By the Political Editor of “Sunday Times”
The “Sunday Times” today reveals how Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga is trying to obtain Government approval for a mixed development project including the construction of apartments. According to documents available, this was through Wills Realtors (Private) Limited, a company which he formed with Prasad Wasantha Sirimanne on July 25, 2013, in terms of a declaration made under the Companies Act for the purpose of registration. Ranatunga’s address is given in the application for registration as 50/4C Pelawatte Road, Nugegoda whilst Sirimanne is at 45/7 Koranelis Mawatha, Sri Subuthipura, Battaramulla.
However, on November 25, 2016, when he became a Cabinet Minister, Ranatunga had withdrawn from the Board. The form for Change of Director/Secretary (Form 20) now lists P.W. Sirimanne, V. Krishnamurthy Rao (from Mumbai) with Ranatunga’s local address and Dileepa Hemamali Dhanatunge. The company’s registered address remained his Pelawatte Road, Nugegoda, home.
Ranatunga, it has now transpired, persuaded Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, to present a cabinet memorandum on the project. In that, Ranawaka said, “the 1996 Cricket World Cup Winning squad has duly incorporated a company named M/s Wills Realtors (Pvt) Ltd. under the Companies Act No, 7 of 2007. It bore company registration No: PV 93826 with the registered office at 50/4 C Pelawatte Road, Nugegoda. They asked that the land belonging to the Urban Development Authority (UDA) behind the HSBC at Rajagiriya, now worth Rs 1.5 billion, for a mixed development project.
In fact, the UDA, Wills Realtors (Pvt.) Ltd as the Investor Company and Sampath Bank as their banker had entered into a tripartite MoU on October 30, 2014. That was during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration. At the time of signing the MoU, the company has paid Rs. 345 million to the UDA as “commitment fee” for the allocation of the land. The memorandum said “since the company was unable to provide the investment details including their credentials, the UDA had extended the validity of the MoU till January 1, 2017. The Board of Investment too had approved the project.
However, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM), the cabinet memorandum noted, wanted the matter referred to the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) to ascertain whether there was any “bribery or corruption” in raising funds. In fact, Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva (who is an MP from the Kotte electorate) had sent a rider to ministers after receiving a copy of the memorandum. He was then acting Minister of Foreign Affairs. He raised issues over the “ability of the said company floated by the 1996 World Cup winning cricket team to undertake a project of the said magnitude.” Then, he too believed it was a company floated by the World Cup winning cricketers. CCEM had also urged that checks be made with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). It came to light that there were no complaints. Hence the UDA took action to revise the land value and its Board approved the project.
The cabinet memorandum came up for approval at a meeting of Ministers on January 31. Harsha de Silva, who was acting Foreign Minister, dropped a bombshell. He said the claim that the “1996 Cricket World Cup winning squad has duly incorporated a company” was false. He had checked and found the cricketers were not involved. It was Minister Ranatunga, the captain of the World Cup champion team, who was behind the move.
It transpired that the cricketers who won the Cricket World Cup in 1996 (or the entire team of 14) had already been given land that year itself by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on a proposal by then Minister Lakshman Jayakody, a former Trinity College cricket vice-captain. They were given 20 perch blocks including one lot for Ranatunga. They still held them. The cricketers were expected to build their own houses. Some had tried to swap this land with the UDA property but were not successful.
President Sirisena intervened at the ministerial discussion. He requested that Minister Ranawaka’s cabinet memorandum be withdrawn. He asked Acting Foreign Minister de Silva to meet Megapolis and Western Development Minister and brief him of the factual position. Thereafter, Sirisena said, Ranawaka should present a new cabinet memorandum for discussion.
Minister Ranawaka told the Sunday Times, “Facts were misrepresented to me. I was misled. That was how the first cabinet memorandum spoke about a company formed by the cricket squad that won the World Cup in 1996. I must thank Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva profusely for raising this and later explaining matters to me in detail.” De Silva, however, declined to comment saying that the matter was before the Cabinet of Ministers.
In this new cabinet memorandum, taken up for discussion at a ministerial meeting on February 28, there was no reference at all to the company being “duly incorporated” by the World Cup winning squad. It has been deleted since it was found to be false. Yet, a provision has been included, at Ranatunga’s insistence, that “each member of the 1996 Cricket World Cup winning squad will receive a four bedroomed apartment totally free which is worth around US$ 800,000 or over Rs. 120 million. They would also receive a cash payment of two million rupees each.”
That would mean US$ 11.2 million would be spent to build free houses on State land for the cricketers. On top of that, a total of Rs. 28 million would be paid to the 14 cricketers. The memorandum adds; “A percentage of the profit which will not be less than US$ 1 million of the project will go towards a charity formed by the 1996 legendary cricketers to help/assist past cricketers and to develop school cricketers in the country.” Ranatunga seems to be setting the stage for the project with promotional advertisements about the “legendary cricketers”.
He has not only described himself as one of the “legendary cricketers” to qualify for a Rs. 120 million worth apartment and cash, that too 21 years after the World Cup glory, but has used his official position, as a Minister, to first mislead a ministerial colleague and then to change his proposal to a more attractive one for the World Cup 1996 players. Re-living the glory after 21 years. They will now have not only their land in Denzil Kobbekaduwa Mawatha (Battaramulla) but also a new apartment and two million rupees each. This is at a time when the country is facing an acute economic crisis and is struggling to raise funds. That is not all. There is growing public discontent against the Government with the cost of living soaring.
The extent of land at Rajagiriya is two acres, three roods and 24.2 perches which Wills Realtors (Private) Ltd. had sought and paid an advance. It was part of what was acquired by the UDA under the Land Acquisition Act. The lease of the land is expected to be for 99 years. The Government Chief Valuer has said that at the present market value, the land is worth Rs 1.5 billion.
The lease premium on nominal ground rental is to be Rs 1,000 per acre or an amount to be determined by the Government Chief Valuer. Due to the prevailing financial constraints, the Cabinet of Ministers are now awaiting the observations of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake before a final decision is made.
After the declaration of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte area as the administrative capital of Sri Lanka, the UDA was directed to identify and acquire/vest the developable lands to fulfil the land requirements of State institutions as well as private sector for development work. It is in keeping with this policy that an extent of around 24 acres facing the Parliament Road abutting the Kolonnawa Ela at Rajagiriya (behind the HSBC) was acquired. Part of the land had been given to the HSBC for its Asian Region Centre, some for the Ministry of Education for a rugger playground and some for the Kotte Municipal Council for a public playground. It is the remaining extent of land that Wills Realtors (Pvt.) Ltd. had sought.