Hullabaloo surrounding a Mercedes BenZ
By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando
Yahapalana, or the unity government, which blamed the Rajapaksa regime for spending excessively on building expressways, and even criticizing the cost of such constructions were equivalent to 'paving the roads with gold,' has come into heavy criticism due to a colossal loss of public money up to Rs 36 billion with the CCEM's (Cabinet Committee on Economic Management) approval to increase the distances of flyovers on the Matara-Hambantota Southern Expressway. This is akin to the saying, "The sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" meaning”, If that type of behaviour was acceptable to Rajapaksas, then it should also be acceptable to the Yahapalanaya”! But the fact remains that 51.28 per cent of the population of Sri Lanka voted on 8 January 2015 to bring about a change by ousting what was alleged to be a "fraudulent and immoral" regime.
Amidst a barrage of accusations for altering the overall length of the expressway from 6.3 km to 9.11 km, with an increase in length of flyovers by an extra 2.78 km, at a staggering additional cost to the tax payer, has been exposed by Sunil Handunetti, (JVP) member of Parliament and Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), established on 21 July 1979.
Stirring a hornets' nest
The disclosure has gone viral by appearing in almost every newspaper in Sri Lanka, social media and much more, after Handunetti appeared on the Sirasa TV, Pathikada programme where he stirred the hornets' nest by revealing a suspicious and opaque manoeuvring by the Yahapalana Government distinctively. His questions were "How did the CCEM authorize the project involving a large sum of public money, without the approval of the Cabinet and Parliament?" It became apparent that the Secretary to the Prime Minister, Saman Ekanayake, had advised the Secretary to the Ministry of Highways by letter on 13 November 2016 that the CCEM had made a decision to increase the aggregate length of the designed flyovers by 2.78
The project has been assigned to a Chinese contractor as per the advice from the China Railway East Survey
and Design Institution, who are providing consultation services for the project. As Sunil Handunetti emphasised on the TV programme, the Matara-Hambantota section of the Southern Expressway was a project worth Rs 243 billion investment for which a loan has been obtained from China. The crux of the matter appears to be that an autonomous decision has been taken without the consent of the Cabinet of Ministers or getting prior approval by a technical evaluation committee by the Secretary to the Prime Minister, Saman Ekanayake, who has apparently given the go-ahead to the CCEM.
The major concern in this connection, more than the impervious antiques described simply as 'enticements' is about the lack of technical know-how possessed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and members of the CCEM, Charitha Ratwatte, R. Paskaralingam or Minister Malik Samarawickrema to execute this task, in the absence of any clear cut indications to show whether a technical evaluation had been done by the CCEM or prior approval of the project had been obtained by the Cabinet and Parliament to approve the project of such a magnitude. Evidently, not a single cent can be authorized on any government project without the Cabinet approval. Therefore, it remains a mystery as to who has been mandated to authorize billions of rupees. The onus, therefore, now befalls on Parliament to answer such questions.
Another allegation is about the Chinese engineers and consultants who have been brought down to Sri Lanka to work on the expressway on tourist-resident visas. The Prime Minister's Senior Economic Advisor Paskaralingam, is alleged to have been the person who is responsible for such an authorization, and permitting payments of salaries to those engineers and consultants.
Many will agree with the (JVP) Member of Parliament about Paskaralingam's extraneous behaviour in this matter, as he is neither a Member of Parliament nor a Minister of the Yahapalana administration to issue such instructions to the CCEM.
The irony of the alleged embezzlement appears to be that the so-called Chinese engineers and consultants have been chosen only on the strength of their CV's and without any interviews or evaluation by a panel of judges of technical experts prior to their appointment towards their suitability, whilst the Road Development Authority (RDA) has to pay huge salaries in violation of the rule book on tourists and finances of the country. How could anyone be appointed to any job, just by glancing at a person's CV alone? And authorization of steep salaries out of taxpayers' money takes the cake. Due to such bureaucratic bungling, many Sri Lankan local officials, including engineers, have alleged that the Chinese team leader representing China Railway First Survey and Design Institute has taken arbitrary decisions without the employer's consent. It was on record on previous occasions also how the local consultants had written to the project engineer, clearly disclosing how the team leader of the Chinese contractor should be replaced from this project over his alleged unprofessional behaviour. This letter has been copied to the Minister of Highways and Road Development Authority and also to the Chairman, RDA. Regrettably, no action has been taken. Consequently, many local engineers and consultants appear to have left the project, as they do not wish to take the blame and public brickbats, should any disaster befalls after the construction and the Chinese experts have left.
Icing of the case of this impish contract is said to be a Mercedes Benz motorcar imported by the Chinese Contractor on 21 November 2016, which under the prevailing circumstances is branded as a ‘santhosam’ (gift) for increasing the length of the distances of the flyovers under question. Handunetti’s version is that "Although the Finance Ministry had issued a circular to exempt all vehicles imported to the country by the Chinese company for use in the project, passenger transport vehicles were barred from such a privilege”. Surely a Mercedes Benz motorcar could not be used to transport metal fabrications, building materials, or cement!
Once the Chinese contractor had imported the Mercedes Benz vehicle to Sri Lanka, and the vehicle was lying in the harbour, their Project Director had requested by letter to waive the duty. Sunil Handunetti demands to know from the government: (1) Who authorized the importation of the Benz car to the contractor (2) Has the vehicle been cleared without paying any duty? If so, who authorized such a duty
waiver (3) Has the duty been already paid before its clearance from the port, and if so how much of duty was paid to Customs (4) Present whereabouts of the imported Mercedes (5) Who is using the vehicle at present?
In reply to his accusations, the Chairman of the RDA has confirmed that "the RDA had not given the approval to import the luxury Benz car, and if any minister uses the limousine, then it is up to Handunetti to reveal the minister's name". With regard to the extension of the expressway, RDA Chairman's answer has been that "After geographical and environment research and studies and taking into consideration of floods and threatening landslides, the original plan had to be adjusted to cut down any drastic impact of natural disasters." With regard to the recruitment of foreign consultants on visitors' visa, RDA maintains that it has not violated any rules and regulations. It is interesting, however, to learn according to news reports, that the RDA has taken steps to conduct an investigation made by the COPE Chairman about the exposed scams. The RDA Chairman N.R. Sooriyarachchi has been quoted as saying that "All the relevant information has been transferred to the Audit Department". One wonders as to why an investigation is now required, if the chairman is cocksure of his statements and denials!
Sunil Handunetti intends to take this matter up for enquiry by COPE, as well as during the next parliamentary sessions as an MP. He is under the impression that "even the Chinese Government may not be aware of such messes”. His personal enquiries with the Registrar of Motor Vehicles Department to investigate when, how and under whose name the imported limousine is registered officially, so far have been fruitless, but he holds the government fully responsible to come up with an answer to the importation and 'sudden' disappearance of the Mercedes Benz vehicle imported by the Chinese contractor attached to the Matara- Hambantota Southern Expressway while his prima facie investigations are in progress
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