Economic woes and privatisation exaggerated by an Opposition that has no national or people’s interests at heart says ‘freed’ Minister Duminda Dissanayake

talkDuminda Dissanayake, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Cabinet Minister of Irrigation and Agriculture is a man who likes to “tell it as it is.” A surprising trait in most humans and a rare phenomenon among politicians in general, Dissanayake confidently stated that as far as he was concerned honest communication when dealing with anything is of paramount importance and an axiom that he always attempts to live by.

In a relaxed state of mind at his Skelton Road residence, Dissanayake opened up about the conflict within the SLFP, the state of affairs within the national government and shared his personal perspective on national issues and the present state of affairs.

Q: During the SLFP Women’s Congress you stated that those who publicly tore the party’s invitations for prospective candidate interviews will be considered as those who have left the SLFP. Yet despite such acts on the part of party members and such statements made by yourself, you still maintain that there is no split within the ranks of the SLFP. Could you please clarify this?
I still maintain that there is no split within the party and the simplest explanation is that Mahinda Rajapaksa himself resigned and officially handed over the Chairmanship of the SLFP to President Sirisena together with a letter wishing the new President all the best for the future. The former president and the SLFP members still supporting him have not been forcibly removed from the party nor have they officially left the party and formed a new party. This proves that every member of the SLFP is still functioning within the party, but with two different beliefs in the present governing order.

I need to stress on a point that I have been constantly reiterating from the time the national government was formed. Irrespective of how many “Padha Yathras,” protests or statements are carried out or issued by Mahinda Rajapaksa and those hoping to reinstate him in a position of power, the reality remains that the people of Sri Lanka have given the present national government the mandate to carry out the function of governance till 2020. For the next four and a half years this system cannot be legally or constitutionally challenged no matter who may want to take over the reins of power. This is why I believe that those who are wasting time and causing inconvenience to public functions should start participating in addressing more pressing national issues like restoring the country’s economy, agriculture, education, governing system etc. Even if the SLFP members within the national government were to side with the 51 members opposing the government, we would still have only 95 parliament representatives as opposed to the UNP’s 106 representatives. In essence we would then remove ourselves from the decision-making equation thereby having no healthy impact on whatever positive and much needed changes to be made.

This does not mean that I am opposed to anyone wishing to carry out a “Padha Yathra” I’m merely stating the futility of such an act when such a move will have the best effect closer to the time of an election. For example back in 1994 the SLFP organised a similar protest rally, but this was done a mere few months prior to the general election. We were successful then because Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga became the Prime Minister soon after and thereby helped restore an SLFP government that has managed to retain power till today. But it is still important for everyone to remember that neither Mahinda Rajapaksa nor Chandrika Kumaratunga can ever assume power now that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution has been passed.

What Mahinda Rajapaksa and his 51 supporters need to understand is that it is better to be part of a useful equation like putting our governing system and policies on track and criticising perceived wrongs in a constructive manner and not for the sake of opposition itself. The purpose of parliament and government is to serve and improve the lives of the populace, not promote one’s own personal agenda or beliefs to the detriment to the people.

A good example of this was during the parliamentary discussions regarding the Office of Missing Persons Bill. The SLFP had the option to contribute their opinion on the formulation of the bill. It was thanks to our constructive criticism that the amendments to the bill were made and this was a privilege that the 51 SLFP members in the opposition should have used to constructively contribute towards this much needed bill instead of insisting that it be overturned needlessly. Such baseless disruptions hamper progress, justice and reconciliation. What they should have insisted on was a stronger bill not the complete scrapping of it.

Q: Your rationalisation of the situation sounds logical and it would appear that the most common sense approach would be to listen to your advice, yet Mahinda Rajapaksa and the 51 members of parliament supporting him, do not seem to have grasped this simple concept. In your opinion why do they appear so obtuse when it comes to the obvious?
If you take normal human behaviour, a person will take personal offence when he feels slighted. My belief is that Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to have a personal grievance against President Sirisena. If one listens to the statements made during the recent “Padha Yathra” they all contained accusations hurled at President Sirisena. If the purpose was to bring attention to the lapses in the functioning of the national government, should they not have made accusations against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe? After all, as SLFP members Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters should be attempting to cement an SLFP government in 2020 and not ensure that a UNP victory is guaranteed.

