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Midweek Review

Formidable New Year Challenges

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gestures during a recent meeting at Rawanakanda, a village at Imbulpe, Balangoda. Senior Advisor to President Lalith Weeratunga looks on (Pic by Jeevan Chandimal/PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Last Monday’s briefing at the Presidential Secretariat (old parliament) on the status of the war-winning armed forces revealed the pathetic state of affairs during the yahapalana administration. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chaired the Defence Ministry review which lasted several hours. After Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne addressed the gathering, respective service chiefs explained the crisis experienced by the armed forces during the 2015 to 2019 period.

Navy Chief VA Nishantha Ulugetenne and Airforce Chief AVM Sudarshana Pathirana explained how they were deprived of the required support to maintain available assets. There hadn’t been a similar meeting since the change of government in Nov 2019. The then government allowed the armed forces to deteriorate. The rapid deterioration had been all part of the yahapalana strategy meant to undermine the armed forces. Downsizing the Army had been one crucial aspect and certainly not the only issue at that time.

The evaluation revealed that since Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s departure from the Defence Ministry in January 2015 the new government held up even the basic projects. Having won the January 8, 2015 presidential election, Sirisena named one-time environment and renewable energy Secretary B.M.U.D. Basnayake as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (11.01.2015 – 08.09.2015). Subsequently, Karunasena Hettiarachchi (09.09.2015 – 05.07.2015), Kapila Waidyaratne (06.07.2017 – 30.10.2018), Hemasiri Fernando (30.10.2018 – 25.04.2019) and Gen. Shantha Kottegoda (24.04.2019 – 19-11.2019) received appointment as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, amidst the massive turmoil caused by the Easter carnage.

If not for the Easter carnage, President Sirisena, now an SLPP lawmaker (Polonnaruwa district) wouldn’t have named a retired military officer as Secretary Defence. The yahapalana administration appointed a retired DIG as the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) – a special post created by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in late 2006, on the advice of the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to oversee all intelligence services, including the SIS (State Intelligence Service).

The Rajapaksas created the post of CNI, by way of a cabinet paper, especially for Maj. Gen. Kapila Hendavitharana, in the wake of his retirement. Hendavitharana, who had been deeply involved in clandestine operations against terrorists, knew what was going on in the war zone, elimination of high profile LTTE targets, or overall attempts to intercept LTTE arms shipments on the high seas et al. Even after the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009, the CNI continued to play a significant role in the previous Rajapaksa government’s security strategy.

 The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo weakened the security setup. Those who held high positions felt no great desire for sustaining higher level of security. One-time Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) probing the Easter Sunday carnage that security of a country did not depend on its Defence Secretary. There were various structures and it was a matter of collective action, Fernando, served as the Defence Secretary when Ranil Wickremesinghe managed a highly flawed ceasefire agreement arranged by the Norwegians said.

Fernando further said: “It is not mandatory for the Defence Secretary to have an intimate knowledge of the role played by the Ministry. If that is the case, a fisherman should be the Secretary to the Ministry of Fisheries, and the Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture should be a farmer.”

The yahapalana leadership crippled the armed forces. The Geneva betrayal in early Oct 2015 stunned the victorious armed forces with some senior officers denied the opportunity to visit some countries. Denial of visas was part of international measures taken against Sri Lanka. That particular line of action culminated with the US imposing a travel ban in Feb 2020 on Army Chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva.

Sri Lanka faces a daunting task in managing human rights issue in the New Year. With Geneva sessions scheduled for Feb-March next year, the government will have to work hard on a strategy to meet the threat. Successive governments obviously neglected Geneva for different reasons.

If yahapalanaya continued the national security would have suffered irreparable damage. The results would have been catastrophic and everlasting. In spite of severe economic difficulties caused by the rampaging corona pandemic, the government will have to sustain the armed forces in readiness to face any eventuality. The end of the war over a decade ago shouldn’t be a reason to weaken the armed forces or allow their capabilities to deteriorate.

 

A dubious ‘paniya’ to contain rampaging corona that made politicos laughing stocks

 The government’s primary concern should be tackling coronavirus, now threatening to overwhelm the national economy. Failure to bring the epidemic under control early this year can be quite disastrous as the economy is already in dire straits. Cabinet Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi and State Minister Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle spearheaded government efforts to contain the epidemic whereas a easily gullible section of the government promoted an ayurveda ‘paniya’ or syrup, allegedly prepared by using some secret ingredients, in addition to nutmeg and bees honey, thereby prompting foolish Sri Lankans in their thousands to beat a path to its producer’s abode in search of the much touted miracle concoction, causing chaos in the area.

The government went to the extent of allowing the Kapurala-turned Ayurveda practitioner Dhammika Bandara to hand over bottles of ‘paniya’ to several lawmakers, including the Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, in Parliament. Recent scenes at Hettimulla in Kegalle where people gathered outside the kapurala’s abode to collect a bottle of the ‘paniya’ being touted by him as a cure for the deadly coronavirus were hilarious, if not for the grand irony of desperate people seeking a miracle.

Wanniarachchi was among those politicians who merrily consumed spoonfuls of the dubious syrup. Many eyebrows were raised several weeks ago when she, accompanied by two ministers, Prasanna Ranatunga and Udaya Gammanpila, threw pots of water into the Kalu Ganga as an occult cure. Dhammika Bandara wasn’t the only Ayurveda practitioner to exploit gullible public.

 With the total number of corona positive cases fast approaching 38,000 and deaths nearly 180, the government will have to ensure propaganda or foolish efforts didn’t further deteriorate the situation. To Dr. Fernandopulle’s credit, she never hesitated to plainly explain the risks involved in such dubious projects.

