Clear policies show the way

Monday, 28 November 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

PRESIDENT Mahinda Rajapaksa in his speech to the nation after the opening of Sri Lanka’s first highway called on the private sector to take a proactive part in developing the nation. His basic argument rounded on the fact that billions of investment had been made to develop infrastructure, which promotes the ease of doing business. In addition, the achievement of peace has created a stable environment to promote private sector growth.

This is a powerful argument, especially when it is given on Heroes Day, which previously was a day of tense anticipation of doom. Media would wait to report on LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran’s address, which was further driven home by an assault or bomb blast. Those days are thankfully over, but that does not mean the threat of violence and uncertainty has disappeared.

Take for example the latest issue surrounding the tea auction, where a popular tea company has been threatened by a political party, hindering it from transporting and storing tea. In a country with peace and stability, why are politicians allowed to bribe and bash their way into the private sector? Why isn’t legal action taken against this minister and the rule of law allowed to prevail in equality to everyone?

Political intimidation, patronisation and pressures are nothing new in Sri Lanka. A few weeks ago, the plantation companies appealed to the Government to prevent politically safeguarded trade unions from disrupting production at factories. The bribes come in a variety of forms, “protection money” being only one, but they all add to the bottom line – making business not only unprofitable, but dangerous.

The Takeover Bill is another instance when the private sector called on the Government, particularly President Rajapaksa, to understand the challenges of attracting investment and protecting their assets if the State is allowed to acquire partnerships maintained by companies. Not only did these pleas fall on deaf ears, the Government also outlined plans to extend the bill and take over 37,000 hectares of land under private plantation companies and redistribute them.

Last week it was prominently published that the Road Development Authority (RDA) owed local contractors billions and that businessmen were unwilling to come forward since they had paid massive bribes to politicians to gain the right to these projects in the first place. This is a sad situation indeed, especially when one considers that the Southern Highway cost US$ 815 million and no local contractors made a significant income from it.

In fact, it was three Chinese companies and one Japanese company that won the contracts. It is understood that local companies may not have the expertise to construct entire highways, but they need to be given a more equitable part by stamping out corruption and politicisation.

Overall, the private sector also needs to be assisted with good governance, transparency and fair-play. They need consistent polices and a non-politicised environment in which to operate. While the private sector also needs to focus on transparency and good governance, there is also the need to have greater engagement in which their voices are also heard.

The opening of the highway is indeed a landmark development, but sustainability of the growth process will happen only with private and public support – after all, the loans need to be paid back.