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National Procurement Commission – Justice Minister’s comments

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By Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri

In an interview held in one of the TV channels on 07.09.2020 ending at midnight, Justice Minister Ali Sabry said that the National Procurement Commission (NPC), established among the several independent commissions under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, has not served any useful purpose during the 5 years of its existence and is a redundant organization. Perhaps during his short tenure as the Justice Minister, he appears to have not grasped the importance of the NPC and hence this write up.

NEED FOR PROCUREMENT GUIDELINES

Sri Lanka’s budget for 2019 has been LKR 2,365 Billion for capital and LKR 2,178 Billion for recurrent expenditure according to Central Bank of Sri Lanka Annual Report for 2018 (Table 100). Other than the payments on salaries and interest & capital repayment on loans, the rest will have to be spent on procuring goods and services both by the government institutions and semi-government institutions. Hence, it is important that there are norms and guidelines in place for incurring such expenditure to ensure that public funds are not siphoned out either by officials or by suppliers.

Originally, the Department of Public Finance (DPF) functioning under the Treasury played the role of managing the expenditure in public sector organizations and had the responsibility for a sound public finance regulatory framework which improves transparency, accountability and service delivery in the public sector. The DPF has issued several guidelines for the benefit of public sector organizations outlining procedures and methodologies for the procurement of goods and services.

However, media reports reveal that more often than not, public sector organizations act in violation of these guidelines causing millions of rupee losses to the government. One reason may be that DPF lacks a mechanism to monitor whether these organizations strictly follow these guidelines or not. Any shortfalls generally come to light only when their finances are audited when it is too late to take any corrective measures.

 

NATIONAL PROCUREMENT COMMISSION

Realizing the need to have a strong body to monitor procurements amounting to several thousands of billions of rupees annually being undertaken by various government ministries, departments, as well by semi-government organizations including statutory boards, commissions, authorities, universities, banks and government owned commercial enterprises, the government established in 2015 the National Procurement Commission as an independent commission. It is the sole authority for the governance of all procurement activities by Government Institutions.

This was included as one among the nine independent commissions established under the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution (NAC) of Sri Lanka. The NAC Act describes the constitution, functions and powers vested on the NPC. However, as lamented by the Justice Minister, during the last five years of its existence one cannot be satisfied that it was effective in streamlining procurement procedures and in monitoring the procurements being made in government organizations as provided for in the NAC Act.

 

CONSTITUTION AND FUNCTIONS

The NPC comprises five members appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council (CC), of whom at least three members shall be persons who have had proven experience in procurement, accountancy, law or public administration. The President shall, on the recommendation of the CC, appoint one member as the Chairman of the NPC. The NAC Act has assigned the following functions to the NPC.

(1) It shall be the function of the Commission to formulate fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost effective procedures and guidelines, for the procurement of goods and services, works, consultancy services and information systems by government institutions and cause such guidelines to be published in the Gazette and within three months of such publication, to be placed before Parliament.

(2) It shall be the function of the Commission to:

(a) monitor and report to the appropriate authorities, on whether all procurement of goods and services, works, consultancy services and information systems by government institutions are based on procurement plans prepared in accordance with previously approved action plans;

(b) monitor and report to the appropriate authorities on whether all qualified bidders for the provision of goods and services, works, consultancy services and information systems by government institutions are afforded an equal opportunity to participate in the bidding process for the provision of those goods and services, works, consultancy services and information systems;

(c) monitor and report to the appropriate authorities on whether the procedures for the selection of contractors, and the awarding of contracts for the provision of goods and services, works, consultancy services and information systems to government institutions, are fair and transparent; and

(d) report on whether members of Procurement Committees and Technical Evaluation Committees relating to the procurements, appointed by government institutions are suitably qualified; and

(e) investigate reports of procurements made by government institutions outside established procedures and guidelines, and to report the officers responsible for such procurements to the relevant authorities for necessary action.

 

EXERCISING THE FUNCTIONS UNDER THE NPC

 

Though the functions of the NPC are clearly laid down in the NAC Act as listed above, the NPC does not appear to exercise them when public sector organizations procure goods or services. This may be due to the fact the NPC has not published any gazette notifications announcing any regulations that other public sector organizations are bound to follow when making procurements. The NPC does not seem to voluntarily monitor procurement processes in other organizations though it has the mandate to perform that function. This was evident from their response to a query made by the writer with regard to procurements undertaken by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).

The CEB has been attempting to procure thermal power plants with capacity 300 MW in the recent past which have not been finalized yet. It is noteworthy that such a power plant will cost around USD 300 million or LKR 50 billion. The writer pointed out in several of his writings in the Island (28.03.2019, 19.08.2019 & 03.10.2019) the shortcomings in their procurement process that has caused delays in finalizing the procurements. The CEB is also planning to procure a coal power plant of capacity 300 MW from China without going through the approved procurement guidelines despite the fact that the procurement involves such a large sum of money.

