Thursday 1st June, 2023
The Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) always makes the headlines for the wrong reasons. Reams have been written about various deficiencies in its service standards, and various rackets such as baggage pilferage, all these years, but no remedial action seems to have been taken. Stinking to high heaven, it has become Sri Lanka’s Augean Stables.
A local television channel has exposed a foreign currency racket at the BIA. According to hidden camera footage telecast on Hiru TV, on Tuesday, racketeers approach passengers in the arrivals area, where the counters of commercial banks and authorised money changers are located, and buy forex at black-market rates on the sly.
The BIA forex racket is not of recent origin, we are told. It is believed to have been there for a long time. The racketeers are so influential that they are seen moving about freely inside the airport. They would not have been able to do so without political backing. This blatant violation of foreign exchange control laws under the nose of the airport authorities belies the government’s claim that it is doing everything in its power to channel the forex inflow through the local banking system. Millions of dollars, pounds, etc., must be finding their way into the foreign exchange black market annually through the racketeers at the BIA.
It will be interesting to see the government reaction to the exposure of the BIA forex racket. The leaders of the SLPP and the UNP are adept at cover-ups. They have earned notoriety for trying to defend the indefensible and trotting out atrocious excuses which insult human intelligence.
One may recall that in 2014, Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando was caught on camera brandishing a small firearm and running behind a group of UNP MPs menacingly, in Hambantota. When journalists asked then President Mahinda Rajapaksa what action would be taken against the violent Mayor, he claimed that Fernando had been carrying a toy pistol! No sooner had the first Treasury bond scam come to light, in 2015, than the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had the audacity to claim, in Parliament, that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. He flayed the Opposition MPs who took up the issue. So, unsurprisingly, the current SLPP-UNP government refused to order an investigation into an allegation that Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva had asked for a bribe from a Japanese company. The complaint against him was made by a Japanese diplomat and then taken up by the Opposition in Parliament. The government appointed a committee to conduct an inquiry, had de Silva cleared of the charges, and reappointed him the Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation! Now, it is requesting the Japanese to invest their hard-earned money here! If it is serious about attracting foreign investment, without which its efforts to straighten up the economy are bound to fail, it will have to have a Cabinet consisting of capable men and women of integrity. But the question is whether it will be able to find more than a handful of honest MPs in its ranks.
A country can never achieve progress unless it establishes the rule of law and battles corruption with might and main. The IMF is reportedly cranking up pressure on the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government to introduce tough anti-corruption laws. Even the bitterest critics of the IMF have welcomed this initiative. But it is one thing to make tough laws; it is quite another to enforce them properly.
The BIA is a microcosm of Sri Lanka. When the government in power reeks of corruption, and openly protects the corrupt, how can an airport be expected to remain clean. A fish is said to rot from the head down. Perhaps, one should stop worrying about its stinking tail. The entire putrid fish has to be discarded. Hence the need for elections.