In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Investment Promotions and Highways Deputy Minister Eran Wickramaratne highlighted that a business enabling environment is required to attract foreign direct investments. He also pointed out the realities of past and future investments, and that any individual who has been found wanting, regardless of party affiliation, will be brought to justice.Excerpts:
QEarlier you came into the Parliament from the national list. What made you decide to contest at this election?
I came and I basically sat in the Opposition and discharged my duties to the best of my ability and I thought that in a democracy, people should be given the opportunity to decide whether somebody like myself should continue or not. The people must make up their mind. So, for that reason, I thought if I’m going to stay another 5 years in the Parliament and I put myself up.
QHow many seats do you think the UNP will win this time?
I can’t tell you that exactly, but every indication is that it’s moving towards an absolute majority—over 113 seats—which I think will be good for the country, because we need a government which can carry the country forward for the next 5 years, and nobody needs to have any fear about having a strong government unlike in the past, because the powers of the President have been reduced, and the current President is set on creating a culture of Good Governance.
QYou have been outspoken about the need to have women in politics and about women’s rights. Could you elaborate?
When it comes to education, Sri Lanka has very much progressed. In some areas, women are ahead of men, particularly in university education. When it comes to employment, there is a little problem in that the government service is more equitable than the private sector. In the private sector women in management don’t function in high positions. So there’s much work to be done in changing that. When it comes to political representation, it is poor at the Pradeshiya Sabha and Municipal Council levels, and improves slightly in the Parliament. But it’s the lowest level in South Asia. So I’m an advocate in having minimum quotas for women at every level of government, including the Parliament. It will self correct in a decade, but to start with, we need to correct our course.
Women are also disadvantaged in other ways. There’s sexual harassment. While the law provides for prosecution, actual reportage of it is low. In recent surveys done for women, 70 percent show that they have been harassed, and only 2 percent actually reported it. These are unseen crimes. We need to review the law, but we should put the checks and balances.
QThe UNP has decided to create development zones and give subsidies. So how are you going to fund this?
Funding is an overall issue in that whether you should decide whether things are subsidies or investments. Transfers to the lower incomes, I would call them subsidies, and given such an unequal distribution of income, those at the bottom of the pyramid will have to continue to be cushioned. When relating to the zones, there are different zones—agricultural, fisheries, tourism, technical, manufacturing and other zones. Some of these zones require basic infrastructure which the private entrepreneur cannot make. So the government invests in this infrastructure, and the entrepreneur comes and sets up. These I would consider as investments instead of subsidies because the government, over time, recovers that. The whole country can be the zone, but if you’re focusing, it’s better to identify geographical locations and go through that route. The overall funding of the budget is a broader question and it will depend on what our priorities are.
There will be a shift in priorities to investing in human resources, which the government will have to undertake. We will have to attract investment, rather than the government undertaking the project or the government undertaking borrowings. This is not a way out for this—we have a crisis, and that can compound it—whereas what the new government has done is stabilize the situation.
QHow practical is the creation of 1 million new jobs in 5 years?
I think it is possible, but it will be a struggle in the first 24 months, because there is a gestation period for investments to come in and bear fruit. Once we get through that, creating 200,000 jobs a year is possible.
QHow are you going to recover the money invested in the previous government’s white elephant projects?
Some we can recover and the rest we’ll have to treat as write-off. Then we can re-engineer the projects and get a return on it. One such project is the Mattala Airport. We have already put the airport there. Was it a financially wise decision? Certainly not. So we have to accept it because we have the infrastructure.
We are making political decisions based on our affinity to some geographies or looking at our vote base. That’s why national policies are important, and people should be largely forced to stick to national policy. How many ports or airports should we have? These need to have a national consensus.
QSo will the Mattala Airport and Hambantota Harbour be limited to maintenance and repair operations?
