Colombo Telegraph

Budget 2017 & Its Economic, Political And Social Vision

By R. Sampanthan

R. Sampanthan

This Budget has been presented by the current National Alliance Government comprising of the two main political parties in this country – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party headed by His Excellency President Maithripala Sirisena and the United National Party headed by the Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister, Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs. The Cabinet of Ministers comprises of representatives of both political parties.

It is the objective of these two political parties to give the country a new future – not merely economically but also politically and socially. That indeed was the verdict of the country at both the Presidential Election held in January, 2015 and the Parliamentary Election held in September, 2015. The former regime and its leadership were prominent participants in both those electoral contests. They sought at both elections a further mandate to govern the country. The mandate so sought by them was denied by the people. The people, in the exercise of their sovereignty, have given President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the mandate to govern the country for a period of time as stipulated in the Constitution. That is the sovereign verdict of the people which can only be dislodged in accordance with the Constitution and in no other way. Everybody in this country wants this country to be governed in keeping with the tenets of genuine democracy. These values, the Hon. Speaker, are sacred and need to be protected and preserved.

I want, Sir, in this regard to quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations to which we have acceded. May I quote Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
2. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.”

Unfortunately, that rule is not observed in Sri Lanka, particularly as far as the Tamil people are concerned.

The subparagraph (3) states, I quote:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

That is what, Sir, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains in regard to the will of the people and the consent of the people in regard to the governance of a country. The will of the people as expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage shall be the basis of the authority of Government and that Mr. Speaker, is manifestly clear. In terms of our Constitution, Mr. Speaker, the term of office of Parliament and the President unless earlier terminated lawfully, in keeping with the Constitution, is six years. Under the Nineteenth Amendment, which the President was instrumental in introducing in Parliament, he reduced the term of office of the President to five years though he had been elected by the people for a period of six years. Through the Nineteenth Amendment which was passed in Parliament after the Presidential Election held on 08th January, 2015, the term of office of the President was reduced to five years.

The Hon. Minister of Finance, in the course of his Budget Speech, defined this Government’s economic, political and social vision. May I read paragraph No. 2 of his speech. Sir, this is what he stated, I quote:

“We will continue to progress in the noble endeavor to strengthen democracy, fundamental rights, reconciliation and development for lasting peace, freedom and national integration. Fundamentally, the country is guided by a new vision of lasting peace, built on mutual respect and dialogue. To cement this process, we have formulated an ambitious reforms agenda encompassing all major spheres including social, political, economic and international relations. This national government of Yahapalanaya will focus on reforms to the constitution, restoration and strengthening of the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.”

The vision of the Government, Sir, in my respectful statement, has been very lucidly stated in the statement made by the Minister of Finance in the course of his Budget Speech. Sir, the Government, as I said earlier, is committed to giving this country a new economic, political and social future. We are, for the first time, seeking to evolve a Constitution with the consent of the two main political parties, which alternatively have ruled this country from the time we attained Independence. It has been either of the United National Party or the Sri Lanka Freedom Party which have ruled this country from the time we attained Independence and there is a joint effort now for these two parties to come together to frame a Constitution for this country with the consent of other political parties and the people of this country.

This, Sir, is something new which had not happened before. It will be based on the maximum possible consensus within the framework of a single, undivided and indivisible country. We have had three Constitutions earlier. The first Constitution in 1947 was framed at Independence by our colonial rulers. The second Constitution in 1972 was framed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its left alliance partners without the consent of the other major political party, the United National Party, or the political party substantially representing the Tamil people. The third Constitution was enacted in 1978 framed by the United National Party without the consent of the other major political party – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party -or the political party substantially representing the Tamil people. In other words, Sir, both the 1972 Constitution and the 1978 Constitution were partisan and framed by one single political party with a few alliance partners, without the consent of the other major political party in the country and more particularly, without the consent or the consensus of the Tamil party substantially representing the people in this country at those points of time.

It is anticipated that, for the first time, within the framework of a single, undivided and indivisible country, a Constitution evolved on the basis of a wide consensus, will emerge and that this Constitution will reflect the will of all the people in this country, and be the basis of the authority of Government as stated in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time, Sir, in the history of this country the political party substantially representing the Tamil people – that is the Party which I happened to belong to, the Tamil National Alliance – particularly in the North and the East of this country, will be a party to the Constitution-making process. This would enable the realization of the future vision for this country as enunciated in Para 2 of Part I of the Budget Speech of the Minister of Finance.