To me his behaviour seems to indicate that he feels slighted by President Sirisena’s presidential victory. After all, he used to be the Chairperson of the SLFP and the former president of the country and the fact that a man he believed to be his subordinate has now become the leader of the country must be a reason for him having a sense of personal anger. We must bear in mind that no one knows better than Mahinda Rajapaksa the sort of power enjoyed and wielded by an Executive President of Sri Lanka. The loss of this amount of power must be a personal regret to him, one which he is now taking out on President Sirisena by manipulating the party dynamics.

Q: Despite having lost his re-election bid as President for the third term, Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to still enjoy a reasonably healthy level of support both among some of the SLFP members and the general populace. Why do you think this is so?
It was under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency that the war was won and the civil crisis within the country finally ended. This achievement has propelled him into the rank of a political star whose popularity can be likened to that of a movie or sports star. The way I see it Mahinda Rajapaksa is one of the brightest political stars of our time and that is what still endears him to some people.

Q: On the subject of the end of the civil war, many Mahinda Rajapaksa supporters maintain that the nation needs to be “grateful” to him for having ended the civil conflict. Do you hold with this belief when one can argue that as the elected President it was his “job” to do so as he was bestowed with all the powers and privileges of that post?
My opinion is that Mahinda Rajapaksa accomplished something that no other President before him had done. For this we need to applaud and validate his achievement but “gratitude” may be too strong a sentiment to apply to this context.

Q: Despite certain parliamentarians being summoned before the FCID and put into remand, they constantly get bail. We hear those in government making statements that evidence exists against certain persons who will be taken into custody or called in for interrogations and that they will definitely receive due punishment, yet the public has begun to believe that these statements are just propaganda. The public has also begun to believe that despite the Yahapalanaya, those in positions of power are exempt from the full force of the law. How would you respond to this?
Firstly I think it is inappropriate for any member within the government to make public statements about ongoing investigations, the availability of evidence pertaining to pending cases and to announce which suspected person or persons will be taken into custody or questioning. Such decisions are not in the hands of government members but the relevant investigating bodies. The laws and regulations of the country stand absolute and only the authorised investigating individuals or bodies have the vested power to make such decisions and to announce them as they deem fit. When members of government persist in making such unauthorised announcements, no matter how well intentioned, they give credence to the false perception that such investigations are taking place due to political machinations and not the due process of law.

As politicians we should not be talking about catching rogues, instead we should facilitate the means of proper investigative channels and repair the system. It is through a strengthened system that we can stop such wrongdoings. The system needs to be in place so that even I or my colleagues will never be able to defraud public funds or perpetrate criminal acts without facing severe repercussions.

Q: Would you not agree that on the surface of it, there is the appearance that the law operates in one way for VIPs (MPs, high-ranking government officials etc.) and another less favourable way to the regular individual?
There is a partial element of truth in that statement. The fact that Wimal Weerawansa who was in possession of two passports is still enjoying the freedom allotted to an acquitted individual while Kumar Gunaratnam is serving time after having been found guilty of the identical offence, clearly highlights the veracity of the statement. This is a matter that I and other MPs who share my opinion are constantly questioning in parliament.

To an extent people’s disgust with some politicians and their actions is justifiable, but the deplorable conduct of a few should not taint the majority as well.

In addition to implementing proper economic and government policies the national government also has to address and solve such irregularities so that it will not be repeated in future. It is regarding such matters that I believe the 51 members of the Joint Opposition should raise the most protest so that we can end such malpractices once and for all.

Q: Why does it appear as if these so-called perpetrators of fraud and criminal acts are performing a sort of prison musical chairs?
From the perspective of a member of the national government I can categorically state that we have no influence over judicial decisions to grant bail for bailable offences. Further the investigative authorities decide on which charges an individual will be booked.
We must understand that some of these accused persons have more than one case pending. The investigative authorities are under immense pressure to fast-track these cases so they choose the cases that can be investigated in the shortest possible time and often these cases are for bailable offences. This does not mean that those individuals are not under investigation for more serious crimes, but these are crimes that will take considerably longer than a month to investigate. When they are booked for such crimes and if they are non-bailable offences then the public will see a cessation of the so called “prison musical chairs.”