 

Hijaz, Mahara riots; corona cremations

The government can expect stepped up international pressure, egged on by interested parties over its decision to cremate bodies of all corona victims. Already the UN intervened in a purely internal matter of Sri Lanka several weeks ago with its Resident Representative Hanaa Singer in a much publicised act drawing the attention of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the need to allow the Muslims to bury their dead. We wonder whether any UN official will dare try such a stunt with a country like India for example. With Muslim parliamentarians except Mohammed Muzammil of the National Freedom Front (NFF) taking a common stand on the issue at hand, the international community with its primary agenda to humiliate this country is likely to intensify pressure on Sri Lanka.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague recently ruled in a 180 page tome that British troops committed war crimes in Iraq. It determined that Iraqi detainees in the custody of British were tortured, killed and even raped by UK troops. But the icing on the cake is that ICC will not prosecute any of the culprits! So while the self-appointed international community and the entrenched UN establishment are ever ready to whip a country like Sri Lanka on even mere trumped up charges, they allow countries like the US, the UK, Australia or even their new darling India to break through that law net they have woven for their own advantage

The SJB and National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) led by former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya want Muslims allowed burying their victims of coronavirus.

The government can also expect some sections of the international community to take up the continuing detention of Attorney-at-Law Hijaz Hizbullah over his alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks as well as the recent Mahara Prison riots that claimed the lives of 11 remand prisoners and caused injuries to over 100 others. Contrary to Prisons Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s claim, the post mortems revealed some indeed died as a result of gunshot injuries.

Sri Lanka Core Group raised Hizbullah’s detention last September. The issue is expected to be raised at the forthcoming Geneva sessions in Feb-March 2021 unless the government granted him bail before the Geneva session.

The controversy was caused several weeks ago when Riyaj Bathiudeen, brother of All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen, arrested along with Hizbullah also in connection with the same case received bail under controversial circumstances. Media furore led to the Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, calling for internal investigation into the conduct of the CID officers, including DIG, CID and Director, CID as regards the release of Riyaj before the high profile vote on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

Unlike any previous AG, De Livera received unprecedented media coverage due to his style of doing things. Having captured media attention during the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) that dealt with Treasury bond scams perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, De Livera succeeded AG Jayantha Jayasuriya about a week after the 2019 Easter attacks. Jayasuriya served as the AG from Feb 10, 2016 to April 29, 2019.

Now the AG’s Department is under the scrutiny of P CoI probing the Easter attacks with President’s Counsel de Livera’s stand on two law officers accused of negligence in respect of TID (Terrorist Investigation Department) probe on Zahran Hashim questioned by Shavendra Silva, PC, on behalf of Deputy Solicitor General Azard Navavi. The question is whether Zahran’s murderous project could have been thwarted if the AG’s Department acted swiftly on the TID file received in early June 2017. Instead, the department sat on it until the Zahran-led National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) carried out the suicide bombing campaign. AG’s Coordinating Officer State Counsel Nishara Jayaratne, who had been in the media limelight, has been hauled up before the P CoI over the matter with questions being raised as regards the AG’s opinion on police investigations. There had never been a case like this that really dealt with the AG’s department.

 

An extraordinary tiff

The political leadership should keep an eye on the situation involving the AG’s Department and the Police. In fact, newly appointed Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera should be deeply concerned about the recent developments, particularly the AG’s high profile accusations in respect of IGP C.D. Wickremeratne’s culpability in respect of the Mahara Prison riots.

The relations between the AG’s Department and the police turned for the worse after the former intervened in an inquiry following accusations over the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) dealing in heroin. Retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis, who, in his capacity as the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) participated in a meeting chaired by De Livera, also attended by the then Acting IGP Wickremeratne at the AG’s office, where instructions were issued to expedite the investigations. Alwis recently received appointment as Secretary to the Ministry of Public Security.

The AG accused the IGP of turning a blind eye to specific instructions he issued in April 2020 to address congestion in prisons. The accusation was made in the presence of Justice Minister Sabry and CJ Jayasuriya at the recent event at Hulftsdorp. However, this accusation should be examined against the backdrop of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa having squarely faulted the Government Analyst, the Attorney General and the Police for congestion in prisons and therefore the Mahara riots.

The government’s efforts to improve law and order primarily depend on the AG and the police working together, closely. The recent meetings between Public Security Minister Weerasekera and Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith followed by the Minister and AG De Livera as regards the status of Easter Sunday investigation highlighted the absurdity of the situation. The AG’s Department and the police responsible for the successful conclusion of the Easter Sunday probe are under scrutiny for their own lapses. The issue at hand is whether Easter Sunday carnage could have been averted if the AG’s Department acted on Zahran’s file received in June 2017. And also even if the AG blundered, whether the NTJ plan could have been thwarted if Chief of State Intelligence Service Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena took meaningful measures after having received specific intelligence on April 4, 2019 regarding the impending NTJ attack.

 

Absence of political stability and unbridled corruption

The continuing absence of political stability is certainly a matter for serious concern. In spite of the passage of the 20th Amendment that was touted as the panacea for instability blamed on the 19th enacted in 2015, the situation is dicey. The ruling coalition effected some changes to the original 20th Amendment following protests by some members though the government retained provision to enable dual citizens to enter parliament. Now a fresh controversy has erupted in the wake of obvious disagreement among government partners, both in and outside parliament over the push for Provincial Council polls ahead of agreed formulation of a new Constitution.

