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Tuesday July 23rd, 2024

Sajith outlines policy objectives in online Q&A

In a live Q&A session streamed on Twitter and Facebook this afternoon, United National Party (UNP) presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa outlined his policy objectives for a future government under his leadership in areas of governance, economics, education and national security.

Responding to a question on economic management, Premadasa said the country is facing what he called a middle income trap.

“As a country, we’re faced with several challenges. On the one hand we have the poverty trap; then we have the middle income trap. We have been classified as a middle income country, which in itself is a trap – in the sense that we’re not prosperous enough to provide a good living standard for all; nor are we considered a low income country which would make us eligible for foreign grants and support,” he said.

Premadasa said Sri Lanka needs to use “modern methodologies” to extricate itself from the “economic debacle” it has found itself over the past two decades.

“The middle class is faced with a middle income trap. The poor are facing a poverty trap,” he said.

Overcoming these traps would require out-of-the-box thinking, the UNP Deputy Leader said, adding that a future United National Front (UNF) government would have an “absolutely meritocratic” approach to governance, with capable, intelligent individuals brought into the system.

“We will have people with the fullest capability. Intelligent people with visionary thinking who have performed and excelled in their respective fields will be made the frontrunners of the governmental structure. As public policy decision makers, we will ensure that the targets are achieved, that the programmes are monitored and the relevant feedback takes place so that any required adjustments are made,” he said.

Referring to a “new look UNF”, Premadasa said new thinking will be injected into a UNP-led government while utilising expertise of party seniors.

“‘New look’ does not mean there will be a turnover of people. We will ensure that those who have contributed to successes are fully utilised in garnering the requisite energies to guide this country. But you will have lots of new thinking, capable and intelligent people will be part and parcel of policy making. We will ensure that the services provided by the government conform to the highest standards of excellence. This is what the people are crying for. As servants of the people, we’re dedicated to achieving such tasks,” he said.

Premadasa also advocated a direct relationship between the public and policymakers, where the former is provided with a constructive opportunity to become participants and stakeholders in decision making.

“I believe first hand unrehearsed interaction with the people is of vital importance to have an authentic people’s dialogue where they are able to have a very frank exchange of views, opinions, conclusions, deductions and accusations, all of which I welcome as part of a new paradigm and a new process that will guide this country towards peace and prosperity,” he said.

“This is vital for policy makers and decision makers to fathom and ascertain the heartbeat of the common man and woman,” he added.

In response to a question about his allegedly overlooking urban housing development over the rural sector, Premadasa said urban housing is a complex issue.

“I would add the word affordable housing. First we have to segment the housing needs market, according to their income patterns. We have to ascertain the requisite numbers in order to have a proper understanding about the demands. We have to have separate policy programmes with adequate government funding to ensure that affordable housing is provided to these various communities and people who belong to different income segments. Urban housing is an issue that has to be looked at in a comprehensive, integrated manner,” he said.

“I’m capable enough to solve the urban housing need as I have shown my performance in the rural arena,” he added.

Addressing another criticism often levelled at him as Minister of Housing, Premadasa said vertical development is on the pipeline for the rural sector.

“The second third and fourth phases of the progamme which will be mandated with constructing 17,500 model villages will see vertical development. What you’d call Gammudawa Mahal Nivasa, which will consist of flats in the model villages where the ancestral family may occupy the ground floor and the first and second floor will be made available to the sub family units of that family. Each plot of land will consist of a housing opportunity for three families,” he said.

“Considering the scarcity of land resources, we have to manage with the limited availability of land. We have to ensure that all environmental concerns are taken into consideration when we embark on this path breaking, revolutionary development programme,” he added.

With regard to cost of living, the presidential aspirant said he hopes to implement a production-related remuneration programme corresponding to an employee’s production capacity.

This, he said, seeks to add value to the economy while increasing salaries so that people may meet rising cost of living and taking into account demand-pull inflation.

Asked if he is mature enough to lead the country at this stage, at 52 years of age, Premadasa said maturity can only be measured by a leader’s ability and output.

“I believe the capability of the political leadership to translate and transform declarations into actions, that’s what is needed for this country.There are many theories and prognosis mentioned as God-given solutions to problems faced by Sri Lanka. In seminar after seminar, speech after speech, the so called experienced leaders have made pronouncements, declarations and various utterances, but most of them have failed in their efforts to translate and transform declarations into actions.

“There is a huge discrepancy that exists between declaratory policy and action policy. This is one of the basic problems that I have identified in the governance system, structure and hierarchy of our country. I want to assure you that I possess the requisite remedial measures to cure that illness and certainly I’m a man of action, and I will ensure that whatever national objectives and targets pronounced, they shall be achieved during a specified period,” he said.

With regard to education, Premadasa said secondary education can be future-proofed through emphasis on science, mathematics, English and ICT, but did not elaborate on plans for developing tertiary education in the country.

