World’s an oyster for Lanka’s MPs
Sunday Punch 1 (Sunday Times)
Money seems to be the only motivator to kick start Lanka’s MPs to do an honest day’s work. Perhaps it is after taking cognisance of this ignoble truth and identifying it as the ignominious cause of their conditioned inertia that moved the Prime Minister last week to raise their pathetic financial plight and prompted him to offer them even more from the public purse to coax them into doing some activity for the public weal and welfare.
Last Saturday in Parliament the prime minister said that a further Rs 100,000 each must be paid per month to MPs to encourage them to participate in national development and work in their electorate.“There is no use giving more responsibilities to MPs without giving them more facilities. MPs must be paid better salaries. I am aware many lawmakers face problems. They must be paid Rs. 100,000 monthly to carry out work in their electorates,” Ranil Wicremesinghe declared.
But the prime minister has also divined that a simple salary raise alone may not make the people’s elected representatives stir from their indolence. Thus as a further incentive, a complete hamper of goodies to sweeten the offer and make them go the extra inch is also on the cards.
Knowing full well the members’ fixation with vehicles and luxury SUV’s at that – though some may not even know what SUV stands for – the prime minister naturally added the vehicle bait to his carrot stick.
“We will also have to give them more vehicle facilities,” the prime minister pledged, knowing full well the members’ weakness for anything that moves on four wheels provided, of course, it is worth millions, comes duty free, and can be sold overnight to make a clean, neat net profit of over Rs 25 million tax free.
Cartoon added by TW from internet
As an added bonus, perhaps to tempt the MPs further that even the sky is no limit when it comes to pandering to their every whim and fancy and extending to them the government’s largesse, the prime minister also said that due consideration will also be given to granting MPs free local air travel since air warrants are given to MPs in India and to the people’s reps in America to travel from state to state. “We must give air travel facilities to MPs from the North and East,” he announced.
But even he must know that to grant it only to northern and eastern MPs will raise a clamour of protest in the Sinhala dominated assembly with MPs accusing the Government of practising discrimination against the representatives of one community. And soon free air travel will become the common perk of all. And the fact that 40 out of America’s 50 states and 17 out of India’s 29 states are bigger than Lanka and may warrant free air travel for people’s reps becomes irrelevant for size does not matter to the Lankan politician when it comes to being on par with the world.
But will the ruse work? Sorry to say, it might be akin to giving another extra fix to a drug addict in the misguided hope it would help him to kick the habit.
Anything else to fill the Christmas hamper? Perhaps something more is called for.
Enter Santa himself. The UNP minister John Amaratunga. His focus, last Saturday in Parliament, was on shelter, one of the three basic necessities of all human life. He called for better housing facilities to MPs and urged the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to ensure that property that belongs to Parliament including Mumtaz Mahal which was once the official residence of the Speaker and Sravasthi which was previously used as a hostel for MPs be taken over. And knowing that mens sana in corpora sano, a sound mind in a sound body, is indispensable for all human activity, he called for the present health insurance coverage of Rs 200,000 to be increased to Rs. 500,000 per MP. “It is important,” he said, ‘for MPs to be in good health if they are to carry out their responsibilities as elected representatives”. Of course, this applies not only to the chosen few but to all 20 million Lankans who pay the MPs insurance premium.
But health insurance cover – whatever the coverage – alone does not guarantee good health but only relieves the anxiety of having to pay one’s exorbitant medical bills should one’s flight to soaraway heights be cut down in mid air with an illness. But this privilege, though not extended to the masses, must not be begrudged in the name of humanity.
However if there is one thing MPs can pray for it is to pray for health: if there is one thing they can ask of their Gods, it is to ask for a stout heart that can endure toil and not deem a fleet of cars and dowry cushions and junketings are the best of gifts the gods can bestow.
