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SJB, TNA, JVP insist they didn’t ask for vehicles: Speaker’s Office silent

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

The controversy over the Finance Ministry submitting a Cabinet paper for purchasing 228 Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs for members of Parliament has taken a new turn with the SJB, the TNA and the JVP/JJB denying that they ever asked for SUVs or any other vehicles.

SJB MP Dr. Harsha de Silva, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran and JJB National List MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya yesterday (16) told The Island that their parties, or individual members, had not requested vehicles from the Finance Ministry or the Office of the Speaker. The SJB parliamentary group consists of 54 MPs, including seven National List members; the TNA and the JJB comprise 10 and three lawmakers, respectively.

When The Island sought an explanation from the SJB, the TNA and the JJB yesterday, lawmakers, de Silva, Sumanthiran, PC, and Amarasuriya emphasized that their parties or individual members had never requested vehicles, in writing or verbally.

Sumanthiran said that they had not been aware that vehicles had been ordered for MPs until the media reported the issue.

Former JVP MP Sunil Handunetti in conversation with ‘Sirasa Pathikada Presenter Asoka Dias yesterday alleged that SUVs had been ordered for lawmakers, in appreciation for their vote for the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill (CPCECB) enacted in May. Altogether 149 members voted for the bill and 58 against.

One-time Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Handunetti said that the SLPP was the major beneficiary of the move. Among the beneficiaries are former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, both elected members of the SLPP.

The SJB, the TNA and the JJB voted against the Bill though several SJM members representing the SJB, SLMC and ACMC voted with the government. The Island asked JVPer Handunetti for an explanation why SUVs had been ordered for those who voted against the bill. The former lawmaker said that the decision to place the order hadn’t been taken in parliament. The government ordered SUVs for all MPs as SLPP members alone couldn’t have been offered the perk, Handunetti said, pointing out that the Finance Ministry submitted the original cabinet paper for SUVs in the wake of the passage of the CPCECB. It was cancelled the following week, Handunetti said. Responding to another query, the former MP pointed out that the government owed an explanation if 225 vehicles had been ordered for MPs who were the intended recipients of the three remaining Toyota Land Cruisers.

The government felt the need to appease its 145 member parliamentary group regardless of rapidly deteriorating economic situation, Handunetti said.

Finance, Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal yesterday told The Island that proper protocols had been followed when the government placed the original order for vehicles. The former Governor of the Central Bank said so when we asked him whether the Finance Ministry had received requests from political parties or individual members for SUVs or Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena made a request on behalf of all political parties.

Handunetti emphasised that the real issue was not the circumstances under which the government put on hold or cancelled the SUV order but why Letters of Credit were opened for SUVs in the first place.

SJB MP Mujibur Rahman told The Island that foolish strategies adopted by the SLPP worthies should now be examined against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila’s shocking declaration that the country lacked financial resources even to pay for its fuel. The SLPP has proved that it was not fit to govern the country under any circumstances, the former UNPer said, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Tell people the truth. The rapidly developing crisis cannot be suppressed by the SLPP parliamentary group staging silly dramas,” MP Rahman said.

The Island

sought an explanation from Colombo District SLPP lawmaker Madhura Withanage yesterday how he ended up in the list of those entitled for SUVs as he had personally assured President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the run-up to the last general election in last August he wouldn’t take a duty free vehicle under any circumstances. MP Withanage said that he still remained committed to the assurance given publicly. The first time entrant to parliament said that he didn’t ask for a government vehicle. The MP recalled the funds received for a vehicle at the time he served as Kotte Mayor were utilized to acquire several vehicles for the health sector.

Civil society activist and attorney-at-law Nagananda Kodituwakku said that all political parties represented in parliament should take the responsibility for brazen abuse of parliamentary privileges. Former senior Customs officer Kodituwakku said that he hadn’t been successful in preventing massive concessions at the expense of the Treasury though he lodged a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) and subsequently moved the Supreme Court.

