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Betrayal, the prelude to foreign invasion

Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa was interviewed by ITN on its program ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ on March 3.

Q: Higher vegetable prices have dropped sharply. Is it due to the market dynamics or due to a targeted program launched by the Government?

A: President Mahinda Rajapaksa since his ascension to presidency had implicit faith in two things. He believed that joint action by the people, government and its officials on a determined effort always produced the desired results. It was such a frame of mind which culminated in heralding lasting peace for the country by President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Security Forces. Food prices began to escalate daily from the time of national independence.

President Rajapaksa launched a National People’s Movement to resolve this problem. He enlisted the services of public officers such as former Grama Seva Niladaris, Samurdhi Officers, Agri-Research Officers and Family Health Officers.

It was with the participation of all these officers including a number of ministries that Divi Neguma was launched under one Senior Minister in the agricultural sector. This led 1.5 million family units to contribute their mite to the production drive. The process was accelerated with the fertiliser subsidy being extended to vegetable cultivators and other sectors such as tea, coconut, rubber and export crops. Domestic poultry farming too was encouraged. The campaign became a success with the direct contribution by the Government in providing seeds and other agricultural inputs.

Q: As a leader of this campaign are you happy with the public response?

A: Yes, I am fully satisfied since we have reaped good results. The Opposition harped on green chillies and spoke about it at local fairs. Today they are talking adversely about the reduced prices. Those who did harp on coconut prices in the past are today deaf.

People have responded to the government positively. Despite the criticism levelled at the public service, its members dedicated themselves to advance the cause of Government programs and Pensioners, students and teachers participated.

Q: Has the Government taken any measures to cushion the effect of price reduction in vegetables in the interest of vegetable cultivators?

A: Yes, steps had to be taken to protect the interests of the cultivator. High prices was one reason for the good public response. People will not take pains to cultivate if the prices remain cheap.

It is something universal. That is why globalisation has its impact on us. The Government should help bring down the cost of production, to enable us to continue our program.

The government on its part provided the fertiliser subsidy, organic fertiliser in place of chemical fertiliser, seeds and plants, greenhouses too were constructed to withstand the ill-effects of the environment. Production increased and the need for a lucrative market arose.

Self-sufficiency in vegetables

The prime target of Divi Neguma is individual self-sufficiency in vegetables which will encourage people to grow fresh vegetables and fruits apart from improving the intake of nutritious food. We need to provide a market to secure higher prices for the produce of the farmers who cultivate paddy on a commercial scale.

We helped them to export these produce and where possible to supply them to tourist hotels. This program needs to be further expanded. Action has also been taken to accelerate the import substitution process. Our priority should be to cultivate vegetables to cater to the domestic demand and if there is any excess, it could be exported. Despite our being self-sufficient in rice, the carbohydrate intake necessary to maintain a healthy body has not improved. Even in Anuradhapura and Hambantota which are predominately rice-producing districts, the demand for wheat-flour is increasing.

It is time for Sri Lankans to depend on rice for their three meals daily as we have plenty of rice.

Q: What action has been taken by the Government to facilitate the purchase of paddy and also to maintain a stable price for paddy?

A: Rice is our main staple diet. Over prime aim was to achieve self-sufficiency in rice which epitomised national pride and sovereignty. It was in this context that President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed that the fertiliser subsidy be provided to farmers at Rs. 350.

The plight of paddy farmers was such that they were forced to commit suicide as they could not sell their produce. Paddy lands were filled and the Paddy Marketing Board was closed and garment factories had been set up in abandoned paddy stores. We took action to renovate tanks and anicuts and ensure a regular supply of water to the farmer. We revived the Paddy Marketing Board and purchased paddy from farmers. Fertiliser sold at Rs. 3,500 was brought down to the concessionary rate of Rs. 350 which helped cut down the costs of production and alleviate the farmer’s burden.

