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Sheer negligence on the part of Treasury, Parliament revealed

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ICTA, a state entity outside public scrutiny; billions of rupees lost

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka has not been subjected to proper Treasury or parliamentary oversight though it is a vital state institution, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) has revealed.

The failure on the part of successive governments to ensure proper oversight has revealed massive losses amounting to billions of rupees over the years, recent COPE investigations have found.  

Responding to The Island queries, authoritative sources said that the ICTA, established in terms of the Information and Communication Technology Act No. 27 of 2003, (ICT Act) and amended by Act No. 33 of 2008, had operated outside government scrutiny.

Their response to AG’s query on its operations had been callous with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) asserting the institution did not have to answer such questions.

The ICTA was set up in 2003-2004 with funds made available by the World Bank, during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as the Premier received WB backing, in 2011. ICTA has since been funded by taxpayers’ money though the Treasury and Parliament have turned a blind to what was going on, according to sources.

Top ICTA management had been paid outside the public sector salary structure with the CEO entitled for Rs. 755,000 a month, Legal Advisor Rs. 620,000, Senior Project Manager Rs. 525,000, Chief of Projects Rs. 535,000 and eight Project Managers Rs. 245,000 each, sources said.

Parliamentary watchdog committee COPE under the leadership of SLPP National List MP Prof. Charitha Herath recently inquired into the ICTA operations during yahapalana administration. However, the ICTA, during its existence has operated irresponsibly resulting in massive losses, parliamentary sources said.

COPE headed by Prof. Herath includes Mahinda Amaraweera, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Rohitha Abegunawardena, Susil Premajayantha, Jayantha Samaraweera, Dilum Amunugama, Indika Anuruddha Herath, (Dr.) Sarath Weerasekara, D.V. Chanaka, (Dr.) Nalaka Godahewa, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Rauff Hakeem, Anura Dissanayaka, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Jagath Pushpakumara, Eran Wickramaratne, Ranjan Ramanayake, Nalin Bandara Jayamaha, S.M. Marikkar, Premanath C. Dolawatte and Shanakiyan Rajaputhrian Rasamanickam.

COPE inquiry has revealed sheer negligence on the part of successive governments, which allowed ICTA to pursue an agenda of its own, causing massive losses though recent media reportage focused on  the UNP-initiated Google Loon project that resulted in over Rs 1 bn loss in addition to a staggering Rs 6,427,941 spent on project promotions.

Parliamentary sources acknowledged that ICTA hadn’t been subjected to scrutiny since the change of government in Nov. 2019. Regardless of change of government, the ICTA had continued the way it had been operating under successive governments, sources said.

Sources said Sri Lanka needed ICTA to be in charge of digital platforms besides the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC). However, at a time the country was facing a severe financial crisis due to the , the public sector couldn’t be allowed to cause further losses.

The COPE is expected to summon 16 more state enterprises in January and February, 2021 for examination of their status.

Recent revelations by watchdog committees-COPE and COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) had sent shockwaves through Parliament, sources said, adding that the decision to issue statements on behalf of the committees by Communications Department helped efforts to set the record straight. Therefore, there couldn’t be any ambiguity as regards the findings, sources said, underscoring the right of the public to know what was happening.

Recent COPE investigation revealed how ICTA had, in Nov 2013, abandoned a project meant to pay several categories of pensioners, including armed forces in Western Province online after spending a staggering Rs 278.54 mn.

Another failed ICTA project-Lanka Government Network cost the taxpayer Rs 148.33 mn during previous UNP-SLFP administration.

One of the most shocking findings was the rejection of ICTA 2017 Corporate plan after having spent Rs 2,737,000 on it. To the dismay of ICTA, COPE has called for a progress report on ICTA corporate plans since 2003.

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GL sounds far-reaching educational reforms  

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Education Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris yesterday (21) acknowledged that for want of tangible measures on the part of successive governments, there was a critical mismatch between the education provided and the availability of job opportunities.

The academic, in quarantine as a result being identified as potential Covid-19 contact, emphasised the need for far reaching changes to address the issue as part of their efforts to restructure the entire system.

Prof. Peiris said so in his short remarks at an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the University of Colombo.