Mr. Speaker, I might say a few words on the Budget. “Accelerating Growth with Social Inclusion” has been the theme of the Budget speech. This, Sir, I think is an arduous task.

Growth is difficult when you are neck deep in debt. Our debt stock, according to the statement made by the Finance Minister, is a little over Rs. 9 trillion and a very substantial part of our income, I think almost 90 per cent of our income, goes into debt servicing.

It will be relevant, Sir, for the country to know how such debt was incurred: losses incurred by State-owned enterprises; vast expenditure on massive so-called development projects; for personal kudos which have turned out to be white elephants; infrastructure development at exorbitant cost frequently at more than double the real cost; corruption; extravagance and waste. These are the factors that have contributed to the massive debt that this country has incurred. It may be good for the country to know the truth. When you have to service excessive debt, growth and development is not easy. Important sectors such as education, health and agriculture will inevitably receive much less than what they would be entitled to.

The Government has ambitious programmes to accelerate growth. The Government plans to enter into Free Trade Agreements with several counties – India, China, Singapore, South Korea and several other countries. The Government hopes to receive a great deal of foreign direct investment. One must acknowledge that the world is friendly towards Sri Lanka today: very different from the past and our expectations could therefore materialize.

If that happens, we would manufacture and export to countries with large markets and to other countries too and we should concentrate on enhancing our exports. Traditional exports such as tea, rubber and coconut have declined. We should restore and improve on our earlier performance.

Our garment industry has done well. We should explore new markets for export in different fields. Our Embassies could play an effective role in identifying such markets. We should enter markets close by. I had earlier urged that India was very much in need of various types of pulses and that we should produce such pulses in large quantity and export same to India. That could indeed be a large market.

We do not seem to appreciate the value of our being an Island surrounded by the sea. We do not seem to be fully exploiting our fisheries resources. Properly developed and properly utilized this resource should be one of our biggest exports. We have several lagoons in many parts of this country. We have several lagoons in the Eastern Province particularly in Batticaloa. We do not seem to be exploiting these resources at all. This together with our maritime fisheries is an area that needs careful study and the evolution of programmes of action aimed at export. I do think that there is much potential for export in this area.

We should take lessons from other countries that have developed. Take for example Singapore. After Singapore attained independence, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister, stated that he wanted to develop Singapore on the model of Sri Lanka. He was so happy with the development taking place in Sri Lanka at that point of time. Where has Singapore gone and where are we today? I do not think that our per capita income is equal to one tenth of that of a Singaporean.

Germany was a country, Sir, devastated by the war. In fact, Germany was divided into four parts. One part was controlled by the United States of America; one part by the United Kingdom; one part by France and one part by USSR. The country was divided into four parts. Sometime later, the three parts controlled by the USA, the UK and France came together and the Russian part and the part controlled by the Western powers remained separate for a long period of time. There was the Berlin Wall which came down only about one and half decades ago dividing East Germany and West Germany. Today how extensive is the development they have achieved?

Japan was destroyed by the war. Japan developed after the war. Today, these countries are amongst the biggest economies in the world. Sir, they are not miracles. They are success stories. Commitment to principles and values, intelligent planning, firm implementation, commitment to progress and success are the reasons for the success in these countries. That, Sir, is patriotism.

Patriotism is not promoting exclusion, division and tension within the country so as to survive politically and in the process, derive the maximum personal benefits. This country can be turned around and made a different country. What is required is commitment, honesty and hard work. Our services need to be revamped. Firstly, the Public Service. The Public Service seems to have lost its way. The will to perform at optimum efficiency seems to be absent. Whether this is due to politicization and the Public Service being divided into camps, I do not know. That there has been political meddling is a fact. There is a need to re-energize the Public Service by inculcating in them a sense of duty to the country. Some remedial action needs to be taken. It should not be merely cosmetic. There needs to be deep introspection and the formulation of a programme through which they can be reactivated to serve the country. The Public Service is an important and a valuable instrument in Government activity. We can allow it to further deteriorate only at our own peril. The same applies to the Police Service. The Police Service needs to be transformed into a service committed to observance of the rule of law. Here again, there needs to be an action plan to enlighten them in their duty by the country and their obligation to uphold the rule of law. Politicization has been a malady here too. If the country is to take a new direction politicians too must realize that they should not impede progress in that new direction by interfering with institutions that should function independently.