The guaranteed price for a measure of paddy was fixed at Rs. 18, in the interests of the consumer. The demand for rice has increased in the World Market and, therefore, the price of rice has to be maintained without leaving room for consumers to switch to wheat flour. Any increase in the price of paddy will have its effect on the market which results in lowering rice prices and increasing the demand for wheat flour to the detriment of the paddy cultivator. The Paddy Marketing Board cannot purchase the entire harvest since its capacity is limited. It was during Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tenure of office when the late Hector Kobbekaduwa was the Minister concerned that the PMB purchased the largest quantity of rice. That was the time when President Rajapaksa representing the Beliatta electorate pioneered the setting up of the PMB. The average purchase by the PMB was around 10 percent. The Government did not release the rice stocks to the open market, but supplied it to the consumer via ration books. At present the PMB purchases around seven percent of the harvest which is more than sufficient. Apart from the PMB, the Finance and Economic Development Ministries too through its network of Government Agents continue to intervene.

Despite shortcomings, this system works but it has its ups an downs. When the price of paddy in the Ampara district dropped, we purchased the harvest through the Government Agent and improvised a government-owned vacant factory to store it. We have launched the ‘one project for each village’ program in 14,000 Grama Seva divisions by which priority was given to construct paddy stores and fertiliser storage facilities in the village itself, so that the village-based farmers’ organisations could purchase the paddy harvest.

Q: The Government maintained that the decision to provide the fertiliser subsidy at Rs. 350 was a public investment. Is it so even today?

A: Certainly so, the moment you withdraw the fertiliser subsidy, the cost of production goes up affecting the paddy farmers. This in turn has its impact on increasing prices of rice and vegetables which eventually retards the production process. We call this a subsidy, other countries operate it under different names. This time we had the soil tested for its effect on cultivation.

Development of village

Q: What was the rationale behind ‘One Project for Each Village’ program?

A: The development of the village is the focal point of the Mahinda Chinthana program when president Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005. Over 80 percent of the population live in villages and, therefore, we felt that infrastructure facilities have to be upgraded. During my visits to India and Japan we were cautioned against urbanisation which would result in a myriad of environmental problems such as contamination of waterways, slums and other concomitant social problems. President Rajapaksa resolved this complex problem under the Maga Neguma program by giving pride of place to the village. Basic infrastructure facilities such as electricity, water supply and roads and telecommunication development were provided. Today a Sri Lankan could communicate with anybody in the world through the internet and other media. Potable water, development of schools, rural health centres, small playgrounds, children’s parks, pre-schools and community schools were the other amenities provided. We will also set up small jungle parks in villages to preserve the ecological balance. The ‘one project for each village’ introduced by the President as a mega development program through the national Budget was aimed at dissuading inhabitants from leaving the village and abandoning it to wilderness.

The President was made aware of the problems faced by the village when matters such as waning population, loss of preferential votes, and the non-representation of the village, led to its isolation. He responded by allocating Rs. 1 million to each village totalling 14,000 villages in the country. This allocation was made exclusively for the particular project meant for the village. Some people entertained doubts about such a village re-awakening project! I personally examined each and every village development proposal after discussing it with people’s representatives and public officers.

Q: The Government hopes to ensure community participation for the development of the village-based project. How could those interested form the project?

A: From the very beginning of the Gama Naguma program, the President gave priority for community participation. We enlisted the support of the local organisations, people’s representatives, Public Officers, Divisional Secretaries, Samurdhi Officers, Cultivation Officers, and School Development Committees. The proposals became people-oriented and it had its fair share of weakness. However, we decided to give effect to it.

Secondly, from the concept to the formulation of the project proposal, community participation is guaranteed. What is most important is that the people should identify the project as one of their own to ensure its quality and proper implementation. Ultimately the people themselves feel a sense of relief and derive satisfaction. The bitter truth is that the private contractor does not welcome community participation since he had overestimated the project for the sake of profit.

Q: What is the progress achieved by Gama Neguma?

A: We received more votes from areas where the Gama Naguma had been implemented. The Gama Naguma was originally launched by the Nation Building Minister under President Rajapaksa. Karandeniya and Moneragala were the electorates where we received a significant number of preferential votes. The periphery was largely benefited by the Gama Naguma program which provided potable water, irrigation facilities and toilet facilities for schools in rural areas. There are altogether 9,700 schools in the island and 8,300 school toilets were constructed under the auspices of the Gama Naguma

Q: March 2012 has been designated as the ‘month for household economic planning’. What is a household economic unit?

