Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a senior left-wing politician serving in the present government, responds to allegations against government on ecocide, internal squabbling, lack of direction and the high living costs. Mr. Nanayakkara stresses that the government should pointedly answer the allegations. Excerpts of the interview:
- Allegations about ecocide either misreported or misinterpreted
- I don’t deny instances of rogue entrepreneurs destroying forest cover
- Govt must respond to allegations pointedly
- PC system won’t be scrapped; no matter what
- Water for all project well underway
- Govt should get into wholesale trading to contain CoL
I advocate that the government must take monopoly in certain areas of imports. I stressed on the need for the government to get into wholesale trading. This proposal may not be acceptable to some sections of the government. Likewise, there are many issues with differences of opinion- the 20th Amendment, the transaction on the East Container Terminal of Colombo Port
Q: In the context of the government facing various allegations, how do you assess the current political situation?
Firstly, the pandemic is overriding in importance in making any assessment regarding the performance of the government. On the other hand, the allegations confronting the government have to be answered pointedly and clearly with explanations. It has not been happening sufficiently well. The government does not convey its views to people sufficiently. Thirdly, there are problems. We are bound to take steps to resolve them or correct them. The main problem is regarding livelihood and employment. Then, we have the question of the cost of living. These are the matters which confront the government. We have to look at the issues in the context of the pandemic, though.
Q: Now, the prices of rice is soaring high. The prices of most essential items are beyond the means of ordinary people. Why has the government failed in containing them?
The government has not yet taken over the role of wholesale trading. The government depends on the wholesalers in the market and impose certain restrictions which won’t work. They cannot be enforced effectively. Therefore, the government must get into wholesale trading and assume monopoly in certain areas including imports. Then, it can maintain stable prices of essential items. Presently, we depend on the wholesalers of the market, who are scrupulously increasing their profits.
Q: Practically, is it possible for the state sector to participate in trading to such an extent?
Open market system does not operate perfectly well or even reasonably well in a small country like ours. The market is small. Then, you have to sell at a higher price in order to get more profits. In a larger market, you can sell more goods at a lower price, but gain more profits. It is a question of the market size. In a country like ours, we have to intervene. We don’t subscribe to the free market. We are for a market which is mediated by the government. We have to monitor the prices. The government must intervene wherever it is necessary. Otherwise, the people suffer. As for paddy purchases, we are accumulating stocks competitively with the private millers. When we have sufficient stocks, we can sell at the price we want. Now we are competitively buying at a higher rate. Yet, we keep a lower price for rice. This is a subsidy. If we run out of stocks and the millers jack up prices, we will import to combat the higher prices.
Q: Today rice is sold at two different price ranges. There is one price at state-run SATHOSA outlets and another at private trading centres. Will it work practically in the long run?
It should not happen. How we regulate the market is selling at a price through the government’s distribution point. When we sell it at a particular price, the market should follow-suit. Otherwise, the market cannot function. If private traders sell at a higher price, people will not buy. But, we need to have sufficient stocks. Stocks must be made available in order to be supplied not only to SATHOSA, but also to cooperatives.
"Up to now, the government has not been able to contain CoL. Now the government has to enter into new areas of operation; to get into wholesale trading and distribution through SATHOSA and cooperatives"
Q: Has the government failed in the containment of the cost of living?
Up to now, the government has not been able to contain it. Now the government has to enter into new areas of operation; to get into wholesale trading and distribution through SATHOSA and cooperatives.
Q: The government is accused of leaving room for the encroachment of forest lands or damaging them. Forest cover is important to protect water resources, a task extremely important in the realization of the goal of providing water for fall under your ministry. Why is the government not tackling this problem effectively?
Forest cover destruction is either misreported or exaggerated. I do not deny that there are instances of ravaging the forest cover by rogue entrepreneurs. We have to intervene effectively to arrest this situation. We have to respond to allegations pointedly. As far as Kerawalapitiya wetland is concerned, what has happened is that the Urban Development Authority (UDA) has taken control of it. The interpretation is that this was done to build on it. That has been done to control any encroachment effectively.
The second one is regarding what is happening in Weddagala in Sinharaja forest. I have examined the matter through the people concerned. The particular area is known as Ilimakanda. In the area adjacent to Sinharaja, there are private lands. The felling of trees has been going on in a private land. The deeds have to be examined. The Environment Minister said, “I don’t know whether the deeds are forged,”
We will examine the deeds. If the deeds are genuine, the law provides for cutting down trees. We need to prohibit felling of trees such as Kumbuk (Terminalia arjuna), Mee (Madhucalongifolia) Mora, Jak etc. These are the trees which help sustain water resource. Even if they are in a private land, people must obtain permission to cut them.
First of all, we need to stop felling trees through a gazette notification or law. We need a gazette notification for it. As for Ilimakanda, all the forest lands adjacent Sinharaja should be a buffer. In Wilpattu, a large area of the buffer zone had been taken over by then Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to resettle people. It has been declared an illegal act by a judgment. We can invoke this judgment and declare that all private owners who hold land adjacent to Sinharaja within a stipulated distance must take permission to do anything. We want such a law.
Q: Earlier, you mentioned that there is a problem in the government disseminating information to the public to counter allegations. The President also stresses on it. Now, you, as a Cabinet minister, say the same. Where lies the fault?
