With bribery and corruption touching most public institutions at all levels in Sri Lanka, officials working to combat these twin evils are facing an uphill task due to lack of political will as well as the necessary powers and resources.
Despite Sri Lanka being signatory to the UN Convention against Corruption as well as a member of the Asia–Pacific Anti Corruption Initiative (See box story), successive governments have shown little political will to make a concerted effort to combat corruption with the subject losing priority and getting little mention even in an election manifesto.
Despite the growing problem which is costing the country dearly, the government institutions that work to fight this sleazy business, such as the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, the Presidential Investigation Unit (PIU) and the Auditor General’s Department lack the necessary legal powers to act against offenders. They are also under-funded and have limited resources extended to them by way of state patronage.
Since 2004 there have been calls to amend the Audit Act in order to give the Department teeth and empower it to impose a surcharge in instances where there is evidence of misappropriation of public funds. Unfortunately the Draft Act has been languishing for more than two years, with no action taken to bring it to Parliament. The AG in his report earlier this year revealed the state had lost Rs 389 million due to tax frauds between 2002-2006, whereas the entire expenditure of the Department was Rs 320 million for 2005.
The annual budget of the Bribery Commission this year hovers around Rs. 75 million. This is barely sufficient to pay salaries, maintain vehicles and attend to basic needs of the Department. No funds are available for carrying out awareness and educational programmes for the public on graft and corruption.
Another shortcoming faced by the present Bribery Commission is that its powers to initiate investigations on its own have been curtailed.
The Commission is therefore unable to act independently, and is forced to look aside however glaring a case of bribery or corruption may be. The Commission is forced to wait for a member of the public to “communicate” to it details of such an instances.Under the earlier Act, the Commission could investigate “allegations of bribery which are made to, or come to knowledge of the Bribery Commission”. Under the present Act it has to be “communicated to the Commission”. Similarly investigating persons under the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law No 1 of 1975, can also be undertaken by the Commission upon receipt of a “communication in writing” signed by the person drawing attention to suspect acquisitions of wealth or property etc which is not commensurate with known sources of wealth and income of such persons.
Retired Supreme Court Judge Ameer Ismail, Chairman of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, told the Sunday Times his institution could take serious note and initiate an investigation only if a communication is made to them.”
He said that this was not the best mechanism to investigate corruption and said the Commission should have power to initiate investigations and look into acts of corruption highlighted in the media where even documents are published. Presently he said the Commission was in the position of a normal civilian. We are passive onlookers, he said.
The other institution battling corruption is the Presidential Investigation Unit (PIU) which deals with the issues of corruption in the public sector (See box story). It receives complaints from both members of the public as well as directly from the President’s office concerning acts of corruption and bribery in government institutions,
Commissioner Ismail pointed out that usually only people who had been personally affected make complaints.
The Commissioner pointed out that one of the reasons people did not complain about a minister or senior official to the Commission was because no laws were in place to protect a “whistle blower”.It is alleged that local government organisations constantly flout the law by disregarding government approved tender procedures and giving contracts in return for personal favours.
An official who wished to remain anonymous said that a ploy adopted by those involved in tender frauds in the state sector was to encourage their “catchers” to bid for tenders without quoting the price inclusive of the Value Added Tax (VAT).
This results in making these bids appear to be the lowest. Once the tender is awarded, the VAT is added and often it ends up being the highest bid.
Commissioner Ismail said that corruption could not be prevented by simply prosecuting and imprisoning public servants. He said strategy was needed to combat the practice and present legislation did not provide for it.
Corruption in the education sector has received a lot of media attention. Unfortunately investigations yielded few results due to confusion over who handles the area. An attempt by the PIU to investigate the conduct of several Principals of schools in Colombo in 2005 were blotched after it was ruled that the PIU had no authority to act against Principals without approval from the Public Services Commission (PSC).
Another setback faced by the Commission is that police officers employed by it are under the police department and are subject to sudden transfers.
This too is a setback as they undergo specialised in-house training when they join the Commission, but are not guaranteed a prolonged stay.
The power to recruit personnel would go a long way to strengthen the hands of the Commission.
Last Tuesday, Transparency International, the international corruption watchdog in its annual report said Sri Lanka had deteriorated in rank on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2006 which reflects the continuous deterioration of the corruption situation in the country.
A leading Buddhist monk Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera initiated an anti corruption drive earlier this year and has handed over 45 files to the Secretary to the President to initiate action and bring the culprits to book. Among the contents of the files are allegations against Ministers and officials in state sector Departments and Corporations.
The Thera told The Sunday Times that they had been informed that action would be taken but this has been limited to verbal assurances. He warned that he was willing to be patient a little longer but if no action was taken, he threatened to organise a march with these files directly to Court and initiate direct legal action”.
In a country where the strongest intervention against corruption is limited to the President issuing a message on December 9 (International Anti-Corruption Day), direct action as threatened by Ven. Gunawansa Thera may be the only recourse, if the country is to even get started on its way to wiping out bribery and corruption.
Only 3.1 points away from highly corrupt status
Transparency International says Sri Lanka dropped six notches bringing it from 78 in 2005 to 84 in 2006, in its Corruption Perceptions Index which covers 163 countries.
Further the Confidence Range Indicator (CRI) of Sri Lanka has fallen by another 0.1 this year, bringing it down to 3.1. It is also significant that Sri Lanka which had scored over all other countries in the South Asian sub-continent in the past, has for the first time been ranked below India, the TI report said.
While releasing the report, TI Sri Lanka urged all stakeholders, especially the government to pay immediate attention to these warning signals and to take all measures to combat this menace of corruption.
TI Executive Director JC Weliamuna stressed that there was an urgent need to implement international commitments under the United Nations Convention against Corruption, as Sri Lanka had ratified the UN document. CRI score relates to perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by business people and country analysts and ranges between 10 (highly clean) and 0 (highly corrupt).
Signed UN Convention ...
Sri Lanka signed and ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in March 2004. It became a member of the ADB/Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia-Pacific in May this year.
The UN Convention, which opened for signature in December 2003 and has since been signed by over 100 countries, provides for international co-operation in the return of assets illicitly acquired by corrupt officials, as well as preventive measures to detect the plundering of national wealth as it occurs. The Convention encourages signatories to adopt preventive anti-corruption policies and practices and strengthen the judicial systems and law enforcement mechanisms in dealing with these twin evils.
Sri Lanka became the ADB/OECD Initiative’s 26th member in May 2006. The Convention calls on members to develop effective and transparent systems for public service, strengthen anti-bribery actions, promote integrity in business operations and support active civil society and private sector involvement.
The 2006 edition of the ADB/OECD Initiative’s report on Anti-Corruption Policies in Asia and Pacific has found that while good progress has been made across the region, enforcement remains a key issue to be addressed.
Cracking down on corruption
Thilak Iddamalgoda Director-General of the Presidential Investigation Unit (PIU) which has been entrusted with task of looking into malpractices in state run institutions says the working of the unit has yielded positive results with regards to cracking down on corruption in the state sector.
Statistics reveal that between January to October this year, the PIU received a total of 1,399 complaints.
Of this only 361 cases came under the purview of the unit and hence investigations were held into them.
Investigations have been completed into 83 of them and reports forwarded to the relevant institutions as well as the President’s Office. In many cases legal action has been taken against the culprits.
The other complaints received were referred to the relevant institutions, he said.
Mr. Iddamalgoda said many of the complaints the PIU has received dealt with contravention of government approved tender procedure when awarding contracts,