Minister of Rural Economic Affairs P. Harrison remains optimistic about the government and its stability despite some odds. In an interview with Dailymirror , he also speaks about the rice shortage, plans for imports and development work undertaken. The excerpts of the interview:
Q How do you look at the future of the government in the context of the Minsters taking on each other?
Two political parties that engaged in hostile politics for over 60 years have now come together for governance for the first time. It is not an easy task. Be that as it may, President Maithripala Sirisena has been able to do so. For his victory, the UNP, along with the JVP, the TNA and civil society movements, worked hard. However, a group of MPs who worked against him has joined the unity government as members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The President has ensured their support to the UNP for the formation of the government. There are conflicts of opinion. Besides, we can proceed. Despite all differences, we all voted for the annual budget. The government will serve its full term. No one should harbour any doubt about it.
QHow would such differences between the two parties impact the decision- making process of the government?
It goes on. The Hambantota project was not stalled. When two schools of opinion are compared and contrasted, the better opinion will prevail. That is healthy. When the annual budgetary proposals were formulated, both the UNP and the SLFP put forward their proposals. Finally, the President and the Prime Minister got together and incorporated them to work out a better set of proposals. Despite differences, what is advisable is to accommodate all shades of opinion and reach common ground. This is, however, an arduous task.
QAs a Minister representing the UNP, how do you analyze the performance of the national unity government over the past couple of years?
Over the years, we had hostile politics. There was no convergence of opinions of both the parties. When a party came into power, it always rejected the proposals of the other. Now, there is a different situation. In the past, the governments were always formed with the backing of minority or minor parties. Now the two main parties are together. It is always better. It should continue in the future. In politics, it is better to put the country before self.
QActually, how do you look at the achievements of the government and what it delivered to it?
Of course, the UNP supporters expected a lot from the government. They had high expectations. We took steps to address their developmental needs. But, we know the UNPers were in the opposition for 20 years. However, we could not give enough chances to our party people in addressing their requirements for jobs. The Ministers representing the SLFP had that chance for the last 20 years. The UNP was denied it. That problem remains there. It is a matter of concern for our people. We hope to look into such grievances of our supporters within the next couple of years.
In my Anuradhapura district, we have initiated the Malwatu Oya development project. We constantly faced floods when this river overflowed its banks during rainy months in the past. We will bring 1,500 dairy cows to the farm in Oyamaduwa. Another 1,500 dairy cows will be released to the farm in Parasangaswewa.
QCould you tell us about the support that you get from the government for your work?
The government is giving the fullest cooperation under President Sirisena’s Rajarata Navodaya programme. It is implemented with financial assistance from China.
QHow do you engage the SLFP in the execution of these activities?
Agriculture Development Minister Duminda Dissanayake, as the Chairman of the District Development Coordination Committee meeting, participates in our work. The SLFP, under his leadership in the district supports us.
QHow do you see the Joint Opposition as a force oppositional to the government?
It is a party depending on the personal popularity of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. We have seen in history such parties have not survived long. For example, late Gamini Dissanayake and late Lalith Athulathmudali formed a party under the ‘eagle’ symbol. It did not survive at the end. The same fate would befall the JO one day in my view. In the past, the SLFP politicians also defected and formed separate parties. None could gain the upper hand in politics. Individual-centric political parties suffer this fate. So, the JO would experience it sooner or later. It would finally join hands with the SLFP at one point.
QNow, some of your colleagues in the UNP called for press conferences at the party headquarters’ ‘Sirikotha’ and asked the SLFP to quit the government as soon as possible. What is your opinion?
That is why I said at the beginning that is a herculean task for the government to proceed with in this manner. In both parties, there are groups talking like this. Some make very impulsive remarks. I do not think this would cause any uproar eventually leading to a split of the national unity government formed in keeping with a mandate from the people. We all work together in harmony. We believe things would turn to normalcy for smooth sailing of the government under the blessings of both the leaders - the President and the PM.
QAs for the paddy marketing issue coming under your purview, some parties say there are rice stocks sufficient till August, though you try to import rice right now. Could you elaborate further on this?
That is an assumption. It is far from the truth. I go by the statistics of the Department of Agriculture. I, as the subject minister, cannot act on assumption. We have paddy stocks at the moment. Yet, all that will be sufficient only till April when the New Year is celebrated. Despite that, there was a shortfall of rain in the latest season. Monsoon rain failed this time. We will not be able to get the expected harvest this time. Only 20% of paddy lands have been cultivated this time. It means the expected harvest fell short by a huge margin. Rice is our staple food. We have to be concerned about both farmers and consumers. The country is bound to face a shortage.
Some mill owners and warehouse operators try to exploit the situation. They try to fish in troubled waters. We will be compelled to import rice to control the prices.
We can import rice from India or Pakistan at a low price. If we lift tax restrictions, we would be able to issue rice at Rs.60-70 a kg in the local market. If it happens, those who have hoarded stocks of paddy will be compelled to mill them and release to the market. We will regulate the prices of imported rice varieties.
QWhen are you planning to do it?
Actually a couple of weeks ago we called for tenders for rice imports. In a week or so, we will be able to import rice to the country. It does not take that long for us to import rice from India. It takes only a week for it. Then, the problem could be sorted out.
For us, Indian and Pakistani varieties of rice are much suited for consumption.
We are used to that taste. We find enough stocks available in these two countries to be imported. We have not decided on the volume to be imported as of now.
It depends on the local requirement. The private sector will import it. SATHOSA also can play a key role in this regard.
QYou talk about a rice Mafia by local mill owners. How do you see it?
That is what has happened. Paddy was purchased at Rs.38-39 a kg as you are aware. Then, it was possible to sell rice at a retail price of Rs.60-70 a kg. It has not happened because of Mafia. These rice millers purchased paddy at a low price from farmers and sold at higher prices in the market. They make undue profits from this. Some private mill operators do it. As a result, there is a price difference. We have to import rice to control prices in this context.
QDid you receive Cabinet approval for imports?
Actually, I am not handling that segment. It is done by the Finance Ministry and the Industry and Commerce Ministry. They do it together. Large-scale mill owners manipulate the market and make unconscionable profits.