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Midweek Review

How Lanka ended up receiving humanitarian assistance from an Indian state

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UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and PM’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake join CWC leader Senthil Thondaman and FM Prof. G.L. Peiris at a brief ceremony at the Colombo harbour where Indian HC Baglay handed over humanitarian assistance from Tamil Nadu (pic courtesy Indian HC)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The May 09 ‘operation’, whose father is yet unknown, meant to save Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership, has tarnished the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the police as well as the armed forces.

The controversial Temple Trees project not only caused irreparable damage to the ruling coalition, it paved the way for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to regain the premiership for the sixth time, incredibly with just one seat in the 225-member Parliament.

With Wickremesinghe at the helm of the government parliamentary group, the UNP has begun playing an active role in the administration, though the party didn’t have any members in Parliament, other than its leader. However, Wickremesinghe has brought a selected group of UNPers into the administration while causing a division in the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) by winning over two of its vociferous members, namely Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara.

Having repeatedly accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of direct complicity in the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, both received ministerial portfolios from the President. Wickremsinghe is in the process of consolidating his position.

There cannot be a better example to highlight Wickremesinghe’s strategy meant to resurrect his party than involving two former ministers Vajira Abeywardena, incumbent Chairman of the party, and Sagala Ratnayake, in the delegation that received urgently needed food assistance from India.

Sri Lanka delegation received the assistance, standing next to Tan Binh 99, the Panama registered general cargo ship, at the Colombo harbour.

The following is the text of the statement issued by Eldos Mathew Punnoose, Head – Press, Information and Development Cooperation, as regards the handing over of humanitarian assistance at the Colombo harbour: “High Commissioner Gopal Baglay handed over a large consignment of humanitarian assistance worth more than SLR 2 billion from the people of India to Foreign Minister Prof. G.L Peiris, in Colombo, on 22 May 2022. The handing over function was attended by Minister for Ports and Shipping, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Former Minister Vajira Abeywardena, Sagala Ratnayaka, Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, Senthil Thondaman, Leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Food Commissioner Mrs. J. Krishnamurthy, among senior officials, and others.

The consignment consists of 9,000 MT of rice, 50 MT of milk powder and more than 25 MT of drugs and other medical supplies. It was flagged off from Chennai port by Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Thiru M.K Stalin on 18 May 2022. This is also the first consignment under a larger USD 16 million commitment of 40,000 MT of rice, 500 MT of milk powder and medicines by the state Government of Tamil Nadu.

Handed over materials shall be distributed among vulnerable and needy sections in various parts of Sri Lanka including Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces by Government of Sri Lanka in the coming days.

More humanitarian consignments and other forms of assistance from India shall follow. Multi-pronged endeavour by both the Government and the people of India underlines the importance attached to Sri Lanka and reflects their concerns for the well-being of its people. Support extended to Sri Lanka ranges from economic assistance worth around USD 3.5 billion, supply of vaccines, testing kits, close to 1000 MT of liquid oxygen to combat COVID-19, immediate response by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to mitigate marine disasters, etc.”

Sri Lanka’s utterly irresponsible political leadership has achieved the unthinkable. The country has been reduced to such a pathetic state, it has ended up receiving food assistance from the state government of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka should be ashamed of having to receive food assistance from an Indian state, 13 years after having proudly defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) considered impossible by many a pundit and against the wishes of the haughty West. Can that be the root of the unprecedented problems? Perhaps one day the truth will unravel through the work of an outfit, like WikiLeaks, on how Hawala or Undial underground cash transfer systems so successfully dried up foreign exchange flows into the country, leaving it unable to find even a few million dollars to clear an urgently needed shipment of cooking gas or lifesaving drugs. However much the deep state is entrenched in Western democracies with the open help of their ‘independent’ media controlled by the military-industrial complex, there are still plenty of people with clear consciences who want to do justice to the world.

R.K. Radhakrishnan, writing to India’s national magazine Frontline described the Tamil Nadu gesture as ‘a province in a developing country extending its assistance to another country.’ That line is sufficient to comprehend Sri Lanka’s plight. In spite of initial disagreement between Tamil Nadu and the Central Government of India regarding the humanitarian assistance offered by TN Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, they reached consensus on the matter. Four days before the despicable Temple Trees project, borne out of frustration caused by the government’s inability to end the sieges at Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat by so- called peaceful protesters, triggered mayhem in Sri Lanka. They were anything but peaceful by the way they tried to storm President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pengiriwatte, Mirihana, in late March.

Then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, struggling to save his premiership, wrote to CM Stalin: “I wish to thank you and the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, for viewing the country’s crisis from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than a problem concerning another country.”

