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Sunday, 17 February 2013

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UPFA, the biggest political common front since Independence - Minister Johnston Fernando

Co-operatives and Internal Trade Minister Johnston Fernando took on the rough and tumble of politics during the prime of his youth. Honest and forthright, he wouldn’t easily give in to his rival in political debates. As Minister in charge of Co-operatives and Internal Trade, he breathed a new lease of life into the Consumer Affairs Authority by throwing dragnet over errant traders.

The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said that in a situation where his own party is split into several factions and is not in a position to appoint even a Deputy Leader, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe forming a Common Opposition Front is just another joke. Only some ‘three-wheel’ parties had joined these common opposition fronts as they don’t have little or no option.

The Minister said that he would categorically state that the UPFA Government formed under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the biggest common front after Independence. In future, nobody could form a common front which could compete with the UPFA. UNP parliamentarian Range Bandara has also taken the lead to form an anti-Ranil group to contest official UNP candidates in the future elections.

This shows the severe setbacks and divisions within the UNP. When even a junior Parliamentarian such as Range Bandara challenges the Opposition Leader it merely shows the present plight of the UNP. They know only too well that the UNP will never win elections under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Commenting on the role of the Commonwealth in assisting developing countries in Asia and Africa, Minister Fernando said if the Commonwealth genuinely wants to assist developing countries, it should set an example by extending its support to a country such as Sri Lanka which successfully eradicated the three-decade old terrorism and restored peace in the country.

Regrettably, those who cannot topple this Government by vote tend to use the Commonwealth and other international organisations to attack President Rajapaksa and the Government contravening democratic norms. The Commonwealth should not get entrapped into such attempts by certain sections to realise their narrow objectives. The Commonwealth should always safeguard its prestige.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: Recent raids by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) on your directive have confirmed public confidence in your Ministry. Would you like to elaborate on this?

A: At the time I assumed office, the CAA had conducted only 4,000 raids for the whole year. After I took over the Ministry, I gave them targets. The CAA has filed cases against 40,000 errant traders within a single year and has conducted nearly 1,20,000 raids and earned over Rs. 300 million as fines. The CAA has a limited number of only 100 officers to conduct raids countrywide. Before I took over this Ministry, the CAA had not conducted such a large number of raids.

Today the CAA has gained considerable public support to conduct raids and the people themselves provide tip offs to the CAA.

We have also set an example by conducting raids on the institutions under the purview of this Ministry. When the CWE had received a stock of contaminated potatoes, onions and sprats, the CAA raided their warehouses following a tip off. Even if a State sector institution commits any fraudulent act, it will be raided. When a cement shortage was reported cement stocks at the Ceylon Cement Corporation, were seized and legal action taken against those responsible.

I would like to say that we adopt all these measures to protect the consumer. One of the important policies of my Ministry is to safeguard the interests of both farmers and consumers. We don’t say that the prices should be brought down in a drasticraided manner as it would severely affect the farmers.

It should remain at a middle level and my Ministry works on that basis. Our aim is to ensure a community of disciplined businessmen and provide quality goods to consumers.

Since the consumers pay for what they are buying, it should be always of good quality.

Q: Other than raids, is there any permanent mechanism to check the sale of contaminated food items such as onions and potatoes by unscrupulous traders?

A: Actually this does not happen now. It had happened in the past. This time the Ministry gets the CAA to raid errant traders who sold such contaminated food items. In the past contaminated onions and potatoes were used to prepare some food. That is why the CAA is conducting countrywide raids and taking legal action against such errant traders. I would assure that my Ministry will not leave room to sell contamsprats notinated food items and will continue raids to prevent such abuses. The only option available is to conduct raids and seize such contaminated food items.

Q: Could you explain whether the opening of Lak Sathosa outlets and Economic Centres throughout the country has helped bring down the prices of consumer items? Today dry fish specially, sprats and other varieties are beyond the reach of ordinary people.

A: Instead of introducing formal laws, unofficially we have introduced a price control in the market by opening Lak Sathosa and Economic Centres. Sri Lanka takes the lead in introducing such mechanisms.

That is why President Mahinda Rajapaksa has given us necessary financial allocation to open 268 Lak Sathosa outlets countrywide. The President at the last budget speech issued guidelines to increase this up to 1,000. When Lak Sathosa outlets are opened in cities, the private sector has to compete with us. In order to safeguard their industry, they will also have to bring their prices in line with Lak Sathosa prices.

This has provided us the opportunity to stabilise the prices of goods at all cities. But we don’t do this through any particular law. The Government via this mechanism provides quality goods to the consumers at concessionary rates. In addition, Economic Centres have opened avenues for farmers to sell their products.

We have set up wholesale and retail Economic Centres. The establishment of Economic Centres has paved the way to safeguard both farmers and retail traders as well. As you said I admit the fact that the prices of sprats are somewhat high in the market.

