Editorials

Rein in the mafiosi

 

For the average, law-abiding Sri Lankan, life is a struggle. Whatever rosy picture politicians may paint of a prosperous, upward-looking middle-income nation, the reality is that life is hard for the ordinary man and the sad part is that it need not be so.

What has made it that way is a corrupt bureaucracy and mafiosi that zealously control every important sector of economic activity. The result is that the average Sri Lankan is compelled to pay way over and above what he really should for ordinary products and services, seriously compromising financial stability.

At every turn, people are being unconscionably fleeced and made to undergo undue hardship due to the greed and lust for filthy lucre of the mafiosi that control everything from the supply of basic food items to transport, electricity, etc.

From the grama sevaka lining his pockets for simply issuing a letter confirming residence to mafiosi controlling the supply and by extension the price of daily staples like fish, rice, vegetables, etc. to the bureaucrats sitting in high positions manipulating essential services like the supply of uninterrupted electricity at a reasonable cost, it is no secret that the entire system is corrupt to the core and designed to fatten the crooks in control of the economy.

What these corrupt elements do not know or do not care to know is that their actions are preventing the country from reaching its inherent growth potential. Although governments past and present have tried to rein in the mafias, they have ended up being more a part of the problem than the solution.

Despite the best efforts of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to cleanse the corrupt system, the mafiosi have been equal to the task and he has an uphill battle before him if he is to go the full distance.

For instance, the notorious Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) engineers’ mafia is once again up to their usual tricks. It is now the norm that every time there is no rain for a couple of months, there is talk of a power crisis and the next thing that happens is the emergency purchase of power.

Last week, the Cabinet of Ministers, left with no alternative, had to approve the purchase of 200 MW of electricity to tide over the shortfall in hydropower generation as the water level in the main hydro reservoirs are at a critical level.

This crisis which occurs on an annual basis for the past so many years comes in the backdrop of the CEB not approving nearly 500 renewal energy projects which have been stuck in the pipeline for years.

These projects include solar, wind, hydro, etc. and have the potential to add a considerable chunk to the national grid but the CEB engineers, due to reasons best known to them, have kept the projects on hold and purchase emergency power at exorbitant prices. At the end of the day, it is the consumer who has to foot the bill. Same goes for the fisheries sector which is also controlled by an equally powerful mafia.

Being a tropical island nation surrounded by an ocean teeming with fish, one could expect fish to be the staple source of protein and available freely at cheap prices. But the reality is the opposite.

Good-quality fish is hard to come by as the best quality is exclusively reserved for export and only the second best is released for local consumption. Not surprisingly, due to the short supply, prices are beyond the reach of the average household.

Ideally, if the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation invests in a fleet of large boats and directly supplies to markets, fish can be provided at a concessional price at least to the more deserving sections of society such as pensioners and senior citizens while in the process destroying the stranglehold of the fisheries mafia that controls fisheries harbours and the deep-sea trawlers.

Another mafia that is hurting the country’s income generation and more importantly its image is the tourism mafia.

The modern global trend is for tourists to travel on their own at their own pace and not as groups which was the trend in the past. Anyone travelling on their own as a free and independent traveller (FIT) in Sri Lanka is a target of fleecing from the moment they step out of the airport.

The airport taxis are notorious for charging exorbitant, inconsistent amounts from tourists who will be subjected to
verbal abuse and aggression if the rates are questioned.

This is the first impression that is made on FITs. The story continues once they step out of their hotels or visit tourist sites where touts, trishaw drivers, pimps, beach boys, etc. call the shots, fleecing tourists at every opportunity. Little wonder that the number of repeat clientele in Sri Lanka for FITs is relatively low compared to other Asian destinations such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The education mafia is another headache that is stifling the future prospects of this country. Today, tuition is big business and tuition masters are as wealthy as the biggest businessmen.

They are fundamentally opposed to changing the curriculum to better reflect the changing times and local job market.

Hence, the schools and universities continue to produce graduates who no one wants to employ. The result is that
roads are blocked on a daily basis due to the protests of these unemployed graduates while the irony is that there is a severe shortage of certain skilled sectors and these vacancies have to be filled by foreign nationals as local talent is nonexistent. Yet, due to the pressure exerted by the education mafia, the same failed system continues to be in
operation.

Hitting the common man straight in the stomach is the paddy mafia and vegetable distributors’ mafia who collectively contribute to keep the cost of living soaring while the farmers on the other hand starve as they are paid

the bare minimum for their produce. There have been many instances where farmers have preferred to feed their produce to animals rather than sell it at a pittance to the “middleman mafia”.

There are many other mafias such as the transport mafia consisting of private bus operators, three-wheeler associations, those who hoard train tickets for tourist destinations, etc., who make people pay unreasonable amounts for essential travel. The big boys like the pharmaceutical mafia, doctors’ mafia, etc. collectively contribute to make life hell for the ordinary people of Sri Lanka as well.

The President, through his unannounced visits to various government institutions, has attempted to put things on the right track but a lot more needs to be done to rid this country of the mafia menace which is bleeding the country dry through the pockets of its people. If the Government is serious about its desire to establish greater economic freedom and create a better economic environment for the ordinary people as well as tourists, then the time has come to rein in the mafiosi.