While asserting that the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is a white elephant, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has today justified the current government’s decision to store paddy at the airport storage facilities in 2015.
He said this while providing the evidence at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) to investigate corruption of the current administration on the decision to store paddy at MRIA.
Accordingly, Commissioners questioned the losses occurred through the damages to the equipment in the airport premisses.
Responding to the question Prime Minister said that former Paddy Marketing Board Chairman had instructed the Mattala Airport officials to remove the equipment which can be destroyed by the paddy dust.
However, the Presidential Commission observed that the PMB stored over 4000 metric tons of rice at Mattala Airport and the damages amounting to Rs.600,000 were incurred to equipment at the storage area.
Prime Minister denied the allegations that the present government had destroyed the glory of the airport by storing paddy in its stores in 2015.
Accordingly, Chairman of the Commission retired Supreme Court Judge, Upali Aberathne questioned the Prime Minister that as current leaders in the country whether it is government’s responsibility to take such decisions to boost glory of MRIA.
“That airport has no glory to boost up. It’s called the world’s emptiest airport due to lack of flight operations,” Prime Minister responded to the PCoI Chairman’s question.
Providing evidence, Prime Minister said that he believes that it was a correct decision taken by the government to store paddy in the airport since the airport has the storage facilities.
“In 2015, there was an excess of rice cultivation and also there was an election around, so we have to maintain the price level on the rice. Considering all these situations the government had appointed a committee to find suitable solutions for the matter,” he said.
Accordingly, the Commissioners questioned the Prime Minister whether he has appointed three members from his office to the particular committee. Responding to the question, Prime Minister said that he has not appointed any of his officers to the committee.
“It is a normal practice to appoint a committee when there is an excess amount of yield and we followed that normal procedure. Line Minister had provided a cabinet memorandum regarding the excess amount of paddy harvest in 2015. Accordingly, I and the Finance Minister had provided observations to that memorandum,” Prime Minister informed the Commission.
The Attorney General's Department representative asked the Prime Minister whether he was aware that two of his senior advisors, Charitha Ratwatte and R. Paskaralingam, have been taking part in some of the meetings at the particular committee.
Mr. Wicremesinghe said that he was not aware of such things and the committee might have asked his advisors help to solve the matter.
Commissioners also questioned the Prime Minister about sending letters through the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the decision on storing paddy at Mattala Airport. However, the Prime Minister said that he was not aware of such letters sent to the Mattala Airport officials through his office.
Chairman of the Commission then questioned the Prime Minister on 16 warehouses in Hambantota which had the facility to store 8,131 metric tons of goods at the same time. “I can’t say anything about the decisions taken by the PMB and other officials unless I see the papers,” Mr. Wikremesinghe informed the Chairman.
He also said that the Mattala Airport officials had been given permission to store paddy at the airport and if the airport officials were against that decision the government would have arrived at some other solution to store the paddy.
“Mattala Airport is still incurring losses; no company has agreed to take this airport. Currently, we are having discussions with an Indian Company about handling the airport. All we need is to minimise the losses coming through this airport,” Prime Minister informed the Commission. (Yoshitha Perera)