This is mainly due to sprats not being supplied by Thailand these days. As a result, sprats are imported from Dubai. But the quality of Dubai sprats is not as good as Thai sprats. At present sprats are in short supply in Thailand due to the prevailing climatic conditions. The prices of sprats will be stable within the next few weeks.

Q: There is much controversy over the holding of CHOGM in Sri Lanka. Would you like to explain this?

A: It is obvious that there are some political parties and organisations in Sri Lanka which attempt to betray the country. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora which is fully demoralised over the eradication of LTTE terrorism is also spreading various rumours and conduct false propagandas against the country.

They have not yet given up their policy of dividing the country. If the CHOGM is held in Sri Lanka, it would to give a strong message to the world on the true picture of our country and project its image globally. Therefore, these pro-LTTE diaspora makes a deliberate attempt to prevent hosting CHOGM in Sri Lanka. Some anti-government forces here also want to sabotage this international parley. The Government has already made arrangements to organise this event in a grand manner and it would bring lots of benefits to this country.

The President and the Government are fully dedicated to do their utmost to the country. That the UNP, JVP, TNA and pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora attempts to prevent this event to be held in Sri Lanka, is not a secret. The Opposition think that they could grab power by resorting to such unscrupulous activities. People who love this country are much more than those who attempt to betray.

Q: Apart from its prestige as an association of a large number of countries what role does the Commonwealth play in assisting developing countries in Asia and Africa?

A: The Commonwealth is a group of countries formed to promote world peace, development and unity among themselves. The problem is that certain Western countries attempt to use Commonwealth to attack Sri Lanka which is fully against the principles and ideals of the Commonwealth. Some countries attempt to cater to the needs of pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora. I think the Commonwealth should not be dragged into that as it would loose its credibility. That would affect the entire world as well.

The responsibility of Commonwealth is to fulfil its task based on its ideals. We are a country which suffered three decades of terrorism and lost the lives of thousands of people and a large number of politicians and religious leaders.

Our country was pushed back economically due to terrorism. If the Commonwealth really wants to assist developing countries, it should set an example by extending its support to a country such as Sri Lanka which has successfully eradicated a three decade-old terrorism and restored peace in the country.

Unfortunately those who cannot topple this Government by vote tend to use Commonwealth and other international organisations to attack the President and the Government which is against all democratic norms. The Commonwealth should not get entrapped into this initiated by certain groups to realise their narrow objectives. It should always safeguard its prestige and recognition by the member countries.

Q: Whether it is UN General Assembly sessions, Human Rights Review in Geneva or Commonwealth conventions, it is always the third world developing countries taken to ‘task’ ignoring open violation of human rights or loss of lives at the hands of Western nations. How do you see this scenario?

A: The stance taken by the UN is not a happy one. The Commonwealth ideals and principles have clearly set out how it should perform its duties and responsibilities. Small countries along with powerful countries get the membership of the UN which would ensure justice and fairplay for all its member countries without any discrimination. Certain decisions and statements made by the UN, manifest a bias towards some powerful countries.

I think this is wrong since it affects the entire world. The world super powers who talk of eradicating terrorism attempt to act against a country such as Sri Lanka which has successfully eradicated terrorism.

If the voice of pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora and TNA emerges from the UN, I see it as a disrepute to a country like Sri Lanka which achieved peace by ending a three decade old terrorism.

We believe the UN would make just decisions based on its goals and ideals. If powerful countries attempt to take a small emerging country which has eradicated terrorism and restored peace, to ‘task’ or to harass it, I see it as a very undemocratic act.

Q: UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has formed a Common Opposition Front to fight the UPFA and capture power. Will this be a threat to the Government?

A: I don’t see this Common Opposition Front as any threat to the Government. Even when I was in the UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe had formed this kind of several common opposition fronts. In order to avoid the issue of appointing a Deputy Leader of the UNP, the Opposition Leader has formed another common opposition front.

All these are just temporary fronts. All the members of this newly formed common opposition front could be easily accommodated in a ‘three-wheeler’ or ‘Land Master tractor’. Even the wives of some of those leaders of the constituent parties of the common opposition front would not cast their vote to them.

This is the reality. In a situation where his own party is split into several factions and is not in a position to appoint even a Deputy Leader, this is just another joke by the Opposition Leader. Only ‘three-wheel parties’ will join these common fronts as they don’t have any other option. I would like to assure that the UPFA Government formed under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the biggest common front formed after the Independence. Nobody would ever form a common front which can compete with the UPFA.

Q: UNP Parliamentarian Range Bandara has taken the lead to form an anti-Ranil group to contest official UNP candidates in the future elections. Will this be a reality?

