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Change at ICTA helm in the wake of shocking COPE revelations

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Patali questions move to launch 500 more projects….

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Close on the heels of the recent revelation of massive waste, corruption and irregularities at the country’s apex ICT institution, the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), there has been a change at the helm of the institution.

The Parliamentary watchdog – COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) on Dec 08, 2020 exposed staggering losses amounting to over Rs 2.6 bn due to negligence, shortcomings and failure on the part of the ICTA. ICTA bosses had been present at the meeting along with representatives from the Auditor General’s Department.

The COPE under the leadership of SLPP (Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna) National List lawmaker Prof. Charitha Herath dealt with projects that had been carried out since 2013. The 31-member COPE found fault with projects undertaken during the 2010-2015 Rajapaksa administration and also 2015-2020 yahapalana period.

The Communications Department of the Parliament confirmed the COPE inquiry conducted two days before the end of parliamentary session for the year.

ICTA has been authorized to implement the government’s policies and action plans in relation to ICT.

Prof. Lalith Gamage, who has been a member of the ICTA board yesterday (1), succeeded Jayantha de Silva whereas the latter received appointment as Secretary to the newly created Technology Ministry.

The current ICTA board consists of Prof. Lalith Gamage, Reshan Dewapura, the Chief Executive Officer at GSS International (Pvt) Ltd, Vimukthi Janadara, Director General, Information Technology Management Department, Oshada Senanayake, Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, Kushan S. Kodituwakku, Managing director of Orel Corporation, Mano Sekaram, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) & Co-Founder of 99X Technology Ltd and Madu Ratnayake, Group CIO and the Center Head for Virtusa Sri Lanka.

The COPE session that inquired into ICTA comprised Prof. Herath, Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, State Ministers Susil Premajayantha, Indika Anuruddha and Members of Parliament Eran Wickramaratne, Jagath Pushpakumara, Premnath C. Dolawaththa, S. M. Marikkar, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Shanakiya Rasamanickam. Out of its31 members, only ten attended the session.

The COPE is empowered to report to Parliament on accounts examined, budgets and estimates, financial procedures, performance and management of Corporations and other Government Business Undertakings.

COPE sources said that the most of the projects examined had been carried out before Jayantha de Silva a former CEO and President of IFS Sri Lanka took over the apex body on Dec 19, 2019, just three days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as the President.

Prior to the appointment of Jayantha de Silva it was chaired by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, also a former CEO and President of IFS Sri Lanka. Prof. Samarajiva received the appointment in April 2018. Samarajiva succeeded Chitranganie Mubarak, who had been the first ICTA head under Yahapalana administration.

The ICTA board appointed immediately after the Nov 2019 presidential election consisted of Jayantha de Silva, 99X Technology CEO Mano Sekaram; founder of WSO2 Dr. Sanjiva Weerawarana; CEO of the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) Prof. Lalith Gamage; former ICTA CEO Reshan Dewapura; SAP India Country Sales Manager Manori Unambuwe and former Digital Secretary and ICTA Programme Director Wasantha Deshapriya.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNF Government established ICTA in terms of the Information and Communication Technology Act No. 27 of 2003, (ICT Act), was subsequently amended by the UPFA by Act No. 33 of 2008.

According to the Communications Department, a high profile ‘e-Pensions’ project launched in late Oct 2010 had been abandoned on Nov 1, 2013 after spending a staggering Rs 510 mn. At the time of the launch of the project involving ministries of Public Administration and Home Affairs, ICTA had been under the Presidential Secretariat

The then ICTA Chairman Professor P.W. Epasinghe is on record as having said that under the project the whole procedure – from computation to the payment of pension – would be changed for the benefit of the pensioner.

The abandoned project was meant to develop the required hardware and software for its implementation in the Western Province covering the District Secretariat, the Armed Forces, the Department of Prisons, the Department of Railways and the Department of Civil Defense.

The COPE asserted that ICTA performances in respect of other failed developments, too, could be compared with the disastrous ‘e-Pension’ project.

