Plantations Minister Navin Dissanayake, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about the current political status of the country, its future and challenges it is confronted with.
“My personal view is that the LG polls should be conducted as soon as possible. Democratic process must always be there. People should have the right to exercise their franchise. I do not believe in cancelling or postponing elections all the time”
You are among the first to defect from the previous regime to join the present. How do you introspect?
I am very satisfied with the achievements that have been made so far. We have been able to get rid of the 18th Amendment. We enacted the 19th Amendment guaranteeing more democracy and freedom to people. We are confident of bringing the 20th Amendment to consolidate the democratic process further. Internationally, the government has done well. Sri Lanka was, more or less, a Pariah state under the previous government. Our international relations are very good. Economically, we are on the verge of performing much better. We have put in place a good financial management system. We are confronted with a debt burden inherited from the previous rule. Despite some shortcomings, the macro picture would definitely get better this year.
Though you painted a rosy picture about the economy, the country is on a downward spiral in terms of all economic indicators. What are your views?
If you look at the statistics, the economic growth rate has slowed from about 6% to 4%. Alongside, the regional economic growth has also come down. I think you should not judge the Sri Lankan growth situation in isolation. You have to look at the overall picture, with growth rates in the Asian region dropping, Chinese growth is coming down. You have a lot of factors contributing to the growth rate slowing down. As for the first quarter of 2017, our growth rate had improved compared with the corresponding period of the last year. There is a growth trend in place now.
You said the govt developed international relations. What is more important is to attract investment from the rest of the world out of these developed ties. But, why has our Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) rate dropped?
As the Minister, who was handling the Board of Investment (BoI) earlier, we expected a large volume of FDI. But, I am disappointed that it did not happen in the expected way. Again, there is a problem in structural growth in our country. The BoI has recently taken away the tax holidays. This is a debatable point. The IMF has always been insisting on this but I am of the opinion that tax holiday should be there. The other countries are also giving the facility of tax holidays. Unfortunately, there is a thinking that tax holidays are a big cost to the govt when compared with the amount of investment attracted. What they do not calculate is the amount of indirect employment generated and other benefits such as the confidence of attracting reputable companies because of the tax holidays. For example, creation of employment and other indirect things cannot be calculated. I admit that FDI level should be greater. On the other hand, we have done very well in regard to bilateral trade agreements with other countries. We are on the verge of signing a Free Trade Agreement with China. We are on the verge of signing a services agreement with India. We are also on the verge of signing trade agreements with several other countries. On the one hand, we may have lost, and on the other hand, we may have gained.
If you look at the statistics, the economic growth rate has slowed from about 6% to 4%. Alongside, the regional economic growth has also come down. I think you should not judge the Sri Lankan growth situation in isolation.
In your first answer, you mentioned about the 20th Amendment. Will it be brought as part of the new Constitution that is being worked or as an amendment to the current Constitution?
There are two processes. One is the new Constitution. The other is the 20th Amendment dealing with only the electoral system. What we want is the incorporation of the 27th Amendment quickly. Everybody, be they green, red or blue, says that the electoral system should be changed. The present system involved too much spending for electioneering and vote influencing. It does not ensure proper representation. There is no proper women representation. There are so many issues. We need a mix of the proportional representation and the constituency-based systems.
Do you mean to say that the 20th Amendment should be prioritized over the new Constitution...
Yes, it should be, because it is one of our election promises. Our two main election promises are to get rid of the executive presidency and to change the electoral system. These are the two priorities.
Is there any kind of agreement among the parties on these proposed electoral reforms?
Yes, there is. I think over the last couple of weeks, there was agreement.
Is that the Mixed Member Proportional System you are referring to ?
Yes, it is.
But, I heard the parties representing the minority communities were resisting it. How do you see this?
If the two main parties reach a solid position, then the minority parties would be prevailed upon to fall in line. We want a system that is better and equitable to all the communities.
Does it mean that the 20th Amendment would see the light of day very soon?
I am not an astrologer. But, I hope it would happen.
There are shortcomings in delivery as a result
Electoral reforms should be prioritized over the new Constitution
UNP, SLFP should contest separately
Should be flexible to have no-contest pacts where the threat of MR is emerging stronger
80% of the Ministers are happy about Cabinet reshuffle
I am happy with progress made by the new government
FDI fell short of expectations
Despite shortcomings, the macro-economic picture will get better this year
No scientific evidence to prove that Glyphosate is the agent of kidney disease
Intends to find new markets for tea
Otherwise, how do you look to politics under the prevailing circumstances?
I do not get concerned about it. Whatever job that is assigned to me, I would do happily. Whatever the challenges there are, I will meet them. I am very optimistic about the future of my country.
I have a good team. With them I am able to look at the big picture and then make the decisions accordingly. I did this with the sports, tourism and now the plantation ministries
How happy are you about your performances in terms of deliverance to people under the portfolios you held?
