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Cabinet approves borrowing of Rs. 31.7bn to kick start first stage of Central Expressway

The Sunday Times: The Highways Ministry and the Road Development Authority (RDA) have received Cabinet approval to borrow more than Rs 31.7bn from foreign or domestic sources to kick start the stalled construction of the first section of Central Expressway (CEP I).

Amidst the curfew, there are also negotiations—sanctioned by the Cabinet—with handpicked parties canvassing for the third and fourth sections of the same expressway (CEP III and IV), the Ruwanpura Expressway from Kahathuduwa to Pelmadulla (via Ratnapura) and the Eastern Expressway from Mattala to Pottuvil.

Only selected Ministry and RDA officials are privy to the details or even know such discussions are ongoing. The hundreds of kilometres of new roadways will require heavy borrowing, both local and foreign. The majority of projects will be Chinese-funded, according to the relevant Cabinet paper which the Sunday Times obtained.

While the relevant Cabinet memo and approval say expressions of interest (EOIs) will be called for CEP III and the second section of the Ruwanpura Expressway, authoritative internal sources said this was “just window dressing”. The parties have already been identified.

Any projects that do go through the pipeline now will be based on feasibility studies that are either outdated or will be carried out at a time of global unpredictability when even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is forecasting the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Rs 31.7bn to be raised for CEP I—from Kadawatha to Mirigama—is the mobilisation advance, without which that phase has been stuck. In 2015 and 2016, two contracts were awarded for this section to the M/s Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) Ltd. The agreement for a loan of more than US$ 990mn was signed with the Exim Bank of China in March last year. But the project was stalled as the Government could not raise the mobilisation funds.

The second section, CEP II—from Mirigama to Kurunegala—is being built by four local construction consortiums comprising 15 companies. It is funded through the national budget and several local banks. Around 80 percent of physical progress has been completed at the cost of Rs 96.6bn.

However, a further Rs 40bn is required to complete the project by August this year. The RDA, in consultation with the Finance Ministry, is now looking to raise funds through bonds or debentures. And Cabinet approval has been granted to approach local banks to bridge any deficit.

The third section, CEP III—from Pothuhera to Galagedara—was awarded to Japan’s M/s Taisei Corporation Ltd in 2018 on the understanding that Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFJ) of Japan would lend 100bn Yen for it.

Talks between MUFJ, Nippon Investment and Export Insurance (NEXI) and the Sri Lanka Government started in 2015 but remained inconclusive as the Attorney General’s (AG) Department in Colombo and the Finance Ministry’s External Resources Department (ERD) could not agree to certain clauses of the proposed agreement. For example, the AG did not clear the anti-corruption provisions, saying they were not compatible with Sri Lankan laws.

With its complicated terrain and land acquisition requirements, the 32.5 kilometre CEP III is tipped to be one of the most expensive road initiatives undertaken in recent times. More than 1,162.5 acres occupied by 2,069 households (8,465 people) in 97 villages will be hit, requiring permanent relocation for 857 of them.

Now, four other parties have shown interest. They are Roughton International Ltd, a consultancy firm registered in the UK but now owned by a Sri Lankan named Ranjith Gunaratne, the Managing Director of MG Consultants Pvt Ltd; M/s China Chemical Engineering Second Construction Corporation (CCESCC); M/S China National Aero Technology (AVID-ENG); and M/s Beijing Urban Construction Group Co Ltd (BUCG).

But Roughton has since “agreed” to shift its interest to CEP IV instead of III, official sources said, indicating that deals were being struck behind the scenes. The Cabinet paper also said, “But later they offered this facility for Section 4 instead of Section 3.”

Meanwhile, neither CCESCC or BUCG has submitted assurance of financing or term sheets. This leaves just CATIC or AVIC-ENG in the running and, the sources pointed out, “It smacks of a fix.”

Cabinet has now granted approval to cancel the agreements with Taisei and the financial negotiations with MUFJ/NEXI. It has authorised the Highways Ministry to call for EOIs from all prospective contractors with 100 percent financing for the total contract price of CEP III.

