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COPE examines highway robberies at SLTB in 2018

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Corruption: Spotlight on state-run bus service

It has been revealed at the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) that the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) spent Rs. 89 million in excess of the amount of funds allocated for the purchase of computers in 2018.

The SLTB had planned to purchase 139 computers and 74 laptops for the year 2018 at an estimated cost of Rs. 15,290,000, but acquired 800 computers and 47 laptops at a cost of Rs. 113,303,750. As a result, a staggering Rs. 89,977,500 was spent on the purchase of computers in 2018, in excess of the amount allocated through the General Accounts of the Transport Board, the COPE revealed.

This disclosure was made at the COPE meeting chaired by Prof. Charitha Herath, Member of Parliament. The Committee met on Wednesday (06) to examine the Auditor General’s Reports for the years 2017 and 2018 and its current performance in Parliament.

The COPE chairman expressed his displeasure at spending so much of money without following due process. Condemning the practice, he said that an institution which was supposed to serve the ordinary people, spending money in that manner could not be justified on any grounds. It was also disclosed that an agreement had been entered into with a private company to purchase equipment required to main tain the system required for cameras and GPS for 125 luxury buses at a cost of Rs. 33,628,840 . However, all except for a few of the devices were not working properly. Officials present at the Committee said that the employees of those buses had deliberately damaged the equipment and that an investigation was being carried out. The officials also promised to submit a report as soon as the investigation was completed. They said that if the warranty period had not expired, measures would be taken to get all equipment not in working condition repaired by the relevant company.

Attention was also drawn to the fact that the bank loan of Rs. 150,000,000 obtained on 24 December 2018 without the Minister of Finance approval. The COPE chairman pointed out that such a loan amount could not be obtained by a few officials. Therefore, COPE recommended that immediate action be taken in that regard.

The COPE also questioned the officials present regarding the SLTB’s failure to present the annual reports for the years 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 in Parliament. Officials pointed out that there were some concerns regarding printing during that period. However, the annual reports for 2017 and 2018 had already been submitted to the Ministry, officials said. Accordingly, the COPE ordered that all those reports be tabled in Parliament before 31 December.

According to the procurement plan for the year 2018, 1000 electronic bus ticket machines were to be purchased at a cost of Rs. 35 million with the approval of the Board of Directors. However, in the same year, Rs. 75,900,000 was spent on 2000 electronic bus ticket machines. Accordingly, 1000 electronic bus ticket machines were purchased without approval, and the COPE noted that those machines had not met the intended objectives. Therefore, it was recommended that a report be submitted to the COPE within a month in that regard.

Also discussed were the issues of several posts in the Board of Directors, the 5,921 buses in operation, the number of buses currently out of service and 2,742 buses which are 10 years old.

Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, State Minister D. V. Chanaka, Members of Parliament Rauff Hakeem, Jagath Pushpakumara, Madhura Withanage, and Premnath C. Dolawatte were present at the meeting. Member of Parliament (Dr.) Harsha de Silva and other officials joined the meeting via zoom technology. The Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and other officials of the Sri Lanka Transport Board were also in attendance at the meeting.



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Prelates launch legal battle against New Fortress

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by A. J. A. Abeynayake

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera yesterday filed a fundamental rights petition before the Supreme Court against the transfer of shares of the Yugadanavi LNG Power Plant in Kerawalapitiya to a US energy firm.

The petition seeks an order preventing the US firm New Fortress Inc. from obtaining the LNG supply contract.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, other members of the Cabinet, West Coast Power Limited, the owner of the 310 MW Yugadanavi Power Plant, the US-based company New Fortress Energy and the Attorney General are among the 54 respondents named in the FR petition.

The petition requests the court to issue an order to nullify the Cabinet decision on transferring state-owned shares of the Yugadanavi power plant to the US company.

The petition states that the decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers to transfer 40% stake in the company owning the Yugadanavi Power Plant to the US firm in question was not justified. It also says the Cabinet failed to focus on issues such as the national economy and national security before taking the relevant decisions.

The petitioners have requested the Court to declare that their fundamental rights as well as the rights of the entire citizenry and their future generations guaranteed to them under Article 12(1) of the Constitution have been infringed and/or are continuing to be infringed and/or are in imminent danger of being infringed by the actions of the Respondents with regard to the Yugadanavi deal.

They have requested the Court to quash the decision of the Cabinet authorising the procurement of LNG from the 53rd respondent – the New Fortress Energy.

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Financial crisis so acute teachers’ demands cannot be met – SLPP Chairman

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300,000 entering schools for first time this year among those victimised

By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP Chairman and Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris yesterday (18) emphasised that the worsening financial crisis experienced by the country was so acute the government wasn’t in a position to grant the salary increase sought by school principals and teachers.

