Western Province Governor Hemakumara Nanayakkara this week ordered the cancellation of 144 luxury chairs after massive public outcry but the incident showcased positive aspects of public engagement that is central to good governance.
When news of the Western Provincial Council attempting to import chairs, each worth some Rs. 600,000, was reported there was unanimous disapproval from the masses. Yet despite this Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya was reported to have justified the expensive chairs by insisting that as the Western Province was the most affluent region in Sri Lanka it was not an unsuitable expense.
The Chief Minister seems to have conveniently forgotten that regardless of its apparent prosperity the Western Province also has a large income disparity, thousands of underserved settlements, flooding problems and infrastructure shortcomings such as traffic congestion and garbage disposal challenges that directly affect its residents. These are the problems that the provincial council should be focused on and engaging with the public on.
Slammed by all sides, the Council members saw their precious chair imports suspended before being cancelled. Ideally politicians should have used this incident to promote greater fiscal responsibility within the provincial council. Given that provincial councils are routinely slammed for complicating governance, rather than improving it, this was a golden opportunity for the councillors to show they are sensitive to the concerns of the public and dedicated to working for the public.
The Western Province, having some of the most affluent residents, also collects sizable taxes and other revenue. As a region that generates more than 40% of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the province has a high population density. According to the Urban Development Authority (UDA) there are as many as 6,000 underserved settlements or slums sprinkled around and wastage of public funds directly affects these people.
What is daunting in this situation is that when there is no system to block loopholes, much mismanagement can happen under the radar. If no information on the chairs was given to the public, there would have been no public censure and the sale would likely have moved forward quietly. One question that must be asked now is how was such a procurement even possible? Why did it take public disclosure to end it and what are the safeguards in place to see that similar steps are not taken that would waste public funds? Where is the apology and the promise to treat public funds with more responsibility?
Each time public representatives are seen to be working against public interest the victim is public trust. When politicians are perceived to be working for their interests above the public’s wellbeing then the masses naturally lose faith in their representatives. This link is devastating to the fundamental operations of a democracy and frustrated voters usually express their displeasure at the polling booth.
Politicians at different levels of governance may act individually but ultimately they are judged the same for their actions by the public. Repeated instances of disregard for public funds and public interest eventually reflect on a government as a whole, whether they be perpetrated at the parliamentary, provincial, divisional or local government level. Governance and public interest cannot be separated but politicians and power can be.