Six days later Mahinda Rajapaksa was compelled to quit the premiership. The war-winning President and his family were compelled to take refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command after having abandoned Temple Trees, Kollupitiya, the nerve centre of the disastrous May 09 project, fearing a fate similar to that which met Libya’s Gadhafi, where, too, the truth was turned on its head.

An elder brother’s lament

Chamal Rajapaksa, 80, possibly serving his last term as a lawmaker, recently faulted younger brother and twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa for continuing in politics even after completing two presidential terms. The elder Rajapaksa attributed the current crisis to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continuation in active politics. Chamal Rajapaksa said that politicians should be prepared to give up power. Otherwise, they have to be prepared to face situations like this if they were greedy for power. The one time Speaker was commenting on his brother’s dilemma in the wake of him losing the premiership. Chamal Rajapaksa said: “Ranil Wickremesinghe is very lucky. In 2015, Wickremesinghe was able to secure premiership in spite of not enjoying a parliamentary majority. Now, the UNP leader secured the premiership without another MP in Parliament. Wickremesinghe is lucky and the country too is fortunate that we have him to take up the mantle of leadership despite all his shortcomings of the past, when all other politicians are playing their petty tricks to grab power while the country was literally going up in flames.

But, can Chamal Rajapaksa absolve himself of his share of responsibility for the crisis that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to leave his brothers, Chamal and Basil as well as nephews, Namal and Shashendra, out of the Cabinet of Ministers. President Rajapaksa, himself is under pressure to do away with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that gave him dictatorial powers. The abolition of the 20th Amendment enacted in Oct 2020 is part of the overall agreement sought by some of those who accepted ministerial portfolios in the current dispensation. Both PM Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, will push hard for the abolition of the 20th Amendment.

Before commenting further on ongoing moves to introduce the 21st Amendment at the expense of the 20A, it would be pertinent to examine Chamal Rajapaksa’s role as the Speaker (April 22, 2010-June 26, 2015) especially against the backdrop of his criticism of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s conduct. Chamal Rajapaksa, who has represented the Hambantota electoral district since 1989, continuously has declared that his brother Mahinda should have called it a day after completing two presidential terms (2005-2010 and 2010-2015).

Having said so, lawmaker Chamal Rajapaksa owed an explanation as regards his role in the enactment of the 18 A to the Constitution at the expense of the 19 A. During Chamal Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Speaker, the Parliament passed the controversial 18th Amendment Bill on Sept. 8, 2010, with 161 MPs voting for and 17 against the Bill. The following are some of its key points:

(a) The President can seek re-election any number of times (earlier it was limited to two;

(b) The ten-member Constitutional Council replaced with a five-member Parliamentary Council;

(c) Independent commissions are brought under the authority of the President; and,

(d) The 18th Amendment enabled the President to attend Parliament once in three months and entitles him to all the privileges, immunities and powers of an MP other than the entitlement to vote. In short, it is all about arming the President with absolute power.

The 18th Amendment was meant to empower Mahinda Rajapaksa. Chamal Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Speaker, oversaw the operation. The impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, and her removal by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013 should be examined against the backdrop of enactment of the 18th Amendment. Chamal Rajapaksa served as the Speaker at the time Justice Bandaranaike was removed. She was accused of several charges, including financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases, all of which she categorically denied. But her husband was found guilty by courts over his shady dealings.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa ensured the implementation of the then UPFA government’s strategy. Having served as a minister till April this year and played a critical role in the manipulation of Parliament, it wouldn’t be fair to find fault with Mahinda Rajapaksa solely for being power hungry.

Chamal Rajapaksa also made reference to Wickremesinghe receiving the premiership in 2015 following the presidential election, in spite of not having at least a simple majority in Parliament. Chamal Rajapaksa appeared to have conveniently forgotten that he continued as the Speaker even after Wickremesinghe was appointed PM after having unceremoniously discarded the late D.M. Jayaratne. The UPFA leadership didn’t even bother to ask Jayaratne before reaching consensus with President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Wickremesinghe over the premiership following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election held ahead of schedule on the advice of an astrologer. Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 in connivance with then Premier Wickremesinghe-led government.

The UNP-led government also betrayed the war-winning Sri Lanka military at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Chamal Rajapaksa absolutely had no issue in continuing as the Speaker until June 26, 2015 when President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament to save the UNP. The dissolution of the House was meant to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) from submitting its report on the first Treasury bond scam to the House. Now again Chamal Rajapaksa has accepted Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier. Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Wickremesinghe in late Oct 2018 and then offered him the premiership back within two months following judicial intervention and the primary beneficiary of Oct 2018 constitutional coup Mahinda Rajapaksa, are also in the same parliamentary group now headed by Wickremesinghe.

