By Justin Keppetiyagama
On 11 September 2020, the Speaker announced names of MPs to serve on the two Oversight Committees of Parliament – the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA). Each committee has 22 members, with eight from the Opposition.
While the COPA exercises oversight in the financial performance of state Institutions, the COPE is required ensure the observance of financial discipline in public corporations and semi-governmental bodies in which the government has a financial stake. The accounts of these organisations are audited by the Auditor-General and form the basis of the investigations of these two committees. They have the power to summon the relevant officials and such other people they need to obtain evidence from and call for documents. They report to Parliament and the recommendations contained in their reports are deemed to be directives to the respective corporations or statutory boards for due compliance.
These two committees have the power to summon before them and question any person, call for and examine any paper, book, record or other documents and to have access to stores and property.
The duty of the Committee is to report to Parliament on accounts examined, budgets and estimates, financial procedures, performance and management of corporations and other government business undertakings.
Notable investigations by COPE & COPA
In 2007, the COPE revealed that the privatisation process of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation took place in the year 2003 was irregular. As a result of a case filed in the Supreme Court challenging the privatisation of Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, on 4 June 2009, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka annulled the sale of Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation.
In August 2012, The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation was summoned to appear before a committee for investigations regarding alleged imports of substandard fuel. Following the probes from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Bribery Commission, President Mahinda Rajapaksa instructed his ministers to appoint a new chairman when the present corrupt heads were removed and to reconstitute all such boards of management in state institutions.
The Central Bank bond issue: In 2016 October, the COPE revealed that the Governor of the Central Bank Arjuna Mahendra should be held responsible for the bond scam and legal action should be taken against him. However, President Maithripala Sirisena announced that he had appointed a Commission of Inquiry to further investigate the case.
On April 23, 2021, the COPA summoned the Inland Revenue Department for an inquiry regarding the inordinate delay in collecting taxes amounting to billions of rupees. The meeting was fixed in the wake of disclosure of major shortcomings in the overall revenue collection process. The COPA pointed out that out of Rs 107 Bn. due to the government, only Rs 224 Mn had been recovered so far, and immediate measures were required to collect taxes and fines. At the same meeting, the COPA, having questioned the correctness of a list containing tax defaulters furnished by the Inland Revenue Department, emphasised the need to rectify the shortcomings. The COPA also questioned the feasibility of recovering taxes in terms of the data provided by the ‘Legacy’ and ‘RAMIS’ computer systems. At another COPA meeting held late March, 2021, it was revealed that in addition to their failure to recover taxes amounting to Rs 2,670 mn due from casinos, the Inland Revenue received 6,878 dishonored cheques to the tune of Rs 2,451,465,383.
That particular meeting was also told that the amount of collectable taxes in terms of the ‘Default Taxes (Special Provisions) Act No 16 of 2010 (certified on Dec 07, 2010) amounted to a staggering Rs 144.5 bn.
The COPA and the Consultative Committee on Ports and Shipping also took up on March 9 and 24 the highly contentious issue of the Customs officers taking a big share of fines imposed on tax defaulters, both public and private sector. The COPA pointed out that the Customs took advantage of the provision that 50 per cent of the fines imposed on defaulters were shared among those involved in a particular detection. The COPA has discussed two specific issues in this regard. It pointed out that the allocation of 50 per cent of a fine received from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) for defaulting in respect of gantry cranes to Customs officers was a major problem, and focused on taking necessary measures in this regard after having discussed the matter with relevant authorities, including the Treasury Secretary S. R. Attygalle.
A COPA sub-committee is inquiring into revenue losses suffered over the years as a result of releasing vehicles imported for special purposes as dual-purpose vehicles.
On April 22 and 23 this year, the COPE called the Sri Lanka Football Federation and the National Film Corporation.
The COPA pointed out that out of a Rs 205 mn fine imposed on Lanka Coal Company (Pvt) Ltd., for defrauding taxes, Rs 102.5 mn (50 per cent of the total amount) had been distributed among Customs officers as rewards and Rs 41 mn for their welfare (20 per cent) thereby leaving the government with only Rs 61.5 mn. The COPA directed Treasury Secretary Attygalle to conduct a fresh inquiry into this and take tangible measures to prevent similar malpractices in the future.
