Budget 2021 - relief to people, while controlling Covid-19 - Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage | Sunday Observer

Budget 2021 - relief to people, while controlling Covid-19 - Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage

29 November, 2020

Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage said the biggest challenge the SLPP Government posed to the main Opposition SJB was the resounding victory achieved at the last parliamentary election by securing 150 seats. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said the SJB members have resorted to baseless allegations against the Government and the President due to their political bankruptcy. The Minister said the results of the last parliamentary election showed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a Leader who has successfully fulfilled his duties as pledged. Minister Aluthgamage is optimistic that the Third Reading of Budget 2021 will be passed even with more than a two-thirds majority and there will be more crossovers to the Government from the Opposition. We have faced an issue to allocate seats in Government ranks to Opposition MPs who are willing to join hands with us, he said.

Q: How do you view Budget 2021 amid the allegation levelled by the Opposition that it has failed to provide relief to the people who have faced severe hardships due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

A: The Opposition can make any utterances they wish. Otherwise, they would not exist. Amid the world economic recession, the Budget has given every possible relief to the people, at the same time continuing the development drive and successfully controlling the second wave of Covid-19 in the country.

Q: What is the current political climate in the country? Is it still favourable to the Government in its forward march despite the Opposition’s allegations?

A: These futile attempts by the Opposition are not an obstacle to the forward march of the Government.

We have to realise that there is a global Covid-19 pandemic which sometimes people fail to comprehend. We have to understand how developed countries such as the US, Germany and Italy faced the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Government has the ability to control the second wave of Covid-19 in the same manner it contained the first wave. Certainly, the Government will control the Covid-19 pandemic and strengthen the economy by carrying forward its program.

Q: Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa makes serious allegations against the Government on its alleged failure to control the second wave of Covid-19 and not providing adequate relief to the Colombo city dwellers. Your comments?

A: We are a Government which has given relief to more than the number of deserving families in the country. When the first wave of Covid-19 emerged, the Government provided the Rs.5,000 relief allowance to 7.9 million families, although only 5.9 million families were eligible for it.

Therefore, we are not a failed Government. However, the Rs.5,000 allowance is paid after the PHI report is issued. Sajith Premadasa as the Opposition Leader looks at this issue in a wrong perspective. The Government will continue to provide relief measures to every affected family.

Q: What has happened to the UNP which governed this country for decades?

A: When the UNP came to power in 2014, they went against the mandate they received. They came to power with the slogan of bringing the culprits to book and end corruption. However, those who assumed office to stop wrongdoings indulged in fraud and corruption.

The Treasury Bond scam is a classic example. The Yahapalana Government which pledged to provide subsidies curtailed the fertiliser subsidy. They halted the ongoing development projects. Therefore, the people sent them home at the last General Election as they failed to fulfil even a single pledge given by them.

Q: There is still a tug of war within the UNP circle to fill its National List MP slot. Some UNP seniors have requested UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to accept it. How do you view this crisis in the UNP?

A: Ranil Wickremesinghe is creating a conducive environment to bring Ruwan Wijewardene to the party leadership. After deliberately dragging this issue, finally Wickremesinghe would bring the person he wants.

Q: Are you happy with the role of the Opposition at this time of national tragedy?

A: Can we imagine the UNP, which didn’t fulfil its responsibility during the battle against terrorism playing its role at this time of national disaster? When the war heroes captured Kilinochchi from the clutches of the terrorists, the UNP mixed it up with Medawachchiya. They said any fool can wage a war against terrorists. Will the UNP now help to control Covid-19 when it didn’t help to end terrorism?

Q: SJB Parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake who joined the Budget debate queried on the progress of the investigations into claims made by you on the ‘top-ten’ frauds involving the former Yahapalana Government. Would you explain?

A: At present investigations are continuing into these frauds. This is the difference between the former and the present Government. Unlike the Yahapalana Government, we don’t bring the CID officials to Temple Trees and exert undue pressure on them.

The Government doesn’t exert pressure on the judiciary or the Attorney General. The investigations into these frauds are conducted as usual. Therefore, it will take some time to complete them and bring the culprits to book.

Q: As highlighted by the Opposition Leader is there any issue in providing the Rs.5,000 allowance to nearly 300,000 people in lockdown areas in Colombo and the suburbs?

A: There is no such issue. The Rs.5,000 allowance has been given to all who submitted the PHI report.

