By Rusiripala Tennakoon –
“We may all be deceived; but monarchs rarely hear the truth: if they do not seek it, it seldom appears to them”.JOURNAL OF A VOYAGE TO BRAZILMARIA GRAHAM
“We are never completely contemporaneous with our present. History advances in disguise; it appears on stage wearing the mask of he preceding scene, and we tend to lose the meaning of the play. Each time the curtain rises, continuity has to be re-established . The blame of course is not history’s, but it lies in our vision, encumbered with memory and images learned in the past. We see the past superimposed on the present, even when the present is a revolution.”
The above quote is from the book, written by Regis Debray, about which Jean Paul Sartre wrote an anecdote, “Regis Debray has been arrested by the Bolivian Authorities, not for having participated in guerilla activities, but for having written a book-Revolution in the revolution?
The word ‘revolution’ is irrelevant to the present context I am about to discuss. Nevertheless, the main reference is highly applicable to the scenario to be spotlighted.
In the media highlights our attention was focused to a foundation laying ceremony on 28th May 2021, in the City of Colombo with the digital participation (Zoom technology) of the Prime Minister Rajapaksa. It was the Foundation laying for the new Headquarters building of the second largest State-Owned Bank, Peoples Bank. Indeed, history will record this as an important milestone in the forward march of the Bank.
While things remain so, there arise many other concerns relevant and current to this project which are to be discussed here.
The plaque shown below was put up at this new building site on 19th February 2019, following a grand ‘ground breaking ceremony’ given wide publicity in the media then. Photographs of commencement of Piling operations for the proposed new building too were published in the media. As it was the same site where the Foundation laying ceremony was held on 28th May 2021, it has given rise to wide speculations raising the eyebrows in conjecture.
Is this a new project?
If so, what happened to the one launched on 19th February 2019 with much pomp and ceremony, with tom-tom beating, and religious activities required for an auspicious start of a magnificent project. Pictures of the then CEO accompanied by his team of famous clique of top officials (most of them since retired into their extravagantly supported retirement living by the bank !). There were several photographs of the event showing CEO, Namasivayam Vasantha Kumar operating a pile driving machine clad in safety attires with metal protective gear round his head. I chose to mention this specially because it shows the vigour and the speed how this new building project started to proceed.
Actually, what happened to that project? More than two years later, the Peoples Bank is laying the foundation stone for the same project under the Auspices of the Prime Minister of the country!
Why did the first project stop after the first day of pile driving operation? Did the then government of RW/ MS clamp it down for some unpublished reason? There was no Covid threat then. April terrorist attack too had not taken place. The Ceremony was launched without the participation of the all powerful then chairman of the Bank, Hemasiri Fernando. Why? Any special reason for his absence for such a landmark event launched by the Bank while he was heading it? Even if he had tendered his resignation from the post of the Chairman by then, he could have still graced the occasion unless there was some antipathy. The next relevant question that comes into our minds is, whether it is that antipathy that stalled the project for two years for another regime to re-start it from hibernation!
Some of the events unfolded in and around this period, are worthy of reflection since they may have some bearing on the project and other important happenings associated with the Peoples Bank.
Nissanka Nanayakkara, assumed duties as the new Chairman of the Peoples Bank on Last day of the month of February in 2019.(Vasantha Kumara and his team broke coconuts to start the new HQ building on 19th February 2019). Hemasiri was appointed as Head of Staff of the Presidential Secretariat first and later commissioned as the Defense Secretary of the Country. Someone decided to place him in that vulnerable position before the 2019 April 21st terrorist attack. His removal or being asked to resign from the post of Chairman Peoples Bank therefore was no reason to cause any embarrassment to him.
