Colombo, February 9: In an interview to Kelum Bandara of the Daily Mirror on February 3, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said that the much delayed Provincial Council elections “as early as possible”.
“ We need the second tier of political representatives. People are used to the system..This is my opinion. There are others in the government, who don’t like it,” Rajapaksa said.
Asked about the controversy over the giving of the East Container Terminal in Colombo port to India, the Prime Minister said: “No, there won’t be any issue. We maintain healthy relations with India in this regard.”
Here are excerpts:
Q How does the Government expect to perform amidst the pandemic situation?
The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge for us. We are now working with the health authorities to overcome it. We have received vaccines. If we get them in sufficient quantity we could overcome this health crisis earlier than expected.
Q The pandemic posed economic challenges both locally and globally. How are you planning to get the economy on track under the present circumstances?
There is a huge challenge. So far we have effectively dealt with every challenge that we encountered. We will tide over this one too as we have succeeded in the past.
“But we have not defaulted payment of any installment. We will be able to proceed as usual. We have implemented an economic development plan. When it progresses we can address all such challenges without any problem”
Q The Government gave tax concessions upon election to office after the 2019 Presidential Elections. This resulted in a revenue loss to the state coffers. How can you manage financial requirements?
We intended to encourage new business opportunities while boosting the existing ones through such tax reliefs. Entrepreneurs are inclined to invest more and more when they are relieved of tax burden. When such business development takes place, it is a victory for us.
Q But there is a temporary revenue shock to the state. What do you say about it?
I don’t think it is a serious challenge. It is a challenge. But, we are capable of handling it successfully.
Q The Government also needs a lot of foreign exchange for debt servicing. How challenging is it?
That challenge has always existed. But we have not defaulted payment of any installment. We will be able to proceed as usual. We have implemented an economic development plan. When it progresses we can address all such challenges without any problem. Our economy has now started to take off.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge for us. We are now working with the health authorities to overcome it. We have received vaccines. If we get them in sufficient quantity we could overcome this health crisis earlier than expected”
Q The opposition has launched a campaign citing that the Government has failed in every aspect. How do you respond to this as the Prime Minister?
It is the duty of the opposition. The opposition is politically duty-bound to see that the government becomes a failure. The opposition is proceeding with its duty in politics. Even a newspaper reader tends to read articles which are critical of the Government rather than the ones praising it. We also read such articles to know what we are criticised for. According to my 50-year experience in politics I know it for a fact that people are willing to read anti-government news and articles.
Q But, such criticism snowballs and gets established within the society. What is your experience in this regard?
For that we should counter it. We should not stop only at reading such news and articles. We should act accordingly and appropriately. We should go for a mechanism to blunt such criticism.
Q Does it mean that there is no such mechanism at present?
Some people say there are shortcomings in this case. But some others maintain that what we do is good enough.
“We intended to encourage new business opportunities while boosting the existing ones through such tax reliefs. Entrepreneurs are inclined to invest more and more when they are relieved of tax burden. When such business development takes place, it is a victory for us”
Q The Government faces harsh criticism after it has completed one year in office. What do you feel about it as a lawmaker who counts 50 years in politics?
Going by the past I know people start critically viewing the Government after it puts one year in office. This is natural. But people have not abandoned the Government. I know they have not changed. They just listen to criticism against the Government and remain mute. They are with the Government.
Q What are the Government’s top economic priorities this year?
We have launched a programme with emphasis on the development of agriculture. We are striving for self-sufficiency in this regard. We are going ahead with the extension of the Southern Expressway. We have finalised planning work for the construction of Colombo-Ratnapura Expressway. The Central Expressway will be extended to Dambulla from Kurunegala. We are taking in this direction. We are planning for the extension of the railway line up to Pelmadulla.
Q Is the Government seeking investments under the BOT system (Build, Operate, Transfer) for road developments instead of raising loans?
Investors expect quick returns on money on the ground for road construction through such a system. They have to charge from road users. But, our people are not used to paying exorbitantly for use of the road. Investors are a bit reluctant regarding arrangements for investment in road projects under such a system.
Q Yet, it is challenging to raise loans, isn’t it?
It is challenging. But, we have been successful in implementing projects under loan schemes.
Q When does the Government expect to enact the new Constitution?
The process is now underway. If we complete the work on the new Constitution we would be able to enact it by the end of 2021 or early next year.