As the father of Satire, Roman poet Juvenal, writing at the height of the Roman Empire and, observing its decadence and foretelling its fall, stated “Fortune has no divinity, could we but see it; it’s we, we ourselves, who make her a Goddess, and set her in the heavens.” And as it has been said, “hard work never killed anyone. If it did, all the poor will be dead.”
In these last few years and now, it seems, to paraphrase the words of Mohandas Gandhi, there are a great many MPs’ in Lanka so hungry for materialistic trappings, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of a luxury vehicle. The more cars, the more Gods.
Some of them cycled into Parliament, some hired the odd three-wheeler to crash through the Parliamentary maidenhead and some hopped a lift in a pal or patron’s motor to cross the Diyawanna road bridge but no matter on which wheel they arrived to break through the hymen door and enter its inner chamber, all of them, having eaten of the fruit found within that sceptred pagoda, and having got hooked to its addictive taste, now brazenly demands the pubic to feed their expensive habit no matter the cost.
The prime minister deserves the nation’s sympathy for the quandary he is presently in. He knows he must mobilise the people’s representatives and involve them in national development. Galvanise them to action. To oversee electoral development. Supervise the work in progress in projects underway. To see that the aspirations of these grass root people to whose humble hamlets these village MPs visited, not even two years ago, on bended knee and begged for their vote, are met.
These MPs did not need a four wheel drive SUV then to travel on dilapidated roads. No off the beaten tarred track was too barren to cross then, even on foot. Nor was there a steep incline too hard to ascend or any mountain too rugged to climb. To make this rustic peasantry cast their priceless ballot into the begging bowl of their parliamentary ambitions, they solemnly swore to devote their time and efforts exclusively to uplifting the life of the villager.
They had come as Parliamentary candidates to these humble abodes where their earthly gods resided to pray for the vote only they, at that hour, could grant but now, after having received benediction and with their prayers answered, they returned as MPs to the banks of the Diyawanna temple to scoff in gross ingratitude.
That’s the dilemma the prime minister faces. He also knows that though he can lead bulls and cows to water, he cannot make them drink. Cutting down on exiting privileges will make the situation far worse. And like the rich father who promises his already spoilt and wayward son, a sports car should the son study and pass his A ‘levels – and thus succeeds in spoiling the spoilt brat even further – he has no option but to pander to rich expensive fancies MPs demand.
Ranil Wickremesinghe knows how unpopular his new largesse would be in the eyes of the public and how he would be subjected to criticism. As he said, on Saturday last, “I know I will be criticized for saying this, but this is necessary.” True.
Apart from their basic tax free salaries of approximately Rs. 65,000 per month, MPs are entitled to two telephones with an allowance of Rs 50,000 for calls made. Plus they have a ‘no questions asked, no need to show petrol bills’ travel allowance of Rs 200,000 per month. They are also privy to a bevy of secretaries. They can be absent from Parliament for three months with any explanation. They are entitled to a life time pension upon completing five years in Parliament. They can also import a super luxury vehicle duty free and sell it overnight making a quick and easy profit of Rs 25 million or more without having to pay any tax. Not that they don’t have to pay anything for this privilege. Oh no! They have to fork out Rs 1750 of their own hard earned money to clear the vehicle from port. This is for the basic paper work which has still not come under the long litany of a MP’s privileges and entitlements.
As Minister Faizer Mustapha said on Wednesday in a TV interview with the veteran ‘hard talk’ media personality Faraz Shaukathaly, not only do state banks provide MPs loans to initially pay for the import of these vehicles which are generally over Rs 30 million when the duty is added but, to top it all, the banks charge a rate of only 9 per cent interest. As Minister Mustapha said, “I have taken a loan because I’m entitled to take a loan at an interest rate of 9 per cent.”
The minister has not sold his vehicle though it is reported 20 other MPs have done so. According to Mustapha, it is perfectly legit for any MP to transfer the permit. He said: “If I’m given certain perks and if I am entitled to buy a vehicle and sell it, I don’t think anybody can stop it. I mean there is no violation of the law.”
