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Giving liberty back to the people

Sep 20, 2011 3:38:01 PM - www.ft.lk

First impressions of Kotte: Similar concerns among dissimilar people
Now that I have been entrusted with leading the campaign for the Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte Municipal Council (SJKMC), election I have had the opportunity to visit the homes of many people in the administrative capital of Sri Lanka.

The first thing that struck me was that not only does “the proud city of Jayawardenepura” as mentioned in the ‘Salalihini Sandesa’ have a rich history, it is rich in its diversity of people.
I also realised that the concerns of all these people were similar when it came to issues of local government. They want an honest set of people who can keep their neighbourhoods clear of dengue mosquitoes, their roadways clean, their drains unclogged, their garbage removed and public play grounds and the like well maintained.
Besides, they wish to have some solution to the terrible traffic congestion, particularly on the Parliament Road and in and around Nugegoda junction.
Everyone knows what the problem is; but the issue is how to fix it
None of these are unreasonable expectations. But the complaint is that while none of these are being fulfilled, council members who could not afford three-wheeler fare before they were elected now travel around in luxury SUVs and live in palatial homes in exclusive areas of town.
How did this transformation take place? Simple. They stole. Here I don’t mean any one individual in any one political party but in general this is what people told me. They said these people stole from every contract they undertook. If they passed money to lay a six-inch concrete on X km of road, they only laid a three-inch concrete on X minus Y km of road.
If they undertook to plant X square feet of grass in a playground for Y amount of rupees, only half was planted for Y plus Z rupees. Worse yet, they took bribes and approved filling of marsh land reserved for water retention in contravention to official policy causing floods and health problems to numerous people, rich and poor.
As for Kotte, I have already made known to the public the sad state of affairs, with the Auditor General unable to even express a qualified opinion on the accounts for the municipal council for the last two years in a row. In an unbelievable statement the Chief Auditor of Sri Lanka had said necessary documents had not been submitted to satisfactorily audit a total of Rs. 579 million for the last year alone.
It’s not just Kotte; the cancer is everywhere
A recent islandwide survey undertaken by Social Indicator, an independent polling agency, reiterated what I heard from the people of Kotte. The 2,000 sample random survey found that people generally don’t trust their local government institutions very much. Only around 10 per cent had a ‘great deal of trust’ in them while around 15 per cent had ‘no trust at all’. The redeeming factor however is that around 55 per cent had said they have ‘some trust’ in these bodies (Please note I am averaging out the data presented by ethnicity).
When asked what they thought about corruption among elected local government officials, around 18 per cent had been of the belief that they were a bunch of rogues, with close to 50 per cent perceiving them as being corrupt to ‘some extent’. Only about five per cent believed that their members were honest. This is the sad and embarrassing reality.
Lastly, but most importantly, on whether they would vote out corrupt local government members, in spite of them concreting roads and repairing drains, the people of this country overwhelmingly believe they should. Close to 75 per cent believed that development can take place without corruption. This fact along with the over 50 per cent having ‘some trust’ remaining in their local government institutions provides hope that with positive change, elected municipal councils and pradeshiya sabhas can once again become what they are supposed to be. But, in reality can this be done?
The military option: Without the right to information
As always and everywhere, opportunists lurk around for prey. They are convinced that there is no room for any improvement, so they have proposed an alternative. This option is to hand over the administration to a military-type institution with a puppet as an ‘elected’ mayor. In this scenario no questions are asked and what the administrator wants gets done.
We have already seen some of this in Colombo where the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence has for all intents and purposes taken over the Colombo Municipal Council and begun to do as he pleases. True, the section of Galle Road from Bambalapitiya to Fort looks very nice with paved sidewalks. The surroundings of the Gymkhana Club are much prettier than before. The ugly wall around the National Archives has disappeared.
Not surprisingly, most, if not all demolitions, were carried out by military personnel who followed orders to precision. But no one dare asks any questions. There is absolutely no democratic right to any information; none whatsoever.
What is the role of the military in this whole exercise? How much was spent on the contract to pave the sidewalks? Were tenders called? Who decides who gets ‘reclaimed’ prime property in the city and for what price? It is ironic that the UPFA candidate for Colombo who purportedly is espousing the right to information and seeking public consultations even on his policy document had said he fully agrees with the actions of the Secretary Defence, who completely disregards right to information and consultation.
On a more serious note, neither the Secretary Defence nor the UPFA mayoral candidate has answered the repeated question as to why the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy was not followed when hundreds of poor families were evicted from their homes.
This Government does not believe in the citizens’ right to information
