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Minister of Higher Education and Highways and Leader of the House of Parliament, Lakshman Kiriella speaks to the Rivire Media group on the allegations regarding the construction of the Central Expressway and issues related to the matter.

Q: There are so many allegations regarding the construction of the Central Expressway. The accusing finger is directed at you. Your comments?
We called tenders for the construction of the Central Expressway. The Japanese government said that they would name three construction companies and asked us to select one of them.

Q: Why did the Japanese government intervene in that?
The Japanese government financed this project. Only the Tisay road construction company forwarded a bid and other two companies not participated in the bidding process. So, we decided to offer the tender to that company for 159 million dollars but the tender was cancelled as that company failed to sign the agreement.
Then we queried from the Japanese government about the next step to be taken as the selected bidder did not forward the bid bond. The Japanese government advised us to call tender bids again and said they would ask Tisay to bid again and promised to send another bidder too.
Our ministry secretary opined that some more bidders should be invited to make the bidding more competitive. In pursuant to that Japan sent the name of the Fujita Construction Company.
Fujita forwarded a bid for 144 million dollars which was 12 million dollars less than the Tisay’s bid. Subsequently, Tisay reduced their bid to 134 million dollars and as a result, the tender board decided to award the tender to Tisay.
Fujita is a reputed construction company but their bid was turned down as they had not carried out any major construction project during the past five years.

Q: What happened next?
Fujita and Tisay negotiated in Japan and came to an agreement for Tisay to accept the tender and Fujita to assist the construction work.

Q: Did the cabinet approve that decision?
Yes. The economic committee headed by the premier approved it. Then I forwarded a cabinet paper which was approved twice by the cabinet headed by the President. The cabinet offered the tender to Tisay but allowed Fujita to collaborate with Tisay. That is it.

Q: There were several expressway projects in the past but why was this fuss over the Central Expressway project tender?
The previous government did not call tender bids for highway constructions. Mahinda offered tenders to any person he wished without calling tenders, therefore, there was no competitive biddings. If we wanted to offer the tender to Fujita we would have done it in the similar way done in the past but we did not follow that irregular procedure.

Q: There are allegations that certain irregularities took place in this tender procedure.
Not a single cent was defrauded. This is a damn lie to discredit the government.

Q: You alleged that there are some sections to sabotage this project. Is it true?
This project was initiated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as far back as 2001 when he was the premier but his government was defeated in 2004. As the UNP won Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya districts in the 2005 Presidential elections, Mahinda’s government which won the election shelved the project due to this reason.
When we regained power in 2015 we restarted the project. In the Presidential elections in 2015 we pledged to revive this project and as a result, the UNP gained a majority of 85,000 votes in the Kandy district alone.
If this project is carried through, the JO felt the present government will become more popular and that is the very reason why some want to sabotage this project.

Q: The COPE Chairman alleges that some irregularities have taken place in the tender awarding exercise.
The COPE Chairman in several media interviews alleged that the minister lined his purse from the project. It is a baseless allegation.
I complained about this accusation made by the COPE chairman to the Speaker who summoned a meeting with COPE chairman and the Auditor General and I too joined it. I questioned COPE chairman Sunil Handunnetti at the meeting about his competency about cost estimation of road construction.
I faulted him for holding media interviews and accusing ministers. If the Auditor General detects any misdeeds in awarding tenders, the COPE chairman is empowered to question the accused minister.
Handunnetti as the chairman has the power similar to a judge in these matters. He has no right to prejudge ministers without probing the accusation.

Q: It is alleged that you abused the COPE chairman.
I did not abuse him but I explained him to query me on Auditor General’s observations and not to question me at the behest of other JVP members.
He admitted his fault to which the Speaker also agreed and faulted him for holding media briefings to accuse ministers.

Q: Did the President make any allegation recently regarding the Central Expressway project?
No, such thing happened. He only called for a meeting. But to our surprise, the details of the discussion have been given to the media without our knowledge.

Q: How did it come to such a pass?
I am also puzzled how it happened. We only had an intra- government meeting. The details of it had been released to the media without our permission and what had been released to the media were parts of the discussion disadvantageous to the government.
Though I wanted to query this from the President but he left the country on the following day.

Q: Both you and the premier accused that there is a media organization behind this machination.
Yes, there is a media organization which attempts to scuttle this tender awarding in order to award it to its favourites, so that, it can earn commissions. The premier made a statement in Parliament for about half an hour regarding this matter.

Q: When will this project be completed?
By 2020 we will complete this project no matter the drawbacks we face. That is a firm pledge given to the masses. This Expressway will benefit many districts in the area.

Q: What will happen to the local government elections?
All the elections will be held under one system. The local government elections will be held under the mixed system of 60 percent on ward basis and the other 40 percent on the proportional basis. This system will be introduced to the provincial councils and parliamentary elections subsequently.

Q: What is the internal crisis in the government?
There is no rift at all within the government. We earlier thought that some members will break away from the government but no one crossed over and we succeeded in garnering two thirds majority in Parliament at the Provincial Councils Bill voting. There are discussions going on with us by certain JO members to join the government to replace the cross-overs to fill the ministerial vacancies.

Q: Why do they hesitate?
How can we offer ministerial posts to those who cross over to the government partyfrom the JO as there is a restriction on the number of ministers according to the 19th Amendment? We have reached to that limit now. Otherwise they will join us in hordes.

Q: Is there any misunderstanding between the President and the UNP?
There is no any misunderstanding whatsoever. There is a very cordial rapport between the President and the premier. No one can disrupt that. Those who rumored to cross over remained in the government and they promised me personally that they would not leave the government. That is the plain truth.

Q: What is the progress of the new constitution making?
We will introduce it soon. That is our pledge to the country at the last two elections. We will never get this opportunity again. Tamil parties never supported to any new constitutions introduced in 1972 and 1978. This is the first time that all the Tamil parties extend their support to make a new constitution. The country needs a new era. With peace dawn on the country we need a constitution that is agreeable to all stakeholders.

(Translated by Ananda Elkaduwa)