The fault lies in our inability to restructure our concepts about media and dissemination of information. We need to restructure it in a different way. We need to get into social media platforms as effectively as in the mainstream media. That is to keep answering these questions raised in the social media may be by responsible people or rogue elements. The experts in mass communication must come in and say what we should do in order to restructure.
Q: There seems to be a lack of concerted approach within the government. There are contradictions and confusions. What is the reason for it?
There are differences of opinion within the government. Those differences had been there even in the governments formed in 1956, 1960, and 1970. We have the same in this government. For example, I advocate that the government must take monopoly in certain areas of imports. I stressed on the need for the government to get into wholesale trading. This proposal may not be acceptable to some sections of the government. Likewise, there are many issues with differences of opinion- the 20th Amendment, the transaction on the East Container Terminal of Colombo Port.
"I believe the decisions regarding the East Container Terminal and the 20th Amendment had not been discussed among the leaders before they were presented to the Cabinet. We ought to have discussed them among the leaders before presentation to the Cabinet."
Q: Some people say the government is deviating from the mandate it received at the elections. How do you find it?
I believe the decisions regarding the East Container Terminal and the 20th Amendment had not been discussed among the leaders before they were presented to the Cabinet. We ought to have discussed them among the leaders before presentation to the Cabinet. There are those who believe in certain ideologies and ways of handling them. As for the proposal on the development of the Eastern Terminal, there was the equity sharing arrangement between the Indian Company (49%) and Sri Lanka Ports Authority (51%). On the surface, it looks alright. If you probe it further, you will find it unprofitable and disadvantageous to the state. Public opinion built in support of our position. Afterwards, the Cabinet papers were reversed.
Q: There is confrontational politics involving Minister Wimal Weerawansa and a section of the government. How would it affect the future of the government?
That is because we don’t have consultations at the summit level. We ought to have consultations on a weekly basis in order to avoid open expression of differences of opinion. If we go like this, it will naturally weaken the government. It will erode the confidence of people. Therefore, we must avoid this. We must try to speak in one voice.
Q: Some people even talk about the possibility forming new political entities targeting the next presidential elections. Is that a reality?
We have come to an agreement when it comes to elections. When it comes to the next elections, we have to come to an agreement as different entities. Some are more powerful than the others. But, the less powerful are needed to win the elections. We must come to an understanding how much we can share. That understanding will avoid any question at the election times. We had problems involving sharing at the last parliamentary elections. Finally, we agreed. Next time, it will be accentuated.
Q: What is your view on the provincial council elections?
It is very important to have the elections to the provincial councils.
Q: Why do you say it is ‘very important?’
People are like orphans today without elected representatives in respect of matters coming under the purview of the provincial councils.
Q: Yet, things have been run without the provincial councils for some years now…
We have operated the system without elected representatives, but people are the aggrieved party. People feel orphaned because they don’t have their elected representatives to turn to. Now, the system operates with officials only. They don’t care about what people think.
Q: There is a call for the abolition of the provincial councils. How do you see this?
There is a call by a very small group of people. But, the majority wants the system.
Q: From your perspective, what would happen if we scrap the system?
We won’t abolish the system.
Q: It means you are certain about it…
I am 100% certain about it.
Q: You mean to say it won’t happen even when the new constitution is evolved…
Yes, it won’t happen in making the new constitution.
Q: How do you speak with such certainty?
That is because it is a system that has taken roots now. There are political leaders everywhere in the country. They are provincial leaders. They represent a large chunk of people. Their views and our views cannot be ignored by the government.
Q: How would the present infighting affect the government in the realization of goals it set out in its manifesto?
Our promises are being kept. We have scrapped the MCC agreement. We have withdrawn from co-sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution. We have started our ‘water for all’ project. We have made a huge leap forward in this regard. About 100,000 new connections are being given. Some connections are given through the projects implemented by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board and others through the community –based projects. These are projects that make people’s lives better. We carry out a project to develop and asphalt 100,000 km of road across the country.
We have nearly eliminated underworld criminal activities. We have kept the unity and integrity of the country. The last government came up with constitutional proposals unfavourable to the integrity of the country. There is no question of power sharing lead to separatism. We will carry on with the 13th Amendment even in the new constitution to the maximum possible.
Q: Does it mean it will be implemented even with land and police powers?
It all depends on the conditions in the north and the east. If conditions in the north and the east are favourable to the unitary character of the constitution, we can extend more and more power. We will leave it flexible and elastic.
Q: But, you are a politician who advocated extensive power sharing with the periphery?
But, it is not with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). That is only with people who will agree to the unitary character of the constitution. The TNA is a separatist entity. Its underlined motives are not unequal to the LTTE. We have to keep the TNA on a different footing as a result. We are spending a lot of money to supply water to the Jaffna town and its suburbs such as Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mullaithivu.
Q: For you to realize the ‘water for all’ goal there should be enough water resources in the country. Do we have sufficient water resources?
We have looked into it. We are doing a survey on the availability of groundwater resource. Also, we are making an assessment to know how much surface water we can conserve. No water will be supplied without purification. There will be purification plants. People will have purified water everywhere. As far as surface water is concerned, we are the biggest beneficiary of nature.
Q: How do you see the foreign policy of Sri Lanka, especially in the context of competing interests between China and India in main?
Nobody in the world can reconcile their differences. It has been the decree of history that China has risen above everybody else on account of the system they adopted since 1948. While making all the mistakes, they have emerged to be a major country. In terms of GDP, they are above the US. We have to recognize the powerful nations and deal with them accordingly.