The UNP attempted twice in the recent past to introduce a Right to Information Bill in Parliament, but the Government blocked our attempts. The most recent was on 21 June this year, when Karu Jayasuriya presented it as a private member’s motion. On that day not a single member of the ruling coalition voted in favour and the tabling of the bill was thus defeated.
The Government made a mockery of the situation. They bashed it; said it was a coup by foreign governments and NGOs. They made our attempt to seek access to information seem like an anti-national, Tiger-sponsored treacherous act. The UPFA mayoral candidate for Colombo kept his mouth shut during the entire episode.
The truth of the matter is that the bill was originally prepared by a committee headed by the then Attorney General and was only seeking access to non-sensitive information. We were attempting to provide the opportunity for the citizen to obtain information on what was happening to his tax contributions; for instance, what are the names of the companies that bid for a project to build a road in my district and what were their quotations, or how a particular vacancy was filled in a Government department; for instance who applied and what was the criteria for selection.
Given the, shall we say, ‘repercussions,’ the Indian Government was then (and still is) facing with corrupt ministers getting caught and sent to jail given the impartial justice system in that country in the background of right to information legislation, the UPFA Government did not want to take any chances with letting the people of this country be granted their fundamental democratic right to information.
In fact the President is on record having said there is no need for people to have the right to information. He even ridiculed the attempt and had mentioned that if someone needed information, they should contact him and then he could get him the relevant file. So, in this background no right-thinking person would ever believe the promise of the UPFA mayoral candidate about ensuring right to information in the CMC. This regime will never allow it. No way.
The improved democratic option: Focus is right to information
We see the glass as half full. Our proposal is to have a democratically-elected local government with the right to information at the core. We are proposing a comprehensive restructuring of procedure where the public can query and obtain timely and accurate information on every road repair project, every tender awarded and the assets and liabilities of every elected member, from at least the UNP. That way, the way in which the local government institutions worked in the past will be turned on its head.
For instance, people will have the right to know who bid how much for the earth filling contract to construct the access road to the Chandra Silva Stadium. They will be able to ask why proper procurement procedures were ignored and the full payment was paid, out of people’s money, to the fraudulent contractor when only 806 of the 1,500 cubes of earth contracted for were supplied. The wrongdoers can be named, shamed and punished so that another such fraud could be prevented.
We can certainly reduce drastically the level of corruption in the SJKMC. The money saved and recouped can be used to provide street lamps in Obesekerapura and better solid waste management down Stephen’s Lane in Rajagiriya. The Government can continue to widen the Parliament road and construct official buildings in Kotte without consulting anyone, but the local services can be provided by the local representatives duly elected and accountable to the local people of Kotte. There is no need to mix up responsibilities; the Defence Ministry need not get involved in removing people’s garbage.
Let’s take the Anna Hazare route; not the Colonel Gaddafi route
True, there are problems that need fixing, but not for a moment should we consider moving away from democracy towards a military administration with a puppet mayor as the answer. In the previously-mentioned Social Indicator poll, an overwhelming majority had mentioned that they had no desire to have any other form of government but a true democracy; not even under special circumstances.
What we need is an administration that will serve the local community with the local taxpayers’ contributions in a satisfactory manner and be answerable to the people in the community. What we don’t need is an ultra-powerful administrator who will not be answerable to anyone. It was in the early 1990s that M.K.S. Sangathan started a movement to bring transparency in village accounts in Rajasthan; for instance on bills and vouchers for purchase and transport of materials (like the ones missing for Rs. 579 million at the SJKMC for one year alone), which later on became Anna Hazare’s crusade in Mahrashtra and then in all of India in 2005.
It was just recently that Hazare created a huge revolution in India to tighten anti-corruption laws by getting the Indian Government to implement a very stringent Jan Lokpal Bill. India, which still has its legal institutions serving the people not the masters, unlike in this country, already has one minister in jail for corruption, with several other sentences likely. The way to give back the lost liberty to the people of this country is clearly not by militarising the local government institutions.
What was destroyed in Kotte will be resuscitated in Kotte
It was in Kotte that the UPFA Government ridiculed and threw out the Right to Information Bill we proposed in Parliament in June this year and it will be from Kotte that we will create history by adopting the Right to Information Bill at the Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte Municipal Council in October.
We pledge that the first act of a new UNP administration at the SJKMC will be to begin work on providing the citizens of Kotte the right to information on matters relating to the municipal council. That will be the focus to rebuild confidence in the municipal council and run it as an efficient institution with full transparency and accountability. We will strive to make the SJKMC the model for the entire country to follow.
(The writer is a Member of Parliament.)

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