Spending Rs 16 b on LG polls unwarranted - Jeevan Thondaman | Sunday Observer

Spending Rs 16 b on LG polls unwarranted - Jeevan Thondaman

5 February, 2023

Minister of Water Supply and Estate Infrastructure Development Jeevan Thondaman said he personally feels that it is not appropriate to spend Rs. 16 billion on the Local Government election which is not going to change the economy, President or the Prime Minister.

The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said if 10 percent of that money is allocated to the upcountry community, their livelihood will be much better.

Unfortunately, here politics becomes prejudiced and overrides logic. Everybody in the political sphere knows the fact that LG elections are mainly dependent on the candidate more than the party. So, that is not going to give any actual reflection of the people’s mandate. “My personal view is the LG elections are not necessary because that is not going to make any change except unnecessary use of money from the Treasury. Other than that I don’t see any reason for holding the LG elections,” he said.

Excerpts of the interview.

Q: You were appointed as Sri Lanka’s youngest ever Cabinet Minister. What do you think about this achievement?

A: I am personally very humble and overwhelmed by the honour. At the end of the day, I shouldn’t forget that I was appointed as the youngest Cabinet Minister because I am representing a community that is backward. It is very difficult for the youth to break into politics. If you look at the youth in politics, the majority of them are like me and we are products of nepotism. I don’t think that is true democracy. I came into power after my father passed away but that is not the case for many youth.

In fact, there may be youth who are more talented and deserving for the positions. I think that is what we have to expect in future for Sri Lanka. I personally think even after five years or 10 years, whichever Government comes to power led by whichever party, they should have youth representation in the Cabinet. Because the biggest issue right now is the disconnection between the politicians and the youth. So, you need somebody to reflect the aspirations of youth, in the Cabinet.

Q: What led you and your party, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) to back President Ranil Wickremesinghe?

A: That is because of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s extensive political experience. But I am not someone who is going to present only with the positives and there are some negatives as well. The President’s political career spans over 45 years. So, there will be all sorts of opposition and criticism. I think one thing that cannot be denied: the President promised to effect a change and that change has taken place.

About six months ago, the situation in the country was quite terrible. Despite politics that have been played right now by any party, the reality of the matter is India and China have given an assurance on debt restructuring. We have to seek international support which we didn’t have six months ago. I think the President had come in with that particular skill. We also give due respect to Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. When the election was called, if the Opposition Leader contested for the presidency, we might have a different stance. Unfortunately, he had supported another candidate. So, it came down to who is the most experienced and equipped person to deal with the crisis.

Q: The Opposition alleges that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the United National Party (UNP) are trying every trick in the book to postpone the Local Government elections for fear of losing them. What is your comment?

A: My view is it is not necessary to conduct LG elections at this juncture and that is not because we are afraid of losing. The CWC has a block vote so that it doesn’t matter which side of the Chamber we are on. Our votes are always with us. So, we are really confident of the elections. I personally feel it is not appropriate to spend Rs. 16 billion on an election which is not going to change the economy.

It is not going to change the President or the Prime Minister. For example, if 10 percent of that Rs. 16 billion is allocated to the upcountry community, their livelihood will be much better. Unfortunately, here politics takes prejudice and politics basically override the logic. You have people who say this is to test the mandate of the people. Then we should call for a Presidential Election.

Everybody in the political sphere knows the fact that Local Government elections are mainly dependent on the candidate more than the party. So, that is not going to give you an actual reflection of the people’s mandate. My personal view is the Local Government elections are not necessary because that is not going to make any change except unnecessary use of money from the Treasury. Other than that I don’t see any reason for holding the LG elections. There is no solid proof that the SLPP and the UNP are trying to postpone the elections. I can honestly tell there are some people in the Opposition who don’t want an election.

Q: There is criticism that plantation political leaders have not done anything for the estate community. What are you planning to do to change this perception?

A: I wouldn’t say the plantation political leaders haven’t done anything for the upcountry community. Even my fellow colleagues in the Opposition and those who are criticising the upcountry political leaders need to get correct facts. At the end of the day they all are living in their luxurious houses. Without understanding the dynamics of what is happening in the upcountry they have chosen to blame the trade unions. Pointing fingers and putting the blame is the only thing that they are committed to do. I openly invite anybody for a debate where I can show with proof that it is not the unions that are keeping the upcountry people in this pathetic situation but the plantation companies.

We know the companies are exploiting the people in the upcountry and we have evidence to prove it. We have even the UN Special Rapporteur’s report where it has clearly said the companies are exploiting the workers. If anybody has any criticism of the unions, not just my one, even of unions opposing me, I am more than happy to defend them and show the people this is the reality which I have also done in the past.

Q: The President has initiated a dialogue with all Tamil political parties to resolve the ethnic crisis. What is the contribution made by the CWC to this effort?

A: I think it is not just the Government but also the people in Sri Lanka who need to understand what you mean when you say the ethnic issue. Is it the 13th Amendment, devolution or state autonomy? Clearly the ethnic issue applies to the North and East Tamils. So, there is no point in us going for a dialogue when it doesn’t involve us. However, the President has clearly told us that he wishes to create a Committee basically to reintegrate the upcountry community into the Sri Lankan society which we welcome. At the same time, only the President engaging in this process is not enough. We need everybody to come onboard. Then I am sure we can find a solution to the ethnic issue which encompasses all Tamils and not just the North and the East. For example, in the upcountry we don’t have the right to ownership of lands. If the workers close to their retirement age of 60, the companies kick them out and evict them from their properties. If somebody who has been living there with his father, grandfather and great grandfather they kick them out of the property because they don’t work in the estate anymore. That is inhuman and we want to have a solution to that. These are the issues that we are facing. The 13th Amendment alone is not going to solve all these issues. The 13th Amendment and state autonomy are necessary but at the same time we have highlighted our issues which have nothing to do with the North and the East.