Proposed transfer of executive powers

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is pushing for the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The BASL wants Premier Wickremesinghe to demonstrate as early as possible his ability to establish a consensus among the political parties in Parliament and endeavour to build a representative Government of National Unity to implement a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) in the public interest.

The BASL insists on a clear timeline to introduce critical constitutional amendments proposed by the outfit, including the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

The National Joint Committee (NJC) is concerned about the BASL’s strategy. The nationalist outfit believes the SJB and the BASL are working on a similar agenda to do away with the Executive Presidency without changing the current electoral system or repealing the 13th Amendment.

If the ongoing joint high profile project to introduce 21 A to the Constitution succeeds, the UNP leader will receive powers at the expense of the Executive Presidency. Having received an overwhelming mandate at the last presidential election in Nov 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands to lose executive powers to Wickremesinghe who accepted the challenging task of rebuilding the devastated national economy.

Those who launched the ‘Gogotahome’ campaign remained skeptical about the SLPP’s commitment to introduce the 21 A. They believe the architects of the 20 A would do whatever possible to sabotage efforts to do away with the executive presidency. They believe the SLPP founder Basil Rajapkasa, who still wields power over the party apparatus reeling under accusations pertaining to unprovoked attacks on the public demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.



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Midweek Review

How bankruptcy paves way for exploitation of Sri Lanka

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First row (from left) Chief Financial Officer, Ports and Shipping Ministry Sandhya Pushparani, Director J.R.U. de Silva, Ports and Shipping Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra, and Chairman, SLPA Dr. Prasantha Jayamanna. Director, SLPA Isuru Balpatabendi,and Chairman Jaya Container Terminal Attorney-at-Law Lakmal Ratnayake on the second row (pics courtesy Parliament)

Mismanagement of cash cow SLPA, where still it’s carry on as usual

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The United States is keen to further enhance and consolidate its role in Sri Lanka. The current turmoil that has been caused by waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement of the economy over the years as well as a spate of ill-advised decisions taken by the incumbent administration would facilitate the US strategy here. The global fuel and food crises caused by Russia rushing into a quagmire in Ukraine, essentially tailor made by the West, as happened to its predecessor the Soviet Union in Afghanistan earlier, has further debilitated the Sri Lankan and many other economies.

The failure on the part of the ruling SLPP and the Opposition to reach a consensus regarding a common action plan to face the daunting economic challenges, has assisted the U.S. and common ‘Quad’ approach towards Sri Lanka. The organization consists of the U.S. Japan, Australia and India, the last now more or less a reluctant bride.

The U.S. wants to strengthen Sri Lanka’s accounting and auditing sectors as part of its overall measures to improve the public sector here. Other ‘Quad’ members are pursuing combined as well as individual strategies pertaining to Sri Lanka. India is now in a position to dominate Sri Lanka in every aspect. The push to expand network of Lanka IOC service station is a case in point.

Speculation is rife of New Delhi seeking to further enhance its share of the oil market here in a situation of utter economic turmoil caused by unprecedented shortages.

The recent announcement that the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) would partner the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (CA Sri Lanka) and the Association of Public Finance Accountants of Sri Lanka (APFASL) to toughen Sri Lanka’s accounting and auditing sectors was amidst the worst ever economic turmoil. The US project, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, is meant to train approximately 600 public sector accountants and audit professionals and 1,200 officers on IT applications and other platforms that support strategic decision-making.

U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung declared at the launch of the project the partnership with CA Sri Lanka and APFASL would contribute towards greater accountability in the public sector. The Embassy, in a statement issued on June 15, 2022, quoted Chung as having said that as one of Sri Lanka’s longstanding development partners, the U.S vision was to help the country to emerge from crises stronger than before.

The statement also quoted Sanjaya Bandara, President of CA Sri Lanka, as having said that “Strong public financial management is very critical for Sri Lanka to achieve its long-term goals. President of APFASL V. Kanagasabapathy profusely thanked the USAID for the recognition of its efforts. The U.S. Embassy quoted Kanagasabapathy as having said that APFASL’ vision was to lead the public financial management to excellence while helping the sector to continue to play a pioneering role in Sri Lanka.

The countrywide U.S. project, according to the statement, is meant to provide a framework for the preparation and presentation of financial statements in compliance with international best practices for quality financial accounting and reporting. Having published the US statement, the writer asked the Embassy whether it would be possible to know the total cost and duration of the project and who would receive the funding?

The Island received the following response: “This initiative is a series of trainings supported by the United States. The training will be attended by public sector accountants and audit professionals to strengthen oversight and accountability capacity in Sri Lanka.”

