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Midweek Review

Govt. caught with fingers in the sugar jar

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

The parliamentary Opposition, having plunged into disarray, due to its unpardonable sins of the recent past, shadowed by a string of humiliating electoral debacles, starting with the local government poll of 2018, followed by the 2019 presidential and 2020 general elections, has received a massive adrenaline boost by way of the huge sugar duty scam. It has brought down to earth, once again the high-riding Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government, at the worst possible time, with the country reeling economically, due to the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.

The alleged fraud has dealt a severe blow to the SLPP that enjoys a near two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The accusations, as regards the sugar scam, received credence in the wake of the all-party Committee on Public Finance (COPF) declaring, in no uncertain terms, that the government suffered a colossal loss of revenue. The COPF made the declaration on Feb 25, 2021. This was consequent to the COPF calling for a comprehensive report on January 5, 2021, on the alleged sugar duty scam, from the Finance Ministry. The Finance Ministry report was received in the second week of March 2021 (‘Massive revenue loss: Eyebrows raised over inordinate delay in responding to House query,’ with strap line ‘SLPP members say sugar deal black mark on govt’-The Island, March 4, 2021)

Chairman of the COPF, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, didn’t mince his words when he publicly acknowledged the staggering loss of revenue. State Minister Vidura Wickremanayake and Nalin Fernando, MP, both members of the SLPP, and members of the COPF, had no qualms in declaring, at the Committee meeting, on Feb 25, 2021, the alleged sugar duty scam was nothing but a black mark on the government.

The JVP, that exposed the scam, in Dec 2020, spearheaded a withering attack on the government. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, on Dec 12, 2020, named all those who had been allegedly involved in the corrupt deal. Obviously, the SLPP never expected the sugar controversy to take such a nasty turn. Both the JVP and the main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), exploited the situation to the hilt. The COPF, chaired by Kurunegala District lawmaker Yapa, threw its weight behind the accusations.

Defending the indefensible!

Last Friday, former JVP National List MP Sunil Handunnetti, on behalf of the Marxist party, filed a fundamental rights application against the sugar duty scam. The exposure of the unprecedented sugar duty scam turned the tables on the government. Under pressure, the government, a few hours after the JVP moved the Supreme Court, hastily called a media briefing, at the Finance Ministry, to explain the controversial sugar duty reduction. The responsibility of countering the accusations fell on Finance Secretary S.R. Attygalle. Defending the indefensible is quite a difficult task.

The previous yahapalana government perpetrated the Treasury bond scams, during the tenure of Attygalle’s predecessor, Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga.

Attygalle received the appointment as the Secretary to the Treasury and Ministry of Finance, effective 19th November, 2019. Attygalle’s was one of the first appointments made in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential election. Before the latest appointment, Attygalle served as the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). Attygalle also held the position of Assistant Governor of the CBSL and had been released to the Ministry of Finance to serve as the Deputy Secretary to the Treasury. It is pertinent to mention that Attygalle received the appointment, as the Secretary to the Treasury and the Ministry of Finance, of the 52-day government (31st October, 2018 to 18th December, 2018) declared illegal by the Supreme Court. That appointment was made in the wake of a constitutional coup. The then President Maithripala Sirisena’s political project failed. Subsequently, Dr. Samaratunga was re-appointed.

In spite of the fact the COPF, being headed by an SLPPer, and it being packed with ruling party members, the government obviously didn’t receive the anticipated protection. The SLPP parliamentary group appeared to have failed to recognize the threat. It proved that it is no longer a case of ‘right or wrong my party’ line of thinking. Having turned a blind eye to the rapidly developing scenario, the SLPP ignored the Finance Commission, calling for a report on the alleged sugar tax scam, from the Finance Ministry. The SLPP parliamentary group disregarded government lawmaker Yapa’s declaration, on Feb 25, 2021, that the report was yet to be submitted. The writer, on March 3, 2021, sought an explanation from lawmaker Yapa as regards the inordinate delay in the Finance Ministry’s response. The former minister explained the report was expected in the following week. The MP was of the view that in spite of the delay, the Finance Ministry would definitely respond.

Although the COPF received the report and was taken up for discussion the following week, Parliament conveniently refrained from issuing a media release on the latest Finance Commission meeting, chaired by lawmaker Yapa. By then, the SLPP realized the alleged sugar tax scam had caused irreparable damage and sought to take some remedial measures. However, Finance Secretary Attygalle’s lackluster response to the alleged scam clearly boomeranged. The JVP and the SJB compared the alleged sugar duty scam with the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated by the UNP, in Feb 2015 and March 2016. They alleged that the losses suffered by the government, as a result of the alleged sugar tax scam, far exceeded the Treasury bond scams. The government struggled to cope up with the allegations. Remedial measures seemed to be futile against the backdrop of the Finance Commission, headed by a senior government member squarely blaming the incumbent administration for the situation.