A section of the government and those in the Pohottuwa Camp believe the PC polls should be conducted even under the old system without further delay whereas others want polls on hold until a new Constitution is in place. A nine-member expert committee headed by Romesh de Silva, PC tasked with formulating a new draft Constitution before Sinhala and Tamil New Year is worried about the government going ahead with PC polls. The committee is of the view early PC polls can be detrimental to its efforts. The government will have to decide soon on this matter without allowing further controversy.

 

Growing economic challenge and Parliament’s continuing failure

 Press statements issued by the Communication Department of Parliament pertaining to COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) and COPA (Committee on Public Enterprises) during Nov-Dec 2020 budget debate revealed the sheer negligence on the part of the House to ensure financial transparency and stability. COPE and COPA inquiries revealed how cash strapped successive governments allowed unbridled waste, corruption and irregularities. Parliament, as an institution, should least now review its primary responsibilities pertaining to public finance and introduction of new laws. The failure on its part to act on forensic reports on Treasury bond scams and also to conduct much delayed debate on the P CoI report on the same received in January 2018.

With the economy in dire straits, Parliament now in the hands of the SLPP should accept responsibility for restoring financial integrity in the public sector as well as public-private ventures. It should be of pivotal importance against the backdrop of growing international pressure on the country and the country experiencing a sharp drop in revenue by way of garment exports, tourism and foreign remittance.



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Midweek Review

Sinharaja World Heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

The IUCN World Heritage Conservation Outlook Assessment in its latest assessment cycle of 252 global Natural World Heritage Sites (released on 09 December 2020), has assessed Sinharaja Natural World Heritage Site (SNWHS), the icon of biodiversity conservation in Sri Lanka, as “significant concern”. What it simply means is that the site’s conservation values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration. It recommends that significant additional conservation measures are needed to maintain and/or restore values over the medium to long term. It is, indeed, not a satisfactory report card even before the more recent conservation issues hit the headlines of the national news media.

The IUCN World Heritage Outlook regularly assesses the conservation prospects of all natural World Heritage sites: designated as such because they harbour irreplaceable ecosystems and provide habitats critical to the survival of globally threatened species. It identifies the most pressing conservation issues affecting natural World Heritage sites and the actions needed to remedy those issues, thereby informing the international community, including IUCN, its Members, and partners. IUCN’s assessment shows whether current conservation measures of a given site are sufficient, if more must be done, and where.

Examining the successes and challenges of preserving these landscapes of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ is an indicator of the effectiveness of protected and conserved areas. It comes at a time when the international community seeks to measure progress towards global biodiversity targets and defines the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. These sites are globally recognized as the most significant natural areas on Earth and their conservation must meet the high standards of the World Heritage Convention. Our ability to conserve these sites is thus a litmus test for the broader success of conservation worldwide.

Outlook Assessment of Sri Lankan Natural World Heritage Sites

The IUCN has been conducting this global assessment of natural (and mixed) world heritage sites using standardized methodology for protected area assessments, once in every three years, since 2014. As such, the first cycle of assessment was carried out in 2014, the second in 2017 and the third in 2020. The results of the current World Heritage Outlook 3 (in November 2020) indicate that for 63% of all sites (159), the conservation outlook is either ‘good’ or ‘good with some concerns’, while for 30% (75 sites including both Sinharaja and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka), the outlook is of ‘significant concern’ and for 7% (18 sites) the conservation outlook is assessed as ‘critical’.

The outlook assessment makes a detailed assessment based on the evaluation of three main criteria i) Current state and trend of values of the World Heritage Property, ii) overall threats and iii) overall protection and management. The 2020 outlook assessment has placed Sinharaja WHS in the data deficient and low concern for current state and trend of values (no. i above) suggesting that since new discoveries of plants and animals are still being made, its true biodiversity value is yet to be realized, but it is of low concern. However, its assessment of overall threat (no. ii above) is in the High Threat category due to continued reporting of incidents related to i) encroachment of forest due to agricultural expansion (e.g., tea small holdings), ii) illegal gem mining, iii). deliberate fires, especially in the eastern theater, iv) human dwellings, v) mini-hydro projects, vi) poaching, vii) cardamom cultivation in the natural forest, viii) unsustainable tourism developments, ix) fragmentation due to road construction, x) spread of invasive species and illegal collection of rare and endemic species for international trade.

The Outlook Assessment 3 also states that xi) overuse of agrochemicals in tea plantations bordering the forest can lead to the pollution of streams and rivers and associated aquatic biodiversity, xii) increased visitation beyond carrying capacity during peak seasons and xiii) development of tourism infrastructure are impacting negatively on forest and freshwater ecosystems. These threats, if continued with a ‘business-as-usual’ frame of mind, could seriously compromise the conservation of Sinharaja World Heritage site in the future.

The Outlook Assessment recommends that the management authority i.e., the Forest Department of Sri Lanka needs to take immediate steps to implement a plan of action to address threats and fill management gaps. It places its well-guarded optimism that some of these concerns would be addressed through two recently initiated projects – National REDD+ Investment Framework and Action Plan (NRIFAP) and the World Bank funded Ecosystem Conservation and Management Plan (ESCAMP). The IUCN World Heritage Outlook Assessment believes that with the implementation of the ESCAMP project in accordance with its stated objectives, a ‘Sinharaja Management system’ has been instituted at the Ministry of Environment by the Forest Department to address all issues related to its sustainable management.

It is, indeed, the wish of conservation conscious citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large that when the next cycle of assessment comes round in 2023, the Sinharaja Assessment indicator would be moving towards ‘Good with Some concerns. With the efficient implementation of the ‘Management Plan for Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ which is being under preparation at the present moment with financial and technical support from the ESCAMP project, it is hoped that the above threats could be minimized and consequently, the conservation outlook of the Sinharaja World Heritage Site would improve, significantly.

