A fiery, forthright Sri Lankan opposition legislator on Monday called for civil society protests against a draconian Bill allowing the government to take over a list of specified, state and private enterprises on the grounds of ‘under-performing’ or ‘under-utilised’.
“The State has crossed the line with this Bill. Who is to say that tomorrow the State can’t bring in a Bill to take over your house and mine? Just like they are doing with the poor man’s dwelling with no respect for the law? I think the time has come for every citizen to stand up and say this cannot be done. This is a fundamental violation of our rights,” noted UNP Parliamentarian and consultant economist Dr Harsha de Silva, responding to a call by civil society activist Chandra Jayaratne for public comments on the issue.
Last week, the government sought the opinion of the Supreme Court on the proposed law as an ‘urgent bill’ triggering speculation that it was to take over unused plantation lands owned or managed by the private sector, among other assets. The bill was not available to the public but one Sunday newspaper reported the contents of the bill which lists 37 companies including private ones. The paper named the underperforming enterprise as Hotel Developers (Lanka) PLC, the owning company of Colombo Hilton while the underutilized assets are Charmers Granaries; the Badulla properties of Colombo Commercial Company; the Pettah and Narahenpita properties of Lanka Tractors Ltd; land belonging to Pelwatte Sugar Industries Ltd; and land owned by Sevanagala Sugar Industries Ltd.
Dr de Silva said, “it is unbelievable that the State could act in this way. This is no different from the (Uganda’s Robert) Mugabe administration. We are slowly but surely losing our economic freedom in the land that is supposed to be free.”
He said there is no objective criteria given in the bill; only some subjective and opaque ‘nonsense’ written up including ‘prejudicial to the national economy’. “No way for owners to prove their assets have performed to the maximum; given the various conditions (local, global, political etc.). No fair hearing.”
Referring to a recent newspaper report (in the Business Times), he said how can Chalmers Granaries perform when the lease holder had not been given the property for some 17 years?
He raised the issue of how (powerful businessman) Harry Jayawardene’s Pelwatte Sugar, a listed company showing increasing profitability and good signs of turning around and Daya and Anoma Gamage’s (UNP politicians who have done a pretty good job in alleviating poverty in the East through their many private enterprises) Sevenagala Sugar Co, who say that the utter loss making operation has now become the most profitable sugar company with thousands of jobs created, have been identified to be taken over, while Hingurana Sugar now owned by Browns (LOLC, Ajith Devasurendra and Kapila Jayawardene) which was closed down for some 16 years and continue to be in trouble has been spared. “What is the logic,” he asked.
He said he would be raising this issue in Parliament when it resumes on November
8 but called for a citizens/civil society agitation against the bill.