JVP leader Anura Dissanayake, in his Dec 12, 2020 speech, delivered in Parliament, explained how the alleged fraud took place. Those who watched the explosive speech, online, certainly expected the government to set the record straight. The government so far failed, both in and out of Parliament, to successfully dismiss the JVP allegations. The Treasury Secretary’s response to these accusations obviously worsened the situation.

The COPF, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), chaired by SLPP lawmakers, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Prof. Charitha Herath and Prof. Tissa Vitharana, have responded magnificently to the daunting task of tackling corruption. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the Finance Commission acting swiftly on allegations as regards such a major fraud. The Opposition, therefore, should recognize the pivotal importance of the role played by anti-corruption watchdogs.

 

How long will the SLPP let COPF
do its job?

The Island sought an explanation from COPF member, Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP (SJB), regarding the work undertaken by parliamentary watchdog bodies.

The Island: The SJB wanted you to head COPA, COPF and COPE. Many feared the government would place all three under its members to hide corrupt practices. Against that background, how do you see the work carried out by the three outfits? COPF acted courageously in respect of the sugar deal. COPE revealed many corrupt deals that had taken place since 2013. Do you think they are responding to the situation well?

MP Harsha de Silva:

I was nominated to head the COPF. That’s all. The Standing Orders specifically mention that the COPF must be headed by a member of the Opposition. But the government overruled it, using their majority. They appointed MP Anura Priyadarshana Yapa to head the COPF. As a person, he has earned my respect. In fact, he has been quite forthright thus far. It is he who requested the Ministry of Finance to prepare a report on the recent issue with respect to the reduction of the sugar duty. His objective was to determine if the duty reduction was actually passed on to consumers or not. Now the whole country is aware how, while the Treasury had to forego much needed revenue to the tune of Rs 15.9b, a bulk of that benefit ended up with one importer, in particular, and not with consumers, who should have been its beneficiaries. That is why I want the COPF to order a forensic audit to be conducted by the Auditor General. That way we will be able to determine exactly what happened. And then take it forward from there. But it is not about him as a person. It is how long the SLPP will let the COPF do its job. Its actual mandate is to keep an eye on public finance as a whole; revenue, expenditure and loans and debt, etc., of the government. A classic case is when I questioned the Ministry of Finance on their budget figures for 2020 at the COPF. Specifically the COPF is mandated to assess the suitability of assumptions made. There was a huge uproar and they said their estimates on growth and thus the resulting estimates of the budget deficit and debt were accurate. And they stuck to their figures. But we will soon see the real figures as they will have to be released soon. And we will see how they mislead the COPF and the country. So, there it is. The objective of the COPF is to create checks and balances in the nation’s economic management. That’s what a strong legislature is supposed to do. But what we have is a weak legislature where the government controls the COPF, in addition to the COPE and the COPA.”

 

A post-war pledge

Three days after the eradication of the LTTE, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa assured that their priority would be to tackle waste and corruption. The promise was made at the parliamentary grounds, on May 22, 2009. President Mahinda Rajapaksa warned members of the government that the war against the LTTE would no longer serve as a shield, in face of public criticism. President Mahinda Rajapaksa acknowledged that the war wouldn’t be an excuse even for him. The Commander-in-Chief vowed that law enforcement agencies would now hunt for robber barons. Amidst the applause of the gathering, the President vowed that he would neutralize waste and corruption the way he crushed LTTE terrorism (President declares war on waste and corruption – The Sunday Island, May 24, 2009). Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent; the CBSL was robbed twice in 2015 and 2016. The frauds were perpetrated by no less a person than the Governor of the CBSL Arjuna Mahendran, a Singaporean, and a personal friend of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In spite of repeated assurances, the SLPP hadn’t been able to apprehend Mahendran, widely believed to be living in Singapore, perhaps not.

Those who had remained silent, at the time of the Treasury bond scams, now allege the sugar duty scam caused a much bigger revenue loss. Successive governments engaged in corruption with impunity. Mahendran’s successor, Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy, lucidly explained the status of Sri Lanka’s economy before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCol) that probed irregularities at SriLankan Airlines, SriLankan Catering and Mihin Lanka. The statement couldn’t have been made at a better time for those who expected a genuine change in the political environment. Unfortunately, the media, pathetically, failed to provide sufficient coverage to, undoubtedly, the most important statement made by a respected public official, in the recent past, on any issue.

