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Battling iron-eating rats in the CTB

Terrorism has eclipsed all other insidious enemies plaguing this country. It is not only the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka that is under threat. Each and every institution here, be it political, economic or social, stands threatened by an invisible yet extremely destructive enemy. That is intractable corruption. The heavy toll it has taken on the economy was seen in the VAT scam which cost the country a whopping sum of 3.5 billion rupees. The findings of a presidential probe into the worst ever tax racket are shocking. Yesterday, we reported how two suspects had purchased properties worth millions, if not billions, with their ill-gotten money while the country is struggling to bridge the budget deficit and raise funds for poverty alleviation, education, health development, defence etc.

What the presidential commission is dealing with, as is widely believed, is only the tip of the iceberg. It might stumble on far worse aspects of the VAT scam and the involvement of many more people, as its investigations proceed. It is hoped that the probe will survive such findings!

Yesterday, we published another report on a racket in the transport sector. The Transport Ministry has blown the lid off a long standing spare parts scam in the CTB. Some high ranking officials have allegedly pocketed a commission of 15 per cent on the spares purchased over the years for the state owned buses from a large number of suppliers, the majority of whom are not even registered with the CTB.

The post-1977 history of the CTB is replete with waste, bribery and corruption and the racket at issue has not come as a surprise. There must be far bigger ones and it is up to the Ministry to investigate and bare them. Time was when rats were blamed for some missing engine parts in the CTB stores! With that revelation, Sri Lanka became the first country to have iron-eating rats. (Those rodents must be having teeth of steel!)

What is surprising is not so much the prevalence of corruption but the fact that the CTB has lasted all these years. Its survival is a miracle! For, it is perhaps the most plundered of all State institutions. The change of government in 1977 saw the looting of CTB assets in broad daylight. It was like a ship boarded by pirates. Politicians and their supporters had a field day. Buses in running condition were condemned and sold to the ruling party backers at ridiculous prices. Those vehicles can still be seen on roads after 30 long years! The rise of the politically backed private bus industry marked the decline of the CTB, which came to be tasked with employing all the unqualified political henchmen who could not find employment elsewhere.

The Kumaratunga government which came to power in 1994 did not care to revive the CTB. It had in its political team the best man to take care of the public transport sector-Anil Moonesinghe, who had turned the CTB into an efficient outfit in the 1970s. But, he was never made use of and the deterioration of the CTB continued unabated.

The present Minister of Transport Dallas Alahapperuma has, to his credit, evinced a keen interest in developing the CTB. And there has been some tangible improvement in the state owned bus service, though it certainly has a long way to go. The challenge he has taken up to turn the ailing CTB around is as daunting as winning a dancing competition with a hobbling grandma as partner. We hope he will succeed in his endeavour.

Developing the CTB is a task that cannot be accomplished by augmenting its depleted fleet alone. First of all, it has to be cured of its chronic ailments. Minister Alahapperuma seems to have put his ministerial finger on one of the most serious problems the CTB is afflicted with-corruption. He was quoted in our news item yesterday as having said that an investigation unit had been set up in the CTB to probe corruption. Getting rid of corruption or at least reducing it to a bare minimum is half the battle in developing the CTB. Disciplining and motivating the workforce come next. Years of politicisation, neglect and corruption have sapped the CTB of its vigour and demoralised its workers beyond measure.

However, one need not be pessimistic about the revival of the CTB. Some depots have begun to earn profits after being in the red for decades and there is no reason why others should fail to do likewise. If the corrupt and the inefficient are weeded out, the CTB will bounce back in record time much to the benefit of the commuting public suffering at the hands of the private bus Mafia.

The CTB racket once again points to the need for a mechanism to deal with those in the private sector promoting corruption in the public sector. At a recent colloquium on health issues in Sri Lanka, a senior doctor revealed how the pharmaceutical companies openly bribed doctors in kind by throwing parties for them and offering various sponsorships so as to increase the sales of their expensive drugs at the expense of the poor. The private sector is popularly known as the engine of growth. But, a closer look at its workings will reveal that it is also the engine of corruption in the public sector.

The Transport Minister tells us that he has put in place new scheme to make purchases for the CTB so that there will be no room for ad hoc deals which invariably lead to corruption. That is a step in the right direction but he should not lose sight of the fact that he is trying to cleanse an institution full of iron-eating rats.

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