The Island again asked the U.S. Embassy whether it would be possible to know the total cost of the project. We received the following second response: “This initiative includes 24 training programmes over the course of two years. Training programmes will take place in all 9 Sri Lankan provinces.”

After having thanked the U.S. Embassy, The Island once again repeated the question how much the project would cost the US? The Embassy didn’t respond to that query. That was nearly two weeks ago.

Question mark over 2016 US project

The latest project can be examined taking into consideration the high profile USAID funded three-year project launched in late Nov. 2016. Budgeted at USD 13,000 mn (Rs 1.92 bn), the project launch that took place in Parliament under the auspices of the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and USAID Mission Director Andrew Sisson, the gathering was told the Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) would improve strategic planning and communication within government and Parliament, enhance public outreach, develop more effective policy reform and implementation processes, and increase political participation of women and underrepresented groups in Parliament and at local levels.

Had that project achieved stated goals, Sri Lanka wouldn’t be in the current predicament. It would be pertinent to mention that the U.S. finalized the project over eight months after the then Central Bank Governor Singaporean national Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated the second far bigger Treasury bond scam. So were all those American efforts nothing more than a smokescreen for other agendas?

The CBSL perpetrated the first scam in February 2015, just few weeks after the US-backed campaign installed Maithripala Sirisena as the President, which they shamelessly crowed about publicly with none other than then Secretary of State John Kerry announcing it to the world. Mahendran carried out the second bond scam in late March 2016, half a year after the UNP won the general election.

The release of the unedited video footage of the examination of public enterprises undertaken by the parliamentary watchdog, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) under the leadership of Prof. Charitha Herath MP has exposed unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement of state enterprises. Unfortunately, the media and the civil society hadn’t taken advantage of the availability of such video footage released by the Parliament to educate the public. The press releases issued by the Parliament on proceedings at the COPE, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee of Public Finance) quite clearly helped the media, but video footage provided much clearer picture of the developments taking place.

The video footage of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) top management appearing before the COPE on June 22, 2022 is a case in point. The proceedings revealed not only a pathetic state in public sector finance but the failure on the part of the executive, legislature and the judiciary to address these issues at hand. Prof. Charitha Herath flanked by Auditor General W.P.C. Wickramaratne and Secretary to the COPE Nishanthi Wickramasinghe examined the top SLPA management. Ports and Shipping Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra, flanked by Chairman, SLPA Dr. Prasantha Jayamanna, Director J.R.U. de Silva and Chief Financial Officer, Ports and Shipping Ministry Sandhya Pushparani. They were on the first row. Isuru Balpatabendi, Director sat in between Chairman, Jaya Container Terminal Attorney-at-Law Lakmal Ratnayake, and its Managing Director Upul Jayatissa. Director General Customs Maj. Gen. (ret.) G.V. Ravipriya also sat on the second row as a Director of the cash cow.

The COPE didn’t raise any queries from Isuru Balpatabendi nor did he offer any explanations. Balapatabendi’s presence among the eight-member Board of Directors should be examined taking into consideration of him being the Secretary of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). Having offered solutions to overcome the current political, economic and social crisis, the BASL cannot turn a blind eye to continuing waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement in the public sector. The SLPA can be a case study for the BASL.

The bottom line is that Sri Lanka is currently in such a desperate situation the US may find the environment conducive for a fresh attempt to force SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) on Sri Lanka. The US succeeded in securing Sri Lanka’s consent for ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in Aug 2017. Interestingly both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena who approved ACSA that gave US military access to Sri Lanka are now with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government.

Importance of internal audit

At the onset of the COPE proceedings, Prof. Herath sought an explanation as regards the status of the internal audit. Obviously, Chief Internal Auditor, SLPA, Gayani Liyanage responses as well as that of the SLPA Chairman to specific questions didn’t appease Prof. Herath, who asserted that poor internal audit could be one of the reasons for the current issues. Prof. Herath asked the SLPA Chairman not to assign tasks to the 53-strong internal audit unit outside their legitimate duties.

Herath raised several contentious issues with COPE members Patali Champika Ranawaka (PCR), Madura Vithanage, Jagath Pushpakumara, D.V. Chanaka, Eran Wickramaratne and Premanath C. Dolawatta making valuable contributions. PCR was particularly spot on. The former JHU heavyweight dealt firmly and expertly with contentious issues while Vithanage targeted the Finance.