But no EOIs have yet been called for and internal sources said talks are ongoing with CATIC/AVIC-ENG. Local contractors also expressed fear that conditions will be tailored into a bid—should it be floated—to ensure that only a specific party will qualify.

The fourth section—from Kurunegala to Dambulla—was awarded in 2016 to China’s Gazhouba Group International Engineering Co Ltd for a cost of Rs 161bn (excluding VAT). But there was no funding source.

Roughton International has submitted a preliminary proposal, pledging funding from UK Export Finance. “They propose to entrust the entire construction works to local construction companies,” the Cabinet paper says.

Additionally, CCESCC and CATIC (AVIC-ENG) submitted proposals but without financing or term sheets. The Cabinet has, therefore, agreed to the ERD evaluating Roughton’s financial terms on the grounds that the Highways Ministry requests a detailed technical proposal from the company and evaluates it through a Cabinet Appointed Negotiation Committee and a Technical Evaluation Committee.

The Ruwanpura Expressway is currently divided into three sections. The Highways Ministry has proposed to start construction of the 52.5km from Kahathuduwa to Ratnapura via Ingiriya and the remainder based on funding availability.

In 2016, the Cabinet split the Ruwanpura Expressway into four and chose one Chinese party for each leg: China National Technical Import and Export Corporation (CNTIC); CATIC-ENG; Hunan Construction Engineering Group Corporation (HCEGC); and China Harbour Engineering Company Ltc (CHEC). But a request for proposal was only invited from CNTIC, not for the other sections.

The Cabinet has now given approval for the Highways Ministry to request M/s CNTIC to 100 percent financing for the cost of Ruwanpura Section I; authorised the ERD to pursue funding for Section II; and sanctioned the Highways Ministry to invite competitive EOIs from all prospective contractors for 100 percent financing for the total price of Section II.

In terms of the Eastern Expressway (Mattala to Pottuvil), the ERD has been authorised by the Cabinet to pursue funding for feasibility study, preliminary and detailed designs, and construction, in consultation with the National Planning Department.

Attempts to contact Highways Minister Johnston Fernando and Highways Ministry Secretary R W R Pemasiri failed.

(Source: Namini Wijedasa - Sunday Times)
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Tax Department directives on 'PAYE' push employees in quandary      

Several directives issued by the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) between January and April 2020, with regard to income tax – some of which have created utter confusion.

The confusion has arisen after the government announced suspending the PAYE (Pay-as-you-Earn) tax in January, at the same time raising the taxable limit where taxable employees have to file their own returns.

Then the IRD has  introduced a new tax structure in April called Advance Personal Income Tax (APIT) in which taxes can be deducted from the salary by the employer, or file their own returns.

To add to the chaos, while APIT is applicable from April 1 onwards, the IRD then directed that PAYE should be deducted from all from January to March – three months – at the old rates in one go and deducted in the May salary, which means that PAYE has been re-imposed contrary to the January decision suspending it.

In a public notice issued on February 5, 2020, the IRD Commissioner General (CGIR) instructed employers not to withhold income tax (PAYE) from employment income under Section 83 of the Inland Revenue Act, with effect from January 1, 2020.

Following this notification, PAYE has not been deducted from employment income for the period January to March,

At the same time, a directive was issued increasing the taxable threshold for all public and private sector employees to Rs. 250,000 from Rs. 100,000 per month (earlier), at progressive rates of 6 and 12 per cent for every tax slab of Rs. 250,000 and the balance at 18 per cent

However, this position has been changed as per the public notice issued by the CGIR on April 15 requesting respective employers to once again deduct PAYE tax from employees for the period from January to March, in one go – as this tax had not been deducted for these three months under the earlier direction.

At the same time, a new tax – the Advance Personal Income Tax (APIT) – was introduced replacing PAYE with effect from April in which deductions can be made from the employees’ salary on the earlier announced taxable level of Rs.2 50,000 and above. Employees were given the option of requesting their employers to deduct the tax from their salary or file their own returns.

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Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 infections rise to 708

Sri Lanka’s coronavirus infections rose to 708 on Sunday, after three people tested positive for the virus, the health ministry said.

Official figures show that 184 people have recovered while seven have died since the virus started spreading on March 11.

