Buses:Who's taking whom for a ride?

By Nilika Kasturisinghe
While payment of Rs. 800 million to the Sri Lankan Government is still outstanding for the purchase of six cluster bus company shares, parties responsible for this non-payment are preparing to bid for the other seven bus companies on the CSE next week, under a different name.

One of the companies which have submitted Expressions of Interest is Jayalakshmi Transport Services (Private) Limited which has provided the Business Address, telephone number and Fax number of Mr. Wettasinghe while also naming him as the contact person when initially submitting information regarding the company. LATEC Managing Director Ravi Wettasinghe himself a partner of the Consortium IBIS which was to buy 39 percent shares of six cluster bus companies was alleged to be disguising his identity and attempting to obtain shares by promoting companies under different names.

Mr. Wettasinghe when contacted by The Sunday Times denied any links with IBIS or any companies which had bid for the bus company.

Despite Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe having said that the same party should not be allowed to purchase shares in more than three companies, The Sunday Times investigation revealed that Wettasinghe connections could be traced to a large number of bidders.

Many of the bidders are alleged to be mere paper companies.

However, the government despite being in possession of information appears to be ignoring these links for reasons not evident to the public.

Meanwhile, the IBIS company has twice delayed the payment of 60 percent of the purchase price amounting to more than 800 million Sri Lankan Rupees.

Although the Technical Evaluation Committee had been of the view that the financial capabilities and credit ratings of the bidders should be checked, instructions issued from above prevented this move and the decision was made that this check would be conducted after the bidding takes place, resulting in neither the credit worthiness nor technical competence of bidders being adequately checked.

The four member Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) which met to shortlist investors based on the business proposals for investment and management in the state owned Bus Transport Services, was clearly dissatisfied with the amount of information obtained by the Public Enterprises Reforms Commission regarding those to bid for the state bus companies. It recommended that PERC obtain more information regarding the bidders, such as the names of the Directors and the major shareholders holding more than 10 percent of the issued capital of each consortium member and each bidding company.

Thereafter PERC was instructed to obtain a status report from the Credit Information Bureau of the Central Bank as to the current status of each Director and major shareholder of the Consortium members and the bidding companies.

The TEC further recommended to PERC that it should obtain status reports from the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Industries as to satisfactory contractual performance of the bidding companies and/or their consortium members, if there were any such contracts.

Incidentally, LATEC Managing Director Ravi Wettasinghe was a senior official of the Werahera Bus company which shut down leaving hundreds of employees destitute.

With allegations being made that despite citing links to the Bank of America, the IBIS company could prove no such connection, a state bank followed up this information only to learn that credit related information provided by the party selected to purchase shares in six of the cluster bus companies was flimsy.

Meanwhile, the IBIS company which came in with a bang to buy shares and take over the management of the bus companies requested the government to give it a guarantee so as to enable them to obtain a loan.

While local bus operators protested against this attempt saying the government should not become a guarantor, the Minister of Transport in parliament issued a statement that no such government guarantees would be given.

However, once again fears of such a move are being voiced by those in the local transport sector. Why should a British investor be brought in and then supported on state funds is their main query.

Meanwhile, Lanka Private Bus Owners Association President Gemunu Wijeratne questioned as to how a company which had thrice failed to honour its payments was being allowed to buy these companies when the private bus owners were refused the opportunity.

In a letter to the Prime Minister's advisor R. Paskaralingam the LPBOA expressed interest in managing the cluster bus companies on behalf of the government by utilizing funds from an aid agency.

Mr. Wijeratne also said that private bus owners in the Vavuniya Bus Company had warned they would not allow the Jayalakshmi Transport Services to run buses in the area.

Incidentally, there are allegations regarding an official of the Transport Ministry who has been nominated to work at the PERC to be responsible for managing the bus sale. He is to be paid by the World Bank and is also the Head of the Unit to Monitor the Buses even after they are sold.

"We will also face many hardships if he is allowed to supervise the sale as conditions in the agreements will not be fairly supervised by him. So, we wish to make strong objections on his appointment," Mr. Wijeratne stated in a letter to the Country Director of the World Bank this week. "We understand that under World Bank procedure, government servants cannot be given payments for 2 years after leaving service."

