The Minister of Public Enterprise Development Kabir Hashim, in an interview with the , says [ the govt] is facing difficulties triggered by the global economic situation. But, he remains optimistic that new opportunities would emerge amidst them. He says the government’s plan to create one million jobs would be a realistic one. Hashim who is also the general secretary of the United National Party(UNP), says the party is working on new reforms to its constitution . He says the plan to form a new party by the Opposition will not be a threat to the UNP at all and that it would be a positive step towards a vibrant democracy.
QHow do you analyse the performance of the present government during its year in power?
You cannot look at a one-year period but a five- month one because a proper government was established only after five months. Before that, there was the 100-day programme when no major policy decisions were made. And, it was a minority government. On that basis, there was no question of making economic development programmes. The government’s performance should be measured in the short period of five months when it had done its best in terms of constitutional and economic reforms.
Q There are complaints about heaping burdens on the people, the lack of fertiliser for farmers and low prices for tea and rubber. How do you respond?
During the last five months, people benefited from a Rs. 10,000 salary hike approved last year. So, one cannot say they have been burdened; they have been relieved of their burden. For the private sector, we have consistently asked for an increase of a minimum salary rate of workers. Many private sector companies have increased their salary bases. Regarding the question of paddy farmers, there is no change on the subsidy given. But, farmers have been forced to buy fertiliser from a mafia of importers that broughtlow-quality fertiliser at cheap rates. But, there are issues. There are reported shortages of fertiliser because of errant traders. I agree that the government is not policing it enough. The relevant ministry must become more effective.
I completely agree that we have a crisis in the tea and rubber sectors. This has not been created by the government or the local market. It has been due to international market conditions that has been compounded by the lack of vision by the previous government. Over their rule of 20 years they did not have a plan either for tea or for rubber. Value addition for these products was almost negligible. In the value chain, our performance was poor with regard to tea and rubber. We are exporting them in bulk still. The economic crisis in the Middle East and so on has had an effect. But, with the intervention of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Economic Management Committee, we asked some support from the Treasury and implemented an aggressive marketing campaign. We managed to increase the prices for green leaves from Rs.55 to Rs. 65 a kilo, a fairly decent price. In the rubber industry, we are still suffering. For a few months, the government gave a subsidy. It was helpful; but, we must understand that the government cannot continue to give direct subsidies.
QBut, again prices of some essential items have increased directly as a result of tax revisions introduced in the budget. What are your views?
Tax reforms were needed in the country. The prices of a few essential items increased as a result of the rupee depreciating against the US dollar. We will have a fresh look at the tax revision introduced. The government will engage with the Finance Ministry in this respect.
Yet, given the global economic scenario, this is the worst ever time to get power to run a country. The economic slowdown reported from the Middle-East and Europe has even expanded to China. But, I believe new opportunities will emerge and when they do, we will seize them to develop our economy. Nobody prophesied the UNP would get power; but, we won the elections. Likewise, we will deliver what we promised.
Q When the global economy is on a downhill path, how can you attract Foreign Direct Investments (FDI)?
Despite the slowdown, investors wish to relocate their investments in places where there is stability and an effective climate in the rule of law. We target that state. We need to invest in a knowledge- based economy and look at the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) systems. Then, our target of creating one million employment opportunities will be a realistic one within the next couple of years.
QToday, China has become one of largest investors in the world. How can you attract Chinese investment in the light of the suspension of the Colombo Port City project?
We have to use diplomacy with China that is investing in our highway projects and are executing big water supply projects. We continually do business with them. Within the next couple of months, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be visiting China when the matters will be discussed.
QToday, there is a national unity government between the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). How do policy differences of these two parties affect the government in the future?
Do they have policies spelt out in clear-cut terms? In fact, during its previous rule for 20 years, it resorted to more neo-liberal and capitalist approaches. Yet, we have laid down our policies clearly. We are adopting a social market economic model. Therefore, I do not foresee any policy clashes.
QYet, the SLFP had reservations about the proposal to introduce a new pension scheme for public servants joining the service after January. How do you view this?
It is not a policy difference. It is criticism based on petty politics. We never intended to curtail pension benefits of those presently in service. Instead, we have proposed to introduce a contributory scheme to give pension benefits for those joining the service in the future. In fact, we intend to expand it to the private sector as well. We should look at it from a positive point of view.
Q Now, the government is planning to conduct the local authorities’ elections this year. Is the UNP getting ready for it?
Yes, we are by strengthening the party at grassroots level. We are strong at grassroots level.
QAt this election, the UNP is slated to be pitted against the SLFP. Will it threaten the unity between the two parties at national level?
Why should it? What is wrong in contesting against the SLFP at the election? We contested the last parliamentary election separately. But, we run the government together. Likewise, we can contest separately at local authorities’ level, but reach policies together at national level as we are doing now.
QThere are reports that the UNP plans to change the party constitution. How is it progressing?
We are working in this regard. Like the need to change the country’s Constitution, the party constitution should also be changed .
Q Are there plans to do away with certain positions?
We are still having discussions. Nothing has been finalised yet.
QCurrently there is a rumour about the creation of a new party with the backing of a section of the SLFP. How does the UNP see it?
We are not opposed to anyone forming parties. Political parties have to be there for a vibrant democracy. We do not see it as a threat.
QBut, some SLFP ministers serving in the government point finger at the UNP for tying to split their party to meet its political ends. As the General Secretary of the UNP, how do you respond to them?
We haven’t even thought of that. If they are making such allegations, it shows their own weakness in running their party affairs. There is a traditional saying that a dancer finds faults with the floor when he is unable to perform (Natanna Beri Miniha Polawa Adai Kiyanawa Wage)
QWhat are the plans for revamping state institutions falling under your purview, particularly SriLankan Airlines currently running at a loss?
Actually, SriLankan Airlines is technically bankrupt due to the mismanagement of the previous rule. But we will not resort to the privatisation of any state institutions. But, they should not be a burden to the Treasury. If they are a burden to Treasury, it will be the consumption of public money. So, we look for better business models to run them.
As for the national carrier, its liabilities are in far excess of its assets. We have to rethink about some aircraft ordered during the previous rule without a evaluation. They were long-range aircraft; we will look at a new business model to run the aircraft while passing part of the burden to the Treasury.
QWhat about the regional development banks?
We will restructure them. There is a major lacuna in addressing the financial needs of small and medium sector enterprises that need to be addressed.