We are not against beneficial economic reforms - SJB MP Eran Wickramaratne | Sunday Observer

We are not against beneficial economic reforms - SJB MP Eran Wickramaratne

2 July, 2023

More opportunities should be created for the poor to escape their predicament and climb the social ladder. More economic and social reforms have to be carried out to develop the country and the SJB will support any prudent moves of the Government in this regard, said Samagi Jana Balawegaya MP Eran Wickramaratne in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

Excerpts from the interview

Q: The Opposition continues to say that it is against Domestic Debt Restructuring (DDR). What is the reason?

A: As the main Opposition, we have opposed it on principle. Inflation had risen to 70 percent. Food inflation had gone up by hundred percent. ETFs and EPFs have money that people have worked for their entire lives. Money in Government bonds is someone’s savings. Whatever those savings were, their value has now dropped considerably. We oppose it because DDR will make the situation more difficult.

Q: There has been a fear among the people that ETF, EPF funds will be affected due to DDR?

A: There will not be any such problem, because the amount of money received and paid to that Fund every year is very large, so there will not be any problem regarding the funds. But we should be careful if the amount received is reduced by postponing the benefit period.

Q: The Government says that the Opposition is trying to create fear among the people in this regard?

A: Even though the Government is accusing us like that, they themselves destroyed this country. When we handed over the country to them, inflation was less than 10 percent. The interest rate was around 10 percent. The prices of goods were rather low. Anyone had the opportunity to make products and conduct business easily. There was no shortage of gas and fuel. These people followed wrong policies and completely bankrupted this country.

By printing money, inflation increased and the prices of goods skyrocketed. We say restructure the debt. But one needs to be careful while restructuring domestic debt. We propose to restructure foreign debt. And the amount cannot be cut off, we have to seek more time.

Q: The Government said that more investors will come when they get the IMF facility. Has that happened?

A: Investors come mainly on trust. Even though the country has a President, there are also people who have bankrupted the country. Then there is the issue of trust. First, you have to create that trust. Investors should have the confidence that the country is safe and there is no problem. And they see if the law of the land is implemented. Otherwise, they will not invest money at once.

Q: Right now, public objections have arisen regarding the selection of beneficiaries for the Government’s Aswesuma welfare program?

A: As a welfare State, we must provide social security to low-income earners. First, there was Janasaviya. The Government then turned it into Samurdhi. Research has revealed that 60 percent of those who have received Samurdhi benefits were not qualified to get it. The target here should be the poorer segments of society.

There is no point in giving them a pittance. We are not asking to curtail the funds. But if the 60 percent who were not eligible were removed and the remaining 40 percent were given the entire amount, they would receive more than double the present amount. The Rajapaksa Government since then has been selling poverty for elections instead of protecting the poor.

A survey conducted by LIRNEasia has revealed that in 2019, the poor were only 14 percent of the population, now it has increased to 31 percent. Today, about 47 percent have reduced their daily food intake by half. About 33 percent have reduced their daily meal intake to two meals. People’s savings have come down to 50 percent because they have to spend their savings on their daily needs. About 32 percent sell their assets and feed their children. In such a situation, they are trying to give Aswesuma to about two million families. The problem is how to choose the poor. The Government says that the World Bank has 22 criteria. When you choose based on those criteria, it becomes politicised. Today, the politicians who are opposing the selected list are the same politicians who bankrupted the country. Now if they speak against it, we are ready to accept that Samurdhi has become politicised.

Q: Your opinion about the method of selecting beneficiaries for this program?

A: We have said from the beginning that the selection program will not work, there should be a scientific basis for it. It needs a scientific basis. A Professor at the Peradeniya University says to grant welfare measures to those who consume less electricity according to their power bills. That is an example for a scientific basis.

Q: Do you think that poverty can be eradicated by giving subsidies alone, no matter how the beneficiaries are chosen?

A: Obviously, poverty cannot be eradicated by that method alone. But the most important thing here is that this program should help only the poor. You should give enough money to live while helping them. And they should be given the opportunity to escape from poverty and opportunities should be expanded. Then our women do not need to go to the Middle East and work in those homes.

An NVQ level certificate can lead to a higher salary if you go overseas with training. Also, to start a business, the background for knowledge, technology and investment should be created and facilitated. Those opportunities should be expanded.

Q: Your opinion about debt management?

A: It is not a good idea to take a loan while still keeping a loan. But with the current situation, we cannot move forward without paying the debts. Therefore, you need to pay the loans and take loans. But to get such loans, you have to use them in the right way.

For example, when a person starts a business, apart from investing his own capital, he also takes a loan. Borrowing is not a mistake. When you take a loan, you know that you have to pay the loan. Therefore, loans are used in such a way that they get more profit than loans. When our country was a low-income member of the World Bank, we received loans at very low interest rates. And they are long term loans. After that, after our Per Capita Income increased and we became a Middle Income Country (MIC), that window of the World Bank was no longer open to us. Then we had to borrow from the market at market interest rates.

We should use the loans taken for things that will bring greater benefits. There is no problem if we used the loans taken to develop products and exports. But in the past, the loans taken at such high interest were not spent in a way that produced such results. Those loans were taken to build highways, international airports where airplanes don’t come, ports where ships don’t come and cricket stadiums where matches are not played. Now we can say that we have taken loans during the tenure of our (Yahapalana) Government. Yes we did. During 2015-2019, 90 percent of the loans we took were meant to pay off the loans taken. We did not take loans to build useless structures anywhere in the country.

Q: Will the Government be able to achieve its desired development goals?

A: The way the country is now, we cannot go on like this. A lot of reforms have to be done. In order to carry out those reforms, there must be a Government approved by the people and that has won the trust of the people. Then the right policies can be followed. As the main Opposition party in the country, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is a responsible party.

We are not against the Government’s good and prudent economic reforms. But we clearly say that they should be done within a democratic framework. The rule of law, human rights and people’s sovereignty must be protected at all times. Elections should be held democratically and on time. We see that this Government is moving away from that framework. We are completely against that.