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Unprecedented development drive - Minister Rajitha Senaratna

*TNA holds May Day rally in Jaffna

*Inflation rate less than US

*Economic indicators better than US

*Foreigners testify to development drive

Soft and suave, yet tough and outspoken, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. In debates, he firmly stands his ground and uses his trump cards to the point of cutting down his rival to size.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer the Minister said although the Colombo elite may perhaps speak ill of the Rajapaksa administration yet the stature of President Mahinda Rajapaksa remains solid, because he liberated the country from the clutches of terrorism. Even the TNA held a May Day rally in Jaffna after so many decades and the UNP and its Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe could also go to the North.

The Minister said even foreigners testify to the post-independence development drive launched in the country. Our economic indicators are better those of the US. The inflation rate is less than that of the US and is still in the single digit of 6.1 percent compared to 22 percent in 2008. The unemployment rate is only 4.2 percent and it is over 8 percent in the US. That is why Sri Lanka is acknowledged as a country marching forward for a better future.

Even the IMF and the World Bank have commended the significant economic development achieved by Sri Lanka. Only a small political problem remains to be settled early. If that is done, there will be nobody to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa for another two more decades.

Commenting on the role of the media, Dr.Senaratne said still our media does not have Sri Lankan consciousness. They resort to anti-government reporting to sell their newspapers. For the sake of money, they will decend to any mean level. Even a minor clash is blown out of proportion for financial gain and to going promotions in media institutions.

They hold the view that a good journalist should report anything and everything. That is not professionalism.

Q: Is not the Western worldís treatment of human rights over the concept of national State, sovereignty, territorial integrity and so on, a means to interfere in the internal affairs of small countries?

A: No. The UN Charter is there to check whether they can intervene in the internal affairs of any country only if it affects peace and stability of another country or world peace at large.

If Sri Lanka interferes in the affairs of another country ,then the UN has a right to intervene. Otherwise, the UN has no power to intervene in internal problems of a country. Such problems have to be resolved only by the people of that country. However the UN attempts to interfere in the internal problems of other countries.

They intervened in Libya. The UN canít say Libyaís conduct has disturbed any other country or the world peace. But they had intervened. Likewise they are now discussing about Syria. The UNHRC is the only forum where the human rights violations could be taken up and not in the UN Security Council or any other UN body. The UNHRC has a mandate to discuss the human rights violations of other countries. But I donít know how far they can go or what action they could take. In the manner the UN intervened in Libya and Syria, it cannot do in Sri Lanka.

The dictatorial Governments in Libya and Syria do not have the peopleís mandate. But in Sri Lanka the presidency, Government and all other governing bodies down to the Local Government level have been elected with the mandate given by the people. Therefore, I donít think anybody can intervene in our internal affairs.

Q: Assuming that devolution of police and land powers could be agreed upon, what guarantee is there to prevent its abuse at the hands of extremists? There were stories in the past that some clandestine organisations forcibly settled people in Vavuniya State lands?

A: They talked about land rights because the Central Government settled people from other districts in the North and East. They said it was forced settlement and not voluntary settlement. Tamils and Muslims say that they are in favour of voluntary settlement. That is why this issue came up. When we take it up at international level, everywhere where there has been separatist movements, in countries which battled with Central Government.

Those disputes were settled by devolving power. The Division of a country was prevented with the devolution of power. They never misused power after they were given those powers. Because every Government monitors them. Even under the 13th Amendment, if Police powers are given, there will be a Police Commission.

The Police Commission can overrule any decision taken against the Constitution by any Provincial Council on land or the Police. If police powers are given, we donít need to arm them. According to the Police Act, no policeman can carry arms, because its a civil force. Only a baton will be provided to policemen.

The Police can settle day-to-day problems of the people in those areas such as land disputes, disputes among the people and minor criminal cases. Arms are provided to the Police only under Emergency regulations.

That is why Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has withdrawn arms from and can carry only small arms. Certain powers are kept with the Central Government. A DIG is appointed by the Central Government and he is answerable to the Centre.

The Governor is also appointed by the President. The Governor has powers to monitor and take actions if that goes against the Centre.

This is the first time the main Tamil political party in the North is agreeable to devolution of power under a unitary Constitution. From Chelvanayakamís time, they were demanding a federal State.

That is why that party was called the Federal Party. This is the first time that the original Federal Party which is now the TNA has agreed to devolving power under a unitary system. Itís a golden opportunity for us.

Even land rights are given only to administer the land and the deeds can only be signed by the President. So nobody can allocate lands. They can only recommend and the centre will have to decide. There will be a National Lands Commission where any wrong decision taken by the province can be overruled. So all these measures are enshrined in the 13th Amendment. Practically fearing Police and land rights is a bogus one.

