In spite of the Finance Ministry decision to withdraw an earlier Cabinet paper for the import of 399 vehicles at a cost of Rs 3.7 bn, the cash-strapped government was not in a position to unilaterally cancel what Media Minister and co-Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella called a tripartite transaction.
Minister Rambukwella said so in response to Hiru presenter Chamuditha Samarawickrema’s last query on the live ‘Salakuna’ TV programme around midnight on Monday (7)
Minister Rambukwella admitted that as Letters of Credit had been opened through a State Banks the cancellation would be an issue that couldn’t be addressed unilaterally. Samarawickrema-led ‘Salakuna’ panel asked why luxury vehicles were being brought amidst an extremely difficult situation.
Of the 399 vehicles, 225 were for members of Parliament, made up of SLPP 145, SJB 54, TNA 19, JJB 3, AITC 2, EPDP 2, UNP 1, SLFP 1 and OPPP, TMVP, MNA, TMTK, ACMC, NC and SLMC one each. Among the beneficiaries is the sole UNP National List member though yet to take oaths as an MP. Former Minister and UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena recently told The Island that party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would fill the National List slot.
learns that the original cabinet paper for the leasing of 227 brand new Toyota Land Cruisers, 17 brand new Toyota Hilux 4WD double cabs, 1 brand new Toyota Land Cruiser V8, 52 brand new Hino cab Intercooler Turbo, 51 brand new Toyota Hilux 4 WD double cabs with intercooler, one brand new Toyota Hilux 4 WD with intercooler and 50 brand new Toyota high-roof ambulances. Payments were to be made in both USD and Japanese Yen.
The Prime Minister’s Office in a statement issued in the last week of May stated that the previous cabinet paper had been withdrawn as the financial situation was not conducive to import vehicles.
Asked by ‘Salakuna’ panel why 227 brand new Toyota Land Cruiser Prado had been imported for 225 members, Minister Rambukwella denied any knowledge of the recipients. The minister also said that he was not aware for whom the V8 had been ordered.
In spite of the government directive issued in the wake of rapid deterioration of foreign reserves amidst the first Covid-19 outbreak, over 300 expensive vehicles were imported by permit holders, the Customs told The Island. Inquiries revealed that Letters of Credit had been opened by banks regardless of the government directive and vehicles subsequently released.
The Island yesterday (8) sought an explanation from Minister Rambukwella regarding the status of the high profile leasing arrangement pertaining to 399 vehicles. Minister Rambukwella said that he was not aware of how the state bank that had opened the Letters of Credit handled the issue at hand. However, as the opening of Letters of Credit meant guaranteed payment, Sri Lanka faced the prospect of being blacklisted if a unilateral decision was taken on the matter. The minister explained the difficulty in reversing the original decision.
None of the Opposition political parties have criticized the government move on vehicles made at a time the country was struggling to cope with Covid-19 fallout.
SLPP’s 2019 presidential election manifesto, too, assured that vehicles wouldn’t be imported for members of parliament for a period of three years
After the change of government in 2019, the SLPP put in place a much touted project to expedite repairs to state-owned vehicles as part of the overall measures to meet what co-cabinet spokesmen Ministers Rambukwella, Udaya Gammanpila and Dr. Ramesh Pathirana called immediate shortfall.
Colombo District SJB lawmaker Dr. Harsha de Silva recently said that the move to order vehicles for lawmakers hadn’t been discussed with his party. The former non-cabinet minister was responding to The Island query whether he was aware of leasing arrangements being made for the vehicles.
During ‘Salakuna’ it transpired that vehicles had been ordered from Singapore based enterprise not the mother company in Japan.
By Shamindra Ferdinando