The LPBOA President also alleged that Mr. Wettasinghe's company had sold bus engines sent by cluster companies for repair.

PERC calling for interested parties to submit expressions of interest stated that the cluster bus companies which contribute about 35 percent to the transport sector, were suffering severe investment shortages.

The PERC statement also clearly states that payment for the shares must be made within 45 days of accepting the shares.

The agreement to be signed between the Secretary to the Treasury and the Manager, a company incorporated in Sri Lanka also emphasizes the importance of honouring payments.

The Termination Events as stipulated by the Agreement to be signed states "This Agreement shall cease and stand terminated without any notice to the other party on the occurrence of any one of the following events:

(i) Non-payment of instalments on due dates as set out in Clause 3.1 of the Shareholders' Agreement.

The Sunday Times attempts to interview PERC Director General Deepal Guneratne to clarify the latest position regarding the IBIS deal failed as a spokesperson for the D.G. said all interviews have been halted. "We're not giving interviews to anyone at the moment."

Meanwhile, payment of bid bonds for another seven cluster bus companies closes on Wednesday, with the mystery into the IBIS deal yet unsolved and no moneys paid for the takeover of 39 percent shares of six cluster bus companies.

The companies which have expressed interest in purchasing the six cluster bus companies on the CSE on February 11, include Jayalakshmi Transport Services Pvt. Ltd.

The six state-owned cluster bus companies centred in the non- payment controversy are Colombo Metropolitan Bus Company, Gampaha Bus Company, Kalutara Bus Company, Mahanuwara Bus Company, Sabaragamuwa Bus Co. and Rajarata Bus Company,

With regard to the seven bus companies to be traded on February 11 Jayalakshmi Transport Services Private Ltd is reported to be interested in bidding for the Northern Regional Transport Board, Vavuniya Peoplised Bus Company, and New Eastern Bus Co. while the other party ADI Holdings is looking towards owning shares in Wayamba Bus Company, Ruhunu Bus Company, Uva Bus Co, and Nuwara Eliya Bus Company.

Brothels operating inside health centres

By Tania Fernando
Several Chinese health centres run in various parts of the city with boards proclaiming BOI approval and often with political and police protection or patronage are now being exposed as brothels.

The facade or double game has been going on for years but the curtain was pulled down recently when the Colombo Crime Division busted an alleged brothel being run under cover of a Chinese restaurant, health centre, Karaoke and night club all in one. With thin red lines running between licences, approvals and all that what really happens is significantly secretive or confusing.

A shocking note in the recent exposures was the role of a reserve Sub Inspector from Narahenpita. He is alleged to have gone to one of these Chinese outfits and asked for a woman offering Rs. 2500, a CCD detective said. The woman in charge of the alleged brothel had tipped off the CCD and they in turn arranged a Borella meeting to nab the officer. The woman in charge brought the girl there and the sub inspector also came for the transaction but the detectives pounced on him.

The raids and exposures have put a new spotlight on the so-called Chinese health centres which sport the BOI approval boards and other signs or slogans.

At present there are 12 Chinese Health Centres, approved by the BOI. An official of the BOI said approval was given on the recommendation of the Ministries of Health or Indigenous Medicine.

Two weeks ago, a Chinese Health Centre was closed by the BOI after it was raided by Police who acted on complaints from neighbours.

A BOI official claimed they regularly inspected such health centres to check on patient registers, bill books and other documents.

The Health Ministry's additional secretary said their role was to evaluate documents sent by the BOI. He said two weeks ago he had visited one such health centre which had applied for approval but he was not satisfied with what he saw and no approval was given.

CCD Director A. Lugoda gave details of how they raided a Chinese Restaurant in Kollupitiya, which had been given BOI approval. He said on a tip off officers had spied on the centre for several days before the raid. CCD ASP Ravindra Karawita said they had obtained a search warrant and sent a decoy after which nine Chinese were arrested at the health centre.

The CCD director assured they would maintain a full alert to crackdown on such health centres which were cover ups for brothels.