The lowest number of cases in a single day this week was recorded on Sunday, after a record 65 infections were reported on Monday.

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Opposition parties appeal to President to reconvene Parliament

The majority of Sri Lanka’s opposition leaders including the former prime minister have urged the president to reconvene the dissolved parliament in order to extend their support in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic that is experiencing a surge in new cases.

In a joint statement on 27 Monday, Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB), R Sampanthan (TNA), Rauf Hakeem (SLMC), Mano Ganesan (TPA) and Patali Champika Ranawaka (JHU) cautioned president Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the government has been unable to keep the virus under control.

The appeal to the president comes at a time the number of affected patients passed the 500 mark. Almost a third of them are navy officers.

"Regrettably, the optimism that prevailed in our country until a few days ago that the spread of the virus could be managed is now receding,” said the statement by the opposition, which offers “without any strings and only in the best interests of the country and our people."
The party leaders asserted that they will draw no salary and will not defeat or thwart the government’s legitimate actions during this critical time

Full text of the joint statement is found below.

1. Against the backdrop of a public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the steps taken by governments to control it, a range of new challenges have emerged in Sri Lanka as well. Regrettably, the optimism that prevailed in our country until a few days ago that the spread of the virus could be managed is now receding. If further spreading of the pandemic is not decisively halted in the coming few weeks, the country will face the risk of the prevailing public health crisis being compounded by crisis situations in the economic, social, and political spheres too.

2. We are concerned that several hundreds have been infected; several thousands have lost their livelihood. Frontline health workers are putting their best efforts to protect us all risking their own safety. Their efforts should not go in vain because of our political decisions.

3. The political situation is specifically in a state of uncertainty due to the dissolution of Parliament and the absence of conditions conducive to hold parliamentary elections as stipulated. There is also no assurance that the elections could now be held on 20th June. The new date was determined by the Election Commission only a few days ago. The Commission has already indicated that this will have to be reviewed against the evolving public health situation in the country.

4. We can reasonably assume that no suitable environment is likely to prevail in the next two months to conduct a free and fair election. Similarly, we do not think the people of our country should be exposed to the unnecessary danger of a public health hazard by holding an election anytime soon. Sri Lankan people have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to the democratic process by actively participating in election campaigns and also turning out in large numbers for voting. A free and fair poll also entails a proper campaign, which would invariably heighten the risk of the virus spreading countrywide. We are acutely aware of the exponential rise in infections last week.

5. Our country, like any democracy, is governed by three institutions with distinct and separate powers, viz, the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. All three of these organs are vital, and must be active for Rule of Law to prevail. Their functioning is more important now than at any other time – when we face an unprecedented challenge. But this crisis is taking place at a time when Parliament has been made inactive. Meanwhile, the President has also refrained from exercising the discretion to summon Parliament under Article 70 (7) of the Constitution. In view of the necessity to repeatedly postpone the Election, there is now a risk that Parliament would remain inactive for much longer.

6. It is our genuine belief that re-summoning the dissolved Parliament and through it securing the cooperation of political parties and MPs represented in the dissolved parliament would greatly contribute to the resolving of a number of urgent governance issues that have emerged amidst the crisis. Getting appropriate and new legislation passed in order to meet the public health crisis and obtaining parliamentary sanction to the utilization of monies from the Consolidated Fund are some such important and urgent functions of Parliament.

7. We are faced with an unprecedented national crisis which shows no signs of an early ending. As members of the dissolved Parliament, we are duty bound to fulfill our obligations to resolve this crisis in a spirit of responsible cooperation extended to the President. We also emphasize that all political parties and political leaders across the political divide have before them the challenge of transcending partisan agendas and working together for the common good of the people and the country amidst an unprecedented crisis.

8. We are prepared to lend our support to the government in Parliament to achieve the above so that the governance of the country can proceed properly and lawfully, in compliance with the Constitution. We assure the people of our country that we will not draw salaries nor attempt to defeat the government nor thwart any of the legitimate actions of the government during this period. Our good faith has already been demonstrated by the fact that we have cooperated fully with the government in maintaining the “curfew”, although the same has not been imposed legally.

