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Friday June 21st, 2024

Sri Lanka bank forced to give loans, privileges for loss-making airline because it was SOE

ECONOMYNEXT- State-run Bank of Ceylon had been forced to give loans to loss-making SriLankan Airlines and extend special privileges when it failed to repay, because it was a state owned enterprise (SOE), a witness told a commission of inquiry.

"If we thought as a commercial bank, if we had given these loans to another company, these would have been lost opportunities to use the funds more effectively,” Bank of Ceylon (BOC) Offshore Banking Division Chief Manager Upul Wijegunawardena said.

"However, since BOC is a state-owned entity and SriLankan is the national carrier, we have to make a consideration.”

He was testifying at a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into irregularities at SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka, a defunct budget carrier.

BOC now has 190 million US dollars of outstanding SriLankan loans, he said.

Wijegunawardena said the Bank Supervision Department of the Central Bank had written to BOC in 2014, requesting it to carefully examine SriLankan’s finances, efficiency and state of operations before issuing loans above limits, even if the airline is a state-owned entity.

BOC has given 12.9 billion rupees in loans to SriLankan since 2014 which have yet to be repaid, he said.

Letters of Comfort the Treasury issued as collateral for the loans had expired in June 2018, with discussions still ongoing to issue new Letters of Comfort, Wijegunawardena said.

"It would take 3 months for loans to fall under NPL (non-performing loans)," he said, when commissioner Wasantha Geeganage, the Director General of the Sri Lanka Accounting and Auditing Standards Monitoring Board, asked if the SriLankan loans had gone bad.

Another 100 million US dollars in loans had also been provided with Letters of Comfort which are still valid, he said.

Most of the loans had been taken for working capital, to cancel leases of Airbus A350 aircraft and to repay fuel bills of the state-run Petroleum Corporation.

Wijegunawardena said that SriLankan has kept repaying interest on the loans, while renewing the principal amount owed.

He said the Treasury requested BOC to fund SriLankan, since it is the national carrier which cannot be closed, and BOC has to oblige, since the state is the sole shareholder.

SriLankan was privatized in the late 1990s but Emirates was driven out during the Rajapaksa regime, and it became a fuly owned loss-making SOE.

"Is this acceptable to the bank, that only interest is being paid without loans being settled? Is this the policy of the bank? Do individuals or other companies get such privileges?” Retired Supreme Court Justice Anil Gunaratne asked.

"No, they don’t," Wijegunawardena said.

In response to another question Gunaratne posed, Wijegunawardena said that he was aware the money being loaned to SriLankan was public money deposited in the bank.

He said the Treasury has requested BOC and People’s Bank to fund SriLankan. But now there were plans to operate under a public-private partnership.

However, the National Agency for Public Private Partnerships headed by Thilan Wijesinghe has not responded to the bank’s requests to submit a report on the progress, he said.

"We have continuously requested for the final report, but we haven’t received it," Wijegunawardena said.

Wijegunawardena said since he took over the position at the offshore unit of Bank of Ceylon, it has sent numerous memos and board papers to the BOC board to recover the SriLankan loans.

"SriLankan Airlines also sends many requests. They want to make the interest payments as a bullet payment with the loan principal,” he said.

"We ignore such requests. We always ask them to pay the interest. We always follow up with the Treasury and lodge claims if the letters of comfort expire and we have always requested for Treasury Guarantees instead of Letters of Comfort.”

He said that the first 5 billion rupees of the unsettled local currency denominated loans had been given in December 2014 based on an understanding that the government would capitalise SriLankan with 125 million US dollars with a priority towards settling BOC loans by March 31, 2015.

However, the government changed in January 2015.

The government only later issued letters of comfort, Wijegunawardena said.

Between 2007 and 2015, a number of loans had been extended to SriLankan without collateral, many of which were later collateralized using shares of the profitable SriLankan Catering Limited, he said.

Most of the debts prior to 2014 had been repaid, either through funds available in the SriLankan current account or through Treasury Bonds issued to SriLankan, he said. (COLOMBO, 24 August, 2018)

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Indian FM meets Sri Lanka political leaders; focuses on committed deals

ECONOMYNEXT – Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar met President Ranil Wickremesinghe and a range of political leaders during his visit to Sri Lanka, focusing on commitments made by Sri Lanka to India, including land and energy pipeline connectivity.

Sri Lanka has committed to renewable energy deals for the Indian Adani group, Trincomalee port development, an investment zone around the port, a bridge between the island nation’s Northern Mannar and South India’s Rameshwaram, a power grid, and an oil and gas pipeline between the two nations.

Though most of the committed projects have been discussed and some already signed, they face delays amid public protests, court cases on environmental concerns, anti-Indian sentiments triggered by high prices of renewable projects, local politicians as well as perceived Chinese influence, analysts say.

India has been pushing Sri Lanka to fast-track these deals under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.Jaishankar’s visit also comes ahead of Sri Lanka’s presidential polls later this year.

Jaishankar met President Wickremesinghe in a one-on-one meeting, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry before delegation-level talks with Ports, Shipping and Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Agriculture and Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, and Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera.

“Appreciated the progress made on various bilateral projects and initiatives. Under President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s guidance, we discussed the way forward for India-Sri Lanka cooperation, especially in power, energy, connectivity, port infrastructure, aviation, digital, health, food security, education, and tourism sectors,” Jaishankar said on his official Twitter platform.

He also met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, and leaders of various political parties from the North, East, and the upcountry region.

“Interaction of EAM with the leadership of the Government of Sri Lanka provided an opportunity to review and accelerate progress in the multifaceted India-Sri Lanka partnership,” the Indian External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.

