Sri Lanka’s massive highway frauds due to a President holding ministry: Eran

COLOMBO (EconomyNext) – Massive frauds running into tens of billions of rupees in Sri Lanka’s highway projects was possible because the country’s President held ministerial portfolios, Deputy Minister Eran Wickramaratne said.

President Rajapaksa held portfolios of finance and highways and also ports where most of the lucrative construction deals were awarded.

In road building in particular projects were awarded at inflated prices without competitive tendering with those who won the ‘negotiated’ deals flipping them to subcontractors at 25 to 30 percent instant profits, Kabir Hashim, Highways Minister of the new administration has said.

"The responsibility for this lies with the Minister in charge of the highways portfolio," Deputy Highways Minister Eran Wickramaratne told reporters in Colombo earlier this month.

"It was President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was responsible. After this not a single ministry should be given to a President."

Deputy Minister Eran Wickramaratne said the Rajapaksa era also saw the building of ports without ships and airports without aircraft, a reference to two while elephant projects done with Chinese finance.

"Either he knew these or he did not know," Wickramaratne said.  "Even if he did not know, then also a portfolio should not be given to a President."

Analysts say in a free country, where the people are sovereign rather than rulers, many mechanisms exist to restrain the rulers and increase the freedoms of the ordinary people.

One tool is to make the head of the government usually the Prime Minister, a ‘class monitor’ by giving all important ministries to other persons.

The President of Prime Minister can therefore always question other ministers as a class monitor. Sri Lanka’s current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is now in hot water over a bond deal at the Central Bank which comes under his ministry, with the credibility of the entire administration at stake, some analysts say. Significantly a probe on the deal was initiated by the President Maithripala Sirisena following a public outcry.

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When the President or Prime Minister also holds a portfolio, a self-correcting mechanism that exists in other free countries is denied to citizens.

A constitution of restraint on rulers is a key tool of freedom for the people. In Sri Lanka the constitution has given arbitrary powers to rulers, restraining the freedoms of citizens, making a mockery of the idea of constitutionalism itself.

Though Sri Lanka inherited a Western political system, there is little understanding of how and why such systems emerged in Europe, allowing political entrepreneurs who took control of the legislator, tax system and armed forces to easily take away the freedoms of citizens, some analysts say.

Wickramaratne said the 19th amendment to the constitution was proposed by the people to reduce the powers of the executive president.

But in Sri Lanka there is still insufficient knowledge about freedom especially within the urban intelligentsia, who are interventionist, nationalists or statist in many cases, making it an uphill battle to build a free country, freedom advocates say.
 

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