Potential threats to Sinharaja since Outlook Assessment 3

The IUCN World Heritage Outlook Assessment 3 was released on its website in November 2020. For Sri Lankan World Heritage properties i.e., Sinharaja and the Central Highlands, information gathering for this exercise started more than a year ago consulting a host of experts knowledgeable on the two properties both within and outside Sri Lanka. However, none of the recent events that hit the headlines of national news media such as i) Lankagama road project, ii) possible obstructions to the elephant migration patterns and iii) construction of reservoirs within the newly declared Sinharaja Rain forest Complex were included in this assessment. These, along with many other threats, their impacts and mitigatory measures adopted would be assessed in the Outlook Assessment 4 in 2023.

One of the most recent major concerns that was raised by both national and international environment-conscious public is the potential threat to the recently gazetted ‘Sinharaja Rainforest Complex’ from the proposed Gin-Nilwala Diversion Project (GNDP). The multipurpose development of Gin, Nilwala and Kalu rivers has been initiated way back in 1968, under the ‘Three Basin Development Project’ proposal made by the Engineering Consultants Inc. (ECI), Colorado, USA.

The present Gin-Nilwala Diversion Project is proposed as a multipurpose development project to fulfill the water requirement of Greater Hambantota Development Area, meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Walawa systems and introduce commercial agriculture developments, ostensibly by diverting ‘excess’ water from the upper reaches of the Gin-Nilwala basins to SE dry zone during the SW Monsoon period.

Among the added benefit claimed by the project proponents are i) the regulation of the flooding of the downstream areas of the Gin-Nilwala Basins (flood mitigation at Neluwa & Pitabeddara), especially during then SW monsoonal period and ii) road and infrastructure development from Neluwa – Lankagama road (15 km), Lankagama – Deniyaya road (14 km) and minor roads in Madugeta, Kotapola and Ampanagala areas. ( ).

Geological investigations of the GNDP, for most part, have been completed by May 2019 and revised feasibility studies on the locations of the dams, weirs and tunnel traces have been carried out based on detailed geo-engineering investigations that involve geological and structural mapping, core drilling, geomorphological, hydrogeological, and geotechnical investigations.

The Gin-Nilwala Diversion Project design, based on publicly available information as at present, consists of two concrete dams, a fixed weir and three trans-basin canals. The proposal of the project includes a Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) Dam across the Gin Ganga at Madugate at the upper reaches of Gin Ganga with a diversion tunnel up to Kotapola to transfer the water from Gin basin to Nilwala Basin. At Kotapola, it has proposed a concrete weir across the Nilwala Ganga with a diversion tunnel up to Ampanagala to transfer water from Kotapola to Ampanagala reservoir. At Ampanagala another RCC Dam is proposed to be built across Siyambalagoda Oya, which is a major tributary of Nilwala Ganga with a diversion tunnel up to Muruthawela to transfer water from Ampanagala to Muruthawela (Figure 1).

The project system is Madugeta Reservoir→ Madugeta Tunnel→ Kotapola Weir→ Kotapola Tunnel→ Ampanagala Reservoir→ Ampanagala Tunnel → Muruthawela Reservoir.

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Midweek Review

A mendicant nation

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by Usvatte-aratchi

Ediriweera Sarachchandra, the most celebrated man of letters in our country in the 20th century, wrote the prescient novel ‘With the begging bowl’. I have not read it but learnt that it was, in part, a reaction to his experience in Paris, where he was our ambassador and where Sri Lanka Aid Group annually met in those years. Why aid? Because our economy was crippled and we needed crutches to make the least move. The cause of the disease was our profligacy with so little effort to earn the income that we spent. I have written on these pages about this consistently undisciplined behaviour of ours, which we cover under the cloak of bad government. It is salutary to remember that in this country, unlike in dictatorships, government is us and the agents who activate our wishes are government. If our government acts irresponsibly, foolishly and as knaves, we must turn them out of office forthwith. The reserve of rights rests with the people and it is indeed our responsibility to throw out governments that behave as thieves, knaves and criminals – more easily said than done. Our governments are run by such knaves that a high dignitary in a church has been rightly able to publicly call a former President of the Republic to account and has gone unchallenged. They have been and are so common in our governments that it is not unreasonable to question our being able to govern ourselves responsibly. However, what is manifest is that we the people don’t realise that government acting in our name may lead us to ruin. One of the most admirable features of governments that ruled Germany after Hitler’s war, in which such unspeakable horrors were visited upon their own citizens and those peoples whom they conquered, is their acceptance of responsibility for those crimes. The reaction of the Ambassador of Germany here to a dangerous statement of a minister in this government is symptomatic of that behaviour. The ready acceptance of 1.2 million refugees in 2015-16, mostly Moslem, about 1.5 percent of its population by the people of Germany, I suspect, lies in the collective memory of the people of Germany that they poisoned to death, enslaved and chased away, among them so many of both ordinary and extraordinary achievements in their society. The recurring feature of our society is its inability to remember that year after year in the last 60 years or so, the rest of the world does not owe us a living and that we must live within our means, taking a few years moving one way or another. Those who governs us, whom we elect, have been more than willing to spend freely, if the expenditure included a packet of a few million dollars that would go into their bank accounts, maintained offshore secretly. We refuse to recognise the need for austerity, when bankruptcy stares in our face. We turn from one set of lenders to another and willingly accept conditions laid down by new lenders, our governments hiding behind a façade of blaming previous lenders. It may look smart, but in reality it is we the people who are forced to go a begging. We go abegging while those who run government wallow in wealth. A more blatant failure of principal failing to hold agent to account is hard to imagine.