Dr. Coomaraswamy told the PCol that the country was facing a non-virtuous cycle of debt and it was a very fragile situation which could even lead to a debt crisis. “Of course, my colleagues, in the debt department, have plans and the capability to manage it. But it’s the duty of every citizen to act responsibly as regards the government policy,” he told the PCol. Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasized that people should elect MPs who were prudent enough to handle fiscal and monetary matters of the country. “I am not referring to any government, but it’s been the case ever since independence.”

 

Who abused Finance Ministry?

The CBSL made quite a startling revelation on Friday, July 26, 2019, before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday attacks.

The CBSL team comprised the Governor of the Central Bank Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Director of Financial Intelligence Unit D.M. Rupasinghe, and Director of the Department of Supervision of Non-Bank Financial Institutions R.R. Jayaratne. Rupasinghe testified in-camera on a request made by Dr. Coomaraswamy.

Jayaratne and Dr. Coomaraswamy set the record straight as regards the Finance Act of 2017, after the then Power, Energy and Business Development Minister, Ravi Karunanayake, challenged CBSL condemnation of the Finance Act. Having stated that the Batticaloa Campus Limited and the Heera Foundation had received funds from Saudi Arabia on seven and 15 occasions, respectively, Jayaratne didn’t mince his words when he declared the new Act weakened the CBSL regulatory role, vis-a-vis illegal transactions.

The PSC probed M.L.A.M. Hizbullah over clandestine money transactions, amidst accusations that both Batticaloa Campus Limited and the Heera Foundation were involved with the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks. At the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, Hizbullah functioned as the Governor of the Eastern Province and he now serves the current Parliament as a UPFA National List member. Hizbullah moved to the East, in early January, 2019.

M.A. Sumanthiran, Chairman of the COPF, was present on the panel of lawmakers at the time the CBSL made the shocking revelation.

When Jayaratne explained as to how the Exchange Control Act, introduced by the UNP-led government, had impeded the CBSL and was weaker than the one previously in operation, Ravi Karunanayake, the one-time Finance Minister, had the audacity to challenge the CBSL.

Karunanayake:

Where does it say such transactions cannot be inquired into in terms of the new Act?

Jayaratne: In accordance with the 2017 Exchange Control Act, Section 30, action cannot be taken.

Karunanayake:

You prepared that Act. Why are you pretending as if you don’t know anything, about it? The CBSL amended it several times and sent it back.

Perhaps Jayaratne could have faced a ministerial onslaught if not for Dr. Coomaraswamy’s swift intervention. Had Dr. Coomaraswamy opted to remain silent, Jayaratne, probably would have had to suffer in silence, unable to talk back to a powerful Minister

Dr. Coomaraswamy:

No Sir. The Act actually was not drafted by us.

Karunanayake:

Why not?

Dr. Coomaraswamy:

No Sir. It was done outside. We were actually very upset about it. We were not included. That was drafted without the CBSL being involved. We were asked to comment on it

JVP MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa: If the Batticaloa Campus last received money in 2017, Hizbullah was aware of the new Act being drafted.

Jayaratne:

Yes.

Nalinda Jayatissa:

It could have had happened.

Jayaratne:

Present Act does not at least interpret what it meant by wrong.

Jayaratne:

Unauthorized money transactions were taking place all over the country. Foreign currencies are kept illegally. Transactions do not come into the official banking system, not even one USD.

The exchange between Karunanayake and the CBSL erupted when lawmaker Ashu Marasinghe, sought a clarification as regards the difference in the current and the previous Exchange Control Acts.

Chief of the COPF Sumanthiran remained silent during the exchange between Karunanayake and the CBSL.

The circumstances in which the Finance Act had been introduced have been disputed by no less a person than the CBSL Governor. It would be pertinent to recall the advice given by Dr. Coomaraswamy to the electorate, in late 2018. Dr. Coomaraswamy issued the advice before President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament, at midnight, on Nov 09, 2018, following the sacking of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe.

