Move to raise water tariffs runs into boiling pot; briefing cancelled

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The Chief Government Whip’s Office had organised a meeting to brief government MPs on the proposed water tariff hikes but the July 7th event was cancelled abruptly.

The briefing was due to be held in Parliament’s Committee Room No. 2. Given that July 7 was a sitting day, most MPs were attending Parliament. Several reminders had been sent out to MPs to attend the briefing, scheduled to be held at 12.30pm.

However, just five minutes before it was due to begin and even as MPs were starting to make their way to the committee room, the Chief Government Whip’s office had hurriedly sent out SMS messages informing the MPs that the briefing would not take place that day “due to unavoidable circumstances.”

Sources said the abrupt cancellation had come after several government members, including a very senior minister, voiced opposition to the proposal to raise water tariffs. Their objections had been submitted as part of observations on the Cabinet proposal to raise water tariffs in line with the electricity tariff revision enacted earlier this year.

A proposal to introduce a pricing formula for water tariffs is also reported to be now under discussion.

Loss-making entity’s officers apply to fly high at public expense

It has come to light that officers of one of the biggest loss-making state entities have applied for foreign trips that will cost the taxpayers USD 44,788 or more Rs. 14 million.

The travel bills from June to mid-July this year by the officers of the state-owned entity confirm that 34 officers had applied for about 20 foreign trips. These include visits to several Southeast Asian countries, Europe and West Asia. The purposes range from conferences, trainings, promotional events and even an awards ceremony. Some officers have applied for multiple foreign visits.

Not all the visits had been approved and approval for some visits is still pending. Nevertheless, the sheer cavalier attitude towards wasting taxpayer funds for foreign junkets by a state-owned entity that recorded a net loss of more than Rs. 163 billion for the 2021-2022 financial year has shocked senior government authorities. They quoted the local idiom borrowed from the Titanic sinking saga; ‘nava gilunath band chune” (the band shall play on even if the ship is sinking) except that this is in the airline industry.


Paying penance: Highways and Transport Minister Bandula Gunawardena planting a sapling of the protected tree Crudia Zeylanica (Pandu Karanda) in the north days after he sanctioned the uprooting of the hundred-year-old tree of the same tree specimen in Veyangoda to facilitate the construction of the Central Exressway. 

One, two, three: The minister on a tree

In recent times, cutting trees and planting saplings have become a trend to hide behind criticisms in the name of so-called development.

The recent controversy over removing the endemic Pandu Karanda tree (Crudia Zeylanica) at Daraluwa in Veyangoda as it stood in the way of the Central Expressway project came to an end after it was chopped down over the weekend following Cabinet approval given for the exercise.

Justifying the move, Highways Minister Bandula Gunawardana said if the government was to change the route of the expressway’s Kadawatha-Mirigama section, it could cost Rs 15 billion more. He also noted at least twelve other trees which were more than 40 years old were found in the area.

As the decision came under severe criticism from environmental activists and the people on social media platforms, the Minister decided to do some damage control by planting saplings of the same tree during his trip to the North this week to open the reconstructed Northern Railway Line. The Minister’s team made sure a couple of saplings were with them and they were planted at the Railway stations of Kilinochchi and Jaffna where Minister Gunawardana stopped briefly. He even, went one step further to suggest that he would plant one sapling at his home also.

As Lanka ponders digital service levy, global disarray over tech companies’ taxes

Earlier this week, tax officials from some 143 countries met in France with the hope of sealing a deal on a way to divide the taxes levied on the profits of about 100 leading technological companies in the world.

They failed to reach an agreement and came up with an alternative which many suggest would lead to a new trade war between the United States and Europe. The move came in the wake of talks back home to introduce a Digital Services Tax — targeting professionals who extend their services to leading IT companies around the globe, particularly in the US.

Sri Lanka is among the five countries along with Canada, Pakistan, Russia and Belarus which opposed the deal. The other 138 countries gave their backing.The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that failure to conclude a deal quickly could lead to a free-for-all in which governments around the world implement targetted levies on large technology companies — known as Digital Services Tax — possibly prompting the US to retaliate for what it sees as unfair treatment of American businesses.

The deal is intended to alter the thousands of treaties between nations that determine how much individual governments received and to prevent countries from imposing novel taxes on companies.

On the same day, the International Monetary Board (IMF) denied reports that it discussed or recommended digital service tax with the Sri Lankan government under the current Extended Fund Facility (EFF).

