Dec 30

It has been angrily argued by the government that it should be free to set the price of petrol, diesel, kerosene and some other petroleum derivatives at will to suit its budgetary requirements, ostensibly to proceed vigorously with the war against the LTTE and to carry out development work, irrespective of any adverse impact high fuel prices might have on the public. The Supreme Court (SC) appears to have looked at the fuel problem differently, which it is entitled and required to do. It has obviously considered the case of fuel in the same way as it would look at the pricing of any other essential commodity which is marketed by monopolistic organisations or lightly-disguised cartels. Just as much as, say, the price of a packet of milk powder cannot be allowed to be sold with black-market levels of profit, the prices of petroleum fuels, too, need to be subject to monitoring, analysis and reasonable control. The SC also took into account the unsavoury side of the hedging exercise that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had carried out incompetently and improperly. The fact that a private company, too, is involved alongside the CPC in marketing petroleum products does not make the impact of high fuel prices on the public any lighter.

Independent commentators and political opponents of the government have pointed out that widespread corruption and wasteful expenditure, if cut down, would more than amply compensate for a reduction of Rs22/- per litre on petrol. We shall not deal with corruption here but, instead, look at a few random examples of profligacy by those who have been entrusted by the People with safeguarding the Nation=s assets.

Regarding the Mihin Air exercise, will the officials concerned reveal to us whether a feasibility study was carried out to determine if a budget airline could be run with at least a nominal profit? Who carried out this study? How were they selected? Was a Parliamentary Committee appointed to go into the merits of proceeding with the project? What were the job specifications for selecting the Chief Executive Officer and other senior executives who were to run the airline? Was a competent Selection Board of persons with some experience in running airline operations appointed to go into the qualifications and background of the personnel entrusted with setting up and running the airline? Who monitored whether income and expenditures were in line with the initial projections, if any? The general public has little idea of the answers to these kinds of questions but, in the light of the rapid failure of Mihin Air, one is compelled to assume that established administrative and financial procedures were not followed, and that the manner in which the project was initiated and run represents a classic example of criminal waste, based on a lack of accountability in safeguarding the People=s assets at a time when, lamentably, so many idealistic and patriotic young men and women are called upon by the very same government to sacrifice their lives for the Country and, in the same breath, the poor and middle-class are exhorted to tighten their belts further. It goes without saying that the rich, including most politicians, neither sacrifice their lives nor tighten their belts.

The collapse of Mihin Air was bad enough. What makes it worse now, after such a disastrous failure, is that there has been no Apostmortem@ that the public has been made aware of regarding the specific causes which led to Mihin Air=s abrupt cessation of operations. Surely the minimum obligation that the government owed the public was to identify the factors which led to the airline=s collapse and what steps it was taking to address them before recklessly embarking on a fresh venture, which we fear is likely to turn out to be a mess of at least twice the size of the previous one? With no assurance that the feasibility of the reincarnated Mihin Air has been studied by persons who could be relied upon for their technical competence, it is not to be wondered at that the public is highly apprehensive that the additional Rs6.0 Billion that the government intends to spend on Mihin Air will go the same way as the first Rs3.0 Billion. Frighteningly, we do not know whether the demands of Mihin Air will stop at a total of Rs9.0 Billion. We are left to wonder if Mihin Air is not going to be a humongous Abucket with a hole in it@. If, on the other hand, the present allocation of Rs6.0 Billion were diverted to help reduce fuel prices, a much greater number of citizens would be benefited than the number who would be flying cheaply until a second failure occurs.

Moreover, we need to ask the relevant decision-makers whether, with Srilankan Airlines back in the hands of the government, a Abudget airline service@ could not have been more viably set up by sharing its underutilised assets, expertise, personnel etc, whilst expanding these minimally in those areas where expansion was really required? Did any decision-maker even look at this option by seeking specialist advice? What a waste!

