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Sunday, 25 September 2011

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People are our primary concern -Johnston Fernando

Co-operatives and Internal Trade Minister Johnston Fernando said the people in Colombo who want to see Colombo city and its road network being developed would definitely vote for the UPFA at the forthcoming election for the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) irrespective of political differences. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said if anybody votes against the UPFA he might be a person who opposes the victory achieved against terrorism and development the Colombo city.

The Minister said the people in Colombo have a duty to vote for the UPFA as it successfully eradicated terrorism. It was the people in Colombo who faced immense hardship due to terrorist activity. However, a large number of youth in the CMC area did not join the Army. Most of those who joined the Army to fight against terrorists were from Wayamba, the Southern and Northern Provinces. However, the situation in Colombo was completely different and the people in Colombo lived in fear of bombs being exploded and other terrorist activities which took place in parts of the city.

Minister Fernando said President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a leader who loves his motherland and the people. He has created an era where all communities can co-exist in peace and harmony. Whatever external pressure is exerted, the Government can successfully face it as the people are with the Government. The conspiracy hatched by the international community to thwart the good work done by the government to defeat terrorism will be successfully overcome.

Q: Your Ministry has to deal with consumer interests. Cement is a case in point. How would you justify the import of quality cement from Pakistan?

A: It is the Opposition which speaks of cement. They are on attack mode. These allegations are levelled without proper investigation.

The Opposition speaks on behalf of industrialists and companies that have helped them. Whatever the government attempts to do is always hindered by the Opposition by levelling false allegations. What the Opposition always does is, it speaks on behalf of a person who has not been awarded a tender.

When the cement issue cropped up, I categorically said there is a conspiracy behind this. Nearly 15 to 20 percent of cement is imported from Pakistan. Every year, the cement imported from Pakistan has been suspended due to complaints. On every occasion, when the import of cement from Pakistan was suspended, attempts had been made to increase the prices of local cement.

This is the conspiracy hatched by them. Even the media could not see through this conspiracy and the Opposition did not even speak about it.

What happens is when the import of cement is banned, the Pakistan company challenges the issue and sends samples to the UK for clearance but all this takes a couple of months and in the meanwhile, during these two months an artificial shortage is created and local traders hide stocks.

Eventually the price of cement is jacked up. Two and a half weeks after the import of cement was suspended, these companies requested the Ministry to increase the price of cement. One particular company had given a huge amount of money to an official of the Standards Institution to suspend the import of cement from Pakistan. We are conducting an inquiry to ascertain the truth behind this conspiracy.

Any person is well aware that low quality cement is not produced anywhere in the world. Any experienced mason can immediately identify whether the cement is mixed or not. No consumer or mason has complained so far about the quality of the cement that has been imported.

The Co-operatives establishment imported only 14,000 bags of cement. During these two months,the private sector had imported over one million bags of cement. This is an attempt to put consumers into a helpless situation and cause embarrassment to the Minister with the intention of increasing prices. As Minister I am committed to safeguarding the interests of the the consumer. I categorically deny that low quality cement has been imported to Sri Lanka.

Q: In the case of transporting vegetables, traders complain that plastic crates are expensive and require more room in comparison to gunny bags and on their return trip they cannot carry a load of goods in the vehicle because of the space taken by these crates. What is your solution to this situation?

A: There maybe a certain amount of truth in what these traders say. This protest was made even in India, when plastic crates were introduced. Today it has become very popular in India.

This was the situation, even when President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Fisheries Minister attempted to introduce plastic crates to the fisheries sector. This is just a case of not wanting to implemented change. A group of farmers and businessmen affiliated to various political parties is the main offender.

They are doing all they can to sabotage this program. When the harvest of vegetables is reaped, it is transported to several places in gunny bags. This same vegetable stock is unloaded at several points until it reaches its destination. A huge wastage takes place. Research has revealed that there is an overall wastage of 5 to 40 percent due to transportation.

Sometimes the vegetables packed in gunny bags are kept on the floor at the Dambulla Economic Centre, even during the rains. Nearly 10,000Kgs of vegetables are loaded into a lorry which has the capacity to transport only 3000Kgs. Thousands of kilograms are dumped as garbage. If plastic crates are used, vegetables can be easily transported from the farm to Colombo without any post harvest loss.

