Presidential Commission into Agriculture Building sees shift of blame | Sunday Observer

Presidential Commission into Agriculture Building sees shift of blame

The controversial Agriculture Building
The controversial Agriculture Building

The controversial building, belonging to the spouse of a famous cinema actress, which was rented out to house the Ministry of Agriculture became a hot topic again over the last week. The immediate reason was that the Secretary to the Prime Minister, Saman Ekanayake was questioned about the deal last Tuesday (27) for more than five hours at the police unit of the Presidential Commission probing corruption which took place in state institutions over the past four years.

According to sources, Saman Ekanayake had stated at the questioning that renting out and spending an exorbitant sum of money on the new Agriculture Building occured due to inefficiency of Ministry personnel. However, it was revealed on many occasions that Cabinet had also approved this arbitrary deal of the Ministry of Agriculture.

The deal

The Ministry of Agriculture entered into an agreement with D.P. Jayasinghe Tours and Transport Co. (Pvt) Ltd on April 8, 2016, to lease D.P. J. Towers at No. 288, Sri Jayawardanapura Road, Kotte, Rajagiriya for a monthly rental of Rs. 21 million to move the Ministry head office from Govijana Mandiraya in Battaramulla. The Ministry had taken this decision as the Parliament had shown interest in acquiring Govijana Mandiraya to conduct Parliamentary Sectorial Committee (PSC) activities as it was in close proximity to the Parliament.

However, as reported so far, the PSC have not used the overtaken Agriculture Building for their activities. But the Ministry had paid all due rent for the DPJ tower. Interestingly, the Ministry had paid the same monthly rent despite the building being almost empty for 14 months. After 3 years, the monthly rent increased to Rs. 23 million. The Ministry had to deposit two years rent as key money. A further Rs. 466 million was spent to refurbish the building.

This was revealed at the testimony of the Accountant for the Ministry of Agriculture Niluka Jayasinghe before the Presidential Commission in July this year. According to her, the Cabinet paper had been presented by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Former Subject Minister Duminda Dissanayake as well as the actress involved in the deal (she had signed the agreement paper with the Ministry of Agriculture on behalf of the owner of the building, her husband) also appeared before the commission a few months ago.

The Presidential Commission earlier learnt that this deal had happened without approval from the Committee of Public Enterprises or the Auditor General.

Meanwhile, the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament revealed on September 2016 that Cabinet had approved the payment of Rs. 958 million over five years to the new building without assessing the value through a price committee or without obtaining competitive bids. The committee also noted that no attention had been paid to construct a new building to the Ministry on one-hectare land in Battaramulla, owned by the Ministry.

The neglected farming community

However, it is vital to highlight that this kind of misuse of public money and resources cannot be accepted in a situation where a large number of farming community struggle in their livelihoods.

According to the All Ceylon Farmers Federation, there is compensation due of Rs. 800 million to farmers in various districts who were affected by the Sena caterpillar. In the Ampara district alone, the Government is yet to pay Rs 330 million to 14,000 maize farmer families.

“When the cultivation was damaged, farmers did not get compensation very easily. Ministry officials say all the time that ‘money has not yet been allocated by the Treasury.’ That is their excuse. But when the Prime Minister wants to buy new cars and the Opposition Leader wants bullet-proof cars, the Treasury passes the money hurriedly.

They do not have such a hurry to compensate the poor farmers,” National Organizer of the Federation, Namal Karunaratne complained.

The Sunday Observer could not reach for comment both Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary of the Parliament respectively Dhammika Dasanayake and Neil Iddawela as both were out of the country. Despite several attempts, former Subject Minister Duminda Dissanayake, Current Subject Minister P. Harrison, Deputy Minister Wasantha Aluwihare and Ministry Secretary were not available for comment.