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Opinion

Involve all MPs in public finance control through watchdog committees

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By Justin Keppetiyagama
Email:jdkgama02@g

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.

My suggestion:

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.



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Opinion

Close country during Vesak

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The one (and maybe the only) positive decision taken by the government, in the recent past, was to lock down the entire island for this weekend, making it a three-day restriction. (I write on Saturday May 15). Otherwise, with the Ramazan festival coming in, we – a poor small country – would have descended to the nadir that mighty India is in, suffering death pangs due to letting the Covid-19 pandemic easily become a devastating epidemic, with full scope given to the dark Reaper to cull thousands of people with his death dealing scythe.

Blame is laid fairly and squarely on India’s leader PM Modi. He is responsible for the mass deaths and rampant infection in the subcontinent. He will suffer defeat at the next elections, unless, of course, brainless Indians – surely there are these among the ultra-intelligent over there – will be like us Sinhalayas with short memories and blinding sycophancy.

What most sensible people of this Paradise-gone-to-rot want is that the country will be locked down during the next festival, too, from Tuesday 25 May through Thursday 27 May. Never mind Vesak, or should I say because of Vesak. Wise head monks have closed the gates of their temples and allow people in after screening them with Covid-19 procedures. During Vesak, the ultra-religious might think they have to go to temple and offer flowers, light pahanas and chant, mostly asking for benefit to themselves. The young and not-so-young may get the urge to saunter around in the moonlight, though there will be no illuminations and moneymaking trades like sale of food, drink and baubles. This is a hoped-for situation; I mean the decimation of lights and festivity. Much more truly religious is to follow the Buddha’s Dhamma of quiet solitude, reflection and meditation. TV channels, bless them, amply provide programmes for Buddhist thought and direction.

Thus, we plead to the President and the Covid Prevention Task Force to lock all people of Sri Lanka during Vesak Poya days – never mind protests of a minority of Buddhists and a few monks who may shout traditions being tampered with. Dire situations call for dire preventive measures. The mistake made during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, of giving total freedom to the people for popularity’s sake – the principal cause of the swelling wave of infection – MUST not be repeated. Close the country from Tuesday 25 to Thursday 27 (both days included) and if needed, throw in an extra – Friday 28. Consider the health and lives of the people, not being popular and winning votes next time around. The Sinhala Buddhist majority will appreciate such a move, because though some people given an inch take a mile, most others have brains to think correctly.

SENSIBLE WOMAN

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Opinion

What went wrong?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I am stuck in the UK, badly missing trips back home, but I have been closely following the developments in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the Covid-19 epidemic and the engulfing political drama. It was no great effort either, as plenty of time was available, being almost totally housebound, dreading to go out as the virus was killing thousands and thousands in the UK. What was remarkable, initially, was how badly the UK controlled the pandemic and how well Sri Lanka did. Total number of deaths in Sri Lanka remained very low for months whilst the Brits were dying in large numbers. It is the other way around, now; deaths due to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka are exceeding that of the UK now. What went wrong?

Whilst Sri Lanka is grappling with a resurgence, caused by the excesses indulged during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities, the British government recently announced significant relaxation of pandemic preventive measure. It expects the country to be ‘near-normal’ by mid-June, if the present trends continue. One may argue that normalcy cannot be guaranteed until the virus is controlled, globally, as well stated in the editorial “All hat and no cattle” (The Island, 10th May). The editor argued that “the only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).”

Although both are island nations, admittedly, the UK and Sri Lanka are poles apart, on many counts, most significant being the availability of resources. The UK is rich enough to buffer the resultant economic downturn, whereas Sri Lanka was struggling, economically, even before the epidemic. Therefore, attempts by the Sri Lankan government, to keep the economy afloat, are mandated by sheer necessity, although the Opposition accuses it of endangering lives. The big question is how to strike the right balance. At the time of Independence, our economy was in better shape than that of the Brits, but where are we, now? That, however, is another story.

