A clumsy clarification
The last minute dash by Urban Development Minister Dinesh Gunawardene to grant outgoing President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga state land has stirred a hornets' nest. Not forgotten too is the way her mother Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike signed deeds on the eve of the introduction of Land Reform in 1972 to avoid ancestral property being vested with the state.
Her supporters hailed Ms Bandaranaike as the only world leader to donate her own lands, but her last-minute deed signing became the thrust of a vote of no confidence by the joint opposition at the time. She survived, but it cast doubts on her integrity as a political leader.

There has been no precedent of Heads of State or Heads of Government in Sri Lanka being given state land. For hundreds of years, colonial Governors would go back to England on retirement and, since Independence, to their private residences. Governors General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and William Gopallawa did just that as did Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and D.B. Wijetunga and Prime Ministers Sir John Kotelawela, Dudley Senanayake, W. Dahanayake and Ranil Wickremesinghe.

If the incumbent President or Prime Minister died in office, their widows returned to their homes. It was Hema Premadasa who broke this tradition by not going back to her private residence 'Sucharita' in Hulftsdorp. She took a state bungalow instead. They were all given some security, staff and a stipend.

So, the decision to grant President Kumaratunga 1 1/2 acres to build her own house stands out as an exception to the rule - an unprecedented step - that would break yet another tradition in this country. Minister Gunawardene has taken almost three weeks - to further clarify the cabinet decision.

He says this is not the same land on which her government spent some Rs. 700 million on the proposed Presidential Palace. Then he says, "It is located at a far corner of the same stretch of land!"

The minister then refers to a UNP Government plan to develop the Colombo Fort, the new administrative capital of Sri Jayawardanapura-Kotte and President Kumaratunga's support for this plan. But what happened?
She went on to reside at President's House and this made Fort out-of-bounds for others. The minister refers finally to security considerations for the outgoing President. There is one matter that he has omitted. When making such clarifications, especially to the public, there must be Oberima fide (maximum good faith ).

He leaves out the fact that this state land is a free-hold gift to the President. Or is it not? He talks of plans to redevelop the Kotte area but in effect, this gift would mean that President Kumaratunga or her heirs can sell this land to anyone.

The minister must tell the country if this is the position or not.
The President's Office has announced that she will build and maintain the house. Nice as it sounds, there seems to be a catch here. Once the state land is granted, it becomes the private property of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Such things have happened in the recent past - under the stewardship of President Kumaratunga herself. We still have not had a proper explanation of what happened to parts of the state land - UDA land - acquired by late President J.R. Jayewardene in 1978 around the new Parliament area in Kotte for the development plan the minister is referring to.

But President Kumaratunga put up a cabinet paper and gave some of this land near Pita-Kotte, on the approach to the new Parliament free to so-called Japanese and local investors for a BOI project to start a golf course.
Then, those so-called investors sold the permit for Rs. 150 million (officially) to a businessman, who recently hosted UNP lawyers at the state-of-the art golf club he has built there.

To whom did he pay the Rs. 150 million plus? To the so-called investors introduced to the cabinet by the President? And who were those who got that sum of big bucks just for knowing the President?

Now, this is the fear.
If the President needs a state bungalow, so be it. There is no dispute about her security needs. But the clumsy way the issue has been handled leaves much to be desired, especially by those who preach about political morals and the sacrifices they make for the people they serve.

This is a classic case of serving one's self - and the Sinhala saying " hende athey thiyanakota, kagen ahhannado" ( when the spoon is in your hand, who is there to ask) comes to mind.

What is required is a re-assessment of the situation, on a needs-based basis. And to ensure that the President is given a state bungalow, if she needs one, that will revert to the state (the people) some day - and not, for instance, be turned into - another exclusive privately-owned golf club for the rich and famous.

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