Mattala and paddy storage: Anatomy of an act of ‘fraud corruption’

Wednesday, 6 November 2019 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Fraud Corruption (yes that is the name as printed on a document sent by the Commission, dated 15 October 2019) which occurred from 15 January 2015 to 31 December 2018 has looked into this matter.

An analysis of the issues will interest readers. 

The 2015 Yala season paddy harvest was unprecedented, estimated at 175,000 metric tons. Another 148,000 metric tons of the 2014/15 Maha harvest was also in the Paddy Marketing Board and other entities’ stores. The total storage capacity the Government had access to for paddy storage was approximately 250,000 metric tons. There was a need to identify additional storage capacity.

The Cabinet of Ministers therefore appointed a Committee of Officials to solve this problem on 15 July 2015, presided over by the Secretary to the Treasury.  

I was invited to a meeting of this Committee; I recall it was on 29 July, if not before. When the Secretary to the Treasury extends an invitation to a public officer to attend a meeting presided over by S/T, officers attend. 

During my time as Commissioner General for Essential Services in around 1989, my office had used Government and private stores all over the Island, from Point Pedro to Dondra Head and Mannar to Batticaloa to store essential items required by the community, due to the limitations and uncertainty of transport, as a result of the two wars going on in the North and South of the country.

Further during my time as Secretary to the Treasury, I had experience with paddy purchase issues, which caused public concern. This was probably why I was invited to the meeting, at which there were a number of other invitees present, in addition to the Cabinet-appointed Committee.

At the Committee meeting, a number of locations where the possibility of stores space being available, were mentioned. One participant referred to cargo warehouses at Mattala airport. I then called Sri Lankan Airlines Chairman Ajith Dias and asked him whether there was any cargo space available, since I knew him personally, explaining that there was a paddy storage crisis and that a Cabinet-appointed Committee was looking into solutions.

On 6 August 2015 Dias replied saying that 8,000 sq. m. stores was available at Mattala airport, giving the Sri Lankan Airlines Head of Cargo as the contact person.

This letter was referred to the Secretary of the Committee, the Director General of the Department of Public Finance of the Treasury, who informed the Paddy Marketing Board. The Paddy Marketing Board and the Airports and Aviation Authority entered into a contractual arrangement to rent the stores, and paddy was stored at the warehouse.

When the evidence of the Chairman of Sri Lanka Airlines was led at the Commission, I am told that much was made of the fact that his letter of 6 August referred to me as ‘Dear Charitha’ and went on to say that he was ‘pleased ‘ to inform  of the availability of space at Mattala airport. 

The Commission has to inquire into ‘fraud corruption’. (dooshana wancha in Sinhala).

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘fraud’ as the crime of cheating in order to get money or goods illegally.

In the same Dictionary, ‘corruption’ is defined as-dishonest or illegal behaviour, especially of people in authority.

The hybrid word ‘fraud corruption’ would, I venture to suggest, mean ‘cheating by people in authority to get money’ . No Dictionary defines the hybrid.

The Commission seemed to suggest, during the examination of witnesses, that a letter from a friend, addressed to  ‘Dear ………’ , saying that the author is ‘pleased’ to inform that critically required store space is available, by a person in authority to an Adviser, amounts to fraud corruption.

Let us wait on the final report to solve this conundrum.

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