By Kumar David –
They only have to sniff an election and all Lanka’s politicos break into must like the rutting craze that grips hounds when the neighbourhood bitch goes into season; it is as if all the bull elephants in the forest are in must (or musth). Lucidity leaves the mind; the irrational takes a grip. The examples from last week are too many to recount so I will entertain you with just five; one disquieting, the other all knotted up, the third a shrewd game, and the last two comic.
The 2015 Budget is a patent election gimmick. Is it fair to call it a stunt; every time a concession is given to the less privileged is it fair to condemn it as a swindle? The answer depends on whether it is rational and doable, taking account of prospects in the economy, whether it blends with a strategy, and what the motive is. I put motivation third as all governments lie to voters only to nullify concessions afterwards – depending on economic constraints.
After Uva, the regime soiled its pants; it drew the obvious conclusion that President and parliamentary majority were headed for the departure lounge. The government mouthpiece Daily News inadvertently confirms that the budget is undoable posturing. (The pledge to reduce electricity tariffs for consumers below 300 units per month seems to have missed these poodles)
* Special allowance of university academics, doctors and judicial service employees to be increased. Pension and insurance scheme for trishaw drivers.
* Proposal made to increase the minimum salary of a private sector employee to Rs. 10,000 by 2015. Rs. 500 allowance to be added each month and the EPF payment from the employer to be increased up to 14%.
* Minimum salary of a state sector employee to be increased up to Rs. 30,000 from January 2015, inclusive of an increase of up to Rs. 2,200 in the cost of living allowance. Special allowance of state sector employees to be added to their salary.
* A special pensions scheme to be introduced for migrant workers. Monthly allowance given to elders to be increased up to Rs. 2,000 with effect from January 2015.
* Rs.3,000 monthly allowance for differently-able persons and a monthly transportation allowance of Rs. 750 for differently-abled children.
* Mahapola scholarship stipend to be increased upto Rs. 4,000 by 2015.
* 50,000 scholarships to be given to students from low income families unable to enter universities. Every student to be given a Rs. 3,000 monthly allowance.
* Teaching assistants to be paid a monthly allowance of Rs. 9500.
* A school based new teacher recruitment scheme to address teacher shortage.
* Financial allocations made to develop research facilities in national universities.
* Motorcycles to be provided to postmen at concessionary rates.
*Income tax and Customs Department systems to be computerised with effect from today and online services to be offered.
* A special Tax Scheme for motor vehicle imports instead of the current system.
* VAT to be reduced to 11% – payee tax limited to 16%
* Several proposals and financial allocations made to develop and uplift tea, rubber and coconut crops. Cess tax on rubber imports to be increased by Rs. 10 per kilo.
* Price of yoghurt and milk powder by local manufacturers to go down by Rs. 3 and Rs. 100.
* Every citizen to be provided a full medical check-up – Rs. 500 million allocated for a special programme to carry out early detection of various diseases.
* Special programs to be implemented to improve the quality of life of women and children of fishing communities.
* Rs.3,000 monthly allowance to be provided to those afflicted with the Kidney disease.
* Rs.1,500 million allocated to develop sanitation and other facilities of rural schools.
* Grade five scholarship beneficiaries to be given Rs. 1,500 instead of Rs. 500 they receive.
* Rs. 2,500 monthly allowance for pre-school teachers.
* Bank of Ceylon to be recapitalised by Rs. 10 billion next year.
* US$ 150 million to be reinvested on Sri Lanka’s national carriers SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka in 2015.
My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that expenditure will rise by Rs 300 billion (3% of GDP) in 2015 if fairy story becomes reality. I have choosen five from this list to justify my guesstimate. US$ 150 million recapitalisation of airlines is Rs 20 billion; raising state sector (government and state corporations) salaries to Rs 30,000 minimum will dent government and state corporate balance sheets by Rs 27 billion per annum; adding Rs 10,000 to all private sector wages will cost that sector about Rs 40 billion annually; 25% reduction in electricity tariffs to consumers below 300 units will jack up the CEB deficit by Rs 15 billion; medical check up for all, at a modest estimate of Rs 500 per check-up with laboratory testing where necessary, will be another Rs 10 billion.
