|SLT: still corrupting communications
While the rest of the world and technology itself has taken vast strides, it is relevant to ask where Sri Lanka is in the great communications arena. Unfortunately, the average Sri Lankan is denied the benefits of technological advances by prohibitive telephone charges. The consumer is generally dissatisfied with the services received and of course the exorbitant charges, there is another group equally unhappy on account of having to suffer ages in waiting lists for connections.
Lack of economic resources, inability to keep up with changing technology etc., are often cited as the main reasons for these woes. Little is said, however, about the gross inefficiency and the corruption that is rampant in the key facilitator of communications in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT).
Although the Sunday edition of our sister paper, Divaina, has published several articles on these issues, neither the minister nor any other responsible person in the government has taken any steps to conduct an investigation. What happened was that the infuriated SLT authorities thought fit to punish the newspaper for doing its duty by the public, by suspending all paid advertisements for several months. They ought to have understood that these deficiencies were pointed out without malice to anyone and should be responded to in the same spirit.
In 1997, NTT of Japan obtained a stake in SLT through the acquisition of shares. The question is, has the management agreement that came into force thereafter between SLT and the Government of Sri Lanka, benefited Sri Lanka in the 5 years that have since passed? While there were competent Sri Lankan engineers and technocrats in communications and business, NTT brought in expatriates whose monthly salaries exceeded Rs. 2 million. They were accommodated at the JAIC Hilton at a cost of over Rs. 300,000 a month. In addition, NTT is also paid a substantial management fee.
This agreement, brought into force during the tenure of the previous government, has now been rescinded, but amidst much opposition from certain Sri Lankan officials who were looked after well by the Japanese. Their attempts were thwarted by the prime minister after being briefed of the true picture, and the SLT Board was once again empowered to effect management decisions. However, the board is still unable to exercise its authority owing to clever machinations by some of the corrupt officers.
Mismanagement continues. A good example is an order given by the former North Western Province Regional Head, L.P.M.R. Balapitiya to an Inspector of Telecommunications to prepare a Work Estimate relating to a job in Minuwangoda. The requirement that the estimate is submitted for approval was bypassed, and a Work Order given. Now, the area officer in charge has instructed the inspector to lay cables, undertake trench digging etc., without either formal authority or even a work programme available for the next 6 months.
It is indeed disturbing that some regional managers have obtained approval for ancillary works for this fraudulent operation. The entire operation has now achieved the obvious result. The entire quantity of cables are lost. This was the purpose of the entire exercise.
Three officials, whose identities are well known to SLT, were found to be guilty. Were they punished? Were they dismissed? Although punishment was recommended, in terms of Circular 48/2002 of July 9, 2002 from the CEO, one was promoted!
Another interesting transaction relates to the purchase of explosive detectors. The Army had recommended the purchase of detector types EVD 3000 and EOD 97. Five tenderers had submitted bids. Colombo Traders had submitted a bid for Rs. 4.95 million for the supply of three units. The other bidders had quoted for only one machine. When the bids were evaluated per unit, the lowest was from Colombo Traders Ltd. However, the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) embarked on a surprising course of action by multiplying the quotation of Colombo Traders by 3 and coming up with a figure three times higher than the actual bid. Disregarding protests to the TEC, the purchase was made. A subsequent investigation found the members of the TEC guilty. To date, no punishment has been meted out.
In another transaction where the Ports Authority should have received payment in respect of the construction of the transmission towers at Jaffna and Mannar, the payee was an organisation called Lanka Logistics. While Rs. 5.4 million was paid to Lanka Logistics over a period of 3 1/2 months, the records show a payment of Rs. 12.9 million. Lanka Logistics had submitted invoices for the balance payment.
In respect of the shady transactions when a private company was paid direct, bypassing the SLPA and that too with conflicting payment details, an officer was found guilty. As usual he has gone scot-free.
These revelations are not only for the benefit of the SLT but also for the general public, who deserve better. The arrest of such rampant corruption, in monetary terms alone, would enable SLT to both improve its services and pass on the economic spin off to the consumer.
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