9. In these circumstances we urge His Excellency the President to respond positively to this offer of responsible cooperation by us at this critical time, and revoke the proclamation dated 2nd March 2020 dissolving Parliament so that all of us can jointly fight to eradicate this virus, and also ensure that everything is done lawfully and in compliance with the Constitution. The President can thereafter dissolve Parliament whenever the situation becomes conducive to conduct the Election.

10. In the alternative, His Excellency should at least exercise his powers under Article 70(7) of the Constitution and summon the dissolved Parliament; and His Excellency and indeed the whole country can count on our utmost sincerity and responsible cooperation, which is being offered without any strings and only in the best interests of the country and our people.

JS 1

JS 2

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Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa summons all former MPs to Temple Trees

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has summoned all 225 members of the former parliament on Monday (04) to Temple Trees, sources from the Prime Minister's Office said.

Sources further said that the Prime Minister is engaged in discussions with the other party leaders who represented the former parliament.

The Premier's decision to summon all former parliamentarians comes in the wake of opposition parties urging the President to reconvene parliament so that the country could resolve any issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in a constitutional manner.  

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to get the views of the former members of the House regarding the current situation in the country at this meeting.

However, the president and the caretaker government have firmly decided not to reconvene the parliament.

The five year term of the previous parliament was slated to end on 01 September 2020.

However, completely ignoring the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic throughout the world, the President using the powers vested upon him as per the constitution, dissolved the Parliament by a gazette notification on 02 March 2020.

Basil keeps forging ahead after taking obstacles as challenges

Meanwhile, Prof. Ranjith Bandara said that former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the founder of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), who is also in charge of the Presidential Task Force for Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication, is moving forward showing strong leadership qualities.

He made this observation on a note posted on his Facebook page. 

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India gifts a consignment of medical gloves

In continuation of ongoing assistance from the Government of India to fight against the COVID19 Pandemic, today the High Commission handed over one consignment of medical gloves to Sri Lanka. The Indian High Commission stated that earlier on 7 & 8 April 2020, India had gifted about 13 tonnes consignment of essential life-saving medicines to Sri Lanka.

During the SAARC Leaders’ Video Conference on 15 March 2020, it was conveyed that India would offer online training capsules for the emergency response teams of the neighboring countries to assist them in their efforts in dealing with the COVID-19.

 Accordingly, the Ministry of External Affairs of India is conducting e-ITEC short training live webinars for healthcare professionals on COVID Management Strategies and related aspects. The first such webinar “COVID-19 Pandemic: Prevention and Management Guidelines for Health Care Professional” was successfully organized at All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, Raipur from 17-21 April, 2020, where 11 Medical Officers of the Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka participated.
The second  online ITEC course named "Managing Covid-19 Pandemic: Experience and Best Practices of India" is being conducted by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh from 27th April to 1st May 2020, and more such courses will be organized in coming days, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said.
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Doubts on whether Police officers who searched for Suduwella drug addict have contracted COVID-19

A group of police officers who worked together with the Navy to capture the drug addict in the Suduwella area in Ja-Ela have been sent to quarantine.

This was disclosed by senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon on Neth FM's Unlimited programme yesterday (28).

Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police for Western Province Deshabandu Tennakoon said, "On March 26, leave for all police officers was canceled. That was to avoid the risk of officers going on vacation to their homes with the virus. We had only allowed one officer to inspect the public. He was in yellow coloured protective gear. Furthermore, we have provided protective suits, face masks and hand sanitizers to officers at police check points."

Ja-Ela drug addict responsible for putting the country in jeopardy

Meanwhile, senior DIG Ajith Rohana said that it was the drug addict from Ja-Ela who had contracted the coronavirus that had placed the entire country in jeopardy.

“This patient was found on April 5th. The villagers had arrested him that night in the Delathura area of the Pamunugama police division. He's a drug addict. He was apprehended early in the morning during a robbery. He was taken to the Pamunugama police station. As he showed some symptoms, he was admitted to the Ragama Hospital. It was revealed then that he was positive with Covid-19."

