Last week s revelation in parliament that a news conference organized in connection with Livestock Awards Ceremony has cost all of a million rupees will surely merit inclusion in Bob Ripley s ``Believe it or Not. Given the way that inflation is galloping with a cup of tea in a boutique costing Rs. 20, a million bucks may be worth less than it seems to be and millionaires today maybe dime a dozen in a country where a laksapathiya merited wide esteem not so long ago. But is it possible for a government institution to spend that kind of money on a mere news conference? Readers may well wonder whether it was a champagne and caviar affaire with hundreds of invitees and gifts for participants with special sound and lighting effects thrown in for the television cameras.
According to what Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle had told the House, the Livestock Awards extravaganza, it was obviously much more than a mere tamasha favoured by our politicians and political patronage seeking officialdom, had cost Rs. 24 million. No doubt Fernandopulle, who nowadays has to pull out most of the government s chestnuts out of the fire, was right when he said that livestock was an important subject and productivity in that sphere had to be incentivised and rewarded. But spending Rs. 24 million on an awards ceremony takes not just the cake but the whole bakery.
The JVP s Anura Kumara Dissanayake had asked how the government could spend a million rupees on a news conference. His party periodically meets the press having now shifted from the Hotel Nippon where these events used to be held in the past to the National Library Services Board which is cheaper. A JVP press conference usually includes a piece of cake, a sandwich, a plantain and a cup of tea. Plain fare, obviously, compared to what must have been on offer at the aforesaid million buck event. As Dissanayake pointed out, they too live in this country and have an idea on what media conferences cost. Of course there are press conferences and press conferences. Rich companies hire event managers to organize these events, most often at five star hotels, and frequently followed by cocktails. Hard headed businessmen usually apply a cost benefit criterion on money they spend and probably find the publicity they seek worth the investment they make. Quite a nice little industry has grown around media conferences that crowd the diaries of news editors and directors working for the print and electronic industries.
The government, of course, is near bankrupt with hardly enough cash to pay its bills notwithstanding frequent recourse to the money printer. Hence the blood, sweat and tears shed by its various suppliers and contractors struggling to collect their dues. But the profligate habits of the political and bureaucratic functionaries are alive and well. These worthies are ever willing to spend lavishly if the money does not come out of their own pockets. Government departments and corporations all too often arrange their press conferences, media briefings etc. in five star comfort. Food and drink is laid out lavishly and alcoholic beverages are provided despite the government s obeisance to mathata thiththa, the much touted anti-alcohol policy. Seminars and workshops too cannot be held in their own offices, some of which are equipped with halls and auditoriums. Lunch is a sine qua non at such events. Admittedly we in the news industry attending these events are beneficiaries because journalists too are ``eating drinking people, some more than others.
Now that something smelly has hit the fan about the Livestock Awards, it behoves the opposition to follow up and get some idea of how the Rs. 24 million including the million on the press conference was spent. A detailed accounting should be demanded. The mere fact that some figures have been presented and some front page newspaper space won for the expose should not mean that the matter should be allowed to rest. What came to light is only a tip of the iceberg. The way government funds, meaning taxpayer rupees, are wasted boggles the imagination. Time was when some well placed supplementary questions would have hit the responsible minister like a whiplash when a reply such as Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle s was on offer. Now, as then, ministers sometimes duck loaded questions asking for unreasonably long periods of time to provide the answers. We run a story today about former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera grumbling about the time demanded to answer his question of three Prado SUVs supposedly missing from the Bank of Ceylon s transport pool.
While on the subject of responsibility of MPs, well paid MPs we might add, to keep the government on its toes with searching parliamentary questions, we will digress to another matter we have touched upon in our news pages today. This relates to the on-going examination of directors of the International Center for Ethnic Studies by a Parliamentary Select Committee on NGOs where it had been revealed that two influential funders of ICES, the Ford Foundation and the Canadian High Commission here, had influenced the ICES board to reinstate its sacked executive director days after she was dismissed. It is of course common knowledge that he who pays the piper calls the tune and nobody will be surprised that the ICES board, which should have properly resigned if its decision to get rid of Mani was either wrong or in bad faith, knuckled under the demands of its funders. What interests us is that a select committee is righteously digging into the funds and funding sources of NGOs while nobody knows from where political parties, whether they be the SLFP, UNP, JVP or any other P get their money.
Transparency in this regard is more important than finding out from which pot the gravy is ladled out to NGO plates. Some NGOs do excellent work and others less so but most NGO personnel are very well paid. Political parties and their leaders, whether in the Third World or the First, are notorious for rewarding their Godfathers with contracts and other goodies paid for by the national exchequer in return for helping to get themselves elected or perpetuating their tenure in office. As far as we know there are hardly any rules requiring disclosure of political donations in this country and it is high time that our leaders started grappling with this matter. Given the difficulty of pushing the president to appoint the Constitutional Council, about which the opposition is even belatedly exhibiting some political will, it will be the height of optimism to expect politicians to demand disclosure of how their party coffers are filled leave alone individual war chests.