Q: Moving on to the functions of your Ministry, what are the changes that are being implemented by you?
As far as the Ministry of Agriculture is concerned I am working towards promoting President Sirisena’s agenda of a pesticide-free agricultural system and introducing an agricultural system that is both practical and useful. We hope to have all necessary improvements and policies in place by 2018 including optimising the productivity of all cultivable land. Also we are in the process of formulating an official cropping pattern and drafting an agricultural policy both of which I believe are not only unavailable but have never been in existence.

Q: As the Minister of Agriculture should you not have already attended to these things?
One must bear in mind that I am merely the Minister of Agriculture and not a magician. These are lapses that have not been addressed for more than 60 years and they cannot be rectified within the span of a year. It takes several months to formulate strategies, policies and then to draft them into tangible documents. In addition we have to work with long, standing government employees who are reluctant to accept change.

Unlike the private sector you cannot fire an employee because they do not carry out their duties. The removal of a government employee has to be done through a lengthy and rigorous process, so, it is important that all ministries that are trying to make changes have the support of the employees. I am working within such a constraint and it is a fine balancing act. I sent out a circular informing that Agrarian Services Development Officers be sent out of their respective districts to another area for only a period of one week in order to gather unbiased data to formulate a cropping pattern for 12 districts. Most of the officers who have been employed for more than 20 years protested at this despite the fact that it was not a transfer but a one week field study. I myself am not quite certain as to the reasons behind their reluctance!

A similar incident was the matter relating to the Ministry’s decision to provide a cash incentive as opposed to fertilizer. Certain groups of farmers agitated by former JVP parliamentarian Namal Karunaratne protested simply to disrupt an otherwise practical solution. They clearly could not voice dissatisfaction with our decision to ensure that our consumers are no longer poisoned by pesticides, so they latched on to this matter and made it into something contentious.

Right now I am concentrating on formulating the agricultural policy so that if and when the government changes, the policies and programmes introduced will be carried out without any disruptions. We want to promote local produce, optimise productivity and ensure a sustainable agricultural environment.

Q: What do you think are the major issues affecting productivity and price of agricultural goods?
One issue is the present existence of the middleman and the second issue is the imbalance in supply and demand of agricultural goods. For example if one farmer makes a good profit from a particular crop then many others will copy him creating a surplus in supply that far exceeds our demand thereby effectively killing the competitive price which that particular crop formerly commanded.

Our farmers need to be educated on better and more innovative cropping and irrigation methods. In order to ensure the growth and survival of our agricultural sector our farmers need to be enlightened with the accepting of innovation.

Q: This present national government is made up of ministers who have previously held ministerial portfolios but were unable to effectively implement change. Why is it necessary to accommodate such non-performers in this present “go getting” government set-up?
It was not that these ministers were inept. The problem under the previous regime was that these ministers were unable to implement the changes they desired because of interference and restrictions from the governing authority.

When President Sirisena was the Minister of Health in the Rajapaksa government, he was prevented from instituting the changes he had planned. It is because of his understanding of the restrictions these ministers had been labouring under that President Sirisena has seen it fit to allow them the opportunity to necessitate the changes they desired and to prove their productivity. This is a laudable sentiment that I agree with because according to me it was restrictions from the top and not ineptitude that hampered the changes needed within these ministries.

Q: The public still believes that the changes promised by the Yahapalanaya have not been delivered on. The cost of living has steadily increased and people are yet to see the official salary increments implemented. Could you share your views on this?
I want to say that the main promises under the Yahapalanaya were to guarantee good governance, eradicate corruption and system reform. We did not promise to reduce the price of food etc. However, this does not mean that the government can refrain from addressing these endemic issues. The problem is that the malpractices of the past have made it necessary to spend time on rectifying the pressing policy issues and then move on to other problems.

Under the previous regime large international loans were taken for infrastructure development and not income generating projects. This means that we have to find the money to pay off our loans but because we utilised those loans on projects that are not bringing us any returns we have to take more loans to pay off other loans and to all intents and purposes it is a vicious cycle.

In order to bring in some much needed income the government is looking into public-private partnerships to maximise the productivity of non-performing entities. This does not mean that we are adopting a policy of privatisation as the Joint Opposition has implied, but that we are tying-up with private enterprises while retaining government control on state businesses to make these enterprises more profitable so that we have some income to pay off loans without the need for additional loan taking.

I think the people need to be made aware of the truth and we need to communicate this more eloquently as often as possible to dispel panic stirring rumours of privatisation and exaggerated economic woe.