A: Nutrition, road security, additional income and reducing cost-of-living are the four objectives to be realised under the Gama Naguma program. We also decided to launch small-scale projects instead of mega projects for the economic development. For example, it costs the Government Rs. 5 billion to import chillies. If each family is motivated to cultivate vegetables and other minor food crops in their plot of land to meet its needs it would not only improve the family economy but also contribute to the national economy.

Q: Proposals at grass-roots level were entertained for village development. Has this helped win the confidence of people in rural areas?

A: President Rajapaksa sought the views of the people, trade unions, public officers, politicians and university dons before launching the Mahinda Chintana program. This had helped develop children’s and maternity homes. We have first-hand experience of the deplorable situation at the weekly fair visited by the rich and poor alike. It is unclear and stinking. Heaps of garbage remain uncleared. There are no toilet facilities for the public. We have identified the shortcomings and having gathered first-hand experience, we formulated the projects to help people to overcome their difficulties.

Foreign interference

Q: A developed economy and food security are indispensable for Sri Lanka to effectively withstand foreign interference. Is there a special program launched by the Government to realise these objectives?

A:Food consumption and the cost-of-living affect public life. The country progressed at a rapid pace. Foreign exchange has to be allocated to import machinery. Our foreign exchange earnings did not match its outflow. Exports reached dizzy heights and there were heavy tourist inflows. Expatriate earnings increased. Such earnings were insufficient to offset the escalating oil bill.

Q: The President in the budget made proposals for export development and incentives for import substitution. Have these proposals been implemented?

A: With the local cultivation of five food crops we aim at being self-sufficient in food. At present we are self-sufficient in Indian-corn. About 80 percent of Ulundu is cultivated locally in the North and the East. Expo 2012 is held in Sri Lanka after a lapse of about 20 years. Foreign representatives, buyers, tourists, foreign companies, chambers and officials from foreign countries are due to visit Sri Lanka for the Expo 2012 exhibition. It would benefit both Sri Lankans and foreigners. The Government in collaboration with the private sector will launch a program to export vegetables, fruits, ornamental fish and flowers. This will certainly help farmers secure a good price for their produce. Traditional craftsmen too get the rare opportunity of meeting foreign experts.

Q: People have their misgivings whether the US resolution moved against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC sessions would hamper our roadmap for progress.

A: We had received threats in the past. There were challenges thrown at us whenever we took a decision or appointed a person to a post. When we opened the Mavil Aru anicut there was opposition by certain countries that we breached the provisions of the Ceasefire Agreement but we acted without fear. We were denied the GSP+ as a result of restoring peace in the country. We had to decide as to what mattered most whether we safeguard the image of the country or dent the self-reliance of our people or at last yield to the pressure of the Euro? We did not let down the people. We faced GSP+ challenge and got over the crisis through a Government-private sector integrated program. Our export percentage increased. We could however conquer the market through the competitive quality and price of our commodities.

Q: Has our past performance been helpful in meeting international challenges?

A: Not only today,we also faced threats in the past. Organisations masquerading under different names threatened us. The foreign ministers of some countries too did likewise when they were in Sri Lanka. Several countries opposed our efforts to negotiate a loan from the IMF. Some of them maintained that when negotiating loans the politics of the client country would not be taken into consideration. What was important was only the country’s economic performance.

Eventually, we succeed. Later, when the World Bank funds were negotiated for Northern development we faced a similar situation. At the UNHRC sessions too we fared well.

Lanka-India deliberations

Q: You had represented the government at the previous Sri Lanka-India deliberations. What is the government’s stand on India’s voting for the US resolution at the recent UNHRC sessions?

A: This problem affects them more than us. India is in a quandary over what it had not done, a thing with which their country is not concerned. They had to face the big problem of getting their budget passed in Parliament. Threats by some South Indian political elements and America itself became a problem to India. In our region except for India all other countries voted in favour of Sri Lanaka.

The Maldives and Bangladesh stood by Sri Lanka. Although Pakistan did not have voting rights, yet in its capacity as president of the council of Muslim States supported Sri Lanka. Japan though without voting rights extended its support to Sri Lanka while China, Indonesia and the Philippines also voted for us. India took a decision different to those of all other Asian countries. India maintained its policy of not supporting country-specific resolutions throughout. India was internationally recognised not only as an independent Non-Aligned state but also a major power opposing powerful countries trying to exert undue pressure on smaller countries.

