Written By NAFSO on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 | 11:41:00 PM
by Camelia Nathaniel
Evidence has surfaced that a prominent minister and former fisheries minister had been engaged in bribery and corruption during his tenure at the fisheries ministry depriving the country of millions of rupees in tax revenue and depriving the fishing community of many opportunities.
Despite his tarnished track record, this minister jumped ship from the Rajapaksa camp and joined the Maithri-Ranil bandwagon in order to safeguard himself and avoid being taken to task over the corrupt activities he had been engaged in.
During his tenure, a Chinese firm which wanted to engage in fishing within Sri Lankan waters had approached the minister through its local arm Arugambay Fishery (Pvt) Ltd. Under the pretext of having further discussions on the matter, the then Fisheries Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne visited China on two occasions at the expense of the Chinese company. He left Sri Lanka aboard a Sri Lankan Airlines flight on sixth June, 2013 and returned on June 12,2013.
As a result of this visit, the minister laid down conditions that the deal could go through only if the local company Arugambay Fishery (Pvt) Ltd, would be replaced by a company that would be created with his secretary Don Lalith Anuradha Seneviratne as the major shareholder. Subsequently Blue Ocean Fishery (Pvt) Ltd was registered under N/A 176433 with his secretary Don Lalith Anuradha Seneviratne holding 60 per cent of shares. Misusing his privileges as a minister, Rajitha Senaratane set up this company knowing full well that it was illegal and appointed his secretary as the major shareholder in a bid to hoodwink the people. In addition, Blue Ocean Fishery (Pvt) Ltd, imported eight ships worth Rs. 400 million, but to date there is no mention of the duty that was or was not paid to the country. To date the investment of Blue Ocean Fishery (Pvt) Ltd is around Rs. 1000 million and the investment of Anuradha Seneviratne would have to be around Rs. 600 million. How a minister’s secretary could invest such a colossal figure is still a mystery.
According to the agreement between Blue Ocean Fishery (Pvt) Ltd and the fisheries ministry, 10 per cent of the catch of the eight vessels should be sold to the fisheries ministry at $ 1 per kilo, before the rest can be exported.
The Chinese company was earlier granted permission to engage in fishing under the Sri Lankan flag beyond the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Sri Lanka. The company had entered into an agreement with the Board of Investment to carry out fishing in international waters. According to an official of the Ministry of Investment Promotion, although the Dikovita Port was constructed as the biggest port in Asia, it was the minister’s son who got the contractors and handled the construction and the expenditure incurred for the construction of this port should be investigated separately.
However although the previous regime and Minister Senaratne claimed that this was the biggest port in Asia, the depth of it is just 5 metres.
Let alone accommodating large commercial vessels, even the Chinese trawlers could not be berthed there as it was not deep enough.Under the agreement, 90 per cent of the catch would be exported to China and 10 per cent given to the fisheries corporation at one dollar a kilo, the official said. The Chinese vessels were to be docked at the Dikovita fisheries harbour where the processing for exports would be carried out.
The operation was expected to generate US$ 11 million (Rs. 1.3 billion) in the first year. According to the official, the company started operations with four vessels and thereafter deployed 16 more 150 ft vessels.
However in spite of the profits made by this company, the minister had used his powers and obtained nine years of tax exemption for Blue Ocean Fishery (Pvt) Ltd. Moreover there is no declaration as to how this company obtained the funds to start up this investment.
This company has also not made any payment to the fisheries harbour corporation for the use of the Colombo or Dokovita harbours. Further, it is leant that in spite of a clause that has been inserted to the agreement with the cunning intention of obtaining tax concessions, that 10 per cent of the catch of these vessels will be sold to the Fisheries Corporation at $ 1 per kilo, this company had not supplied any fish to the fisheries corporation. This corrupt minister also used his powers in order to silence any official who dared to raise this issue.
According to the official, unsuitable appointments were made during the minister’s tenure further aggravating the situation at the fisheries corporation and contributed to its ruin.
According to fisheries ministry sources, During Senaratne’s tenure as the Minister of Fisheries, the younger brother of Rajitha Senaratne, Mahil Senaratne was appointed as the chairman of the fisheries corporation.