A BOI official said a night club raided last week was next to a registered health centre. He said the health centre and the nightclub were owned by the same person.
"When we visited the premises, there was a Chinese restaurant, karaoke club and a health centre. We told them that all have to be separate and cannot be in the same premises", the official said.

Meanwhile, the health centre, which was located right next to the club raided by the CCD, had written to the BOI requesting permission to employ a Chinese doctor.

In a letter dated January 29, the Additional Secretary to the Health Ministry had written to the BOI that they had no objection to granting approval for the medical practitioner.

However, when The Sunday Times visited the location where the health centre, and the nightclub were sited we saw only a nightclub board and no health centre board.

The director of the CCD appealed for public assistance and tip-offs to curb this racket. He said people were often reluctant to get involved in such matters but there was a need for more civic consciousness. Complaints could be made with full confidentiality on telephone numbers 662330, 662323 or 662311.

SU demands justice for Central Bank victims

Seven years after the Central Bank bomb blast carried out by the LTTE destroyed the lives of nearly a hundred, the Sihala Urumaya party has called on the relatives of victims to seek justice by appearing as petitioners in the case against those harbouring Velupillai Prabhakaran.

A press release issued by its Deputy Secretary-Media, Udaya Gammanpila said "We are ready to bring Anton Balasingham, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan and Thamilchelvan before the courts of law. Furthermore, persons such as Austin Fernando, Bernard Goonetilleke, Rauff Hakeem and Arumugam who are aware of the place where Prabhakaran is hiding but are not informing the police should be brought before the courts." Clamouring for the payment of adequate compensation for the victims of the Central Bank bomb blast, Sihala Urumaya states that if the government does not have sufficient funds for this purpose the organisation which caused this death and destruction should come forward. The Sihala Urumaya is planning to form an association for the victims of the Central Bank bomb explosion with a view to achieving these objectives.

Controversy over antidote test at Kurunegala hospital

By Faraza Farook
A research testing of antidotes at the Poisons Unit of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital has been opposed by some doctors in the hospital.

The research is being done in collaboration with the Oxford University and Colombo Medical Faculty under the aegis of the Health Secretary.

Some hospital doctors claim that the testing of a new antidote on patients brought to the poisons unit has resulted in increased deaths.

However, contrary to this claim, the Hospital Director Dr. Ananda Gunasekera told The Sunday Times that deaths due to use of the new antidote has been reduced.

"Deaths at trials is 5% while usually, prior to the use of the new antidote, the death rate was 18%".

Under the conventional method of treating poisoned patients, a tube is inserted into the patient's mouth and liquids fed into it forcing the patient to vomit.

"This method is old and has a high rate of mortality and morbidity. Sometimes the tube can go elsewhere like the lungs and the situation can get complicated resulting in the death of the patient" he said.

Under the new method a particular type of charcoal called 'activated charcoal' is used.

Here, 50 ml. of charcoal is mixed with a lot of water and given to the patient.

The mixture is said to absorb all the poison in the stomach which is then passed with the faeces.

"This method is used in several developed countries and we are now looking at introducing it here," Dr. Gunasekera said.

The study had also been conducted at Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura hospitals.

Police look for link in bank heists

By Tania Fernando
Police are viewing closed circuit camera recordings at the two private banks which were robbed last week in the Talangama police area.

They are trying to see whether there is a link between the two gangs armed with T56 rifles and pistols, which had robbed the banks and got away with millions of rupees.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank at Pelawatta was robbed on Friday morning around 11 a.m. and Rs. 5.6 million consisting of US, Canadian and Australian dollars and SL rupees were stolen.

OIC Crimes of Talangama Police, SI W J Pathirana said that four men had entered the bank with a T-56 rifle and a pistol and forced the manager to open the safe.

"They had taken the money from the safe and from the cashier", he said, adding that they had taken Canadian $50, US$ 1,157 and A$ 250, and the rest in rupees.

A car with a driver was parked outside the bank while four men had entered the bank with weapons, he said. Meanwhile, another bank robbery had taken place on Tuesday (28) around 12.30 p.m. at Malabe. Two armed men had entered the Commercial Bank and got away with Rs. 390,000.

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