Turning the tide on Sri Lankan corruption
By challenging favouritism in Sri Lanka’s land department, a resident is undermining public officials’ corruption that damages many people’s lives
Oxfam International / Flickr
On his daughter’s wedding day in 2019, retired naval officer Keerthi Bulathsinhala looked with dismay at swirling brown floodwater filling his street. “I had to put my daughter on a chair and carry her to the main road with the support of relatives,” he says. “Our road was flooded up to my knees, so the wedding car couldn’t drive to the house and my daughter couldn't walk through the water in her wedding sari.”
The flooding started after builders began developing marshland in Mr Bulathsinhala’s town of Nugegoda. The Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation had granted permission on condition that the developers take specific steps to manage wastewater and rainwater in the area. But the corporation made no site visits to check whether these conditions were being met.
When the rainy season began, the entire area, including Mr Bulathsinhala’s property, started to flood.
Uncovering official favouritism
With the surface water cutting off access and threatening disease, Mr Bulathsinhala complained to the authorities. He visited Maharagama Urban Council, responsible for maintaining the local drainage system, and the Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation.
There he noticed a woman who he’d seen frequently visiting the property developers. She was working as the officer in charge of preparing permits to develop marshland. She admitted to being a relative of the developer, Mr Bulathsinhala has revealed, and this family relationship is clearly a conflict of interest. It raises questions about why corporation officials allowed the developer to ignore the regulations.
Mr Bulathsinhala also found out from urban council officials that the Land Development Corporation was planning to grant another permit to the developer, to expand his building on the marshland – including closing a vital drainage canal. This would make the flooding even worse, threatening the soil structure and risking cracks in the local houses.
Despite Mr Bulathsinhala’s complaints, neither authority took action, so he reported the case to Shelter for Integrity –Transparency International Sri Lanka’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC). These centres provide a confidential way for victims and witnesses to report corruption, offering expert advice, free of charge.
A common scenario
Sadly, cases like Mr Bulathsinhala’s – where personal connections mean regulations are bypassed – are common in Sri Lankan daily life.
According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – Asia, which surveyed more than 20,000 people in 17 nations about their day-to-day experiences of corruption, 30 per cent of citizens think local government officials are corrupt. In Sri Lanka, the figure is even higher, at 40 per cent, with many citizens affected – even when the consequences are as obvious as flooding.
Taking action to ensure rules are kept
After Mr Bulathsinhala got in touch, the ALAC wrote to the local urban council, the provincial Department of Local Government, the Land Development Corporation and the Department of Agrarian Development, highlighting the corrupt land development. But these letters received no response.
ALAC staff then wrote to the heads of all the departments. This prompted a reply from the Maharagama Urban Council that it had blocked the plan to close the canal and was going to renovate it instead.
Holding officials accountable
The ALAC is closely monitoring the situation to ensure that officials at the urban council and the Land Development Corporation keep their word, and Nugegoda’s residents can live free from harmful flood waters.
This forms part of Transparency International Sri Lanka’s work to ensure government officials are held fully accountable for their actions. Staff encourage people like Mr Bulathsinhala to speak out when they face corruption, and provide them with safe, accessible support through the ALAC when they do.
Each time someone challenges an individual case of wrongdoing, they’re making it harder for corruption to hide. The GCB shows that 57 per cent of Sri Lankans think ordinary people can help stop corruption. By challenging officials who bend the rules in favour of relatives and friends, the country’s people are helping build a lasting culture of fairness.
Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption. With more than 100 offices in more than 60 countries, ALACs provide an accessible, effective way for people to report corrupt and demand action. Learn more: https://www.transparency.org/en/alacs
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This article was written as part of the Global Corruption Barometer – Asia 2020, the largest, most detailed survey of citizens’ views on corruption and their direct experiences of bribery in Asia.
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