PM denies all allegations leveled against him over storing of paddy harvest at Mattala International Airport

Ranil Wickremesinghe

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, appearing before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) investigating alleged corruption of the current administration, yesterday, rejected allegations that the government had damaged the reputation of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) by storing paddy in some of its storage buildings in 2015.

“What reputation? It has no prestige. It’s called the world’s emptiest airport. The unnecessary construction of the airport is a massive misuse of public funds.”

The Prime Minister said that inquiries conducted by the Auditor General’s Department and Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) had proved that the decision to build an airport at Mattala was disastrous. A PCoI on SriLankan Airlines also made similar observations in its report, Wickremesinghe said.

“In 2014, the Rajapaksa government forced SriLankan and other airlines to use the airport. There were over 2,900 flights to the airport in that year but once the government stopped forcing airlines, they stopped using the airport altogether. SriLankan lost Rs. 740 million because it had to use Mattala. We are not preventing people from using the airport. In fact, we have been trying to encourage people to use it.”

The Mattala airport was built at a cost of USD 209 million and the government pays around Rs. 2.95 billion a year as loan repayments. “Added to this are Rs. 2.23 billion in annual operations costs. This is a big loss and if we didn’t have to do this we could have really developed the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA),” he said.

In 2015, the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) stored over 4,000 metric tonnes of rice at MRIA. It has been alleged that damages amounting to Rs. 600000 were incurred to equipment at the storage unit. Last week former head of the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB), Bandara Dissanayake told the Commission that the Prime Minister personally instructed him to store paddy at the Mattala Airport.

Prime Minister denied any personal involvement in the incident and said that a committee comprising Ministry Secretaries in 2015 to deal with a high paddy yield of the Yala season had decided on the matter.

“These committees are appointed when such an event happens because throughout history Sri Lankan governments have tried to protect the farmers by preventing a collapse in prices,” the PM said.

The Attorney General’s Department representative asked the prime minister whether he was aware that two of his senior advisors, Charitha Ratwatte and R. Paskaralingam had taken part in some of the meetings of the committee.

“I don’t know. The committee might have asked them to come in and help. They don’t need my authorisation to take part in government meetings,” the prime minister said.

Earlier former Chairman of SriLankan Airlines Ajith Dias told the PCoI that Ratwatte had called him and asked for permission to store paddy at the MRIA. Wickremesinghe responded that he was not aware of that and probably Ratwatte was acting on behalf of the committee.

The PM also said that the PMB had asked officials at the MRIA to remove any valuable items from the storage units. “If they now claim that there were valuable equipment, they should have told the PMB that they won’t allow the storage of paddy,” he said.

Wickremesinghe said that he too looked at the reports that there were damages of Rs. 600000 to the equipment. Rs. 500000 were spent on cleaning and another Rs. 20000 was spent on an air compressor. It had cost Rs. 60,000 to transport the compressor.

The PM said: “This shows the way they do things there. A whole bunch of people responsible for the construction of this vanity project and running the airport down are now trying to blame us. Please get these people back so that my lawyers too can cross examine them.”

The Prime Minister said the PCoI had become politicised and that he would talk about the storing of paddy at Mattala in Parliament.

(Source: The Island – By Rathindra Kuruwita)