Ending waste and corruption | Sunday Observer

Ending waste and corruption

26 January, 2020

Cutting down on waste and corruption in the public sector was one of the key campaign planks of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. While all other leaders had indeed made this campaign pledge at election time, only President Rajapaksa showed the resolve to follow it through. He has already taken many concrete steps to reduce wasteful expenditure and corruption in the Government sector. This is especially essential as the Government is losing some revenue due to extensive tax concessions granted as a relief measure for the public and industry.

But nothing can be more extravagant or wasteful than paying a staggering Rs.23 million a month to a private company to rent a building in Rajagiriya to house the offices of the Agriculture Ministry. This is by all means an astounding sum, but it becomes totally incongruous and unjustifiable when considering that the Agriculture Ministry has the ‘Govijana Mandiraya,’ a purpose-built, equally luxurious building in Pelawatte. Maintaining its offices at the Govijana Mandiraya could have saved at least Rs.1,000 million (Rs.1 billion) over nearly five years for the Government coffers. These funds could instead have been channeled to a massive development drive such as an expressway or a housing project.

In this light, this whole transaction takes the shape of a white-collar crime that has funnelled Government funds into a private entity. One of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first tasks upon assuming office was instructing the relevant officials to end this contract and move the Agriculture Ministry back to the Govijana Mandiraya, which the former Government had taken over to house some sections of Parliament, but which can easily be shifted back to Parliament itself.

However, just ending the rental contract and moving back to Govijana Mandiraya will not suffice. The genesis of this entire transaction must be investigated and the culprits punished. This is exactly what Agriculture State Minister Vidura Wickramanayake has promised in Parliament, saying the Government is in the process of taking legal measures against the renting of the building at Rajagiriya for the Agriculture Ministry.

But this is not the only instance of a Government department or ministry occupying rented premises. Many other Government agencies are guilty of the same practice, though on a lower scale. The Government must carry out an islandwide census to determine the number of private buildings rented out by Government ministries, departments, statutory bodies and other Government institutions. This should include provincial-level Government institutions as well. The three Government banks regularly engage in this practice, though unlike many others, they generate money on their own. However, even the State banks must be told to build and move into their own premises as much as possible.

Action should be taken to relocate all such Government institutions to Government-owned buildings. There are many instances of Government building complexes lying half-empty for want of tenants. These can easily accommodate extra Government offices. Thus renting a building/office for a Government institution should be a last resort, which the heads of such institutions should be able to justify. In case a Government building is unable to find State-owned entities to occupy any extra available space, private tenants should be invited. This would enable the relevant Government agencies to earn some extra revenue.

This is not the only cost saving measure announced by the President. He has stipulated a maximum allowanceof Rs.100,000 for heads of Government agencies, whereas some used to earn as much as Rs.3 million a month during the former regime. He has also instructed Ministers to take no more than 10 delegates per overseas visit, which should anyway be undertaken only if the country benefits in some way. The President himself has led by example in this regard, with less than 10 persons accompanying him on his official visit to India. He also shunned the VIP Lounge at the Bandaranaike International Airport and told Ministers to follow suit.

The Duty Free Permit given to MPs will be another casualty of this drive. It is well known that MPs sell these permits at astronomical prices to wealthy private individuals, who import super luxury vehicles using the permit to evade millions in duties and taxes. Besides, why do our MPs want luxury SUVs such as Toyota Landcruiser Sahara V8 or Mercedes Benz GLS/GLE to ‘serve’ the people? A much less expensive vehicle like a double cab pickup should be more than enough. A fully duty paid pickup truck costs only around Rs.10 million, while one cannot get a super luxury SUV at that price even on a duty free basis. The sheer injustice here becomes apparent when one considers that an ordinary person has to pay 200%-300% in taxes and duties even to purchase a small family vehicle. Serous thought must also be given to MPs’ pensions. No other job in the world offers a pension after just five years – this should be extended to at least 10 years and tied to the attendance record. After all, we see mostly empty benches even during important debates.

Eliminating waste and corruption is vital if we are to achieve prosperity. All countries that have surpassed us in the Asian region have got this factor right. Rooting out corruption was the first thing that Lee Kuan Yew did to guide Singapore to developed status. President Rajapaksa has the same zeal and vision for Sri Lanka and there is no doubt that he will act strongly against the twin evils of profligate expenditure and egregious corruption.