Govt confident of passing 22nd Amendment - Dr. Ramesh Pathirana | Sunday Observer

Govt confident of passing 22nd Amendment - Dr. Ramesh Pathirana

9 October, 2022

Minister of Plantation Industries Dr. Ramesh Pathirana said he hopes that the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution would be taken up for debate during the next parliamentary session most probably on October 20 and 21.

The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said there are certain arguments in relation to amendments and the composition of the 22nd Amendment. However, we can always iron out those differences through discussions. There are issues raised by certain political parties and some are agreeable and some are not. Obviously, there are certain differences of opinions. As the Government, we are determined to bring it to Parliament. Most probably, we would be debating this and pass it in the next parliamentary session.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: The National Council that has been proposed as a solution to the present crisis has been boycotted by many political parties. What is the future of the National Council in this situation?

A: The President and the Government wanted to have a common front to provide long-lasting solutions to the country’s issues, specifically economic matters and other aspects covering this subject. This was initially proposed by some of the Opposition parties. That is why we decided to establish this National Council.

Unfortunately, some parties boycotted it. We hope and pray they will understand the reality of this and come to work as a common front so that we can work together to find solutions and provide some examples on a futuristic basis.

Whatever the Government that will comes to power, and they can have their views and implement what is good for the country. So, we expect those parties to participate in this worthy cause.

Q: There was a controversy regarding the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution and the Opposition is alleging that the Government has secretly introduced some amendments after submitting it to the Supreme Court. The Opposition has alleged that this is mainly with regard to the time period that the President can dissolve Parliament. What is your opinion regarding this?

A: There are certain arguments in relation to amendments and also to the composition of the 22nd Amendment. We had another discussion with party leaders on Thursday morning to come to an amicable solution. I hope the 22nd Amendment would be taken up for debate during the next parliamentary session most probably on October 18 and 19.

Q: With the removal of Parliamentarian Prof. Charitha Herath from the COPE, Opposition parties demanded that members from Opposition should be nominated to chairmanship of COPE and COPA. Would you like to air your views?

A: Most of these Committees are now headed by Opposition members including the Finance Committee which is headed by SJB MP Dr. Harsha de Silva. The chairmanship of COPA has been given to SJB MP Kabir Hashim. There is a request from the Government side that the Government members should also be provided with opportunities to overlook certain functions.

You can’t deviate from that request as well. Because we are a strong Government and we have 150 members on our side. It is true that some members have sat with the Opposition. The quota is generally divided among the Government and the Opposition.

So, it is up to the Speaker to ensure that there is a fair share given to the Opposition also to represent their parties. It is our duty from the Government side to ensure that whoever is supporting the Government is given the proper share. That is the stand.

Since MP Prof. Charitha Herath has gone to the Opposition side, he has to be nominated from the Opposition and not from our side.

Q: The Government has proposed a Rehabilitation Bill under which according to Opposition Aragalaya activists, protesters and political opponents can be sent to rehabilitation camps. Is the Government going to make any amendments to this proposed Bill in the light of Opposition protest?

A: I don’t think there will be any amendments to that. What underlines the factor here is that the citizens abide by the prevailing law of the country. We must also underline the fact that the people of this country have democratic rights to speak, protest and express their concerns. That was fully guaranteed to the society by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

We have not changed that stance. But we must ensure a larger fraternity of the Sri Lankan people wants to live decent and peaceful lives. Anything that disturbs the civil activities of the society, they should take prior permission before resorting to such activities.

That is why the Minister in charge of the subject Tiran Alles has categorically stated that we are for the peaceful protests, rallies and also allow the people to express their concerns. However, it should not disturb public life and they should take prior permission. Otherwise, normal civil law would be applicable to all such cases. There is nothing else and we have not spoken about any special rehabilitation program about anyone.

Q: Is there a move to postpone Local Government elections beyond March 2023 as some camps in the Government and the Opposition feel that they cannot win an election at this stage?

A: Personally, I feel that the people should have the chance to determine their representatives. Whether it would be Local Government, Parliamentary or Presidential elections, the elections should be held at the due time. That is the concern about the cross factor in some of these areas.

Local government bodies have nearly 8,000 members. There is a question in relation to whether the country needs such a number of representatives at this level. There is an ongoing discussion. But if necessary, we should be able to amend the act and go for the elections in March next year.

Q: However, the Opposition is of the view that the people have lost confidence in the current Parliament so that an election should be held to overcome the current political instability in the country. Your comments?

A: We must understand the political stability is something which is very important in the country. Holding Local Government elections doesn’t mean that it is going to change the Government.

The Presidential Election is due in March, 2024 if necessary and the parliamentary election will also have some more time. Specifically, if we conduct the Local Government elections, we would provide the opportunity to the people to express their concerns.

