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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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CB Governor: Lanka now in a position to pay for essentials

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‘Inflation will not be as high as initially expected’

Inflation will not be as high as initially expected and there are signs of economy stabilising, Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe says.Dr. Weerasinghe said that during the past few months a number of initiatives had been made to improve the economy and they were yielding the desired results.

“During the last review, we thought the inflation would reach 70%. However, now we believe that the inflation will not be that high even with the electricity tariff hike,” he said.

Dr. Weerasinghe said that the severity of the shortage of foreign currency had lessened. The country was now in a position to import fuel, gas and medicines.

“This has become possible because of the decisions we took. Imports have decreased. Export revenue has somewhat increased. Even without short-term loans we have been able to meet our basic needs. This is a positive development,” Dr. Weerasinghe said.The CB Governor said that inflation driven by demand had lessened because the expansion of loans had been curtailed.The supply side inflation too would drop with price and foreign exchange stabilisation.

“Still the inflation is about 60% and that’s why we need to maintain the current high policy rates. Once the government adjusts the fiscal policy, tax, and presents the new budget, things will improve. I think you can also see this. We are seeing positives,” he said.

Dr. Weerasinghe also urged exporters to bring back the foreign exchange earnings, and that the Central Bank had taken steps to ensure that exporters abided by the CB regulations.

“The irregularities due to open accounts, hawala and undial are being controlled and the black market premium is dropping. The foreign exchange liquidity in the banking sector has increased,” he said.

The Governor added that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had made good progress. An IMF delegation was expected to visit Sri Lanka by the end of August to reach a staff-level agreement.After Sri Lanka reached a staff-level agreement with the IMF, it had to start engaging with its creditors on debt restructuring.

“Once we reach an agreement with the IMF the situation will improve further,” he added. (RK)

(See related stories in the business section)

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CID arrests Mervyn 15 years after he forcibly entered Rupavahini

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By Norman Palihawadana

Former Minister Mervyn Silva was yesterday arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for forcibly entering the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) and attacking some employees there in 2007.On 27 Dec. 2007, Silva and his associates entered the SLRC premises and assaulted its news director for not airing a speech he had made in Matara.

SLRC employees held Silva incommunicado for hours, and the police intervened to secure his release. A few weeks later, some of the workers involved in the incident came under goon attacks.Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President at the time.

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Aeroflot affair: flights yet to resume; MP questions status of probe into detention of SU 289

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ByShamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka hadn’t been able yet to convince Russia to resume Aeroflot flights and tourists from there to Sri Lanka suspended in the wake of the detention of SU 289 at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) on the afternoon of June 02, authoritative sources said.

Sri Lanka grappling with an unprecedented foreign exchange shortage desperately needs tourists from an important destination like Russia, which earlier accounted for a sizeable share of the incoming traffic. Responding to The Island queries, sources said that relevant authorities were in the process of looking into the issue at hand.Having summoned Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Moscow Janitha Abeywickrema Liyanage soon after the incident at the BIA, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a stern warning over the incident.

In the wake of the Russian warning, the then government took measures to lift restrictions imposed on the aircraft that was to be detained till June 16. The detained SU 289 was allowed to leave on June 06.Former Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera yesterday (18) told The Island that no holds barred investigation was required to ascertain the truth.

Lawmaker Weerasekera said that the government should inform the Parliament of the progress of the investigation and what steps it intended to take as well as measures already taken to mend relations with Russia.

The retired Navy Chief of Staff said that those in authority should investigate whether a court ruling issued in respect of a case filed by Ireland-based Celestial Aviation Trading Company Ltd., against Aeroflot had been manipulated by interested parties.

It transpired that no sooner High Court Judge, S. M. H. S.P. Sethunge, in the Commercial High Court of the Western Province, Attorney-at-Law Aruna de Silva accompanied a fiscal officer of the same Court to the BIA at lightning speed to deliver the ruling.

Lawyer de Silva appeared for the plaintiff with Avindra Rodrigo, PC, (litigation) of FJ & G.de Saram, leading law firm from the colonial times. The law firm has previously declined to comment on this matter.High Court judge Sethunga is on record as having said that he didn’t order the BIA not to permit Aeroflot SU 289 to take off on the afternoon of June 02.

Attorney-at-Law Dasun Nagasena, Coordinating Secretary to Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC yesterday (18) said that the Justice Ministry recommended action against the Attorney-at-Law to the Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC. Nagasena said that the fiscal officer who served the Justice Ministry had been interdicted, pending further investigations. As regards the lawyer, it would be handled on the advice of the CJ, the official said. Responding to another query, the official said that the Justice Ministry hadn’t been informed yet of the progress of the investigations.

Ports, Shipping and Aviation Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra yesterday said that ministry officials on Wednesday (17) discussed ways and means of resuming Aeroflot flights with relevant authorities, including the Russian embassy. Ruwanchandra said they were hopeful reaching a consensus on this matter soon. The official said so in response to The Island queries.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President Saliya Pieris, PC, yesterday said that they could initiate an inquiry only on the basis of a formal complaint. He said so when The Island asked him whether the BASL initiated an inquiry into the lawyer’s conduct in this regard. The President’s Counsel said that normally the BASL wouldn’t launch an investigation into a matter inquired into by the CJ.

At the time of the BIA incident, Prof. G.L. Peiris had been the minister in charge of foreign affairs. Since the change of government, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has sworn in Ali Sabry, PC, as the new minister of foreign affairs.

Russia has pointed out that action was taken against SU 289 in spite of an assurance given by Sri Lanka in respect of regular flights to Colombo.Sri Lankan Airlines in late March suspended flights to Moscow in the wake of imposition of what the airline called operational restrictions in the wake of war between Russia and Ukraine.

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