Friday, August 11, 2017

Unseemly dispute over the Medamulana D. A. Rajapaksa memorial


By C. A .Chandraprema- 

About a year before the Rajapaksa government was ousted from power, moves were made to build a memorial at the location where the late D. A. Rajapaksa was interred in Medamulana. The spot stands not far away from the home he lived in, which is now occupied by the eldest in the family, parliamentarian and former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa. On 26 February 2014, a decision was taken at the Board meeting of the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC) giving covering sanction for the release of Rs. 10 million as an advance payment to begin the work on the memorial. The board also approved the release of the balance installments as and when requested with the total estimate being Rs. 33.9 million. It was also specifically stated in the minutes of this board meeting that the funds for this project will be received from various sources, and that collection of the same would be done by a committee.

Earlier on 27 January 2014, the Director General Civil Engineering of the Navy had written to the SLLRDC giving the total estimate for the civil works of the monument as Rs. 33.9 million according to the design that had been provided to them. They had also asked for an advance of Rs. 10 million to begin the work. The memorial was opened on 6 November 2014, but had not been formally handed over by the Navy to the D. A. Rajapaksa Foundation, due to a leak in the ornamental pond which resulted in water seeping into the exhibition area of the memorial which had to be attended to. In the meantime, the government changed. On 4 August 2015, the Rajapaksa Foundation wrote to the General Manager of the SLLRDC requesting that the memorial be handed over to the Foundation along with the final bill for reimbursement.

On 21 August 2015, the General Manager of the SLLRDC wrote back to the Rajapaksa Foundation stating that they were in the process of preparing the final bill which will be sent to them shortly, and asking for an advance payment of Rs. 25 million. On 31 August 2015, The Rajapaksa Foundation notified the GM of the SLLRDC that Rs. 25 million had been paid into the bank account of the SLLRDC and once again requested that the completed project be handed over to the Foundation. Shortly thereafter, the GM of the SLLRDC wrote to the Rajapaksa Foundation enclosing the final bill for a whopping Rs. 81 million - well over twice the originally estimated cost. This letter was dated 28 August 2015, but was obviously sent after the advance payment of Rs. 25 million had already been paid to the SLLRDC by the Rajapaksa Foundation.

The Rajapaksa Foundation wrote back to the GM of the SLLRDC on 14 September 2015 reminding them that the SLLRDC had (just an year earlier in 2014) conveyed to them that the total cost of the memorial would be Rs. 27 million (which becomes Rs.33.9 million with the addition of the contingencies fund and government taxes.) The Rajapaksa Foundation has asked for a detailed final bill and final BOQ in order to ascertain the actual cost incurred on this project. Where things have ended up now is that the SLLRDC has sent a letter of demand through the legal firm of Jayaratne Associates to Chamal Rajapaksa the Chairman of the D. A. Rajapaksa Foundation with copies to the other board members of the Foundation, asking for the remaining Rs. 56 million (Rs.81 million minus the Rs. 25 million already paid).

We learn that the final bill had ballooned to an estimate of Rs. 81 million is because the construction of the D. A. Rajapaksa memorial had been lumped together with some other minor projects being carried out by the LLRDC in that area including the building of a police station and referred to collectively the ‘Weeraketiya Project’. The costs of the other projects too had been included under the D. A. Rajapaksa memorial project and charged to the Foundation. There may have been some genuine overlap such as when people or material is transported to be distributed to all the Weeraketiya projects. But whether such costs should be charged on the Foundation is questionable.

Even though the memorial is not government property as such, it’s a public monument to an important leader in the South. No private person can make any personal use of this memorial and it is for all practical purposes a public property. Its cost was met with private donations from many sources. For example the stone ‘punkalas’ that can be seen in the picture were donated by two parties – the labour to carve them out was donated by a skilled stone mason and the material for him to work on by a private company. The glass structures that one sees in the photo were fabricated and installed under the sponsorship of yet another private company.

The glass panels inside the monument were all donated by a well known glass company. The air conditioner in the display room was donated by a company that sells air conditioners. The wax figures too were donated by an artiste donating his labour with a private company providing him with the material. Other donations were in monetary terms to reimburse the cost of building the memorial. All the present complications could have been avoided if the D. A. Rajapaksa Foundation had asked any one of the large construction companies in this country to build this memorial – they would have done the entire project free and then there would have been no excessive estimates or letters of demand to contend with. That however is never the best way to proceed in matters like this to which many people would like to contribute, and make their contribution known. A memorial Foundation seeks to keep alive in the memories of the living, people who once bestrode the scene as colossi and that can only be achieved by getting as many people as possible to participate.

The best way for the government to resolve this dispute may be to get valuations of all other works done in the Weeraketiya-Medamulana area during the relevant period by the SLLRDC and to apportion costs according to a reasonable formula. We learn that a valuation of the memorial was in fact carried out in January 2017 and it has been valued at the cost of building it – the same Rs. 33.9 million that it was originally estimated to cost - which stands to reason because this is not a property which has any commercial or residential value. The Rajapaksa Foundation had since paid a further Rs.9 million thus meeting the full cost of the project as originally estimated.

The most important thing to note is that a project that was estimated to cost Rs.33.9 million in 2014, can’t possibly increase to Rs. 81 million by 2015 especially when all the work had been completed by November 2014 and all that needed to be done in 2015 were just some repairs to one malfunctioning feature. The cost of the project could have increased only if the design and structure had been changed after construction had begun. But there was no such change in the design either. So, clearly, there has been some lumping together of other work done by the SLLRDC in the Weeraketiya area with that of the D. A. Rajapaksa memorial. Harshana de Silva the then Chairman of the SLLRDC told the present writer that when the civil works of the memorial was nearing completion, one of his senior officers had informed him that they were coming close to the estimated cost. De Silva had thereupon instructed the officer to obtain any further money needed from private contributors without overshooting the budget for the project.

De Silva says that until the moment he relinquished his position as Chairman of the SLLRDC in January 2015, he is certain that the budget of Rs. 33.9 million was never exceeded because if it had been, he would definitely have been informed about it. He says that the complication has arisen because of the lumping together of all work done in the Weeraketiya area during that period under the common rubric of ‘Weeraketiya project’ instead of accounting for the costs of each project separately. Be that as it may, this must be the first time ever, that a government agency is having a dispute with a statutory charitable foundation over the cost of a memorial for a political colossus of the past.

The irony of it is that when it comes to memorials for other political notables for the past, it is the government that has to provide the land on which it stands and it’s often in a prime urban location. In this case however, the government has not had to provide anything - neither the cost of building the memorial nor the land on which its stands because it was built in the actual spot where D.A.Rajapaksa was interred. The government’s role had been in the implementation of the project through the SLLRDC and its construction by the Navy with the cost being borne by private contributors. Yet there is a dispute with regard to exactly how much has to be paid to the SLLRDC. Even a layman unfamiliar with construction matters will however find it hard to believe that a building estimate could change from Rs. 33.9 million in 2014 to Rs.81 million in 2015 without any change in the design or proportions of the building especially when it had been completed by November 2014 with only minor corrections left for 2015.