- I am confident Sri Lanka would be in a position to carry out an immunization programme by next year to contain the pandemic
- Don’t forget that this is a country that imported kites, Vesak lanterns and even joss sticks. We must be ashamed of these policies as a nation
- We have a short-term, mid-term and long-term strategy to make ‘Ceylon Tea’ a globally popular brew by penetrating new markets
Plantation Industries Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana shared his views on the current political and economic situation in the country and on COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated the country. But he is hopeful that Sri Lanka could emerge from this threat with a least possible impact and through a collective effort.
Q Are you confident that Sri Lanka could surmount the uphill task of curbing COVID-19 pandemic which has reached its peak by now?
Yes indeed. Our health staff, the Sri Lanka Army and the Police are doing a great job in combating the unprecedented viral infection that has a devastated effect on our country. The government is confident that we can manage and fully control this unprecedented viral infection before long. But you may admit that we cannot do this without the public support and cooperation. What the people must do is to follow the basic health guidelines and security protocol issued by the government. I don’t want to go into detail on these basic preventive and curative measures, as the media have been disseminating them for about nine months by now. The public must keep in mind that COVID-19 virus does not infect you automatically. You yourself get contracted, bring it home by yourself from outside to infect your family or by your own will you entertain relatives, friends, visitors or strangers to your residence, participate in large gatherings like parties, carnivals, weddings etc., as any single COVID-19 victim can infect you or your family at any of these events, if you had failed to follow health guidelines and protocol. No one will give you the virus by force. It is as simple as that. I am confident that Sri Lanka would be in a position to carry out an immunization programme by next year to contain the pandemic, as a number of countries and medical research laboratories world over are on the cusp of developing an effective jab to kill the deadly virus. The good news is that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has given an undertaking to Sri Lanka to provide assistance to obtain anti- COVID-19 vaccine as and when one of them was successfully concluded at clinical trials and recommended by the WHO to use on humans.
Q A number of cabinet and state ministers and seniors of the SLPP and SLFP are not happy of what they have been given. Could this be the start of a split in the government?
This is a natural phenomenon in any country where Parliamentary democracy is in practice. But our main objective is not to keep politicians happy, but to keep the public happy and content because this government was given a huge mandate by the people of this country at the last August election. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the cabinet and the entire SLPP government are in a major struggle to ensure a sustainable development to the country, pay back our foreign debt, increase exports and improve foreign reserves, strengthen health, education, agriculture, tourism and fisheries sectors and provide jobs to our youths amidst the major threats posed by COVID-19.
Q What is the progress so far on the decision which the government has made to prohibit importation of non-essential commodities – foods items and spices in particular?
The government is trying to correct the mistakes that had weakened the economy since 1977 with the introduction of the open market policies. Not only the industrial, agricultural and food production output went down drastically, there was no invention, new thinking, research or new product introduction. The policy of the successive governments was to import all. Don’t forget that this is a country that imported kites, Vesak lanterns and even joss sticks. We must be ashamed of these policies as a nation. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government endeavours to reverse this negative and shameful trend. That is why the government has adopted a policy of not importing any food item or any other product which can be grown or produced within. This decision has paid rich dividends.
The exports earnings in Sri Lanka have exceeded US$ 900 million consecutively in the last four months reflecting 5% growth in comparison to 2019. The trade deficit fell to US$ 342 million in August 2020 from US$ 541 million a year earlier.
Expenditure on motor vehicle imports declined considerably by 80.9%, while import of home appliances declined, led by refrigerators and televisions during the month mainly due to the import restriction measures taken by the government and the Central Bank since March 2020. According to the CBSL, the declining trend observed in expenditure on merchandise imports from December 2019 to May 2020, reversed in June 2020, although a decline of 24.6% was recorded on a year-on-year basis. Expenditure on imports of textile and textile articles declined significantly in June 2020 led by lower imports of fabric and yarn. Consumer goods imports were down 31% to US$ 332 million with dairy products down 39% to US$ 23 million. Vehicle imports fell to US$ 1.3 million from US$ 76.7, pharma imports were down 6.4% to US$ 47.6 million.
Fuel imports were down 8.4% to US$ 791 million and textile imports were down 16.7% to US$ 194 million.These pragmatic policies have helped the government to keep the Gross Foreign Reserves at a healthy US$ 7.2 billion and the rupee is at a steady Rs. 185 against the dollar.
Q Permission given by Speaker to the convicted murderer Premalal Jayasekara to take oaths as an MP and sit in Parliament was a gross travesty of justice. It was a clear case of transgression of Parliamentary traditions, ethics, basic law and natural justice. This has not happened anywhere in the world where Parliamentary Democracy practices or in Sri Lanka either. Do you agree?
