Judgment day imminent for another two... | Sunday Observer

Judgment day imminent for another two...

In one of the most awaited judgments in recent times, and the first judgment delivered based on an investigation by the Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) of the Sri Lanka Police, former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunge and former Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) Director General Anusha Palpita were last week found guilty of misappropriating Rs. 600 million of funds belonging to TRC and sentenced to a three-year-rigorous imprisonment by Colombo High Court Judge Gihan Kulatunga. Judge Kulatunga made a significant observation during the course of delivering the judgment that Weeratunga and Palpita had committed this offence with the intention of gaining undue advantage to a particular candidate during the 2015-Presidential Election. In addition to the prison sentence, both were also ordered to pay compensation to the tune of Rs 50 million each to TRC and a further fine of Rs Two million each to the state.

As reported in our sister newspaper the Daily News on Friday last week, the Attorney General had filed indictments against the accused under three counts, while dropping charges which had been filed under Public Property Act against the two accused earlier.

In his judgment, the High Court Judge observed that on December 5, 2014 a sum of Rs.600 million had been remitted to a bank account maintained by former Secretary to the President through the intervention of Anusha Palpita, without obtaining Board of Directors’ approval (TRC).

While observing that he cannot agree with the defense contention that the Sil Redi distribution program was a long-time process, the High Court Judge maintained that this program had been initiated with the intention of gaining undue advantage to a particular candidate in an urgent manner.

Lalith Chandrakumar Weeratunga, (born 14 May, 1950) was the top civil servant in the country and de facto head of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service during his tenure as Secretary to the President. Prior to the appointment he was the Secretary to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa served as the Prime Minister during the latter part of the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga and served as the additional secretary to the Prime Minister during the tenure of late Sirimavo Bandaranaike following President Kumaratunga´s election in 1994.

Weeratunga, distinguished alumnae of Rahula College, Matara, and subsequently Royal College, Colombo joined the Sri Lanka Administrative Service in 1977 after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Colombo. He later obtained an MBA also from the University of Colombo and pursued postgraduate studies at the Pennsylvania State University where he was a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow. According to his profile in Wikipedia, Weeratunga has held a number of senior positions in the public service such as Secretary to the Prime Minister, Additional Secretary, Prime Minister’s Office, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Education & Higher Education, Director General, Tertiary & Vocational Education Commission, Vice Chairman, National Apprenticeship Board, and Senior Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports. In the early part of his career, he was an Assistant Government Agent.

Anusha Palpita, who is now sharing bed space with Weeratunga in the prison hospital, is of a different generation, having joined the Administrative Service in 1995. However, Palpita had a meteoric rise in the service after he came to the notice of President Rajapaksa (then Prime Minister) during Palpita´s tenure as Director, Information Department in March 2004. Palpita, who obtained a B.Com (Special) and a Master of Professional Accountancy from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, was an alumna of Mahanama College and subsequently Ananda College, Colombo, where he did his Advanced levels in 1983.

Now awaiting

Two other senior government servants are now waiting their judgment days for allegedly colluding with their political masters and helping them gain undue advantage to a particular candidate during the 2015-Presidential Election.

The secretary to the former Ministry of Economic Development, (under Basil Rajapaksa) Dr. Nihal Jayathileke, and director general of Divi Neguma R.A.A.K. Ranawaka and one more official are now awaiting the judicial process to complete in the case known as the Divi Neguma case where in addition to the officials, the Minister has also been charged. Dr. Yaddehige Don Nihal Jayathilaka served as a Member of the Board of Management at Urban Development Authority of Sri Lanka, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Health and as Secretary of Ministry of Local Government & Provincial Councils, before taking over the position as Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development.

R.A.A.K Ranawaka joined the service in 1984. His batch mates include most of the currently serving Secretaries to the Ministries including Mangalika Adikari, the Secretary to the Ministry of Fisheries and Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga, Secretary to the Ministry of Finance.

The fate of these officials are being keenly watched by their colleagues – as rightly they should – and it is the hope of the nation that lessons will be learnt, and applied. The independence, credibility, and professionalism of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, long eroded since the United Front government of Madame Bandaranaike did away with safeguards that were in place to protect these, are now being slowly restored. More needs to be done.

‘Vision 2025’

The ‘Vision 2025’ programme that the Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena jointly announced last week aims to further strengthen some of these administrative structures. “Weaknesses in rule of law, perceptions on corruption and democratic freedom, amongst others have continued to negatively impact the country’s standing in global indices on governance standards. Such weaknesses often manifest in policy unpredictability, weak public service delivery and administrative red tape that deter private investment, both local and foreign and undermine public confidence,” the policy document launched at the BMICH on Monday last week said.

“We have embarked upon an extensive reform agenda, incorporating elements of constitutional reform, economic policy changes, improved governance, and transitional justice. We are committed to fight against corruption, unaccountability, non-transparency, and inefficiency in the public service,” the document said emphasizing on the Right to Information Act that “makes the state accountable to the people, enables people to take part in decisions, and creates informed debate vital to a thriving democracy.”

