Govt doing its best to address the economic issue - Nimal Siripala de Silva | Sunday Observer

Govt doing its best to address the economic issue - Nimal Siripala de Silva

19 June, 2022

Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva said that the Government is doing its best to address the current economic issue and ensure that there won’t be any shortage and queues for gas, fuel and foods. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said the crisis of this nature cannot be solved within two to three weeks but every arm of the Government is trying hard to overcome the situation.

The Minister said we have to restructure our debt to win the confidence of the IMF. Similarly, we have to give an economic recovery plan to the IMF to get its assistance. Now the IMF is looking at Sri Lanka very positively. We are confident that the IMF will commit funds to Sri Lanka for the recovery and then we can go to other international donors who will render assistance to us. However, the IMF commitment is very much needed for us at this juncture.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: Does the country need a new Constitutional amendment such as the 21st Amendment at this juncture?

A: The country is very much in need of such an Amendment. This is the demand of the youth, professionals and many sectors of society. The international community is also demanding such an Amendment and they feel the political structure of our country should be changed in such a manner.

Some say the Executive Presidency must be abolished. They are of the view that an Amendment should be brought not to just abolish the Executive Presidency but to ensure that the 19th Amendment is restored with necessary Constitutional provisions especially to ensure that no dual citizen can become either the President, Minister or a Member of Parliament. That has been a demand forwarded by many political parties as well. Thereafter, we need to strengthen the independent commissions... In the same time, bringing back the Audit Commission is a salient feature which we have included in the 21st Amendment.

Actually, this is a Constitutional Amendment which the Minister of Justice will bring so that we don’t want to interfere with the day-to-day affairs of the Government. My feeling is the international donor organisations such as the IMF and many other countries are looking forward to see whether we are bringing the 21st Amendment.

They might not speak openly to assist us but we know their underline thinking is the political framework of this country should be changed. So, we have to cater to that requirement as well.

Q: However, some Government lawmakers have said that instead of bringing yet another Constitutional amendment, the Government should concentrate on the severe economic crisis faced by the country. Is there any truth in this point?

A: The Government is doing its best to address the economic issue. I know as a Cabinet Minister, we are meeting in various forums and trying our best to address this issue to ensure that there won’t be any queues for gas, fuel and food. That is the ongoing process. However, we can’t achieve results within 24 hours. We have to restructure our debt to win the confidence of the IMF. For that, we have to restructure a lot of our economic activities. The IMF is not an institution which comes and just dumps money to our Treasury.

They need to know what our future plans are and how we are going to strengthen the economy. How are we going to increase exports and reduce the expenditure and manage the non-profit making institutions? Likewise, we have to give an economic recovery plan to the IMF to get its assistance. Now they are looking at Sri Lanka very positively. I think within the next two to three weeks, the people also can see it. We are confident that the IMF will commit funds to Sri Lanka for the recovery and then we can go to other international donors who will render assistance to us.

However, the IMF commitment is very much needed for us at this juncture. Even China tells us to go to the IMF and obtain their confidence. Lot of people don’t know this. Some people may know this but they don’t want to say it. So, we have to approach this in such a manner.

The crisis of this nature cannot be solved within two to three weeks but every arm of the Government is trying hard to overcome the situation. For example, the farmers are asking for fertiliser. With a lot of problems and difficulties, now we managed to get money from the Indian Credit Line, but India doesn’t have fertiliser.

So, we have to get it down from Oman. I understand that the deal has been finalised but we have to send a ship to Oman to bring fertiliser to Sri Lanka and later pack them and distribute them among the farmers. That can’t happen in 24 hours. Some time -frame is required for that but we are on the right track with regard to fertiliser. The World Bank has already committed money for fertiliser for the next season. What I understand from the Agriculture Minister is that he has embarked upon the procurement process and there won’t be a problem with regard to fertiliser next season. Various negotiations are ongoing for gas and fuel and we are trying hard to find dollars because the Central Bank and other banks don’t have sufficient dollars. Therefore, there is a delay and we have to accept these facts. Somehow, we must try hard to get out of this situation.

Q: Do you think the 21st Amendment would pave the way to eliminate political instability in the country?

A: To some extent. As a result of political instability, there is also economic instability and social instability in the country. We have to address this factor and that is the demand of the people who are agitating on the streets demanding that the 21st Amendment must be implemented. For example, within the Government parties, there are lots of MPs who are in support of the 21st Amendment and the entire Opposition is also in support of it. What I say is the Legislature must be given a chance to debate this in Parliament.

If there are two-thirds, it will be passed and if not that will be rejected. So, the country will also know who wanted this Amendment to be passed and who didn’t want it to be passed. Every Member of Parliament is at liberty to either vote for the 21st Amendment or oppose it. That is the democratic right they have at the moment. So, why don’t we allow that right to be exercised by the members? When it comes to Parliament it is up to the members either to accept it or reject it.

Q: SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara has said that there is a conspiracy to defeat the 21st Amendment. What is the SLFP position regarding the 21st Amendment?

A: The SLFP position is very clear and we are fully supporting the 21st Amendment and there are no two words about it. Of course, I am not aware of any conspiracies. There may be differences of opinions. Everybody is entitled to have his own opinion and that is democracy.

We can’t impose our own opinion on others. We must try to do that democratically and explain to the Members of Parliament that this is the need of the hour and this will reform our political system in the country. Our position is we are advocating other political parties and MPs in a democratic manner to get their votes in support of the 21st Amendment.

