Resolving economic crisis, the first priority – Dr. Ranjith Siyambalapitiya | Sunday Observer

Resolving economic crisis, the first priority – Dr. Ranjith Siyambalapitiya

19 February, 2023

State Minister of Finance Dr. Ranjith Siyambalapitiya said that the issue faced today is how to prioritise the expenses of the upcoming Local Government election.

The State Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said, “If we wish to, that can be taken to the top. Then the other urgent expenses will come down to second and third places. Our argument is entirely based on that. The Government has never said that it will not allocate money to conduct the election.”

State Minister Dr. Siyambalapitiya said his assessment is when the economic issues have decimated the political will and political authority, the first priority should be given to resolve the economic crisis. Therefore, the Finance Ministry has pointed out as to whether we are in a position to bear the cost of an election at this juncture.

Excerpts of the interview.

Q: The Opposition is alleging that the SLPP is scared of facing the election and that is why attempts are being made to postpone the elections. What is your comment?

A: We have to talk about an election when we are in a severe economic crisis. This economic crisis has decimated elections and democracy. A strong President and a Government elected through the democratic will of the people were in power last year.

The former President was elected to the presidency with a resounding mandate of 6.9 million votes which eventually paved the way to create a two-thirds majority Parliament. However, all those were decimated by the people’s pressure due to the economic crisis. Amid that economic pressure, it was not possible to protect democracy or the political authority established by the people’s sovereignty.

We are yet in the same position and attempting to recover. On our part, we have the prime responsibility to further stabilise the economy. Members of political parties talk about certain issues which are advantageous to them. They make various comments on the LG polls and other political parties. These are mere speculation made based on Facebook comments and the speeches made on the political stage without any scientific basis.

Q: Cabinet Spokesman Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena told reporters on Tuesday that you had informed him that the Government doesn’t have sufficient funds at present to hold an election. Is it possible for a Government to not give money for an election?

A: I state with responsibility that we have never said that we will not give money to conduct the election. Budget 2023 has been passed. If the expenditures have been passed in the Budget, then we have to prioritise them. We put an end to lengthy fuel and gas queues as we prioritised our expenditures properly.

We reduced the 12-hour power cuts to one or two hours. There is a shortage of drugs but it is less compared to those days. Farmers who were clamouring for fertiliser those days are now trying to sell their paddy. Therefore, some sort of change has taken place. When analysing the crisis that we faced it looks like a miracle that we were able to pay the salaries to public servants on time. We did this without allocating money to all the expenditure heads mentioned in those documents. That is why the expenditures of all the ministries were cut by five percent with the approval of the Cabinet

The expenditures of ministries were also cut by one percent. At present, the issue is how to prioritise the expenses of the LG election. Our argument is entirely based on that.

Q: The Election Commission has said that the Government Printer has not been given funds to print ballot papers for the election. Is there any truth in this?

A: This doesn’t mean we are against conducting the election. In January, Government expenditure increased three-fold compared to its revenue. That gives an understanding of the expenditure and how we manage it with immense difficulties. Citing priority, can we postpone the payment of salaries of public servants even by a day? Can we delay the payment of pensions and Samurdhi allowances? This is the problem that we face at the present.

Q: In a situation where the people have faced severe hardships, again the electricity tariff has been increased. This time by 66 percent. Isn’t there any alternative without putting more burden on electricity consumers?

A: If we don’t increase the electricity tariff, steps should be taken to reduce production cost. The issue is whether we can reduce the production cost instantly. Nearly 40 percent of our electricity is generated through hydropower. We have a big target of going for renewable energy sources and we have already launched some of them.

We should go for more renewable energy sources. Until we reach that target, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) faces a serious issue to continue the power supply uninterruptedly. They don’t have any viable alternative to the issue. It is very obvious that an unnecessary clash was created among the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and Power and Energy Ministry. It is a question whether the PUCSL has properly realised its responsibilities.

The Government will not increase electricity rates and put more tax burden on the people especially when there is an election at hand. The Government has been compelled to do this as there is no other viable alternative. This is the bitter truth that we have to understand.

Q: There are media reports that the Dollar reserve has increased from zero to US$ 2 billion while inflation which was 70 percent when the President took over the country has reduced to 54 percent. Is there any truth in this?

A: That is true. At present, the inflation rate has come down. That doesn’t mean the economy has stabilised and the prices of goods have reduced. The percentage of the increase of the prices of goods has declined. Our foreign reserves are slowly increasing. These are the positive results of the hard decisions taken by the President as the Minister in charge of Finance and the Central Bank.

Q: The Cabinet of Ministers has approved a proposal to introduce a new Excise Act to replace 111-year old Excise Ordinance that dates back to the colonial days. Could you explain?

A: We are in the process of taking measures to introduce a new Excise Act. It is one of the oldest acts in the country. It has become so complicated due to the thousands of excise notices issued. Therefore, we have decided to amend the Act to suit present day needs.

Q: You have said that Sri Lanka is expecting debt assurances from China in the near future which will permit the country to get approval for the facility from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Would you like to comment?