Several months ago, the writer brought this to the attention of the NPC inquiring whether NPC has monitored these procurements as mandated in the Act. The response the writer received was that the NPC would inquire into such cases only if they receive an official request from the relevant Ministry! This is an absurd situation, because one cannot expect the Ministry to make such a request when the Ministry itself is a party responsible for the delays.

Obviously, the Commission has not understood their mission and it is necessary to have a set of new members who understand their mission and motivated to exercise their authority without fear and favour. Enforcing guidelines on procurements worth several thousands or millions of rupees will not serve the purpose of having such a set of guidelines, if the guidelines are overlooked in the case of high-value procurements. If the NPC has not been effective in the past, the solution is to change its management rather than closing down the organization.

 

CURRENT PROCEDURE IN PROCUREMENT

For the purpose of procuring high value goods and services, several Procurement Committees (PC) are appointed to handle the procurement process and for the determination of contract award.

A department or an institute after identifying the need to make a procurement, a request is made to the Treasury through the relevant Ministry for budgetary allocation for the procurement along with a statement justifying the procurement. Thereafter a Technical Devaluation Committee (TEC) is appointed with the concurrence of the Ministry who will draft the specifications for the procurement. It is important that this is done carefully not making it too stringent or too general. Generally, a member from an outside organization with relevant expertise is included in the TEC.

The procurement division of the organization will then prepare a Request for Proposals (RFP) incorporating the specifications and other tender requirements such as specifying bid bonds and procurement bonds. Depending on the value of the procurement, Ministry Procurement Committee (MPC) and a Cabinet Appointed Procurement Committee (CAPC) will be appointed who are expected to screen the RFP to ensure that it does not favour a particular supplier. The RFP should also be written in simple language giving only the essential information so that the bid evaluation could be carried out expeditiously. Tenders with complicated RFPs invariably will end up in court cases. Once approved, the RFP is published in the media calling for proposals.

The functions of the NPC as listed above would require that the composition of the PCs and TECs as well as the RFP documents are approved by the NPC to ensure that members of the PCs are suitably qualified and also all qualified bidders are afforded an equal opportunity to participate in the bidding process, as required under the functions of the NPC. The author believes that this process does not happen now probably because there are no regulations gazetted by the NPC to that effect. This is one of the failures of NPC that needs to be rectified.

The bids received are first evaluated by the TEC and those meeting the specifications and other tender conditions are forwarded to the MPC and depending on the value of the tender, submitted to the CAPC as well. In making the final recommendation, compliance with specifications is given priority while taking note of the value of the bid offered as well as the suitability of the bidder for supplying the item or providing the service requested. If an unsuccessful bidder is not satisfied with the decision for the award, he may appeal to a standing Appeals Board requesting reconsideration of the evaluation.

 

CABINET INVOLVEMENT IN AWARDING CONTRACTS

 

It is the general practice today to seek the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers for bids worth above a certain limit. If one peruses the list of Cabinet decisions published weekly, it is noted that a significant number of decisions reported in every Cabinet meeting are in respect of approvals for awarding contracts for construction of buildings for the government including hospitals, Divisional Secretariats, schools, universities and other infrastructure facilities. Is this the function of the Cabinet of Ministers? Shouldn’t they spend their time on more important issues of national level?

The author would like to propose that the function of granting approvals for high-value contracts be vested with the NPC, relieving the Ministers of this responsibility. Afterall, the Cabinet cannot independently check the papers submitted to it for suitability of the item or whether correct procedures have been followed in selecting the successful bidder or not but have to depend on the recommendations of the CAPC.

On the other hand, if this responsibility is given to the NPC, it can independently verify whether the correct selection has been made after proper evaluation following the published procurement guidelines or not. Where necessary, NPC could co-opt outside experts for this purpose. However, one pre-requisite that needs to be followed is to have officers of the highest integrity to undertake such work.

Seeking cabinet approval may be limited to cases of large national scale developmental projects as well as on policy issues pertaining to procurements rather than granting approval for routine construction work. The Cabinet has no capability to verify whether the estimated costs are correct or not. It is best to leave it to the NPC.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Though the functions assigned to the NPC include monitoring and reporting to the appropriate authorities whether proper procedures have been followed in the procurement process undertaken by public sector organizations or not, the NPC has not been exercising this function adequately, probably due to want of commitment or lack of understanding of its functions by the Commission members. Hence, there is a need to have a more committed set of Commission members to make the NPC more effective rather than disbanding it.

In the event the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is repealed while introducing the 20th Amendment, it is still worth retaining the NPC by passing a separate Act of Parliament with more powers assigned to it. The NPC should be given powers to examine procurement processes undertaken by public sector organizations on its own initiative and to grant approval for high-value tenders, in addition to its current functions including monitoring.



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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