One of my Tamil friends was recently at Temple Trees to participate in the exercises the poor President is now engaged in to try to win hearts and minds. But the experience was surreal, for discussion of substance was it seems left to Basil Rajapaksa, whilst the President contented himself with assuring his guests that he had taken precautions to stop further crossovers. Whether this was through carrots or sticks he did not elaborate.
Basil’s idea of substance of course leaves much to be desired. As the villagers where I spent the last weekend were saying, with regard to the sudden lowering of fuel and gas prices, the President thinks they are all babies. But at least the President, I still firmly believe, loves the people, and his tragedy is that he seems to love more those who do not share his own instincts and affections. But Basil it seems has nothing but contempt for them, for he thinks nothing of their future. As one shrewd Indian commentator put it with regard to the manner in which Kshenuka Seneviratne destroyed the goodwill Dayan Jayatilleka had built up, she ignored those without glamour except to ask them, when a crisis loomed, for their votes.
Kshenuka of course, unlike Dayan who could provide leadership to various causes, had nothing to offer in exchange. Basil has much. But the piling up of largesse in the form of sewing machines is not convincing, and the President should know this from the fact that, as my friend put it, the people of Uva took the sewing machines and voted for the opposition.
Basil’s answer to the request to cite some industries in the North was that, if he did that, he would have to sell the country. Since he is widely perceived as having done that already, beginning with his foolish handover of freehold to the Shangri-La Hotel, and since developing factories will cost much less than the fantasies that have been constructed in recent years, he only succeeded in upsetting his interlocutors further.
And being shrewd businessmen, they were even more bemused by his plaintive surprise that the overseas Tamils were not investing in the North. In the first place, there are the immense difficulties put in the way of investors, including the rent seeking of so many who make decisions about investment. I recall when I was in New Zealand in 2011 the enthusiasm of a group of Sri Lankans, Sinhalese and Tamil, who wanted to get involved but complained about the problems caused by the Board of Investment. Our Honorary Consul was assured then by the Governor of the Central Bank, who seems to have more sense than most of the others around the President, that there would soon be a One Stop Shop. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead even the Palace, as the indefatigable Kumar Rupesinghe calls the inner circle, started to get involved in laying down conditions for investment.
Arjuna Ranatunge’s horror story of the attempt to play out a man interested in funding the Hambantota Stadium is symptomatic of why we have received hardly any of the Foreign Direct Investment we anticipated way back in 2010. He had been asked, he said, to inflate the estimate of what a stadium would cost by 100%. He refused and cited the correct figure but naturally, when he ceased to be in charge, the investor went away. The state then funded the stadium, though whether the country was played out as had been planned with the foreign investor I do not know. Certainly the massive deficit Sri Lanka Cricket suffers, and the bills to other government agencies that remain unpaid, suggest that, when there are no foreign suckers willing to pay rent, the Sri Lankan people have to do so instead.
And then Gota also got in on the act. Basil must surely realize that the sudden stoppage of dual citizenship has also made many expatriates think twice about whether they would really be welcome. And the uncertainty about the criteria to be followed, when the privilege is available, makes it clear that the modern mindset we need for economic development, that encompasses transparency and the rule of law, is not in evidence.
Meanwhile Basil uses the enormous resources at the disposal of the Ministry of Economic Development only to enhance the image of politicians. The bizarre scheme whereby hundreds of millions of rupees were given out to select Members of Parliament, to dispose of at will, was obviously designed to enable them to stockpile funds for the election. Indeed that is perhaps one reason the President could not postpone the election, even though some of those close to him realized it was unwise to proceed. Since the government would have no money left, and could not engage in this exercise next year too, they had to go for broke, literally too, immediately.
Finding out what exactly Basil was up to was difficult, but I had been told in my meetings at Divisional Secretariats about the vast sums of money that had been made available – over 600 million rupees to one MP in Trincomalee, a large amount of which officials were convinced would not be deployed properly. I then asked some questions at the Consultative Committee on Public Management Reforms, where a couple of decent Government MPs such as Thilanga Sumathipala and Murugesu Chandrakumar explained the theory of making available such funds, on top also of the Rs 30 million that had been granted because MPs needed to have an impact in the District as a whole.
This last allocation was an earlier version of the cynicism with which Basil approaches our preposterous election system. Every MP – including those in the Opposition – gets Rs 5 million which is supposed to be spent in their constituencies (as perhaps the only National List MP without a constituency, I have spent my allocation half in the North and half in the South. In the North I started with Entrepreneurship Development Training for former combatants, a project which won a prize recently in Japan, at the hands of the wife of the Japanese Prime Minister. Later I moved to Vocational Training in the more neglected areas of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, and found that I spent more in those Divisions than other Members of Parliament combined – understandably so, given that they have relatively few voters, and my colleagues obviously need to spend money with elections in mind.
But Rs 5 million is obviously not enough to win favour in whole Districts, so select MPs got 30 million for this purpose – with no guidelines as to how programmes should be planned so as to ensure sustainable development. I can just about understand the Rs 5 million being given to buy instruments for school bands and chairs for Funeral Societies, but the lack of planning for much larger sums is worrying. And I was immensely saddened when one Member said he was helping education by funding teachers to conduct classes after school, an admission that he had no understanding of developing effective systems.
In Trincomalee, spending on education meant spending on buildings. Apart from the obvious profits to be made on construction, the rationale for this became clear when I questioned, at the meeting of the Education Consultative Committee, why so many of the Computer Laborataries that had been built at vast expense were lying unused. The Minister said that there had to be opening ceremonies, so that the people would know who had gifted them these benefits. But when I pointed out that there was no question of a gift, since the funds used belonged to the people, he backed down and granted that I had a point.
At the next meeting I was told that several of the Laboratories had been opened, but it turned out that these were mainly in Uva. This caused vast merriment, and to the officials too. I then asked for a list of laboratories that were still not opened, and I finally received this, not with regard to the country as a whole, but as related to the North Central Province.
I could hardly credit what I saw. There are 75 laboratories still not opened in the Province. Perhaps some of these will be incorporated into the election campaign, but the President must surely realize that the people cannot be taken in any more, having seen the waste and registered the disappointment of their children over the last several months.
I cannot understand how the President, who understands the needs of children in rural areas, can tolerate this neglect and exploitation. But people change. The man who could control Prabhakaran cannot control his family. One should perhaps grant that that is the more difficult task for a warm-hearted man, but such indulgence should not be at the expense of less prosperous families.