It is not true that an economic entity, including a nation, cannot borrow and grow to be prosperous and strong. Experience does not support such contention. Young enterprises and well-established corporations borrow in the market and grow out of debt because with new resources they grow to be larger, stronger and more profitable. The huge market in debt in capital markets bears evidence of this. Lehman Brothers in New York City used to advertise ‘We were built of bonds.’ Enterprises borrow because the present owners do not want to dilute ownership and open themselves to the risks of changes in policy including those of merger and acquisition by allies of new owners. The fast dismantling of TWA airline is a case in point. A country that borrows and fails to grow out of debt runs the same risks, that creditors will determine its policies and even come to own parts of that country – that is in other words, a debt trap. Several countries in Africa run the risks of assets vital to it, running into the ownership of lenders. The government of Mahinda Rajapaksa undertook a policy of growing out of debt in 2010. That policy, in itself, was not unwise. Government investments grew rapidly, financed with debt. GDP at constant prices grew at rates above 7 percent in each of the years 2010 to 2014, if you believe their figures. That growth was built on higher government investment. The investments were in infrastructure. Those projects failed to give returns soon enough. The other constructions in Colombo were of a similar nature. In fact, they, including the Hambantota Port and the Beira Column, have failed to yield adequate returns yet, even now in 2021. The problem lay not in the strategy of growing out of growing out of debt but in the unwise choice of projects. That choice was perfect for China which was a savings surplus economy. At that time domestic savings in China was around 50 percent of its GDP. And foreign savings poured in steadily as investment. That part of domestic savings that did not go into domestic investment went into foreign investment, giving China a massive stock of foreign investments now totaling in excess of $ 4 trillion. That is sufficient information for one to see prima facie a case for long term investments: a far flung network of railways, aqueducts underground carrying water several thousand kilometers from Guangdong to Beijing, the three gorges dam and developing cities like Chongqing. That pattern did not fit Sri Lanka with domestic savings below 10 percent, little foreign investment and the balance of payments persistently in deficit, adding to indebtedness abroad: entirely the opposite of China. The problem lay not in the strategy of borrowing to grow out of debt but in the foolish choice of investments, which after nearly decade do not give a surplus to service those debts. We keep on borrowing to pay debt, not different from the Ponzi Game that Bernie Madoff went to jail for 150 years, where he died a few days ago. A Ponzi Game is one where debts due for repayment are repaid with new debt. It collapses when new debt does not come forth.

The Minister of Finance in 1965, U. B.Wanninayake, presented the Budget for1965-66 and observed that the country was living far beyond its means; the government was getting deeper and deeper into debt, and the foreign exchange reserves of the country were falling at an alarming rate.

“As at the end of June, 1965, the country’s net external assets amounted to Rs. 303 million … the outstanding short term liabilities of Ceylon payable in foreign exchange amounted to 292 million at the end of June 1965 ….

Ceylon’s external assets are now at a precariously low level…”

Deputy Minister of Finance G. L. Peiris presented the budget for 1997 said: ‘We are heirs to over 17 years of haphazard, lackadaisical economic set up, that had no consistent perspective and was merely content to exist from hand to mouth….

Concessional assistance in the form of project loans from multilateral and bilateral sources are estimated to increase… to SDR 321 million in 1996. …. gross international reserves of the country are likely to further strengthen to SDR 1,747 million in 1996 ….”

It reads like a comment on the present government. In 2020, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Minister of Finance presented the budget for 2021. He showed little concern about the foreign exchange problem, devoting that subject a paragraph at the end of that part of the budget speech. Perhaps, he and his advisors considered it a problem manageable in the normal course of business. So have they shown so far in the year. However, those that see their way kilometers away rather than ‘viyath’, understand that the problem requires much more serious attention.

A few days ago, China graciously offered to us 600,000 vaccines produced in that country, and the President of the Republic himself went to the airport to receive them. A few months ago, WHO gave us some vaccines for which we did not have to pay. Several weeks earlier, India was very generous to offer us several hundred thousand vaccines, produced in their facilities. So, do we go begging for medications, that we need to keep the pandemic at bay. It is symbolic of our mendicity. In a way it has to be accepted. Those whom we respect most in our society are bhikkhu who beg for their food.

 

They depend on others to sustain them, (pindapatha) to give them clothing (chievara), to give them lodging (senasana) and to cure them when sick (gilanapratya) and perhaps in the back of our minds we expect other peoples to do that for us. Pie in the sky.

When I was young in the 1950s, every prominent building in Colombo had been designed and built by the British, when they ruled us. Parliament met in one such building and the most important departments of government were housed there. The current President has his offices in that building. It took more than 30 years to move to Kotte and Battaramulla. The first imposing building in Colombo that was built anew was the Central Bank building. Outside the western province, the only major project for which the government of Sri Lanka paid from its own funds was the Gal Oya Valley Project. It is now home to a thriving community. Buildings in the Peradeniya University – The Senate Building, the Arts Building, buildings for the faculty of engineering, the magnificent halls of residence (Hilda Obeysekera, Sanghamitta, Arunachalam, Jayatilleke, Marrs, James Pieris and Ramanathan) were put up by local construction companies. I recall the name Samuel & Sons, who in 1955, were giving final touches to the Arts Theatre (Room A) on Galaha Road. Why weren’t they and their successors given opportunities to construct? Late in the 1960s, I had some association with the Irrigation Department. Some of brightest engineers of the department were working on the preliminary plans and designs of the Mahaweli Project. There was incessant talk about the importance of local construction companies working with foreigners in all aspects of the projects, including designing and construction. We seem to have thrown aside that wholesome practice and now even unskilled labour is imported. Perhaps, that practice is an integral part of the contract to lend as is the practice of bribing local politicians.