Yes. Well, I’m much more optimistic about the Magampura Port, because there’s a basic economic logic to that port. Even our previous UNP-led government wanted to situate a port in the south of the country. What we were opposed to was the transparency issue, the corruption issue, and also when you’re investing, you’re expecting returns—so what time frame to invest and get our returns. We still have capacity for Colombo which will be a logistics centre for Asia. We’ll get a lot more market players attracted to Colombo with the port, airport and the other physical infrastructure, and the overflow will go into Magampura. There are also specialized industries that can go into Magampura.
QHow are you going to attract new investments?
I think it’s the enabling environment. Now there’s the supremacy of the law and they have the confidence that they can go to courts to enforce agreements and enforce the law. Second thing is the consistency of policy a government should provide. The other is ease of doing business. There is a lot of work that can be done. Also provide an increasingly greater focus point by restructuring the BOI. Tax incentives are way down the list for investors now. Now there are other things that investors are really looking for.
QWasn’t the UNP in the past considered to be a mercantilist party which favoured big businessmen and corporates?
Yes, I would certainly say that image was there for the UNP, but I don’t think that image was ever true. But I could say that there is a conscious shift in that we don’t want to leave anybody behind. Which is why we think that investing heavily in education, people having a right to education and the government taking the responsibility to give people equal opportunity is the right way to correct that image. So going forward, it’s a question of blending the market with the social responsibility.
QThere have been allegations that there are certain crony capitalists in the inner circle of the Prime Minister, and that he protects them at the cost of his own reputation. What are your views on that?
I think that those are allegations. I think the Prime Minister is more focused on policy, and therefore the UNP, being a party which is business friendly and who feels that the private sector has a fairly important role to play in the economy, it’s natural that business is around the party. So I think your allegation that there are crony capitalists around the Prime Minister, I would like to refute. When it comes to issues of transparency and fighting corruption, we want to make sure that the constitutional council is appointed, that the commissions are appointed, depoliticize the system, and then the anti-corruption commission and police can work freely. If we are not elected, the processes will be reversed. The CID probes will be halted, the FCID will be wound up, and the anti-bribery commission will be crippled. If our government is elected, all these processes will go forward, whether it was crimes committed under the previous regime, or new things that have surfaced.
QSo is there no truth to the allegations that there are individuals within the UNP who are now striking deals with the Chinese, and that billions were earned in tenders for the Northern Highway?
You’re asking me a question of which I know nothing about.
QBut you’re the Deputy Minister of Highways.
Certainly, I have no information about that. The Minister and I would completely refute that allegation, because we wouldn’t condone corruption. Those who are making allegations should know that there are mechanisms that are open to them. We have an independent judiciary in the country now, which we didn’t have, and the bribery commission is actively investigating things. We will support any probe conducted by government agencies.
QDr. Harsha de Silva said that the bond issue is a black mark on the UNP. Would you agree?
On the bond issue, I am a respondent to a case in the Supreme Court, and I have just filed answers in court, therefore it’s a judicial matter at the moment and I don’t want to go to details. COPE started an investigation, which is not yet complete. Once a new parliament is sworn in, COPE should continue to get to the bottom of it, and if anybody is found in the opinion of COPE to have either wrong or even breached an ethical code, we will refer it for further investigation. We are members of Parliament and not investigators, so we can only make a judgement. But if our judgement is that it should be investigated, we will certainly refer it. If somebody has done wrong, they must be punished.
QYour party was talking about segregating the EPF from the Central Bank. How’re you going to do it, and what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure its independence?
Yes, there has been a big conflict and it’s been long running. Now the opportunity will come for us to let the EPF be managed by an independent authority. It will provide justice for the workers of the country, and establish what the market interest rates are.
QDon’t you think the public needs to change its mindset to have gentleman politics in the Parliament?
I think there’s a debate in the country that you must send suitable people to Parliament. It is being talked about everywhere in the country. Suitable people who must have integrity. ‘Sadaacharaya.’ Secondly, they must be qualified in an educational sense, particularly if they’re young. If they’re older, obviously, there can be exceptions. The third thing is it’s good to have people who have a record of experience in implementation. But education and experience is trumped by having integrity. You can’t compromise on integrity.
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