Examination of court proceedings would reveal how the Treasury had been deprived of billions of rupees by way of duty free concessions to MPs over the years, the lawyer said, emphasizing that every government installed after 1977 should accept responsibility for the situation. The Treasury lost billions of rupees as members were allowed to sell duty free vehicles to those who could have afforded to pay duties/taxes, Kodituwakku, who gave up his British nationality to contest the last presidential election, said. However, he couldn’t join the fray as he couldn’t meet the stipulated condition to receive the backing of a registered political party.

The Island didn’t receive answers from the Speaker’s Office to the following questions submitted yesterday morning:

(i) Did Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, in writing request Finance Ministry to place an order for SUVs for all MPs

(ii) Did he receive requests for the same from political parties and individual members and (iii)Did Speaker on his own requested Finance Ministry to order SUVs for all MPs.

In addition to the SLPP, the SJB, the TNA and the JJB, the parliament is represented by 11 other political parties. Of them, the Ahila Illangai Tamil Congress (AITC) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) have two members each in parliament. Other parties have one seat each.



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Govt. has already spent US$ 60-65mn to procure Covid-19 vaccines – Lalith Weeratunga

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By Ifham Nizam

All persons above 30 years old will be vaccinated against Covid-19 by September 15, Head of the Presidential Task Force for National Deployment and Vaccination Plan, Lalith Weeratunga said.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Presidential Media Centre (PMC) on Thursday at Janadhipathi Mawatha in Colombo, he said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is keen on monitoring Covid-19 hotpots and intelligence services are doing a remarkable job in this regard.

Vaccines were distributed on the basis of the vulnerability of the areas, he noted.

He said the President has urged all Sri Lankans not be misled by the false propaganda about the vaccination drive. Everybody should come forward to receive the jab and help the government to overcome the socio-economic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

He expressed optimism of completing the inoculation campaign by the end of December this year with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO).

“We have so far spent US$ 60 to 65 million to procure Covid-19 vaccines”, Weeratunga further said.

He said that more than 8.2 million people have so far received the first dose of the vaccines, while the second dose has already been administered to over 1.8 million.

The government aims to vaccinate 11.5 million people above 30 years by August 31, 2021 and another four million thereafter, he added.

“Moves are underway to give the vaccine to all Sri Lankans between the ages of 12 to 30”.

At present, a mobile vaccination service for those who are ill and unable to leave their homes is in operation on the instructions of the President, he said.

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Swiss team of experts due today to study SL’s agricultural landscape

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A renowned team of experts from Switzerland will arrive today (1) to study the country’s agriculture ecosystem. During the 10-day visit, they will meet with key industry stakeholders, visit various sites and facilities, and provide comprehensive training in composting and organic farming.

The team will meet with senior members of the Ministry of Agriculture and related State Ministries, Department of Agriculture, Centre of Excellence for Organic Agriculture (CEOA), National Fertilizer Secretariat, Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy (SLCARP), Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, State Ministry of Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research & Innovation, Coconut Research Institute (CRI), Sri Lanka Tea Board, and Tea Research Institute (TRI).

They will visit and observe conventional and organic farmers in Kalpitiya, Thambuttegama, Weliweriya, Radawana, Belihuloya, and Nuwara Eliya. They will also tour markets, poultry farms, dairy farms, tea factories, tea estates and garbage collection centres, where garbage is collected from hotels to process organic manure.

This entire initiative is by A. Baur & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd (Baurs), a leading diversified business group and a name synonymous with pioneering scientific manuring in Sri Lanka, in partnership with two of the world’s leading institutions in organic agriculture based in Switzerland, a country that has the sixth highest penetration of organic farming in the world, with 16.5% of agriculture land being organic farmland.

The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) is one of world’s leading organic farming research and technology transfer centres dedicated towards sustainable agriculture. The School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL) of Bern University of Applied Sciences offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees including continuing education programs.

HAFL uses applied research to address contemporary issues and futuristic challenges and provides tailored consultancy across Switzerland and globally.

Further, these experts will also conduct two training sessions; one to various teams at the Baurs Fertilizer Factory (CMW) in Kelaniya and the other to Baurs’ staff, agents, dealers, key farmers and compost producers at the Baurs’ site in Anuradhapura. These will be with strict adherence to prevailing Covid-19 health guidelines.

