A discussion conducted with Minister of Higher Education and Highways, Lakshman Kiriella, on the budget, relief provided to the people from it, the privileges afforded through it to the MPs including Ministers, the current political and economic backdrop and future political trends in the country reveals some spellbinding facts and figures.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: Why is the Government, which is burdening the people with taxes, affording privileges to MPs including Ministers?
A: The total salary of an MP along with all the allowances added amounts to less than Rs 100,000. Can an MP do his or her job with Rs 100,000? They need to have two or three vehicles and offices and have to visit funeral houses, attend ceremonies and give aid when they do pay visits. We took this decision after taking all this into consideration.
Q: Politicians come to Parliament stating that they want to serve the public. Ultimately what takes place is that the people have to shoulder the burden of maintaining these MPs including Ministers.
A: Our MPs get the lowest salary in the whole of Asia. Thus, after the President and the Prime Minister discussed this matter, it was proposed that MPs should be given a salary with which they could live respectably. This is alright. MPs are there to serve the people and to build the country. Yet, they too must be treated fairly.
Q: Is the Government saying that today the country’s MPs are living under dire financial and material circumstances?
A: Is Rs 100,000 sufficient to live on? How much does an MP coming to Colombo from a far off area have to spend to live in Colombo? How much does it cost to just buy a house? Every MP must maintain two houses or homes in Colombo. Therefore, the salary of the MPs should be increased to a certain level.
Q: It has also been decided to increase the Parliamentary attendance allowance of MPs fivefold. On the one hand, the Government is asking the people to be patient for a while at the same time the Government is serving its own with large benefits. Is this correct?
A: To tell the truth, an MP is today paid only Rs 500 as the Parliamentary attendance allowance. Anyone will accept that this is insufficient. What was meant by it having been increased fivefold is that it has been decided that it should be increased to Rs 2,500.
Q: Hasn’t a supplementary estimate of Rs 790 million for the purpose of purchasing vehicles for MPs been brought?
A: In actuality, these vehicles are not provided to Ministers but to the Ministries. Ministers will not be taking these vehicles home. I am today using the vehicle which incumbent Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama used previously. Prior to Dr. Amunugama it was current Minister S.B. Dissanayake who used it. When the documents of the Ministry of Finance were being prepared it was the name of the Minister that had been put. However, what should have been put is the name of the Ministry Secretary. Ministers are not given vehicles. A vehicle is provided for the use during the period one is officially acting in the capacity of a Minister. That is all.
Q: Prior to capturing power, the Government talked of finding money and resurrecting the country. Yet, isn’t this Government too running on taxes?
A: This is why the Prime Minister and the President say that our exports should be increased. If exports are to be increased, factories are required. For the past 10 years, not one factory was started in the country. We thought that once the war ended, factories would be established. It was stated in the 2010 Mahinda Chinthana manifesto that every divisional secretariat would have two factories. Yet, this was not given. However, today, we do not have money. How do we find this money? We invited those with money to come to Sri Lanka and invest. China has been invited to come to Hambantota and establish factories in front of the harbour. We will export to India.
Q: There is an allegation that India will benefit more and gain more advantage from the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Economic and Technology Cooperative Agreement (ETCA).
A: This is a complete lie. The greater advantage and benefit will come to us. When we send items produced and manufactured in Sri Lanka to India, we can sell them at a lower price there. This means that when we sell them at a lesser price, the people will buy the item quickly. This is what we are trying to do. There is no disadvantage to us from the ETCA. This is because India has a population of 1.3 billion. Even by selling a pin to this group one can gain a massive profit. Alongside this, simultaneously, numerous Sri Lankan companies will go to India to discuss establishing trading industries in India.
Q: When will the people get these advantages you speak of? The Opposition is stating that the people are impatient.
A: We cannot run a race. Yet, this is the start. I believe that two years after next January we will reap the results of these.
Q: The Government fell into much disfavour following the Treasury bonds scam at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. What is the latest situation with regard to this?
A: Regarding this, the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) report was given. This has been directed to the Attorney General (AG). This is what should be done. During the period of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, 30 COPE reports were brought. All those went into the dustbin. Yet, we did not do this. We sent it to the AG. They will do the needful and take action against those responsible.
Q: All of you who pointed fingers that there were those in the former Government who stole millions and billions of rupees are today arresting those like the former Special Task Force Commandant who is a former Deputy Inspector General of Police for using a vehicle and misappropriating Rs 150,000. People are blaming the Government for things turning out this way.
A: This is something the President too frequently talks of. He wants the big fish caught. They are the ones we need to catch. The ones who stole millions and billions of Sri Lankan rupees are the ones who should be caught. Yet, during the recent past, cases have been filed against bigwigs who were in the former Government. Yet, there should be evidence (200%). Even the President and the Prime Minister say this. We abide by yahapalanaya (good governance) and the law. The law is always late or delayed. This is not a phenomenon that occurred today. We cannot tie wrongdoers to trees. We cannot take them away in white vans. We cannot shoot them. Therefore, the law is late and delayed. One will have to be patient. However, all those who did wrong will have to suffer punishments.
Q: Today, there is a wave of strikes in the country. It has become almost a trend. Why is this?
A: These are done due to political incitement. What should be done last is being done at the beginning. If there are work related, trade union related and labour related issues, one must first discuss it and if this fails, only then should one resort to strikes. Yet, today, what those in the trade unions do initially is to go on strike. This Government does not fear these. We will not do injustice to any worker.
Q: There are allegations levelled against you that undergraduates have been assaulted.
A: Today, undergrads do not have issues. We have solved most of the problems faced by university students. By 2018, we will completely resolve the issue of hostels for undergrads. We have allocated monies to build 30 hostels. The Mahapola scholarship allowance and student allowances have been increased. We have given laptops. Everything that we can probably give, we have given to the maximum. Yet, they are uttering baseless falsehoods and protesting.