Education and health are two vital sectors in any country. It is not merely sufficient to say that we provide free education and free health. That is undoubtedly appreciated, but we need to also provide quality education and quality health. I am not for a moment suggesting that the services in these areas are bad, but there is definitely room for improvement, particularly in the rural areas. Inadequacy of financial resources could be the reason for insufficient allocations, but if the country is to move towards real progress it is imperative that education and health services must at least be as good as they need to be and the Government should bear this in mind as a very important component in the new direction that this country proposes to take.

We also need to examine whether the standards of teaching in our schools have dropped. Do we need to restructure present procedures pertaining to recruitment, training, conditions of service and even emoluments to be able to have a more competent and committed Teachers’ Service? I am not for a moment seeking to blame anybody, but it is a question that has consistently arisen in my mind, as to whether the standards of teaching have dropped. We remember our teachers and our days in school. And we know how committed our teachers were, how much we gained from them. Our students need to be provided with the best educational facilities if the country is to do well in the future. Investment on the future generations is the best investment we can make for the future. And we have to address that issue in a practical way. I think, Sir, we should concentrate on the well-being of our students. Our university education needs to be diversified so as to stop producing unemployable graduates and to produce graduates for whom there will be a demand. Vocational training and technical education is another important sphere. If there is foreign direct investment, development and production, we will need a substantial work force with necessary skills and we should prepare for that eventuality by providing our youth with the necessary opportunities to acquire those skills.

I want to refer to some areas where, in terms of the Hon. Finance Minister’s Speech, we import at considerable cost various items which can be produced locally. On the importation of sugar we spend US Dollars 250 to 400 million. On the importation of food products and agriculture-related needs we spend approximately Rs. 200 billion annually. We imported at considerable cost 81,000 metric tons of milk powder.

We are a small country and we should be able to produce with proper planning all the food items we need. The state of our economy is such that we should try through local production to avoid such imports. This is within our capacity.

We need to promote tourism. It is an area with potential for much development. Our beaches and cultural sites have proved to be an attraction. We need to attract quality tourism, tourists who are big spenders.

I wish to say a few words, Sir, about the North and the East. It has been a much neglected area for a long time, both before the war and after the war. Resettlement on their lands from which they were displaced in the entirety of the North and the East, whether it is Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu Trincomalee, Batticaloa or even Ampara, is a prerequisite, is a necessity. Rehabilitation, housing, livelihood including farming on their own land, fishing, animal husbandry, livestock development, should be fully accomplished in 2017. The deprivation and suffering of these affected people cannot be a continuing phenomenon. People are tired of waiting patiently with expectation and now want things to happen. Of the 18 Tamil Members of Parliament elected from the North and the East, 16 are from the Tamil National Alliance, which is more than 90 per cent. Having been elected by the people to represent them, though we are not in the Government, we want to and are willing to work with the Government to accomplish the task that I just outlined. We would like the Government to formulate a programme of work to accomplish that task. I am happy that at least the Leader of the House is here. He is a person with a sympathetic ear. I think the Government needs to formulate a comprehensive programme of work for the North and the East and the Government needs to work with the elected representatives of the people, 16 of them from my Party, in order to be able to accomplish that task. We insist that this happens, and we will take every step that we can to ensure that such a programme of work is started early. It is a task that we cannot ignore any longer; we will play a constructive role in it.

We would also wish tangible progress in the matter of the resettlement of the Muslim people in the North. At a conference with Muslim Civil Society members of the North held recently, it was decided that representatives of the Muslim community, an official representative of the Minister of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs, together with an official representative of the Chief Minister of the Northern Province would work together in order to overcome difficulties and thereby assist in the resettlement of the Muslim people displaced from the North. This is also a matter that needs urgent action. There seems to be a grievance amongst the Muslim people that they have been neglected. I do not think that grievance should continue because it is the policy of the Tamil National Alliance and also of the Tamil people that the Muslim people who were displaced from the North should return and that they should be resettled on their lands with all facilities.