The following are the main points of contention:

(1) The loan obtained from China to build Hambantota port has been removed from all government financial statements. As at Dec 31, 2021, Sri Lanka owed China Rs 165.4 bn (USD 1.89 bn). USD 1.2 bn received from China for 99-year lease of the strategic port hadn’t been utilized to settle the loan. Instead, the USD 1.2 bn had been spent though the COPE was not told of the allocation of USD 1.2 bn. The Treasury now services the loan. Prof. Herath requested Ports and Shipping Ministry Secretary Ruwanchandra to submit a comprehensive report on this matter.

(2) The COPE sought an explanation from the SLPA why the state enterprise failed to market the Hambantota port the way the Chinese did after the finalization of the USD 1.2 bn agreement on the 99-year-lease on the commercially strategic port.

(3) Massive losses suffered as a result of procurement of a stock of oil at a cost of USD 24.3 mn (Rs 8,000 mn) that had to be sold for USD 3.5. COPE questioned Niroshan Siriwardena, Managing Director, Magampura port over the circumstances the outfit unwisely utilized the loan obtained from a bank on the advice of a consultant. COPE recommended the SLPA and the Secretary Ports and Shipping Ministry to take legal measures against the consultant. Proceedings revealed Magampura port operation is nothing but an absolute waste of public funds. The failure on the part of those responsible to take tangible action in this regard stressed.

(4) The inordinate and continuing delay in equipping the ECT (East Container Terminal) thereby giving advantage to the China owned CICT (Colombo International Container Terminal) and SAGT (South Asia Gateway Terminal). The SLPA owned 15 percent each of both CICT and SAGT. The negligence and the failures on the part of those responsible for transformation of the ECT seemed, in a way, deliberate. The parliamentary watchdog questioned the possibility of some interested party purposely undermining the operation. The fault seemed to be at the level of Cabinet of Ministers as well as successive SLPA administrations. The issue of taking delivery of gantry cranes before constructing specific positions they were to be installed shocking and disappointing. The COPE took notice of the fact that such equipment took one and half years to be built after an order was placed. It transpired that the cost of the civil works component was USD 198 mn (65% local currency) and equipment installation cost USD 282 mn. However, the installation has been delayed due to the failure on the part of the SLPA’s state bank to provide the required financing. The shocking revelation that the ECT hadn’t been expanded for five years after the completion of the 400 m stretch is evidence that successive governments failed public expectations. Lawmaker PCR emphasized the pivotal importance of revisiting the ECT project as the ground situation has changed. The MP reminded the SLPA and the COPE of the government’s admission of bankruptcy.

(5) Dispute over the SLPA’s stated profits. The SLPA challenged the Auditor General’s estimate that the state enterprise earned Rs 45 bn in 2021. The SLPA placed annual profits at Rs 62 bn. The COPE also made reference to the SAGT returning to the SLPA in 2019 and the government’s responsibility in that regard.

(6) The loss of revenue as well as foreign shippers’ faith in the SLPA as a result of the strike launched on June 10, 2020.

(7) Construction of Adani Group-led CWIT (Colombo West International Terminal). Comparison of the CICT and the SAGT workforce with that of the SLPA and the sharp difference in the number of the private sector workers and the SLPA. The SLPA seemed a law unto itself with the disclosure that the highly profitable venture operated to a certain extent outside the purview of the Management Services Department though the total number of employees remained well under the stipulated figure 9,900. The COPE stressed the need to ensure that the SLPA under any circumstances didn’t go beyond the stipulated number of workers. The current work force comprised 9,300.

(8) Rohitha Abeygunawardena who served as the Ports and Shipping Minister of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa till April 2020 raised the contentious issue of recruitment beyond the approved cadre. The lawmaker stressed the need to compare the private sector operations and that of the SLPA. The COPE was told that though the total approved cadre hadn’t been exceeded, recruitment has been carried out in an irregular and extremely shoddy manner.

(9) Big question mark over the transfer of just Rs. 600 mn out of 69,686 mn profits (2016-2021) period and the pathetic failure on the part of the Finance Ministry to address the issue.

(10) Absence of a cohesive and efficient system to charge CICT and SAGT for certain services rendered by the SLPA.

(11) Growing overtime Bill with 2021 recording a staggering Rs 5.8 bn in extra payments. Scandalous disclosure some workers earned overtime for 400 hours and unskilled work assistants numbering 1,500 continued to be a heavy burden.

(12) Controversy over so-called collective agreement that ensured salary increase every three years. The COPE stressed the need to have guidelines formulated by the Management Services Department to prevent exploitation of collective agreements as the process threatened financial stability.