'Patient 31' from South Korea

In this case, the people in charge of this person including his relatives and friends didn't take note of his symptoms. As he was also under the influence of drugs, he may not have noticed it himself. But the end result was similar to that of 'patient 31' from South Korea. She was a 61 year old woman that had attended worship services of her church despite showing symptoms. Around 9000 attended the service out of which 3000 had contracted the virus.
"Like patient 31 from South Korea, patient 206 had placed our entire country in jeopardy. That is why the number of people that have contracted the coronavirus spiked," he added.

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Army deployed at Parliamentary complex to provide security

The government has deployed the Army to provide security for Parliament amidst requests by the opposition to reconvene Parliament.

Former parliamentarians Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha de Silva, in a letter to the Secretary General of Parliament, has sought clarification as to why the Army was deployed when it was the Police that usually provided security to the Parliamentary complex.

"With an island-wide curfew and a lockdown, we wanted to know what necessitated such security changes. What was the threat assessment? Was there a terrorist threat? We have not received any indication of a threat that necessitated a change of usual security arrangements," the former ministers said.

They noted that it is the responsibility of all citizens and especially those paid out of the public purse to maintain peace and safeguard the separation of powers between the three organs of government i.e. the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, which are the essential components of a constitutional democracy.

"Sri Lanka has had a long tradition of safeguarding freedoms and protecting all three organs of government. We must ensure that no ONE organ of government is permitted to encroach into the preserve of any other organ of government," the former ministers said.

However, the military says the Army has been deployed to provide security to Parliamentary complex as Police personnel have been assigned to Covid-19 containment measures.
Letter to Sec
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Mangala writes to Gotabaya: Re-summon parliament to constitutionally resolve crises

Former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has urged him to exercise his powers as the Head of State at this critical time and to summon the Parliament as soon as possible with the support of all parties represented in Parliament.
He said that this was imperative to have the essential expenditure, including the payment of salaries to the public service after 30th April 2020 approved legally and constitutionally so that Sri Lanka acts responsibly, respecting the Constitution in relation to public finances.

Mangala Samaraweera also said that the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet of Ministers and the Members of Parliament, as well as all public officials, including the Secretary to the Treasury, have pledged to uphold and defend the Constitution of the Republic. Any person who acts in contravention of the provisions on conviction by the Court of Appeal shall be subject to:-

(a) Civic disability for such period not exceeding seven years and

 (b) Forfeit his movable and immovable property other than such property as is determined as being necessary for the sustenance of such person and his family.

Failure to do so, especially at a time of a pandemic is bound to have serious repercussions for the short and long-term economic well-being of our people especially in light of international obligations and the nature of the interconnected global financial and economic system, Samaraweera observed. The full text of the letter with copies to PM, and all Party Leaders represented in Parliament is given below.

 His Excellency Gotabaya Rajapaksa
President of Sri Lanka
Presidential Secretariat
Colombo 01.

Dear President,

Request for the re-summoning of Parliament to constitutionally resolve crises and to approve public expenditure

I am writing this letter to you as the former Minister of Finance, who presented the Vote on Account for the state expenditure of Sri Lanka up to 30th April, 2020.

2. In the years when a presidential election is forthcoming, successive governments have refrained from passing a budget leaving an opportunity for the winning President to submit his own Budget.

3. As the Presidential election was scheduled to be held on 16th November 2017, the then government was of the view that presenting an Appropriation Bill would not be appropriate. Accordingly, the then Government presented a Vote on Account to Parliament for a period of four months from 1st January 2020 to 30th April 2020 and adopted it on 23rd October 2019 leaving an opportunity for the would be elected President to present  his own Budget.

4. But on the contrary, the finance minister appointed by you did not present a budget for 2020 until you issued a Gazette dissolving Parliament on 2nd March in spite of the fact that you assumed office in November 2019, over three months prior to the dissolution of Parliament.  As you would recall, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa who also held the portfolio of Finance did not present the Budget for 2015 since the Presidential Election was scheduled in November 2014 for 8th January 2015. Therefore, I would like to remind you that the good governance government that won the Presidential election on 08th January 2015 presented a budget for the financial year 2015 within 21 days of its election.