 

Financial chaos

Examination of statements in Sinhala, Tamil and English, issued by the Communications Department of Parliament, pertaining to the COPE, the COPA and the COPF, since the last general election, would reveal a pathetic state of affairs as far as the national economy is concerned. The statements have revealed an extremely dangerous trend with ministries and various institutions responsible for ensuring checks and balances, undermining the national economy. Revelations pertaining to Customs are quite disturbing and the failure on the part of the COPE, the COPA and the COPF to inquire into serious allegations within a reasonable period. The failure, perhaps, deliberately facilitated fraud, corruption and irregularities over the years. Last week, Parliament revealed a shocking case of corruption involving Customs and Access International (Pvt) Ltd that had taken place in 2013.

An investigation, conducted by the COPA, has revealed that the government suffered a loss of Rs 60 mn due to irregularities involving the Customs and Access International (Pvt) Ltd in the Eastern Province Water Development Project. The COPA revealed at the Committee on Public Accounts held in Parliament recently that the government had to pay an additional amount of Rs. 62,499,656 due to irregularities in the importation of DI pipes and fittings for the Eastern Province Water Development Project, implemented in 2013, with the assistance of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JAICA). Revelations during the COPA, the COPE and the COPF proceedings are only tip of an iceberg.



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Midweek Review

Pandemic Policies and Politics in South Asia:

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A Book Review

By Kalinga Tudor Silva

Jayathilake, N., De Silva, S. and Amarajeewa, A. eds. Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives. Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in collaboration with Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2021.

This edited volume published by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on various countries in the South Asian region. This volume differs from much of the emerging body of literature on politics and governance of the pandemic in that it seeks to capture civil society perspectives relating to this public health crisis and humanitarian emergency, with South Asia emerging as a major hotspot of the global pandemic. This is timely and particularly relevant as the pandemic is still unfolding in many parts of South Asia and the related horror stories triggered by the humanitarian crisis in India are presently making global media headlines. As of now, we in Sri Lanka have our own struggle against the virus, with the so-called ‘new year cluster’ attributed to related cultural festivities and the emergence of a more virulent new strain of the virus, triggering a possible third wave of the pandemic. Given all these considerations, this new book deserves our close attention and critical reflection.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with broader regional and multilateral issues relating to containing the pandemic in South Asia. The remaining chapters review specific country experiences in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan, respectively. The book sets the tone for the volume as follows:

“COVID 19 pandemic is perhaps the most daunting challenge that South Asia has confronted so far in the new millennium. With the outbreak of the pandemic, many unprecedented developments are in motion in South Asia, affecting almost all aspects of social, economic and political life in the region…… South Asia will never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic.” (p. ix).

Opening chapter by Uyangoda, traces the retreat of democracy and rise of what he calls “executive authoritarianism” particularly in India and Sri Lanka along with the onset of the pandemic. It highlights the systematic way the new regimes in the two countries have consolidated their power deploying exigencies relating to the containment of the pandemic as an excuse to advance authoritarian tendencies, suppress democratic opposition and curtail minority rights in these two of the oldest democracies in Asia. Citizenship Act in India passed immediately before the onset of the pandemic and 20th amendment in Sri Lanka introduced during the pandemic are clear examples of the authoritarian turn in the two countries. Subsequent developments, however, show that playing politics with pandemics, is a rather dangerous game as failures, mismanagement and the resulting public anger can turn against the same rulers who emerged through the pandemic as clearly demonstrated in the outcome of recent elections in India. Also, it must be noted here that the social and political history of epidemic outbreaks indicate that they do not necessarily promote the advancement of autocratic tendencies. They can also result in mass mobilization accompanied by increased democratic participation. For instance, the famous malaria epidemic of 1934-35 did contribute to the politicization of rural masses in Sri Lanka through the mediation of both nationalist and leftist political leaders and the development of the Sri Lankan welfare state as pointed out by several researchers (Jones 2015, Silva 2014, Jayasuriya 2000).

In the second chapter, Joseph and Pandey examine how far the pandemic has contributed towards development of regional cooperation for addressing a formidable common challenge. In their view even though some efforts at multilateral cooperation were made by the South Asian leaders through zoom meetings held at the onset of the pandemic, in the end “each country continued to battle the virus on its own” (P. 31) due to structural problems in SAARC and a variety of unresolved bilateral issues. Even though the chapter says that “there is a realization that COVID-19 is a collective crisis and combating this required coordinated action”, it has not been translated into a concrete program of action at the regional level. The subsequent chapter by Suba Chandran and others argue that the pandemic has served to reinforce conflict dynamics in the region, whether we are talking about bilateral issues between the countries or internal conflict dynamics within each country such as ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.