Q: Considering Sri Lankaís size and strong cultural, religious and linguistic bonds the local Tamils have with their South Indian counterparts, will devolution of power be a panacea for all ills?

A: Devolution of power has never led to secession during the entire history. Where power was not devolved, those countries have ceased from the main body. So this is a scientific module to avoid the division of a country. If we look at South India, the DMK or AIADMK go with the centre for elections.

Tamil Nadu parties fight each other with the help of the centre. That is because power is devolved. Now they are fighting for power. That is what will happen. The day we devolve power, they will not fight with the centre, they will fight with each other.

They need the support of the parties of the South to have joint collaboration to contest elections there. That is what has happened in India and that will happen in Sri Lanka as well.

We must not allow extremists like Vaiko and Nedumaran in South India or pro-LTTE elements to take up this issue. Extremism should be annihilated. Democratic forces should get together. That is what will happen in devolution.

Q: Donít you think itís a national responsibility on the part of all political parties to participate in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to resolve the problems faced by those in the North and the East?

A:That is why I spoke even to TNA Parliamentary Group Leader MP R.Sampanthan and informed most of the constituent parties of the Government also maintain the same view. I asked the TNA why donít they participate in the PSC? Devolution of power is a problem which has existed for the past 60 years. We were discussing about it from the 1950s. So donít expect that it can be settled in 60 days. Whatever the system or machinery proposed by the President, all political parties should come to the PSC and represent matters.

I met Lord Naseby PC, Member of the House of ĎLords who defended Sri Lanka in the House of Lords when I was travelling with him on the same plane to UK.

He told me that when he met MPs and asked the views of the JVP, the JVP had told him that they will not obstruct if the Laws are implemented. The UNP had said that they will wholeheartedly support it. Government MPs have agreed to support the 13th Amendment. The PSC is the forum to settle this matter once and for all.

Q: As an ex-UNPer what have you got to say about the UNPís selection of Jaffna for its May Day rally? Does it not augur well for the party?

A: It is a positive development for a party in the South to have a May Day rally in Jaffna. I am happy about that. That is why even President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that he was happy about the UNP having the May Day rally in Jaffna.

I was happy when I heard the UNP joined the TNA to hold a May Day rally. That is also a positive sign the TNA is willing to go ahead with the Southern Sinhala parties for their activities. I was happy when I saw the newspapers where Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and TNA MP Sampanthan were holding the National Flag together. But TNA MP Sumanthiran says it was a TNA May Day rally and not a UNP one. He says it was not a joint rally. This is the first time the UNP held a May day as an invitee of another party.

May Day rally under the aegis of another party means it is diluting the party. He should have discussed with the TNA for a joint May Day rally.

Q: Despite allegations that the Governmentís foreign policy is faulty, the cost of living is unbearable and human rights violated, what made the masses show their solidarity with the Government at the May Day rally?

A: It is an acknowledged fact that the most charismatic figure in the local political arena is President Mahinda Rajapaksa, although the Colombo elite may speak otherwise. Because he liberated this country from the clutches of terrorism.

That is why even the TNA could hold a May Day rally in Jaffna after so many decades. That is why the UNP and its leader could visit the North. Ranil Wickremesinghe could have carried a camera with him and taken so many sceneries in Jaffna after so many decades.

When Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister he could not hold any meetings in Jaffna. That means there is true peace in the country today.

The US is in a hell of an economic crisis. Our economic indicators are better than those of the US. Our inflation rate is less than that of the US and still it is only one digit of 6.1 percent. We should remember that we had an inflation rate of 22 percent in 2008. Now it is one fourth. Our unemployment rate is only 4.2 percent. It is over 8 percent in the US.

Q: Certain print and electronic media have blown minor clashes relating to religion, language or caste out of proportion to the detriment of national fabric. Your comments?

A: Criticism is one way in which newspapers can sell. That is how they look at it. In Tangalle, a foreigner was killed by a local. That was highlighted and circulated around the globe immediately by our media.

The same thing happened in India. But nobody knew. Their media never reported because it was disadvantageous to the country. But our media highlight such incidents. The media does not have a Sri Lankan consciousness.

They have anti-government reporting to sell the newspapers. To sell their newspapers they will resort to anything for money. That is why even a minor clash is bloated and created for financial gain.

Because they think a good journalist should report anything. That is not professionalism. That is what has happened to the media.

Q: Poaching by South Indian fishermen and the threat from Somali pirates are the two dangers our fishermen are confronted with. There appears to be no easy solution. What is the position>

A: Somalian piracy is tragic. Because when there is enough water here, our fishermen go round the world to fish. One problem is they are not properly equipped. They can fish in the coastal waters.

