Samurdhi a path to emancipate downtrodden - Minister P. Harrison | Sunday Observer

Samurdhi a path to emancipate downtrodden - Minister P. Harrison

Contrary to speculation, the new Social Empowerment Minister, P. Harrison says, there is no decision to place Samurdhi Banks under the Central Bank. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said, verifying the eligibility of Samurdhi beneficiaries to qualify for the Samurdhi allowance does not mean curtailing the allowance given to beneficiaries. There is a considerable number of people, who we understand, are qualified for the Samurdhi allowance. Our objective is to collect the necessary information and provide relief to such groups as well.

Q.There is speculation that Samurdhi Banks are to be placed under Central Bank supervision. Is there any truth in this, and if it is so, what is the reason for this move?

A. There is hardly any need to place Samurdhi Banks under the Central Bank. Although some people may hold such views, I see no such requirement that arisen, so far.

Q. Some legal experts also maintain the view that this is not possible under the Divineguma Act. What is the Government’s position with regard to this obstacle?

A. If such a move is to be initiated, the Government can of course present a new Bill in Parliament to effect necessary changes. But, I don’t think such a requirement would arise.

Q. According to newspaper reports, the Prime Minister has instructed you to verify the eligibility of Samurdhi beneficiaries to receive the Samurdhi allowance. What is the motive behind this directive?

A. This is not at all meant to curtail the allowance given to Samurdhi beneficiaries. There are lots of people who should be considered for the allowance. Our intention is to collect the necessary information and provide some relief to them as well. The prime objective of the Samurdhi movement is to check whether the Samurdhi families who are being empowered annually have improved their income levels and adopt a viable strategy to strengthen their economy. No such mechanism had been implemented in the past. There are instances where Samurdhi allowances have been paid to those who are not eligible for it. I hope they would voluntarily return their Samurdhi cards in the larger interest of the deserving people. In addition, there is a social group far below the acute poverty level without any relief being provided. Therefore, key emphasis is laid on them.

Q. There is a controversy with regard to the alleged loss of Rs.6,750 million from the Samurdhi Fund, though the Samurdhi Director General has denied these reports, and the former Social Empowerment Minister, S.B.Dissanayake has challenged anyone to prove that even 67 cents have been misplaced. Will you be investigating the accuracy of these reports?

A. I think this occurred during the accounting process. Otherwise, there is no such loss in the Samurdhi funds. That money has gone into various accounts of Samurdhi recipients. That is why a vacuum has occurred. I don’t think this colossal amount of Samurdhi funds as alleged have been unaccounted for.

Q. The UNP has again received the Social Empowerment Ministry which includes Samurdhi, after a lapse of 24 years. What is the significance of this step?

A. Samurdhi officials have been branded as political. No former Government had ensured their job security. As an initial step, we have ensured the job security of Samurdhi officers. There is also the need to introduce a pension scheme and a promotion system for them.

Necessary procedure should be adopted to absorb them into the permanent cadre of the public service. Like Samurdhi recipients, Samurdhi officers, managers and Samurdhi banks have also faced problems. There are instances of court cases too. Cabinet Papers had been submitted to sort out these issues. Yet, a final solution has not been found for these problems. First, we should guarantee the job security of the Samurdhi officers and place them under a proper salary scale. As the Minister in charge, I have the responsibility to safeguard the interests of these officers and identify the families who deserve Samurdhi benefits, irrespective of any political differences. Poverty is the common factor, regardless of party affiliations. In the circumstances, it is my responsibility to ensure that Samurdhi benefits are given to those who really deserve it.

Q. Previously, you served as Rural Economic Affairs Minister, and now you have got a new Ministry, somewhat related to social empowerment. How do you feel about this? Are you satisfied with the Ministry you have got in the latest Cabinet reshuffle?

A. As Ministers we are bound to fulfil the responsibility of any Ministry given to us. However, the fact remains, any particular Ministry is not one’s own property. As a politician, I am ready to accept any Ministry. I have nearly 30 years of political experience including my stint in the Housing and Social Services Ministries. Social Empowerment is not a new subject for me. During my longstanding political career, I have always had been in touch with the village people. I feel the pulse of the rural masses, and it’s not difficult for me to discharge my duties in the new Ministry in the larger interest of the poor.

Q. Social Empowerment is an evolution of the Janasaviya and Samurdhi concepts. What are the challenges you encounter, and how do you plan to overcome them?

A. To begin with, we have to ensure that Samurdhi officers are satisfied with their jobs. Successive Governments used them as their political stooges. During elections, they took maximum advantage from them but their problems remained unattended. No former Government has taken steps to confer permanency on their jobs: nor have they been given pension rights.

So, their dependants have to suffer, driven from pillar to post. Nearly 500 Samurdhi officers who had retired from their jobs had to go home empty handed without any means of livelihood.

As the Minister in charge, my job is to look at their plight objectively and provide relief without labelling them politically. Most Samurdhi cadres are educated, so there is a need to ensure their job security. I am happy that I can achieve my targets by making the best use of these resourceful youth.

Q. Poverty rates have drastically come down in Sri Lanka over the last 25 years. How do you propose to reduce the poverty rate further?

A. If the poverty has come down according to the statistics, it is important that the number of 1.4 million Samurdhi recipients should have dropped. I really cannot understand the logic of this argument.

Samurdhi allowances are still paid to 1.4 million families while another 700,000 to 800,000 low income families are awaiting Samurdhi subsidy. One fourth of the people still depend on the Samurdhi subsidy. Therefore, as a nation, we cannot be complacent. The economic levels of the people cannot be improved by just giving them subsidies. We have to take steps to improve the economy and educational levels of their families.

Q. How do you ensure that social empowerment takes place in all regions equitably because many politicians and Ministers want only to develop their own electorates and provinces?

A. In the past, the Samurdhi movement had been transformed into a sheer political organisation. When the Presidential Election was declared, Samurdhi officers were used for political activities. They were only given hopes. They had been politically branded at each national and provincial election. Their talents were not identified and made use of. This was the main reason why the Samurdhi movement could not achieve its targets. If we can mete out justice to the Samurdhi officers, we can successfully reap the benefits of social empowerment in all 14,022 Grama Niladari divisions.

Q. Do you see any significance in the fact that social empowerment and labour portfolios which were earlier held by SLFP Ministers have now been given to UNP Ministers?

A. Although the Samurdhi Ministry remained mostly under the SLFP and Samurdhi officers extended their support to the SLFP’s election campaigns, nothing substantial had been done to solve their problems. Now, we will implement a new program to develop the Samurdhi movement benefitting the entire Samurdhi personnel.

Q. There seems to be a division within the UNP on the recent change of officials in the UNP to which many backbenchers are opposed. What is your comment on this?

A. New office bearers have been appointed and the UNP Working Committee has endorsed this. Therefore, we have to work with them. Of course, there may be problems. This is not a single party Government but a coalition. As a party, we should unite. Party first, positions later!

Q. Do you think the 16 MPs who quit the Government would have any impact on governance?

A. I don’t think so. No UNP MP has quit the Government, the 16 MPs are all SLFPers. Half of them were in the SLFP while the others were in Pohottuwa. Now, they have organised themselves into one group. I think the SLFP can now take forward its vision in a more conspicuous and transparent manner. It reminds us of the saying, ‘Daval Miguel re Danial’ some SLFP MPs are with President Maithripala Sirisena during the day and at night they are with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This double game cannot be played any longer. If we are a member of particular political party, we should have our allegiance to our party leader as well as the party.