Unravelling ‘un’cultured spending

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

Allegations with regard to the misuse of the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) have been in the news for the last few years. Yet, the issues remain unanswered.

As learnt by The Sunday Morning, a massive amount of money of the CCF has been misused by various parties during the last few years, mainly due to the lack of a proper financial management mechanism within the fund and other responsible authorities of the fund.

As a result, large sums of money have been distributed among various parties for various reasons, for which there is no proper evidence presented by the fund, it is learnt.

Nevertheless, the misappropriations that had occurred during the previous Government came to light after the new Government came into power last year.

Accordingly, a recent report by the committee appointed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to investigate the financial irregularities at the CCF revealed that Rs. 11 billion was misappropriated during the three-year period from 2016 to 2019.

The report submitted by the committee, comprising former High Court Judge Gamini Sarath Edirisinghe, former Secretary to Cabinet Ministry Gotabaya Jayaratne, and Senior Attorney-at-Law Hariguptha Rohanadheera, has stated that the withdrawals from fixed deposits and loss of interest for those funds caused a loss of Rs. 2.6 billion, while Rs. 753 million was spent without approval for construction purposes under the “Sisu Daham Sevana” programme.

The report further highlighted a loss of Rs. 48 million incurred in the process of converting the income generated via tourist tickets from dollars to rupees.

It also alleged that the contribution of Rs. 2.3 billion for the Archaeology Trust Fund was neglected, and had been used for other work unlawfully. Moreover, there has allegedly been a loss of Rs. 8 million in the process of handing over the assets of the “Ape Gama” project, while Rs. 2.3 billion was distributed as cultural donations and grants without proper approval, neglecting the staff requirement limit, and as a result, it had incurred a loss of Rs. 3 billion for salary and bonus overheads and the withdrawal of funds unlawfully. Further, Rs. 400 million was withdrawn from its fixed deposit account during the presidential election in 2019 without any approval.

Pending approval

However, as learnt by The Sunday Morning, the majority of the funds have been released by the CCF on pending approvals as the board which is supposed to approve the withdrawal of funds hardly met, as it was difficult to put together all the members of the board.

In terms of the Central Cultural Fund Act No. 57 of 1980, the secretary of the ministry in charge of the subject of cultural affairs functions as the Chief Administrative Officer of the CCF, while the director general functions as the head of the institution. The overall functions of the CCF operate under three divisions; development, administration, and finance, headed by three directors.

The CCF is essentially a research-driven and facilitating institution. As such, 80% of the financial and human resource inputs are assigned for research programmes and/or facilities. The Archaeological Survey Department also sets apart certain financial and human resources inputs for this purpose.

As alleged by one of the former directors attached to the CCF who wished to remain anonymous, the decisions with regard to the distribution of such funds should be taken by a special board which comprises the Prime Minister, the Minister and Deputy Ministers of Cultural Affairs, the secretaries, and several other officials including those attached to the CCF.

Nevertheless, the former director alleged that there were no regular meetings and the funds had been allocated pending board approvals.

Allegations against former ministers

Allegations have been levelled against former Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa for the misappropriation of funds of the CCF – one of the principal heritage management institutions in the country during the previous Government.

Under former Minister Kariyawasam, a total alleged distribution of Rs. 500 million among 1,000 temples around the country, without following the proper procedures, of which the majority are from the Kurunegala District, has been questioned.

As alleged by one of the former directors, no criteria were given for the selection process of the temples and no reason had been given as to why the money had been distributed, and there was no evidence to prove whether the exact amount was granted to the temples or not. The money had been distributed in parallel to the celebration of the former Prime Minister’s 70th birthday, he alleged.

However, when contacted by The Sunday Morning, former Minister of Education Kariyawasam denied the allegation, claiming that the funds were distributed among 1,500 temples while following all required processes, based on the requirements of the temples.

He further denied that the monies had been distributed among the temples parallel to the former Prime Minister’s 70th birthday celebration.

In addition, allegations were levelled against former Housing, Construction, and Cultural Affairs Minister Sajith Premadasa for the misappropriation of millions of rupees from the fund. Responding to the allegations, he explained that the funds were used for the development of the country and not for the benefit of individuals or companies. Further, he particularly maintained that Rs. 1,598 million was withdrawn from the deposits to face the damages of the Easter Sunday attacks.

Considering and reconsidering

When contacted by The Sunday Morning, State Minister of National Heritage, Performing Arts, and Rural Arts Promotion Vidura Wickramanayake said his Ministry would conduct a survey on all national heritage sites and would list them down in order to protect these sites while promoting them among locals and foreigners.

“As we realised, in Sri Lanka, there is no comprehensive list of national heritage sites. Although people consider only the UNESCO World Heritage Sites as national heritage sites, Ayurvedic medicine, performing arts, etc. can also be considered national heritage sites,” he added.

“As of now, in Sri Lanka, most of the revenue earned by the CCF is through selling tickets to World Heritage Sites. Therefore, the existing system should be considered and reconsidered so as to pave the way for more heritage sites to be recognised,” the State Minister added. However, the CCF is under the purview of the Prime Minister and the recommendations given by the committee is yet to be implemented.