On the question of national security, Premadasa said he is for a multi-pronged approach to national security that includes but is not limited to beefing up the military.

“People seem to think that national security should be limited to military protection. This I think is a serious flaw. National security has many facets. Military security is certainly essential, but there is also economic security, political and social security to consider,” he said.

Military security, said Premadasa, requires a modernised security force, equipped with new technology and intelligence gathering capabilities in order to face new threats. For this, the forces must be given new equipment and weapons, he added.

However, other concerns must be addressed too.

“If you look at economic security, we’re now in a debt trap. The richest 20% takes 55% of the national income. The poorest 20% gets only 4%. There is a wealth gap,” he said.

The unitary character of the country, he went on to say, should be felt in the heart of hearts of all communities, echoing a sentiment he had expressed in a previous Q&A session, held in Colombo to a primarily English-speaking audience.

“We need to instill a feeling of brotherhood and reconciliation and unity among all peoples. Some people are destroying religious places as a sign of identity. This is a threat to national security. This creates feelings of resentment. When temples, mosques, kovlis are destroyed, it is a threat to the unitary character of the country” he said.

“There are new threats emerging in the world, such as lone wolf attacks in Europe. Our intelligence units must be strengthened. Terrorism recruitment must be stopped. The best way to do this is to build reconciliation and unity between communities. Devolution of power can be done to the maximum within a unitary country. This is a good way to take the national security agenda forward. I urge you to not look at not through a narrow lens,” he added.

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Sri Lanka to introduce digital program for foreign workers facing problems

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will introduce a digital program via smart phones for migrant workers to report any concerns while employed abroad, Minister of Labor and Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara said.

“We will have a digital program that is accessible from their smart mobile phones where domestic workers can notify us if they have not got their salary or if they have fallen into some trouble,” Nanayakkara said in parliament on Tuesday.

Sri Lanka has sent 301,000 domestic workers and 360,000 skilled workers abroad, Nanayakkara said.

Several workers, especially domestic workers, face abuse at the hands of foreign employers.

Nanayakkara said that the government only receives 0.001 percent of complaints with regard to abuse.

“We can only act on complaints received from people who go through legal channels. We are educating those who go through the Foreign Employment Bureau on how to escalate complaints.” (Colombo/Jul23/2024)

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Sri Lanka cabinet approves apology from Muslims for COVID-19 cremation ahead of election

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Cabinet of Ministers approved a proposal to tender apology for the grievance caused for ethnic minority Muslims due to the cremation of bodies during the Covid-19 pandemic, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said.

The move comes ahead of the upcoming presidential poll in which Muslim votes are likely to become crucial for all candidates.

The government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa led by current ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) forced Muslims and Christians to cremate the dead bodies of those who died of Covid-19 in 2020.

The   Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which includes Islamic states globally raised the forced cremations issue at the 46th United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in February 2021 after the SLPP government rejected repeated requests by local and global Islamic bodies.

The policy was later reversed, but the move hit diplomatic ties with Middle Eastern and OIC nations which is the highest source of employment for Sri Lankan expatriates.

Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa later said the decision was based on expert advice. Rajapaksa who was seen as an anti-Muslim leader was heavily criticized for his decision ahead of 2020 parliamentary polls while his elder brother and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declined to discuss the issue with Muslim parties which asked to reverse the decision.

Hundreds of Muslims were cremated during the Covid-19 period before Rajapaksa government allowed a separate burial ground for Muslim Covid-19 victims in the Eastern town of Oddamavadi.

“A joint Cabinet Paper presented by Ministers Ali Sabry, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe & Jeevan Thondaman apologising for the grievance caused to the Sri Lankan Muslim community due to the cremation of bodies during the Covid-19 pandemic, approved by the Cabinet,” Minister Sabry  tweeted quoting Cabinet Spokesman.

Already President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Estate Infrastructure Minister Jeevan Thondaman had tendered an apology in the parliament. The latest cabinet move is a formal and official apology.

BURIAL OR CREMATION

Along with the apology, the Cabinet approved proposed law on burial or cremation of dead bodies on religious discretion.

“As stipulated in the guidelines published by the Ministry of Health on the Clinical Management of COVID19, cremation was made compulsory in removal of the dead bodies of the persons who died due to the COVID-19 virus. The decision created displeasure among the various religious groups and human right activists especially Muslim religious persons,” a government document on the cabinet decision showed.

“The studies made in this respect have been confirmed that the faeces and the urine are the primary source of transmission the virus but not with the safe burial. Therefore, in order to prevent arisen of such condition in future, attention has been drawn to introduce a law, a certain person or relations to be selected the burial or cremation of the dead person at their discretion.”

“Further, it has been seemed that introduction of new laws is appropriate to donate the dead bodies to the Medical Faculty, if necessary.”