Country-specific analysis in chapters four to nine provide empirical support to many of the arguments provided in the previous chapters. Chapter Four on Sri Lanka by Senanayake and others, for instance, points to the militarization of the pandemic response in Sri Lanka and its implications for engagement with minorities and civil society. While the military did play a useful role in terms of expanding health infrastructure and managing quarantine facilities at a time when the state encountered serious resource constraints, the use of military intelligence in contact tracing, the privacy issues encountered by suspected patients and their contacts and any resulting stigmatization processes particularly where socially marginalized vulnerable people on the other side of the law such as substance users are exposed to the pandemic, pose serious problems from the angles of human rights, trust building and compliance. The chapter notes that the pandemic response in Sri Lanka involved the formation of three different task forces set up under section 33 of the constitution. The members of these task forces were handpicked by the president through his inner network of allies and were directly reporting to him with no clear guidelines about the tasks assigned to them and with no accountability to the public at large. What the chapter does not point out is that these politically constituted task forces totally exclude experts in several relevant fields such as social sciences, social work, law and gender relations or any credible representatives of civil society. As a result, when it came to sensitive issues such as addressing the legitimate demand for burial rights by Muslims, task forces did not have any knowledgeable persons who could express their professional opinions on the subject and address the problem sympathetically and following appropriate public health guidelines, also countering unfounded claims by the so-called ‘patriotic scientists’ (Rambukwella 2020).

Chapters on other countries in the region clearly illustrate that civil society is engaged in the struggle against COVID-19 side by side with the state agencies and the private sector in a variety of challenging circumstances and under different political regimes. It is increasingly evident that the struggle against the pandemic is multi-pronged, carried out at economic, social, political, and epidemiological fronts at the same time, long-term and needs to be regularly updated and adapted to changing circumstances. The role of civil society organizations ranges from fund raising, relief services targeting underserved communities in particular, rights-based interventions, advocacy work on behalf of affected people such as women, people with disabilities, migrant workers, urban poor and people in different stages of exposure to the disease, treatment, quarantine and recovery processes. While law enforcement and policing do have a role to play in disease prevention and control, a community-based approach informed by evidence and supported by community leaders at various levels is necessary to promote community mobilization and preparedness, healthy behaviours, compliance, and satisfactory adjustment to the new normal. A purely statist approach to contain the pandemic carried out with a cohort of loyalists, political henchmen and yes men and not guided by a critical reflection on evidence and community responses is bound to fail at this crucial moment when decisions made can make or break the future of humanity.

References

Jayasuriya, L. (2000). Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka: Experiences of a Third World Welfare State. Perth: University of Western Australia.

Jones, M. (2015). Sri Lankan Path to Health for All from the Colonial Period to Alma Ata. In A. Medcalf et al. eds. Health for All: The Journey of Universal Health Coverage. Hyderabad: Blackswan.

Rambukwella, Harshana. (2020). Patriotic Science: The Coronavirus Pandemic, Nationalism, and Indigeneity. University of Zurich Political Geography blog, June 3, 2020.

Silva, K.T. (2014). Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

 

 

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Midweek Review

Gammanpila’s proposal for ‘grading system’ for Ministers timely

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) is a constituent of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led coalition. The PHU is represented in the Cabinet of ministers by its leader and Attorney-at-Law, Udaya Gammanpila. One-time Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight Gammanpila secured recognition for the breakaway faction, PHU, on Oct 14, 2020, two months after the last general election. The Election Commission altogether recognised six political parties, including the PHU. They were registered in terms of the powers vested in the Commission, under Section 7(4) and (5) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, No. 01 of 1981.

The JHU contested its first general election, in April 2004, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The JHU secured nine seats. After switching sides, on multiple occasions, it is now a constituent of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the main Opposition party in the Parliament. The former JHU representative in the cabinet, Patali Champika Ranawaka, now spearheads ‘hathalisthunwani senankaya’ (43rd Division) – a political movement meant to challenge the incumbent government.

Ranawaka, who had served the cabinets of Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, quit the JHU, in early Dec 2020, four months after the last general election.

In the run-up to the general election, in August 2020, Patali Champika Ranawaka’s one-time JHU colleague, PHU leader, Gammanpila, called for a system to grade ministers. Minister Gammanpila asserted that a grading system was required to ensure the proper functioning of the Cabinet of ministers.

Let me reproduce what lawyer Gammanpila said, in Sinhala, on July 14, 2020:

“The people believe a Cabinet of ministers, capable of serving under the leadership of hard-working President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, will be installed. Ministers must work. People should also know about that. Those unable to work should lose their ministerial portfolios. Therefore, I propose to introduce a grading system for ministers and release of the results every three months. If a minister became the last, in the grading system, for five consecutive times, it means the politician concerned failed to rectify the mistakes. In such a scenario, the minister should either resign or be removed by the President.”

