EDITORIAL

Funds and bungs

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Saturday 2nd December, 2023

The government finds itself in such a situation with hardly any feats to preen itself on that it even flaunts the receipt of a foreign loan as an achievement. One may recall that the UNP went so far as to celebrate the approval of the IMF bailout by lighting firecrackers at its headquarters, Sirikotha, early this year, making as it did a spectacle of Sri Lanka in the eyes of the international community.

Now, Minister of Transport, Highways and Mass Media, Bandula Gunawardena has boastfully announced that Sri Lanka will receive Rs. 20 billion from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for road development. Some essential road construction and rehabilitation projects will resume, he has said.

There is a pressing need for new roads, bridges, flyovers and pedestrian overpasses in many parts of the country. Some sections of the existing road network, including the expressways, are badly in need of repairs; rides thereon are getting bumpier by the day. Rs. 20 billion is obviously not sufficient for road development, but something is said to be better than nothing.

One can only hope that the ADB funds will be properly utilised for the intended purpose. What characterises road construction in the developing world, especially in Sri Lanka, is corruption, which results from lack of transparency and accountability.

Road construction is a gravy train in this country and ruling politicians and their cronies help themselves to part of the funds that come as foreign loans. There has been no dearth of road construction rackets during the past several decades, and the situation took a turn for the worse under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which was accused of building modern roads where they were not needed and indulging in corruption that led to massive cost increases, which were passed on to the public.

Maga Neguma, which was set up to handle road construction projects under the Rajapaksa regime, was so politicised that its officials thought they were above the law; they even refused to appear before the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises). In a bid to bolster their claim that their institution was not under the purview of the COPE, they obtained letters from the Attorney General’s Department, which President Rajapaksa had on a string. Thankfully, the COPE did not give in, and its investigations into some Maga Neguma projects revealed numerous irregularities therein. The incumbent government had to disband Maga Neguma and four of its subsidiaries for want of funds, early this year, but that does not mean corruption in road construction has come to an end.

Complaints abound that many rural roads are constructed in a shoddy manner. No action is taken against the unscrupulous contractors, who laugh all the way to the bank and share the spoils with their political masters. Questions have also been raised about the quality of the flyovers built in this country, but they have gone unaddressed.

Interestingly, during talks between the government of Sri Lanka and a foreign company in 2015 on the construction of a section of the Central expressway, the Finance Ministry and the Attorney General’s Department pointed out that some anti-corruption provisions in the agreements to be signed were inconsistent with the domestic laws!

If such anti-corruption measures are not consistent with the domestic laws, then the solution will be for the Sri Lankan Parliament to bring in legal amendments to adopt them.

Let the ADB be requested to ensure that the funds it is making available for the benefit of the Sri Lankan public will not end up in the pockets of corrupt politicians and officials. Otherwise, the ruling politicians, who are as desperate as a colony of leeches during a spell of dry weather, will spring into action upon the receipt of funds for road construction. They have an enormous appetite for bungs as is public knowledge. We already have some corrupt elements licking their chops. The government will try to market its Anti-Corruption Act as a silver bullet, but the much-touted laws therein are not worth the paper they are written on if the mega corrupt deals in the Health Ministry, etc., are any indication.

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