The contract with regard to the 65,000 houses in war-affected areas in the North and East has already sent ripples across the country’s political sphere.
Although ArcelorMittal - an international company run by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal – was recommended for the project by a Cabinet Appointment Negotiation Committee (CANC), some local contractors also wanted at least some pieces of the pie. They were the first ones to raise concerns over the mega housing project in the North and East saying it would offer nothing to local industries.
Then the project faced salvos from some civil society groups who raised questions over the quality of the houses given to IDPs. The estimated cost of each house was approximately 2.1 million rupees.
“Apart from the fact that the basis for this costing is unclear, it is also four times the amount in the Indian housing project and significantly more than all other housing programmes completed or currently underway,” said a statement issued by civil society organizations three months ago. This civil society group was also supported by a group of engineers and researches who shared similar views about the housing project.
This criticism also gathered momentum within some sections of the ruling coalition. At that point, there were signs that the mega housing project, probably the largest housing project in recent history, was likely to hit a snag in the face of growing criticism.
However, authoritative government sources told the Daily News on Monday that ArcelorMittal was likely to get the contract relating to the construction of 65,000 houses for IDPs, despite resistance shown by some stakeholders. That was certainly a bad news for some local contractors who wanted to secure a sizable stake in the deal.
Amidst growing speculations about the future of the project, President Maithripala Sirisena along with Resettlement Minister D.M. Swaminathan, visited the area last week and observed some sample houses to get a “first-hand understanding” of the quality of the houses offered to the IDPs.
“The President and the minister were quite happy about the quality of the sample houses. The IDPs too were consulted when it came to matters relating to the standard of houses. The general consensus among them was that the sample houses were of good quality. On the other hand, it is obvious that the project will offer ample opportunities not only for local workers but also for local sub-contractors. So, we don't see any problem in proceeding with ArcelorMittal who was recommended for the project by a Cabinet Appointed Negotiation Committee (CANC) earlier this year. The Indian company is fully capable of handling the project of this scale,” a senior government spokesman who is involved in the coordination of the project told the Daily News.
His explanation indicated that Lakshmi Mittal was the front-runner for the contract at this juncture and local contractors were far behind him.
|Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera|
Asked about the concerns raised by some local contractors, the spokesperson said there were certain “vested interests” behind their attempts. “One needs to understand the basic fact that these contractors had very close links with the previous regime. They made staggering amounts of money under the previous rule. Some of the projects they undertook had no transparency and serious allegations have been leveled against them. In this backdrop, they are trying to secure a stake in the North and East housing project. As part of that plan, they stirred a controversy by bringing the quality of the houses into question. The government is very much aware of the ulterior motives of some local contractors involved in the issue,” he said. According to him, there was a political dimension to the resistance shown by some local contractors.
Meanwhile, a senior Cabinet minister, who also spoke to the Daily News, said the houses in the project will have a number of value additions such as a temperature controlling system inside the house, a computer, a television system, kitchen equipment, free electricity installation, furniture and a state of the art solar panel system.
“Value additions, quite obviously, will involve an additional cost but they contribute to the quality and the standard of houses. One does not need rocket science to estimate the cost of a 550 square ft house with such facilities. This explains the cost factor of the housing project”, the minister said.
“A housing project carried out by he previous government managed to build only 1,000 houses in war-affected areas over the past five years. As a result, they are now attempting to sabotage the mega housing project,” he added, directing his criticism at the opposition.
Multiple government sources confirmed the Daily News that two constructions companies with strong political links were among the parties attempting to grab the deal from the Indian company.
One company is a well-known construction company that has strong local and international links. Its country head was also among the Sri Lankan business delegation attending the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland recently.
A reputed businessman who is also a Cabinet minister in the current government owns the other construction company. His wife also holds a senior position in the government and many assume their political clout is a key factor in the whole exercise.
Pro-Rajapaksa group stirs new controversy
In a startling turn of events, the UPFA rebels and Buddhist monks supporting them have started a fresh campaign calling for a probe into the death of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, the former convener of the Movement for a Just Society and a key figure instrumental in the regime change in January, 2015.
