Friday, May 24, 2013

How far can we trust a Government?

I was pondering the question of how far a Government can be held to account, after the debate around my last post.  Let's pose a practical question that should be of concern to us all:

How many people are aware that most of the Chinese-made ceramic ware for sale in the country is contaminated by lead?

The contaminated products should have been detected and stopped at import, but they were not. Clearly the Government failed in an important task.

I discovered the facts of this a few years ago after talking to a friend in the ceramic industry. The company my friend worked for had a dispute with the distributor of Noritake and as a result Noritake stopped supplying them with goods. The company had a number of outlets and it was necessary to stock them, so my friend went to China to look for alternative sources.

They found many suppliers but only a few were willing to guarantee their products lead-free. They eventually settled on one vendor. As a standard procedure, for customs clearance the products are tested for lead contamination. The first and the second shipment passed. The third shipment was lead contaminated.

The supplier was informed, he apologised and sent a replacement consignment, which also turned out to be contaminated. After much argument the local company abandoned discussions.

This left the company in a dilemma-showrooms with nothing to stock them with. As an interim solution they decided to buy products wholesale from the local market, simply to keep the shelves stocked.

They met many vendors in Pettah but when testing the products every single one was found to be contaminated with lead. These were being sold quite happily in the local market. Standard customs checks that should have detected this were bypassed, obviously because of corruption.

There are rules that exist on paper but when money and influence can bend or break them they are rendered worthless.

How do we ensure that everybody abides by the rules? The system by which the rules are enforced; the bureaucracy (in this instance customs and port officials), the police (who would normally investigate violations) and the judiciary (which ultimately rules on these matters) must be free of political influence.

This is far easier said and done. Sri Lanka and most of Britain's former colonies (including the USA) inherited traditions that evolved over centuries. They had been implemented in its colonies for over a century and half until they had become ingrained, a habit that many follow unthinkingly.

In Sri Lanka today the rule of law does not exist, yet we can still trust that the local ceramic companies comply - they do so out of tradition and habit, not out of any fear of law-enforcement. They could easily bribe officials, as the importers of ceramics have obviously done, but they do not because the testing is an established process, set up decades ago when Ceylon was a law abiding land. People who work within the industry are aware of the dangers and act with some sense of responsibility.

New businesses have no such traditions to follow and with no fear of the law can do as they please. Worse, many of these are set up by politicos and their cronies for whom no law need apply. This is also the problem in China and in many places that suffered under communism: Russia, the Eastern block- no proper system of rules prevails. Vietnam is a good example.

This is reflected in the driving in Vietnam, which is absolutely chaotic. No one sticks to a side of the road, drunken motorcyclists bump from vehicle to vehicle, without bothering stop.  I've even heard horror stories of vehicles reversing over pedestrians that they knock down-to kill them so that they do not make a complaint.  

In Sri Lanka children are taught traffic symbols and rules from an early age so as adults they have some concept of the rules of the road. The steep deterioration in behaviour on the road over the last decade reflects of the parlous state of Governance in Sri Lanka.

Given the failure of the Government, the bad situation is made worse, with the media beholden to the State: no one reports this so people carry on, unaware of the danger.
In sum; how far can we actually trust a Government? Only as far as they can be held in check.

ps. On ceramics, check the back and avoid anything made in China. Especially beware of brightly coloured or gold or silver edged products, plain white is a bit safer.

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