Q The present Government comprises a mix of politicians from traditional and non-traditional streams. The President is from the non-traditional stream whereas you and a host of others are traditional politicians. How do you describe this experience in governing?
It is extremely good. When there is a mix there are checks and balances properly done within the Government. There are merits in it. The government can deliver.
Q There is public perception that you, despite being the Prime Minister, have been sidelined. How true is it?
There is nothing like that. I have decided to function low-key, though. We don’t work seeking publicity all the time. There are people who work hard, but without much fanfare. I do a lot of work without much publicity being sought.
“The opposition is politically duty-bound to see that the government becomes a failure. The opposition is proceeding with its duty in politics. Even a newspaper reader tends to read articles which are critical of the Government rather than the ones praising it”
Q You had to grapple with human rights issues in Geneva during the 2010/2015 period. Again, the Government is under scrutiny by the UNHRC in Geneva. How do you get ready for it?
Whenever we form a Government we face this problem from the western world. We need to clarify our positions. We have this challenge every time we are in power. The Foreign Ministry is working out a mechanism to face this situation in Geneva. I am also in the loop.
Q There are Muslim organizations now joining hands with Tamil Diaspora groups this time. These Muslim groups are up in arms against the Government over the burial issue. How do you counter it?
It is a settled issue. The World Health Organization has said that individual countries can take the most appropriate decision in this regard. We should look at the best method to prevent the spread of the virus through dead bodies. What is paramount is public health.
Q Will there be any diplomatic row with India over the issue involving the East Container Terminal?
No, there won’t be any issue. We maintain healthy relations with India in this regard. There are two schools of thought regarding this investment project. Alienation of state assets is not the policy of this Government. Quite a number of Buddhist monks oppose it. They have already come out.
Q People complain about the rising cost of living. What is the Government doing to contain it?
Actually some steps should be taken to cushion the burden. The cost of living committee meets.
Q What do you think of import restriction on items such as turmeric?
It is true that people were inconvenienced when a decision was taken regarding turmeric. However, people started cultivating turmeric as a result. Some people cultivated turmeric sufficient for their household consumption. It boosted local growth. Now supply is getting restored.
The increase of local production is the only solution to bring down the cost of living.
Q Is there a move to reshuffle the Cabinet and increase the number of state ministers?
This is a rumour. But, I am not aware of any such move. There is no discussion on increasing the number of state ministers.
“Going by the past I know people start critically viewing the Government after it puts one year in office. This is natural. But people have not abandoned the Government. I know they have not changed”
Q There is a huge allegation against the Government regarding the damage to forest cover under the pretext of carrying out development projects. What can you say?
Only the opposition should be held responsible for deforestation. When they formed the government, they did it at whims. It is an irony that they talk about it today.
Q What is your response to the opposition’s campaign titled ‘Sir Failed’?
It is a kind of a propaganda tool being employed by them to portray the Government in negative light. That is their political duty to dub the Government as a total failure. When the same allegation is repeated for hundreds of times, it gets established. The opposition is involved in such media stunts as a result. Today, the UNP does not exist virtually.
Q What is your view on the role of the present opposition?
The split in the opposition is not a healthy sign for democracy. A strong opposition keeps a government in check and forces it to deliver.
Q There is a call for former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to join Parliament. What is your view?
I don’t think there is anyone other than him to represent the UNP in Parliament. He is the most suitable person to lead the opposition.
Q You say so because he is your old friend. Am I correct?
(Laughs) It isn’t because he is my friend. Politically speaking, he is the suitable person. His presence is disadvantageous to the government, though. I believe a strong opposition is always needed. The present opposition is not effective. At that time, the Joint Opposition was far more effective.
Q The appointment of ex-military officers to key positions is interpreted as heading towards militarisation. How do you see it?
There is no militarisation. A retired military officer is not a military officer. He is a civil person. It is always better for the government to have a team capable of working efficiently. They work hard. I, as a lawyer, may count more on lawyers. The President, as an ex- military officer, knows competent people who were in the military. The President obtains their services. Military officers are also Sri Lankans. They are a disciplined lot.
Q What is the position regarding the elections to the provincial councils?
I believe the elections should be conducted as early as possible. We need the second tier of political representatives. People are used to the system. This is my opinion. There are others in the government, who don’t like it.