Thursday, March 17, 2016

Holding our leaders accountable

Guest Column From FT - By Dinesh Weerakkody
Mihin Lanka as an entity currently owes the State banks billions, a debt that has been outstanding for years with no action being taken by the State institutions to get their money back. The mismanagement of SriLankan Airlines is another sorry story. This type of financial corruption is the worm eating at the heart of society


Despite the howls and protests in Parliament over the last few years over Mihin Lanka’s performance, the airline continues to be in business. 

Mihin Lanka as an entity currently owes the State banks billions, a debt that has been outstanding for years with no action being taken by the State institutions to get their money back. Mihin Lanka got billions from the UPFA Government’s budgets to run its operations. This is one of the many reasons this country is struggling to cover its debt burden. 

In fact the current Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, an accountant by training while in the Opposition, pointed out that the then Government squandered Rs. 3.7 billion on Mihin Lanka, leaving no assets to show, and it was given another Rs. 6 billion and was losing Rs. 4 million a day. If all what has been said about Mihin Air is true, the persons responsible for plundering public money must be prosecuted.

The mismanagement of SriLankan Airlines is another sorry story. This type of financial corruption is the worm eating at the heart of society. On the other hand, judges and investigating officers must do their best to make political leaders accountable to the rule of law, but judges and magistrates are themselves governed by laws. When these laws do not enable them to succeed in their task, it is Parliament alone that can bring the solution, often under the pressure of public opinion. 

Given that Mihin is a commercial non-starter, the question of how long Mihin Lanka can survive is a function purely of how much of money the State will be willing to rake out in the coming months and years to fund this so-called ‘budget airline’ and that would entirely depend on the Government’s will to stop unproductive expenditure to bring down the fiscal deficit. 

The priority for the Government now should be to ward off a possible economic slowdown given the current economic situation globally, which is extremely challenging and very unpredictable.

Essence of democracy: A proactive civil society

After many years we have political leaders who seem to care about the democratic way of life and also a persistent civil society that does not give up and can swing the pendulum back towards greater accountability and transparency at any given time. And it shows how much leaders can achieve, even in a short period of time, when they are willing to engage the people they serve. 

The great Aristotle once observed that no state would be well administered unless and until civil society holds sway. This is very true in Sri Lanka and in many developing countries. People elect leaders for five to six years, watch in silence while they do what they desire for that period and then attempt to throw them out in disgust and hope for a better deal from the next government. 

This attitude of electing dictatorships for six years is not the essence of democracy. Civil society on an ongoing basis should hold political leaders accountable and responsible for their actions. However, to achieve this there has to be more activism and advocacy on the part of all civic groups and of course a greater involvement in politics by all sections of society.

More than ever today civil society has a special role to play in reducing the bitterness of politics in our country. In Sri Lanka the polarisation and divisive nature of Sri Lankan politics has without doubt prevented the emergence of a national consensus for many of our problems. Therefore the only way in which greater political consensus can be achieved is if the professional and middle classes of the country become politically active and make greater demands from their elected leaders.

We all know politicians in Sri Lanka have made a caricature of democracy over the past 25 years by making politics vicious, polarised and personalised. This cycle of violence can be broken if professionals and business people were to persuade our political leaders of the futility and self-destructive nature of this approach. 

National responsibility: By Government and Opposition

In the current context not only our politicians but all our opinion makers in this country have a national responsibility to help the current Government to find a lasting solution for the political question in the north and east and get them to commit itself fully to a true Sri Lankan identity.

Civil society could demonstrate their commitment by collectively acting as independent conscience groups to pressure all groups to look at national issues constructively and to realise that whether we think our blood to be blue, red or green, we are above all, Sri Lankan. 

In the final analysis, the Mathri-Ranil combination is the best and last chance we have to create a true Sri Lankan identity and also to start living that identity. 


(The writer is a thought leader.)

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