The SLPA, in spite of being a profit making state enterprise, remains in an utterly chaotic situation. The SLPA hasn’t been a burden on the taxpayer though the national carrier SriLankan, the CEB and the CPC bled the country dry. But casual examination indicates regardless of the financial status a section of public servants continued to enjoy perks and privileges while the entire country suffered as a result of local and some external factors beyond Sri Lanka’s control.

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Midweek Review

The Bonhomie of the Ages

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By Lynn Ockersz

Ignoring aching hearts and limbs,

And unmindful of days passing,

The men slumped in their Tuk-Tuks,

Continue their lonesome vigil,

In queues snaking into the distance,

For those never-coming cans of fuel,

Promised by smooth-talking Sires,

That could help fetch a few more coppers,

And delay the onset of starvation,

But thanks to the age-old wisdom,

Handed to them by their humble elders,

The only inheritors of the pristine Dhamma,

The men are not bereft of compassion,

So much so, they share the frugal meals,

The Sweat of their Brows has yielded.

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Midweek Review

Economic meltdown

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S.R. Attygalle (extreme left) before COPFon June 08,2022. Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Dr.PBJ and Prof. W.D. Lakshman look on

House watchdog committees ascertain culpability of FM, Monetary Board

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Committee on Public Finance (COPF), inquiring into financial meltdown recently, called several former and serving officials to ascertain their culpability as well as that of the institutions they served for the developing crisis.

Among them were former Governors of the Central Bank Prof. W.D. Lakshman (Dec 2019- Sept 2021), and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (Sept 2021-March 2022), Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera (Nov 2019-Dec 2021) and Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle (Nov 2019-April 2022), Sanjeeva Jayawardena P.C. (received appointment as a member of the Monetary Board in Feb 2020) and Dr. Ranee Jayamaha (the retired CB Deputy Governor received appointment to the Monetary Board in June 2020). It would be pertinent to mention that Attygalle earlier served a short stint as the Treasury Secretary (Ministry of Finance) between Oct. 31, 2018 and Dec. 18, 2018 during the constitutional coup staged by ex-President Maithripala Sirisena.

The term of office of an appointed member of the Monetary Board is six years and in the event of vacation of office by the appointed member, another person shall be appointed in his or her place to hold the office during the unexpired part of the term of office.

The COPF meeting took place on June 08. Dissident SLPP lawmaker Anura Priyadarshana Yapa chaired the meeting. CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, were present.

Attygalle didn’t mince his words when he squarely blamed the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also served as the Finance Minister (Nov 2019 to July 2021) for the controversial fiscal policy that had ruined the country. Attygalle declared that the government implemented the first Cabinet paper, dated Dec 04, 2019 presented by Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The former Treasury Secretary, who also served in the Monetary Board till April this year, challenged the widely held view that abolition of a range of taxes, in line with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fiscal policies, triggered the crisis. Attygalle asserted that the import restrictions, especially the ban on the importation of vehicles imposed at the onset of the Covid-19 eruption, and the economic contraction, resulted in the meltdown.

The COPF should seek an explanation from Attygalle, himself a former top Central Banker, having last served there as Deputy Governor, regarding the failure on the part of the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board to review the decision to abolish taxes soon after the Covid-19 eruption. The Finance Ministry banned vehicle imports in March 2020 as part of the overall measures to manage the weak foreign currency reserves. Therefore, the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board cannot absolve themselves of the blame for failing to take remedial measures.

 The COPF specifically asked whether the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board officials sought to advise the political leadership of the ground realities against taking such decisions. It emerged that they did nothing. The COPF proceedings revealed that in spite of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation, the Finance Ministry and Monetary Board mandarins failed to take remedial measures. The SLPP members in the COPF, too, should not forget that the change of tax policies had been in line with their 2019 presidential election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.

A disastrous manifesto

The SLPP made the following proposals:

a- Income tax on productive enterprises will be reduced from 28 to 18 percent.

b- The Economic Service Charge (ESC) and Withholding Tax (WHT) will be scrapped;

c- A simple value added tax of eight percent will be introduced, replacing both the current VAT of 15 percent and the Nation Building Tax (NBT) of two percent;

d- PAYE tax will be scrapped and personal income tax will be subject to a ceiling of 15 percent;

e- A five-year moratorium will be granted on taxes payable by agriculturists and small and medium enterprises;

f- Various taxes that contribute to the inefficiency, irregularities, corruption and lack of transparency of the tax system will be abandoned. Instead a special tax will be introduced for different categories of goods and services;

g- Import tariff on goods competing with domestically produced substitutes will be raised;

h- A simple taxation system will be introduced to cover annual vehicle registrations and charges for relevant annual services, replacing the cumbersome systems that prevail now;

i- Various taxes imposed on religious institutions will be scrapped;

j- A zero VAT scheme will be adopted in the case of businesses providing services to Tourist hotels and tourists, if they purchase over 60% of the food, raw materials, cloths and other consumer items locally;

k- Service charges levied on telephones and Internet will be reduced by 50%;

l- Special promotional schemes will be implemented to encourage foreign investments;

m- A tax-free package will be introduced to promote investment in identified subject areas;

n- A clear and uncomplicated system of taxing will be in place with the use of internet facilities, special software and other technological services;

