25 April 2015

Change or Short-Changed?

The much talked of 100 days of the ‘100 Days Program’ that was part of President Maithripala Sirisena’s election campaign is now completed.  The President himself has come out with a statement which can be read as 'observations on progress' (see pages 4, 8 and 9). The Government claims that much was done.  Others claim that it’s mostly talk and that nothing significant or lasting was achieved. 

There are two ways to assess performance here.  The first is to go with items, divide the ‘done’ by the ‘promised’, multiply by 100 and come up with a percentage.  The braggers can gloss over the importance or otherwise of each line item.  They can ignore sustainability.  For example, the cuts in fuel prices can be marked as a ‘plus’, but only if it translated into significant drops in prices of related goods and services (e.g. bus fares, school van fares, vegetables and other goods that require transportation).  Factor these in and the brag loses its punch. 

The other method of evaluation would begin by giving weight to measures that correct flaws in structures and processes so that lasting value accrues to things such as the rule of law, citizenship, democratic freedoms, transparency and accountability. 

Right now there is a palpable sense of greater freedom when it comes to expression, movement and association.  Right now there is confidence that more value has accrued to that which is called ‘due process’.  However, the rosy picture has been compromised by the selectivity that has marked investigations.  It is, as of now, bordering on vindictiveness and has taken a witch-hunt character.  ‘Influence’ moreover still counts at all levels when it comes to the affairs of ordinary citizens.  This is evident in state institutions including police stations.

More serious is the unprecedented and scandalous matter of the Central Bank bond issue.  The home-investigating-home kind of process that the home-owner launched in this regard could not find evidence that the Governor had indulged in any wrongdoing.  What the investigators said was ‘He was not directly involved’.  However, they found that the organization owned by his son-in-law had ‘behaved strangely’ and recommended that the Bank of Ceylon (which facilitated a deal that helped him) be investigated.  Banks are supervised by the Central Bank.  The problem is information leakage.  This is ascertained by circumstantial evidence.  If the Governor was not directly involved the circumstances indicate, in the very least, that he may have been indirectly involved.  There is enough suspicion to demand removal, clearly, especially given the importance of the position.  This alone can outweigh all the positives of the past 100 days.

President  Sirisena correctly pointed out that when ‘freedom’ is new it is natural for the ‘incarcerated’ to cling to incarceration.  He did not mention the flipside of this: those who have for decades helped perpetuate restriction are not easily weaned of habit.  More importantly ‘new found freedom’ is a natural companion of regime-change.  It is generally referred to as the honeymoon period.  Extending that period is inextricably linked to institutional reform. 

One hundred days have passed since Maithripala Sirisena assumed office.  If he promised T-shirts to 4 persons and a million rupees to a fifth and if he delivered the T-shirts and not the bucks, it would be silly to say ‘I’ve delivered on 80% of the promises’.  The 19th and 20th amendments and the Right to Information Act together make the equivalent of the million rupees above.   They remain ‘iffy’.  

If assessment is strict, then we would have to conclude that the people have been short-changed and so short-changed that even ‘cheated’ can be used.  However, if one considers that promising is easy and even ‘normal’ while delivery is tough, one can afford to be generous and interject ‘better late than never, they say, so let’s wait and see a bit longer’.   

It all hinges on structural change, the consummate ‘toughie’ in all this.