Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa spoke to the Daily Mirror about the ongoing development projects undertaken across the country, intra-party politics and his future political aspirations.
Development and the burden on the people
Q: Yesterday was the opening of the Mattala Airport; many have questioned whether Sri Lanka needs another airport and if these funds could not have been used for a purpose that would have benefited the people in a greater manner. What is your view on this?
When the President took over the leadership of this nation in 2005, he submitted his vision for the country in the Mahinda Chinthanaya. However, at that time there was no way of even considering the type of development programmes that we have seen today; because you could not even travel around the country, without fear. During that time people suffered blackouts; they used to call it “Karugey Karuwala Yugaya” (Karu’s dark era) . The roads were not called “Maha Margaya” (Highways) they were called “Varimargaya” (Irrigation)—because water was running all over the road. Schools had no teachers, hospitals had no nurses—everything had collapsed. They had stopped recruiting government servants and their pensions were a write-off. We were still importing rice from overseas, we were even importing Mukunuwenna.
The Mattala Airport is one step of Sri Lanka emerging from that era and looking to the future. In the world today, development moves rapidly, the pace of 10 years is now condensed into one year. Therefore if we wait for one year, the rest of the world would have moved 10 years.
We looked at Sri Lanka carefully and saw that it was the ideal place for shipping and aviation routes. We thought we should use this opportunity. We must have a good network of seaports as well as airports. This connectivity is especially important for a country which is an island, because our only links with the outside world are shipping, aviation and telecommunication.
Mattala was built for many reasons. Firstly, when you don’t have two airports what happens is that if a plane needs to land in an emergency then it has no choice but to go to another country. This means that the plane needs to carry more fuel and fewer passengers—which in turn means that air-tickets are more expensive and there is less of an incentive for airlines to come to Sri Lanka. Secondly, when you don’t have another international airport, the insurance costs are also higher—because the risk of the plane is higher than when you have an alternative airport in your country. Thereby a second airport ensures that the premium of the insurance is also lower, this means more carriers would want to come to Sri Lanka.
Therefore this benefits, not just the planes coming to Mattala but that come to Katunayaka as well. This improves the viability of the Katunayaka airport as well. Further I represent the Gampaha District, where the Katunayake airport is, and I would not want anything that would be detrimental to the people of Gampaha to take place.
Therefore the investment in the Mattala airport is a long required need for Sri Lanka. Previous leaders attempted to have this second airport, but they failed, just like they failed to bring peace to this country.
Many leaders also attempted to make this country, self-sufficient in rice, but they failed. However this too we achieved. Come rain or drought we have stocks—with the government and with some millers, in the last two years we have not needed to import rice to feed our people.
We have achieved so much for this country; therefore those who could not, should not be jealous, they should be happy. If the leaders of the previous eras, like Dudley Senanayake and D.S Senanayake were alive today, they would be proud that we have achieved what they always hoped for this country—however their “Golayas” (successors) can’t be happy about it.
Q: There are a number of environmental concerns surrounding the construction and location of the Mattala airport, due to its proximity to wildlife sanctuaries. Was a feasibility study done on these matters?
I’m the one who went to this site first along with the then Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka, Central Environment Authority Chairman Udaya Gammanpila and other members of the wild life department and assessed the situation. That is why we shifted the location from Weerawila—and I am one hundred percent sure that it is the best place to have the airport.
There are a lot of environmentalists in Colombo who want to protect the outstation areas however, they put dirt into the canals and destroyed the environment in Colombo. The expectation of these environmentalists is that the people in the South and the rural areas stay in their mud-huts. They think that so long as the people live like that with no development then the environment will be safe. The water that is wasted by one flush in a Colombo toilet is the equivalent of the water that is consumed by someone in Hambantota for a whole week.
This government has safeguarded the environment - look at the Colombo Canals, you needn’t go far. All the people who ruin the environment by being in Colombo talk about the environment in Hambantota.
I was told by these people from investors whom I met at the British High Commission that the dirt that was dumped in Seeduwa, by the Colombo people attracted crows, which was more dangerous to the planes taking off from Katunayake. Therefore who is ruining the environment more?
Many diplomats who served in the country four years ago and have come down now say “I wish I was fortunate enough to serve in Sri Lanka now”; because everything is so developed and beautiful.
Q: There are reports to say that the construction on the northern railway line is being held up due to issues of obtaining gravel. What is the situation with this? And how do you deal with issues that arise when contracting government development projects? What guarantee is there, that the most efficient, cost effective and environmentally conducive methods are used?
