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POSTED AT 06:40 AM 10-03-2019

Pitfalls of a sanitary nature see uproar in House in largely uninterrupted Budget speech

Tea party pow wow: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Pic by Priyantha Wickramaarachchi

- No tea please, say JVP after what they termed a budget that burdened the people
- In rare move, Chief Opposition Whip commends some proposals during debate

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s second Budget, delayed by four months due to last year’s constitutional crisis, largely avoided being a full-on populist one, as expected in an election year, though there was predictably some relief for the people.

The 2019 Budget, under the theme, “Enterprise Sri Lanka – Empowering the People and Nurturing the Poor,” laid out an ambitious vision to help people help themselves. Unsurprisingly, the United National Front (UNF) Government gave much emphasis to its two flagship development programmes to achieve this goal, namely, the “Gamperaliya” Rapid Rural Development Project and the “Enterprise Sri Lanka” credit programme.

Students, newlyweds and migrant workers were among those who were offered attractive loan schemes under the Budget. Allocations were also made for the betterment of differently-abled persons, while initiatives were laid out to improve the participation of women in the labour force.

At the onset of his speech, Mr Samaraweera made certain to mention the damage that had been caused to the country’s economy during the 52-day political crisis. He noted that a billion US dollars had been wiped off the country’s hard-earned foreign reserves. As a result, the currency depreciated to an all-time low, while the country’s credit ratings were downgraded, he observed.

Minister Samaraweera conducted his near 2 1/2 hour Budget Speech without much interruption, though the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) erupted in uproar when he claimed that over 15, 000 people in Hambantota, the home district of Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, lacked even basic sanitary facilities. He made the remark while proposing to allocate Rs 4 billion to provide sanitary facilities to about 260, 000 households in the country over two years. Mr Samaraweera contrasted the lack of sanitary facilities in Mr Rajapaksa’s home district with the “splurge of mega projects” undertaken by the former President during his rule. This jab led to a strong reaction from UPFA MPs who disputed the number given by the minister. Some Opposition MPs loudly remarked that if the numbers are true, then the Minister of Housing Sajith Premadasa, who is also from Hambantota, should also be ashamed of himself.

MPs from all parties barring the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), attended the traditional post-Budget Speech tea party in Parliament. JVP MP Dr Nalinda Jayathissa said they had decided not to attend as the Budget imposed further taxes. “It is not right that we should be drinking tea after imposing so many taxes on the people,” he told the Sunday Times, stating that their party would vote against the Budget.

While Government MPs continued to heap praise on the Budget throughout the debate on the Second Reading held this week, many Opposition MPs decried what they said was another failed Budget by a Government that was now on its last legs.

Opening the debate, UPFA MP Bandula Gunawardena strongly disputed claims made by the Finance Minister that the 52-day political crisis was the cause for the country’s economic woes.

He also scoffed at Minister Samaraweera’s claims that the economy that the Yahapalana Government took over in 2015 was a “ticking time bomb.” In reality, the economy had been in the best shape ever, he claimed, adding that the new Government failed to make use of a historic drop in world oil prices. The Government need not have sold the Hambantota Port to China if it had properly used the funds saved from the drop in oil prices, he noted. He further pointed to the Central Bank bond scam as a major contributing factor to the country’s economic woes.

UNP MP and Non-Cabinet Minister Dr Harsha De Silva, who opened the debate for the Government fired back, insisting that the downgrading of the country’s credit rating by all three international credit rating agencies during the “political conspiracy” had a major adverse impact on the country.

In contrast to most UPFA MPs, Chief Opposition Whip Mahinda Amaraweera commended some of the proposals listed in the Budget, though he called on the Government to do more to assist the country’s farmers and fishermen. He commended the Budget proposal to allocate funds for freezers to limit post-harvest damage. Mr Amaraweera noted that, in 2017 alone, over 60, 000 metric tonnes of fruit had been imported to the country at a cost of billions of rupees. “All of these fruits can be grown here,” he stressed.

JVP MP Bimal Rathnayaka raised a point about how quickly Governments jettison one economic strategy for another, noting that the Finance Minister’s last Budget had been titled as a “Blue-Green Budget.”

“Yet there is no mention of either blue or green in this year’s Budget. Does that mean issues related to the environment cited in the last Budget have all been resolved now?” he queried.

The debate will continue until Tuesday (12), following which a vote on the Second Reading will be taken, while the Committee Stage debate will continue till April 5.

Sandun Jayawardana