Thursday, 24 April 2014 00:29
UNP MPs to protest outside Packer’s proposed project ahead of ‘casino bill’ presentation in Parliament today
Insists no fear of repercussions, dares Govt. to take them on
Outlines injustice faced by people removed from homes as part of Colombo beautification
By Uditha Jayasinghe
Undeterred by the recent incident in Hambantota, the Opposition will today stage a protest outside the proposed building site of gaming mogul James Packer’s $ 350 million casino, UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva said, as Parliament prepares to push through legislation delayed since last year.
The three projects are a $ 350 million casino project by Australian casino mogul James Packer, a $ 300 million gaming facility by local tycoon Dhammika Perera called Queensbury and the largest venture of $ 650 by local conglomerate John Keells Holdings (JKH) that will also have a casino.
The Government has already twice rolled back attempts to push through legislation in Parliament that will make casinos legal.
However, strong protests from the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and Buddhist hardline group Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which is part of the ruling coalition, have stalled the attempts.
The Government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa holds a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the latest presentation of the projects on Thursday is expected to have a high chance of success.
Last year following protests the Government removed the word ‘casino’ from the draft bill and inserted the phrase ‘mixed development projects,’ which the UNP claims is just a euphemism for casinos.
The Government had previously stated existing casino licenses could be transferred to the three projects and Opposition politicians have charged that loopholes exist in the regulations to establish casinos at a later date.
Packer’s casino in particular has been severely censured by the UNP for being given sweeping tax concessions for 12 years. The Australian Financial Review has estimated that the tax holiday will add up to as much as $ 1 billion.
“This is a Government that sees no shame in taxing essential goods and recently decided to slap VAT on food sold by small retail establishments. But they give 12-year tax holidays to casinos. Now they are saying a 5% new tax will be imposed but still the Government is attempting to bring in unregulated casinos,” he said.
The UNP has also slammed the Government for not establishing a competent monitoring system for casinos and alleged that public concerns were being ignored.
“UNP MPs will be present at James Packer’s casino site before Parliament begins to protest (the bill) and we will not be scared away by gun-toting local politicians nor by the Police or the military. They can try what they wish, what they like, but we shall certainly be there,” Dr. Harsha De Silva told reporters.
Dr. de Silva also criticised the recent Hambantota attack on UNP MPs terming it as State terrorism. He insisted that the UNP would not be scared off and “jackbooted” into silence.
The UNP has also proposed three amendments to the Bills that are to be taken up in Parliament on Wednesday banning casinos or prostitution from ever being carried out at these three projects.
“Look, there is no debate on the casino because according to the Government these three gazettes have no casinos in them. There are no casinos; therefore this debate cannot be about casinos. So all we are saying is if there are no casinos, we reiterate that if there are no casinos, accept the amendments put forward by the UNP.”
Pointing out another instance of what he termed as State terrorism, Dr. de Silva alleged that there were significant shortfalls in the compensation and new houses given to people who lost their houses to the Colombo beautification drive carried out by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) under Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Quoting a report titled ‘The ugly price of beautification’ released by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Dr. de Silva explained there are huge discrepancies between UDA practices and those carried out by funding from the World Bank by the UDA.
“There are strict policies governing removal of residents when the World Bank is involved. Families do not have to pay a cent for new houses and if they have deeds they are given additional compensation. The procedure is very clear that resettlement must be done within three to four km from the previous home so that children will not have their schooling disrupted, etc.”
However, Dr. de Silva went on to say that when families are removed from the UDA, they have to pay Rs. 1 million for an apartment that is poorly constructed while those removed in World Bank projects can move into the same building for free. They are also given no compensation.
“The World Bank values these 400 square-foot apartments at Rs. 2.5 million while the UDA says they cost Rs. 7 million. How can this be? Also these apartments are poorly constructed and in some one can’t even keep heavy items like fridges,” he charged.
During former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time an involuntary resettlement policy was introduced but Dr. de Silva accused the Government of disregarding it. Residents along many roads in Kotahena such as St. Benedict’s Mw, Wasala Road, Mayfield Road, Good Sheppard Convent and St. Lucia’s were forced to leave their homes due to sudden road expansions.
“Most of these people are Christians and they aren’t offered any compensation.”
All this land will likely be given to private companies, Dr. de Silva said, contrary to policies espoused in the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’.
Harsha’s talk at Ceylon Chamber forum politically axed?
UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva yesterday alleged that a lecture he was scheduled to deliver was cancelled due to Government pressure.
Criticising what he termed as “economic repression” Dr. de Silva told reporters his speech at the Sri Lanka-Italy seminar by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce was cancelled due to political reasons.