5. Instead of presenting an Appropriation Bill for the year 2020, prior to dissolution of the Parliament on 2nd March 2020, a proposal was brought by your government to amend the Vote on Account which had already been passed by the yahapalana government. Thereafter your government withdrew it after the opposition in Parliament pointed out that there was no provision in the Standing Orders for such an amendment. Now, as a result of the failure to present the budget due to reasons known only to your government, and the sudden emergence of the coronavirus (Covid-19), the country is afflicted with a pandemic in addition to legislative and economic crises.

6. Considering the serious risk of the spread of Covid-19 in the country, the Election Commission announced on the 20th of April that the General Election scheduled for 25th April will be held on 20th June 2020. However, the date to summon the new parliament to meet upon the conclusion of the proposed General Election scheduled for 20th June 2020 which is a must according to the Constitution has not been officially announced.

7. I urge that by virtue of the Vote on Account passed on 23rd October 2019, the Constitution clearly states that the Government of Sri Lanka has no legal right to bear public expenditure after 30th April 2020.  As Parliament shall have full control over public finance, no sum shall be withdrawn except under the authority of a warrant under the hand of the minister in charge of the subject of Finance. No such grant can be issued by the Minister of Finance without such approval and it is unlawful for the Secretary to the Treasury to spend public money for any purpose without the approval of the Minister of Finance.

8. Article 150 (3) of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka provides for the incurring of Government expenditure in the event of the dissolution of Parliament and in the context of an Appropriation Bill not being passed in Parliament.

150 (3) of the Constitution reads as:  Where the President dissolves Parliament before the Appropriation Bill for the financial year has passed in to law, he may, unless Parliament shall have already made provisions, authorize the issue from the Consolidated Fund and the expenditure of such sums as he may consider necessary for the public services until the expiry of a period of three months from the date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet.

The President shall be authorized to issue and spend money from the Consolidated Fund in terms of the provisions provided in the said Constitution only until the expiry of three months from the date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet. But the due date for the new Parliament to meet has not yet been officially announced by the President.

9. As you are well aware, the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet of Ministers and the Members of Parliament, as well as all public officials, including the Secretary to the Treasury, have pledged to uphold and defend the Constitution of the Republic. Any person who acts in contravention of the provisions on conviction by the Court of Appeal shall be subject to:-

(c) Civic disability for such period not exceeding seven years and
(d) Forfeit his movable and immovable property other than such property as is determined as being necessary for the sustenance of such person and his family.

10. Therefore, I kindly request you to exercise your powers as the Head of State at this critical time to summon the Parliament as soon as possible with the support of all parties represented in Parliament and to have the essential expenditure, including the payment of salaries to the public service after 30th April 2020 approved legally and constitutionally so that Sri Lanka acts responsibly, respecting the Constitution in relation to public finances. Failure to do so, especially at a time of a pandemic is bound to have serious repercussions for the short and long-term economic well-being of our people especially in light of international obligations and the nature of the interconnected global financial and economic system.  

Yours sincerely,

Mangala Samaraweera

mangala l 3 1000px

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Govt. has printed Rs. 213 billion since March: CBSL

The cash strapped Sri Lankan government has printed a staggering Rs. 213 billion since the first week of March this year, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) announced.

CBSL revealed that Rs. 7.8 billion was printed on this week alone. As such, CBSL holdings of government securities which stood at Rs. 78.01 billion as of the 12th of March this year, now stands at Rs. 291.83 billion as of Friday, the 24th of April.

Fitch downgrades Sri Lanka

Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings downgraded Sri Lanka to 'B-' with a negative outlook, as the country cut value added tax in January and printed large volumes of money to target the call money rate, pressuring the currency amid a pandemic.

"The shock to Sri Lanka's economy from the coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate already-rising public and external debt sustainability challenges following tax cuts  and an associated shift in fiscal policy late last year," Fitch Ratings said.

"The pandemic will especially hurt the tourism sector, which, combined with weaker domestic demand, will further damage Sri Lanka's public and external finance metrics", the ratings agency said.

