Last week, a supplementary allocation of up to Rs. 330 million was tabled in Parliament for the purchase of vehicles for three Cabinet Ministers, three State Ministers, a Provincial Governor and a Secretary to the Prime Minister. This was not the first time such an exorbitant amount was requested to be set aside for pampering our representatives and it is doubtful it will be the last.
A disappointed public predictably took to social media to lament, but if history has taught us anything, their concerns will not amount to much more than being a short-lived talking point for the country’s intelligentsia and the mainstream media, only to be forgotten until the next big headline in the news cycle.
That this development came in the wake of criticism (warranted or otherwise) that victims of the Meethotamulla disaster were inadequately compensated was not lost on anyone. Even if one were to assume that the reasons for the allocation were justified, the timing could not have been worse.
This also comes on the back of media reports of would-be investors flying away from the national carrier. Just yesterday, it was revealed by a Colombo think tank that SriLankan Airlines lost Rs. 128 billion over the last 10 years. As pointed out by one activist, to put that in perspective, that would be enough money to cover the costs of the Hambantota Port or even build a second Norochocholai.
On top of these depressing developments, living costs are ever on the rise, and with seemingly no regard for the hardships of the people, some Ministers may be getting vehicles they most likely don’t need.
But vehicles are only the tip of the iceberg. Every few years Parliamentarians get perks and payments with little transparency and it is essential to get a sense of the numbers to demand better performance and professionalism from Parliamentarians.
Last year, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake raised a question in Parliament demanding a breakdown of salary and other payments of Parliamentarians and Ministers, to no avail. The varied and convoluted system of salaries, allowances, house rent, insurance, the provision of support staff, security, phone and other payments are largely unknown. This is worse among Parliamentarians who are Ministers or hold other official positions within the State.
Still others are given ceremonial positions or their closeness to centres of power give them access to additional income. Not only are these earnings tax-free, Parliamentarians, even after one stint, are given a lifelong pension.
Usually the only time Parliamentarians are slammed is when the allocations of duty free vehicle permits do the rounds. Yet economists have repeatedly pointed out the Government has to get on track its own spending, not just in what gets haemorrhaged from corrupt deals and loss-making State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), but on what is spent on the Diyawanna members.
Singapore has stringent KPI indicators for its top public officials, which are rigorously implemented and enforced. Parliamentarians can have higher salaries provided they are independently evaluated for performance.
The day such a system is implemented in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, may be quite a ways away.