Thieves of the soil

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The government is determined to allow a rogue foreign company to exploit the Aruwakkalu ilmenite deposit and cause a huge loss to the State coffers. Pressure is mounting on some public officials to facilitate the corrupt deal expeditiously. Elections are the times when racketeers have a field day in this country, given venal politicians’ enormous appetite for dosh.

In 2015, within a few weeks of the formation of the Yahapalana government, a bunch of racketeers with links to the UNP committed the first Treasury bond scam, which ran into billions of rupees. The UNP, which had been in penury, struggling to pay electricity and water bills at its headquarters, Sirikotha, outspent the UPFA in the run-up to the 2015 general election, a few months later! It has now been revealed that even those who were in the Opposition at the time, benefited from the largesse of the bond scammers. No sooner had the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government been formed than a multi-billion-rupee sugar tax scam was committed by a key financier of the SLPP. The racketeer bankrolled the SLPP’s election campaigns. Now that the Local Government elections are believed to be on the horizon, a sinister attempt is being made to hand over a precious mineral deposit to a foreign company for a song!

Believe it or not, the Rajapaksas are not behind the ilmenite racket! When we blew the lid off it, in June, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took prompt action to stop it, but today the racketeers have crawled out of the woodwork. They have had Chairman of the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation (SLCC) Gamini Ekanayake ousted and are cranking up pressure on current SLCC Chairman Jagath Dharmapriya and other officials to grant the foreign company permission to enter the Aruwakkalu land belonging to the State and exploit ilmenite by paying only royalty, which will amount to a pittance.

The SLCC and the Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd., (SLMSL) planned to launch a joint venture, about one and a half years ago, to extract ilmenite found in overburden red soil removed for limestone quarrying on the 5,352-acre state land at Aruwakkalu, which has a huge ilmenite deposit, according to geologists. The project was expected to yield a great deal of foreign exchange for the country, but the rogue firm, backed by a bunch of corrupt government politicians and officials, scuttled it in a bid to secure the contract for ilmenite extraction; the country will get nothing from this firm other than royalty paid to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB), which is a den of thieves. The GSMB Chairman has been removed and its Director General sent on compulsory leave pending a disciplinary inquiry over a sand mining racket in the East!

The government must give first dibs on ilmenite mining at Aruwakkalu to the SLCC and SLMSL; a joint venture between these two state outfits will help the Treasury rake in as much as USD 300 per metric ton of ilmenite. If it is exported as a value added product, a metric ton thereof will fetch as much as USD 2,200! Value addition is an expensive process that will require the assistance of a foreign investor. If the racket is allowed to be carried out, the country will get only USD 21 per metric ton of ilmenite, as royalty, but the government worthies who are pushing for it will laugh all the way to the bank.

If the government thinks the State should not get involved in the proposed ilmenite extraction project, and a foreign company should be invited, then the contract for it must be awarded in a transparent manner with the financial benefits that will accrue to the country, and the amounts thereof specified in the agreement to be signed. Machines to be brought in should not be considered as an investment because they will end up as scrap iron in a few years. All stakeholders including the Department of Land Commissioner General, the SLCC, the SLMSL, the Treasury, the Attorney General’s Department, and independent experts, etc., must be invited to negotiations on the project so that the greedy crooks will not be able to line their pockets at the expense of the Sri Lankan public. The draft agreement should be presented to Parliament, which is responsible for handling the country’s public finance, before it is inked. The Cabinet cannot legitimise rackets by endorsing them.

Meanwhile, some corrupt elements close to powerful politicians craftily use the latter’s official telephones to pressure public officials to have crooked deals approved. They have not spared even the telephones at Temple Trees, the President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat. Several such incidents were reported under previous Presidents. No President in his or her proper senses will stoop so low as to telephone public officials and intimidate them into approving corrupt deals. President Ranil Wickremesinghe had better find out whether this sordid practice continues, for a group of representatives of the rogue company eyeing the Aruwakkalu ilmenite deposit waited at the SLCC headquarters, on Friday, claiming that a government grandee had ordered the SLCC to issue a letter granting them permission to enter the Aruwakkalu land. They are all out to gain a foothold in the state land, have an Environmental Impact Assessment conducted and then invoke the legal principle of implied consent so that they will have a cause of action. Hence, they must be denied permission to enter the Aruwakkalu land.

The UNP does not seem to learn from its blunders. The Treasury bond scams proved to be its undoing. It was left without a single elected MP at the last general election. The ilmenite racket, if carried out, will be the last nail in its coffin.

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