Former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva this week fired yet another bold and sharp salvo decrying corruption and its growing menace in the country. He was emphatic in saying anti corruption laws were “ineffective” whilst also accusing Government officials of handing out contracts without calling for tenders as per a Reuters report which the Daily FT published yesterday on its front page.
“From the top to bottom, corruption has become a systemic issue,” the apparently apolitical Silva said at a forum organised by the JVP. “Most of these projects have been decided without any tender procedure, leaving room for corruption,” the former Chief Justice added.
He warned that rising corruption will scare away foreign investors, saying, “Foreign investors will be discouraged from investing here if this goes on.” However in the same speech Silva also accused the Government of selling off land at less than market prices to foreign investors.
It is presumed that former Chief Justice’s remark about corruption driving away foreign investors was with reference to straight forward non-national citizens and companies and not those who have savoured deals, most of which unsolicited, coming via the backdoors of the powers that be.
Some of the allegations he had made have been charged by the Opposition as well, especially the likes of MPs Dr. Harsha de Silva, Ravi Karunanayake and Anura Kumara.
The Daily FT has often raised the very issues; but the Government has been quick to deny them. Even in the latest allegations from the former Chief Justice, as per Reuters report, Deputy Economic Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena had dismissed them saying there was no evidence of corruption in the country. With regard to sale of lands, Yapa said such divestiture had been at government-valued prices and not below. “More importantly all the money came into the Treasury accounts. It is evident that there was no corruption,” he had stressed.
Sri Lanka has been languishing within the ranks of 90s out of 180 countries in the annual Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. Oiling the palm as it is referred to, is said to be the lubricant with which work can be done especially in many state institutions. Unlike in India or elsewhere, cases of those charged of corruption being proven in Court and sentenced is a rarity in Sri Lanka.
During the time of the war, it had been alleged that defence procurements were infested with corruption. However the regime which successfully defeated terrorism, in fact claimed that one reason that made it possible was procurement made sans corruption. Allegations of corruption relating to high value transactions often involving friendly nations especially on defence contracts will be difficult to prove and not many had dared to make accusations as well.
With the end of the war, and Sri Lanka becoming a land of new growth opportunities from a commercial sense, it is understandable that money making is on projects, be it infrastructure development or greenfield private sector investments. Any government in a post-conflict phase runs the risk of being accused of corruption which is a cost to legitimate entrepreneurship, investments from a business perspective and a burden to the society. The popular argument from the state sector is that the giver, in the case of business transaction – the private sector, is also equally responsible for spreading corruption. There is also a theory that corruption is a reality and acceptable provided the required work can be done or a project expedited.
A way out of this deadly curse is for the Government to make a sincere effort to be transparent. Greater awareness that corruption harms all, must be ensured. Concentration of authority or power, be it at the national or provincial level is another sure way to breed corruption. A more streamlined procedure with delegation and accountability is one solution. Improving public sector salaries has been often cited as a means to root out corruption in the state sector but it remains elusive. In an era where there is much talk of doubling the per capita income and making Sri Lanka a Wonder of Asia, the Government must realise that improving the lot of the people also means reducing cost and in this case the need to bribe, to get their basic or legitimate goods and services, especially in the public sector. In that context a corruption-free economy and society must be a key goal with concerted and credible action than a mere slogan.