Time opportune to overcome current crisis - Kanaka Herath | Sunday Observer

Time opportune to overcome current crisis - Kanaka Herath

2 April, 2023

State Minister of Technology Kanaka Herath said that we should prioritise whether conducting elections or stability of the country’s economy is so essential at this critical juncture. The State Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said if the elections are held or protests and trade union actions are conducted at this decisive moment , the country will go back to the same status where it was last year.

He said at present, we have faced some challenges which we have not faced in the past. Therefore, it is important that we should first stabilise the economy and then go for an election. At this juncture, we should not be selfish and think of petty politics and party lines. If we genuinely want to do something on behalf of the country, this is the ideal time to extend our support to the President and the Government to get the country out of the current crisis.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: You told Parliament recently that Sri Lanka is in need of an Online Safety Act to regulate social media. Could you explain?

A: At present, we have sent our Cyber Security draft Bill to the Attorney General’s Department and we are waiting for their recommendations. We are planning to present it to Parliament for its approval during this year.

Q: You have stressed that Sri Lanka must take the helm of a high-tech manufacturing export economy. What are the steps taken by your Ministry to promote this?

A: If you talk about the industrial revolution, we might have been in line with industrial revolution one, two and probably industrial revolution three but we have missed industrial revolution four.

In the world today, technology talks about industry 5.0. We are now trying to switch from industry 3.0 to 4.0 and beyond. For that we have to have an ecosystem where all industries should get together with the public sector, private sector and the general public. If we are talking about high-tech, we should get together and work on it. We will conduct several events in this regard this year.

Q: Under the directive of the President, your Ministry has developed all the required strategies to achieve a digital economy by 2030 through the new reforms in the country’s information technology industry. What is the progress in this regard?

A: With the help of the industry and the World Bank, we are trying to work out a digital framework for 2030. The President will present the digital framework of the country for 2030 by the end of October this year.

Q: Do you have any stipulated time-frame to present the Cyber Security Bill in Parliament as proposed in the Information and Cyber Security Strategy of Sri Lanka?

A: Of course. We are trying to present it to Parliament this year and get its approval to form a Cyber Security Authority next year.

Q: Earlier, you have said that a Data Protection Authority will be established in 2023 to regulate the negative effects of digitisation. Would you like to comment?

A: When talking about the legal framework, what is more important is the Data Protection Act and it was approved by Parliament last year. At present, we are trying to implement the Data Protection Authority. Probably, we are trying to form the authority early next month and then we will be able to fully implement the authority and its framework in September.

Actually, we are proud of presenting this Data Protection Act. If you look at our region, we are one of the first countries in which this Data Protection Act was approved by the Parliament. So, we have to be proud of it. The objective of this Act is to protect personal data as well as data from the private or public sector.

Q: You had recently highlighted that the loss of skilled IT professionals, also known as brain drain, is a challenge faced by the country. What is your view in this regard?

A: Simply because of the crisis that we faced last year and the heavy taxation, there is a brain drain in our country, especially IT sector professionals. That is one of the main challenges that we have faced.

If you look at the ICT industry, we have well developed human capacity and professionals in Sri Lanka. On the other way around the brain drain has started in Sri Lanka due to this crisis. Hopefully, we have to look into short, medium and long term strategies to sustain the ICT industry.

Q: International Conference and Exhibition on the New Digital Economy scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka in the last quarter of this year. Would you like to enlighten your views?

A: As I mentioned earlier, Sri Lankan digital framework 2030 is going to be launched in October this year. That is one of the main objectives to lead the industry from the current context 4.0 and beyond. We have organised several events including symposiums, exhibitions and conferences from mid October to mid November this year. Actually, this request came from the industry itself. As the Ministry, we are trying to facilitate this umbrella of events.

Q: You have also said that a comprehensive program has been launched to make the IT sector a major foreign exchange earning industry in Sri Lanka. What are the steps taken to realise this target?

A: As the initial step, we launched the ‘DIGIECON 2030’ at Temple Trees under the patronage of the President on Thursday. There are some major objectives to be achieved to fulfill this task. One is to have the digital framework in October. Then we will look into Foreign Direct Investments, MICE tourism and Nomad Visa where the professionals, especially IT professionals can come, work and live in Sri Lanka and they will be spending foreign currency here.