When they donít find enough fish in the coastal belt, they pass the deep sea and encroach. But they donít have enough equipment to fish in the deep sea. This is what has happened. This is why Somali pirates catch them.

In the same way 11 of our vessels were caught in other territorial waters last year. Piracy has aggravated to such an extent that at the last Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) session held in Australia, the UK brought a resolution to ban our entire fleet of fisheries vessels for fishing in international waters.

However, we defeated that resolution. Otherwise there are no complaints about our fisheries industry today. When I assumed office the industry had faced many problems.

We have not supplied the list and we did not attend the IOTC sessions. For the first time, the IOTC sessions were held in Sri Lanka in March last year. The Co-Vice Chair was given to Sri Lanka at the IOTC sessions held in Australia this year. That is how the Sri Lankan fisheries industry has been recognised at international level.

The only blackmark is that our vessels go into other territories. Because there is a category titled Illegal Unreported Unregulated (IUU) vessels. Our vessels belong to that category. But we have taken action to de-register those vessels.

As far as Indian fishermen poaching in our waters, we have a bilateral agreement. We donít report this to the IOTC. Otherwise the IOTC can take action against Indian fishermen.

Our fishermen also cross the borders and go to India. We have settled these matters amicably now. They are releasing our fishermen through Courts.

But when 20 of our fishermen crossed over to the Indian side, 2,000 Indian fishermen cross over to the Sri Lankan side.

So this is an ongoing problem. We kept silent because there was a bigger issue before the UNHRC where we wanted Indiaís support to resolve it. However India did not give the support.

Q: The future of canned fish production depends largely on increased local consumption, export potential and price affordability. Would you elaborate the importance of these where Galle canned fish factory is concerned?

A: At the moment the Galle canned fish factory is only producing 10,000 cans a day. Our target is to produce about 120,000 cans a day. Sometimes, the second canned fish factory will be opened this month which would produce another 10,000 cans daily. The third factory will be opened in June where 15,000 cans will be produced.

They can increase the capacity later. All together we can produce about 90,000 cans by the end of this year. The price of canned fish is Rs. 100, which less than other products in the market. The price other canned fish products are about Rs. 270. But our products are Rs. 170. Most of the people who consume the Galle canned fish say it is tasty.

This will also reduce foreign exchange spent on importing canned fish. It will generate employment. Poor people can also afford to consume canned fish. There are particular fish that could be canned.

Q: Do you have any special plans to develop the fishing industry as a strong source of foreign exchange?

A: Yes. Fish stocks are reducing due to the increase in fish consumption. The Atlantic and Pacific are affected.

The Indian Ocean is not affected as much. I had discussed with Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Government has agreed to allow Sri Lankan vessels to fish in their territorial waters. I am going to sign an MoU with Seychelles where they have sent a draft by agreeing that Sri Lankan Vessels could come into their territory. Even our multi-day boats are used only for coastal waters. We must introduce bigger vessels for the deep sea and for international waters with better facilities which can stay for a long.

We are going to bring a master vessel in a few months. We can send the vessel to collect fish and supply food, ice and fuel. Then the vessels can stay more using less fuel and catch more fish. I have taken steps to develop all this step by step, then fishing will be a sustainable fishing industry in Sri Lanka.

Q: What are the immediate benefits of lifting restrictions on fishing in the North and East?

A: In late 1980a, the Northern Province provided 43 percent of our fish produce. It had come down to seven percent by the time the North was liberated in 2009. With all the facilities that we have now provided to the North, fish production in the North has increased to 14 percent in 2011.

Fish production in the Eastern Province has increased to 23 percent, we have got results. With time, we are hoping to increase production to about 50 percent in the North and the East.

Q: You do a solid job of whatever portfolio you undertake. Is this because you donít believe in ostentatious politics?

A: Yes. If you bring politics into the scene you can never improve. I never give jobs to damage the industry. I need more jobs for people who helped me to come to this position, but it should be done in a proper manner.

If we can increase production, then we can employ more people. They are monitoring every project and give me monthly report. I was first given the Lands Ministry. When I took over that Ministry, the LRC was running at a loss. In one year the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted me to close it.

But I kept quiet and made it a profitable organisation. When I was given the State Engineering Corporation (SEC) and the other Corporation, they were not paid salaries on a fixed date as they didnít have money. Even COPE has reported the net profit of the SEC was Rs. 290 million in 2009.

Even now I have brought down losses in all the corporations I handle. I hope I can make every organisation profitable by the end of this year. I have promised employees that a part of the profit will be distributed among them. I will give the benefits for what they do and the way they work.

They know my vision. Up to now, I have been able to full fill over 80 percent mentioned in the ďMahinda Chinthana Vision for the FutureĒ in relation to the fisheries sector.

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