United Republican Front Leader and Member of Parliament, Patali Champika Ranawaka, said the pivotal role of political will is steering the nation towards progress.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: How is the political trajectory of your United Republican Front?
A: Over a period of eight decades, we produced intellectuals and professionals in this country with great difficulty. But unfortunately, these people are leaving the country on a large scale today. The economic instability of the country, as well as the future of the children, had an impact on it.
Also, the tax policy targeting them also strongly affected it. Therefore, in the future, we must create hope for these professionals under a proper program, regarding changing the country while staying in this country. Currently, we are going to the public and making small and medium-scale public awareness campaigns all over the country.
Q: Around 72 percent of the tax revenue in 2022 was allocated to pay salaries and pensions and 28 percent was allocated for Samurdhi and loan interest. Not even five cents of tax revenue was allocated for development. No matter which Government comes to power, can we experience a change in this system?
A: There are glaring issues of fairness and efficiency within our revenue process, exemplified by the Inland Revenue Department. A staggering Rs.1000 billion in taxes remain uncollected, representing one-third of the expected revenue. Initiatives like the integrated digital platform, the Revenue Administration Management Information System (RAMIS), and the UNCTAD Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) have been introduced but have yielded little success. The Excise Department lags behind, with significant gaps in tax collection. Despite a new tax policy necessitating the registration of 1.2 million people, only 400,000 have complied.
The Customs engage in fraudulent practices amounting to US$ 3 billion in imports and exports, yet no preventive measures have been taken. Additionally, the Excise Department has failed to collect six and a half billion in taxes, allowing the circulation of fake alcohol through forged stickers and marks. Addressing these revenue-generating deficiencies is essential before discussing expenditure.
In the last six months, a staggering 94 percent of Government income has gone towards paying interest, doubling the financial burden. The consequence of ill-advised financial policies is evident as the country grapples with the repercussions of loans acquired at exorbitant interest rates. It is imperative to hold accountable those responsible for this fiscal mismanagement.
In a bid to curtail costs, a scientific approach to managing 1,200 Government institutions is necessary, transcending individualized efforts. The State banking system has been subjected to interference by a group of Ministers, diverting a substantial Rs.1, 400 billion rupees. This interference, equivalent to the Inland Revenue Department’s annual target, has prompted a concerning exodus of businessmen to Dubai, numbering 4,000 in recent days. The management of these affairs requires urgent attention to ensure fairness.
Q: Are you saying that there should be a complete change in this system? If a Government led by you comes to power in the future, what action will be taken for this?
A: Absolutely. I have presented my comprehensive report to Parliament. Upon assuming control, our immediate focus will be on revolutionising the tax system. We pledge to develop a cutting-edge digital platform within a year to ensure seamless tax revenue collection, leaving no room for evasion.
The excise process will undergo a rigorous overhaul as well. Despite the introduction of the excise sticker in 2018, meaningful action was only taken after I raised the issue in Parliament. The necessary changes demand political will, a commitment we are ready to uphold.
Q: The 2022 tax revenue was Rs. 1,751 billion, out of which for all salaries Rs. 1,265 billion was spent and Rs.506 billion went for subsidies. Accordingly, there was a deficit. Do you plan to increase tax revenue under a new Government through these changes?
A: Certainly. I have already presented my proposals to Parliament. Our strategy involves recovering bad debts from a select few, fortifying the banking system, and subsequently reducing interest rates. Lower interest rates will catalyze economic healing, generate employment for thousands, and attract foreign investors to Sri Lanka. We advocate for a short-term subsidy targeted at the vulnerable in society.
Identification of the genuinely poor will be conducted through a scientific approach based on key factors such as electricity consumption, mobile phone use, land ownership, employment, and vehicle ownership.
We believe in a holistic approach to development, redirecting Government investments into crucial sectors such as medicine and equipment, food productivity, and energy production. The Technology City project, a key focus, aims to pave the way for a robust digital service economy, projecting a remarkable US$ 5 billion in the coming years.
Q: Is this program of yours a short-term program to improve people’s lives?
A: Absolutely. Our program is designed to yield tangible results within three years. The accelerated completion of major projects, such as the Port City in just 29 months, attests to our commitment and efficiency. We swiftly addressed and resolved the Colombo garbage problem in 18 months and tackled the Colombo flood issue in 24 months. Trust us; we have a proven track record of delivering on our promises.
Q: Do you have any other method for the Government instead of borrowing and paying the loans?
A: Borrowers must prioritize settling their debts, otherwise legal action will be taken against us internationally. Our focus, however, is on fostering public investments to boost production. By implementing the strategies mentioned earlier, including recovering bad debts and fortifying the banking system, we aim to reduce the reliance on borrowing. It is imperative that we pay off debts for the betterment of our nation and rectify the damage inflicted upon the country through responsible fiscal policies.
Q: But many say that the country has recovered from where it fell to through the current leadership. What is your opinion on this?
A: The reality is clear for all to see. While queues for oil may have disappeared, the cost of oil has tripled. Electricity bills have skyrocketed. Even with fertilizer availability, prices have surged twenty to thirty times. The proposed local debt restructuring, pushing the burden onto the people after 2028, may have seemed acceptable in the initial stages. However, that era has passed. The critical issue is the current state of essential services: hospitals lacking medicine and children unable to attend school. Alarming statistics, such as six out of ten people facing danger, as highlighted by UNDP, underscore the pressing challenges faced by the nation.
Q: Will a new party called the United Republican Front run for the 2024 Presidential Election?
A: Shifting responsibility solely to politicians is not the solution. The electorate bears responsibility, influenced by media illusions. In the upcoming election, voters must deliberate on whether the last doctor remains in the hospital, if the last engineer works in the power board, and whether the last administrator and journalist are present in Sri Lanka. Beyond traditional politics, we are spearheading a movement for a new generation. The 2024 vote transcends the usual choices for the President and the Opposition Leader; it is a pivotal decision on whether the last doctor stays in Sri Lanka or not.
In our pursuit of a new politics, we challenge the conventional narratives of familial influence in politics. It is time for the country to triumph for a new generation, and we are steadfastly working towards that vision.
Translated by Dinuli Francisco