The COPE also examined Google Loon project officially announced in June 2013 but finalized in late July 2015, too had been abandoned after spending Rs 1,851, 322 mn to clear Google Loon equipment from the Customs, in addition to Rs 64 mn spent on project promotions.

COPE also revealed that another high profile project called ‘Lanka Government Network’ or LGN launched in Nov 2016 by then Minister Harin Fernando amidst much fanfare to provide internet services countrywide, too, failed to achieve desired results with the progress asserted at just 17 per cent. Of Rs 850.47 mn approved for the project, Rs 148.33 mn had been spent, the COPE bared while categorizing LGN, too, as a failed initiative.

Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) lawmaker Patali Champika Ranawakaka, who had been present at the COPE meeting questioned ICTA officials why the launch of 500 projects was contemplated against the backdrop of such losses.

Funds amounting to Rs 32.5 mn allocated for ‘e-NIPO’ (project undertaken for the National Intellectual Property Office) had been utilized by the I.C.T.A to pay salaries of its officials.

The Island

in a front-page report titled ‘Sheer negligence on the part of the Treasury, Parliament revealed’ carried on Dec 14th edition, pointed out how some employees received monthly salaries in the range of Rs 755,000 to Rs 245,000 outside public sector salary scales though they were paid by the taxpayers’ money.

The COPE also found fault with ICTA for not including Rs 39 mn spent on ‘e-Local Authorities’ yahapalana project in the performance reports.

The COPE also made the shocking revelation that a 2017 Corporate Plan that had been prepared at the cost of Rs. 2,737,000 mn was thrown away without seeking approval from the board. One of the challenges faced by the new Chairman is to conduct an internal inquiry as regards preparation of Corporate Plans beginning 2003-2019.

The COPE is also under fire for the recruitment of management level workers on contract basis to senior positions.



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About 232 out of 500 escapees from K’kadu Drug Rehab Centre arrested

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Two hundred and thirty two inmates out of the 500, who escaped from the Kandakadu Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre, yesterday morning, following a clash with soldiers guarding the facility, had been arrested, Maj. Gen. Darshana Hettiarachchi, Commissioner General – Rehabilitation, said.

Hettiarachchi denied allegations from certain quarters that they had allowed inmates to escape to divert public attention away from the burning economic issues, and crippling fuel shortages.

He said an impartial inquiry would be conducted into the death of an inmate.

Hettiarachchi said that they were confident that other escapees too would be arrested soon.

Police Spokesman SSP Nihal Thalduwa said a 36-year-old inmate had died under mysterious circumstances on Tuesday. The deceased was a resident of Mutwal. The death of the inmate had been reported to the Welikanda police, he said.

The Police Spokesman added that a team of policemen from Welikanda had visited the Rehabilitation Centre. However, a large number of inmates had surrounded the body and did not allow anyone near it and that had led to a clash between inmates and the military personnel at the centre.

At around 8 am yesterday, a large group of inmates had broken the two main gates and escaped, he added.

The Police Spokesman said that the police and Army had brought the situation under control, after several hours.

They have also launched a joint operation to arrest the inmates, who are still at large.

There are around 1,000 drug addicts being rehabilitated at the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Center at any given time.

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Women parliamentarians’ Caucus calls for greater accountability and transparency

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International Day of Parliamentarism

Chairperson of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle says accountability and transparency in a parliamentary system have become vital issues as the country makrs the International Day of Parliamentarism today (30).

In a statement issued to the media by the Caucus, Dr Fernandopulle said: International Day of Parliamentarism, which recognises the role of parliaments in national plans and strategies and in ensuring greater transparency and accountability at national and global levels. This Day was first established by the UN General Assembly through a resolution adopted in 2018 which also marked the 129th anniversary of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU, which was first established on the same day in the year 1889, is a global organization that works to promote ‘democratic governance, human representation, democratic values, and the civil aspirations of a society’.

This Day further solidifies the unique and enduring system of parliamentary democracy as the standard for political representation. Last year, in 2021, the Day focused on “Youth Empowerment” in Parliament whereas the theme for the International Day of Parliamentarism 2022 is “Public Engagement”. Conspicuously, the word ‘parliament’ originates from the French word ‘parler,’ which means ‘to talk.’ Thus, public discourse and engagement lay the very foundation of the parliamentary system of governance.

