Questionable building deal: Prime Minister lays blame at Duminda’s feet

Ranil Wickremesinghe - Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said yesterday that sending the agreement, signed between the Agriculture Ministry and D.P. Jayasinghe Company to shift the Ministry to a building owned by the Company at a total cost of Rs. 1.3 billion to the Attorney General’s Department for approval, was the responsibility of former Minister of Agriculture Duminda Dissanayake and that responsibility for Dissanayake’s action lay with the President.

The PM made this statement before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) investigating frauds under the current administration, responding to a question posed by attorney-at-law Ronald Perera, who represented him.

When presented with evidence that there were many issues as regards the agreement, Wickremesinghe said that usually such agreements were sent to the Attorney General’s Department. However, Additional Solicitor General, Ayesha Jinasena, who led the evidence, told the Prime Minister that the final draft of the agreement had not been sent to the AG’s Department.

“If so then there is a problem,” the PM said.

Counsel Perera asked Wickremesinghe with whom the responsibility of sending the agreement to the Attorney General’s Department lay. The latter said that usually the line minister [Duminda Dissanayake] was responsible. Perera then asked Wickremesinghe if Dissanayake had been under him.

“It was a coalition government. The UNP MPs were under me and the SLFP members were under the President,” the PM said.

In 2015, a decision was taken to relocate the Agriculture Ministry, so that the Parliament could accommodate 16 Sectoral Oversight Committees empowered to examine all Bills, Resolutions, Treaties, Reports and other matters relating to subjects within their jurisdiction. Wickremesinghe said that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had consistently reminded him that the Agriculture Ministry had not vacated the Govijana Mandiraya.

On September 21, 2015, Wickremesinghe presented a Cabinet paper stating that the Ministry of Agriculture should explore the possibility of relocating to the SPI (Suhurupaya) Building. “Since that didn’t materialise, I appointed a committee headed by Saman Ekanayake, Secretary to the Prime Minister and he found three privately owned buildings where the Ministry could relocate until the third stage of Sethsiripaya was completed. Ultimately, the Minister of Agriculture and his officials visited the sites and selected the D. P. Jayasinghe building.”

Chairman of PCoI retired Supreme Court Judge Upali Abeyratne told PM Wickremesinghe that the Sectoral Oversight Committees commenced operations at the ‘Govijana Mandiraya’ on May 23, 2019. He also said that it had also been revealed that the government had up to now spent over Rs. 2.1 billion on the D.P. Jayasinghe building.

“Do you also know that the Ministry of Agriculture has a 36-acre land near Parliament?” Justice Abeyratne asked. “Yes,” Wickremesinghe said.

Abeyratne said: “Given the fact that we have space; the Sectoral Oversight Committees did not move to ‘Govijana Mandiraya’ for almost four years and we have spent Rs. 2.1 billion on the lease agreement, wouldn’t it have been better if we had constructed a new building for the Sectoral Oversight Committees?”

The Prime Minister said that the decision to relocate the Ministry of Agriculture had been taken under different circumstances. “I was told that Parliament needs the ‘Govijana Mandiraya’ very soon. The Speaker used to call me frequently asking me about the delays in relocation. The Committees were to move in within a year,” he said.

The Prime Minister was also informed that there was also a land dispute regarding the site of the D.P. Jayasinghe building and that the UDA had only allowed D.P. Jayasinghe Company to construct a seven-storey building, including the car park, but the building was 10 storeys tall.

“Do you not think that by moving into an unauthorised building, the government has given it legitimacy? On the other hand, if Jayasinghe loses the court case the new owner can remove the Ministry,” Chairman Abeyratne asked. He also said that in a Cabinet paper presented in late 2015, the Prime Minister added that the D.P. Jayasinghe building was suitable for the Ministry of Agriculture; however it was later revealed that Rs. 402.5 million had been later spent on furnishing, carpeting, installing IT systems and air conditioning of the building. It was earlier revealed at the PCoI that employees of the Ministry had started complaining about the facilities at the Jayasinghe building within two weeks after moving in. There were issues with electricity, air-conditioning, parking, water supply as well as space in the new building, the ministry moved into on August, 2017.

The Prime Minister said that if he had known about those, he would have acted differently. “However, I submitted the Cabinet paper based on the information given to me by the Officials of the Ministry of Agriculture.”

“So, do you admit that a lot of public money has been wasted on this?” Chairman Abeyratne asked.

“Yes, we have failed to accomplish the stated objectives,” Prime Minister said.

Earlier Former Minister of Agriculture, Duminda Dissanayake said before the PCoI that all decisions on the transaction had been taken by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was also revealed in July that there was no termination clause in the lease agreement signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and D.P. Jayasinghe Company, in 2016, on renting a building for the Ministry. The total value of the agreement was over Rs. 1.3 billion. The Ministry of Agriculture was to pay Rs. 21 million plus VAT and Nation Building Tax a month in the period between April 08, 2016 and April 07, 2019. From April 08.2019 to April 07, 2021 the Ministry was to pay Rs. 24.1 million plus VAT and Nation Building Tax a month. When the agreement was executed the Ministry paid Rs. 504 million to the lessor. This amount of funds was to be used during the last two years of the lease period to reduce Rs. 21 million from the monthly lease of Rs. 24.1 million.

(Source: The Island – By Rathindra Kuruwita)