by Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda
( April 11, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is too weighty and ponderous a question, that it would be presumptuous of me to try to answer it. So, I will present some of the evidence, and leave my readers to reach an answer.
We are a nation that has more than twenty million mobile phones and two million vehicles, but less than four hundred thousand income tax files. We may squirm at picking someone’s pocket, but think nothing of riding the train ticketless or posting a letter unstamped. But then, we are a nation that has elevated to Cabinet rank, a chain snatcher. Great robbers have been in positions of power from both sides of the political divide. Breaches of matrimonial fidelity among the lofty are more than we think. The State run Lotteries are a colossal fraud on the people. Every transaction – be it a restaurant meal or a medicine is subject to a VAT of varying percentage. Every purchaser of a good or service is charged this on their bill, but it would be extremely naïve to believe that it all accrues to the Exchequer, to whom it rightly belongs. In short, we seem to accept that what is common property (and therefore belongs to no one) is fair game. Massive kasippu distilleries and smuggled fags, elude excise duties.
We heard in the old days, of newspapers stacked at street corners, where those who take one, drops three pence into a tray alongside, of Lost and Found stores with thousands of retrieved umbrellas and hundreds of dropped purses. Of houses left empty and gates unlocked. Such countries are coincidently among the “Developed”. It is true that the desperate needs of poverty spur theft. But not invariably so. The well- heeled are not innocent. Much has been said, and amazingly, attempted to be justified, in the matter of Duty Waivers for MP’s vehicles. It is astonishing to know that no fewer than 215 such permits were issued in 2016, sustaining a loss of several thousand million Rupees. Considering the total number of members of parliament at 225, it is thrilling to note that there are as many as 10 decent, honest men (and women) who thought it wrong to abuse a specifically intended facility. Sadly, not a few presumed angels plummeted to earth and quit the ranks of “Clean”. Among the stellar examples, it is revealed that both the incumbent and previous Presidents have added luxury SUVs to their existing “meager” fleets. Consolingly, they have not directly hawked their permits.
We have become so conditioned, that expected rectitude, looks like massive virtue. If the butcher does not slip a bone or some offal under your “boneless” beef, if the fishmonger does not palm off yesterday’s stale as today’s fresh, if mature beans and unripe mangoes are not slipped into your grocery bag, and if any of them have been weighed correctly, we recommend them to our friends! If we are cheated of change (taxi drivers and bus conductors note) or are unfairly billed at the counter, it looks mean and stingy to complain. So, like an invasive fungus, such petty thefts continue.
This is certainly not all that ails us. The jury is out. I do hope that these few examples (there are many more) will allow many of us to glow in the belief that “we” are not among “them”. If such numbers are large enough, there is still hope.