Q: Do you support the extensive devolution of power to the provinces through the Provincial Councils and granting of Police and land powers to the provinces?

A: Of course because at the end of the day we are not going to have a dictatorship. We must understand that. State autonomy is something that is the sign of healthy democracy. You can take our sister country India for example. When you look at India’s state autonomy, they are able to cater to that particular community by having state autonomy.

For example, the people in the Central Province or the North, whether they are Tamils or Muslims, it will not be deprived to have somebody of a different ethnicity or cultural mentality to make decisions for them. We have only five percent of women in our Parliament and the majority are men. If you look at the principle of supporting it, at the end of the day state autonomy is a must and it is a sign of healthy democracy. So, the CWC wholeheartedly supports the 13th Amendment.

Q: How will the splintering of Northern political groups such as the TNA affect the efforts to resolve the national question?

A: The TNA is not the only representative of the North and the East. There are other parties and individuals who represent the interests of the people of the North and the East. Even in the upcountry, we are not the sole representative of the upcountry community. There are other parties as well. So, all of them must come together. If all of them come together then the issue will be solved. First they must have the intention to help the people.

When you have one party with the intention of helping the people and another party with the intention of helping themselves will not solve the matter. At the end of the day the intention must be the same to help out the community. As far as my limited knowledge with the North and East, it is quite simple. Do they need a political solution? Yes. Definitely they need a political solution and it must be given to them. At the same time, the development must also take place in parallel. There are children who were born after the war in 2009.

Now they are nearly 14 years old and they will have their voting rights in another four years later. Actually, they don’t know about the war. At the end of the day, whether you are affected by the war or not, you must have access to all the benefits given by the Government such as education and healthcare. Development must go parallel and we can’t say no. We want a political solution and then only development.

Q: Seventy-five years after independence the estate people are still living in line rooms with minimum facilities. As Estate Infrastructure Development Minister, what are your plans to provide better houses and other facilities to the estate community?

A: Just to correct one fact, 75 years after Independence is for Sri Lanka but for the estate community to be more specific. The hill country origin community didn’t have Independence 75 years ago. Our independence was taken away from us 75 years ago. We were stripped off our civic rights. We didn’t receive our civic rights completely till 2003.

It was in 1977 where we got the majority of our civic rights back to the community. Under the leadership of the late Minister Arumugam Thondaman, during the tenure of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, we were able to get citizenship for 300,000 more people in 2003. This is the question that many people keep asking. The same people are asking why you are taking ministerial portfolios in whichever Government that comes. We started our race 30 years later. While most Sri Lankans were enjoying the benefits such as access to healthcare, education, housing and drinking water, our forefathers didn’t have that for 30 years. We were not recognised as citizens of this country but we were the ones who were plucking tea and giving money for free education. Do you see the irony in that? When that took place, a gross injustice was done shortly after the Sirima-Shastri Pact. The most inhuman things took place in the Sirima-Shastri Pact where India as a gesture of goodwill said they will repatriate 40 percent of estate community people back to India if they voluntarily want to do so. What did the Government here do then? They forcibly sent 50 percent of estate community people to India. That was not with any other intention rather to destroy the vote base of the hill country community.

We need to get work done for our people regardless of who is President or Prime Minister. For example with the Indian housing grant, we are able to build 14,000 houses. Apart from that we are able to build about 1,000 to 2,000 houses per year from the Ministry of Estate Infrastructure. What I am suggesting is we need 2,500 houses. However, it is not my intention to go with begging bowl to anyone and say build houses for Sri Lankan citizens.

It is a pathetic thing to say. I sincerely hope the Government and all Parliamentarians regardless of their political affiliations will support us to provide land rights to the upcountry community who have been living there for 200 years. In Sri Lanka if somebody is in possession of a land for seven years, it belongs to him. It is terrible the companies which came 30 years ago have more control in the estates and the workers. You can’t build houses for 205,000 families. If you give them the right to ownership of lands, they will build their own houses and they don’t need to beg from anyone. As I said in Parliament earlier we don’t need anybody’s sympathy or pity. We just need the opportunity to work.

Q: Tea production has gone down which could have a severe impact on the livelihoods of the plantation workers. Will you be having a dialogue with all the plantation management companies to take steps to boost the tea industry?

A: Tea production has gone down because of gross mismanagement and severe malpractices of Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs). Some RPCs say they have built houses for the upcountry workers. My question is whose money? That is the taxpayers’ money. It is the public money which had been weeded out through this Ministry to build houses. So, they are claiming credit for that. It is not about claiming credit.

At the end of the day, we are happy if the plantation workers get housing. Is it ethical for the companies to take credit for the houses built with the taxpayers’ money? It is a very shameful thing to say. I don’t believe any of these RPC’s has a genuine intention of uplifting the community. That is one of the reasons why tea production has gone down.

Through the Wages Board we receive only Rs. 1,000 and the companies are refusing to increase it even by Rs. 20. Even that Rs. 1,000 is not paid properly. They say the workers have to pluck 20 kilos of tea leaves to get Rs. 1,000. If not they will pay only Rs. 500. This is the kind of pathetic situation the companies have pushed the workers into. There were 515,000 workers back in the day, but this number has now come down to nearly 135,000. Workers are not leaving because of the country’s situation. They are migrating because they don’t want to live like slaves. Tea production has gone up recently but the workers are still suffering. The tea industry is dying mainly because of the companies.