One of the key focus areas of discussion was the Vision Document adopted by President Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Modi during the Sri Lankan leader’s visit to India in July 2023.

“Discussions added momentum to the ongoing projects as well as initiatives for promoting connectivity in all its dimensions, particularly in domains of energy, physical infrastructure as well as economic and people-to-people ties.”

Jaishankar also met leaders of Sri Lanka’s upcountry Tamils, who originally came from India as plantation workers. He discussed development and devolution of power with an eight-member delegation of Tamil leaders from the Northern and Eastern provinces, including Shanakiyan Rasamanikkam and M. A. Sumanthiran.

India helped Sri Lanka with financial and humanitarian aid when the island nation faced an unprecedented economic crisis amid delays by the International Monetary Fund loan to rescue Sri Lanka.

“Following Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and stabilization, forging deeper long-term economic cooperation was underlined as a priority for sustainable and equitable growth of Sri Lanka, and mutual prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region,” the Indian External Affairs Ministry said.

Though the Sri Lankan government has claimed that Jaishankar’s visit was a precursor to Indian Prime Minister’s visit, the Indian External Affairs Ministry did not mention anything about a possible Modi visit.

This visit is Jaishankar’s first bilateral visit after the formation of the new government.

The Adani wind power project in the Northern district of Mannar has seen some public protests over environmental concerns after some experts said the project has failed to conduct a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Critics also protest against its transparency.

President Wickremesinghe, opposition leader Premadasa, and Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka are expected to contest in the election to choose the island nation’s 8th leader.

Sri Lankan leaders have been under pressure from India in the past two decades amid increasing Chinese influence in the island nation, seen as a security threat to India, analysts say.

The docking of a Chinese nuclear submarine in 2014 led to a dramatic government change in the 2015 presidential poll with the ousting of former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who later accused India of orchestrating his defeat.

Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya in 2021 unilaterally canceled a key port terminal project given to India’s Adani group after promising Jaishankar to sign the deal.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was later forced to flee the country in 2022 after mass protests due to his economic policies. (Colombo/June 21/2024)

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Sri Lanka car permit tax losses Rs14bn in two years of partial disclosure

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka has lost 14.3 billion rupees in taxes from car permits given to public servants, including doctors, military officers, central bankers, finance ministry and tax officials, in 2019 and 2020 information disclosed by the finance ministry shows.

Inclusive of some 2021 tax losses when imports were banned for the rest of the year, 14.4 billion rupees of foregone revenue from a waived luxury tax is shown.

The list only shows waivers of a so-called ‘luxury tax’ imposed on larger vehicles above a certain value and size.

The list does not show other vehicles imported under car permits such as double cabs or cars below a certain size.

The list also does not seem to include tax free cars imported by politicians.

In 2019, Sri Lanka has lost 8.3 billion rupees from the luxury tax on car permits and in 2019 the loss 5.92 billion rupees.

In 2021 when car imports were stopped as the central bank started printing money to cut rates and target ‘potential output’ only 85.6 million rupees were lost.

Among the biggest tax waivers of over 10 million rupees went to some doctors and military officers. Doctors were among the biggest users of tax slashed car permits in the list.

Sri Lanka at one time did not allow cars imported by state workers to be transferred for many years.

But reportedly after Customs raided a finance company involving a fleet of vehicles, the rule was relaxed by the then President.

Among the largest tax waivers listed were given to Rolls Royce and Maclaren assigned to Melwire Rolling (Pvt) Ltd.

The 45.6 million rupee Rolls Royce was given a 42.1 million rupee tax waiver.

The 41.46 million McLaren was given a 37.9 million tax waiver.

There were also a large number of Audi A5 and Q2 vehicles listed at prices over 80 million rupee. It is not clear whether the disclosure is an error. The market value of the A5 and Q2 are much lower.

Up to end 2023, 138 cars imported under a migrant worker remittance scheme was listed to lose 436 million rupees in luxury taxes.
The total for the three years was listed at 14.86 billion rupees, involving 2,034 cars in 2019 and 1,470 cars in 2020.

It is not known how much the total tax losses or total vehicle imported through ‘car permits’ is. (Colombo/June20/2024)

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Construction of Sampur solar power plant to begin mid-July

ECONOMYNEXT – Joint energy projects between India and Sri Lanka, including the Sampur solar power plant due to begin next month, took centre stage during bilateral discussions between president Ranil Wickremesinghe and visiting Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Thursday.

Wickremesinghe and Jaishankar discussed initiatives aimed at enhancing energy connectivity and developing the renewable energy sector, a statement by his media division said.

“Significant attention was given to plans for an LNG supply, a proposed petroleum pipeline linking the two countries, and advancing oil and gas exploration projects. Additionally, it was announced that construction of the Sampur Solar Power Plant is set to commence in July 2024.”

The visit comes amid delays in key Indian projects including land, oil and gas pipe, and grid connectivity deals, Adani’s wind power plant deals which are facing a legal battle, and port and investment zone projects in the Eastern port district of Trincomalee.

Indian supported projects for developing Trincomalee and expanding the Kankasanthurai port, the ongoing development of Jaffna Airport and Colombo Airport, and the expediting the unique digital identity card project were discussed.

The efficiency of projects supported by the Indian government aimed at bolstering Sri Lanka’s liquid milk industry and fertilizer production, were also examined.

Sri Lankan leaders have been under pressure from India in the past two decades amid increasing Chinese influence in the island nation as the move is seen as a security threat to India, analysts say. (Colombo/Jun20/2024)

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