Lawmaker Gammanpila further proposed: “The grading system should be based on handling of capital expenditure, recurrent expenditure, swift handling of problems, faced by the people, cooperation with public servants, timely response to audit queries, filling vacancies, conducting the public day, attending parliamentary sessions, participating in debates relevant to portfolios handled by the respective ministers and responding to media queries. People should propose new recommendations for the proposed grading system.”

At the time lawmaker Gammanpila made the above declaration, he hadn’t been a member of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first Cabinet of ministers, appointed immediately after the 2019 presidential election. On Nov 21, 2019, MP Gammanpila asked President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to consider him for a Cabinet portfolio as he realized the serious difficulties experienced by the new administration.

Gammanpila, in a brief letter, dated Nov 21, addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, copied to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that 38 former ministers sought Cabinet portfolios in the caretaker government. In addition to them, there were several district leaders expecting Cabinet portfolios, MP Gammanpila said finalising the list of 15 as agreed wouldn’t be an easy task.

Gammanpila added that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s original plan was to name a 10-member caretaker Cabinet. At the end, the new government appointed 16 ministers. Of them, the SLPP received 10 slots.

The remaining six positions were shared among the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), receiving two positions, and one each for the National Freedom Front (NFF), the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

Gammanpila received a Cabinet portfolio in the wake of the last general election. The PHU leader holds the Energy Portfolio and is also the co-cabinet spokesperson.

Since the July 14, 2020 declaration, lawmaker Gammanpila hasn’t referred to the grading system for ministers. His cabinet colleagues hadn’t mentioned the matter Either. Obviously, the divisions it would cause in the government has kept everyone mum.

 Perhaps, there should be a wider grading system, not only for ministers, but for political party leaders, and even those wielding power in other tiers of government, like the Provincial Councils, and local authorities. There shouldn’t be any dispute over PHU leader’s proposal that the grading system he proposed for ministers covered the concerned lawmakers conduct, both in and outside Parliament. However, the need for accountability, on the part of all lawmakers, even for their conduct before they entered Parliament, is of pivotal importance.

 

Prof. Herath responds to Ambanwela

Let me give you an example of how closely a section of the public followed issues at hand. Recently, the writer received a paper cutting of a story headlined, ‘SLC funds amounting to Rs 29 mn in US bank: SLC caught lying before COPE, ‘authored by him. The story published on April 9, 2021 dealt with how COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Chritha Herath pursued inquiries into corruption in the SLC. Along with that paper cutting, the writer also received paper cutting of an interview done by Tharindu Uduwegedera with former Additional Auditor General Lalith Ambanwela for the April 11 edition of ‘Anidda’. The sender, who didn’t identify himself/herself, questioned the integrity of incumbent COPE Chairman on the basis of his conduct as the Secretary to the Media Ministry.

Ambanwela, who was attacked with acid, in May 2002, over an audit investigation in respect of corruption, involving a Central Province Education Director, levelled quite a serious allegation at Prof. Herath. Ambanwela questioned the rationale in making Prof. Herath Chairman of the Parliamentary Watchdog Committee, in spite of him turning a blind eye to specific corrupt activities brought to his notice by the Auditor General’s Department, over a period of time. Ambanwela accused Prof. Herath of not taking action as regards serious cases of corruption at the State Printing Corporation. He much respected retired public servant alleged that Prof. Herath did nothing when the then Chairman of the State Printing Corporation transferred over Rs 40 mn to an account of a relative.

The Island raised the issue at hand with Prof. Herath, who strongly denied Ambanwela’s accusation. Prof. Herath said: “I didn’t keep quiet about revelations made by the Auditor General’s Department. Within a week after COPE brought the matter to my notice, the Chairman concerned was removed. The then COPE Chairman Dew Gunasekera was informed of the action taken. Further information can be obtained from former COPE Chairman Gunasekera.”

 Prof. Herath said that he deeply regretted the unsubstantiated accusations made by Ambanwela. Prof. Herath, in a twitter message, issued in Sinhala, denied Ambanwela’s claims. Prof. Herath’s swift response to the retired public servant’s accusations should be appreciated. A person with questionable past cannot, under any circumstances, chair COPE or COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or PFC (Public Finance Committee).