When I step out of my house in Colombo all I see are structures put up by Chinese, some of them gifts from the Chinese. The massive structures of Jetavanarama, Ranmali (Sonnamali is the Pali term; it has nothing to do with ruvan veli, gems and sands) seya and other structures leaves anyone, who can imagine the marvels of those constructions, in awe. Now we cannot build our own National Hospital. Those achievements make it sharply painful to step out of one’s house in Colombo now only to see foreigners build the simplest constructions for us. It takes a particular kind of folly to laugh at foreigners that were nowhere near us in their achievements, 700 years ago, and now go begging to the same barbarians for help to survive.

I have rambled on a bit. Therefore, let me sum up what I said. We are and have been indebted to the rest of the world, for many decades. That is fundamentally because we have used more resources than we produced. To live at standards that we have enjoyed so far and to pay back the accumulated debt, we must either temporarily go into austerity or grow fast enough to spend as we have done so far and at the same time earn a surplus to pay back debt. There seems little desire for belt tightening. It is foolish to expect that the rest of the world owes us a living, as the bhikkhu sangha does from the laity. To grow fast, we must not invest in projects with long gestation periods. The change in patterns of demands in external markets and new technology for production has made it feasible to for economies to invest and obtain results in a few years. Those products are usually for export. To do that we do not need infrastructure development so much as good policies. That seems too far for our leaders either to grasp or to reach.

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Midweek Review

House watchdog committees paint a bleak picture as SLPP seeks passage of Colombo Port City Bill

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

Justice Minister M.U.M. Ali Sabry, PC, on Sunday (18) declared that the commissioning of the Colombo Port City was an occasion to celebrate. Declaring that the high-profile project is turning point for post-war Sri Lanka, Minister Sabry explained how the mega project could transform the country.

Sabry, who had served as the Treasurer and as the Deputy President of the Bar Association (BASL) on many occasions, assured there was absolutely nothing to worry about the project.

 Former President of the BASL U.R. de Silva, PC, Chief Advisor to the Justice Ministry, too, defended the project. Among those who defended the project were lawmakers Prof. G.L. Peiris, Keheliya Rambukwella, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Shehan Semasinghe and Namal Rajapaksa.  

 The government responded following an unexpected attack from former President of the BASL Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC. If the former Justice Minister, while being a member of the current administration’s parliamentary group, had not mounted such a frontal attack out of the blues, the government wouldn’t have had to mount such a strong defence of the Colombo Port City project. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, attack was followed by the BASL declaration that it would move the Supreme Court against the establishment of an Economic Commission (EC) to manage the Colombo Port City. Saliya Pieris, PC, in his capacity as the President of the BASL, moved the SC against the government move. In nearly 20 petitions filed against the proposed Bill, the defendant is Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC.

One-time internationally recognised top law academic Prof. Peiris emphasised that the proposed Bill was in line with the Constitution and received the sanction of the AG before being presented to the Cabinet of ministers.

It would be pertinent to mention that the CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited had been the main sponsor of the National Law Conference 2020 on Feb 14, 2020 at Jetwing Blue, Negombo, during the tenure of Kalinga Indatissa, PC, as the President of the BASL. The CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited had been among nearly 40 sponsors. USAID had been among the group. On the following day, Dr. Harsha Cabral, PC, and Dr. Asanga Gunawansa addressed the members on ‘Port City-Development of the law, local and international arbitration’. There were several related sessions which dealt with offshore financing, banking investment and FDI and its legal regime. Saliya Pieris and Manohara de Silva addressed the gathering on fundamental rights, labour laws and conflict of laws.

At the end of the inauguration of the event, on Feb 14, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited distributed a 51-page report titled ‘Economic Impact Assessment of the Port City Colombo’ prepared by leading multinational audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (Pvt) Limited. The distribution of the report followed the briefing given by the CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Limited. In spite of the PricewaterhouseCoopers (Pvt) Limited declaring the report was meant for general guidance as regards matters of interest only and should be taken as investment advice, it presented an attractive picture of the project.

The Presence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, Attorney General Dappula de Livera PC and Justice Minister Sabry PC underscored the importance of the event. The writer was present on the occasion.

 

Clash over China project

 All political parties should bear in mind that the current pathetic state of the economy cannot be blamed on China or any other country. If Parliament fulfilled its primary obligations as regards ensuring financial discipline and enactment of laws, the country wouldn’t have been in an extremely dicey situation, financially. Politicians now opposing the China led project, as well as those backing it, should keep in mind how the political parties, they represented ruined the national economy through their profligacy and downright mismanagement.

During the yahapalana administration, BASL received quite a bit of negative media coverage following revelation it received Rs 2.5 mn sponsorship from the disgraced Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) for the three-day Law Asia 2016 Golden Jubilee Conference in August, 2016 during President’s Counsel Geoffrey Alagaratnam’s tenure as its President. The sponsorship was accepted over a year after the first Treasury bond scam perpetrated in late Feb 2015 caused a national stir.

A section of the Opposition, some members of the civil society, and SLPP Colombo District MP Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, are up in arms over the proposed establishment of an Economic Commission (EC) to manage the Colombo Port City. Some trade unions, affiliated to political parties, too, are opposed to the move. As to how sincere their loud outcry is yet to be determined by the highest court in the land.

 JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, compared what he called a future Chinese administration of the Colombo Port City with that of China-administered Hong Kong. The same JVP turned a blind eye when the yahapalana government with which they were then openly cavorting with, gave away the Hambantota Port on a platter to Beijing on a 99-year lease.