The COPA investigations have also revealed a massive racket in the registration of ‘dual purpose’ vehicles. It revealed that as a result of corrupt elements since 2013 registering vehicles imported for special purposes as ‘dual purpose’ vehicles the Treasury lost taxes amounting to Rs 220 mn.
Besides, the Treasury has been also deprived of taxes amounting to Rs 1.300 mn at the rate of Rs 3 mn each on 443 special vans brought to the country during 2010-2019 period.
The COPA also stated that the Customs had allowed the import of 10 vans and 414 lorries as special purpose vehicles during the 2010-2014 period, and imposed Rs 1.5 mn duty on a super luxury car instead of Rs 56 mn.
It revealed the loss of revenue to the tune of Rs 6.1 bn during 2013-2016 period due to the Customs adopting wrong procedures in respect of large quantities of palm oil imports by two enterprises. The watchdog committee has instructed the Customs to expedite measures to recover the dues from those companies.
These notable investigations by COPE and COPA show how far our Members of Parliament can probe the managerial efficiency and financial discipline of the government, its ministries, departments, Provincial Councils and Local Government authorities. But Standing Orders of the Parliament only provide for the appointment of one COPA and one COPE only. Out on 225 MPS only 44 MPs are allowed to serve in these two committees.
The number of committees should be increased to ensure the observance of financial discipline in all government ministries Public Corporations and other Semi-Governmental bodies in which the Government has a financial stake. All MPs should be given an opportunity to serve on these committees.
This Pretentious Plenitude
(loketa parakase, gedarata maragate )
“On 3 June, 1400, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus entered Paris. By the showy standards of contemporary state visits, Manuel cut a sory figure. Accompanied by fewer than sixty of his own attendants, speaking nothing but Greek, mounted on a borrowed white charger and dependent for his travelling expenses on his hosts, he had come to beg for money and troops in the hope of preserving his shrunken domains from the Ottoman Turks.”
– Cursed Kings, The Hundred Years War IV, 2015)
A few days ago, I went to Panadura to see my brother, 95 years old. We parked the car to go to the Arpico Supercentre at the southwestern corner of Galle Road and Nirmala Mawatha. From the park, I did not go into the store; I sat in the car. There were about 20 cars parked and people went into the store and drove away after making their purchases. There were more women shoppers than men. The women were distinctly well-clothed and appeared well-fed. They all wore slacks or skirts and upper garments, all in good taste with no garish hues. None wore a sari. All men wore slacks and shirts and none a kapati suit or sarong. All the cars glistened in the morning sun; none had scratches or worse damage. One car had a number plate BK; all the others had number plates with three letters. There was plenitude; where is the austerity the country is published to undergo? Or is austerity the burden borne by only one category of citizens? A few days later, as I entered through the gates to a hospital compound, I noticed that the man who issued tokens from a little cubicle in the heat and humidity wore a necktie. Public servants assembled before ministers invariably wearing a suit. The rooms are airconditioned to accommodate them. Doesn’t it make more sense to wear simple shirts in rooms cooled to a higher temperature to save fuel? Why this pretence of plenitude in this land of austerity? It is so poor that it bears the odium of having defaulted on its sovereign debt.
