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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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MCC inconsistent with Constitution

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AG agrees with Prof. Gunaruwan report

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, has informed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, Project Implementation Agreement, as well as Articles of Association of MCA (Millennium Challenge Act), Sri Lanka, are violative of cerain provisions of the Constitution.

The AG has said so in a 20-page report sent to Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, Secretary to the President.

The President’s Office on Sept. 3, 2020, sought the AG’s opinion on the MCC Compact and related matters in the wake of the Cabinet-appointed Prof. Gunaruwan Committee strongly advising against going ahead with the US initiative. The US sought Sri Lanka’s consent for the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and MCC. The previous government finalised ACSA in early August 2017.

Dr. Jayasundera made available the Gunaruwan report to the AG.

The outgoing US administration in Dec 2020 announced Sri Lanka had been left out of the MCC project.

AG’s Coordinating Officer State Counsel Nishara Jayaratne confirmed the MCC et al were inconsistent with the Constitution and other laws.

The Island,

 however, learns that the AG’s Department on two previous occasions, in letters dated Oct 10, 2018 and June 10, 2019, addressed to Jonathan G. Nash, Chief Operating Officer, MCC, and Director General, External Resources Department, respectively, asserted that the Compact and the Programme Implementation Agreement (PIA) were in line with the Sri Lankan law.

The first letter was sent during Jayantha Jayasuriya’s tenure as the AG and the second under incumbent AG without his approval, sources said. Dappula de Livera succeeded Jayasuriya in April 2019 about a week after the April 21 Easter Sunday carnage. Jayasuriya is the incumbent Chief Justice.

Prof. Gunaruwan’s Committee soon after the last presidential election in Nov 2019 failed to obtain the AG’s Department opinion in spite of making representations through the Prime Minister’s Office.

In the run-up to 2019 parliamentary election, then Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the Attorney General had approved the US project though the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) called it a sell-out.

The following is the text of the letter dated Oct 10, 2018 captioned ‘Legal Status of Proposed MCC Compact signed by Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, Senior Additional Solicitor General, addressed to Jonathan G. Nash, Chief Operating Officer, MCC:

“I refer to your communication dated 27th September, 2018 in respect of the above captioned matter. In this regard, I am made to understand that the delegation from the Government of Sri Lanka was able to have fruitful discussion with the Millennium Challenge Corporation Team in resolving some of the outstanding issues.

“Having gleaned through the proposed Millennium Challenge Compact, the draft Program Implementation Agreement (PIA) as well as the Points of Discussion (without prejudice) between the negotiating parties which has been made available to me, I wish to at the very outset opine that no existing laws of Sri Lanka inhibit the Compact and the PIA being implemented in Sri Lanka. If I may elucidate further, the covenants of the Compact and the PIA do not infringe any existing domestic law or any previous undertakings given by the Government of Sri Lanka. It is acknowledged that the Compact imposes legal obligations on both parties to the Agreement

“Further, consequent to the negotiations and discussions had between parties, it is proposed that the Government of Sri Lanka would seek the passage of a law in Parliament to establish the MCA- Sri Lanka as a non-profit Company limited by guarantee under the Companies Act No.07 of 2007 to implement the provisions of the Compact. It is envisaged that the proposed enactment would encompass the Compact and the PIA as Annexures, which would form an integral part of this enactment.

“Thus, I am of the view that the passage of the said enactment by Parliament would result in the Compact and the PIA, having the parity of status of a domestic law in Sri Lanka.

“In the Context of the above, it is requisite that Section 7.1 of Article 7 of the Compact referring to the provisions on Entry Into Force, would be revised with the deletion of the sentence pertaining to the Compact prevailing over the domestic laws of Sri Lanka.

“However, in order to assuage any concerns with regard to the implementation of the Compact, by an unlikely event of a legislation in the future which may impinge or infringe the said compact, upon notification by the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media (the relevant Ministry) of this fact, a legal opinion would be tendered that the proposed legislation if proceeded with would violate the covenants of the Compact. This would enable the relevant Ministry to forward its observations to the Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament, that the Attorney-General has opined that the proposed Bill if enacted would violate the Compact.

“In the circumstances, I believe that the aforementioned matters would confirm the legal status of the Compact and its entry into force.”

“Copies were sent to Ms. Caroline Nguyen, Managing Director- Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America Millennium Challenge Corporation and J. Charitha Ratwatte, Head of Policy Development and Chief of Party MCC- Sri Lanka Project.”

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Environmentalist accuses Govt. of resorting to trickery to hand over 800,000 acres to pvt. companies

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ is a psychological operation to counter people’s resistance to a move to hand over chena and grasslands to large companies, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara said yesterday.

Chamikara claimed that the government had earmarked 800,000 acres of land to be given to corporations, and those lands would mainly consist of forests and areas used for chena cultivations and to feed cattle by small scale farmers.

“The Gama Samaga Pilisandara is an attempt to misguide the people by giving them false promises. The government tells people they could cultivate lands belonging to the Forest Conservation Department and instructs officials not to punish people who send cattle into forests. People walk away feeling good but a few months later they will find that these same lands handed over to big companies.”

They had conducted a survey on the lands that had been given to corporations by the government during 2020 Most of those lands in fact were those used by cattle herders and chena cultivators, he said.

For example 70,000 acres in Demaliya and Wandama were being given to a company engaged in sugarcane cultivation, and almost all those lands were those used by small scale farmers and cattle herders, Chamikara said. Among the lands that were given were those earmarked for those displaced by the Uma Oya project. The previous administrations tried to provide irrigation water to those lands through the Handapanagala scheme.

Chamikara said: “Another 62,000 acres have been earmarked in Moneragala, Ampara and Badulla districts for sugarcane cultivation. 80% of these lands are chena cultivations. In Rambaken Oya 5,426 acres have been earmarked for 15 companies to carry out various agro projects and most of these lands are now used by small scale cattle herders. Recently, the Department of Agriculture wrote to the Forest Conservation Department requesting that 80,000 acres in Moneragala, Anuradhapura and Badulla districts be released. These lands are to be used for corn cultivation. The Forest Conservation Department then asked the Department of Agriculture to identify the lands and we know that these lands for the most part are those used by small scale cattle herders and chena cultivators.”

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Contempt of Court case against GMOA President re-fixed for hearing on March 03 and 10

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By Chitra Weerarathne

The Court of Appeal yesterday re-fixed for hearing on March 3 and March 10, the Contempt of Court application against the President of the Government Medical Officers’ Association Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya.

Counsel Ravindranath Dabare said that his client Dr. Padeniya was under self-quarantine and was unable to attend Court.

Dr. Padeniya was summoned for Contempt of Court under Article 105/3 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka for allegedly having criticised a Superior Court ruling in respect of the admission of students to the Sri Lanka Institute of Technology and Medicine, Malabe, at a public rally on April 7, 2016, disrespecting a Supreme Court order pertaining to the enrolment of a student in the Private Medical College, which will ultimately lead to an MBBS degree.

The Court of Appeal bench comprised Justice Arjuna Obeysekera (President) and Dr. Mayadunne Corea.

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