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Controversial Hiru interview with SLSI DG: Unedited YouTube video self-explanatory



MP Alagiyawanna says absence of coordination among govt. institutions pathetic

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Hiru journalist Panuka Rajapaksa yesterday (30) told The Island that he had been quite surprised when the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) recorded his statement on April 28 in respect of an interview telecast on April 3 with Director General, Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI), Dr. Siddhika G. Senaratne, who acknowledged the SLSI suppressed the identities of those selling contaminated food items.

Stating that Hiru had fully cooperated with the police investigation, Rajapaksa said that when he inquired from those sent to record his statement and that of cameraman Vajira Hansa Mahesen whether the CID questioned Dr. Senaratne, they said ‘No.’

Subsequently, Hiru team accosted Dr. Senaratne outside her office where she said the police had visited her office to record a statement later.

The unedited video of the interview with Dr Senaratne was available on YouTube. At one point Dr. Senaratne asks the interviewer to delete her response to a particular question.

According to Rajapaksa, they conducted the interview on April 1 following the detection of high aflatoxins levels in imported stocks of coconut oil. A section of the media took up the issue after All Ceylon Traditional Coconut Oil Producers’ Association (ACTCOPA) claimed unbridled corruption in the import of coconut oil.

Rajapaksa explained that during the interview Dr. Senaratne had declared that though it was not compulsory for those who market coconut oil to obtain SLSI approval, only one of them had secured the SLSI certification. Now, that particular product had been declared toxic and unsafe for human consumption, Rajapaksa said.

The Information Department on Thursday (29) said that the sale of coconut oil sold under N-joy brand had been prohibited and the company warehouse at Grandpass had been sealed.

Rajapaksa said that Hiru had handed over the unedited version of the interview to the police. Dr. Senaratne is on record as having said that the SLSI had detected the aflatoxins in imported coconut oil even before the Health Ministry but chose to keep quiet as disclosure of such information would be detrimental to the interests of some companies. Dr. Senaratne also revealed that there was a list of others selling harmful food items to consumers, Rajapaksa said, adding that the media should take a common stand on the issue at hand.

There couldn’t be any issue with information revealed as Dr. Senaratne herself had voluntarily made the shocking disclosure in her capacity as the DG, SLSI, Rajapaksa said. She asked for a little time to take remedial measures as regards those marketing contaminated food though she was at the helm of that institute since January 2019, the interviewer told The Island.

The SLSI comes under the purview of the newly formed Technology Ministry. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa holds the technology portfolio. The SLSI is among 13 public sector institutes coming under the purview of the Technology Ministry. Former head of ICTA Jayantha de Silva serves as the Technology Secretary.

The Island, in terms of the Right to Information Act sought information from Dr. Mrs. Siddhika G. Senaratne and Senior Deputy Director W.W.L.P.P. Wanigasinghe, SLSI where they provided a list of contaminated food items to Secretary to the Technology Ministry? And whether they were aware of a civil society organization on Thursday (29) moving Court of Appeal in respect of the failure on the part of the SLSI to protect consumers?

The Island also asked whether Secretary to the Technology Ministry sought an explanation from DG as regards her controversial statement to ‘Hiru’.

Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) in early April directed the Health Ministry to undertake a comprehensive study on contaminated food imports as the responsibility lay with it. The Communications Department of the Parliament quoted COPA Chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana as having emphasized the urgent need to enhance testing facilities. Former COPA Chairman Lasantha Alagiyawanna, MP asserted that the situation deteriorated due to the absence of proper coordination among various facilities tasked with testing food items.

The issue at hand was discussed when COPA summoned Health Ministry for examination of 2017 and 2018 Auditor General reports as well as the current situation.

Customs spokesperson Sudantha Silva didn’t respond to out calls yesterday. The Island wanted to seek clarification as regards procedures adopted in releasing imported unrefined coconut oil pending safety tests conducted by relevant authorities.

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Govt. eases restrictions on foreigners as Covid-19 rips through country



DGHS, IGP informed of SLTDA decision

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In what many thought was a shocking decision, the Tourism Ministry yesterday (16) declared that tourists would be able to travel across the country despite movement restrictions in force since last Thursday (14) to control the rapid spread of Covid-19.

 Tourism Ministry, in a statement issued yesterday afternoon (16) quoted Director General of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Dhammika Wijesinhe as having said that the foreigners in the country could travel in what she called a bio bubble. Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr Asela Gunawardena and IGP C.D. Wickremaratne had been informed of the arrangements, she said.

The announcement was made as the government struggled to cope with an alarming increase in the number of Covid-19 positive cases as well as deaths. It came close on the heels of Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga declaring that the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) wouldn’t be closed. When The Island sought an explanation from the Tourism Ministry how such a decision was taken regardless of tough quarantine laws and health guidelines in place to control the spread of rampaging Covid-19 epidemic, an authoritative official said that the Ministry issued a statement received from the SLTDA.

DG Wijesinghe said that those individuals and firms responsible for bringing in tourists had been instructed to strictly follow health guidelines or face the consequences.

Declaring that tourism has been categorized as an export industry, DG Wijesinghe said that the SLTDA stepped in the wake of complaints that foreigners experienced difficulties as a result of travel restrictions imposed in the wake of the latest Covid-19 eruption.