It was a decision taken by the Speaker and Parliament. The permission to take oaths as an MP and sit in Parliament until his appeal to the Supreme Court against the judgement of the High Court was given to Jayasekara in accordance with the ruling of the Court of Appeal. The government has no hand in it.
Q What would be the feelings of the victimized family when Jayasekara, the murderer of the breadwinner of their family sits in the legislature while enjoying all privileges and facilities entitled to a law maker?
Let natural justice prevail. Wait until the Supreme Court delivers its verdict on this case. However, what would be the feelings of the Jayasekaras, if he had not committed this crime?
Q The 20th Amendment to the Constitution has created a major controversy for and against it in the country. One of the top concerns raised by those who oppose to the amendments is the concentration of extreme power in the hands of the Executive President. How do you see this?
One of the main pledges given by the SLPP during the presidential and general election campaigns was to replace the highly excoriated 19th Amendment with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution for which the people gave a huge mandate to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and to the SLPP-led government. The entire country witnessed the catastrophic outcome of the ill advised introduction of the 19th Amendment as it led to the total collapse of the governance, economy, administration of justice and rule of law, as three power bases were created under provisions of this piece of legislation. The President and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads in respect of government functions and the entire system was at a standstill. The Easter Sunday carnage on April 21, 2019 was a direct result of this rivalry between the two top leaders of the Yahapalana administration. The national security was under threat despite alarm bells were continuously sounded by law enforcement agencies and local and foreign intelligent arms on extremist and terrorist acts carried out in various parts of the country for several years. This is how the so-called yahapalana government took Sri Lanka backward, several years. The multifaceted problems confronted by the nation today are the direct result of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the tragic comedy enacted by the President and Prime Minister. Therefore, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution is a need of the hour and it has a huge mandate from the people of the country.
Q How could the proponents of the 19 A justify the weakening of the RTI, the investigative power of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) and the restriction of power of the Election Commission to act against the misuse of public property by politicians and officials during elections?
The RTI will remain as it is in the statute book. The RTI has not been touched by the new amendments as it is a Parliamentary Act. The Supreme Court has also ruled that the RTI must remain intact in our written law. The CIABOC has been used as a tool to penalize opposition members and public officials who did not toe the line of the yahapalana government. The entire country witnessed how the lady Director General of this commission behaved. The SLPP government revisited the CIABOC Act and made amends to prevent the misuse of the CIABOC in future by any regime. The performance of the CIABOC under the last regime also led to demoralise public officials to take decisions and act diligently. They were of the view that they could be victimised even for decisions taken in bona-fide intentions. The CIABOC cannot be used as a weapon to prey on political victims.
Q Does the removal of the Audit Service Commission and the National Procurement Commission from the list of Independent Commissions, serve as a ticket to misuse and embezzle public funds given to politicians and officials?
The National Procurement Commission (NPC) or the Audit Commission (AC) functioned since their enactment under the 19A.
If you go through the draft of the two Acts that established the two commissions, you would see that the NPC as well as the AC contain provisions to put public officials in trouble, and as such they cannot work with confidence and take decisions. If the two commissions were established, they would have become a hindrance to the public administration. By 20A, we have corrected this situation and put an end to the possibility of the NPC and AC becoming a political tool to victimize
Q As the subject Minister, what are the strategic plans that you have in store to make Tea as one of our top foreign exchange earners once again?
As at now, the tea export is the fourth biggest foreign exchange earner of Sri Lanka after foreign remittances, garment and apparel exports and tourism. My target is to bring this to the second or the third position by 2025. Export earnings from tea which consists of 12% of total exports, increased by 3.3 % to US$ 113.99 million in July 2020 in comparison to last year.
We have a short-term, mid-term and long-term strategy to make ‘Ceylon Tea’ a globally popular brew by penetrating new markets, increasing production and productivity and introducing new products from tea.
In the short-term plan, we have a target of increasing the tea production by 40 million kg in 2021 and to launch a new marketing strategy.
In the mid-term, the Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB) is to provide necessary support and infrastructure to tea small holders to increase production to a minimum 800 kg per acre with the SLTB providing support on technology and human resources etc.
In the long-term plan, we have in our drawing board to launch of 40 new model tea plantations. Efforts are to be taken to popularise ‘Ceylon Tea’ in untapped markets like Latin America and Africa. I want to double the annual tea production to over 600 million kg by 2025 from the current production of little over 300 million kg.