Q: Teacher Trade Unions have raised concern about the decision taken by the Government to reopen schools. Your comments?

A: We have to realise that if all countries are locked down, they would not be able to fully control the Covid-19 pandemic. Once the country is reopened, another Covid-19 cluster would emerge somewhere. Therefore, this is not confined to our country, it is a global phenomenon. We have to face the situation.

What is necessary is to strictly follow health guidelines. A hundred percent successful vaccine has not yet been invented to combat the disease. Therefore, we have to get used to living in this situation. Issues such as re-opening of schools are not mere political decisions. Those decisions are taken by the Government in line with the instructions given by the health authorities and other relevant sectors.

Q: How do you view President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s completion of one year in office?

A: Nine months after assuming office, the President went for the parliamentary election. The Government could secure 150 seats at the last parliamentary election. That is the biggest challenge we posed to the main Opposition SJB. They were shaken by the resounding victory achieved by the Government at the election.

The SJB tried to make baseless allegations against the President and the Government due to their political bankruptcy. The results of the last parliamentary election showed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a Leader who has successfully fulfilled his duties as pledged.

Q: Some say the lack of a vibrant Opposition is not healthy for democracy. Your views?

A: What are we to do when we have a very weak Opposition such as this? Of course, a vibrant Opposition is necessary to take the country forward. Unfortunately, we have a ‘mongal’ and an abnormal Opposition.

Q: Shouldn’t the TNA and others with similar sentiments cooperate with the Government to sort out the burning issues faced by their own people?

A: The TNA should know that though they supported the UNP, they couldn’t do anything for their people in the North. Even if the TNA does not cooperate with the Government, we will work for the wellbeing of the people in the North. The TNA should at least now cooperate with the Government if they are genuinely concerned about their people.

Q: The Second Reading of Budget 2021 was passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament on November 21, showing the political stability of the Government. Will there be more crossovers to the Government from the Opposition?

A: The third reading of the Budget will be passed even with more than a two-thirds majority. Certainly, there will be more crossovers to the Government from the Opposition. We have faced an issue to allocate seats in Government ranks to Opposition MPs who are willing to join hands with us.

Q: Has the Budget allocated adequate funds to develop the agriculture sector?

A: We have been given nearly Rs.70 billion to develop the agriculture sector. Next to Finance, Highways and Water Supply Ministries, the highest allocation is to the Agriculture Ministry. Therefore, we are happy that a huge amount of money has been reserved in the agriculture sector.

Q: Have farmers faced any issues to continue in their agriculture activities or sell their products due to the Covid-19 situation in the country?

A: Farmers have not faced any hardship. We have opened all Economic Centres countrywide and provided farmers the opportunity to sell their products. At present, paddy and vegetables fetch a good price. A kilo of paddy is purchased at Rs.60. No farmer has come to the streets and protested claiming that he cannot sell the paddy and vegetable harvests. Farmers have not faced any issue due to the Covid-19 situation.

Q: The control of imports and encouraging the cultivation of essential food crops locally is a progressive measure to repair the damaged economy. Would you explain?

A: Our intention is to cultivate potato, onion, chili and maize requirements locally which were imported earlier. Rs.75 to 100 billion was spent to import these commodities. We can cultivate all these food crops locally. When we handed over the Government in 2014, we spent only Rs.30 billion to import potato, onion and chili.

That increased to Rs.70 billion by 2019. The import of these food crops had increased threefold during the tenure of the Yahapalana Government. It was a Government fully dependent on imports. Our intention is to cultivate all food crops which can be cultivated locally.

Q: The lack of sufficient funds and storage facilities for the Paddy Marketing Board is a big problem in the purchase of the annual paddy harvest. Is there a strategy to overcome these obstacles?

A: We have reserved Rs.100 million to build paddy stores, and plan to purchase 300,000 kilograms of paddy during the Maha season.

Q: What is the present position of seed paddy production? Could it meet the local demand?

A: There is no issue regarding seed paddy production. We have the capacity to produce the necessary seed paddy varieties for farmers.

Q: Paddy smallholders still use traditional methods in agriculture. Does the Government have a proposal to promote advanced technology in agriculture?

A: We have introduced new technological methods to farmers to increase their paddy harvest. The agricultural officers will commence a training program to infuse new technology to farmers. We will be able to increase paddy production with the use of new technology, and will formulate a systematic program to channel all this information to farmers.