At the time Mahil Senaratne was appointed as chairman, he did not even own a house, but shortly after, he had constructed a luxury house in Nugegoda and also purchased a BMW motor vehicle. Workers claim that this was due to the fact that he was importing fish to the country at high commissions.
He was said to be receiving commissions from everything that was purchased for the fisheries corporation including the shopping bags that were used.
They claim that having worked as a store keeper at Bata, Mahil Senaratne had no knowledge on how to run the fisheries corporation and as a result the institution was ruined.
The workers also claim that a former police officer Ruwan Lankeshwara was appointed as the managing director and he too joined the minister and his brother in destroying the fisheries corporation. Hundreds of thousands of rupees were also taken claiming that the money was for the minister’s bodhi poojas. Further the workers claim that during the period under Minister Rajitha, the staff of the fisheries department was set at 745, of which 600 were permanent employees. However the workers charge that Rajitha Senaratne and his group had recruited a further 700 workers on contract basis and this had put a huge strain on the institution. In addition these workers were obliged to agree and cater to all the demands of the management.The workers also charge that around 20 kilos of small fish had to be delivered to Minister Senaratne’s residence supposedly to feed the dogs and cats. There were no bills or payments for this. According to the regulations of the fisheries department all goods purchased should be done after calling for tenders. But in spite of these regulations, the minister and his group had purchased used furniture and utensils for the main office from a hotel in Beruwela and these items were subsequently discarded due to being unusable. Part of these items have also ended up at the residence of the chairman, managing director and the trade union president, it is alleged.Meanwhile, the cleaning contract for the Peliyagoda Fish Market at the time was given to one of Senaratne’s friends, one Kabir from the Minuwangoda without following any tender procedure. The contract was granted at Rs. 1.5 million monthly and of this, around Rs. 500,000 was the minister’s commission.
In addition, the manufacturing of life jackets was also given to another friend of the minister. The workers also claimed that in addition to their wages, special allowances ranging from Rs. 5000 to 25,000 were paid as allowances to the management friends of the minister. Moreover while practically all ice machine plants were in a dilapidated state, these too were sold as scrap metal with commissions.
Further, former Chairman of the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation branch in the SLFP affiliated Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya, T.W. K. Dhammika who was accused of fraud of 2.8 million of NSS funds, imprisoned and later released on bail, was then reinstated by the minister without any proper investigation regarding the fraud.
While many crooks of the previous regime are being carted before commissions of inquiry and the bribery commission, those such as Rajitha Senaratne have cleverly switched allegiances and managed to avoid these investigations. According to the former president himself, Senaratne had made billions together with the Chinese and they too were unable to do anything about it because of their close relations with China. The JVP had filed a complaint at the Bribery Commission through the fisheries ministry regarding the misdeeds of Minister Senaratne, but since the minister has now switched sides and joined the Good Governance regime, so far no action has been taken. Voice Against Corruption (VOC) Convener and JVP North Central Provincial Councilor Wasantha Samarasinghe who was instrumental in filing this complaint said that as far as he knew no action was taken against the minister.
When contacted by The Sunday Leader Minister Rajitha Senaratne refuting these allegations said that although there had been a complaint that had been lodged against him at the Bribery commission, so far he had not been called for any investigation.
“This is done by Wimal Weerawansa’s people and although I heard about it, so far I have not been informed of any investigation that has been initiated.”
With regard to the allegations that then minister had engaged Chinese vessels illegally to fish in local waters he said it is not only the Chinese but Japanese vessels were also used. “If we had not met our target of 362 metric tons we would have lost our quota.”
“The EU is taking 52% while the other states only take 48%, but no one is talking about that,” said the minister.He further said that it was only a temporary measure and in order to meet the quota, we need to have larger vessels. Pointing to Thailand as an example the minister said that they had engaged around 100 foreign vessels, and we would need to consider that option in the future too. The minister also said that this is not being highlighted by the media and it was not something that could be understood by everyone.
“This is something to do with international affairs and ordinary people don’t understand this situation,” added minister Senaratne.