Even during the Presidential election campaign, Sobitha Thera, a senior Buddhist monk, was not in a good health condition and despite his situation, he continued with his battle to ensure victory for the Common Candidate of the Opposition.
Sobitha Thera’s activism, needless to say, was a key concern for the Rajapaksa family, which was at the helm of its political power. At one point, soon before the announcement of the Presidential election, former President Rajapaksa summoned Sobitha Thera for a meeting with the aim of discouraging the monk from engaging in political activities.
The meeting was arranged by former Parliamentarian and businessman Tiran Alles, a close ally of the former President and his family. The meeting was held at the businessman’s house at Kuruppu lane Borella and it was also attended by former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva.
At the hurriedly arranged meeting, Rajapaksa explained to the prelate that the issues he had raised over constitutional changes were already receiving the attention of the Government. The former President said a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) chaired by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva was addressing issues related to the national question and also going into proposed constitutional changes.
Hence, Rajapaksa explained, there was no need for a campaign demanding political reforms ahead of the presidential election. Sources close to the former President said Rajapaksa feared that Ven. Sobitha Thera would opt to be the Common Candidate of the Opposition, creating a strong division in the traditional Sinhala-Buddhist voter-base at the Presidential election.
To further convince Sobitha Thera, Rajapaksa also called upon Minister de Silva to explain the work of the PSC and the Rajapaksa government’s plans for constitutional amendments after the Presidential election. The Minister too had urged Ven. Sobitha Thera not to engage in a campaign now since the issues he was raising would definitely be addressed once the polls are over.
After this meeting with the President, Ven. Sobitha Thera suddenly ‘disappeared’ from the political sphere for several days. It was later revealed that two days after the meeting, Sobitha Thera was escorted by Dr. Neville Fernando, a staunch backer of the Government, to his private Teaching Hospital in Malabe, which is now at the centre of a major controversy. He was admitted to the private hospital to undergo medical checks reportedly for a heart condition. Dr. Neville Fernando was known to be a close personal friend of Rajapaksa.
After he was discharged from the hospital, Sobitha Thera actively engaged in the common opposition’s election campaign. Despite his failing health. Although Sobitha Thera, a fighter to the core, was hospitalized at regular intervals it did not diminish his courage and determination. Even after the Presidential election, Sobitha Thera did not distanced himself from important developments in the political domain.
For instance, when the UPFA attempted to sabotage the 19th Amendment to the constitution, civil society groups organized a massive protest march and Sobitha Thera was at the forefront of it. The monk, who was in hospital a few days before the protest, walked under the scorching sun to demand the UPFA to refrain from sabotaging the 19th Amendment. It was common knowledge that the UPFA was attempting to sabotage the 19th Amendment to protect the interests of the former President and his family.
It was against this backdrop that pro-Rajapaksa monks held a press conference in Colombo on Monday to demand the government to launch a probe into Sobitha Thera’s death. Three monks who are prominent supporters of the former President - namely Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera, Ven. Elle Gunavansa and Ven. Muruttettuwe Ananda Thera– addressed the event and requested the government takes steps to appoint an independent commission to probe into the death of Sobitha Thera. The press conference was held at the Abhayaramaya temple in Narahenpita, the de facto political office of the Rajapaksa group.
Ven. Muruttettuwe Ananda Thera said he has suspicions about Ven. Sobitha Thera's death.” I was the one to assist him in find physicians for so many years to treat him whenever he was ill. However, he did not tell me about his sickness,” he said.
“I visited the National Hospital upon learning that he was being treated in the Intensive Care Unit. He held my hands and said, “Ananda, we made a mistake. We have been deceived.” Had he lived he would have been an arch-enemy of this government,” he pointed out.
Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera, fresh out of jail, was also among the Buddhist monks who expressed their views at the press briefing. Dhammaloka Thera said they had concrete evidence to support their suspicions. He refused to share them with the media stating that if he revealed the sources to the media, it would help the enemy's chances of getting away from the case.
On the same day, UPFA MP and Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila held another press conference in Colombo and repeated the views expressed by the three Buddhist monks. Gammanpila too urged the government to appoint a presidential commission to probe into the death of Sobitha Thera.