I want to say few words about Trincomalee, which is my constituency and my district, which I have had the privilege of representing this Parliament for a long period of time. There has been Rs. 1000 million allocated for a Trincomalee District development programme. Meaningful development would be development of the people, development of their quality of life: housing, resettlement, rehabilitation, restoration of livelihood; facilities and equipment for the restoration of livelihood; fishing, farming, livestock development, animal husbandry, small industries, cottage industries, medium-scale industries. This is what we need.

I want to refer Sir, to two large irrigation schemes which have much potential in Trincomalee. One scheme is called Peraru, in the North of Trincomalee, where a substantial amount of water flows into the sea and the water is not utilized. All the lands in that area are largely, as we call in Tamil, “Manawari Lands”, depending upon rain-fed cultivation. We should provide those lands with irrigation facilities in which event they can be cultivated in both seasons.

The other scheme, I want to refer to, is a scheme called, “Kalarippu”, in the South of Trincomalee, in Verugal Eachchilampattu area, where again a substantial amount of water flows into the sea. If that water is utilized, several thousands of acres of lands presently under “Manawari Cultivation”, rain-fed cultivation, can be irrigated and the people will be able to cultivate for two seasons. This would lead to the quality of life of several thousands of families in these areas improving in a very substantial way.

These two schemes have been in the pipeline for a long period of time. For one reason or another they have not been implemented. I think, with this money allocated for development of Trincomalee, these two schemes must be given priority and the work must be undertaken. We would impress upon the Government – in fact, I would persuade the President and the Prime Minister, the President is also in charge of the Mahaweli Development and major irrigation schemes – that these two schemes are a priority. They have been pending for a long period of time. In fact, I spoke about Peraru in this Parliament when I came here for the first time in 1977. On account of the war, on account of the conflict, on account of the disturbed situations, things have not taken off. But it must happen now. Before the end of 2017, we want to make substantial progress in these two areas.

Another area of concern in Trincomalee Sir, is coast conservation. There are some vital parts of Trincomalee town and its suburbs facing the grim possibility of early destruction by sea erosion. I wish to identify those areas : Division No.10, Thirukadaloor, Manthottam, Veera Nagar, Alles Thottam and Salli. These are coastal areas, which are facing the grim possibility of destruction as a result of sea erosion. A substantial amount of expenditure is required to save these areas where thousands and thousands of families live and we must ensure that we are able to complete that work and that these people are safe in those areas and they are able to carry on living in those areas.

Before I conclude Sir, I want to refer to a segment of our society which needs the care and attention of all of us. I refer to the poorer segment of society. I noticed that the Minister of Finance in his Speech has reduced prices of seven items which have been detailed in his Speech. He has also tabled a list indicating reduction of prices of several items between January, 2015 – the price that prevailed then – and November, 2016 – the prevailing price now. There are reductions, though not very major, in regard to many items. All these things Sir, nevertheless seem to be quite minimal, compared to the extreme hardships undergone by weaker sections of society. I do not want to specifically refer to any recent actions on the part of Government in this regard.

I do realize the difficulties faced by the Government, which inherited an economy reeking with debt. However, whatever the difficulties faced by the Government maybe, it should not impose greater burdens on poorer segments of society. Our efforts should always be to alleviate their sufferings. Indirect taxation, Sir, largely impacts on the poorer sections of society. All of us have a responsibility not to harass and thereby alienate the poorer segments of society. We cannot and we should not be insensitive to their difficulties. Those segments of society which are better off, can be called upon to bear greater burdens. They can afford to bear those burdens and will not suffer pain as much as the poorer sections of society will have to bear when they are called upon to bear burdens that they cannot afford to bear.

There is an air of disquiet and discontent in the country pertaining to the economic plight of the poorer segments of society. This is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently. I would urge the Hon. Minister of Finance and the Government to consider this issue before this Budget reaches a state of finality.

We are hoping Sir, that this country will shortly have a new Constitution which has been a dire need in this country and which had been elusive for a long period of time. It must be a Constitution that is substantially acceptable to all segments of Sri Lankan society, to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of a united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka where all Sri Lankans whether they are Tamils, Muslims, or Sinhalese will be able to call themselves “Sri Lankans” with the sense of pride and honour and be Sri Lankans in the true sense of the word without in any way forgoing their identity, their cultural identity, their linguistic and religious identity as distinct people.

*Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan’s Speech on 17th of November

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