At the start of the pandemic, the UK was slow to close its borders. Again, it was a tough call because Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. The UK paid heavily, in terms of lives lost, because of this. UK politicians took the advice of expert committees, and whether the initial failures were due to wrong advice by scientists or not, we will not know until the findings of the committee, to be appointed by the British government, is available. However, the UK government took serious notice of the advice by scientists, regarding the need for mass vaccination, and placed orders for vaccines, even before trials for their effectiveness were concluded. That strategy paid off. Already, two-thirds of the adult population in the UK has received one dose and one-third of has received the second dose, as well. It was interesting to follow the progress: as the vaccination drive proceeded, the number of cases, the numbers in intensive care, and the number of deaths, progressively plummeted.

If there are any vaccine doubters, they need to look at what happened in the UK. I am personally aware of many ‘so-called educated’ vaccine-doubters. The responses in a WhatsApp group, started by a friend of mine, are very illuminating. There is a nutritionist who argues against vaccination, suggesting that boosting immunity, by nutrition, is the way forward. Professor Emeritus Saman Gunatilake has addressed this issue, academically, in his illuminating piece “Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?” (The Island, 7 May). There is a media lawyer who supports the nutritionist and sends contrasting messages. Three hours, after forwarding a message which states that CDC data shows the survival rate, for under 69, is over 99%, he forwards another message stating that a site by the University of Washington predicts Sri Lanka will soon have 200 deaths daily. Both ‘experts’ take part in TV discussions and are very likely to be passing on wrong messages, as they are continually forwarding anti-vaccine messages, the latest being that vaccination has made the epidemic worse. Wonder why they callously disregard the success of the UK. Covid-19 has given rise to a plethora of experts who give widely differing opinions about many things, including the UK variant, but the UK is successfully controlling the epidemic, with vaccination, which is estimated to have saved at least 10,000 lives so far.

It is a pity these vaccine-doubters overlook the fact that some diseases are eradicated, thanks to vaccines. The most successful vaccine ever is the smallpox vaccine, which enabled the eradication of the dreaded disease that existed for millennia, killing more than 300 million, in the 20th century, and around 500 million, during the last 100 years of its existence, including six monarchs. Initially, before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination, with the cowpox virus, in 1796, direct inoculations, with smallpox virus, were used, which had a mortality rate of 3% but this was acceptable as the mortality rate of smallpox was around 30%-40%.

Some exaggerate the risks of vaccination. There is no drug, without side-effects, and vaccines are no exception. Concern about the Oxford AZ vaccine causing Superficial Cerebral Vein Thrombosis was made use of by the German Chancellor to promote the Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by a German bio-tech company. Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency of the UK made a detailed study and recommended, when possible, those under 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine but emphasized the safety of AZ vaccine. To put in perspective, the birth control pill poses a greater risk of causing venous thrombosis; so does Covid-19 itself.

What went wrong, in Sri Lanka, is putting sentiment over science. The government failed to establish an expert committee, which could have been done easily as we are not short of real experts in the relevant fields. The decisions made by that committee could have been translated to practice by the committee, headed by the Army Commander. Another failing was the lack of proper communication. In the UK, the Prime Minister, or one of the senior ministers, together with senior scientists, hold regular press conferences.

Instead, what did we do? Our Health Minister polluted rivers with pots, devised by a faith-healer, and then drank a syrup, made by a charlatan. She wasted the valuable time of Professors of Medicine, as well as resources, to investigate a piece of garbage that was found to be useless, whilst the kapuwa minded money, at the expense of the gullible. Now, a member of my profession also has joined the band-wagon of deception. A non-specialist doctor has joined hands with his brother to sell a concoction of herbs etc.! Why hasn’t the Minister taken action against this errant medic?

We have a State Minister, a Professor of Pharmacology, who sees the benefits of Ayurveda for political reasons! The mother country of Ayurveda, meanwhile, is reeling with Covid-19. If Ayurveda is effective, surely that cannot happen!