O- Information Technology (IT) services will be totally free from taxes (Zero Tax), considering said industry as a major force in the national manufacturing process;

p- All the Sri Lankans and Foreigners, who bring Foreign exchange to Sri Lanka through consultancy services, are exempt from income tax.”

Dr. Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon, Soosaiappu Neavis Morais and Dr. Mahim Mendis in a FR petition filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution listed the above-mentioned points, in that order, as one of the primary reasons for the current crisis. Among the respondents are Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Dr. P.B. Jaysundera and S.R. Atygalle.

All of them earlier appeared before the COPF where the incumbent Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe emphasized that officials should never engage in politics and should recognize the difference between them and politicians. Dr. Weerasinghe asserted that officials were duty bound to inform politicians if the decisions taken by the latter were wrong. The outspoken CBSL Chief declared that politicians alone shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of such wrong decisions. What Dr. Weerasinghe obviously meant was those who served in key positions at that time, too, were responsible for the current crisis. Dr. Weerasinghe, who had been asked to succeed Ajith Nivard Cabraal, in March, after the former suddenly announced his retirement, told the COPF, the officials’ claim that they had been unaware of the economy was on a wrong path for two years leading to the meltdown was not acceptable. Dr. Weerasinghe also strongly questioned the claim that economic policies had been implemented only on decisions taken by the political leadership.

Lawmakers present participating in the proceedings declared that the political leadership and the officials ignored their concerns as regards the economy raised at different occasions.

Culprits identified

CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe before COPE on May 25, 2022. Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana is on Dr. Weerasinghe’s right.

The COPF proceedings should be studied along with revelations made by Dr. Weerasinghe before the COPF and the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) on May 24 and May 25, respectively as well as lawmaker Ali Sabry’s shocking declaration on May 02 as regards the origins of the crisis. President’s Counsel Sabry discussed the issue in his capacity as the Finance Minister after having led the government delegation for talks with the IMF.

Appearing before the COPF, Dr. Weerasinghe disclosed that those who had been responsible for preparing budget estimates over the years deliberately deceived even the Parliament by providing unrealistic and inaccurate revenue estimates. The CB Governor explained how such practices further weakened the economy as decisions and allocations were made on the basis of fraudulent estimates.

The whole process had been nothing but a farce. Lawmaker Sabry on May 02 in a live interview with Swarnawahini, and Dr. Weerasinghe on May 25, named those responsible for the current crisis that has ruined the economy with unemployment at an unprecedented high. Sabry alleged that the Secretary to the Treasury, Governor of the Central Bank, and senior economic advisors to the President, misled the Cabinet as regards the economic situation. The National List member revealed how they repeatedly assured that the situation was well under control, in spite of difficulties while expressing confidence that issues could be successfully dealt with.

By the time the Central Bank floated the rupee in March this year even without bothering to inform the Cabinet-of-Ministers of its decision, irreparable damage had already been caused, Sabry said.

The COPF and COPE proceedings and MP Sabry’s interview in which he questioned the role of the Finance Minister have revealed the pathetic situation as regards public finance.

The MP has alleged that those who managed the national economy had prevented the country seeking IMF’s intervention well over a year back. Had President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Cabinet-of-Ministers received proper advice, Sri Lanka would not have been in the current predicament, Minister Sabry said.

Dr. Weerasinghe named those who refused to heed IMF warnings when he appeared before COPE on May 25. The role played by Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and the Cabinet-of-Ministers were discussed during the proceedings with Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, helping to ascertain the environment in which the SLPP leadership operated.

Dr. Weerasinghe went to the extent of naming Dr. PBJ as the one who prevented the government seeking IMF’s intervention.

The Customs, Inland Revenue and the Excise Department responsible for revenue collection are run in a shoddy manner. In spite of the watchdog committees exposing glaring omissions and commissions by them that had caused revenue losses in billions of Rupees over the years, the political leadership hasn’t taken remedial measures. Committee reports paint an extremely bleak picture.

