- The debt issue and the Forex issue have always been present
- Rajapaksas have always been farmer-friendly, and the dynasty is based on farming
- There should be fresh faces in politics and administration
- The existing tax system should be digitized and present practices need to change
Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Namal Rajapaksa has said Sri Lanka would ease all crises this year and come out of the woods as the Government hoped to revive the tourism sector and attract further investments. He said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to ban chemical fertilizer was strong but it was not implemented thoroughly by the State Minister and officials in charge. Further, the Minister admitted that the Rajapaksa popularity had declined with the existing crises but said this was only temporary.
Q The time this interview is being conducted is crucial. Because outside, the country is literally on fire with a soaring cost of living, the economic crisis, people finding it difficult to carry on with their daily lives, the popularity of the Government has drastically reduced. So what is in store for 2022? Are we going to burn further or is the government taking measures to mitigate the issues?
It is a very challenging time, especially with the COVID19 pandemic. The challenge is not only for Sri Lanka but it is a global crisis. In our lifetime, even for our parents and elders and even the entire administrative system, this is the first time we all are going through a global crisis of this nature. Probably this is the worst devastation we have seen after the World Wars. The way we now face and approach things are different from how we faced it earlier.
If you see the 1983 riots, the 2004 Tsunami, the war against LTTE, and the Easter Sunday attacks, all those were domestic crises. But this is the first time all countries are trying to come out of this pandemic. At that time when we went through the domestic crises, we had our friends, our foreign partners, different organizations, who all came forward to help us. But this is the first time, all countries are facing a health, social and economic crisis altogether.
The cost of living is rising globally and there is a food crisis globally as well. We are also facing this. We believe now we need to strengthen our local industries and our domestic economy and of course, we need the foreign currency now coming in urgently.
For that we need the exports going out, cut down imports as much as we can and welcome as many tourists as possible. Our tourism sector has done well these past few months. If we look at today, we have about 30,000 tourists in the country, while I am giving you this interview.
We are also getting in remittances from our migrant workers. Of course, there have been pay cuts globally and cut down of jobs as well, even in Sri Lanka we have seen this. But for this, we have to encourage our private sector. I will tell you, that Sri Lanka is one of the very few countries in the world, where our private sector did not go for job cuts.
This may have happened in the SMEs but if you look at the mass scale factories such as the apparel and manufacturing sector, they did not go for job cuts as other countries did. Rich countries could not do this. They cut down the staff. So we have to respect our private sector.
But at the same time, we saw a huge loss of income for our daily workers and the SME sector also struggled a lot.
So, that is where the government had to step in and hand out Rs.5000 to each family. So, considering all this we will see a revival this year for sure.
Q But is the COVID-19 entirely to blame for all the mess, as I can bluntly put it, that Sri Lanka is in right now?
Well, if you look at the debt issue and the Forex issue, it is not something that happened two months or two years ago. It had been already there.
Q That means, are you saying it was there even during the Yahapalanaya regime?
What I mean is, it was there ever since independence. Different Governments borrowed for different reasons. If you look at President Chandrika’s regime, we borrowed money to buy wheat and rice. Then during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time, we borrowed money to build ports, highways, for development.
Then during President Sirisena’s time, we borrowed money to pay the loans. Because of the Central Bank bond issue. The trust broke and the inflation also jumped by a couple of points because of the Bond Scam.
Back then eventually the cost of living started going up. Unemployment rose. So under different Governments, different leaders took decisions, which was best for the country. Now, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in all good faith, he cut down on chemical fertilizer.
Q Has this not been one of President Rajapaksa’s weakest decisions? The masses are against this as Sri Lanka was just coming out of continuous lockdowns from the pandemic, and suddenly the President imposes this rule which affects the entire population. Even foreign companies dealing with this issue were of the view that such a decision could not be implemented overnight. So, don’t you see that as a bad decision?
Well, it depends on who you have been speaking to. It is true that there is a process to shift to chemical fertilizer and it should have been structured for 10 years but as we know, from the President’s point of view, he appointed a State Minister for the subject and he waited for one-and-a-half years. The Subject Minister and the officials did not work on this and finally, the President had to make a tough decision. Leaders have to do this for the betterment of their nation.
Q But wasn’t the timing of such a decision, weak?
The leader of a country has a right to make his decisions for the betterment of his people and he did not make this decision overnight. He had informed all officials, as soon as he took office, to get ready for this and these officials did not get ready for this, to be honest. Even today if you ask these officials what is the composition of organic fertilizer they will not know.
My personal belief is this would have been done within 10 years, as some countries have done it successfully. But at the end of the day, as a President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa took this decision. But now as a responsible Government, we have taken one step back and have allowed the private sector to import chemical fertilizer.
Q Is this not a sign that Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed?
Not at all, because leaders should not be worried to take a step back because their people want them to. After all, he is elected by the people.
Q So you are admitting that the people did not want the chemical fertilizer ban?
Well, people want the easy way out. When you do not know how to make organic fertilizer and when the officials are not bothered to tell you how to make it or how to use it and if there is no supply, then people want to go back to what they are used to. This is the normal thing that happens in any country. But you need to realize only a responsible leader and Government, after making a decision and if the public does not want it immediately, will take one step backwards. Leadership is that. Nobody can challenge him for the decision he took as he made the right choice for his people.
Q In 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won in a landslide victory. And in 2020, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and even yourself smashed records by polling in with the highest votes ever in your electorates. You publicized the Rajapaksa name quite a bit. But today in 2022, do you think this very name has declined your popularity due to the crises we are now in due to family politics?