He is right of course. How can he be accused of any impropriety when the supreme legislative body in the land of which he is an honorable member has okayed the perk and privilege to its members?
But whether or not the lawmakers have sorted this issue correctly and made it legal to the letter will depend on the interpretation the Supreme Court will render soon since its jurisdiction has been invoked to give an opinion on the matter by a concerned citizen.
On Monday the State Finance Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena strongly defended the right of members of parliament to raise funds through the sale of their duty-free vehicle permits. According to him members sold permits and bought smaller vehicles and spent the rest on their political work. Comforting to know, is it not, that it is all in a good cause and that at least some MPs are doing their own bit for the people’s benefit at great personal sacrifice?
Apart from this, there’s also a move to grant 58 MPs a further 58 vehicles to provide them with the required wherewithal to traverse the hinterland of Lanka to attend to development work. According to Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, “The vehicles will be imported by a private company on an operational lease and therefore it would be possible to save a considerable amount of funds. He added that the cost of repairs would have to be borne by the importer and as such there would be a reduction on the expenditure involved.
The Government risked its popularity by trying to introduce a VAT rate of 15 per cent on many goods and services in the middle of the year, including a tax on medicine. Thankful to the Yahapalana policies ushered in by this government, the arbitrary black hand of tax was not allowed to fall on each and every item that caught the fancy of the Finance Minister. As Ravi Karunanayake revealed in parliament on October 26th, “the Government had originally aimed at revenue of Rs 10 billion from the VAT revision in 2016, but that number was later reduced to Rs 6 billion due to the decision to impose the VAT after a lapse of five months, since May 2 this year. But now we only expect the new VAT tax to raise revenue of Rs. 1. 8 billion.”
Mr. Karunanayake, in his coat of Finance Minister, is in the unfortunate position of a legalized extortionist whose sole brief is to tax, tax and tax everything that comes within his ken and then to hand it over to the government to spend, spend and spend on anything that falls within the government’s political fancy. Not the most enviable job for it attracts a lot of public venom but someone has to do it. Just as he butcher must slaughter the live animal and offer the meat for another to devour it as he pleases or squander it for hyenas to feast on the carrion.
How discomforting it must be for him to be made the scapegoat and to be at the butt end of hate when the government decides to spend 2.4 billion bucks out of the Rs 1.8 billion he had raised with so much difficulty, to purchase 58 vehicles, each valued at over 40 million bucks, and give the same to 58 MPs as ‘bata’ to cajole them do some service to the country.
But the government should place its ear to the ground and hear the growing rumble of discontent. It should not become the spendthrift of the goodwill it earned by fostering again the spirit of democracy in the land for this people’s betterment.
For instance, at Visala Maha Nuwara, before the Buddha recited the Ratane Sutra which extolled the profundities of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha to dispel a town’s fears and strengthen a people’s resolve to overcome the hardship they endured, he first made sure his listeners were fortified with food to withstand the shivering cold. The message he sent was not to preach to those with an empty stomach for the rumblings in the belly drown all other sounds and sermons.
Asking the people to experience hardship, to make sacrifices, even to make do with the bare necessities of life so that this government can pay off the debt it has inherited from past regimes can be endured with a stoic smile. But when the people see the savings made out of their sacrifices, squandered on providing more and more perks and privileges to a chosen few, when those who hold the ladle appear to serve themselves to the full with callous disregard to the masses suffering, it’s not something the denied, the deprived, the les miserable’s can easily stomach.
However profound and beneficial the Yahapalana doctrine maybe, it is worthwhile for the government to bear in mind, for its own survival at least, that a hungry nation is an angry nation. And cake to the aristos while the masses have no bread, is the stuff of revolt that will roll back the Yahapalana dawn for another generation.
It’s not too late to use the rod and save Lanka from reeling down the slippery slope to the bad old days of the last regime.