But what could be the most unforgivable sin is then Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa joking about having himself used the illegal Havala/Undiyal system that completely shut down  several billion dollars that should have legitimately come to Sri Lanka as in past years as remittances from our migratory workers, especially serving in West Asia. Even at the height of the COVID pandemic the country received about six to seven billion dollars from mainly those unappreciated poor Lankan workers slaving in those countries as mainly labourers and housemaids. Such money may not be enough to pay back the country’s USD 50 billion foreign debt. That money, however, would have ensured that the country had the few million dollars to clear a shipment of gas or other necessities, instead of having to beg all over the world.

Unfortunately, the Parliament seems incapable of taking corrective measures. The Parliament should explore the possibility of appointing, a smaller team, comprising members of COPE, COPF and the COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) to recommend remedial measures, including possible criminal prosecution of dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa for his many omissions and commissions, but especially for not applying the full weight of the law against those running the underground money transfer system, that has even robbed the education of our children.

 Keeping the currency steady is the wish of any Finance Minister as otherwise in a country like Sri Lanka dependent on imports for many of its essentials, like milk food, wheat, etc., it would result in basics skyrocketing in price as experienced now and as former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel also learnt it the hard way after allowing the rupee to devalue almost overnight by over 40 percent in the aftermath of opening up the economy to market forces after the victory of the UNP in 1977 with a staggering 4/5th majority in Parliament. It led to government workers staging a general strike demanding a Rs 10 wage increase, but was ruthlessly crushed by that regime.

A corrupt ministry

The Parliament needs to take tangible measures to restore public faith in the system. The Finance Ministry should be overhauled. Perhaps, the IMF, currently engaged in negotiations with the government, should look into the current system in place. The government can formulate an action plan on the basis of findings and recommendations made by the parliamentary watchdog committees. Perusal of proceedings of these committees reveals that the government hadn’t acted on their findings. The inordinate delay in taking action regarding the mysterious decision to reduce the duty on a kilo of white sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents on Oct 13, 2020 without passing on its benefit to the people is a case in point as pointed out by the COPF Chairman Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, MP. It, however, cost the cash starved Treasury dearly in billions in lost revenue.

Mahinda Rajapaksa served as the Finance Minister at the time of the issuance of the relevant gazette notification. S.R. Attygalle had been the Finance Secretary. It would be pertinent to ask both MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and Attygalle who recommended the duty reduction.

Actually, the COPF should ask Attygalle to explain the circumstances leading to the issuance of that controversial gazette. As Dr. Weerasinghe pointed out recently the officials cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the highly questionable decisions taken by politicians.

Who benefited from the reduction of duty imposed on sugar? In fact, the parliamentary watchdog committees should undertake a comprehensive study. Perhaps, the Finance Ministry role in the Yugadanavi deal can be investigated. Sri Lanka finalized the Yugadanavi transaction with US based New Fortress Energy at midnight on Sept 17, 2021 against the backdrop of Basil Rajapaksa receiving the finance portfolio. The government also brought in retired controversial figure M.M.C. Ferdinando from Australia to assume the leadership at the CEB before making the final move. S.R. Attygalle played a critical role as the Secretary to the Finance Ministry. The SLPP had no qualms in going ahead with the agreement in spite of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila challenging the transfer of 40 percent shares of the power station held by the Treasury among other concessions not fully revealed to the public.

The President’s Media Division (PMD) defended the agreement with the US energy firm. On the invitation of the then Presidential Spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake, M.M.C. Ferdinando briefed the media of the usefulness of the US investment. It would be pertinent to mention that Ferdinando, who fled the country in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena’s triumph in 2015 returned from Australia after the change of government in Nov 2019. Ferdinando’s 2015, move should be examined against the backdrop of corruption accusations directed at him by civil society activists Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon and Attorney-at-Law Namal Rajapaksa. The lawyer lodged a complaint with the then anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat. There had also been a case in the Fort Magistrate Court regarding the import of coal for Lakvijaya coal-fired power plants at Norochcholai.

In spite of initial public interest, such major cases are often not pursued properly even by those initiating them possibly with ulterior motives. When The Island inquired, lawyer Namal Rajapaksa acknowledged not being aware of the developments of his own case. At the time of the Norochcholai project, Ferdinando had served as the Secretary to the Power Ministry. The unholy alliance between the Finance Ministry and monstrous institutions, such as the CEB, should be investigated and mechanism put in place to protect the public interest.

The controversy over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s alleged intervention on behalf of India’s Adani Group at PM Narendra Modi’s persistent request led to Ferdinando’s resignation recently. The disclosure made by Ferdinando at the COPE, his subsequent denial and a letter dated Nov 25, 2021 Ferdinando wrote to the then Treasury Secretary Attygalle exposing the horrific way business of the State is being conducted. Accountability and transparency seem to be the last thing in the minds of political leaders here.

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