At a juncture where public engagement in the democratic process is at an all-time high, the theme for International Day of Parliamentarism aptly suits the current democratic and economic discourse taking place in society.

The Parliament is a cornerstone of any democracy as it must fulfill its fundamental role of providing a voice to the voiceless. The main responsibilities of a Parliament include the formulation, enactment and overseeing of the implementation of laws and policies that are sustainable and crucial for the progression and stability of the country. The Parliament also has a duty to hold the Executive or Government of the country accountable. Accordingly, representing the interests of the public, it must also fulfill the role of acting as a “check” to “balance” the power that the executive holds.

The Parliament must also perform “checks” and “balances” on Government expenditure as it has the responsibility of approving budgets for Government expenditure. Thus, during this economic crisis, the Parliament of Sri Lanka has a crucial role to play and effectively realize such roles and responsibilities. To do so meaningfully, public engagement is a necessity.

Chairperson of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle said: “I believe we should make this Day an occasion to remember the importance of accountability and transparency in a parliamentary system. The Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus recognizes that it has a role to play in initiating a conversation towards realizing a process by which the Parliament can conduct self-evaluation utilising the feedback received by the public discourse. This would be vital in order to gauge the progress the Parliament has made and identify challenges and devise strategies and mechanisms to overcome such challenges to be more representative of the voices of people.”

MP Thalatha Atukorale said: “In the face of crisis, if our parliamentary system fails to realize its purpose, then we must re-evaluate the practices of our Parliament. Therefore, I believe that this Day should be used as an opportunity to formulate an effective strategy to improve transparency and accountability of the Parliament of Sri Lanka.”

MP Diana Gamage said: “On this Day, I pledge to be a voice to the people of Sri Lanka, particularly the more vulnerable, and play my role in initiating mechanisms and formulating laws that reflect the current needs of the people of Sri Lanka whom we are representing in Parliament”.

Parliament is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. In Sri Lanka, let us realise this goal for all Sri Lankans, leaving no stone unturned to ensure quality of political representation, which means gender equality and social inclusion too.

MP Manjula Dissanayake said: “To be effective and successful, the Parliamentary system must encourage public engagement and must also be based on principles of equality and inclusivity in order to better comprehend and prioritise the needs of the public”.

Vice-Chairperson of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, MP Rohini Kumari Wijeratne said: “The parliamentary system is founded upon the sovereignty of people. Therefore, the success of the parliamentary system depends on public engagement in the democratic process and how well the parliamentary system responds to such public engagement.”

MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya said: “We as Parliamentarians must not be oblivious to the fact that the public has lost confidence in the Sri Lankan Parliament and by extension, the Parliamentarians. A strong contention can be and is being made that the Parliament of Sri Lanka falls short of effectively realizing one of its main purposes: to formulate and implement policies and laws that benefits ALL people, particularly the more vulnerable. To meet that end, we must harness public discourse and engagement.”

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CHOGM briefed on Lanka’s difficulties

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Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris explained the current economic-political-social crisis and immense difficulties experienced by Sri Lanka’s population when he addressed the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Ruwanda.

Prof. Peiris represented President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at CHOGM held from 23 to 25 June.

Addressing the sessions, Prof. Peiris highlighted the importance of robust institutions in recovering from the economic difficulties that the world is currently experiencing. Describing the current shortages of fuel, food and medicine, etc., as one of the most difficult situations faced by Sri Lanka since independence,

Minister Peiris thanked all the nations that have aided the country at this critical juncture. Minister Peiris stated that apart from economic reforms, Sri Lanka was resolved to undertake the necessary political reforms, particularly to incorporate the voices of youth into the governance and parliamentary process.

The next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will be hosted by Samoa in 2024. On the sidelines of the CHOGM meeting, Minister Peiris held a series of bilateral meetings with his counterparts from several Commonwealth nations.

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