Sri Lanka’s embattled government slammed the brakes on the release of the colossal sum allocated for the purchase of luxury vehicles for its ministers until funds are allotted for rebuilding homes and businesses damaged from the recent floods and the conflagration at the Salawa military armoury.

The administration under intense fire over alleged inappropriate public spending in the backdrop of the back-to-back disasters was quick to place a moratorium on the release of such government supplementary funds. There was also the issue of this mammoth sum being passed by parliament only weeks after the flood catastrophe and the armoury firestorm. The whole fiasco was ill-timed and imprudent to say the least
Fortunately a few judicious heads in the governing alliance were quick to effectively bring about some sort of damage control in the face of rising public anger. Still, certain would-be recipients of such luxury limousines have not taken kindly to criticisms being levelled at the government for spending approximately Rs. 1.17 billion to purchase high-end vehicles while the nation faces more serious economic challenges.

The failure by government to curb excessive spending was made more damning after a clutch of government spokesmen justified the move to seek Parliamentary approval to purchase luxury vehicles to various State and Cabinet Ministers and said that Ministers need super luxury vehicles to travel to their electorates and attend various functions.
Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne had the temerity to claim that the term ‘luxury vehicles’ was erroneous. “They have been termed as such as a result of the depreciation of the rupee,” he said. .

Many analysts would agree to disagree in the wake of such apologist statements. The term luxury suggests a vehicle with higher quality equipment, better performance, more precise construction, comfort, higher design, technologically innovative modern, or features that convey an image, brand, status, or prestige, or any other ‘discretionary’ feature or combination of them. The term is also broad, highly variable and relative. It is a perceptual, conditional and subjective attribute that may be comprehended differently by different people. That is because what may be luxury for one may be premium for another.
Surely there are so many four-wheel drive and all terrainvehicles available at a fraction of the cost that provide adequate safety and comfort. But these don’t appear good enough for some of our spoiled legislators who appear bent on picking the most exotic and highest priced sedans on the market – and to hell with the cost!

Let’s be honest about the whole issue. Over the last few years our ‘slobby’ ministerial enclaves have become nothing short of obscene. And just imagine their perks! The staff, the bodyguards, the luxury cars, the first-class flights, the food, the office refurbishments and the five-star hotel stays. Yes it amounts to all status, no substance and at a cost of billions of bucks.

Obviously we have seen and heard it all before. It is an old familiar refrain struck up by every recent administration in its attempt to insult the people’s intelligence by trying to trick them into believing that they are having everything pretty good. Still, it seems that the ruling party spokesmen are the ones suffering from severe delusions if they underestimate the astuteness of the public.

How can any administration be ready to splurge billions on super luxury sedans at a time when the country is experiencing a serious liquidity crunch, with the treasury going broke in the backdrop of double disasters and the masses being slapped with back-to-back tax increases? Clearly, one would agree that the administration at this crucial juncture has demonstrated skewed priorities and insensitive abuse of public funds. All this while the government last week reached an agreement with International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a US$1.5 billion bailout to help it avert a balance of payments crisis.

In a nation where poverty and inequality remain disapprovingly far-reaching, perhaps nothing is more ruinous of public trust in a democracy than the belief that parasitic politicians feeding off the public purse hardly feel the pinch. And worse still, is the certainty that corruption which they derided, will continue to thrive.

Time was when at Independence in 1948 Parliament was composed of 101 members – 95 elected MPs and six nominated MPs.  In those spacious times MPs drew a monthly stipend of Rs. 600. Those of them who owned cars used them for both official and unofficial purposes. They paid for both the fuel and maintenance of their vehicles.

In comparison imagine the perquisites of their successors today, who vote themselves thumping salaries and countless allowances, to enable them to live in Elysian splendour. They demand fleets of luxury limos and retinues of aides and secretaries all paid by the public purse. And to cap it all they have given themselves an entitlement to a full pension after five years in office.

Quite apart from anything else, there is sufficient reason to believe that there is a cold and calculating streak of opportunism among nearly all our politicians, particularly when it comes to striking accord while voting themselves increased allowances and outrageous perquisites to indulge in their free-loading style of splendid living.

Neither of our big party governments has had a coherent vision for poverty eradication. Priority concerns such as basic social services, welfare, education, housing and health care have been left unaddressed. But the government says it is optimistic of better times ahead. The only way to be optimistic about our nation’s economic future at this stage is to look at the charts upside down.

There has to be enormous cost-cutting in public spending and a complete clean up and overhaul of the totally mismanaged state sector enterprises which are laboring under a mountain of bad debt. Slashing government spending and ending the incalculable waste will help decrease criminally profligate state expenditure to a remarkable degree.