Customary corruption

Monday, 1 June 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The unexpected resignation last week of Sri Lanka Customs Director General Jagath P. Wijeweera citing “personal reasons” sent Colombo’s rumour mill into feverish revolutions, as Opposition MPs scrambled to convert the sudden vacancy into fresh ammunition against the Government and its Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake.

True to form, subsequent accusations hurled at Karunanayake were heavy on scandal and light on facts and – more importantly – evidence. Anonymously-published reports attempted to implicate Karunanayake in alleged concessions to his privately-owned logistics firm and other businessmen close to the Minister as being responsible for the resignation.   

Former Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena alleged that Wijeweera’s resignation was the result of undue influence exerted against him to release controversial imports of glychophosphate-based herbicides tied to a rising epidemic of chronic kidney disease; allegations which Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Rajitha Senaratne dismissed outright as being false. 

Meanwhile, JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti claimed that a Minister from the North Western Province had sought to influence the Customs DG to help secure concessions for the re-exports of Indonesian areca nuts to India in addition to other shady imports of used vehicles.

Stepping into the fray, Karunanayake announced that investigations into malpractices and a sharp fall in Customs tax revenue had been launched and speculated that Wijeweera’s resignation may have been in response to this probe and the considerable losses reported by the Customs Department in the recent past. Karunanayake refuted allegations against himself and his logistics company and went on to accuse corrupt Customs officials of working in connivance with businessmen holding political connections to the previous regime in order to circumvent customs regulations and evade millions of rupees in taxes due to the State. 

Meanwhile, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) and the Sri Lanka Shippers’ Council voiced their concern at the sudden resignation and urged authorities to carry on the positive work initiated at Customs during Wijeweera’s tenure, including efforts to automate and streamline approvals processes. 

Allegations over the sudden vacancy reached such a pitch that Wijeweera himself felt obliged to clarify that no undue pressure had been exerted against him to force his resignation, adding that personal health concerns were the primary cause for his stepping down.

In essence, a week’s worth of speculation and conjecture, allegations and denials has produced nothing by way of hard facts in connection to Wijeweera’s resignation. What it has done is draw attention to the veritable can of worms squirming its way through the Customs Department, an organisation that is responsible for a significant proportion of Government revenue. 

This is by no means confined to isolated incidents but instead represents a pattern of systemic abuse that typifies a standard interaction with Customs officials. A recent Ceylon Chamber of Commerce importers forum on the Customs 24/7 initiative shed light on some of the nefarious tactics employed by low-mid level Customs officials from work slowdowns to outright requests for bribes of up to 10% of the value of an entire shipment in one instance – deeds which often force importers and exporters to grudgingly pay bribes in order to carry out even the most basic day-to-day activities. 

If reports into Customs corruption are to be believed, this State institution and several of its officers have been guilty of blatantly shirking their responsibilities in order to selfishly line their own pockets at a time when the State is in desperate need of capital. In that context, investigations into Customs corruption are a most welcome development that should be carried out in a transparent and impartial manner in order to restore faith in an institution which has long since squandered it.