Proposed Oluvil port caught in centre of storm

Mar 1 (IL) Hitting out at President Chandrika Kumaratunga's claim that the Oluvil harbour project's financial transaction was irregular and immoral, an angry Port Development Minister Rauff Hakeem said yesterday that her claim was 'entirely false' and he was going to lodge a complaint with the Elections Commissioner and other election monitoring organisations on how Ms. Kumaratunga is making use of the state media to hurl mud at her political rivals.

While pointing out that the Oluvil project was not an election eve port deal as claimed by her, but was actually a project which has a history of about seven years, that began under the leadership of the late Ports Minister M.H. M. Ashraff in 1997, he said "the President should note that the whole process has started long before the dissolution of Parliament and it was purely by accident that the final Cabinet approval was given after the dissolution," he said.

He also noted that he was unable to take the matter to courts as Ms. Kumaratunga enjoyed immunity from suit but added that he was likely to sue the state media for the sum of Rs. 550 million.

Meanwhile if the Ports Ministry fails to grant the necessary compensation to the affected 600 families who are to be relocated due to the project before March 31, the agreement between Denmark's funding agency which is providing the Euro 31.5 million on soft loan terms for the construction of the port will be cancelled after March 31, resulting in the authorities having to start seeking the necessary funding all over again.

Defending his decision to contest Ampara, he said it had nothing to do with the project but was a sudden decision taken for his political party's benefit as Ampara is the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress' party base.

"Ms. Kumaratunga has alleged that my ministry and the Ports Authority have taken some monies for the polls. This is false," he said.

The Presidential Secretariat claims that the Treasury has already issued a cheque to the value of Rs. 540 million to the Ports Development Ministry Secretary for the project was refuted by Minister Hakeem. He said " The Treasury has not given a cent for this project," adding that there were 'various discrepancies' in Ms. Kumaratunga's allegations.

"The move is to merely tarnish my image," he claimed. He stressed that the entire project's dealings were very transparent and he did not interfere at any instance during any transaction carried out by the relevant officials.

President Kumaratunga on Tuesday forwarded a memorandum to the Cabinet requesting it not to proceed in terms of the decision taken on February 17 to spend Rs.555.8 million to purchase a block of land for the Oluvil Port Development project. A press release issued by the Presidential Secretariat also stated that the value of this land has not yet been approved by the Government Valuer.

However Mr. Hakeem said even though the Government Chief Valuer's valuation was obtained in June 2003, the landowners affected by the project, were not happy with the valuation given. hence things had come to a standstill. The landowners were of the view that the valuation was very low when compared to the market value of land in the area; the houses, buildings and trees have not been valued at the market price and the value was not sufficient to purchase the same extent of land within the area or in the neighbouring villages.

He added that after appraising the Cabinet on the matter, two committees consisting of officials from relevant agencies were appointed, which later submitted a very comprehensive report.

"Officials of the Central Advisory Committee of the Prime Minister also examined these reports after summoning the entire committee including the Chief Government Valuer who concurred with the contents of the report," he said. Meanwhile Mr. Hakeem had replied to President Kumaratunga's allegation in a three-page letter yesterday clarifying the situation.

Meanwhile, the cabinet of ministers has decided to go ahead and pay the compensation to the people in Oluvil despite President Chandrika Kumaratunga's objection.