A: I hope we will be able to reach a consensus very soon. Now people are asking the reason for the delay to get IMF approval as we have sought its assistance on 16 earlier occasions. I would categorically say on all those 16 occasions, we went to IMF at the appropriate time. Therefore, it was very easy for us to find solutions.

This time we went to the IMF after a delay of one or two years. Then we have to seriously consider the situation that we face. The debtors will also think as to how the assistance they gave us will affect their future activities. When we look at the point where we were, we have reached a good position. Therefore, we should speak about this issue with a proper understanding of facts.

Q: Political commentators have dismissed the SLPP and UNP and say that the real contest in any future election is going to be between the SJB and NPP. What is your comment on this?

A: When one particular party runs the Government for a long period, naturally it is easy for the Opposition to divert public opinion. The ongoing situation is very advantageous for the Opposition. When the electricity tariff is increased by 66 percent, it is a very good slogan for the Opposition.

We have a traditional Opposition in our country. They know that when they come to power; there is no way to bring down the electricity tariff hike. However, they use it to attack the Government.

What the Opposition wants is to grab power. That power was voluntarily offered to them six months ago but none of them accepted it. Now they think it is easy for them to capture power for a certain period by making use of the pressure that emerged when the solutions were not found to the issues in the country.

Some responsible people say if they come to power they will not go to the IMF and they will bring the crooks to book. We have to catch thieves using the existing laws in the country. Some say after they come to power, their friends overseas will send them money. At present these slogans have become very attractive among the people who have faced severe hardship due to the economic crisis.

Voters should seriously consider as to why all those who shout loud on the political stage today didn’t accept the power given to them six months ago. That is mainly because they didn’t have an alternative to the economic issues. Now they pretend that they have a solution to the economic issues to capture power.

Q: The SLPP itself has split into several factions with the ‘Helicopter’ alliance and several others. How will this impact the chances of the SLPP at future elections?

A: The SLPP is the party which progressed rapidly in the country. Similarly, it had to face issues within its tenure in office. I am not a member of the SLPP. When looking at the situation that emerged in the country six months ago, the SLPP handing over nominations to the LG elections is a good move.

The houses and properties of a large number of SLPP Parliamentarians were set on fire due to the violent incidents that occurred in the country on May 9 last year. Again the SLPP has given nominations and entered the election fray and is continuing its politics. This is democracy.

Q: The SLFP and several other political parties formed an alliance to contest the upcoming LG polls under the ‘Helicopter’ symbol. However, a couple days later the SLFP quit the alliance and decided to contest the LG polls separately. What is your comment?

A: I don’t want to criticise the SLFP as it is like my home. However, it seems there is an issue within the SLFP. In certain districts, the SLFP contests from the ‘Helicopter’ symbol and in some districts they contest from the ‘Hand’ symbol. There are various disputes among the group to contest the next Presidential Election as well. According to my political experience this alliance will not last long.

Q: Some political commentators say that the conditions are rife for another ‘Aragalaya’ to emerge although the President has categorically said that he will not permit another ‘Aragalaya’ to emerge. In your opinion, is another ‘Aragalaya’ possible in the country?

A: I don’t know whether the people have such a need. Last time the ‘Aragalaya’ emerged without the backing of any of those who are clamouring for a change today. Series of economic issues led to the creation of ‘Aragalaya’. Those days farmers didn’t have fertiliser to cultivate so they also joined the ‘Aragalaya’. Those who were in lengthy fuel and gas queues and faced hardships due to long hours of power cuts took the lead of ‘Aragalaya’. However, some people attempted to portray that they gave leadership to ‘Aragalaya’.

As a politician who lives with the people at village level, I am well aware that the people are not asking for an election. However, certain sections think if an election is conducted at this juncture, they would be able to come up from their current setback. They know the power will not shift due to this election.

Several groups are under the impression that if the election is held they would be able to give a signal that the majority of the people are with them. They are afraid that if the President and the Government manage to continue their affairs successfully during the next couple of months, all of them will have to give up their plans. This is the truth.

The people at the village level don’t have any interest in an election and they are seriously concerned about how to solve the burning issues they face. I don’t think anybody would be able to launch another ‘Aragalaya’.

Q: The people are clamouring for a system change. Does the SLPP-led Government have a plan to effect any socio-economic changes that will satisfy the demand for such a system change?

A: Actually, it is high time for this. The President made an open invitation to all the parties to join the Government and accept portfolios but they were reluctant to do so. The Parliament has to continue with the majority. There were so many opportunities to effect a system change inside Parliament without shouting in the streets. They also had the opportunity to appoint their own President and a Cabinet of Ministers. They should have started the system change at that particular point.

At present we have curtailed unnecessary expenditure. I saw a news report that the ministries face a crisis due to some financial regulations. Perhaps that may be true. When the 22 million people in the country are living amid a crisis, the ministries cannot run without having any crisis. They cannot be allowed to conduct ceremonies. So, we have already started the system change. We should start from this point and continue. We can’t expect a 360 degree turn at once.