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Acting IGP warned by HRCSL over 'legal validity' of arrests

Police in Sri Lanka are being heavily questioned on the legal validity of arrests carried out against alleged publication of ‘misinformation’ and criticism of officials during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Arrests made for alleged statements online, and the police warning against those who are critical of public officials, are bound to have a chilling effect on people’s freedom of expression, the National Human Rights Commission has told the police chief.

”It is the duty of our Commission to point out that any action taken to limit freedom of expression and other such rights in a democracy, even during a period of emergency, must be within the framework of the law,” said the commission’s head Deepika Udagama in a letter to the Acting Inspector General of Police Chandana Wickremeratne.

“HRCSL recognizes the need to lawfully curb misinformation that can cause panic and pose a serious threat to public order and public health when the entire country is facing an unprecedented public health crisis. However, such arrests must be legally valid, must not be arbitrary and disproportionate and must not be carried out in a discriminatory manner.”

Dr. Udagama’s letter quoting court documents points out that the Penal Code (s.120), Computer Crimes Act, No. 24 of 2007 (s.6), Police Ordinance (s.98), Quarantine Ordinance, No. (ss. 4 & 5) and the Disaster Management Act , No. 13 of 2005(s. 24) have been used to justify the arrests.

The HRCSL chairperson questions the legal basis of the use of the provisions of the Quarantine Ordinance and the Disaster Management Act.

“S.4 of the Quarantine Ordinance can be invoked only when a regulation made under the Ordinance has been violated. It is not clear how the alleged statements for which various persons have been arrested violate any of the existing regulations made under the Ordinance or how they obstruct the discharging of duties of officers authorized under the Ordinance. Similarly, it is questionable whether s.24 of the Disaster Management Act can be invoked in the absence of a proclamation declaring a state of disaster in the country which is approved by Parliament as required by s.11 of the Act.”

Dr. Udagama adds that one B report does not specify the legal basis of the arrest at all. She reminds the Police Chief that if misinformation, which has a negative impact on public order and public health, is to be curbed, there must be a sound legal basis for action taken by law enforcement authorities.

The warning issued by the Police Media Division letter to media institutions that legal action would be taken against those who criticize officials, is bound to have a serious chilling effect on people’s freedom of expression ,cautions the Human Rights Chairperson.

“The right to comment on, and indeed criticize, the performance of public officials or of anyone else or any policy is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society. It is through criticism and commentary that we improve governance and strengthen democracy.”

The discriminatory manner in which Section 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has been used to arrest people has also come under criticism.

“At the same time, we wish to point out that it is essential to ensure that s. 3 is invoked in a non-discriminatory manner providing protection to all communities,” says the letter to Acting IGP Chandana Wickremeratne. “If not, the law becomes a weapon against certain communities and defeats the very purpose for which it was enacted by Parliament. Our observations on arrests made thus far under the above provision do not make It possible for us to come to a reasonable conclusion that the provision has been invoked in a non-discriminatory manner.”

Sri Lanka is facing local and international criticism for its militarized Covid-19 response and arrests of dissidents.

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Sri Lankan students returning home from India overcharged

Sri Lankan undergraduates studying in foreign universities on state scholarships have been forced to pay inflated prices for flights back home during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is when the government had paid airlines to bring back those studying in private universities abroad.  

Denouncing the government action as discriminatory, the country’s leading teachers’ union has revealed that the country’s national carrier has charged over the price of a return ticket for students travelling from Mumbai to Colombo on Saturday.

Students have paid LKR 58650 each for a one-way ticket whereas a regular return ticket would cost around LKR 45000, says the Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU).

Some receipts and payment slips shared with journalists show that Sri Lankan Airlines has charged over LKR 100,000 for an Amritsar-Colombo one way ticket.

In contrast, the government paid the air fare of the first batch of students to Colombo from Wuhan where the outbreak was first identified.

CTU urges the government to bear the cost of students travel to Sri Lanka and reimburse sums already paid to airlines.

Quoting an earlier statement by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena, CTU says that nearly six hundred Sri Lankans are studying in neighbouring India. Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan are other south Asian countries where Sri Lankan students are following their higher studies.

CTU expressed their disappointment at the government forcing students to pay for their travelling while obtaining funds from foreign nations to finance its Covid19  response.

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