On 5th September 2019 the COPE of the parliament of Sri Lanka summoned the entire Board of the Peoples Bank along with the Most Senior Corporate management officials to inquire into certain alleged serious lapses and violations of procedures in the Bank. Hemasiri Fernando too participated either in his capacity as the ex-chairman of the bank during the relevant period OR as a current director of the board (if he was continuing as one). Ironically the full team of top officials who participated in the ground breaking new building construction project too were there before the COPE to answer the allegations except Namasivayam Vasantha Kumaran. The latter had by then retired after serving an unauthorized period of extension of service as CEO which itself became a subject of the inquiry before the COPE. It was pointed out by the Parliament COPE committee that a total loss of Rs 15,410,266/= was caused to the Peoples Bank due to the granting of an unauthorized service extension to the CEO Vasantha Kumara ignoring even the pervious warnings given by the COPE. His scheduled date of retirement was 18th October 2018 but he remained in the post due to this extension till 14th April 2019 (6 months) and received salaries, bonuses, and additional bonus payments totaling over 15 Million. Besides this unauthorized extension and the loss caused there is another matter for concern. That is the fact that the Ground Breaking ceremony for the new Heed Quarters building has been during this questionable service extension period of the CEO.
Who hurried this and for what purpose? In the context of certain other highly disputed happenings, the new building project will has to be viewed with a high degree of diligence. COPE queried during their investigation about the irregularity of offering construction contracts violating procurement procedures. COPE cited 13 instances of such violations amounting to a total of Rs.1964 million. Bank has resorted to this process by the creation of a subsidiary company called PEOPLES LEASING PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT COMPANY. Bank had been warned by the Auditors not to do this earlier. But the Board has acted disregarding this direction and granted building contracts to this company in violation both, this specific directive and the procurement procedures. Hemasiri Fernando has served as the Chairman of PLC until 12th October 2019 after his resignation as the Chairman PB. Peoples Leasing Property Development Company was a wholly owned subsidiary of the PLC. The Senior Deputy General Manager M.A.B Silva informed the COPE that Peoples Bank has stopped awarding contracts to PLPDL now (as at 5/9/2019). But it is not clear whether the contract for the New Head Quarters Building which started in February 2019 ( by Vasantha Kumara and his team) too was awarded to that company under the same fake operation strongly disputed by Auditors. Therefore, it is prudent to examine this aspect. WE should not entertain any dubiosity in the matter of such a historic & noble task.
We are compelled to make a passing reference to some expressions of verbal disapproval from certain quarters as unfounded criticisms branding some actions taken and proposals made attributing unjustified and uncreditable motives. For example, if the moving of the Peoples Bank building to new location is degraded as an attempt initiated to release the land to be given over for some other project with an ulterior motive, then the blame has to go to another regime during which the initial proposition was made.
Peoples Bank moved into its current premises in the 70s after two decades of operations from rented or leased out premises. It moved into a State- owned property and to a building constructed by a State Corporation. We still remember how we moved across the road from the GCSU building on parsons Rd. to the new premises declared open by Madam Bandaranaike as the Prime Minister. Now is it a crime to move into a spacious space of their own after 40 years of service to the Nation amidst various adversities. But to our consolation it is always under a regime connected to its founding pioneers that the Peoples Bank has been given some new lease of life throughout its history.
Public is not aware yet about the total investment into this Public Project. But it is being launched at a time when the Central Bank of Sri Lanka has stipulated many conditions limiting the activities of the Commercial banks due to the Covid Pandemic situation. Among those was a specific directive to stop all capital expenditures. Procurement procedures ensure to secure fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution. When Public Funds are spent people expect a degree of Transparency and consistency. The present management , it is strongly believed will take necessary steps to ensure adherence to these requirements.
Banks , in particular the State banks, are heavily saddled with increasing numbers and huge volumes of an unprecedented level of bad loans to be transferred into non- performing sector due to the current economic downturn. Definitely it will be a period for concern in consolidating the affairs of the Banks beyond the guided operations of the regulators. It becomes a responsibility falling on the institution itself calling for the highest degree of austerity and revisiting their expansion programs taking the unpredictability of the current situation seriously. Peoples Bank has to be mindful of many things needed to put the house in order after a long spell of commitments which warrant due addressing and correction as a priority. The new Chairman and the Board of Directors are looked up to move in the correct direction to achieve this. “There are many things to be undone and regularized before venturing into new doings”