Regardless of Prof. Herath’s denial of Ambanwela’s accusation, let me briefly discuss how the latter explained political interference, in relation to the audit process. Ambanwela’s explanation, given in response to Tharindu Uduwegedera’s query, should be examined against the backdrop of lawmaker Gammanpila’s once proposed grading system for ministers. Successive governments had done precious little to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities.

Alleging that some politicians participated in COPE and COPA proceedings with a view to dilute the Watchdog Committee’s reports, Ambanwela claimed that some represented the interests of those promoting various deals. Ambanwela cited the deal on leasing out a building owned by Upali Jayasinghe (former actress Sabitha Perera’s husband) at No 288, Rajagiriya-Kotte, Jayewardenepura Road, as a notorious example to prove politicians/governments colluding with business interests. Ambanwela made a no-nonsense assessment of the deal as the senior AG Department official who handled that particular inquiry.

The Auditor General’s Department report on the building deal, prepared by Ambanwela has been submitted to the COPA before the finalisation of the controversial agreement. Ambanwela, in the course of COPA proceedings, chaired by the then Chairman Lasantha Alagiyawanna warned Agriculture Ministry Secretary B. Wijeratne not to sign the agreement until COPA addressed the issue at hand. Ambanwela had warned of dire consequences if the Agriculture Ministry went ahead with the agreement. Ambanwela quoted the then lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake (JVP National List) as having said that the proposed agreement was a serious case of corruption. However, when Ambanwela urged Alagiyawanna, who represented the SLFP, not to finalize the deal, the lawmaker asserted such a decision couldn’t be taken as the Cabinet of ministers already had approved it.

Ambanwela revealed that in spite of him being an official, he had no qualms in declaring in the audit report pertaining to the Jayasinghe building deal that it was a decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers without critical analysis. If Lasantha Alagiyawanna, in his capacity as COPA Chairman, made the right intervention, losses could have been avoided. The total value of the deal was over Rs.1.3 bn.

COPE, COPA and PFC reports issued since the last parliamentary election proved, without uncertainty, that successive governments ruined the national economy. The country would have been in a far stronger position to face the Covid-19 challenge if successive governments ensured financial discipline. If one examines all reports issued by the above-mentioned Watchdog Committees, all governments, including the incumbent administration failed pathetically to follow laid down procedures, thereby causing massive losses to the national economy.

 

Evaluating an administration

The last presidential election was conducted in Nov 2019. The parliamentary election followed in August 2020. The electorate overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP, in both instances, with the SLPP securing a staggering 145 seats – just five short of a two-thirds majority. Without doubt, the SLPP’s performance is the best since the introduction of the Proportional Representation (PR) system. The UNP obtained 5/6 of the seats at the 1977 general election under the first-past-the-post system. As lawmaker Gammanpila called for public proposals as regards a grading system for ministers, perhaps it would be pertinent to rank governments/political parties on the basis of points scored by ministers and members of Parliament in terms of a grading system. In other words, a proper grading system should reflect genuine public opinion.

Let me examine the conduct of Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge in the wake of Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena’s May Day declaration of Piliyandala as an isolated police area due to the growing Covid-19 threat there. Within hours, Lokuge got the isolation order removed. Subsequent to his intervention, the isolation order was restricted to just five grama sevaka areas.

One-time UNP Minister Lokuge switched his allegiance to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006. Since then, he remained with the UPFA/SLPP and received the Transport portfolio, following the last general election.

Minister Lokuge got away with his high handed actions. Lokuge jeopardized the government counter measures against the spread of Covid-19 purely for parochial reasons and, in spite of widespread condemnation, he continued to defend his right to intervene on behalf of the Piliyandala electorate. The deployment of police in Covid-19 protective gear to carry away those in public places, not wearing face masks and other violations, on the basis they posed a threat to the community, seemed silly when the likes of Minister Lokuge walked freely about even after some of his staff tested positive.

Where would Minister Lokuge be if he was subjected to a proper grading system? In quite a revealing interview with Panuka Rajapaksa, of Hiru TV, on Sunday (9), the Minister reiterated his callous response to the growing Covid threat. Declaring his right to intervene, the Colombo District lawmaker faulted officials responsible for implementing Covid-19 counter measures. The Minister blamed it all on the DGHS. Thanks to a section of the media, particularly Hiru TV, the public are fully aware of how Piliyandala strongman Lokuge, and those under his political command, brought the entire government into disrepute. Unfortunately, the government refrained from taking remedial measures. Perhaps, the SLPP didn’t want to admit how irresponsible its senior members are. The DGHS never explained how his isolation order on Piliyandala/Kesbewa was unceremoniously removed by Minister Lokuge through his clout. The Minister’s actions, and the failure on the part of the government to take tangible measures to protect residents of Piliyandala/Kesbewa, proved beyond doubt the government still played politics with the issue at hand.