We should remember the then Government lost Local Government elections in 2018 in a very bad form but the President and the Parliament continued. They didn’t get the correct picture of where the direction was heading. So, the people should be given the chance to determine and elect their Local Government representatives by holding the elections at the due time.

Q: The Opposition demands to present the IMF agreement to Parliament. Even Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told the Parliament on Tuesday there is only a draft agreement right now. Could you explain?

A: While addressing the Parliament, the President very clearly mentioned that this agreement is not even presented to the Cabinet as yet. The reason is even though we have reached the Staff Level Agreement (SLA), it would be presented to the IMF after consulting the credit owners. We are hopeful that they will support us at this critical juncture of the Sri Lankan economy. Once those final agreements are reached, we will provide it both to the Cabinet and the Opposition simultaneously.

Q: There are lots of reports on malnutrition among school students, some of which have been disputed by the Government. Does the Government recognise that there is a problem with the nutrition of schoolchildren and what steps are being taken to address this situation? The President recently said the Government is going to provide free lunch to one million or more school students. Will this be a solution to the nutrition problem of school children?

A: Given the backdrop of the serious economic situation and owing to the fertiliser scarcity experienced in the country, there was a looming food crisis. Fortunately from one side there had been a decent harvest in the Yala season. Since we are getting fertiliser sufficiently for the Maha season, we are hopeful that there won’t be a food scarcity as anticipated a few months ago. Because of the inflation and high prices of foods, people can’t afford and nutritionally it affects them, especially the protein component of their meal is lacking now.

This is very clear and prevalent in some of the areas like the Nuwara Eliya district and also in some rural areas of the country. As a responsible Government, we are duty bound to provide them with some relief measures.

That is why the President has come forward to provide one million students with additional meals. Parallel to that, we have increased our subsidy schemes as well. For example Samurdhi beneficiaries who got Rs.1500 to Rs.2000 per month are now given Rs. 7000 as an interim measure. Likewise the recipients of subsidiary schemes have gone up to 2.5 million which shows the Government wants to provide more assistance to those who are in need at the time of difficulty.

We hope with the support of other agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we can grow more and we will be able to overcome this situation.

On the other hand, historically there had been figures that Sri Lanka had about 20.7 percent people below the expected weight for height category. As per the statistics released by the Family Health Bureau division of the Ministry of Health last month, this figure was around 14.5 percent.

Historically, there was a trend which had seen the lowering on the number of people or the children who suffer from malnutrition. However, this acute condition is something different because there could be more cases that could be visible during the next month. So, we have to take precautionary measures to ensure that we will feed our children somehow.

Q: Allegations of economic crimes committed by the current rulers and demanding appropriate action against them is a fresh move against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. Will this have any adverse impact on Sri Lanka?

A: All these big countries, they have been constantly influencing the other smaller countries who vote against us. That is part and partial of their agenda that they have been creating since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. This time they incorporated some of these issues covering financial aspects as well. So, again it is very clear that they have an ulterior motive to tighten the moves against Sri Lanka though they are mandated to human rights aspects of it. I think Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry, PC clearly said that they have no mandate to cover the financial aspect of it. So, it is very clear, they are doing it purposely to put the country into more serious difficulties.

Q: According to the Sri Lanka Tea Board Sri Lanka’s tea industry is currently under threat and Ceylon Tea’s fame globally needs to be regained. Would you like to comment?

A: Our tea production has dropped because our soil is eroded and its quality has gone down a lot. Sri Lanka was the biggest tea producer in the world in the 1930s and that was 90 years ago. Gradually, China, India and Kenya have started producing more tea and importantly their productivity is high because their lands are relatively new so that their soil quality and production is also high.

Fortunately, our average crop has not gone down seriously. We produce an average of 300 million kilos of tea per annum. On the other hand, we must remember the fact that Sri Lankan tea is the highest valued tea in the world.

Our tea is priced as much as the price of Kenyan tea. Therefore, we have to maintain the quantity and the Government is trying to improve the cultivation. We provide other facilities for tea nurseries, planting materials, subsidies and other schemes covering areas such as irrigation. Fertiliser has also come back to the country.

So, I hope the production won’t go down in 2023. Even in 2022, production was not good as there was a fertiliser scarcity in the first six months of the year.

On the other hand, we must maintain the quality of the product as well. There are certain malpractices that take place at factory level including adding unwanted substances to tea. That had deteriorated the quality of Ceylon Tea.

One thing is the quantity and we also have to maintain the quality as well. However, we are marching towards the correct direction but we need more promotional activities at the international level to capture new markets and also retain the existing market on a futuristic basis.