“Accordingly, Cabinet of Ministers has approved the joint proposal presented by the Minister of Justice, Prison affairs and Constitution Reforms, Minister of Foreign affairs to instruct legal Draftsman in order to prepare a draft for the introduction of new law.”

Rajapaksa’s arrogant policy led the OIC and Middle East nations to reject Sri Lanka’s repeated requests for credit lines and loans to buy oil before the country collapsed following an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022.

Minister Sabry faced harsh criticism from human rights defenders and from members of the Muslim community for what they claimed was his silence in the face of the inhumane, unscientific decision by the Rajapaksa government.

The Rajapaksa government’s stubborn insistence on cremating Muslim and Christian victims of the Covid-19 virus was against the communities’ religious beliefs and drew widespread condemnation and concern of Muslim countries and leaders.

Rajapaksa, after the economic crisis hit the country, was forced to flee in the face of massive protests against him in July 2022. (Colombo/July 23/2024)

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Fireworks erupt in parliament over Sri Lanka’s VFS Global controversy

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s parliament erupted in heated debate after government legislators raised a privilege issue against Committee on Public Finance Chair Harsha de Silva, who last week tabled report on a controversial visa deal with the IVS-GBSVFS Global, consortium.

Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa questioned the propriety of raising a privilege issue against a Committee chairman, who was acting under powers derived from the Constitution, saying it amounted to challenging the Speaker himself.

Related Sri Lanka visa deal with IVS-VFS be cancelled or revised, forensic audited: COPF Chief

Sri Lanka’s Department of Immigration had awarded a visa issuing monopoly to IVS-GBS-VFS Global without tender which was charging 25 dollars per visa compared to an earlier 1 dollar by Mobitel, and it should be terminated or revised, de Silva said presenting a report earlier this month.

Privilege Over VFS Report

State Minister Shehan Semasinghe said de Silva had presented a defective and false report misleading parliament saying among other things that the report was unanimously approved by the COPF membership.

As a result, privileges of 16 members had been broken, and misleading a parliamentary committee was a punishable offence and de Silva should be referred to the privileges committee.

De Silva said he severally and individually rejected the charges and all views of the members were attached to the final report and he would stand down as COPF chair until the matter was decided.

“This was not done secretly. There were three weeks for members to respond,” de Silva said.

“There was a debate about the tourism arrival numbers, which was included. If I am to be imprisoned, do it. I am not afraid. Give me an opportunity and I will show how each word is true.

Semasinghe said there was no desire on the part of government members to remove de Silva from the COPF.

Government member Nimal Lanza said that he was under the impression that tourist arrivals had fallen due to the VFS deal but there was an increase this year. There was no desire to imprison de Silva, he said.

Verbal Exchange

Public Security Minister Tiran Alles said five years of data was given, and there was an increase in tourism arrivals. And after April there were 53,000 tourists under new categories, which brought revenues of 1.4 billion rupees.

The report was also attached as an addendum, de Silva said.

Minister Alles questioned why the Deputy Speaker was allowing a debate over the VFS deal which would now attract media headlines.

“If you are allowed, all our members must be allowed to speak,” he said.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said if competitive tenders were called, there would not have been a charge of 25 dollars per visa as Mobitel was charging only one dollar.

Premadasa said he was responding due to charges made against de Silva and claims that he had committed a punishable offence. The opposition leader questioned how his microphone was muted.

Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa said while it was fair to allow de Silva to respond to the initial charge, a long debate should not have been allowed on the matter and also the contents of the report.

“The second bad precedent is this. It is not important whether it is Harsha de Silva or not. There are many committees. Can the Chairman of a Committee be called over a privileges issue?

“Under the Constitution there are powers to make standing orders. It is implemented through the 1953 Privileges Act. The Chairmen have certain powers. The Chairman has acted under the limits of his powers.

Parliament Undermined

Minister Rajapakshe said while there may be errors in a report, the Parliament’s powers were diminished if privilege questions were raised against Chairmen of a committee who carried out there duties.

“There may be errors in the report. We have seen that. But I am raising a question on the constitution.

“In this way, in whatever Committee, if he did his official duties, if he is made an accused in another committee of the same parliament and there is an investigation, it is the parliament’s power that is degraded.

“So it is the confidence people have in the parliament that is reduced. There is a legal question here. The Chair should consider whether it is possible to raise a question like this

“Ultimately the final responsibility of all these Committees rests with the Speaker. It is the Speaker’s powers that are delegated to the Chairman of a Committee.

“So, this challenge is made against the Speaker. How is the Speaker doing this?

“If the next day, the COPE, or COPA issues a report, someone asks to put him in the punishment log (dandu kanda) or to do whatever and calls him to the privileges committee.

“What are you going to ask at the Privileges committee? What punishment are you going to give? (Colombo/July23/2024)

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