What are the rules of etiquette that require us to wear evening dress, no matter who the dignitary that one has to meet? Well, of course, anyone is entitled to wear funny clothes, even silken wigs in this high temperature and high humidity in torrid tropical weather. But in this impoverished hungry land, where children who attend school faint from starvation? There are reports of stunted and underweight children. I expect to read infant and maternal mortality rates for 2021, 2022 and 2023 higher than the excellent levels that our health services had ensured for us. The age cohorts born in 2020-2024 will bear the scars of this scourge throughout their lives.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, a friend of mine was the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam. She was very keen to learn Vietnamese. After a few weeks in the country, she hired someone to teach her Vietnamese. Although now written in Latin script, there is a range of diacritical marks to help one to speak a word with the proper tones -more complex than in Mandarin or Thai. (The Latin script was introduced in the 17th century by Portuguese Jesuit priests.) In the second week of lessons, the tutor took the liberty of raising a question with the Ambassador, one evening after the lesson. ‘Madam, with the flaps of the dress you wear, I can make a pretty blouse’. Isn’t it a pity that so much cloth must is wasted’? (Vietnamese are still small-made, perhaps genetically and the result of centuries of malnutrition.) The ambassador who was very sympathetic to what Vietnam was trying to achieve, was shocked by how right the tutor was. She took her lesson seriously. I was a student in Britain in the 1960s and stayed in my lodgings all summer, except to go to the theatre in London. One summer, I was invited to tea in the garden with the queen. Many students from Commonwealth countries were so invited. I had no suit to wear for the occasion nor did I consider it wise to invest in one, just to attend a tea party. (Mad Hatter might have considered it otherwise.) We are still a poor country and anyone who yearns for the use of expensive clothing must seek a fitting clime. Some of you must have observed the army-style warm collarless cardigan that President Volodymyr Zelensky wore when he addressed the US Congress, a rare honour bestowed on men from outside the US. Does a caparisoned elephant look more dignified than the real thing in the wild? Do murderers, plunderers, women abusers and forgers gain dignity when they wear kapati suits buttoned up to the chin? If clothes make for dignity, mannequins in shop windows must present the most dignified postures in the world.
Take the case of cars. In this small island with a short mileage of expressways and a speed limit of 100km per hour, where do people go in a Mercedes 350 or BMW 740 ? Those gas guzzlers, V8 vehicles which even Bhikkhu covet, are symbols of pretentious plenitude. I recall some MPs explaining in parliament that they needed expensive vehicles because they had to travel in their electorates on uneven roads. When NIssanka Wijewardene was the government agent in Badulla in the early 1960s, he toured the district on horseback and Uva is still not an area roads in good condition in that part of the country. Leonard Woolf, 123 years ago, toured the Hambantota district on horseback. Riding a horse on rough tracks and rural roads is no fun. I cannot see why MPs cannot travel about in cheaper cars which are less expensive to buy and also consume much less gas. All this plenitude is at the expense of rich and poor taxpayers. The frequent use of helicopters by the president and ministers is something we cannot afford. Once a relative of a president flew in a helicopter from Ratmalana to Maharagama, at government expense. A president travelled by helicopter several times to ‘inspect’ construction work on the Moragahakanda dam. I wondered how much engineering the man had in him to waste so many resources for so flimsy a reason. When a dam was built across Gal Oya at Inginiyagala in 1950-52 with two months to spare before the end of the contracted date, there was nobody flying around in helicopters. The Ampara-Siyambalanduwa road was a decade away and one had to drive to Chenkaladi to get to Inginiyagala, a tiring journey for a young man even in 1968-69. When a poor population struggles to climb higher in the income ladder, it does not help to grease it with opulent lifestyles by its leaders. That grease pulls down people back into poverty.
Our religious leaders do not help. The Durutu perahera was held a few weeks back. Navam perahera is on a grand scale. Then comes Avurudu when the whole country takes a holiday and eats and drinks as if there were no tomorrow. May is for vesak. June, and people sojourn in Anuradhapura. July is for many festivals in devale in the south. August puts up the spectacle in Mahanuvara. September opens a period of quietude in pansal only to begin again in November. Who objects to religiosity among believers but please undertake them without denying the rest of this economy resources. It is more important that a child goes to school regularly than that votive candles are lit on an altar.
