Issues could be resolved through discussions - Dr. Ramesh Pathirana | Sunday Observer

Issues could be resolved through discussions - Dr. Ramesh Pathirana

5 December, 2021
Dr. Ramesh Pathirana
Dr. Ramesh Pathirana

Co-Cabinet Spokesman and Minister of Plantation Dr. Ramesh Pathirana said the President and all other leaders of the SLPP-led Government are of the view that we can iron out any issues or differences within the Government through discussions.

The minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said “We are a multiparty Government and we have been working together with different parties over a long period. There had been arguments in relation to some policy matters.  At present, there is no issue for some MPs to quit the Government because all of them have immensely contributed to bring this Government to power.”

The minister said it is also true that the support of 14 SLFP members is vital for the Government to retain its two thirds’ majority in Parliament, adding that there is no severe erosion of the relationship between the Government and the SLFP.  

Following are excerpts of the interview.

Q:  SLPP General Secretary MP Sagara Kariyawasam, at a recent media briefing, said any allied party of the Government which cannot work as an alliance according to the President’s Policy Statement, should leave the ruling alliance. Your comments?

A: We are a multiparty Government and we have been working together with different parties over a long period. So, there had been arguments in relation to some policy matters.

The President and all other leaders of the Government are of the view that we can iron out those differences through discussions. At present, there is no issue for some MPs to quit the Government because all of them have immensely contributed to bring this Government to power.  

Q: The SLFP is preparing to contest the forthcoming Provincial Council elections separately. Does this mean that the political tension between the ruling party SLPP and coalition partner SLFP have escalated?

A: As of now, there is no official communication that the SLFP will contest the PC elections separately. Anyway, we have some time before running into the elections. Therefore, time is the best healer. So, we would be able to sort out a lot of matters in relation to these differences.

Q: How do you view the recent comments made by former President Maithripala Sirisena in Parliament that the two-thirds’ majority of the Government is wielded by 14 Members of Parliament representing the SLFP?

A: Actually, our two-thirds’ majority comprises 14 SLFP members as well. So, they have a right to say so. They are a very strong alliance of ours.  Former President Maithripala Sirisena made that statement due to some arguments between two parties.  

However, it doesn’t mean that there is severe erosion of the relationship between the Government and the SLFP. On the other hand, it is also true that the support of the 14 SLFP members is vital for us to retain two thirds’ majority in Parliament.

Q: UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament that the country would face power cuts soon if the Government didn’t resolve the foreign exchange crisis urgently. Your comments?

A: Now, it is a different matter that we have a severe foreign currency shortage but the Government is prioritising medicines and power supplies. Whenever we have the demand, we are trying to supply the much-needed dollars to those sectors. As of now, we don’t see any danger as such. So, we can continue to provide fuel and electricity to the country. 

Q: Has the Government taken any decision to compensate farmers who suffered losses due to adopting organic fertiliser?

A: It has been categorically stated by the Ministry of Agriculture that if there are any post-harvest losses, we have to compare it with the previous season and the Government is willing to compensate. The Maha season started a couple of weeks ago. By the end of December and January, we would be able to assess the harvest. If there is a sizable reduction, we would be able to compensate farmers.  However, that question will not arise from the next season as the Government has granted permission to import the required fertiliser. The Government will initiate a subsidy scheme for organic cultivation. So, this issue will be sorted out at the next Yala season.

Q: Permission has been granted to the private sector to import chemical fertiliser. However, the President has reiterated that the decision to implement the green agriculture policy with organic farming will not be reversed at any cost. Would you like to elaborate?

A: Actually, that is a good decision. The world is moving towards green agricultural practices. We were trying to pioneer that move. So, the President and the Government have taken a bold decision in relation to this conversion. But, we might not be able to do that within a short period. That is why we are adopting other remedial measures for the resistance that we observe. So, the Government, on a long term basis, is keen to promote organic cultivation and green agricultural policies because that is the way forward for the world.

Q: How would you respond to the Opposition claim that farmers have faced economic hardships due to the Government’s ‘overnight’ hundred percent organic fertiliser programme?

A: Fertiliser was available until a couple of months ago, which was previously imported to the country. We have to assess the Maha season and see whether there is any drop in the harvest. Then we can provide better answers.  As I mentioned earlier, if there is a loss in the harvest there would be a compensatory mechanism.

Q: Has any decision been taken to introduce a subsidy fertiliser scheme for tea plantations?