Those opposed to the proposed EC asserted that as the Colombo Port City would be outside the purview of Parliament, it wouldn’t be subjected to domestic laws. The Cabinet of ministers, recently sanctioned legislation that once gazetted and passed in Parliament it would enable the setting up of an EC.

Samagi Jana Balavegaya lawmaker Attorney-at-Law Lakshman Kiriella warned of the Colombo Port City becoming a federal structure beyond the financial control of the Central Bank, Monetary Board and the Finance Ministry. Among those who moved the Supreme Court against the proposed Bill are the BASL, Purawesi balaya, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the JVP and the UNP. Three civil society activists, Oshala Herath, Dr. Ajantha Perera and Jegan Jegatheeswaran, too, filed cases.

 Rebel lawmaker Wijeyadasa Rajapakse last Thursday (15) flayed the entire political system with the focus on the incumbent government over the move. MP Rajapakse basically repeated what JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said several days ago. What is really interesting is where the former Justice Minister addressed the media. Many an eyebrow was raised when the MP lambasted the government at Abayaramaya, Narahenpita, with Ven Muruththettuwe Ananda by his side. 

Some monks are sullying the robe by getting involved in virtually every other brouhaha raised in the political arena, when they should essentially be guiding the adherents of Buddha’s teachings on that path.

 On the following day, the former minister claimed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa blasted him over the statement made on the previous day. Lawmaker Rajapakse acknowledged that he wouldn’t hesitate to take a decision regarding his political future with the SLPP government. The government parliamentary group is likely to be undermined by this development. It would be pertinent to mention that the government overcame opposition to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution from its ranks. The 20th Amendment required two-thirds majority.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa presented the Colombo Port City EC Bill to the Cabinet of ministers. The 76-page Bill provides for the establishment of an EC authorised to grant registrations, licences, authorisations, and other approvals to carry on businesses and other activities in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to be established within the Colombo Port City.

The proposed EC will consist of not less than five members and not more than seven members, including its Chairman and they will be appointed by the President, under whose purview the Colombo Port City functions.

The Bill, titled the ‘Colombo Port City Economic Commission Act’, is expected to be presented to Parliament within the next few weeks.

Lawmaker Dissanayake declared that Parliament should defeat the move. However, with the ruling party enjoying a two-thirds majority in Parliament with its group numbering 145 members, the dilapidated Opposition is not in a position to thwart the government’s mega project.

 

A US warning

Against the backdrop of continuing US-China rivalry, Sri Lanka should be extremely cautious in finalizing the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Act. Unsolicited and clearly interfering, the US advice into the country’s internal affairs in this regard shouldn’t be ignored. 

The media recently quoted the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Alaina Teplitz as having said: “Any legislation relating to the Port City has to be considered very carefully for its economic impact. And of course, among those un-intended consequences could be creating a haven for money launderers and other sorts of nefarious actors to take advantage of what was perceived as a permissive business environment for activities that would actually be illegal.” Teplitz was further quoted as having said: “I do recognize that the government of Sri Lanka wants to take advantage of the investment that has already been made in creating the Port City foundation, but the legislation really needs to be reflected to address these challenges and to be careful of what it might be to open doors to bad practice and unfair competition for the rest of the country.”

The country’s tax revenues have plunged in 2020, raising concerns over debt and the fiscal path, credit downgrades and Sri Lanka’s ability to sustain vital public services to the people, while managing loss-making state enterprises.

Let me examine shocking revelations in Parliament, pertaining to waste, corruption and irregularities as the fiscal environment continued to deteriorate. Evaluation of reports released by the Communication Department of Parliament as regards inquiries conducted by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Parliamentary Finance (COPF) chaired by Prof. Charitha Herath, Prof. Tissa Vitharana and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, respectively, would enable the public to grasp the gravity of things that had been perpetrated and the resultant situation.

The country celebrated Sinhala and Tamil New Year in an utterly bad financial environment, undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic as has happened world over. Televised celebrations also involving lawmakers representing the SLPP and the SJB highlighted the absurdity of a deteriorating situation. Lawmakers joined celebrations amidst continuing controversy over unprecedented slashing of duty on sugar imports, importation of contaminated coconut oil, destruction of forests and unbridled corruption.

 

Horrifying picture

Statements issued by the Communications Department revealed a horrifying picture. A pathetic situation caused by those who enjoyed political power since the introduction of the JRJ Constitution in 1978. Interestingly the two major political parties primarily responsible for the current predicament are no longer in power. The last general election, in August 2020 reduced the UNP to just one National List MP. The SLFP parliamentary group consists of 14 members with only one of them elected on the SLFP ticket. The rest entered Parliament through the SLPP. Political parties essentially engineered, encouraged and conveniently turned a blind eye to corruption. The examination of the House Communication Department statements revealed how the political set up, public sector and the private sector perpetrated corruption.

Parliament faces challenges

 COPE Chairman Prof. Herath explained the growing financial indiscipline among those enterprises coming under his purview when he presented their first report to Parliament on March 10, 2021. SLPP National List lawmaker alleged that the power of Parliament to supervise public sector enterprises had been challenged. Prof. Herath cited the Auditor General’s report on the Lakvijaya coal-fired power complex at Norochcholai, Puttalam, as an example to highlight the financial lawlessness. One-time Media Secretary questioned how some public sector enterprises were excluded from the AG’s scrutiny.

