- Govt. bills Port City as much-needed catalyst to boost growth
- Venture needed now given pandemic impact and debt to GDP hitting 98%, says State Minister
- Contends legal framework will make SL globally competitive, unblock red tape and attract FDIs
- Insists President, Cabinet and Parliament will have sufficient oversight
- Confident SC will find Bill not in contravention of Constitution
- Dismisses concerns of Chinese involvement as unfounded and misleading
- Says Port City will attract investment from around the world
By Uditha Jayasinghe
State Minister of Money, Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal – Pic by Lasantha Kumara
The Government yesterday backed proposed legislation for the Port City Commission as a “turning point” for the overall economy and insisted sufficient safeguards have been built into the Bill to protect Sri Lankan interests and ensure compliance under local laws.
State Minister of Money, Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal told reporters that concerns expressed by Government supporters that the Port City would become a “Chinese colony” were unfounded and misleading.
Breaking down the 76- page gazetted Port City Commission Bill, which has had over two dozen petitions filed against it in the Supreme Court this week, he contended that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had wide ranging powers to ensure its functions safeguarded national interests. These powers included the appointment or removal of Commission members, overseeing all its decisions and presenting to Cabinet investment approvals.
Cabraal pointed out that President Rajapaksa’s powers gave oversight of any tax concessions, licences, investment approvals or regulatory decisions, which would be done with the concurrence of regulators, such as the Central Bank or the Auditor General. He also emphasised that such decisions would be gazetted, with the documents presented to Parliament within a period of three months, or they would become defunct.
The State Minister also outlined the economic necessity of the Port City, pointing out that with Sri Lanka’s debt-to-GDP ratio climbing to a dizzying 98%, high debt repayments pending over the next few years, persistently low economic growth and challenges in attracting foreign investment, the Government needed the Port City as a catalyst to jump-start an economic renaissance.
He also maintained that since Sri Lanka had dropped down the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, landing at the 99th position and slipping behind India, Bhutan and Nepal in the South Asian region, it was necessary to have wide-ranging powers under the Port City Commission so a competitive advantage could be presented to political investors.
“We do not believe that this Bill is in contravention of the Sri Lankan Constitution and I’m confident the Supreme Court will see that as well. The Port City is a key investment that has been many years in the making and due process has been followed at every point. This project is essential to boost growth by attracting foreign investment, creating new jobs and knowledge transfers. We need to show investors that we can provide a one-stop-shop that will also protect their investments. This is the way similar projects are rolled out in other parts of the world,” he said.
Under the Bill, seven key acts will not have powers over the Port City. These include the Urban Development Authority Act No. 41 of 1978, the Municipal Council Ordinance (Chapter 252), the Commercial Mediation Centre of Sri Lanka Act No. 44 of 2000, the Town and Country Planning Ordinance (Chapter 269), the Strategic Development Projects Act No. 14 of 2008, Public Contracts Act No. 3 of 1987, and the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka Law No. 4 of 1978.
However, the State Minister insisted this was not cause for alarm as the Port City Commission will be entrusted with those powers. He also pointed out that the Commission will be audited by an international auditing firm that will be selected with support from the Auditor General. Cabraal also went on to say that the Government would not limit its reforms to the Port City Commission and would take steps to expand the reforms across the larger Sri Lankan legal framework.
“The Port City is an urgent need for this country. It is needed now, not four years from now; but larger economic, investment and legal reforms will take place parallel to the Port City legislation. Even though the Port City Commission can ask for courts to prioritise cases related to their investors and carry out arbitration activities, we will continue to strengthen the support for the overall legal system in the country. The Police will oversee security-related matters in the Port City. There will not be a different system in place.”
Cabraal reiterated that the Government was open to seeking investment from all countries, and his view was shared by the Chinese company investing in the Port City.
“Even during my recent visit to Oman and Qatar, I invited them to invest in the amazing opportunities available at the Port City. The Chinese company has asked the Government to be a part of road shows to capitals around the world to showcase the Port City. So, this is not just about Chinese investment but welcoming all countries to be a part of Sri Lanka’s growth story.”