Some places of religious importance in this country are mighty rich. Their daily income probably is in the millions. What is the educational institution or hospital that they financed to build and run? Even the Vidyodaya pirivena receives, to date a subvention out of taxpayers’ money. Why isn’t it maintained with the collections in the shrine with a Bo-tree in Kalutara? The collections are administered by the Public Trustee but why not give a sense of ownership to those that collect the money? The Venkateshwar kovil in Andhra Pradesh runs a fine university with a part of the huge income it earns. Superstitious politicians from our country contribute to that income. Satya Sai Baba organization in Bengaluru runs schools and provides pipe-borne water to villagers close to their offices. The Rama Krishna Mission in India has a brilliant record of having established and run many schools and colleges in India. Tatas have established research institutes that put out high-quality work. In the 13th and fourteenth centuries when England was probably poorer than Sri Lanka then and certainly poorer than even impoverished Sri Lanka today (2023), colleges that now comprise Oxford and Cambridge universities, were built and run by Roman Catholic churches, monasteries and rich individuals. Many Bishops established colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. Walter de Merton started Merton College in Oxford; Peterhouse in Cambridge had similar beginnings. They had to wait for Edward III and Henry VI to meet Royal benefactors of colleges. In the first settlements in Boston Bay, the immigrants established Harvard College (now Harvard University) in 1635 well before a systematic government came into being there. Someone needs to inquire why well-endowed religious establishments in this country, do not find it fitting that they establish educational facilities for bright students. They would rather gild with 13.5 kg of gold, a fence around a venerated tree.
Why do we so often mistake appearances for substance? More than 120 years ago, Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to identify behaviour patterns of people in opulent societies. What does one call this pretentious plenitude in a land where hunger haunts almost every household day after day?
The ‘Smiling Chancellor’- educationist par excellence
The most reverend Dr Oswald Gomis, Emeritus Archbishop of Colombo and the former Chancellor of the University of Colombo, was called to his heavenly home on 03.02.23
It is with sincere gratitude that I pay this tribute to him for his invaluable service to the field of education in general to the University of Colombo and to me as an academic
It was Father Bonjean, a Catholic priest, who has been acclaimed as the greatest contributor to Catholic education at that time through his submissions to the State advocating a system of state-aided schools to be run by each religious denomination for its children. He pointed out, not only Catholics but also the adherents of other religions in the island (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims) should be fairly treated. The Denominational or Assisted Schools System, which it was hoped would benefit all religions, thus came into being and lasted nearly a century until the takeover of schools by the state in 1960. Fr. Bonjean came to be known as ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’
Father Bojean was considered ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’, and most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis can be considered the modern father of Assisted schools. Being a product of St Bendict’s college, he wanted to provide similar education through equality and religious harmony for the students. At an interview he said that when he was appointed Archbishop of Colombo, he had a special objective – that is to provide a good education for the people. To achieve this, he wanted to expand the catholic education. Hence, he made a valiant effort within the existing legal framework to establish branch schools of the popular catholic private schools. St. Peter’s College, Gampaha and Udugampola Branches, St. Joseph’s College, Enderamulla and Kadolkele branches and many more such branch schools. Further, a branch of St. Nicholas’ International College in Negambo and St. Thomas Catholic International College in Seeduwa were also established. School of Hope, Paiyagala and– Don Bosco Technical Institute – Nochchiyagama were also founded under his patronage.
Most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis as a historian and author has also contributed to education. For example, he has disproved that, i.e. Catholicism was introduced for the first time in our country by the Portuguese, in his book, “Some Christian Contributions in Sri Lanka”
The Archbishop, has pointed out that one Jordanus Catalha de Severac, a Dominican Friar, was appointed to Colombo as a bishop by Pope John XX11 on 5th April 1330 according to a document in the Vatican Archives, and he (Jordanus) has written a book called “Mirabila Descripta”(also in Vatican Archives) giving vivid description about various countries including ancient Sri Lanka and about two kings during his stay here. He also forwarded evidence according to Vatican sources that another missionary, a Papal Legate by the name of Giovani de Marignolli who was sent to East by the same Pope stayed in Colombo for eighteen months around the years 1348/1349 and taught catechism in a church dedicated to St. George and also erected a huge stone Cross here, before his departure to Europe. The Archbishop also quotes that Prof. Paranavithana, in his book , “Story of Sigiriya” has proved that Christianity was in ancient Sri Lanka with irrefutable evidence based on details found in the rock inscriptions in various parts of our country. A stone Cross in Anuradhapura he claims bears testimony to this.