Q: Of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Indian Government has only 271 seats. The DMK party threatened to quit the government ranks with its 18 MPs. The next general election will be held in another two years. Was not this precarious internal political situation that compelled India to make its controversial decision to vote for the US Resolution?

A: I think so. Let us reflect on our own position during the humanitarian operation. We did not have a majority in Parliament. It was a critical situation. What sort of a serious problem we would have faced had we acted in the interests of the international community or yield to the pressure of another country? We should consider the interests of our own country first when we have to make decisions internationally. A number of small and powerful countries stood by Sri Lanka. We should pay tribute to these countries. India and other countries should understand that Sri Lanka too feels the impact of both national and international problems. Whatever decisions we make we should do so with the concurrence of the people belonging to different races and religions. This Government cannot ignore the people’s mandate and continue in office. When we are called upon to make decisions, attention has to be focussed on internal complexities. Interests in the international community come second.

Q: As long as people remain inseparable from the government, the international community would not be able to interfere in our internal affairs. Therefore, the people’s support is the best insurance for the government. Does the government command the sovereignty of the people?

A: Sri Lanka is one country which had been voted to power by the democratic will of the people. Their support is a tremendous strength for the Government to face challenges. The US moves a resolution against a country if it makes nuclear weapons or chemical weapons. We do not make any such weapons except perhaps, a Galkatas or a shotgun. We are also not a member of any strategic alliance or a threat to the security of another country. The US moved a resolution against Cuba on the pretext that it was a member of the Socialist Camp. I am at a loss to understand as to why they moved a resolution against Sri Lanka when we have not invaded any country or made weapons.

Many challenges

Q: We faced many challenges during the humanitarian operation. Over 280,000 people had been relocated in the welfare villages. Most of the areas have been demined. Life in the North and West was made easy via Livelihood Development Programs. Around 11,900 LTTE combatants were rehabilitated and handed back to their parents.

A: The families of LTTE leaders are still looked after by the government while the leaders have been reintegrated into mainstream life.

Q: Did we not convince the international community of these achievement, or do they pretend not to know what the Sri Lanka government had done to improve the lives of those in the North and the East?

A: The problem is that those who are fully aware of the colossal amounts of funds pumped into the North and the East, and the massive development schemes launched to alleviate the misery of the people and ensure a decent life for them either pretend not to know or else keep silent. There was an instance when the OCHA representative questioned several Western diplomats as to why they did not brief their governments about what the Sri Lankan Government had done for the North, one of them is reported to have said, “What Sri Lanka did was colossal’ while the other said, “there are allegations by the South that more government funds and foreign aid are pumped into the North”.

In fact, we have allocated only one million rupees for a village in the South while as equal amount is spent on a single family in the North to upgrade their infrastructure facilities and standard of living.

Some people who are well aware of these achievements remain tight-lipped. It is difficult to enlighten or explain matters to such people.

No sooner President Rajapaksa received the UPFA ticket for presidential election he was denied access to the party headquarters. Nor was he permitted to issue a manifesto under the UPFA. The then leader opposed the move. It was from that day that there were threats. We need to face challenges when we begin to usher in a new era of prosperity for the people.

the LTTE rump overseas, certain sections of NGOs and some Western countries have got together and hatched conspiracies against Sri Lanaka. Funds spent to buy military hardware are being used for their disinformation campaign worldwide. Those who spoke on our behalf including the media are now silent.

Q: How did the opposition parties respond to the challenges posed by the foreign elements?

A: When the entire country stood by the President and the Security Forces during the humanitarian operation for peace certain political elements in the country made utterances to demoralise the soldiers, incite the people and cause a rift among our supporters. Attempts were also made to re-enact a ‘Black July’ to breach the unity among the communities. Websites were used to disseminate false propaganda.

All these were resorted to force the international community to intervene in our country. However, the people stood by us irrespective of political differences.

Betrayal is the prelude to foreign invasion as borne out by history. Sri Lanka was no exception. At times the media too turns a blind eye to these situations.

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