Let us now turn to the airport to be built in the south. The question of a second airport has been studied over a very long period of time. There has always been a broad consensus that it would be very useful to have a second airport available to handle certain emergency situations. However, emergencies do not occur every day and it was accepted that there should be some other economically viable reason for building a second airport (not just a second runway at Katunayake or Ratmalana). At this point, it was sensibly argued that Sri Lanka=s greatest tourist attraction (which is now visited by tourists arriving mostly by air at Katunayake) is the conglomeration of ancient historical remains at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy and so on, and that, therefore, Sri Lanka=s second airport should be built at a suitable location close to these cities. If memory serves one right, Dambulla, Hingurakgoda and Sigiriya were some of the locations considered favourably by the experts. In contrast, no competently-prepared technical report, to our knowledge, has favoured the Wirawila site. Whereas an airport in the south may bring in some votes for the governing party, what are the tourism-related, industrial, commercial, environmental and economic factors which could justify the capital outlay and recurring costs of building and running a modern airport to handle the large planes which are optimistically expected to land there in preference to Katunayake? In other words, we fear that there is every prospect of the Sri Lankan populace having yet another huge white elephant, in the form of an underutilised airport, foisted on it.

We do not need to remind readers about the excessive numbers of Ministers who have to be provided with high-cost offices, residences, staff, security, fuel and allied perquisites. The superfluous eighty or so ministerial appointments, over and above the optimum twenty or so, have been made as an inducement to secure the loyalty of the appointees. This represents a misapplication of public resources for political advantage, which is hardly coincident with the good governance. Many commentators have said that these appointments represent yet another facet of corruption and are an unmitigated waste.

The other area where huge sums of money are squandered is in foreign travel. It has been reported in the past that the Speaker had gone on more than fifty trips overseas. As far as we know, Speakers of other Parliaments do not travel even a quarter as much. Whilst it may be useful for the Speaker to meet some of his foreign counterparts occasionally, what have been the calculable benefits that Sri Lanka has obtained from any of the visits that our Speaker has made so far? Why does he not voluntarily table a one-page report to Parliament on each of his past trips abroad giving, inter alia, a list of those who accompanied him and what useful results were obtained from these visits? It is up to him to provide at least a modicum of proof to the public that he was doing something more useful than holidaying abroad at the People=s expense.

As for the Foreign Minister, he is in a class of his own. Apart from his dazzling clothes, which we would be able to admire much more if we were sure that he had paid for most of them from his own pocket, we learnt recently from a newspaper report that he has spent sums generally varying from about Rs400,000 to Rs3,000,000 on each of his visits abroad and had greatly exceeded the total allocation allowed for these purposes by Parliament. What stunned us was to be told in a newspaper report that he had spent Rs27 Million or so on one particular trip with some unnamed persons. There has been no denial. Whilst we do not wish to poke our noses into what might well be claimed to be matters requiring state secrecy, this particular expenditure cries out for some clarification. This kind of preposterously extravagant expenditure might have been incurred at the 7-star Burj Al Arab or similar hotel but, if so, was it really necessary to stay there? Most important of all, could the public not be given a least a tiny peek at the purpose of this visit? After all, it is their money.

Another interesting point regarding the justification given by government for not wanting to reduce its excessively-inflated price for petrol was that it would affect only (the richer?) four per cent of the population. An eminent economist has shown how wrong this argument is by taking into his calculations the numbers of motorcycles, three-wheelers and the huge population that has to rely on these vehicles for transport in a variety of unavoidable situations – that is, apart from the countless not-so-rich persons who have to rely on small petrol-driven cars. He has assessed that about 40% of the population relies significantly on petrol-driven vehicles for most of their essential transport requirements. Even if he is wrong by a factor of two, no one can deny that petrol-fuelled three-wheelers serve a large fraction of the population on those occasions when they desperately need transport which the bus and rail system are unable to provide.

This contribution of ours is full of questions that ordinary members of the public would like to ask but are too busy or too diffident to do. The Citizens= Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has little choice but to do so on their behalf. Waste and corruption flourish when the public are denied access to information that should be freely available to concerned citizens. This government, as well as most previous governments, have found it very convenient to hide their iniquities by taking no action to pass the Right to Information Act, which was finalised years ago and has only to be formally presented to Parliament for whatever processing is necessary before being passed into law. Spurious claims of the need for secrecy, where secrecy is not required, provide the cover behind which Ministers and accomplices in the public service are able to hide mountains of corruption and waste. If enough members of the public would get together in small groups and write to their District MPs to protest against the deliberate delay in passing the Right to Information Act, we believe that it would have a salutary effect. We urge citizens not to remain supine but to get proactive in the public interest.


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