Having cancelled May Day rallies, citing the Covid-19 threat, the government succumbed to Minister Lukuge’s, what can be termed as, reckless politics. There is no harm in calling the same politics of Idiocy. However, Lokuge’s reckless behaviour should be studied, also taking into consideration the highly contentious decision to allow Indians into the country, both on holiday and for quarantine purposes, until the Covid-19 situation here took an extremely dangerous turn. The government announced plans to block Indians crossing the maritime boundary while allowing visitors through the Bandaranaike International Airport. What did the government expect to achieve by much publicised religious ceremonies in support of Covid-19 fight, especially in the wake of the likes of Minister Lokuge jeopardizing the overall effort?

 Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Health Minister Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi and other big shots, who set an extremely bad example by consuming ‘Dhammika Peniya’, depicted as a tonic prepared with the intervention of the Gods, issued instructions to members of Parliament as regards the Covid-19 counter measures. Close on the heels of the Speaker’s instructions for members to adhere with health guidelines, both in and outside Parliament, the government acknowledged the tonic touted as a miracle cure, is not so. The Health Minister and all her parliamentary colleagues who shared Kali amma’s tonic in Parliament should be ashamed of themselves. Their actions provided tacit approval for the ‘Dhammika Peniya.’

Perhaps the Energy Minister and co-cabinet spokesperson should grade those who accepted the miracle tonic of fraudster Dhammika Bandara of Hettimulla, Kegalle.

Throwing pots, containing what faith healer Eliyantha White called miracle water, by Minister Wanniarachchi, as well as her colleagues Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga, late last year didn’t have the promised impact. White, who claims to have mystic powers with many VIP clients, including foreigners, got Wanniarachchi to smash a pot, containing his special water, into the Kalu Ganga to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, footage on the social media showed.

At the time of White’s intervention, the number of infections was over 11,000 and 22 deaths.

Gamnmanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga  were both filmed throwing pots into the Kelani River at two different locations. White also dropped a pot containing his own miracle water.

Now, the number of infections is at over 125,000 cases and over 800 deaths. The government engaged in some quite ludicrous projects as the situation deteriorated. Those responsible for the overall government effort against the rampaging epidemic never ensured a proper investigation into the second Covid-19 eruption. Did they suppress the investigation even after outgoing Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, ordered no holds barred investigation into what he called the ‘Brandix cluster,’?

Livera issued specific instructions on Oct 27, 2000, in the wake of a 39-year-old female worker, at the Minuwangoda Brandix facility, being detected on Oct 4, 2020, as the first detected in a random test as the origin of the second wave of COVID-19 after almost five months since the countrywide curfew was lifted. Later, an attempt was made to fault Ukrainians for the second eruption. In their haste to suppress the investigation, a group of Ukrainian personnel, here on the invitation of the Air Force, to inspect AN 32 transport aircraft, too, was falsely implicated. What happened to the criminal investigation sought by AG de Livera?

The deterioration of the national economy is not an overnight development. Careful examination of Watchdog Committee reports, pertaining to state institutions, revealed how unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence over the years deteriorated the national economy to such an extent, the country is facing unprecedented challenges. The Covid-19 crisis, in a way, has come in good stead for those responsible to blame it on the raging pandemic.

 Why isn’t the government pursuing a criminal case against those responsible for the swindle, costing over a billion rupees to the state in the leasing of the Jayasinghe building? Is it because of another hidden deal between government and Opposition politicians? Is it because the same political mastermind behind the bond scams was also behind the Jayasinghe building lease deal?

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Midweek Review

The Re-defining Moment

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By Lynn Ockersz

The Human caring to look at himself,

Draws back in great dread,

From the bruised face that presents itself:

‘Is this me, whom they said,

From society is never

separate?’,

In anguish he asks himself;

‘Didn’t they say that humanity,

Is my defining essence?’

‘What stuff and nonsense’,he tells himself:

‘For, isn’t the rampaging plague,

That’s taking lives in the millions,

Teaching me that I must live,

Only for mine and myself?,

Don’t I see everyone else,

As a cadaver of sorts in a diseased state,

Whom I must avoid like the Black Death?

By doing this am I not standing,

The famous social being theory on its heads?’

 

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