The Sunday Leader of 18th January 2015 has published a startling revelation on the extent to which Air Force flights paid for by public money has been abused by the first family and associates, during the height of the Presidential Elections season. According to the news report, these flights have cost a staggering Rs 30.485 million. The cost of these flights undertaken by the Air Force for a handful of ruling party politicians and associates – particularly the first family – must be placed in context of the country’s costs on social welfare for its people. Let me quickly bring some context (taking the figure reported by the newspaper as a given).
- The cost of these Air Force flights is equivalent to 70% of the amount spent on vocational/technical training (stipends, bursaries & season tickets) for Sri Lankan students.
- The cost of these Air Force flights is 600 times the amount spent on providing a pair of shoes for school children in remote areas in Sri Lanka.
- The cost of the Air Force flights is 1/4th the total spent on funding special education of handicapped students.
- The cost of the Air Force flights is equivalent to 13% of the funds spent on providing fresh milk for pre-school children.
- The cost of the Air Force flights is equivalent to 10% of the amount spent on education scholarships for underprivileged students.
- The cost of the Air Force flights is equivalent 1:1 to the amount spent on financial assistance to Internally Displaced Persons (in 2013).
You don’t need to be a ‘socialist’ to care about social welfare spending (and paying for it through taxes). As citizens we need to care about where our tax money goes. Already our tax base is narrow, and much of it is raised from indirect taxes (VAT, etc.) that are inherently regressive (i.e., have a higher proportionate burden on the poor more than the rich). So even our limited tax collection must be spent judiciously on national requirements, and to make social welfare payments to groups in society that need it most.
As I argued in an earlier podcast, our tax money has been silently apportioned to subsidise the election campaign of one Presidential candidate over another. We had no say in it. It just happened. The PAYE tax your employer remitted to Inland Revenue last month? The VAT you paid on that last restaurant bill? Yes, through it you paid for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s posters, cut-outs, rallies, bath packets, freebies, and of course helicopter rides. Of course, this abuse of state resources and tax payer money during election time is not new. But clearly, it was taken to new heights in the 2015 Presidential Elections.
All figures are for 2013, from Ministry of Finance and Planning Annual Reports.