The expert team brings with them years of both academic as well as practical experience, and includes Dr. Christoph Studer, professor of natural resources management at HAFL and Dr. Gurbir S Bhullar, senior scientist in tropical agroecosystems at HAFL, Paul van den Berge, senior consultant at FiBL and Dr. Jacques G. Fuchs, senior scientist in plant pathology and soil quality at FiBL.

With Sri Lanka’s transition to organic agriculture, this is a timely initiative and a need of the hour. The expert team will put together a detailed, practical and scientific plan that will help support Sri Lanka to successfully identify issues and constraints and overcome future challenges.

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CEB engineers ask President to allow completion of coal-fired power plant extension project

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‘Before the next power shortage in the country’

By Ifham Nizam

Perturbed by reports that the government will terminate the ongoing 300MW Lakvijaya coal-fired power plant extension project, the Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers Union (CEBEU) has appealed to the President to allow the completion of this project of national importance.

“We are certain that your Excellency will provide the Ministry of Power and the CEB the necessary directions and assistance to complete the extension project within the shortest possible time”, the Union’s President Eng. Saumya Kumarawadu, says in a letter to the President.

The President earlier decided to implement the 300MW coal power extension project considering the fact that the country is facing an imminent power shortage as a result of not constructing a single large low-cost power plant since 2014, he said.

However, officials at the plant complex said they have not been officially informed so far to halt work on the plant.

The Sri Lankan government has already saved more than USD 2 billion due to the three coal-fired power plants at the Lakvijaya Power Plant Complex in Norochcholai, officials said.

The extension project is now underway with the China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) investing USD 4 million, while the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has injected USD 1 million, they said.

The proposed plant, the fourth to be built at Norochcholai will translate into an annual saving of more than Rs. 27 billion to the government, former CEB, Chairman Eng. Vijitha Herath said.

Last year, Cabinet endorsed the fourth unit should given to CMEC considering the substantial revenue already saved due to the contribution from coal-fired plants under operation.

Kumarawadu said the proposed 300MW extension project will generate nearly two billion units of electricity per year. The fuel cost per unit of the existing coal plant is Rs.10 less than the next lowest thermal option available, furnace oil power plants. Hence, the average annual saving to the country by this plant will be around Rs. 20 billion.

 The savings compared to costly emergency power will be in the range of Rs. 30 to 40 billion per year. The price of LNG is also rapidly increasing compared to coal and even LNG. The cost difference between coal and LNG will be around of Rs. 3 to 6 per unit and savings will be in the range of Rs. 6-12 billion or more annually. So, it is evident that this extension plant will immensely help to overcome the financial crisis both in CEB and CPC and will also provide immense relief to the Treasury as well, he pointed out.

 He further said the investment for the new extension unit was comparatively low. All other power projects in the pipeline, including large-scale renewables, demand enormous investments for infrastructure development with long time span for implementation.

“This should be seriously considered by the government in a situation where the country is facing severe financial hardships due to Covid-19 pandemic,” the CEBEU President stressed.

 All preliminary work related to the project such as comprehensive feasibility studies, finalizing technical requirements, comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies, commercial agreements are completed now, he said.

It is just a matter of beginning construction work at site and completing the project before the next power shortage in the country, he added.

The CEBEU also said that there is a massive propaganda campaign against coal and one of the false ideologies promoted by these forces is that many countries are moving away from coal. While agreeing that coal power development is on a declining phase in wealthy developed countries, developing countries have not stopped constructing new coal plants mainly to ease the financial burden on their national economies.

 Citing examples, he said there are new coal development plans earmarked in countries like India, Bangladesh and Vietnam in the range from 22,000MW to 66,000 MW the next 10-12 years. Germany, one of the leading wealthy countries in renewable energy development, commissioned the 1100MW Datteln 4 coal power plant in May 2020. Dubai, another country with a very strong economy is constructing the 2,400MW Hassyan coal plant. The initial 600MW unit of the plant is to be commissioned in 2023, Kumarawadu explained.

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