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Making of a Minister– Chamal vs. Sajin

At a meeting called by Minister Chamal Rajapaksa on May 2, to discuss the Aviation industry in general and for the new Board of SriLankan Airlines to officially meet the Minister as one body, there was an indication of how far the Minister has come in getting to grips with problems faced by the industry. It came about when the CEO of Mihin Lanka was summoned moments earlier, to answer to the Minister himself, various discrepancies at Mihin Lanka, in advance of questions being raised in Parliament of this operation.

 Minister Rajapaksa was not happy with the explanations provided by Sajin Gunawardena and, in frustration, summoned the presidential aide for a meeting. Grilling Sajin Gunawardena in a manner that would have done a Kroll Investigator proud, the Minister reminded Sajin that it was he – the Minister – who was responsible to Parliament and that, he wanted the facts as they were, without the frills that Sajin usually resorted to.

 Desperate to deflect the Ministers’ attention from a direct line of questioning that was becoming more focused by the minute, Sajin blurted out that he was not happy that Mihin Lanka was not being given a continued monopoly as a budget carrier out of Sri Lanka. Sajin told the Minister that Mihin was now being restructured and that he needed a monopoly to ensure its success.

In a dramatic moment, the soft-spoken Minister told a visibly upset Sajin that, there was no harm in allowing other local companies to indulge in the aviation sector. They were, after all, using their own money and backing their own business plans. If they were confident to put their money in this business and were willing to enter a risky business that was up to them and we must not block them.

Quite taken aback by the Minister’s thinking, Sajin spluttered that it was not fair and that, SriLankan Airlines had a monopoly which had only run out a year ago and that was why SriLankan was a success.

 Chamal Rajapaksa, visibly warming to the debate and spurred perhaps by the young man’s growing discomfort said that, when Air Lanka was set up, there was no monopoly, just a lack of interest from the private sector to enter a largely unknown industry. But that, when SriLankan was set up, the government granted that concession, as it was important to secure Emirates’ investment. Ever since, there has been growing dissatisfaction at the deal and there were some who said that the growth of the aviation industry was hampered because of that deal.

 “Times have changed,” said Chamal. If Mihin wants to be a success it was up to them to attract the customers by providing a good service and by being prudent in how to manage a project of that magnitude.

 He added that, after all, unlike Sajin, others were using their money – not money belonging to the people. He said it was more important for Sajin to be more responsible with those funds. The Minister was well briefed: he reminded Sajin that mismanagement and the structure at Mihin was the root cause of that airline’s problems and they had to be addressed. Those drawbacks could not be addressed by continuing a protectionist attitude. With better planning, management and greater financial control, the Minister was certain that Mihin could be turned around.

The punch line was yet to come: Minister Chamal asked Sajin how he intended coping with the growing number of budget airlines outside Sri Lanka, planning on adding Colombo as a destination. Under bilateral agreements, Sri Lanka could not stop them from coming – so, why should Sri Lanka stop locals from taking part in that business, when international airlines had already started. He cited a growing list of airlines coming into Colombo or who had plans to come to Colombo – even Emirates had announced plans for a low cost airline, RAS Airways was already here as was Air Arabia, Deccan, Sahara, Jet and new entrants like Al Jazeera, Nasser Air and others from Saudi Arabia would all, no doubt, come to Colombo. So, how, the Minister asked Sajin, did he propose to stop them!!

 It was the Cabinet of Ministers who had decided on this strategy, as they all felt that by encouraging more activity in the aviation sector, it would benefit Mihin too – services would be easier to obtain, and the competition would surely bring down prices for aircraft. Associated businesses like training schools, would be able to flourish, as would other aviation industries.
 Sajin realised then that, the Minister was no idle mind. He had studied the case, was well briefed and had the backing of his colleagues in Cabinet. Uncharacteristically, Sajin backed off, but the Minister had made his point. Others presnet, including ministerial secretaries, SriLankan officials and Aviation Authority representatives were privy to government policy to revive the industry.


Opportunities gone with the wind
 Sajin, who is a master of the canard, sat in on this meeting as the CEO of Mihin. It was the same man, who had, a few days ago, as things were getting too hot for him, with exposure after exposure on the shortcomings at Mihin including the use of funds to strike a “deal” on ground handling equipment, attempted to deflect attention by dramatically announcing his resignation. Sajin even had his photograph taken with his staff, before telling them and reporters too, that he was stepping down.

 Here was a man, who, the government had handpicked to enter one of the world’s fastest growing industries, who was backed to the hilt financially, who was granted a monopoly for greater comfort, who had all the power and influence, had just frittered away the US$ 20 million and who, after a year’s operation, had nothing to show.

 If he was clever and professional, as he makes out to be, after a years’ operations, he should have had, not two aircraft but, at least 10. Instead of having taken the region by storm, his project has only served to epitomize the inefficiency and lack of focus that the world has come to expect from Third world nations.

 Having squandered US$ 20 million from the hard pressed Treasury, having announced his resignation in light of the growing storm over the manner in which the money was spent, he arrived at the Ministry only after it became apparent that the government was considering giving even more money to Mihin. Is it not reasonable for the people of this country to believe that Sajin did not actually step down because he wants his finger in the second pie of hard pressed Dollars that is about to be released to Mihin Lanka?

 His resignation is nothing more than a red herring:  he has neither informed the Treasury nor the rest of the Mihin Board that, he has stepped down. Instead, trying to be master of the spin, he also announced his resignation in interviews granted to the Fifth Estate.

Responsible and professional Managers do not seek the comfort of resignations to parachute out of an airline whilst it is in the process of crash landing.

 Winds of change blowing at Aviation HQ
 The Aviation industry is undergoing a sea of change, with new faces being brought in. Changes include the replacement of Ministry Secretary, Thilak Collure with Thosapala Hewage, with effect from Monday.

The Civil Aviation Authority Board has also been asked to resign, to make way for a new Board. Veteran Paddy Mendis, who was Chairman, has also been replaced with the widely respected former Director General, Lal Liyanarachi. Included in the line up is legal eagle, Javed Yousuf. One time consultant, Sugath Rajapaksa, has also been appointed to the new Board.