Therefore, this is something which should definitely be implemented. We won’t allow the Opposition to sabotage this program. We have also named the varieties of vegetables which cannot be carried in plastic crates. We have reached this decision by giving a hearing to all concerned. I have gazetted this and I am waiting to implement it soon.

Q: There are complaints that the Dambulla Economic Centre is mismanaged. How are you going to streamline it and make it more consumer-friendly?

A: When I assumed office the Dambulla Economic Centre was mismanaged. There was a mafia at the Dambulla Economic Centre. Even managers appointed by the Ministry had been assaulted. A huge amount of money collected from the car park and toilets at the Dambulla Economic Centre had been misused.

Earlier the farmers who brought their vegetables had been threatened and the prices had been decided by the traders according to their whims and fancies. We have put a complete stop to all these malpractices. We have to rectify some shortcomings at the Ratmalana and Thambuttegama Economic Centres as well. Other than that Economic Centres are functioning well.

Q: What is the progress of the raids conducted by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) on errant traders and producing them before courts?

A: The CAA has only 110 employees to conduct raids countrywide. When I assumed office, they did not have even a table or chair to do their work. I have given them computers, tables, chairs and other facilities to perform their duties. Following a request made by me, the President has given approval to provide a vehicle to each district CAA to carry out its activities.

When I took over this Ministry, the highest number of raids conducted by the CAA was 4000. During the first six months since I became the Minister, the CAA had conducted 12,000 raids.

This year, the CAA has conducted 22,000 raids so far. These raids are conducted against traders who do not display the prices of goods, sell low quality consumer items and goods which expiry dates have passed. We have recovered over Rs.50 million from penalties imposed on errant traders.

According to the ongoing court cases, the CAA would be able to obtain another Rs.50 million from errant traders. We are not against businessmen but they should not fleece customers.

Q: According to paddy farmers, the Paddy Marketing Board’s (PMB) mechanism to purchase paddy is not workable. Why don’t you streamline the system to help paddy farmers to market their produce in time?

A: During the Premadasa regime, it was decided to close the PMB. These stores were given to his friends free of charge or on lease. Another two PMB buildings in Kandy had also been given to friends of UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake free of charge.

It was President Mahinda Rajapaksa who re-established the PMB in 2007 under the “Mahinda Chintana”. When the country was self-sufficient in paddy, the Government had a guaranteed price for paddy.

The Government through the PMB decided to purchase a Kilo of Nadu paddy for Rs.28 and a Kilo of Samba paddy for Rs.30. The Government is not ready to purchase the entire paddy harvest. Paddy purchasing should be carried out by private traders. But we maintain the view that there should a stable price to safeguard paddy farmers.

Therefore, we are trying our level best to create a stable price for paddy. Of the total paddy production, the PMB purchased only eight percent last year. This year, we have already purchased seven percent. At present a stable price has been created for paddy.

In two months, when the paddy harvest reaches the market, a Kilo of paddy will go up to nearly Rs.35. This is what we want to do and the PMB is there to implement this program.

We can’t purchase the entire harvest, then it will be a move taken against private traders. The intention of the Government is to maintain a stable price. When a Kilo of paddy goes up to Rs. 30 or 35, a Kilo of rice can be sold to consumers below Rs.70.

Q: The West always takes up the issue of human rights to attack developing countries. What about the crimes committed by them in several Asian and Middle Eastern Countries? What have you got to say about this?

A: The LTTE diaspora is making a huge attempt to undermine the victory achieved by The Government against the LTTE. Though the country was united and LTTE terrorism was eradicated, the LTTE network is still in operation at international level. Various pro-LTTE elements and their organisations are operating in some countries. Sri Lankan Tamils who live in various countries have even been given voting rights in those countries. These pro-LTTE elements make use of political parties and try to realise their goals with the help of some European countries. Under the leadership of President Rajapaksa all communities can live in peace and harmony.