Bishop Oswald Gomis’s Contribution to the University of Colombo and to me personally is invaluable. In 1994 in response to an application I sent to the University of Colombo for a Post of Probationary lecturer in Humanities Education I was called for an interview. At the interview I was amazed to find his lordship most Rev. Oswald Gomis the Archbishop of Colombo on the interview panel. I thought that my nervousness was making me see a vision! However, later I learnt that he was indeed there as a member of the University Council as an educationist. Years later as the Dean of the Faculty of Education when I met him at a convocation, I mentioned this incident to him. With his usual endearing smile, he said “I am glad we made the correct decision at that time”. In 2019 at the Post Graduate Convocation when he as the Chancellor handed me the Vice Chancellor’s award for excellence in research in the Faculty of Education in the year 2018, beaming with pride he told the Vice Chancellor “I selected her to the University”. Such was his memory!
Bishop Gomis has been on the Council of the University of Colombo from 1977-2001. Later, he was appointed the Chancellor in 2001 and continued to serve the university in this capacity till 2021. Every year I hear the graduands after the convocation commenting on the “smiling Chancellor’ who wished each and every one of them. In spite of the arduous task of sitting through three days of four sessions , and handing over the scrolls , he made it a point to make their big day memorable by that personal touch. He continued to discharge his role as Chancellor to perfection by attending all the University functions he was invited irrespective of whether it was X’mas carols or Pirith. He took pride in the achievements of both the students and staff of the University of Colombo. I have heard him saying to the students, referring to raging such unfortunate incidents do not happen in our university. Bishop Gomis held his position with dignity and pride. In turn the students and staff respected and liked him.
When Bishop Gomis was appointed the Archbishop of Colombo the Bishop’s Conference in a statement said, he brings to Colombo valuable expertise as a scholar, educationist, historian, author and above all, a revered pastor”. He has indeed used his expertise to the maximum and in his retirement continued to impart this knowledge through his writings. People of Bishop Gomis’s calibre is very rare today.
We will miss you dear father, but you will live through your good deeds.
May host of angels lead you to your eternal rest!
University of Colombo
Senerath or Sene, as he was affectionately called, passed away on January 7 plunging his near and dear and a host of his friends and associates into a pool of tears and agony. According to his wife in whose arms he breathed his last, death was instantaneous.
True, he had a few health issues which however did not warrant the kind of quick “exit” he encountered. Senerath, my son-in-law was a doughty fighter who braved his affiliations with great fortitude. The doctors who treated him were baffled by the composure he evinced when confronted with the complications he was doomed to go through. Admirable, isn’t it?
An alumnus of D.S. Senanayake College, he cultivated a strong link with the school and was an active member of the Old Boy’s Association of the school. After a brief career as a Demi Chef in a prestigious hotel in the Middle East, he showed his powers in Real Estate in later years. He was over the moon and basking in the success of his trade.
Sene was an entertainer par excellence. He ran an open house for his plethora of friends and associates. The gregarious animal he was, prompted him to hold musical evenings where singing and dancing went on till the wee hours of the morning. He sang with lilting and melodious resonance. “Baila’ was his forte good lord Bacchus was an indispensable invitee to his parties where he had free rein.
This popular personality was a compulsive humorist who left his audience roaring with uncontrollable laughter. His infectious smile is missed by many. His philanthropy extended far and wide especially to the poor and helpless people in and around where he lived. The received monetary assistance, dry rations and produce from his cultivations.
He had traveled widely and was planning to visit his son who is employed in New Zealand but it was not to be. His daughter had left to the United Kingdom just three days before her father’s passing. He was a loving husband to his wife Lalana and a fond father to Lakitha and Lasandhi. As his father-in-law I join them to invoke blessings of the Noble Triple Gem to help Sene to tread the path to Nibbana.
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