That is one of the main aspects that we are focusing on. Actually, those are the objectives that we are trying to achieve by conducting these events. Apart from that, we are now looking into e-Government services which will pave the way to make the Government sector more efficient. We are planning to introduce e-payment or electronic transactions for every Government institution. In addition to that, we have also decided to introduce a unique digital ID as one of the main projects.

Its procurement process is ongoing and we are planning to advertise the procurement early next month. If we can implement that there will be a huge change in the digital transformation in Sri Lanka. However, it will take nearly one and half years to fully implement it.

Q: There is emerging belief that elections can be held back for a couple of years until the country stabilises through the IMF facility. The Opposition on the other hand is demanding immediate elections. What is your opinion on this matter?

A: At present, we should see whether conducting elections or stability of the economy of the country is essential. If we take the tourism industry, I think we have achieved our goals this year when compared to the past couple of years. Every month there are more than 100,000 tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka. If the elections are held or protests and trade union actions are conducted at this juncture, the country will go back to the same status where it was last year.

Therefore, we should ask the public whether we should first conduct the election or restore stability in the country.

Q: The Opposition has charged that the Government is scared of holding elections at this time and that is the only real reason for trying to postpone elections. What is your comment on this?

A: My belief is we should have elections on time and that is democracy. However, at present, we have faced some challenges which we have not faced in the past. So, the priority should be given to stabilise the country and then we should go for an election when the economy is stable.

Q: Controversy has been caused by the Government’s decision to grant licences to three more foreign companies for retail sale of petroleum. How will this benefit the country and the consumer?

A: There are different opinions in this regard. At present, if you ask the public they will definitely recommend this move. I think what Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara has done is very important to the country right now. In April last year, we had fuel shortages, lengthy queues and some people even died in fuel queues.

There were so many issues in the country at that time. If we had the international companies at that time there would have been no shortage of money for them to import fuel on their own and there shouldn’t have been any issues.

Therefore, we have to decide whether we need to keep this as a public sector entity or whether we have to open the market for other foreign companies to come and do their businesses here.

Q:Do you see that when the country is recovering from the current crisis there is a deliberate attempt by certain sections to destabilise the country under the pretext of trade union actions and lightning strikes?

A: Definitely. Now the people want to have an efficient Government sector in the country. When we look at the CEYPETCO and the CEB, there is no efficiency as expected. We should also seriously look into the waste, corruption and inefficiency of these institutions. If we can categorise them with other private sector companies, we will be able to see the difference. Sometimes, the policies might be different from what we had earlier. However, the best option right now is to look into the stability of the country and have a well developed and structural plan in the Government sector.

Q: The Pohottuwa which used to be a sworn enemy of President Ranil Wickremesinghe is now hailing the President as the only option for the present time. What is the reason for this transformation?

A: The country was not in a stable position last year. We had to face so many issues and there was an economic crisis including an acute shortage of fuel. At that time, we wanted somebody who is equipped with vast political experience to take the country’s leadership. That is why we selected President Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President.

He could stabilise the country within six to seven months and also obtain the IMF bailout package. At this juncture, we should not be selfish and think of petty politics and party lines. If we genuinely want to do something on behalf of the country, this is the ideal time to extend our support to the President and the Government to get the country out of the current crisis situation.

Q: Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi at a recent public meeting admitted that the Pohottuwa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government made many mistakes which led to the economic crisis as well as the change of the Government. Do you agree with this view and has the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) already rectified its mistakes?

A: Actually, I can’t comment on what she has said. I wouldn’t say the entire SLPP Government is held responsible for some of those mistakes made. There were some mistakes during the tenure of our Government. The fertiliser issue shouldn’t have occurred. Then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wholeheartedly wanted to do something good for the farmer community but it should have been done stage-wise. Within one year’s time we had to switch from chemical fertiliser to organic fertiliser. If we had a systematic plan and implemented it within three to four years, we could have achieved our targets.

Similarly, such mistakes have been made during the tenure of every Government. However, that doesn’t mean all policies that we implemented were wrong. When we look into the control of Covid-19 pandemic, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa achieved even what the developed countries couldn’t achieve.