A: We have started distributing whatever the available fertiliser quantities. If you look analytically, the maximum amount of fertiliser was imported to the country in 2020 but the yield has come down in comparison.

We have recorded one of the lowest yields in the tea industry in 2020. In 2013, we recorded the highest tea production in the country but the import of tea fertiliser was at a low level that year. Now the people are grossly overusing the fertiliser.

In all farming fields in this country, whether paddy, tea, rubber, cinnamon, vegetable or fruits, everybody is using excessive amounts of fertiliser. That is why even though the amount of the fertiliser component has gone up, the production has not gone up even by 10 percent. At a certain time, it has come down like in tea.

Even if the price is a little high, they don’t have to use the same quantity. So, quantity-wise, it should be less and at the same time, they can combine it with other organic products.  Soil management is the most important thing. Now the soil is dying and doesn’t have the required organic component. It has also become very acidic.

Unless we take multifaceted corrective measures, even if we use chemical fertiliser, we are not going to get the results and that is clear. The Plantation Ministry has initiated action to ensure a good soil condition and that is the ultimate goal of the Government.  

Q: The main Opposition SJB has claimed that the country’s net foreign reserves had plunged to an all-time low of US$ 1.2 billion and warned of a looming dark future. Your views?

A: It is very clear that we are facing a grave foreign currency crisis. It is partly because of this global pandemic. We have lost a nearly US$ 5 billion income from the tourism industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our imports have also come down, partly because there is a sharp rise in oil prices last year.

When we came to power, the price of a barrel of crude oil was US $ 42 but it had gone up to US $ 80. There is a sizable increase in the export expenditure than the import expenditure. There is no way of narrowing down the trade deficit.

Therefore, it is true that we are facing a grave crisis. Our foreign reserves have come down. We are facing a critical situation. The Government is looking at all avenues to ensure that we sail through these turbulent times safely. Possibly, we will have to face a difficult task of managing the foreign currency matter within the next four to six months.

Q: Is there any decision to introduce a fuel price formula, similar to the one introduced by the former Government?

A: The Minister of Energy is also of the same view. Over a certain period, the Government’s reserves have dwindled and the BoC and the People’s Bank have provided unlimited loans to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC).

So, the CPC has become a debt-ridden entity. It has become a burden to the country. Therefore, it is more practical if we look into a price formula. But I don’t think we should implement it right now. Possibly, when the fuel prices are coming down, we have to implement that and subsequently continue with it.

Q: The PHI Association has requested to impose travel restrictions during the upcoming festive season. Is the Government exploring the possibility of imposing an island-wide lockdown?  

A: No decision has been taken to impose a lockdown during the upcoming festive season. However, the public has to act in a responsible manner to avoid the spread of Covid-19. At present, the majority of the country’s population is vaccinated against Covid-19.

Q: The Opposition has raised serious concern over the increase in gas cylinder-related explosions and says it is a threat to national security. Your comments?

A: It is a serious matter. We have to look into the technicality of it and let the technical experts comment on it. However, State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna is looking into this matter. He has already appointed a technical committee comprising experts and they are analysing the cases in relation to the explosions and the composition ratio of Butane and Propane in domestic Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG).

The results of those investigations will come out soon and then we can decide further action. In addition, the President has also appointed a Committee to investigate recent incidents of LPG cylinder fires and explosions and make recommendations to provide immediate solutions.

Q: Your comments on preventing the spread of the new Coronavirus variant Omicron?

A: During the pandemic, Sri Lanka is one of the countries where the vaccination program was conducted most successfully as against countries such as South Africa. Scientists claim that the recent emergence of new variants is mainly due to vaccinating only a part of the society.

We think Sri Lankans are relatively safe because they have higher immunity. But you never know that. Therefore, it is best to adopt precautionary measures. All methods that we have adopted during the past one and a half years need to be followed vigorously in time to come. While it is the responsibility of the Government, it is also the responsibility of the people to ensure that they don’t overuse the freedom that has been created with a lot of effort.

Q: How do you view the Budget 2022 presented amid a series of economic challenges?

A: As all of us know, it was one the most difficult Budgets presented by the Finance Minister. We are trying to narrow the gap to bring the Budget deficit to nearly 8.5 percent, which is an optimistic target. At the same time, we have provided avenues in the monetary channels to ensure domestic production.

That is the only way out and we have to reduce imports and improve exports. Similarly, we have to consume more locally produced goods to ensure that we are sustained in turbulent times. So, the Budget itself has provided certain measures to address those key issues.