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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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