A: This shows the severe setback and divisions within the UNP. That a very junior Parliamentarian such as Range Bandara has challenged the Opposition Leader only shows the plight of the UNP. They know the UNP will never be able to win any election under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Therefore, certain factions of the UNP attempt to field candidates against Ranil Wickremesinghe.

While the UNP has been split into several factions, Wickremesinghe has formed another common opposition front. Both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Range Bandara have only resorted to jokes. All of them are rejected by the people.

Q: Aloofness on the part of officials and politicians at all levels came to light when a Jaffna farmer himself explained his difficulties and requested President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a fair price for potatoes. Do you think a change of attitude is necessary to help local farmers?

A: This Government is committed to provide maximum assistance to farmers. The President has continuously given fertiliser subsidy to farmers at Rs. 350 for seven years. When a 50kg bag of fertiliser was given to farmers at Rs. 350, sometimes the actual cost of importing a 50 kg bag of fertiliser amounts Rs. 9,000, Rs. 7,000 or Rs. 4,000.

I think no Leader other than President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ever given relief to the farmer community. Not only that, the President has given a guaranteed price too for paddy. When the President assumed office, the price of a Kilo of paddy was Rs. 14.50. At present a kilo of paddy is purchased for Rs. 32 or Rs. 35.

The country has now become self-sufficient in paddy, maize and eggs. The President has already launched a program to cultivate food crops to face any world food crisis in future. The President has extended fertiliser subsidy to tea and coconut cultivations as well. The President knows very well how to strengthen the country’s farmer community. When the Government imposed a tax on imported potatoes and onions, it helped the local farmers to get a reasonable price for their potato and onion harvest.

The President as the Minister of Finance takes appropriate decisions at appropriate times by discussing with the relevant Ministers. The President also instructed me to implement a special program for the North and complete the construction of Kilinochchi Economic Centre as soon as possible.

Q: Despite TNA’s allegations of insufficient funds for Northern development, it was revealed during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent visit to Jaffna that the budgeted funds for development have simply lapsed to revenue. Should not there be a new mechanism to ensure the proper use of public funds?

A: As we know sometimes people in the South put the blame on us that more work is done in the North rather than in the South. Anyone who goes to the North can see the massive development drive there.

At present it takes only about four and half hours to go to Jaffna due to the developed road network. No country in the world has ever been able to make this kind of massive development within two or three years after the end of a 30-year war against terrorists. But our Government has proved that we did it. Earlier there was not even a single carpeted road in the North.

On the directive of the President, carpeted roads were constructed in the North. If the TNA says that no development has taken place in the North, that means they mislead the international community.

On the other hand, this is an attempt by the TNA to create hatred among the Tamil people. As we know, the TNA doesn’t like any funds being made available or any development being launched by the Government in the North. They like the Government if it does not do anything in the North.

The TNA wants to prevent the people in the North from getting anything from the Government and obstructs the ongoing development process. That is why some TNA-friendly officials have not utilised the funds allocated by the Government for development. There are some officials in the North and the East who have helped the LTTE those days. No action was taken against them out of sympathy by the President.

They are the very officials who attempt to block the funds allocated for development. The TNA attempts to distance the President and the Government from the people in the North. That is why the President visited the North to look into the problems faced by the people. Specially UPFA Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa goes to North each month and stays there for over two weeks to serve the people there. When the children of some affluent Tamil leaders obtained degrees in foreign countries, the innocent Tamil children in the country were forced to take to arms. Even today the TNA makes no attempts to empower people in the North economically or welcome any development. Their ultimate goal is to divide this country as they tried in the past.

Q: Now and again your Ministry is forced to deal with ‘hot’ issues directly relating to community life. Would you like to evaluate your experience in office in effectively managing such situations?

A: The cost-of-living and the prices of goods have become a day-to-day problem of community life. But we have brought this into some stable position.

We have taken steps to break mafias in various sectors. We try our best to provide quality goods to consumers at concessionary rates and disciplined traders. When I took over this Ministry, even the prices of goods were not displayed in most of the shops.

At present price lists are displayed in each shop and this has helped people know the price of each item. Therefore, my Ministry has completed a vast amount of work during the past few years. At present some developed countries have also faced serious problems of inflation and prices of goods. However, Sri Lanka has tackled this situation due to the sound economic policies and practical decisions taken by the Government.

President Rajapaksa’s Government is the only Government which has consistently maintained the inflation rate at a single digit continuously for four years. No former President either J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa or Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga could bring the inflation rate down to a single digit.

The former Ranil Wickremesinghe Government too could not do so when I was also a Minister of his Government. At times we had to face problems continuously due to natural disasters. At all other times my Ministry had stabilised the prices and safeguarded the interest of consumers. Therefore, I am really proud of my Ministry and the contribution made by its officials.

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