This actually happened without my knowledge and the Presidential Task Force for the Northern Province who was monitoring the situation and this came up at our meetings. This is how bureaucrats sometimes act, without our knowledge. They sometimes stop these gravel pits, and would take the Bako operator to courts and file a case against him. This message came to us in our Ministry progress meeting but it never went out to the higher authorities. As soon as I found out about this I spoke to the environment minister and he had taken steps immediately to allow that.
Some officials like to show their own authority. The main fault I have seen is that government departments that are designated to carryout development work don’t put their resources and time towards development—instead they are more interested in regulating work. They are more interested in playing police - not anything else.
When we give our projects to other international contractors we find that because our people had worked with these international contractors, today they are able to even work on their own. Our people are able to bid for international projects, due to this experience.
Q: Our public debt burden is at 80 per-cent of GDP, therefore the present government’s loan-raising for present development is going to affect future generations.
Everyone likes to say that it is 80 percent today, but no one remembers that it is the lowest we have had in the last thirty years. In 2002 it was 105.6 and in 2013 it is 77.7.
These loans are used to build assets which generate profits for the country—the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has not taken a single loan for consumption purpose, it is all to build assets that will generate income in the future. Further we have apportioned these costs to each department, they have to bear them within themselves, this is transferred to the people to some extent but still they benefit the people being in the long run.
Q. This transfer to the people has meant an increase in the cost of living, where despite all the development people are finding it hard to survive.
Well of course the cost of living has gone up; if you did not have electricity in the villages and now they have electricity, the cost of living of the villages will go up. Tell me in what country has the cost of living not gone up? We are trying to make the situation as easy for the people as we can, but there are things that we cannot control, like the fuel prices.
Q: The government increased fuel prices, twice in the past three months, which was not in line with any increase in the prices internationally.
When prices go up and we have to see whether to give this to the people all at once or gradually. There is also the issue of the embargo on Iran. Effectively this is not punishing the Iranians but instead it is punishing us. Our refinery cannot handle any other oil, also now because of this we are getting more refined oil instead of crude oil, which results in a price increase.
Q: The government also lost out on the GSP+, which has made us uncompetitive in the garment industry; is the government planning on applying for the GSP+ for the future?
No, if they don’t want to give it we don’t want it. We have been fine and there are no issues at all, our people are employed.
Q: However a number of companies have closed, due to the loss of GSP+?
That is only because the European Community lacks purchasing power. They don’t have the money to buy, what is produced. Further there are no longer any people to work in these factories; because our people have more options today, they don’t need to work for lower salaries. We are at the lowest unemployment rate at 4.5 per-cent therefore they don’t want to earn lower salaries they want to earn higher, and therefore these factories cannot stay open.
Bodu Bala Sena
Q: What is your stance on the Bodu Bala Sena issue?
From time to time these issues arise. However, we as the government have to look at all sides of the issue. It is the right of the people to bring to light anything that they are dissatisfied with or any issues that they have—the government cannot do anything to stop people from expressing their views. However, if something goes beyond a reasonable point then we have to curtail it. I am looking at it in a very open-minded way.
Q: How do you think the absence of Halal certification on products is going to affect consumers?
We must study the issue and see what happens; it is yet too early to tell. The economy cannot be separated from the people, we have to listen to the people and see what is best for them.
Q: Some feel that the government sponsored this uprising and did very little to curtail it?
Anyone has the right to express their view; there were at one time Tamil views and now there are the views of the Muslim people to be considered. However they must not forget that they are all Sri Lankans. The government must be concerned to mediate in issues, within a legal framework, but not to take sides.
The government has been very careful; and we mediated in this issue in the proper way and brought both parties together and the President also appointed a special Cabinet Sub-Committee. I am grateful to both parties for having cooperated with the government and each other to resolve this issue. The leaders of both groups came to an understanding on the issue.
Q: Some in political circles say that you may be the next Prime Minister, is there any truth in that?
Well it is up to the President. I think I already have a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders and therefore it is up to the President to think about whether I need to be appointed the next Prime Minister.
Also why should we be discussing this when we already have a Prime Minister, he is still there. I have not even thought about becoming the Prime Minister. I don’t have anything more to say about that.
Q: People think that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is now in factions, an old SLFP, a new SLFP that has built up around you and a younger generation of SLFPers rallied around MP Namal Rajapaksa. How do you see this categorisation?
I don’t think anyone can say I am from the “new SLFP” because I have been in the SLFP from 1977 and therefore this is not true. We are today in the golden era of the SLFP; we have more than 2/3rds Majority in Parliament and 8 of the Provincial Councils, we are carrying out massive development projects. We are at a very important point in our history and the SLFP is at the centre of that.
We have varying opinions and sometimes we express these, however this is a sign of a healthy democratic party.
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