“RIA enhances people’s participation in Government by empowering grassroots democracy and activism, and by improving the quality of input and debate. At all levels of Government we will affirm and abide by the Right to Information,” the document affirmed.

While providing assurances of a basic framework for good governance that is sorely needed for the country to move forward, the Prime Minister and the President reemphasized some of the major cornerstones and milestones of the economic policies that have already been announced since the Unity Government came into power in September 2015 and laid down in the election manifestoes of President Sirisena in January 2015 and the United National Party in August 2015.

A comprehensive landmark reform is one point that has been reemphasized in the ‘Vision 2025’ document. “We will introduce reforms to develop a dynamic land market. We will change land tenure restrictions associated with alienated lands, offer clear transferable titles, and remove barriers to competitive real estate markets. As the largest landowner in the country, the Government will be a competitive player in the land market. The Government will review key legislations and make necessary amendments to free up land for economic activities and introduce a unified legal framework. We will establish a land bank to facilitate these efforts.

“We will align land policy with the broader development agenda. The Government will establish major economic development zones such as Ruhuna & Wayamba and mega projects of urban development. Megapolis project and the Colombo International Financial Centre (CIFC) will take center-stage.

“We will implement scientific land management practices. The Government will improve land administration and modernize land management. The initiatives will include: spatial strategy of zoning land resources in a hierarchical order (e.g., national, regional, local) according to land suitability assessments; establishment of a digital system of land information and registration; and establishment of a monitoring mechanism for land management.

“The Government will encourage vertical housing projects to meet demand for urban low income and middle class affordable housing. Many families are in need of urban affordable housing with severe shortages in urban region. Both the public and the private sectors will be further mobilized to address this need, with the provision of land and access to finance, speedy approval processes, provision of utilities and priority in tax filing, and spreading out tax settlements in line with housing payment plans.

Public transport

“The Government will extensively improve the public transport system. We will establish multimodal transport centers with park and ride facilities, electrify the existing railway system between Veyangoda and Panadura, double-track the Kelani Valley railway, and construct new rail tracks connecting Kurunegala and Habarana via Dambulla. We will also introduce innovations in the transport system, such as bus priority lanes and an advanced traffic management system. Planning studies will be completed soon for Light Rail Transit (LRT) to begin building six lines in metro Colombo. These measures will greatly ease current passenger congestion in the system as well as increase facilities for the transportation of goods,” the document said.

Despite a strong emphasis on transparency, good governance and level playing fields highlighted in the presentation of ‘Vision 2025’ by both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, at least one of the country´s most vital infrastructure sectors, power, appears still to be mired in controversy and without clear direction.

As reported elsewhere in today´s paper, the Engineers Union of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) have withdrawn from sitting in Technical Evaluation Committees for any tenders – “other than for tenders that will be called for emergency power.” Interestingly, what is unsaid in that statement is that emergency power generation is almost exclusively diesel or heavy oil based generators, where the country is paying an extremely heavy price for the supply of fuel and intermediaries are making an extremely large profit. As reported in our story, the Union´s refusal to sit in these evaluation committees came straight after the public watchdog, the Public Utilities Commission Sri Lanka (PUCSL) first refused to accept some of the long term power generation scenarios presented by the CEB for the 2017-2030 long term generation plan, asked for more detailed scenarios after extensive public discussion and amended some of these scenarios based on expert and public feedback and then presented an alternative, amended plan to CEB.

The contention of the Union, and also the Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy, Dr. B.M.S. Batagoda is that the energy mix presented in the PUCSL amended plan is too heavy on Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and too light on coal. According to the Union, LNG is too expensive. PUCSL and global energy experts contend otherwise. They point out that while the price difference between a unit of power generated by coal against a unit generated by LNG is marginally cheaper, the environmental costs of the unit generated by coal is at least 35% higher. LNG is one of the cleanest sources of thermal energy available today while coal is by far the dirtiest.

While the Union appears to be defending the indefensible, controversy also surrounds a project to implement a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) that is needed at some stage to supply usable LNG to power the LNG powered generation units that are expected to be operational by 2019. Petronet, an Indian Company partly owned by the public, some of India´s state owned companies and Elengy, France´s largest gas energy producer, has repeatedly issued public statements that it has signed an agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka to provide this FSRU as part of a joint venture between India, Japan and Sri Lanka. Government officials, including Secretary Batagoda and Chandani Wijewardene, Secretary, Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade, who is in charge of what appears to be an opaque multilateral negotiations between India, Japan, and Sri Lanka have constantly denied that the project has been awarded and that negotiations are continuing. However, senior officials were to tell Sunday Observer yesterday that Fujita, another controversial contender to infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, along with Petronet, are in advanced stages of negotiations with only the percentages of venture participation to be decided. According to these officials, Fujita is asking to be the exclusive and monopolistic supply of LNG under this project. Japan is not a producer of LNG, with its total requirement imported from elsewhere. As such, Fujita will only be acting as a middleman or broker – a role it appears to be playing in other infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including phase three of the Central Expressway – where Fujita said it will jointly develop a crucial section from Pothuhera to Polgahawela. However, insiders say that Fujita is simply an intermediary for another regional construction company.