The Excise Department is currently rocked with dissent that has led to a turf war between rival groups from the uniform sector and those in the civil administration and at the end of the day it has dwarfed performance resulting in losses of vital revenue to the government.
The entire department has been politicized over the years with political pet poodles calling the shots whenever there is the possibility and to hell with standard procedures.
In addition to all that the department is packed with errant officials allegedly on the take from operators in the liquor industry but is allowed to carry on since they are protected by an equally corrupt bureaucracy at the upper levels of the government. The honest officials who have bent their back on maintaining the dignity and good character of the department have been constantly overlooked in the case of promotions simply because they have refused to end up as 'hurray boys' for certain politicians and bureaucrats.
In an interview with Ceylon Today the outgoing Commissioner of the Excise Department L.K.G. Gunawardene shares his views for the benefit of the tax payer in particular and the public in general.
?: What is the present situation inside the Excise Department?
A: It is sad. The department is taking a freefall with indiscipline, corruption and meddling by politicians, bureaucrats and other so-called VIPs. Performance has hit an all time low as disillusioned officials are reluctant to perform their duties as required because they feel they have been discriminated at some point or other.
?: What do you suggest that could be done to get matters in order once again?
A: There should be a full revamp of the rank and file in the department where the corrupt elements should be taken out and the deserving cases given their rightful place. However, this will not be possible if there is any kind of political interference. The place has to be flushed out at the very earliest or else it would lead to dire consequences.
?: Earlier you mentioned of a turf war between two groups in the department. Can you elaborate?
A: That is very true. The uniformed personnel are attempting to edge out those in the administration sector and this simply cannot be the case. Those in the administration sector are qualified to handle official work such as filing revenue sheets and other paper work from human resources to data collection and the maintaining of records among other tasks while the uniformed personnel are assigned for field work such as carrying out raids and other related duties. But some persons refuse to understand this and resort to ugly tactics sometimes bordering on sabotage. They have runaway with the idea that they could fit into the administration branches. This has to stop and the relevant authorities must swing the search light inwards before these issues snowball into a larger crisis.
?: But most of these issues, as claimed by you also took place during your watch. Did you take any measures to rectify them?
A: Yes I did and was successful to a certain extent. When I took office in March 2015 there was a huge festering issue relating to an irregular promotion of 43 officials. Those affected by this were fretting in anger and the matter was later settled in Court and the promotions were annulled and those promoted were demoted. It is needless to mention that by such an action I drew a lot of flak, so much so that moves were made to remove me from my post in August last year. Not only that I also initiated raids on upmarket outlets, high society club houses and even distilleries that had violated excise regulations much to the annoyance of many persons. Some of these places are known to have had the cooperation of errant officials in the department.
?: Could you mention some of the special detections?
A: An embassy employee was busted while attempting to trade two dozens of foreign liquor to undercover excise sleuths in the metropolis. Then there was this politico's driver who was nabbed with several kilograms of Cannabis concealed inside a Police jeep and a Buddhist monk turned politician was nabbed while flirting with an imported narcotic substance. Furthermore, two defunct distilleries imported large stocks of ethanol and illegally re-distributed it to other manufacturers. We put them out of business. In 2016, a special Gazette Notification brought the import of all foreign liquor under the control of the Excise Department. That saw an end to the free flow of foreign liquor entering the country and thereby raised the revenue for the State coffers. All this and many more happened under my watch.
?: What were your other achievements?
A: When I took over there was a severe dearth in cadre in many sectors in the department. There were 224 vacancies for drivers, inspectors, IPs and promotions pending for the three Deputy Commissioners. These issues were solved in the proper manner. A special unit for excise crime operations was also set up to crackdown on illegal tobacco products and alcohol. In one raid this unit was able to make the single largest cigarette detection of over 37 million sticks thereby avoiding a loss of Rs 93,990,000 to the government. The composition fees imposed on this was Rs 5,012,500. In addition to that the Unit was also able to earn a sum of Rs 5,696,190 as composition fees on behalf of the government by submitting 35 technical crime reports. During 2015 the unit carried out 54,000 successful raids.
?: At one point during your tenure the Police were making a huge effort to embrace the excise duties and was lobbying the government for approval. How did you tackle this issue?
A: That is correct. We took up the matter in a very strong manner and finally won the day. If this was to be the case the excise personnel would be out of work. The Police claimed that the Excise Department lacked the manpower and logistical infrastructure to effectively carry out raids. To a point that claim is correct. However, the men and women in the Excise Department are committed to their job and if things needed to be improved then the authorities should make arrangements to provide more cadres to the Excise Department.
?: At this point did the trade unions in the department react?
A: Yes they did so to a certain extent. The trade unionists are of little substance. They work to better their personal interests and nothing else. In the case of the Police issue the trade unions came out in force since they too would be affected if the Police had their way.
?: You were known to have concentrated largely on discipline within the rank and file in the department. How did you get around this issue?
A: This needed a diplomatic and studied approach. Steps were taken to inspect Excise Offices throughout the country on a regular basis and to keep the public informed as well. In addition, regular meetings were held between different sections of the rank and file and views were shared. The idea was to inform each and every cadre that their work was needed and equally appreciated. The issue of discipline is an uphill task. It is probably the same case in most public institutions. That is the Sri Lankan temperament.
?: What is the revenue raked in by the Excise Department?
A: The total revenue earned through excise taxes for 2016 was Rs 120 billion from Rs 69 billion in 2014 and Rs 105 billion in 2015. The increase was a result of a continuous crackdown on the import of foreign liquor and raids on errant distilleries that had violated excise regulations.
?: How was your relationship with the Line Ministry?
A: I do not wish to elaborate, but then again there is something that should be mentioned. The Finance Ministry set up a special unit to tackle raids similar to those performed by the Excise Department. It was an indication that we were not performing as expected. Except for an occasional raid or detection this unit has ended up as a white elephant and those attached to it enjoy the fullest perks at public expense.
?: Any regrets after your retirement?
A: No, not at all. I do not think I was appreciated by many in the department owing to my views and disciplinary style. Let me tell you this. The staff had organized a farewell for me at a venue in Colombo which was to include a parade of honour. However, I later found out that this was a trap to humiliate me. Prior to the event I was informed by a trusted employee that the parade was going to be a flop since most of the personnel on the parade had reported sick and they would not turn up. This was apparently planned by those who despised me from the start. Ironically it is the same persons who had planned the farewell ceremony and their intent was to humiliate me in public. They had also invited a section of the media to cover the event, but that was never to be the case.
?: Finally, what are your future plans?
A: I have already received several job offers, but for the moment I need to relax with my family. Perhaps I will take a decision in the next three months.