Bandula, Alagiyawanne respond to accusations
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Outgoing Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Thushan Gunawardena says top Sathosa management brazenly manipulated a Cabinet directive, meant to ensure the steady supply of food items to Sathosa outlets, for the benefit of a few.
According to him, 56,000 kilos of garlic, released by Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to Sathosa, was sold to a regular Sathosa supplier at Rs 135 a kilo. Sathosa management planned to buy back the same consignment at Rs 445 a kilo and then make available to consumers at about Rs 540 a kilo. The plan had gone awry due to unexpected raid carried out by then CAA, Gunawardena said, Sathosa sold the stock at such a low price on the basis of poor quality in spite of it being cleared by Quality Assurance officers, he said.
Inquiries revealed that private traders and supermarkets priced a kilo of garlic at Rs 600 to 630.
Responding to The Island queries, Gunawardena emphasised that many food consignments had been rerouted the same way. He said that such a massive fraud couldn’t have been carried out without political patronage. A container load of orid (Undu) had been among the consignments sold the same way, he said, insisting that Sathosa, and a selected group of suppliers worked together on the particular racket. “Politicians cannot be unaware of what is going on.”
Declaring that he would send his letter of resignation to CAA Chairman retired Maj. Gen. Shantha Dissanayake, later in the day, Gunawardena said that the country was definitely in the grip of an utterly corrupt system and, therefore he had decided to quit. “I tried my best to make a difference but realised the government lacked political will to take on corrupt elements. In fact, corruption is on the march. Waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence are the norm,” Gunawardena said.
Responding to another query, Gunawardena stressed that Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardana and Co-operative Services, Marketing Development and Consumer Protection State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanne couldn’t absolve themselves of the responsibility for the pathetic situation at Sathosa.
Gunawardena declared that Sathosa was a den of corruption. The official alleged that he had not received the backing from Ministers Gunawardana and Alagiyawanne following the exposure of garlic deal.
According to Gunawardena, the consignment of garlic in two freight containers made available by the SLPA was declared fit for human consumption by Quality Assurance officers and through memo DGM (Procurement) Ms Chamila Asuramanna and Senior Manager (Logistics) R.S. Fernando informed.
The Assistant Manager (Quality Assurance) Mrs. Dulanjali Randeniwala while claiming that Sathosa had sufficient stocks of garlic at its warehouses had suggested what she called bulk sale or some other operation. The quality inspection had been carried out on September 7, 2021 at the CICT terminal. The two refrigerated containers had arrived at the Colombo Port on July 14, 2021.
Gunawardena said that the letter had been copied to Sathosa Chairman retired Rear Admiral Ananda Peiris, CEO Ranjith G. Rubasinghe, DGM (Finance) Susiri Perera and Senior Manager (Procurement) Lakshman Kumara. Therefore, the entire top Sathosa management was aware of the garlic consignment, Gunawardena said urging a wider investigation.
“What we really need is remedial measures at political level. Urgent intervention at the Cabinet level to prevent corruption and irregularities,” Gunawardena said, urging Parliament to look into the scandal.
DGM Finance Susiri Perera arrested by the police in connection with the fraud on 16 Sept. and produced before the Peliyagoda Magistrate was remanded till 21 Sept 21. He was among several persons taken into custody in this connection.
Trade Ministry spokesperson Mahesh Wickrema told The Island that Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardana would make a comprehensive statement in that regard in parliament on Wednesday (22). Wickrema said that the CAA had been gazetted under the State Minister Alagiyawanne’s ministry. Acknowledging that Sathosa had sold two container loads of garlic in violation of specific directives, Wickrema said that Gunawardana, in his capacity as the Trade Minister had directed a comprehensive inquiry into the garlic transaction.
State Minister Alagiyawanne told The Island that he, too, would make a statement in Parliament. The Gampaha District lawmaker denied all accusations made by the outgoing official Gunawardena pertaining to the clandestine sale of two container loads of garlic. Alagiyawanne said that he had not interfered with the CAA raid on Sathosa or tried to protect the culprits. CAA and Sathosa come under the purview of Alagiyawanne and Gunawardane, respectively.
Responding to a query, Alagiyawanne said that there was no doubt the issue at hand should be fully investigated. “Of course, the garlic deal was corrupt and wrongdoers should be punished,” the State Minister said.
In an interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrema in ‘Truth with Chamuditha’ on social media, Gunawardena said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto ‘vistas for prosperity and splendor’ was in tatters. In spite of repeated promises, the new government hadn’t been able to rein in those engaged in corruption.
Admitting that he was a political appointee, Gunawardena said that though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed them not to give in to political pressure under any circumstances, he realised the difficulty in taking a strong stand against corruption.
Responding to another query from the interviewer, Gunawardena said that both ministers, Gunawardena and Alagiyawanne reacted angrily when he suggested that Rs 400,000 obtained from CAA for World Consumer Rights Day was spent prudently. Gunawardena said that he didn’t want the funds being spent on promoting some politicians. When The Island raised this issue with State Minister Alagiyawanne, the SLFPer said that the proposal for the event was made by the CAA. The lawmaker strongly denied accusations that the funds were wasted on a political event.
Responding to Gunawardena’s accusation that the subject minister planned to enter agreements with cement, flour and milk food importers at the expense of consumers, State Minister Alagiyawanne said that an attempt was being made to depict the agreements as favourable to the importers.
Alagiyawanne said that the agreements stipulated the importers had to ensure uninterrupted supply of cement, flour and milk powder and continue with same prices for at least three months.
Alagiyawanne said that the ministry had also sought the suppliers consent to obtain commodities on credit for at least six month period due to serious shortage in foreign reserves.
Both Alagiyawanne and Wickrema said that though Gunawardena identified as Executive Director of CAA there was no such position in that outfit.
Gunawardena told the interviewer that he was under tremendous pressure to quit the job. “Yes. My life is in danger,” Gunawardena said. According to him, the CAA had failed in its duties and responsibilities. At the time, he had taken over there had been about 700 unopened files pertaining to complaints and various allegations since 2013.
All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen served as the trade minister during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term and also during yahapalana administration. Chamal Rajapaksa succeeded Bathiudeen before Bandula Gunawardena was brought in August 2020.
Gunawardena said that his departure would pave the way for the appointment of a henchman. The institutions responsible for protecting the rights of the public neglected their duties for obvious reasons, the official said.
Actually, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) should intervene in this matter, Gunawardene said.
The government should be ashamed of what was going on in the country, he said, pointing out the reduction of duty on a kilo of sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents by the Finance Ministry on Oct 13, 2020 had exposed the true state of affairs in the country. That scam proved beyond doubt that racketeers could get away with absolutely anything thereby making the much propagated slogan ‘one country, one law’ nothing but a farce.