Prof. Peiris, who served as the Education Minister till August this year said that the public realised the government lacked the wherewithal to meet the striking teachers’ demands. The academic said so at the weekly SLPP media briefing at the party office in Battaramulla.

Responding to media queries, Prof. Peiris stressed that the government expected the striking teachers to facilitate re-opening of schools on a staggered basis beginning Oct 21 (Thursday). The Minister indicated that striking unions shouldn’t expect to settle the salary issue on their terms as the government lacked the means even if it wanted to do so.

Referring to the rapid deterioration of public finances in the wake of Covid-19 eruption in early 2020, Prof. Peiris said that Budget 2022 was presented amidst an extremely difficult time.

The top SLPP spokesperson reiterated the government’s commitment to grant strikers’ demand in two stages as announced by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at a meeting with striking unions at Temple Trees. Premier Rajapaksa on Oct 12 told a delegation of striking unions that the government would pay one third of the increase through the Budget 2022 and the remaining two in the following year’s budget.

The Premier’s Office quoted him as having told the delegates that the sharp drop in government income deprived the administration of an opportunity to grant the increase. Striking unions want the government to settle the issues immediately in one go.

Prof. Peiris appealed to those who have been on strike for 100 days to resume teaching. The student community really suffered due to the Covid 19 eruption and further delay in resuming studies would be catastrophic, Prof. Peiris said, underscoring the importance of restoring normalcy as about 300,000 would go to schools for the first time in their life.

Prof. Peiris said that schools that conduct classes from Grade 1 to 5 and those with less than 200 students would be re-opened on Oct 21. According to the minister, approximately 3,800 schools would be re-opened as scheduled.

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Lankan authorities must end violence and discrimination against Muslims, says AI

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Kyle Ward, AI’s Deputy Secretary General

The Lankan Muslim community has suffered consistent discrimination, harassment and violence, since 2013, culminating in the adoption of government policies explicitly targeting the minority group, said Amnesty International, in a new report published yesterday.

The report titled From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Harassment, Discrimination and Violence in Sri Lanka, traces the development of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka since 2013 amid surging Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. This discrimination has evolved from a rising series of mob attacks committed with impunity, into government policies explicitly discriminating against Muslims, including the forced cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and current proposals to ban both the niqab (face veil) and madrasas (religious schools).

“While anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new, the situation has regressed sharply in recent years. Incidents of violence against Muslims, committed with the tacit approval of the authorities, have occurred with alarming frequency. This has been accompanied by the adoption by the current government of rhetoric and policies that have been openly hostile to Muslims,” said Kyle Ward, Amnesty International’s Deputy Secretary General.

“The Sri Lankan authorities must break this alarming trend and uphold their duty to protect Muslims from further attacks, hold perpetrators accountable and end the use of government policies to target, harass and discriminate against the Muslim community.”

Incidents of violence towards Muslims have risen in frequency and intensity since 2013, with a series of flashpoints in which attackers and those responsible for hate speech have enjoyed impunity for their actions.

This escalating hostility began with the anti-halal campaign of that year, when Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups successfully lobbied to end the halal certification of food, which demarks food permissible for consumption by Muslims, in accordance with Islamic scripture and customs. The campaign gave rise to a number of attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses, with the lack of accountability for those responsible acting as a signal to others that acts of violence against Muslims could be committed with impunity.

The following year, anti-Muslim riots in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama began after a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group held a rally in the town. Here too, perpetrators of violence enjoyed impunity and authorities failed to deliver justice to victims.

Despite a new government in 2015, which promised justice and accountability for ethnic and religious minorities, attacks against Muslims continued to occur. Shortly after the election, anti-Muslim mob violence flared in the southern coastal town of Ginthota in 2017, while similar violence was seen in 2018 in Digana and Ampara, towns in the central and eastern provinces respectively. Not only did the perpetrators escape accountability, victims and witnesses alleged the police and armed forces did not offer sufficient protection or act to prevent the violence.

Hostility towards Muslims increased markedly after more than 250 people were killed in coordinated suicide attacks committed by a local Islamist group and claimed by the Islamic State on Easter Sunday 2019.

Following these attacks, on 13 May 2019, Muslims in several towns in the North-Western Province of Sri Lanka came under attack during Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Muslim calendar. Mosques across the country were also attacked and a spate of ‘hate speech’ posts and anti-Muslim vitriol was seen on social media. Emergency regulations rushed through by the authorities were also used to arbitrarily arrest hundreds of Muslims in the wake of the attacks.

Since taking office, the current government has continued to target and scapegoat the Muslim population to distract from political and economic issues.

This was evident in the mandatory cremation policy on the disposal of the bodies of Covid-19 victims, which was implemented despite cremation being expressly forbidden in Islam, and a lack of scientific evidence to substantiate the claims that burying victims would further the spread of the disease.

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