Q: At present there is a demand that the Parliament should have more powers than the Executive President. Are you also of the same view?

A: It is not as simple as that. Under the 21st Amendment, there will be a transfer of some executive powers to Parliament. If we are to take all the executive powers to Parliament, then we have to abolish the executive presidency. That is a long way you have to go. First of all, you need two-thirds majority to pass whatever the Constitution or the Amendment to do away with the executive presidency. Thereafter, you need a referendum.

If a two-thirds Members of Parliament agree and the whole country approves that by a referendum, then it will go through. That is the will of the people. So, we have to go through that process. Without doing so, we don’t know whether the will of the people has to be questioned in a Referendum and the will of the Members of Parliament has to be twisted in Parliament. Various people might have divergent views. Ultimately, the matter will be decided by two thirds majority in Parliament and 51 percent of the people who are voting at a referendum for one side.

Q: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a special statement to Parliament on June 7 made a sincere appeal to all set aside traditional political ideologies for a short period and make a concerted effort to rebuild the country. Your views?

A: It was a very timely appeal. Everybody should positively respond to that appeal without their own political agendas to get this country out from this political and economic mess.

Q: At present the Galle Face struggle has completed over 60 days and some say the Parliament is not sensitive over the demands made by the protesters. Would you like to comment?

A: The 21st Amendment is another sensitive area where we have addressed the demand of the protesters. However, to what extent the demands of the protesters are practical is another issue.

There may be attractive demands such as asking all 225 MPs to resign and go home. Then to whom are we going to hand over the Government and what is the legal structure and constitutional provision? I think they are telling these things due to their inexperience. At present there is so much animosity and resistance against all the politicians in the country. That is also something which we have to address positively.

Q: The JVP and TNA say that a General Election should be held to find out a solution to the current political crisis. However, some are of the view that the environment is not conducive to conduct an election. What is your view?

A: To be very frank, are we getting more dollars into this country by having a General Election? Can we restructure debt? These are just slogans. At present there is no environment conducive and necessary financial background to conduct an election in the country.

Actually, we don’t even have a piece of paper to write. How much is it going to cost for a General Election? The other thing is there must be an environment conducive where the voters can freely exercise their will. Then only true democracy will emerge in such an election. Therefore, my view is this is not the proper time to have a General Election.

Q: SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa resigned from his parliamentary seat and the SLPP has appointed business tycoon Dhammika Perera to fill the vacancy. How would this affect the Government and the SLPP?

A: That was a decision taken by the SLPP. They have the right to make that decision. If Basil Rajapaksa resigned earlier, that would have been better but only now he has resigned and gone. That is also due to the pressure of the people. Appointing Dhammika Perera, it is not a matter for us. It is entirely up to the SLPP to decide who should be appointed from the National List. That is solely within their purview and we don’t want to interfere with that. It is the right of the SLPP to appoint the best person to come and rescue the country. We most welcome that. Why should we oppose that? That is their sole right. We can’t dictate terms to the SLPP as to who should be appointed. We have to respect the political parties within our Government. They have their independence to appoint whoever they want.

Q: Certain sections are under the impression that international monetary agencies are reluctant to grant loans to Sri Lanka due to the unstable political situation in Sri Lanka. Would you like to comment?

A: Even the IMF and many other organisations give us money or loans, they want to be satisfied that we have a roadmap and we are able to repay the debt which we are getting from them. Therefore, political stability is needed to strengthen the economy. That is why at least we were able to form a consensus Government. I don’t say it is a hundred percent ‘consensus Government’. If the SJB, JVP and TNA also joined, it would have been better. If they do not join hands, what can we do? Now the President and the Government have embarked upon a program to attract the assistance from other countries. We have to give them little time to build up their confidence and make it fruitful.

Q: Amidst the skyrocketing cost of living, the people ask as to how they could survive. What is the Government’s strategy to address the issue?

A: The only strategy is to rebuild the economy to ensure more export earnings to establish the confidence in the Government. Then the people who are sending money through various other devious methods can send them through proper channels. Steps should also be taken to rebuild the tourism sector. We have lost about US$ 4 to 5 billion income from the tourism industry. In addition, our expatriate workers are not sending their money through proper channels. All the time there are protest marches and demonstrations in the country. As a result, tourists are reluctant to visit Sri Lanka. If we can address these issues and make our country attractive as before, then we will be able to overcome this difficulty. Otherwise, there are no shortcuts to address these issues within a few hours or few days.

Q: Has the matter regarding the Aeroflot aircraft been sorted out or has this led to any diplomatic issue?

A: It is purely a commercial issue. We have explained that to Russia and they too have understood. So, we have sorted it out and there is no issue with Russia regarding it.

Q: You have said that the monthly operating loss of the Mattala International Airport comes to around Rs.100 million. What steps have been taken to overcome the situation?

A: We have to seriously think if our tourism grows with the image of the country being reestablished, then we can use this airport as a viable airport. Otherwise, we will have to ensure that we go for another business model in respect of the airport such as for repairing aircraft. So, we are considering various options as to how we can put it back into operation. Due to this economic situation, it is difficult to make it viable, the air traffic coming into Sri Lanka within a short period of time. So, we have to look for other options.

Q: What was the outcome of the progress review meeting of the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Aviation held at the President’s House last week?

A: Key decisions were taken on how to improve ports and earn more foreign exchange earnings from port development and aviation sectors. The various issues and challenges faced by the aviation sector like in many other parts of the world were also discussed. We had a fruitful discussion on how to overcome those issues.