All this happens while we have a State Minister, a specialist in communicable diseases, who speaks sense but is largely ignored!

The Minister of Transport reverses the decisions of Medical officers of Health and then blames the poor government servants, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, for carrying out his orders. The virus is having a hearty laugh and now infecting his voters!

We thought the President would act decisively once he regained full executive powers from the 20th Amendment, but he seems less powerful than before! The need of the hour is not to protect errant politicians, or unproven systems of treatment, but directing all efforts at getting adequate stocks of vaccines to overcome the epidemic.

It is high time the President considered sacking the incompetent and idiotic ministers. Otherwise, he might as well forget about a second term!

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Opinion

The Organic Ideal – Killing Two Birds with One Stone!

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By I.P.C. MENDIS

The government has very boldly embarked on a long-delayed project of transforming our agricultural habits of heavy dependence on harmful chemical fertiliser to the old method of organic fertilisation. The chemical fertiliser lobby is as strong, if not stronger than the pharmaceutical one. The life story of Dr Senake Bibile speaks for itself! As for the fertiliser lobby, some decades ago, a high-up in a media institution confided in me how he was compelled to jettison his media campaign against chemical fertiliser, about which he was very forcefully using his pen through immense pressure brought about by the strong lobby.

Quite apart from the international connections, please permit the writer to relate a personal experience he had with a media institution, where a certain article he wrote, very much irked a then local high-profile businessman, almost ruling the roost at the time, where this powerful personality had come down hard on the Head of the media institution, threatening to withdraw his advertising budget of sizeable proportion! To the eternal credit of the Editor, he did not join his Boss who had decided to call on the irate customer (Head of a mighty Group then, mind you) who thought he had a right to intervene and control its media policy.

Being privy to the immense power, these lobbies wield, and how they will use it to sabotage any effort which would undermine their business interests, notwithstanding public and human interests, it would be utterly puerile, and even foolish, to confront them in any meaningful way, if political interests are to take precedence. Their money power and influence are capable of winning over, not only sections of the population, but also politicians. Governments can be toppled in the process.

The defeated forces have now received some oxygen, and we see even the high and mighty, who were sent reeling home at the polls, attempting to make their presence felt. There is everything which points to financing by the fertiliser lobby, against the organic fertiliser issue. It is left for the government to be wise about such and other possibilities, when steering on the drive towards its laudable goal. The government failed to rope in the hoarders of rice, despite its rhetoric, and now they are faced with a similar situation in the fertiliser shortage. The remedies the government suggests seem to be worse than the disease. People are sick and tired of seeing any government playing politics, and attempting to find solutions which would please the electorate or business interests, rather than what is needed, and good for the country. To hell with the next election and commission agents; people will rally round results eventually. It has the battle against the LTTE as a feather in the cap. 

Two birds with one stone 

While on the subject of organic fertiliser, the writer wishes to draw the attention of the authorities to the vast acreage of waterways, rivers and canals, covered and infested with water-based plants, like “Japan Jabara’ (water hyacinth) and other odd plants., causing, inter alia, a huge health hazard. This clogging has almost diminished, or made extinct, the fish concentrations, and adversely affected a popular inland fisheries network and breeding of new varieties. This can be a source of nutrition to a vast number of people in villages, and contribute towards employment, too. The water plants thus removed could be tested for their various properties, which could contribute in no small measure to the preparation of organic fertiliser, using it as a cost-effective input to the preparation of organic fertiliser. If I remember right, some research is already available in this regard. It is reported that some outfits have already been lined up to prepare organic fertilizer. These companies, or outfits, can do the clearing and preparation at their own cost, which could be far cheaper than importing organic fertiliser, or importing certain ingredients to manufacture the final product. Some of it could possibly be diverted to the Energy sector. Side by side, farmers can be mobilised to prepare their own needs, or part of them.

How about it, Mr President and Mr Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Services?

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