There are many, many persons who tell us: AThis country has gone to the dogs and is unsalvageable. We hope that, at least, our children will be able to get out of here and make a good life elsewhere; or words to that effect. The frequency of this desperate cry has escalated dramatically over the years. It is noteworthy, however, that these voices belong mostly to members of the middle and upper middle classes. In contrast, one hardly ever hears such sentiments expressed by those in the richest fraction of our population or from the vast majority of those who are poor. This is understandable because the rich know how to get richer in cooperation with the more powerful and corrupt elements in our political establishment and, in any case, have the necessary contacts and resources to get out of the country if the going should get too uncomfortable for them. The poor, on the other hand, are realists and know that there is not much point in dreaming about greener pastures abroad and are resigned to finding their salvation here.
We, at CIMOGG, have always tried to encourage the dispirited amongst us not to give up hope but to help do something about reversing the pervasive negative trends that affect almost all aspects of life in this land of ours. In the midst of these efforts, we have been greatly heartened by the inspiring work being done now by COPE, which appears to form the first bit of silver lining that we have been able to discern around the dark clouds of corruption, inefficiency and lawlessness which have been oppressing us increasingly. Our most sincere congratulations go out to all the active members of COPE for the excellent job being done by them, and especially to its Chairman, Mr Wijedasa Rajapakse, for his principled and unyielding stand against the efforts of those who were trying to dupe the public by planning to appoint more and more Select Committees so that the stable door would be kept open for long enough for all the horses to bolt.
If, instead of trying, for the wrong reasons, to appoint 26 Select Committees, just one Select Committee were appointed to look into the abuse of duty-free car permits given to MPs and senior officials, the veil of secrecy surrounding these squalid deals would be lifted. Unfortunately, there would be immense difficulty in finding enough members for this committee who had themselves not sold their permits, and to find a Chairman as conscientious and strong as Mr Rajapakse.
Although there have been numerous contributions in the media recently about the car permit issue, there is one point that has not been stressed enough – namely, the argumentation that was originally employed by the parliamentarians who long ago campaigned to be given the right to buy vehicles free of duty. The truth is that duty-free permits were sought for the import of vehicles of high specification on the grounds that all MPs were obliged to travel long distances in order to meet their constituents and to travel to Parliament, mostly over roads in bad condition. It was urged that the vehicles had to be comfortable because of the amount of travelling involved. Moreover, such vehicles had to be of good quality as MPs could hardly be expected to travel in those of lower specification which would tend to break down relatively frequently, causing the public to be deprived of their MPs’ services. Following this plea, the government of the day decided to accommodate this request but stipulated, inter alia, that the duty-free vehicles had to be used by the MPs themselves and that they could not be sold, or given to others for their use, for a period of five years.
In the interests of a certain degree of comprehensiveness, it may be mentioned that at no time was it contemplated by successive governments that one of the approved uses for these valuable vehicles, paid for largely by the sweat of our people, would be to house stray dogs, however distinguished the MP who obtained the permit for his duty-free vehicle might be.
This background has deliberately not been referred to by the said voluble senior government MP who, although a lawyer, has taken up the astonishing position that he was not able to state whether it was legally incorrect or not for MPs to sell their vehicles. Scandalously, he added that, in any event, since the majority of MPs had sold their permits, it was not such a serious matter after all. He went further and proposed that MPs be allowed to import duty-free vehicles and sell their permits without any restriction. What we wish to ascertain is whether, unlike the earlier breed of MPs, who at least claimed that they wanted to serve their constituents, MPs now do not need vehicles for that purpose. The senior government MP=s proposal then is clearly intended to allow MPs to realise an instantaneous capital gain of around Rs5 Million each, once every 5 years or so. He obviously thinks that all the public of this country are as witless as those who voted for him.
This kind of rip-off is to be expected from MPs who are elected under the present system which favours those who (a) are able to get the support of rich men who are prepared to finance their candidate’s election expenses in return for later favours worth a hundred times more, (b) have cultivated members of the underworld to use all possible methods to harm the opposing candidates’ election efforts, (c) are willing to consign their brains to the deep-freezer and unquestioningly follow their party leader’s orders, and (d) have a conscience of unlimited elasticity. Consequently, as this is the norm now, we are not going to get anywhere unless the people get energised adequately to rid themselves of their fears and apathy to do something constructive about this sad state of affairs. Without any further procrastination, they must form Citizens’ Committees in every single Polling Station Area (or Grama Rajya) and get as many voters as possible to petition their District MPs to clean up their acts and, as a first step, to work towards the passing and implementation of some critical items of legislation. It is only concerted and prolonged pressure by the public that will have any long-term beneficial effect. One-day shows at Lipton’s Circus and 5-star hotel seminars are not going to get us very far.
At CIMOGG, we believe that the people should press for laws covering the Right to Information, Public Interest Litigation and Freedom of the Media, as well as to get the Constitutional Council and genuinely autonomous Independent Commissions functioning soon. The Organisation of Professional Associations is making an earnest effort to form committees of professionals to help advise government on what needs to be done and to help monitor the honest and efficient implementation of well-crafted plans to be prepared by a National Planning Commission. The public should join forces with the OPA, CIMOGG and other similar organisations which are struggling to turn the tide against corrupt politicians and their partners in crime.