(The glass top of the fish tank at the Independence Arcade has cost Rs. 30 million)
by Nirmala Kannangara.
It has now been revealed how the Urban Development Authority (UDA), which came under the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development during the previous regime, spent a staggering Rs. 4.1 billion on promotional events allegedly on the verbal instructions of the then Secretary of Defence and Urban Development, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Amongst the events this money was spent on were opening ceremonies, advertising campaigns, entertainment, musical shows, event management, refreshments, name boards, plaques, hoardings, photographs, invitations and car passes among others.
According to the UDA, this money was spent between the latter part of 2013 and the end of 2014, and all contracts had been offered to known parties without following government procurement guidelines.
Had the UDA saved this money, it could have been used to build 4,868 houses for the homeless, similar to those built under the model village concept of Housing and Construction Minister Sajith Premadasa. Since each unit costs Rs. 300,000, the Rajapaksa regime could have provided shelter at least to 15,000 people of this country instead of spending the money on promoting the then first family.
This newspaper is in possession of a detailed report of how these expenses were incurred, and according to the details, the UDA had spent Rs. 21.351 million on an advertising campaign on the failed floating market project in Bastian Mawatha, Pettah and on entertainment at its opening ceremony in August 2014.
“What was there to advertise about the floating market? Although the then government boasted that it would attract foreigners and that local vendors would be able to sell their products to foreign tourists, no foreigners ever visited the floating market nor did locals visit the market. There were about 100 stalls and most of which are now shut. To spend such a large amount of public money on an opening ceremony clearly shows how desperate the former regime was to boost their crumbling image amongst the general public,” highly reliable UDA sources said on condition of anonymity.
Plaques at high cost
Meanwhile startling revelations have come to light that Rs. 16.793 million had been spent on the supply and installation of six plaques at six separate housing schemes built for ‘un-deserving’ communities; Lakmuthu Sevana in Wellawatte, Laksanda Sevana in Kolonnawa, Sirisara Uyana in Borella, Randiya Uyana in Mattakkuliya, Methsara Uyana in Borella, and Sirimuthu Uyana in Thotalanga, Colombo 14 under the Urban Re-generation Project (URP) programme.
“These six plaques could have been purchased for less than Rs. 2 million, but spending a little over Rs. 2.798 million per plaque shows how much wheeler-dealing had taken place and commissions made out of these unsolicited contracts. When one of our officers contacted the person who supplied these plaques, he said that he was asked to supply a plaque for the price he had estimated although its real cost was less than one fourth of the quoted price. If the actual prices were so low, then where did the remaining money go? Had the quotations been called for to supply plaques as per government regulations, the bidders would have quoted low prices. That would have prevented interested parties from getting their hands on the commissions they were seeking. That was why government procurement guidelines had not been followed but were offered to certain interested parties on the verbal instructions of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa,” the sources alleged.
Meanwhile the UDA had spent Rs. 14.142 million on the opening ceremony of the renovated former Auditor General’s Department building in Colombo 7 while spending yet another Rs. 15.909 million as food allowances which is an utter waste according to the UDA sources.
“If this money was spent on something useful for the future, it doesn’t matter spending public money, but unnecessary spending to please a few VVIPs and to show the people that they were doing ‘development’ cannot be accepted. When families are battling to have three square meals per day due to poverty, why didn’t the then rulers think of using billions of rupees of taxpayers’ money to provide relief to the down-trodden?” the sources claimed.
Over Rs. 9 million had been spent on the advertising campaign for the opening of the Galle Fort ‘Dutch Hospital’ which is an exclusive modern shopping complex while Rs. 525,000 had been spent on the supply and installation of a granite plaque for the opening ceremony in August 2014. Although there are many hotels in Galle that could have provided refreshments for the invitees, the UDA had ordered the refreshments all the way from Water’s Edge in Battaramulla which cost the UDA Rs. 2.299 million.