I cannot be my own judge. My peers, leaders and the people who work with me have to judge me. I have a good team. With them I am able to look at the big picture and then make the decisions accordingly. I did this with the sports, tourism and now the plantation ministries. There are shortcomings in terms of delivery because public servants are not fully aligned with our efforts. They do not throw their weight behind us as such. There are policy issues. Some policies are not clear. Public officials are not clear on what they should do. They fear of being victimized by way of being taken to the police or to the courts. They do not want to make any quick decisions. They just pass the buck. I think it is better for the govt to fine-tune delivery.
After the recent Cabinet reshuffle, one minister is critical of another in the govt openly. How would it affect the unity within?
From what I gather, I feel 80% of the Ministers are happy with the change.
Coming to the subjects you handle, how do you assess the damage caused to the plantation sector by the floods?
Prices have shot up on all commodities; especially tea, rubber and coconut. Next target is to deal with production. It declined due to drought and other adverse weather conditions. I am trying to address the production aspect of it, through the assistance from World Bank to restructure and modernize the tea sector. On the coconut sector, I want to bring in some far-thinking changes. We want to expand the coconut triangle. We want to set up another triangle in the north and the east. I want to bring all these changes through a process of consulting. That is to get ideas from all the parties concerned. I am happy at the moment because tea and rubber are fetching good prices.
What are the challenges as far as the tea market is concerned?
There is a bit of a downturn in the Russian market. Simultaneously, there is a gain in the Iranian market. The middle-east market is stagnant. In Russia, the prices have come down, but the volume has increased a bit. We do not see a crash in the market over the years. We hold on to our markets. But, I want to take our tea into new markets. We are going to start our global campaign very soon. To get a new market. It consumes time, money and investment. You cannot do it overnight.
What are the new markets you are looking at?
We are looking at the USA, Turkey and certain countries in Latin America, Japan and Europe. China too looks highly potential.
We read reports that the United National Party (UNP) initiated an internal discussion on the conduct of the local authorities’ elections, and it is overdue at the moment. What are your comments on this?
My personal view is that the LG polls should be conducted as soon as possible. Democratic process must always be there. People should have the right to exercise their franchise. I do not believe in cancelling or postponing local govt elections all the time. There is a genuine issue in the demarcation of electoral wards under the new law. I am optimistic that the local govt elections would be conducted within four to five months’ time according to the latest talks.
Crisis involving Glyphosate, I have one view, and another from the same party has a different view. You must have the freedom to express yourself. There is nothing wrong with it. When there are two parties in governance, these issues arise
Has there been any concrete decision taken on this...
I think there have been discussions over this last week. Both parties have arrived at a decision to conduct this election.
From your perspective, should these two parties contest together or separately?
The two parties should definitely contest separately, however, we should be flexible enough to have no contest pacts where the threat of Mahinda Rajapaksa is emerging stronger.
How sustainable is the unity between the two parties, as ministers from both sides are critical of each other?
If you look at other coalitions in the world, you would find them far worse than here. There is total chaos. It is not a situation like that here. As for them, crisis involving Glyphosate, I have one view, and another from the same party has a different view. You must have the freedom to express yourself. There is nothing wrong with it. When there are two parties in governance, these issues arise.
The use of Glyphosate, among others, is linked with the chronic kidney disease. Why do you advocate the use of it?
For large scale commercial agriculture, the weedicide process is necessary. It is impossible to do manual weeding. If you do it manually, the cost will be multi fold. In the large tea estates of Sri Lanka, we do not have a sufficient labour force to handle it.
Secondly, there is the committee of eminent specialists appointed by the Prime Minister. In it, apart from Ven. Athuraliye Ratana Thera’s representative, all the others have unanimously agreed on the course of action. I am basing my action on what the committee has recommended.
Thirdly, it is not proven that Glyphosate is an agent of the kidney disease. Glyphosate is a carsigen. The WHO reports mention that excessive carsigens causing cancer. Even red meat is a carsigen and causes cancer. There is no 100% proof to say that Glyphosate causes the particular disease. I am basing my decision on scientific evidence.
What are the President’s view on this?
I do not want to go too much into this subject. Let me handle it, and, I will do it.
You had a row with former Finance Minister over the move to take over the Fund of Sri Lanka Tea Board to be placed under Treasury. How is it with the new Minister?
I have a cordial relationship with the new Finance Minister. His predecessor had a particular position on the Tea Board Fund. I disagreed with it. I expressed my view and he expressed his. It is still with me. I think the media are also bloating up this issue and they always ask questions and are trying to blow it up. Under the previous regime, Dr. P. B. Jayasundara, being the virtual Finance Minister, would have taken it if he had wanted. Under the new administration, I am able to express my view and fight my way.