Another SLPP lawmaker Shantha Bandara pointed out how various public sector institutions blatantly ignored instructions issued by parliamentary watchdog committees.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, himself under fire for accommodating the members of his family and relatives on his staff assured that ways and means to address those issues would be addressed through the proposed new Constitution. Abeywardena insisted that the current situation could be addressed only through the enactment of a new Constitution.

Can Speaker Abeywardena’s assurance be accepted under an extremely volatile fiscal situation? How can tangible measures required to address the crisis be further delayed on the assurance that such issues would be dealt with through the proposed new Constitution. Unless Parliament accepted its responsibilities namely (a) enactment of new laws and (b) financial discipline, the country faces an extraordinary crisis.

The statement issued on April 12 by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, ahead of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, is a grim reminder of Sri Lanka’s predicament. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Beijing Dr. Palitha Kohona signed the loan agreement with the China Development Bank at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Beijing. The latest loan is the balance of USD 1 billion, out of which USD 500 million was received last year.

Before examination of COPE, COPA and COPF reports, let me remind what Secretary to the Finance Ministry S.R. Attygalle told Parliament on Dec 07, 2020 in response to a query pertaining to discrepancy in pensions. The Communications Department of Parliament quoted Attygalle as having said that the annual salary, pension and gratuity payments cost the Treasury a staggering Rs 1.1 trillion. In addition to that amount, the absorbing of 50,000 graduates to the public sector in terms of a 2021 budget proposal as well as 100,000 employment opportunities to the poorest of poor families, too, would cost a hefty sum.

When the writer sought a clarification from Attygalle on April 15th morning, the official explained the salaries amounted to a staggering Rs 800 bn annually and the rest for pension and gratuity.

Public finances are in turmoil. COPE, COPA, COPF as well as Parliamentary Consultative Committees essentially highlight waste, corruption and irregularities. The following are some samples of revelations.

The COPA on March 26, 2021, revealed the failure on the part of the Inland Revenue Department to collect taxes. The Communications Department reported how the Inland Revenue Department received 6,878 dishonoured checks worth Rs. 240 million as at 31 Dec, 2020. It was also revealed at the COPA meeting that Court cases had been filed by Inland Revenue Department in the Colombo Magistrate’s Court to recover Rs. 2670 million in tax arrears from casinos.

The Communications Department of Parliament on March 24, 2021, on the basis of Consultative Committee of the Ports and Shipping Ministry, reported a highly contentious matter involving Sri Lanka Customs. The Consultative Committee was told how due to failure on the part of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to pay due taxes to the Customs for the importation of gantry cranes, the latter was now entitled to 50 per cent of the fine imposed on the SLPA. The Consultative Committee, while asserting such a payment to the Customs was a major problem recommended talks with relevant officials, including the Secretary to the Treasury to recover the money as a payment to the government. The Communications Department quoted Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena as having said that the issue at hand should be also discussed with the COPA.

The Communication Department of Parliament on March 2, 2021 reported the shocking revelation of how Lanka Mineral Sands Limited caused substantial revenue loss at a time the country was facing an extremely serious financial crisis. The report dealt with the COPE meeting held in Parliament on the same day. COPE Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath instructed the Secretary to the Ministry of Industries, Anusha Palpita, to immediately investigate and submit a report on the tender awarded by Lanka Mineral Sands Limited for the sale of 85,000 metric tonnes of ilmenite at USD 147 per tonne to the third-place bidder instead of the prospective winning bidder, who had offered the highest price of USD 165 per tonne of ilmenite. Lanka Mineral Sands claimed that their decision was based on a recommendation made by a tender subcommittee appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers and that the transaction received Cabinet approval. Questioning the rationale in awarding the tender to the third-placed bidder, COPE discussed the possibility of the Lanka Mineral Sands Limited deceiving the Cabinet of Ministers. The inquiry revealed that the current price of a metric tonne of ilmenite is close to USD 240. Many an eyebrow was raised when it was revealed that substantial part of the sold stock to a buyer in October 2020 was still stored in the Pulmudai at the expense of the Lanka Mineral Sands. The buyer hadn’t paid the full payment, the COPE was told.

The Island received the entire set of statements issued by watchdog committees. A communiqué issued on March 15, 2021 by the Communications Department of Parliament revealed the failure on the part of the Finance Ministry, Inland Revenue and the Justice Ministry to take remedial measures in respect of laws delay. Their failure seriously affected the revenue collecting process.

The Commissioner General of Inland Revenue H. M.C. Bandara has told COPA that his department had not been able to recover billions of rupees in tax arrears due to lengthy judicial process and the attendant delays. The COPA assured that the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Finance and the Inland Revenue Department would be summoned for a discussion. That promised meeting is yet to take place. During the COPA meeting held on March 10, 2021, it was also pointed out the deficiencies in a list that contained names of tax defaulters. The COPA also pointed out the shortcomings in Legacy and Ramis computer systems that controlled tax files and the revelation of Rs 107 bn in tax arrears according to Legacy system, out of which only Rs 224 mn have been recovered exposed the chaotic situation.

The government needs to address shortcomings in the revenue collection process without further delay. In an utterly corrupt system, delays, failures and shortcomings seem to be deliberate and well calculated. With the country on the brink of financial disaster, it would be the responsibility of parliament to take remedial measures. Perhaps, the Presidential Commission inquiring into the Customs should summon parliamentary watchdog committees at the onset of public sittings to obtain a clear picture of the ground situation before it proceeds.

 Readers should not think we are merely scare mongering, but the truth remains that we must be responsible for our future instead of ever being ready to beg for handouts or rescue packages from outside. True that unlike most powerful Western nations and their lending arms China has not been behaving like the proverbial Shylock. But we have an inherent duty not to live beyond our means.

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