You see, the popularity of any politician will never be at a peak right throughout. The popularity of leaders always fluctuates. People’s needs change drastically. So politicians also need to keep interacting with their voters and see how they can keep updating their policies to meet the people’s demands and what is right for the people. The Rajapaksas have always been a farmer-friendly, rural-based family. Our dynasty is based on farming. So, when we take a drastic decision all of a sudden based on switching from chemical fertilizer to non-chemical fertilizer, then yes, the popularity gets affected. I won’t disagree with you on that.
Q I am not referring to the fertilizer issue, alone Minister. I am talking about the other issues in this country today like the dollar shortage, economic crisis, the soaring cost of living. The common man blames the Government for these failures.
There again you know that when we took over we faced a global pandemic. No politician or political family rode high on popularity for periods of 10, 12 years continuously. The Rajapaksa popularity is facing a popularity drop but I believe this is temporary. There will always be people who are satisfied and those who are not satisfied. But at the end of the day, we need to make the best decisions for the people. Dynastic politics does not exist anymore. It is modern politics. But at the same time, you need to do what is the right thing. When former President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to end the war, especially after the assassination attempt on former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, we stood by that decision. We went through a very hard time, there was even a time we had to borrow money. But today we are reaping the benefits of ending the bloodshed. So politicians should not worry about their popularity. But they have to worry about how they will deliver to the people.
Q Minister do you believe in nepotism? You come from a family where the President, Prime Minister, Ministers are all Rajapaksas? Are you planning to take over next?
Well, the people will decide who their leader should be. Not me or not anyone else. And Premadasa himself is coming from a political family. His father was the leader of the country and was also at one time responsible for the youth uprising in the south. We have Dissanayakas as well in Parliament. Then in the last Cabinet, we had a husband and wife. The unfortunate thing here is that the Rajapaksas are always highlighted.
Q Why do you think they are highlighted?
Because we are always with the people.
Q Is it not because of the controversies you’ll have created?
See, when you are with the people, you are a threat naturally. So you are always part of a political conspiracy. If you are hidden, if you are not seen, then no one will bother about you. We still have families in politics. This system not only exists here, but it is also everywhere, whether it be the UK, US or even countries in the region. When some organization, company or party comes up for working for the people, you obviously become part of a conspiracy.
Q You are young. Wouldn’t you want to see fresh faces in our political arena? We are seeing the same old faces.
Definitely, I want to see fresh faces but not only in politics. We need this even in the administration. Unfortunately, we talk only about politicians. We never talk of the administrators. This is where this country has gone wrong for so many years as the easy target is a politician. But why aren’t we talking about the administration that actually runs the country?
If you see all our manifestos have been very similar ever since Independence. Different Governments, different leaders have had their priorities. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had his priority to end the war and secondly, it was infrastructure development. Then, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has his priorities that are digitalization and a green economy. President Maithripala Sirisena’s priority was good governance. So all leaders come with their priorities. And it is the government service that needs to take it forward. We have a vibrant Government Service but we now need the next generation coming in and who can deliver the policies put forward.
Q Minister, let us focus on your subject of digitalization. You are talking of digitalization when Sri Lanka is lacking its basics. Even something as basic as PayPal is lacking in the market. Why don’t you address all this first?
Paypal is a private company so I don’t think any Government can dictate to them where they should enter. But this is the system change I am talking about. Unless you change the system, where people can get things done on their own, by using technology, I don’t think this country can move forward.
Q You are now in the Government. You can change this system.
We are changing it now and don’t forget to change this system we need to change certain laws that have been existing for 40 to 50 years. We need to change certain habits and practices that have been there. For example, for a teacher to get a transfer, he or she presently has to go meet a union leader or he/she has to find out where there is a vacancy and take that and go meet the Provincial Secretary and then decide if a transfer is possible. Why can’t there be a system online to see where the vacancy exists? Even when you take a doctor, why can’t there be an online system to show which areas need more medical assistance.
And even for those who want to start their own companies, presently they need to collect about 10 letters to start their business. But of course, now the company registration process has been digitalized and it is doing very well. But to even enrol your child to school, how many documents are required?
These documents were required 20, 30 years ago. And as a practice, you keep on asking for the same document. To even get a Police Report about yourself you need to be in a queue for at least 30 minutes. To even pay a tax you need to be in the queue. Nowhere in the world, this is seen. The Government should welcome you with a garland in fact when you arrive to pay your tax money. So these are the practices we need to change. But we are committed and we have already begun to make the changes.
For example, the birth, death and even the marriage certificate can now be taken online. We will also introduce spot fining soon where people don’t need to go back to the place they were fined to pay. This does not require technology worth billions of dollars. It is already there in your smartphones. All you need is a simple QR system. Good governance comes with transparency.
Q Will this reduce the red tape?
This will drastically reduce the red tape and make people’s lives easier. And in fact, we are even doing a study on which documents we can make online. For example, Police Reports can presently be taken only from Police Headquarters. We want to change this and make this available to all police stations. Then Grama Niladhari Certificates will also be changed to an online system. So there are many more plans underway like this to make people’s lives easier.
Q How soon will all this be implemented?
We are looking at completing all this, this year. We are closely working with the Local Council Ministry as well. We are also looking at digitalizing the entire court system, the education system, the university system.
The E-Gramasevaka will also help a lot in the rural areas. And we are looking at going paperless at least within the coming five years.
Q Minister my final question. You are presently dubbed as the ‘Minister of Everything’. Have you not taken too much onto your plate?
Well, the answer is digitalization. Because most of my time goes for youth and sports. But this year I will invest more time in digitalization. And the Monitoring Ministry is not a namesake Ministry. It is about getting things done and working in line with the other Ministries which I am doing. For that, I am using digital platforms. So, whatever I can put in place, I am doing.