Ronnie de Mel earned the reputation of having held the post of the Minister of Finance for 17 years under the UNP government which was elected in 1977. He was first elected as MP for Devinuwara in 1967 under the SLFP ticket. It was thought the best time to interview Ronnie de Mel was now as the presentation of the 2016 Budget and its adoption was just completed.
Q As the minister of finance of this country how many budgets were prepared by you?
From 1977 up to 1988 as the minister of finance and planning. During that period, I presented the budget on eleven occasions, and I am the first finance minister to have done it.
QHaving achieved such an yeoman task in preparing 11 budgets, how many of your budgets had to be amended before their adoption.
After the budgets were presented, there was no occasion when amendments were made to them.
QThe budget is revealed after it is presented in Parliament. Some say that budgets are prepared in secret. Is there any truth in it?
I do not know how it is prepared now but during our time there was nothing like that. We started preparing the budget from January of each year though it is presented in November. The Finance Ministry continues this task for ten months. There is a separate section in the ministry for that. There was a director general for the budget and specially selected staff for the job to work under him. In January, I used to have joint discussions as the minister in charge with the secretaries and other senior officers. They were basic talks where the nature of the proposed budget was identified. This was followed by another discussion with the permanent secretary, the director of the budget unit and other permanent secretaries of ministries. At this meeting the amount of budgetary allocations that would be made available to each ministry was disclosed together with the details of projects the ministries would handle in the coming year and their proposals. Then all these permanent secretaries were summoned in March, by which time most of the budget proposals had been planned. These discussions continued for several months afterwards.
QSome secretaries of ministries may put forward proposals that may not be possible to implement?
We declined those that could not be done.
QHow did you involve Late President J.R. Jayawardene into budget preparations?
He was the only finance minister to have become the president of the country. And he was the only leader who knew about the Finance Ministry and financial issues. Dudley also knew a little. Mrs Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumarathunga lacked any knowledge of it and Mahinda Rajapaksa did not know anything. As J.R had been the first finance minister, I was able to discuss with him any matters related to the budget. No sooner the basic proposals were decided upon I had a one- to- one discussion with J.R, when I submitted the allocations proposed for the various projects and obtained his advice.
QSome say that you used to meet J.R once or twice every week and discussed the budget.
Yes, once the proposals were ready in June I continued to have discussions with him. He visited me at my residence very often and had dinner with me and the topic of discussions at the dinner table too related to the budget. He had a vast knowledge of world affairs and was always on the alert of situations in countries like India or the USA and what impact those situations would have on our country.
QAt the time you were the finance minister and Mr. Premadasa was the prime minister didn’t he request for finances for housing, and projects like Gam Udawa by-passing his permanent secretary?
I had issues with Premadasa frequently and there were disagreements
Q What were the issues? Were they connected to insufficient financial allocations?
Whatever the allocations that were made, they were insufficient for him. We made allocations from the budget but his programme of providing homes for the homeless evoked issues on financial allocations.
Qwhat were those issues?
At that time when the budget was prepared, we sought help from international donors. If we provided Rs.50 million from our own resources, we could obtain Rs. 50 million as aid from these donors. To get aid I had to go before the World Bank, the IMF and to other donor countries. We also had to speak to foreign media and get them to publish the programmes envisaged by us for the development of the country. We also had to meet ministers, prime ministers and presidents of some of these countries and seek aid for projects in the pipe line. All this aid, sought after would get approval only if they were production driven and investment oriented. They were not willing to give assistance for Premadasa’s housing projects. I could not convince him on this issue and consequently it led misunderstandings between us. He was under the impression that I helped Lalith and Gamini and allocated more funds to them. I wanted to understand the real situation.
QSo you had to accompany Mr Premadasa to the World Bank in order to prove your thinking?
Yes. I told him that if he thought that I was not helping his ministry, that we should go to the World Bank and obtain clarification. Premadasa was happy with the suggestion, and J.R. approved our visit. It had been the practice that I go alone or with only two ministry officials when ever I proceeded on this type of mission. Premadasa was accompanied by about four or five officials who carried several books, files and documents with them. At that time Robert McNamara was the chief at the World Bank. He had been a one-time defense minister in the American Cabinet. He happened to be a proud man and meeting the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was nothing new to him. I felt that McNamara at the outset did not condone the presence of a large delegation accompanying Premadasa.
QIs it true that McNamara interrupted Premadasa’s lengthy speech and gave him a short reply?
If someone comes with a large delegation he is considered as a person who cannot present facts on his own. So McNamara quipped “Mr. Prime Minister what have you got to say”? Premadasa had enough stuff to talk for even five days. He called for various reports, files and other documents from his entourage of officials, who walked in and out of the meeting. This took about twenty minutes and McNamara’s patience was running out. Finally, he said, “Mr Prime Minister tell me plainly why you have come here”? Premadasa replied,” I have launched a massive project of providing houses for the homeless and the funds provided by the World Bank was quite insufficient.” McNamara’s reply was very short, he said, “We will consider, whether we could give more and inform you accordingly.” Later it became clear to everyone that aid was not given for housing projects but for investments and industries.
QWas Mr Premadasa convinced after that?
No, the dispute continued. Funds more than that allocated for the Mahaveli given to him as his aim was to help the poor. I also believed in that principle as I also came forward by helping the poor.
QIs it true that both Gamini and Lalith complained to J.R. on this matter?
Yes, naturally when Lalith was looking after trade and Gamini looking after Mahaveli they too needed financial assistance, and they felt more funds were being diverted to housing. There were other ministers too who complained about the allocations for their projects.
QIn the event of a budget defeat the government has to go home?
Yes, it has its origin in Britain. That is why the preparation of the budget takes such a long time and presidents and the prime ministers spend much time in evaluating it.
QYou raised your objections to the 1983 Referendum and had to leave the government?
Yes, I was asked by J.R. to withdraw my comments on the Referendum, which I did not, and resigned to function as an independent member.
QDuring the implementation of the report of the Land Reform Commission under Mrs Bandaranaike, how much of your lands were acquired by the government?
Five thousand 5000 acres of my lands were acquired. Later I got back 50 acres, and my children got 50 acres each.
Earlier Hon Min .Ronnie De Mel time was different and earlier Govt.just increased the Gas,Petrol and Electricityto cover the expenses. It is wrong now the Present Finance Minister Ravi ,Prime Minister and the Presidenthave studied the masses problems and reduced the burden and listen to the Unions and public opinionsand amended the budget to relive the burden of the masses. Even past budgets we never seen an economic growth and only hand and mouth budgets. Nothing to happy about those budgets.
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