Powering through challenges | Sunday Observer
Government marks one year in office

Powering through challenges

8 August, 2021
Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as Prime Minister before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Kelani Raja Maha Vihara a year ago
Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as Prime Minister before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Kelani Raja Maha Vihara a year ago

Exactly a year ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in the presence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the swearing-in ceremony at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara.

The Prime Minister was elected at the August 2020 General Election with the highest number of votes ever recorded by a single candidate in the history of the country with 527,364 votes. It is also remarkable that this Government was established with the youngest party contesting at the elections – Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Since then the Government has achieved more than what was anticipated in the midst of a global pandemic when other countries were struggling to keep afloat with rapid loss of lives and economic pitfalls.

The main focus of any Government during the past year was to come out of the Covid pandemic and the Sri Lankan Government was no exception.

However, the key feature of this Government was not to make Covid an excuse and continued to carry out the development work it pledged to the people, staying true to the President’s ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.

Vaccination

2020 was the year of hope for the entire world with the promise of effective vaccines against the deadly virus. With several vaccines being approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), Sri Lanka was one in a handful of countries that began vaccinating its population. After receiving a consignment of 500,000 Covishield vaccines from India, Sri Lanka commenced its Covid-19 vaccination drive starting with frontline workers as early as January 2021, just a day after receiving India’s gift.

It has been almost eight months since then and still there are countries which have so far failed to secure any vaccine for their people.

The President’s and the Prime Minister’s strong bilateral relations, especially with India, China, Japan, US and Russia, certainly paid off to bring large consignments of vaccines from time to time and more consignments have been pledged. At present, the vaccination drive is being carried out in a well-coordinated and successful manner to reach all corners of the country.

Last week was particularly significant for the Government with Sri Lanka Army’s first-ever 24/7 Vaccination Centre that jabbed nearly 20,000 persons with the second dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine within the first 24 hours.

National security

One of the reasons for the President and his Government to receive an overwhelming majority at elections was the trust in him to bring back security and stability to the country that was so far deteriorated during the past regime. Sri Lanka was only beginning to recover from the shock of the Easter attacks and the 6.9 million had faith in the President that such a catastrophe would not recur under the able leadership of the President and Prime Minister.

One of the first responsibilities that the Government was tasked with was to strengthen the weakened security apparatus of the country.

Better suited officers were appointed to key defence positions, uplifting the moral of the security forces.

Security plans abandoned by the previous government was revitalised and implemented. A peaceful environment was thus created for all ethnicities to live without fear and have faith once again in the Government.

Economic challenge

As the government came into power, it acquired an economy that had dwindled for no valid reason.

The failure of the state administration during the previous regime resulted in the collapse of the economy.

By 2019, the economic growth rate slowed down to 2.1 percent from 7 percent when President Mahinda Rajapaksa handed over power in 2015.

The debts had increased to Rs.13, 000 billion from Rs.7, 400 billion. The tax burden on the people had doubled. The rupee was destabilised and the prices of commodities skyrocketed while export earnings declined and foreign reserves depleted.

A major challenge for the Government was to rebuild the economy and the Government started implementing plans laid out in the manifesto.

In less than a month since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power, the pandemic engulfed the world and many sectors of the economy were hard hit. Still, the Government identified key areas for economic growth and maintained Government support.

Even when foreign reserves dwindled, the Government repaid all loans on time. A significant achievement was the transfer of funds to repay a US$1 billion bond before the deadline, keeping intact Sri Lanka’s reputation for honoring debt even when the key foreign revenue generating sector of tourism was hard-hit by the pandemic.

Fighting the pandemic

In such a situation, the government’s priority was to control the spread of Covid-19.

A Presidential Task Force comprising medical professionals, administrators and security personnel was set up to curtail immediate risks.

One of the first tasks was to bring back Sri Lankan students studying in China. Later, when the first Covid-19 cluster emerged, the country was put under a lockdown and quarantine restrictions were put in place to successfully control it.

Sri Lanka’s containment programs were praised even internationally during this period. However, the Government quickly realised that rather than shutting down the country and crippling the economy, vaccination was the way forward in fighting the pandemic.

Relief packages

As Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) were also hard-hit, the Government provided relief measures to sustain them. Identifying that the SMEs are the backbone of the economy, the Government provided extra time to pay off loans. Rs. 400 billion was allocated for loan deferral facilities for SMEs.

The Government also spent about Rs.30 billion in each round to provide an allowance of Rs. 5,000 for daily wage earners who lost work.

Additional costs are incurred to conduct PCR and antigen tests, treatment and establishing quarantine and treatment centres. For home quarantines, each family was provided a relief package worth Rs. 10,000 for two weeks.

The Government spent about Rs. 260 billion since the beginning of the pandemic to provide relief to the people. Despite the heavy unexpected expenses, the Government continued to provide full salaries to over 1.4 million public service officers when private firms imposed pay cuts.

Gama Samaga Pilisandara

The President launched the ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ program in September last year from Passara, Badulla, to meet people from remote villages and provide solutions to problems.

As outlined in the manifesto, this is an initiative by the President to reach out to the grassroots so far neglected in the larger socio-economic setting.

The villagers had the opportunity to interact first hand with their President and they were directed to relevant officials to find solutions.

During the President’s visits to the villages, issues such as the lack of deeds for arable lands, irrigation water scarcity, transportation, human-elephant conflict, road rehabilitation, electricity provision, lack of teaching staff in schools and other development activities were discussed and addressed.

According to the President’s Media Division, 17 villages were visited so far and about 65 percent of the villagers’ problems have been resolved. It is expected that this initiative would recommence once the Covid situation is managed.

Import controls

The Government had to adopt innovative policies to control foreign exchange outflow by controlling non-essential imports i.e. luxury goods. Although this is not a popular decision, it is a pragmatic policy adopted to save Sri Lanka’s billions and to overcome the crisis.

The Government has reiterated that this decision is only temporary until the Government has a firm conviction that the economy is back to normal.

(To be continued next week)

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