Proper Dialogue Must Be Maintained Between Main Parties – Susil Premajayantha

Susil Premajayantha

Minister of Science, Technology and Research and former General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Susil Premajayantha says that maintaining a balance is the key in all areas of the government’s policies and implementation.

He said that as a national government made up of two parties, it is vital that a proper dialogue be maintained between these two parties and the policies of both parties be incorporated in the decision making processes. However he noted that what is happening at present is that the UNP is acting as a single party and that is the reason for most of the issues that have arisen within the unity government.

In an interview with The Sunday Leader the minister said that had the UNP engaged the SLFP in decisions pertaining to the budget, they could have come up with a better budget that would have been acceptable to all and avoided all the issues that have arisen.

Following are excerpts of the interview:-

Q:What is your perception about the 2016 budget as a whole?

A: This budget was planned to be different to the ones that were presented for the past ten years. Some sections were what was used in 1978, 79 and 80 proposals. For instance the proposal regarding pension was brought in 2004. But the issue here is that when comparing with other countries, our state service we have many youth in state service. When the time comes for them to retire, the pension expenditure will add up to a huge amount. Similarly the state sector wages too will add up to a considerable amount. Hence when we add up all this together including the loans, there will be nothing left to invest as capital. Then the issue arises as to how funds for the rest of the country’s development are to be allocated. Then the only option would be to obtain loans. Then the loan repayments add on etc and this continues as a vicious cycle. Therefore it is vital to manage the expenses allocations repayments etc in a sensible manner, and I am sure even in this budget the government has thought of all these factors.

There are several primary factors that we need to focus on in this budget. One is to formulate a plan to maintain the prices of essential goods at a stable level throughout the year. To achieve that proper management is required. For instance during this time of the year vegetables are very costly as it is the rainy season, yet during other times, the prise of vegetables are so low that the bulk of the farmer’s produce has to be thrown away and goes to waste as the prices are so low due to the excess in the market. Hence what needs to be done is to allocate lands in these agriculture areas and with the assistance of the private sector we need to set up proper storage facilities to preserve these produce, to be used gradually and prevent wastage. This will stabilise the vegetable prices, as the farmers can store their produce without them perishing and manage their distribution better, that will stabilise the vegetable market. I only mentioned the issue of vegetables, but proper management is required for all such essential commodities if they are to maintain proper price stabi lity throughout the year. It is important to maintain the prices of essential goods as the people only receive a rather static salary throughout the year and when the prices of essential items fluctuates drastically they are in grave difficulty, and that is why we need to find ways of controlling the prices.

Q:There are many who find the added tax on electric vehicles hard to comprehend, what do you think?

A:In the issue regarding the electric vehicles, the world is now promoting electric vehicles as a means of clean, environmentally beneficial mode of transport. In certain countries the governments offer a rebate for those who purchase these vehicles. However what this government has done is quite the opposite. If the government’s plan was to overcome the traffic issue, then what they should have done was to limit the higher engine capacity vehicles such as those above 3000 cc, as these are environmentally more damaging. It is ironic as the president too just returned from the climate talks in Paris as well. This sort of blunder in this budget is a bit hard for someone to comprehend and understand the motives.

Q:One of the greatest issues facing the youth today is unemployment. What does this budget offer in your view, in terms of providing employment opportunities, especially for the youth?

A. Taking into account the age groups between 20 to 30 years, this group has the highest unemployment, which is at around 20%. Hence within a short term a broad plan should be formulated to engage these youth and create employment opportunities for them.

The government plans to bring in foreign investments, but by simply bringing in foreign investors this will not necessarily create employment for these youth.

Q.Then what is your solution to the issue of youth unemployment?

A:Take for example India. There are thousands of youth engaged in and studying in  the field of IT. Therefore the government needs to take into account the current trends and formulate a broad IT training program for the youth, so that they could even engage in IT related fields from their homes. Today the society and trends are much different to the past, and the young people don’t believe that doing an office job from 9-5 is the only means of generating income. The youth of today are more tech savvy and they can use this ability to engage in employment through the internet and make a substantial living. But for that they need training and the government should utilise and engage the private sector as well in providing IT training for the youth.

We must realise that the situation in terms of the situation that prevailed in the 80’s is not the same today. The whole world is embroiled in conflict and turmoil and with the fall in oil prices none of the European and Middle Eastern countries is interested in investing in business ventures here. Behind all this world politics plays a role. Therefore it is not realistic to think that just because we provide investors certain concessions, it does not mean that they will come here and invest and set up businesses. That era has gone. Now the only investors if at all are from the Asian region such as China, Malaysia Korea etc. Hence we should focus on this region.

Q:However don’t you think that these Chinese projects are stopped due to issues that had arisen?

A:Well I know that there were certain issues that arose with these projects, but stopping them completely is certainly not the solution and we need to find ways to iron out these issues and overcome the obstacles and continue with the projects.

Moreover due to these Chinese projects the connections between the people of the two countries grew and there were many opportunities that were created indirectly because of these projects. However once the projects were stopped, many small businesses that were dependent on these projects too suffered and had to be shut down. This is not the solution and it only created more issues. Hence I still think that these Chinese projects should continue and the issues should be amicably resolved.

Q:What is your take on the current situation in the agriculture sector?

A:With the falling oil prices the tea and rubber prices worldwide have dropped and our tea and rubber industry is struggling as a result. If this situation is to improve, the oil prices will have to increase to over $ 80 per barrel. Therefore we need to consider other alternatives.

We need to utilise modern techniques and facilities to find other alternative ways of marketing our produce. Yet this takes time and those who are engaged in these industries cannot simply wait until such solutions are found. With the current world crisis, climate change and other factors, it is inevitable that we will have to face a huge food crisis as early as next year.

Similarly in the case of the paddy farmers, it was profitable for them to engage in farming because of the fertiliser subsidy that was given to them. When one calculates the production cost of a kilo of paddy, it is possible that at times the production cost is higher than what they are able to sell a kilo of paddy in the end.

But due to the subsidy and farmers continuing to engage in paddy cultivation, the country became self sufficient in rice production. Our country is one that depends heavily on rice as a staple meal.

Therefore we should encourage the farmers to continue farming instead of imposing restrictions that will deter them from paddy cultivation. If the private sector is increasing the price of fertiliser, then the government needs to mediate and get involved in the import and distribution of fertiliser.

But a solution must be found in order to encourage the farmers to continue rice production.

Q:  Do you think that the incumbent government is a stable one?

A:  For anything to be done properly, the government needs to be stable. Today the national government is formed mainly on the agreement and understanding of the two main parties the UNP and the SLFP. Therefore a main factor to remember is that the country cannot forge ahead and the stability of the government cannot be achieved only on the policies of the UNP. In everything they need to consult the SLFP as well and engage them in the decision and policy process as well. They should have done that even in the budget. Hence a certain balance is required.

Q:  Are you saying that the SLFP policies were not taken into account when formulating this budget?

A: Yes certainly, if the SLFP was consulted and their policies also taken into consideration, then this budget would have been entirely a different one.

As a matter of fact they could have found solutions to many issues had they engaged the SLFP as well, but the UNP did not do that and they went ahead with just their policies.

(Source: The Sunday Leader – By Camelia Nathaniel)