Colombo Gold Centre
They had spent Rs. 9.993 million to advertise the opening ceremony of the former fish market in Pettah which was renovated and converted to the Colombo Gold Centre. Although the UDA had an event management division, an event manager had been appointed for the Colombo Gold Centre opening ceremony at a cost of Rs. 7.686 million. Meanwhile, a high-ranking UDA officer who wished to remain anonymous, told The Sunday Leader that they were forced to carry out the instructions of the then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
“We were neither able to question why such directions were given nor able to follow procurement guidelines and offer the contracts,” the sources added.
The sources further explained that under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa there was no room for any permanent officers to follow government rules and regulations as such decisions were thoroughly scrutinised by the former management on the advice of the ministry secretary.
“It was the ministry secretary that gave orders which we had to carry out knowing that it is us that would fall into trouble. Politicians and their appointees can violate any government rule, but once they are no more in power, it is the permanent employees who carried out illegal instructions that have to face the consequences. A ministry secretary is liable for any misdeed, but Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was not a government servant. He was brought as a ministry secretary by his brother, so he was not worried about violating government rules,” the sources alleged.
The UDA had spent Rs. 937,500 to put up name boards for Muwadora Uyana, Mattakkuliya; Sirimuthu Uyana, Thotalanga, Colombo 14, and Randiya Uyana, Mattakkuliya housing projects which were carried out under the Urban Re-generation Project. Hence the UDA had spent Rs. 312,500 for each, while event management had charged for Randiya Uyana housing scheme Rs. 10.046 million.
The musical show held at its opening ceremony had cost the UDA Rs. 1.827 million. In addition, a further Rs. 577,768 had been spent on entertainment at the opening ceremony and another Rs. 455,600 had spent on printing invitations for the Randiya Uyana opening ceremony. The total expenditure for the Randiya Uyana opening ceremony had been a staggering Rs. 15.966 million including the charges for the granite plaque which cost Rs. 2.798 million.
In addition to the Sirimuthu Uyana opening plaque which cost Rs. 2.798 million, in order to print invitations, envelopes, vehicle passes and posters, it had cost further Rs. 755,600 while the cost borne by the UDA for the event management for Sirimuthu Uyana was Rs. 9.23 million. The total expenditure for the Sirimuthu Uyana opening ceremony had been Rs. 12.787 million.
According to the report, for the name boards of Lakmuthu Sevana, Wellawatte; Sirisandha Sevana, Bloemendhal, Colombo, and Methsara Uyana, Borella, the UDA had spent Rs. 1.38 million which is Rs. 460,000 per name board. For Sirisanda Sevana and Lakmuthu Sevana event management Rs. 4.833 million and Rs. 4.968 million had been spent respectively. For Sirisara Uyana, Borella and Laksanda Sevana, Kolonnawa event management Rs. 8.602 million and Rs. 8.610 million had been spent respectively. Further, Rs. 850,000 had been spent on erecting two hoardings at Laksanda Sevana housing project and another Rs. 594,875 had been spent to print invitations and envelopes, vehicle passes and posters for the Laksanda Sevana opening ceremony.
Although the report states that under the Urban Re-generation Project another Rs. 2.5 million had been spent on printing and framing 5000 photographs, it is not clear as to which project this money had been spent on. It is also learnt that the money spent on the opening ceremony of the Independence Arcade, Colombo 7 too includes this staggering Rs. 4.1 billion. In the weeks to come, this newspaper plans to expose full details of the Independence Arcade opening ceremony expenses on refreshments, invitations, event management, entertainment, advertising campaign, and plaques.
Chairman UDA, Ranjith Fernando said that he cannot exactly remember how much the previous management had spent on all promotional events but confirmed that it is an utter wastage of public money as they were huge figures.
“Since I am not in office I do not have all the figures but they have freely spent public money. The glass top of the fish tank at the Independence Arcade also has cost Rs. 30 million and there are more than 200 fish in it. Each fish has been bought for Rs. 65, 000,” Fernando said.
When asked whether all these payments had been made during the previous regime, Fernando said that some had been settled and some were not. “The payments that had not been paid are yet to be settled. Without calling quotations, the contracts had been given to a few parties,” Fernando claimed.