Cabinet paper presented by PM after AG’s report
I want to get all affiliated depts. of the Ministry under one roof
This deal is not corrupt, but certain parties engage mud-slinging
We have been paying Rs. 21 million as a monthly rental since April 2016
At a time when the country is hanging from loose strings as a result of the major debt crisis ‘gifted’ by the former regime, spending lavishly on government projects wouldn’t sound like a bright idea. Yet bringing in a challenge to this situation, the government is still eyeing attractive properties to house or relocate its ministries. The relocation of the ‘Govijana Mandiraya’ at Battaramulla to the DPJ Tower in Rajagiriya is one such example where the Ministry of Agriculture has been paying Rs. 21 million as a monthly rental without occupying the building since last April. In a candid interview with the Dailymirror , Minister of Agriculture Duminda Dissanayake justifies his reasons as to why this transaction was carried out, the purpose of acquiring this property and its current status.
QThere is much controversy over the proposed building complex in Rajagiriya where you will eventually relocate your ministry. What was special about this particular building and what is the current status?
We have a major problem with regard to space in the present building we occupy. There wasn’t enough space to have meetings for the Sectoral Oversight Committees (SOCs) and we looked at three other buildings. After checking all those options DPJ tower was the best pick. Then we agreed to hand over this building we are presently occupying. This building presently in occupation is situated in close proximity to the Parliament and since these offices would eventually be handed over to MPs, it would be convenient for them to be present at the Parliament as and when it’s required. It’s actually better if these SOCs are situated within the Parliament itself. So the most practical thing to do was to find a venue which is closer to the Parliament and therefore the DPJ building was picked to be utilised by the Agriculture Ministry. If the Parliament is the highest institution in the country and if there is any development work that needs to be done in its favour then it’s a must that we support it. The SOCs give more power to the Ministers and also allows them to carry out their projects in a transparent manner. The Prime Minister submitted a Cabinet paper stating the need to have the SOCs and that he needs a building in close proximity to the Parliament. Thereafter as a government body we decided to rent this building.
The Ministry has paid a staggering Rs. 21 million as a monthly rent and this has been going on for some time. Since you still haven’t occupied the building, what is the reason behind this transaction?
Let me give you an example; say that you are giving out a house on rent and I’m interested in renting it out from you, I would tell you that it would take another three months to get the furniture ready. We talk about this transaction in January and then I ask if I may start paying from March since I have to get the furniture done. Would you agree or not? The person giving out the building doesn’t care about when the building would be occupied. I have to change it to suit the needs of an office complex and this would only be possible once I have actually rented out the building.
For how long have you been paying this rent and when do you intend to occupy the building?
We have been paying Rs. 21 million as a monthly rental since April 2016, and because of this reason I told the Technical Committee to hand it over to anybody who would complete the construction work with a minimum period of time at any cost. But the response was that the Tender Board chose the company with the minimum rates. There also I tried to occupy the building as soon as possible because that itself would include a cost-cutting. Yet, unfortunately, the officials were not geared for such a speedy process. Hopefully we could see a Tender notice coming in within the next three months.
While the govt broker has estimated Rs. 150 per sq. ft. the landlord’s estimate was Rs. 167.50, to which you have agreed. In that case, why did you consult a govt broker?
There was a building at Battaramulla which had only 50,000 sq. ft. and the next option was World Trade Centre. Definitely we can’t go there to cater to the needs of the farmers. Therefore, when weighing the pros and cons of this situation, what we learned was that the estimate for one sq. foot at a govt property is much higher than what we agreed to. In fact these rates were similarly higher in buildings owned by the UDA. In addition to that, the service charges were Rs. 80. The landlord offered us these rates, and therefore, we had to agree as they were relatively lower when compared to the rates of other State buildings. According to the Auditor General’s report, the difference in rates per sq. ft. is Rs. 27. We do know that the estimate given by the government versus that of a private party is completely different. If the transaction is fair and the rates are lower, I believe that we have nothing else to worry about. The Cabinet paper included all these details and it was presented by the PM after the AG has sent his report.
This building was initially built as a shopping complex, and since you are acquiring it for a Ministry, it’s infrastructure has to be restored at the Ministry’cost. How much more money do you intend to spend on this building?
