Budget blows for UNP
By Santhush Fernando
The maiden Budget of the UPFA Government was much looked forward to by a public reeling under the burden of the rising cost of living and was much dreaded by the business community, which was gripped by uncertainty. But when the B-day came and went, there was a sense of relief and reassurance.

Although Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama was privileged to present the UPFA's first budget, he had worked hard to tinker with what some analysts called the pro-people budget.

Thursday's Parliamentary proceedings began on a happy note with Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara wishing Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse a happy birthday. But all eyes were not on the birthday boy but on the man in dark brown Indian-style suit.

When Dr. Amunugama began his speech, he struck to the usual tirade, like all Finance Ministers in the past, attacking the previous government's economic policy.

He reminded the house that the UPFA's election victory was a public endorsement of its "Rata Perata" (Country Forward) programme and a rejection of the UNF's neo-liberal economic policies. Describing the 2005 Budget as "pro-growth" and "pro-poor", the Finance Minister said the proposals in it were the outcome of a wide consultative process, which attracted views of almost all stakeholders. Outlining a three-year economic framework, the Minister said the UPFA's budget aimed at eliminating hidden subsidies that benefited the rich and redirecting them to the poor - a policy, which some analysts say would make those in the middle class the worst hit segment of society.

Besides relief and tax increases, the budget day was dramatized when Minister Amunugama stopped the speech midway to announce that Kurunegala District UNP parliamentarian Rohitha Bogollagama had crossed over to the Government and was sworn in as Minister of Advanced Technology and National Enterprise Development.

The UNF members though annoyed appeared unruffled. An unusual start was given to Friday's Budget debate, with Mr. Bogollagama urging the UNP to extend its support to President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Embarrassed by the crossover, the UNF had been pushed to a delicate position or tasked with the arduous exercise of attacking the budget without criticizing its pro-poor measures.

The task fell on the UNF's two most colourful speakers – Rajitha Seneratne and Hema Kumara Nanayakkara. Mr. Nanayakkara accorded a "revolutionary salutation" to JVP "comrades" in the government but in the same breath blasted them by saying they had betrayed the working class by extending the eight-hour shift by one hour in return for a paltry salary hike.

Continuing the offensive, the Galle Parliamentarian scoffed at the claim the UPFA's budget was a homegrown one. He said the budget was drafted by Gus F. Paponic, an 80-year-old former US soldier who was the economic "guru" of Finance Secretary P.B. Jayasundara.

Slamming the budget as a Saradiel - local Robin Hood - budget, Mr. Nanayakkara accused the Government of "robbing Peter to pay Paul". His comments drew a response from Minister Mangala Samaraweera who, raising a point-of-order, said the Galle MP was trying to mislead the House and stressed that the budget was not made according to the whims and fancies of any foreigner.

Mr. Samaraweera was backed by JVP parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa who said the Budget would help salvage the country from the clutches of poverty.

He said the objective of the budget was to promote the real stakeholders of the private sector - the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME). Responding, UNP's Kalutara District parliamentarian Rajitha Seneratne said although the budget contained "a thousand and one" proposals, projects and ideas, none of them appeared to be feasible and capable of attracting the assistance of the international donor community.

He said the government would be violating international labour treaties if it went ahead with the proposal to extend the eight-hour shift and vowed to defeat the proposal. Mervyn Silva, the former deputy minister who quit his portfolio after a night club attack, warned the UNP, saying more UNPers were to cross over to the government side.

The Tamil National Alliance however, saw the budget in a different light. The TNA's Batticaloa district parliamentarian Packiaselvam Ariyanethiran, began his speech by wishing long life to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran who will celebrate his birthday on November 26. He accused the government of not presenting any viable plan for the development of any of the eight districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

He demanded that the government increase the decentralized budget from five to ten million rupees for the North and East MPs. The MP made use of the opportunity to deliver a warning that the LTTE was well prepared for war and to show his resentment to the proposed Indo-Lanka Defence Pact, while claiming that the era belonged to Prabhakaran and not to Chandrika.

His inflammatory remarks prompted Deputy Minister Chandrasiri Gajadheera to say that it was the era of neither Prabhakaran nor Chandrika but an "era of peacemaking".

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