Therefore, the people are with the President. Whatever external pressure is made, the Government can successfully face it.

If comments were made that a two thirds majority cannot be obtained by a Government under the constitution introduced by the late President J.R.Jayewardene, the UPFA Government has proved otherwise this Government is popular and is a people’s friendly Government. I regret the attempts made by certain countries to undermine the efforts made by the government to establish peace. Sanity will prevail in the end.

The Government will be able to defeat attempts made by some Western countries to destabilise our country. However, the Government could get international support to defeat terrorism in Sri Lanka. In the same way that the Government eradicated terrorism, it will overcome this international conspiracy.

Q: The UNP took up the issue of shanty dwellers. Is there any truth in the allegations levelled by the UNP or is this an attempt to take undue political advantage?

A: The UNP takes up any issue to realise its narrow political objectives. That is why when the military operations were conducted against terrorists, the UNP Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe and other UNP leaders acted against it. We took the decision to extend our support to the President to successfully eradicate terrorism.

The CMC is the only remaining slot where the UNP can save its credibility. During the past 17 years, the UNP, has turned into a political party promoting hatred among the people.

That is why the UNP has resorted to third grade politics to mislead the people that the Government is going to chase away shanty dwellers. As a UNP stalwart and one who always attempted to defend Ranil Wickremesinghe those days, I would like to say he was of the view that shanty dwellers should be removed from Colombo city and those lands should be given to investors.

Wickremesinghe said, that is how the city should be developed. This is the reason why he expects the President to resort to this same tactic. But the President is humane and the Government has not taken any policy decision to chase away, shanty dwellers from the city. This Government wants to develop the country. This is just another UNP attempt to secure votes by resorting to third grade politics.

Q: Do you think the Government is in a position to win the CMC as it has been a UNP stronghold for the past few decades?

A: This time the UNP will definitely be defeated. Since we gained Independence, the CMC has been ruled by the UNP for nearly 60 years, but it could not even dispose of garbage properly.

At that time every city junction was full of garbage. Most of the roads in the city were not in good condition and roundabouts had not been constructed. Even though the UNP had its own administration and majority power within the CMC, it could not handle even those areas. The people in Colombo have a duty and a responsibility to vote for the the UPFA for ushering peace.

Massive development programs have been put in place in Colombo.

The road network in Colombo has been developed to a great extent while pavements in the city have been re-laid. The Colombo city beautification program is also being carried out. The majority of shanty dwellers who will be given houses voted for UNP at previous elections.

These development projects could have been carried out in Hambantota, Kurunegala, Gampaha or any other part of the island where the UPFA can obtain more votes. The President with his far sighted vision makes decisions on behalf of the people without considering the vote factor.

Therefore, the people in Colombo should show gratitude to the President and the Government.

The people who genuinely want to see Colombo city and its road network being developed would definitely vote for the UPFA at the forthcoming election irrespective of political differences. I am confident the intelligent people in Colombo would vote for the UPFA by taking into consideration the development that has taken place within the city.

The UNP is facing a severe crisis. UNP Leaders are not able to come onto a common political platform. Sajith Premadasa has put forward independent groups to contest the Local Government election. The UNP would definitely be defeated due to this division in the party. Voters must think whether they should vote for a bankrupt party like the UNP which does not have a proper leader and is clashing with each other.

Q: What have you to say about the Kurunegala Municipal Council election?

A: The UPFA will definitely win the Kurunegala Municipal Council. The UPFA won in 2006. It was under the UNP for about 50 years. The UNP won the MC in 1997 because of me. Otherwise the UNP would have lost it. It was I who gave the leadership. Now I have joined the Government and I have a block vote in Kurunegala.

Q: You are an old UNPer. What has really gone wrong with your old party?

A: The UNP was established for democracy. Now there is no democracy within the UNP. A second level leadership was not groomed. The UNP was earlier a party which acted according to the aspirations of the people.

Today the UNP has turned into a traitorous party. Now it is a party whose members clash with each other.

That is why the UNP is divided into various factions. President Rajapaksa is different. There is unity within the Government.

The President also grooms leaders within the party. There are enough second-rung leaders.

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