The one-time External Affairs Minister said: “It is a great pleasure for me to felicitate the University of Colombo, my alma mater on this happy occasion. It is a significant milestone because we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the faculty of arts, faculty of science and the library of the University of Colombo. As we look back on that span of a full century, the characteristics of the University which comes to mind is its resilience. During that period the University has had to face and indeed overcome many challenges. The society of our country has undergone a fundamental transformation during that period.

The University had the strength to cope with rapidly changing circumstances. I would identify that as a principal accomplishment of the University of Colombo.

The University proved its capacity for development, change and refinement and adaptation in order to keep pace with dramatically changing circumstances. The University proud as its history is I am sure will have an even more magnificent future. It has an important role to play in the far reaching changes we are contemplating in the educational system of our country. It is our intention in the course of this year 2021 to restructure the entire system in order to address the fundamental problem of a rather critical mismatch between the education we provide in our Universities and other educational institutions on the one hand and the availability of employment, livelihoods on the other. There is regrettably gap in this regard and it should be our collective endeavor to address this problem. We are also revisiting the curricular. The substance of our curricular  the methods of teaching in such a way  as to serve better the public in a  better way   In all these efforts I have no doubt the expertise of the University of Colombo by any standards  will be of enormous assistance to us in achieving goals we have set ourselves (SF)

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China slaps sanctions on 28 Trump administration officials, including Pompeo

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China has imposed sanctions on 28 former Trump administration officials, including outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, agency reports said yesterday.

In a statement released just minutes after President Biden took office, China’s foreign ministry said it had decided to sanction those “who have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and who have been mainly responsible for such U.S. moves on China-related issues.”

The list of names features former Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar; former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro; former national security adviser Robert O’Brien; Kelly Craft, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Matthew Pottinger, who recently resigned as deputy national security adviser. Former national security adviser John Bolton and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon were also included.

The sanctions prohibit those individuals and their immediate family members from entering mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao. They are also restricted from doing business with China, as are any companies or institutions associated with them.

“Over the past few years, some anti-China politicians in the United States, out of their selfish political interests and prejudice and hatred against China and showing no regard for the interests of the Chinese and American people, have planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people, and seriously disrupted China-U.S. relations,” the ministry said.

The move comes just one day after Pompeo issued a forceful statement accusing China of committing genocide against Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups in its Xinjiang region, for which the U.S. sanctioned several Chinese officials in July. That was one of numerous instances of sanctions, visa bans and trade restrictions imposed on Chinese politicians and Communist Party officials in the Trump administration’s final year.

Relations between the U.S. and China deteriorated considerably under the previous administration, which took an unusually confrontational approach. Pompeo and other officials referred to China as constituting America’s greatest threat, as NPR’s John Ruwitch has reported.

In fact, Bolton appeared to celebrate the sanction against him, calling it “great news” in a tweet posted Wednesday afternoon.

“I accept this prestigious recognition of my unrelenting efforts to defend American freedom,” he wrote.

It is unclear what changes Biden plans, but Ruwitch noted, “Even if the Biden team moves swiftly to put the U.S.-China relationship back on a less antagonistic track, Beijing will be wary after the dramatic changes of the past four years.”

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Expert Committee appointed to report on gold, copper and iron ore deposits

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By Ifham Nizam

Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweeera yesterday appointed an expert committee to conduct a scientific study on the Seruwawila gold, copper and iron ore deposits.

With iron ore prices skyrocketing worldwide and both neighbouring giant India and China having huge demands, Sri Lanka was keen on tapping natural resources, an official said.  

The committee will be coordinated by an Additional Secretary to the Ministry and will be chaired by Prof. Athula Senaratne of the University of Peradeniya and its other members are H W. Navaratne, Dr. Stalin Fernando, Dr. Bernard Perera, Dr. C.H.K.R. Siriwardena and Dr. O.K. Dissanayake.

Amaraweera, addressing the media, at his Ministry yesterday said the mineral deposit had been explored in the 1970s with the help of technology available at that time, and it had been found that there was iron, copper as well as a certain amount of gold in the Seruwawila deposit.

As today’s excavation technology was very advanced, it was possible to dig up to 250-300 metres, the Minister said.

The Minister also said that all possible steps would be taken to increase the value of the mineral resources through value addition locally to ensure higher prices.

 

 

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