The one clear conclusion emerging from the now dying fuss over the JHU monks` car permits is that MPs do not deserve to get these permits. We had a senior minister (Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle) going public saying he had himself sold a permit (or permits?) and later advocating that the restrictions applying to the transfer of vehicles purchased by MPs on a duty free basis be removed. When Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe first threw something smelly at the fan over the JHU leader`s luxury Benz, a question that arose in the public mind was `do not UNP MPs, in fact most MPs, do the same thing?` The fact that Wickremesinghe chose to ignore that aspect of the matter can be charitably attributed to better standards being expected from the bhikku MPs.
Hard on the heels of the first news being broken, `The Island` published a saucy front page lead story saying that a UNP MP had bought one of the JHU monk`s car permits! There was no contradiction, possibly because the story was dead correct or as no names were named the prevarications that followed the expose of the Benz deal were not necessary. Obviously pots, or leaders of parties whose MPs have over the years hardly proved themselves to be pillars of rectitude, should be careful about looking for soot elsewhere. They will not know what manner of worms will wriggle out of the can.
The public has been long and well aware that these car permits are trafficked by many of those who are privileged to receive them. They make fat profits out of the deals and that is well known. It has been said that the car permit is the first method of recovering election expenditure which today is not small. At different times various governments have bestowed duty free or concessional duty vehicle permits not only on MPs but also on public servants and professional groups within the public service. Various lobbies worked to obtain this very valuable privilege for their own members and governments as part of their vote-attracting strategies doled them out with a gay abandon. Given the sky high duty rates that are slapped down on vehicles imported to this country, the permits were worth a great deal of money. Naturally there were many people, commonly MPs among them and public servants, ever ready to make the fast bucks that beckoned in the horizon.
Undoubtedly there are those who did not traffic their permits to stuff their pockets. They took advantage of the concessions granted to buy themselves vehicles they may have otherwise been unable to afford playing the game according to the rules. Those who played a different game, however, were a dime a dozen. Selling vehicles on what were called `open papers` therefore became commonplace. Other legal ruses including the use of powers of attorney were also used to accomplish the objective of making a nice profit at the expense of the exchequer. As Fernandopulle has implied this had been widely accepted and no big deal was made of it until President Premadasa heaped an impeachment resolution on himself by using a special police unit to check on the abuse of MPs vehicle permits.
Wijesoma, who together with Aubrey Collette remains Sri Lanka`s best remembered cartoonist, once memorably lampooned our then political establishment during the Non-Aligned Summit in 1976 with a masterpiece depicting a long line of luxury limousines drawn outside a posh hotel with a delegate waiting for his pick-up saying `And I thought they were a poor developing country.` The brutal fact is that the vehicle perks heaped not only on the public sector but also by the private sector bears no relationship to the country`s economic condition. The official car maintained and fuelled at public or company expense and most often with a chauffer thrown in, has now become the norm. Some companies, in an effort to contain the huge expenses that result often give their managers an allowance to maintain and fuel their own vehicles which must be used for official work. That is a practical approach where the user will take care of his own car rather than being cavalier about somebody else`s property.
But in the public service, officials granted duty free or concessional duty permits to buy themselves cars are also favoured with an official vehicle! Obviously this is a case of buttering their bread on both sides. Ministers given not one but fleets of official cars keep their duty free vehicles at home and use the official vehicles not only for official but private purposes. There was one worthy who kept the duty free vehicle he paid for out of his own pocket in his garage while the more expensive limousine that belonged to the state was allowed to take a beating from the weather out in the open.
The time has now come to cry halt to all this nonsense. Let nobody be given duty free vehicle privileges because they are openly flouted. That would be the best solution. As it is, Sri Lanka is incurring a huge fuel bill on official vehicles used by various functionaries. As the then Chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation once said, `90% of those riding about in vehicles in this country do not pay for their petrol.` That was a ball park figure but probably very close to the reality. Any duty free or concessional duty permit that may be granted must be tied to the withdrawal of official transport from the beneficiary. They cannot be allowed to have it both ways. If companies want to give their executives vehicle perks, the beneficiaries must be taxed at a realistic value of the privilege. While the people suffer in silence grappling with unbearable prices, their leaders squander their tax rupees too often on themselves. This must not be allowed to continue.