Elephants are majestic creatures. They are also beasts of burden. They give stature to pageants. Those who have tusks are especially valuable to the point that they are hunted, killed and divested of their prized ‘possessions’. They also enhance status of owners. Elephants are sought then for a variety of reasons. There are therefore laws about acquisition. Whether these are adequate is a moot point. What is clear is that enforcement is a joke. What’s worse is that there are sinister forces which deliberately and systematically subvert enforcement.
We are talking here about the case of the illegal capture of elephants. This is an issue that has been in the news for quite some time. It is not just a matter of one status-seeking ruffian ferreting away a baby elephant, coming up with all kinds of excuses when found out and then working the system with whatever oil works to give slip to the law. We are talking about an entire set of rogues working in concert. We are talking of a system that is tailor made for theft. We are talking also of a culture that encourages wrongdoing, trips those who would dare, by way of carrying out duties, subvert such machinations.
The allegations are serious enough. Environmentalists have complained that forged documents have been submitted to support applications to register calf-elephants. An audit query carried out by the Auditor General’s Department has revealed that this allegation is correct and that the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and the Public Property Act have been violated. A single permit (No 229) has been issued for two elephants (one male, one female). Four other permits (Nos 331, 334, 358 and 359) have been issued by the Department of Wildlife Conservation although the stated information does not tally with the size of the animals. In the case of Permit No 331, the elephant for which the permit was sought is a male although the application indicates it is a female. Permits 226 and 338 contain forged signatures of former DWLC Director General, Chandrawansha Pathiraja.
The hanky-panky with respect to registration has been well documented. Officials are yet to respond adequately to allegations. It would have been disturbing enough if relevant authorities had taken refuge in the ostrich option. What we see, however, is active collusion by authorities. In one case, for example, a magistrate is implicated over improper registration. The owner of the Hambantota Bird Park Ajith Gallage as well as the now suspended Wildlife Officer and Flying Squad chief (no less!) have been identified among those involved in forging documents to obtain licenses for elephants captured illegally from the wild.
What is most disturbing about the current situation is the sudden and inexplicable transfer of a key official involved in the investigation. Deputy Auditor General A. H. M. L. Ambanwela, previously in charge of the DWLC, Forest Department and Central Environment Authority (CEA) sections was transferred to the Labour and Sport section. Ambanwela, coincidentally was the person who compiled the audit query. His transfer is nothing less, at least in appearance, than throwing a spanner in the wheels of a process that would clearly have embarrassed a lot of important people. The Auditor General has not covered himself in glory here. Indeed it appears that either he himself is implicated or he does not have the integrity to defend the honor of the institution he heads in the face of political pressure.
This is not the first time that Ambanwela has been in the news. When he was working on an audit of procurement in the Central Province he was subjected to an acid attack. He is a man who has suffered and has borne his suffering without a flinch, clearly a man of integrity who takes his job seriously. His track record is unblemished. His new post, not surprisingly, carries little responsibility. A officer of his caliber and experience, one would imagine, would have been ideal to oversee areas such as the ETF, an entity that had been rocked by scandal after scandal.
The problem here is that Lalith Ambanwela being sidelined from the case is not a random, one-off affair. It is one of what has come to become routine whenever any official or politician comes under investigation. Lalith Ambalwela had acid thrown on his face. A key witness in the case involving a politician forcing a school teacher to get on her knees was found dead inside a well recently. Police officers who crossed the path of politicians, big and small, have been transferred by the dozen.
It is clear that rules and regulations, law and order, are not worth much in this country. When a country reaches a point where honest officials with skill and a strong sense of integrity are deliberately sidelined or are subjected to threat, intimidation and attack, when a country comes to a point where the institutional apparatus does not function or is replaced by informal arrangements where political interference is what counts, it can be described as anarchic.
Lalith Ambanwela is not the only official who takes his job seriously. There are countless others in the public service. He is not the only such official who has been given the short end of the stick. That’s what is most bothersome. When such people are attacked, a strong message is given to all. Those who are faint of heart will fold up immediately. Over time a culture is produced; a culture of complacency, of looking askance and of doing-as-told-and-shutting-up. In such a situation people like Ambanwela are quickly dismissed as mavericks and offloaded. Or worse, one must add, considering what he has already had to suffer.
What does all this tell us of the overall picture? The Government is clearly not clueless or spineless. In fact it is showing remarkable clarity and spunk. It is in in-your-face mode. It is doing the dirty and asking ‘so what?’ In short the entire institutional apparatus has collapsed. Fresh paint on façade cannot fool everyone. The ‘dirty’ of the inside is, after all, seen by all and all the time too, whether it is in a police station, in a crime scene or a traffic accident involving VIPs.
There are two things one might do well to remember. If the boss is up to no good, it amounts to a license for everyone under him or her to likewise indulge in wrongdoing. Secondly, if anyone in any institution is up to mischief, the chances are that those above are either up to mischief themselves or else incompetent and/or powerless to put a stop to it. There’s a huge elephant in the room. It is a wild elephant. It is not the kind of creature that is the kathaanaayaka or protagonist of this story. It has a name. Corruption. It has been brought in by the powerful. It is on a rampage.