The overall hullabaloo surrounding the death of Sobitha Thera brings the ethical values of the pro-Rajapaksa group into serious question.
It was obvious that Sobitha Thera had serious concerns over some moves of the national unity government including offering ministerial and deputy ministerial portfolios to some MPs who was allegedly involved in bribery and corruption under the Rajapaksa administration. Sobitha Thera often alleged that the ‘yahapalanaya’ government too was taking the notorious Rajapaksa path. He repeatedly urged the leaders of the present government to deliver on their promises and abide by the basic tenets of good governance.
That does not in any way mean that the pro-Rajapaksa group has a moral or ethical right to consider Sobitha Thera as a would-have-been ally of the former President. It is a grotesque misinterpretation of policies and values espoused by the erudite Buddhist monk.
On the other hand, it is becoming crystal clear that the pro-Rajapaksa group has no qualms about latching on to any slogan against the government, irrespective of moral or ethical government. They have now decided to make Sobitha Thera’s death an opportunity to boost their propaganda and gain more media-space for Rajapaksa’s political campaign.
Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera’s involvement brings a whole new dimension to the overall controversy. Over the past few months, Dhammaloka Thera adopted a stony silence over the death of Sobitha Thera. He suddenly remembered the so-called evidence with regard to the senior monk’s death, after he was remanded for alleged illegal possession of baby elephant. The timelines relating to Dhammaloka Thera’s arrest and allegations on Sobitha Thera’s death present an important insight into their bona fides.
However, many independent political observers claim that the government should take immediate measures to clear the air on this matter and give its version of the story to the public.
Another important step would be directing the law enforcement authorities, including the Criminal Investigations Department, to probe into claims by the three Buddhist monks and their political associates. As Dhammaloka Thera said in public that he had evidence to support his claims, there was enough grounds to the law enforcement authorities to launch their investigations.
Amidst myriad issues, another key challenge facing the government at this point is to make its position clear on the ETCA agreement with India. After the UPFA rebel group’s rally at Hyde Park in Colombo, an association of professionals has also made plans to hold a protest in Colombo on Thursday against the proposed agreement.
Therefore, it is important for the government to convey a clear message to the public on the circumstances leading to the proposed agreement. Apart from the UNP-led rally in Colombo last week, no member of the ruling party, except Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, conveyed clear thoughts to the public about the reality behind the ETCA agreement.
The Prime Minister in a rare article titled ‘Trade in a Time of Protectionism’ published on March 11th in ‘project-syndicate.org,’ a non profit organization described as the world’s smartest op-ed page, providing commentaries on a wide range of topics, from economic policy and strategies for growth worldwide to human rights, Islam, and the environment, also offering monthly series dedicated to Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, as well as to China and Russia; has said “Today, we Asians are witnessing, on an almost daily basis, fierce political assaults on the tools and policies that have helped lift hundreds of millions of our citizens out of poverty. Indeed, this year, free trade appears to be the scapegoat of choice among the world’s assorted populists and demagogues.”
The Prime Minister, in his article, also says that even in the United States the leading candidates both for the Republican and Democratic primaries have questioned the wisdom of seeking greater openness in world trade. In the UK Euro skeptics are campaigning to leave the EU and the single European market. He says that elsewhere in Europe there are those who are demanding the "drawbridges" of trade to be raised.
According to the Prime Minister, Sri Lanka has an obligation to try to use trade to lift the country out of poverty. But with free trade rapidly becoming a global bugbear, the window for generating growth by tapping into world markets appears to be closing quickly. He says that if trade was to become a key driver of growth in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the region, we will most likely have to generate it ourselves – by transforming South Asia from one of the world’s least economically integrated regions into one of its most integrated.
He says that today, intra-regional trade accounts for just 5% of South Asia’s total trade, compared to 25% for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This vast untapped potential presents the region with an opportunity for growth that does not rely on the strength of the world economy. Last year, the World Bank estimated that annual trade between India and Pakistan could jump from $1 billion today to $10 billion – if tariffs and other barriers were slashed to levels recommended by the World Trade Organization, said the Prime Minister, explaining the rationale behind his ‘going regional’ inclination.