Stressing that revenue mobilisation is a key pillar of the IMF programme with Sri Lanka, the IMF spokesperson said in a statement that “as part of the upcoming first review of the EFF programme currently scheduled in September, the IMF plans to discuss with the authorities how best to mobilise additional revenues. This could include considering the benefits and challenges of introducing a digital service tax.”

Governor Thondaman creates constitutional crisis over minerals and mines

Eastern Province Governor Senthil Thondaman’s new directive has raised fresh controversy over the devolved powers shared between the Centre and Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment.

Mr Thondaman has informed District and Divisional Secretariats in the province to halt the processing of all mineral sands, and industrial mineral proposals and not to release any lands which have deposits of valuable minerals in their respective areas until the project is evaluated by the Provincial Minerals Evaluations Committee at the Governor’s Office.

The Acting Director General of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau which is the mandated licence-issuing authority wrote to the Secretary to the Governor last week saying, “This direction cannot be issued by the Governor’s office as the subject of minerals and mines are placed in the reserve list of the Constitution as amended by the 13th Amendment”.

Attaching relevant clauses in the Constitution for reference, the Bureau’s senior official also noted that proceeding with such direction on the matter was a “direct violation of the Articles of the Constitution”.

He also said that issuing such directions caused further delay in executing the agenda of promoting investments in an expedient manner as aspired to by the President while stressing that PCs are not possessed with the technical expertise to evaluate such projects.

Meanwhile, the Bureau’s district-level officers also boycotted the meetings called by Governor’s Office on the matter saying they required the approval from the Minister under whose purview the Bureau came under.


Field Marshal Fonseka fights for his campaign funds

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Parliamentarian Sarath Fonseka has written to several government institutions, including the President’s office, requesting an order to release USD 527,000 and 100 Sterling Pounds that he claims were given to him as campaign donations when he contested for the Presidency in 2010.

Field Marshal Fonseka had noted that the funds had been given to the mother of his daughter’s then-husband to hold onto the money temporarily. A case was filed against her later in the High Court over the matter, where she admitted to an offence under the Exchange Control Act and informed the Attorney General and the court that the funds belonged to Field Marshal Fonseka. The MP had also filed a sworn affidavit in court claiming ownership of the funds.

Since the money had been given to him legitimately as campaign donations when he was contesting for the Presidency in 2010, the MP has asked the authorities to release the funds, which are currently held in a private bank account. When contacted, Field Marshal Fonseka confirmed that he had written to several state institutions about the matter, but declined to elaborate.

President’s office pours cold water on Gota’s bill

The Presidential Secretariat has written to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office that it is not in a position to settle unpaid water bills at his official residence at Malalasekara Mw, Colombo 7.

In April, Mr Rajapaksa’s office wrote to the President’s office seeking further advice on how to proceed with an unpaid water bill amounting to more than Rs. 46,000 for the official residence allocated to the former president.

The Presidential Secretariat has, however, cited a Supreme Court decision to point out that there are no legal provisions for it to settle unpaid electricity, water and phone bills of a former Executive President’s official residence. Accordingly, it has sent back the unpaid water bill to Mr Rajapaksa’s office asking it to settle the bill itself.


Top official’s 3-vehicle claim deflated

The sense of entitlement of some officials as soon as they come to positions of power appears to make them blind to the reality of the dire economic difficulties experienced by the people.

The latest such example is the conduct of the recently appointed chairperson of an Independent Commission. He has been
badgering authorities for official vehicles.

The chairperson has insisted, both in writing and in phone calls to the Presidential Secretariat, that he be given three vehicles — one for the chairperson and two for commission staff. The President’s office had then written to the chairperson stating that given that this is an Independent Commission, the request has been forwarded to the Finance Ministry’s Comptroller General’s office.

Not satisfied with waiting for an answer, the chairperson has then sent several letters and made more phone calls to the Comptroller General’s office, insisting that the vehicles be released, and lamenting that authorities had failed to assign an official vehicle for the chairperson’s use though it has been more than two months since he assumed duties.

It is understood that the request has been turned down; with the chairperson being told to manage with the resources he has, and that no new vehicles will be issued.


TU leaders remind PM he also was a union leader

On Thursday, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena met representatives of more than 50 government-affiliated trade unions.

Many trade union representatives who attended had complained to the PM that the government was urgently introducing a host of labour-related laws without giving adequate time for trade unions to study their impact.

The representatives had reminded the Premier that he too was a trade union leader once and should understand the predicament these laws had placed them in.

The Prime Minister agreed, acknowledging that there had been instances in the past where governments had to face many problems because they had failed to reach an agreement with trade unions before introducing various laws.

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