government of ‘delaying’ tactics. Not to be outdone, the President said he will appoint a special commission to probe the infamous bond issue.

This, if a presidential commission is appointed, would make it the fifth such report – possibly the sixth – to emerge from a scam that has linked former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran and his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius with tainted deals pertaining to the issuance of treasury bonds. Another entry for the Guinness Book of Records perhaps after the failed attempt to enter the record books with the tallest Christmas tree in the world!

Consider this. The first report was by the Committee of lawyers affiliated to the United National Party (UNP); followed by the Auditor General; a Central Bank internal report along with an examination by the Monetary Board; and then the ‘laboured’ exercise by COPE. This week, the President’s proposal to appoint another committee adds to this never-ending drama enacted since the infamous bond issue on February 27, 2015, just a month after Mahendran sat down at his desk as the Governor.

To add to the bond circus, another drama was played out this week as claims and counter-claims flew over whether Mahendran was holding a position as an advisor to the government. The Finance Ministry denied that the former governor was an advisor, while local television showed clips of Mahendran accompanying the Prime Minister on many foreign trips apart from other involvements.

Considering all these developments, our ‘chef’ while stirring the pot of ‘destiny’ in the kitchen, recalled a comment he saw posted on a local news website which referred to a statement in Parliament by Communist Party stalwart, the late Pieter Keuneman – reportedly on commissions being like going to the toilet: “There is a sitting, some deliberations, some noises and you drop the matter.”

The bond drama is not over. It will continue to figure in the political arena over the next 12 months before any serious action is forthcoming, just like the game of snakes and ladders.

“This is like playing snakes and ladders when we were kids,” said a high profile executive in the corporate sector. “You go  a few, adrenaline pumping steps up the ladder then come tumbling down the snake,” he said, adding: “What is happening to our country? Nothing has changed. It’s a case of old wine in new bottles. A fresh set of rogues has replaced the earlier set. People are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.” Disruption, it seems, is the name of today’s game.

A few months ago, an office colleague drew my attention to a new word that has entered the dictionary –kakistocracy, saying this would be an apt description of the state of affairs in the country. Kakistocracy refers to a government run by the least or most unprincipled citizens.

At that time, I differed with him on the use of this term to describe the crisis. Now, months later, I bow to his superior wisdom.

Mismanagement and corruption are so rampant that it’s hard to differentiate from the ‘then and now’ except that during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, the accusation was mostly against his close and extended family, while now it’s some ministers and associates close to the administration.

The parliamentary debate on the bond scam was simply an occasion to hurl accusations at each other that were unrelated to the issue, so much so that Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan summed up the stream of invectives, saying that there has been corruption on both sides (the two main political parties) over decades and what you see today is a case of old wine in new bottles!

To add insult to injury, the public service is also at breaking point as politics tears the country apart.

Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) ministers accuse UNP ministers and the latter vice versa in public, later described by the protagonists themselves as a government working perfectly and that these ‘attacks’ are an expression of a government of free views, and doesn’t mean there is no unity in the Cabinet.

Then what must the people think when the Finance Minister accuses the Auditor General (AG) of wrongdoing while the President runs to his defence, describing the AG as one of two respected persons (the other being Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy) that he (the President) had appointed?

Further on the ‘public-service-at-breaking-point’ syndrome, one often hears rather pathetic comments like “that is his view” emerging among public officials. This week the Media Secretary, when asked about a controversial media release issued by the Information Director General, was quoted as saying that he was not aware about the statement being issued and that its contents were “that official’s (personal) view”.

Two weeks back, Minister Kabir Hashim used the same “that is his view” phrase to describe certain comments by SriLankan Airlines Chairman Ajit Dias. The airline doesn’t come directly under the minister apart from being one of the state-owned enterprises that is under a restructure programme which is Hashim’s mandate. The reality however is that there is nothing called ‘a personal view’ in the public service.

All public officials work under laid down Administrative Regulations (AR) and Financial Regulations (FR) and any violation must be dealt with by an immediate superior. If an officer has stepped out of line, he or she is penalised, that’s sacrosanct (or should be) in the public service. While there are no ‘personal views’ in AR and FR, these recent incidents strongly reflect the lack of proper management.

While the government is desperately projecting an administration that works despite many irritants, many issues are laid by as fire-fighting takes precedence.

For instance, the drought crisis is worsening by the day. The rains are not coming as predicted. Communities are feeling the pinch with one desperate farmer heard telling another: “While we struggle, for the government it’s a case of newa gilunath ban chun.”

Rather than bickering over who is corrupt and who is not, one of the best ways to understand the crisis is for Cabinet meetings to be held in drought-affected areas with closer interaction with those affected. This is rather than sitting in comfortable air-conditioned cabins in Colombo surrounded by a coterie of ‘advisors’ and ‘yes-men’ public servants whose version of the crisis would be far from “the truth and nothing but the truth”.

In the same spirit, corporate board meetings should also be held in a similar manner to understand the plight facing the country. A drought crisis affects all including the farming community’s ability to purchase consumer goods and services. The ‘haves’, rather than sympathy by way of handouts and donations, need to empathise with affected communities.

Not only see but also  live the crisis, just like for example what former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed did in October 2009; conducting a cabinet meeting six metres below sea-level to draw attention to the plight of climate change and sea level rise.

‘If only the walls can speak’ the public would get to know the ‘inconvenient truth’ that what governing politicians speak behind closed doors is not what is dished out in public. That fact, like Al Gore’s documentary ‘Inconvenient Truth’ on the dangers of  global warming, is the absolute truth.

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