The Tourism Ministry further quoted the official as having stressed that arrangements were now in place to ensure tourists could travel in a bio bubble without hindrance.

Police headquarters said that after the lifting of ‘lockdown’ on Monday at 4 am, travel restrictions from 11 pm to 4 am on a daily basis during May would continue.

GMOF (Government Medical Officers’ Forum) spokesperson Dr. Rukshan Bellana said that the government seemed hell-bent on causing further chaos. Having allowed influential parties to bring in foreigners for quarantine in the country, the government caused the deterioration and now restrictions were done away at the risk of further intensification of the spread of the virus.

Dr. Bellana recalled how the government permitted the England cricket tour of Sri Lanka to go ahead in January this year at a time the UK was in a grave crisis over a new deadlier variant of Covid-19 spreading there and also allowed groups of Ukrainians in when Ukraine was in lockdown.

Responding to another query, Dr. Bellana pointed out that the shocking declaration that restrictions would not apply to foreigners meant that the government was yet to comprehend the gravity of the situation.

Dr. Bellana said that the government seemed to be blind to the fact that the death toll was on the verge of passing 1,000 and the cases nearing 150,000. If those at the helm of administration really believed tourists could move across the country safely in bio bubbles let them create the same for others, Dr. Bellana said.

According to the GMOF, the government was pulling in different directions in the absence of a cohesive strategy to meet the daunting Covid-19 challenge. The failure to understand the need to apply the same set of quarantine laws and health guidelines to all was one of the primary reasons for the deterioration of the problem.  Dr. Bellana asked how the government did away with restrictions while the doctors reported the detection of at least six Covid-19 variants.

Dr. Bellana said that he expected experts would oppose the government’s short-sighted policies.

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Gaza conflict: Parliament calls for truce; govt. silent yet



By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP National List MP Dr. Suren Raghavan, on behalf of the Sri Lanka-Palestinian Parliament Friendship Association has urged the government and the Opposition to join the international community in calling for an immediate cessation of violence in the latest conflict involving Israel and Hamas.

The recently formed Association in a statement issued on May 13 called for cessation of hostilities in Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Association represents both government and the Opposition.

Citing international media reports, the Association expressed concerns over suffering of civilians on both sides due to military action during the month of Ramazan. Dr. Raghavan, the only SLFPer accommodated on the SLPP National List made reference to indiscriminate rocket attacks carried out by Hamas and Israeli air strikes.

The Foreign Ministry yesterday (16) acknowledged the government was yet to issue a statement on the situation in Gaza.

According to international media reports, an Israeli airstrike on Saturday destroyed a high-rise building that housed The Associated Press offices in the Gaza Strip. The airstrike came about an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to leave the building. The building houses the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments.

Meanwhile, Israel Solidarity Movement (ISM) strongly condemned Hamas for attacking civilian targets in Israel. Calling Hamas a terrorist organization, the ISM pointed out that terrorists used Palestinians as a human shield while attacking Israeli civilians.  Pointing out that Hamas actions had placed the Palestinian community in peril, the IMS recalled how Sri Lanka suffered during the war against the LTTE. Making reference to sufferings caused by 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, the ISM stood solidly with those who backed whatever Israeli action taken to neutralize the Hamas challenge.

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Central Bank: No immediate threat of inflation rise from monetary expansion



By Sanath Nanayakkare

Sri Lanka was currently experiencing high monetary expansion, but the Central Bank did not expect an acceleration of inflation in the near future, Economic Research Director at the Central Bank Dr. Chandranath Amarasekara told The Island yesterday.

Answering a query on the broad money growth and its wider implications, Dr. Amarasekera said, “At the end of 2020, broad money expanded by 23.4% compared to the end 2019. The extraordinary circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic required increased credit to the government from Sri Lanka’s banking system, and the historically low interest rate structure also resulted in a pickup in the growth of credit to the private sector in the second half of the year. This policy driven expansion in broad money supply was essential for the country to dampen the effects of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”

“As the Sri Lankan economy is operating below its potential, we do not project a demand-driven acceleration in inflation in the near term. Even the relatively high economic growth projected for 2021 will be partly driven by the low base in the previous year, and therefore, it is unlikely that there will be an overheating of the economy in 2021 as well, although we envisage a monetary expansion of 21%.”

“However, as the authority responsible for the money stock of the country, the Central Bank remains cautious about any excessive expansion in money growth. Nevertheless, the close relationship between money and inflation that we used to see in the past is no longer in existence. For example, during the most part of a period of single digit inflation that Sri Lanka experienced since 2009, broad money growth has remained above 15%. The breakdown of the close relationship between money growth and inflation is also one reason for the Central Bank to move away from a monetary targeting framework towards a flexible inflation targeting framework to conduct monetary policy. Anchoring of inflation expectations has also helped curb the inflationary effects of exchange rate movements as well. Many other countries have also experienced similar situations.”

“When the economy recovers and demand conditions improve, the Central Bank will take appropriate action to make necessary policy adjustments to ensure the continuation of inflation at the desirable levels of mid-single digits without disrupting the growth process,” Dr. Amarasekara said.

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