18 December 2013

The 'Chit System' [Version 2013]

Two days ago the Police Narcotics Bureau seized 10 kg of heroin from a house in Hikkaduwa following information furnished by a Liberian citizen arrested at the Bandaranaike International Airport.  It is said to be the biggest ever heroin haul detected in the Southern Province.  

That’s a lot, yes, but still miniscule when compared with the 131 kg detected at the Colombo Port not too long ago.  The magnitude of the Customs’ detection is all the more significant because of the suspected smuggler’s connections to the high and mighty of the land.

The media has been agog over a letter issued by the Prime Minister’s office to the Manager, South Asia Gateway Terminals (Pvt) Ltd., requesting a waiver of demurrage and Ports Authority charges by way of a ‘concession’.  The signatory to that letter is the PM’s Coordinating Secretary, who resigned a few days ago. 

All signs indicate that the Coordinating Secretary is the designated ‘fall guy’ in this scandal.  It has now come to light that issuance of such letters is almost routine, not just from the PM’s office but those of other senior politicians.  In this instance, the request for the letter had been made by a representative of a local government body in the PM’s home town, Gampola.  The man is not just political associate of the PM but is known to have contributed lavishly to the election campaign of the PM’s son.  He had personally come to the PM’s office to collect the letter along with the intended recipient of the cargo, a Pakistan national now in police custody.  

On the face of it, the request is ‘above board’.  There is nothing to indicate that the Coordinating Secretary was aware of what was being offloaded.  It was one of ‘many such letters,’ he claims and he is probably telling the truth here.   The parties concerned, moreover, were not nameless strangers making a request out of the blue.  They were ‘known people’; more specifically people known to the PM and his son.  Family friends, wining and dining friends in fact: there is photographic evidence mined from the suspect’s mobile phone. 

There is nothing to say that either the Prime Minister or his son were aware that their buddy was in the business of smuggling heroin.  As of now, it is not clear that the home-town politician knew either.   On the other hand, his generosity during the election campaign does make one wonder where the bucks came from and why.  If either the PM or his son did not ask themselves such questions, then they are either soft in some high place or have adopted a policy of ‘no see, no ask question’.   Put another way, ‘you help, I look other way’.    

The people are not soft upstairs, though.

We cannot conclude as of now that the PM and/or his son is involved in drug trafficking.  We can conclude that they choose their pals poorly.  In this instance the PM can feign ignorance of the letter issued by the Coordinating Secretary but it would be surprising indeed if he didn’t know that dozens if not more of such letters have been issued before to the point that letter-issuance has become routine.  And there’s where the rub lies.

A request from the Second Citizen’s office is akin to a directive.  Given rampant politicization few if any official would have the courage to ignore such ‘requests’.  These are but the 21st Century version of the ‘Chit System’ that plagued the country in the 1970s.  New and improved, one might add. 
Think about it. If every two-bit politician (and even they think they are the cat’s whiskers and have the bucks and the thugs to convince any doubters) issues chits of this kind, what would it do to controls, to regulation, to streamlining and how could the lack in all these areas sustain the ‘miracle’ that this country is supposed to be?   The miracle, really, would be that things are yet to fall apart to the point called ‘Beyond Salvage’. 

We really can’t teach the PM how to choose his friends, but choice of friend does go a long way in paining a man’s character and judgment, he ought to know.  More importantly, it is important to let officials do their jobs.  It is important not to interfere with set procedures.  

No more chits.  That’s it.  It is not the PM’s baby any more.  Let the police handle the investigation, again without any ‘let it be’ chits from anyone.  It is however incumbent on the President to take a stand on the matter of ‘chits’ for if one thing can be chit-smuggled, anything else can be smuggled too. Guns included.  And of course, it’s not just about smuggling; chits are for ‘anything goes’.    That too the President must take note of.