Whether the building is an office or a shopping complex; depends on its interior and not the outer appearance. Some people have doubts about the cost involved. Irrespective of the person involved, there is a certain way of constructing an office. Except for the floor area and the four walls surrounding it you do not get anything else. The building in question was not constructed specifically for the Agriculture Ministry. After we rented it out, we presented a Cabinet paper requesting to hand over the proceedings to the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) to undertake it as a Turnkey Project and hand it over to us. But then they said that it would take two years for them to complete it. Since two years is a long time we asked them to draw the plans according to our requirements along with BoQs and hand in the documents to produce a tender. If not for a Yahapalana govt, I would have found an architect and asked him to do the needful and would have got the needful within a month. But this is not possible in this govt because even to find an architect I have to first advertise it in the papers. Thereafter the technical and evaluation committees too have to oversee the proceedings. Definitely these proceedings would take a long time and that was why we handed over the task to a govt institution to undertake it as a Turnkey project. The entire process took approximately eight months. We asked them to develop it according to a modern concept while also saving money. Therefore without allocating 10 fax machines for 10 clerical staff, we asked them to install one common machine for each floor. If the entire process was handled on our own, it wouldn’t even have taken two months. This deal is not corrupt at any point but certain parties would always engage in their mud-slinging campaigns. In Parliament, I would have easily asked the others to find a building for the Ministry, and requested them show it to me and construct it according to my wish and hand over the keys. But on the contrary, I abided by the laws and I wholeheartedly got involved in this situation for the sake of the country. If it was done by the govt, the duration would have been similar.
Why do you need such a huge office complex to accommodate around 300 ministry employees?
Once the restoration work is complete, you could come and see for yourself if these 300 employees are on the beds or on the floor. Or whether they are crammed together or have been spaced out.
According to the Auditor General, there have been no monetary allocations through the Budget 2016 to this project, and therefore, you had to withdraw funds from another project proposed by the Appropriation Bill. What comments do you have on this regard?
We haven’t used any funds allocated for the projects done by the Ministry. The entire cost that was given as an extra cost in addition to what was already allocated to continue the proceedings of the Ministry. We haven’t asked for a single cent from a farmer to contribute to this project, and we will continue all other projects as planned.
At a time when the country’s agriculture industry is facing a huge crisis, how do you justify on spending such a huge amount just for your Ministry?
Take for example a Ministry that’s coming under the UDA, do they all pay the govt? How many ministries are paying their rentals either to the government or to private entities?
All offices in the WTC are rented out and their rates are approximately Rs. 210-230 per sq. ft. There were offices functioning at the WTC during the past and present regime. This is a decision taken by the government. The rental paid by the Ministry should not be tied up with other projects. The farmers have been given the fertilizer subsidy, compensation and the necessary development projects are taking place. The funds that have been allocated for the needs of the people were not utilised for this purpose.
Wouldn’t it have been more productive to decentralize the different departments affiliated to the Min. of Agriculture, rather than bringing them to a centralized location in Colombo?
What we have been trying to do was to centralize the representation of all entities affiliated to the Ministry to Colombo. But if a farmer from Kandy comes to Colombo to meet me at the Ministry, wouldn’t it be an advantage for him to do the rest of the work at the same place rather than having to travel across the country? We are not going to bring the entire department from Kandy to Colombo. For example, say that the Farmers’ Trust Fund is in Nugegoda; a farmer who comes to the Ministry should also have go to Nugegoda to complete the rest of his work. Wouldn’t it be better if he finished all his work under one roof? As a Ministry that works closely with the people and even with each district, it is not practical to locate its departments everywhere. It is important that we function under one roof to ensure the convenience of the people involved in its operations.
There are many more institutions affiliated to the Ministry which I have left out. The Agrarian Services Department is located near the National Museum and its functioning separately. The Department of Agriculture is located in Kandy and at least a few members of this institution too should be located at the Ministry. Therefore if a farmer visits the Ministry, he could go to all the places at once rather than going to Kandy for one task and to Colombo for another. So what I wanted was to get all the affiliated departments of the Ministry under one roof.