These five items add to over Rs 110 billion. The Rs 40 billion private sector cost increase is an underestimate if daily wages of plantation workers is increased by say 25% to keep in line. I have not estimated revenue loss due to VAT reduction but it will be substantial; nor have I totted up the 17 other smaller items – for example 50,000 student scholarships of Rs 3000 per month is Rs 1.8 billion. In this backdrop the promise to shrink the budget deficit to 4.4%, a forty year low, is pie-in-the-sky creative accounting; the forecast 8% GDP growth rate is cant; estimates of revenue in the Budget are best flavoured with a cart-load of salt. The revenue is not there so most of the promises are hogwash.
Ants in Ranil’s pants
Schizophrenia is a personality split into two; imagine if the partition was three or four hostile segments! Ranil says; “I will definitely contest”; the UNP says “a Common Candidate will be chosen by the joint opposition”. Ranil declares: “The executive presidency (EP) must be abolished”, next day he intones “It should be reformed”; other UNP leaders say “Down with EP”. Ranil pledges support for JHU’s 19A proposal knowing it stipulates that a modified EP be retained. He meets Sobitha’s panel and swears allegiance to its nonnegotiable ‘throw-out-EP’ stand, but ducks commitment to a road-map. As a result no one trusts him! Phew, this man must be costing his family a mint in shrink fees.
Ranil longs to sit on the EP throne; till he relieves his lust no Common Candidate (CC) will materialise, which is to say Mahinda will sail into a third term. I judge that a CC backed by the UNP, TNA, Sobitha, Fonseka, and I hope the JVP, has the edge by several percentage points. This Ranil chap must have been born under an eternal confusion star; or his godmother must be Pandora of Box fame. He cannot wake up to the reality that he and the UNP must unambiguously abandon EP and proclaim it from the rooftops. The key to getting a common candidate, whoever it be, is in the hands of Ranil and the UNP, but they are making an almighty cock-up.
Champika-JHU game plan
I wrote on Patali Champika Ranawaka’s (PCR) book release and offered an analysis of an unfolding socio-political process on 14 August 2014 “Is Ranawaka initiating a leadership challenge?” My case, in summary consisted of two points: (a) PCR is building himself as a future presidential candidate, (not 2015-16 but next time), and (b) Sinhala intelligentsia, young to middle-aged professionals and technologists are queuing up behind his campaign linking nationalism with professional competence and anti-corruption. I see in this game-plan a shrewd long term consolidation in this election season.
PCR is taking his successful book launch (“Power and Power”) to the provinces in a series of meetings and candidly attacking the corruption of his Cabinet colleagues, the regime’s high corporate appointees and its cronies. He has not yet taken aim at the Pakse siblings and nefarious family undesirables, but clearly he is biding his time. Meanwhile the JHU is strident in its demand that 19A be enacted and leader Rev Omalpe Sobitha is outspoken in a no holds barred assault on the regime. Notwithstanding all this the Pakses dare not touch PCR, Rev Omalpe, or the JHU for fear the Sinhala-Buddhist base will collapse. Like SWRD in 1951, PCR-JHU will make a move during Pakse’s third term – if he wins.
Trickery in LSSP; comedy in NSSP
Without prior notice the Tissa Vitarana group rushed a resolution through the LSSP Central Committee to back Mahinda at the next elections. The intention was to forestall all discussion of its consequences or of other options. All the LSSP’s well respected personalities (Lal Wijenayake, Jayampathy Wickremeratne, Professor Vijeya Kumar and Wimal Rodrigo) condemned the move and refused to recognise its legitimacy. The conflict is now in the open; a party conference is a must.
NSSP general secretary Vickremebahu Karunaratne (Bahu) in a surprise move declared that his party will back Ranil for presidency. Then on 25 October four Polit-Bureau members, including deputy general secretary Linus Jatatilaka, issued a counter statement: “As leading members of the NSSP we declare with responsibility that no such decision has been taken by any official body of the party. This statement is the personal view of the General Secretary”.
The NSSP finds itself in a hilarious position that its opponents will celebrate. It has long been known that Bahu was snuggling ever deeper into Ranil’s pocket but a majority were disturbed by this close and cosy embrace of their formal leader and Ranil. The four NSSP PB members also state they will back a Common Left presidential candidate. Wow, they seem in a hurry to follow some forlorn maverick or student activist into political oblivion.
Such is the sad state of the opposition at this crucial moment when with unity, clarity and determination it can defeat Mahinda Rajapakse on a joint Abolish-EP platform. This is the first and necessary step to restoring a modicum of democracy to Lanka.