Although there was a public outcry against it initially, the issue of importing vehicles for ministers seems to have died a natural death and swept off the front pages, especially after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered that the imports be suspended until those affected by the recent floods, landslides and Kosgama blast were compensated.
The chances are that once the public debate gives way to the next hot topic of the day, the imports will go ahead. Even the Prime Ministerial order, laudable as it is, was to suspend the imports—and not to ban them.
The issue is worthy of more than passing commentary. That is not only because there is Rs. 1.1 billion at stakes— which amounts to a fifty rupee contribution from each and every citizen in this country, be they prince or pauper. It is also the principle involved that matters.
The spectacle of two Cabinet ministerss—the Minister of Health and the Media Ministers—going before the public to justify the vehicle imports would have been comical if not for the fact it portrayed the tragic decay of political morality. When questioned about the excessive expense, their response was to say that the previous regime indulged in much more extravagant expenses!
Then, there was another justification provided by the duo. Ministers work so hard and travel extensively, so they need super luxury vehicles to ensure they remain fresh and productive was the argument. If that is true, we must wonder how ministers who held office since 1948 to about the late ‘70s ever got any work done, travelling in modest vehicles! Besides, the road network was not as good then as it is now.
So, the country is told that this is a priority. To put that in context, funding for a PET scanner for the Cancer Hospital at Maharagama was recently sought by a private television network, obviously because the government was unable to foot the bill. The money was raised this week with public donations. The cost Rs. 200 million! Simple arithmetic will tell you that if the vehicle imports were banned altogether, the country could have had five PET scanners located throughout the country and still have a hundred million rupees remaining.
What is alarming is that this decision to import vehicles comes not from the previous regime which had earned a reputation for flagrant spending on grandiose schemes. It comes from a government that promised, among other things, good governance, transparency in its actions and accountability to the public.
Just eighteen months into office, the government appears to have forgotten all those pledges and its ministers are hell-bent on self-aggrandisement.
And, make no mistake, it is not just one political party holding the reins of power and doing as it pleases. This so-called ‘national unity’ government which comprises members of both the major parties in the country, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). A glance at the list of vehicle tells you that the lucky recipients come from both parties, so they are both party to the plunders—just as they have been while governing the country since independence nearly seventy years ago.
In the sleazy cauldron of Sri Lankan politics, it appears that no matter who or what the ingredients are, the ultimate concoction remains the sames—one that promotes the politician over national interest. If there was any hope that the present government would break that vicious cycle, most people, including the famous 6.2 million who voted for them, have abandoned that expectation.
We will not wait with bated breath for the President or the Prime Minister to decree a cancellation of the imports. Those two gentlemen, whatever their faults, have earned their reputation as not being corrupt or prone to unnecessary luxuries at state expenses. It is a pity though that they cannot order their subordinates to do the sames—because that will upset the applecart of cohabitation between the two parties. That is indeed a stinging indictment on the state of politics in Sri Lanka.