Budget 2017 - pros and cons: In the eyes of the public | Sunday Observer

Budget 2017 - pros and cons: In the eyes of the public

With the conclusion of the much awaited second reading of the Appropriation Bill for 2017, the general public and stakeholders have had much to say regarding the various proposals made by the Minister of Finance Ravi Karunanayake, during his three hour long speech on Thursday. Whether on social media or among each other, people have shown a keen interest in the budget speech with opinions varying, depending on each one's area of interest. The Sunday Observer spoke to a cross section of the public as well as stakeholders, to obtain their views on the proposed budget.

Members of the public say...

Gamitha Dehipitiya (29), says, the budget is a mix of positives as well as negatives. Even though the budget fails to elaborate on the proposal to impose a Financial Transaction Levy, it said, a levy of five rupees will be charged per transaction amounting to Rs 10,000. It is a proposal Dehipitiya feels is unfair on the general public.

¨A person will withdraw such an amount through easy cash during perhaps a difficult time for him, and taxing such a person in his hour of need is unfair, he says. Also, one of his major concerns is the increased price of vehicles. "Importers have announced that the price of small cars, such as, Maruti will increase by around Rs 200,000 due to the importation tax increase, which would impact the middle class" he opined. To him, owning a car is the dream of any youth, and the price increase of the Maruti, once considered the most affordable option, is lamentable. "Isn't it going against the promises made by the government to the youth of the country," he questions, adding however, that the various price reductions on consumer items is a positive move and should be appreciated.

Aflal Farouk (32), an executive in a leading global technology company is perplexed at the contradictory statements made on topics of digitization, information technology and taxes on internet services, by Minister Karunanayake.

¨The Minister speaks of digitization of the whole country, providing tabs to schoolchildren and teachers, allocating funds so that schools may rent computers, and then goes on to announce that the telecommunication levy on internet services will be increased to 25 per cent," he says, adding that not only is this proposal contradictory but is in fact regressive. ¨There is no use providing students with tabs without giving them affordable internet," he says, adding that he is unsure as to what the government is trying to achieve. ¨Further taxation on online transactions is not progressive either¨ he says. Farouk asks, how can expanding cashless payments and complete digitalization of the economy be achieved if the common people are to be taxed for making use of services offered online.

Navinda Balasuriya (42), a father of two young children, says, the budget seems to have put a bigger burden on the ordinary citizen. "The government has reduced the prices of kilos and litres, of items, but a normal citizen does not buy goods in such large amounts," he points out. "A person on the way home would buy the necessary items in smaller amounts, enough for a week, so, reducing a mere five or ten rupees from a kilo or a litre is actually worthless", he says. Yet another grouse for Balasuriya is the increase of the minimum traffic fine to Rs 2,500. According to him such a fine is unaffordable and will affect normal citizens as opposed to the affluent, in society. "Paying Rs. 2,500 for a minor traffic offence is unacceptable and unfair," he says, adding that, if revenue was its aim the government should have increased taxes on tobacco and alcohol products, instead.

Dehipitiya too finds issues with the increased traffic fine. ¨Without a proper system to collect fines this will only increase corruption and bribery in the Police¨ he says.

However, not all members of the public were negative about the budget. Housewife and mother of two, Shamini Hatharasinghe felt, the budget was in fact a people friendly one. "I think it is people friendly, especially, in the field of education," she says. According to her, the reduced prices, however small, from various consumer goods is commendable.

¨I am hopeful this will turn out to be a good and successful budget, favourable to the ordinary citizen. As a housewife I’m really happy and content about the proposed budget¨.

While public opinion varied, stakeholders and civil society members too expressed their opinions on the recent budget speech.

Sudhil Jayaruk, Chairman, All Island Three Wheel Owners' Association is very much pleased with the budget proposals related to three wheelers. ¨Leading up to the budget we had discussions with the Minister, and we are pleased that he has taken note of our suggestions, one of which was introducing a regulatory authority for three wheelers," he says. According to Jayaruk, a regulatory authority is needed to ensure that the public gets the best service from popular transport systems, such as, three wheelers. ¨Our aim is to identify the best drivers and upgrade the quality of service. The budget proposals for 2017 has facilitated this by providing financial assistance to three wheeler drivers to switch to electric cars within the Colombo city limits," he says.

However, Lahiru Weerasekara, Convener of the Inter University Students Federation feels the budget hints at a government attempt to privatize the education sector. ¨All the loan schemes the government proposes to offer will indirectly strengthen private institutes and universities¨ he says, adding that the IUSF is not happy with this budget. ¨We will organise protests against these proposals if the government does not change their stance¨ he warned.

Despite the government promising to increase university student intake up to 50,000, by 2020, Weerasekara refuses to see the proposal in a favourable light. According to him providing loans up to Rs 800,000 to those not qualified for government universities to pursue studies at private institutes negates any move to increase university admissions. He believes there is a different motive to this allocation.

General Secretary, Ceylon Teachers' Union, Joseph Stalin too was of the view that proposals related to the education sector appears to be a clear attempt at privatization of the education sector. ¨The allocation for education has been reduced with the government saying that they will provide further funds during the year if needed, which is an attempt to hoodwink us¨ he says, adding that no mention was made of closed down teacher training colleges and other such facilities in the country.

According to him even though the government should allocate funds to train teachers and reopen these institutions, the government has instead promoted private education among teachers as well, by providing loans to obtain higher education through private institutions. He also questioned the provision of funds for schools to obtain computers on rent. ¨What do they mean by rent? This must be explained to us¨ he says. He said, while the Union believes free education has been threatened through this budget all relevant parties will be called upon to voice their dissent against it.

Expressing his views about budget allocations for Arts and Culture, Filmmaker Prasanna VIthanage was of the opinion that the discussion itself on film preservation is a good sign. ¨Sri Lanka is one of the very few countries that does not have such a unit, although artists have repeatedly requested for such a move from previous governments as well,” he says. ¨While the National Archives has been preserving films, the challenge faced today is to preserve old films in the digital format¨ he says.

In his view, as films are accumulated every year, the unit should receive further support from local and foreign counterparts along with a cohesive plan for future film preservation, once budget allocations are exhausted.

Vithanage was supportive of the proposal to increase the taxing on foreign teledramas. ¨These teledramas have been a bad influence on the local teledrama industry¨ he says, adding that due to the current situation, livelihoods and creativity of the industry has been affected negatively. However, Vithanage says while the previous collection of similar taxes was spent on the Ranminithenna Cinema Village, which has now become a liability, the question is, how the taxes collected will be spent this time around. ¨The government should utilize the money for the uplift of the industry and prioritize certain areas¨ he added.

While commending the move to build an institute dedicated to the teaching of music in honour of the late maestro W.D Amaradeva, Vithanage said, the institute should not be just another establishment, but become the type of institute that Master Amaradeva envisioned for the country.