It’s not ‘all’s well that ends well’ | Sunday Observer

It’s not ‘all’s well that ends well’

The letters ‘SLC’ spells trouble, or so it seems.

This week, the poster boy of one SLC, Sri Lanka Cricket, test captain Dinesh Chandimal was sacked and the mantle was bestowed on Dimuth Karunaratne. In what is an entirely different ball game, the head of another SLC, Sri Lanka Customs, Ms. P.S.M. Charles was re-instated as Director General of Customs after attempts to remove her led to a prolonged strike by customs officers.

We shall not dwell on the ills that plague the house that governs the gentlemen’s game in Sri Lanka. That is a discussion that would take longer than the duration of the recently concluded test matches in Australia which incidentally never made it to the fifth day, the first game ending inside two and a half days. Sri Lanka’s cricketing woes, no doubt, will be the topic of conversation for months to come.

The issues at stake at Sri Lanka Customs, however, are worthy of discussion. It was a decision by this Government- and more specifically, Minister Mangala Samaraweera- to appoint Ms. Charles as Director General of Customs. At the time of her appointment, Ms. Charles was serving as the District Secretary (or Government Agent in the olden days) in Batticaloa and had previously held the same position in Vavuniya.

It was Ms. Charles’s integrity and tough talking, no nonsense approach during her tenure as a public servant during difficult times- when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was running amok that prompted the Minister to recruit her to head the institution that earns the most revenue for the nation’s coffers. That was in September 2017.

What then prompted a parting of ways, ending in the decision to remove her from office? The Cabinet proposal to do so also came from Minister Samaraweera. She was to be replaced by a retired Navy Officer, Rear Admiral Shemal Fernando.

The trade unions affiliated to customs officers allege that Ms. Charles was removed as she had ordered probes on over a hundred containers. They claim that these were linked to officials holding important positions.

Minister Samaraweera, however, claims that it was because revenue generated by SLC declined under Ms. Charles’s watch. In a press conference where he sat alongside Ms. Charles and announced her reinstatement, Minister Samaraweera provided statistics to bolster his argument that revenue had indeed fallen during Ms. Charles’ tenure as Director General.

That is a moot point, though. It would be very good practice to sack heads of government institutions who do not perform. If that is the yardstick by which the Government measures competence, it must be applied throughout the Government and not merely to Sri Lanka Customs- and the heads of government institutions are sure to roll, year after year. Surely, Minister Samaraweera wouldn’t want to be sacked after a year in his portfolio if the Budget deficit balloons?

There is no doubt that, had there been no strike by customs officers, Ms. Charles’s reinstatement would not have become a reality. In fact, when there were discussions on the issue, the Government had insisted that her reinstatement was not on the cards.

To his credit, Minister Samaraweera was candid in his acknowledgment that he was forced to withdraw the decision to remove Ms. Charles and reappoint her only because of the trade union action launched by SLC officers. He also said that Ms. Charles was to be appointed to head a monitoring unit established at the Finance Ministry to oversee the activities of SLC and the Excise and Inland Revenue Departments - or, in other words, she was to be given a ‘kick upstairs’.

This is where Minister Samaraweera’s logic is difficult to comprehend. He argues that Ms. Charles was removed because SLC did not meet revenue targets. In the same breath, he says she was being promoted to oversee not only SLC but also the Excise and Inland Revenue Departments, the other giant revenue earners for the Government!

Minister Samaraweera justified his actions by saying that SLC was “controlled by a mafia led by certain businesses in the country, with the support of some officials at SLC” and added that this ‘mafia’ was more dangerous than the LTTE. “I felt that it was more challenging for the iron lady who confronted the LTTE in Batticaloa to face the Port mafia as they were more dangerous”, Samaraweera said.

It is doubtful we will ever get to know the truth, nothing but the truth and the whole truth about the saga surrounding the dismissal and reinstatement of Ms. Charles. However, Minister Samaraweera must be commended for believing that two wrongs do not make a right. So, when he realised that it was a mistake to have dismissed Ms. Charles, he rectified it, taking a paper back to Cabinet to have her re-instated. That type of mea culpa is rarely seen in Sri Lankan politics today- and would not have been witnessed during the previous regime.

Still, Minister Samaraweera’s words should give us all food for thought. The Minister in charge of SLC is saying that the institution is in the grip of a mafia greater than the LTTE, which controls its decisions. Shouldn’t the entire Government sit up and take notice? Or is it that sections of the Government are part of the problem?

Ms. Charles may have been re-instated but that does not mean it is ‘all’s well that ends well’ and corruption at SLC will disappear overnight. If we put two and two together, it appears as if Ms. Charles was indeed fighting a lone battle to rid the SLC of this menace.

Since Ms. Charles- or the ‘iron lady’- as Minister Samaraweera called her- is back at the helm, it is incumbent upon the Minister to give her all the freedom she needs to act in a free and fair manner without having to obey the dictates of political potentates. Then, and only then, would corruption at SLC come to an end.

Or, is that a little too much to ask for?