Many years ago, the then Chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, made an off-the-cuff remark that `those riding around in about 90% of the vehicles you see on the road are not paying for their petrol.` This undoubtedly was a guesstimate, a ball park figure if you like. But there is a strong truth underlying it. The vast majority of the vehicles seen on the road, and their passengers swanking around in them in air conditioned comfort, are either riding State or company-owned vehicles or, in relatively few instances, their own cars with an employer reimbursing the cost of the fuel.
We make this comment in the light of the ongoing prosecution against former Minister Sripathi Sooriarachchi for the misuse of State property. In this instance, he is accused to have held on to a Land Rover, apparently assigned to him at a time he was holding public office, and not returning it when he ceased to hold that office. Since this matter is in court and is sub judice we are neither entitled to nor wish to comment on the rights and wrongs of the case. But like the vast majority of people who are following Sooriarachchi`s travails as reported in the media, we too would like to ask the question: `Which political office holder, past or present, can place his hand on his heart and say that they are not misusing official vehicles?` Very few, we would say, very very few. The sad reality that not only politicians, but a large number of government officials too, use State-owned vehicles assigned to them for official travel for all manner of private purposes. And nobody cares a damn, not even the taxpayer who must eventually pick up the tab.
The official car is now a taken for granted perquisite of public or private employment at the higher levels. Despite Sri Lanka supposedly being a `poor developing country,` nobody seeing the luxury vehicles whizzing on our roads can give any credibility to that claim. The number of cars assigned to ministers, both of cabinet and non-cabinet level, deputy ministers and the like is mind-boggling. Huge customs duties based on the CIF (cost, insurance freight) value of the vehicle, are imposed on the point of entry. These taxes comprise a massive revenue stream for the government and that, perhaps, is the main reason why the incessant deluge of vehicles are permitted to be imported into the country despite the roads being barely capable of carrying the load. Car importers say that there are all kinds of rackets in their business, often tied to official corruption. Since big bucks are involved, a lot of sleaze can be spread around and that is happening with a vengeance.
The Island, in a front page report that merited lead play, a few days ago quoted Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse saying that 10% of the government fleet of vehicles has gone missing. No doubt this, like the CPC chairman`s remark quoted earlier, is another ballpark figure. But there is no doubt that it is approximately true. State property is all too often nobody`s business and given the fashion in which once proud standards in the public service have slipped in recent decades, officials willing to collude with their political masters and also aggrandize themselves are a dime a dozen. So not only stationary and other small things disappear from government offices. Even vehicles can go missing and few, if any, up the chain of command are any the wiser. Whether the investigative process is good enough to convict culprits after due process is another question that arises. Accused may secure discharges from the courts due to lack of evidence. Whether they were actually guilty or not of the crimes they were accused of is another matter. We do not know whether the old practice of departmental inquiries, less stringent than the judicial process, is still extant. Under that procedure, a public servant acquitted by the courts still risked sacking or what used to be called `compulsory retirement as a merciful alternative to dismissal.`
Time was when the Inland Revenue Department added a small sum to private sector emoluments as the value of the benefit of a company provided and maintained vehicles bestowed on executives. Given today`s costs, if that practice prevails, the notional value attached to the perquisite would be a minute fraction of the true worth of the perk. Where public servants are concerned, they continue to enjoy tax free emoluments and pensions and no value is attached to taxpayer paid, chauffeured vehicles provided to the big bosses. Some of them are even permitted to take these vehicles home when they retire and it is an open secret that many get expensive repairs done to their vehicles, at government cost of course, before they purchase them at book value!
Not even in rich developed countries are vehicle perks dished out as lavishly as in Sri Lanka. Perhaps our practices prevail in some countries where champagne tastes are indulged on toddy incomes as we do here in our republic that is grandly titled democratic socialist. Nobody is surprised, as one of our columnists have said elsewhere in this issue, that Sooriarachchi has been singled out for investigation given his recent whistle blowing. In fact nobody is surprised that a man who says he knew all about alleged deals between the presidential candidate and the LTTE on depriving a section of the electorate of their franchise decided to hold his peace up until now. We all know that politicians, not only here but also in the so-called citadels of democracy, make all manner of deals for their own advantage. But now that the vehicle issue has been brought to the fore in the Sooriarachchi case, it is time that the big picture of the whole business of abuse of state-owned vehicles by politicians, officials and whoever else is closely looked at. Perhaps one of the 100 unemployed or underemployed ministers/state minister/deputy ministers should be assigned the job after first making sure that we are not employing the proverbial thief`s mother to investigate the theft!